Friday, December 29, 2023

Deathbat's 2023 Best and Worst in Tabletop Gaming (and VTT)

 I got to try a variety of different new RPGs this year which was nice....I didn't stick to my usual barrel of tried-and-true regular games entirely, and as a result some interesting gems such as Mork Borg and Vaesen rose to the surface. I did a lot of collecting and reading this year, but much of it was focused on indie zine RPGs (see that series I have temporarily been ignoring!) and I managed to get aquainted with an entire subset of the hobby that I consider to be a movement toward hyper-focused, art zine style minimalist RPGs with a goal toward simple but effective rules and exotic, creative settings. This style of RPG is essentially a reproach to the modern obsession with giant books, huge campaigns, lavish color paintings for art and big price tags. I also got heavily in to collecting and reading the many offerings of Swedish gaming giant Free League Publishing, which relies on its own special brand of game system (the Year Zero Engine) to build various RPGs. 

What I didn't do this year was make a clean break from D&D though I did do so, fairly decisively, with Pathfinder 2E around --I want to say March?-- of this year. An inter-player conflict and a generally negative response toward the way Pathfinder 2E plays (using Roll20) from about half the players left me with a really bad taste in my mouth for the whole experience, which was made worse by the fact that I as a GM was really enjoying the system from the GM perspective. I subsequently got to be a player in another game, and while I did enjoy it, I found the excess tedium , of the mechanical gravitas of PF2E less to my liking as a player. Now that the new books are out, I am considering a re-entry, but I am also a bit gunshy.....and I know that choosing Pathfinder again may mean some players simply won't show. 

Anyway, here's my take on the Best and Worst for 2023!

RPG of the Year for 2023: Basic Roleplaying System

The new edition of BRP (5th edition) brings lots of minor tweaks and clarifications and a tighter focus, while still containing all the content of prior editions and the framework for any number of BRP powered genre adventures. It does not incorporate the Call of Cthulhu 7E changes as such, so that's about the only issue one might have with it (if you love the 7E changes, that is), though it does remain compatible and you could easily mesh the two iteratons together with minimal or no effort (as I have already done). So this is my Book of the Year overall!

Best RPG Discovery of 2023: Mork Borg

Sure its been out for a while, but Mork Borg was new to me! Sort of....I think I got the RPG a year or two ago, but found it perplexing as to full intent and set it aside. Following the OGL kerfuffle in January I decided to start exploring other RPGs (and simpler ones following the March meltdown as I call it), and Mork Borg rapidly grew to the #1 place on my list as I was able to finally grokk its deceptive emergent complexity out of a simple mechanical premise, and its elaborate yet deliberately obscure setting. Mork Borg may or may not be an ideal system for long term gaming, but it is most definitely a game you can pick up and play at any time and have fun with (as long as you enjoy brutal, grimdark Swede-punk eschatonic nightmare worlds, that is!)

Worst RPG Trend of 2023: Eternally Delayed Books 

There's a BattleZoo Book that was supposed to release months ago (EDIT: literally hours after writing this I got a notice the book "Strange & Unusual" is shipping today, so I guess this one is off the list). There's An Esper Genesis book that's like three years or more past due now. I'm still waiting for the Mothership 1E boxed set and it may not be out until March or later. For my own purposes, I've cut back on backing Kickstarters. By the time the books arrive I am often completely disinterested in the game at that point, having played and finished with it, and the new product is not enough to engender new interest. For various reason 2023 has felt like a tipping point for me: I am done with wondering if or when these products will ever manifest, time to stop pre-ordering or backing these uncertainties once and for all.

In a sense this issue has been around for many years and is as old as Kickstarter, but with one exception all of the delayed books I am waiting on are pre-orders or an ordinary sort, so I guess for me at least 2023 is the year this issue hammered in to the old noggin that its a bad idea.

Best RPG Style of 2023: The Zine RPG

I've spent a lot of time blogging about it this year, so it is no surprise that I think the new style of RPG fostered over the last few years has finally become its own cottage industry and now holds it place as a special subset of gaming in contrast to more mainstream RPGs. The focus on creativity, artistic exoticism, minimalist design and a very conscious effort to foster ad hoc play styles are all fairly unique to this new style of RPG, and those elements which are not unique still get realized in new and unique ways.

Worst Flub of 2023: Wizards of the Coast's OGL Kerfuffle

I won't belabor the issue, but WotC's attempt to destroy the OGL and force third party publishers into draconian contracts where they get a cut of the take backfired and caused the core supporters and fandom to lose trust in WotC. While the giant can no doubt continue with a broader casual fanbase, it will be interesting to see how this impacts them next year when the next edition of D&D arrives, ready to push people into WotC's online D&D Beyond playspace, located just west of micrtransaction hell, I am sure. What we're seeing here (I think) is the idea that D&D as an RPG may now be transcendent to RPGs as a hobby...the hobby will continue on and find new corners and darlings, while D&D itself becomes more, just, "D&D the hobby" and very occasionally a D&Der might be tempted into seeing what the whole other "tabletop are-pee-gee" hobby is all about. Honestly? It's kind of already like that, but the really interesting things is going to be whether or not the concept space of D&D Beyond and a focus on online microtransaction-based VTT gaming can sustain in a hobby who's key appeal has traditionally been that you can socialize around a table. Maybe, in the end, this just further bifurcates the hobby.

Best VTT Environment of 2023: PlayRole

I have to say that Role20 has done a lot to improve this year, so its a good VTT to play with, but my accidental discovery of was rather profound, and our experimenting with it has proved to me that it is not only a viable place to run games, but preferential to my style of play. We're about to start a full fledged Mothership game tomorrow using PlayRole, so I expect to have a lot more to say about it as we go forward, but my current experiments with OSE, Mork Borg, Dead Mall and UVG has so far been rather satisfactory. 

I'm out of "Worsts" so is one more "Best" to ponder:

Best Revision of 2023: Pathfinder 2E V2    

Not much to say here, other than the new books (Player Core and GM Core) are considerably better organized and laid out, and I really appreciate that. The color scheme is nicer on the eyes, the focus on a new player experience is better, and the minor changes (Mainly extracting OGL content) are non-invasive for the most part. It is enough to tempt me back to trying Pathinder 2E again even though I've had a string of unfortunate incidents with it leading up to March when I abandoned the system entirely due to disgruntled player issues.   

I'll mention a runner-up: Swords & Wizardry Complete was revised by Mythmere Games (and is also back to publishing it), and the revision is very nice indeed! It's mostly the familiar system, but a bit more exposition and some minor but relevant additions make for an even more complete 0 edition retro experience.

2024 Expectations

So for 2024, what do I foresee? 

I'm focused on trying out more of these cool games I have read and discovered in 2023. I want to try out the Mork Borg spin-offs (CY_Borg, Death in Space, Vast Grimm and Pirate Borg) if opportunity presents itself. I want to use Liminal Horror to run The Bureau module, and Runecairn (or regular Cairn!) look fascinating.

I am 100% on board for 2024 with a not-too-distant BRP powered supers game, and I want to play a straight up Open Quest 3 game, especially now that Open Quest Dungeons is out. I am ready for ducks and mallards alike, because I still want to run Dragonbane and am disappointed the chance never presented itself in 2023. I would like to try the Alien RPG and Blade Runner RPG as well, but we'll see; I have never been as good at running IP-property-based games as I have more original fare. Most importantly though I plan to run a ton of Mothership and Traveller 2E, and I predict 2024 will be a big year for me when it comes to science fiction RPGs. We'll see!

I also want to chill out on collecting next year. I did a pretty good job this year, overall, but probably not by volume (I still bought as many books as ever, just many are smaller zine RPG books). I still need to reduce my overall collection, or my descendants will be cursing me in the future with the mess I leave behind. 

I may not get another chance to post before 2024, so see you all in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Deathbat's 2023 Duds in Computer Gaming

 You know what...I don't have too much to complain about in 2023 when it comes to bad games. Somehow, despite the fact that it often feels like the current approach to game development is strongly at odds with my own desire for more conventional story-based adventure tales with a semi-linear play experience, I still found plenty of games this year (and from prior years) in the general style of what I like to feel content. But I still do have a few worthy duds of mention! So let's get to it...

The Games as a Service Nightmare Award: Tied between Destiny 2 and Fortnite

As someone who has played way too much of both of these games I am approaching Steam-Reviewer levels of territory by leveling criticism; you know the kind, the "I hate this game, and here is my manifesto why," type of review accompanied by a listing indicating 6,000 hours of game time. I am not that bad, I think, but I've sunk enough time into both to have noticed unfortunate trends here between my two darlings in the GaaS genre....

Destiny 2's main problem is that they have built and sold their game around its environment, storyline and thematics. They can't sustain a GaaS setup and not compromise on story, so over the last few years they have done lots of stuff that is anti-consumer, including "vaulting" previous campaign content (leaving no way to play prior campaigns), gating single player content behind primary multiplayer-focused season passes, making it impossible to progress through the story without excessive and inane grinding, and while I am not a multiplayer fan I have read plenty about how they are not happy campers, as the Destiny 2 team seems to ignore multiplayer a lot in favor of grindy stuff and more readily monetizable bits.

On top of all that, Destiny 2 has flubbed their annual releases, and seem to have derailed from the core conceits of their own plot with the new Lightfall expansion this year. Then they got hit with layoffs from Sony and had to push out their next expansion to mid 2024, creating an uncertain gap in their seasonal schedule which is already too rapid and troublesome for normal human gamers with jobs and lives and families to keep up with. Yeah....Destiny 2 has problems.

On the plus side, I've hardly played any of Destiny 2 at all this year. I logged in to get some story missions done, and those in turn stall when they suddenly require group excursions or grinding (I have had patience for neither), so I really haven't been that in to the game this year. I got the expansion after I found it on a steep discount, but maybe I can resist entirely in 2024.

Fortnite, meanwhile, is on the surface going quite strong, but I can safely say its getting old around the edges, and their brief return to a classic era 1st season map this year shined a harsh light on how wacky and complex the new game worlds have gotten. Even so, I have found the game less fun as the resurgent interest dragged back many of the crazy build-focused madmen who once dominated the game and made it unfun for all us filthy casuals. Aware of their need to innovate or at least offer a bigger buffet of online content, Epic has added Lego modes, a racing mode and a rhythm game mode to the game, along with Unreal 5 Engine demo content. All of this is fun, and I suspect the Lego mode will have lasting appeal to some younger fans, but for me.....I grow less and less enthusiastic for the game as it begins to feel less like fun and more like an old, bad habit I need to shake off.

Maybe for 2024 I'll make a new year's resolution: no more GaaS experiences, and delete Fortnite and Destiny 2 from my PC, Playstation and Xbox. Y'know, that sounds like a nice goal here. I can finally stick them in the same box of memories as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars from back in the day.

The Boomer Shooter Hellscape Award for Worst Zooter: Zortch

Here's a protip! If you want to experience the boomer shooter craze all over again, but you are like me in your 50's and no longer have those reflexes of youth with you (or, like me, were never good at them back then anyway), go watch the Youtube channel Civvie 11 and he will provide you with an entertaining way to enjoy these classic and modern retro shooters without wasting your own precious time and energy on them. Just don't get excited by them like Civvie 11 sometimes does and buy one outright, unless you check out a few other sources first! I did that with Zortch and holy crap was I in for a disappointment. YMMV and all, and I didn't play long, just long enough to realize I was gonna hate the entire experience of this game. Now, in contrast I did discover Turbo Overkill thanks to Civvie 11 so not all is lost here! But Zortch? Man, I just don't know what to his playthrough and make your own decision, but if a demo is available, maybe try that first. Civvie makes the game look way too good for what it actually is.

OopsieSoft Award: Far Cry 6

There are so many Youtubers and reviewers out there analyzing why Far Cry 6 is a terrible game that I hesitate to spend any time myself doing this. Instead, I'll relay my brief experience with the game: It involved a villainous actor murdering a boat of people to make some point to his son, setting an incredibly dark tone. It involved a team of revolutionaries who use stark blue as their secret hideout marker, and it then sent me off to talk to a old drunk with a pet alligator that appeared to be both immune to bullets and much, much better at murder than my dudette was. It was a nightmare of tonal inconsistency and was also largely the same now tired, mundane formula that used to be what made Far Cry cool, except now it is all wrung out and dead. So dead I won't even contemplate trying Avatar because I already have played that game, I am sure of it.

Why Did I do this to Myself Award: Modern Warfare 3

Okay I did get it for 33% off. And I do love the open world Warzone style Zombies mode, which is the first mode in a Call of Duty game I've really enjoyed. Also, the multiplayer modes are tight and have the best "handling" of any Call of Duty game to date. But the campaign....not really the strong point here. Will I even be playing this in a month? Probably not. My son hasn't even touched it. 

The Game I Want to Critique But Can't: Lethal Company

This goofy game is fun if you are young and haven't had to work a real job. It's otherwise at best good for a couple sessions of fun with friends who are drunk, I suppose. But I can't say anything too bad about it because my son loves it and even bought me a copy for Xmas, so I guess I'll be playing this one a bit. Will call it "Baby's first GTFO." Yeah. That's the ticket.

That's it! I had a few games I tried and gave up on, but hard to critique them when I probably played less than an hour before getting a Steam refund. So overall not a bad year when it comes to the gripes.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Deathbat's 2023 Year in Video Games

It's always a good year when I manage to finish some decent games, and even better if some of them were even new for this year! Without adieu, here is less of a "Death Bat's awards for 2023" list and more of a "These are the games I found most encapsulating of my time" list.

I'm going to be straight up, though: I haven't touched Baldur's Gate 3 yet. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is I am afraid I'll pick it up and discover it is not as exciting to me as the many, many reviewers and friends around me who have played the game suggest it might be; I'm also a bit gunshy of Larian Studios based on their prior titles, which I found interesting but not enough to dive deep in to; I've always preferred my fantasy gaming at the tabletop, and it takes a lot for me to motivate to play a CRPG. 

On the plus side, this means not playing BG3 has allowed me to enjoy Starfield (somewhat) without judging it against its better competitor. Instead I have been able to enjoy Starfield on its merits and flaws as a Bethesda game. 

Anyway, the list!

I spent an inordinate amount of time in Outriders, a game from 2020 which took me a while to motivate myself to play. There is a point in Outriders where the story suddenly gets more interesting, and it is a shame that getting to that point was hidden behind some fairly rigid cover-based shooting experience right out of the Xbox 360 era. When the game finally opened up a bit and revealed some more depth to the plotline I got more in to it; the Outriders universe is about humanity's war-torn survivors coming to a grim world that does not want them there, and then they descend into thirty years of war, creating one of the grimmest crapsack worlds in gaming history. This is an example of a game world I do not want to visit, and it takes some effort to truly enjoy it as a gamer, too. But I did....and I ended up really enjoying it as a result.

The game's plot is fairly linear, but I was really in the mood for linearity earlier in the year and I stuck with this one for weeks as I uncovered the grim and incredibly unpleasant universe of this game. I can't say I'd suggest it for the multiplayer (which I am sure is dead) but as a single player linear campaign goes this one ends up paying off fairly well. The expansion campaign was also worthy of a playthrough, and despite some reviewers online I found it sufficiently robust and interesting. The endgame content is decent enough too.

Runner up goes to Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 Remakes, both of which I finished this year. Great remakes! I have not, as is tradition, touched Resident Evil 4 Remake yet, though my son finished it the same day it released. Gotta save that for a future year!

Starfield is not actually bad, it's just an old design approach on an old engine that was renovated mainly for shiny graphics and totally overlooked the possibility of some B studio competition coming along and eating their lunch. Starfield has been fun so far, and I am likely to be playing it in spurts for the next several weeks or even months (I can't binge play games anymore, just not able to do it), and its totally fine. When I am done I will finally get Baldur's Gate 3 so I can marvel at how much better that game is, but thankfully I can enjoy this one now without comparison.

If you're wondering, though, I have found this game runs well enough on the Asus ROG Ally, and its been a fine experience on my desktop. The complaints about the menus, while slightly exaggerated for effect, are not wrong; it can be hard to find things sometimes. There are weird mechanics in odd places. Why is my guy running out of oxygen in New Atlantis? It's weird. Why are some planets not worth visiting? Why put empty filler in that has no redeeming value to it? Bad design choices. But....nestled within is a classic Bethesda experience, for better and worse.

Runner up goes to Solasta: Crown of the Magister, which I finally started playing, as I figured it would also be another game I'd find less enjoyment in if I don't play it before Baldur's Gate 3. I love how faithful Solasta is to the D&D 5E system, and its a solid turn-based experience. 

Also, honorable mention to Final Fantasy XVI for trying really hard to be interesting. Now why can't I properly get into FF games anymore? I have only completed FF VII and VIII back in the old PS1 days. 

Not quite a retro boomer shooter and not quite a modern glamour shooter, Turbo Overkill presents you with a cyborg character who has a chainsaw leg and sliding maneuver to rip enemies apart as well as one of the finest and most overall useful arsenals of weaponry you could ask for in a fast paced FPS like this. By the end of the game you can end up all chainsaws as you chew your way through a plot worthy of the nineties, and all I can say is that I have enjoyed this game a lot more than other recent AAA shooters.

Runner up goes to Trepang2 which is am amazing and wild ride, and some people feel it is comparable to the original FEAR Games, which I can see (at least the feel, not the supernatural stuff). Trepang2 is a real pleasure to play. I would have ranked it as the top shooter of 2023 for sure if I hadn't also discovered Turbo Overkill.

Obviously Dead Space! The Dead Space reboot is the right kind of remake, and the prospect of new and more Dead Space in the future is a good thing. I also quite enjoyed Callisto Protocol, but playing that and then Dead Space sort of hit home how there's a special kind of magic going on with the original that is hard to beat. Still, both are worthy of a playthrough or two.

Runner up is Alan Wake Remastered and Alan Wake 2. A real trip, but make sure you play Alan Wake Remastered first if you haven't. I actually hadn't played Alan Wake before, so needed to tackle that game first. Also, if you have never played Control before that's in the same Remedy Universe, and its really interesting to play these games in their related context. Avoid only if you dislike precocious authors whose written works seem to recalibrate reality!

I sank more time in to Earth's Shadow than many other titles with bigger teams and greater budgets. Earth's Shadow is an exploratory procedural roguelite that plays like a budget edition of Returnal. Just like Returnal I can't get past the first boss (what I assume is the first boss, anyway....dude in the temple), but I have to say I have really enjoyed my hours with this game. Check it out on Steam if the concept of a Returnal-like roguelike sounds fun to you.

Runner up is Dungeons of Sundaria, a crazy entry into the "small team with big concepts" roguelikes with procedural design. Make a heroic dungeon delver, join a team or go solo into eight different dungeons. I just got this and while I was initially thinking, "No way this has staying power for me," before I knew it I was compulsively leveling my elven fighter and seeing how deep into the haunted graveyard I could go. The strikes against it are that the gameplay is interesting enough that I wish it was a real game with a storyline and not a roguelite. It reminds me of Hunted: The Demon's Forge and Kingdoms of Amalur, except without much of a plot beyond "go in dungeon, murder the stuff you meet." The skeleton of a better game lurks within Dungeons of Sundaria, but as a mindless dungeon hack'n'slash it's pretty good.

Some new games did not get played yet so I just can't speak on titles such as Atlas Fallen, Lords of the Fallen, Diablo IV and of course Baldur's Gate 3. Any one of these games could have soaked up way too much time for me, so I have held off on them for that reason. I'm also saving conversation on "games as a service" entries for next time, when we talk about the year's duds.

Okay, that's enough for this year's interesting titles. Next up, maybe we'll chat about the duds! I have a few I think are worth mentioning...

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The 2023 Death Bat Year in Gaming and Looking to 2024

 What a weird year it has been for me. I spent a lot of this year overworked and with less free time for fun than I would like, but on the plus side I got a bit better at managing what free time I did have. My son, who is now 12, monopolizes a fair amount of that, but he's also very into D&D now and plays in a school group as well as my Wednesday night group....which doesn't play D&D as often anymore, but hey, we're starting a new campaign this week, so there ya' go.

This year kicked off with Wizards of the Coast annihilating trust in their shepherding of Dungeons & Dragons through the OGL, resulting in numerous spin-off games appearing under a creative commons or new license (ORC) through Paizo, including the revamped Pathfinder 2E v2, and the imminent Tales of the Valiant from Kobold Press. It's a boost for existing products like level Up! A5E RPG, though honestly Morrus and his ENWorld crew are not really the sort to dramatically capitalize on the negative hype aimed at WotC, and they continue to do their own thing. 

I spent a lot of time this year deep diving into the alternative and indie RPG market that I dub "zinerpgs" because most of these seem to have spun out of the zine scene where small publishers and authors (usually one and the same) along with their art-generating college buddies create elaborate, minimalist, starkly artistic and utterly weird entries into the market. I stalled out a bit on that project of reviewing all I had found but need to get back to it. Maybe 2024 will be a slower year for me....sheeya right!

This year I did manage the following:

First and best, I got the Wednesday group back to live nightly gaming again. This has been a welcome relief, as I tend to associate facetime on web events with work; it is not fun for me. My Saturday game remains on Roll20 out of necessity, but even then I am thinking about making Roll20 a bi-weekly deal and interposing a live event every other week.

As a player I got actual action in this year. I played in a campaign of Pathfinder 2E run by a friend; found that being a player in this edition is more frustrating and unfun (imo) than being a GM. Another friend in Seattle has managed to run a lot of Victorian Gaslight Call of Cthulhu for much of this year until unfortunate circumstances led to that group collapsing (temporarily; three of us wish to resume it in January). He has also run a fun bi=weekly D&D 5E game I have played in for the better part of the year using the Kobold Press Southlands campaign.

I have run live games this year of BRP in a near-future hard SF/Cyberpunk setting, Pathfinder for Savage Worlds, D&D 5E at very high levels (levels 15-20), a couple D&D mini-campaigns on Roll20, an aborted Pathfinder game (what I like to call "the one that made me gun-shy over Pathfinder"), Vaesen (a game I'd describe better as Dark Fantasy and less horror), Call of Cthulhu (both modern day and Cthulhu Dark ages, using the 6th Edition of the Dark Ages rules), Mork Borg (which was a blast but I have not been sure what to do with it next; it is most decidedly a beer & pretzels dark metal RPG), and at the start of the year we had a 1st edition Gamma World holiday campaign wrap up. Fun stuff! I may have blogged less this year, but at least I kept the gaming up. There might have been a game or two I forgot about....OSE maybe? I think I ran that all last year, though.

Of those games I ran, I came away a bit cool on Vaesen (fun but hard for me to get in to, which is damning if you're the GM), happy that Mork Borg was so fun (but also realizing it is best used sparingly), excited for the Call of Cthulhu games, but also realizing I need to give it a rest a bit so my idea engine can recharge, and for BRP I am now intrigued at the idea of exploring how many oddball genres I can get out of it. I really enjoyed the Savage Worlds Fantasy and Pathfinder adaptations, but I am not 100% sure my group did as when I suggested returning to it they all seemed "m'eh" so I think the joyful simplicity of Savage Worlds may not be as endearing to them as it is to me. As for, I want to, but I've had some issues and bad experiences with running it now and that is proving tough for me to get over. D&D remains viable and my energy to play it is recharged, thankfully, but I plan to ditch it entirely for Tales of the Valiant unless whatever WotC pumps out for new editions next year knocks my socks off. My suspicion is it will be a product aimed to steer me toward their online platform, and that will be a no deal situation. Meanwhile, Kobold Press is more or less continuously making smart and fun books and their grip on Shard Tabletop is where I'll put my online money. I am confident the Kobolds won't forget their analog wood-grain table crowd.

My biggest issue this year has been wrestling with GM burnout. Playing more helped a bit, but I have never been very good as a player (I know too much how the cheese is made, so it can be tough to feel invested unless the GM is shockingly good at running things). I got pretty tired of D&D for a bit, but I feel more interested now, especially as I did get a chance to explore other games there, and that, if anything, helped hammer home that the grass is not greener on the other side, and what really makes things fun is what I put in to it more than what system I am using. Getting to play D&D 5E for once was a godsend, and my friend Mike runs a mean, tight game in the Southlands, loads of fun.

For 2024, I hope to run a good long fun D&D 5E game in my Pergerron setting. I think the Roll20 Saturday group would like to do part 2 to an older Pathfinder campaign in Oman'Hakat, and I may be up for that. I have strong plans for a Traveller campaign, maybe before we do D&D or Pathfinder on Saturday, especially now that it seems they finally have some real character sheet support. The 2022-2024 revisions of Traveller have been great books, not really necessary but welcome nonetheless, and I may even use them to continue the campaign concepts I started in the BRP campaign earlier this year. 

Beyond that, I have some hopes of experimenting with Dragonbane, which I almost ran but never quite got to this year, as well as Mutant Year Zero. I'm hopeful that Friday Knight Games finally coughs up the gigantic Kickstarted boxed set of Mothership 1E this year so I can resume running that. Steve Jackson Games is making a big monster book for The Fantasy Trip, too, and I am thinking about what sort of logistics it would take to give TFT a spin. And, of course, Mork Borg and its evil cousins Death in Space, Vast Grimm, Pirate Borg and Cy_Borg call for my attention the next time I have a week with nothing better going on. 

I'll try to do more blogging, too! I have found lots of RPG bloggers on Substack, may forge a new blog over there as well to see how it goes, but I am reluctant to abandon this one as I have so many years behind it now. We'll see, who knows.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

WotC Layoffs = Good News for Paizo and Kobold Press?

 The stories circulating about the large scale layoffs at Wizards of the Coast have gotten interesting. I initially thought this was just the usual Xmas layoffs WotC has been more or less known to go through thanks to their corporate Hasbro owners for the last couple decades, but in reading some stuff (here, for example, and here) it seems like these layoffs are larger and more profound...messier, and more destructive, if you will...right when WotC's D&D team needs stability the most. 

The net result, of course, is it could mean problems for all the product lineup for D&D's 50th anniversary, or at the very least a lessening of vision. At a time when we are all hoping for a decent new iteration of the rules and new prospects for gaming, it's a troubling sign when whole swathes of the creative drivers are suddenly let loose, with no clear objective to this action other than achieving some bottom line short term savings in sight. I am also surprised they are trying to ditch their movie deal with Entertainment One, as I was vaguely under the impression that they had done well enough to merit future installments of at least the D&D movie line. Can't say for sure on Transformers and other films, though; toy line movies, baring Barbie, have not done well for years now. 

As far as the gaming side goes, this does mean potential good news for the current two largest competitors (as I see it) for D&D's cultural cachet: Kobold Press with Tales of the Valiant, which intends to do for D&D 5E what Pathfinder 1E did for D&D 3.5; and of course Paizo's Pathfinder 2E (v2) which is poising itself to be the alternative to the popular system, filling a role as the friendly but more sophisticated alternative. Either way it is good to know that WotC's implosion attempt on the OGL at the beginning of the year liberated both Kobold Press and Paizo, as well as countless other smaller publishers, to move away from a potentially revocable license and into a more sustainable role as providers of a decent fantasy RPG experience.

I am considering running more Pathfinder 2E, with the new core books now in hand. The revisions are minor, but the rewrite and reorganization is greatly appreciated. The support Pathfinder offers for a more rigorous and tactical game with consequences is something I crave, though I need to work carefully to generate an experience that isn't too punishing to the players. 

Pathfinder though serves as my interim system until Tales of the Valiant takes root. Their lineup of books is proving to be extremely crafty, a well curated D&D-like experience with a 5E compatible ruleset that will let me use whatever I want. If they integrate TotV into the Shard Tabletop experience --and they surely will!--then it will make the system a shoe-in for future online gaming. Check it out if you haven't yet, its a really fine VTT for 5E style play. 

Either way, we shall see how it all goes. Next year will, for better or worse, be yet another year where the top three fantasy offerings are all essentially D&D variants....but luckily we are getting more fun stuff that tries to break or deviate a bit from the D&D mold, such as Dragonbane, Mork Borg and Runecairn. More on all those when I finally find more time to write!

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

River of heaven, Pathfinder 2E, Basic Roleplaying and Other Stuff

 No sooner do I find myself thinking I have free time once more than my schedule goes belly up, and before I know it December has arrived. Fear not, the blog is not dead (nor the blogger!), just once more neglected due to the perambulations of time. 

In the last few weeks I've had a few noteworthy items to discuss. Each topic deserves more blog time, but in brief...

Pathfinder 2E version 2 has arrived! I spent some amount of the Thanksgiving weekend diving in to the new Player Core and GM Core books, which together are the first two books of the four book core set. I can say the following on a read through: there are some changes, but it is mostly explanatory/cosmetic. This new iteration of the system is more retrocomptable than, say, D&D 3.5 was with 3.0, perhaps even more so than AD&D  2E was with AD&D 1E. I feel comfortable in using existing PF books with these new ones. What the books do exceedingly well is twofold: they purge whatever Paizo felt was too "OGL" or IP-specific from their game, and they (most importantly of all) do some significant reorganization and a certain amount of rewriting to clean up how they present their rules....this is a much easier presentation of the PF2E system than the first books were, hands down. There are other little tweaks and changes, and some (while noteworthy) still aren't significant in terms of compatibility. Overall.....about what we should have expected.

I Snagged a copy of River of Heaven, Refreshed. Still reading it, but this is by far the best attempt at a D100 powered science fiction system. It's based on OpenQuest, which of course exists as a nice fantasy alternate to Mythras and BRP/Runequest. I will write more on this soon, hopefully.

While securing and reading those books, I have been running an ongoing Basic Roleplaying campaign in a scifi/cyberpunk future using the newest edition of BRP. It's gone well! The newest edition of the book is overall not too terribly different from the older BGB (Big Gold Book), but its slight refinements, corrections and revisions have made for a generally improved experience. I have plans for several more genre variants powered by BRP in the works as a result.

Beyond's been a rough month! Hopefully I'll be returning to some more normal form in my periodic blogging. I have thought a bit about moving to a new, more popular platform such as Substack, may well look in to that. Indeed, I really need to see if substack has an RPG wing over there, because most of what I see at substack appears to mostly be wannabe journalists and topical writers. Maybe substack isn't meant for this kind for more casual fare? Will have to investigate.   

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

A Correction! And on Getting Old.

 A few days back I complained about Onebookshelf ending an agreement with me. I was wrong! So wrong that when I went to re-read the email notice I realized, after thinking about it, that the notice was from Warehouse 23, the online venue for Steve Jackson Games. That honestly makes a lot more sense....I only recall I had anything at their site when I get an occasional notice that they have owed me $7 for the last two years. Their site is not optimized for finding content, and it is easy to never notice anything on their store outside of the most recent products, and SJ Games products in particular. With their recent move to a new sight design this only got worse, so yeah, this totally makes sense.

So...for those looking for my stuff on Drivethrurpg, looks like I am just getting old and easily confused, that stuff will continue to be there. I have gone ahead and deleted that post, to replace it with this one admitting my brain sometimes misses important details these days. Sigh....!

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Having fun with Basic Roleplaying

The revised edition of Basic Roleplaying is a lovely book, it changes just enough to make it more useful and efficient, while still being the system I've been enjoying for going on 43 years now. I didn't have much to say in this post, but amidst a year of GM burnout, a developed fascination for minimalist zine games, and a lot of work interrupting play, it's been nice to get my hands on the new BRP hardcover and start experimenting with what I can do with it. In every way this book feels just a bit more like what I need to generate some interesting scenarios and campaigns. I'll post some soon, once I've sorted out what I won't use, or end up using (to avoid spoilers for my players). I will say that I have a near-future hard SF campaign ready, as well as that long-awaited ancient Egypt campaign in the works, and some developing ideas on a new Strange Apocalypse style supers campaign.

That's it! Just a short comment to let everyone know I exist and will be back on track for posting soon, things are returning to normal for me again. 

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Troika! in Softcover

 Having recently reviewed this I thought it worth mentioning that Troika! has a revised 3rd edition now out in softcover here. Although I have some misgivings about it's initiative system and curious was of expressing the implied setting, Troika! is nonetheless a fascinating game I plan to run sooner or later, so am grabbing this latest edition along with Acid Death Fantasy in print so I can put that plan in to action. Check it out!

This is a busy work month for me! Lots of travel. I will be in a better spot for catching up on my blogging by the end of the month, hopefully, as a I still have many Indie/Zine RPGs to review, including....

Pirate Borg




and more!!!!

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Mutant: Mechatron is Back in Print!

 Not only is Mutant: Mechatron back in print at a normal price at Free League Publishing, but a new book in the Mutant: Year Zero series is announced as well titled Mutant; Year Zero - Ad Astra. Mutants in space! 

It is possible that you are in the same camp I am and know why this is a moment for celebration, but if not, then know this tale: Several years ago in the before-times of the pandemic Mutant: Year Zero arrived on the scene with much surprise, and I was fortunate enough to grab it with all the cool bells and whistles back when Modiphius was distributing. Over time Modiphius and Free League parted ways (though recently that has changed again), and Free League books became tough to find, especially if you didn't back the Kickstarter. In short order I missed all three sequels (Genlab Alpha, Elysium and Mechatron). Last year one of the reasons I resumed collecting and then deep-diving into Free League books was due to a happy accident when my wife and I uncovered a trove of a gaming shop in Florida that had more gaming tomes than I had seen in years. Years! Among the many books I snagged there were all the books I was missing for the Mutant Year Zero lineup except one: Mechatron. Heck I even got the card deck....just not the book. 

It turned out it had a really limited print run for the Kickstarter and had never been reprinted. Mechatron was going for $400+ on Ebay auctions for the only three copies available anywhere (and I bet those sellers are wishing they had lowered the price just a bit now). I secured the PDF easily enough, but using the PDF is just not practical for me, I'm an old Gen X gamer, and my embrace of electronic books does not comport well with gaming tomes, it's just a problem with our generational model...we need that book in our hands to make the magic happen, plain and simple. 

So with this new announcement Free League has at last course corrected and is steering the Mutant Year Zero brand back on track. Celebration time! I have ordered my copy, time to wait patiently for it to arrive. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVIII: Electric Bastionland

Electric Bastionland - Deeper into the Odd

$19 in PDF on 

$60 in print+PDF on Exalted Funeral

I actually found Electric Bastionland before I snagged Into the Odd. Chronologically this is a sequel to the latter, with Electric Bastionland taking place roughly a century or so after Into the Odd, moving the technomantic steampunk era of Bastion to the electric age. Despite the book's large size, it's probably only maybe twice the word count of its prequel; the game is heavy on illustrative art, a black-and-white minimalist design that is at once evocative and well-done, without being too abstract. The tonal consistency of the tome is welcome.  

The System: It's the same core mechanical design as Into the Odd, which is a system that appears now in quite a few other games. This system is defined over six pages which includes to pages of examples. For a refresher, you roll three stats (strength, dexterity and charisma in this case) on 3D6, then hit protection (HP) on a D6, some cash and equipment in hand, and then a failed career (about which more in a moment). When you roll to succeed (a save), its roll low with modifiers. When you fight, you go right to rolling damage and applying against hit protection. When that is gone, it goes to stats and bad things are immediately likely to happen if you fail a save. Very basic system, the same one in many other zine rpgs (Into the Odd, Liminal Horror, Old Skull Publishing's trilogy of RPGs, etc.)

The main variation in the character generation is rolling a failed career. This is similar to a profession or background as in other variations on the system, but your choice is based on looking at a chart and comparing your highest stat to your lowest yeah, players who want to choose what they play are out of luck here without spending a nontrivial time rolling up new stats to get just what they want. (Yeah, I have a player like that lol). In addition to your low and high stats determining failed career, your D6 in cash and your HP roll determine other details.

The failed careers are just that: something your PC is or did and of course wasn't so good at for various reasons. Each entry provides a visual reference and four distinct items to jot down on your character sheet, one for special equipment, your debt source, and then two variable details based on your starting cash and hit points. It's very important to note that most of the book is failed careers: 220 pages, to be exact! In a sense, much as with Troika! before, Electric Bastionland informs you of a lot of its flavor through this inexact process. Unlike Troika!, EB provides an additional 95 pages of guidance and setting material for the GM (called the conductor here) it's not all purely in descriptions. Also, unlike the other game, EB's careers have a greater level of consistency for the setting; in other words, there is most definitely a setting here, and it has its own internal logic to follow.

Some examples of EB characters for you to consider, noting that these are 100% random, and names are from the suggested choices by career:

#1 Pearl; Starting Stats: STR 10 DEX 13 CHA 11 HP 4 Cash 2 - Rural Tax Collector. Has a taxman's pistol. What did the tax office provide you with? An ornate baton. What do you hate most about Bastion? Bureaucracy - you have a portable shredder.

#2 Bushka; STR 10 DEX 9 CHA 8 HP 3 Cash 2 - Professional Gambler, who owns a slug gun and a pack of gum. What's Your Game? - one-car bluff, take a pocket full of tiny mirrors that stick to any surface. What did you win? - Anti-Matter Key, when placed in a keyhole it utterly annihilates the door and itself.

#3 Risper; STR 14 DEX 14 CHA 6 HP 4 Cash 6 - Urbalist (you're both into herbs and urban stuff, I think), a saber and three doses of hallucinogenic herbs. What do the walls tell you when you're herbed up? You can put some fragments of the wall into your ear to know a trivial fact about a being (if any) that calls this place home. What do the floors tell you when you're herbed up? You spit on the floor to learn the name of the person who thinks they are in charge.

So yeah....that's a modest sample of what characters can look like in EB. One item I left out is the debt. Each group starts 10K in debt to some group of individual. Each career has a source of this debt, but the determining factor as to who that debt belongs to is based on who the youngest player at the table is. 

There are a lot of interesting failed careers, and seeing any of them will be down to the fickle nature of the dice. The careers strongly suggest that Electric Bastionland is very much a cyberpunk game, just with less cyber (sometimes) and more of that electric part. It's what a steampunk world might one day look like with the onward march of science. we shall discuss below, this is the direct sequel to Into the Odd, which means there's a lot more going on in this strange world to inform it, too.

The Setting: Bastion is the future of the same city from Into the Odd, now much advanced and with at least a century (or more) since its predecessor. Where Into the Odd evoked a quaint sense of victorianism and rugged exploration of an unknown world and the underground, the Bastion of EB is a dystopian, sprawling nightmare and the book conveys this by primarily giving tools and instructions on how to design your own city. It covers Bastion, the world outside called the Deep Country, the world below (underground) and then the mystery of the Living Stars. 

Before getting to the setting I should mention that the conductor's section provides a complete set of rules to build a scenario, including a macguffin for the PCs to pursue and a range of  ideas on setting up encounters, events, threats and choices for the group to make. It's only a few pages but its some incredibly brilliant stuff, worth reading for anyone who would like to see an elegant process outlined for a GM to use for any system, not just this one.

Similar to the Conductor section, each region overview provides a range of charts, ideas and concept points to use in building your own take on Bastion, the Deep Country and the Underground. Notably absent from this book is something from Into the Odd, which includes a bewildering array of artifacts you can find; here it is mainly a discussion on setting the treasure for your group with a chart of six examples.

The Inhabitants of Bastionland comprise entries on the people of Bastion, things called Mockeries (animated stuff given life by the technomancy of the city), Machines, which manage the underground and may or may not be the instigators behind the ever changing city, then the Aliens, which appear to visit with enough frequency not to be seen as extremely unusual, even though they are. Finally there are the Monstrosities, creatures made not born and ultimately too destructive or threatening not to have to resort to lethal force to exterminate. The rules for each group here is primarily providing guidance on making your own unique types of each group, rather than giving you a concrete stat block.  

The last 40 or so pages of the book are the Oddendum, which contain optional rules, a lot of discussion by the designer Chris Mcdowall on how he runs games and feels they should be run, and a number of sections on example content for specific campaign ideas. This is really interesting reading because Chris has some interesting takes on game design and running games. His one page on Big Impact is especially interesting reading, as it argues that allowing PCs to make a save against a risky effect simply diminishes the impact of the effect. I can't argue with this logic; I just ran my Saturday night D&D game and yeah, it's easy to see monsters once known for being tough opponents cave like a house of cards in the 5th edition system due to the fact that saves are mainly an efficient way for PCs to (usually) sidestep consequence. In a nutshell, the Big Impact argument as framed here is that saves get in the way of the interesting stuff, and the interesting stuff is where consequences and decisions come from. So don't have a "save to resist becoming a fish-man" effect...just have the PC turn in to a fish-man. The logic extends to other player-driven actions, as well: its about impact and consequence. I can see some counterpoints to it, but I can deeply empathize with the core conceit, which is that sometimes bad things really should happen, because the results make the game more interesting.

The Supplements: I don't know of any supplements for it, but EB is part of a subgenre of games powered by the same system, so the cross-compatibility exists. It is by far the most robust of the games within this niche, so consider that. You won't run EB right away, for example; it's going to require a bit of time to sit down and assimilate all this info and design a scenario.  There is also a blog out there (located here) which you may be able to scour for more ideas and content.

Who is this for? Electric Bastionland is an interesting experiment and pushes the indie/zine rpg format into a more mainstream product, at least on the surface. Underneath it is loaded with interesting ideas and useful tools which, even if they don't directly translate to the game or genre you want to use them for, will still inspire you toward thinking about new ways to approach setting and scenario design. I think this game could prove to be fun to play for a lengthy campaign or three with the right group, and a GM who could craft the sometimes specific and other times vague elements of Electric Bastionland into a more concrete setting of their own. It definitely provides plenty of basis for inspiration, and I suspect that playing in the campaign of the author is probably an amazing experience. So yeah....get this if you want to see something that manages to be neat looking, artsy, functional and innovative all at the same time, even if you only use it as a springboard for inspiration in your own preferred setting or ruleset.   

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVII: Troika! RPG

Troika! RPG (Melsonian Arts Council)

$30 at Exalted Funeral

I've gotten behind in September. Time to catch up!

What it is: Troika! is a reimagining of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy game system (the one made for tabletop multiplayer gaming, rather than the solo game books). It's not only a restatement of that game system's mechanics, but a completely new envisioning of the game world, now represented as a bizarre space-fantasy with what are arguably no limits in terms of its scope of imagination. In reality, there are some limits....unless you are deeply into the "yes, and" level of improv which is so heavily catered to by many of these indie zine rpgs. Troika! is also fueled by an exotic art style that evokes turn-of-the-century (19th century) art conventions in books such as Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, eschewing any more conventional style of gaming for this fairly unique, surrealist style. 

The System: Troika! is at its core AFF and anyone who knows AFF will feel at least somewhat comfortable here. What's interesting about Troika! discussion online is people complaining about the roll under system and other basic elements of the game such as initial random stat generation, which are completely logical elements on an OSR style game system that is not D&D derived, but still very much a traditional style of play....the many critics (including those who "like the system, but...") try to find equitable workarounds for non random stats or roll under vs. contested roll-high mechanics. I am not sure why this is an issue for so many, other than that the Troika! edition of these rules is essentially a very traditional old-school approach wrapped in the sheepskin of an artsy improv RPG aimed at high-concept, imaginative tale-telling as opposed to the original purpose of AFF, which is gritty solo dungeon delves without too much book-keeping.

What Troika! does strangely is initiative. Without looking back in my copies of AFF I am reasonably sure that the token system of Troika! is not what AFF did. In Troika! you determine initiative by assigning colored tokens (beads, poker chips, cards, dice, whatever) by foes and allies and throw them in a pot. You pull from this pot until you get the "turn ends" token and start over. It's in concept sort of neat, but in reality it's a horrendous pain in the butt, and can lead to odd situations where long pulls from the pot are of tokens only for certain (usually GM) enemies and such. For a game based on one of the original ultralite RPGs, its needlessly cumbersome and potentially weird in an unfun way. I noticed someone released an alternative initiative system based on cards for Troika! on Drivethrurpg, so I suspect I am not the only one who dislikes the initiative system (okay, a large Reddit forum is also dedicated to working around it, too).

Ninety percent of Troika! is not rules or mechanics at all, though: it's character types, which you can roll randomly for on a D66 to determine your Background. The backgrounds are evocative and interesting reading for the players, but ultimately necessary for the GM because almost all of the implied setting is embedded in these background descriptions; there is no other GM guidance on the world beyond what is inferred here and in the meager sample scenario. Later books such as Acid Death Fantasy take a similar approach and also ditch the core book setting entirely (sort of), meaning that if you are the sort of GM who likes a section that helps you out, Troika! is maybe not the ideal game for you. 

In any case, backgrounds give you an evocative description that alludes to a weird world, some possessions, skills, and a special trait. Some examples of base backgrounds include some very interesting and at times extremely abstract descriptors, best exemplified by quoting from the text. For example:

Cacogen: You are Those-Filthy-Born, spawned in the hump-backed sky lit only by great black anti-suns and false light. Your mother was sailing on the golden barges or caught in some more abstract fate when she passed you, far from the protective malaise of the million Spheres. You were receptive to the power and the glory at a generative time and it shows in your teratoid form.


Demon Stalker: You stake your reputation upon your ability to hunt and kill demonic creatures and those who break bread with them. Goat men in the wilds or the Angel cults of the slums, all need to be driven back off the edge of the map and onto the shores of chaos.


The Fellowship of Knidos: Mathmologists honour the clean and unambiguous truths of mathematics and coordinate them with their observations of the multiverse. All things can be measured and predicted with the application of the correct mathmological ratios, those methods applied to penetrate the ethereal surface and glimpse the fundamental numbers below.

And in case it isn't obvious enough that Troika! backgrounds are expansive, here is one more:

Zoanthrop: At some point in your past you decided you didn’t need it anymore: you found a Zoanthropologist and paid them well to remove your troublesome forebrain and elevate you to the pure and unburdened beast you are today

Those are all backgrounds for the same world/multiverse of the spheres. There are 36 such backgrounds, ranging from the familiar to the completely ephemeral. Sometimes literally! The backgrounds are generally  simultaneously neat and also filled with questions for which few or no answers are forthcoming. So when I say that Troika! is designed around the Imrpov playstyle, this is what I mean! No two games are going to be quite alike, and your enjoyment of the game will be inversely proportionate to the level of contribution you and your players are willing to engage with on the fly.

The Setting: Troika! has an implied setting when you read the backgrounds and sample module. It's a multidimensional world of Ptolemaic nature (perhaps), crystal spheres or something similar, working in a realm which seems to be a city lying adjacent to or amidst many different aligned worlds. Magic is a thing, but steampunk, technomancy and other dalliances may also exist. Physics as the real world knows it may not exist, or maybe it does and no one interprets it right. There are a lot of things to worry about, and in general if its existed in a fantastic tale somewhere, it probably exists in Troika! At least--that's what I got out of it. The sample module is especially vexing to me as it implies a great city, as is alluded to, an takes place in a fabulous hotel filled with weird encounters. It has, to its credit, a dreamlike quality, but maybe not always the good kind of dream; sometimes it feels like the bad dreams induced by food poisoning, too. Who knows! The bestiary is similarly vexing and oddly stated, as are the backgrounds, filled with suggestions of a world envisioned like a dadaist painting, filled with interpretive shapes that could mean everything or nothing. A page or two stating that Troika! is a realm of dream might have been all I needed for this to make more sense to me, but then it might have been a bit more plebian than its hidden goal of randomized exoticism. 

Despite that sense, I think it's an admirable effort in creativity. It's much disorganization in the conceptual space is a burden for many when you're trying to conceive of a coherent plot or setting for an RPG, and from what I have read this ends up true for many, who find it suited at best for short term one-shot game sessions as a result; the inherent incoherence makes it hard to expand beyond surface level experimentation. If you like verisimilitude in your gaming, know that Troika! is in defiant opposition to your will.

Support Material: Troika! has some decent support. I don't have any of it in print, but did grab some in PDF. There are some sourcebooks from Melsonian Arts Council which are (without having dived too deeply) just as eerie and abstract as the core game. I like Acid Death Fantasy, which is a Troka! powered post-apocalyptic setting that provides a more concise initial world overview before diving into myriad backgrounds and creature...enough to hang the mental coat on, if you will. 

Who is this For? Well, right off the bat I doubt any traditional Advanced Fighting Fantasy fan will find Troika! to be to their liking, if the main goal is an old-school and well-defined fantasy gaming experience. Troika! will appeal if you want to embrace OSR rules and a highly unstructured but evocative improv play environment. Troika! does not borrow (yet, that I have found) from the extremely focused and utility-driven style of module design seen in OSE, Mothership or other systems so the module content I have seen is a bit oddly traditional, but its still fairly brief in approach so shouldn't pose much issue. I concede that a lot of this book, despite in principle being of a design bent I should really like, left me mildly discomfited, again as if I had awoken from a disturbing dream brought on by food poisoning. It does not, needless to say, motivate me to run it. But...Acid Death Fantasy is really cool, and I think I could be tempted to give that a swing. Just need to house rule out the nightmarish initiative system!

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Savage Flayers - Mind Flayers in Savage Worlds and the Warlords of Lingusia Era


The Hyshkorrid

A savage denizen of the Underworlds of Lingusia

Savage Flayers, a Monstrous Wild Card For Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Fantasy Companion

The Hyshkorrid are conquerors of the psionic mindscape, travelers from distant universes, and telepathic masters of manipulation. Though few in number, these cephalopodic humanoids dwell in the depths of the Underworld beneath the shifting Sands of the Hyrkanian Deserts and the Mountains of Madness (the Slithotendan Mountains). The few scholars to interact with them say the hyshkorrid are obsessed with the observation of the mad god Slithotep, though perhaps not in a reverent manner, but they do worship Thasrik, the insectoid god of control and domination.

Hyshkorrid feast on the brains of sentient beings and use their potent psionic powers to lay waste to small armies. They are not physically adept at battle so usually prefer to dominate an opponent first to make their attack certain.

Attributes: Agility D8, Smarts D12, Spirit D10, Strength D6, Vigor D6

Skills: Academics D10, Fighting D8, Intimidation D10, Occult D8, Psionics D12, Stealth D8

Pace: 6, Parry: 6; Toughness: 9 (4 from psionic deflection)

Edges: Arcane Background (Psionics), Power Points X2 (+10 PP), Extra Powers X3 (6 powers)

Power Points: 20

Powers: All powers have a psionic/mental trapping; a typical array of powers include: Blast – Psionic (3 PP base cost), Confusion (1+ PP), Disguise (2 PP), Farsight (2 PP), Invisibility (5 PP), Mind reading (2 PP), Mind Wipe (3 PP), Stun (2 PP), Telekinesis (5 PP)

Gear: robes, masking hood, usually 1D3-1 magic items (potions, scrolls, rings, wondrous items), one roll on special chart below

Special Abilities:

Brain Extraction: STR+D6 damage, 2 AP. Hyshkorrid are incredibly proficient at extracting a brain from a humanoid skull. If a target is reduced to incapacitated by this attack then the hyshkorrid will use its next action as a Finishing Move; the brain is extracted and eaten. An extracted brain immediately restores 1D4 psionic power points.

Psionic Immunity: Hyshkorrid are immune to mind-affecting powers of psionic or magical nature that impact the mind (such as mind wipe, confusion, etc.)

Psionic Armor: Hyshkorrid have perfected the art of telekinetic deflection and gain +4 for toughness due to this trait. If a hyshkorrid is somehow caught unawares this bonus cannot be applied.

Natural Telepath: The hyshkorrid can only communicate via telepathy at will within 120 feet. For 1 PP it can extend the range to 1 mile for a minute.

1D10 Items on the body of a Savage Flayer:

1 – A necklace of grown coral wrapped around a tiny crystal ball showing the image of an eerie cosmic landscape

2 – A hideous holy amulet to Thasrik, the scorpion-like god of domination and control

3 – A carefully folder flayed skin of a humanoid species with a zipper attached to the back

4 – A locket which opens up to reveal a windable watch and the painted image of a blonde woman of Imperial descent; behind the clasp is a carefully folded note: “To my beloved, whom I shall devour last.”

5 – A clutch of what look like marbles but are squishy like eggs, and against a strong light you can see tadpole like beings swimming within

6 – A mimir skull of a kobold imbued with Smarts D8, Common Knowledge D8 and Academics D12 which can speak on any subject but only in draconic or aklo languages.

7 – A belt of threaded shrunken heads, all of gnomes, which begin to animate and laugh hysterically when touched by anyone who fails a Spirit check.

8 – A small, murky globe of swirling coppery color which speaks strange and hideous chants in aklo when held by an unprotected hand, and requires a Spirit check at -2 or the bearer experiences sudden terror and must roll on the Fear table.

9 – a backpack with a folded-up, small animated skeleton of a goblin, which functions as a servant that can carry out three word commands

10 – a tiara of platinum and diamond that looks worth 1,000 GP but if worn immediately requires a Spirit check at -2 or the wearer’s mind is overwhelmed by the commanding presence of the god Thasrik; a new save can be done once per day to break the spell

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Troika! Sale

 It's only for 48 hours and I just got the email notice, but Melsonian Arts Council is marking all their PDFs of Troika! RPG off 90%, so if you are in the least bit interested in this system its a good time to check it out. Link here.

I haven't reviewed it in my Indie/Zine RPG series yet, but really need to. Troika! Is mechanically related to Advanced Fighting Fantasy, but deviates in some strange and interesting ways (and in a really obnoxious way with how it handles initiative determination). If you are a fan of weird fantasy/science mashups, planar adventures, the AFF engine and highly improvisational play based on implied settings, Troika! is probably right up your alley. I'll review it next.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVI: Death in Space

Death in Space (Free League Publishing)

$36.62 (currently) at Free League (print+PDF)

Information Link

Character Generator

What it is: Death in Space is part of the Stockholm Kartel array of games which all owe their origins to Dark Fort, the predecessor to Mork Borg. As such, Death in Space has mechanical parity with Mork Borg, Pirate Borg, Vast Grimm and anything else based on the same core mechanical conceits. Unlike these other games it is not entirely fair to consider it a Mork Borg-based system as Death in Space most decidedly breaks that mold and sets out to do things differently.

If I had to characterize Death in Space in one sentence, it would be something like this: it's an attempt to make a rules lite pick-up-and-go game system which manages to walk a line between pragmatic space opera survival and existential horror, all while providing enough base material to run a lengthy campaign. Death in Space can, like its relatives, work as a one-shot or beer-and-pretzels game, but it actually is meant for something longer, and emphasizes rules that encourage long-form campaign play. So while yeah, you can easily lose a character in Death in Space, the game does not necessarily assume that is how it's all going to go down.

The System: The best way to see what sort of characters are generated in Death in Space is to go click a bit on the character generator, available online (see link above). Your base PC has four stats: body, dexterity, savvy and tech. You have a range from -3 to +3, like in Mork Borg, this time generated by rolling 1D4 twice and subtracting the second roll from the first. You have secondary stats such as hit points and your defense rating. Unlike in Mork Borg, defense rating can go up or down here based on your armor choice, which is otherwise a static modifier and does not reduce incoming damage (so an armor class system, basically). You also pick an origin, which defines what sort of entity your character is in the game, and a variety of background/personality/quirk charts to roll on to flesh out your PC. 

Origins help greatly in establishing theme for the players. The Carbon are spaceborn and most comfortable in zero-gee environments. Chrome are essentially android vessels for ancient AI. Punks are humans as we understand them, tinged with rebellion and anarchy. Solpods are humanity slowed down by the liberal use of cryopods to prolong life and explore stellar phenomena that transcends any one life time. The last two are the most profound: Velocity Cursed, who have travelled at FTL between the stars one too many times and their bodies are beginning to "glitch" in and out of existence, then the Void, who are so profoundly changed by visions and exposure to the depths of space that they have lost their minds and possibly their humanity. It's like Dr. William Weir of Event Horizon is a good starting point for a character concept!

As important as your PC is, the even more important element in Death in Space is the hub, a ship or space station which serves as the base of operations for your group. The game provides some lengthy but still rules lite mechanics for building your choice of hub, which will in turn either be mobile (a ship) or stationary (resting possibly in the Iron Ring of the setting), which also in turn dictates some of the expected themes of your campaign. Like your PCs, the hub will have its own background and quirks. For example, a starship hub could be that it holds "A DNA-locked black box, which has never been opened," on a ship in which "an eerie transmission periodically blares out over communication lines and speakers with strange periodicity." So....possible material to explore and riff off of, right off the bat. 

Death in Space does not use Omens as Mork Borg does, but introduces Void Points instead. In the DiS universe the Void is a palpable threat, a possible manifestation of cosmic threat that is devouring the universe, but it also has mutational and bizarre effects. A PC gains void points when they fail tasks. These can be accrued (up to 4) and used to roll with advantage (what it sounds like) or power mutations. You get mutations through advancement (which in DiS is an XP-purchase based system), misfortune, or occasionally when the void begins corrupting things. If you fail on a check with advantage after spending a void point you have a chance of experiencing void corruption. This can entail some gruesome body horror effects or worse. 

Yet another key element of gameplay is the condition of the PCs' hub and the never-ending need to keep up on repairs and maintenance. This is a drive to encourage the group to explore and salvage the many, many wrecks in the default setting of the game. The rules here feel a tad "non rules-lite" to me but only in a minor way. 

In combat, unlike its sister games, DiS has the GM rolling for enemies in combat. Likewise, enemy stat blocks are a bit more complex (in the most modest way possible), to reflect the need for a tiny bit more granularity. There's a rather funny "true death" table in the combat section as well; players can narrate their deaths when they perish, or you can roll on the table to find out how the PC "really" died. I admit, most of the time it feels to me like the table is going to be unnecessary, but the results are so amusing that it is easy to imagine some players going for it just to see what "really happened!"

There is a section on starship conflicts as well, about four pages, based on range bands for abstract resolution. It's mainly aimed at providing for an efficient resolution mechanic that helps complicate the story, but if you happen to have Vast Grimm and want a decent starship conflict resolution system, I suggest cribbing it from Death in Space. 

The Setting: the next half of the book is setting content. The core setting is the Tenebris System, which is an ancient, overly worn and used star system with a wealth of useful worlds that have over the eons been drained of many resources. The core conceit of the setting is everything is old, worn, and nothing new is being manufactured anymore; this is a salvager society. A war left much of this and countless other systems devastated, divided and depleted of resources. Travel between systems is hard and costly, and ships line up to use the bridging buoy that marks the safest jump point out of (or in to) the system. While you can travel to other systems, the core book for DiS focuses exclusively on Tenebris System and its travails. 

While Death in Space does suggest a lot of horror and grim stuff will befall a group of PCs, the truth is its more of a setting for a dark scifi experience with a wider range of scenarios and events. The creeping threat of the unknown "void" is part of it, but many more weird and unpleasant things can befall a group, from something as simple as rival salvagers or pirates to something as horrifying as a dark cult summoning eldritch horrors.

Much of the base action happens around the planet Gliess Galo, where the Iron Ring can be found, a vast ring of debris in stable orbit. The debris is countless millions of prior starships and space stations from the endless settlers, belters, salavagers, miners and corporates who have come and gone from the system over endless generations. A hub station could be situated here easily. The book includes an introduction to one such larger station in The Ring along with an introductory scenario in which the PCs get engulfed in local politics-with-pistols.  

In addition to the core setting content are about fifteen pages of charts to roll on for creatures of the system, things corrupted by the void, encounters and threats in space and so forth. The back of the book includes a contractor/NPC generator as well as some modular ship design rules that allow the PCs to build up on and make their hub more effective over time; building up the hub and becoming more powerful agents in the system is a major end goal for the PCs.

The Supplements: so far one official supplement has been announced, but for most content you will want to look to for PDF support. Unlike, say, Mothership, Death in Space does not have as rabid a following (possibly because it does require a bit more time to sink in the details of its setting and play focus). The unique white-on-black technical drawings that make up a lot of DiS's character are extremely distinct and articulate, and unlike Mork Borg (which can use graphic design to put lipstick on a pig, if you will) it takes more talent to ape the art style and feel of DiS. Not as many 3PP are going to want to bother, I hypothesize.*

Who is this for? Death in Space requires a bit more time and effort out of a group than its sister systems. You can start a basic game quickly enough, but the majority of DiS is designed for campaign play, and you will get the most mileage out of it if you approach this with the intent of running at least 5-10 game sessions with it. I actually have a keen interest in doing so, and will report more on the experience when it finally happens.

Outside of that, I think any SF RPG fan would be incredibly happy to secure a copy of this book, with the caveat that despite some of its setting elements it is still firmly in the space opera subgenre and not really a hard SF treatment. It's a lush and incredibly well illustrated tome with excellent graphic design, though as usual be aware that the text is entirely "white text on black background" so you have been warned. 

In contrast, I suggest that Mork Borg fans may find Death in Space a bit much, as it is ultimately a more traditional style of RPG play, even if it still manages to be almost as rules lite. If you are mainly looking for a "pick up and play" game I suggest Vast Grimm's Mork Borg but with space trapping. Death in Space is more like.....Classic Traveller, but with a unique and spicy flavor (and easier rules). 

*After typing that I realized that the metric ass-ton of 3PP output for Mothership puts the WRONG stamp to my hypothesis.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XV: Vast Grimm

Vast Grimm (Infinite Black)

Web Resource

$34.99 in print at Infinite Black

What it is: Vast Grimm is one of several game systems powered by Mork Borg as a core system, but providing an independent and customized version of the ruleset for a complete different hideous and unpleasant universe....this one in the far future at the end of time, where a cosmic elder force is devouring all of known space. Your players roll up a mess of very grim and unpleasant characters who seek a way to escape this doomed universe before it is devoured entirely, and them with it. Sound familiar? It should! It's a very efficient reimagining of Mork Borg in a wretched apocalyptic science fiction setting.

Vast Grimm is not by the Stockholm Kartel, so it has its own style and vibe going on, but it does show how the very distinct and specific formula of Mork Borg can essentially be reskinned and plugged in to any other setting, as long as you are embracing the weird and disturbing as you do. It is also worth noting that Vast Grimm has excellent graphical design and art standards, possibly the best of all the books I've looked at, rivaling Mork Borg, Death in Space and Pirate Borg as the best looking books in this subgenre.

The System: So I talked about the mechanics of Mork Borg before, and that information applies here as well in many ways. Vast Grimm uses the same stats, and some items such as omens are retitled Favors, but essentially still work as points you spend to influence play elements. In Mork Borg you have scrolls, which is its magic system of sorts. In Vast Grmm you have Neuromancy, which lets you use Tributes, that are either hacked (bad) or encrypted (good), and are essentially programming effects that have wide ranging effects and may or may not feel like magic due to corruption from the Vast.

The really interesting thing is seeing how far Vast Grimm goes in emulating the core conceits of Mork Borg. When I get around to reviewing Death in Space you will get to see a sharp contrast, as that system does not take Mork Borg and plug into it like a template or shell; it takes the core system and then breaks it in subtle ways. Vast Grimm takes Mork Borg and goes for a hard reskin. The character classes are fine examples, where each class reflects a miserable sod in this universe. You have the MAnchiNes, who are cyborgs, usually ex soldiers, who have noteworthy features such as hideous mechanical claws; there are The Lost, who practice neuromancy in isolation until they cannot escape the Vast Grimm's presence; the Twisted Biochemist, the Treacherous Merc,  the Emobot, the Devout, and the Harvester. You get the theme.....this is a world of mutants, cyborgs, survivors and the transformed. 

Where Vast Grimm shines is in its application of the Vast Grimm itself, and specifically the wyrms, which are the beings through which the Vast Grimm changes and converts all around it. The wyrms are parasites, and each one can have a different effect on its host. It is likely, even inevitable, that PCs will get infected as many monsters in the setting have a high chance of being infested and passing it on in any melee encounter. Once infected, the wyrms change the host, sometimes for better, other times for worse. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that there is a lot of squicky body horror going on in Vast Grimm; PCs are rarely going to be pretty or even identifiably human at times. 

Vast Grimm includes a lot of subsystems for SF specific stuff as well, such as a random table for determining the group's space ship. This is another contrast with how Death in Space does it, which spends a lot of time making the hub craft/station an important part of the PC's journey. In Vast Grimm it's treated much more simply, though and you pretty much have hit points, how fast it can go, and a list of potential weapons the ship is armed with that have no ammunition. No damage stats for these weapons are given, though some of the monsters in this game are definitely starship-sized threats, so I am a bit surprised on that.

Another SF-themed subsystem is pharmaceuticals, because of course in a crapsack world like Vast Grimm drugs are gonna be a thing, and the drugs of this campaign all come with weird potential side effects. There are 13 monstrous encounters in the book (as well as 6 wyrm subtypes), and more specifically for the introductory scenario in the back. The most interesting of the monsters is the Grimm, transformed end-stage results of parasitic infestation, they are the endpoint of humanity as the Vast conquers and devours all. 

The Setting: Being a reskin of Mork Borg, Vast Grimm has created a suitably wretched universe, now in space, and defined a rough area of play in the form of a corrupted star system (called The Verse), with a (short) discussion of each of the ten or so locations at which things are likely to happen. The Verse is really just a corner of a much larger implied setting (similar to Death in Space), but it also suggests that no one can really escape The Verse....this is the solar system, and everyone is stuck in here with the Vast Grimm. As time progresses, there is a chance the Vast gets closer to overwhelming all, and you check to see if the Prophecies of Fatuma come to pass, revealing new just like in Mork Borg. 

The background on the setting, perhaps not unlike Mork Borg, is also a little confusing. There is the legacy of the enigmatic Fatuma, who prophesied the end of the world around which a cult has started. There is some event involving the Six who become They, which is always capitalized and never clearly explained, perhaps to lend mystery to it all or to vex the GM, or maybe to allow for creative freedom of interpretation, but either way it seems that (to me) the Six become They and in turn become the Vast, which unleash the wyrms, to create the Grimm. Or something like that. In the meantime, in a solar system somewhere humanity finds itself at the razor edge of extinction as a result, and there is a rumor of a fantastical Gate which generates a wormhole to another universe called the Gate of Infinite Stars. At the start of the campaign the GM secretly rolls to see which planetary body/location on the system the gate can be found, and if the PCs are lucky they might find it and either escape to a new universe or bring the inevitable destruction of the Vast Grimm with them. This is kind of neat....its a direct end goal for the PCs, and provides a long term arc for any campaign.

The rest of the setting is, similar to Mork Borg, inferred by the design and the descriptive elements. If you want a reference point for this universe, I am reminded of sources such as Heavy Metal magazine, the Metabarons/Incal universe, Alien Resurrection, The Fifth Element, and about half of the really schlocky scifi movies of the 80s. 

The introductory adventure in the book is a decent way to bring new players in to the setting, and provides plenty of exploration as the group seeks a piece of the Gate of Infinite Stars on the derelict research vessel Conundrum, which suddenly starts broadcasting its location. The race is on against other raiders and salvagers to find the relic before it is too late. Decent oppositional forces, a neat map to explore and several mysteries make this scenario worth playing.

The Supplements: Vast Grimm has several supplements so far, all from Infinite Black (here). "Adventures in the Volatileverse" is a magazine they publish with two issues out so far featuring new scenarios and content, and there is also a very nice GM's screen of comparable sturdiness and size to the Mork Borg GM screen. Indeed, the quality of the game is on par with its fantasy counterpart, and to be admired. 

Who Should Buy This? Well, it's fairly obvious to state that if you like Mork Borg and like the idea of an SF rendition of that game, then Vast Grimm is a no-brainer. If you are maybe put off by Mork Borg but still like the idea of a rules lite SF setting in a crapsack universe, I think you will find a lot to enjoy here. Unlike Mork Borg the Vast Grimm rules are more coherently stated; either that, or I am just getting used to reading these zine RPGs now and not noticing the vagaries of their design anymore.

Vast Grimm is an exceptional production, though, so if you just want a neat looking book this is totally it. If you have any interest in writing an RPG like this, its probably worth checking out Vast Grimm to see how they did it, and to also contrast it against how Mork Borg did it. Both systems effectively weaponize the concept of random tables and design, and use the economy of information to hint at rather than outright state the nature of their game worlds. I think in that sense Mork Borg is slightly better, if only because the weird future of Vast Grimm builds on some core conceits that are not entirely as clear as they might need to be for the SF setting it is in. 

Still, in the end, if you are only looking for a couple of these rules lite artpunk style RPGs to buy, I'd put Vast Grimm on my "must get" list. In many ways it is better than the closest competitor, Death in Space, which actually manages to be more involved in its own setting, but is also a more stoic approach to the weird future; indeed, while I can see running a long campaign with Death in Space, by contrast in Vast Grimm I can see it being an excellent grab-and-go approach to play, without needing so much to worry about; just generate a haunted space station or a twisted research base and you're off and running. In that regard Vast Grimm excels, much like Mork Borg in catering to a short form play session with long term potential, and I really like that. 

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Indie/Zine RPG Interlude: Organizing Zine RPGs by Underlying System

Consider this post me organizing some of my thoughts on the indie/zine RPG review process I've been going through. 

As I've been reviewing the many various rules lite, indie-driven, zine RPG styled game systems out there it turns out there are really two or three dominant game systems. Some of this is due to the origin of many of these games, which so far cluster around the Stockholm Cartel via Free League Publishing, through Exalted Funeral, or through Old Skull Publishing....all of which tend to lean on common systems for their products. But there are outliers, and for many of these Exalted Funeral or Free League may publish and distribute, but the developers are all over the place.

Anyway, I thought it might be useful to provide a short overview of which systems are related and/or cross compatible either by design or by virtue of their common systems. They break down as follows:

Powered by Into the Odd Mechanics

I am not 100% sure but I think Into the Odd is the best title for the system, though it may have first been used in Electric Bastionland (or the original Into the Odd). This system has been used by several designers for several genres:

  • Into the Odd 
  • Electric Bastionland
  • Screams Amongst the Stars
  • Running out of Time
  • The Dead are Coming
  • Liminal Horror

...I searched to see what else might be powered by this system and was not surprised to find a reddit thread on the subject (here), which lists no less than 12 other systems with the ITO engine, only three of which I mention above!

Powered by Mork Borg

Deliberately meant to be rules-lite, part of Mork Borg's charm is an obsessive focus on randomized characters and setting content, along with basic rules with lots of character "development" through emergent gameplay and survival. The very open game license has opened it up to other genres given similar thematic treatment, including:

  • Mork Borg
  • Forbidden Psalm 
  • Death in Space 
  • Pirate Borg 
  • Vast Grimm
  • Frontier Scum (I do not have this, but have been told it is Mork Borg powered)

Powered by the Old Skull "Adverb Noun & Adverb Noun" System

I don't know what else to call this one, but it deserves a spot. The only games using this system are by the same author through Old Skull Publishing, but they are each really decent in what they do. I already reviewed one, but have a lot to say soon about the others:

  • Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells
  • Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells
  • Dark Streets & Darker Secrets

The Tunnels Goons Micro Game System

So far this category consists of Tunnel Goons and Dead Mall, but may have others out there. Noted for being basically a game that fits on a sheet of paper.

The Mothership Universe of Games

Mothership is a single game system, but it holds a special spot as it has by far the most supplemental and hackable content out there in both print and PDF. You can find a lot of weird scenarios and mods for Mothership that would ordinarily qualify as their own game systems otherwise.

Unique Systems (So far)

These all are really simple and lite, sufficiently so that they may bear mechanical commonalities, but ar otherwise operating in their own space. So far this includes:

  • Into the Zone
  • Liminal (the simplest system with the most complex scenario generator I have seen yet)
  • Ultraviolet Grasslands 2E
  • Scoundrels
  •  Zyborg Commando RPG
  • A Grim Hack (arguably this belongs in an adjacent category of "Warhammer Fantasy RPG retroclones")
  • Dancing with Bullets under a Neon Sun

The Enigma of Old School Essentials

This system arguably deserves a spot in the indie/zine RPG scene because it bridges a gap between OSR retroclones and the style and feel of the contemporary minimalist/artsy style of readdressing how a game must present and communicate its rules and scenarios to players and GMs for use. OSE, despite being the best retroclone of classic D&D so far, is also the most stylistically devoted to this new wave approach to minimalist design and extremely straight forward mechanical interpretations. of this list today, I feel it probably deserves to be on this list, as its own system in the indie/zine RPG scene, albeit with the caveat that it also fits on the adjacent list of OSR retroclones that also spring out of the indie and fan developed movement.

The Fighting Fantasy Origins of Troika!

Troika! is quite familiar to Fighting Fantasy fans, so I am including Advanced Fighting Fantasy here even though its not, itself, an indie/zine RPG, demonstrating that its not so much the game system that dictates how you get this designation, but how you use (and present) it:

  • Troika!
  • Advanced Fighting Fantasy
  • Triune (maybe? I don't have it, yet)

...there may be others. I feel like there must be.

The Rest

There are still a lot of systems out there I haven't tracked down, couldn't muster personal interest in, don't yet know about, or can't find print editions of. Some I really do want to find, but I have my cash limits into how many $100s of dollars I want to send to Exalted Funeral every month!