A Special Message to the OSR & Gaming Community

Kickstarters have been a staple in the OSR and Game Blogging community since well before I became a member. Crowdfunding has been used as a platform for countless bloggers and game devs to get everything from their latest module & supplements to their complete fantasy heartbreakers off the ground and into people’s hands. Even big name publishers have been using it as a tool to get new projects and new printings funded with quick investment capital.

There is, however, a downside that has been seen all too often in our community. It seems like much of the content at Tenkar’s Tavern over the years I’ve been following him has been a litany of failed and delayed Kickstarters. Sometimes life got in the way, other times dishonest folks took the money and ran. Even great companies with established track-records for success sometimes bite off more than they can chew, resulting in some pretty significant delays. The Skinny DM had an excellent article on the situation with Goodman Game’s DCC 4th printing Kickstarter which, despite my fondness for Goodman Games, I absolutely agree with.

So, why do I think you should back our Kickstarter?

A Proven Track Records – In 2016, Cirsova ran 3 successful Kickstarters – one for our first issue, one for our second issue, and one for our third and fourth issues. In all three cases, backers received their rewards almost immediately* after the money cleared through Kickstarter and Amazon Payments. There may have been one or two individual hiccups or items lost or damaged in the post, but I am confident that anyone you’d ask would say that we resolved all issues as quickly and satisfactorily as possible.

We Are Gamers – Before we started the magazine, Cirsova  was a gaming blog. We came out of the RPG Blog Alliance and the OSR community. Many of our contributors are fellow gamers, and the stories we all love and that shape our content are the same stories that shaped our games. Many of the stories we publish are the kind that could be run as a one-off adventure with nothing more than a couple of stat blocs; in fact, that’s almost an unspoken acceptance criteria!

We Exist to Support Writers – More than anything else, Cirsova exists as a Semi-Pro Market to support writers of exciting fiction. There are people out there still writing stories in the vein of Burroughs, Brackett, and Vance, but they need places to sell and publish their stories. Many of the big-name magazines and publishing houses are simply not interested in the kind of adventure fiction that inspired the games so beloved in the OSR. By supporting Cirsova, you allow us to stay open as a market for these writers and to continue paying in the $75-$100 range for short fiction.

Please consider checking out our Kickstarter. It costs only $1 to get both of our 2017 issues**, if you’re just curious. You have to admit, that’s hard to beat. We also offer softcover and hardcover editions of our magazine.

If you have a gamebook, module or other product coming out, or even if you just want to get word out about your blog, consider supporting us with some advertising space. In 2016, we had over a hundred subscribers and ended up selling over 500 copies of our magazine.

*:Needless to say, they received the winter issue when it came out, rather than in September when the money cleared and we sent the fall issue.

**:PDF and eBook.

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Gutters, Guilds and Grimoires

We’ve finally got a “rulebook” for Gutters, Guilds & Grimoires, with a few tweaks and a few things which had existed but weren’t written down anywhere so never got used all that much, and the playtesting continues!

I dare say, our last session may have been one of our most awesomepic yet.

We didn’t really have any major storyline quests going on, since our last session not only resolved a major arc, it also cut off a handful of other plots because of certain PCs dying. But we did still have a favor we could do for the Rat King. When he’d said, though, that there were rats who weren’t obeisant to his authority, we hadn’t been thinking heavily armed rat-men…

The party lost two PCs, an arm and a leg.

We cleared out the nest of rats, but one PC died and another almost died, getting his arm cut off at the shoulder by a ratman with a Zweihander.

::ratman crit succeeds on his attack:: “Wait a sec, we’re fighting in a 5-foot corridor, surely the rat can’t use a Zweihander to maximum efficiency in these circumstances!”

::DM relents, rolls again to give the ratman disadvantage on his attack and crit succeeds again::

Despite being somewhat tanky, my character still had kinda lame armor and a crossbow bolt to the leg from the rat sentry forced me to play it cautiously – I’d just lost a nearly 4000 XP character, I wasn’t going to lose a 400 XP character on his second session. Ranged attacks are a bitch in this system, as at least one person is bound to get hit while closing the distance, and crossbows, the most common weapon, ignore a point or two of damage reduction from armor. So, after killing all of the ratmen except for the one with the Zweihander, I sold most of my belongings and begged 10 silver off two other characters so I could get a chain hauberk, upping my armor/damage reduction to 4. That means that Jonthony, newly promoted Corporal of the Watch on Special Detachment, is going to be only susceptible to ping damage except against the heaviest hitters. My tank is finally tanky, and it’s gonna be awesome.

Confident from our victory over the ratmen, we roped two other newly rolled up rubes to go back into the sewer with us to look for that last ratman (we wanted his sword, damnit!) Ratman was long gone, though we busted down the door he’d locked himself behind the day before. We sent in one of the new PCs first; just a friendly hazing, “don’t worry, we’ve got your back!” New guy was nearly killed by a ghoul-thing, and one of our other heavies got paralyzed. Luckily, my new armor kept me safe and I was able to slice it to bits.

We spent a little too long playing Morrowind with the crates hoping to find precious liquor or other vendor trash, and we ended up having to fight a sewer mutant chimera. It proved pretty damn nasty and bit the leg off one of our other fighters, but we managed to kill it, too.

Low HP Fights

Because this is such a low HP system, all of these fights were incredibly skin-of-the-teeth. But, just as my guy getting taken out a bit early put a real damper on our combat strength, the same can and has happened to enemies we’ve fought. Unless you can secure some sort of real tactical advantage, there’s a very real chance in every fight that you’re getting a broken nose, a lopped off limb, or outright killed. I’d say we were closely matched against the ratmen: 3 fighters, a magic user, and a rogue against 6 ratmen (2 pikers, 3 xbow, & zweihander). The magic user in our party was probably the equalizing factor, and he’s the one who got his arm cut off and very well could still die from it (it happened in a sewer, so I would not be surprised if he dies of sepsis).

Armor as soak

The very low player HP in this system (Grit), represents not actual wounds, but minor dings, bruises, and stamina lost in a fight. Most characters who’ve died or been permanently maimed have been done in by fewer than 4 hits. Getting chainmail for my character was a big deal – with damage reduction of 4, I was able to take 3 hits and still have more than half of my grit. It’ll be interesting to see how finally having a heavily armored character in this system will change the combat dynamics.

Regaining HP/grit vs Healing

While there are “healers” and magical healing in the system, they have more to do with reducing the number of weeks it takes for broken bones to heal or keeping severe wounds from getting infected. Fun tidbit: the character who got an arm lopped off was just about to have his leg, which had been broken in one of our first sessions, finally all healed up. No amount of magical healing will let the character regrow his arm, but there’s a chance that diabolists can grow him a new one for some exorbitant fee.

Part of the incredibly low HP/grit is somewhat mitigated by the ease in which it can be recovered. Consumable vice goods restore half of one’s missing points rounded up – it is not entirely unlike Popeye and his spinach, where the fighter can pull out a flask of bourbon, take a couple swallows and get a second wind. This has given my character a chance to develop his identity – after a fight he can smoke a victory cigar to regain a chunk of his missing HP. His “Hearten Ally” ability he got when he upgraded from Watch Recruit to Man-At-Arms also means that after a fight he can slap somebody on the shoulder, tell em they did a good job, and go get back into the trenches, so they can recover 2 points of grit. At this point, he’s going to basically turn into ‘the Old Sergeant’ character from every WW2 movie ever, which is gonna be awesome.

Economy

One thing I’ve noticed is that part of the glue that holds the system together is keeping the characters in perpetual penury. It’s a silver based system, but unlike many silver based systems, copper is not only common, it’s the primary coinage one will earn and spend on everyday items. Weapons and armor costs are silver, while food, lodging, and most simple amenities cost a few coppers. There are mechanisms in place that keep characters from jumping straight from poverty into the middle class from one or two successful adventures, but a DM would have to use them. We haven’t really seen the effect yet of a massive influx of treasure, so there’s no telling how a Monty Haul DM could break the system.

We’ve played for months, and our party has amassed power enough to be an influential part of our city’s ecosystem, but no one has freewheeling cash spending money. The 5 SP each the other two fighters loaned me for armor was no small sum, and only a fraction of the 75 SP I needed for my chainmail. I think that the way we’ll need to test the system next is to see what happens if we are able to actually sell every scrap of equipment and vendor trash we come across. Too bad we’re getting out of the organized crime business, because a single hit on a merchant or noble with more than a few hundred silver could be game-breaking. We’ve just never been in a situation to find out.

Review: Assault on the Review of Nations

Assault on the Review of Nations is a 1st level adventure for the OSR system Shitlord: the Triggering. It is the first 3rd party product for the system and is available for free here from the Mixed GM.

Assault on the Review of Nations has the appearance of a fairly straight-forward dungeon crawl, though does have a few interesting opportunities for roleplay and negotiations which leave the module open ended.

The map, created by Gozzy’s “Random Dungeon Map Creator” is fairly generic, and comes more from the Holmes school of dungeon design than the Gygaxian. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, however it would’ve been cool to see something that captured the flavor of the Review of Nations, maybe something that looked like an eagle or somesuch. Still, it’s serviceable and, as this is a 1st level adventure, will not be too difficult for a neophyte mapper to get a handle on.

Judging by the wandering monster encounters, this would probably be best for a smaller group; with the exception of the giant beetles, whose 2d6 numbers could easily end up as a TPK at first level, most random encounters would be a pushover for a standard 6-man B/X party. I’d recommend adjusting the number of monsters by an additional die or die size for each additional Player beyond the 3rd.

Though showing the page number where the monsters may be found in the Shit:T core book is helpful, including a simple statblock would be nice.

One interesting direction taken with the Cheese Puff Golem and Lou Richly are the bonus hit points. Typically, with monsters that are X HD + Y, the Y will most often be 1 and almost never greater than X. The plus generally functions as a way to prevent 1HP monsters, make monsters just a touch more powerful, and negate an obscure Fighter bonus. The Cheese Puff Golem and Lou Richly are 2HD + 10 and 3HD + 9 respectively. That’s something you almost never see, but has a few interesting mechanical implications. Monster attacks in B/X are primarily based on their hit dice – the more hit dice they have, the better the chance they have to hit. With these bonuses, you have monsters with roughly 5 Hit Dice worth of HP only attacking with +2 and +3. This makes encountering them much more survivable by 1st level characters with decent armor while allowing them to take a bit of a walloping.

Overall, this is an amusing little adventure that will help you bring the joke to your table if that’s something you really want to do. Perfect for a one-off gag. Not meaty enough if you’re wanting to run a ‘serious’ adventure, but there’s only so much seriousness to begin with if you’re playing Shitlord. Let’s face it, while someone COULD put together something of the scope of Death & Taxes for S:tT, at that point it’s almost missing the joke.

A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.

Parrying: I Get It Now

Sometimes you can know something, or two somethings, but they don’t quite click in your head for whatever reason.

I’d never been a fan of Parrying skills; why spend time not attacking when clearly the obvious way to stop being attacked is to kill the monster that’s in front of you? Games like Neverwinter Nights that are basically “D&D without a party” makes Parrying seem even more useless because while you’re parrying, no damage is being dealt!

One of my big pet peeves is that a lot of people do melee wrong; in D&D, once two characters are in melee, they are in melee period, until one of them dies or spends a round trying to run away. Characters who are in melee can be attacked by characters not in melee without those characters attacking becoming locked. Now, this is important for a reason: high HP low AC fighters and clerics lock down the bad guys by getting them into melee – those baddies so engaged  cannot just say “Well, I’m going to attack the squishy wizard/thief now because I’ve randomly chosen a new target!” They are stuck fighting those opponents until they die, run away, or kill them. While stuck fighting the bruisers, the baddies can be backstabbed and bespelled with impunity by the thieves and magic users, unable to strike back.

In comes Shitlord: the Triggering, which has a Dex-based Parrying skill unique to the Dickpuncher (Fighter) class. For each point of Dex over 13, the Dickpuncher can effectively improve his AC by one against the combatant he’s in melee with instead of making an attack. Now, my first thought is “He’s wasting his time parrying; why would he not just attack instead?” Then it clicked:

With an active defense vis a vis Parrying, a Fighter character can potentially lock down a much tougher opponent longer without sustaining damage to give thief classes more opportunities to backstab. As strong as a fighter’s attack is, a Thief’s backstab is ALWAYS better. Depending on the system, you could easily be doing 3-4 times as much damage per hit with a bonus against the enemy’s AC. The high dex parrying skill negates that huge attack advantage monsters tend to have over PCs and classed NPCs so that a fighter can go toe to toe against something that could very well cream him otherwise for an extra round or two. Yeah, he may not get his chance to do 1d8 damage, but the Thief is almost guaranteed to get 4d6 damage. As long as the DM is abiding by proper melee rules, the Fighter can always keep one baddie locked down so as to ensure that the Thief can get his backstab on.

Thank you for opening my eyes to this, Shitlord: the Triggering!

Also, this is not a real review, but silly Alt-Right shit-talk aside, S:tT looks like it’s a pretty solid retro-clone. It borrows from the best and presents it well, but it also brings in a few original ideas that are absolutely worth incorporating into your game. My group is fairly liberal, so I don’t know if I could get away with running this even as a one-off except for April Fool’s, but I’ll probably borrow several bits and bobs from it.  Also, thank you for not sorting spells by level.

That New Swords & Wizardry Thing…

Okay, some quick thinks on the new Swords & Wizardry thing, which appears to be an even bigger “debacle”::fingerquotes:: than I imagined. How much of the debacle is people (one person) strawmanning? I don’t really know.

So, Frog God Games is kickstarting a new printing of Swords & Wizardry. They put Stacy Dellorfano in charge of the art direction and all of the art is done by women. The stated reason for doing this is “the fact that many OSR games have a physical appearance and presentation that really targets the 40 year old guys who’ve been gaming since forever, and doesn’t have nearly as much appeal to younger or female gamers of the generations following that first wave of players from the 1980s.” So, they put a grimdark exploding elk skull with butterflies on the cover.

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Problems with the compositional elements aside*, my take is that it’s an odd, possibly bad, choice at best given that stated goal, especially when the previous cover was done by the guy known for the covers of ‘fun for the whole family’ toystore editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

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While some people don’t like the art, period, others are, like me, simply confused as to why this was chosen for the cover.(I really like a lot of what I’ve seen of Kaos Nest’s work as an illustrator, but she’s not someone that would come to mind for a “more-accessible next printing that [Frog God Games] are targeting toward the mainstream market.”) What I haven’t seen is any wailing or gnashing of teeth about the OSRness of the new printing. It’s not an attack on innovation, or even an attack on “not even innovative” innovation; it’s a befuddlement at a single befuddling art direction decision. Then again, there’s really only one guy saying that it is, so it’s probably best to not worry about it.

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Seriously, though, S&W is the last big-named OSR system that springs to mind when I hear ‘we need a more mainstream accessible product that will have wider demographic appeal’.

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*generally you don’t want any sort of detailed or dynamic elements where there will be text if you can help it. Changing the transparent yellow to a bright red and the red to a yellow would be a step in the right direction as far as composition goes, but that doesn’t address the issue I took with it.

Disclosure: I don’t play or own any Swords & Wizardry products; aside from Blueholme (and DCC 4th printing, if it ever ships), I don’t own any OSR products. I guess I’m not even really OSR! I just thought it was a really weird choice for a cover given what the stated intentions were.

Update: Okay, so I found one guy who’s on about this as an attack on the OSR rather than just as a bad art/design choice, but his beef is the quip about “40 year old guys” in conjunction with the art as part of a virtue signaling on FGG’s part to dump on their core fanbase.

Why Lengthy Character Creation is Detrimental to Gaming

Inspired in part by this post at Word of Stelios.

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Just one reason not to play 3e or Pathfinder.

I’ve made no bones about my preference for B/X and lighter systems. I’ll admit, I used to enjoy 3e, but nowadays, it’s something I would only play if I did not really have a choice.

While I understand that there are people who genuinely enjoy all of the twinking and min-maxing and character engineering involved in 3e and its clones, I now strongly feel that it is potentially ruinous to the game, the DM, and players.

In games like B/X or DCC, you’re typically looking at a range of 2-5 minute character creation for experienced players to 15-20 minute character creation for someone’s first ever time playing D&D. Not everyone wants pre-gens, and people are more likely to feel a connection with a character they themselves rolled up, but in that case, Char-gen only eats up a few minutes of gaming time. On the other hand, even software assisted, character creation for games in the 3e family can take a VERY long time.

One constraint this puts on the group is a barrier to new players; unless you have spare characters lying around, it’s harder to bring a new person, especially one new to gaming, into the group simply because of the time it would take to create a character of their very own.

People who have invested a ton of time into a perfectly crafted twinked out character are going to be more likely to be attached to it in a bad way. You’ve spent possibly hours on this special vampiric-angel-werekitty snowflake, and you’ll be damned if anything happens to xir! The character-build centric aspect of the game means you’re more likely to have players who are focused on their character rather than the party or the game or, in some cases, even having fun. It also creates additional burdens on the DM.

DMs will feel the need to tailor their game around these lovingly hand-crafted characters, nerf things and pull punches for a couple of reasons. While one, of course, is avoiding hurting the feelings of someone who spent so much time on their character, another is a simple matter of time – do you really want to have to either pause the game or have a player drop out for an hour or more while they optimize their feat trees, allocate skill points, and note all of the class and race advantages of having paws, three tails, horns, elf-ears and bird feet? No, of course not!

And at that point, you’re not really playing a game. You’re having people roll dice until you arbitrarily decide to move the story forward, either slowing or speeding up the narrative pace to suit what the players are doing. If a DM isn’t nerfing things, though, lengthy char gen makes rage-quitting after losing a character almost understandable, because who wants to go through all of that again before rejoining play?

Another problem with super-complex character builds a game that’s death-free? It doesn’t give players a chance to really explore new things in the system and in the game’s world.

Killing characters will make your game better and can make it more fun for everyone. But it only works if making a new character isn’t an arduous chore.

The first character death is always the hardest; “Damn!” they’ll think, “I just lost the game, I suck, this sucks!” That’s why it should happen early on; treat it as a normal ‘fact-of-life’ part of the game and an opportunity to try something new. Once players see character death as a chance to experiment with both class and roleplaying, they’ll not only be less likely to hold character death personally against a DM, they might even look forward to it! It’ll mean more cool and risky heroics, more big-damn heroic sacrifices, and more awesome ‘round-the-campfire’ stories of ‘that awesome guy who died in a crazy way’.