Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies

So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.

And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.

Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.

Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)

The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.

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Mini-Kickstopper: New Observations On Deep Carbon

I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.

Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.

Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.

There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.

The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.

In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?

Pounded In the Butt By a Handsome Supplement Treadmill

With its core rulebook and its monster guide having been a success, Chuck Tingle’s Tingleverse RPG has kept up a steady pace of releases. The latest releases continue in the well-worn path of other RPG supplement lines: more PC options, and more campaign setting information.

Living Object Handbook

Living objects – talking bicycles, personifications of abstract concepts, sentient Chuck Tingle novels like Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt” and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Book ‘Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt'” and whatnot – are a major part of Chuck’s unique vision, but were conspicuous by their absence from the playable options in the core game.

Chuck had hinted back then that this gap would be addressed in some form of supplement, and the Living Object Handbook is the fulfillment of that promise. As well as adding a significant number of more adversarial living objects to use as monsters, it increases the range of character types in the game by providing some seventeen varieties of living objects to play, each of which have some associated stat adjustment and Unique Ways available to them. (If you want to get really meta, you could play The Physical Manifestation of This Game – no, not the Tingleverse RPG in general, the specific campaign you are playing right now.)

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Mini-Kickstopper: Crawford Does Right By His Pack

Kevin Crawford’s old-school RPGs, which he puts out through his Sine Nomine Publishing small press, have been one of the most interesting pillars of the OSR scene for about a decade, ever since the release of Stars Without Number.

Rather than being based on a retro-clone of a specific D&D edition, Stars Without Number drew its system inspiration from a mixture of OD&D, B/X D&D, and Traveller. Its choice of D&D influences means that the system broadly resembles something like the sort of “rationalised” D&D system that a talented referee might have worked out at their home table from the OD&D rules set, had they taken the lighter approach of the Holmes-authored Basic Set or Moldvay and Cook’s B/X distillation of the rules instead of the crunchier approach taken by AD&D. (To a large extent both Advanced and Basic D&D represent different approaches to clarifying and tidying up OD&D.)

The Traveller input in Stars Without Number is most immediately obvious on the choice of setting and genre rather than the system side of things – both games are about crews of starfarers gadding about in a hard-ish SF universe – but there are also some important system aspects there. The inclusion of a Traveller-style skill system adds a welcome resolution mechanic to proceedings and makes the early D&D approach feel like it offers a bit more character definition outside of the immediate dungeoneering tasks of fighting, magic use, and exploration. In addition, the extensive use of random generators to help the referee generate material for the game is both a feature of Traveller and has become a hallmark of Kevin Crawford’s games.

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Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

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Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming

This is an article about a Kickstarter campaign which ended up offering two distinct things to two different (but significantly overlapping) audiences, and to my eye seemed to do pretty well at pleasing both of them – a high risk strategy which paid off in a big way.

Specifically, this is a Kickstopper overview of the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter. On the “streaming” side of the equation, this is about a plucky young company’s attempt to obtain funding to set up a nice new studio space to livestream their gaming content from. On the “strongholds” side of the equation, the Kickstarter was all about making a book – Strongholds & Followers – intended to work the idea of building a stronghold and gathering followers back into 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with the idea that the proceeds from the book would help get the streaming side of the equation going.

Stronghold construction and domain management are endgame features which TSR editions of D&D were very big on, but Wizards editions had largely discarded, creating a number of issues: for one thing, it meant that high level characters are still doing the same sort of shit that low level characters are doing in terms of their assumed activities, which dilutes the sense of progression. For another, it takes out one of the things which was at least supposed to balance out the whole Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard thing.

See, at lower levels of D&D the issue where spellcasting characters can, via their spells, do anything any other character can do but better is alleviated significantly by their limited spell slots; spellcasting powers can be extremely useful but judgement must be used in their use because if you spam all your spells you’ll be left hampered going forwards. (This works especially well if referees remember to actually fill the adventuring day with sufficient peril so that the wizards can’t just cast at will and then take a long rest between every encounter or two.)

However, once you get to the middle levels not only are higher-level spells unlocked, enabling utterly wild abilities which are beyond anything which the humble fighter is ever permitted to do (because magic is allowed to be highly unrealistic but fighters are, by a significant chunk of the fanbase, not allowed to develop unrealistic fighting abilities), but also the spellcasters are starting to get a significant number of spell slots, which means that they can simultaneously a) do way more and b) do it significantly more often.

Giving the Fighter an army at “name” level when their Magic-User contemporaries only get a few low-level apprentices was supposed to balance this, except actually an army of ordinary dorks is usually much less useful than some additional spellcasters who can act as extra walking spell slots for you. In addition, not to put too fine a point on it, but Wizards took this sort of thing out of the game because so far as I can tell very few people actually used the rules in question.

If you could update the concept, though, and put it out in a supplement designed for 5th Edition but with ideas you could conceivably tweak for other versions of the game, that would be something that the OSR and grognard crowd would be quite interested in. And if you have a YouTube following already and want to parley it into livestreaming gaming sessions for fun and profit (emphasis on profit), that’s going to get the attention of the significant new audience that Critical Role and the like have cultivated.

That, at least, was the plan of MCDM, the new enterprise spearheaded by Matt Colville. I’ll admit immediately that I don’t really watch or listen to much in the way of livestreamed games because it tends to involve a lot of strangers doing something which I enjoy much more when I am a participant in than when I am an observer of, so this article will focus exclusively on the book side of this equation, but the streaming series – The Chain – seems to be going strong so far as I can tell. Would the book side be just as strong, or would one half of the Strongholds & Streaming equation fall short?

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Kickstopper: Reigning Cats and Dogs

One of the aspects of Onyx Path that often gets overlooked is that it’s supposed to be a haven for creator-owned games, as well as White Wolf properties (whether still owned by White Wolf or now owned outright by Onyx Path). Part of the reason this aspect of their mission statement often gets overlooked is that it’s only been comparatively recently that they’ve been able to divert attention away from serving their various White Wolf-connected projects (including a bunch of highly time-sapping Kickstarter projects, like the morass that the 3rd Edition Exalted campaign turned into).

Among the first creators to use Onyx Path as the launchpad for an entirely new gaming franchises is Eddy Webb, old hand at White Wolf, and his Pugsteady studio. The studio is named not just for Webb’s pug Murray, but also its first in-house franchise – the Realms of Pugmire, a “future-fantasy” setting in which humans have disappeared and their pets have inherited the world.

Such a whimsical project is a great fit for Kickstarter – combining cute characters with a setting that’s well-suited to all sorts of traditional RPG action, and with a name like Eddy’s behind it which clued-in Onyx Path and White Wolf fans would recognise and trust to deliver solid content. So far, two RPGs in the Realms of Pugmire series have been delivered: the doggo-themed Pugmire (such dungeons, many treasure, wowe) and the cat-based Monarchies of Mau. Are they any good? That’s what this article’s here to tell you!

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK only available on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Castles Forlorn, Module’s Smedman’s

Hailing from 1993, Castles Forlorn‘s original form was as a boxed set adventure supplement for Ravenloft. In fact, it was one of the last products of the game line’s earliest version – making reference not to the 1994 revised boxed set, but to the original Realm of Terror box from 1990 and the 1992 Forbidden Lore box which expanded it somewhat. The other products extensively referenced therein are the Monstrous Compendium volumes (generally the core ones and the Ravenloft appendices) and Van Richten’s Guide to Ghosts.

Indeed, to a certain extent the adventure is a worked example of how you apply the Guide to Ghosts, since the castle which gives the module its title is absolutely stuffed with ghosts given extra depth using techniques and ideas along the lines of that book’s suggestions. Wait, though, isn’t the title Castles Forlorn? Why, yes it is -for the castle at the heart of the broken realm of Forlorn is three in one, existing as it does in three time periods at the same time, so characters venturing therein may, through their experiences in those time periods, have a shot at unpicking the terrible story underlying the fall of the realm to the Dark Powers.

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Interview: Emmy Allen On Engineering Esoteric Enterprises

If you asked me to do an elevator pitch for Esoteric Enterprises, it’d be “Unknown Armies gets the Kevin Crawford treatment”. Which is a shame, because that’d be almost entirely inaccurate. Yes, the game’s based around a party of player characters getting into shady shit as a result of their entanglement with the occult underground, but the cosmos of the game doesn’t have all that much directly in common with Unknown Armies beyond a “modern day setting, grimy magic” aesthetic. Yes, the game does have an extensive suite of refereeing tools and random tables and uses early editions of D&D as its main system inspiration, like Stars Without Number and its ilk, but it’s not actually a Kevin Crawford design – it’s by Emmy Allen, AKA cavegirl, whose Dying Stylishly Games products have paved the way for this, her most ambitious RPG release yet.

Luckily, I know Emmy in real life and she was nice enough to give me an interview, so maybe she can help me out here. Emmy, what would be your elevator pitch for the game?

This is a world basically like our own, except magic is real, and dangerous, and wildly illegal. Of course, plenty of things are dangerous and illegal – such as drugs and organ-legging and bank robberies – so the worlds of organised crime and the supernatural have become inexorably linked. Things are only like our familiar world on the surface; beneath every city there is a literal underworld, where strange things hide from scrutiny, and the reckless or desperate traffic in things humans really shouldn’t be meddling with.

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