Eberron: Revision After the Edition War

I’ve found Wizards of the Coast’s official offerings this year for D&D to largely be of little interest to me. There was a new Essentials Kit which seems to provide a followup to the Starter Set with more character generation rules incorporated in it. There’s been the Baldur’s Gate and Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventures, but I haven’t been too interested in the official campaigns for 5E. And there’s been various tie-in materials – starter sets riffing on the popularity of Stranger Things and Rick & Morty, and a supplement covering the setting of Acquisitions Incorporated. None of this especially floats my boat.

However, the last major release of the year I find a real treat. This is Eberron: Rising From the Last War. With its main designers credited as Keith Baker (the creator of the Eberron setting) and Jeremy Crawford and James Wyatt, major 5E rules wranglers (Wyatt also worked on the original 3.5E release of the campaign setting), it updates the classic setting from its original presentation in 3.5E-era D&D to provide a basis for running games in it, including a fat stack of religions, cosmological details, races (including honest-to-goodness shapeshifters, dreams in human form, and of course the iconic Terminators Warforged, and even an entire character class (not just a subclass – a whole class, the Artificer) distinctive to Eberron.

Continue reading “Eberron: Revision After the Edition War”

What Music They Make!

Some recent discussions on the Discord channel had prompted me to take a second look at Ravenloft, and as luck would have it I had a chance to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires at a very reasonable price. This was the first of the Children of the Night series, conceived as a sort of companion to the popular Van Richten’s Guides.

Indeed, the credits include a dedication to the late Nigel Findley, who wrote the classic Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, both setting the format for the rest of a series and providing a classic examination of how to take a generic monster manual entry and extrapolate an interesting villain for it. The Children of the Night supplements carry that idea forwards by providing sets of “worked examples”, if you will, of distinctive characters of the relevant type, fleshed out into fully-developed NPCs. In a nice touch, each NPC writeup also has a mini-adventure associated with it, providing an instant hook for getting the character in question involved in your campaign. Whilst optimised for Ravenloft, as with Van Richten’s Guides themselves it’s no big burden to adapt the material here to other campaign settings, which was an aspect of the Ravenloft support line which I always thought TSR didn’t make enough of.

Continue reading “What Music They Make!”

Pounded In the Butt By An Alphabetised Bestiary

Chuck Tingle’s famously rapid pace of production evidently applies to RPG material as much as it does to his unique “Tingler” brand of erotica. Hot on the heels of the core rulebook to his The Tingleverse RPG comes The Tingleverse Monster Guide, covering monsters ranging from “Abracadaver” (an undead stage magician) to “Zombie Bicycle” (a zombie bicycle).

A small bestiary is presented in the core Tingleverse rulebook, but Tingle evidently understands the joy of monster books. Of all the original AD&D hardbacks, it seems to my anecdotal experience that people have more fond memories of leafing through the Monster Manual than any other book.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is often praised for being a dense pile of both useful refereeing tools and Gygax’s extended explanation of why the game is structured the way it is, but is organised so strangely and hops between those two different modes of writing so randomly and is generally so dense that it doesn’t lend itself to idle browsing very well. The Player’s Handbook is rather lightweight, especially when compared to the Player’s Handbooks of subsequent editions, partially because both TSR and Wizards would dial back on Gygax’s philosophy of keeping as much of the system opaque to players as possible and because Wizards-era editions would include substantially more character customisation options than core 1E AD&D did.

The Monster Manual, however, was endless fun to dip into. You had those charming (if rudimentary) illustrations of the monsters, you had those fun descriptions of them, what’s not to love? In general, this has remained true for subsequent editions too, with 2E in particular going the extra distance in terms of rooting the monsters in their ecosystem and the setting, an approach which Tingle takes here.

By and large, then, we have here a conventional monster book – each NPC or creature depicted here has a jolly little illustration by Chuck, and each entry provides the creature’s stats, physical description, combat techniques and lifestyle. The make or break question when it comes to this sort of thing is the imagination of the contributors and their ability to come up with interesting and unique monsters, or distinctive variations on existing themes (like the various flavours of dragons in D&D, or the various types of Reverse Twins or physically embodied abstract concepts or living objects in The Tingleverse). Fortunately, the imagination you are dealing with here is Chuck Tingle’s. ’nuff said.

Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin

Chuck Tingle is probably our greatest living satirist, his primary platform being the titles, blurbs, and absurdly photoshopped covers of his short stories (“Tinglers”) on Amazon. Oh, sure, there’s the content of those stories too – but I would be willing to bet that Chuck works on the basis that 99% of people wouldn’t actually sit down and read any of his erotica about urbane dinosaurs, friendly living objects, manifested abstract concepts, or sexy unicorns and bigfoots; the joke has to be delivered in the title and blurb, ideally just the title, and then the actual action of the story is fairly self-evident from there.

Nonetheless, for what’s basically a long-running repetition, refinement of, and iteration on the same basic joke, the whole Tingler thing seems to be going from strength to strength. It certainly help that Chuck – despite portraying himself as a somewhat naïve figure on his Twitter feed and reliant on his “son name of Jon” to get by – actually seems to be remarkably savvy. When the Rabid Puppies’ block voting attack on the Hugo Awards was at its peak, they got Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion nominated in the short story category. Whilst this seems to have been intended both to denigrate Chuck and the Awards by making them look silly, Chuck took things in hand, turning the incident into an opportunity to advocate for more or less all the causes which the Puppies disliked. (The peak of his counter-trolling came when he declared that if he won, he’d have primary GamerGate target Zoë Quinn collect the award on his behalf.)

That’s the thing about Chuck – he’s got this magic touch which has taken his long-running joke about getting pounded in the butt by sexy night buses or billionaire dinosaurs or alluring manifestations of abstract concepts or your own butt and made it strangely wholesome for work that still retains one foot in the world of erotica. His Twitter feed is a mashup of his surreal take on the universe and moments of clearly expressed, unequivocal good lessons about self-acceptance and treating each other right. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Dadaist literary pornography who just wants to prove that love is real.

Now the long-running Tingle joke has taken on yet another dimension – that of a tabletop roleplaying game, The Tingleverse, named after the multiverse which his stories take place in. The concept of the game has players taking on the role of inhabitants of this universe – Humans, Unicorns, Bigfoots and Raptors are viable PC races in the core book, and you get to choose from classes like “Sneak”, “Wizard”, “True Buckaroo”, and “Bad Boy” (Chuck notes that being a bad boy doesn’t limit your choice of gender in any respect). Beginning your adventure in Billings, Montana, Chuck’s hometown that prominently features in all his stories, you’re encouraged to go forth and do good in the world against the encroaching forces of the Void, as represented by evil Void Crabs, dubious Reverse Twins, and the vile force of darkness and destruction known only as… Ted Cobbler, who anyone who’s not sufficiently high level just perceives as a perfectly normal resident of the neighborhood.

Continue reading “Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin”

From Ronin To Radiation…

Postapocalyptic tabletop RPGs are a small but notable niche subgenre, with their influence perhaps most felt via Fallout – which, whilst a CRPG, was very much developed with a tabletop game fan’s sensibilities (right down to the designers originally planning to use GURPS as the underlying system before their agreement with Steve Jackson Games fell through). The forefather of them all is, of course, Gamma World – but Gamma World tends much more towards the sillier end of the postapocalyptic setting spectrum, with very unrealistic, borderline cartoonish mutations being very much the order of the day.

As such, the first clutch of games to come out following Gamma World all seem to have positioned themselves to try and offer a more serious-minded approach to the subject matter – and interestingly, they all have different ideas as to how long after the initial civilisational collapse the game should be set in. 1980’s The Morrow Project followed Gamma World in setting itself a comparably long time after the big kill; the specific conceit of the game is that PCs are all volunteers in the titular continuity-of-civilisation project, cryogenically frozen when it looked like things were about to go to shit with the intention of being thawed out after a reasonable time period had passed so that they could take the lead on rebuilding, only for the cryogenics computers to malfunction and leave them frozen for 150 years.

The major difference between this setup and Gamma World is that whilst Gamma World PCs are way too young to have any personal memories of the time before (and chances are their communities have little to no institutional memory of it), The Morrow Project presents you with PCs who only know the world before, who are able to explore and make discoveries about the postapocalyptic world whilst making full use of the technological knowhow they’ve retained, are perfectly placed to exploit any remaining technological caches they can uncover, and are tasked with restoring order and imposing their values on a hostile present day. (In some respects it can come across as a sort of time-hopping colonialism…)

Twilight: 2000, by comparison, took the opposite tack by presenting a setting in which civilisation collapsed under the weight of Too Much War within the past few years. All the player characters are not only assumed to have lived through the downfall (and therefore have vivid memories of the way things used to be), but are also among the last representatives of the pre-downfall US Army. The events of the Twilight War have been intensely disruptive – but not enough time has passed to cause people to forget that things used to be better, or the values that held sway before the war, and so when the PCs swing by to help a community rebuild it feels a bit less like colonialism and a bit more like humanitarian intervention. (Unless your PCs go bandit, of course…)

In between Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project, both in terms of assumed IC time period and in terms of publication date, is 1981’s Aftermath! by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette. This was a game originally prepared for publication by Phoenix Games, who’d also republished Hume and Charrette’s Bushido after its original publisher folded; however, Phoenix went bust in early 1981. Luckily, Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Scott Bizar stepped in to rescue Hume and Charrette’s two RPGs, making them part of the FGU catalogue and, I suspect, substantially increasing the extent of their distribution in the meantime. (The FGU edition of Bushido is easily the most widely-available version on the second hand market, after all.)

Continue reading “From Ronin To Radiation…”

Over On Fake Geek Boy: Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG Review!

In case you don’t follow all my blogs, a point of potential interest: over on Fake Geek Boy I just posted a Kickstopper review of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG adaptation.

tl;dr: It’s pretty good, the main problem with it being that it keeps going after you hit the high levels where D&D 3.X-derived systems tend to break and the kingdom management system isn’t up to snuff.

Mini-Review: How Long Has This Been On the Cards?

In retrospect, it’s kind of weird that Wizards of the Coast hasn’t done more crossover material between D&D and Magic: the Gathering. One can easily imagine a parallel universe where Wizards churned out worldbooks for the various worlds of Magic to feed the ever-hungry 3rd edition market, had they been less conservative about the number of settings they were willing to directly support for the game (having been, perhaps, scared off the idea of supporting large numbers of settings as a result of TSR’s experience overstretching itself). It would, after all, be an easy enough crossover to accomplish – and you’d have a wealth of art already done for the setting in question in the form of the cards related to it.

As it stands, it’s taken Wizards until their third edition of the game to finally get up the courage to cross the streams. The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica is a campaign guide to the titular gameworld, dominated by a grand metropolis ruled by a set of ten distinct guilds. Rather than taking the route taken by TSR with the 2nd Edition settings – or even by Wizards themselves for 3rd Edition settings – the major hardcopy products have been kept strictly limited: just the book itself and a Maps & Miscellany collection of useful maps and handouts.

By and large, it’s a supplement much along the lines of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, giving a range of character generation options, treasures, monsters, and suggestions for adventure design in a package useful to players and referees alike. The Guilds, being the distinctive feature of the setting, naturally get a lot of attention; indeed, between their inclusion, the somewhat more technologically advanced nature of the setting, the idea that the setting is used to Planeswalkers showing up thanks to the central conceit of Magic, and the rules and framework provided for modelling rank and its benefits within the Guilds, the book is highly reminiscent of Planescape, to the point where it could be used as a model for a 5E take on Planescape if Wizards ever decides to go back to that well (or if you want to homebrew one yourself).

Another major commonality it has with Planescape is a really distinctive aesthetic. Here’s the real advantage of drawing on Magic: because in that context a lot of the flavour, lore, and general atmosphere of the game’s various worlds has to be conveyed through the medium of the cards, the artwork for the cards has to carry a lot of the weight of that. As time has gone by, this has become more generally understood and appreciated by the Magic team; if a picture is worth a thousand words, the Magic artists have Ernest Hemingway-esque skills in terms of how much they can cram into those words. This is just as useful in an RPG book as it is on Magic cards, and with full-size pages to work with rather than just the cards themselves the artists do a fantastic job of getting across the atmosphere of Ravnica, just as Tony DiTerlizzi nailed the atmosphere of Sigil.

On the whole, I’d say Ravnica has proven to be a truly worthwhile addition to the D&D campaign setting roster. In particular, it could provide a good example of a Prime Material world with extensive links to other planes of existence – something which the Planescape campaign setting sorely lacked. Indeed, you could run an entire Planescape game using Ravnica as an alternate player character “home town” to Sigil – or replacing Sigil entirely if you find the Ravnica Guilds more interesting than Sigil’s Factions.

Dragonmeet Hoard: Basic Booklets

Finally, to polish off my Dragonmeet hoard of 2018, I picked up the five booklets that make up B/X Essentials. As the title implies, this is a retroclone of B/X D&D – the rules version decided by Tom Moldvay and David “Zeb” Cook in 1981.

This is a widely-cloned version of D&D, so what does Essentials bring to the table? Produced by Necrotic Gnome, the B/X Essentials booklets are designed from the ground up for at-the-gaming-table utility. It’s not a version of the game which offers extensive guidance and examples and explanations or otherwise tries to teach the game to you; instead, it focuses on clearly-stated presentations of rules information optimised for use mid-game.

For the most part, this is the game as originally devised by Moldvay and Cook (as opposed to Labyrinth Lord, which differs in a number of respects), with errata incorporated, a little invention here and there to patch obvious holes (like how there’s a spell that the original B/X booklets mention in passing but don’t actually provide rules for), some rephrasing of the rules so as to abide by OGL requirements and add clarity, and with the different sections integrated together and then separated into different booklets. So, for instance, the Monsters book covers all the monster stats, whilst the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book covers all the spells. If you are working from the original B/X booklets, this is already an improvement – no more having to remember which booklet a particular spell or monster was found in!

In addition, the Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman) has made the layout clear, legible, and tried to ensure that as much as possible the discussion of a topic fits into at most a single two-page spread – so, for instance, in the Core Rules booklet, the rules for chases and pursuits are all on a single two-page spread, so once you’ve found them there’s no further page-flipping needed. Norman even goes so far as to provide the details of how spell effects work with treasure descriptions as much as possible, to minimise cross-referencing between the treasure description in Adventures and Treasures and the spell booklet.

Between them, these five booklets – Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic User Spells, Monsters and Adventures and Treasures represent perhaps the easiest way to play basic D&D available, provided you have a sufficiently experienced referee to run the game. However, while I’m not sorry to own these booklets, at the same time I’d advise people to wait a little before purchasing them themselves.

The reason for that is that, Necrotic Gnome actually intends to make further improvements to the line. A recent Kickstarter for a new edition – retitled Old School Essentials to make the name a bit less inexplicable to those who don’t follow the fine differences between versions of basic D&D – has just wrapped up. Forthcoming are new versions of the booklets – hardcovers with stitching such that they can lie flat on the gaming table – along with a complete-in-one-book version for those who’d prefer that – incorporating some further errata and improvements as well as paving the way for making the game line more extendable. Supplements were funded as stretch goals, for instance, to provide a range of extra character classes not found in B/X, options for playing with an AD&D-style race/class split, and to cover druid and illusionist spells, and one could even see the range continuing to cover other genres like a Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World-esque world of mutants and mayhem.

I don’t feel like my B/X Essentials booklets are at all redundant as a result of this, mind; having extra copies at the gaming table adds utility. But at the same time, Necrotic Gnome have suspended sales of the original B/X Essentials on DriveThru so as not to sell a product which is about to be superseded, and I am greatly looking forward to what the Kickstarter yields. Tune in for the inevitable Kickstopper article to see how that goes!

Dungeons & Diaries

Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.

The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.

Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.

The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.

The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.

Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.

As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.

Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.

By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

Dragonmeet Hoard: A Metamorphosis From Alpha To Gamma

After five months of distraction with other things, it’s time to turn my attention back to the remaining treasures I obtained at last year’s Dragonmeet.

Goodman Games, as one of the larger OSR publishers out there, occasionally gets to land a grognard’s dream project here and there. Witness Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition, an expanded reprint of the original 1976 version of Jim Ward’s science fiction RPG. Set on the Starship Warden, the game casts players as mutants and mainstream humans who must explore this vast generation ship – huge enough to contain entire ecosystems whose inhabitants have no idea they’re on a spaceship – and perhaps uncover the mysteries of why its colonisation mission went wrong and how it can be put right again.

Now, Jim Ward had regained the rights to the game and had been selling a facsimile copy of the slim 32-page 1976 booklet via PDF and POD for a while when Goodman proposed this project – but here’s where the “expanded” bit of “expanded reprint” comes in. You see, rather than just reprinting the original text, this edition also comes with a brace of articles covering the history of the game’s development, some errata and new ideas, and perhaps most importantly a clutch of magazine articles from around the time of the game’s original run.

Continue reading “Dragonmeet Hoard: A Metamorphosis From Alpha To Gamma”