2019/10/29

OSR: Ultraviolet GLOGlands

With a core GLOG hack complete, making an Ultraviolet Grasslands-based hack was fairly easy.
PDF Link. This document includes:
  • Fighter, Barbarian, Thief, and Hunter from Many Rats on Sticks.
  • 5 Wizard Types. Some spells based on existing ones, but a sprinkling of new ones too.
  • Entirely new Polybody, Vome, and Warlock classes, with associated useful tables.
    A UVG price list (including pets).
  • A handy condensed character sheet, time tracking sheet, and hireling sheet.
  • And much more!
The GM-facing UVG maps are here.

Even if you don't use the GLOG bits, there's a decent chance some tables in this document will help your UVG games.



XP System

Choosing how to award experience points changes your game experience.
-Ultraviolet Grasslands
My preferences (for most games) are:
  1. Acquisition of XP should require some player skill.
  2. Acquisition of XP should not occur by default. It should require positive action, overcoming obstacles, or making critical choices.
Gold for XP is the gold standard. Elephants for XP is great (elephants aren't caught by default; catching them takes skill). 5E's XP for story milestones is not good (the story progresses by default in 5E; failing takes effort.)
How well do different methods in Ultraviolet Grasslands meet these requirements? 

New Location: XP for Traveling to Discovery Sites
In UVG, the PCs travel from location to location. When they reach a new location, a hero tests to locate Discoveries: side-sites, dungeons, or points of interests. If they choose to visit a Discovery, they gain some XP (ranging from 30 to a few hundred); not insubstantial when 300xp gets you a level.

Technically, discoveries are not available by default, but there's no player skill involved in uncovering them. It's just luck of the dice. Visiting them is not really risky. Travel in the UVG is assumed to succeed; failure is possible but (unless everyone I've seen running it has missed something) has very little to do with player skill.
Rating: Maybe Suitable

New Organism: XP for Describing a Creature or Survey Site: XP for Describing a Location or Investigate Anomaly: XP for Describing an Anomaly
This isn't really a player skill. It's a fun idea, but is this why people turned up to D&D night? Who's doing the describing. The players, who in most D&D-type games have less than total control over some aspects of the fiction, or the GM, who has enough to do without describing the life cycle of the boa-rat? XP for the player inventing purple prose or XP for listening to the GM's purple prose?
Rating: Not Suitable

New Anomaly: XP for Encountering a New Thing
Difficult to adjudicate; trickier still if wizards can conjure solid light or stuckforce. Hard to remember too. Requires no skill; the PCs just need to show up and go "oooh".
Rating: Not Suitable

XP for Combat
In UVG, XP is awarded based on surviving conflicts. Again, that's the default state. Victory or dealing the final blow gets you some bonus XP. That does require some player skill, and isn't the default state... but there's a problem. XP for kills leads to violence being the default answer. It can also lead players to try to win fights when they know they should retreat, and can lead to frustration when fights go wrong or enemies turn out to be very tough. "We're trying to do the thing that you set as a victory condition, GM. Why are we being punished for it?"
Rating: Maybe Suitable

XP for Carousing

I like this idea, even if it doesn't fit player skill paradigm. PCs often end up with far too much cash. Converting some into XP via irresponsible decisions is a good plan. It's gold for XP with an extra step. But XP for carousing can only support an existing core XP mechanic; it can't replace it.
Rating: Suitable (but supplemental).

Quest XP
There are 14 "big" quests on UVG pg. 147. Complete one and you get a chunk of XP. It's a good idea - none of the quests can be completed by default, and all require some degree of player skill. Some will warp the playstyle of the game (like the XP for Elephants method above). Others only deliver XP once in a huge lump. It's a mixed bag. Having a big quest isn't the worst idea if players have trouble self-directing.
Rating: Maybe Suitable


Conclusion

What the heck am I going to use in Ultraviolet GLOGlands?

Gold for XP is good, but it doesn't encourage exploration. If anything, it encourages finding a rich site and "mining" it for gold for several sessions. As much as I like it, I don't think it's the right core XP system for this game.

XP for Discoveries is mediocre because discoveries require minimal player skill. I'm going to augment it as follows:
-XP for reaching a Discovery.
-XP for fully exploring or mapping a discovery or figuring out what's going on.

So just turning up gets you 1x XP, but spending time exploring gets you 2x XP. How the PCs explore or figure out what's going on is left ambiguous. Smart play is encouraged.

On top of that, XP for Carousing will help deplete some of that excess gold and encourage irresponsible decisions.

EDIT
If this system is too complicated and you'd like an alternative to SEACAT, try Victor Carity's ultra-basic BASICAT. Or if you want a completely different style, try
Mike Ferdinando's UltravioletWorld Apocalypse World hack.

2019/10/28

OSR: GLOG-based Homebrew v.2: Many Rats on Sticks Edition

I've finally finished updated the original Rat on a Stick GLOG hack. Feedback and notes from playtesting was incorporated. Notable changes:
  • an all new Hunter class
  • significant revisions to the Exorcist and Monk classes
  • clear procedures for dungeon and wilderness adventures
  •  an expanded and updated table of races
  • 2 new wizards: the Geometer and the Curse-Eater
  • lots of little tweaks and changes.
In general, the document is cleaner, more organized, and easier to use. Enjoy!
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1wOAkBOCUSjnthMEnIsPVT1LSOCQzd88j

PDF

Since most classes fit on one sheet of paper, I've created a Character Sheet File. Print a character sheet on one side and the rules on the other. No background info is included, just stuff the player is likely to use every session.

Thanks to my patrons for their support and keen eye for spelling errors.

Everything in the book is licensed under CC-BY-SA, so hack away!

2019/10/24

OSR: Magical Industrial Revolution Megapost

Magical Industrial Revolution is now on sale via Exalted Funeral and DriveThruRPG.

Print copies are now available through Exalted Funeral.

Art by Jonathan Newell, Logan Stahl, & Luka Rejec. Editing, layout, and incalculably valuable assistance by David Shugars. Additional editing by Fiona Geist.

Introduction

This book is about Atlantis before the tide turned. It’s about Hyperborea before it vanished between dimensions. It’s about Nu Yark Citee before the Mushroom Bombs hit.

It’s a setting guide to the greatest and most ambitious city in the world: Endon. It’s about a world slowly tipping onto its side, and all the interesting things that begin to slide at the start of a revolution. It’s about people with grand dreams pushing the boundaries of the possible, and the strange machines and devices they create along the way.

But mostly, it’s about magic. 


Magical Industrial Revolution: A Pre-Apocalyptic Setting Guide contains a wealth of information to supplement Role Playing Games, including:

• Maps, People, Buildings, Dungeons, Factions, and Villains of Endon
• Eight Pre-Apocalyptic Innovations
• Hundreds of Magic Items and Spells
• Rules for Magical Industry
• Useful Tools for Urban Campaigns
• Horrible Monsters and Nightmarish Creatures
• And much, much more.

Three very useful pamphlets featuring magical industrial tips, hanging ballads, and local attractions are provided along with the 156 page book. The PDF is fully optimized and bookmarked.

Reviews

Here, I think Skerples hits the nail on the head for one of the most exciting core narratives for an RPG campaign can be: Revolution. Change.

Change, not so much in the way History has traditionally viewed it: with the rise and fall of Big People, with grand wars and grand empires, with technology emerging from the minds of great men like Athena from Zeus's skull and then suddenly just, like... being everywhere... But with how it alters and affects every day people, how they view and interact with the world. How it gradually and subtly worms its ways into our collective perceptions of Life.

How, for instance, the railroad revolutionized our notions of space and time, or how A.I. revolutionizes are notions of personhood.
-Goodberry Monthly

Just wanted to say that the setting of this book didn't really interest me. I backed because Skerples always does great work. Upon receiving the pdf, I was surprised at how much stuff I was able to pull from it for my own setting, which hews closer to traditional sword & sorcery. Thanks so much for an amazing product.

I feel like I could keep rambling about this thing for much longer. It is PACKED with content, inspiration, philosophy, jokes, and songs. And every page has something fresh and inspiring.


Instead of memorizing a city block, I can pick 4-5 details from a few tables and mash them together into my own thing.

If you’ve been intimidated by cities in the past, I highly recommend checking out Magical Industrial Revolution. The book is glorious, clean, and filled with more magical nonsense than 100 other books.

It’s good. I can’t wait to use it in my own games.

-David Schirduan



Why?

Cities and technology in RPGs often feel static. I wanted to write a book about a setting that changed as the game progressed in ways that the players could influence or manipulate. No fixed metaplot, no locked-in NPCs, just a big pile of useful tools, all designed to work in harmony. City tools, good magic items, fun encounters, and excellent ways to spend hard-earned cash.

I wanted to write a pre-apocalyptic setting. Most D&D-type settings assume there's a layer of magical ruin and decay below the current world; I wanted to write the explosion that could bury that layer. Gleeful, mad optimism instead of sullen and pragmatic pessimism. High magic, high ambition, disastrous lack of hard lessons.

I also wanted to include methods for scaling up magic, meddling with the fundamental forces of nature, and trying to change the world via the logical - or illogical - application of weird science and dubious engineering.

You can a look at MIR's development history here.


Large Map File

Playtesting

MIR, like all my paid products, was tested with a number of systems, including AD&D, B/X, the GLOG, and (I think), Into the Odd and The Black Hack. Some sections were tested against 5th Edition and seemed to work fairly well.

It's designed for broad compatibility. Assumptions are stated. Wherever possible, conversion tools are provided. You could probably use it with Apocalypse World or Fate by ignoring some of the numbers.
 

Session Reports

None yet!
 

Thank You

I'd like to thank David Shugars again for his hard work spinning gold from the pile of straw I provided. I'd also like to thank my Patrons, blog readers, and friends for supporting this project. MIR wouldn't exist without you.

2019/10/23

OSR: Ultraviolet Grasslands GM-Facing Maps

I've made 3 GM-facing maps for Ultraviolet Grasslands (reviewed here). Spoilers abound.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=11mFnJtClS1IhNY0-zH4W4XpJkk29Fqkh

1. UVG Only Locations

Main locations are coded. Bar for a wasteland-ish location, circle for an urban-ish location. Trade goods are in <brackets>. Some terrain around the Glass Bridge - Three Sticks region was moved around to make slightly more sense to me.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1g2t3blq_z38mztrV8_EjU0uvWr87Xi0i

2. UVG Locations + Trilemma Adventures

Trilemma locations are squares. Not all Trilemma adventures found homes on the map. Some were just too thematically difficult to integrate. Flesh-sculpting, necromancy, ghost-magic, poison water, and crystal technology permeate the adventures; with a bit of purple prose they'll fit UVG nicely.

All the Trilemma adventures are free, but the compendium is very nice and well worth buying.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1tiypBNqqV_pyv8-5oYI4BU-UhJVVypLG

3. UVG Locations + Trilemma Adventures + Other Adventures

New adventure locations are hourglasses. For when you really want to go overboard, this map includes:
-Operation Unfathomable

-Anomalous Subsurface Environment
-Deep in the Purple Worm
-Purple Worm Graveyard
-Temple of the Blood Moth
-Gem Prison of Zardax
-The Roving Wheel

I might revise, update, alter, etc. these maps as time goes on, but for now, they might be helpful to anyone running a game in the purple haze.

OSR: Review: Ultraviolet Grasslands

Ultraviolet Grasslands, or, to give its full title, UVG and the Black City - Psychedelic Metal Roleplaying, is a setting book by Luka Rejec.

You can - and should - buy it here or here. There's a free introductory version here.


Full Disclosure
Luka did the art for Kidnap the Archpriest and Magical Industrial Revolution, and has generally been good to work with. I was hired to do a high-level review and structural commentary on Ultraviolet Grasslands. This review has an enormous positive bias.

Because I'm fussy, peevish, and peculiar, this review also has an enormous negative bias. I usually review books by listing problems or issues and then saying "but it's still very good." This review is no different. You've been warned.

I also haven't playtested the book. I've seen people run it and it seems to work pretty well.



'People of the Earth can you hear me?'
Came a voice from the sky on that magical night
-Billy Thorpe - Children Of The Sun

What is UVG?

Ultraviolet Grasslands is a setting book, pointcrawl, toolkit, artbook, and set of liner notes to an imaginary compilation album. Sir John Mandeville under the influence of heavy metal. The result of giving the people at Burning Man access to terraforming equipment.

Should I Buy This Even Book If I Think Blue Oyster Cult and The Blue Man Group Are The Same Band?

Yes.

First, because it's beautiful.
Second, because it works. It's a gamebook, not a novel or a tasteful heap of prose. It is a finely crafted tool to create stories.
Third, because it's well written. Concise, sharp, dense, and flavourful.
And fourth, because it's cheap. According to my calculations a book with 220 pieces of full colour Luka Rejec art should cost [stack overflow error], not including text. $25 for a PDF is a bargain.


I realized I was approaching this book with the wrong mindset. It's a proper setting guide, not some bolt-on fits-your-assumptions setting guide. It's closer to taking up Warhammer 40k or Glorantha. Trying to figure out how to make UVG work with an existing paradigm is like bolting Warhammer 40k onto a Spelljammer game and hoping the tone will match.


UVG demands to be run. And it's very likely to get what it wants
When I lay me down to die
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
- Norman Greenbaum - Spirit In The Sky

Nonlinear Genius

There's a temptation among very clever authors and game designers to create perfect linear museums or galleries. The transmission process from author to GM and from GM to players is messy. Important details will be lost. Themes will be mangled, distorted, and simplified. Creating a guided tour through the author's masterwork prevents GMs and players from rubbing their cheeto-stained fingers on the art.

It's a problem. And it's a problem UVG does not have. This book is designed to be used. Exploration is encouraged because it's excellent, not because it meets some arbitrary mechanical or structural requirement. Nothing is mandatory. Everything is permissible.

Power is great. Given the choice between a 1d4+1 dagger and a 2d20+1 dagger that also sets the user on fire and can't be held by mere flesh, I'll include the 2nd option every time. Sure, it's "overpowered", but it's interesting. Great games come from giving the players power and seeing what they do with it. Grab the tiger by the tail.

Give the players a nuclear reactor and some enemies. Give them a barely steerable hoverobelisk. Let them go slightly mad with power; power won't save them.

Conceptual Density

Dense and chewy are the grasslands. Aesthetics of ruin? In great heaping strata.
It is so far into the future that everything that [redacted] made possible has happened three times, even world harmony.
-Ra
Beneath the caravan-trading-exploration system, there's a settlement-kingdom system. Treasure is often thrones or nation-forges. Settle down, claim some territory, collect some tolls, build some statues, wage a catastrophic war, add another layer of debris to the grasslands.

The System

I'm not a system person. Mechanics and tools yes, but systems are full of moving parts. Figuring out how they work without extensive testing is tricky.

System-specific rules (i.e. the stuff you'd replace if you ran UVG using B/X or the GLOG or whatever) take up ~8 pages. The rest is tools you can use in most systems.

There's a Paradigm. I like paradigms. More books should explain their core assumptions; it makes improvisation much easier.

The caravan rules are sublimely elegant and, critically, include brilliant tools. As I was reading the book, I found the next page answered the question I about the previous page. "What if the players set up a recurring trade route under an NPC?" [flips page] "Oh, here's a handy and hilarious table."

If you want to learn about the SEACAT system, Luka's written some blogposts.

We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death
- Godspeed You Black Emperor - The Dead Flag Blues

Criticisms

Information Loading
UVG is not an easy book to process. There's a lot of "hidden" information; even with the index, glossary, and search tools the onus is still on the reader to put together some patterns.


Reading the book linearly is probably suboptimal. I'd suggest:

  • start at the front until you hit a term you don't understand and can't figure out from context
  • flip to the Glossary
  • read the whole Glossary
  • then, flip to pg. 133 (Heroes and the Cat). Admire the art. Isn't it nice?
  • without reading any text, flip to pg. 138 (Wonderful Creatures) and read to pg. 153 (Starvation and Thirst)
  • then, go back to wherever you got lost the first time around and start reading linearly.

Weak Discoveries, Strong Discovery.
The weakest locations in a hexcrawl are pointcrawl are purely descriptive.

GM: You encounter the Obelisk of Grune. It is an inert stone 20' tall.
Players: Neat. We move on.
Second weakest are locations that are purely descriptive but have hidden information with no way for the players to access this information.

GM: You encounter the Obelisk of Grune. It is an inert stone 20' tall.
Book: The Obelisk of Grune produces gallons of pure gold if the blood of an albino duck is rubbed on its surface. The only person who knows this is Sir Alfred Mooseblaster, who died 300 years ago on another continent.
Players: Neat. We move on.
GM: Not going to... oh, I don't know, rub some duck blood on it?
Players: Why would we do that?
Ultraviolet Grasslands has a few of both types of locations. I do mean a few; probably no more than 5 or 6 in the whole book. But they still exist. Cool ideas without hooks ("Why should we care? What can we do with this?") or with hidden information ("How in the world would we have figured that out?")

Coming up with a cool idea is not enough. Without a way to interact with the idea, it's just some words for the GM to say. Nobody comes to game night just to hear the GM talk.

Map Snarl
I didn't follow UVG's development closely, but it seems like one region was completed before some of the others, then retrofitted into the larger structure. The Glass Bridge - Three Sticks region is a mess. There is a mini-map, but it's cut into 3 sections spread across several pages and, more importantly, it doesn't match the main map.
It feels like the minimap came first, full of cool names and neat locations, and the pointcrawl format came later. It's got too many locations in too small of an area and some of the locations are just... dull. Location 17 is a tethered moon. And here, in location 18, there's a whole paragraph about a boring river. Seriously, the text says "There is not much to say about this river."

That's probably a sign to cut the river or fold it into a table. Things shouldn't exist just because they're named on a minimap.

Unlike most of the other minor locations in the book, locations in this region have precisely defined locations, both in the map and in the text. This weakens the nebulous structure of pointcrawl exploration.

The section is 10 pages out of 200, it's still got some good information, and it's not too messy, but it's the weakest section of the book. An erratic boulder left behind when the great editing glaciers retreated. A minimap that was too good to prune.

The Weirdness Curve
I've got a slight preference to start the game a little less weird and let the strangeness build. The deeper you get into the grasslands, the weirder things become. But since you can
rent animated skeletons with wheelbarrows from a serpent-tailed mind-controlling cat in the first 10 minutes of the first session, it's hard to ramp up the weirdness consistently. I'd possibly tone down the Violet City. It makes sense in-setting, but it'd make exploration payoffs easier.


That's me
That's it
That's life
Go go go.
-Birdy Nam Nam - The Parachute Ending

Bonus Tools

I've created a GM-facing map. Most Discoveries are listed. Spoiler alert. Main locations are coded (bar for a wasteland-ish location, circle for an urban-ish location). Trade goods are in <brackets>. Some terrain around the Glass Bridge - Three Sticks region was moved around to make slightly more sense to me.

At this point, I can't think of any other tools I'd need to run a UVG game. I might make some quick reference sheets or generators, but I'd mostly need a personalized sheet of page numbers.

A revised version of the GM-facing map, with non-UVG locations added, will be available fairly soon.

2019/10/22

OSR: Class: Curse-Eater Wizard

Some ideas from Iron & Ink's post here.

Nikola Matkovic
Starting Equipment: spellbook, ink and quill. Both your smallest fingers or one eye are missing (and devoured).


The line between a curse and an enchantment is almost invisible. Curse-Eaters are wizards who specialize in personal and forbidden magic. They are widely reviled by the Church and by other wizards, for their powers inevitably corrupt and twist the spells of others. 


Perk

You can take 1 MD from an adjacent wizard’s pool and add it to your spell. They know you have done this. On a 1-3, the MD returns to their pool (as normal). If the MD does not return, you can choose to either heal the wizard for 1d6 HP or inflict 1d6 magic damage. 


Drawback

Barring exceptional circumstances, you cannot enter a good afterlife. Domesticated animals fear you.


Cantrips


1. Touch a creature or object to discover if it is cursed (i.e. if it has a negative but hidden magical effect applied to it). You can roll under Intelligence to divine the nature of the curse.
2. Touch a recently deceased person, perform a 10 minute ritual, and Save. If you pass, you take all their sins upon yourself. They arrive in the afterlife with only their positive deeds remembered.
3. Spit to crack all non-magical mirrors within 50’. Calm water will ripple. Other reflective surfaces may crack or darken.

Lucas Roussel

Curse-Eater Wizard Spell List


1. Fingerbreaker

R: 100' T: creature of [dice]x2 HD or less D: 0

The target of this spell must have fingers. You snap your fingers and your target's fingers crack, break, and bend. They take [sum] damage and must immediately Save or drop whatever they are holding. You can choose to have the target take no damage, but they get +2 to their Save. 


2. Deflect Spell
R: 100' T: spell D: 0

You may cast this spell as a reaction. Save, with a bonus equal to [sum]. A roll of 20 always fails. If you succeed, an incoming spell is deflected to [dice]x10’ away. The incoming spell must target you or a point within 10’ of you.


3. Crush Flames

R: [dice]x20' radius T: area D: 0

Mundane flames in the area of this spell are extinguished with a great deal of smoke. Torches fill a 10’ cube with smoke, bonfires fill a 30’ cube with smoke. Wind dissipates the smoke in 10 minutes. If you cast this spell with 3 or more [dice], living creatures lose 1 HP per round while they remain in the smoke.


4. Transfer Disease

R: touch T: two creatures D: 0
Touch a diseased creature and a healthy creature. [Dice] diseases move between targets. If the recipient is unwilling they get a Save. If the disease is magical it also gets a Save.


5. Forget

R: 10’ T: creature of [dice]x4 HD or less D: 10 minutes

Target creature must Save or get the last 10 minutes. They may recall vague details but not useful information.


6. Enfeebling Sigil

R: touch, 50' T: object D: [sum] rounds

A writhing arcane symbol appears on an object you touch. Any creature within 100' of the sigil who looks at it must Save or be reduced to Strength 1 for [dice] rounds. Nothing can cause their Strength to drop lower than 1 while they are under the effects of this spell. The symbol vanishes after [sum] rounds. If you invest 3 [dice] or more, you can instead set the duration of this spell to permanent, provided no one looks at the sigil. Once it is seen, the duration becomes to [sum] round as usual. 


7. Abjure

R: 100’ T: creature or object D: [sum] rounds

Name and point at creature or object. The target cannot approach within [dice]x10’ of you for the duration of this spell. The target can Save once at the start of the duration to negate. 


8. Drain Life
R: 50' T: creature D: 0

Target living creature takes [sum] damage, Save for half. You heal for ½ [sum]. It costs 2 HP to remove 1 negative HP and 4 HP to remove one Fatal Wound.


9. Cure Wounds


R: touch T: creature D: 0
Target creature heals [sum] HP. It costs 2 HP to remove 1 negative HP and 4 HP to remove 1 Fatal Wound. This spell cannot restore lost limbs, remove injuries, or cure diseases.


10. Remove Curse

R: touch T: creature or object D: 1 hour / permanent

Up to [dice] curses or diseases are removed from the target. If [sum] is greater than 12, the effect is permanent.


11. Cloudkill

R: 30’ T: [dice] 10’ cubes D: 24 hours
Summon a cloud of ghastly yellow-green vapour. Creatures of 2 HD or less in the cloud are instantly slain (no Save). Creatures of 3 to 5 HD must Save or die each round. Creatures of 6 or more HD must Save or take 3d6 damage each round. The cloud is heavier than air and slowly drifts. It moves 10’ per round in a gentle breeze. A strong wind disperses the cloud in 10 minutes.


12. Death Ward

R: touch T: self D: [sum] days
Designate a date up to [sum] days in the future. You cannot die until that date. You can be hideously mangled, burned, mashed, spread across the cobbles, or torn apart, but your soul will still remain in your body (or its remains) until the date designated. On that date, you automatically fail all Saves.









Curse-Eater Wizard Mishaps
1. MD only return to your pool on a 1-2 for 24hrs.
2. Take 1d6 damage.
3. Random mutation for 1d6 rounds, then Save. Permanent if you fail.
4. Blind for 1d6 rounds.
5. Agony for 1d6 rounds.
6. Spell targets you (if harmful) or an enemy (if helpful) or fizzles (if neutral).

Curse-Eater Wizard Dooms

1. You are transported to Hell for 24 hours. You aren't tortured, but you are carefully examined and audited before being returned.
2. You cannot enter sanctified spaces. Touching silver inflicts 1 damage per round. Silver weapons deal 2x damage to you.
3. 1d4 angels and 1d4 demons, plus any religious figures they can find along the way, descend upon your location to drag you bodily to Hell.

2019/10/18

OSR: Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom of Blackmoor

This post's quality has been brought to you by Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban.You've been warned. For actual D&D history, see Hidden in the Shadows.
I was thinking about the Life on Earth documentary earlier this week and how it completely changed the visual language of popular culture.

You know this frog?
You might not be able to place it, but this tree frog was everywhere for a while. Posters, books, ads; the influence of Life on Earth is subtle but pervasive.

And it came out in 1979, two years after the AD&D Monster Manual. What would D&D have been like if things were shifted by a year or two? Would the Monster Manual have a different tone?

The Origin of Species

Where do D&D monsters come from? This thread on Dragonsfoot is an excellent place to start, but it only covers "proper" monsters. Sea turtles, camels, etc. aren't covered because it's assumed everyone knows what a camel is.

But do they? When Gygax thought of a camel, did his mental image come from a specific book or film? The Bible? Lawrence of Arabia?

It's one of those questions nobody can answer. Where does your mental image of a camel come from anyway?

The Unknown Monster Manual: Life Magazine (April 23, 1951)

Rudolf Freund was a landscape and wildlife painter. This seems to be, as far as I can find, his only excursion into mythology. But what an excursion!
The game of telephone from the mythology to the article's unnamed author, from the article to the artist, from the artist to Gygax and from Gygax to the artist (David C. Sutherland III, I think?) leads to a very strange creature.

It also explains the mysterious poisonous bovid Gorgon of the Monster Manual. The article's author has somehow mixed up Claudius Aelianus's description of the Catoblepas with the Gorgon.
It's tragic that the terrifying long-necked Salvador Dali manticore didn't make it into D&D. Indeed, the Manticore is barely described in the Monster Manual. Gygax may have assumed all readers were already familiar with the creature.
Side Note: What did Rudolf Freund have against Dali? Perhaps the unveiling of Christ of Saint John of the Cross in 1951 and the ensuing controversy offended his sensibilities? Or did Freund, as a sensible "naturalist" wildlife and landscape painter, intend to mock Dali's distorted figures?

Or am I reading too much into a mustache?

Marine Monsters

In the AD&D Monster manual, Stephen (Steve) Marsh gets credit (in the preface everyone skips) for the aquatic monsters of Blackmoor.
Side Note: these days, Stephen Marsh is a hiking fiend. He's got a blog full of stories and excellent hiking advice. So in theory I could just ask him these questions... but where's the fun in that?
Anyway, Gary Gygax took the monsters in Blackmoor, codified them, added details, and put them in the Monster Manual. Much like the transition from mythology to Su-Monster, the process involved plenty of noise and distortion.

Reading the AD&D Monster Manual and Blackmoor side by side, I think Marsh had a very solid grasp on aquatic life. Gygax... less so. Sea Turtles don't appear in Blackmoor, so Gygax must have invented the Turtle, Sea, Giant for the MM. Clearly, he wasn't familiar with turtles (sea turtles cannot retract their flippers).

Selected Aquatic Monsters of Blackmoor

Humanoids

Merman
A "civilized" people. "Spells and special suits are usually used when out of the water (to retain their moisture)..." Special suits eh? Why don't we see more memmen in boiler suits in D&D?

Sahuagin (Devil-Men of the Deep)
Hints of H.P. Lovecraft's Deep Ones, but with some elements of The Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown in for good measure.


Morkoth (aka Morlock)
Seems like it was inspired by Lovecraft (the strange cone-like head, the winding hypnotic labyrinth), but it's a Steve Marsh original, adapted from an  Andre Norton Witch World story.

Locathah

Very, very lightly sketched in Blackmoor. They're underwater Nomads. 
This nomadic people ride eels and are found along the canyon floors roaming the depths in search of food (Use standard NOMAD Table for composition). For riding eels use a 24" standard movement with a 36" fast move every eight turns. They will be found in their lair only 15% of the time (generally a castle which they maintain as a base camp with its own guards etc.). They are neutral by disposition and otherwise fairly civilized.
But in the AD&D MM, they become another sort of fish-person, despite no hint of it in the original description.

Reskins

Aquatic Elf (as Elf)
Kopoacinth (as gargoyles)

Koalinth (as hobgoblins)
Lacedons (as ghouls)
Mottled Worm (as a Purple Worm)
Nymph (as a Dryad)
Sea Hag (as a reverse Dryad)

Ordinary Creatures

Dolphin
Its neat how each underwater race gets its own beasts. Aquatic Elves have dolphins, Sahuagin have sharks, Locathah have eels, and Mermen have seahorses... and crabs. He he he.

Giant Crab
Their entry in Blackmoor includes the line "Fortunately, they rarely go inland more than a mile, and usually frequent the same hatching grounds from year to year." showing that Marsh was familliar with crab migrations.

Giant Octopus

Marsh correctly identifies the octopus as a mollusc.
In Blackmoor, Marsh writes "Generally peaceful, they will not attack unless attacked first..."
In the A&D MM, Gygax writes "These creatures are malicious and have a cunning bent."
Hrm. Who writes based on fiction and who writes based on documentaries?


Giant Squid

In Blackmoor, interestingly, this entry has less to do with the actual giant squid or mythological kraken, and seems to be a regular squid scaled up.

Monsters

Pungi Ray
I thought that tracking down this "unusual reference" could lead me to a documentary, article, or book that might uncover the origins of some of these monsters. Managed a tremendous forehead slap after spending 30 minutes trying to find species notes in various databases. Punji traps. Derp derp derp. Probably based on the stonefish.

Strangle Weed
Weeds that trap limbs; a diver's nightmare.

Floating Eyes
A distorted cuttlefish? Probably not; the hypnotic patterns of a cuttlefish are a relatively new discovery. According to Marsh, the true explanation is even eerier. "
Floating eyes were originally an extension of an extraplaner creature. Just the eyes came through."

Ixitxachitl
Origin story here
.

Poisonous Coral

A distorted version of an anemone?

Masher

A quitisential D&D telephone creature. In Blackmoor, the whole description is "Coral eaters, harmless unless frightened, if so is just like 20 hit dice Purple worm, with treasure." The stats reflect the purple worm note.

In the AD&D MM, Mashers become explictly "worm-like" and gain poison dorsal spines. And from there, they grow stranger and stranger through the editions.

But was the original Masher a worm, or just something that's as tough and dangerous as a Purple Worm? A giant parrotfish? A blend of grouper, parrotfish, and lionfish? Who knows.

Visual Antecedents for The Aquatic Monsters of Blackmoor

Ditch the "canonical" references: Lovecraft and Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser". Books are sensible. In 1975, nobody cites TV shows.

Based on wild guesswork, the series most likely to have inspired some of Marsh's monsters is Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, particularly, the Great Barrier Reef episodes of 1971 and the Isles of Enchantment episodes of 1973. Some episodes are available on youtube and are well worth watching.

Side Note: you need to say "Mutual of Omaha's" before "Wild Kingdom". It's just a rule.
The time periods and broadcast schedules line up. It was a show a high school kid in Idaho could watch without getting into trouble. While Gygax seems to have prefereed books to TV, it doesn't seem like the vivid aquatic ecosystem sketched in Blackmoor could come from fantasy books or old atlases.

2019/10/17

OSR: GOBLIN WAR ENGINE (!)

It's huge! It's impractical! It's wildly dangerous to both friend and foe!
PDF Link

The Goblin War Engine is a draft page from my current project: the Monster Overhaul. Patrons at the $5 tier get access to monsters like this hot off the ol' brain-press and replete with the highest quality spelling errors and lack of playtesting.

This one was just too good not to post.

Goblin Links
1d50 Goblin Warlords
Class: Goblin
Class: Many Goblins

Goblinpunch: 1d8 Shitty Goblin Weapons, WTF Are Those Goblins Doing, Goblins tag
Elfmaids and Octopi: Goblin Mine Zone (PDF), Goblins tag

2019/10/15

OSR: Review: Into the Wyrd and Wild

Produced, written, and mostly illustrated by the one-human team of Charles B.F. Avery, Into the Wyrd and Wild is Veins of the Earth, but for forested wilderness. Does it work? Sort of.

Note 1: Because I'm fussy, peevish, and peculiar, this review also has an enormous negative bias. You've been warned. I also haven't playtested any of the creatures or mechanics in the book.

Note 2: It seems like there are distribution and communication issues related to Kickstarter fulfillment.

Into the Wyrd and Wild

Comparisons to Veins of the Earth jump out immediately. Both books use the same visual language. It's hard to show off in one screenshot, but if you've read Veins, you'll immediately see what I mean. Sections are organized in the same way.

Given the similarities, it seems odd that Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess, or Jez Gordon are not acknowledged anywhere in the book. Imitation is (according to some) the sincerest form of flattery, but this might be more than imitation. I don't know.

The Rules

The Law of Equivalent Exchange
In Veins, 1sgp = 1 hour of light = 1/300th of the amount of food a person needs every 3 days.
In Wyrd and Wild, 1gp = 1 supply (i.e. =1 day's worth of rations = 1 day's worth of water = 1 day's worth of lamp oil).

This... doesn't make sense to me. Firewood is scarce? In a forest? Are food and water are significantly limiting factors above ground?

Sure, the food rules in Veins are a bit messy but they're consistent. The point isn't to pay for food. It's to steal food, eat weird things, and make desperate deals. Scarcity is a crucial element. It's baked into every part of Veins. Light is scarce, food is scarce, food is light, light is money, and everything hates you.


Great books come from consistent choices in the same direction, and Veins is full of consistent choices. Wyrd and Wild is not.


Exhaustion
The real expedition-limiting mechanic doesn't seem to be Supplies. Instead it's Exhaustion. Exhaustion stacks. Reach 6 levels of Exhaustion and the PC dies. No save. It's not easy to remove Exhaustion in the Wilds.

PCs gain Exhaustion by, essentially, fucking up: not sleeping, not eating or drinking for a day, getting diseased, getting injured, or getting knocked out. Fuck up 4 times and you're likely to bail on the expedition. I'm not completely sure this will work in play. What if one PC has, through no fault of their own, 4 levels of exhaustion, while the rest of the group has 0? Does the party retreat and risk the one character only, or pull out and waste time and effort?

Surviving the Night

Wyrd and Wild has rules for making camp. Roll 1d6 for food, water, and shelter (3d6 total). Dice that show 4-6 are successes. Failures grant levels of Exhaustion. Failures can be cancelled by spending a Supply.

There's a strong 5E flavour in this book. Advantage and Disadvantage are reference throughout, and there are statements like "Proficiency in a relative skill like Hunting, Foraging, or Survival grants advantage on these rolls." Now if I buy a book on the Wylderness, I'm expecting something more than a skill name. Hunting, Foraging, and Survival are the things this book is about.

Surviving the Night is an interesting resource-tracking mechanic, and it presents the players with crucial choices, but the Supply mechanic is the weak link. If 1 Supply = 1 firewood and the PCs are in a forest... Or if 1 Supply = water, and they're camped near a stream...

The Hunt
Hunting rules are a great addition to this book. They're a bit fiddly but I've rarely seen mechanics for days-long hunts in RPGs, so it's a good attempt. Tables of setbacks and boons are always useful.

Cleaning A Body

These rules are also fiddly and... unnecessary? They're adding a layer of abstraction to something that should be a straightforward declaration. The tables are mediocre compared to others in the book.

Phases of the Moon
If you want GMs to track phases of the moon, providing a handy one-page time tracking sheet with moon phases on it seems like a good idea. The "Special Moons" are neat but a bit vague. "Magic spells are twice as powerful, but have a chance of backfiring horribly."

The Call of the Wyld
The equivalent of the Effects table from Veins.


Becoming Lost

Oh boy, more mechanics!

Madness
Ditto.

Right, here's bit of advice. You've given the poor reader (i.e. the GM) 15 pages of things they need to track, do, and remember without giving them any reason why they should bother. The book works hard to convince you not to use it.

Veins goes: 1) Intro, 2) Bestiary, 3) Factions 4) Rules, 5) Mapping
Wyrd and Wild goes: 1) Intro, 2) Rules, 3) Bestiary, 4) Factions 5) Mapping

Introducing a setting via its monsters is a very good method. Putting crucial rules first seems smart, but it also makes the book less immediately evocative. When it comes to RPG books, pudding first, then meat.

Throughout the rules, it seems that smart choices and sensible plans are very rarely rewarded. Randomization is king. Nature is capricious, but OSR games are all about avoiding risk via good plans. If there's no way for the players to dodge these risks by player skill, why bother having them?

Bestiary

Every paragraph has a bold, all-caps first line. See the screenshot above. Sometimes this line contains critical information, so the reader could quickly skim just the bolded lines and get a sense of the monster. Sometimes the line is just the first line of the paragraph. I don't like it. It breaks up the text. It feels like I'm lurching from paragraph to paragraph.

Most of the monsters in Veins are difficult to summarize. Even if the prose is ultraviolet-purple, words are rarely wasted. The description flows. Sometimes it flows in directions that aren't terribly useful at the table, but they're still interesting to read.

The monsters in Wyrd and Wild could have used an editor. Condense, cut, and focus. 

They are man-made monsters. Byproducts of a ritual that mortals accidentally uncovered, with no concept of what they meddled with. That being said, they are loyal monsters.

The first of these beings was brought into existence when an animal was buried alive under the foundation of a shrine in what was a coincidental ritual, done as some crude and cruel protection charm. What surprised everyone was that it actually worked.
The concepts are, on average, pretty good. Friendly slug-parasites. Skunk apes. Weird elves. I'm trying to focus on the text because the art is so damn good that it threatens to make even mediocre ideas seem excellent. More on that later.

There is no random encounter table in the PDF.

Some tables include "You encounter a group of ruffians or xenophobic sorts." or "Hostile Fauna: A wild animal seeks you out. Roll a random wilderness encounter."

Encounters occur "less and less closer to a new moon". There's a +25% chance of a wilderness encounter at a waning gibbous moon.


But there's no table of wilderness encounters anywhere I can find! I've gone through the PDF twice and searched for terms. As far as I can tell, it's not there. The closest thing is the Wilderness Dungeon table (see below), with "The Danger" and "Secret or Treasure", but the entries don't seem to correspond to anything in the bestiary and there are no page number references.

Spells & Items

I just skimmed these. They seem pretty decent.

The Dungeon of Tree and Stone

Rules for making a dungeon out of a wilderness area. Instead of corridors, paths through the grass. Instead of rooms, clearings, dens, sites, and loci.

I like the idea of making a standard 6-mile hex into a dungeon. The actual mechanics, as usual, seem a bit fiddly, but the core concept is neat. Slap some areas down. Draw some lines between them. Stock them.

Aside from a few changes to make it 2D, this is the cave mapping system from Veins of the Earth.

Dolmenwood does a better job of strange forest adventures, though getting into Dolemwood is currently rather expensive, just because there's so much material. Hopefully the upcoming campaign book puts the scattered pieces together. Gardens of Ynn has a great bestiary and "trackless wyrd-wilderness" exploration mechanic. But this system seems functional.

Wild Flora, Diseases, Hazards and Traps, I Search The Body,

Again, I just skimmed these.

Why aren't these by the Bestiary? Why separate the Dungeon section from Hazards and Traps?

Random Trails and Paths, A Wilderness Dungeon

Why put the Wilderness Dungeon name tables and variant tables down here, mixed in with other tables to make them difficult to find in a hurry?

There are tables of descriptive text for walking through the woods.

Incidentally, I don't like the table format. The grey is a few points too dark.

Look, I said I was fussy and peculiar.

A Hundred Wyrd Locations

Same as the 100 Caves from Veins of the Earth, but (because there's more to work with above ground) extremely varied. An excellent tool for stocking a hexcrawl or wilderness area.

Game Aids

No time tracking sheets, but condensed and very tidy rules for resting, hunting, etc.

Prose

There's a lot of prose in this book. Pages and pages of descriptive and explanatory text. No editor is listed. The text sometimes slips into informality.
Since that day, the gods have sicced every beast of fang and claw to bring Eí-Criomòran down.
A harsh round of edits could have cut some monsters from 2 pages to 1, or trimmed a few duplicate results from tables, or fixed a few ambiguous sections.

Veins of the Earth
is defined by its prose. Love it or mock it, there's a monster description that starts off "BUDDHA WAS WRONG". It speaks directly to the reader as a modern human trying to run an imaginary elfgame. Wyrd and Wild can't quite decide who the reader is, or what level of informality and 4th-wall-breaking is required.

Art

My god, the art.

It's a truly beautiful book. The art by people other than the author (Alex Coggon, Alex Shearer, Brieaunna) is also good... but it sticks out, just because the style and tone are often slightly different. According to KS comments, the physical copies are also astonishing. It's a pleasure to flip through the PDF pages and revel in the illustrations. Any weaknesses in descriptive prose are cancelled by the overwhelming volume and quality of the art.

Conclusions

  • The bestiary section is worth reading.
  • Despite being referenced by several rules, there is no random encounter table.
  • The rules sections have useful ideas, but rely on randomness and a weak scarcity mechanic.
  • The book's layout is state-of-the-art in places, but collapses into a miscellaneous jumble in the last third. There is no index.
  • The PDF is poorly optimized. Layers cannot be hidden. There are no bookmarks. The table of contents is not hyperlinked.
  • The art is gorgeous.
  • The general feel is cargo-cult Veins of the Earth. Sections and tools added without really knowing why, or checking to see if they're the best option for a wilderness adventure. 
Pretty to look at, nice to hold, but if you buy it, consider that it might sit on your shelf forever.

This book needed editing and playtesting. A one-human shop is great, but paying for editors and doing thorough and extensive tests in a variety of system is crucial. The result is a book that's beautiful but not as useful as it could be. A bit more testing, a few different choices, and this could have been an all-time classic.