Monday, April 11, 2016

Reader Questions: How To Dark Heresy

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like, so I put out a call for questions.

"The Lady"
Nicolas R. Giacondino
Evan asked me "How do I get into Dark Heresy stuff if I normally find 40k impenetrable?"

Well, the short answer is to go read some Dan Abnett - the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies. Yes, that's a big chunk of text - but they're good reads. Not just "good licensed fiction reads," but actually good reads in their own right. And if you're like me, you'll read them and instantly go "Crap! I really want to be playing in a Dark Heresy game right now!" (#121). Hell, just reading the Ravenor prologue does that for me.

But that's a mediocre response.

Here's my take on Dark Heresy: it's 40k, but it's not about 40k. Just like Warhammer Fantasy takes the Warhammer tabletop minis game and diverges into its own universe, so does Dark Heresy diverge from the 40k tabletop game. Frankly, I suspect the less chance there is for a single damn Space Marine to show up the better your Dark Heresy game is going to be. (Also note that this is all my take on the concept of Dark Heresy, not necessarily one that's borne out by the actual rulebooks or published background or whatever.)

Warhammer Fantasy has an implicit setup of "average folks making their way in a crapsack world while dealing with the hidden spectre of Chaos creeping out to gnaw at the roots of society, Ratatosk-like" Obviously individual campaigns can diverge from this, but it is an assumed backdrop. Dark Heresy isn't too far off - except instead of average folks, the assumption is that you're playing agents of the Inquisition, and the assumption is somewhat less sandboxy than WFRP can be.

The existing games that I think are most valuable for getting into the Dark Heresy frame of mind are Delta Green and Night's Black Agents.

"Pronunciatur Hereticus"

In both DG and NBA, players are tasked with uncovering what's really going on. They're games with a high focus on tradecraft, investigation, and ambiguity. Sure you have the ooky monsters who are the baddies (Mi-Go and other Mythos creatures, vampires) but dealing with the mundane threats of exposure, corruption, betrayal, and secrets form a major component as well. Dark Heresy fits the same paradigm - you're working your way through layers of conspiracy and skullduggery, trying to trace these things back to their source, while attempting to avoid being found out by the opposition or burned by your bosses.

In all of these games, the players have access to a great deal of power, with a catch involved. In Delta Green, the PCs (usually) have the apparent weight of the federal government...counterbalanced by the fact that they're operating rogue, without actual federal auspices, and therefore have to remain covert. In NBA, players are frickin' movie superspies with all that entails, but AFAIK don't necessarily have official backing (and/or have a strong likelihood that the official backing is actually compromised by vampires).

I tend to see Dark Heresy as taking the option that's most advantageous for the PCs from both of these, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The PCs are pitched as being strongly competent agents - perhaps not the superspies of NBA but not too far removed from them either. And unlike the doomed agents of Delta Green, Dark Heresy PCs usually do have the full weight of the Inquisition behind them, assuming that their relationship with their Inquisitor isn't frayed, or that their Inquisitor isn't actually involved in one of the conspiracies themselves...

Does this large throw weight decrease the interesting options for the players? I don't think so. As the scope of player power expands in Dark Heresy, so does the scope of both the threats and the universe. The conspiracies they're fighting, both supernatural and mundane, have their tendrils in just about everything. And again, these tendrils can be of either the supernatural or the mundane sort.

"Get Yer Kicks J-7"
Also worth reading when thinking about Dark Heresy: Zak S's "Zero Dark 29, 28, 27...", which discusses the difference in paradigms between Night's Black Agents and Call of Cthulhu. Check out the bit about revelations and showdowns, reading (in part):
Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.
In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.
Dark Heresy is mostly focused on showdowns, with the focus being on hostile conspiracies, but I believe that those showdowns work best when leading to a revelation - that sort of peeling back the curtain and seeing that despite all their power and influence and clout the PCs are still just tiny smidges against the unknowable.

Other must-reads for Dark Heresy play are Chris's series on constructing sandbox networks (here, here, here) Robert's discussion of a campaign frame for Marvel '78 (here), and Evan's own related Superheroes Year One work - obviously you'll have to do some tweaking here to get something appropriate for Dark Heresy rather than superheroes. I view those last two as the "main phase" of a Dark Heresy campaign, after an initial startup seed -- the main focus of play is trying to strike a balance between thwarting the hostile actions of conspiracies within a bounded area (planet? subsector?) and conducting the investigations to root them out.

"Pontifex Maximus"
John Blanche

So why the hell would you want to play Dark Heresy?

You want to play this if you're looking to strike a middle ground, gameplay-wise and tonally, between Delta Green and WFRP. Both NBA and Delta Green take a strong focus on the psychological well-being of the agents and seeing how they spiral into depression and sadness and lose their bonds with their family members and stuff. That's all well and good, but it's not what I want from my general gaming. Sometimes you want to be able to fearlessly blast beings of Chaos with a plasma pistol (and have a minuscule chance of taking them down), instead of your character heading straight to PTSD-ville.

(As a side note: Dark Heresy and the wide-open nature of the 40k setting means that you can do things like going from a big ol' Blade Runner/Coruscant cityscape to a Mad Max planet to basically anything that you might see in Traveller, and it'll all fit just fine. Plus mutants, zombies, and the undead, which I suspect might be a selling point to anyone who might write about a Galaxy of Fear.)

Dark Heresy provides you a venue for playing through and unraveling fantastic espionage and conspiracy in a high-powered environment (allowing for genre shifts when you want a change of pace). Depending on how high you want to ramp up some of the 40k elements, it can have paranoia, PARANOIA, or both.

So how to get into Dark Heresy? Well, you could read Eisenhorn or Ravenor. You could stick Traveller, PARANOIA, WFRP, Delta Green and Night's Black Agents into a blender. You could look at a bunch of John Blanche art, read Dune and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 2000 AD, watch Dredd...

The list stretches on.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lands of the Asbari Caliphate


The "new" capital, only a hundred years old or so; the central citadel, hewn out of the rock underneath an impenetrable azure dome of Bieth manufacture; divided into the Round City and the Cinnabar Flats by a moat of quicksilver; .
Sound: Thomas Bergersen - Empire of Angels
Taste: Judhaab - Chicken on top of an apricot pudding. The dish of kings (or at least of Caliphas).
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Ghoul

Great Mosque of Cordoba


The heart of culture, refinement, taste; cities tottering into decrepitude; ancient dynasties of nobility stretching into the sands of time; the most fearsome heavy cavalry in the world; lamia matriarchs – peers in the nobility – engaged in shadow wars of intrigue.
Sound: Azam Ali - Endless Reverie
Taste: Pomegranate over roast duck
Clark Ashton Smith Story: Morthylla 

Alexandr Kosteckij, title unknown

The Twelve Gates of Manden

Ancient coalition of city-states brought into the Caliphate; tercios of spears and matchlocks; mud-brick buildings; home of gold, copper, salt, and powder; the bones of the giant Zulkarn forming the basis for the engineering academy of his name.
Sound: Bear McReary - Black Market
Taste: Salted beef atop a bed of millet
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles

Steve LeCouilliard, Una the Blade

Dolün Steppes

A thousand tribes, wandering and warring; light cavalry honed from time immemorial; shamanic battles bringing down elemental fury for miles around; a continuing web of blood feuds and debts of honor; rituals to meld rider and steed into centaur.
Sound:  Tengger Cavalry - Wolf Ritual
Taste: Kebabs skewered on daggers
Clark Ashton Smith Story: None! Try an El Borak story by Robert Howard instead.

Eugene Delacroix, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains


Heavy cavalry to rival Turan, but quilted armor rather than steel cuirasses; contains the Well of Souls, where the dead can be heard awaiting the Day of Judgment; politically on the rise after the Calipha's marriage to Prince Bey Ajidda; rolling savanna and light forest; home of the Verdant Order, devoted to following the example of the Man of Green, servant of ar-Rahman.
Sound: Skinflint - Iron Pierced King
Taste: Fura da nono - boiled millet balls in sour milk
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Weaver in the Vault

Hasani Claxton, Knights of the Savanna


The extent of the Caliphate's control on the frontier, built atop the ruins of a Bieth underground complex; dedication to quick money, easy profits, and wild schemes; criminal fixers called "crows" organizing expeditions to delve beneath the surface or into the borderlands; the Steel Hand, vigilantes sworn to prevent Bieth relics from endangering the city; home to the exiled, the charlatan, the unwanted, the fortuneseeker. 
Sound: Caladan Brood - To Walk the Ashes of Dead Empires
Taste: Unidentifiable fried street meat
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Tomb-Spawn

Donglu Yu, Into The Desert

The Borderlands

The back end of the Caliphate; heretics and priests of the Many exiled to wander in the desert (or the Zone); metal lions stalking the wastes; ever-smoking ruined war machines; dry hopelessness or grim fatalism; warlords vying for control of five ancient fortresses, horrid mutated beasts crawling forth from the badlands.
Sound: Judas Priest - Nightcrawler
Taste: Dried dates and journeybread
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Abominations of Yondo

Alexandr Kosteckij, title unknown
Shams Al-Awsat
Urbane urban centers now falling into genteel disarray; former capital of the Caliphate; rolling farmland; rumored schools of dark sorcery; perennial uprisings of the Creed Sanguine; assassin-poet societies; sleeping in the tombs of your ancestors to gain sacred dreams and guidance.
Sound: Nu.Clear.Dawn - Falcon and Crow
Taste: Thick coffee
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Black Abbot of Puthuum (note: racism present in-story not representative of Shams al-Awsat)

Edwin Weeks, Entering the Mosque

Mur N'Akush

Without a veil or facemask, you may as well be naked; salt-marshes and salt-witches; unbreakable infantry of iron who ritually dance to prepare for battle; home of the nusr war-lizards, used as light cavalry.
Sound: Andaz Uzzal
Taste: Lamb and mint
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Charnel God

Keith Parkinson, Eandroth Rider


An allied city-state that houses the Caliphate navy; ruled by the ritually-blinded Fortunate Sheikh; each season a new expedition is launched to open trade routes and explore new lands - they (usually) return home in good order.
Sound: Iron Maiden - Ghost of the Navigator or Myrath - Braving the Seas
Taste: Saffron and chili
Clark Ashton Smith Story:  Quest of the Gazolba

Wayne Barlow

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Jogging Through The Shadows At A Decent Clip

SR: Dragonfall
So after playing through Shadowrun: Dragonfall last year, I started to get the hankering to get some tabletop Shadowrun in. This year, I've begun running a campaign for a "home group" over G+, using the Sixth World ruleset. I'm not particularly thrilled with Sixth World, but a) the group likes playing Dungeon World, b) I'm not going to try teaching a new system over Hangouts, and c) I'd rather get some play in now, instead of taking the time to do a home conversion from another system I like better. Also d) no way I'm trying to learn any edition of Shadowrun on my own, much less teach it to others.

(To Do: check out SWN's Polychrome and figure out some way of quickly converting existing Shadowrun gear and magic into the SWN system. Running in SWN or Traveller would be ideal, but in a world where I've got limited time to do campaign prep and have other projects to work on)

Elmore's cover, the image that started it all
Why Shadowrun?

There's always been something about Shadowrun's ridiculous alternative future that's intrigued me. The combination of ridiculously high technology combined with absurd limitations as holdovers from the '80s (floppy disks, megabytes, and no wi-fi...but riggers and the Matrix) is just delightful. I suppose that's part of my enjoyment of Traveller's starships with multi-ton computers, to draw on another example.

There's also the bonus of it having elves with guns. It's no secret that I'm a fan of those pointy-eared gits; having a setting where they mix with technology and sidestepping the "elves are CHILDREN OF NATURE" vibe definitely appeals to my interests. (You have the ridiculously obnoxious elven nations, but they're not the only elves around - you've got your regular folks just trying to get by included in the mix as well.)

Tim Bradstreet, for Shadowrun
I think Shadowrun hits the conceptual spot for me that White Wolf did for many other players of my generation - a setting that grabbed onto us with big claims about a punk/outsider nature, a game dynamic placing strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships and connections, and a bunch of cool Bradstreet art. Where it diverges from White Wolf is in the very defined heist nature that a shadowrun takes on, in contrast to the open-ended/nebulous campaign structure of a White Wolf game.

Campaign Setup

 My current setup is a hook-driven sandbox campaign. Each session, the PCs will generally be given three or more opportunities for runs that their fixer has lined up, or requests for aid from contacts, or what have you. As these runs go by, changes in the world will be taking place - from the runs the PCs take, the runs they don't take, and outside events.

This presentation is of course very inspired by the campaign setup of the Hill Cantons, where I've been playing for several years now (thanks Chris!).

Current Major Campaign Resources:
  • Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Hong Kong (in my top 5 CRPGs - convey the setting, engaging squad members, and the right mix of open-ended and fast-moving)
  • Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld (examining communication methods and strategies between criminals, fascinating reading with a ton of anecdotes and examples)
  • The Arcology Podcast (GM and player tips, plus Actual Play that's actually fun to listen to)
  • The Neo-Anarchist Podcast (IC summaries of the Shadowrun setting)
  • Our Thing Podcast (organized crime - check out the Quebec Biker War episodes)
  • Vornheim (y'all know this one)
  • Mike Evans's Shadowrun City Kit (builds off of Vornheim in specifically SR related directions)
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (urban Chaos Index implementation, providing characterization to specific districts)
  • Norbert Matausch's Pink Mohawk (just found this, looks to be a plausible alternative to Sixth World that might be more my speed while still palatable to my players)
I still need to go through Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah (examining the Camorra's corrosive influence  on the Campania region of Italy), and yes, watch The Wire.

SR: Hong Kong

Finally, and back in D&D-land - get hyped for Misty Isles! We're almost done and it's looking great. Not to mention all the other cool products the Hydra Cooperative has lined up for this year...
Bureaucracy, biomancy...
...and Bowie.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

People of the Serpent

Much pleased with the peace and good order of the city, the Caliph and his vizir made their way to a bridge, which led straight back to the palace, and had already crossed it, when they were stopped by an old and blind man, who begged for alms.

The Caliph gave him a piece of money, and was passing on, but the blind man seized his hand, and held him fast.

"Yusuf of the Granite Hands has betrayed you and seeks to supplant you upon the throne," the man whispered. "He has issued false orders to your commanders and sent them away from you, and even now rides to spit your head upon a pike. If you return to the palace you will surely be slain."

"How do you know this?" asked the vizir in full confusion, for neither he nor the Caliph had suspected any treachery from Yusuf.

"Alas! As Yusuf plotted with his lieutenant Arij, the two of them came upon my daughter, lying upon a rock. Seeing her there, Arij struck at her with his sword. Mortally wounded, my daughter sought me out before expiring, and now I have sought you out to assist me. For I would gain my vengeance upon Arij." 

As he spoke the blind man grew and grew, scales covering his body, until a giant serpent with milky eyes coiled in front of the Caliph and his vizir. And thus was the alliance between the Asbari Caliphate and the Takshakeen Naga sealed.

From Zayplay Animation Studio

Requirements: Str 13, Wis 13
Prime Requisite: Str, Wis
HD: d6
Maximum Level: 8

Naga attack as fighters but save as clerics of the same level. They have infravision out to 60’.

They cast spells from the cleric spell list (or druid spell list, if you use druids in your game). However, replace the 2nd level Charm Person or Mammal with the 1st level Charm Person.

A naga may select two forms from the following:
  • Human (with subtle snake features like fangs, scales on the sides of the neck, etc.)
  • Snake
  • Hybrid (human head or upper half on snake body)

Transforming between one form and another takes one round, but also uses up the lowest level spell slot available to the PC.  

See Zak’s notes on hengeyokai animal forms (no spellcasting in animal form, half hitpoints in animal form, regular animals shun you, etc.), those apply to the naga’s snake form.

They are unable to use armor and instead have a base AC which improves slightly over time (see table below).

At 3rd level they can breathe normally in water.
At 5th level, their bite in snake or hybrid form causes paralysis for 1d4 turns (save vs poison at +3 negates).

Upon their death, a naga’s spirit is automatically reincarnated elsewhere in the world; a PC cannot be brought back through raise dead, resurrect, or reincarnate.

Level Progression
From Zayplay Animation Studio
Hit Dice (1d6)
Armor Class


Class Level

Influenced by Dan Proctor's Sea Blood (Realms of Crawling Chaos), Chris's War-Bear, Zak's Hengeyokai (via Oriental Adventures), and Bruce Heard's Aranea

Friday, October 9, 2015

Teeth of the Hydra

Remember last post I said I had a personal announcement coming up?

Well, I figure I should note it here: I've officially joined the Hydra Cooperative as a partner. I'd been freelancing with the group earlier, and as such, helped edit the last release (Fever-Dreaming Marlinko). But now I'm an official partner rather than a merc. 

I'm glad to be working on fascinating projects with people who are not just insanely creative and talented, but also extremely good friends of mine, who I respect a hell of a lot.

Aside from editing work on the upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld, I've recently conducted two interviews over on the Hydra blog, with Hydra partners Trey Causey (who blogs at From The Sorcerer's Skull) and Anthony Picaro (Straits of Anian).

Keep your eyes peeled for our stuff, and check out our Tumblr if you're so inclined!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mister Morden's Question

A few days ago, Trey wrote about his preferences in play for gaming, after being instigated by known rabblerousers and troublemakers Jack and Paul. This looks like a neat exercise, so I figured I'd jump in.

So what do I want out of games, tone- and presentation-wise?

"What do you want?"
I like my characters to fall into the "mercenary heroism" box - they're trying to strike it big and succeed personally, but they're also willing to lend a hand and help out those in need. The convenient thing here is that this sort of character can mesh decently with the standard Vancian scoundrel that seems to serve as the baseline for OSR play. (A sidebar to this is that I also want there to be factions and groups who aren't wholly corrupt and awful; I want there to be someone, even flawed someones, I can root for and support.)

I enjoy a wide variety of tone in terms of what I play, but I strongly prefer running games with very high potential lethality. I try to leaven this a bit; I don't want to have a character meatgrinder situation, and I want to make sure players aren't feeling disheartened or frustrated with the game. There's something that's particularly compelling about the idea of the survival horror situation, with everyone desperately attempting to stay alive and the idea that nobody is safe, and I do gravitate towards that.

I crave weird unusual worlds with depth and internal coherence. I want games to feel like their settings are lived-in, that there are people present rather than Background NPCs.

I really love tense dungeon exploration. There's something special about creeping along at low level trying to make sure the next room, monster, trap, or whatever doesn't kill you - about frantically improvising something, anything, to jury-rig your way out of trouble. I'm perfectly happy with other environments, and do relish the chance to engage with NPCs in a city environment rather than the confines of the dungeon,, sneaking along. It's great.

I like roleplay and funny voices and having that roleplay drive the action, rather than loading that all onto the result of a Cha check or equivalent. I don't want that for every single interaction ("Holy crap you're going to be haggling over another cloak?") but for the major significant ones, I want the focus to be on the players and their creativity rather than the PC's stats.

ANYHOW. Watch this space; major announcement (for me) coming shortly, plus hopefully some more content and gaming ideas.