Friday, April 22, 2022

Returning to Krynn

WotC just dropped news that they'll be bringing back the AD+D 2e settings of Spelljammer and Dragonlance. You can read all about that over at EnWorld if you're so inclined. 

I never got into Spelljammer -- I missed a chance to pick up some of the old boxed sets for literal pennies, and I still kick myself for it -- but the concept still holds loads of intrinsic appeal to me. I don't feel like I've seen a satisfying treatment of naval play in a D+D framework yet, and I'm curious to see how WotC approaches it. (I suspect that their approach to voyages and space probably won't be one that quite scratches the yearnings I have, but seeing how they tackle it certainly isn't a bad thing.) 

But Dragonlance? Dragonlance was one of my main entrypoints into D+D. I started off with the superlative Return to Brookmere, certainly, but Dragonlance was one of the core lenses for my understanding of D&D in elementary and middle school (only getting displaced by the Forgotten Realms after I picked up Baldur's Gate). I went hard into the TSR novels as a kid, y'all. Even the clunkers. In some ways, it takes on the role that I think Greyhawk does for some of my friends - the intro setting that dominated a lot of our early gaming visions. 

In the light of my thirties, the Dragonlance of my youth seems excruciatingly twee in all of the Renn Faire ways that late AD+D could hit. But I think there are still some glimmerings of compelling ideas in the thousand-foot pitch, and hell, getting a trailer from Shohreh Aghdahloo goes a long way.

So instead of turning up my nose, I ask - what could a revision of the Dragonlance setup look like in a context that wouldn't make me balk? Here's my initial stab at it:

  • Under the Dark Fist*. The original Dragonlance books open with evil on the rise. The dragonarmies stand poised to roll over the continent of Krynn; they've got organization, divine backing, and a gazillion evil dragons all working to crush out the various points of opposition to Takhsis. I think that there's a lot of potential in having a setting where evil begins as being triumphant or in control, and players are placed in a framework of organizing and leading resistance. It works quite well for Star Wars, after all. (For a fantasy context, see FFG's 'Midnight' setting for 3e, or the Black Company books, for other examples of the evil overlord having won as the starting point.)

  • Apocalypse Then / When In Rome... Others have written about the post-apocalyptic nature of AD+D, but Krynn very much seeks to foreground it -- theoretically, at least. At the start of the War of the Lance, Krynn is still making its way out of the big old world-wrecking Cataclysm. In the original Dragonlance materials, the main ways this was showcased were the absence of the gods and their associated cleric-y/paladin-y powers, the physical wreckage of the continent, steel coins instead of gold, and Lord Soth the death knight (Dragonlance's own Darth Vader). These feel a bit underwhelming, honestly, and I find myself of two minds about how to reframe this part of the setting. On the one hand, I'd like to see more treatment of overcoming scarcity and cultural adaptation to their surroundings, taking an apocalypse's effects seriously. On the other hand, there's definitely more than a little Rome in the presentation of Istar, and now I'm curious about how a treatment of post-Cataclysm Krynn informed by more recent scholarship and discussion about post-Roman Europe would turn out. (Solamnia as the cultural equivalent of Byzantium...?)

    The Doom Brigade
    Margaret Weis & Don Perrin
  • We Are More Than Our Past. D+D has been struggling with the 'hard-coded biological alignment' for a while. Dragonlance is somewhat infamous for the magically mandated obnoxiousness of the kender, gully dwarves, and gnomes, along with the standard goblins and hobgoblins being always evil cannon fodder, so it might seem like this setting would be likely to continue putting its foot in it. All that said, Krynn might actually be a pretty good setting for seriously wrestling with this, if folks wanted to put the time in. I remember seeing the pitch for The Doom Brigade as a kid and being curious -- how would former bio-engineered soldiers of the evil overlord be presented as sympathetic protagonists? What's more, some of the major pieces of the setting are all about beings long dismissed as "evil" breaking past societal and/or divine hierarchy treatment and doing good - the red dragon Flamestrike striking down the villain of the first book because of his threats to children, Raistlin's soft spot for the downtrodden and oppressed, and even the nonsensical Green Gemstone Man trying to fix his original sin and serving as deus machinae prohibitus. (Please don't ask me exactly how little of that I had to look up.) 

    In practice, I see this as an opportunity for D+D to explicitly push back against some of the missteps of the past, and of Dragonlance in particular. In the specific context of Dragonlance, this might look like less focus on good and evil as specific cosmic teams with their own bioengineered servitor races (elves and metal dragons for Team Good, minotaurs and chromatic dragons for Team Evil) and more on individual choices and sway. 

  • Si vis ludem, para bellum. Dragonlance is a setting designed around grand sweeping conflicts (not to mention dragon dogfights and flying citadels). It makes sense that a modern treatment of DL would feature some serious thought of how to meaningfully integrate that sort of conflict into the standard scope of play. It's no surprise that my thoughts turn to wargame integration at the drop of a hat, but it seems WotC is at least looking in that direction as well, with a planned mass combat system ("Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn") to be released.
Those are my initial thoughts. I don't know that writing this all out makes me motivated to go out and run something in Krynn just yet, but I'm thinking about what might do that. Certainly I'd give it a go if I could get Shohreh Aghdahloo voiceovers...

* Sorry-not-sorry. It's far too good a title to leave languishing as a Spelljammer module.  

Friday, March 4, 2022

Protecting Our Spaces: A Response to Raggi

 Somewhere in the 2009-2011 range, when I was just discovering the OSR scene, I ran across a retroclone which stuck out to me and zoomed up into my favorites for quite some time. In contrast to most of the other rulesets I had seen at the time, it had a lot of referee advice -- and it had safety tools

No, seriously! They were perhaps a bit rudimentary compared to the codified tools that are out there today, but I didn't see many other rulesets (OSR or otherwise) including quotes like "The Referee shall realize that Rule 0 is for the purpose of establishing the desired atmosphere for his campaign, and not as an excuse to abuse players or a license to be a despot at the game table… The Referee’s role is to challenge players, not victimize them." or "Know your players. Communicate outside of the game, and find where the limits lie. Your job as Referee is not to shock, scare, scandalize, or assault the senses. Respect for the real person sitting before you playing the game comes before any idea for the game you actually have." (emphasis added)

The ruleset, of course/ironically enough, was the original Referee Book for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 

LotFP Referee Book cover

LotFP has, uh, gone some directions since those days, to say the least. Raggi's outlook seems to have gone from "good art may sometimes be transgressive" to "if it's transgressive, it must be good art!" For years, I've had LotFP in its various channels muted, while I try to do my own thing. But a friend recently tagged me in a FB post of Raggi's, and I felt the need to respond. 

Raggi writes (FB):

Let me give all the people who hate me more and more reason to do so, because why the fuck not at this point:

People in my industry always seem to be shocked and horrified and "oh how can this happen here?" because Varg Vikernes is a tabletop RPG publisher. 

Well... every single store I buy metal from (not including label-specific webstores or individual band storefronts of course), from Amazon (and when I buy Amazon, I buy from Amazon Germany) down to my local record store chain, carries Burzum. He's also distributed on Youtube by a Sony subsidiary.

Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal. You have a popular (give or take at any particular moment) subgenre that attracts all sorts of people, and when something attracts all sorts of people, that means ALL SORTS of people.

And Varg (and a decent number of his contemporaries) has quite obviously been a tabletop RPGer for all that time before becoming a publisher, and somehow RPGs made it through the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s without being taken over by his type of thinking, and the 2020s will be fine as well.

This wouldn't be a thing to remark about, except there are people who think that there should be a just-so uniform way of thinking in the tabletop RPG world, and if you don't sign on to that thinking (or *gasp* you even disagree with it) then people either think that's opening the gates to the Varg types to take over, and/or want to try to associate you with Varg and/or his thinking to try to isolate you and drive you out.

Funny thing is, to me, it is their behavior that I associate with Varg's sort of thinking.

Ancestry doesn't make you a better or worse person. And people of different ancestries are all over the place and they aren't going back where they came from and "they" are not going to leave "your" women alone (because the "they" and "your" do not actually exist, and both the "they" and the women know this). You have to live with them, you are never going to "cleanse" the gene pool, so get the fuck over yourselves, racists.

Similarly, you're not going to purify the thinking pool. People will think differently and prefer different creative expressions and they're not going to go away or conform to what you think is the "right" way to create or express any more than you're going to conform with theirs. You have to live with them, so get the fuck over yourselves, conformist censors.

Well, I don't hate Raggi. But this post is bullshit

Well, that second-to-last paragraph calling out Varg's racism isn't too bad, and the comparison between the OSR and metal is actually pretty apt on multiple levels. (But that's not nearly as much of a vindication for Raggi as he thinks.) 

"Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal." 

Good people and good creations exist within metal, no question about it. But the presence of shitheels within the scene absolutely makes it harder for marginalized folks to exist within the scene, either as fans enjoying it, or as musicians creating their own work. It also serves as a deterrent from people getting into metal.

Similarly, the presence of shitheels within the OSR scene - and folks who normalize their presence - makes it harder for marginalized folks to enjoy it, either as fans or as creators. Let's go back to that LotFP Referee book for a second. Here's another quote, from the section on organizing a group: "If someone is homophobic or racist or sexist, you want to find that out before exposing a group of strangers (who may include women, gays, or ethnic minorities) to them – that will kill a group before it gets started."

Past-Raggi was right - having a poisonous person in the group will absolutely kill a group and cause it to collapse, and rightly so. Because people will conclude two things:

1) This group isn't safe for marginalized people, because of the presence of the shitheel in question. 

2) The person organizing the group thought that it was worthwhile to bring the shitheel along. 

Even if the shitheel in question leaves or is booted out, there may still be lingering questions about the organizer's decision-making and judgment. Marginalized folks will continue to wonder if the group is a safe place to be, because clearly the organizer didn't think this person was a problem when putting the group together in the first place.

Now think about those dynamics in a creative scene. It's not a 1:1 correlation, of course - there's no single central organizer or leader that folks can point to, no single Arbiter of Metal (or OSR) to control group composition and membership. But people do notice when there are toxic folks in a community, and it starts to become known for that.

I don't have the capacity to stop Varg (or Venger, or RPGPundit, or whatever shitheel of the week) from creating metal or gaming stuff. But I can absolutely protest and call out their grossness, and actively work to create proudly inclusive and welcoming materials. Because when people in a scene treat the shitheels as 'just another creator' who we have to all get along with? Marginalized folks will conclude (and rightly so!) that the scene in question isn't likely to have their backs. 

There is a distinction to be made here, though, between pushing back against abhorrent folks and launching purity tests. I don’t want everyone thinking the same way in a scene! Not every disagreement is something worth booting people out for. There has to be room for people to be wrong and maybe change their mind over time, and sometimes a tiresome Hot Take is just a tiresome Hot Take. But there’s a distinction to be made between someone being wrong, and someone making statements (or taking action!) to harm others.

Kim Kelly is a metal critic/labor rights journalist. Here’s an excerpt from a great piece of hers: There's No Room In Metal for Racists, Abusers, and Bigots. The translation and application of the principles espoused to, say, other scenes is left as an exercise for the reader.

To be perfectly honest with you all, I personally feel that, as metal fans, the practice of separating the art from the artist is no longer a luxury that we can in good conscience afford ourselves... Is buying a bigot or an abuser’s new album or going to see them play a show the same as participating in wide-scale ethnic cleansing? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. However, is tacitly (or explicitly) supporting the violent ideologies they espouse, materially or otherwise, a dangerous, inhumane, shameful thing? Yes. Does purposefully ignoring or waving away the import of politics in art make you a coward? Also yes. Now is not the time to hand out hall passes because of fucking riffs...

It would be silly for me to write all this without acknowledging metal’s long history of creating space for and supporting the actions of bigots, abusers, and other scum. Some of our most cherished folktales center on violence and hate, and many rotten people have made indelible marks on the genre, from Varg Vikernes to that racist ding-dong from Malevolent Creation. For black metal fans, this is a particularly acute issue, as some of our most lionized figures are fucking terrible people—or at the very least, people who have done fucking terrible things.

This is something I’ve dealt with personally for years now, as my politics have evolved and I’ve worked to figure out my view on the world....We all fuck up sometimes—the most important thing is how we clean up the mess afterwards.

So how do we do that? There’s no one answer, and even though I know where I stand, it took me a long time to figure that out, and I’m still actively working on it (and still dealing with my mistakes). It comes down to personal responsibility, and your own politics, and your own level of willingness to engage with, and interrogate, and sometimes abandon the things you love in pursuit of greater understanding, and lesser harm...

There are a lot of metal bands in the world; asking yourself, “are these riffs really worth it?” is a small step, but a crucial one.

It starts with us. It starts with you.

That old Referee book is actually not too bad, on a reread. But where Raggi’s at these days? That’s not a position I can support. Calling out and vigorously criticizing those who would contribute to marginalizing others is crucial for our, or any, scene. Because that’s how you make sure that you actually keep as diverse and broad a scene as possible, with as many different perspectives and interesting ideas as you can: by making it safe for the most vulnerable. 

It starts with you. It starts with us. 

Metal, elfgames, and "defiantly anti-fascist":
Bolt Thrower has it all!

Further Reading:

Metal’s Inclusive Future Looks Like a Zeal & Ardor Show:

The thought that I keep coming back to this week is that representation matters so, so much—especially in a scene like this, where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry remain rampant, and any scrap of progress is still looked at askance by gatekeepers or shouted down by reactionaries.

Back when I was a teenager, I’d go to shows and look out for other girls and women. In my 20s, as I got older and grew into a more informed, intersectional perspective, I’d look out for other marginalized people, especially those who reflected my own experience as a physically disabled person. Walking into a place and seeing a face that looks like yours is an immediate relief, whether it’s a bank or a job interview or a black metal show. For me, it came via those first early crowd scans, when I’d light upon another girl in a Morbid Angel shirt standing across the room, and feel my heart swell.

Later, it came in seeing women like Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow or Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench onstage, in seeing Liz Ciavarella-Brenner edit Metal Maniacs, in reading Jeanne Fury and Zena Tsarfin’s work in magazines, and in working with Paula Hogan at Candlelight Records. Since then, a lot has changed for the better, but those early role models and fellow fans gave me the reassurance I needed that I did belong there; it gave me permission to be who I was, to be a metalhead sans caveat.

Fuck Nazi Metal Sympathy:

"Barnes explained his justification to allow known fascists to play the venue he personally owns in familiar terms. “You get put in a no-win situation in whatever you do here,” he told “Being an owner of the club you look at it as freedom of speech. When does the censorship issue come in and where does it escalate from here?” Because apparently, the Founding Fathers were extremely concerned with the future “right” for some subpar black metal jagoffs to be paid to play in front of a paying audience in a privately-held venue. By now, “free speech” has become a right-wing dog-whistle for “I want to be an asshole without suffering any consequences for my actions,” so that seems to cover his view here quite nicely."

What Covering Heavy Metal Taught Me About Spotting Nazis (aka the social-media-review dance that I, and others, find ourselves doing when checking out previously unknown OSR folks)

By combing through album lyrics, parsing interviews, and inspecting tattoos, journalists covering black metal—and even casual fans—become adept at rooting out bigotry. Doing so has, by now, become a conscious part of the wider black-metal experience: for leftist fans, a familiar ritual involves poring methodically through all available information to decipher an exciting new band’s political position. It’s kind of like playing a heavy metal version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except the locus is invariably a Polish neo-Nazi or racist death metal guy from Florida, and winning is really losing. The thrill of discovering a killer new record is attended, always, by anticipation as you scour the lyrics and artwork and member lists and touring history—and then, all too often, you discover that (dammit!) the guitarist has a racist side project, or their label has released anti-Semitic material. But metal is too good for Nazis. Surveilling black-metal artists’ activities and exposing any associations with violent far-right networks is a means of defending a community I hold dear.

Why I Booked An Anti-Fascist Metal Festival:

Metal and its acolytes have many sins to answer for—but that shouldn’t overshadow all the brilliance, positivity, and joy that this genre and its culture have brought to millions of people around the world. Sometimes we forget to see the forest for the trees, and that the vast majority of metalheads are good, caring people who want to listen to their favorite music without having to worry that they’re enabling poisonous genocidal rhetoric.

I also think that it’s very easy to get caught up in the constant, punishing feedback loop of rediscovering over and over (and over…) that racists, neo-Nazis, bigots, abusers, and other trash people walk amongst us when we’re at a show, or in a record shop, or just trying to walk down the fucking street. Burnout is real, and I understand why some metal folk would rather just ignore the whole thing and burrow into their record collections. I used to be the same way when I was younger and more blind to my privilege (and as a result, made some mistakes in terms of supporting or covering bands that now I’d never touch); however, as I’ve grown up and become more politically active, I’ve realized that—for me, at least—that approach is just not going to cut it anymore. Zero tolerance is the only approach that makes sense when it comes to cleaning up our scene, and it’s been incredible to witness more and more metalheads standing up to say as much, online and in song.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Darkness Strewn with Gems: Session Recaps, LotB Campaign

After many years, I've finally gotten my brains together enough to start running a Legacy of the Bieth campaign again. It's brief spurts -- 2-3 hours over Discord -- but I need to bite off small chunks to get my head in the game (and make sure I'm adapting properly to the schedule). 

I'm adapting Gus L's Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier as the introductory dungeon. TRCF does a really good job at tapping into some of the Roadside Picnic-meets-spaghetti-western feel that I've craved over the years. I've had to use a bit of elbow grease to make details fit with my own setting, but of course that's going to be the case with any module! The core ruleset is currently a modification of  "Savage World of Krul," created by Hydra Coop colleague Robert Parker. 

The game is drop-in/drop-out, so not all the players are expected to be in a single session. (The conceit of TRCF, which starts players with a preexisting expedition to join, helps a lot with this framing.) The current roster of PCs:

  • Rahat al-Qamar, charming ex-street brat (warrior)
  • Tizemt, caravan guard turned adventurer (warrior)
  • Kifli, mercenary guard (warrior)
  • Fadhil Barwari, poet-assassin (warrior)
  • Izohr, distracted academic (magic-user)
  • Wali, mercenary guard (magic-user)
  • Dassin al-Kahina, nimble marabout (warrior)
Incapacitated PCs:
  • Nikoloz, magus from the steppes (magic-user)
  • Azod, phlegmatic merchant (warrior)
    The Adventure So Far...

    Saleema the Sparrow
    "Yellow Elf" by Uzlolzu
    The players were hired on as specialists by Saleema the Sparrow, a fixer based in the city of Maaqil. Saleema, a specialist in delving into Bieth ruins, had discovered a major find that a rival fixer, Murtaza, had been excitedly crowing about before his (assumed) demise, and wanted to put together a crew to investigate the site. She offered them a deal: conduct an initial survey of the site and bring her whatever valuables they find, in exchange for 500 dinars. She'd provide the expeditionary support, supplies, and the method for getting into the find. If the players wished to continue past the initial survey, they could keep any not-readily-salable artifacts they found. 

    (A bit of a railroady start -- not something I like generally! -- but I needed an easy pitch to get myself started running the game and not just thinking about how to run the game. TRCF offers a good setup for this, which is part of why I went with it as a starting spot. The initial caravan also has a nebulously sized group of hirelings, who can serve as convenient PC replacements if any of the PCs bites it or is otherwise incapacitated. Alas for the fragility of first level!)

    The group headed southwest out of Maaqil, away from the fertile river valley and into the wastes - not quite the deep desert or the twisted regions of the Zone, but bad enough. Around midday, the group noticed that Wali, the hireling who was taking point, seemed to be stumbling, drifting off course, and non-responsive. When the group investigated, they found that a strange honey-and-lemon taste filled their mouths. Those who were closely investigating were drawn off-course in the same direction as Wali, unable to step back or move away from an otherwise unremarkable patch of land. Those remaining further behind were able to lasso Wali and the others, drawing them away...but after they were secured, Nikoloz the wizard wanted to investigate the phenomenon more closely. Moving towards the strange taste, Nikoloz found himself unable to break away...and instead chose to run full-tilt towards the phenomenon. The remaining group saw him dash forward briefly, then thud flat onto his back and lie completely still. Lassoing him away and pulling him further back, the group found Nikoloz completely insensate. When he recovered consciousness, the wizard repeatedly attempted to dash right back towards the strange patch of land, remaining otherwise nonresponsive. The group managed to tie the wizard up and prevent him from dashing back to the site. 

    Maaqil at 04, 03; Oasis at 02, 04
    Delve Site at 02, 05
    Wali's diversion had pulled the group off-course, and they had to alter their route in order to get back towards their goal. As the group approached a nearby valley (housing the Spinetooth Oasis, source of some renowned purple flowers used for some of the most sought-after intoxicants in Maaqil), they came upon a massive fissure opening near the cliff face. Two of the group heard strange whispers coming from the fissure, one with tidings of encouragement and one with a warning about strange owls. Moving closer to the fissure, the group were startled to see three gaseous, vaguely humanoid forms rocket out of the fissure, crackling with energy, then streak towards the party. As the group retreated post-haste, Rahat, the closest of the party towards the three forms, flinched as they flew left, right, and overhead, bracketing him. As they loomed close, he heard a raspy whisper, "Congratulations, mortal - you have been visited by the jinn this day," before the three forms reversed course and flew back into the fissure. 

    "Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier"
    Gus L

    After clambering down the cliff face and skirting Spinetooth Oasis, the group took about another day's journey to reach Murtaza's delve site. In the midst of the desert, a large impact crater was visible, with vast irregular spires of purple crystal jutting out into the sky -- their position indicating that much of the structure was likely beneath the surface as well. Approaching, they discovered that some of the crystals bore carvings and architectural ornamentation, that a ragged pathway had been smashed in through some of the crystal and covered with some canvas, and that another potential entrance was visible. Saleema advised them that the smashed pathway was "typical Murtaza slop" and that they should sit tight while Faiza, her gemcutter specialist, opened a safer entryway (the dust from improperly broken crystals can lead to an incurable progressive disease). 

    As the gemcutter prepared her work, Wali and Fadhil investigated the architectural ornamentations, and found two concentric circles with strange glyphs on them. Wali's read magic spell revealed the cryptic message:
    "Praise to the Ascended Regent! Praise to his line! He has cast down those who opposed his reign and scattered their hosts. The winds howl over their bones. Their servants rend their garments, and their steeds have spilt their red blood. He was a warlord during the time of <unintelligible> and a warlord during the time of <unintelligible>. The High One used to cause him to descend to the sacred bark, that he might perform escort duty, that he might come to the ways, and that his gifts be made as though he were a prince, while the like was not done for any equal of his. Now this palace is his. Now and forever."

    The inner inscription read: "My body fails and my hands grow weak. But my spirit does not yield. I am a wall which comes out of a wall. My mouth is strong, and I am equipped against the right eye of the sky and the left eye of the sky. Let them not have dominion over me. I am master of my throne. I advance of this season. I have opened a path."
    Handling blooderfly eyes isn't quite
    dealing with a warp core, but still...
    (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
    As the group settled in for the night to await the completion of Faiza's work, the second watch heard the beating of vast wings approaching the camp. A colossal crystal butterfly was swooping towards the group. As the party scrambled to alert the camp and form a defensive posture, the behemoth turned its gaze towards one of the hirelings. A torrent of blood burst forth from the man's orifices and surged into the still-flying butterfly, turning its previously clear wings slightly pink. Horrified, the group volleyed spears (and bullets from Fadhil's matchlock) into the beast, finally bringing it down. The wizard Izohr instructed his two apprentices to go retrieve wingscales and the still-glowing eyes of the creature, but was stymied when the apprentice Anokalis screamed in pain, suffering significant burns from his attempt at removing the butterfly's eyes. 

    The next day, Faiza completed her preparations and was able to carefully shatter some of the crystals, revealing an entry into the depths of the crystal structure. Saleema, Faiza, and the rest of the carvan hirelings would maintain a base camp up above, while the party would enter the crystals and conduct an initial mapping survey. The group descended into a small round antechamber with two exits, where smaller crystals were slowly forming around the exterior. The group attempted to carefully pick their way past the small crystals towards one of the exits, but the warrior Tizemt missed her footing slightly and trod on some of the growing crystals, sending up a cloud of the feared crystal dust. The group surged forward towards the exit, barely making it away from the dust in time. Moving forward, Fadhil the assassin-poet peered into the room ahead andits strange shadows, and was seized with visions of the crystal complex in the past. The group retreated to the antechamber, where Tizemt managed to step in the same patch of crystals again, prompting the group to flee to safety a second time.

    The next day, Fadhil, Wali, and Azod gathered their strength for another delve into the structure. Proceeding towards the unexplored (and less crystal-festooned) exit, they found two doors engraved with strange scenes. One door swung open readily and revealed blackness beyond, while the other was wrenched open, making an awful shriek. As the group observed the path beyond the second door, a sound like metal tearing echoed down the hallway towards them. Sensing some movement in the area beyond their light, Fadhil fired his matchlock blindly -- only for the group to be extremely surprised when his bullet found its mark. A small rubbery humanoid creature, its body a shade of verdigris, lay in the hallway beyond.

    Azod the trader - art by his player
    Brother Juniper
    Pressing onwards, the group found a dead end with three bundles wrapped in canvas and a wall festooned with packs, saddlebags, and the like. Suspicious, the trio prodded the canvas bundles, and were alarmed but unsurprised to see the bundles writhe and rotting, crystal-infused hands ripping their way out of the wrappings. The undead monstrosities demanded to know who the group were, but wasted precious little time in badinage before attempting to maul the trio. Fadhil, Wali, and Azod struck back, and in short order the three undead were struck down. Azod lopped off the heads of two of the three monstrosities. Investigating the bodies and the packs, the group found a great deal of mundane equipment (which they seized for the expedition's general usage), an impressively fashionable cloak styled after a manta ray, an unworked crystal emitting a pale orange glow, and a shamshir and animal-tooth necklace on the central undead. As they worked to stow the newly acquired loot, they heard skittering noises flicking down the hallway towards them. Adopting a defensive posture, the trio saw a swarm of five or six glass spiders rushing towards them, eager to attack this new prey.

    Azod was bitten by one of the glass spiders, a grotesquely warm venom pumped into his veins -- but between his slicing, Fadhil's stabbing, and a well-placed flask of burning oil from Wali, the group managed to eliminate most of the arachnid assailants. As they sighed in triumph, however, Azod looked queasy and toppled to the ground. His comrades confirmed that he was still breathing, but he was clearly out for the count. Sighing, the two dragged the doughty merchant-marauder back to the camp, where it was determined that he'd be in recovery for over a week. Once they had returned to the basecamp, Saleema was able to confirm, with a smug grin, that the shamshir and animal-tooth necklace were certainly those of Murtaza, the fixer who had first attempted to claim the spires. 

    The next day, the group essayed one of the side tunnels they had bypassed earlier, encountering a mess of crystals that began ringing if touched or interacted with. As the ringing escalated from "painfully loud" to "blood dripping from nostrils and ears," the group beat a hasty retreat. Venturing to the door with blackness beyond, the group found that the darkness contained a large chasm...festooned with more undead bearing shards of crystal within their flesh. Dassin the marabout dared to pole-vault from the narrow ledge the group stood on over to another ledge farther out, but discovered that there did not seem to be a ready path to the other side. 

    This is summarizing like six or seven sessions, and I've been delaying putting this up for a while, so some bits may have been elided over. Hopefully future session recaps will be easier and quicker to get together!

    Next steps on a campaign level, after this dungeon exploration concludes, include revising and tweaking the PHB rules and presenting the urban neighborhood notes I've been working on -- with Evlyn M art! -- coming soon.

    Treasure and XP:

    From Blooderfly -- scales from the wings were recovered. (Izohr's apprentice was unable to recover the creature's eye before suffering his strange burns.) 

    115 XP each for Rahat, Tizemt, Fadhil, Azod, Izohr, and Wali

    From Murtaza's Expedition -- orange-glowing occulith stone worth 1,000 dinars, along with: 22 dinars, in mixed currency, 6 daggers, 100’ rope, 4 bundles of torches, a lantern, 12  flasks of oil, a crowbar, 8 iron spikes, a mallet, 4 cloaks (one of which was a very cool-looking manta-styled cloak), and a set of thieves’ tools including lockpicks, lubrication oil, and flash powder). Murtaza himself had an impressive-looking shamshir, gold-and-animal-tooth necklace (200 dinars). Creatures slain: 2 crystal zombies, 1 crystal wight (Murtaza), 1 rubbery verdigris...thing..., and 6 glass spiders.

    444 XP each for Fadhil, Azod, and Wali

    Wednesday, April 28, 2021

    Productive Scab-picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming

    Preamble -- On Helicopters and Hugos:

    Last year, an author named Isabel Fall wrote an amazing milSF story in Clarkesworld magazine, now titled "Helicopter Story," but previously "I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter."

     Fall took a ugly transphobic 'joke' and turned it into an amazing, provocative, and thoughtful story. She also suffered a great deal because of it. People reacted badly to the title - which makes sense, given the incredibly hurtful associations the phrase has. Unfortunately, this also led to Fall receiving a lot of harassment herself. She pulled the story from Clarkesworld about two weeks after it dropped, and was also forced to out herself as being trans, in part of responding to the accusations of transphobia leveled at her.

    Helicopter Story is not currently available online anymore, but if that changes, I'll edit in a link here. It recently became a Hugo finalist for best Novelette. (Disclosure here: I'm one of the people who nominated it, and I'm really happy that it's up for a Hugo.)

    * * *

    Fall's Hugo nomination generated a Twitter thread here from Elizabeth Sandifer: 

    One thing that I don’t think has been discussed enough around Isabel Fall or in general is that there are two diametrically opposed visions of how to write queer literature. Let’s call them hugboxing and scab-picking, and do a quick thread...

    The basic divide between hugboxing and scab-picking comes in how they engage with queer oppression. Hugboxing imagines its absence, creating safer, better worlds. Scab-picking probes its wounds in deliberately painful and uncomfortable ways. 

    This got me thinking about the way that this is treated in the games we create and play. Sandifer's discussion of hugboxing and scab-picking (loaded terms! but ones I'm going to continue with for now) is centered in queer literature, but I think that the two poles have resonance for treatment of other axes of oppression (racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism for example). In games, it's a bit trickier than the binary state that Sandifer proposes -- instead of a single creation being put forth to be taken on its own merits (with an audience able to take or leave it as desired), you're dealing with a shared group interaction, often iterated over multiple instances. People's thresholds and goals are going to vary, both between people and sometimes within the same person from session to session.

    I think I fall on the scab-picking side of the spectrum, by and large - but I reiterate that it's a spectrum, and that operating on one side doesn't mean that the other doesn't have very valid outlook and uses. The gaming projects I'm most proud of (Lorn Song of the Bachelor and the forthcoming Haunted West adventure "Home is the Hangman") both fall on the scab-picking side regarding colonialism and racism...but I've veered away from the most recent editions of Paranoia, a game I have significant history with, in part because the decision to rebrand Alpha Complex's enemy du jour from "Communists" to "terrorists" felt a bit too on-the-nose for me, given what it felt like going through high school post 9/11. Everyone's got a different line that they will draw.

    * * *

    First, some perspectives from other thoughtful folks regarding the valid role of presenting oppression in a gaming context.

    Another Twitter thread here from Chris Kutalik (creator of the Hill Cantons and my longtime GM): 

    @ChrisKutalik: I sympathize with the motivation, the need for a clean bright shiny place for our brains to go when we roll weird shaped dice. One that doesn’t have women treated as chattel and the layers of racist projection...

     But I also think it’s an ironically reactionary impulse, the need to project heroism and romanticized ideals of stabbing living things with sharp things...I do draw the world of the Hill Cantons in a society I wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—want to live in. A rich one (I hope) with the pervasive weirdness, ugliness that the European medieval world was along with a more complicated society than many give it credit for.

    And this discussion from Pam Punzalan (TheDovetailor) and TrooperSJP (Academic Foxhole):

    @TheDoveTailor: The Philippines was colonized four times, and has a long history of trans-cultural exchange with upwards of three nations via trade prior to the Spanish coming around. If you're saying we should not deal with colonialism in our stories, you're telling us we have no story.

    @AcademicFoxhole: Everytime I hear: No POC wants to read about racism I think: Toni Morrison? Everytime I hear: No woman wants to read about sexual assault I think: Margaret Atwood? No Queer person wants to read about homophobia? Quentin Crisp? There is power in being able to define my own story.

    And of course, Zedeck Siew's thread here:

    @ZedeckSiew: Firstly: "D&D is colonialist" is similar to "the English language is colonialist".

    If your method of decolonising RPGs is to abandon D&D- some folks abandon English; they don't want to work in the language of the coloniser. More power to them!

    ...[I]t's an error to "decolonise D&D" by scrubbing such content from the game. That feels like erasure; like an unwillingness to face history / context; like a way to appease one's own settler guilt. Remember: if you -white or PoC- live in the West, or in an Asian urban centre (say), you are already complicit in colonialist / capitalist (they are inextricably linked) behaviour.

    Removing such stuff from RPGs might let you feel better. But won't change what you are. 

    I think it more truthful *and* more useful, to not avert one's eyes from D&D's colonialism.

    The fact that going forth into the hinterland to seek treasure and slay monsters is a thing and *fucking fun* tells us valuable things about the shape and psychology of colonialism.  

    Finally, a quote from Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound:

    Harlem Unbound is built on the concept of tackling issues head-on. Some say Lovecraft was 'of his time,' but we know that his racism was even worse than that... So what does the popularity of his work, built on racism, say about our current society? And, how do you address the popular work which is so tethered to his reprehensible world view? We can't change the past, but we can tear it down and rebuild it into something that focuses on bringing us together. This can only be done by facing ugly truths. 

    * * *

    So. How do we, as creators, responsibly deal with and tackle those ugly truths Chris mentions? How does one pick at those scabs in a productive manner? A few of my takes:

    1. Stay Fluid

    As mentioned, people's thresholds and goals re: the level of oppression that they are willing to deal with in gaming are likely to fluctuate. Sure, one can have a Session Zero where some baselines are hashed out, but those can change on even a session-by-session basis. The real-life people around the table come first, and sometimes that means further check-ins or even rerouting session plans because of a spike in player discomfort. Make space for that, and make space for people to voice discomfort.

    "The Feral Shore" - section of the HC campaign
    where this story went down
    Personal example: I had a really bad time with a Hill Cantons game session a few years back, triggered by one player's actions in particular but rooted in discomfort with some of the colonialist facets of play that were being brought to the fore. It's not a thing I would have thought to flag when joining the campaign or even when the domain-game-heavy phase of play began, and I didn't realize how uncomfortable I was feeling or why until I had some time to unpack it afterwards. This led to some tough-but-clear conversations over G+ regarding what each of us was willing to play through and deal with at the table, and how we, as a group, felt comfortable progressing. The individual session was rough, but ultimately led to a better perspective on where we were at as a group. 

    Folks may move from being down to pick at scabs to needing to strongly divert away, and back again. Listen to where they're at, and try to accommodate. What that accommodation looks like may vary! If you as GM are preparing a heavy scab-picking session and a player needs something more hugboxy (or vice versa), maybe change the dynamics of the session...OR hold off on the session for a while, or maybe change the player composition for the session so that both parties can get the gaming experience they're seeking. There's no one right answer here, and the answer definitely isn't always "change your intended work." 

    Using safety tools may help for this, but those are generally something for after things have gone sideways, not a replacement for fluidity in terms of game approach. Further, not all safety tools are going to match with all tables. Just saying "oh, we have these tools, we're fine" isn't enough; you've got to think about these things before problems occur at the table.

    2. Work with Intentionality

    "Broken Blade," Evlyn Moreau
    One of the critiques often levelled at works reproducing systems of oppression is that it's all fictional - so why include these elements that serve to remind folks of real-world oppression? I think there's certainly some truth to this; our imagined worlds aren't limited by the scars of history, and don't need to go down those paths and recreate those pains in-game. But if one wants to engage with those issues in game, then they are going to have to come up in some form. 

    So, if you're going to bring in those elements of oppression into your setting or your game, fine -- but make a deliberate choice to do so. Think about the implications on a societal level, and what dealing with those means for players. Have some thought beyond "oh, things were bad in (Renn Faire Fantasy Times), let's put it in that way, it'll add atmosphere." You're making a conscious choice to include this material in your setting. Is it being presented in a meaningful way? Is there personal experience that you're able to draw on when including this material? 

    3. Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

    Are you creating material for your home table, or planning on publishing this for others to interact with? If you're tackling material that's outside of your personal experience, have you thought about how you're going to make sure you don't hit some of the pitfalls associated with that? If you're planning on publishing something that's centering on experience outside of your own, are you the right person to be tackling this work? 

    And even if you're just focusing on something for your home table, are you sure that your crew is on board with the material you're bringing in? If you can, try to touch base beforehand and make sure folks are on the same page. 

    4. Take Your Lumps -- But Know Who's Talking

    If you're going to put issues of oppression in your work, you have to be willing to listen, sincerely listen, if and when folks call you out about the treatment of a given issue. And this is hard! It's even harder if someone calls you out in an angry fashion, because it can feel like they're coming after you and your work personally. 

    If someone's calling you out? Try to listen. Because that's often someone who legitimately wants to see you do better. And even if you don't agree with their takeaway and you still think you did it right, you might have a better feel for how you want to handle a similar issue in the future. But at the same time, also pay attention to who's critiquing you, and the substance of those critiques. Most are going to be in good faith, but there are folks who thrive on call-outs for Internet clout.* Listen to what people are saying, but don't assume that they're automatically correct. 

    Fall's example is on point here. Many of the critiques she faced were good-faith critiques, understandably on edge from the (original) title and the red flags that it raised for people. Some critiques went a hell of a lot further than that. I think that while the critiques may have been made in good faith, the story was legitimate and should not have been pulled; she was right to pen it and publish it. 

    * * *

    These are not easy things to do. But I think they are necessary if we're going to create thoughtfully. It can feel like a lot - particularly when the context for folks reading this is likely far more towards "RPG as fun group problem-solving game" instead of "RPG as deep raw emotional catharsis" or "RPG as art piece." 

    At the same time, I think that even games focused on the fun problem-solving side of things have the potential to tackle painful material in a thoughtful way, whether it's in a satirical or direct format. We can walk and chew gum at the same time here. If the fictional worlds we're envisioning are to have axes of oppression within them, then the least we can do is put time and effort into making sure those worlds are thoughtful and deliberate, that the scab-picking is productive. One of the strengths of the people I hang with has long been the compelling and fascinating settings that folks have put together. I see this as just taking the next logical, necessary step. 

    Y'all with me?

    (Special thanks to Yoshi and Momatoes for providing feedback on this post.)

    *Call-outs can be necessary sometimes! But they can also be a pernicious thing, because you feel like you're doing the righteous thing and you're getting positive attention and reinforcement. If you're going to call someone out on bad behavior, think about it, make sure you know why you're doing it, and make sure you're centering the folks actually harmed by the bad behavior. I've tried to keep this framework in mind, and I think I've done a decent job on this front? But it can be tricky. 

    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Landsknecht Link Round Up, 2021

    While I try to put together two actual posts of my own, here are a few recent(ish) OSR blog posts that I thought were interesting/compelling, and a little bit about why I thought that they were worth checking out.

    • All Dead Generations: So You Want To Build a Dungeon: This is a series of tips on how to construct the epitome of the Classic Dungeon Crawl, with discussion on some major features that designers ought to consider. Gus has been thoughtfully discussing some of the components in this process for a while, but it's nice to see a one-stop codified "best practices and design tips" location. I'm definitely going to be checking this out when working on my next dungeon.

    • Realm of Zhu: Some Ludological Influences on the early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons Etc.: Hopping into the Jon Petersen Playing At The World/The Elusive Shift zone of assessing influences on proto-D&D, Zhu looks at the influence of Tony Bath-style wargames and the board game Mastermind. I've been interested in the Tony Bath school of play for a while, ever since Hill Cantons blogged about it a while back, but I hadn't expected the connections that Zhu is drawing re: Mastermind. My preference in selecting these blog entries is generally more towards "building forward" than retrospectives, but I think that this entry is worthwhile because it generates some fruitful questions: are there still useful tools to be gleaned from the wargaming side of things? Are there changes in game design on the adversarial boardgame side that can provide some useful frameworks for bringing into OSR-style play?

    • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Some advice to represent trans characters in game: Evlyn M has some thoughts about how to portray trans characters in one's gaming and worldbuilding, both tropes to avoid but also areas that she recommends making a point to think about and fill in.

    • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Setup of my new OSE campaign: Hey, while you're at the Chromatic Cauldron, also check out this post regarding the setup and framework for a new campaign Evlyn's putting together. I really like these sorts of posts - they let you see a fellow GM's worldbuilding and design framework. It's always interesting to get a feel for how other GMs are approaching their campaigns, and getting a brief taste of the ideas they've got percolating. In this particular instance, Evlyn's put together a neat setup envisioning adventurers picking through the ruins of a vanished Elven civilization as their forest enters a perpetual autumn, while a dread wizard-king takes over the world in the background.

    • Mazirian's Garden: Injury and the Abstract Combat Round: Ben's been putting together a new OSR ruleset, Jorune: Evolutions. In the course of this design process, he's been dropping some absolutely great posts looking at various subsystems and facets of play, and thinking seriously about how they can be improved for what he wants at the table. This entry deals with the traditional combat round of OD&D and presents an alternative to try and increase flavor/dynamic feel of combat by abstracting out some of the details and stepping further away from the "one roll = one stab" zone.

    • Gundobad Games: Dressing Your Monsters: Raging Swan Press Monstrous Lairs I & II [REVIEW]: I was really impressed by this review, because it actually does the work to examine "can this help me put together better ideas than what I'm coming up with on my own?" and provides some extremely useful thoughts on how a GM can use this to help prep their own material.

    • From The Sorcerer's Skull: Guns of Middle-Earth: No, people haven't gone back in time to arm Sauron's armies with AK-47s (at least in this entry; Mary Gentle's 'Grunts' might beg to differ). In Guns of Middle-Earth, Trey takes a look at some of the Victorianisms of Middle-Earth and muses on how to heighten the 19th-century feel. Middle-Earth feels very much like a 'closed setting' to me, so I do very much appreciate seeing takes on how to remix it and present a fresh setting to engage with.

    • DIY and Dragons: Tolkienian Science Fantasy -- Replacing the PC Species: In a similar vein to Trey's post, Anne's take on replacing trad Tolkien species with some more traditional SF species (from Trek and Babylon 5) and imagining the changes in tone that would come from this. Anne coins the brilliant term 'French vanilla setting' here -- something that clearly draws upon the basic format of Trad Fantasy, but simultaneously brings something new, extra, and unique to the table.

    • DIY and Dragons: Advice from the Blogosphere in 2020: I'll close out my survey post with this survey post from Anne, which catalogs some of the best advice posted on blogs in 2020.
    So! What have y'all been reading or working on in the OSR sphere? Anyone planning on participating in the Megadungeon Jam over on

    (Crossposted from

    Wednesday, December 2, 2020

    Renewal and Inspiration

    The past few months have had me in an odd place re: gaming and publishing, and I've definitely been feeling burnt out. But stepping away from Twitter to get away from The (gaming) Discourse has been extremely refreshing, and last night's session in the Hill Cantons has helped a lot to rekindle my excitement about this hobby.

    Along with slugging away on the Slumbering Ursine Dunes omnibus and the sequel to Lorn Song of the Bachelor, I'm also starting to get some wind back in my sails for my own projects.

    I've started working on the Gygax 75 challenge, a framework for putting together one's own campaign setting. It's a way for me to channel the big inchoate Feelings about Legacy of the Bieth and put them into a gameable format that other people can actually use to run their own games. Unfortunately, I got stuck on the hexmap side of things. I've had trouble with creating hex setups on my own that felt well-designed and realistic, but part of me balked at using in-depth creation of the sort that Rob Conley has presented. (No slight against Rob intended by any means! It's a great series, but my heart quails at the full process.) 

    I thought about using something like Chgowiz's Three Hexes but that framework also doesn't quite fit with part of how I've already conceptualized Legacy of the Bieth. Much to my surprise, I've found that an AD&D 2e product, the World Builder's Guidebook, is hitting the sweet spot for my design needs. It's still pretty top-down design, but presents enough of a scaffolding that I think I can abstract the highest level components, drill down to regional setup, and still get something that will make it easier for future development and design. 

    I'm immensely proud of my existing editorial work on Hydra Coop products, but it's a separate field of excitement to move forward on my own creations. Relatedly, my first adventure for publication, "Home is the Hangman," will be coming out with the release of the upcoming Haunted West RPG by Darker Hue Studios. Chris is doing an amazing job on HW and I'm really glad to have contributed to the project. I will also be appearing in a Haunted West livestream starting later this month.

    Finally, I spoke with Paco over at GMS Magazine about the OSR a few weeks ago - take a look!

    So a question for all y'all - what are you working on? What's been tricky for you, and what's been flowing well?

    Wednesday, September 23, 2020

    Rush In and Die, Dogs! -- 4e Minions in B/X

     Inspired by a query from ZharethZhen on Reddit.

    Stormtroopers advancing; deleted scene from Return of the Jedi4e D+D introduced the minion - a variant of a monster defined by having just a single hit point. This has utility in classic D+D frameworks for modelling hard-hitting groups of creatures that can nevertheless be defeated easily -- even more easily than a the baseline monster with minimum values on its hit dice. (An ogre, at 4+1 HD, will have a minimum of 5 HP, but an ogre minion only 1.)

    Adjusting a classic D+D statblock to reflect a single hit point is trivial. But how would one value a minion for purposes of XP assessment? It doesn't seem to make sense to rate them as either a 1/2 or 1 HD creature if they're hitting more strongly and have special abilities (flight, save-or-die, etc.). 

    So here's how I might address the issue for B/X-alikes.

    • Monsters use d8 for HD in B/X, which averages out to 4.5 HP per HD.
    • B/X monster XP is based on both the base HD and any special abilities.
    • To calculate XP for a minion, divide minion HD by 4 to determine base HD, but add special ability XP based on the original HD. The dangerous nature of abilities from the higher-tier monster is reflected, but the HD-based XP is reduced to reflect the vastly reduced hit point capacity.

    Have you used minions in your classic D+D? What do you see as guidelines for how to implement them effectively, or if at all?


    Saturday, August 1, 2020

    War at the Table

    I just finished up a GenCon Online panel, War at the Table, with Basheer Ghouse. You should all go check out Basheer's work here. This was a heck of a lot of fun, and I really loved talking with Basheer and the folks chiming in with questions. 

    Take a look, see what you think:

    (And if this is of interest, I'm still working on my "Wargaming Ain't A Dirty Word" post!)

    Special thanks to Richard Ruane for helping us majorly with backend streaming stuff, and @LilRedAlchemist for an amazing organizing effort for PoC presenters at cons. This would seriously not have happened without her. 

    The presentation that we were using (and our sources list) is available here.

    Tuesday, October 29, 2019

    Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind): Troika Background

    Axes + Orcs has been tirelessly diving into the Troika design space, creating oodles of backgrounds. He got me inspired to write this up and submit it to the ongoing TroikaJam over at It's an update of my original Psychic Warrior class. This feels a bit smoother, at least.

    This is available in PDF format over at, but it's duplicated here for ease of access.

    Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind)

    Original energy arc photo by Blaise Frazier
    released under
    GNU Free Documentation License

    I don’t know if you agreed when the recruiters came. Or when they put you under the knife and started mucking around in your brain. I don’t know what they told you about the powers you’d gain - or what you’d have to do to keep using them.

    But I do know that you’re on a deadline now. Using these powers catches up to you. The shakes keep coming faster and faster. And when your ticket’s up, you know what to expect - a flare of pain and horror and power before your light is snuffed forever.

    Guess you’ve got some time to kill. (Don’t let these shakes go on…)

    • Tattered Uniform
    • 3 Doses, Psy-Drugs
    • Brass Straw for drinking cerebrospinal fluid
    Advanced Skills:
    • 3 Psychic Blade
    • 2 Soldiering
    • 2 Biofeedback
    • 2 Stave Off Inevitable Burnout
    • 1 Memory Leech
    • 1 Spectral Assassin
    • 1 Fight Past the Shakes 
    Special: Psy-drugs (expensive), stealing someone’s memories, drinking cerebrospinal fluid, or devouring a sentient’s brain all boost Stave Off Inevitable Burnout. Psy-drugs boost it to 3 and last for a week. Memory leeching boosts it to 4 and lasts for a week. Cerebrospinal fluid or eating a brain boost it to 4 and last for a month.

    The Awlad-i-Dimagh Background is an independent production by Humza Kazmi and is not affiliated with the Melsonian Arts Council.

    Tuesday, August 13, 2019

    Landsknecht Link Roundup, July/Aug

    Ba Chim seal of approval!

    (Art by Dreadbeasts)
    I posted this on but it bears reposting (and expanding) here:
    • Not quite RPG related, but Hydra heads Trey, Jason, and Robert have launched the Bronze Age Book Club podcast, for jawing about comics. Check it out here.
    • David Schirduan ran a series of interviews with some of the folks in the SWORD DREAM / *DREAM space (including me), discussing our perspectives and how we want to see this space grow.
    • Relatedly, Dream Jam (a Sword Dream game jam ) just wrapped up - you can see the entries here. I think this is the first large set of material releasing in the *DREAM space, and it's exciting to see! Many of the submissions skew a bit more to the indie side than I generally roll with, but I'm also excited to see new design influences entering our space and hopefully having some fruitful dialog.
    • Cavegirl (the Evil High Priestess of the OSR) starts laying out a system for creating magic items based on supernatural resonances. I'd like to see more detail on the creation process and system details, but the writeup of affinities and their effects is excellent. She's also got the Wounded Daughter advancement, which is raw and from the heart and the first time I've seen a "this PC does not die" mechanic in an OSR game that has felt really compelling to me.
    • Throne of Salt has a great post on the Book of the Night, discussing the universe as envisioned by Abd al-Hazra. Certainly not going to pass up an Arabic grimoire post, even if this one might be a bit more Lovecrafty than historical.
    • Lizardman Diaries has a compilation of all of their Infinigrad posts, in advance of launching a Patreon. Lots of handy city-related generators, guilds, shopping, random tables... I particularly like the automated augmentation generator (though I sigh a bit at the name "Fantasypunk") and the guild generators, because factions are great. Very good for "strange fantasy city" work.
    • Gundobad Games continues the "Settings with Strata" discussion, this time discussing how leaving voids in a setting's backstory can allow for fruitful development and increased depth as different factions tell their own histories. Worth synthesizing with this Hill Cantons discussion of information-as-treasure.
    • Evlyn M rewrites an earlier campaign framework of a witches' coven, with a town-centric sandbox and table-generated setting. Pushes back against transphobic components of prior inspiration. (Warning: some NSFW art - stylized nudity, non-sexualized.)
    • Against the Wicked City has this pairing of English literary authors and the Warhammer armies they'd play, which is goofy/amazing enough that it absolutely has to be included here.
    • While we're on the subject of Warhammer influence, Uncaring Cosmos has a writeup on the British OSR. I think that there's a lot more overlap between the A-OSR and B-OSR than they suggest - WFRP and GW creations seem to exert a great deal of weight in the OSR's aesthetics of ruin - but it's still worth a read.
    • Tarsos Theorem has a handy-dandy Mothership PC generator. Be prepared to shout "let's rock" and/or discuss the bonus situation.
    • Goatman's Goblet created a Knave's Guide to Eberron, adapting the 3e setting to Ben Milton's Knave RPG. Despite the deep love many folks have for the setting, I've always struggled to get into Eberron; this looks like a short, sweet, and easy way to dig in.
    • The Alexandrian argues that the bowdlerization of Palace of the Silver Princess marked the ending of the "old school spirit" in TSR design. Strong concur that Jean Wells was frickin' robbed, and that we lost a lot of potential by TSR pulling her work in favor of the Moldvay rewrite. See also Grognardia's interview with Jean Wells, Part 1 and Part 2.
    • This last one is from 2017, but I just discovered it and really like it, so in it goes! Trilemma's post on Awesome vs Tangible Resolution just helped me describe better what I like about my preferred playstyle.
    • POCGamer's got a good read on decolonization and integration within D+D. While POCGamer's post focuses on WotC's treatment of D+D, his comments are still handy and useful for considering how we construct other, hopefully more compelling, settings.
    • Papers and Pencils just posted a public-facing version of On A Red World Alone, a super-light treatment of post-apocalyptic Mars. Worth checking out, and reminiscent of Rogues and Reavers's Savage World of Krul setting from back in the day (currently hibernating and unavailable).
    • Shoe Skogen has been running video interviews with folks on Hey! My Friend Made A Thing! They've uploaded interviews with David Schirduan (who just released his Bone Marshes module) and with me, and there are more to come from folks at Gen Con.

    Thursday, June 6, 2019

    A Spectre (7+3 HD) Is Haunting the Flaeness: Towards a Leftist OSR

      Special thanks to Kazumi Chin, Fiona Geist, Camilla Greer, Michael Lombardi, and Robert Parker for their feedback and guidance.

      The design space associated with OSR games is often assumed to be inherently reactionary, an interest in classic games coinciding with a desire for social regression and oppression. Setting the incorrect nature of that assumption aside, I started wondering what an explicitly leftist OSR framework might look like. This pondering was accelerated by a query on the same topic that Mabel Harper* raised on Discord a while back.

      This isn't untrodden territory. Some past must-reads from others: Marx + Monsters: A Radical Leftist Fantasy Sandbox, City of Brass "West Marxes"

      Inspired by Marx + Monsters, I concluded that a leftist OSR framework would move away from a simple advancement through gold route, and instead work through improving the community that PCs reside in. The approach I list below is strongly influenced by Mayfair Games's 1993 RPG Underground, a game centered around superhero-veterans attempting to improve their communities as the world around them went mad.

      This is a potential new framework for experience gain that a GM can use to frame a social format for their campaign. It assumes that PCs are still taking on adventurous projects, but seeks to present greater ties to the communities that they are a part of.

      Communities and Experience

      1. PCs start out as members of the same community. While they may have wildly different origins and backgrounds, they're all united by current location and ties. (This can be a city or town, or even a neighborhood. For higher powered games, a province or nation might be apropos.)

      Figures outside the tombs of the caliphs, Cairo, Egypt.
      Coloured lithograph by L. Haghe after D. Roberts, 1848.
      Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain
      2. This community is assessed on six stats:

      Identity - How strongly the community identifies as a group together, with a shared culture. Identity 4 or 5 might be a newborn boomtown, Identity 14 or 15 might be a longstanding ethnic enclave in a larger city.
      Prosperity - Whether the community is economically stable. Are folks able to get by comfortably? Are folks living hand-to-mouth?
      Safety - Are people physically safe in this community? Is their security under threat?
      Governance - The breadth and scope of government function. How well do governing institutions respond to the requirements of the community?
      Legitimacy - Is the government regarded as representative of the community's people? Are these seen as interlopers or leaders?
      Sustainability - Is the community's usage of resources sustainable in the long run? Is support infrastructure properly available for the residents?

      These stats are rated on a 3-18 scale, just as character stats are. The GM may either work with the PCs to collaboratively generate a community, as in Beyond the Wall or Dream Askew/Apart, may assign stats to a pre-existing community setting, or may roll 3d4 (not 3d6) for each stat.

      3. During downtime, between adventures, PCs may place money and time into raising one of the categories. They must describe how they are using their resources and time to combat problems or improve conditions for their community.

      Ex: Shaghab and Arslan live in a community with Legitimacy of 6. They decide to improve this stat by ousting the famously corrupt qadi, or chief judge, and seeking to install someone a bit better. Shaghab describes how she'll be spending three weeks organizing street protests against the qadi as he attempts to rule on cases, shouting out the stories of those he's screwed over, while Arslan will try to force the local governor to be confronted with this evidence of the population's unrest. They hope that through this, the governor will consider removing the qadi and replacing him with someone new. While the replacement's unknown, Shaghab and Arslan believe that they'll be able to influence the selection and pressure the governor to find a more virtuous replacement.

      Tizemt lives in the same community, but they think that trying to replace the qadi is merely supplanting one outside leader for another. Instead, they decide to spend a month organizing a community council that will resolve disputes outside the scope of the qadi and avoid having to appear before the corrupt pustule. Tizemt sees this as improving the community's Governance rating (conveniently, also 6), but it might also apply to Identity or maaaaybe even Legitimacy as well. Tizemt plans to support this council through holding meetings and determining who among the community will have sufficient stature to be seen as legitimate decision-makers.

      4. The GM assesses their plan, mentally considers counterarguments and forces that will operate to protect the status quo, and places it in a matrix framework to assess how effective this is at addressing the issue in question. (See: Matrix Games.)

      Strength of Argument
      Adjustment to Roll
      Very Strong Argument
      Roll 5d6 against stat
      Strong Argument
      Roll 4d6 against stat
      Average Argument
      Roll 3d6 against stat
      Weak Argument
      Roll 2d6 against stat
      Very Weak Argument
      Roll 1d6 against stat
      Abysmal Argument
      Roll fails!

      Ex. The GM thinks that Shaghab and Arslan's plan isn't too great -- aside from trusting in the benevolence of the governor, they also don't know that the governor and qadi have been working together to feather both nests, and that the qadi has some compromising information on the governor. But significant enough street protests might be able to sway the governor, if it becomes clear that the city won't quiet down until the qadi is removed. It's not the best thought out and there are hidden factors, but it's not completely unreasonable - the GM considers it a weak argument. They get a 4 on 2d6 against the community’s Legitimacy 6 -- the plan fails.

      The GM thinks that Tizemt's plan is more likely to receive results, since there isn't any hidden information in play, the scope of the change is enough to merit increasing the Governance stat, and Tizemt's player has identified prominent NPCs who they think have established a solid community reputation, even in the cynical Vancian atmosphere of the setting. While it's more likely to get off the ground since there's no particular opposition, having an alternative dispute structure may not necessarily take off and gain community support. It is considered an average argument.  They roll 3d6 against the community’s Governance 6 and get an 11 -- the plan succeeds!

      5. After the time and resources have been invested, the GM rolls against the stat as above:

      a) If the roll is above the stat in question, the PCs' effort is successful. The stat is raised by one, and all PCs who contributed to this effort gain experience: Firstly, each PC gains 1500 x the number of times the stat in question has been raised (so, 1500 XP for the first improvement, 3000 for the second, etc.) Secondly, they gain 1.5x the GP value of resources that were contributed as XP. Finally, the GM makes an explicit note of the method that the PCs have used to shape the community, to ensure that its effects continue to be remembered (and leveraged) as play continues.

      b) If the roll is under the stat in question, then the PCs have failed to improve conditions. The stat remains unchanged, and no experience is awarded. The GM keeps a tally of how much resources have been put into improving the stat in question; if the PCs manage to improve the stat later, then all PCs who have contributed (past or present) gain both the stat-raise experience, the benefit of 1.5x the resources of the successful attempt, and 0.5x the value of all prior resources put in, combining failed attempts with the most recent success. Long-term campaigns may not succeed at first, but they continue to build the foundation for subsequent success.
      Sao Paolo General Strike, 1917
      Unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia

      Note: Application of extra resources beyond the base requirements can grant rerolls on step 5, allowing a second chance at a failed increase: When a stat is 3-8, putting in an additional 3000 gp grants one reroll. When a stat is 9-12, this amount increases to 9000 gp. When a stat is 13-17, the amount increases to 27000 gp. Resources spent towards rerolls do not grant additional XP.

      6. After a stat has been increased successfully, the GM determines another stat to be tested against, and rolls 3d6 against that stat. (The statistic is either determined randomly, or emerges naturally from the nature of the improvement.) If the GM rolls under, that stat decreases by 1, to a minimum of the lowest stat present (if the two lowest stats are both 5s, one cannot lower to a 4 through this method). Decreases represent additional challenges that have begun facing the community; the GM should generate new adventure hooks from these.

      Ex. Tizemt's plan to create a community council as an alternative to the qadi was successful. Given that the community council now serves as an alternative form of governance to the incumbent, the GM chooses to decrease Legitimacy by 1, since there is now uncertainty over who really rules the neighborhood.

      7. This process can be used on its own, but ideally it would also take into account dynamic shifts in the campaign from the actions of other parties. The next steps would be tying additional shifts to a Chaos Index (reflecting further changing dynamics outside the control of player characters) and ensuring that adventure hooks can also present opportunities for changing a community's stats, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so.

      As a community improves, it will become harder and harder for PCs to improve its stats. PCs may choose to expand their focus (working to improve a city instead of a neighborhood, a province instead of a city). If PCs elect to expand, they begin working to improve the larger polity's stats (which are likely worse than the smaller area PCs have been focusing on). Multiply experience gains by 5 each time a player group chooses to expand. Multiply reroll resource costs by ten (and adjust costs for open-ended resource allocation accordingly as well).

      Emma Goldman
      T. Kajiwara, 1911 (Wikimedia)
      Note: Players may try and solve some of the problems that their communities are facing through violence -- their PCs are likely still adventurers or revolutionaries, after all. GMs should be cautious with this. In some cases, violence may absolutely be necessary - but it is not enough, in and of itself, to generate long-term systemic change. There must be positive action taken in order to create a sustainable improvement in a community.

      Design Notes

      XP as Central Driver

      Much has been made about 1 GP = 1 XP as the core gameplay loop driver of TSR D+D. But XP for gold retrieved also winds up being something of a de facto capitalistic outlook as well. Success is driven by accumulation of individual wealth -- by an adventuring company, even! So what's a new framework that can be used for underpinning a leftist OSR campaign?

      Marx + Monsters raises two proposals: XP for direct redistribution of wealth, or XP awarded through communal questions (a la Dungeon World). I found neither of these satisfying for my purposes. Direct redistribution of wealth is basically a slightly tweaked version of "XP through spending," and communal questions seems too far at odds with the mechanical framework of OSR games. Admittedly the system proposed here is still related to "XP through spending," but ideally generates a bit more  thought and focus regarding how people attempt to help others.

      Campaign Framing

      "Standard" OSR gaming is focused around the pulp-inspired picaresque. James's bullet-point list of what that entails (assumption of PCs at the margins, a corrupt/venal society) can fit well into a radical framing. The change is that instead of focusing on the individual rise of a small group of people (PCs), this proposed campaign explicitly looks at how a community or society changes (through the actions of a small group).

      Community Creation and Interaction

      Beyond the Wall features group creation of the party's starting-hub town, and ties the player characters together with each other and the shared NPCs they've created. (See also the communal creation of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, which focus even more tightly on communal setting as play center.) I don't know that group setting creation is a necessary part of this framing, but it can help to provide players with a strong connection to the community they are a part of, combating the detachment with which PCs can sometimes view their surroundings.

      "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

      Obligatory pop culture references aside, I recognize that this is a game system that's discussing social resistance and community building: areas which are pretty important at the moment, and areas which which I don't have a full grounding in. While I'm slowly learning more on these topics, I also recognize that I have LOTS of blind spots regarding these areas. If I've said something boneheaaded here, please do let me know.  
        * Also check out Mabel's new music video!


        Leftist Design and Community Interaction
        Alternative Experience Takes