Sunday, December 20, 2020

I take back every nice thing I've ever said about D&D 5th edition. It's irredeemable garbage.

So I've been playing in a D&D 5th edition campaign (under mild protest) for some time now, and I believe that the experience of playing in this campaign has gone on long enough that I need to revise my earlier judgements of the system (which I must admit were previously colored by my experiences running 5th edition as a playtest system, back when it was "D&D Next"—back when it had so much more potential to be better than it is). I've reached a point where I no longer find 5th edition to be merely subpar but inoffensive; it's crossed the line into outright offensive.

I'm starting to come around to the realization that every edition of D&D really does have a threshold of playability—what's commonly called the "sweet spot"—beyond which the game is simply no longer fun to play. For the TSR editions, the sweet spot is 1st level through about 10th level, after which dungeon crawling isn't really all that fun anymore; but then, lo and behold! The game brings followers and dominions into play, and if you can shift modes from adventure to sim/wargame, the fun can continue in a different fashion.

The WotC editions don't even try to do this. They try to stay in adventure mode over the course of twenty or thirty levels, and it never works. For 3rd edition, the sweet spot is 1st to 6th level. (This is why "Epic Six" does, in fact, work.) Above 6th level, the cracks in the game really start to show, and it breaks down, mostly because of spellcasters and saving throws. 3rd edition D&D is actually quite a decent "kill all the monsters!" game at low levels. It's just that "kill all the monsters!" is, of course, its own thing and not really D&D.

4th edition fundamentally has no dungeon-crawling sweet spot anywhere to be found. It's not a dungeon-crawling game at all. From 1st level onward, player characters in 4th edition are heroic tactical combat units, and that's all they are. My understanding of 4th edition is that it's a reasonably fun, varied, and tactically deep skirmish game, until it reaches the point where the monster math breaks, turning each fight into an interminable slog, and the sheer number of options and powers available to the players becomes an unwieldy mess that stands stubbornly in the way of the basic procedures of gameplay. 

(My deep desire to have a skirmish game that aims for roughly the same sort of fun as 4th edition, but without the "power bloat" or the excessive mechanical complexity, is a large part of the impetus behind my decision to replace Retro Phaze with Shining Armour. And I really do need to get back to work on that. Life's just been suddenly really busy again for the past couple of months; but I digress.)

Which brings us to the subject of 5th edition. I've discovered, over the course of the past few months of campaign play, that 5th edition is, in fact, a synthesis of the worst aspects of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions. (I'm not the first to allege this; but it really does require playing 5e for a time to understand why its detractors are correct.) It all comes down to the following:
• Too much focus on the characters
• Boring, repetitive, interminable combat encounters with few "off-ramps" to circumvent them
• XP awards which are either unfocused milestones (like 2nd edition) or a clear incentive to try and kill everything (like 3rd and 4th editions)

Let's take each of these in turn.

· We Explore Characters, not Dungeons ·

It's often claimed that character-building in 5th edition is a simplified or "dumbed-down" version of the character-building one sees in 3rd edition D&D or Pathfinder. This could very well be true. But the point is, it's still a character-building game. You still pick a race, a class, a sub-class, feats or multi-classes maybe, and on top of that, you pick an alignment, a background, two personality traits, an ideal, a bond, and a flaw—and these lattermost character qualities are used by the DM to bestow Inspiration dice. 5e attempts to mechanize role-playing, and that's horrible

Inspiration is a half-assed, mealy-mouthed attempt to incentivize the "improvisational playacting, talk-in-funny-voices" kind of role-playing that I've come to detest so thoroughly. It doesn't really succeed at that, but it does contribute to the overall foregrounding of each character as a "special snowflake" rather than an adventurer. It makes it so that you're there to "play a character" rather than "have an adventure," and it makes the game about the characters' story rather than about the players' experiences. It's just… ugh. It's lame, it's cringe-inducing, it's bad. I don't even have words for this, beyond that simple utterance of frustration. It's so bad.

· We Did the Math… We Did the Monster Math! ·

It isn't just the role-playing in 5e which is lame. The characters' mechanics are lame too. They are, in a word, ineffectual. You can almost never kill a monster in one hit; swords might as well be foam bats. You can never end an encounter with a single spell: sleep and fireball don't take large groups of monsters out, they mildly inconvenience the monsters. 

As with 4th edition, monster hit points are artificially inflated to ensure that combat encounters take many rounds. Apparently, this is supposed to be "fun"—but in the context of playing D&D, it's just dreary and makes the characters feel weak and useless. In a 1st edition game, your 1st level fighter can kill an orc in one hit, and the orc can kill you in one hit, and that's tense and exciting and every reason to play smart and think laterally. In 5th edition, a 1st level fighter and an orc have to spend five rounds dueling each other before one of them goes down—but it doesn't have any of the charm of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn movie. Instead, it just feels like two complete nincompoops in full armor trying to batter the opposition into submission with Nerf swords. It's so goddamn fucking boring. And spellcasters don't fare any better: all 5th edition did by removing the "save or suck" spells from the game is ensure that combats are always an interminable slog. 

Sure, that solves 3rd edition's "rocket tag" problem, but it also removes all the fun and clever "win buttons" from the game, leaving nothing but a 4th edition style tactical combat system, minus the actual tactical depth or variety. That's no fun at all—and, as with 3rd and 4th editions, you just wind up with combat encounters that eat all the playing time, leaving the dungeon-exploration as a minimally-supported afterthought. 

· Kill the Monsters and Leave their Stuff ·

And yet, in spite of the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness that is a 5th edition combat encounter, if you're playing the game in its default mode (XP is awarded for killing monsters), you have to get involved in every fight you can. You seek out reasons to pick fights. You don't want to waste the time, but you do want the XP, and so every single potential combat encounter is a groaning, reluctant, reckless charge into the fray. 

And what's the alternative? Not using XP at all? Milestone level-ups? Sure, you can do that, but then the game is no more focused than 2nd edition when that game is played with its default "ad hoc" XP rules in force. Then there's no gameplay loop at all, and the very act of playing becomes pointless—you'll advance to the next stage whenever the DM says so, and at that point, why am I even playing? Why am I even there? 

So the choice is between either a crappy and unfun hack-fest or a mother-may-I series of quest-givers and railroads. Neither option even vaguely resembles a real game of D&D.

· Conclusion ·

And that's ultimately the problem with 5th edition: it fails utterly to deliver an experience that I can recognize as resembling D&D. It's not D&D. It's just not. The stuff in the rulebooks make it look like D&D on the surface—especially if you squint and only have 4th edition to compare it to. "Oh, hey, look at all the classic stuff that 4th edition didn't have, that they brought back! There are hit dice! There are spell slots! Hooray, D&D is D&D again!" Only, it's not. The cake is a lie. 5th edition is a sorry, shambling zombie-corpse of a game that only resembles D&D outwardly because it's wearing D&D's flayed skin like a body-suit, smiling at all of us through the stitch-work.

If you really try at it—like, seriously go all-in, optimizing a face- or stealth-type character, totally focused on avoiding combat at all fucking costs, whether by diplomacy or sneaking, maybe, then just maybe, you can fool yourself into thinking that 5th edition really is akin to D&D. That could work from about 1st to 3rd level. (Which, I guess, makes that range 5th edition's "sweet spot"?) But much beyond that point, the cracks are going to show, and something is going to give. As the game moves up to the 4th and 5th and heaven forbid the 6th experience levels, the sheer awfulness of the combat rules really does just swallow up the center of the stage and suck all the last drops of—not joy, that's wrong—tolerability? patience? stoic acceptance?—out of what's left of the experience. 

If you play 2nd edition with XP-for-GP rules in place of the default "ad hoc" system, 2nd edition makes for a perfectly playable version of D&D, a cleaned up and streamlined alternative to 1st edition that has some of the simplifications of Basic D&D worked right into the core. 

If you play 3rd edition with a hard cap on experience levels at 6th, you have a reasonably playable "video game on the tabletop" where the object is to kill all the monsters and survive. Award XP for GP, and you once again have a functioning, if truncated, game of D&D.

If you play 4th edition for the first ten levels or so, using only the lower-hp monsters from the game's later releases, and you're going into the game looking for more of a wargame experience than an exploration-and-adventure experience, you can have a good time with the tactical combat.

At no point would I recommend playing 5th edition at any level, for any reason. It wouldn't even work as a kind of "Epic Three" homage to Holmes Basic. It's just worthless top-to-bottom, and I can only weep for what Wizards of the Coast, in tandem with YouTube, has done to this hobby.

I still have my issues with the OSR, but at least the OSR, for all its wrong-headed foibles, still has some heart in the right place. I cannot come close to saying the same of modern D&D.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Lulu vs. DriveThru

So my copies of the Engines & Empires books arrived today, and now that I can see both books side-by-side, I can make a direct comparison.

The clear winner here is DriveThruRPG.

Just looking at the books, the cover art is kind of dull and washed out on the DriveThru covers; on the Lulu covers, conversely, the colors pop. And that's the only area where the quality of a Lulu printing surpasses a DriveThru printing. 

Lulu's binding is clearly cheaper. The interior printing is fine for the text in both books, but the illustrations on the Lulu printing don't look quite right: the grays and blacks are darker than they should be, leading to a loss of blending and transparency, and so the illustrations (and the highlighted table text) are harder to read than the DriveThru printing. The paper for the two printings is of comparable quality, but I find that I don't care for the textbook-like feel of Lulu's glossy 80# paper compared to the more tactile feel of DriveThru's 70# matte paper. 

So… yeah, I'm only going to sell my books on DriveThruRPG from now on. There's little point in selling on Lulu anyway, since DriveThru is where the gamers are. I would have kept on using Lulu if the books had been significantly higher in quality, but instead, they're just… meh. I'll probably use these Lulu printings as table-copies until they're old and beat-up, while my DriveThru printings can stay on my bookshelf and look nice.

Weird to think I've been using Lulu since, like, 2008, and now I'm just gonna… not. Oh well. Onward and upward…

Saturday, November 14, 2020


And they're oh-so-very-pretty:

Now that the proofs are here—and lookin' perfect—they should be live on DriveThru pretty soon!

One thing I've noticed is that the paper quality is definitely much nicer than the old Lulu books from the previous edition. But I've also got new Lulu books on the way, and they actually use heavier paper than these (80# instead of 70#), so we'll see what the difference is like in terms of both paper feel and book thickness once the Lulu proofs finally arrive. (And given that DriveThru mentions delays in their printing and shipping due to Covid-19, but Lulu doesn't, it's utterly surprising to me that the DriveThru books arrived first!)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Concerning the Fantastic

This post will perhaps be more germane to literature than to gaming, and it will be short (because I haven't the time write anything longer at the moment), but I feel that I have to get it out there. One my personal pet peeves is the misuse of genre labels, and of fantasy sub-genres in particular. I don't presume to speak with authority on sub-genres of science fiction because I'm admittedly not well-read when it comes to classic sci-fi. But I should hope that I know what I'm talking about by now when it comes to fantasy.

There are a number of sub-genres that tend to get mixed up or conflated, the term for one applied to another, and I find this bothersome. Of course the boundaries between genres are never clear-cut, and many stories mix and match genres or belong to multiple genres at once. But it's still helpful to have clear definitions.

I'll begin with the most badly-abused terms: high fantasy (which is not epic fantasy) and low fantasy (which is not sword & sorcery).

High Fantasy: Stories that take place in a fantasy world which is not Earth, also called an invented world or a secondary world. Notably, a pure high fantasy should have no connection to Earth (see portal fantasy) and neither should it be a period in Earth's past (mythic fantasy). That's the only criterion for making a story high fantasy: the setting is another world that isn't ours. Every Final Fantasy game and most D&D campaigns are high fantasy for this reason.

Low Fantasy: Stories that take place in our world (regardless of time period), where the fantastical element is an intrusion on otherwise mundane reality. A story about a child's toy coming to life, or a story about meeting a fairy or a wizard in what otherwise appears to be a real-world setting, is low fantasy. Children's stories and Hollywood movies lend themselves to this genre very well; tabletop games generally do not.

Mythic Fantasy: Now. admittedly. this term isn't in common currency, but I think it's a useful one nevertheless. Given the definitions of high fantasy and low fantasy presented above, are Middle-Earth and Conan's Hyborean Age high or low fantasy? Both explicitly take place not in some alternate universe, but on Earth. (Tolkien famously hated it when people suggested to him that Middle-Earth was "another world.") However, the magic in these stories isn't an intrusion on a mundane world—it's fundamental to the setting, a speculated mythic past when magic was more prevalent in our world than it is now. (Curiously, too, both settings are rather circumspect about whether the magic actually is magic at all—Tolkien's elves are perplexed by the term for what is, to them, a perfectly ordinary aspect of their very nature, and sorcerers in Conan stories have been known to imply that their "supernatural" knowledge is merely an advanced science.) I think it's a good idea to draw the distinction, and say that mythic fantasy is the term we should use for a story that takes place in a mythic or legendary past version of Earth. The Hobbit, Conan the Barbarian, and Xena: Warrior Princess would be prime examples of the genre.

Sword & Sorcery: This is where the genres start to overlap. The previous definitions concerned the setting; this one is about the narrative. Sword & sorcery stories are those in which the focus is on a single hero or band of heroes, and their concerns are personal rather than world-shaking. Such protagonists are nearly always warriors (Conan, Elric, etc.); they often have to deal with magic, magic-users, monsters, or other supernatural threats. But what's key here is that the heroes' goals are personal and often clearly achieved (or not) by the end of a single short, pulpy story. Nobody "saves the world"—the heroes aren't "chosen ones"—and their goals are hardly ever quests.

Epic Fantasy: This is the proper term for that generic sort of tale where a reluctant everyman—possibly a chosen one with a hidden royal heritage or a mysterious, prophesized destiny—gets dragged into an epic quest to save the world. Epic fantasy is all about mighty upper-class knights and kings and wizards (and maybe one protagonist farm-boy) striving to preserve the status quo from an external, world-level threat (the Dark Lord being a perennial favorite).

Heroic Fantasy: This term is less-than-useful, because it's just any fantasy with action, adventure, and a hero. High fantasy, sword & sorcery, and epic fantasy nearly always fall within the broad category of heroic fantasy; low fantasy may or may not, but usually doesn't.

Finally, honorable mention to two more related sub-genres that can overlap with any of the above.

Portal Fantasy: This is the term for tales of characters transported from our world into a fantasy world. Narnia and Oz are the classic examples, but there are countless others. Since the "other world" is by definition a secondary world, portal fantasy is almost always high fantasy as well, just by definition. But, for the love of Pete, don't go calling all portal fantasy "isekai." If you're not dealing with manga, anime, or characters who get transported into an RPG and remain aware of their own stats, isekai is emphatically not involved.

Urban Fantasy: This is the sub-genre that describes a version of our modern world, but where magic exists (either openly or hidden behind "the masquerade"). It is, in effect, mythic fantasy taking place in the present day, or low fantasy with the "fantasy" aspect dialed up to eleven. Harry Potter probably technically qualifies as this genre, although the more traditional example would be something like The Dresden Files.

So, there you have it. The major fantasy sub-genres. (I've probably forgotten or neglected a good many more, but these are the ones that concern me at the moment.) Use them, don't abuse them, mix and match to your heart's delight… just quit calling all sword & sorcery stories "low fantasy," or all epic quests to save the world "high fantasy," because that's annoying.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

At Long Last, Our National Nightmare is Over… But Not Really

The election of Joe Biden as the USA's 46th President is… not great, to put it simply. Biden could be described as a liberal, but he's certainly no leftist. It's well known that he's one of the architects of mass incarceration and the USA's misguided war on crime. In any other country, he'd be a conservative.

Biden's election does nothing to diminish the outsized power that conservatives hold in my country, or the undemocratic tyranny of the rural minority over the urban majority. It does nothing to address the alliance between quisling conservatives and open fascists. It does nothing to address systemic problems with government gridlock, disproportionate representation, gerrymandering, campaign finance, regulatory capture, income inequality, systemic racism, the existential threat of global warming, or any of a hundred other intractable problems facing my country that I have little hope of ever seeing resolved in my lifetime.

I don't foresee any meaningful change, because Biden, despite the fact that he belongs to that club of Washington insider good-ol'-boys, is nevertheless a Democrat, and Democrats have a problem. They still haven't quite caught on to the fact that Republicans since the Gingrich speakership haven't been playing by the same rules—or, really, any rules. The Democrats are still playing the appeasement game, while the Republicans engage in total war.

So… yeah, those nightmares all continue.

But today, at least, now that major press outlets have finally cowboyed up and called the election for Biden, we can say one thing. The annoying orange TV man, with his annoying face and his annoying voice, finally won't be on the TV screen anymore. The country will continue to go to pot, of course, but our lives will all be a little bit pleasanter as the inevitable happens, because the annoying TV man will no longer be there to inflict his criminal stupidity and incuriosity and mendacity upon the rest of us.

And as for the people who want Donald Trump on the TV screen (a man who, as self-described "news dude" Cody Johntson once pointed out with elegant simplicity, is "a crime man—who does crimes"), there's only so much one can say. If you wanted Trump on TV because you liked The Apprentice, it's a fair bet that your brain has been reduced to mush by social media and reality TV. If you wanted Trump on TV because you believe he is less annoying than Hillary Clinton would have been, it's a fair bet that your brain has been rotted away to offal by 24-hour news and talk radio. And if you wanted Trump on the TV because you thought that only he could save you, or because he tells it like it is, owns the libs, and just might lock her up or burn it all down, I'm afraid that the only diagnosis is fascism—and it remains to be seen whether individual cases are chronic or acute.

The remedy for the former two problems is clear: unplug. Read a book, take a walk, just peel your eyes away from the thrice-damned glowing screens, and close your ears to the cynical bellowings of the Limbaughs and the Hannities and the other conservative liars who are known not to buy a word of the nonsense that they preach and have only contempt for the stupidity of their followers. The remedy for the third problem, unfortunately, is denazification—to complete the failed project of Reconstruction that this country couldn't even stomach after the Civil War. Which is why it won't happen.

The fascists—in this country, they're not Nazis, they're neo-Confederates, and their stronghold is no longer the regional south but small towns and rural parts in every state—are still here. And thanks to the Senate, the Electoral College, and the House Apportionment Act of 1929, they don't need to outnumber decent folk to wield power, or to be wielded by the forces of capital and privilege in this country who gladly, gleefully play racists for rubes to protect their moneyed status quo.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Busy Week, But At Least There Will Be Books

Not much to add with respect to Lands of Älyewinn; I've had such a busy week that I haven't even made any more progress writing up dungeon level 1. We'll see how much I can accomplish come the weekend. 

More exciting, though, is that I was finally able to order proof copies of both the Engines & Empires Core Rules and World of Gaia campaign setting. I'll finally be able to make a proper comparison between Lulu and DriveThru, although I'm given to understand that DriveThru books are seriously delayed right now and could take as much as a month longer to print and ship than Lulu books are taking at the moment. 

Oh well. I'll just be happy to have up-to-date hard copies of my go-to game once again. After all, a core rulebook is a hard thing for a tabletop game-ref to live without for any significant length of time!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Finally Finished Dungeon Sub-Level 1A

It's not looking bad at all, though it took a while to bash it into a proper two-page spread. For the most part, I've just been distracted away from this project with other IRL matters for the last several days and haven't been able to sit down and work on it. I seem to have gotten some momentum back, though. Onto the remaining sub-levels (B through D) of dungeon level 1! 

Next up: sub-level 1B, the "Beastly Foray," a series of crudely-hewn chambers inhabited by semi-cohesive bands of shadowspawn (or what other games would call goblinoids) that, depending on how campaign events unfold in the overworld, may or may not pose a serious and organized threat to adventurers. The challenge for level 1B is going to be accounting for these varying possibilities: the 'spawn may act like wild beasts, or like a disciplined army, depending on whether the overworld is haunted by Forces of Chaos or not.

Here's hoping that bit of complication manages to fit on two facing pages as well!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Some shows are back, and they're mostly pretty good

It feels like a proper "fall TV season" right now, though whether or not that's an accidental result of the pandemic seeming to halt everything for the entire summer, I couldn't say. But, in brief, my general impressions:

• I've mostly caught up on the 3rd season of DuckTales, though I've been saving the new Darkwing Duck episode for a day when I'm bored and need some joy in my life. What I've watched so far has been as good as the previous two seasons: the voice cast on that show really nails it every time.

• Watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery's 3rd season last night. The 3rd season is shaping up to be better than either of the first two seasons and loads better than the boring chore that is Lower Decks. If I didn't expect Discovery to be cancelled after this season (because apparently streaming shows never last longer than three seasons), I'd say that the series now had the potential to be the thing that Andromeda should have been back in its day. Seeing Discovery again makes me look forward to The Orville's third season even more, and makes me hopeful that the Captain Pike series actually gets made.

• I just now watched the first episode of season 11 of Archer, and ho-lee shit, was that a breath of fresh air. It was a return to form for the series, exactly what the doctor ordered after three seasons of coma dreams and however many seasons before that (at least two) that the show was kind of starting to suck. 

That's pretty much it. I haven't otherwise had much time to watch TV lately, but I'm sure I'll catch other series as new seasons start popping up again. 

On the publishing front, I'm still trying to get proofs ordered for E&E Core and World of Gaia through DriveThru (what a pain), so for the moment, they're still only available in print through Lulu. I haven't been able to touch Lands of Älyewinn in a few days just because I've been busy. Hopefully I'll actually get to finish writing up dungeon sub-level 1A at some point this weekend, maybe tomorrow. I need to get back into the swing of things and get that module done—it's so close.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dungeon level zero is in the can

I've finished drawing and keying dungeon sub-levels 0A and 0B, the aboveground sections of the Fiendish Temple. They fit together quite nicely on a two-page spread, if I do say so myself.

So that means that now all I have left to do to get this module done are the underground sub-levels (all fourteen of them, oy…) and the appendices. Hey, if I can manage to knock out two sub-levels an evening, this baby could see publication in less than two weeks! Sweet!

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dungeon Cross-Section!

Don't you just love a good dungeon cross-section?

<pic removed>

"It's dead, Jim." …Or maybe it's just come full circle.

I made this post not too long ago about how weird it felt to realize that the OSR has now been around for so long that we can feel nostalgic about its early games—Castles & Crusades, Labyrinth Lord, and what not. That post was spurred by an interaction I saw on the r/osr sub-reddit, where a poster was discussing their nostalgic feelings about Swords & Wizardry, and it just hit me that this whole "let's make old D&D new again" thing has been going on for about fifteen years

That's a longer span of time than I spent playing Classic D&D and Advanced D&D in the 90s.

But that's not the point of this post. No, this is thanks to an entirely different pair of interactions I've had on social media sites recently. And they couldn't be more diametrically opposed.

First, someone reposted this screencap of a page of Dragon Magazine from the c. 1999–2000 release of D&D's 3rd edition:

Man, that brought back some memories. 

Being a dedicated 2nd edition player at the time, I had that copy of Dragon. (Back then, I made sure to buy every copy of Dragon as soon as it hit the shelves and I could scrape together enough cash to afford it.) I followed the 3e previews and teasers with avid interest, and I bought into the hype for 3e that seemed to have seized the whole AD&D-playing community. We all felt that the AD&D system was old and creaky and badly in need of modernization, it seemed, except for a few stuffy grognards who clearly just didn't know what was good for them.

Those old-timers were not treated kindly by the majority of gamers who were eager for change.

Little did we know at the time how right the grognards were. With a few exceptions (namely Basic/Classic D&D and 5th edition), the arc of D&D has largely been one of departure without improvement. 4th edition was worse than 3rd edition, which was worse than 2nd edition, which was in a few key ways worse than 1st edition, which was arguably worse than the original game. (5th edition is not worse than 3rd or 4th editions, but it's not great either. Its particular merits put it about on par with 2nd edition in terms of how good a game it is—and this is to be expected, because its goals are much the same as 2nd edition's goals. Classic D&D, meanwhile, is and has always been a mere streamlining of OD&D and can rightfully be considered part of "0th" edition for the purposes of this chronology.)

So, given this fact—that by and large, every time a major new edition of D&D has come out, it's generally been for the worse—this other interaction is particularly irksome. 

On a different website entirely, I was told by multiple OSR enthusiasts that it's a good thing the OSR is moving away from retro-clones and towards rules-lite mini-hacks because leaving old D&D behind for new and improved games is a good thing

Wow. I mean, just wow.

To see that sentiment expressed within the Old-School Renaissance, and without a jot of awareness or irony, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. That's not the spirit of the OSR. That's the spirit of fantasy heartbreakers and the hype leading up to 3rd edition. But it certainly does seem to be the pervasive feeling now: retro-clones? Passé. The only one of those we need is Old School Essentials (because, didn't you know? the only old D&D edition relevant to the OSR is B/X!). Everyone else can go play Mörk Borg or whatever the flavor-of-the-week is and sneer at the grognards clinging to the old ways, looking to the past with their rose-tinted glasses and their nostalgia. 

I mean, gag. We heard all of that shit before, twenty years ago! Things really do come full circle. Only now, instead of feats and skill points and a la carte multi-classing, the clarion call is for games that claim to do the play-style outlined in the Finch Primer and the Principia Apocrypha better even than OD&D does.


I knew that I was right to get out of the OSR when it started to get weird. But now it isn't just weird anymore. Now it's a movement that's totally lost itself and become the very thing it was born to fight.

Finally working on the dungeon. In the meanwhile, this is how the hex-crawl has been formatted.

Here's a little three-page excerpt from the hex-crawl section of the module.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Finally finished mapping the overworld

Every last little lair, fortress, cave, and mini-dungeon in the Älyewinn module hex-crawl has finally been mapped: drawn, inked, gridded, labeled. My poor drawing-hand… it aches so much right now. I've still got scanning and photoshopping to do. And then I can finally finish laying out and editing part four. I still haven't touched the big dungeon yet, but it's so tantalizingly close. Hopefully I'll have time to work on it in the next day or two.

Nothing else tonight. Just a gripey update. ¦o

UPDATE: And now, at long long last, the hex-crawl portion of the book is done. *GASP* I made it. I can finally work on the dungeon now. Let's see, what all is left?

— Preface & contents
— Page references
— Draw and write up THE DUNGEON from my old notes
— Something like five appendices
— Take a few final editing passes

And then I can finally publish this puppy. And I still haven't gotten around to releasing either Engines & Empires or World of Gaia in print form on DriveThruRPG, because I keep catching little typos and having to re-up the files, which takes a bleeding week for the printer clear each time. UGH. Well, maybe fifth time's the charm. But at the rate things are going? Maybe I'll be able to order proofs of all three books at the same damned time!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Making headway on the hexcrawl

 My Lands of Älyewinn module was originally going to come in three sections (campaign setting, hex-crawl, and dungeon-crawl), but as I've worked on it, it's made more sense to split some of the content off into some extra sections of their own, so now the module will have five distinct parts:

1—The Älyewinn campaign setting
2—The Village of Nibelholt
3—Random & Triggered Events
4—The Nibelholt Region (hex-crawl)
5—The Fiendish Temple (dungeon crawl)

Sections 1 through 3 are done. Written, edited, formatted, laid out. I'm presently working my way through laying out part 4, the hex-crawl, which is a big challenge because many hexes also have mini-dungeons in them, and I have to be very careful to ensure that a dungeon and its key are always either on a single page or on a spread of two facing pages. That's tricky, but I'm about halfway through and it's worked out so far.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Ye Auld Village of Wee Folk

The module's "home base" town. Once again, presented without further comment.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Finally done with the hex-crawl. The module is two-thirds done.

I've finally finished with the sandbox and hex-crawling part of the Lands of Älyewinn module. I can finally, finally turn my attention to the dungeon. 

So far, I've written eighty pages of (single-column, 12-point Times New Roman) text. 14 of those pages describe the campaign setting. The rest is the village key, the hex-map key, the region's various one-and two- level mini-dungeons and monster-lairs, and various tools and bits of advice for running the campaign (rumor tables, encounter tables, factions, randomly-occurring and timeline-triggered events that can alter the hex map). 

I don't know what that will translate to once I start laying out and formatting the book, but it's certainly more than I'd expected to write, particularly before I'd even gotten around to describing the aboveground parts of the Fiendish Temple.

It makes me wonder whether my description of the main dungeon won't seem a little… I don't know, anticlimactic? Since I favor terse descriptions and a "two-page dungeon" format (the room keys on one page, the map of that sub-level on other page facing it).

Well, we'll see what happens once I get into writing it. (And whether it changes very much as I clean up the cartography and pretty up the maps themselves.) But I've been looking forward to this part! I fucking love dungeon design! ¦D

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A random brain-dribbling of generic proportions

After writing any post that touches on politics and internet drama, I always feel like I need to write about something fun to counter it. Not that I'm shy about addressing political topics, mind you; I just hold internet drama in total contempt.

This post won't really be about gaming; not entirely, at any rate, although it does brush against the subject. I was feeling nostalgic not long ago, recollecting my first encounter with a beloved and popular anime that everyone knows, Dragon Ball. Like many Americans of a certain age, I first encountered this series when the legendarily terrible Ocean dub of DBZ first aired on Cartoon Network in the 90s. You know: back when Vegeta didn't kill anyone; he just "sent them to another dimension."

Watching that first fight between Goku, Piccolo, and Raditz was a freaking revelation. I was not an anime-watcher back then; I knew nothing about the medium. But I was an avid consumer of kung-fu movies, and man alive, but DBZ felt like the best of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and every goofy wuxia wire-fu flick put together with the amp dialed up to eleven. The fighters shouting out the names of their special techniques was a pitch-perfect detail. (Even if Piccolo's indescribably awesome makankosappo attack—roughly, the "demonic drilling death-flash"—was bowdlerized into the eternally lame "Special Beam Canon.") It made Dragon Ball feel like it somehow must have have been a shining example of a much broader sub-genre of Japanese action cartoons where fighters did that all the time. (Little did I know back then that Dragon Ball was essentially the trope-codifier for that convention, and while other animes that practiced it did exist, they were all latecomers following on the heels of Dragon Ball.)

Ever since then, Dragon Ball has always influenced my idea of what fantasy martial artists (including RPG monks) should be. If a fantasy martial artist isn't hucking literal fireballs made of chi, then you've got yourself an inadequate fantasy martial artist there. Sure, nowadays I may prefer Street Fighter-level hadouken-blasts to planet-busting Kamehameha-waves, but the principle remains the same. (It occurs to me now that as a youngster, I was also much more of a Mortal Kombat partisan, and I had no interest at all in Street Fighter. Mortal Kombat was way cooler, with its Enter-the-Dragon-feeling setting and its other dimensions full of demons and gods. This was probably another reason why I so quickly fell in love with Dragon Ball.) 

The old Labyrinth Lord version of Engines & Empires had a boxer class in place of the monk which was very obviously influenced by the likes of Dragon Ball, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat (although the name of the class was a reference to the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 and also certain dubs of Bruce Lee movies that translated wushu as "Chinese boxing"). Since those early days, my opinions on the inclusion of fantasy martial arts in western-milieu tabletop games has changed to match my improved understanding of medieval weaponry and armor—but to this day I still include fantasy martial arts as a sidebar option in the E&E Core Rules.

* * *

Let's take a hard 90° swerve into another subject entirely. This post on The Other Side blog—I had already linked to it in my previous post—pronounces that the work of Run-DMC is hereafter to be recognized as the Official Music of the OSR. Not a bad choice at all, though I do imagine that the vast majority of old-school gamers are apt to lean more in the direction of classic rock and metal. For my part, the soundtrack of my gaming life has always been Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kansas, Rainbow, Styx, and suchlike. Rock songs that imply big adventures and epic journeys are totally my bag, at least when it comes to gaming. (On an only very tangentially-related note: Bill & Ted Face the Music? Excellent movie—exactly how a long-dormant franchise should be revived.)

In more recent times, thanks to my longstanding obsession with the online first-person-mêlée game Pirates, Vikings, & Knights II (a venerable Half-Life mod that one can still download for free on Steam, although the player base has all but dried up in the last year or so), I've also discovered some fun and thematic musical groups that fit fantasy themes even better than mainstream rockers—groups like knightly Jaldabaoth and (of course) piratical Alestorm.

(One would imagine that I'm also into steampunk-themed music, like that proffered by Abney Park, but I don't care for Abney Park's techno-y sound. Steam Powered Giraffe, on the other hand, is unquestionably awesome.)

But, gaming aside, far and away my two favorite bands are They Might Be Giants and Flogging Molly. I've been a TMBG fan for many a year; probably since I first saw "Particle Man" and "Istanbul" on Tiny Toon Adventures as a wee tyke. I listed to Flogging Molly unceasingly as a college undergrad—most of their songs comported well thematically with the Irish drinking and folk songs I grew up listening to with my family, stuff like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, songs which were my chief connection to my Irish-American heritage growing up. 

I once ran a short D&D campaign where the adventures had been inspired by the songs of Flogging Molly—as you might imagine, it was a "rebels fight against an oppressive empire"-themed game, and it worked well. I've long desired and often thought about doing the same thing with a campaign inspired by TMBG songs—but in that case, I have no freaking clue what form such a campaign would take, except to say that it would probably be science-fantasy and very weird.

An Irrelevant Dipshit Trolls the OSR. Film at 11.

So you may have noticed posts like this one and this one and this one too taking a principled stand against Nazis coopting the OSR. What is this about? Well, it would appear that a right-wing troll of no meaningful consequence has declared that the OSR supports Trump (click and thereby donate more views to the blog of an insignificant nimrod at your own risk).

Three things.

One: by giving the troll attention, the troll "wins" from his own perspective. That's all a troll wants: attention. Lulz. That's why right-wing trolls troll: they know that we knee-jerk lefties have our bloody principles and that we pathologically have to respond to evil by condemning evil. They know how to take advantage—the same way Lex Luthor knows how to to take advantage of Superman.

Two: as I no longer consider myself a member of the OSR (for game-mechanical and esthetic reasons, not political reasons), I cannot presume to speak for the OSR. I only speak for myself when I say: fuck Trump, and fuck these right-wing assholes who say and believe Nazi-flavored things. (This, despite the fact that they would be the first to whinge at you that they're anti-Nazi too. Hell, the RPG Pundit, who runs the gaming forum where idiots who manage to somehow get themselves banned from flee to and take refuge—a place where the aforementioned unnoteworthy dipshit troll hangs out—used to have as his signature the famous Woody Guthrie line, "this machine kills fascists." These fuckers actually think they're anti-Nazi and "libertarian." Guess that's the tricky thing about being a right-winger: you may not support Nazis and Klansmen and neo-Confederates—but they sure as fuck support you. Wonder why?)

Three: I actually think there should be lots of Nazis in the old-school gaming community. Of course there should! Why would we not want droves of Nazis around?

They have typically have AC 8, about 4 hit points, and save as Ftr1. One well-aimed shot with a revolver is usually enough to do one in, but you can totally get lots of 'em all at once with a fireball, and that's rad. Unfortunately, being 1 HD mooks, they're only worth about 5 to 10 XP a pop.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Because I just *had* to go and add two more dungeons to the campaign module…

I finished drawing up and stocking two dungeons this evening and inserting them into the Lands of Älyewinn module. One is actually underneath the campaign's home base, the dwarf-village of Nibelholt. (It's a nice, creepy-ass barrow crypt with a few rooms that are just plain weird. It was a joy to write!) The other is essentially the campaign's hard-mode, high-level "bonus dungeon," located in the upper left corner of the map, in the hex farthest away from said home base. It's… different and special. I'll say no more about it until I publish—except to complain that took rather a long time to get finished, and I'm still a little bit worried that it's not brutal enough to warrant the amount of treasure I placed there.

Eh, well. It's literally in the most out-of-the-way corner on the map, so maybe it's not such a big deal if it's a teensy bit Monty Haul. 

Anyhow, the point is, I will very shortly be able to get to work cleaning up and re-mapping the big dungeon. The Fiendish Temple. That's where the goods are. I've got some weird-ass rooms in that one. (Much of it was, if I recall correctly, inspired by X2: Castle Amber, but reimagined to suit my particular sensibilities.) That's exciting. 

I honestly can't wait until this thing is finished. I want people to see it.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Module is 50% Done. Outdoor Encounter Tables are Tedious.

That is all.

Well, that's not all. I can say that I've almost finished drafting the text of part 2, the middle of the module, concerning the village and the hex-crawl. The village description is done; the random encounters, random events, and timeline of triggered overworld events is done. (Seriously, why do modules never have these last two features? Stuff still happens in the campaign world, even when the PCs are spending all their time going back and forth between town and dungeon.) I still need to clean up the descriptions of triggered overworld encounters in all the map-hexes.

And I need to draw the village map (gag) and touch up all the maps for overworld encounter hexes that have one-level mini-dungeons in them. Dungeon maps, at least, are fun and cool.

Once that's done, all that I'll have left to deal with is part 3, the big dungeon. Fun, fun, fun.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Nostalgia for Retro-Clones (and also a Rumor Table)

I saw a post on Reddit recently, written by someone who was feeling nostalgic for the early days of the OSR and the "fascinating" feel of Swords & Wizardry. It occurred to me then that I feel the same nostalgia for the beginning of the movement, when retro clones were the order of the day. Labyrinth Lord, for all its quirks—because of its quirks—hits me right in the feels in a way that Old School Essentials never possibly could. And it was nice, for a while, not to have to navigate a minefield of content-free coffee-table books and overcomplicated tomes of discount-rate weirdness and mercurial magic.

Ah, well, such must be the curse of the grognard. We even long the rosy past of twelve little years ago.

Turning to happier matters, I've finally arrived at the point in my module where I have to include a rumor table. I love rumor tables! Especially rumor tables that don't tell you which rumors are true or false! Here's the table that will accompany Lands of Älyewinn: The Fiendish Ethericite Temple—

<pic removed in anticipation of publishing soon!>

Friday, October 2, 2020

"Lands of Älyewinn" is 33% Done!

I have finished writing up the setting chapter! Now I must finally turn my attention to the hated task of writing up a village. I tell you, if I was just doing a dungeon-module here, I'd totally skip this part entirely. But, nooo, I just had to go and settle on a setting with a hex-crawl component… me and my bright ideas.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

You can shove your "implied worldbuilding." I'd rather state things outright.

So I've been doing some writing today, and I've at least finished the first half of Part One of the module, the setting background and central "gimmick"—namely that Älyewinn is a Middle-Earth pastiche inflected by both "ancient aliens" style sci-fi and the infamous "Tom Bombadil is evil" postulate. I've always wanted to take that idea in both hands and dash for the horizon with it; this is the result. 

Read the preview here.

The fact that I'm going to wind up devoting something like eight pages at the beginning of this module to nothing but backstory and setting info will, no doubt, irk some readers. There's a tendency in OSR circles to prize "tight" writing above all else (despite many bloggers' professed love for High Gygaxian prose) and to laud especially the phenomenon which has come to be known as implied worldbuilding—dashing off a single sentence in the corner of your artsy-fartsy game-module that suggests the presence of a certain world-element without actually doing anything at all to explain it.

Say that instead of a skill system, your RPG book has a career list. If you populate that list with entries like "electric goose wrangler" and "haberdasher assassin," that certainly implies that the setting presumed by your game includes such things as electric geese, people who wrangle them, and assassins who either are or who for some reason specialize in killing haberdashers—even if none of these things are ever mentioned again elsewhere in your book.

I fucking hate that shit.

Gaming sourcebooks don't need to be fucking coy. They are supposed to be examples of technical writing. Their purpose is to convey information to the referee! If they can do that while also telling the occasional entertaining story, well and good, but the main point is to get the point across. Sometimes, that entails saying everything that needs to be said. Sometimes, if you only try to say just enough and leave the rest to be merely inferred, you wind up saying nothing at all.

Yes, leave gaps for referees to fill in where appropraite. Yes, trust your readers to have both intelligence and imagination. But, for the love of all that is good, please please please do not merely imply that your setting might have elements which are interesting. Give it elements which are interesting—and do the work to unpack them, so that your readers can see why.

"Engines & Empires" and "World of Gaia" Updates

Hoo-boy. Here we go. The final versions of the Engines & Empires Core Rules and the World of Gaia Campaign Setting have been submitted to DriveThruRPG and are awaiting clearance from the printers before I can order proofs. On the last editing run-through, I made two reasonably major changes that I didn't expect I would be making, but I found that I couldn't help myself:

• I renamed one of the attribute scores, changing "Acumen" to "Wits." Not only does it sound less pretentious, I also think it's clearer. When I see the word "acumen," even though I know intellectually that it means "discernment" or "judgement" or "keenness of perception," on a gut level it just feels like a high-falutin' synonym for "intelligence." By changing it to "wits," it becomes a little more ineffable, which is very purpose behind changing the names of the ability scores in the first place (how or why would you even go about checking "valor" or "wits" with a d20 roll?); it becomes clearer why this is the score that modifies saving throws (you avoid danger by "keeping your wits about you"); and it's just plain easier to say. "Valor, Fortune, Wits, and Presence" rolls off the tongue far better than "Valor, Fortune, Acumen, and Presence."

• I tweaked the prime requisites and level limits of several of Gaia's demihuman classes, changing a prime here, adding or subtracting a maximum level there, all in the name of better balance and characterization. But three classes got a major overhaul: the fay, the goblin, and the gnome. It makes more sense in the context of the Gaia setting (and provides more mechanical breadth to the game) to make fays rogue/mages, goblins fighter/techs, and gnomes rogue/techs. (The goblin class in the E&E Core Rules is still a rogue/tech; Gaian gnomes more or less are this class, but small-sized.) 

And that's it. It's off to the presses, set in stone, no more changing anything. 

I'm back to working on Lands of Älyewinn now, and I'm kind of stuck on a minor task: drawing town maps. There are two towns in the adventure (the village of Nibelholt and the much larger walled settlement of Oboe's Crossing), and I hate drawing town maps. They're boring—and if you do it wrong, it's super-easy to make a town map look like pure ass.

Oh, well. I guess when you commit to writing up a whole adventure module, you have to take the grunt work along with the fun bits.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Lands of Älyewinn: Overworld Maps are Complete

 Hey, so this is neat: I've finished the world map and continent map for Lands of Älyewinn Part I! Check 'em out—

We have the planet Ordwyrd—

The Lands of Älyewinn—

These were fun to draw. Cheers for now!

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Oh, yeah. I do have a dungeon to publish after all.

It occurred to me as I was working on the character classes for Shining Armour today that I also have a neato little five-level dungeon sitting in my big file-folder of old campaigns, just waiting to be cleaned up and published. Back when I first moved to Omaha, I was staying with my brother and some of his college buddies, and they asked me to run Engines & Empires. (This was back when it was a Labyrinth Lord supplement: I ran it for them using the Rules Cyclopedia, the Creature Catalog, and the Advanced Edition Companion—in large part because those were the only books I had been able to bring with me from Indiana.) They weren't at all well-versed in old-school D&D at the time, so I decided that I would show them the ropes by drawing up a multi-level dungeon, and I would drive home the fact that exploring the dungeon was the point of the game by awarding XP for rooms discovered (rather than treasure removed). It was a fun little game that lasted for a good number of sessions; and though I wouldn't ever choose to use those XP rules again, they were satisfactory as an introduction to the concept of a dungeon-centric campaign.

After my brother asked me to run the game, I basically took a day to draw up my dungeon. I didn't have any graph paper at the time, so I just sketched out all the rooms on lined notebook paper. I wanted something reasonably classic, but also a little on the weird side (I was reading through the John Carter books at the time, and they probably had an outsized influence on where I wound up taking the dungeon—but that's a long story for another post). The end result—the Fiendish Ethericite Temple—is, I think, just unique enough to be worth putting out there. Once I've taken the time to clean everything up and make it all properly presentable, that is.

After I finished running the Temple campaign, our little group switched over to Retro Phaze for a very short series of adventures (not enough to be called a campaign, not really) and then disbanded for a longish while before reconvening to play the Shade Isle campaign. This was the second time that I'd run Shade Isle, and it was in my opinion the best of the three runs that setting has had. I mention this because the third time that I ran the Shade Isle campaign (which was also pretty great), that was for my long-running FLGS group at Omaha's Dragon's Lair, and I followed up that campaign by running the Fiendish Temple for that group—only, this time around, I put it in a different setting. When I ran the Temple the first time, for my brother and his friends, I had placed it in Gaia (in the Kingdom of Asgard). But for the FLGS group, I put the temple in another setting altogether, the Heathlands of Alyewinn.

I have three major campaign settings that I return to again and again: Gaia, the setting that I invented in college and have published; Faerith, the setting that I maybe 75% invented back in high school, spring-boarding off the ideas of my best chum from back in the day when he would DM for us all the time; and Alyewinn, a setting that I created whole-cloth purely for the sake of canonizing the lineup of demihumans that wound up being used for the Core Rules edition of Engines & Empires (the adventure-junkie spying elves, gold-grubbing inventor goblins, pastoral sniper dwarfs, and spirit-totem barbarian ogres). So this is a setting that is actually deeply intertwined with the very roots of the E&E Core Rules; they both exist in part because of each other.

And that's how I'm going to publish the Fiendish Temple. Shade Isle is set in Faerith; when I finally get around to drafting everything for that massive hardcover, its first chapter is going to be a guide to Faerith's central continent of Lethandria. And as I work on cleaning up the Fiendish Temple (which I'll be doing simultaneously with my work on Shining Armour), I'm going to place it in a short module along with a broad-strokes guide to Alyewinn (think, the Known Word information that takes up a couple of pages in X1: The Isle of Dread) and a more zoomed-in hex map of the Heathlands, the wild border-country in between all of Alyewinn's civilized kingdoms. 

So: yeah, my next Engines & Empires product is going to be a module, with a world in maybe two pages, a countryside in two more, and the rest devoted to a five-level (actually twelve distinct sub-levels) dungeon where the main gimmick is that about half the levels were made by a wizard who locked them off with magical doors, and the players have to collect so many chunks of magic crystal called ethericite to open the way—but the ethericite crystals are valuable in and of themselves, too, because this wizard has also left a number of magical items lying around the dungeon (weapons, armor, staffs, wands) that the crystals socket into to change their magical properties. It makes for a rollicking good time.

And I also have two more dungeons sketched up for this setting (Cwealmdréor Castel and the Dungeons of Palad-Zôl), so the Fiendish Temple is only part I of III (or maybe IV, depending on how I split things up). I don't know when I'll have the time to get all of this done, but I do have to say, I've missed working on game stuff. It makes me feel more and more like myself again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A First Look at "Shining Armour"

 It's just a little text file at the moment, but this should give eager readers a little idea of where things are going:

Shining Armour Introduction & Preview

I might actually manage to make some real headway on this game this upcoming weekend. I have the class stats, I have the game mechanics, I have sprite art… this may actually happen sooner rather than later. Color me as shocked as anyone.

Also, I'm trying something a little different this time around with Shining Armour. In the past, I've always done drafting and layout at the same time, using MS Word, setting up the formatting first and then writing everything up right there in the proper fonts and columns, tweaking as I go to avoid paragraphs running too long or short to fit into a column as I go. It's tedious, but it works well as a means of creating a nicely formatted book without having to know the first thing about layout-and-design software.

But for Shining Armour, I'm not doing that. I'm drafting the text in Word without paying any heed at all to how it will look in the final product. (Seriously, this is a novel idea for me.) Then I'm going to try and lay it all out using Scribus (because seriously, who can afford Adobe InDesign?). And maybe at the end of this process, I'll have learned a little something about how books are laid out professionally. Sounds fun.

I think I'm going to work on getting as much of the battle-mechanics as I can written up in the near future before I turn my attention to more character class progressions. That way, things will hopefully make more sense soon. (But feel free to ask questions about the little tidbit I've put out so far!)

E&E Retrospective: Castle Thadrian


The only adventure that I've ever actually published is Castle Thadrian, which hasn't been available either in print or as an ebook for many years now. I took it down for a number of reasons, some good and some petty.

• I first removed it from my Lulu page when I decided that I wanted Engines & Empires to be its own game, no longer associated with Labyrinth Lord. Castle Thadrian was dual-statted to work as either an E&E adventure or a generic LL/OD&D adventure with zero tweaking or converting. You'll notice that the adventure is labelled "B1": the old LL-based version of the Engines & Empires Campaign Compendium was actually designed to work with red box or 'Cyclopedia D&D, and it went up to 36 levels, explicitly defining each tier of gameplay as "Basic" (levels 1–3), "Campaign" (levels 4–14), "Dominion" (levels 15–25), and "Epic" (levels 26–36). My original and overly ambitious plan had been to release several adventure modules for each tier, so that E&E would have had a B-, C-, D-, and E- series of adventures (with red, blue, green, and black covers, natch), plus an A-series of accessory supplements. Obviously, since the standalone E&E Core Rules only go up to 10th level and no higher, this is no longer possible (or desirable, for that matter).

• The other major reason that I'm not revising and releasing Castle Thadrian now is that I long ago incorporated its 2½-level mini-dungeon into my favorite long-running mega-dungeon campaign, Shade Isle. So the adventure will still be republished; but it won't be as part of a small module. It'll be a whole chapter in a book that also contains an overworld island, a mega-dungeon, and four other small dungeons like it located elsewhere on the island.

• Finally, as originally designed, the titular dungeon from Castle Thadrian, the Tomb of General Tullius Maximus Diro, has issues. I drew up this dungeon over a decade ago, long before I had internalized any old-school game theory. The dungeon is highly linear, with only one pathway through the rooms in several places—and you have to pull a lever in the basement in order to open the portcullis to the upper level. I need to Jaquays the heck out of the dungeon-map before I can feel good about re-releasing it.

At any rate, here are the floor maps for the dungeon. They aren't the original hand-drawn maps I used in the module; rather, they're recreations (done up in MS Paint of all things!) that I put up on Obsidian Portal back when I was running the Shade Isle campaign for the second time (at the former location of the Dragon's Lair FLGS, here in Omaha).

I'll get around to revising these maps as part of my work on the Shade Isle campaign book for the new edition of E&E. I have… many, many, many more maps for this campaign and its several dungeons, in particular the twelve-level monster that is Shade Abbey. And for some reason, I'm excited about all of this again! 

In fact, the only thing that has me worried is art. I don't like the hassle of procuring proper art assets for RPG books, and I can't draw myself. But I think I need to start learning. High time and all that, if I really do want to commit to this whole small-time adventure-publishing racket.

Anyhow… onto the tactical skirmishing rules! Shining Armor stuff coming up next.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

"E&E: World of Gaia" is revised and once again up for download!

Now, at last, this book is back as well! (It can also be downloaded from DriveThruRPG and printed via Lulu.) Having rushed all day to get this done, I'm… tired. Happy that it's over with, pleased as punch to have both my E&E books back up and in print again, and really very ready to do something else.

But, as promised, I'll still start working on a little Shining Armour preview tomorrow.

Quick Little Update

It's late, I'm sleepy, this post will likely be incoherent. Forgive me if it is.

Engines & Empires is once again up on as a print title. It took a bit of doing to figure out their new interface, but once I did, it was pretty smooth sailing. The thing is, Lulu no longer has an option for uploading ebooks in PDF format (they only do EPUB), so it looks like Lulu will only be useful for print books in the future. On the plus side, I was able to get the book back up for POD right away, and Lulu's printing options now include a premium title with 80# paper (which is bound to be a far cry nicer than the 50# that Lulu used to use for its printed hardcovers… my goodness, but those were trash).

E&E can also be obtained from DriveThruRPG now, just as a PDF download so far (it's the exact same file that I have linked to here on the blog, through the sidebar and the previous post). There's a whole process you have to go through to get print copies up and running on OneBookShelf, including ordering a requisite proof copy before sales go live. Which is cool, obviously that's the best practice, and I'm going through with it now. It's just… slow. At any rate, OneBookShelf's printer, Lightning Source, seems to have higher standards for its hardback book covers (but with some potentially dodgy color quality compared to Lulu according to what I've seen and heard), and the premium option for the interior paper is 70#, which is still better than what I was used to before. So I look forward to seeing what a DriveThruRPG copy of my book is like when I have one in hand many weeks from now. And then I can finally see how it stacks up against one from Lulu.

Wolrd of Gaia is approximately halfway through the editing process, and I think I'm actually managing to turn it into something I wouldn't be embarrassed to have people read and play with. Switching back to full-on demihuman race-classes in the Core Rules was probably the best decision I could have made for the sake of making this book worthwhile. Gaia has lots of demihuman races. And robots—did I mention the robots? There are now separate character classes for playing steampunk versions of Artoo, Threepio, Tik-Tok, Nick Chopper, and the Terminator!

At the moment, I am finished with the rewrites to the character classes and the setting lore, and 10% of the way through editing and proofreading and repaginating the remainder of the book (the descriptions of the ten countries that make up the bulk of the setting: Asgard down; Avalon, Elysia, Hesperia, Illyria, Midjard, Pohjola, Sylvania, Tirnanog, and Utopia to go). With a bit of time and elbow-grease, I should have a download back up by the day after tomorrow.

Once that's accomplished, I definitely need to take a break from working on this kind of stuff. Real life has demands too, after all. But I do want to turn my attention fully over to Shining Armour next: it feels like I can maybe make some headway on that project now that, at long last, E&E is very nearly back to where I want it to be again. And it just feels wrong somehow, to have Engines & Empires back in my life without also having something quick and video gamey to take the place of Retro Phaze.

So: it's still going to be a while before I can actually publish something new, but I think I can maybe put together a little preview. I'm thinking, an example of how Shining Armour's 4d20-based combat system works and the progression table for the Swordsman→Hero character class. (I'm still hung up on initiative, though. Still no clue how I'm going to make that work in this system. Group initiative, with an alternating Player Phase and Enemy Phase, like Fire Emblem? Or individual initiative, like Shining Force, where initiative is determined by each unit's Agility score plus a random roll? It'll take some thinking and some experimenting to find a combination of mechanics that works properly while also being simple enough and quick enough to use at the game-table.)

BIG OL' EDIT: OMG I'm almost done with World of Gaia. Just one country and the back matter left to go!  I've been rocking out to the gorgeous Arcanum theme music while working on proofing and editing, and it's just been perfectly atmospheric for a project like this!

Friday, September 18, 2020


The revisions to the Engines & Empires Core Rules are finally complete! Once again, the book is available for download as a free PDF file right here at this very blog!

Of course, it is at the moment ONLY available as a PDF file, because Lulu went and changed everything about how they work, so now I have to relearn how to publish for print-on-demand all over again. And I'll probably just switch over to DriveThruRPG anyhow, because that's a market where I'll actually find an audience. But I digress. It's 2 AM, and I can figure that nonsense out tomorrow. For now, take a look, peruse, read, enjoy. Me, I'll be refereeing a one shot for some friends and neighbors tomorrow. I can't wait to take the new rules for their first official spin!

I'm back, baby!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

I'm Editing Like a Madman, and My Hatred is My Fuel

I've finally finished editing the chapter on the Fae. I've striven to respond to good feedback and criticism wherever it's been given, and in this case my editing has focused on two main areas. The first is reorganizing the Fae creatures in Engines & Empires around my revised cosmology and alignment rules, which is basically a minor set of tweaks, just cleaning things up and making everything clearer and more understandable, while also making alignment even less of a deal than it was in the previous edition. (Because, seriously, fuck alignment and the Chaotic horse it rode in on.) 

The second is in response to Ynas Midgard's hugely appreciated review of the E&E Core Rules, which has been in large part the only source of constructive criticism I've received. But I've taken the opportunity to whittle away at the full page of linguistics, etymology, and terminology concerning faes and faeries that I had originally placed at the beginning of this chapter, turning it into a much more accessible glossary in a sidebar. All of the same information is still there; it's just off to the side and more digestible now.

But I've noticed something else in the past few days, as I've worked to batter Engines & Empires into the shape that I want it to hold forevermore—to forge it into the gaming equivalent of tempered Damascus steel. 

I've noticed that I'm being driven by my hatred.

It's not all-consuming hatred. It's just a quiet simmer of constant annoyance. Perpetual background ire, if you will. I've been catching up on and reconnecting with the old-school gaming scene again, and I find that it still bugs me. It's the usual suspects: the artpunk stuff, the so-called games and settings and adventures that are really just collections of pithy tables with some avant-garde illustrations making the whole book a dubiously-useful eyesore; the so-called hacks and mini-games that claim to distill the old-school experience down to ten pages or less; the more complete games that nevertheless aren't even vaguely compatible with OD&D or AD&D; and above all, the execrable historical revisionism that continues to this day to define the "OSR play-style." That stuff all still bugs the crap out of me, and for whatever reason, it's driving me to actually work on getting my game back out there and being the change I want to see in the world. It's petty and irrational, but it's constructive.

Hey, sometimes you've just got to take some
good advice from a creepy dude named Sheev.

On the bright side of all things old-school, Grognardia is back! Which is great—although for the life of me, I'm still not sure whether the word "grognard" should properly be pronounced like French or corrupted fully into English. On the one hand, I like corrupting my old-timey foreign words into English. I like to say "HAR-kuwh-bus" and "KWEE-ras" for harquebus and cuirass. I like to say (as English readers at the time did) "Don JOO-an" and "Don KWIX-it." But on the other hand… "nards." If you don't pronounce grognard like a grumbling Frenchman (roughly, "gwã-NYAR"), you can't talk about grognards without constantly saying "nards." It's a pickle, and I'm not sure I have a good solution.

EDIT: Update on the E&E revisions, now humanoids are finally done. Goodness, but that took a long time. That just leaves three categories of monsters—planars, plants/oozes, and undead—and only undead need a major overhaul, with planars just getting tweaked to match the revisions to the cosmology and alignment, and plants/oozes being pretty much fine as they are (they're just getting an ordinary proofing and editing pass). After that, I can finally tackle the last major hurdle: magical items. So close now that I can taste it.
EDIT2: Nothing left of the monster chapter but undead now, which I'll save for tomorrow. Undead are the BIG one—whole new mechanics to add on here (in place of energy drain, which is just a pain in the butt to keep track of no matter what form it takes).
EDIT3: Monsters are finally fricking done. And now I have to stop and not work on magic items because society demands that I go be social and interact with people. UGH.
EDIT4: Half-way through magic items now. Finished potions, scrolls, armors, orbs, rings, and tomes. Have rods/staffs/wands, weapons, and miscellaneous magic still to go. Then there's nothing left but the book's back matter and covers to deal with! I might finish this tomorrow!!!
EDIT 5: That's rods and weapons done; just the miscellany left!
EDIT 6: The MAGIC ITEMS ARE DONE!  Working on the back matter now. Then it's just the index (*gag*) and the cover art…
EDIT 7: OMG now it's just the index and the cover left… so close I can fucking TASTE being done!
EDIT 8: …GROAN. THE GENERAL INDEX IS DONE. And the magic/tech and monster indices are so fucked-up page-number wise that it might actually be faster to simply recreate those fuckers from scratch. Don't wanna. Don't wanna do it. But it must be done, and I'm so close to finished with this madness.
EDIT 9: HOLY CRAP IT'S DONE, and a few minutes before midnight even. I did it; madman that I am, I actually finished revising Engines & Empires. Nothing left to do now but make some PDFs and redo the cover art. Expect a download (and a fresh new blog post) tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Making Progress, Slowly But Surely

Quoting an earlier post of mine from 2017, back when I was working on E&E's Core Rules:
I have statted up all the monsters there are to be statted.  Here's the final tally:

33 abominations
172 animals (kill me.)
47 chimeras and magical beasts
42 constructs
29 fae spirits
44 humanoids and giants
27 planars and elementals
24 plants and oozes
16 undead

434 bloody monster entries in total.

Holy fucking shit.

I should just re-title this book "The Steampunk Monster Manual" and be done with it.
As things stand, I have just finished going back over abominations and animals. The animal chapter is… long. There are more entries in it than several other chapters put together, although those entries tend to be blessedly short and light on or even absent noteworthy description. 

So far, though, I haven't hit any areas where I need to make major changes to the monsters—that's coming for lycanthropes, faes, humanoids (my goodness, do I need to overhaul humanoids), and especially undead. Those are going to be the big hurdles.

Once that's done, its onto reorganizing the magical items chapter (there are lots of little tweaks I need to make to magical items based on things I've learned from my last several long-running campaigns; tl;dr, I'm kind of over mithril as a thing all magical armors and weapons need to be made from), and then the final cleanup—fixing up the character sheets and charts and tables, and (*shudder*) redoing the index.

EDIT: And that's chimeras/dragons in the bag! Onto constructs and automatons!
EDIT2: And that's constructs in the bag too. Now we're onto the frigging fae… This chapter doesn't need any truly major overhauls, but there is a bit of lore getting tweaked around here, so it will involve being meticulous as I go through it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Oh God, my eyes, my sore and tired editor's eyes

I've just finished revising chapter 3 (magic) of the Core Rules. It took all day, but I finished it. Which means that having knocked out chapters 1–3, I've successfully finished going through about 20% of the entire book, and all I have to do to be back where I was before the damned pandemic is to run through chapter 4 (technology) again. Thankfully, that should go much faster: the technology chapter is a bit shorter than the magic chapter, and I didn't make as many ill-advised changes to it during my previous revision pass that I need to renege on now. (I never converted the list of high-tech inventions to an OSE format like I did with magic; I only gave that treatment to the tech's 0-level gadgets and daily chemical preparations, but that's easily fixed.)

Chapter 4 does need to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that it comports with any changes I've made to weapons and combat so far, because the technology rules interact with the weapon rules a lot. Many of the tech's inventions straight up are weapons, after all, so of course that's going to be the case. Hopefully I can do what I've done with the magic chapter and simplify, simplify, simplify, eliminating needless corner-cases and exceptions from the rules wherever I find them. 

But for now, it's late. For now, I sleep.

BIG OL' EDIT: And now I've finished chapter 4. Took longer than I thought, but I'm glad I gave it a thorough pass, I caught plenty of typos and other minor grammatical fuck-ups as I went.

Now it's onto chapter 5, the referee's miscellany, which is where I give all of the rules for building campaigns, stocking dungeons, placing treasure, and awarding XP. It's also where I used to wax poetic about what it meant for a game to be OSR, but now I have to rewrite all of my philosophizing to comport with the tabletop adventure game ethic that I adhere to now. Oh, and chapter 5 is where I've squirreled away the demihuman classes, so as to keep the game suitably humanocentric. 

Question for anyone who reads this: I don't have any mechanic like infravision in my game (I hate anything that renders light-sources unnecessary), but would it still be worthwhile to include other minor special abilities for the non-human character types? I feel like I can put such things back again, now that I've returned to race-as-class and level limits. But I'm not certain that I should.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Retreading and Backtracking

It's been weird to shift from fiction-writing back to game-manual writing. One must still pay meticulous attention to grammar and word-choice, but for completely different reasons. (As I go back through the text of the Engines & Empires Core Rules, I find myself correcting the ever-loving fuck out of my comma use. What is this shit? Did I not know what a fucking clause was when I first drafted this book three years ago!?)

So much of what I'm doing is either a reversion to the way things already were in original/basic/expert D&D, which I've talked about before (eliminating critical hits and d20 checks from the game entirely); or it's an undoing of a change that I had planned on making when I first started this revision, only to think better of it with time (I won't actually end up switching to 1d6 weapon damage across the board after all, and I'm right now deep in the weeds of de-OSE-ing my spell descriptions after already having spent a great deal of time OSE-ing them to death back before the pandemic).

I really do like the full spell descriptions much better. Yes, they add page-count. Yes, they're slightly harder to parse in the middle of a game-session. So what? They've got soul. Moxie. Chutzpah. Literary je ne sais quoi.

And anyway, the sheer, unvarnished, pantswetting fear that I felt at the thought of having to give the OSE treatment to E&E's literal hundreds of monsters—the utter revulsion I felt at the notion of that—was probably what kept me from touching my revision at all over the summer. The thought of not having to do that to either the monsters or the magic items—that I can just give them a swift editing pass, make the changes and I need and want to make, and call it good—that gives me heart. It gives me hope that I can actually do this.

…And then I remember the fucking index. Ye gods.

Friday, September 11, 2020

I think I've got initiative licked

In classic D&D, there's an order of actions.  Everybody can sing it along with me now, we all know the five alliterating m-words—movement, missiles, magic, mêlée, miscellaneous—but for various reasons I chose not to include this particular rule in Engines & Empires. I like it well enough when I'm running vanilla D&D, but it's not without its problems. When lots of players (or monsters) all take the same type of action (e.g. "We all shoot bows and arrows!"), adjudicating what happens when can get a little hairy. And when initiative is bloody simultaneous—look the heck out, because then it's time to dust off the old "DM fiat" gavel.

Many of the problems with classic D&D's group initiative rules can be overcome by using some kind of individual initiative system, like you see in 2nd edition AD&D or any of WotC's d20 editions. But those systems are all dreary and soulless and slow the game down. Nobody likes rolling individual initiative. It's pointless tedium, and there's usually no reason for it. 2nd edition actually fares the worst out of all these systems, because in 2nd edition, every creature and character on the battlefield is rolling an adjusted 1d10 every round, as opposed to the cyclic spread of modified d20 rolls employed only once, at the beginning of 3e/4e/5e battles.

And yet, I feel so much nostalgia for 2nd edition's method, that I wondered recently whether it might not be the key to solving a little problem I have with classic D&D's initiative system.

You see, classic D&D employs group initiative with 1d6 rolled for each side. This means that there's usually 2d6 being rolled, one die for player characters and one die for monsters. So in the vast majority of combat situations, there is a 1-in-6 chance every round of having to go through the hassle of dealing with a simultaneous group initiative situation. (In the long Barrowmaze campaign I ran at my FLGS, it got to the point where, by the time the players were getting up to 3rd or 4th level, every round with simultaneous initiative was being accompanied by a groan from at least three players.) Obviously, the chance of simultaneous initiative could be reduced by simply increasing the die-size—use d20s to make the chance 1-in-20, or heck, roll percentile dice for each side to make it 1-in-100.

But that's only a good idea if you think frequent simultaneous initiative is a bug and not a feature. To me, it's a feature, however bothersome it is to deal with. I like the spicy hint of chaos that it adds to my combats. So, how do we square this circle? How do we keep simultaneous initiative, but make it easier to use?

Obviously, the answer is to replace simultaneous initiative with individual initiative, used only on those rounds where the 2d6 roll turns up a pair.

* * *

In Engines & Empires, characters' actions are organized into moves rather than according to the order-of-actions listed at the beginning of this post. Every creature gets three moves per combat round, and it costs 1 move to move your encounter speed and 2 moves to take most actions. (A few actions, like casting a memorized spell, cost 3 moves.) This more or less neatly organizes movement and combat actions from classic D&D in such a way that very little changes: a character with a speed of 30' (90') can still move 90' in a round by spending all 3 moves on movement, or they can move 30' and attack by spending 1 move on movement and 2 on an attack action. (Without getting into the nitty-gritty of disengaging from a mêlée, the main substantive difference between E&E and classic D&D is that a ranged attacker could now shoot first and then move second, nothing prevents that any longer.)

The basic initiative procedure is as follows:
1. Anyone who wants to spend a full round on total defense or spell-casting from memory has to declare it first. All other actions may be decided after initiative is determined.
2. Each side rolls 1d6, with the high roll acting first.
3. If the monsters win, the ref decides what the monsters will do and in what order, and then plays out all their actions. If the players win, they decide what their characters will do and in what order, reporting this to the ref as a group, who then plays out all of their actions.
4. After the side that won the initiative takes all of its moves/actions, the side that lost initiative takes all of its moves/actions.
5. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's simple enough, while also leaving plenty of room for tactics and planning on the part of the players. If they want to send spells and missiles ahead first, before fighters close for mêlée on that same round, totally viable. They can do whatever they want, in whatever order, when they have the initiative. Likewise for the ref's monsters (and as I'm sure any player here knows, some monsters pull no punches when it comes to brutally efficient tactics, *cough* kobolds and hobgoblins *cough*).

But what about simultaneous initiative? E&E doesn't even have order-of-actions as an organizing principle here. At least in classic D&D, however much of a mess it was, you could still kind of fall back on, "Okay, first all the movement happens; then all the missile-fire…" etc. Just trying to have everything happen all that once would be pure, unmanageable chaos. So… why not, on rounds with simultaneous group initiative, just invoke individual initiative to simulate the fact that everybody's actions are being all mixed up and jumbled together?

This is where the system from 2nd edition comes it. On a round with simultaneous group initiative, every player grabs and rolls a d10 for their character and any henchmen (just 1 roll per player, to keep it simple). The referee rolls a d10 for each type of monster on the battlefield (1 roll for goblins, 1 roll for skeletons, that sort of thing). Ties get broken by roll-offs so that nothing is ever truly simultaneous—i.e., if the rogue rolled 6 and the goblins rolled 6, they each roll 1d10 again, and now maybe the rogue's initiative is 6.7 and the goblins are 6.5, so we know the rogue goes before the goblins—and one can repeat this procedure as needed, which is why d10s are used instead of (say) d20s. Compared to the way things ordinarily work under a group initiative paradigm, this mess of individual actions (inevitably without group planning or tactics on the part of the players!) serves as a good substitute for genuine chaos.

The alternative—the only one I can think of that still organizes things while doing away with the tedium of recording individual initiative rolls on one random combat round out of every six—is to rely on the player-determined order of actions. That is, on a round with simultaneous initiative, first (1) the ref would secretly write down what the monsters do in what order, then (2) the players would report what they want their characters to do in what order, and finally (3) the referee "shuffles" these two lists of actions together into an "action sandwich", alternating between monster and player actions as evenly as possible. But I don't like this solution: it's not random enough, it gives the players too much tactical control, and it still doesn't actually resolve things (or even decide which side gets an action first) without a bit of annoying fiat on the part of the referee. No, it's looking like individual initiative is the better way to go here. That at least doesn't require hardly any fiat, and it brooks no arguments. The dice tell when you go; couldn't be simpler.

* * *

In conclusion, I believe that the best possible initiative system is one that actually combines group initiative with individual initiative, resorting only to individual rolls when the group roll indicates simultaneity. It's elegant, it's functional, and best of all, the outcome is little different from by-the-book Moldvay or Mentzer, just without the headache of needing to adjudicate everything.