Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Songbirds RPG "Review" (Read, Rambling Musings Thereon)

"Songbirds" is a kinda OSR-adjacent fantasy game based on Into the Odd.

I hesitate to call this a review, as I haven't played the game (yet). But having read it I wanted to write about my thoughts. Turns out I had a few... this is long. There's a tl;dr at the bottom.

The game is pay-what-you-want so give it a look if you like the sound of it, and pay for it if you enjoy what you find. (Always, always support independent creators.)

Oh and no one asked me or paid me to write this, I guess that's a thing that needs mentioning?

***

Character & Party Creation

The first page of Game Rules is the basics of character creation, which takes up one page. This makes me happy. There's even a list of item prices on the same page - you could just print this bit out and put it on the table in front of your players, it's all the basic stuff they'll need outside of class abilities.

Character creation itself consists of rolling for stats, of which there are 3. You then have a few more story-focused things you need to decide for your character - all of which offer a basic example to use or a table to roll on, instead of making it up yourself.

I should point out here that so far, this is pretty much exactly what I want from a system, and even the stuff I'm less immediately keen on doesn't give me any cause for concern, because it's so brief and easy to use or bypass.

The suggested fluff for your character is: "What you say you are", "What you don’t say about yourself", and "What you actively hide about yourself". Every sample NPC in the GM's section has these questions answered too; they seem quite useful in that context especially.

Next page: your party is a "Gang", and every player has a role. I do something similar for my 5e game - people can be the mapmaker or take notes on story or make diary entries. It's always nice to see this stuff codified in a game, giving players meta roles to latch onto that are obviously and directly important.

There's then some narrative stuff about your gang and what your characters mean to each other, which is... ok? I could take it or leave it. A table or something here might feel more approachable, though potentially restrictive.

Your gang is in 100 gold pieces of debt. This is good.

Classes

Each class has one major ability that gives them some kind of advantage in play. One big ability per class, that's your "thing". No builds, no paths. I really like this kind of design (I'm using it myself for a thing), and it's a strong fit for the OSR feel of the system.

Some of these classes might be more "powerful" than others, but "power levels" in that D&D 3/4 sense aren't something the game concerns itself with greatly, so that's ok.

The flavour of some of the classes is just fantastic. You can be an Immortal, which means you can't die - until you're bested in single combat, then you die and the person who killed you becomes Immortal instead. Another instant fave of mine was the Princess, who sends half of all the money they earn back home to their village, Pokemon Gen 2 style. The village can then grant you gifts of appreciation, and sends care packages every day. It's all kind of on-the-edge-of-narrative-gaming-but-not-quite, and I feel like I could get used to it.

The Class section is also where one of the most interesting sides of the game comes into play, which is the Player/Character separation. Some classes demand actions or information of the Player, not the Character.

For example, if you're the Drunken Master class, you can get combat benefits by you the Player drinking alcohol. The Storm Caller gets a magic power depending on what the weather's like in the real world as you play.

I can absolutely see why this might put some people off the game instantly - we're here for Immersion dammit! For me though, the concept is intriguing. Songbirds successfully does something through its rules that very few games ever do, at least not well. Reading this book, I can picture the game being played at the table, and I can tell how and why these rules might be fun. It might not sound like much, but that's about the highest praise I can offer a game I haven't played yet.

Art

As the book continues, we get a full page art spread with a small text box giving level progression rules. I think now's a good time to talk about the art.

Sara Kipin is an artist whose work I've admired for a short while now, and her work on Songbirds is fantastic. There's a roughness of line and a watercolour feel, combined with an attention to shape and geometry in places that mingle beautifully on the page. The book switches between black and white, full colour and some more muted palettes, but the whole thing feels consistent.

This is very clearly Artwork, not just design or concept art. Some pieces feel more like traditional illustrations, even tapestry or stained glass. These are things which modern, mainstream books like the 5th Edition rules do once or twice but not nearly enough.

It might have been nice to see more of player characters interacting, or doing things together, rather than these single-character images, but I can live without that.

There are also battlemaps by Dyson Logos, which are characteristically clear and practical.

..."OSR-Adjacent"?

It's a term, far too vague to be useful, that I've been using in my head to describe some things I'm working on, and it fits here. I'm not sure of the author's age, but I've found it to be a fairly generational thing - people who like the OSR style of play, but, having not grown up with D&D or even D&D byproducts (coming fresh into the RPG scene in the last few years) feel no compulsion towards some of its legacy elements.

Again, I can't speak for the author as I don't know them or their work prior to this, but Songbirds seems in keeping with this (read, my) approach to the DIY scene. In the same way that the OSR looks at old school gaming and slays a few sacred cows in order to present a fresh, updated and ultimately very new experience, this "OSR-adjacent" thinking (I need a better name), presumes no cow to be sacred, only situationally nutritious.

Songbirds even mixes in narrative elements like referring to parts of sessions as Scenes and Episodes, which for this cow metaphor would be... I dunno... quinoa or something. No Vancian magic, no spell lists. Magic is straightforward and creative, using a system of syllables similar to the indie one-page mech game Newtype. Highlights of OSR play are cherry-picked and used to great effect (we get a Carousing table!), but there's no sense that a List of Things to Put in Your Fantasy RPG is being followed. You get equipment lists with prices, but they're pared down further than even LotFP's brilliant inside cover tables.

Combat

Combat occupies a very specific level of crunch. There's a lot more here than, say, Maze Rats, but it doesn't approach nearly the complexity of 5th. It still feels very 5th, though? More so than anything else in the game. I doubt I'd use everything here if I ran a session, but I suppose it's nice to have it to fall back on.

Fave bits here: The Death rules offer more potential in three simple options than most systems I've run. The entirety of Plane combat (this book has planes!) takes up about 50 words and is both mechanically solid and evocative.

Other Bits

I can feel this beginning to turn into both an in-depth analysis and a lofty-minded piece about the OSR in general, neither of which I would wish upon anyone. So I'll skim over some other parts of the book that stick out to me:

- It is specifically mentioned that you roll to avoid danger, not to just do stuff. Thank the Lawd. Yet another thing that aligns with how I run games and write rules.

- Vices are mentioned a few times, and there's a simple little rule or two you can use for things like drug addiction that seem like they'd work well in play.

- There's a flat cost to living each day in-game. In fact, more than a few mechanics link back to the idea of monetary cost. This is good in many ways (better than 5th Edition's piles of gold) but I feel like not paying enough attention to money might upset some game elements, which is not a situation I want to be in.

- Anyone can start worshipping a thing and be its "Cleric", that's cool.

- There's a whole section for Dream Quests that you can go on while you sleep off the effects of some huge battle or important event. You hunt an animal using random tables to set up the encounter, plus there are strange, real life consequences for succeeding or failing the Dream. That's Good Shit.

- There's a calendar and characters have birthdays, which is something I wrote about on my first post here.

- The GM's section is thorough and gives good material without being prescriptive. The material also does a job of conveying the implied setting, which I'm enjoying.

- This game stats monsters like 5e wishes it could stat monsters. I want to homebrew baddies for this system straight away. The statblocks and accompanying info are a bit more in depth than most OSR statblocks though, so I can see prep being a bit more work.

- Magic Item samples are solid. You get more of the Player/Character separation mechanics here, which are just great. As far as normal items, it's all very classic OSR, all good stuff.

- Just the level and inclusion of Flavour throughout is *chef kisses fingers*

- There's a mechanic for making friends which I almost glossed over but is hugely elegant. I'm not completely sold on how it would work in play, I'd like to try it though.

- There are different types of damage, one for each Stat it would appear. But the Damage section of the rules only lists one, with the other mentioned in passing in some other sections. Are the others highly situational? When are they used?

- One thing I haven't mentioned much are the GM resources. There are a healthy amount of them and they seem useful, but I'll have more to say about them once I've actually run the game.

Stacking?

Ok so I have to put this somewhere. There's a stacking mechanic, kinda like Dread? But with a set of polyhedrals? I think? It's mentioned a few times in passing as a variant resolution option for certain subsystems, but never codified in one place.

Don't know if I'm being dumb, but while that seemed a fun concept, it wasn't presented in a way that made me feel I could understand or make use of it.

Gimme That tl;dr

In short, I like this game a lot. I feel a certain... kinship, almost, to the design and intent. It needs a good proofread, and I suspect some more playtests, but it's professional enough that I wasn't put off by its presentation. It's generic enough that it fits in with other fantasy DIY games as opposed to hyper-specific storygames, but even so the tone and setting are still the big hooks for me.

Obviously these impressions are all very personal. No game is for everyone, but if you like my stuff I have a feeling you could have fun with Songbirds. I'm going to try running it some time soon myself, I'll post results here if I do.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Bug Wizard

Every Wizard cantrip and 1st Level Spell in 5th Edition, reflavoured into bugs. I like the idea of someone with swarms of bugs living on them, plus I like giving examples of just how easy it is to reflavour things in RPGs.

Cantrips

Acid Splash: A big, bulbous bug that splats itself against the target.
Blade Ward: Armoured insects crawl all over you.
Chill Touch: An oversized, black mosquito.
Dancing Lights: Fireflies.
Fire Bolt: A vermillion wasp with a stinger of white-hot metal.
Friends: Butterflies dance about you, pinkish powder falling from their wings.
Light: A little fat glow-worm.
Mage Hand: A particularly dextrous dragonfly.
Mending: Ants swarm all over the object and fix it up.
Message: A fly shoots over to the target, relays your message, and returns with a response.
Minor Illusion: Put a beetle on your tongue and your thoughts turn into sound and image.
Poison Spray: A big stinkbug's fart.
Prestidigitation: A spider on the back of your hand bites down, now your hand has powers.
Ray of Frost: A hairy bug with a freezing bite.
Shocking Grasp: Centipedes on your hand deliver the shock through their mandibles.
True Strike: A moth whispers the enemy’s secrets in your ear.

1st Level

Alarm: Little insects lie in wait and report intruders.
Burning Hands: Crush a little red ant in your palms, then spread your hands.
Charm Person: Crickets play music in and around your words.
Chromatic Orb: A bunch of jewel beetles, all different colours.
Color Spray: A butterfly’s dazzling wings project the light.
Comprehend Languages: Eat a worm.
Detect Magic: More moths whispering secrets.
Disguise Self: Crush a beetle and brush the powder in a symbol on your forehead.
Expeditious Retreat: Ant swarms underfoot.
False Life: Eat an earwig.
Feather Fall: Butterflies hold you up as you descend.
Find Familiar: A little pentagram on the floor, a black beetle sacrificed in the centre.
Fog Cloud: A fat bluebottle explodes into bluish cloud.
Grease: Slug goop.
Identify: How do these moths know all these secrets?
Illusory Script: The ink is crushed beetle ichor.
Jump: Eat the spell’s listed material component.
Longstrider: A bug’s mandibles bite you, then you rip off the body and leave the dying head.
Mage Armour: Millipedes in your clothes.
Magic Missile: The vengeful ghosts of bugs from previous spells.
Protection from Evil and Good: Little bees with unnatural patterns bumble around your head.
Ray of Sickness: A bug with a poisonous bite.
Shield: A cicada’s carapace, animated with magic, takes hits for you.
Silent Image: Swallow a certain beetle, without chewing.
Sleep: Clouds of dust left behind from a giant butterfly’s wings.
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter: A crane fly whispers something in the target’s ear.
Tenser’s Floating Disk: Flying ants form a raft like red ants do in water.
Thunderwave: Crush a bug in your hand, only the sound is somehow amplified hugely.
Unseen Servant: Helpful bug ghosts.
Witch Bolt: A flurry of locusts swarm unending from your sleeve.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Misconceptions about Random Encounters

So I've recently come across a bit of discussion around Encounter Tables. Y'know, there's a table and you roll a die, depending on what you get there's a different thing that shows up in your game all of a sudden.

A lot of people seem to avoid them or think they're dumb, and I think this is largely due to misconceptions about how they're used. If they really, honestly, don't fit into your style of play that's cool. I didn't like them either to start with, or rather didn't appreciate the intent behind the design.

I flippin' love 'em now though. As a random table convert, I'm going to address someof the false impressions I have seen floating around that I personally had too, and why they're not totally accurate.

(ps if you're reading this post and have a problem I don't address here, leave a comment and I'll happily discuss it with you!)

***

Problem: "This table is just a boring list of monsters to fight. I want something better than straightforward combat encounters."

Ok, you actually have two problems here. Your first is that you see a generic, boring monster and don't immediately think of more interesting ways to use it, adapt it, work it into something you'll enjoy running and your players will enjoy fighting. It's ok - that's an instinct you'll develop over time as you run more games and find your groove.

The second, much clearer problem is this: what you are looking at is not an encounter table.

Back in the day, every dungeon worth its salt had a Wandering Monster table. The idea was that if you stayed in one spot too long - to rest or try to pick a lock seven times or copy down all the ancient runes carved into the doorway into your sketchbook, then a monster would show up to ruin your day. It made dungeon crawls more fun and dangerous, pressing players for time and forcing quick thinking and creative plans.

A Wandering Monster table is not a Random Encounter table. If the table you're looking at just has monsters to fight, that's a different thing. Random Encounter tables are full of all kinds of encounters - some potentially violent, some not. Maybe all not, even.

(It's also worth pointing out that, as far as I'm aware, AD&D only had a one in thirty-six chance of a random monster being violently disposed towards the party. Who says those monsters have to be combat encounters anyway?)

Problem: "This encounter is random and therefore has no relevance to my campaign/story."

It does now! A random table is an excuse to exercise your creativity and work something new and disparate into your campaign in a way you wouldn't have thought of before. Isn't it great when your players go off the rails and do unexpected things? Now they won't know what to expect either - because you don't yourself!

You shouldn't have a story planned out for your players to follow like breadcrumbs, with occasional side missions. That's novel-writing talk, that's video game RPG talk. Snap out of it! Make a situation with inherent tension, buttons to push - and then drop your players in the middle of it with a clear goal and see what happens. The story comes during and after play, not before.

Problem: "The content of this particular table isn't relevant to my campaign."

Ok, fine. There are other tables that are, guaranteed. Find a better one, or make one yourself if your campaign is super-specific. What kinds of things is someone likely to come across in this part of your world? Think of a few, note them down, and roll for it.

Problem: "I really don't like one or two of the entries, the rest are fine though."

You're a GM! Since when did you let the rules as written stop you from doing something? Just swap those entries out with better ones, or make a note next to them to ignore them and roll again.

Problem: "That's way too much prep work! I have to think up what happens in all these encounters? I'll just stick to my one pre-planned story beat, thanks."

You don't have to prep each encounter first. You don't have to prep any of them. That's why you have the table.

Read the table over before you play and let some initial thoughts start to form. Then when you play, roll, read the entry, and just fly it by the seat of your pants.

A good encounter table will have enough information to run the encounter right there - you might have to look up stats in the monster manual, but that's fine, you can read. Use the information, let your mind fill in the gaps.

There is no difference to your players between something you read from a book and something you made up - they are both just as real within the game world from the moment you say them out loud.

Problem: "This encounter would add an entirely new complication into my tightly-knit story."

What did we just say? No stories. Go and write a book.

But seriously, maybe your campaign is pretty finely tuned, with just a few intricate moving parts interacting with one another, and anything too out of the blue would ruin that. I'm not saying random tables work for every campaign. But assuming you're not running a murder mystery or something - deal with it. Add those complications. Embrace the randomness.

Which leads me to:

Problem: "It's too random. I like to know what's going to happen next and have a handle on things."

You roll a twenty-sided die every time something even remotely interesting happens, and you're claiming to have a problem with randomness?

***

This post brought to you by Encounter Tables. I made some a couple of weeks ago, you can check them out here. If you want better ones written by better writers, some of my favourite writers of random tables are Zak S, Jeff Rients and Scrap Princess. Look em up.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Some Current Inspirations (not sponsored by POCARI SWEAT)

Just a little mini-post while I work on some slightly bigger stuff. Here are a few (more or less) D&D related things I've been stealing from recently for my D&D game:

Ben Milton reviews OSR stuff here. He's good at it, and has excellent taste as far as I'm concerned. Plus he made an RPG called Maze Rats that looks really simple and fun to run. I definitely want to try it some time.

Matt Finch over at Uncle Matt's D&D Studio is great. He has an Actual Play series called Swords of Jordoba that uses cool terrain and a little camera for the miniatures' point of view!

Critical Role is the biggest D&D Actual Play out there, they just recently started a new campaign so it's a great time to jump on. You can watch the first episode on YouTube here, on Twitch, or listen to it on any podcast service.

Delicious in Dungeon is maybe the best dungeon-crawl-esque piece of fiction I've ever read, with the added bonus of being about food. I learned to cook in a Japanese kitchen so I have fun recognising a lot of things, but even if you don't know Japanese food at all, this is a wonderful series. It's also one of the most (if not the most) popular current manga series by a female author/artist. Amazon link to the first volume here.

My girlfriend and I play YuGiOh sometimes, it's fun and the monsters on the cards are Hugely Varied and Supremely Dumb. The creator was a huge D&D fan and even though it's evolved from there, you could put any of those creatures right back into your game. Scrap Princess did a cool post here about the design of some of the weirder monsters, which I appreciate as visual art is not my background.

So Pocari Sweat is a drink in Japan (yes it's called Sweat, you drink it), it's kind of like Lucozade or something. It's not great, I mainly just like the name. Anyway, twitter user @pabl0km shared a couple of old ads for it from back in the day, and... just look. The whole thing is layer upon layer of utterly ridiculous, and I love it. That's a whole campaign setting right there!

On a similar(???) note here's a video from an old TSR product that was never released. Send it to your players if you're starting a Spelljammer-type space fantasy game.

Etrian Odyssey is a supremely old-school dungeon crawling game series on the DS and 3DS, where you make a party of fantasy adventurers and take on a megadungeon based in, on or around the World Tree from Norse myth. The latest one, Etrian Odyssey V, is probably the best so far, I'm having a blast with it.

I want to get into pulp fantasy since that's the genre we're all playing in here, so I just got the complete Conan series to read through. One story in so far, no real opinions yet. It's free on Kindle, check it out.

And of course all the rest of the blogs in the list on the side. They're like this one, but written by smarter and more interesting people.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Wyrmling Hive (a Level One adventure)

There has been an outbreak of thefts in town since winter ended. Victims report only gold coins and other gilt objects stolen.

Ohannes Quent, local scholar of magical creatures, or any player character knowledgeable in such matters, will suspect this to be the work of kobolds.

Kobolds

The kobold life cycle is an odd one. A single female dragon makes a lair in a cave, and lays a thousand eggs without the need for a mate. These do not hatch into dragons, but rather wyrmlings, the larval stage of the kobold. Only one egg will produce an heiress, and that solid gold egg will be lain only when the dragon has eaten her weight in gold.

Kobolds - all male, except for the stronger, winged females - are sterile worker drones. They are weak and cowardly but incredibly cunning, and are tasked with bringing gold back to the lair for their queen to consume. They also nibble the odd coin themselves and vomit up an ambergris that feeds the wyrmling young.

The Caves

The lair is in a hillside cavern beyond the town border. Hexagonal cave rooms have been hewn out and are maintained by the kobolds. In the depths, the fat dragon queen slowly makes her way through a pile of treasure.

There is an armoury of scavenged weapons, a few sleeping chambers, a mess hall littered with the bones of livestock, and a small stash of non-golden spoils. Deeper still is a nursery with hexagonal nooks carved all up the walls, each containing a single pale, larval wyrmling. They will wail if disturbed and can be placated only with kobold vomit.

The dragon's lair is a natural cave strewn with golden coins and trinkets. The dragon lays eggs and eats. One month from now she will have eaten enough gold to lay her dragon egg, and she and the winged kobolds will fly out in search of a lair to place it in. She nurses the baby dragon with royal jelly that she excretes when brooding. Kobolds bottle it up for when baby gets hungry - it also functions as a healing potion.

More Adventure Hooks (1d6):

1: The kobolds took a holy relic from the town temple, the priests want it back.
2: The kobolds stole a baby, her fathers want her back.
3: The dragon just left her egg in a nearby cave, get in there and steal it while she’s away.
4: One of the kobolds stole a cursed helmet possessed by a lich’s spirit, he will incite uprising.
5: The town is small and defenceless; the kobolds feel no need to be sneaky. A siege!
6: The players play kobolds for this session.

Variant Kobolds:

The males each have a stinger – they can use it once but then they die. They’re really scared about that part, so they probably won’t do it unless the queen is in danger. 2d6 poison damage and a minute of crazed hallucinations.