Friday, 17 August 2018

Journeylands

"and now for something completely different"


tl;dr: made a game

JOURNEYLANDS
is a modern-fantasy sandbox mini-RPG about travel and adventure. Players journey around a sprawling, magically tinged landscape, in a vehicle that they all share and live in together.

sketch by Krzysztof Maziarz (the final art is bonkers good you guys)


MECHANICS: DO WE GOT EM? WHAT THEY BE?

J'lands, mechanically, IS:
- Fiction first. Gameplay is mostly just talking and cool ideas, with mechanics as a frame to fall back on if needed, rather than a driving force of play. Like OSR stuff.
- Player-driven. Players can customise their characters (no "builds" though), and customise their vehicle, and I guess "customise" their adventure: go where they want, see what's there. Sandbox!
- Light. It's small - nay, tiny. I gave my group the draft rules and they were done reading and basically understood the whole game in a few minutes.
- My kind of thing! I made this game because I want more of this kind of game to exist. No idea if anyone else will dig it, but I'm happy with it.

J'lands, mechanically, AIN'T:
- A narrative game. It's got more storygame DNA in it than, say, B/X, but the influence is subtle. It's basically a traditional RPG.
- Comprehensive. It's bare bones, intentionally so. Do what you want with it, build on it, etc. "Rulings not rules". It's a little mini-game, not a fantasy epic.
- Grimdark Poverty Simulator 3000. Not so much with the impotent characters and resource scarcity and to-the-bone survival of many games in the same sphere. Still deadly enough, tho.
- A game-changer. I didn't design this to blow people's minds with some innovative mechanic that explodes the untapped potential of emergent gameplay. It's just a fun game.


Btw, only on an RPG blog would I have gone this far in describing the game just talking mechanics. I know that's what you nerds crave: cold, hard FACTS.

Having said that, here's the fluff:

this but it's a truck stop


PICTURES AND STORIES AND IDEAS AND FEEEEEEELINGS

By default, the setting is the dried-out seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, an indeterminate number of centuries in the future.

It's not Mad Max!! This is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland: it's post-post. If you want a harsh and oppressive future, you've come to the wrong place. The world can be dangerous, sure, and mechanically speaking death is as much a possibility as your average OSR if you play your cards wrong, but this is a game about living despite all that: about friendship, about people coping and making a life.

The tone is silly-serious, goofy and heartfelt and hopeful, with all the Gen Z post-ironic earnestness I can muster. (I love making content for this game. It comes easier to me than almost any other game I've written. it's so fucking dumb.)

this but if they all lived in a VW campervan

For reference on the setting and tone? Think something like Adventure Time, that's pretty close. The Borderlands games are a better comparison than most other madmaxian fare.

It's quite... "anime"? One Piece is a huge inspiration: imagine that but someone drained all the water out and you've got a decent image of a Journeylands campaign. Also maybe Cowboy Bebop... actually, no, more like Space Dandy. Early issues of Dragon Ball, Pokemon without the 'mon.

Also feel it's worth mentioning that the setting is COMPLETELY made for the purpose of being played in. It's not some fantasy opus I tacked rules on to, it's my pitch for the ideal setting in which to game with the rules I made.

Travel! People, places, wacky and fun things to explore and find and see and do!

Journeys!

I liked this game
HOW DO WE PLAY IT?


The playtest version of the rules is available now on my Gumroad store. It's free! I'm calling it the Just The Gears version - all the base mechanics are there, but the game content is up to you.

Well, not completely up to you - this is a new world and system, and you might not want or be able to convert adventures into it. And that's a pain for this system since the world and the "fluff" is most of the game (fiction first!).

So I'm sharing some of my home game prep with youse lot: every day for the rest of this month I'll be uploading a small bit of Journeylands content to this blog.

Download the Just The Gears version, use the content from the blog or some up with your own, and GM a game or two for your friends! It's fast and fun and sessions only take an hour or two in my experience.

THEN WHAT?

I'd like to at the very least get some art done for the game!

Then, ideally, I'd write up a cool little 'zine-style booklet: all the rules, several pages of gameable content to start you off with, a GM's Advice Guide... maybe even a Japanese-style "replay"! I envision a fun little product, almost like a kid's comic, full of content and Things to Make and Do.

If you want that to happen, you can:

- use the pay-what-you-want feature on Gumroad to help fund it
- join the fine folks over at the Graverobber's Guild (my recently launched Patreon)
- show your interest online, give me feedback, tell people who you think would like the game

If the interest levels are there, I'll consider launching a small Kickstarter campaign next month to fund it fully. If not, I'll keep plugging away at things in my own time, and put out a slightly more bare-bones product as and when it's ready in the distant future.

Thanks for your time and support! Hope you enjoy the new game :)

PS: "What about the Graverobbers RPG?" Yeah, I make a lot of games. I'm still working on it! Join the Patreon to get more regular updates, sneak peeks and playtest material for that.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

and we're back!

Sorry for scuttling off for a few weeks! Moving house is a whole thing. The blog will be back underway in a big way very shortly!

Here's what's been going on in the meantime:

Work on the Graverobbers RPG continues apace. (Refresh your memory with the playtest document right here.)

The fine folks who support this blog and my game-making over at the Graverobber's Guild just got a whole big new chunk of the ruleset, as part of the general updates and behind-the-scenes stuff I share there. Consider donating just $1 a month to become a Guildmember yourself!

Over on Reddit, the peeps at r/osr just added this blog as one of their "favourites"! If you've come our way via that route, welcome. It feels nice to be listed up there, a couple of those blogs are ones I read regularly by proper actual writers and everything.

There's a Kickstarter on for a new edition of Troika! I'm not affiliated with this in any way, it's just a good game.

And just as a little aside, Steve Crompton, who works on Tunnels and Trolls, stopped by my review of their Japan magazine and thanked me for it! I know we're a small pond here in RPG-land, but my lil blog catching the eye of an actual big fish feels nice. The guy is a proper industry vet. Thanks for reaching out, Steve!

I don't think I've linked this here before? On my Twitter I mostly just retweet cool fantasy-ish art, so follow me if you want that and game stuff in your timeline.

*

Other than that, I've been plugging away at a whole bunch of good new stuff that will be with you very shortly. I'm excited for what's to come!

In fact, I think I hear an engine revving in the distance...

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Magic as Language

A farmer who has never had the means nor the opportunity to travel much farther than the next village would likely describe the incantations of a local witch as "the devil's tongue". A pale scholar who sits in a library tower and philosophises pretentiously over various texts and theorems and calls himself a wizard would describe these utterances as "arcane" or "spells". To each, this is a strange speech, its true meaning lost to time.

Both are wrong. There is little difference between the language used to bring about magics and the common languages in which mortals speak.

Fireball

A wizard will learn many spells through their studies, most often starting with a simple command to create a ball of flame. What wizards insist on calling a spell, however, is little more than a sentence - badly pronounced due to centuries of being written and rewritten without any scholar ever bothering to retrace the grammar back to its source. A spellbook is a phrasebook, and wizards are tourists, reciting commands phonetically.

In the case of Fireball, the sentence is spoken in the language of fire, and its words are an instruction to the spirits of flame within the air to burn and then falter. These are simple words, comprising most of fire's language, and so the command is easily understood, despite the rough accent of humanity. Fire longs to burn, and falters when it must, and so all the command requires is a tone of authority for the spirits to heed it and obey. One thing wizards have never lacked is a sense of self-importance, and so that commanding tone comes naturally - this "spell" is considered an easy one.

Knock

The magic used by thieves is of the same make, though wizards would never acknowledge or understand this. When a hand-mage picks a lock with a spell, she is simply reciting a sentence in the language of trickster spirits, passed down from thief to wily thief, promising a honeyed seedcake if the spirit will indulge the speaker in spreading a little chaos. That thieves make regular offerings to trickster spirits at shrines is seen as a separate tradition, its purpose misremembered.

Control Weather

Some spells are more difficult, this is true, but not for the reasons scholars believe. The spell to command storms, for instance, is considered far more advanced and powerful than conjuring a simple fireball. There is however no inherent difference in the incantations themselves, beyond the fact that a cloud's language has more complex grammar than a flame's. Where the difference lies is in an area wizards pay little heed to: listening, as well as talking.

It is not enough to learn a sentence and speak it to command a storm. A conversation must be held, with the speaker paying close attention, involving themselves in the politics and passions of the sky. Contrary to popular understanding, storms care little for where their rain may fall or their lightning may strike - what's important to them is what's happening up there. To truly conjure a storm, the wizard must speak with the cloud on its level, heart-to-heart, and empathy is not a thing that is taught in wizarding schools.

(It is true of course that spells of "command storm" exist, recorded on scrolls in flowing glyphs, lauded by scholars as things of great power for only the most adept mages. In truth they are nothing more than long-winded diatribes that pay no heed to their audience's temperament. A storm does not come because a wizard's spell commands it, but because after a minute or so of chanting and hand-waving the storm gets bored of the little man in the funny hat who suddenly started speaking its language, and wants to get the whole thing over with. Wizards being struck by stray lightning bolts is the storm's aim, not a side effect.)

Witch Magic

The magic of hedge witches is seen as backwards, rural, too overly concerned with small things and not nearly high-minded enough for scholarly pursuit. The truth is that a witch is simply someone who takes the time to learn the languages of the local spirits, beyond simply reciting phrases and barking orders. She devotes time and attention, forms relationships, makes requests and gives back in return. She does not simply recite a command from rote memorisation when she makes a fire appear, but instead greets the fire spirit with a song, asks it how its day is going, welcomes it into her hearth.

Common folk and scholars alike are suspicious of how witches will live in one place all their lives, away from society. They simply can't get their heads around the idea that the woman living alone in the hut by the forest is not lonely at all, but surrounded by friends with whom she communes and converses each day. A witch's house will famously attack intruders of its own accord, and this is no myth - the spirits that dwell there with her are simply looking out for their friend.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

d6 by 6d6 (a hexmap)



Travelling from sunrise to sunset gets you across about 2 hexes.

Expeditious travel, such as journeying by road, downriver, or with a fair wind at your sails, gets you across 3 hexes in the same amount of time.

Roll for Seasons:
1: Winter
2: Winter into Spring
3: Spring
4: Summer
5: Autumn
6: Autumn into Winter

HEXES

Roll once on a table for an encounter if needed, or twice to establish an interaction in progress that the players come across.

1,1: Palace of Devotion.

More a fortress than a palace, this is the Church’s seat of power in the south.

Wandering the Halls:
1: Church guard, soldier.
2: Church official.
3: Visiting northern dignitary.
4: Pious local.
5: Church guard, commander.
6: Prisoner.

1,2: Blasted Heath.

A foggy moor, lousy with steep drops and scree.

Through the Mist:
1: Northern witches, gathering heather.
2: Church guard, wary but dutifully patrolling.
3: Wild goats.
4: Dim green fires that laugh like children.
5: Nettles, briars, thistles. This way looks like hard going.
6: A sudden fall.

1,3: Greenspring Hills.

These rolling dales mark the edge of the northern mountain range. Tributaries flow south-west through Matsudaya Town (2,2), into Lake Bulana (3,2), all the way to Crag City (4,1).

Among the Hills and Valleys:
1: Northern peasants, fleeing south.
2: Church guard, on patrol.
3: 1d4 wild goats.
4: The flowers here… roll 1d4. 1: sing, 2: cause drowsiness, 3: cause sickness, 4: are nice.
5: 1d4-1 people with fishing nets on their way to the river. Rolling a 1-1 means you find a net.
6: A freshwater mermaid, on a traditional pilgrimage to the river’s source.

1,4: Thicket.

Dense woodland, ancient trees. Famed as a hideout for ne’er-do-wells.

Sounds Echo:
1: Birdsong.
2: The hollow knocking of woodland spirits talking to the trees.
3: A branch breaking under an outlaw’s heavy step.
4: Silence. Poachers.
5: The calls and rustling of wild game, roll 1d4. 1: deer, 2: pig, 3: grouse, 4: pheasant.
6: A northern witch humming to herself as she gathers mushrooms.

1,5: The Fangs.

Tall, grey mountains that make the path northward treacherous.

There! What Was That, Behind That Rock?:
1: The bogeyman. He can only eat lost things and will ask you very nicely whether or not you are.
2: Wild animal, roll 1d4. 1: bobcat, 2: sheep, 3: goat, 4: some birds.
3: A shepherd from the north, looking for his lost sheep. Doesn’t speak the local language.
4: A pterosaur rider, out on flight training from the gulch below (2,5).
5: A huge bird.
6: A small stone falls from higher up. Roll again, ignoring results of 6, for what knocked it down.

1,6: Old Man’s Tooth.

Tunnels in the tall, bare mountain. What some call a dungeon.

Also In the Tunnels:
1: Explorers, like yourselves.
2: Mummies.
3: Cave dwarves.
4: Hungry oozes.
5: Skeletons.
6: The Great Worm.

2,1: Old Battlefield.

When the Church first arrived from the north, they were met here with sword and spear. The only 
major conflict between the two factions left this place cursed.

Among the Blood-Stained Fields:
1: A skeleton. Impossible to tell which side they belonged to.
2: Old Church weaponry, the metal rusting over.
3: Old local weaponry, the wood and bone brittle with age.
4: They are called grave-worms, charnel-boys: little pale folk that scavenge such places.
5: Church officials travelling between the town (2,2) and the Palace (1,1), with guard.
6: A lone monster, taking its chances beyond their territory. Roll on the table for (3,1)

2,2: Matsudaya Town.

A cluster of traditional buildings on both banks of a river, interspersed with modern stone structures. The first place to accept the Church after the initial conflict.

Meeting-Places:
1: The local branch of the Church. Temple meets sheriff’s office.
2: A local home. Simple yet comfortable, low wooden walls around a central hearth.
3: A small, old shrine of the local spiritual tradition.
4: One of many bridges and walkways crossing the wide river.
5: A local inn. Warm, full of cheer, a boar or pig on the spit and salted rice snacks to spare.
6: The main bridge. Ornamental and grand. Seasonal blooms are hung here during festivals.

2,3: Rice Farm.

Flooded fields where local farmers grow rice the traditional way. A water wheel and old irrigation system diverts the water from the Greenspring Hills (1,3).

In and Amongst the Paddies:
1: Fish that eat pests and regulate the water. It’s said one in a thousand is made of solid gold.
2: A rice farmer, inspecting or harvesting the crop. Often accompanied by a trained dog.
3: Church guard on patrol. They tax the farm’s production.
4: A farmer headed to the brewing house, where they make rice wine.
5: A vagrant, trying to steal a meal. Sometimes monkeys do the same.
6: A freshwater mermaid, lost and a little confused.

2,4: Hills.

The land here rises and falls every which way. The locals are used to hiking.

Also Wandering the Trails:
1: Church guard, on patrol.
2: Monkeys or birds calling in the trees.
3: Farmers carrying wares.
4: Bandits.
5: Kids with butterfly nets.
6: An old, moss covered golem. Not particularly strong or fast, but looking for something to do.

2,5: Dry Bone Gulch.

Deep canyons and gorges at the edge of the Mesa (2,6). It’s said that before the land dried up under the hot sun, a river flowed through here from Mt. X (1,5).

In and Amongst the Stone Walls:
1: Climbers, digging carefully for fossil currency. Belemnites exchange for 1 coin, ammonites 5.
2: Pterosaur riders. The tribe that lives here form deep bonds with their flying mounts.
3: A pterosaur nest, with tribesfolk tending to the eggs.
4: A trickle of water from a spring, lush green plants clustered around.
5: Rogue, independent antlions, exiled from the colony (4,6).
6: Roll 1d4. 1: toad, 2: rhinoceros, 3: trilobite, 4: boar. Giant, headed to a mudhole to wallow.

2,6: Mesa.

A plateau of barren rock. None venture here.

Sights, or Mirages:
1: A shallow puddle of murky water by the shade of a dead tree.
2: Vulture-dragons circle overhead.
3: A bleached skeleton, roll 1d4. 1: human, 2: tiny animal, 3: enormous beast, 4: utterly alien.
4: A tiny underground nest, lizards or foxes.
5: A crystalline growth protruding from the ground. Contagious.
6: Endless, punishing heat.

3,1: Here be Monsters.

This land is claimed by huge and terrible beasts.

This Monster Has:
1: Matted hair as thick as armour.
2: Claws like sharpened tree trunks.
3: Teeth like the brutal steel swords of the north.
4: Bony plates or spiked protrusions, hard as stone.
5: Spit that burns like fire.
6: Too many… roll 1d4. 1: heads, 2: limbs, 3: eyes, 4: mouths.

3,2: Lake Bulana.

Said to be the place that the moon spirit came to meet his lover. A tranquil shore to the east, while terrible things roam the west bank (3,1).

From the Clear Water:
1: A huge stone, hurled by something from the far shore.
2: River fish. Folk often come here with nets and spears.
3: A deep creature, its ensnaring tentacles disguised as weeds.
4: The glint of a dropped coin. Or a shell that looks like a coin, perhaps. Mermaids like those.
5: A river raft, taking barrels down to Crag City (4,1).
6: Freshwater mermaids, frolicking.

3,3: Roadside Chapel.

The deacon here offers respite and runs services. Most come for the advice of the anchorite, a northern woman, self-sequestered to a life of study and pious devotion.

Sounds Heard in Passing:
1: The bell in the church tower, or the whining of White Michael, the ghoul who lives up there.
2: The deacon leading a solemn reception in the graveyard.
3: Exultant singing from the church hall. Praise be! O, Holy Father!
4: The calm, quiet voice of the anchorite, offering consul to a local farmer.
5: Silence. Church officials are within, discussing private matters.
6: A thief taking roof tiles.

3,4: Crossroads.

Four roads converge, and a legendary alehouse marks the crossing-place, its namesake. Local rice brew, imported rum, hot meals and warm beds are all on offer.

Drinking Companions:
1: Church guard, enjoying time off.
2: A local drunk, belligerent.
3: A family enjoying a meal on the road.
4: Friends from Santoc Caladine (5,4), gossiping and merry.
5: Farmhands taking a breather.
6: Criminals conducting business.

3,5: Last Chance.

A little trading post on the edge of the arid east.

Passing Through:
1: Church guard, keeping a watchful eye.
2: Eastern traders, riding flightless birds and peddling colourful cloth and amber.
3: Farmers with bags of rice or carts laden with vegetables and cured meats.
4: Pterosaur riders from the canyon (2,5), trading fossils and fruits for supplies.
5: Local craftsmen. Tools, rope, all sorts, made of plants and wood and bone.
6: From the salt flats (4,5), roll 1d4. 1-3: honest salt traders, 4: bandits.

3,6: Savannah.

A dusty, rocky plain dotted with trees and stubborn grasses.

Wanderers:
1: Eastern traders. Wrapped in many-coloured cloths and riding flightless birds.
2: Lion Men. These noble folk are nomadic guardians of this place.
3: Overhead, pterosaur riders from the nearby canyons (2,5).
4: An antlion procession, gathering food and materials to take home (4,6).
5: Wildlife, roll 1d4. 1: birds, 2: rhinoceros, 3: wildcats, 4: snakes or lizards.
6: Nobody, just dry earth and scrub.

4,1: Crag City.

An inlet, a huge sundering in the cliff face by the shoreline, made into a vertical shanty town.

Your Contact is on This Level:
1: The deepest stratum, where boats dock and goods trade hands by night.
2: The Gut. Food and drink, steam and smoke. Full of people, stalls, tables, lights, music, colour.
3: The Upper Gut. Stall-owners’ apartments and second-floor secret spots. Voices from below.
4: Mostly residential. Space here is scant, but pot plants and pet cats make it home.
5: More spaced out this far up. A quiet place, but where’s the fun in that?
6: A few shacks dotted around the city’s heights. Occasionally a monster (3,1) crosses overhead.

4,2: Lonely Hill.

One big hill, cresting out of the surrounding fields and woodland.

Seen From Atop the Hill:
1: Church guard, on patrol.
2: Flowers wave in the breeze. Hummingbirds sip hibiscus. All is at peace.
3: Patient locals in prayer. Nearby is a small shrine to the Ranting God.
4: Shifty folk making their way to Crag City (4,1).
5: A small gaggle of the faithful heading to the chapel (3,3).
6: A cloud of startled birds rise from the Dolmenwood (4,3).

4,3: Dolmenwood.

In the thick of the forest rest ancient standing stones. The spirit that guards this place is said to appear in the form of a mother snow monkey, carrying her babe astride a golden deer.

Sights in the Woods:
1: A criminal, on the run.
2: Animals. Deer, boar, maybe a monkey or two.
3: Butterflies by day, moths at night. They say moths know secrets.
4: A game hunter. Pelts and meat to trade.
5: A bear.
6: The cacophonous peace of a forest. Birds, insects, branches. Spirits, if you have the Sight.

4,4: South Road.

The road to Santoc Caladine (5,4) skirts between the edge of the Dolmenwood (4,3) and an outcropping of rocky hills to the east. Small farmhouses dot the roadside.

Met on the Road:
1: Church guard, on patrol.
2: An escaped pig from a nearby farm.
3: Roaming chickens.
4: A farmer headed south with goods to sell.
5: A farmer headed north to the pub at the Crossroads (3,4).
6: Something bursts out from the trees! Roll on the table for (4,3), ignoring rolls of 6.

4,5: Salt Flats.

Beyond the craggy rocks east of the south road (4,4), the air is dry. A lake was here once, long ago.

Sights on the Salt:
1: Sea creatures from an age gone by, frozen under layers of crust.
2: Salt farmers, skimming the surface and filling the wicker baskets on their backs.
3: Pink salt flowers. They can be infused into a petal tea that lets you see into the spirit world.
4: Bandits. They skate around on fossilised jawbones and steal your lunch.
5: Antlions marching back to their home (4,6).
6: Something wandered down from the savannah. Roll on the table for (3,6).

4,6: Antlion City

A huge stone hive of networked tunnels, chambers, pockets, whorls and pits, standing proud in the desert like a giant’s tombstone. The antlion folk are insular to a fault, but not evil.

Through the Endless Winding Tunnels:
1: Guards. Who goes there?
2: A hunting procession, carrying back well over their weight in foraged food.
3: Slime.
4: Nurses carry grubs, food for grubs, food for the queen, busy busy.
5: One curious young antlion.
6: This tunnel appears to be old and forgotten, at least for now.

5,1: Western Wash.

The area of choppy ocean by the cliffs near Crag City (4,1).

Among the Waves:
1: A mob of saltwater mermaids. The seabed here is part of their territory.
2: A small boat, headed in from Smuggler’s Island (5,3).
3: An optimistic old fisherman.
4: A large fin cutting through the water. Mermaids hunting, not far behind.
5: Pearl divers, naked elderly women.
6: A message in a bottle. Someone held captive by a gang in Crag City (4,1) needs help.

5,2: The Run.

The waters can get rough here, but it’s the quickest route along the coast between Crag City (4,1) and other destinations out to sea, such as Smuggler’s Island (5,3).

Passing Ships:
1: A little boat, saltwater mermaids circling.
2: Smugglers headed to the island (5,3). Roll on that table for their cargo.
3: Fisherfolk.
4: Pirates! Avast ye!
5: Traders going along the coast. Roll 1d6, go to that column on row 6, that’s where they’re headed.
6: Flotsam.

5,3: Smuggler’s Island.

As described.

Boxes or Barrels of:
1: Strong dark rum.
2: Spices from the far south.
3: A blue pigment not found in this part of the world.
4: Forged coins, traceable back to Crag City (4,1).
5: Wispy things, between vapour and gossamer strands. Alive in the way bacteria are.
6: Porn.

5,4: Santoc Caladine.

A lazy fishing village. A light tower on the cape, and sailboats moored beneath stilt houses. There’s a friendly plaza, where old men bring their caged songbirds and the womenfolk drink tea.

Boats Bringing In:
1: Fish. The little glittering ones from the bay, or shellfish if you’re lucky.
2: A kelp harvest, for soups and all manner of dishes.
3: News of a storm.
4: Rum and trade goods from Gyaran Island (6,3).
5: Nothing today. Better pray at the village shrine for a bounty tomorrow.
6: A more exotic catch. Roll on the table for (6,4), ignoring rolls of 6.

5,5: Broken Tower.

In a forgotten age, a stone tower stood here. Now, the turret is sundered. None dare enter.

Stalking the Long-Silent Halls:
1: A vision of death. Run.
2: A famed outlaw. So this is where they’ve been hiding!
3: A vengeful ghost. Those with the Third Eye can see what they were in life, an old scholar.
4: A weeping ghost. In life, a handsome youth, newly apprenticed as a wizard.
5: A spellbook. It is animated and will cast the spell it contains to protect itself.
6: A giant centipede. These vermin infest the crannies, eating old parchment.

5,6: Giant’s Stairway.

A gargantuan stone spiral staircase. Whether this is how the wave giants came down, or some other giants left, nobody knows. What is at the top, if there even is one, is a greater mystery.

Around the Bottom Stair:
1: Bandits, hiding in crevices.
2: Little gardens of laddervine, planted by hopeful children.
3: A troupe of climbers. Few actually believe they can get very far, but they enjoy trying.
4: A madman, raving about having descended from the clouds.
5: A mourner, quietly pining for a lost love who ascended the staircase years ago.
6: Nobody. Quiet today. The heights beckon.

6,1: Paradise Island.

Actually two tiny islands, tall chunks of rock split by a ravine. Nobody can agree on whether or not the name is ironic.

While in Paradise:
1: Outlaws, in hiding. They’re almost out of rations.
2: Saltwater mermaids, a hunting party.
3: Ships passing by at a distance, peacefully unaware.
4: Pelicans. A black one is an omen of death, though not dreaded. At night, glowing sky jellyfish.
5: Moths the size of albatrosses. They eat fire. By day, ordinary butterflies.
6: A curious wave giant, leaning on the island cliffs, silent and beautiful.

6,2: Open Sea.

This far out, there’s only blue on the horizon.

Sighted From the Crow’s Nest:
1: Saltwater mermaids, dragging a fresh kill.
2: A boat wafting nets through the air. Sky jellyfish are easier to catch at night, when they glow.
3: Crabs on an impromptu raft. They serve the Crab King, as all noble crustaceans do.
4: A passing ship from Gyaran Island (6,3) to the east. Fishing, presumably.
5: A storm, coming in from a random direction. Roll 1d6, where 1 is north and so on.
6: Nothing but ocean. The Third Eye can make out astral whales and the ghosts of dolphins.

6,3: Gyaran Island.

Once its own small kingdom, long ago the island became just another part of the coastal community. These days they do their best to evade the Church’s influence.

Passing Islanders, On their Way To or From:
1: Fending off a boatload of Church guard.
2: The citrus orchards and sugar cane fields.
3: A celebration! A feast and dancing, around the great wooden idol to the Last King.
4: Their boats. Fishing, or trading with the mainland.
5: The town lodge, home of the law. A fair trial offered to all, and all serve as jury.
6: The shrine to the island spirit. Prayers offered, incense burned.

6,4: The Shallows.

Just beyond the bay of Santoc Caladine (5,4), the water is calm, and the wind often easy.

Look! Over There, in the Water:
1: A saltwater mermaid.
2: A school of brightly coloured fish.
3: An old relic of bracken-covered stone. A piece of a pillar, an odd orb, a giant stone hand.
4: An enormous crab. Could it be the fabled Crab King himself?
5: An everyday object, like a comb or hunting horn, but ten times as big and made of coral.
6: A wave giant to the south, watching quietly from a distance.

6,5: Jagged Pass.

Here the cliffs are tall, and the waters broken up by large, craggy rocks.

Scattered Throughout the Pass:
1: A small fishing boat, smashed to pieces.
2: A piece of old stonework, its shape unintentionally hilarious.
3: Knife-fish.
4: A huge shard of star-glass, once part of a wave giant’s mirror.
5: A single bone from a human skeleton.
6: Detritus, something caught within. Roll on the table for (6,4), ignoring results of 6.

6,6: The Sunken Citadel.

The scattered remnants of a long-dead civilisation litter the south coast. Here lies their grandest epitaph, hidden deep beneath the waves.

In the Depths:
1: Stone structures, overgrown with sea life. Crumbled walls, strange circular totems, worn statues.
2: A curious saltwater mermaid, broken away from the pack to explore.
3: A treasure chest. 50% chance of either a small treasure or an angry chest-wearing octopus.
4: Eels. They eat your face off and then weep in your voice to lure their next victim.
5: A sealed glass jar, roll 1d4. 1: green fire, 2: a letter in the ancient tongue, 3: medicine, 4: poison.
6: An old sage of the sea, sleeping in a large bubble. Can teach the language of storms.

Monday, 9 July 2018

T&T Adventures Japan (review/readthrough)

I came across something pretty intriguing in my FLGS this weekend.

I'm often talking about my love for Japanese TRPGs, and bemoaning the fact that so few of them get translated and make it over here. There's a wealth of creativity going on in that design space.

So from a low shelf, a flash of brightly coloured katakana text caught my eye.


T&T, Tunnels and Trolls, is not a Japanese RPG; it was published by Flying Buffalo in '75 as a more lightweight, lighthearted take on D&D that was most notable for its solo play adventures. It was quickly translated and actually came to Japan before D&D did.

Apparently the Japanese market embraced it - I'd imagine the solo play element as well as the fact it only uses d6s were boons to a fledgling roleplay scene - and it's still popular there to this day. They run a magazine that includes adventures, "replays" and other stuff.

This book is a collection of materials from the first three issues of that magazine, translated into English and published in a one-off magazine-style booklet, along with a "mini rules" version of the core book.

... I mean, that's pretty fascinating, right? I dunno. Maybe it's just me. I hadn't heard about this anywhere, so it took me by surprise. I was just browsing, but I had to pick it up!

This isn't going to be an in-depth review, but I'll skim through the book and point out things that got my attention.

pics taken with my phone, can only apologise. Digression: even with my toddler-level Japanese I can tell that the text above the logo reads "Tunnel THE Troll Magazine", not "Tunnels and Trolls". An old quirk of translation? Is Tunnel a character? Mysteries abound.

First off, this is a breezy little 60-page paperback. There's a full, weighty tome of rules for T&T's current "deluxe" edition, which the book makes reference to, but it shreds those core rules down to the essentials for this introductory version. The rules themselves only take up only a couple of pages actually, which makes me wonder why the full book needs 200+.

Also noteworthy: the game is still published by Flying Buffalo, and the original designer from the seventies, Ken St. Andre, edited this book and is still writing content! I don't think there's any other company from that era that's still running, still producing the same product line and still has the same designer making the game? That's pretty cool.

when she says "Berserk is my favourite anime"

We open on a manga story of some game characters having an adventure. These comics are called "replays" in Japan and are hugely popular - rulebooks normally begin with a huge pagecount of story, told through pictures and reported text, of an actual game session.

The culture around replays is a big part of TRPGs in Japan. The print industry is still chuggin' along there, and it's how a lot of folks find and consume new media, with replays fitting in nicely in your local bookstore's manga section. Some core books are basically just story, with a few pages at the back of "here's how you can do that yourself" rules. Sometimes replays become their own series - anime like Record of Lodoss War started as actual play reports.

This manga is clearly more focused on introducing the reader to the game than being a story, which is to be expected. The character conversations are all very meta - I wonder if there's a humour to this that gets lost in translation.

The translation and tone seems very kid-friendly - not what I'm used to in RPGs so I was a bit disarmed at first, but I warmed to it. The whole book has that tone and I think it's valuable in context, since kids are going to be picking this up off the shelves like a comic book.

The art is also fun, it's like manga meets old D&D art.

ah, a wall of text, tables to roll on and paragraphs about what a saving throw even is. familiar territory for the RPG fan
The rules themselves are scant, but functional. The layout is a bit haphazard, and this isn't really a functional artefact for the gaming table - we're lead through character creation in a rambling, roundabout way. Helpful for reading and learning, maybe, and the friendly tone leans into the kid-friendly aspect I mentioned. But it doesn't make for a great reference book.

The editing is also slack - one part refers the reader back a few pages to another rule (by implication only!), but the rule being referred to is only mentioned as one that's left out of this mini rules edition.

The rules themselves are decent. Roll for stats, you have 8 of them which seems excessive but the game makes use of fairly well. There are "kindreds" for being an elf, dwarf or fairy, which give stat buffs and debuffs, and the three standard classes. Classes are done really well: wizards get spells but can't use weapons well, warriors are great with weapons and armour but not magic, and rogues aren't good or bad with either, they just have to work it out themselves. No builds or level up bonuses.

A big thing is that bonuses are the whole attribute: it's not "16 STR means +3", it's "16 STR means +16". The larger number ranges seem unwieldy at first, at least to me as someone who's more familiar with newer, tighter systems, but the logic is sound and the maths behind it all is solid. The whole game is tied up in those attributes as well: you level them up individually by spending XP, and take damage to them instead of a Hit Point pool. It's all very neat, in a slightly endearingly clumsy way, if that makes any sense.

Magic works on a kind of MP system, only the MP is one of your attributes, which again is nicely neat. The spells are standard old school dungeoneering fare, with adorable names in the vein of Japanese TRPG Ryuutama. They have a nice amount of flavour and some even have shenanigan potential, something I've talked about before as being a spell's most valuable asset.

Overall, not bad. I don't know how T&T played in previous editions but this seems fairly similar to some modern OSR-style games in the way it takes elements of play from older systems and slims them down. It's a little jumbled, but nicely light and comprehensive enough to run with. I'd play it.

For GMs, there are treasure tables and monster stat guides, kind of. Roll difficulties are codified, rather than just being "uh, GM picks a number that sounds about right". It's a decent start, which I suppose is all they were aiming for.

oh no! that's me!
There are a bunch of adventures in here! A tiny starter one, a solo play one, and another GM-ed one that seems designed to lead into a campaign. All these adventures are written by the Japanese publishers and designers, and have been translated specially for this product.

They're decently written, a little railroady but a solid start for a new GM. There are nice moments where the adventure sets up an obstacle and just sort of goes "yeah, doesn't look good for the players, does it? they'd better work out what they're gonna do, hadn't they?" which is a good lesson for new GMs. Again, this would be such a great little physical thing to give to a kid.



The starter adventure is cute, very short but inventive enough, nicely self-contained and surprisingly lethal, which works in its favour. There's a strong old-school sensibility running through things here. I haven't played the solo adventure so I haven't looked through it but the setup is intriguing enough that I want to at least give it a shot. It reminds me a lot of old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, in article form. And the campaign-starter is serviceable, again with a fun premise.

It's essentially standard fantasy. There's nothing groundbreaking in here, but that's fine. I'm maybe selling it a little short here in fact, since I'm used to reading adventures from blogs that blow my mind with every random table entry - while there isn't much going on here outside of goblins, witches and trolls, the adventures at least use those elements in fairly engaging ways. The players get shrunk and can fall into a goblin's kitchen through the extractor fan. It's not going to win any awards, but it's more interesting in a few pages than Lost Mines of Phandelver is is many more.

there's a flippin' mail-order catalogue at the back where you can get adventures and dice and fridge magnets! kawaii~

And the witch, by the way, looks very classic cartoon with her green skin, but it turns out that's just makeup to hide the fact that she's from a cannibal race with skin like glass. The adventure text specifically says that perceptive characters will notice this by being able to see into her throat when she opens her mouth to speak. There you go, there's some New Weird for ya. Not bad.

Oh, and one cool thing that's noted when the manga characters come back at the end: in this world, every magical creature is as sentient and intelligent and varied and "boring" as humans. It's a small thing, but it gives the game both a sense of fairytale fun and sets up a game world where "I stab the orc" isn't going to be anyone's first port of call. Makes me think of The Hobbit, where Bilbo talks to the trolls and listens to the spiders and all that. Very cute, very gameable.

what more do you need in your elfgames?

Well, that's about all that stood out to me at first glance. There's a decent amount packed here, and while it's nothing that's going to revolutionise the gaming scene, it's a fun little product that's worth the price, especially as a gift to any youngsters in your life who are fantasy fans.

It's also got me yet more enthused about the role of zines, pamphlets and other shortform media in RPGs. I shared a cool twitter thread on G+ the other day about this, and it's been on my mind since. After picking this up, along with the Dungeon Crawl Classics starter set which is a magazine-type thing, I'm sold.

Shortform is cheaper than a tome on both producer and consumer, easier to carry and use, great for light rulesets and, if you're good at what you do, you can stuff a few pages full with a whole lot of goodness. I'll be announcing a little project of my own fairly soon, and I think a booklet format is the way to go :)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

What We Learned In Class

haha, the title, it's a pun

I wrote before about designing the three basic classes for a particular game. Since being somewhat absorbed into the Graverobbers RPG, that project has been kinda shelved... I'll do something with it eventually.

Anyway, I'm currently muddling through character creation ideas for yet another project (I make a lot of games, ok?!), and I thought writing out some things I like about good class design would help me figure the direction I want to take with this, and how to go about it.

So here are some things that good class systems do.

Story

"Story" can be a contentious term in game design but here I feel it's apposite. I really like the Crime system in Graverobbers. I like how they're "Crimes", I like how they give an idea of a character's "class" skills as well as background (5e's backgrounds are nice, but systems that combine those two elements just feel so much more streamlined). So, good class design should offer backstory elements, flavour, a character's place in the world of the game.

And that's valuable for another reason: by confirming things about the character's position in the game world, the game world is revealed to the player. A new player can have fun making their character, all while gleaning details about the expected setting and tone from the options given. In systems where you roll for stuff like this it's even more important to establish that fictional concept.

Having strong story flavour delivered through classes also stops that thing where people show up to games with a "character concept". That sometimes works better in narrative games, and even then not always or even often, but in challenge-based games like the ones we primarily focus on here, it's not a good foot to start on. Let the game tell you who you are, that way you're guaranteed to fit in - rather than whining about how the system can't deliver your winged assassin cat-man angel witch.

Oh, and I can't round off this section without at least mentioning Troika!, the game that aces this concept more than maybe any other I've read.

Flexibility

And while I'm tooting my own proverbial, another thing I appreciate about Graverobbers is how open a class is. In my first playtest a player rolled a Harlot - that already means a few different things to a few different people, but the guideline that a Crime is more about how society sees you than what you've actually done gave her leeway to adapt the meaning further.

Her character wasn't literally a prostitute, she was more a thief if anything, she just used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted. Add to that the fact that she rolled a 5 in her Sword stat, and the image of a femme fatale figure began to form.

While I don't mind systems that link stats to classes, like STR being important for fighters - I've made games like that! - I like the freedom offered by having a class or background be unaffected by the rest of who a character is mechanically. Those other things on the character sheet can then inform that character's relationship to the class, and result in more variation and personalised takes on a concept.

While we're on flexibility as a topic in general, I've been liking "builds" less and less - those systems where you get things by levelling up, choosing powers from a list as you get stronger. I'd much rather a class give me everything it has to offer at character creation, and let the rest develop through play.

Brand

Ugh. Hate that word. But it does something to us. Matt Colville mentioned in a video recently I think about how one of the strongest elements of game design - this is a man who's been in the industry for decades - is when players are offered a "tribe" to join: a team to root for, a tag to identify with.

Sure, we've talked about how good classes are flexible, but if anything that plays into the brand thing even more. You can get more people united under a banner if it's slightly vague what exactly that banner stands for. People pick Ranger in 5e for all sorts of reasons, but they all have that animal companion. Those guys over there with the owls and the wolves and the panthers - those are the Rangers. They like animals.

Also, buying in to a class because you like one aspect can cause you to eventually buy into that brand as a whole. Liking how something plays is a big step towards taking the flavour on board.

I think I've actually covered this bit in the game I'm working on, the one that prompted this post, but outside of character creation - slightly inspired by the Borderlands games and their many fictional weapons manufacturers. An element of it needs to be part of the characters themselves though. Hmm.

Power

Ok, here's the thing, I don't really care about niche protection. I don't necessarily need a game to give me abilities that other classes don't get to feel special. I do want to feel powerful in at least some sense because of my class though - even in a game where all the characters are generally kinda crap at stuff and die a lot, like most of my games are.

I want a class to give me a Thing I can Do, even if it's just a Thing that other people can Do and I just Do it better. Sure, anyone with a lockpick can try to open that chest, but I'm the thief - leave it to me, guys.

This is maybe even more important in high-lethality games. When every dice roll can make things come tumbling down around you, being able to step forward and mitigate that risk for your friends with your character's particular proclivities is a big deal. Even if you're not using mechanics to do it: the feeling of payoff when you're the one cult-worshipping heathen on the squad and the GM tells you "oh, yeah, you can read those runes actually" is a nice one to have.

***

Well, those are the main things that come to mind at the time of writing. What do you look for in a game's classes?

Don't forget that you can help support this blog and the games I make by joining the Graverobber's Guild! We only started up recently but already have a couple of members. Those folks will be getting access to the playtests of all this stuff, as well as updates to the Graverobbers RPG and all kinds of details on things I'm working on for this blog and otherwise.

Join in for only $1USD per month! Help support independent RPG creators :)

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Why Your Travel Rules Suck

I was considering not posting this, I felt it was a little rant-y. But I stand by the general premise, so here we go, see what you make of it. (Also the game I mention at the end has since been streamlined to the point that those travel mechanics are fairly different than how I wrote about them here lol.)

***

A few times during my GMing... career? Ew. Life? Oh dear...

A few times, I've tried to write specific mechanics, for whichever fantasy adventure RPG system I happened to be running at the time, to deal with overland travel. These, I surmised, would make travel a key component of the game, something to plan for and experience tension through, just like combat.

Crucially, they would make travel interesting, and fun.

Most gaming blogs or video channels or whatnots have a post somewhere about solving, or at the very least easing overland travel in D&D. Some of these thoughts are very good, but most devolve into creating a subsystem, or wrangling existing mechanics into doing travel "better".

Here's the thing - within the context of these games, that's impossible. I was wrong, and so is anyone who writes travel rules for such an RPG.

***

One of the OSR blog posts I keep going back to is from Rogues and Reavers, and it defines the concept of a campaign frame. You can and should read the post here.

The thing I'm concerned with for now is the definition given for a frame:

A. Clear choices for the players to engage in, while still allowing maximum flexibility.
B. A model for the DM which guides them through the process of building this aspect of their campaign.
C. Rules for interacting with the frame in a meaningful way, from arbitration on the DM end to procedures on the player end

That, to me, seems like all the ingredients needed (outside of the mechanics themselves) for a great rule book. As for those mechanics - the only mechanics that are needed in the book are those that facilitate the campaign frame.

That's why I got rid of combat rules in my game about thieves. That's why D&D has rules for dying because a dragon breathed at you, or how likely you are to pick a lock on a treasure chest. Dungeons, and, indeed, dragons, are the campaign frame of D&D. You don't need anything else outside of the frame.

***

So, what does this have to do with terrible travel rules?

D&D - and by that I mean WotC, pre-WotC and every OSR game ever - doesn't include codified mechanics for overland travel beyond "here's how far you can go in a day, hexes are a thing".

This is not because good travel mechanics are impossible. It's because travel mechanics are not part of the assumed campaign frame of D&D.

"What? What do you mean, travel doesn't fit into D&D? It fits in perfectly! In my campaign, we do travel all the time! And besides, my group loves my travel rules! I added resource management for rations and terrain-based encumbrance tracking and..."

Hush.

Travel fits into D&D in the same way social interaction does. You can spend all session doing nothing else, but there have never been mechanics for it other than maybe a Charisma roll. Those mechanics are not needed. Your game may well be travel-heavy, but what the rules are about is not what the game is about - as we well know.

Oh, and your group doesn't love your travel rules. Even if they do, they like other parts of the game better. The actual D&D parts. D&D is about the dungeons and the dragons.

This is why the most obvious, and most correct, advice GMs are given when asking "how do I make travel more interesting" is to add an adventure site (dungeon) en route, or an encounter (dragon).

Overland travel is neither a dungeon, nor is it a dragon. Those are codified within the mechanics of the game, they are the campaign frame. Travel is just a thing that happens in between.

***

Do all travel mechanics in RPGs suck, then? No, of course not.

I'm working on a game - I write a lot of games, and even if they don't go anywhere I learn something from the design process. Anyway, it's a game with travel mechanics.

These mechanics are good. They make travel interesting. They offer, if you'll refer back to our definition of a campaign frame, A, B and C. I hope I can get the other bits sorted out, I'd like to let people play this some time.

The reason the travel mechanics work in this game is because it is a travel game. It's a game about journeys, going back and forth and all around between places on a map, life on the road. They are also, importantly, the only mechanics in the game - because they support the frame. Other mechanics are not needed.

D&D is not about those things - at least not in the way that people who write articles on how to do travel wish it was. When Gygax wanted to run overland travel, he played a whole different game.

Stop trying to make travel in your fantasy adventure game interesting. Unless it's a dungeon or a dragon, I don't want to hear about it.

PS: If you have a sci fi game and nobody cares about the starship mechanics - same reason. Your game probably just isn't really about the ships.