May 3, 2015

Wonder & Wickedness: A Review

I splurged and picked up a ton of stuff from Drivethrurpg.com a few days ago to read. Expect reviews of River of Heaven, Silent Legions, the Basic Illusionist, Beyond the Wall: Further Afield, and Yoon-Suin to come down the pipeline. I'm writing these reviews basically in the order that I go back and read them again more carefully.

First is Wonder & Wickedness, which is an 88 page pdf (also available in print) detailing a new magic system by Brendan S. (of Necropraxis fame) that's compatible with most versions of old school D&D. Full disclosure: I bought the book on my own dime, I've gamed with Brendan S. twice in Courtney Campbell's Numenhalla game about a year and a half or so ago, and he's occasionally mentioned stuff from this blog kindly. On the other hand, he has never once shown up for a session of Necrocarcerus despite being invited every time, so you can expect this review to be a forty-thousand word denunciation of his personal shortcomings (feel free to use that as the pull quote).

The organisation and layout are pretty decent. The book has 56 new spells, listed both in alphabetic order and by specialty, with an index at the back listing them by page number. There's a light sprinkling of grammatical errors, but nothing that obscures what the text means at any given point. The art is good - lots of evocative line drawings that are busy with detail showing the various spells being cast by wizards, and the various magical items. The text is clear and legible, in a large-size serif font that remains readable when displayed as facing pages on a screen (since getting physical copies of this book involves sending away to Italy, its legibility on-screen is an important factor for me). There's a lot of white space at the tops of pages, some of it of irregular size, that looks like an artifact of using desktop publishing software to format the document, but it's not particularly galling or bothersome. Unfortunately, there's no index of magic items.

The key point of differentiation between the Wonder & Wickedness system and traditional D&D magic is that spells do not have levels. Some spells increase in power as the sorcerer does - affecting more targets, or allowing you to summon more powerful creatures - but it's a flatter progression than traditional D&D magic-users have. Sorcerers also have far fewer spells readied (just one per level, though they may know more spells than they have slots to cast and choose which ones they have memorised). Sorcerers may also dispel / block spells or deal damage directly to an enemy by sacrificing memorised spell slots, whereas the magic-user has specific spells they must memorise to do those things. Magic is also split up into different specialties / schools than the abjuration, conjuration etc. of traditional D&D. The spells are well-charactised, distinct, and make sense, as do the specialties.

Really, the highest praise I can give this book (or any RPG book really) is that once I was done reading it, I immediately started trying to figure out how to integrate it into my campaign. Necrocarcerus intentionally only incorporates free resources into the rules document as part of its design, but this was the book that nearly made me break that rule.

Apr 23, 2015

Why Do Projectors Come to Necrocarcerus?

Another extract from my recent correspondence with Charlie of Imaginary Hallways, this time covering the reasons why projectors (people traveling from the living worlds) come to Necrocarcerus.

"1) Necrocarcerus sucks in people from lots of different eras and worlds to become Citizens, and it incarnates them more or less randomly, rather than in sequence. That is, Necrocarcerus isn't running at a parallel time stream to the living worlds, such that on say, Year 1 everyone who died in 500 AD becomes available for incarnation, and in Year 2 everyone from 501 AD becomes available. Rather, everyone gets jumbled together. So imagine you could travel to it and not only meet your ancient ancestors, but also your descendants (and even your own dead self). Or you could find out how an important war was going to go by finding an ancient sage who hasn't even been born yet but who will one day be the world's greatest expert on it.

2) Similarly, Necrocarcerus is in kind of a post-apocalyptic shambles, but it's still got fancier technology and magic that most of the living worlds do. The living worlds are all at different stages of technological development, and followed different cultural and technical pathways throughout their existence, so there are all sorts of innovations and advantages to be gained by sending people in to learn about or steal stuff. Your kingdom may be a podunk feudal backwater that's just discovered steam power, but you can send someone to Necrocarcerus and steal a nuke or a laser gun or a superpowerful death spell or whatever.

3) There are beings in Necrocarcerus who are interfering with the living worlds. The biggest one in my games is an undead necromancer named Thazul, who lives in Necrocarcerus but has created undead hordes that are busy invading three different living worlds (where he's their Sauron-equivalent). So brave paladins and champions are projecting in from the living worlds to try to slay him and save their worlds. There are other, less extreme examples, but from the perspective of many of the living worlds, Necrocarcerus is a hellscape full of undead who deserve to be smote.

4) Rare and weird items. Beyond technology and magic, Necrocarcerus produces a lot of unique materials that don't exist in the living worlds. So some projectors come in to conduct trade for things like soul coal, radioactive dragon bone, perfected spider eggs, etc. with unscrupulous merchants. This is also sort of the answer to the blood question - projectors are trading lots and lots of blood for stuff they want.

5) Religion. There's at least one god from the living worlds who's imprisoned in Necrocarcerus (Vra-Krakorn, He Who Consumes the Works of Mankind), but there's also a ton of souls to be won to faiths. I imagine a lot of these projectors think of Necrocarcerus as something like Purgatory, and are trying to offer the doomed inhabitants one last chance to get into Heaven / Nirvana / Paradise, etc.

6) Exploration. Imagine the afterlife was a real place, after all. You'd want to know everything you could about it - whether for religious or economic reasons, or just plain curiosity. A lot of projectors are just exploring the land of the dead to find out what happens to people after they die.

7) Guarding things. Necrocarcerus is a good place to dump that unspeakable ancient evil contained in that artifact sword that you can't destroy. Or you might need to guard the portal to the afterlife that you can't close from potential hordes of undead pouring through unexpectedly. One of the groups the PCs have encountered in my own campaign are the Knights of Tollen, who are an ancient order of paladins guarding a portal that leads from a backwater part of Necrocarcerus into their world.

8) Rescuing / resurrecting people. After all, if you can find your lost love and bring them back to the living worlds, you can be with them again. Or you can bring back your beloved but dead king to restore justice and depose the evil vizier who seized power after murdering him."

Apr 21, 2015

Managing the Necrocarcerus Campaign

The current Necrocarcerus campaign is run online, which created some initial challenges for me. I needed a collaborative digital whiteboard, as well as a collaborative digital archive for the information the PCs collected. The archive was especially important because Necrocarcerus is a drop-in game - new people show up, familiar players sometimes skip or miss - and it would waste time having to constantly reintroduce leads, characters and locations for the players who weren't at the last session. It also helps having somewhere I can upload the Necrocarcerus rules document to minimise the number of links new players need to follow and the windows they have open. I played around with a few different options, and eventually settled on Realtimeboard (RTB) which I strongly recommend you check out. It has a free version available with about 100MB of storage, though I use the Premium version for the 3GB so I can use it as a dumping ground for pictures.
The Necrocarcerus Campaign
In the picture above, you can see almost the entire Necrocarcerus campaign. There are a few overland maps the PCs drew that haven't been uploaded, and the comment function doesn't show when you export images (each location on the hand-drawn map in the centre-right has comments detailing what the PCs did and when they did it), but this is the majority of it. Everything on this is player-facing (there's some information about the train journey that they're going to gather at the start of next session).

I maintain 6-8 handwritten pages of other notes, one deck of index cards detailing treasure items, and a folder of maps. The 6-8 pages are: 1) A list of adventure locations 2) A list of major NPCs and short descriptions of them 3) A timeline 4) A list of quest ideas and rewards 5) The relevant random encounter tables for the area they're in 6) A list of errata and possible rules updates for Necrocarcerus 7) A list of notes on whatever dungeon or area they're exploring 8) A relationship map of major NPCs.

Of these, the random encounter tables, the errata list, the list of notes and the timeline are updated most often. The timeline and errata list mainly undergo minor modifications - most of my work is creating & changing the random encounter tables and creating new dungeons / adventure locations. There is some overlap between the two, since I populate most of my dungeons outside of a few set-pieces using the random encounter tables. When I introduce a NPC or an adventure location or quest, I simply check it off on the list so I know the PCs have encountered it already and add information to the RTB about it. I numbered the entries so I could roll a d20 for each to see who / what comes up randomly when I didn't have a preference.

In hindsight, I think I could have been more aggressive with the commenting function to add and track treasure & XP from each session, or specifically, I should have requested the players do this on the RTB. I also should have added a calendar to it, especially since the passage of time is so important in Necrocarcerus (I interrupted writing this blog post to add the calendar). If I could find good pictures for some of the weirder monsters of Necrocarcerus, I think it might also be fun to maintain a living bestiary.

End-of-the-World and Surrounds

This map details the overland area around End-of-the-World, as well as the major NPCs, a treasure map (top) of the High Asmarch's palace, and the larger Necrocarcerus campaign map. Purple stickies detail NPCs, orange stickies are quests they have on offer, while pink stickies are leads for PCs to follow up on their own. Green stickies cover information or facts the PCs have discovered, some of which are relevant to quests. Yellow stickies are locations and pathways. Using the linking system RTB makes available, I can draw connections between the various stickies, points on the map, pictures, and any other information I upload to it, allowing the PCs to identify which quests come from which NPCs, where they go, and what they know about them. Once again, comments don't show in these pictures, but the map is speckled with little comment bubbles that are colour coded. Yellow means there might be a reason to go back to a place, green means it's all cleared out or the quest that took them there is completed. I haven't decided what to use the red comment bubbles for yet.

Dungeon Maps
These are dungeon maps. RTB has three levels of nested grid that are fully zoomable (the grid does not show up in the pictures when you image-cap them). The PCs preferred to upload PDFs of graph paper and draw on them. At the top are maps connected to the Half-Buried Megagolem and the Rocket Fields of the Transhegiromantics, while below on the graph paper is Taddlecreek Mine, where they encountered the Cult of the White Worm and recovered several thousand pounds of dragonbone. These maps can be edited by any of the PCs, as well as myself, in real-time, which allows me to leave them to map most of it, but sketch out sections that are difficult to describe clearly. I'm using Gridmapper to create most of my dungeon maps, screencapping them off of it, and then dumping them into a folder on my computer. The rest I get by downloading dungeon maps I find on G+. I tend to prefer gridded maps over ungridded ones because they're easier to translate onto the grid on RTB.

The statue in the bottom left is of a nude woman; beware before enlarging this picture
Here I'm using RTB to plan the PCs upcoming train journey. A map of the first section of the train (the part they've explored) is at the top, along with some NPCs and a seating plan. The colours of the stickies are a bit wonky (I've corrected them since taking this image) but this shows the pathway the PCs will take (since it's a regular route run by the train company). Along the way, there are numerous quests and locations to explore, and the pictures communicate rumours about each area that they can discover from their fellow passengers with minimal effort. This is the first major journey out of End-of-the-World the PCs are taking. This also helps me plan - I know I need Old Hua Danth, the Pinion of the Flame Tyrant, the Spider Tombs and the Autarchy of Mfele Outpost all written up.

My general experience so far has been that the more I dump on RTB, the easier the rest of my note-taking becomes. Like many referees, my experience of note-taking has been that it is both tedious and crucial, and I have struggled in the past to discover ways to simplify it (avoiding long-form writing is one critical discovery I made and have never gone back on). 

Apr 20, 2015

This is the Way the World Ends

Charlie of Imaginary Hallways is running a campaign that'll be moving through Necrocarcerus at one point and he very kindly asked me some questions about the setting as a result. One of the ones he asked me was a pretty common one, which is what the end of the Necrocarcerus Program looks like? Rather than provide a definitive answer, this is what I wrote:

"What I actually do is keep on making up new ways for the Program to end, and new goals for it, and then I insert each new idea in as another faction of Guardians or rogues. Here are some of the current ones:

1) Necrocarcerus has a giant space-dragon living on the top of the dome, and the dragon eats souls. The end of the Program is when Necrocarcerus is finally so full of incarnated souls that the dragon rips off the dome and consumes everyone inside of it, then flies off through the infinite void to find another island of reality to brood over and consume.

2) The disc of Necrocarcerus flips, plunging almost everyone on it into the infinite void. A new cycle begins on what was once the underside of the disc, with new living worlds feeding into it. The Program is supposed to have a purpose, but because the transmission was incomplete it was never finished correctly and so the whole thing is a colossal malfunctioning machine that just cycles endlessly.

3) Necrocarcerus was meant as a vast factory for the production of gods, allowing a rare few Citizens within it to attain the personal power required to transcend material existence completely and become divine beings. The end of the Program is when one or more of these individuals reaches that level of power. The whole factory shuts down for a single eternal moment, all the souls that haven't transcended are absorbed back into it, and the whole cycle starts over again, less one soul. The process repeats until everyone who will everyone who will ever come to Necrocarcerus is a god.

4) The same, but the Guardians are the beings who become gods, not the Citizens.

5) The same, but everyone in Necrocarcerus merges into a single divine being, instead of just one or a handful of individuals. That divine being is the Creator, who then uses its omnipotence to reach back in time and create the conditions of its own creation.

6) Portals open up everywhere, and all the inhabitants and objects in Necrocarcerus are thrown back into the living worlds. The Program was intended to prevent the merger of the living worlds and the afterlife, but due to its incompleteness, it broke down and now there is no more life and death, but merely existence and nullity, with the entire multiverse becoming a badly-built hellscape.

7) The same, but the Program was always intended to do this, and is a plot by the Creator to this end against the gods and the multiverse. The Creator was long dead, but now that that state is meaningless, it reconstitutes and becomes the sovereign of all reality (and either its dark plan, or Paradise results, no one can agree which).

8) Nothing happens. It was all propaganda to keep the system running. The Guardians and AUC start trying to delete people's memories of this and institute a new 10,000 year count. They destroy the material remnants of the previous aeon and pretend to have to create the world anew."

I will, undoubtedly come up with more in time. I know what the end is going to be in the current Necrocarcerus game unless the PCs interfere (and I'm keeping it a secret until it happens), but feel free to mix, match, and create new options as you please. The actual end of the world is the least interesting part for me, it's the fact that it's ending and the reactions to that fact that I find interesting.

Mar 30, 2015

Who Do You Steal Stuff From In Necrocarcerus?

The Utilities
Evil megacorporations responsible for providing essential goods and services to the citizens of Necrocarcerus.

You Steal:

Awesome permits that let you get away with doing totally illegal things, rare magical materials like soul coal or radioactive dragonbone or real sunlight, high technology, tons of cash, secret records of forbidden projects that you can sell to the highest bidder, and tanks.

From:

Electrified generator-bastions, black sites, the conclave-chambers of the Council of Ninety-Nine, office-complexes, the assassin-colleges of the Criers, cable-mazes, radioactive mines, golemic factories.

The Government (AUC)

The bureaucracy of the afterlife and its various petty-warlord employees.

You Steal:

Giant payboxes full of obols, nepenthe, illicit magic items, weapons of mass destruction, maps and plans to long lost cities, sweet crowns and robes, uniforms so you can pretend to be the government, cool guns, your criminal record, airships.

From:

The palaces of warlords, giant mobile gunships, armoured trains, the sheriff's office, secret prisons in the middle of Ocean Null, abandoned AUC laboratories behind enemy lines, airship manufacturing plants, secret mountain fortresses.

The Oozes

Intelligent oozes from the living world of Braemon who killed their creators and have come to the afterlife to destroy their last remnants.

You Steal:

Mind and body-altering ooze juice, jet packs, weird artefacts that violate space and time, laser pistols, ooze-stilts and ooze-suits, psionic ooze-tutors in jars, flying war pyramids you don't know how to pilot.

From:

The battle lines of the Ooze Salient, secret ooze cells in the sewers of Downtown, oozoliths, refugee camps, black market souks, labyrinthine complexes built in the forgotten hinterlands of the Jail

Cults of the Irrelevant Gods

All the various religions knocking around in Necrocarcerus, from the All-Church of Lupo the Wolf to the Cult of Vra-Krakorn, He Who Consumes the Works of Man, to Roman Catholicism.

You Steal:

Long lost religious relics, holy gasoline, sacred fire gems, severed heads that prophesy, instructions on how to banish some invader that's giving you grief, saints and their entourages, ghost-eating chalices, books that unfold into armies of wolves and seraphim, working portal locations to the living worlds, sacred unguents for making paladins.

From:

The intestines of Vra Krakorn, lambent pyre-chapels, cathedral-fortresses in the Kingdoms of the Saved, illegal gatherings of devotees in the major cities, the conning towers of hell-whales in Ocean Null, buried cave-libraries built into the sides of giant mountains, angel-staffed castles of ivory and bone in the Furylands

The Guardians

The jerks who built Necrocarcerus and are the reason you're here.

You Steal:

Nepenthe, parts to their secret proprietary installations so you can bring your obliterated friends back to unlife, weird mutating bits of reality, pre-Incident documents and other historical records, your tax forms, your open warrants, records of judgments that have been made against you in a court of law, mysterious dyes in colours that haven't been invented yet, prototypes of next year's animals, secret information about the location of the Codex of Cataclysm.

From:

Incarnation temples, the Ineffable Nomoplex in Downtown, abandoned hyle factories in the Abandoned Quarter, nepenthe tankers, theosophist torture pyramids, malfunctioning posi-plants, hidden AUC laboratories

The Banks

They're banks. They're all evil. They'll kill you in your sleep if you don't pay back the money they loaned you.

You Steal:

Obols, bearer bonds, complex financial records, wills, weird relics from safety deposit boxes, vampire teeth, ciphers for complex codes, bank presidents for ransoming, deeds to people's homes, box tickets to sporting events, gems, tacky but expensive corporate art, ancient grimoires hidden in ancient strong boxes.

From:

The wight-guarded vaults of the Red Sea Trading Company in Vigilant Pantagruel, the Vault of Teeth and Tears of the Bank of Necrocarcerus in the Jail, inside undead giant turtle-likes guarded by the citizen-ashigaru of the Spire

The Rail Companies

The rail companies are how most people get around. They're heavily armed to travel through the wilderness of Necrocarcerus. They're constantly on strike, with unions shooting at management and vice versa.

You Steal:

Money trains going to pay AUC forces, boxes of people who have been frozen, their secret and much loved proprietary coffee blend, free rides, cool motorbikes being transported to some rich dude, evidence that management is stiffing the workers, traveling circus monsters, train engines.

From:

The illegal #111 from End-of-the-World across the border of the Lythmarch to Freedom, the dangerous and irregular #454 from the Halls of Redemption to Metrippus across the Ooze Salient, on a broken down caboose in the Wastes, on a blazing escape train from the Hive Towers of Grolanth to anywhere else, aboard armoured war-trains destined for the Furylands, aboard the mysterious #999 which travels to the living worlds on official AUC business

Evil Wizards

There's a bunch. The big ones are Thazul, who's busy conquering the living worlds, and Lyth, who's busy trying to conquer Necrocarcerus.

You Steal:

Imprisoned dream-smiths, the souls of long-dead heroes who came to slay them, ancient artefacts of ghastly effect, bizarre monster hybrids, sweet magical weapons and armour, crazy new spells no one else has, pure Prime Hyle, airships, the secrets of making coal wights and subnothings, imprisoned dream-smiths, incomprehensible machines that are required for evil rituals, their favourite intelligent centipede mounts, cool books no one else has a copy of.

From:

Thazul's Tree of Torment, a magically shielded chamber in a dangling tower slung over the side of Necrocarcerus, the horror-factories of Freedom, the gullet of a giant undead centipede, from a stone circle with wraith chained to the eidolons, a portal to a hell-dimension, a vault inside the shell of a giant flying crab, a vast orb of magical darkness with undead writhing around inside of it, Lyth's Palace of the Unchained, a blasted wasteland that was once a living world, a reconstruction of a lich's tomb on this side of the afterlife, inside a drunken behemoth

Mar 13, 2015

Necrocarcerus 1.2 Finished (Finally)

Download link here.

Finally! This is a huge revision from version 1.1 based on playtesting with the Necrocarcerus crew. There had been tweaks and changes in almost every section, plus there have been multiple new sections added. As always, Necrocarcerus is meant to be a set of house rules for running Swords and Wizardry Complete.

Here are some previews of the content inside.

Summoning and binding rules:


Grappling rules:


Plus rules for loans from the feared Bank of Necrocarcerus:

Mar 6, 2015

A Possible Variation on D&D Group Initiative

I use a d6-based group initiative roll resolved using some simple principles from Courtney Campbell. The basic principles are that one wants to roll high, with odd ties going to enemies, and even ties going to PCs (So a roll of 6 always favours the PCs), and initiative is rerolled each round. I also use a phase system within a round, so a high roll lets your side act first within each phase, though both sides act within each phase before moving on to the next phase.

As of Necrocarcerus version 1.2, I will also be using a skill system that includes the Tactics skill. Increasing the tactics skill allows one to roll a larger die type for one's initiative roll (d6 to d8 to d10 to a d12 maximum).

I've been debating a slight variation in the initiative rules. I haven't playtested this before, but I am proposing it to solicit feedback. The rule is that the roll on your die not only determines whether you go first or last, but how many actions your side can take during their turn. So a roll of 1 means no matter the number of PCs, your side must choose only one PC to act. A 6 means up to six actions may be taken, split amongst the PCs as they please (or amongst the monsters as you please). If there are more actions than PCs, the PCs may choose who acts a second time. The actions would not be split per phase, but could be distributed across each phase as each side pleased. Alternately, one might drop the phase system entirely and use simply this action distribution to push the PCs to make tactical choices.

Here are some outcomes I can foresee from adopting this system:

Single enemies become much tougher, especially single "boss" type monsters, since they will almost always be acting multiple times in a round.

Mobs become somewhat less overwhelming, though also easier to run, since only a portion of the mob will be acting in any given round.

This makes the Tactics skill much more valuable. Rolling a d12 to determine how many times you act per round is a huge advantage over opponents only rolling d6s (Monsters can have the Tactics skill).

Combats may take longer to resolve, since the median die result of a d6 (3.5) is less than the usual # of characters on each side who could act if they each got one action (I'm usually running games with 4+ PCs). On the other hand, the fewer number of actions per round might make rounds progress more quickly.

It would be important to track and differentiate abilities that can be used "once per round" from abilities that could be used "any number of times per round".

PCs would spend time each round resolving who gets to act in a given round. This might favour preferring certain characters acting, especially if they're somewhat mechanically superior to others, doubly rewarding players with powerful characters. As a positive side of this, it imposes scarcity limitations on PCs to help shape their decisions within a round.

If phases are retained, then PCs must make a separate decision each phase about how many actions they want to pursue in that phase. I would allow unused actions to cascade through the phases instead of requiring PCs to determine at the start of the round, after the initiative roll, which phase they wanted to dedicate the actions to. I think the order of phases will assist in this (movement is the second last phase, coming only before resolving spells), but I can foresee that there will probably be some weird edge case somewhere down the line where the PCs are like "We dump the remaining actions".

It could be difficult to plan between rounds, since one doesn't know how many actions will be coming up.

One side might be entirely ganked simply through a series of singular bad rolls each round - repeatedly rolling 1s while the other side rolls higher.

I'm not sure what my ruling would be if the PCs split into two independent groups fighting a single monster, or group of monsters. My inclination is to require them to still make a single initiative roll, but I can see a legitimate argument that the two groups, because they are acting independently, should make separate rolls (but then, of course, the lack of a boundary condition here allows one to drill the scope of the roll down to a single PC, which I would prefer not to do).

If anyone has tried this previously, I'd be interested in hearing your experiences.