May 15, 2018

Making Rivers on Hex Maps

This post is so simple that it's almost cheating. In case you hadn't already thought of doing it, you can use the procedure outlined in my post on making paths through the wilderness to also generate rivers courses in hex maps. You can do this ahead of time or during play, as you prefer.

To make your rivers a little straighter, I suggest rotations of the d4 be to the second-next clockwise face that doesn't currently have a path on it (instead of just the next clockwise face, as per when you're creating paths).

I also suggest that any time you either generate something that looks absurd or that has 3+ streams flowing into a single hex, you make it a little pond or lake. Hexes adjacent to water-filled hexes count as having one stream flowing into them across the adjacent face if you're rolling for rivers. This will give you a handful of lakes and ponds of varying sizes.

I come from Canada, which has most (in the sense of a slight absolute majority) of the world's lakes,  so I always think fantasy maps don't have enough open bodies of water of significant size on them, but this is a bit of an idiosyncrasy. If you do this procedure a few times across the length of the map, you'll eventually end up with a nice hydrological basin with rivers and lakes all connected up.

May 9, 2018

Into the Depths: Errata Already

Beloch of Papers and Pencils (one of the original playtesters) very kindly walked me through a number of ambiguous wordings and suggested some minor rules changes for Into the Depths. I'm grateful for his keen eye, and have incorporated most of them in. As a result, eight days after my first major update to the rule system in two years, here is the new version of Into the Depths incorporating Beloch's suggestions and a few minor changes I decided on after hitting publish last time.

Most of the changes are very minor. You'll notice slightly clearer wording in the grappling section, the sections where carrying capacity is explained (backpacks now let you carry 8 + / - Armour Mod. items, with special Frame Packs adding +3 to that capacity), auction catalogues let you assess the value of things slightly more easily, and some minor formatting, punctuation and phrasing changes in a few tables and other sections. I also removed a rules loophole Beloch spotted, where you could spend a day creating a new spell and suddenly gain half a level repeatedly. That's been changed so that creating spells no longer qualifies, only creating magical artifacts does.

If you're not sure what version of Into the Depths you have, I've been date-coding them for a while, so this update is 20180509, versus the version without errata, which is 20180501.

May 1, 2018

Happy May Day: New Into the Depths

It's May Day today, and in the spirit of the day, here's a brand new expanded version of Into the Depths for free! (Link is to a downloadable pdf on Google Drive) (2018-05-11 edit: I've now changed the link to the newest version incorporating errata)

Into the Depths is my "core" ruleset for playing old school fantasy adventure games, as conveyed in four densely written pages. I've been running and playing in games using it for a little over two years now, and this is the first major revision since 2016, with the revisions based on my experiences playtesting it over that period.

Into the Depths might be the game for you if you're looking for a low magic rules-set that mechanically encourages dynamic fights and chases and that has a stellar gear list that serves in place of a power or magic system in most instances.

New material includes:
More gear options
More secret fighting techniques to learn
A magic system
An updated levelling rubric
The ability to be bad at things
Rule sections rewritten for clarity and ease of use
Numerous tweaks to the mathematical structures

One last change is that I'm opening up the copyleft on it further. Previous versions of Into the Depths were available under a noncommercial Creative Commons license. This newest revision is now available for commercial use (with attribution) for anyone who would like to publish and sell works using it as the ruleset.

Apr 24, 2018

Into the Depths: The Long-Awaited Magic Rules

I'm writing up some magic rules for Into the Depths finally. I'm drawing on a bunch of ideas that Beloch of Papers and Pencils (Magic Words), and Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash and Benjamin Baugh (Spell power as trappings) have each developed, but using variations on those ideas within as simple a system as possible.

Here's the draft text of the Into the Depths magic rules. The list of magic words itself is forthcoming, I'm still deciding how fine a grain I want on the terms, and what selection will be most evocative and useful for referees and players thinking of coming up with their own.


1) Initiation: To cast spells a PC must be inducted into a mystery cult. A PC can only be a member of one mystery cult at a time but can abandon their old tradition and join a new one by undergoing a new induction. Levels don’t carry over from one cult to another. A PC learns two magic words (referee's choice) when they join a mystery cult.

2) Knowledge: PCs can know a number of magic words equal to their character’s level (not level of initiation). They can know a number of magic spells equal to their character’s level.

3) Creation: All spells are combinations of words. PCs can use as many words in a spell as they have levels of initiation into their mystery cult. Words cannot be used twice in the same spell. It takes one day of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

4) Learning: PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, only one PC can learn it. If a PC develops a magic word, they can teach it to others for whatever price they want.

5) Casting: You can cast as many spells per day as you have types of trappings at hand. If you get more types of trappings over the course of a day, the number of spells you can cast increases. Lose some, and it decreases (losing uncast spell slots first). Rare trappings may grant more slots than usual.

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr.

Magic Trappings

This is a selection of possible trappings, not an exhaustive list. Each type of trapping grants one additional spell per day.

Assistant / Apprentice Must also be initiated into same mystery cult. Can be another PC. Must spend an action helping cast.
Bric-a-Brac An accumulation of wizardly garbage: Stuffed alligators, jars of spider legs, etc.
Drugs / Mana One-use, usable only once per day. Save or hallucinate. Small item.
Familiar Counts as henchman who is of no combat value and full of sass. Unbuyable, must be recruited.
Grimoire A magical book full of cryptic suggestions, bizarre claims, and unsettling illustrations. Cost based on title.
Idol The creepier the better. Not normally portable.
Locus / Sanctum A sanctified and prepared location that focuses mystical energy. Not portable.
Obsession Unbuyable. Spell gained through obsession can only be cast to effect object of obsession.
Panoply / Regalia Priestly or wizardly robes, hat, etc. Cannot be worn with armour.
Sacrifice One-use, usable only once per day. Sacrifice a sentient being’s life. Usually unbuyable.
Staff / Athame Counts as two-handed weapon (staff) or small weapon (athame). Must be in hand when casting.
Talisman A cauldron, mirror, amulet, etc. that serves as a focus. Must be used to cast the spell.

And then, from the experience rules, because someone will ask if I don't mention it:

"3) PCs can be inducted into a mystery cult or magical tradition. This takes 3 months of training under a master, 10,000 SP, and completion of an initiatory task to be determined by your master. Gaining more levels of initiation requires a PC to complete more tasks and pay an additional 10,000 SP and spend three months training each time.

4) It takes one month and 2,000 SP to develop a new magic word of the PC’s choice, if a PC is capable of casting spells."

Apr 1, 2018

The Pack of Lies: Backstory as Equipment and Resource

I've been thinking a fair bit about backstories lately because I just started playing a D&D 3.5 campaign on a bimonthly basis with a group composed of two published authors (one is me), the former editor of a literary magazine, a librarian, and a video game writer, all people who as you might imagine have strong connections to literature. The game is strongly focused on narrative development, driven by proactive character decision making, and is in a way the best possible version of what something like AD&D 2nd edition and the whole "silver age" of RPGs aspired for.

We had a couple of months of prep between when we first sat down as a group to discuss potentially playing a campaign together and when we held our first session (a few weeks ago). Part of the prep included a questionnaire about our characters for us to fill out, and I basically ended up writing 5400 words of backstory for my character. I became the very "12-page backstory" guy that I've mocked in the past. While the referee of this campaign encouraged that and loved the backstory, as a referee I find the prospect of close reading, annotating and then summarising sixty-odd pages of half-complete amateur narrative dreadful.

In Necrocarcerus, PCs begin without backstories or histories, and they get them by finding and consuming "nepenthe", a distillate produced from brain juice that contains their memories from when they were alive. You can, of course, drink someone else's nepenthe and get their memories and thus their "backstory". On a related note, "experience points" from slaying monsters were also obtained by drinking their brain juice, which was essentially an undistilled version of the same fluid. I did this because Necrocarcerus is partially a parody of the tropes of Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to riff off the joke that PCs are often "murderhobos" lacking a backstory situating them in the world.

When we encounter "backstory" in narratives, it is almost always in the form of a narration delivered by a character during the actual story. It's backstory because it's a supplement to the narrative that precedes it and clarifies it, but the events of it are already completed. Authors have all sorts of clever tricks for introducing this material - characters in ancient epics brag about their past deeds as a prelude to boasting about their future accomplishments, while intellectuals in experimental novels cite one another's fake books, and detectives in noir novels muse about their past cases. In fact, the most derided way of presenting this material is probably the form most backstories actually take - supplementary, secondary documents that don't take into account the main narrative they're meant to be supplements for.

So getting away from that, I'm interested in a backstory system for use in my games that does a couple of things. I want backstories that are presented diegetically in the game, that are optional but that do reward players who come up with them, and that have different levels of player agency involved in generating them.

In Into the Depths, almost everything one can do is represented by a piece of gear, so here's some gear that ties into generating backstories.

Diary / Journal - Once per expedition you go on with a journal, you can choose to be Good At something. You must tell everyone an anecdote from your journal about why you're Good At this thing. This lasts for the rest of the expedition. If you lose your diary, leave it behind in town while you go on an expedition, etc. then an embarrassing anecdote gets out as someone takes the opportunity to peek inside. You lose your Good At and gain a permanent Bad At. If you make up the embarrassing anecdote, you get to pick the Bad At, if the referee has to, they get to pick what you're Bad At.

S'mores - When you camp with a fire and someone has s'mores in their gear, each PC who wishes may tell one anecdote about their character's life prior to play, and in exchange, they become Good At one thing related to the anecdote. Anecdotes need not be true. This effect lasts until they use the Good At once, at which time it fades. One can only receive a benefit from one s'mores at a time.

Self-Published Memoir - Cost to have it printed is calculated based on its actual title, which must include at least one colon and two adjectives. Carrying a copy of your self-published memoir allows you reroll a save whenever you can relate an anecdote about your past that explains your resilience. "Inspiring" anecdotes grant an additional +1 on the reroll.

Lucky Charm - You can only have one lucky charm active at a time. You must explain why it is lucky for your character. It grants a +1 to one kind of roll (same scope as Good Ats). If you ever lose it, you have -1 to that kind of roll until you recover or replace it.

Mar 6, 2018

Good RPGs for New Players

I'd like to suggest some good "starter" roleplaying games for new players who don't have a group of more experienced players to learn from. There's been huge growth in the number of people interested in playing RPGs thanks to streaming video of sessions and from mentions in popular media like Stranger Things and Community. Not all of those people will be able to find existing groups to join, and many will have to put together a group of people who've never played before to learn together. 27 years ago, when I first started playing RPGs, I was in the same boat, so I'm sympathetic to people facing the challenge of picking it all up on your own.

One, probably controversial assumption, that I'll be working from is that I think newer players tend to appreciate systems that provide lots of clear guidelines for how to do things, rather than rules-light systems that don't provide much guidance for what to do, especially when you have an inexperienced referee who isn't used to making judgement calls and house-ruling smoothly.

I'm also going to stick with systems that are currently in print, because I don't think sending people who have a casual interest in trying roleplaying thanks to a Youtube video on a bug-hunt through secondhand bookshops is a good introduction to the hobby. I'm also sticking to games I've actually played in some form. Also, with the exception of D&D, I'm going to try to stick to the cheaper end of the hobby, since asking someone to drop more than a hundred bucks for something they don't even know if they'll like doing is unfair.

So here's my list:

For science fiction games:

Stars Without Number Revised - Quick character creation and simple rules, while the adventure creation system is easy to use for new referees, and teaches them how to construct stories with minimal fuss. New referees are most likely to have trouble figuring out the experience and wealth subsystems, which are at least clearer than they were in the previous version of the game.

Cepheus - Character creation is a fun minigame, and the premise (you're petty-bourgeois speculators trying to stay ahead of debt in the far future) is easy to get. The text doesn't always explain itself super well, so expect a few delays on your first attempts at creating characters or vehicles, but the rest of the system is fairly easy to figure out. Go with Cepheus over Stars Without Number if you've got a lot of players with STEM backgrounds who want harder SF.

Diaspora - A great system for teaching people how to collaboratively build worlds and stories, with lots of minigames and mechanics that repeat in various ways across them. A great choice if you've got some players with really strong ideas either about the world or their characters going into the game. Some people can't wrap their head around FATE or the mapping components of this game, so if you're going to run into trouble, it'll be there.

For fantasy games:

Beyond the Wall - Get the Further Afield supplement and all the free playbooks as well. The game setup is a fantastic example of collaborative world- and party-building. The fronts and scenario packs are really good for new referees trying to figure out how to link together a bunch of sessions into a story. The simple premise is easy for new PCs to understand. I wrote a review praising it, and I stand by my conclusions there.

Labyrinth Lord + Yoon-Suin - I narrowly favoured this over Labyrinth Lord + Red Tide, but either would be good options. Yoon-Suin gives you a lot of different settings with generators and rules for running each one that differ slightly. While the weirdness might take some getting used to, the system for generating adventures based off of the PCs' social circles is really good, and I'm surprised more game writers don't adapt it. It also gives a new referee a fairly clear idea of how to generate and run the various campaign options it contains.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition - This one's fairly obvious. The part most likely to trip up a new referee is getting a handle on how the encounter-building process works, and learning what the magic and powers let PCs do. Mostly important, Dungeons and Dragons' core books tend to be written with the default assumption that the person picking them up doesn't know anything about RPGs, and while it won't give anyone masterful insights into how to play, the game covers the essentials well.

Assorted other genres:

Other Dust - if space opera isn't your thing, Other Dust is basically the original edition of Stars Without Number (mentioned above), but with mechanics to run it as a postapocalytpic game instead of as a space opera. Same strengths, same weaknesses.

Rifts - Rifts is simultaneously a western game, a fantasy game, a science fiction game, and a horror game all rolled up into one gonzo mess. It's fiddly and complicated. It's also great, and an incredibly popular introductory RPG. I started playing RPGs myself nearly thirty years ago using a derivative of it called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness" back during the Ninja Turtles craze of the early 1990s.

Further suggestions are welcome in the comments / on G+ as always.

Feb 21, 2018

Into the Depths: Your Feedback

So I'm soliciting your feedback, internet community, on Into the Depths (link is to pdf download). For those just tuning in, Into the Depths is a classless, attributeless retroclone that I wrote at the end of 2016 that incorporates most of my favourite houserules from years in OSR games. It should be compatible with almost any d20-lite ruleset (Swords and Wizardry, Microlite20, etc.). I spent 2017 playtesting it, and I have some ideas for new material for an upcoming revision, but I thought I'd ask you, the wider old-school D&D community, to take a look at it and collect your feedback.

I'm particularly interested in any parts you think need clarification, expansion, or simplification in the rules as written.

Here's a link to some of the changes I'm planning to make based on my own playtest of it. I'm also planning to condense the experience milestones into a smaller list, add some overland travel rules, and a magic system of some sort. This will eventually become the core system of Necrocarcerus if I ever publish that setting, and it's creative commons so you can use or adapt it for your own ends as well.