Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: Shadows Over Vathak

Okay, so I finally got another computer to replace my crashed one and I'm jumping back into the fray with a review of Shadows Over Vathak, A Campaign Setting Book of Lovecraftian Survival Horror, written by Jason Stoffa and Rick Hershey and published by Fat Goblin Games.  The book is for the Pathfinder system.

This setting sort of takes a Ravenloft-esque world, then dumps a bucket of Lovecraftian mythos over it.  This means a lot of changes to the typical Pathfinder game.  For starters there are different core races, five of them.  First is the Bhriota, actually a human culture rather than a separate per se.  The Bhriota are savages with a religion based on worship of the Old Ones (Lovecraftian gods).  The Cambion are next and are not what I was expecting.  A cambion is usually a demon/human hybrid and so I was expecting a version of the tiefling.  However, this is a Cthulhu mythos game and so they are part human and part Something Else.  These are not badass looking tieflings but really hideous, warped Quasimodo types.  In fact they are a lot like the character Quasimodo, even down to sometimes being taken in and raised by the church.  Then there are the Dhampir, a human/vampire mix.  In this setting the Dhampir are an echo of the time when vampire lords ruled, but later wiped out when the Spawn of the Old Ones returned.  The romni are former Mormon presidential candidates, er, I mean they are human gypsyish wanderers who travel in wagon caravans.  Their ancestors lived and died under the Vampire Lords but now the clans wander and make their way as best they can.  Next up are the Svirfneblin gnomes.  Gray-skinned and dour, they live underground with a way of life centered around mining.  They take little heed of the religions of the Old Ones and the One True Faith.  Last are the vindari, the dominant human culture of the setting.  The vindari are the most "normal" of the races, similiart to standard medieval/renaissance humans.  The suggested names are nordic/germanic but other aspects of their culture suggests Spain of the 1500s/1600s.

Each race comes with racial traits, great setting-specific alternate alternate traits, and complete class-specific adventurer notes and favored class options.  The authors are not shy about using the adventurer notes to make it clear that certain classes are extremely rare, limited by gender, etc. based on the setting.  This doesn't prevent you from using them and GMs will find this useful to help build NPCs in tune with the setting.

The usual elf, dwarf, gnome, and halfling races are noted as having existed in great numbers but now reduced to scattered remnants after being almost totally exterminated by the return of the Spawn of the Old Ones and the Great Cleansing by the vindari.  Although acknowledged, they are definitely not given the same in-depth treatment as the five major races for the setting.  I suppose you if you play one you're almost doing a "Last of the Mohicans" type character.  The book also notes that drow, fetchlings, ratfolk, changelings,nagaji, and strix would be appropriate for the setting, with just a short paragraph on each.

In addition to all the core and base classes for Pathfinder, Shadows Over Vathak also adds five new ones specifically designed for this setting: Apostle (a chosen messenger of the One True God), Blade Singer (fighter specializing in thrown bladed weapons), Eldritch Conjuror (summoning), Rifleer, and Sword Dancer (wandering specialized blade fighter using a dancing trance).  The setting also adds archetypes for all the original Pathfinder classes and the five new ones.

The book then has a section of 59 feats, some of which are very setting specific, others more general.  I was almost disappointed to see so many feats.  One of the problems areas of D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder is rules bloat.  And feats is one of the areas most prone to bloat up with just too much material.  I would have preferred to see a tighter list with only flavorful setting-specific feats on it.  It really has gotten to the point where I skip over any new feats listing and avoid buying any feat books.

Equipment gets its own section.  It starts out with a lot of firearms, including muzzle-loading black powder guns and several which use metal cartridges.  The bit on the revolver notes "these weapons are typically carried by vindari marshals".  Marshals with six-guns, really?  I found that a bit jarring.  However, once I got to the firearms I understood better how the vindari invaders were able to sweep all before them in the Great Cleansing.  There are also some cool armor types and equipment, plus romni "smoking weed" with varieties which produce various effects on the smoker.

Like most setting books, Shadows Over Vathak has a section on new spells.  This is another area of the 3.5/Pathfinder rules with a strong tendency for bloat.  A lot of these are quite good, with clear inspiration from the setting. But as with the feats I wished they'd kept new spells to an absolute minimum, skipping the non-specific ones.

Next, at last, we get to the gazetteer chapter.  I love a good flavorful setting and after the mostly crunchy (and sometimes bloat-inducing) bits we finally get to the setting itself.  First comes the calendar: names of days of the week and months and main festivals.  I really liked that these were all in keeping with the pseudo-european flavor of the setting.  For instance, October becomes Octombrie.  They're easy to pick up but definitely remind you of the setting.  Each of the major regions is treated in turn, with the towns and cities each given a stat block and enough text to characterize it while leaving room for DM creativity.  I love a good fantasy campaign gazetteer and this entire section was great.   Time after time I'd read about a location which just cried out to have an adventure set in it.

Religion is also covered.  Unlike many fantasy settings this one is quite bipolar, with the Church of the One True God versus the Cults of the Old Ones.  This is a bit stark, but well in keeping with the setting which has overtones of a vampire movie.  The Church of the One True God (Lawful Good) is similar to the Catholic Church in Spain in the Renaissance, but with new sub-groups.  The Cults of the Old Ones has a short entry on each of the Old Ones (all of which are chaotic, evil, or both), then longer treatments of the various cults which follow them.  Again this section is solid setting design and well usable.

There is then a really good DM section.  I was glad to see that Shadows over Vathak skipped the usual "What is a role-playing game" section which wastes page count in most books.  This section really gets down into providing a lot of lists, especially ones you can roll on, of elements custom designed to not only help DMs gin up adventures but also convey the creepy elements of the setting.  The information for generating villages was particularly good.  This section also has a lot of delightfully gross diseases to toss into the game.  A nice surprise was the weather section.  I almost skipped over this until I spotted some of the interesting rules for fog and stopped for a better look.  In a horror setting weather is very important for providing tone and atmosphere and Shadows Over Vathak takes the time to not only include it but make it relevant.

Next is a section on forbidden lore--almost a must with a Lovecraft mythos game.  There are rules on insanity, various books and items and their effects on users.  The book finishes up with monsters, mostly Lovecraftian, and monster templates.

So the bottom line is that if you're interested in mixing Call of Cthulhu with D&D with Ravenloft then this is the book for you.  I think it's very usable (my Wednesday group is likely to experience it in the future) and definitely worth the money.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ideas for RPG Gaming for the Visually Impaired

Okay, a little while back there was a posting over at the Paizo message boards (which I drop by most days) on "Running-Pathfinder-for-the-visually-impaired".  The author was starting a game soon and would have a player whose vision is totally impaired.  So far I've never had a player with any sort of disability, but I certainly would welcome one to my games.  A fellow gamer is a fellow gamer.

Anyway, the author got quite a few responses and I was very interested to read the ideas and experiences that people shared.  I tossed in some quick ideas there but decided I'd revisit the idea with a bit more thought to the matter.  The main areas where it seems to me that impaired vision will have the most impact are:
  • information on the character sheet, particularly information which usually changes during a session such as HP, XP, money, etc.
  • dice rolls, and finding the dice after rolling; I swear, every single session of gaming I've ever been in has included at least one episode of a die going astray and the owner stopping everything to go find it.
  • maps, battle mats, and miniatures
  • looking up rules (another area where a lot of time can be lost at the table during play)
As for the character sheet, there are braille printers which can be used to produce readable sheets.  I'm not fully familiar with all their capabilities, but trying to align print onto a fancy character sheet probably wouldn't work.  I suspect that either you'd have to do with a text-only sheet (like I used for my character in a recent game) or maybe a fillable pdf.

Then there's the question of the info which changes frequently, particularly hit points (HP).  My original idea was to put paper clips on the paper, say at the top, representing the character's HP.  To save on crowding of the clips you could use large ones for 10 HP and small ones for 1 HP.  As HP are lost you move the appropriate number of clips to a different edge and as the damage is recovered you move them back.  This movement will eventually begin to wear at the paper.  You could use a plastic cover or print the sheet on stiffer cardstock instead of regular paper.  I usually use cardstock anyway because it's more durable.  (My players all seemed to think cardstock was the lap of luxury for some reason.  No idea why; I mean, you just buy it at the store from the regular paper supplies section.)  Some people suggested using poker chips or coins, which also work to keep track of points.  But I mentioned that the paper clips can be conveniently left on the sheet at the end of a session if HP are still missing and, this is big for me, is keeps the table less cluttered.  My gamers pile all sorts of stuff on the table and it's often a struggle to clear a space to toss down a map.

Dice rolling is another question to tackle.  There are braille six-sided dice on the market, but I don't think there are other die types available.  Even if it's just the braille d6, the person would have the fun of owning their own playing dice.  I suppose you could try taking large dice and putting braille on them with dots of glue or something, but I think you'd need large dice to do it properly.  That might be a problem at your gaming space or maybe not.  I think it would be a fun project to try anyway.

Perhaps instead of dice you could improvise with braille playing cards to randomize numbers (just take out the jack, queen, and king).  Like for a d4 roll the player just keeps drawing until drawing a number in the 1-4 range

For the playing "mat" you could try a braille chess board--and use the chess pieces as "figures".  Or maybe you can find something at the hardware or craft store to lay flat which will make a grid you can feel; miniatures should be easy to discriminate in a tactile way.  Perhaps you can glue craft sticks down on a board in a grid or something.  Then you need something to indicate terrain.  Again the craft store should have bags of cheap stuff you can use for a tactile representation of stuff, like pom-poms for bushes and trees.

Have you ever played with someone who was visually impaired?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Campaign: Twisted Princesses

Okay, so I recently came across some totally cool artwork by Jeffrey Thomas posted over at Geek Native of Disney Princess characters and other major female characters done as evil, or at least kind of sketchy.  I think they're a fantastic revisit of the princesses.  Then I thought, hey I could build a whole campaign around them!

Each princess would be the "boss" NPC for a particular region and faction in a world gone all "twisted".  The campaign would work around engaging each princess to turn them back to normal, ally with them, or defeat them to turn the world back to normal.  Or they could work more as meta-plot figures rather like the iconic faction leaders in 13th Age if you wanted them to be less a direct part of the campaign.

A couple of the portraits immediately gave me some ideas.

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty): instead of the witch queen giving her an apple, she saw what was coming and poisoned the queen first.  Now she's Witch-queen Aurora, the Fairest in the Land.  She keeps the spirit of the mirror captive in a magic lantern and has a demonic owl familiar.

Jane (Tarzan): Jungle barbarian princess, leader of an army of dire gorillas--and they're all cannibals.  They massacred (and ate) the army sent in after them and now there's no one who can stop them.

Tinkerbell (Peter Pan): Shadow fairy princess.  She bargained away her sweet seelie fairy wings for dark unseelie powers and became a druidic artificer making weird nature-tech creatures and devices.

Maid Marion (Robin Hood): Kitsune ranger, leader of a clan of forest kitsune terrorizing the human lands around the great forest.  She uses her executed lover's powerful magic bow leading her people to avenge him and the many other crimes suffered at the hands of the greedy "bare-skins".

Tiana (Princess and the Frog): Yuan-ti voodoo witch doctor, leader of the swamp creatures.  Has a huge dire alligator as a familiar.  She and her people don't leave the swamp--but the swamp is expanding.

To see more of Jeffrey Thomas' work, go to:

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Evil Campaign: Why, Yes, the Nazgul Work Do Work For Me

Okay, so I was over scanning the news at EN World as I do occasionally and saw an announcement for a board game where you play the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings.  I immediately thought that would be a cool basis for a campaign where the PCs are evil.  The usual problem with campaigns where the characters are evil (or mixed evil and neutral) is that they soon fall apart as the party members backstab one another (often literally backstabbing).  So making them bound servitors of a powerful evil entity would force the party to restrain its self-destructive impulses--well until maybe they were powerful enough to challenge the evil entity and take its place.  I believe the evil adventure path Way of the Wicked from Fire Mountain Games involves the PCs signing infernal contracts to get broken out of prison, but naturally there's a price.

Of course being bound could take various forms, not necessarily matching magic rings.  A good example is the Abyssals in Exalted.  The abyssal exalted are the super-minions of a set of dead/dying gods.  Once mortal, they were made an offer in their dying moment.  That dying moment typically was one of great dramatic emotion.  If they take the offer they can become one of the immortal servants of the undead abyss.

Another approach is a variation on one I tossed out as a campaign idea earlier, where all the characters (in a D&D/Pathfinder type game) voluntarily become liches to survive an apocalypse.  In this variation they all become liches voluntarily in order to survive something, but the phylacteries which hold their souls are in the possession of another.

Or perhaps the evil power hold hostage someone they care about.  Yes, even evil types can care about someone even while admitting to themselves that it's a weakness.  Imagine the campaign opening: each of the PCs arrives home and finds one of those notes made of letters cut out of books spelling out something like "WE GOT YER KAT".  A mysterious emissary arrives soon after and explains that unless the PC does exactly as they are told then little Fluffy will not be given even one single treat.  No, not even one morsel.  Now that would be evil.  Bastards.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Urbancrawl Rules for Slacker DMs: Chinese Takeout (in Color)

Okay, so about a month ago (yes, it really was that long) I did a post where I was taking off on a concept by Zak S. over at "Playing D&D With Pornstars" of using the words ONE through TEN to make up the streets of a city.  A quick d10 roll can quickly tell you which area of the city something is in (anyway see the original post for details).  I did a quick black and white mock-up then of how the Chinese characters for 1 through 10 would look.  Now here is the mock-up with a bit of tracing paper over it, with the characters extended here and there to make a street grid and then colored.

That's more connected like a street grid, but with some interesting extra bits, such as square streets which don't connect.  I think the next step will be to sketch in a city wall and/or water's edge to frame it up.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Why the OSR is Rather S&M

Okay, so the "Old School Renaissance" (or Revival) is on a roll right now.  Serious efforts are being made to bring back the days of D&D gaming from the original D&D up through AD&D.  There are quite a few products out and more on the way.  In addition, Wizards of the Coast is pouring gasoline on that fire by reissuing earlier D&D products as pdfs.

But I still don't understand the appeal of the early editions of D&D, particularly the pre-AD&D ones.  When I played D&D for the first time (back around 1978) my friends and I thought it really sucked.  My take away was that it was basically an exercise in sado-masochism.  Sadism is inflicting distress on other living creatures for enjoyment; masochism is the desire to receive said distress.  So what does that have to do with early D&D?  Allow me get all controversial here and provide a couple examples:

Straight-up 3d6 rolls for attributes.  This frequently has two negative results: getting stuck with one or more very low attributes and/or not being able to play a particular class because of those low attributes.  The sadism part is deliberately setting people up to have crap dished out to them by the dice and constantly play a class they don't want to play; the masochism part is coming back for more of this abuse over and over

Class level caps.  This creates a "glass ceiling" for certain classes, typically the demi-human elves and dwarves.  The sadism part is the arbitrary imposition of a level cap, apparently along racist lines; the masochism part is playing a class which is ultimately doomed to 2nd-class citizen status.

BTW, I recently bought Adventurer, Conquerer, King System (ACKS) which commits these and other sins.  However, I bought it for the interesting economic and political rules and will be doing a full review in a bit.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

RPG Blog Carnival February 2013: Pimp a Game

Okay, so there'a a new RPG Blog Carnival up for February over at Arcane Shield now.  I'm coming to really like these blog carnivals and blog contests because I enjoy a creative challenge.  The theme for this carnival is to pimp/promote an obscure RPG which you like.  I immediately thought of three candidates: Old School Hack (and Fictive Hack derived from it), Albedo, and Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM).  All are pretty obscure (alas) but I think they're all pretty cool.  This is a hard decision.  I'd most like to promote Old School Hack because it's a beautiful piece of design work blending old school D&D with D&D 4th edition with wacky indy stuff.  Fictive Hack is OSH customized and expanded for a particular campaign world and is thus also a great example of creativity.  BESM is a game I agonize about because I love the simplicity of the basic mechanics but am depressed by the lack of sourcebooks to take it beyond being just a toolkit.  Albedo is a really, really, really obscure game but has a lot of great design concepts worth looking at.

So what to do?

Well, I've decided to go with Albedo: Platinum Catalyst.  I've done posts on OSH/Fictive and on BESM and I'll be doing more, so I really already have those covered.  So what is Albedo?  It is a game of "anthropomorphic science fiction role-play" by Sanguine Productions based on the Albedo Anthropomorphics comic series by Steve Gallacci.  (Yeah, it's a furries game--get over it!)

The setting concept is that a large number of intelligent humanoid anthropomorphic animals of various species sort of woke up together one day with an entire planet already built up and ready for them.  They had no memory of what came before that, no history, and no culture.  The mysterious Creators were responsible but no one knew anything more than that.  Over time they learn from a massive internet which has knowledge there for the finding.  They travel to other planets, colonize them, and eventually there is a major war.  Behind all that is the meta-plot of who the Creators, why did they create all this, and why did they leave (or did they really leave)?  (The game doesn't answer these questions, leaving it up to DMs to fill in, but my read is that humans created all this as a huge experiment of some kind and are still covertly monitoring it all.)  The setting is generally a hard science one, except for instellar travel.

The game is a military setting, with each player having a main character and possibly a team/squad/crew of up to several NPCs (who are not as detailed as a full PC) serving in the Extraplanetary Defense Force (EDF).  A wide range of anthro species is available for PCs and there is a fairly good range of EDF career paths to choose from.

Features I Like:
- The stats are just Body, Clout, and Drive; these sum up the physical, social, and intellectual attributes of the character
- There are lots of anthro species to choose from
- All characters have a Social-Political Intelligence which is their career advancement score.  Successes or failures in social and mental conflict can effect this score, as can success or failure on missions performed.  This really builds in the importance of social, and mental spheres so that play doesn't just focus on physical combat.
- The game has the full rules and setting in one 175-page digest sized paperback; ever since starting in RPGs with Chivalry & Sorcery I've liked "all-in-one" game books.

Features I Don't Like:
- The setting is so heavily crafted for military games that you'd have to make a new one to do other types of games (and yes, I already have an anthro-heavy campaign setting in mind that these rules are just right for).
- There are just the two sides fighting (if you don't count the occasional bunch of pirates, etc.), so even the military conflict is pretty one-dimensional; but to be fair, this is faithful to the original graphic novels.

So that's Albedo: Platinum Catalyst, a very obscure game with a lot of potential.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Yay, I'm a Winner!

Okay, so a little while ago I entered Gnome Stew's "2013 New Year, New Game Challenge".  And they were kind enough to grant me second prize!  I did an earlier post outlining what I was thinking of doing, a horror survival game based on CthulhuTech.

(Also, that earlier post was included in Gnome Stew's 2013 New Year, New Game Blog Carnival along with some other good posts on the subject which you might want to check out.)

So thanks very much to all the gnomes over at Gnome Stew!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unplanned Hiatus!

Okay, so my computer suddenly started refusing to boot up.  It was pretty old anyway so no big surprise, but it's kind of put a cramp in my style until I can get a new one.  I'm writing this on an even older computer which I'd stuck in a corner a while ago.  So apologies in advance for my postings being less regular for a while until I get everything back up and running.