Old School RPGs - Available Now @ DriveThruRPG.com

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Just in Time for Your Holiday Themed Role Playing Games, it's Shadow of the Krampus

Four years ago I posted this little adventure for those of you who want to add a little of the Season into your gaming.

I am a big fan of running seasonal adventures for my regular gaming group. Though my group hasn't played as regularly this year as they have in the past, I was inspired by Robert J. Schwalb's dark fantasy roleplaying game Shadow of the Demon Lord to write an adventure for this season. For the past few years, I've written and reshared adventures featuring Cthulhu Claus (based on my wife Jody Lindke's illustrations for an old Kickstarter) or the V'sori (evil aliens in the Necessary Evil setting for Savage Worlds), but this year I decided to feature Krampus -- that most devilish of Santa's helpers. While Krampus might be a bit played out for some, having gained mainstream notoriety, I'm still a big fan of the character and I have the pleasure of knowing an artist who has been participating in Krampuslaufen long before it was trendy to do so and Bill Rude's Krampus costume is amazing as is the fact that he can get even small children to pose with his horrifying costume.


Bill Rude is a talented artist and you can look at a variety of his projects over at his 7 Hells: The Retro Art of Bill Rude website.

Illustration Copyright Jody Lindke 2016  

In this mini-adventure, the PCs are passing through the town of Nesbitt-Hill during one of their other adventures. You can use the map below to represent the portion of the foothills of the Iron Peaks immediately south of the Zauberspitz with Nesbitt-Hill being the northern-most community on the map and Tower number 3 representing the once great Beacon Fortress.

Shadow of the Krampus is a Novice (though not a "just now Novice") adventure for Shadow of the Demon Lord with a post-Christmas theme. 

The town of Nesbitt-Hill is a vital stop for wanderers and miners who brave the dangers of the Iron Peaks in search of adventure or riches. For years the town has been a peaceful refuge, seemingly immune from the spread of the Demon Lord's Shadow. For even as the Shadow has spread, the town of Nesbitt-Hill remains a spark of light an happiness in an otherwise dark and desperate world.

But that changed last night. Historically, the Winter Solstice has been a time of celebration when the townsfolk of Nesbitt-Hill memorialize the the Solstice King and his champion Krampus. For it is this duo who has protected the town since the Battle of Zauberspitz where the Solstice King and Krampus defeated a horde of the Demon Lord's servants, or at least that is what the stories say. The stories also say that Krampus steals children who misbehave and returns them at the Spring Equinox after the darkness has been purged from the children's souls. If it is true that Krampus takes children and eventually brings them back, why is it that Krampus has taken no children for twenty years? Why does Mistress Oetzel swear she saw Krampus take adults this Winter Solstice? And why were these adults among the most generous citizens of Nesbitt-Hill? Has Krampus returned, but as a servant of the Demon Lord? Or is something else afoot?

https://www.dropbox.com/s/rxemivrin1vvt34/Shadow%20of%20the%20Krampus.pdf?dl=0



With the exception of the map depicting the area of the Iron Peaks I refer to as the Gronwald, an area that lies in the shadow of the Zauberspitz, all of the maps were drawn by Dyson Logos and were taken from his Commercial Maps webpage. According to the page, Dyson has released these images under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If I have used any images that are not covered by this license, I will be happy to remove them.

The cover image of "Shadow of the Krampus?" was illustrated by Bill Rude, who was kind enough to give me permission to use it. Please visit his website and consider purchasing some of his art.

The other image is the "survival map" from Robert J Schwalb's playing aids page for Shadow of the Demon Lord. I am using it with the intention of it being fair use, but if Mr. Schwalb deems my use inappropriate I will be happy to remove it. This adventure requires the use of the Shadow of the Demon Lord rule book since all monster statistics, with the exception of Krampus, are located within the pages of that "vile" tome. Krampus was designed using rules from the Of Monstrous Mien supplement. It is highly recommended that you also own Hunger in the Void and Terrible Beauty to add details around the edges of this adventure.

The cartoon illustrations in the module are the work of my talented wife Jody Lindke. I included "rpg humor" cartoons because they remind me of the cartoons in the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and Dragon Magazine.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

How Not to Present/Market Your RPG: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition


 Edition wars have been around for a long time in role playing games and have affected a wide variety of role playing IPs. TSR experienced a major edition war regarding Advanced Dungeons & Dragons* when they released the 2nd edition of the game*. Players complained about the removal of Demons and Devils from the monster manuals and critiqued a number of the rules. At the time, the company was often referred to as T$R. They weren't alone though. GDW has experienced a number of edition wars over various Traveller* rules sets, with the original "Classic Traveller" rules set coming out as the still dominant setting and style. Games like 2300 AD* and MegaTraveller* were excellent, but they didn't click with the audience the way one might hope. Even Champions had a bit of an edition war with the release of their 6th edition rules* set. The 5th edition of Champions* expanded the player base and had a number of excellent sourcebooks and supplements, It also marked a return to the base mechanics after a FUSION version called Champions New Millenium had its own edition war. The game had hit the telos of its initial design, so any new rules set would have to make significant changes. It did and that split the fan base. For the record, my favorite version of the rules is 4th edition*, but I own all of them and think they are all very good.

When a fan base is divided, it can lead to a reduction in sales and open up the market to competitors. That's one of the reasons that many companies have taken a careful tack when releasing a new game or a new edition. Paizo and Wizards of the Coast opened up the playtesting of new editions to the public in order to incorporate the fan base in the design process for the Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition respectively.

The point of all this prologue is to say that when 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, edition wars were nothing new in gaming and they were something that any marketing and design team should have been aware of and should have been seeking to combat. Instead, they made what I consider to be a couple of major errors. The first was in the physical layout of the rulebooks and the balance of mechanics and background material presented within them. The second, and much worse, is that they attacked their consumer base and disparaged their own rules sets. They made a "this new edition is better and all the older ones sucked" pitch. Needless to say, this was not a wise choice. I'm leaving out the third possible error, tying the game to a digital platform that never manifested, because that involves a very unforeseeable murder/suicide.

Let me return to what I consider to be the first error in the presentation by looking at the differences between how 3rd edition characters and 4th edition characters where presented to players in the books. Let's have a look at the first page of a 3rd edition character class, the Cleric. Don't worry about what the actual content of the mechanics is, rather look at how things are presented. There is a ton of background and explanatory text, both for what a Cleric is and what their abilities are. Yes, there's a lot of content there and it's wordy. That might be intimidating to some, but it is filled with rich information.

The Cleric for 3rd Edition D&D
 

Contrast this with the 4th Edition Cleric. Once again, it's not the actual mechanics I'm asking you to examine. Look at the layout. Where we have only one "spreadsheet cut and paste" in the 3rd edition presentation, we have four or five in the 4th edition layout. In some ways, it's a cleaner layout. It's more approachable, but once you start looking at the ability outputs it becomes very much like reading spreadsheet outputs and less like reading abilities. The presentation is mechanics focused, almost as if they intended you to fill out cards or something similar. The fact that they later sold "power cards" makes this more and more evident. It looks far more like a Magic the Gathering card breakdown manual, or a video game hint book (back when those existed), than it does a role playing game manual.

 

The Cleric for 4th Edition D&D

Back in February of 2011, a couple of years into 4e, Robert J Schwalb who worked on the design team, wrote a blog post asking if "the format matters." In that piece he wrote:

Fourth edition’s presentation abandoned nearly everything familiar about the game’s look. Eight years of 3rd edition, I think, created strong expectations about how the game should read and since the game didn’t match the visual expectations, it certainly must not match the play experience. Yes, there are considerable mechanical changes that alter the play experience somewhat, but compare how the game plays now to how the game played in the twilight of 3rd edition. Just look at Tome of Battle, Complete Arcane, and many of the variant rules presented in Unearthed Arcana (complex skill checks, healing surges, and so on). In them you can find the proto-rules that would eventually evolve into the mechanical underpinnings of 4e. They are different, but not as different as I imagine some folks believe. I wonder if those changes might have been more palpable had we shifted back toward the old presentation, even if doing so meant that the game would be harder to learn.

 Let's have a look at what Robert's reformatting of the Cleric (now I wish I'd selected the Cleric for the others) looked like. Note that Robert hasn't filled in all the content, so don't worry about the lack of text. Just look at the layout. One thing that should strike you is how this looks exactly like 5th edition playtest materials and that it looks very similar to 3.x's layout. Had the design team opted for a presentation like this, it might have been slightly less shocking and been one less hurdle to overcome in order to minimize edition war effects.

Robert J Schwalb's Reformatted Cleric

Regardless of how formatting would have had the potential to minimize anti-4e backlash, there is one thing that is certain and that is that the marketing team did the game no favors with their marketing campaign. Below, I've embedded the D&D 4th Edition Teaser marketing video. You can watch the whole video and you can feel the meta-cognitive irony and seeming disdain for earlier editions of the game. In particular, I'd recommend watching at 1:31 for the "Okay, what is THAC0 again" question and to 2:26 to see how the 4th edition marketing represented 3.x by mocking that version's rules for grappling.


D&D 4th Edition "Teaser" Marketing Video

The entire video is filled with snide commentary and the THAC0 and grappling jokes, while representing genuine critiques of those editions by some players, have a mocking feeling. This is a tone that 5th edition largely managed to avoid until "THAC0 the Clown" in the recent Witchlight adventure. The unifying thing between the 4th edition marketing and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is Christopher Perkins. Perkins has written some of the best D&D content out there for several editions of the game, but I find his repeated mocking of THAC0 staid. At least he waited until later in the 5th edition cycle to pull out the anti-THAC0 joke from the dustbin. Had this attitude been evident earlier in 5th edition, rather than the "we love the old editions so much that Keep on the Borderlands is our playtest module" attitude, the game might not have gotten off to the great start it did and Critical Role would have continued promoting Pathfinder instead of D&D.

Those are what I see as the main flaws marketing and presentation wise of 4th edition, but those aren't the only challenges the game faced. It really did change much of the focus of the game in a new direction. Where 3.x built upon the 90s trend of "a rule for everything" in games like Champions and GURPS. The stat blocks for doors and magic items regarding how difficult they are to break look a lot like Champions. The fact that you can run an entire campaign simulating how many gold pieces characters earn running a tavern via skill rolls just screams GURPS. Third edition might not have been point buy, but there was a rule that answered how much a Bard earned for its performance. One could more easier "Roll" play with 3rd edition in role playing situations than in any other prior rules version due to the incorporation of a broad array of skills and 4th edition stepped away from that level of granularity. It substituted a focus on ease of play and clarity of tactical mechanics. It was not, as many claim, "more" miniatures based than 3.x. Anyone who has looked at the flanking rules and rules for zones of control in 3.x knows that to be false (with 3.5 being even more miniatures focused than 3rd straight). 

In a conversation with game designer Leonard Pimentel (Prowlers & Paragons* and By this Axe I Hack!*), he mentioned 5 key flaws/obstacles presented by 4th edition. I agree with most of them and think that these, in combination with terrible presentation and marketing, lead to a significant edition war and loss of sales. Those flaws are:

First, the presentation was poor. Or perhaps it’s better to say it was a failed experiment. Every power every ability every whatever you wanna call it was choked in meaningless flavor text. They simply overdid everything which made understanding your character and their abilities a perpetual chore.
Second, I really feel that they fail to understand how unpleasant it is to have abilities you could use only once per day succeed or fail. Every character is structured to work with this unpleasant dynamic.
Further I don’t think that they understood the psychology of how anemic the at will or encounter powers would look when compared to the daily powers. This exacerbated the frustration of the fact that your best power or powers or mostly One-A-Day type abilities that we’re gone whether you succeed or fail that using them
I also think they overestimated peoples desire to use miniatures or underestimated how many people prefer theater of the mind and always have.
They also completely disregarded the sort of role-playing game Golden rule which is that most combats should last approximately three rounds.
As you can see, the first thing mentioned is the presentation. The other points I think are worthy of a great deal of discussion and deserve posts of their own. I know that many reading this have strong opinions about 4th edition and might think, "but I hate it because of x and y." I'd ask these people to really think about how presentation affected their opinions. After all, as discussed in the "zones of control" article linked above, the game has always been miniatures focused and much of the "video game/collectible card game" feel was due almost solely to presentation. As for the marketing...below are a couple more examples of just how potentially off putting it could be, especially the Gnome/Tiefling video. The ironic ridicule of the Gnome put of some of my friends and it runs against the growing cosmopolitan and non-Tolkienesque style of play.


Tiefling vs. Gnome


Interview with a Dragon


Interview with a Mindflayer

* Affiliate Link




Monday, November 29, 2021

Geekerati Reviews: TOMBPUNK by Outland Entertainment

Tombpunk Cover

I've been meaning to write this review for a couple of weeks now, but I've had the most terrible case of writer's block. I know what I think of the game, but being able to write out those thoughts in an organized manner has been a bit of a challenge. I'll attribute it to some recent life changes, none bad or unexpected, that are taking up more cognitive load than I was expecting. That and anxiety regarding finishing dissertation chapters, even as some of the data I need has yet to arrive, has led me to write less overall than I otherwise would. Time to get back on the old review horse though and share my thoughts on Alan Bahr's Tombpunk (affiliate link) from Outland Entertainment

TL;DR

If you like the tension of Old School Gaming or are a big fan of Darkest Dungeon, then this game is for you.

Background

One of the things a lot of "old school" games try to recapture is the sense of urgency and risk of the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons and other table top role playing games of the era. It's a delicate balance between reward and risk that was best recreated in the video game Darkest Dungeon. It's a combination that can work for long term campaigns, if you are willing to have a certain level of detachment from your characters, but that is for many best suited to one shot adventures or short campaigns. That's the market niche that Alan Bahr targeted with his Tombpunk role playing game. The game was based on the system he used when running gaming sessions at role playing conventions and has four simple guiding principles:

Tombpunk Philosophy

Alan's system manages to meet all of the expectations created by each of these four principles, for better and for worse (though the worse isn't that bad) as we'll see as I go through my usual review format and cover "The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome."

The Good

In keeping with his overarching principles, Tombpunk has an easy to understand and quick to play game system that emulates its chosen genre extremely well. The system has at its core a simple attribute test resolution system that is divided into two subsystems. In the first subsystem players and GMs roll d12s against player character attributes. Players have to roll equal to or less than the number to succeed, while Monsters/NPCs have to roll greater than that number.

Wait a minute...did I just write "roll d12s?" Yes I did. Bahr uses the most underused of all the Platonic Solid rpg dice as the base die for resolution determination in this game. I love it.

Key here is that the difficulty number is always determined by the player character's attributes and not the attributes of the Monsters/NPCs. The only statistics Monsters/NPCs have in this game are Lifeblood (aka hit points), Attack Capability (do they roll the d12 to hit with Advantage, Disadvantage, or a Normal roll), and Damage. This keeps monster creation simple and allows for the game to be run with a very free-wheeling style.

Just as Monsters/NPCs are simple to design and run, so too are player characters. Players have three main attributes that are used in the first subsystem. These are Might, Grit, and Deftness and they cover a sufficiently broad spectrum of character abilities. The value of these statistics is determined by rolling a d4 and adding 4 to that number. Thus, characters have starting values in their attributes ranging from 5 to 8. This gives starting characters a 41% (for a 5) to 66% (for an 8) base chance of success for tasks for a given attribute. Conversely it gives Monsters/NPCs a 33% (for an 8) to 58% (for a 5) base chance for success. Advantage and Disadvantage (rolling 2d12 and keeping the highest or lowest) modify these probabilities. 

Unlike a lot of modern role playing games, these attributes do not change as the character gains more experience. Instead of stat growth, Tombpunk focuses on the equipment and base class (Warriors, Shepherds, and Ritualists) abilities of the character for character growth. The base class abilities are relatively static and include the amount of damage all attacks from that character do, everything from weapon to spell damage is determined by the base attack damage of the class. This means that the majority of "power creep" comes from equipment choice. This is a nice mechanic because equipment is one of the areas where the GM can have the most influence in a game without appearing to be limiting player agency. Weapons and equipment have traits that can influence an action. For example a weapon might have "Armor Piercing" that allows it to ignore the damage reduction of armor, or thieves' tools might give advantage in Deftness rolls in certain situations (not a mechanic spelled out in the rulebook, but one fitting with the philosophy on page 37.)

The second subsystem is where the "punk" in Tombpunk comes to light.

What's So Punk About Tombpunk?

For some time now in the post Cyberpunk era there has been a tendency to define new fiction and game genres as some sort of "punk." We've got Steampunk (a term coined to describe K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night), Dieselpunk (as exemplified by Mutant Chronicles), Atompunk, Rococopunk, Solarpunk, Elfpunk, and Younameitpunk. Unlike with Cyberpunk, I find that the addition of the word "punk" to these genres often suggests grim or hip instead of anything political and I'm left asking the question "what's so punk about x?" After all, punk is more than hairstyles and safety pins.

I didn't have to ask myself that question when reading Tombpunk. Sure, Tombpunk has the hairstyles and safety pins, but it also has a hostile economic system keeping the player characters down. That's right, Tombpunk has a short section on the unjust economic system, one that could inspire an entire campaign and one that is connected to the second subsystem of the game.


 
Bahr's simple section on the economics of Tombpunk sets a bleak tone for the world and gives a political motivation to adventuring and potentially using it to fund an eventual revolution. That's pretty punk. You probably noticed that the mechanics of the economics system are a "resource management" mechanic where the players need to earn enough of a resource in order to survive. The second subsystem of Tombpunk is a resource management subsystem and Coin isn't the only resource that characters need to manage. In addition to Coin, characters have Lifeblood (the HP resource from most rpgs), Courage, and Will. These last two resources are extremely valuable as they are needed to resist terror and to fight the effects of dark magics, but they are very hard to replenish or increase. This gives the game a sense of urgency over the long term that emphasizes the hopelessness and unfairness of the world, hopelessness and unfairness crying out for resistance.

The Bad

As much as I like the basic mechanics and tone of Tombpunk, especially for use as a one shot or limited campaign, there are two things that could be tweaked to make better long term game play. 
 
The first is the strict ticking clock of the Courage and Will resources. Outside of the Shepherd's (read Cleric) ability to pray in order to restore 1 Courage or 1 Will to an ally, an ability that might cause the Shepherd to lose their own Will, there is no explicit way to get these resources back or to increase them. I understand Bahr's choice to limit increasing these resources, one of his guiding principles is to prevent power creep, but long term play might require a little more ability to replenish these resources. Given the tone of encroaching darkness Bahr is going for with Tombpunk, it might be better to allow replenishment only once a week or only after spending a week in town without adventuring. This creates a delicate balance between managing Coin, Courage, and Will. Keeping the last two at reasonable levels might lead to the characters running out of coin. This would add to the "wheel of economic alienation" underlining the baseline setting. 

My second minor quibble is with the magic system. Bahr is a big fan of freeform magic systems, and I am too, but his games often lack a lot of guidance on how to implement a freeform system. In Tombpunk, Bahr provides only one specific example involving the use of Advantage/Disadvantage.


 
Essentially a Ritualist (read Magic User) can do any effect they desire with a successful Grit check, so long as the mechanical effects of the spell are equivalent to the 1d6 base damage that Ritualists have in their attacks. A 1d6 gout of flame? Fine, make a Grit check. One that does 2d6? Grit check with Disadvantage. That all seems fair, but doesn't provide much guidance for illusions, spider-climbing, flight, etc. The "cost" of such spells are a conversation between the DM and player. This is a lot like Tiny Dungeon or Mage the Ascension/Ars Magica, but the former game has a lot of fan support to fill the magic spells gap and the latter games contain chapters on how to adjudicate these kinds of effects. This isn't a "game killer," especially for experienced GMs and players, but it is a drawback for newer GMs and players. It's a drawback that opens the door to expansion though and given Bahr's love for including and encouraging "Micro-Settings" it's a drawback with a purpose. It leaves the door open to what level of magic a setting designer/GM wants in their games.

The Awesome

Finally, we come to what's awesome about the game. First and foremost is the art of Nicolás R. Giacondino. I don't know how Bahr found Nic, but their game designer/artist partnership is fantastic and has resulted in some of my favorite rpg illustrations. Nic has captured the "old school" evocative sensibility of artists like Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham, that balances the serious with the cartoony in a way that inspires the creative mind. I'm a big fan and would buy the books just for Nic's art.
 
Tombpunk Holding the Door
Art by Nicolás R. Giacondino

It's not just the art that's awesome though. As always, Bahr provides a plethora of optional rules and Micro-Settings to play around in. I cannot overstate how much I enjoy Bahr's use of Micro-Settings in his games. These are short kernels of long term campaigns that give you the basic concepts, the major villains, the overall "story," and key locations of a setting. You only get a couple here, but they have more than enough information to get you going and provide reading and viewing lists to further inspire your game play.

Bahr's designer notes at the end of the game remind us that all of the "rules" are merely guidelines and that we are free to tweak as we want and the interplay between designers, GMs, and players is the true spirit of gaming.

Go out and buy Tombpunk on RPGNow (affiliate link).

Art by Nicolás R. Giacondino