Monday, August 21, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 6


What follows are the stat blocs for several monsters. Like SWL, I have 18 creatures with simplified mechanics and descriptions. For those interested I used these public domain alien names and concepts for inspiration for some of the entires.

Brain Lords

Def: 0 HP: 1d6+1 Att: 1d6+1 Mental Blast BAB: +7 Move: 3
Special: Mental Def -4; Telekinesis as per Mind Mage ability
Large, brainy heads with atrophied bodies. They use Mechans as exoskeletons to help them move.

Bug, Giant Glow

Def: -1 HP: 1d6+3 Att: 2d6 bite BAB: +7 Move: 12

A giant glow bug’s light-glands glow phosphorescently and continue to give off light in a 10’ radius for 1d6 days after they are removed.

Crater Men

Def: 0 HP: 2d6+1 Att: 1d6 weapon or claw BAB: +8 Move: 12
Special: Stink Gas
These asteroid dwelling creatures emit a gas attack that, if successful, reduces a victim’s BAB by -2 for 1d6 x 10 minutes.


Def: -1 HP: 6d6+3 Att: 1d6 weapon or claw BAB: +12 Move: 12
Special: Banish Def: -5; Regenerate 3hp per round.
Creatures of the Outer Darkness. The only way to utterly kill a demon is by dousing them with holy water.

Flesh Eaters

Def: +1 HP: 2d6 Att: 1d6 claw + special BAB: +8 Move: 9
AC: 6[13]
Special: Paralysis Attack; Banish Def: -2; Mental Def: -4

Flesh Eaters Are creatures of the Outer Darkness that eat the flesh of their victims, leaving only skeletal remains. They have a second attack per round that paralyzes a victim for 3d6 rounds if successful. Skeletal remains of their victims will become Fleshless in 1d6 days.


Def: +3 HP: 1d6 Att: 1d6 weapon BAB: +7 Move: 12
Special: Banish Def: 0; Mental Def: -4
Skeletal creatures of the Outer Darkness.


Def: +1 HP: 1d6-1 Att: 1d6 weapon BAB: +7 Move: 9

Special: -1 to BAB when not directly controlled by a Brain Lord

Semi-autonomous cyborg servitors of the Brain Lords.


Def: +1 HP: 2d6+2 Att: 1d6 bite BAB: +8 Move: 18
Special: Webs
Megaspiders may attack using their webs. Victims become stuck. Even those missed can only move at half rate through webbed areas. Megaspider surprise on a roll of 1–5 on a d6.


Def: 0 HP: 4d6+1 Att: 1d6+2 weapon BAB: +9 Move: 9

Special: Banish Def: -3
Devil-like humanoids of the Outer Darkness that like to be overlords of other monsters.


Def: +1 HP: 1d6 Att: 1d6 weapon BAB: +7 Move: 12
Marauding green humanoids that gather in tribes.


Def: +3 HP: 2d6 Att: 1d6 weapon or strike BAB: +8 Move: 6
Special: Banish Def: -1
Innocent humanoids possessed by creatures of the Outer Darkness. They may be freed if rendered unconscious or with a Critical Banish roll.

Sand Rat

Def: +2 HP: 1d6-1 Att: 1d6 bite BAB: +7 Move: 12
Giant vermin about the size of a small dog.

Shadow Beasts

Def: +1 HP: 4d6 Att: 1d6 bite BAB: +10 Move: 18
Special: Banish Def: -3
Large, intelligent beasts from the Outer Darkness sometime used as mounts by other monsters.

Space Dragon

Def: -2 HP: 8d6 Att: 1d6 bite or blast BAB: +14 Move: 6/24 flying
Special: Flight, Sonic Blast
Giant winged beast that are able to use a 30’ r. area effect sonic attack.

Space Witches

Def: +4 HP: 2d6 Att: 1d6 weapon BAB: +8 Move: 12

Special: Charm; Mental Def: -4

These practitioners of the dark arts prefer to avoid combat by Charming their victims (BAB+10). On a critical success, a victim can be forced to do something dramatically out of character.


Def: 0 HP: 3d6+1 Att: 1d6 weapon or claw BAB: +9 Move: 9
Special: Surprise opponents with 1–3 on 1d6 roll
These carnivorous reptilian humanoids have stone-like scales that allow them to easily hide in any environment.

Utani Ape-men

Def: 0 HP: 2d6 Att: 1d6 weapon or claw BAB: +8 Move: 9
Utani Ape-men are tall humanoids with an ape-like appearance.


Def: +1 HP: 1d3 Att: 1d6-1 weapon BAB: +6 Move: 6
Cowardly, small green humanoids usually enslaved by other monsters.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 5


Before I get to the crux of this particular post, I need to explain my thinking on Characteristics because I won’t be using the traditional six of D&D and its decedents. Due to the fact that there are three categories of Areas of Expertise (AoE) (my proto-skill system) I wanted to condense the original six to three characteristics, each corresponding to an AoE. Thus:
  • STR/CON = Toughness which affects Hit Points, Melee Attacks and the Military AoE.
  • DEX/INT = Acuity which affects Defense, Ranged Attacks and the Hard Science AoE.
  • WIS/CHA = Judgement which affects Banishing, Spell-like Abilities and the Biosocial AoE.
For flavor, players can use descriptors to clarify which of the original six is dominant in each pair. For example, a character’s Acuity could be more intellectual than physical.


In both Star Frontiers and D&D (and its direct descendants), there are four basic races: humans plus three non-human races. Dralasites, Vrusks and Yazirians roughly correspond to Dwarves, Elves and Halflings. While it would be tempting to make simplified versions of the Star Frontier races in the same way SWL does with the traditional D&D races, it severely limits what the game can do. Suddenly, all campaigns are tasked with looking very much like the Star Frontiers universe.

I find this lacking because, while extremely interesting, Drasalites, Vrusks and Yazirians are not archetypal in the way that Dwarves, Elves and Halflings are. As a consequence, I want to offer a set of mechanics that can easily describe a number of different iconic sci-fi aliens rather than three aliens that are described by mechanics.


At character creation, a human PC gets a +1 that the player can place on any of the three Characteristics. The other two will be ±0. This expresses the great variety of humanity as well as their flexibility.

Militant Aliens

These are aliens that either come from a war-like culture or are physically capable of being excellent warriors. Militant Aliens have a +1 Toughness, ±0 Acuity and -1 Judgement. They also have the special ability of Battle Rage. They may take an action to enter into Battle Rage, which requires a successful Action Roll. If successful, the Militant Alien receives a +2 with Melee Attacks. With a Critical Success, that bonus increases to +4. Militant Aliens may only choose the Warrior Class.

Militant Aliens: Ka D'Argo, Ookla and a Yazirian 

Mentalist Aliens

These are aliens that rely on some kind of mental prowess. Mentalist Aliens have a -1 Toughness, +1 Acuity and ±0 Judgement. They also have the special ability to Detect with a successful Action Roll or a 10 minute preparation time. What exactly the character is capable of detecting is chosen by the player at character creation. For example, Dralasites can Detect Lies. Mentalist Aliens may choose the Mind Mage or Warrior Class.

Mentalist Aliens: a Talosian, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan and a Dralasite

Merchant Aliens

These are aliens that have a gift for interacting with other cultures and species. Merchant Aliens have a ±0 Toughness , -1 Acuity and +1 Judgement. They also have the special ability to Comprehend Languages (Spoken) with an Action Roll. With a critical success, they can also Comprehend Languages (Witten).  Merchant Aliens may only choose the Warrior Class.

Merchant Aliens: a Neimoidian, Quark the Ferengi and a Vrusk 
Players and Referees are encouraged to re-skin these mechanics any way they wish. As an example, the Comprehend Language ability of the Merchant Alien could be re-skinned as a latent version of telepathy or empathy akin to Ship’s Councilor Troi from STNG.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Andrew the Commander

Today is the feast of St. Andrew the Commander. He was a roman soldier during the reign of Maximian. About the year A.D. 289 he was sent by Antiochus, the Commander-in-Chief of the Roman forces, to fight off a large Persian army that had invaded the Syrian territories. Interestingly, St. Andrew had not yet been baptized a Christian, but still persuaded his men that the pagan gods were merely stone carved by human hands and were of no help in the upcoming battle. In contrast, all things were brought into being through Jesus Christ the omnipotent God of heaven and earth. Therefore, all his men, believing that Christ would give aid to all who believe in him, called upon the help of Christ. Though greatly outnumbered, St. Andrew’s men routed the Persians.

When it was discovered that this victory was done in the name of Jesus Christ, St. Andrew and his men were put on trial by Antiochus. When they confessed Christ they were tortured: St. Andrew was placed on a bed of hot iron and the hands of his men were nailed to block of wood. They were then chased through the streets by soldiers. In the end, these men, too, came to believe in Christ because they saw the strength of St. Andrew’s faith and listened to his teachings.

After seeing the folly of these tortures, Antiochus had them all beheaded: St. Andrew and 2,593 soldiers. At the spot of their martyrdom, one of the passes of Mt. Tauros in Cilicia, a spring come forth from the ground. It was soon discovered by the local Christians to have healing properties.

As a player, one of the things I enjoy most in an RPG is being surprised by my character. I allow the events of a campaign to shape them and inform their decisions as they advance in levels and/or power. For example, I was playing in a campaign that had a desecrated temple of St. Cuthbert sitting atop the Caverns of Thracia. I joined the campaign late and ended up playing an NPC turned PC.

Over the course of the campaign, the group managed to finally (and unknowingly) cleanse the temple of St. Cuthbert. Ironically, my character had failed a saving through and therefore was fleeing. Therefore, my character was the only PC to witness a divine light bathe the temple leaving behind a set of Bracers of Defense.

The fear left my character and he took up the bracers in awe. I decided that my character would see this event as a command to wear the bracers for the rest of his career and that he would become a devout follower of St. Cuthbert. Thus, by a random event, my fighter-type character ended up religiously wearing a magic item primarily designed for magic-users. This event reminds me very much of the story of St. Andrew and his soldiers. They allowed a single event to radically change their lives.

Fortunately, it was a 1e D&D campaign, therefore I had the freedom to choose this path for my character without crippling him.

In the wake of Paizo’s release of Starfinder, I am getting buried under a bunch of promotional material about various companies releasing support material for the game. I have to be honest, here: I have zero interest, despite the fact that my Gamer ADD is now focused on producing a 4-page ruleset for a sci-fi RPG. The reason I don’t have any interest is, again, related to the story of St. Andrew.

The 3.5 engine that drives Pathfinder and Starfinder gives off the aura of having a plethora of options for its players. Unfortunately, this is largely an illusion. The game assumes a certain amount of min/maxing and optimization by its players as their characters advance in levels. This cam be seen in the way monsters are handled at higher levels. Thus, the game itself punishes players who do not follow a pre-determined set of paths for advancement. Without optimization, a character can very quickly become unplayable and even a danger to the rest of the party. Thus, a character is expected to advance and develop in a particular fashion despite what happens in a campaign. Paizo even has The Pathfinder Strategy Guide, a book entirely dedicated to strategies of planning out how to optimally advance a character. Everything is planned out. There are not supposed to be any surprises.

I have experienced this on more than one occasion, where I chose to follow the logic of the events in a campaign rather than The Strategy Guide optimization. My characters would end up being less and less effective in play compared to those who had panned out their characters and the campaign became less and less interesting to me and I became more and more frustrated. While I understand and appreciate the min/max impulse in games, it best belongs in the realm of war-games, not RPGs.

I believe that if St. Andrew were a 3.5/Pathfinder character he and his men would never have chosen the path of Christ, because it wan’t optimal to their career choice; however, it makes sense in context of the events they actually experienced. Allowing PCs to freely make similar choices without systemically punishing them for doing so is not only more realistic, it’s also more fun: we get to be surprised by how the campaign world affects our characters as much as our characters affect the campaign world.

Friday, August 18, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 4


For those who have been following this series of posts, it is possible to intuit that there will be only three classes: Cleric, Fighter, and Magic-user. For the purposes of making this feel more like a sci-fi RPG, these three classes will be re-skinned and re-named:


Adventurers from battlefields from across the galaxy both primitive and technological.

Hit Points: 7hp at 1st lvl, 14 at 2nd lvl and 21 at 3rd lvl.
Basic Action Bonus (BAB): +7 at 1st level, +8 at 2nd level and +9 at 3rd level.
Equipment: Warriors start with any melee weapon and any gun as well as one type of armor and one type of shield.
Special Abilities: Warriors get one attack per level each round.


Crusaders are men and women who use their faith to beat back the creatures of the Outer Darkness that now blight the space lanes.

Hit Points: 6hp at 1st lvl, 12hpt at 2nd lvl, 18hp at 3rd lvl
Basic Action Bonus (BAB): +6, +7 at 3rd lvl
Equipment: Crusaders begin the game with either a sonic sword or a sonic pistol as well as one type of armor and one type of shield.
Special Abilities:

Banish: Crusaders have the ability to banish creatures from the Outer Darkness, causing them to flee. When attempting to banish, make an action roll. On a success, all creatures of the targeted type are banished and will flee for 3d6 rounds, or will cower helplessly if they can’t flee. On a critical success, the targeted creatures are destroyed.

Starting at 2nd level, Crusaders may choose one of the following abilities to use on an adventure and may change their choice between adventures:

Cure Wounds: Touch a target and make an action roll. On a success, the target heals 1d6+1 hp.

Detect Evil: Spend 10 minutes in prayer or meditation. For 60 minutes, the Crusader can detect evil creatures, enchantments, intentions, thoughts, or auras at a range of 120 feet.

Spiritual Protection: Spend 10 minutes in prayer or meditation. For the next 2 hours the Crusader has an additional Defense of -2 against all attacks from evil creatures.

At 3rd level, Crusaders may choose two of these abilities.

Mind Mage

Enigmatic students of the arcane who have developed mental powers.

Hit Points: 5 at 1st lvl, 10 at 2nd lvl, and 15 at 3rd lvl
Base Action Bonus: +5
Equipment: Mind Mages begin the game with a laser sword or a laser pistol as well as one type of shield.
Special Abilities:

Mental Powers: Mind Mages are trained in mental powers. At 1st level, a Mind Mage chooses one power off of List A. At 2nd level a Mind Mage chooses a second power off of List A. At 3rd level a Mind Mage chooses a third power from List A and one power from List B. All powers require a successful action roll to use immediately or 10 minutes of careful mental preparation without an action roll.

List A

Range: 20’ area per level Duration: Instantaneous
When used, all intelligent creatures within range will have a friendly disposition to the Mind Mage.

Range: self Duration: 1 hour
The Mind Mage can change their appearance. This change is largely cosmetic, seeming to be up to 1 foot taller or shorter, fatter or thinner; however, the Mind Mage must still look humanoid.

Mental Blast
Range: Line of Sight Duration: Instantaneous
The Mind Mage does 1d6+1 damage. The target gets no defense except for anything that helps against mental attacks. The Mind Mage does not suffer any range penalties.

Range: Self Duration: 20 minutes
The Mind Mage has an additional -4 Defense vs. ranged attacks and -2 Defense vs. melee attacks.

Range: 10’ per level Duration: Instantaneous
The Mind Mage may move a 1 pound object 1 foot per level. This may also be used as an attack. On a successful action roll, the target loses their next action.

List B

Range: self Duration: Until removed or an attack is made
The Mind Mage blends into the background and cannot be seen. The Mind Mage cannot be attacked unless an approximate location is known, and then all attacks are made at -4. If the Mind Mage makes an attack, the chameleon effect is ended. Otherwise it lasts until removed by the Mind Mage.

Range: self Duration: 1 hour + 10 mins per level
The Mind Mage can move vertically up to 20 feet per round.

Range: 60’ Duration: 3d6 rounds
All creatures of the targeted type within range are panicked and will flee for the duration, or will cower helplessly if they can’t flee. Creatures of the Outer Darkness are immune to this effect.

Monday, August 14, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 3


Now that we have established the proto-skill system of AoEs, we need to have a means of determining what happens when Joe or Jane Player can’t quite convince the Referee that their Space Specialization should let them know if a local plant is poisonous.

Over at Delta’s D&D Hotspot you will find one of my favorite formulas for attack rolls:
d20+HD+AC ≥ 20
I want to incorporate the basic gist of this idea. When making any kind of roll involving what RPGs generally call a “skill,” including combat, a character succeeds when the player rolls a d20 adds their bonuses and arrives at a total of 20 or more.

This necessitates determining what a base success looks like. In SWL there are three places where we can start to get an idea of how often a player can expect to succeed: Combat, Turning Undead and Thief Skills.
  • The average AAC of all the monsters in SWL is 13.
  • A 1st level cleric needs a 10+ on 3d6 to Turn a Skeleton, a 13+ to Turn Ghouls & Zombies, a 15+ to Turn Shadows & Wights and a 17+ to Turn a Wraith.
  • A Thief has a 1 in 6 chance for most skills, the exceptions being Hear Noise (3 in 6), Read Languages (4 in 6) and Climb Walls (5 in 6). Demi-human Thieves have some skills at 2 in 6. 
Thus, there is an average 40% chance to hit in combat, and average of 25% chance to Turn all undead and most Thief Skills have a 16.7% chance of success. The average of all of these is approximately 27%. Bump that up a little due to the various other Thief Skills and we are rather close to the 2 in 6 (32%) chance that feels very familiar to those who have played older versions of D&D.

Translating that into a d20 roll means a 14 or a 15 + bonuses to arrive at 20+ in our formula.

This means I have wiggle room to assign variable “Base Action Bonuses” to each class:
  • Fighter +7
  • Cleric +6
  • Magic-user +5
This means that Fighters will be the “skill” class. I justify this because there really isn’t any justification for limiting clerics to blunt weapons or magic-users to staffs and daggers when weapons are described as laser, sonic and conventional as I plan to do. Thus all three classes will be able to use any weapon.

In addition, I am toying with the idea of allowing the spell-casters to use their spells multiple times per day with two different options:
  • To use a spell immediately requires a successful roll.
  • To use a spell that will automatically succeed requires 10 minutes to cast.
Therefore, Fighters get that extra bonus when trying to do the “impossible” stuff.

To sum up, everything in this SWL + SF mash-up will rely on the following formula:
Success = d20 + Base Action Bonus + Situational Bonuses/Penalties ≥ 20.
This also opens the door to this formula:
Critical Success =  d20 + Base Action Bonus + Situational Bonuses/Penalties ≥ 30.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 2


When it comes to skill systems, I tend to be a curmudgeonly old grognard. I don’t like them. Instead of being inspirational, they are restrictive — they tell players what they cannot do rather than what they can do. Therefore, I prefer having nothing to do with skill systems in games that I run or design. Unfortunately, sci-fi RPGs necessitate some kind of acknowledgement that the worlds they inhabit are heavily dependent upon various skill sets in order to emulate. Thus, if I am going to do a mash-up of SWL + SF I am going to have to come up with a skill system that is inspirational rather than restrictive.

My generic response to skill systems is a concept I call Areas of Expertise (AoE). Rather than being a specific skill, like Knowledge: Nobility, an AoE is a broad category like Society. Rather than telling a player that their character cannot know about the local Nobility in the area they are exploring (you don’t have the specific Knowledge: Nobility skill or you fail your roll if you do), an AoE invites the player to justify why a character should know about the local Nobility. A player with a broad category like “Social” can haggle with the Referee explaining how six degrees of separation allows to him know someone who knows someone or some other creative explanation.

SF actually divides its skill system into three broad categories called Primary Skill Areas: Military, Technological and Biosocial. Each of these are then broken down into more specific skills, some of which are far more specific than others. For example, the Military sub-sets are broken down into specific weapon types whereas one of the Biosocial skills is “Environmental.” Besides the odd mix of specific with broad, I really like this set-up, particularly in the way that (with the odd exception of Military) the system tries to keep it simple by having three skills under each Primary Skill Area.

Therefore, I am going to be borrowing heavily from this set-up, with a few tweaks. Firstly, the Primary Skill Areas will become AoEs and the Skills will becomes Specializations. The idea is this: There will be times when it will become really hard for a player to justify how their AoE is relevant to a particular situation and the Referee will need a roll to see if there is some obscure way that the player’s argument holds water. If the player can then justify that their character’s Specialization is part of the equation, they can get a +1 to the roll. It also gives the player more room for negotiating with the Referee that their character should be able to do a particular task or know a particular piece of information.

The three AoEs will be:
  • Military
  • Hard Science
  • Biosocial
The Military Specializations will be:
  • Ranged Combat (offering a +1 when using ranged weapons)
  • HTH Combat (offering a +1 when in melee)
  • Special Ops (offering a +4 to hit and x2 damage when attacking with surprise)
(These bonuses are up front because the player’s suggestion that they should always hit in combat because of this AoE will always fall short)

The Hard Science Specializations will be:
  • Space
  • Electronics
  • Mechanics
The Biosocial Specializations will be:
  • Environment
  • Medicine
  • Diplomacy

Players choose one AoE and one of its Specializations at character creation. For those worried about Thief Skills, I can see plenty of ways to justify how they would be covered by various Specializations:
  • Find/Remove Traps: Environment, Electronics, Mechanics, Space
  • Open Locks: Electronics, Mechanics
  • Hide in Shadows: Environment, Space
  • Move Silently: Environment, Special Ops
  • Hear Noise: Diplomacy, Space
  • Read Languages: Diplomacy, Electronics
  • Climb Walls: Special Ops, Environment
I am not going to include this particular list in the rules, because I would much prefer to encourage players to make the arguments as to why their character should be able to do them.

Note that these AoEs are available to all classes. Thus, it is possible to have nine different flavors of each class which allows players a tool with which to delve into the background of their character and make something really cool from just a few tidbits of information. It also allows a Referee to either go with the flow and have a hugely diverse universe (as seen in the Star Wars Cantina scene) or to chisel out specific entities within their universe where each AoE specialization would come from (allowing for a much more hard sci-fi approach).

To sum up, this system encourages a lot of creative banter between players and referees (which is something I really enjoy at the table); however, it also provides a backup "skill roll" for those who prefer that style of play or for those who don't like to engage in a lot of negotiations.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Solomon Kane!?

Today is not the feast of St. Maximus the Confessor. Tomorrow, the Orthodox Church celebrates the translation of his relics; however, since tomorrow is also the Leave-Taking of a Major Feast (Transfiguration) none of the hymns dedicated to Maximus are sung tomorrow. Thus, out of respect for Maximus, the hymns that would be sung tomorrow if it weren’t the Leave-Taking of Transfiguration are sung today.

St. Maximus is called “Confessor” because he suffered for Christ without being martyred. His hand was cut off and his tongue was cut out at the order of the Emperor of Rome in A.D. 661. Maximus had spent years fighting against a heresy known as Monothelitism, a heresy the emperor championed. The heresy holds that Christ only had one will — HIs divine will. This was attacked by Maximus and others because it violates the axiom of St. Gregory the Theologian — whatever part of humanity Christ doesn’t assume as His own isn’t saved.

Thus, Monothelitism essentially argues that humanity’s free will is not a part of Christ, is not a part of salvation and ultimately is not saved by Christ. This is a demonstration that Christianity has been fighting for the concept of free will in human beings for a very long time.

I could wax poetic about how RPGs are (or at least should be) an exercise in free will, but I’d much rather talk about REH and Solomon Kane.

I recently noticed that our local library now stocks several REH collections, one of which is The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. I have been wanting to read these stories ever since I heard about the character. If memory serves me correctly it was shortly before the 2009 Movie (which I really enjoyed, BTW).

Many times over the years of maintaining this blog have I felt the need to justify why the cleric has a rightful place in D&D. I have generally leaned very heavily on the wargaming roots of RPGs to make that argument. Now I wish to make it from a literary one, and one from none other than the creator of Conan himself. In the story Skulls in the Stars, REH describes something that we who play D&D might call Turning Undead:
Kane fought with his arms and his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began to give back before him, that the fearful laughter changed to screams of baffled fury. For man’s only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand.
I would further clarify that the courage displayed by Kane, (and by St. Maximus and all the confessors and martyrs throughout history) come from God and the full knowledge that Christ has defeated death and thrown open the Gates of Hades so that we need not fear death anymore. The faith that this reality is true brings with it a courage that can turn away demons and ghosts and can stand in defiance of Emperors even in the face of torture and death.

There you have it: a fantastic literary description of Turning Undead. So, while I support anyone who wants no part of clerics their games, I now have two pretty huge names in my arsenal to justify not only why clerics are a more than legitimate part of the game but why those of us who love to use them stand on solid ground when keeping them in our games. Those names just so happen to be Solomon Kane and Robert Ervin Howard.

Friday, August 11, 2017

SF + SWL Mash-Up Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, my Gamer ADD has gone into over-drive and I am working on producing a yet-to-be-named mash-up of Star Frontiers (SF) and Swords & Wizardry Light (SWL). The goal with this mash-up is similar to SWL — strip down Swords & Wizardry + Star Frontiers so that a campaign can be played from about 4 pages of rules. Thus, the first thing I need to do is start making a list of things that won’t be in those 4 or so pages of rules.

  • Rolled Characteristics: In SWL, a characteristic either gives a +1 bonus or no bonus at all. Since the implied reason for having rolled characteristics is a reference for ad hoc skill tests, they are not going to be necessary since there will be a proto-skill system imported from SF. All Characteristics will be expressed simply as “0” or “+1.” These will be assigned by the player at character creation.
  • Armor Class: In a world that includes lasers, sonic weapons and rifles, armor is not going to be a huge factor in combat. Since this game will only encompass Levels 1-3, the easiest way to deal with D&D’s weakness for simulating firearms is to create a simple formula where every roll must reach‘20’ with all its bonuses and penalties to succeed.
  • Thieves: Since the Thief is the proto-skill class of D&D and there will be a proto-skill system imported from SF, having a Thief class will be redundant.
  • Elves, Dwarves and Halflings: I will err on the side of SF and simulate the three alien races provided there.
  • Drasalites, Vrusks and Yazirians: The aliens I want to simulate will be inspired by these three races, but will not be these races specifically. I want to use them to create archetypes that one player will be able to call “Drasalite” while allowing another player using the same archetype to call “(Fill in your favorite sci-fi alien here).” This will allow for the game to delve into the space opera, Star Wars cantina scene rather easily while also allowing for a Referee to give a campaign a hard-science fiction feel by being more specific about the archetypes.
  • A Ship-to-ship combat system: This is a bugaboo in sci-fi RPGs for me. As a player, I always found it really frustrating when the party got reduced to one entity in combat and therefore my ability to be creative with my character in order to affect combat virtually disappeared. Even if I were the pilot or the gunner, my actions were pre-defined by the ship. As a referee, I don’t like it because if I were to create situations in space the same way I would in a sand-box campaign, one roll could result in a TPK (the destruction of a ship) rather than the death of one character. Any space combat will be abstracted to the possibility that the party’s ship is damaged, and they need to repair it before they can go anywhere and/or have crash-landed on a hostile planet (like the cover of SF).
  • The traditional six characteristics: This final one isn’t set in stone. SF has eight characteristics grouped into pairs: STR/STA, INT/LOG, PER/LDR. Since SF also has three categories of skills that I plan on emulating, it is going to be awfully tempting to pair up the six D&D traits so that each pair corresponds to a skill set.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Gamer ADD: Star Frontiers + SWL

Those who are familiar with my blog know that I suffer quite often from Gamer ADD. When I come to a point in a project or a campaign where there is either grueling grunt work (as with my Portown project) or a logical/practical dead end, my mind has a tendency of going off into the woods. Most of the time I can’t help myself because one of the of the aspects of RPGs I love the most is the creative process, both at the table and beyond the table.

Various folks have been blogging RPGaDAY2017 this month. While I am both too busy and not inspired enough by the prompts to bother myself, it did remind me of one of my all-time favorite RPG covers, if not my favorite RPG:

Unfortunately, Star Frontiers never really lived up to the expectations inspired by that cover. It doesn’t do hard science fiction as well as Traveller and doesn’t do space opera as well as Star Wars d6; however, it does invite me to try something that just might drive my creative self a little bit crazy. It has two sets of rules: one called “Basic” and the other called “Expanded.” The Basic rules were about 20 pages but were really only a glorified war game. The idea of a Referee was only introduced in the Expanded Rules.

Given that I have long believed that D&D is actually one of the most successful sci-fi RPGs ever to be published, given that I have really fallen in love with the magnificent simplicity of Swords & Wizardry Light and given that Star Frontiers originally had a simplified version of its rules, my Gamer ADD wants desperately to take Swords & Wizardry Light and marry it with concepts from Star Frontiers to create a version of the game worthy of the cover art.

Colossi of the Empire of a Thousand Suns.

At the height of human space exploration, the Empire of a Thousand Suns came upon the edge of space, beyond which was only darkness. To the peril of all who drew near, all that came out of what would become known as the Outer Darkness were monsters and demons. Thus, the Empire built the Colossi: giant sentinel ships and robots to guard all sentient species from the ravages that emerged from the Darkness.

That age has long past. The Empire is only a shadow of itself, monsters freely roam space and the Colossi float in ruin. Today, adventurers of all stripes dare to explore these hulks at the edge of space: Crusaders of the Holy Sacherdotsi, Mind Mages from the Halls of Ancient Knowledge and Warriors from battlefields both primitive and technological. Some seek fortune and glory, some pine for the treasures of a more venerable age, and some dare to drive the Darkness back from whence it came.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Eusignius of Antioch

Today is the feast of St. Eusignius of Antioch. He was a soldier of the Roman Empire who served under several emperors, including the father of the St. Constantine the Great, Constantius Chorus and St. Constantine himself. He was present when St. Constantine saw the Chi Ro appear in the sky predicting his victory against his rival Maxentius. For those curious, these are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek. All told, he served the Empire six decades as a soldier. By some accounts, this service lasted until Julian the Apostate came to power in A.D. 361 and by others he had retired to Antioch where he was denounced by a fellow citizen and therefore appeared before to the Emperor.

In both accounts St. Eusignius upbraided the Emperor, recalling Julian’s own history: Julian was the nephew of the first Christian Emperor, he had been raised within the Church and baptized, he attended school with Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian and had been a Reader of the Church he attended in Nicomedia. Eusignius recounted the image of the Chi Ro in the sky and the victory it presaged. Despite these admonitions, Julian had St. Eusignius beheaded in A.D. 361. Julian’s reign would be short. Foolishly, he went to war with the Persians and died in battle in A.D. 363.

I have got to admit, as an old grognard I really like this guy. Unfortunately, he is emblematic of the time we live in. Ever since I was a kid, I have had the Baby Boomer mantra “Don’t trust anyone over 30” forced on me (ironically, normally by people who were over 30) and it is pervasive in the culture. We cater to the young instead of listening to the wisdom of our elders. In fact, we have created an entire industry out of various retirement homes so we don’t even have to see them, let alone listen to them.

As a trained historian, I see this path fraught with danger. There is truth in the old axiom, those who don’t understand the past are doomed to repeat it. Not only have we forgotten much of our own past, we are willfully ignoring it and, in some cases, actively trying to shut down any attempt to learn that history. Cultures tried this path already in the 20th century. It ended in the death of millions.

Thus, I find in St. Eusignius a kindred spirit — an old grognard willing to stand up and remind an Emperor of what an idiot he was for ignoring the past. I also think that the OSR, in its own way, has followed in his footsteps. We have doggedly reminded the RPG world that the past is not only important to remember, but that games written 40+ years ago are still relevant and fun to play. Imagine for a moment, if WotC had listened to the Julian Apostates of world and turned its back on TSR, D&D and all that history. Imagine a world without the OGL. Without our past remembered, honored and played, we would not be living through the Golden Age of RPGs that we are living through today.

In this sense, we stand forth as icons of why the past is not only important, but why it is necessary to bring the past into the present in order to make that present better than the past. If only we could bring that message beyond our wonderful little corner of the internet.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Under Portown: The Urban Surprise Roll

When the Surprise Roll in D&D and its clones is used for Wilderness and Dungeon Encounters, it is generally a precursor to combat. Therefore, it does not seem to have much use in an urban environment where combat is almost universally frowned upon. Given that an urban hex-crawl takes a far more abstract approach to the idea of exploring cities, it leaves room for the Surprise Roll to be used as a means of determining what kind of information can be gathered from a random encounter inside the city.

There are four basic outcomes from a Surprise Roll:

  1. Neither the PCs or the “monster(s)” are surprised
  2. The PCs are surprised.
  3. The “monster(s)” are surprised
  4. Both the PCs and the “monster(s)” are surprised

This leaves room for four different kinds of encounters every time a random encounter is rolled up inside a city. It also suggests four different kinds of information that can be conveyed to either the players or the Referee:

Neither the PCs or the “monster(s)” are surprised

This is a routine encounter where the group or individual encountered is doing something mundane. The PCs become aware of the existence of this group or individual and get the physical description of that group or individual that they are cultivating for public consumption (if they are in disguise, the PCs get a description of the disguise with no hint that it is a disguise).

The PCs are surprised.

This is a new bit of information for the Referee. The group or individual encountered is actively hunting the PCs. The word “hunting” can mean something different depending on which group or individual is doing the hunting. In some cases it may mean spying, in others it may mean recruiting or being pressed into service, in others it may mean an audience with the leader of said group or it could simply mean that the PCs have a group or individual that has decided that they need to be killed off.

The “monster(s)” are surprised

This is a situation where the PCs encounter the group or individual doing something with their public face off. They might catch the Thieves’ Guild during a heist, a mercenary group escorting a person of interest to a secret meeting, get a glimpse of a monster underneath a mask, the Mage Guild and its allies the Nameless kidnapping an adventurer, etc.

Both the PCs and the “monster(s)” are surprised

This is a combination of the previous two encounters. Rather than just seeing the nefarious/secret goings on, the PCs become aware that they are the target of said activity.

Using this system, of course, requires either an ability to improvise on the part of the Referee or some prep time where each group/individual on an encounter table is detailed out to include what exactly each type of encounter is going to look like.

Personally, I prefer a more improvisational approach because it allows me to be surprised as a Referee in much the same way my players get to experience surprise. It also allows me to tailor such encounters to the needs of the campaign as it unfolds. For example, players tend to bring various NPCs into their fold. Including these NPCs into a surprise encounter can bring a level of depth to a campaign that wouldn’t be possible by pre-planning every encounter, especially if that NPC is perceived to have betrayed the party.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Callinicus the Martyr of Gangra in Asia Minor

Today is the feast of St. Callinicus the Martyr of Gangra in Asia Minor. He was born to a Christian family in Cilicia (southern part of modern-day Turkey). In the early part of the 4th century, he became a wandering preacher, bringing many to Christ. Upon coming into the Galatian city of Ancyra (central part of modern-day Turkey) he was arrested by Governor Sacerdonus, a fierce prosecutor of Christians.

After resolutely refusing to denounce Christ and offer sacrifice to the idols despite being beaten with ox thongs and having his flesh torn with iron hooks, shoes with nails directed inwards were placed on his feet and he was paraded through the streets to the city of Ganga. The soldiers who were escorting him ran short of water, and asked that the saint pray to his God for relief. A spring welled up out of the ground to quench their thirst. Once in Gangra, the saint was burned at the stake. Despite being given the crown of martyrdom, his body remained incorrupt.

The Shoes of St. Arz

These magical shoes appear to be torture devices made of metal with spikes affixed to the soles of the shoes designed to penetrate the foot of the wearer; however, they give off a magical aura if detected for. Should anyone be brave enough to put these shoes on, they suffer 1d6 hp of damage, cannot remove to shoes until death (even with a Remove Curse spell) and can only surprise on a roll of ‘1’ instead of 1-2 on a d6. The wearer of these shoes cannot die of thirst, is immune to all normal fire, takes half damage from magical fire and may make a saving throw to reduce any damage from magical fire to 0.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Rogue One Rant

Recently, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story appeared on Netflix. To be honest, after enduring Star Wars VII, I was not particularly interested in this movie despite all the rave reviews. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep the other day and decided to see if Disney’s take on what has already been covered in Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama was boring enough to put me to sleep. I made it to about the 40-minute mark.

Here is the thing: all of us already know this story. We all knew going into the movie that rebel agents would steal the Death Star plans and get killed delivering this vital information to Princess Leia. If this last bit came as a surprise, evidently the pitched battle at the beginning of A New Hope was not a big enough clue, or, as I mentioned above, you haven’t listened to the Radio Drama (and you really should).

Therefore, plot was not a tool the writers had when writing this script. There was no plot twist, turn or surprise that was going to change the outcome of this movie. The only real option in stories like these is character development. In the case of the story supposedly covered in Rogue One there are three basic characters:

  1. The Empire
  2. The Rebellion
  3. The Agent who gets killed

Thus, the job of the writer is to ask a couple of questions:

  • What motivates The Agent to be willing to die?
  • Is The Rebellion/The Empire worth dying for?

Answering these questions can make for a gripping story despite the fact that we know the plot. For example: The Patriot has a basic plot that we all know: the American Revolution. The movie, however, was not about the American Revolution. It was about how Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, went from being a guilt-ridden combat veteran who wanted nothing to do with the war to becoming a Patriot.

As a post-Christian movie, Rogue One failed miserably on this front. While they did provide us with a bunch of cool characters, not one of them had any real depth and the movie never really bothered to give us an arc to understand why these people were willing to die for the Rebellion. Further, the portrayal of the other two main characters (The Rebellion and The Empire) was fraught through with relativism.

The Rebellion was portrayed as a fractured, schizophrenic movement that really didn’t know what it wanted to be, all the while doing whatever it took to survive including murdering its own and committing acts of terrorism. The assumption here is that simply taking on the mantel “The Rebellion” automatically makes these people the good guys; however, being rebels does not a good character make. For example, the Bolshevik Revolution executed around 1000 political prisoners a month into the early 1920s.

The Empire was portrayed as an entity that wanted to bring peace to the galaxy at all cost, up to and including the use of a super weapon; however, having and using a super weapon does not an evil character make. The U.S. is the only country to ever actually use a nuclear weapon in war. The U.S. did so to end WWII and it is arguable that not only did its use save lives, but that the cause for which they used that weapon is one of the greatest countries ever to exist (warts and all).

So, 40 minutes into the movie I didn’t understand why the Rebellion was so important to save because they were portrayed as not being much better than the Empire and I certainly didn’t understand why all these cool characters were so willing to run off and die to save it.

Back when Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas I was hopeful that new life would be pumped into the franchise after the bitter disappointment of Episodes I-III. Unfortunately, Disney has proven once again why I trust Hollywood about as far as I can throw a bantha. All they have done is produce movies that make Episodes I-III look good in comparison. After all, no matter how badly they were done, at least George Lucas attempted to answer the question as to why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Under Portown: Factions

It is an odd experience talking with these city dwellers. Whether they speak the truth or not, they always have another hidden goal when they speak to anyone. — The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
From the get go I need to provide some links, because when I do thought experiments like Under Portown I like to heavily lean on random tables. The tables that I used here were provided by one of my all-time favorite tomes produced in this Golden Age of RPGs, The Tome of Adventure Design published by Frog God Games as well as the excellent Holmes Ref 2.0 produced by Zenopus Archives.

Since the start of this whole thought experiment, I wanted my own version of the Homes Sample Dungeon to have factions vying for control of the Dungeon and the powerful magics that can be found therein. Rather than choose these factions, I decided to roll them up on the monster table in Holmes Ref 2.0 and came up with these:

  • Troglodytes
  • Ghouls
  • Wererats

In order to make sense of this, I decided to root these three factions in the implied ancient civilization/classical civilization/current civilization pre-history of Holmes Basic. In other words, one of these groups represents the degenerate remnants of the ancient civilization, one represents either an actual remnant or degenerate remnant of the classical civilization and the last is simply a threat that exists to the current civilization.

Given that there is a place on Cook’s map of the Known World called “Wereskalot” and it is in relative close proximity to where I place Portown in the Known World, it makes sense that the current threat could easily be represented by the Wererats.

I was actually thrilled that troglodytes came up, because I think they are one of those under-utilized monsters that can have a lot of interesting background noise around them. Normally, I’d be inclined to use them as a stand-in for ancients given their underground habitat, but in this case I am more inclined to use them as degenerates from the classical civilization due to the fact that Holmes seems to indicate that this civilization was one that rose up to free dragons, giants etc. from the ancients. As remnants of the classical civilization, they are exploring Under Portown to find ancient magics to help bring Portown to its knees.

To boot, Ghouls seem to be a great way to keep the ancient civilization ticking over time given that undeath can be seen as a way of cheating death. This could be especially creepy if ghouls are understood to be intelligent rather than the best D&D representation of the modern zombie as depicted in a George Romero film (may he rest in peace). Given that ghasts do not appear in either Holmes or Cook, I will give myself the creative freedom to bestow that ghastly intelligence upon these ghouls.

Having assigned these roles to the inhabitants of Under Portown, I now need to define some factions within the City itself. The major ones are represented by the following personalities:

  • Lord Fenclaro the Quiet: the current resident of the Lord’s Mense and de facto leader of Portown. He is not seen much in public. Most of his dealings are behind closed doors and there is a rumor that much of his time is used researching some strange magical artifact left to him by his grandfather.
  • Drenaboten the Peculiar: this foppish merchant is actually an agent of the Black Eagle Barony. His primary role is to launder money through legitimate business ventures gained by the Barony’s illegitimate support of the slave trade, the Thieves’ Guild and various bandits and pirates.
  • Drebb the Daring: this merchant is better known for his gambling habits and his penchant for insuring some of the more reckless ventures of ship captains going north (which somehow succeed more often than not). He is actually an agent of the Grand Duchy. While he uses his gambling habits as a cover to root out information on the Barony’s unsavory activities, he has no qualms about starting rumors himself to further tarnish the reputation of the Baron.
  • Haque the Foul: this shadowy persona is more of a title than a person. It is given to the current leader of the Thieves’ Guild. Recently, that position has been taken over by a wererat with the goal of furthering the reputation of Wereskalot as a major power player in the region. He is also coordinating with the wererats currently exploring/controlling Under Portown.
  • Endbruteth the Collector: as the head of the University of Portown, he is considered too young to be the curmudgeon he appears to be. The moniker “the Collector” is an inside joke with more than one meaning. He does collect oddities that are oft considered junk by others and he has enough charisma to recruit some of the best mages and scholars from around the world. The real reason for moniker, however, is that he has led the Wizard’s Guild on a secret purge that hunts down and kills anyone or any group that gets too interested in discovering the secrets of Under Portown.
  • Tengahn the Mutable: this gaunt but otherwise nondescript merchant is prone to support whichever faction will pay him the most. In truth, he is a ghoul who seeks simply to wreck as much havoc and chaos upon the living that he can, all the while hunting for the weak and vulnerable to have for dinner (literally) with his fellow ghouls.

Finally, there is a heavy reliance in Portown upon mercenaries for personal protection, the protection of goods coming in and out of the city as well as for the defense of the city itself. Some of the more prominent of these companies are:

  • The Imperial Lions (employed by Lord Fenclaro)
  • The Nameless (thought to be employed by the Wizard’s Guild)
  • The Crimson Legion (known to work with Drebb the Daring)
  • The Sovnya Riders
  • The Ulfberht Blades
  • The Pernach Breakers

Monday, July 17, 2017

Meditating on Firearms in D&D

So, following up on my recent thoughts about firearms, here are some simple concepts that could accompany the idea that the main defense against firearms is not armor but saving throws.

All firearms have three ranges:

  • Short: full damage, save for half-damage
  • Medium: full damage, save for no damage
  • Long: half-damage, save for no damage

Cover (and the Referee gets to decide what is Cover and what is not) makes all ranges into Long Range.

Therefore, there are two main ways to modify how aspects of a gun function: adjust the Range or adjust Cover. This allows a huge variety of mechanical ways to express various “tech-levels,” barrel lengths, calibers, accessaries, etc. For example:

  • Shortening or lengthening ranges is an easy way to express the relative effectiveness of a gun. A muzzle-loader would have a much smaller range increments than a 21st century sniper rifle.
  • Different saving throws (if one uses the saving throws from B/X, LL etc. instead of the “one-size fits all” approach of S&W) can be assigned to different calibers. For example: "Poison or Death" could be used for the smaller end (.32 or 9mm) and "Breath Attacks" could be used for the higher end (.50 cal) and/or shot guns.
  • Armor Piercing rounds could reduce Cover to Medium Range
  • Scopes could reduce ranges to Short and Medium (Medium = Short, Long = Medium)
  • Sci-fi weapons like plasma guns could only have a Short Range (however long the Referee wanted the range of a plasma gun to be).
  • etc.

Let the world building commence!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles of Kiev

Today is the Feast of St. Vladimir of Kiev who is given the moniker Equal-to-the-Apostles, which is given to those saints that aren’t normally seen as apostles (such as monarchs and women), but whose life declared the Gospel of Christ in such a way that led many to baptism. In the case of St. Vladimir, the Rus followed their monarch to Christianity.

Born Volodimir and a pagan, St. Vladimir was not unfamiliar with Christianity as the grandson of St. Olga. Nevertheless, there are many histories of how brutal Volodimir was. For nine years he reigned in Kiev before he got involved in a civil war within the Byzantine Empire. He came out of that experience as a baptized Christian, with a marriage to the Emperor’s Daughter Anna and with the title Tsar (meaning Caesar).

Nonetheless, he diligently spread the Christian faith and ordered idols (which he had made of the pagan gods he once worshipped) scourged, dragged through the city and thrown into the Dnieper River. The history of the Russian people as Orthodox Christians in many ways begins with St. Vladimir. He died from illness in A.D. 1015.

One of the primary gods that Volodimir famously made an idol of silver and gold for (one which he shortly thereafter destroyed) depicted what could crudely be described as the Slavic version of Thor — Perun. As the highest god in the Slavic pantheon, Perun was understood to be the god of thunder and lightening. Unlike Thor, however, he did not have a slavic version of Mjolnir. Rather, he had a bow with which he shot “thunderbolt stones” which could be found buried in the earth. Weapons and devices made of these thunderbolt stones were believed to provide protection from various calamities such as bad luck, evil magic, disease and (of course) lightening.

Accepting the premise that Perun was, in fact, just an idol made by human beings to explain natural phenomena, these “thunderbolt stones” must have a different origin. Indeed, according to modern science, they are fulgurites and belemnites. In context of a FRPG, this opens up the door to some good old fashioned science fiction/fantasy mash-up world-building. In ancient times, for example, there could have been a massive war between aliens and what are popularly known as “the ancients.” Artifacts from this era litter the land. One could even tie in the existence of magic to this event: thunderbolt stones are the source of all arcane magic in the world.

This, of course, leads to the possibility of introducing things like “Thunderbolt Guns” into the game. As I have mused in the past, D&D doesn’t do firearms very well. This is because its combat premise (better armor makes you harder “to hit”) does not reflect what happened historically once firearms are introduced. The logic of D&D would assume that plate mail would still be a viable option for soldiers on the battlefield because they wouldn’t get hit as often with bullets as someone who was simply wearing combat fatigues.

I have yet to see any house rule that allows for guns that completely satisfies me. I did play test the Leather = DR1, Chain = DR2 and Plate = DR3 where guns get to ignore the DR. It just didn’t flow like I hoped it would. The implied tactical choice wasn’t as interesting as I hoped and in the end the extra mechanic just slowed things down enough that I am not really interested in playing with that house rule any more.

Thus, I am still interested to see if there is a simple system that can help introduce guns into D&D that can easily emulate the tactical realities of the 18th century when armor had mostly disappeared from the battlefield because firearms happened.

The idea of Thunderbolt Stones being the source of arcane magic in a FRPG world, the old musings of Aos at The Metal Earth as well as my recent delving into the world of Swords & Wizardry Light got me thinking on a completely different tangent: why not treat firearms like fireballs?

Armor in all its forms is ineffectual against guns. Thus, on average, someone using a gun only needs to hit an AC 9 to hit your average guy clad in plate mail; however, just like when that same plate mail-clad guy gets hit with a fireball or dragon’s breath or a charm person spell, he gets a saving throw. Depending upon the type, range and caliber of the weapon this save could be for half-damage or no damage at all. For example, due to the inaccuracy of muzzle-loaded firearms, anything beyond point blank range might be a save for no damage, but anything close-up would at least do half.

I think this ticks all the boxes for me: it doesn’t radically mess with the D&D combat system, it uses extant mechanics everyone is familiar with, it doesn’t over power guns and yet emulates why on a field full of guns no one bothers to wear any armor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Under Portown: Placing Urban Main Features

After seeing the sheer variety of creature and costume that crawl through this stinking labyrinth of a city, I am beginning to put credence to the rumors that those I seek can be found here.
— The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
After mapping out the general layout of Portown, it is now time to start placing the Main Features of each hex. What I really like about this approach is that it can accommodate both concrete and abstract ideas. For example, take a look at the Main Features of hexes 1 and 2:

The Port

  1. Port Master (3 in 6)
  2. Northbound Ship (3 in 6)*
  3. Southbound Ship (2 in 6)*
  4. Guard Towers (2 in 6)‡
  5. Smuggler’s Alley (1 in 6)
  6. Lost
* 2 in 6 chance that the ship has a non-human crew; roll a d6: 1-3 = elf, 4-5 = dwarf, 6 = humanoid
‡ Roll a d6; 1-3 = West Tower, 4-6 = East Tower

Olde Town

  1. The Insurance House (3 in 6) — a meeting place where merchants can buy insurance on their shipments north in case of loss due to pirates, monsters or natural disaster.
  2. The Inklings Club & Collectibles (3 in 6) — a high-end gentlemen’s club where culture from around the world is discussed and experienced. Membership requires a donation of a rare and valuable object that then becomes part of the club’s collection.
  3. The Bathhouse (2 in 6) — a remnant from when the Classical Civilization dominated the area. It is a spa with both salt and fresh water baths and servants that are paid not only for their massages, but for their silence. Many a political, business and criminal agreement is rumored to have been brokered within its walls.
  4. The Ancient Corner Stone (2 in 6) — this strange stone is covered in runes from a long lost language, believed to have been used by the ancients. Scholars agree that it simply states the founding of a small colony. Rumors speak of something far more sinister.
  5. Nor’Ar the Alchemist (1 in 6) — Nor’Ar is a famed alchemist capable of creating rare and wondrous potions; however, he is very exclusive and expensive.
  6. Lost

As is plain, exploring the Port is a far more abstract and dynamic experience than exploring Olde Town. This, of course, is accomplished by placing abstract Main Features in The Port hex and very concrete Main Features in the Olde Town hex. Thus, not only does each area have its own unique feel, but the character of the entire city begins to take shape.

Note how easy this all is: I merely need a small Random Table with five entries with the sixth option of “Lost” to get to a roll of d6.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Under Portown: A Map of Portown

When looking at the description of Portown as presented in Holmes, there are only a couple of features that are explicitly known:

  • The ruins of the Tower of Zenopus are west of town sitting on top of a hill overlooking some sea cliffs and next to a graveyard.
  • Other Magic-users have moved to town.
  • Portown is a small city, but busy being a hub where caravans deliver goods to ships that venture into hostile, pirate-infested waters to the north.
  • Portown is cosmopolitan with both human and non-human inhabitants from all over the world.
  • The Green Dragon Inn is popular enough that adventurers gather there to organize expeditions.

In trying to take this information and turn it into a usable map, I have found that the urban hex-crawl style of map has several really nice features.

  • Placing specific details, like the tower ruins and the Green Dragon Inn are a breeze because those are abstracted into an existing hex with the proper theme. I need only make sure that the “Necropolis” hex (where the Sample Dungeon will be found) is on the west end of town and nest to the sea.
  • Less specific details, such as magic-users moving to the area are also a breeze to incorporate. I just need a hex that is appropriately scholarly, such as a “University District” hex.
  • Larger concepts, such as the trade route, are also easy to portray with hexes that have to do with such trade such as “Port” and “Bazaar.”
  • Lastly, if one wants to either enlarge or further detail a city later on, it is as easy as adding a few more hexes. For example, here is what could be termed a “Small but busy City:”

I know the numbering is off, it will make sense below

Hexes include: Port, Olde Town, Bazaar,Burgher’s District, Palace District,University District, Necropolis, The Ancient City, Inn Way, Tent City and Tavern Row.

I, however, want even more city to explore and I also want more potential for political intrigue. Therefore, I decided to add the following:

Hexes include: Monastery District, Barracks Row, Guildhalls and Business District

I then remembered I didn’t have slums or place where a Thieves’ Guild might find home so I added some more:

Hexes include: Lower Guildhalls, Upper Slums, Thieves’ Quarter and Lower Slums.

Here is the final key for the map:
  1. Port
  2. Olde Town
  3. Bazaar
  4. Burgher’s District
  5. Palace District
  6. University District
  7. Necropolis
  8. The Ancient City
  9. Inn Way
  10. Monastery District
  11. Barracks Row
  12. Upper Guildhalls (so called because of its relative elevation)
  13. Business District
  14. Tent City (so called because this is where caravans make camp while transferring their goods)
  15. Tavern Row
  16. Lower Guildhalls (so called because of its relative elevation and the fact that its takes are not as high class as the Upper Guildhalls)
  17. Upper Slums (so called because of its relative elevation and due to the influence of the monasteries)
  18. Thieves’ Quarter
  19. Lower Slums (so called because of its relative elevation and due to the influence of the Thieves' Guild).

Overall, this method of city mapping/city building is really user friendly.

Please note: as I proceed with this particular project, I will be assuming that the larger picture within which Portown is placed will correspond with my earlier work of trying to piece together Holmes' Sample Dungeon and Cook's map of the Known World.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Prokopius the Great Martyr

Today is the Feast of St. Propokius the Great Martyr, the patron saint, as it were, of this blog. He was originally named Neanius and was from Jerusalem. Though his father was Christian, he was primarily raised by his pagan mother Theodosia because his father died when he was young. They were a prominent family in the Roman Empire. After receiving an excellent education, he was personally introduced to the Emperor Diocletian. He quickly rose through the government ranks when in A.D. 303 Diocletian began his great persecution against the Christians. Neanius was sent to Alexandria as a proconsul to rid the city of Christians.

On his way, Neanius encountered the risen Christ in a vision similar to that of Paul where both men were confronted with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” Like Paul before him, Neanius turned away from the role of persecutor to that of preacher. His mother eventually turned him in and he was sent in chains to Caesaria in Palestine.

There he was tortured and was repeatedly visited by Christ who gave him the name Prokopius. He thus was able to stand up to all the tortures the pagans threw at him, steadfastly proclaiming his faith in Christ. Finally, frustrated at the immovability of Prokopius’ faith, the governor ordered that he be given the citizen’s death of decapitation (thus admitting that the crime the Christians were accused of —treason — was a lie). Inspired by the firmness of that saint’s faith several of the Roman guards responsible for guarding the saint while he was held in prison, including the tribunes Nikostrates and Antiochus, several women of the court as well as his own mother all proclaimed their faith in Christ and followed Prokopius in martyrdom. They, too, are commemorated on this day.

I first met Prokopius on Mt.Athos. I had injured my foot and was waiting to see if there were any monks or facilities at the monastery I was staying that might determine if I had broken a bone or done something as severe. I was attracted to a particular icon of a soldier saint and spent virtually the whole time waiting gazing upon this saint wondering who he was.

After being attended to (in what looked like to me a state-of the-art facility by a doctor become monk from Mexico City) I was given some medication and sent on my way. I eventually visited six monasteries on the mountain and every time I went to church (every morning and evening) I found myself in front of an icon of this same saint, regardless of which monastery I happened to be staying. I eventually inquired and found out this saint was, in fact, Prokopius the Great Martyr. He has (obviously) been watching over me ever since.

I chose the name “Blood of Prokopius” for this blog because it sounded properly Swords & Sorcery-esque but also because I hoped that I could stand as a witness through my musings. Back in December of 2008 I wrote these words:
D&D is not by nature evil. In my life, it has been a great blessing. I allowed it to point me towards God. Through D&D Christ came into my life, and that has been huge. Whether or not something is good or evil depends on how we use it.

Thus we come to the reason for this blog. I fully realize that when the words "Dungeons and Dragons" are mentioned, a lot of Christians cringe. I also know that the same is true of many RPGers who hear the word "Christianity." I hope to stand firmly with one foot in the world of D&D and another in the world of my faith and thus reduce the number of cringes in both worlds. I still love D&D. I still love the culture, the people, the game. And I am a Christian. So, I will muse on how Christianity informs my view of D&D, how I play it and how the two can affect each other in a positive way. Enjoy.
I daresay things have changed for the better since then. In the last 8+ years there have been a number of civil discussions about Christianity and its role in RPGs. No longer does the mere mention of Christianity automatically generate a cringe from the RPG world. In fact, I have a sense that a number of folks out there have come to realize that Christ can in fact speak to the the way they play the game and to the worlds that they build.

Credit must be given to Christ Himself for much of this, through the intercessions of St. Prokopius, but I would be disingenuous if I did not credit all those gamers out there who have read this blog and told other people to read this blog. There are a bunch of people out there in this corner of the internet who were able to look beyond their own prejudices to see that these games we love to play bind us together in ways that reach beyond those prejudices, beyond the borders and walls we build around ourselves. For that I must thank each and every one of you and am proud to be a part of this little corner of the internet that continues to defy the convention that people from different backgrounds and different beliefs cannot understand each other.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Under Portown: The Beginnings of a City Hexcrawl

I really cannot understand these city folk. Why would anyone want to live in this filth infested maze where you cannot see the horizon?
— The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
I used to live in Boston. I did not like it. Unless you live within spitting distance of the T (which I did not) Boston is an inhospitable maze of one-way former cow paths that can get you turned around faster than you can say “Red Sox.” Whenever you get directions to someplace, you have to make sure you get directions to get back as well, because these two trips are normally very different animals. Thus, when I found this post by WQRobb on Hexcrawling a City over at Graphs, Paper, and Games I grokked it immediately.

In Boston, navigation involves knowing landmarks and how those landmarks are connected. Thus, a trip to the school might be understood as “grocery store-church-school.” Very rarely did street names ever become relevant. Indeed street names are a false friend in the Boston area because there might be several streets by the same name in different parts of the city (which got me really lost once after which I never made the same mistake again).

The idea to make a FRPG city map abstract is nothing new (see Vornheim); however, none of them made me immediately think of my years in Boston the way WQRobb did. Navigating a hex crawl city evokes the navigation-by-landmark survival strategy I had to live by in Boston. It also opens up the possibility for getting lost or discovering things that you weren’t even looking for (like the time I was walking around Prague looking for a restaurant and spent the next several hours at the Jewish Cemetery instead).

Thus, I plan on mapping out Portown in the hex crawl style suggested by WQRobb. Thus, each hex in the city will have a theme. For example: The Monastery District. There will be several main features within each hex that can be looked for and found:

  1. The Cathedral of St. Garbee (3 in 6)
  2. Quasgadontee Monastery (3 in 6)
  3. Skete of Seefeg the Searcher (2 in 6)
  4. Catacombs of St. Ree’U (2 in 6)
  5. Amit the Hut Dweller (1 in 6)
  6. Lost

Thus, if one is simply exploring a hex, roll a d6 and find the result. A roll of ‘6’ gets you lost. This can mean either wasted time inside the hex (and more opportunities for random encounter) or ending up in an entirely different hex. This can be determined at the whim of the Referee.

If one is looking for a specific location (like the Cathedral) there is a given success rate for actually finding it. A failed roll results in getting lost with the same results as above. At the discretion of the Referee, chances to find a particular location can be increased with multiple visits (demonstrating a better knowledge of the layout of the city); however, there can never be better than a 5 in 6 chance of success (one can always get lost).

To pass through a hex requires a roll of a d6. A roll of 5 or 6 results in getting lost.

Every time a die roll is required inside a hex to find a Main Feature, to explore or to pass through the Referee gets to make a roll for a Random Encounter. The chances on having a Random Encounter are up to the whim of the Referee.

A Random Encounter Table in the Monastery District might look like this:

  1. Roll on Main Features Table (you’ve accidentally found a location, but a ‘6’ still means getting lost).
  2. A Religious Procession
  3. Monk(s)
  4. Pilgrims
  5. Temple Guard
  6. Monster (TBD)

Add a +1 to the roll when exploring at night. The “Monster (TBD)” is an opportunity to take whatever faction is currently dominant Under Portown and bring them to the surface whether on some nefarious errand or to track down and take revenge on the PCs is up to the Referee.

While this might look like a lot of work, I think it actually will end up being less work than trying to draw out an actual city map and placing all these features on that map. I also believe it will make urban adventuring a lot more evocative and interesting than a traditional street map.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Under Portown: An Introduction

I have spent some time with the local scholars, who all seem to agree that Portown was built over some kind of settlement originally built by what they call “the ancients.” There is, however, some disagreement as to how significant the settlement actually was. Most dismiss the idea that such an isolated area would be anything other than a minor colony.

I was able to barter some more information from a man called Garudon. The other scholars like to refer to him as “the Younger,” possibly due to the existence of an older man of the same name; however, I have noticed that the hairy nature of the locals seems to increase with age and Garudon the Younger seems as able to grow a beard as I am. He seemed rather interested in stories from my homeland, and I was able to get out of him information about a pair of scholars that seem to have fallen out of favor.

Evidently, there is one scholar, simply known as “the Albino” that insists than there are texts that suggest Portown was far more than just an ancient colony. This theory has no physical evidence, however, and, as “the Albino” shuns daylight and the outdoors, there doesn’t seem to be any interest in finding any physical evidence to corroborate that theory.

I could also sense that there was more to this that simply a lack of evidence. When I pushed, Garudon seemed almost afraid. Finally, when he made sure that there could be no possible eavesdropper, he mentioned someone he called Bereth the Mad. One of the reasons “the Albino” cannot drum up any support for his theories is that one of the texts was written by the Bereth before he went mad. So, it seems that it is not just that physical evidence cannot be found, it is that there are those that do not want it found.

The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar

Monday, July 3, 2017

Captain America: Civil War is a Christian Movie!?

Please note: I have been meaning to write this post for awhile but never seem to get around to it, but JB’s comment to my meditations on Dune has finally got the ball rolling.

Let me be brutally honest: I have never really liked Marvel in any of its incarnations. Back when I collected comic books, most of the titles I bought came from the independent scene or were from some of the more experimental titles from DC (e.g. their Vertigo line). I enjoy the genre and the fact that we now have the ability to put these characters on film in all their glory, but the MCU has never been something that I ever got excited about. I have enjoyed watching the odd MCU film, but the only one that I had seen more than once was the first Iron Man movie and that was because it allowed me the rare opportunity to watch a movie with my wife, not because I went out of my way to see it again.

Therefore, when Captain America: Civil War came out, I was wholly uninterested. When people began to impose upon it a political message of Libertarianism (embodied by Cap) vs. Authoritarianism (embodied by Iron Man) I was even less interested. Not only do I find that politics in movies get too preachy and harm the artistry of the film, but I believed they had got the politics all wrong. Iron Man should have been the libertarian, having stood up to the government in Iron Man 2 to defend his property rights. Cap should have been more amenable to authoritarianism because the government he fought for not only had authoritarian leanings (FDR was all about government control) but was the very source of his power. If you disagree with my assessment of FDR, compare his policies to those of Hitler (minus all the racist/superior race crap) and you will find a shocking amount of similarity.

Thus, I didn’t see the movie for a long time. When I finally did, I realized just how wrong I was about the movie. Not only is it really good, not only have I watched it multiple times, not only is it not really about politics, but it is the most Christian movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

Let me explain:

This movie has three main characters:

  • Captain America who represents Christianity (remember his line from Avengers, “There is only one God, ma’am, and I am pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”)
  • Iron Man who represents the man of science who has successfully replaced God with man-made miracles and is in full control of his life and his environment.
  • Black Panther who represents the non-Western man for whom age-old tradition is still important.

In the first act of the movie, each man must face tragedy. Each reacts in a different way:

  • Iron Man is confronted by the fact that despite all his miraculous technology and all of his scientific genius, he is not in control. Out of desperation he tries to seize that control through government power.
  • Black Panther falls back on one of humankind’s most primal reactions to tragedy, one that we have turned to since the beginning of time: revenge.
  • Captain America insists on liberty and forgiveness. Thus, he insists that every human being is made according to the image and likeness of God and therefore has value. He is also willing to die to prove that point, even for those who are accused of heinous crimes.

As the movie progresses and lines are drawn and sides are taken, each of these men’s approaches to tragedy begins to play out:

  • Iron man begins to lose his freedom and his people begin to lose their value. Superheroes are treated as a faceless category of people rather than unique individuals.
  • Black Panther becomes more and more isolated and ends up fighting with everybody.
  • Captain America and those who choose his path become martyrs. Their sacrifices begin to affect those around them to the point where people begin to see that Cap may very well have a point.

In the end it is Captain America’s Christian approach that allows these men to not only move through and past tragedy, but become stronger for it.

  • Black Panther understands that his revenge will only beget more revenge in an unending cycle. As a result, he ends up saving the life of the man who killed his father.
  • Those that followed Captain America are freed from their imprisonment.
  • Despite being trapped in the dehumanizing government machine he created, Iron Man knows that Captain America will always be there for him, personifying Christ’s words to His disciples in Matthew 28:20, “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

So, this really took me by surprise because I am not used to having such big blockbuster movies being so open to Christian themes and ideas. I was doubly shocked when those ideas prevailed. So, I invite you to watch Captain America: Civil War again and see it through the lens of Christ.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Comas and Damian the Unmercenary Healers

Today is the Feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenary Healers. These brothers were from a pious family in Rome and were physicians by trade. They became renowned for miraculously healing people through prayer. The brothers told the sick, “It is not by our own power that we treat you, but by the power of Christ, the true God. Believe in Him and be healed.” They accepted no payment for their treatments and so earned the title “Unmercenary Healers.” They were martyred the year A.D. 284, under the Emperors Carinus and Numerian.

Interestingly, these are one of three pairs of Unmercenary Healers with these names celebrated in the Orthodox Church today. On November 1st we celebrate Cosmas and Damian from Asia Minor and on October 17 we celebrate Cosmas and Damian from Arabia. Some have speculated that not all of these saints had the names Cosmas and Damian in life, but became known as Cosmas and Damian because of the fame and piety associated with those names.

It is also reminiscent of the superhero trope of the mantle most explicitly expressed (in my mind) by the Phantom: the Ghost Who Walks. The whole mystique of the Phantom is that he never dies and this illusion is accomplished by the mantle being passed down from generation to generation.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian, however, suggest a different kind of mantle. Whereas superheroes like the Phantom defend a place and/or fight injustice as vigilantes, Cosmas and Damian largely ignored the powers that be and simply healed those in need. Of course, this resulted in many believing in Christ which was perceived as a threat to Roman rule.

In context of an FRPG, this suggests an interesting twist on the whole “my character got bit by a giant rat and needs a Cure Disease spell” experience. What if practicing divine magic were illegal or tightly controlled by the the powers that be or was otherwise restricted to the rich and powerful? In response there could be a mantle for various healers to pick up in order to protect their own identity and still be able to help those in need. Such a mantle could even eventually be picked up by a cleric PC.

For an example of a campaign style where such a mantle could exist, check out this.