Monday, May 20, 2019

Seven Seals - Setting Spiel

Trench Shrine, Mike Franchina

This is a setting I've been rolling in my mind for some time. It was sparked by the work of Mike Franchina and his "Trench Crusade" project. Go check him out! The basic premise is that in the first year of the Great War, the Apocalypse breaks out resulting in an Occult "Weird War" scenario as you mix dark mysticism, fanaticism,  and technological advancement. I want to draw on cool things like weird war tech, gnostic and antiquated cosmology, and apocalyptic themes. When the Great War turns into the Final Battle, what terrible weapons would be forged? What life look like as things end? Why is it even happening in the first place?
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea - William Blake
Riders of Doom, Mikhail Borulko

Shock Troops, Mikhail Borulko

We were warned to repent. We did not listen. Our Great War could have ended before it truly started. We did not cease. Our works were not perfect before the eyes of the DEMIURGE on His celestial throne. As brother killed brother and waded through tides of crimson, we could only preserve what little strength we had in the face of the opening of the Seals. When the ANOINTED LAMB opened the seals, the End began. The first four Seals heralded terrible riders who made our Great War eternal. With the fifth seal, the slain arose in terrible spite. The sixth seal ended the light of day as the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, the moon became like blood, the stars of the sky fell to the earth, the sky was split apart, and every mountain and island was moved out of their places. We hid in our fortresses, trenches, and caves acknowledging the presence of Him who sits on the throne and the wrath of his LAMB. Then the servants of the DEMIURGE were revealed to us.

With the sounding of the trumpets of heaven, hail and fire followed, mingled with blood, burning a third of the earth's flora, scorching all green grass. Something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea and a third of the sea became blood, killing a third of everything in the ocean, even ships. And a great star, Wormwood, fell from heaven poisoning the water from rivers and water springs. The sun, the moons, and stars were struck, so that a third of their light diminished to the point of complete darkness for a third of the day, even during the night. The bottomless pit was opened and smoke arose, darkening the air and sunlight. Then war broke out in heaven itself.

Now that celestial war has fallen to us. The Dragon of Chaos, the ADVERSARY, went to war with we who keep the commandments of the DEMIURGE and honor his LAMB. When the It drew the BEAST  from the sea, the ADVERSARY gave it authority to rule the world. The fools marveled at is might and worshiped it as legions of heretics. The BEAST then went to war with our Saints. Then the second beast, THE FALSE LAMB who speaks as a dragon, arose from the earth and gave all who didn't wear the Mark of the Demiurge, the Mark of the Beast. 

We now fight and kill amongst the ruin, waiting for the time when the earth is finally harvested. We answer the call of the Trench Crusade.

Now I better get some of these ideas down and clear before I forget: 
  • ~1918-1920, this all started a year into WW1. The war would have been forgotten if the power of the Seals hadn't whipped everyone into a frenzy (thanks War and Conquest). After war broke out in heaven and fell to the ruined world, the fighting was then augmented by occult magic, heavenly and infernal knowledge, and terrifying beings beyond mortal understanding
  • The political alliances have long given way to three major groups: the heretic legions, the servants of the demiurge, and the lost (who really just want to survive the shit show in some way)
  • The "front" would be a trench hexcrawl with the shells of cities, bunkers, and temples being the "dungeons" 
  • The aether is real. Quintessence is potent dark energy harnessed to fuel and feed the terrible war machines. It is not good for the environment or your lungs, but most don't care about either of those things
  • If you couldn't tell by the above, the earth is absolutely ruined. Most places are burnt, destroyed, echoes where terrible things crawl and squirm. Literally pits to Hell are open. Don't fall in and beware what comes out. 
  • Because of the seals, the dead are around and quite angry. I can seen some organizing (a skeletal brigade still waging organized war) while others are just creatures who hunt people for their tasty flesh. Understandably, flamethrowers and cremation are quite popular.
  • The Demiurge is not God. He is a flawed creator who never knew the actual supreme being but instead styles Himself as the Lord of Creation. The Adversary is an agent of the actual creator being, seeking to liberate humanity from the tyranny of the Demiurge and to test them on whether they can pierce His deceit.Think about it, the Demiurge starting all the terrible things that ruined the world, the Adversary waged its war in heaven as retaliation. 
  • The tides of the chaotic cosmic ocean, the Great Deep, which long ago confronted the Demiurge, again encroach on the world, bringing all manner of terrors. 
  • You can climb down to Hell if you have the time. A few Hell pores are heavily contested battlefields, with airships, flying things, and climbers waging war inside of them
  • Bred from the genes of the LAMB, paladins descend into Hell itself to slay the Dragon's minions in their places of power
  • Oh yeah, I want war machines. Flying battleships, crawling tanks that spew hellfire, planes that skirt the firmaments of the heavens themselves
  • Chemical and biological warfare is the worst it could possibly be. Angels of cancer and blessed lepers spread rot amongst the heretic legion with their holy blight

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Rule Postmortem & Refining

Now, for each rule I find it important to provide a reasoning

Summer is a good time to look back and reflect. It's also a good time to refine and hack away at my personalized go-to system. So let's get to it. Earlier this year, I ran an 8 player sword-and-sorcery OSR campaign at a student organization on my campus. It started as a short intro to OD&D, but the campaign proper was switched to my under construction house-ruled B/X. It was a wonderful time as we tried new things, classes, and mechanics and I'm eternally grateful for my patient players who helped a lot in all the death and playtesting. 

59. That's the number of pages of the final document. It's just shy of the Basic and Expert books which was definitely not my intention. It consisted of remixes and adjusted versions of all the vanilla classes (save for halflings which I dropped), expanded info on ability scores and how to use them, a streamlined encumbrance system, an expanded selection of weapons with modifiers, an expanded selection of armor with minor damage reduction baked in, combat ruling additions, expanded crit tables, a large overhaul of magic (spell acquisition, spell research, high level ritual spells), clerical sacrifice and congregations, expanded turn undead interactions with accompanying typing of undead, redone spell lists for all classes, high level play content, psionics (...yes I know), and 11 custom classes. 

While a fun foray into tinkering, let's just say that I learned 99 ways to not make a house ruled system. But seriously, I really learned a lot from this and I think I have a thing that really fits my needs, something that gets at what my 59 pages of content were attempting to do but in a mechanically elegant manner with a far far smaller page count to boot! 

Clearer Goals, Better Methods

Necropraxis has a wonderful post from last Summer about "evolutionary" trends being applied to traditional fantasy roleplaying games. Reading this, I found some of the unspoken goals that I had in mind and, in a way, they really explain some of the areas where this hacking forray went astray.

"Keeping chargen fast and easy"

I directly drew away from the simple roll stats, pick class, buy gear done in a game with a high mortality rate. Whether it's adding complexity to existing classes and adding complex classes or adding "proficiency" choices at level one (fighters can have a fighting style or command each with different abilities) or even just expanding the equipment section tenfold, character generation was far more complicated than vanilla B/X. The end result of this was that it took longer which in turn made losing a character a harder pill to swallow. You couldn't just spit out an array, get some gear and go. 

This has a lot of effect on play, since we had a lot of fragile characters in a deadly system where losing one is now more of a time investment than before. This resulted in a lot of extremely cautious behavior and death went from a fun "haha what a terrible way to die" as new characters are rolled up to a groans and scanning the ~16 classes and gear lists for things. 

"Minimize bookkeeping"

I used Delta's stone encumbrance system to great success (check him out in the sidebar). It was super successful in keeping people away from the number crunching and more focused on the fiction. I'll be leaning into a simpler system going forward, but it was definitely a big success.

One thing that really didn't minimize bookkeeping was the expansion of magic. It just added so much complexity and tracking and referencing with relatively small mechanical benefit.

I do think that the rather rigid method of time tracking that we used did have some negative effects and caused the game to focus a little more on resource management than I intended. Not that resource management is inherently a bad thing, though.

"Maintain tension at desired level of difficulty"

I don't want to make conflict and violence "sport" in my OSR games. I want it to be a heavy choice, a dangerous face, and not the first choice of action (unless victory is a given). I also don't want the game to be a "misery-crawl" that is too punishing or overly deadly. The good news is that characters' survivability is increased in general in Whitehack along with my addition of a "shields will be splintered" rule. This allows me to stay true to the low hit points and "zero means death" (in most cases), maintaining the lethal and high stakes feel while increasing survivability and steering into the sweet spot of a fun and tense low-level feel.

"Develop content that will see play"

This is the big one. My B/X house rules were full of expansions to stronghold level play, ritual level spells, becoming a lich, creating undead, waging war, spell expansions to all levels, magical research was overhauled, etc. None of that saw play. Our arc and adventure was wrapped up nice and tidy well before anyone reached level 9 or to a mechanical point where B/X and my rules would let them engage in that "high level content".

I am most certainly done with that. I want these awesome types of rules to be available from the get go and grow organically from there. Whitehack's leveless spell system is a great answer to it as well as it's advancement scheme in general. What did get used and enjoyed quite a bit, however, were our interesting classes (even though portions of their later requirements weren't used, their diverse abilities seemed to be quite fun). 

"Minimize numerical inflation" 

The additions I made to the rules added significant complexity to the B/X combat rules. I wanted to add depth and option but it kind of blew back in my face and most of it largely went unused. I think this is because it was a collection of several different modifiers and conditions. We had to keep them in mind during play and in hindsight many were not intuitive. Using Whitehack completely addresses this issue. 

Rather than several different specific modifiers for several different situations it uses a few broad modifiers to cover many situations. Granting 5e-esque advantage/disadvantage for skill tests and a flexible granting of "Combat Advantage" (in the form of +2 to hit and +2 damage, with referee able to double or triple that) for things such as higher ground, striking a surprised foe, flanking, etc. It allows me and my players to focus on the fiction to look for advantages rather than looking for a few codified examples.

In Conclusion

The campaign was stupidly fun. I enjoyed it and I feel like my players enjoyed it too (despite some of the grueling losses!). Learned a lot about my particular playstyle and most importantly, I think I've really hit that sweet spot of a game and rules that does exactly what I want it to!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Summer Games and Vibes

Takeshita Kin-u
It's good to have time to dedicate to this place again. Now that my summer schedule is in full swing, I wanted to sit down and think about what's going on in my gaming-sphere for the foreseeable future.

My seasonal summer campaign this year is Kuromiyamonogatari, an 11th century Japanese game of character drama using the Burning Wheel and it's historical-fantasy supplement, The Blossoms are Falling. With a productive session 0 all done we dove into session 1 with great results! Our weekly session is tomorrow, which I am very much looking forward too. The character dynamics and cast of side characters we have made already are really a testament to what happens when you mix a great system with a wonderful group of players. I think I'll keep track of our end-of-arc recaps and trait votes here too.

That's the stuff

Aside from that I recently backed some promising games on kickstarter. First is Lancer, a game that I have been following for quite some time. Seeing it grow into a juggernaut of a project that just destroyed its goals has been amazing. The system looks slick, the art and setting are amazing, and I really want to run short missions and arcs in an 08th MS Team style. Perhaps I'll take the pre-release rules (which are completely free at the moment) for a spin for that, but I'll most likely wait until the full release to unleash pure mech goodness upon my unsuspecting players.

I also found myself, as always, being drawn back to that old school pit with the Old-School Essentials kickstarter form Gavin Norman. B/X is my favorite edition of D&D and Gavin does really good work. I'm looking forward to using it sometime soon. It will also go nicely with any usage of Whitehack what with it being fully compatible.

Speaking of Whitehack, this game has really surprised me. It's extremely flexible right out of the box, straight up implements some of the house rules or intuitions I use in other OSR games, and is ridiculously easy to make content for. It's is practically fully compatible with any OD&D, B/X, AD&D/clone content with little to no modification as well. Easy to use and fun to play is a potent combo. It's really become my go-to OSR system and I don't see that changing it's impressed me so much. Perhaps I'll do an in-depth review of it?