Saturday, September 9, 2017

To Battle in Hell - L'Mercenaire!

A brief plug before the main entry: the Hydra Cooperative is participating in a Hurricane Harvey relief bundle on DriveThruRPG, running through 9/12/2017. Pick up over $400 of PDFs for only $25 - and help out the Houston Harvey Relief Fund  and the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group Fund. Play elfgames AND assist those in need - win-win!

Mercenaries have been a subject of fascination for me for ages. As a kid, I devoured books about the Flying Tigers and other merc pilot outfits, but also fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Corwin raising his army of Earth mercs to take Amber. Later, Glen Cook's legendary Black Company books and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen continue to loom large for me, as do Iain M Banks's Use of Weapons and Drake's Hammer's Slammers.
NC Wyeth's "The White Company"

Driving back home just now, I listened to a great interview on why Erik Price's plan for Afghanistan is terrible. Price, the founder of Blackwater/Xe/Academi/Constellis, was described by the guests as (among other things) "Gyro Gearloose" and "[a guy who] thinks he's Tony Stark but is really Lex Luthor." Hell of a listen. (See also this 2007 piece, by Paul Tullis and one of the folks on the interview, Robert Young Pelton.)

Grizzly APC.jpg
Blackwater's Grizzly AFV
By Dominguez2 - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link
Prince's outlook, combining a strong religious fervor (and profit-motive driven amorality) with wildly ambitious ideas (both sensible and awful) rang a few bells of recognition in my mind from a gaming perspective. Price certainly fits the mold of a recurring NPC, if not a PC himself. His peripatetic post-Iraq schemes for BlackXeCademi (an abortive attempt to foment a war with Iran, creating an anti-piracy force in Somalia before abandoning his forces in the field to go rogue, creating an oil refinery scheme in South Sudan before being kicked out for trying to skim off the top) sound like the sort of harebrained ideas that, well, a bunch of PCs would come up with. And when I hear about Blackwater creating its own COIN planes and AFVs, visions of folks geeking out over how to minmax and optimize their own vehicles in GURPS or Traveller flash before my eyes.

Even while I listened with horror to the Blackwater podcast, a treacherous 13-year-old who lurks in my brain was going "that's so cooooool" at some of the Blackwater shenanigans. To be clear, the cool bits were more the homegrown vehicles and wild antipiracy plans than the civilian massacres, heedless destruction, and disregard for human life. (Those last bits are...kind of not so hot, to say the least).

Joel DuQue, for HareBrained Schemes's Battletech
This train of thought got me wondering why we don't see more discussion of PCs-as-mercenaries in RPGs. While there are certainly several games that do support this (Traveller and Battletech both pop primarily to mind, but also several games from this list - interesting to note the strong presence in all three lists of the Keith brothers), I don't know that there's too much support for the mercenary company in fantasy games. Certainly you have games like ACKS that integrate a wargame/economy system into the core rules, but given the presence of computer games like Mount & Blade and Battle Brothers, not to mention all the literary sources I've mentioned above, I'd have expected a bit more support and/or exploration of the idea.

So. What makes playing a merc campaign interesting? One of the settings I would have expected to cover this in more detail doesn't; Green Ronin's Black Company Campaign Setting fails to engage with what playing through a merc perspective ought to entail, instead treating the issue as simply "fielding a small army." (This isn't intended to slag the BCCS, which is one of like two d20 books that I have actually sought out and really like, but just noting what it doesn't cover.) Even worse is the AD&D 2e "For Gold and Glory," which lists a slew of uninspiring and incoherent Forgotten Realms mercenary groups and their Battlesystem statistics - perhaps expandable with work into something useful, but it would be hard going.

Instead, a better place to start is something like the Mercenary's Handbook for Battletech. This book (1st ed by J Andrew Keith - see above) lays out a few principles that help clarify what makes a merc campaign interesting:
Niclas Meldeman - "A Landsknecht Brandmeister"

  •  It's about logistics, economics, and survival as much as it is about strategy and tactics.
    A merc unit isn't just about warfare and fighting - it's also about doing so at a profit (or else you wouldn't be mercs in the first place). While this can (if taken to extremes) lead to excessive spreadsheet management taking over play, it also helps focus the players on long-term decisions. While it's possible for PCs to take extraordinary measures to heal (or even resurrect) a single companion, it's harder to do so for whole units. Players have to conserve their forces and ensure that they're spending their money wisely. (As forces increase, player overhead does as well - perhaps a refreshing change for GMs who are all too familiar with player power creep combining with money meaning less and less throughout play.) This point seems like it might interact interestingly with the traditional "1 GP = 1 XP" rule for classic D&D.
  • The merc has two concerns to keep track of - the actions of their enemy and the actions of their employer. Corollary: the employer feels the same way about the mercs.
    Hiring a mercenary unit means that a state actor has delegated one of the state's core functions (the monopoly and control of violence) over to an actor that is operating from financial gain. This sets up a slew and a half of dangerous incentives for both patron and mercenary. Shadowrun is infamous for including a stereotypical "Mr. Johnson" patron who generally intends to screw the players over upon completion of the job (either because they Know Too Much or to avoid paying the contract.) Battletech takes a more subtle approach, with constant struggles between patron and merc regarding both payment and the amount of control that the patron will ultimately be able to exert over the mercenary unit. Long-term, the mercs have to worry about being hung out to dry, sacrificed for either financial gain or simplifying the playing board. In turn, the patron has to worry about the mercs being unreliable (failing to fight or turning their coat) or even staging a coup once they're in a commanding position. 
  • It's not all about the fighting.

    As I mentioned, many discussions of mercenaries in RPGs (primarily fantasy gaming) seem to abstract mercenary play to merely mass combat. However, this undersells several of the strange and outre mission types that lend themselves exceedingly well to RPGs in particular - the ones that require out-of-the-box thinking and unusual actions to supplement maneuver and force. In the Mercenary's Handbook, Keith identifies a few contract types that fit this bill: cadre duty, security/riot duty, siege warfare, recon and objective raids, and guerrilla warfare.

    These contracts place the players in situations where they either have interesting responsibilities not usually present in PC groups (shepherding and training green troops, conducting security rather than breaching it), or situations ideally suited to PC organization and scheming (infiltration to shorten a siege, guerrilla warfare). These are frameworks which offer social interaction, sneaky tricks, and lateral thought a chance to shine alongside direct application of force, while giving players increased resources (and responsibilities) to manage.
  • A mercenary campaign is a shortcut to domain game play.

    Classic D&D has the domain game - rulership, land management, and building a kingdom/dynasty - as a traditional endgame. The mercenary campaign lets players engage with a section of those widgets earlier than they might otherwise (and in novel ways that don't quite match up to standard domain game play). It also places PCs in a situation where they have to engage with the broader setting, interacting with movers and shakers in a situation where the PCs have got an inherent value and potential leverage for the bigwigs. 

Rievers' raid on Gilknockie Tower, G. Cattermole
The most difficult component of a satisfying mercenary RPG campaign will be economic balance and a satisfying campaign economic system. Normally I'm not too fussed about game balance, but since the merc campaign revolves around keeping the company in the black and not the red, this component will need to be robust enough to keep a core gameplay experience satisfying.

The next component is a good, quick, and easy-to-integrate/translate mass combat system. (It is a merc campaign after all. Even though force on force conflicts may not be the core gameplay from session to session, you'll want to have a robust enough system to allow players to take on force engagements in a fun and engaging manner. (You'll also need players who are interested in mercenary gaming, but that's not really something I can provide assistance with here, beyond noting that such players are objectively smarter and more attractive than others.)

It's a tricky thing to put together and organize. I've tried before and had it either peter out or crash and burn very rapidly. But I'm convinced that there's a core gameplay loop here that's immensely satisfying, and I want to explore this space further.

...or maybe I just want to field some homegrown AFVs along with some landsknechts.

How have you worked war and mercenaries into your campaign? What's worked and what hasn't?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Implicit Settings and Welcoming Voices

Firstly, a shoutout of thanks to Trey Causey for creating the badass blog banner above. I've gotta do a full site redesign at some point.


I was talking with Strix a few days ago about fostering diversity in gaming (and in the OSR in particular). One of the topics that came up was the implicit narrative that a system winds up imparting by the structure of its rules.
Trampier, AD&D Monster Manual

This isn’t exactly untrodden soil, particularly in the OSR; there’s been a good deal of electronic ink spilled on taking the implications of the rules as written and using that to understand the intended setting. (See James’s post here, asking what the hell the presence of the OD&D ranger says about the implied world of OD&D, or Chris's post here discussing the broader societal implications of the presence of low-level fighters in AD&D). And there are oodles of discussions re: the implications of GP = XP and the implied frontier town setting and all that, which I'm too tired to link right now but y'all know what I'm talking about.

But Strix pointed out that there's another factor to consider with those rules and their implied settings, beyond the fictional environment that goes along with them. There's also an interaction between the rules and the player, and that interaction can determine whether or not someone wants to come hang out at your table - or has any interest in working with the stuff that's on your table.

There's an implied narrative in baseline OSR stuff of "get rich or die tryin'," at least at low levels. Obviously that's not a universal (see: Wampus Country, Beyond the Wall or Godbound for example), and the extent to which that is true in play winds up hinging on the DM and their campaign/setting construction. But that baseline narrative is there, and it can be a turnoff for folks, because of actually dealing with the awful stuff that said capitalism can wind up bringing into their everyday lives.

Mansion from Arrested Development, by
Matt de Lanoy, from here.
A silly analogy: OSR stuff (as has been suggested in several other contexts) is like a bunch of Legos. And Legos are awesome, you can build frickin' anything. But if all you see on Lego boxes are mansions, you're not necessarily going to think of using Lego for building an atom smasher or an ATV. And if your primary association with mansions is "places for folks who aren't me," you're probably not going to be interested in investigating the other uses of mansion-construction-kits.

Or, to put it another way (since I think my Lego analogy got away from me a bit), look at the reaction to the 5e paragraphs discussing how "yes, it's OK to have PCs who don't necessarily conform to expected roles re: gender and sexuality." For most of the folks in our circles, this was a shrug, because it was already happening and has been for ages and ages. But there are lots of people who felt encouraged and welcomed by those paragraphs.

What does this mean for fostering a more diverse community within OSR circles?

Part of it, which has already been touched on elsewhere, is hiring and supporting authors/editors/designers whose voices might not be heard otherwise, and who aren't necessarily as broadly represented in our neck o' the woods as they could be. Not just hiring them for existing projects, but giving them space to tell their stories and present their perspectives. (For an awesome example of this, check out the latest printing of Swords & Wizardry, spearheaded by Stacy Dellorfano; also check out Stacy's discussion of the thought behind the selection of her all-female design team and the increased utility that brought to S&W here. Also consider giving some support to ConTessa.)

But another part is making sure that a playstyle doesn't feel like dealing with it is going to be an aggravating and hurtful process - and highlighting that fact.

Personal story time.

"Man in Armor," Edwin Weeks
I got into RPGs around fourth grade or so, in the time-honored "one part D&D, one part let's pretend" manner; character sheets were foregone for wandering around the playground improvising our games. And instinctively, I introduced elements of my faith and cultural background into these - my characters refused draughts of healing wine, and (in one bit that I still like) my paladin PCs recited the Ayat ul-Kursi ("the Verse of the Throne") as the invocation of their protection from evil ability.

But that got leeched away as the years went by and I bought into the oroborous-ness of late '90s TSR
(and D&D novels; I was the coveted D&D player as brand fan). And my fantasy became a fantasy I didn't even notice lacked people who looked like me.

I want to foster a diverse community of OSR creators because I want to do what I can to make sure that other folks never have that same sort of sick feeling on their end. That's a major goal of mine, regardless of whether I'm wearing my GM hat, my OSR community member hat, or my Hydra Coop partner hat.

Relevant further reading:
On diversity in DIY (perhaps relevant to DIYD&D)

Okay, that is a lot of words (for me, at least) and not much in the way of gameable stuff. I owe y'all some Joesky Tax; expect other entries soon.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Dragon of the Void

The astrologers gaze up at the heavens and say that the world is a pebble in a vast sea, that it and other pebbles circle the Sun, and that all that is and all that is yet to come is etched upon this vast firmament.

Al-Biruni on phases of the moon

The wizards peruse their divinations of arrows and cracked bones, and pronounce that this world is as a single door in a vast multitude, and that the heavens above are merely a shadow of the true heavens which yawn above this multitude: the Void.

"Blue Oyster Cult," Bill Gawlick

The theologians say that the world is suspended between four realms - the Fire, where the serpent Falak reigns, the Water, where the leviathan Bahamut presides, the Air, demesne of the Queen of Birds, the Simurgh, and the Earth, ruled by Lord Kujata, Paragon of Bulls -- and though these four dispute between themselves, they are all obedient to their Lord, Ar-Rahman.

Zal and the Simurgh
From the Topkapi Palace collection.
 And while the fools may dispute as to which of these is the truth, the wise know that all of these things are true together. They know this through the unity of Jawzahr, the Dragon.

Jawzahr, the Dragon, was once a monarch equal in dignity to Bahamut and Kujata, Simurgh and Falak. And Jawzahr made his abode in the Void, and it was equal to the realms, as Jawzahr was to the other monarchs. Yet in his pride he rebelled against his Lord, Ar-Rahman. And in consequence Jawzahr was cast down from his lofty place, and the Void was made no longer there adjacent to the other realms and to the world, but was instead beyond. Yet Ar-Rahman allowed the Void to remain tangent to the world, so that the world and those upon it were not unmade, for Ar-Rahman loves and is merciful to his creations.

Mortar and Pestle depicting Jawzahr (Iran), from here
Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection
And the Lord of the Void Jawzahr was sent amongst the pebbles of the sky, tangent to the Void as the Void was tangent to the world, touching and yet not touching, for without its ruler the Void itself would cease. This is why Jawzahr is entombed in a shadow of the Void, while the Void is become as a shadow of the Realms Elemental, that the world be not unmade.

So the learned know while the fools dispute. For Ar-Rahman is mighty, wise.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Started listening to the Dead Games Society podcast. Their latest episode deals with early Battletech and MechWarrior, a subject near and dear to my heart.
WHM on the move.

Like Warhammer 40k, BattleTech has changed in tone from its initial presentation. It's gone from feudal knights riding slowly disintegrating metal steeds in a dark age to a bunch of combined-arms "modern" stellar nations duking it out with militaries that seem far more contemporary in org structure and tactical capabilities.

In the first iterations of BattleTech, a MechWarrior* losing their 'mech meant that they became Dispossessed, losing the traditional rights and privileges of a MechWarrior until they somehow clawed their way back into another 'mech or died trying. By the time of the Clan invasion, it just meant you picked another off the factory floor.

But I digress into boring shit.

After a friend gifted me with some Battletech expansions in law school, I've wanted to run a full operation scenario, charting the course of a raid or incursion from initial landing to hitting the objectives to exfiltration. As I was listening to the podcast, I realized how I might want to do this: a pointcrawl map, using double-blind movement for both players.

Ah, Space Bavaria!

The scenario would work something like this. Two Leopard dropships (total of 8 mechs) are sent to attack a world in a commando raid. The first battle is getting the dropships through the planet's space defenses; can the defender get lucky and take out one (or both) dropships?

Next step is landing and a cat-and-mouse game. Both sides are given a pointcrawl map with a few nodes. Some of these are the invaders' objectives (factories, bridges, etc.): others are useful areas to hold (satellite uplink - whoever last tapped this can see certain types of movement, etc), and others are just empty nodes.

Leopard-class Dropship
The attacker can land their ships on lines between two nodes on the pointcrawl, and then send their 'mechs out, divided up as they please. Meanwhile, the defender has designated where their 'mech forces are to be located (in nodes), and their abstracted planetary militia. Militia would occupy lines between two nodes (like the dropships); if enemy mechs moved through the area, then the militia forces basically get a free shot at the moving mechs, while the 'mechs get a chance to eliminate the militia unit. Quick abstracted resolution that has the 'mechs arriving on battlefields somewhat beaten up. Oh, and presence of a light mech would allow for a saving throw to avoid the ambush altogether (yay scouts!).

Both sides would be engaging in maneuver here: the attacker to try and take out their objectives (and possibly additional side goals), and the defender to intercept them. If 'mech forces wind up occupying the same node, then you resolve as per a traditional Battletech game. (The aerospace fighters used in the initial portion of the battle somehow fail to show up for the cat-and-mouse component, since aint' nobody wants to deal with aerospace integration in a B-tech game, it's already cumbersome enough as is.)

Each of the special function nodes would have to be clearly denoted beforehand so that it's possible for folks to figure out where the crucial areas and chokepoints are going to be.

 Neither side would have any repair capability (or maybe capacity for minimal field repairs - armor is fixable, internals less so), so commanders have an incentive to play conservatively with their tonnage and withdraw .


*Something never explained in BTech: the inexplicable fondness for every damn thing to be named in CamelCase. BattleMech, AgriMech, MechWarrior, ComStar...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Complete Character Campaign 01: NGR

Blogging has fallen off here at Legacy of the Bieth. (Was it ever on?) But it's for the best of reasons.

Firstly -- I'm continuing to work with the Hydra Cooperative; earlier this month we released Misty Isles of the Eld, something I completely failed to mention here.

Mini-sandbox exploring a planar incursion launched by Lawful Evil Space Elves with a taste for bizarre bureaucracy, biomancy, and Bowie. You know you want to check this out.

Secondly -- my day job has picked up and that's been eating a lot of my time. I haven't had a chance to run Legacy of the Bieth, or any other game, for quite some time.

But honestly I need to get into the habit of writing more, for both Hydra and my day job. I'm figuring that some regular content here might not go amiss.

So: a Bold Plan. I'm going to create characters for every damn one of the RPG core books I have on my bookshelf. I'm going to try for once a week. And I'm going to try to finish up some of the other dangling threads around here (like those Mark of Amber review tidbits from a few years ago.)

First game on the list: Zzarchov Kowolski's Neoclassical Geek Revival

NGR operates under the Schrodinger's Character principle - much of the character's info and abilities are developed during the course of the first adventure played - so I'm only going to create the basics as listed.

Stats are either point-buy or dice-rolls plus a few discretionary points. I strongly prefer random char-gen or else all my fantasy PCs look like elven fighter-mages, so dice rolls it is.

Strength: 10 (d6)
Agility: 13 (+1, d8)
Health: 13 (+1, d8)
Awareness: 12 (+1, d6)
Intelligence: 10 (d6)
Social: 9 (-1, d6)
Luck: 16 (+2, d10)
Spirit: 9 (-1, d6)

Discretionary points were dumped into Strength and Intelligence, bringing those to average from abysmal.

Characters in NGR get to use 3 pie pieces to select their character focus, split amongst the Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, Bard, and Priest pie plates. Since this PC has great luck and good agility, but not particularly great intelligence or social, I'm thinking a hapless thief -- all 3 pieces in rogue, 

Rogue Powers:
1) Specialist (specialty TBD)
2) Parkour!
3) Detect Traps
4) Expert
5) Jack of All Trades

Characters get up to 2 traits; I'm just selecting one -- Arrogant, to reflect this PC's belief in their charmed life.

Arrogant (+2 Influence on successful appeal, epic failure in social conflict = -d10 repeating influence)
Skills: 10 unfilled skill slots, TBD in gameplay.
Equipment: Explorer's Pack (rope, grapnel, light armor, backpack w/ 2 weeks food, wineskin, map, 2 militia weapons and a dagger).
Lucky Number: 13

Combat Modifier: +1
Spellpower: 0
Stealth: +2
Presence: -1
Faith: -1

Luck Points: 10

Obliviously arrogant rogue, always in over their head but doesn't know it...I'm thinking Jackie Chan in Drunken Master.

PS: NGR and two of its supplements, Rampaging Monsters and Hark! A Wizard! are all PWYW until Canada Day - July 1, 2016! So if you like what you see, now's a good time.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reader Questions: How To Dark Heresy

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like, so I put out a call for questions.

"The Lady"
Nicolas R. Giacondino
Evan asked me "How do I get into Dark Heresy stuff if I normally find 40k impenetrable?"

Well, the short answer is to go read some Dan Abnett - the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies. Yes, that's a big chunk of text - but they're good reads. Not just "good licensed fiction reads," but actually good reads in their own right. And if you're like me, you'll read them and instantly go "Crap! I really want to be playing in a Dark Heresy game right now!" (#121). Hell, just reading the Ravenor prologue does that for me.

But that's a mediocre response.

Here's my take on Dark Heresy: it's 40k, but it's not about 40k. Just like Warhammer Fantasy takes the Warhammer tabletop minis game and diverges into its own universe, so does Dark Heresy diverge from the 40k tabletop game. Frankly, I suspect the less chance there is for a single damn Space Marine to show up the better your Dark Heresy game is going to be. (Also note that this is all my take on the concept of Dark Heresy, not necessarily one that's borne out by the actual rulebooks or published background or whatever.)

Warhammer Fantasy has an implicit setup of "average folks making their way in a crapsack world while dealing with the hidden spectre of Chaos creeping out to gnaw at the roots of society, Ratatosk-like" Obviously individual campaigns can diverge from this, but it is an assumed backdrop. Dark Heresy isn't too far off - except instead of average folks, the assumption is that you're playing agents of the Inquisition, and the assumption is somewhat less sandboxy than WFRP can be.

The existing games that I think are most valuable for getting into the Dark Heresy frame of mind are Delta Green and Night's Black Agents.

"Pronunciatur Hereticus"

In both DG and NBA, players are tasked with uncovering what's really going on. They're games with a high focus on tradecraft, investigation, and ambiguity. Sure you have the ooky monsters who are the baddies (Mi-Go and other Mythos creatures, vampires) but dealing with the mundane threats of exposure, corruption, betrayal, and secrets form a major component as well. Dark Heresy fits the same paradigm - you're working your way through layers of conspiracy and skullduggery, trying to trace these things back to their source, while attempting to avoid being found out by the opposition or burned by your bosses.

In all of these games, the players have access to a great deal of power, with a catch involved. In Delta Green, the PCs (usually) have the apparent weight of the federal government...counterbalanced by the fact that they're operating rogue, without actual federal auspices, and therefore have to remain covert. In NBA, players are frickin' movie superspies with all that entails, but AFAIK don't necessarily have official backing (and/or have a strong likelihood that the official backing is actually compromised by vampires).

I tend to see Dark Heresy as taking the option that's most advantageous for the PCs from both of these, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The PCs are pitched as being strongly competent agents - perhaps not the superspies of NBA but not too far removed from them either. And unlike the doomed agents of Delta Green, Dark Heresy PCs usually do have the full weight of the Inquisition behind them, assuming that their relationship with their Inquisitor isn't frayed, or that their Inquisitor isn't actually involved in one of the conspiracies themselves...

Does this large throw weight decrease the interesting options for the players? I don't think so. As the scope of player power expands in Dark Heresy, so does the scope of both the threats and the universe. The conspiracies they're fighting, both supernatural and mundane, have their tendrils in just about everything. And again, these tendrils can be of either the supernatural or the mundane sort.

"Get Yer Kicks J-7"
Also worth reading when thinking about Dark Heresy: Zak S's "Zero Dark 29, 28, 27...", which discusses the difference in paradigms between Night's Black Agents and Call of Cthulhu. Check out the bit about revelations and showdowns, reading (in part):
Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.
In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.
Dark Heresy is mostly focused on showdowns, with the focus being on hostile conspiracies, but I believe that those showdowns work best when leading to a revelation - that sort of peeling back the curtain and seeing that despite all their power and influence and clout the PCs are still just tiny smidges against the unknowable.

Other must-reads for Dark Heresy play are Chris's series on constructing sandbox networks (here, here, here) Robert's discussion of a campaign frame for Marvel '78 (here), and Evan's own related Superheroes Year One work - obviously you'll have to do some tweaking here to get something appropriate for Dark Heresy rather than superheroes. I view those last two as the "main phase" of a Dark Heresy campaign, after an initial startup seed -- the main focus of play is trying to strike a balance between thwarting the hostile actions of conspiracies within a bounded area (planet? subsector?) and conducting the investigations to root them out.

"Pontifex Maximus"
John Blanche

So why the hell would you want to play Dark Heresy?

You want to play this if you're looking to strike a middle ground, gameplay-wise and tonally, between Delta Green and WFRP. Both NBA and Delta Green take a strong focus on the psychological well-being of the agents and seeing how they spiral into depression and sadness and lose their bonds with their family members and stuff. That's all well and good, but it's not what I want from my general gaming. Sometimes you want to be able to fearlessly blast beings of Chaos with a plasma pistol (and have a minuscule chance of taking them down), instead of your character heading straight to PTSD-ville.

(As a side note: Dark Heresy and the wide-open nature of the 40k setting means that you can do things like going from a big ol' Blade Runner/Coruscant cityscape to a Mad Max planet to basically anything that you might see in Traveller, and it'll all fit just fine. Plus mutants, zombies, and the undead, which I suspect might be a selling point to anyone who might write about a Galaxy of Fear.)

Dark Heresy provides you a venue for playing through and unraveling fantastic espionage and conspiracy in a high-powered environment (allowing for genre shifts when you want a change of pace). Depending on how high you want to ramp up some of the 40k elements, it can have paranoia, PARANOIA, or both.

So how to get into Dark Heresy? Well, you could read Eisenhorn or Ravenor. You could stick Traveller, PARANOIA, WFRP, Delta Green and Night's Black Agents into a blender. You could look at a bunch of John Blanche art, read Dune and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 2000 AD, watch Dredd...

The list stretches on.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lands of the Asbari Caliphate


The "new" capital, only a hundred years old or so; the central citadel, hewn out of the rock underneath an impenetrable azure dome of Bieth manufacture; divided into the Round City and the Cinnabar Flats by a moat of quicksilver; .
Sound: Thomas Bergersen - Empire of Angels
Taste: Judhaab - Chicken on top of an apricot pudding. The dish of kings (or at least of Caliphas).
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Ghoul

Great Mosque of Cordoba


The heart of culture, refinement, taste; cities tottering into decrepitude; ancient dynasties of nobility stretching into the sands of time; the most fearsome heavy cavalry in the world; lamia matriarchs – peers in the nobility – engaged in shadow wars of intrigue.
Sound: Azam Ali - Endless Reverie
Taste: Pomegranate over roast duck
Clark Ashton Smith Story: Morthylla 

Alexandr Kosteckij, title unknown

The Twelve Gates of Manden

Ancient coalition of city-states brought into the Caliphate; tercios of spears and matchlocks; mud-brick buildings; home of gold, copper, salt, and powder; the bones of the giant Zulkarn forming the basis for the engineering academy of his name.
Sound: Bear McReary - Black Market
Taste: Salted beef atop a bed of millet
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles

Steve LeCouilliard, Una the Blade

Dolün Steppes

A thousand tribes, wandering and warring; light cavalry honed from time immemorial; shamanic battles bringing down elemental fury for miles around; a continuing web of blood feuds and debts of honor; rituals to meld rider and steed into centaur.
Sound:  Tengger Cavalry - Wolf Ritual
Taste: Kebabs skewered on daggers
Clark Ashton Smith Story: None! Try an El Borak story by Robert Howard instead.

Eugene Delacroix, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains


Heavy cavalry to rival Turan, but quilted armor rather than steel cuirasses; contains the Well of Souls, where the dead can be heard awaiting the Day of Judgment; politically on the rise after the Calipha's marriage to Prince Bey Ajidda; rolling savanna and light forest; home of the Verdant Order, devoted to following the example of the Man of Green, servant of ar-Rahman.
Sound: Skinflint - Iron Pierced King
Taste: Fura da nono - boiled millet balls in sour milk
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Weaver in the Vault

Hasani Claxton, Knights of the Savanna


The extent of the Caliphate's control on the frontier, built atop the ruins of a Bieth underground complex; dedication to quick money, easy profits, and wild schemes; criminal fixers called "crows" organizing expeditions to delve beneath the surface or into the borderlands; the Steel Hand, vigilantes sworn to prevent Bieth relics from endangering the city; home to the exiled, the charlatan, the unwanted, the fortuneseeker. 
Sound: Caladan Brood - To Walk the Ashes of Dead Empires
Taste: Unidentifiable fried street meat
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Tomb-Spawn

Donglu Yu, Into The Desert

The Borderlands

The back end of the Caliphate; heretics and priests of the Many exiled to wander in the desert (or the Zone); metal lions stalking the wastes; ever-smoking ruined war machines; dry hopelessness or grim fatalism; warlords vying for control of five ancient fortresses, horrid mutated beasts crawling forth from the badlands.
Sound: Judas Priest - Nightcrawler
Taste: Dried dates and journeybread
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Abominations of Yondo

Alexandr Kosteckij, title unknown
Shams Al-Awsat
Urbane urban centers now falling into genteel disarray; former capital of the Caliphate; rolling farmland; rumored schools of dark sorcery; perennial uprisings of the Creed Sanguine; assassin-poet societies; sleeping in the tombs of your ancestors to gain sacred dreams and guidance.
Sound: Nu.Clear.Dawn - Falcon and Crow
Taste: Thick coffee
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Black Abbot of Puthuum (note: racism present in-story not representative of Shams al-Awsat)

Edwin Weeks, Entering the Mosque

Mur N'Akush

Without a veil or facemask, you may as well be naked; salt-marshes and salt-witches; unbreakable infantry of iron who ritually dance to prepare for battle; home of the nusr war-lizards, used as light cavalry.
Sound: Andaz Uzzal
Taste: Lamb and mint
Clark Ashton Smith Story: The Charnel God

Keith Parkinson, Eandroth Rider


An allied city-state that houses the Caliphate navy; ruled by the ritually-blinded Fortunate Sheikh; each season a new expedition is launched to open trade routes and explore new lands - they (usually) return home in good order.
Sound: Iron Maiden - Ghost of the Navigator or Myrath - Braving the Seas
Taste: Saffron and chili
Clark Ashton Smith Story:  Quest of the Gazolba

Wayne Barlow

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Jogging Through The Shadows At A Decent Clip

SR: Dragonfall
So after playing through Shadowrun: Dragonfall last year, I started to get the hankering to get some tabletop Shadowrun in. This year, I've begun running a campaign for a "home group" over G+, using the Sixth World ruleset. I'm not particularly thrilled with Sixth World, but a) the group likes playing Dungeon World, b) I'm not going to try teaching a new system over Hangouts, and c) I'd rather get some play in now, instead of taking the time to do a home conversion from another system I like better. Also d) no way I'm trying to learn any edition of Shadowrun on my own, much less teach it to others.

(To Do: check out SWN's Polychrome and figure out some way of quickly converting existing Shadowrun gear and magic into the SWN system. Running in SWN or Traveller would be ideal, but in a world where I've got limited time to do campaign prep and have other projects to work on)

Elmore's cover, the image that started it all
Why Shadowrun?

There's always been something about Shadowrun's ridiculous alternative future that's intrigued me. The combination of ridiculously high technology combined with absurd limitations as holdovers from the '80s (floppy disks, megabytes, and no wi-fi...but riggers and the Matrix) is just delightful. I suppose that's part of my enjoyment of Traveller's starships with multi-ton computers, to draw on another example.

There's also the bonus of it having elves with guns. It's no secret that I'm a fan of those pointy-eared gits; having a setting where they mix with technology and sidestepping the "elves are CHILDREN OF NATURE" vibe definitely appeals to my interests. (You have the ridiculously obnoxious elven nations, but they're not the only elves around - you've got your regular folks just trying to get by included in the mix as well.)

Tim Bradstreet, for Shadowrun
I think Shadowrun hits the conceptual spot for me that White Wolf did for many other players of my generation - a setting that grabbed onto us with big claims about a punk/outsider nature, a game dynamic placing strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships and connections, and a bunch of cool Bradstreet art. Where it diverges from White Wolf is in the very defined heist nature that a shadowrun takes on, in contrast to the open-ended/nebulous campaign structure of a White Wolf game.

Campaign Setup

 My current setup is a hook-driven sandbox campaign. Each session, the PCs will generally be given three or more opportunities for runs that their fixer has lined up, or requests for aid from contacts, or what have you. As these runs go by, changes in the world will be taking place - from the runs the PCs take, the runs they don't take, and outside events.

This presentation is of course very inspired by the campaign setup of the Hill Cantons, where I've been playing for several years now (thanks Chris!).

Current Major Campaign Resources:
  • Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Hong Kong (in my top 5 CRPGs - convey the setting, engaging squad members, and the right mix of open-ended and fast-moving)
  • Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld (examining communication methods and strategies between criminals, fascinating reading with a ton of anecdotes and examples)
  • The Arcology Podcast (GM and player tips, plus Actual Play that's actually fun to listen to)
  • The Neo-Anarchist Podcast (IC summaries of the Shadowrun setting)
  • Our Thing Podcast (organized crime - check out the Quebec Biker War episodes)
  • Vornheim (y'all know this one)
  • Mike Evans's Shadowrun City Kit (builds off of Vornheim in specifically SR related directions)
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (urban Chaos Index implementation, providing characterization to specific districts)
  • Norbert Matausch's Pink Mohawk (just found this, looks to be a plausible alternative to Sixth World that might be more my speed while still palatable to my players)
I still need to go through Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah (examining the Camorra's corrosive influence  on the Campania region of Italy), and yes, watch The Wire.

SR: Hong Kong

Finally, and back in D&D-land - get hyped for Misty Isles! We're almost done and it's looking great. Not to mention all the other cool products the Hydra Cooperative has lined up for this year...
Bureaucracy, biomancy...
...and Bowie.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

People of the Serpent

Much pleased with the peace and good order of the city, the Caliph and his vizir made their way to a bridge, which led straight back to the palace, and had already crossed it, when they were stopped by an old and blind man, who begged for alms.

The Caliph gave him a piece of money, and was passing on, but the blind man seized his hand, and held him fast.

"Yusuf of the Granite Hands has betrayed you and seeks to supplant you upon the throne," the man whispered. "He has issued false orders to your commanders and sent them away from you, and even now rides to spit your head upon a pike. If you return to the palace you will surely be slain."

"How do you know this?" asked the vizir in full confusion, for neither he nor the Caliph had suspected any treachery from Yusuf.

"Alas! As Yusuf plotted with his lieutenant Arij, the two of them came upon my daughter, lying upon a rock. Seeing her there, Arij struck at her with his sword. Mortally wounded, my daughter sought me out before expiring, and now I have sought you out to assist me. For I would gain my vengeance upon Arij." 

As he spoke the blind man grew and grew, scales covering his body, until a giant serpent with milky eyes coiled in front of the Caliph and his vizir. And thus was the alliance between the Asbari Caliphate and the Takshakeen Naga sealed.

From Zayplay Animation Studio

Requirements: Str 13, Wis 13
Prime Requisite: Str, Wis
HD: d6
Maximum Level: 8

Naga attack as fighters but save as clerics of the same level. They have infravision out to 60’.

They cast spells from the cleric spell list (or druid spell list, if you use druids in your game). However, replace the 2nd level Charm Person or Mammal with the 1st level Charm Person.

A naga may select two forms from the following:
  • Human (with subtle snake features like fangs, scales on the sides of the neck, etc.)
  • Snake
  • Hybrid (human head or upper half on snake body)

Transforming between one form and another takes one round, but also uses up the lowest level spell slot available to the PC.  

See Zak’s notes on hengeyokai animal forms (no spellcasting in animal form, half hitpoints in animal form, regular animals shun you, etc.), those apply to the naga’s snake form.

They are unable to use armor and instead have a base AC which improves slightly over time (see table below).

At 3rd level they can breathe normally in water.
At 5th level, their bite in snake or hybrid form causes paralysis for 1d4 turns (save vs poison at +3 negates).

Upon their death, a naga’s spirit is automatically reincarnated elsewhere in the world; a PC cannot be brought back through raise dead, resurrect, or reincarnate.

Level Progression
From Zayplay Animation Studio
Hit Dice (1d6)
Armor Class


Class Level

Influenced by Dan Proctor's Sea Blood (Realms of Crawling Chaos), Chris's War-Bear, Zak's Hengeyokai (via Oriental Adventures), and Bruce Heard's Aranea