Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Monsternomicon

Not gonna say too much here, but, the Monsternomicon, is one of the best monster manuals ever made...

The art is superb.

The monsters are viscous.

The lore is awesome.

Iron Kingdoms is bad-ass.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Shadow Kingdom

Brule the Spear-slayer!

I don't read fiction much anymore, other than gaming material, my mind simply wanders too much, but, I found myself thinking of Howard, and every now and then, I need a little fix. So I grabbed volume II, KULL, of the BAEN, Robert E. Howard series, and re-read (it's been years) the story, The Shadow Kingdom.

Wherein, King Kull learns that his court has been infiltrated by shape-changing lizard men from ages long past. Now, this concept -- that reptilian men ruled the world long ago, with the remnants of which, striving to regain control or actively pulling strings from the shadows -- is a common Sword & Sorcery trope. Where did it come from? Howard? Elsewhere?

This hangs on my living room wall. Signed by Ken Kelly, 37/200. Arguably my favorite picture (if there is such a thing.) This painting is an amalgamation of the stories, The Shadow Kingdom and By This Axe I Rule! 

By This Axe I Rule! would be re-written by Howard several years later as the Conan story The Phoenix On the Sword.

Valka and Hotath! Now these are book covers!

The story begins with King Kull astride a horse watching a military parade. Kull is an Atlantean usurper of the Valusian throne. An outsider, a true barbarian. In so many ways, the proto-Conan. But, where Conan concerns himself with women, wine, and plunder, Kull only concerns himself with kingship (though he too, had an adventurous past.)

Kull then takes an audience from a proud Pict (Picts and Atlanteans are ancient enemies) and agrees to come alone to dine with an elder, Pictish ambassador. The ambassador toys with Kull, almost speaking in riddles, playing age against youth (though Kull isn't exactly a youth) and vaguely warns him. He says to be on the look out for a Pict who wears a dragon armlet and to heed his message.

As Kull rides back to his palace in the dead of night, with a lone Pictish escort, there are several paragraphs focusing on this ancient city and how its towers mock him:

    "How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, bird of creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"

Kull is truly a man out of place, in Valusia, as well as with his own Atlantean customs.

And so, Brule, sneaks into the palace, straight to Kull and proceeds to unravel the illusion of security. Enter the reptilian shape-changers... I won't spoil much more than that, but it's not a long story, in fact, the end comes surprisingly quick.

Near the bottom of this page, as Kull stares off in a trance, deep into the past, we get a clear vision of Howard's grim view of man:

    "Against a gray, ever-shifting background moved strange nightmare forms, fantasies of lunacy and fear; and man, the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdomless striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire..."

The jest of the gods.

And another use of the word dust.

As Brule (the Pictish, Spear-slayer!) guides Kull through secret passages in Kull's own palace, they discuss ages past. This entire page, and some on the next, is Brule speaking while standing over the body of a reptilian imposter. The beginning few sentences struck me the most:

    "They are gone," said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; "the bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-people, the demons, the goblins-- all save such as this being that lies at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world. And at last mankind conquered, so long ago that naught but dim legends come to us through the ages."

There is something incredible about Howard speaking of harpies and demons and goblins, all at war with man. Imagine if Howard had written about that age! 

These words tease awesomeness; a hint of primeval violence, even darker times, and a stronger dose of fantasy. These words ignite one's imagination!  It leaves you wanting more, but ultimately, it is up to you to fill in the blanks. Too often these days, things are over-explained and all loose ends are tied. That is boring nonsense.

No matter what you create, let there be mystery and unexplored depth.

This is especially true for D&D.

The Shadow Kingdom, excellence in fiction.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

On 2nd Edition...

If you haven't read this, do so.

Read it carefully, it is very good...

I was reminded of a piece I wrote on 2nd Edition, three years ago, when I was still very new to the scene. For whatever reason, I never hit "publish." Thankfully, I saved it, as it is very relevant right now...

Begin Original Post
Written in November, 2019.
(Back when I was still double-spacing between sentences.)

AD&D 2nd....the Lost Edition?

Several months ago I found myself thinking about AD&D 2nd Edition.  Of all the editions, this one seems to get talked about the least.  Browsing the web, I came across an old reference to it as the Lost Edition.

Is it?

This is literally true for me, as it's the only edition that I no longer possess.  I loaned out the books mid 90's, never got them back, but my interest in gaming waned at the time, so.....

When 2nd Edition came out I was in high school.  It seemed then, that a new edition was due.  We couldn't wait.  The big new innovation: THAC0!!!!

THAC0 came to exist as a whipping boy.

No Monk, no Assassin, no Half-Orc.  I completely forgot this happened.  They were added in a later product I didn't own.  Of those three, I really only cared about the Assassin.

Deities no longer had full stats; you could no longer kill a God, just their Avatar, and Specialty Priests were born.  We were cool with this at the time, but in retrospect, it helped kill the Sword & Sorcery aspect of D&D.  There was an over-all grounding of the game into something more, real-world.  This was reflected in the art, which depicted realistic cultures and the challenges of slaying a dog-sized dragon.

Forgotten Realms was quickly becoming the main course.  Many of you like the Realms and that's cool, I wanted to, it just never came together for me.  The original Grey Box was nice though, great Keith Parkinson cover art, but that style didn't carry forth very long.  The art, as 2nd Edition grew (especially with the novels) quickly devolved into photographic paintings of the out-of-shape authors themselves, dressed in Renaissance Festival fluffy-shirts and feathery caps.....ugh.

Demons and Devils became Tanar'ri and Baatezu.  I hated this and consider it the single worst aspect of 2nd Edition.  A serious over-reaction to the Satanic Panic that was, by then, already winding down. There we were, loyal players defending the hobby, and the designers capitulated to people that didn't, and never would, actually play the game.  And ironically, the new kid on the block did everything D&D was ever accused of, and then some...

Enter, The Masquerade, and overly gothed-out people, sitting in proto coffee shops, counting ten-sided dice, lamenting the loss of their souls.....  

I bought very few 2nd Edition modules.  An adventure came with the DM's Screen (I think) and man did it suck.  All story, fit for locomotion.  But the 90's were all about story.  I had friends that were trying to emulate novels.....they should have just written novels.  

But the settings......Planescape......Dark Sun.  Incredible!!!  Well conceived, well written, well presented with gorgeous art.  Tony DiTerlizzi's art was Planescape.  Brom's art was Dark Sun.  I stopped buying Planescape books when they stopped using DiTerlizzi's art, but most of it was out by then.

Splat books galore!  The Complete This, The Complete That.  I never bought any of these.  

In many ways, the game was the same.  Saving Throws were still old-school, class-based, roll over this number, poison, paralysis, etc.  Armor Class was still descending.   Spells and weapons now had speed factors, which added granularity to combat.  Proficiencies (introduced in late 1st edition) became par for the course.

We loved it, I'd be lying if I said we didn't.

So, why is this the lost edition?  Or is it not?  (Someone reading this right now is saying, "Dude what the hell are you talking about, I've been playing 2nd Edition all along!?!?!")  It's definitely the edition that I hear the least about (aside from 4th of course.)  Is it because it's the middle child, crunched between 1st and 3rd, not quite a fulcrum?  Or the end of the beginning, too old-school for the modern gamer, yet not old-school enough for the true grognard?

Maybe it's too tied to the 90's, a decade people have yet to wax nostalgic for.  Before then, D&D was Heavy Metal and Pentagrams, Iron Maiden posters, Black Sabbath and Black Magic.  SWORD & SORCERY!!!  Things changed in the 90's.  Metal became Grunge, Demons became Tanar'ri, Vampires became Heroes.  In every medium, the focus became "character development."

Old school mechanics tempered by storytelling may have tainted 2E.  And yet I remember when 5th Edition was in the works, there seemed to be a consensus that the edition it should emulate the most was 2nd (which I don't think it does at all, I view 5th Edition as a simplified hybrid of 3rd and 4th.)

No doubt there are many players out there that still love it, but other than THAC0 and settings, 2nd Edition does seem kind of.....forgotten.  (There is a clone out there, but the name escapes me.)

So for awhile there, I found myself browsing the internet for good copies of those 2nd Edition books......(oh yeah, not the ugly, black-covered "2.5" edition.)

Had I bought those books again, would I have cringed?  Is there some hidden turd I forgot about?  Or perhaps I'd be blown away and feverishly start creating 2nd Edition content.....

But why even bother now that we're well into the enlightened Age of the OSR, DIY D&D, especially when I already own so many "editions" including great games created by other bloggers and OSR enthusiasts, not to mention my own ability to create?

We'll see.....

End Original Post

That "clone" I spoke of is called For Gold & Glory. I never bought it or the 2nd Edition books.

The intro module was called Terrible Trouble At Tragidore. I still have it in a box, and, holy shit was it stupid. 

Planescape had so much potential. The Blood-War was dumb; you shouldn't ever know that much about demons and devils, they should be vague and terrifying and evil to the core. I loved the art and I'm convinced it is the main reason for Planescape's success. Sigil, conceptionally should/could have been the greatest city/mega-dungeon of all time. 

Some people say Dragonlance was the true beginning of the end of old-school... at least Dragonlance had phenomenal art. Yes, art will always be a part of the equation for me. The art experience of 2nd Edition Core and the books/novels that followed was atrocious. This was mainly a product of the times though. Throughout the 80s, fantasy art became sterilized. Nudity disappeared. The fabulous paintings of the 70s and early 80s were no more, driven away by the church-lady and the corporate desire to be family-friendly.

I would love to see the AD&D hardcovers reprinted with the art of Frank Frazetta and the likes of Simon Bisley... unabashedly, unapologetically, strong and sexy! This would be the greatest thing of all time. Based on that alone, I would play nothing else.

As I said in my last post, it is up to you to un-bland D&D.

Gabor is right, the spirit of 2nd Edition is not old-school... but what you do with it can be.

Thursday, October 27, 2022


It is up to you to un-bland D&D.

Clerics are so uniquely D&D (which is the first place I even encountered the word cleric.)

Righteous warriors.

Bane of the undead.

Healers of pain.

Fanatics! Zealots!... At least there's the potential for such flavor.

So MEDIEVAL. Oh how modern D&D has forgotten (more likely -- abandoned/disowned) it's gritty medieval roots -- too European. (Actually D&D is a mixture of Medieval Europe and American Sword & Sorcery.)

I can't imagine D&D without clerics.

I want no part of D&D without clerics.

The MACE is their weapon. What better to crush bone? And as skeletons are the foot-soldiers of evil...  

The undead... turn them you say? Suppose turning undead merely held them at bay, slightly cowering, as if from a bright flash of light, not destroy or cause them to flee. Kind of like the old Hammer Horror movies such a notion is actually based on where turning is usually something you do as you are trying to flee.

Suppose, clerics simply did more damage to undead. Double damage. And this can even increase with levels. So, they're still a weapon and undead are still a threat. In B/X, skeletons are made obsolete as soon as you have a 2nd level cleric... that's no fun.

In my imagination, clerics will always explicitly be a Roman Catholic styled class. I know, specialty priests and all that. And what of weird D&D, Dying Earth as opposed to Medieval Europe? Well you do you. But, I like having the Church, and demons, and witches, and black magic, and plagues, and crosses. All built on top of the ruins of the ancient, weird stuff... 

Sects devoted Saints, Angels, Apostles... 

And yes, CROSSES, not generic, good guy, holy-symbol crap. Actual crosses. And blood spilled in the name of those crosses. Wars and inquisitions. Saints and sinners. Heretics! There is a reason demi-humans live in the shadows of man... with some plotting their violent return.

And no spells. Spells are the realm of black magic (though some wizards may beg to differ, speaking of formulas and such.) Just prayers. And no spell books... Holy Missals.

  • Of note: We always treated cleric spell knowledge like magic-users, meaning, you knew what you knew and didn't get to pray for whatever spell you wanted that day. But, if you think about it, a cleric should be able to pray for anything at any time. Their "spells" are direct pleas to their God for help with a very specific problem. Why clerics have to prepare spells is beyond me, unless it involves making sure they have properly memorized a prayer, of which, looking at the real world, there are hundreds, all serving a different purpose. How much time spent to memorize all of those? Most people, who know any, only know a few. 

I love the concept of a squad of clerics, all clad in plate and chain, coifs are a must as well as a common tabard, delving deep to purge the unholy. A medieval crew, not unlike this book: VAMPIRE$.

The type of flavor, devotion, and fanaticism I want, Warhammer does better, Sisters of Battle and such. It is up to you to un-bland D&D.

Just some ruminations as I scratched pen to paper.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

9th Grade Lunch Hour Campaign

This was the beginning of the heart of my early D&D years (1987-1991). AD&D specifically.

In the first semester of the first year of high school, we all had the same lunch period (a half-hour labeled either A, B, or C.) 

The same school at the same time as a certain rapper named Marshal.

The year was 1987. (I was introduced to the game back in 1983 with the Mentzer Red Box.)

Players ranged in number from 3-5 depending on the day. The main three consisted of a thief, a mage, and a cleric. I, of course, was the DM. 

Now, there were no dice. This was the 80s, this was stealth mode. We weren't afraid of the, Satanic Panic, but we were afraid of being labeled dorks, so dice bouncing around the lunch room was out of the question. (There was a secret society aspect to D&D in the 80s that has been forever lost.)

I had a page full of dice-ranges written down, a few charts per die type, for example, there were three or four d20 tables that looked like this:


I would pick a number on a chart then ask for a number from the player to determine their roll. Every so often, I would create new charts to prevent the players from figuring out successful numbers. Such a system depends on trust. Sometimes we would just flip a coin. (Interestingly enough, the year before, in 8th grade, myself and a different group were already experimenting with dice-less role-playing, something that did not stick with me.)

We had a basic world map, hand drawn on a blank sheet of white paper. We all took turns adding things to it, including additional pages that were taped on. Basically, the world grew with pages of mountains and forests and castles and towns as we passed the map around in between sessions. This was mainly done by myself and the guy who played the thief... speaking of: He was a real world kleptomaniac who would go around stores after school solely for the thrill of stealing. His ultimate dream for his character was to find a, ring of invisibility, his, precious, something I withheld from giving to him for quite some time. He had to earn such an artifact. Often he would ask if he was close to getting one. Often, I would say no. But eventually, in the hall, at my locker, I don't remember, I let slip the place it might be hiding, and the quest was on.

What I remember of the mage was that he wanted to be able to spin his staff like a martial artist. I eventually let him achieve this unlikely skill. He also once had a dream where I resembled Dungeonmaster from the D&D cartoon.

The cleric wasn't what you would call a gamer but played anyway. His "rolls" were always the luckiest and his character progressed the fastest to the slight annoyance of the others. He passed his Test of High Sorcery long before the mage did.

The players started out as a group, but eventually split up and scattered to different parts of the map on their own personal quests. Everyday they would each get 5-10 minutes of time as I went from player to player to player and back again. As I mentioned above, both the cleric and the mage had to undergo Tests of High Sorcery at various towers (a heavy influence from Dragonlance here; can't wait for WoTC to ruin that) and the thief was obsessed with infiltration missions, oh how this guy reveled in being a thief.

I drew no dungeons, there were no maps beyond the world map. All I had were scant notes and prompts as to what might happen. Everything else was in my head. Never again, would I play the game this way. And never again would I play outside of my, or a friend's, house.

It was all cool, but by December I was burned out, and beginning in January (2nd semester) I would pass the reins on to another friend who now shared our lunch. This angered everyone, because honestly, none of them cared much for this guy. They would call me at home or meet with me secretly in the hallway, begging me to take back the reins. They complained that he was turning the game into a fairytale... in my absence, something happened involving flowers, that was their breaking point. He simply didn't have the same source-material pedigree that the rest of us had.

So, I took control again and promptly went on to fail algebra.

Game on!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Dungeon Crawl Classics Character Sheet

I haven't played this system. I bought it more out of curiosity than anything else, last year or two I think. It was/is popular, so I noticed, so maybe there was a reason for that. Like many others out there, the Zocchi Dice turned me off, almost repulsively so, especially the d5 and d7, it's like they are physical manifestations of Non-Euclidian geometry. They are totally pointless. The d16/d24, even the the d30, I could see uses for.

Dungeon Crawl Classics...

Gets an A+ for atmosphere.

When I should be writing/drawing adventures, the thing that burns my brain most is contemplating game mechanics. This contemplation is perpetual, no matter what goes on in life, the gears of game mechanics turn in the back of my mind. It's like music that never stops; a record that is broken. I have various clones of my own in progress that I'll never finish and I shouldn't even bother. They are not needed. I cringe when I see yet another heartbreaker announced.

House rules are all you need.

Every version of D&D, originals and clones, have at least one cool idea. I want all of those cool ideas to exist in the same game. Some games have many cool ideas, but are cursed with that one complete turd that ultimately turns you off.

It's like solving an unsolvable puzzle... or, if you solve it, you'll crack open the universe itself. Either way, it's only your solution, many others will not agree.

Just play the damn game right?


DCC uses 3rd Edition's Fort, Reflex, and Will for it's saving throws. I like this, it really is the most refined of all the saving throw systems. The only flaw of this triad is that it doesn't feel archaic enough. I am however, not a fan of the DC (difficulty class) system, because the tendency of this system is that things get more challenging as you gain levels, when you should just be getting better at everything. It only works for me if you're running a true sandbox, where a 1st level thief might encounter a DC 25 lock and simply not be able to pick it. I prefer a version of Fort, Reflex, and Will that progresses in an old school fashion and have come up with such a system, as have others, I'm sure.

Thief skills use the same DC system as the saves. More and more, I've come full circle back to percentile based thief skills, though I do appreciate the simplicity of Lamentation's d6 skills. I'm not sure why, but percentiles have won me over, finally. Maybe it's because adding in critical successes and failures on doubles makes it just that bit more interesting, but I've also pondered turning each individual spell into it's own percentile skill...

Something else DCC imports from 3rd is multiple attacks (iterative attacks... which really is the Achilles Heal of 3rd) however here, they take the form of dice, such as d20/d20/d14. Better, but not may favorite part. Multiple attacks only work for me in singular man-to-man combat.

Where DCC clearly shines is spell-casting and overall atmosphere. The book almost comes across as a very large zine. Tables upon tables each speckled with neat little drawings. I recently lamented that HYPERBOREA lacked dragons and suggested they should have included a way to roll them up randomly, lo and behold, DCC has this exact thing. Major plus here. The same goes for demons. You want a name or a title, here's a d100 table. So many little tidbits that just make the book fun. The art varies from silly to serious, but definitely leans more silly. Yes, Gonzo is the goal here. 

As I mentioned, spell-casting, is not quite Vancian. Full of flavor, full of risk, plenty of reward. Cast as many times as you want, depending on the results of the roll. Some successes could be a little more interesting than just more damage or more targets, but I appreciate the idea, that's for sure.

Stats are basically D&D's six renamed. Agility and Stamina will always ring as sci-fi to my ears and Personality is an unnecessary replacement for Charisma.

Not going to ramble here, this game's been out long enough that most people reading this are in the know, so here is my sheet. It's based off my B/X template and a few others. I tried to make it accessible for any class. The spell section may not even be needed as I'm sure players of this game print out their own spell-books. 


Dungeon Crawl Classics Character Sheet

Saturday, August 20, 2022

And Now... HYPERBOREA! Plus Character Sheet...

A Shaman I rolled up

Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, these are the three main authors (among a few others) that Jeffrey P. Talanian's, HYPERBOREA, (formerly, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers Of...) seeks to emulate using a chassis that lies somewhere between B/X and AD&D.

This is technically the third edition of this game which was first published as a box set in 2013, then as a massive hardback tome in 2017. I own neither of those two editions, though, I was aware of them. By the time this game really captured my attention, the first two editions were out of print and rare. I had managed to view a PDF of the 2nd edition (back when such a thing was easier) and what stuck in my head were these cool pencil sketches... more on that below. A perfectly-bound, paperback Player's Manual, also came into existence not too long ago, which I was all set to buy, when I discovered that a 3rd edition was imminent. That 3rd edition kickstarted about a year ago, the result of which are the handsome books you see above.

Physically each book is a little over 300 pages (Player's Manual and Referee's Manual.) Both covers have this cool matte feel to them and the interior pages are cream colored, non-glossy and very easy to read. The layout is clean, well organized and full of art (some great, some not-so great.) Basically, these are nice books. (Personally, I would've preferred a single giant tome, like the 2nd Edition.)

Also pictured above is the soft-cover atlas of the HYPERBOREAN world -- which exists far into the future, is shaped like a planetary-sized hex, and orbits somewhere out near Saturn around a now dying, red sun. This is sword & sorcery for the most part, but there are elements of sword & science such as you see on the above Player's Manual cover and in the picture below. Obviously it's up to you if you want your knightly warrior to wield a ray-gun (aside from my own anomalous adventure, DATE OF EXPIRATION, it's usually not my thing) Setting aside, it's the system that I care most about...

And this system is fairly standard D&D -- classes, hit points, armor class, saving throws, Vancian-ish Magic, etc. The rules are not quite as basic as B/X, yet not as detailed as AD&D. 

Where HYPERBOREA is neither basic or advanced, is how it handles races. Here, with the exceptions of Atlantean and Hyperborean (who are technically not humans) you only play as humans. The races are as follows:

  • Common
  • Amazon
  • Atlantean
  • Esquimaux
  • Hyperborean
  • Ixian
  • Kelt
  • Kimmerian
  • Kimmer-Kelt
  • Pict
  • Pict (Half-Blood)
  • Viking
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Carolingian Frank
  • Esquimaux-Ixian
  • Greek
  • Lapp
  • Lemurian
  • Moor
  • Mu
  • Oon
  • Roman
  • Tlingit
  • Yakut
Most of you will have a fair idea of the gist of these races (from Howard, Smith, etc.) And though there are plenty of tables to determine your character's height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion, age, and name, your race offers ZERO actual in-game benefits, even if you're playing an Atlantean or Hyperborean. Race is merely a descriptor, fluff. This is BORING (especially after reviewing Deathstalkers) but I get it: Beware the woke twitter mob. State that one type of human is better at something than another, even in a FANTASY setting, and all Hell breaks loose. 

Of course, there's nothing from stopping you from adding Demi-Humans and/or bonus/penalties to your HYPERBOREAN game...

Classes. If you love lots of classes (and I love lots of classes) you'll be happy: 4 main classes with 22 sub-classes (some of the names though... ugh!)
  • Fighter
    • Barbarian 
    • Berserker 
    • Cataphract (Need eye surgery? Knight would be better)
    • Huntsman (Hunter is better)
    • Paladin (Champion perhaps? Seems like sword & sorcery has Champions)
    • Ranger
    • Warlock
  • Magician
    • Cryomancer
    • Illusionist
    • Necromancer
    • Pryomancer
    • Witch
  • Cleric
    • Druid
    • Monk
    • Priest
    • Runegraver
    • Shaman
  • Thief
    • Assassin
    • Bard
    • Legerdemainist (thief/magician) --who wants to say this? (how about Trickster?)
    • Purloiner (thief/cleric, Cultist or Zealot is better)
    • Scout
These classes are generally well designed and do pretty much what you'd want them to. Occasionally, there's a fluff ability, like horsemanship or survival, which are only as useful as the DM wants them to be. I will always prefer actual mechanics.

Classes are listed to level 12. They all have the same single saving-throw progression, staring at 16 and improving by 1 every other level to 11 at 12th level. So, even at 12th level, your saves will only hover around 50%, which is kind of rough for a seasoned sword & sorcery protagonist. Each class also receives two +2 bonuses to specific saves, which are the classic five renamed to:
  • Death
  • Transformation
  • Device
  • Avoidance
  • Sorcery
Dexterity can also improve Avoidance, and Constitution and Wisdom can improve specific situations like poison and willpower, respectively. So, the saving throw system is an amalgamation, ranging from a single save to five and beyond.

Your "to-hit" bonus is called fighting and progresses logically, as opposed to the weird progression of B/X.

Armor Class is descending. Easily fixed if not your thing.

Also, medium and heavy armors offer a bit of damage resistance, 1 or 2 points.

Attribute checks, called tests are done on 1d6 and are primarily based on the classic open doors mechanic. These are things such as opening stuck doors, balancing on a beam, or swimming across a lake. There are also extraordinary feats which are based on the old bend bars/lift gates mechanic, a % roll. Tougher challenges, lower rates of success. Mental attributes do not have tests or feats as the author deems there are too many variables to consider.

The optional concentration check for spell-casters is very cool: If you take damage while casting, roll 3d6 + damage taken. If you roll under your casting attribute score (intelligence or wisdom) your spell succeeds, otherwise, not.

One thing HYPERBOREA does take from AD&D is multiple attacks per round in the form of 3/2 at 7th level for fighters. This can improve to 2/2 and 5/2 with weapon/grand mastery (depending on the weapon.) For the uninitiated, 3/2 means two attacks every other round. This was always clumsy in practice, in my experience. Just give them 2 attacks, then 3, and be done with it. Or give them a damage bonus, or both of these things. Forget the fractions.

Some other thoughts...
  • Thieves are better at finding secret doors than everybody else... why haven't I seen that before? Thief skills use the d12 and they start out fairly competent. Actually, the d12 gets a lot of love in HYPERBOREA.
  • Witches' are very "witchy," they brew things, make effigies, have useful familiars and actually ride brooms! -- eventually.
  • Priests get more spells than any other class.
  • Clerics use spells like magicians do, meaning, all spells of a level aren't available to them.
  • Fighters are fairly lame, as usual, sure they get multiple attacks vs 1 HD foes, so they'll kick-ass if you're only fighting orcs (btw, HYPERBOREAN orcs are unabashedly EVIL, this game gets my vote for that alone.) Cleave/damage bonus/carry-over damage would be better, again, easy to house-rule these types of things.)
  • Huntsman, Ranger, and Scout are kind of similar.
  • The Runegraver seems more like a concept class that would appear in someone's zine.
  • The Shaman is exactly what a Shaman should be. Very well done here.
  • Assassins have to jump through one-too-many hoops to assassinate someone. I love assassins, don't gimp them.
  • The Warlock is basically the Elf (designed better) if you wanted to play one.  
  • Assassins, Huntsmen, and Shamans can harvest venom from slain monsters. Anyone else can try, but these classes are much better at it. Very cool, but it's a static ability that oddly doesn't increase with levels.
  • Simple Alchemy rules exist to brew potions, decoctions, and poison, for most spell-casters. Also very cool.
  • Tactical combat options exist, though I feel they would mostly be ignored (or abused.) Examples are shield-bash, pommel strike, two-weapon fighting. Some are cool though.

Art is important to me...

Questionable decisions were made with art in this version, which represents a step back. Thankfully, Ian Baggley's awesome sketches still remain, if not front and center, where they belong.

Baggley Barbarian

Baggley Berserker

Baggley Warlock

Baggley Shaman

Baggley Bard (coolest Bard I've ever seen)

The Monsters...

No dragons. Kind of weird, as dragons do exist in sword & sorcery, but... ok, they're easy to add. I understand not wanting D&D's chromatic dragons, but random tables to determine dragon color, breath, HD, and other abilities would have been cool, sort of a "create your own dragon" type of thing. Otherwise, HYPERBOREA has one of the best done bestiary sections out there. Good art, good write-ups, a bit of grit (these are not WoTC/Disney monsters.) Stat blocks have the perfect balance of information. I do, however, have one complaint: There are no random encounter tables. What?!? 

Nice Succubus! (But they don't drain levels or stats, why not?)

Magic Items and spells are a combination of the usual fare with new additions. Recognize this?

Round here we call this a Glaive

HYPERBOREA's a solid game which strikes a nice balance between simplicity and detail. It definitely evokes that sword & sorcery feel and if the I.P. wasn't so closely guarded (which I understand) it could easily contend with OSE as the go-to system for many. All-in-all, an excellent game with some cool ideas that make you wonder, why didn't I think of that? 

And here is the character sheet I made for it. The official character sheet is alright, but you know me... 

HYPERBOREA Character Sheet


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Deathstalkers II: 700 Pages Of Pure METAL!

At times you crave something wild, something guttural, primal, unbalanced and unapologetic. Something with a bit more crunch and art that doesn't remind you of Nickelodeon.

Then this arrives...

Real quick: HYPERBOREA -- Nice books! Well laid out with cream, non-glossy, very readable pages. I also ordered a copy of Against The Dark Master, not because I was ever into Rolemaster, but Darkmaster looks awesome too.

But more on those games another time (especially HYPERBOREA), as my mind drifted into this dark realm...

Deathstalkers II: The Fantasy Horror Role-Playing Game, by Mike Whitehead and Joe Meyers, (C) 1999-2005.

I've owned this book for perhaps, 10 years? I saw it at the game store several times before finally pulling the trigger. It was a massive, almost 700 page tome that seemed ridiculous, but I had to buy it, if only for its sheer size and NERVE. It has since sat idle in my collection.

Now, Deathstalkers II, is an interesting game. I would describe it as Palladium Fantasy meets D&D 3.0, with a touch of Warhammer. Seriously, imagine if Palladium never happened until Kevin Siembieda played D&D 3.0 and house-ruled the hell out of it. That is exactly, Deathstalkers II.

Like Palladium, there are many races to choose from, and many of these races have sub-races, so lots of choices. There are plenty of Half-Somethings, but no Half-lings...

Races are where you get your hit points and stat generation, in fact, race is legitimately, half your character. And like Palladium, you roll a different number of dice for different stats depending on your race, for example, minotaurs roll 7d6 for strength, 2d6 for intelligence, faeries only roll 1d4 for strength and constitution, etc. You won't see any 18 strength gnomes in this game! Stats use the 3rd Edition bonus progression, and if it wasn't clear already, 3rd Edition is the backbone of this game, e.g., saving throws are: Fort, Reflex, and Will.

NOTE: This is not WoTC/Disney. If you're looking for balance and harmony among your fantasy races, you won't find it here. Perhaps explore the radiant citadel.

Races have some class restrictions, suggested alignments, and just like Palladium, a listed chance for cannibalism, which is just a descriptive stat that implies a gritty game. Most races have 0% chance of cannibalism while orcs and bestial-minotaurs (there are three types of minotaurs) take the crown at 100%, with goblyns and half-demons coming in at 75% and 70% respectively. 

Speaking of those half-demons, they are called the Antithrax. There's only one way an Antithrax comes into existence, and it's not implied like the half-orcs of old. This soulless race lives very bleak lives. The sample Antithrax picture below has hooves and a sword for an arm, but surprisingly, with all of the options in this book, there are no random tables here for rolling up your own unique demonic mutations...

Each race gets something called a Rage-Attack (which is optional) that they can use at the price of temporarily losing Constitution. It reminds me of a Capcom video game ability. For example, the Antithrax can open up a demon-pit of scorching flames around a nearby target doing 4d6 points of damage with no threat of actually igniting the victim. Fueling abilities with your stats, now that's a fascinating concept.

Below: A picture of a West-Lander Gnome. Poor little faerie. Faerie numbers are dwindling in this game world which might have something to do with the fact that eating faerie wings grants nice in-game benefits like granting extra spell castings, gaining 1d10 permanent new hit points, curing diseases, increasing ability scores, etc. You would never see something like this in a mainstream game.

Then we have the classes...

Here is a sample class chart...

And some class art. The art in this book is a cool mixture of pencils and ink. Occasionally, there's a bad piece, but overall, it's pretty damn good.

Characters all start at level 0 and each class gets a certain amount of skill points and a list of preferred skills. They all start with 3 APRs (actions per round.) You get Hit, Parry, Dodge, Initiative, and Damage modifiers, and eventually Feats and Special Abilities. If you want to improve skills or feats before you level-up, you can spend XP to do so -- another interesting concept. Also, non spell-casters can spend XP to gain particular spells. This XP will be spent in the thousands, and, for Legendary Spells, millions!

Multiclassing exists as it does in 3rd Edition D&D, but with limits. Every class has a list of Class Exits, very much like in Warhammer.

There are a shit-ton of skills and feats, some of which are wild, giving you crazy combat benefits, but with a finite number of uses before you have to repurchase the feat, another cool concept. Some stand-out Feats...

  • Aggressive Assault (I-X): One use per round, roll your Aggressive Assault damage die (begins at 1d4) and multiply the result by your level, add this number to your normal damage roll. Aggressive Assault X (character levels 16+) has a damage die of 1d100! Limited number of uses before you must reacquire the feat.
  • Fate (I-VIII): Allows re-rolls of attacks, saves, skills, etc. Fate VIII (character levels 3+) revives you from death back to perfect health -- one use only. One of the Half-Cat races begins with this feat. ("Do you want to live forever?")
  • Mystic Assault (I-X): Similar to Aggressive Assault, but affects spell damage, range, and other properties.

There are interesting languages, a list of multiple offensive slang names for each race (such as Pech for dwarves, Stain for demons, Bull and Cow for minotaurs, Fleshy for humans, Halfbreed for a host of others, etc.) Birth Signs give your character a slight bonus. There are rules for insanity and rules for fame -- the grander your achievements, the higher the price on your head!

Combat is similar to Palladium's system, where-in you have a number of actions per round, spent, depending on what you want to do and what abilities/feats you might want to use. Melee attacks are parried and missile attacks are dodged. When you're out of actions, you can go into submissive defense mode where you can still parry (with limited effectiveness) but lose those actions on your next round, or you can take a mauling and hope your armor protects you, which... it won't. Armor is damage reduction, but not nearly enough. Shields add to your Parry score. There are many combat options if you want to use them.

There are over 500 spells in this book. Some new, some old with a different take. Magic-use is a spell-point system. You have X number of castings per day equal to half your Constitution score (keeping fractions) at 1st level and every level there-after. Some spell effects require spending multiple castings. Power Words & Ingredients reduce this cost -- pretty cool.

There are 5 dense pages of herbs and poisons, equipment lists are equally dense. Speaking of, if you want to be proficient in armor, you need to take the armor proficiency feat, regardless of your class, so you won't be wearing plate-mail for a while. Everyone starts out with fairly basic weapons and equipment and a handful of gold. Weapons are priced in the hundreds of gold pieces, e.g. a longsword is 565 GPs (Gpcs as listed in this game.) and damage is higher than you're used to, 2d6, 3d8, 3d10, 4d10, etc. Armor is priced in the high hundreds and well into the thousands. Everything has an availability score. It's a shame that D&D never used availability scores, there should be no guarantee of finding what you want in any particular town, which might give you reason to travel to the next one.

The game world is called, Arkastapha. The premise is one of lost beauty and a land ravaged by thousands of years of wars with Juggernauts -- ironclad golem-knights brought to life by dark Gods using the souls of the damned in the fires of the Dark Forge, and Demons (called Thraxians, once led by the Deathstalkers -- kind of like arch-demons, now in hibernation.) The usual monsters also exist, some with a new twist, and there are a fair number of them. Basically, think bleakness, scattered kingdoms. Points of light in a broken land. The mythology of it all is covered.

The character sheet. Standard, basic stuff. Functional. Could not find a downloadable version online. You know I'll make my own. It will require Pathfinder level complexity as bonuses come from all different directions...

There's an edge to this game that I find refreshing and mechanics that are innovative. 

Deathstalkers II: 700 pages of pure F*****G METAL! 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Knight vs Dragon

The classic trope of the lone knight against a dragon. Is it doable in D&D? I've never seen it happen. Seems like a suicide mission unless you're talking about a super, high level, overpowered character, but where's the fun in that?

Before writing this, I watched the dragon fight scene in the Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty (1959). It's really the only on-screen visual I could think of that matches this scenario.

  • That dragon was black and breathed green fire which had acidic qualities.
  • Wondering if this influenced Gary Gygax's version of a black dragon.
  • The knight (or was he just a prince?) hit the dragon once on the nose and it sounded like metal.
  • The knight (prince) lost his shield to the dragon's breath weapon (saving throw in action?)
  • The knight slew the dragon by throwing his sword (which had just been enchanted by a faerie) into it's underbelly.

Time to roll up a fight... 
  • B/X will be the system.
  • The dragon will be a standard black (7HD).
  • The knight will be a 7th level knight as offered by Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy, though for all intents and purposes, it is essentially just a regular B/X fighter because none of the knight class features apply here at all, unless the dragon had spell casting capabilities, where-as the knight would be granted a saving throw vs sleep.
  • The knight will have four randomly determined magic items including a magic sword, representing time spent adventuring. I rolled shockingly well for these, see below...
  • Black dragons have a 20% chance to speak, and thus, cast spells. This dragon is a non-speaker, so, no spells. This alone, makes the dragon much less formidable.
  • The breath-weapon will work on a recharge mechanic after the initial use. The rules state there is an equal chance of the dragon using claws/bite as there is of it using it's breath-weapon. Random determination will mean breathing acid on a 4-6 (d6). Maximum 3 times. 

The Knight

Str:15(+1)   Int:10   Wis:13(+1)   Dex:10   Con:12   Cha:11

HP:36    AC:17(plate + shield)   Dragon-Breath Save:10    To-Hit:+7    Damage:1d8+2

Magic Items:

  • Sword+1 (+3 vs Undead)
  • Ring of Wishes (1) (actually rolled this, could be a game changer)
  • Potion of Healing 
  • Boots of Traveling and Leaping (why did OSE rename the Boots of Striding and Springing?) By-the-book these won't help much here, but I might allow advantage on breath-weapon saves or some such thing.  

Black Dragon 

AC:17    HP:31    To-hit:+6    Damage: 2 claws (1d4+1), 1 bite(2d10), or 1 breath (current HP)    

Morale:8 (will check at 16 and 8 hit points)

Round One (assumes no surprise)

  • Dragon wins initiative breathes acid.
  • Knight makes the save and takes 1/2 damage, 16 points.
  • Knight then hits dragon for 9 points.
  • Knight HP:20   Dragon HP:22

Round Two

  • Initiative is tied, combat will be simultaneous.
  • Dragon breathes acid again.
  • Knight fails save and dies while striking the dragon for 6 points of damage.
  • Knight HP:0   Dragon HP:16

That was quick! 

Lets go again with the following caveats: 1. The boots of traveling and leaping will allow the knight to take zero damage if the save vs dragon-breath is made and half damage if it fails. 2. The knight may also sacrifice a shield to avoid breath-weapon damage on a failed save or a killing melee blow.

Round One
  • Dragon wins initiative breathes acid.
  • Knight makes save, using the boots, leaps out of the way taking zero damage then hits the dragon for 6 points of damage.
  • Knight HP:36   Dragon HP:25

Round Two
  • Dragon wins initiative and chooses 2 claw/1 bite... all three miss!
  • At this point the knight could use the ring of wishes any number of ways to win the fight, it's such a game changer that I passed on that for the sake of this exercise. So the knight strikes and hits again for 6 points of damage.
  • The dragon passes a morale check, continues the fight.
  • Knight HP:36   Dragon HP:16

Round Three
  • Initiative is tied, combat will be simultaneous.
  • Dragon breathes acid, knight makes save, jumping away taking zero damage. While jumping, strikes the dragon for 10 points of damage!
  • Knight HP:36   Dragon HP:6

Round Four
  • Knight wins initiative and hits the dragon for 8 points of damage, slaying it.
  • Knight HP:36   Dragon HP:0

  • Simultaneous combat has interesting consequences.
  • In either fight, the knight never missed an attack roll, had to roll 10+.
  • House ruling the magic boots gave the knight a nice edge, seriously helped by making both saves. This makes sense though, and is probably how these boots would work in sword & sorcery fiction.
  • The knight took zero damage in the four round second fight mainly due to the dragon rolling very poorly.
  • I initially rolled morale at the end of the third round. The dragon failed and flew away (realistic.) Then I remembered that initiative had to be rolled first, which the knight won, then proceeded to slay the beast. Rolling initiative every round has dynamic effects.
  • The ring of wishes could have been used to nullify the dragon-breath, blind the dragon, put it to sleep, etc. Not the best item for this exercise, that's why I didn't use it.
  • Great little fight, easy to visualize, quick and dramatic not unlike the scene in Sleeping Beauty.

I think the knight's chances of success in this scenario diminish further and further with every edition following B/X & AD&D due to the fact that dragons keep getting bigger and bigger, though I'm not about to put that to the test.

XP & Treasure
  • Slaying the dragon: 1,250 XP
  • 58,000 SP (GP value: 5,800)
  • 20 gems (GP value: 2,610)
  • 40 pieces of jewelry (GP value: 48,000)
  • Total GP value: 56,410. Slightly under the average of 60,000 for a black dragon.
  • Total XP: 57,660. 
Enough for this knight to ascend to 8th level!

Thursday, June 16, 2022

40+ Years Of Trying To Define Hit Points Continues...

What are hit points exactly?

This comes up from time to time on forums, blogs, in person, everywhere. It's one of the age-old D&D questions.

The common response is usually something like this -- Hit points are a mixture of luck, endurance, and combat skill. 

  • Luck? -- perhaps, but then, shouldn't halflings have a shit-ton? 
  • Endurance? -- that's certainly a part of it.
  • Combat skill? -- this actually makes the most sense, according to the game's mechanics in the fact that martials get the most hit points. In this case it represents your ability to dodge, parry, and roll with it. As you gain levels, you get more hit points, meaning, you're becoming a better fighter. Kind of boring, but that should be the end of it.

It's the inconsistencies that keep this question alive.

If it is luck, endurance, combat skill, and not "meat points" then why do smaller creatures have fewer hit points than larger ones? Is an elephant a luckier, more skilled combatant than a badger? A troll has far more hit points than a pixie. Pixies might be small and hard to hit, but once you "hit" them, they're dead. Seems like meat points to me.

You could interject here and say, shut up and enjoy the game (or even better -- play GURPS) and you would not be wrong. Just keep reading...

Hit points work just fine as meat points... until you have, say 100, 150, 300, etc. Then things get harder to justify. On a side note, I find it fascinating that with every new edition of the game, hit point bloat gets worse and worse. 4th Edition was the worst offender (at just about everything) but 5th Edition only dialed it back a little. Can these people not design a fun game without everything having hundreds and hundreds of hit points? Still trying to emulate fantasy computer games that ironically started off trying to emulate you...

When people concern themselves with the vagueness of hit points, what they actually crave, I think, is a bit of realism (though I use the word "realism" perhaps "grit" is the better term, because ultimately, there's nothing realistic here.) 

They want to see blood. The more vague combat gets, the less fun it is. Players want to know, "Did my sword actually hit the ogre this time, or do I only get to actually hit the ogre when it dies?" When that minotaur scored a critical hit with it's massive battle-axe, what in actuality, just happened to me? Did he simply swing so close to my head that it rattled my nerves for 18 points of damage?

For those that argue for the luck/parry/endurance explanation, is it really "realistic" to say that the only time you actually get hit in violent, medieval combat, is when you suffer the killing blow? Is that even fun? Then again, to be fair, that crowd is not aiming for realism or grit. Of course this is further convoluted by the fact that the length of the combat round varies over the editions from 6 seconds to 1 minute, and a lot of things can happen in 1 minute. But... that doesn't mean that at the end of that round, when you've taken a hit, that you haven't actually taken a "hit."

We've all exhausted this topic, yet the hobby will never be done with it. Simulationist vs gamist, sport vs war...

I've always been very descriptive with combat. I like a "hit" to be a "hit." Which is probably why I like opposed combat rolls and parry options.

If you've been "hit" by an arrow, then you've been HIT by an arrow! Sword & Sorcery fiction and imagery is packed full of heroes carrying on the fight with arrows sticking out of them. It's almost a trope. It's easy to explain too, because often arrows don't penetrate that deep or hit vital organs, and if you have any kind of armor on, it's even easier still, because it's mostly stuck in the armor.

The same can be said of weapon hits. Yes, you did actually just take a hit from that guy's battle-axe, but he didn't lop your head off, or your hand for that matter. You've been cut, you are bleeding... a bit, you are losing hit points and yes an elephant does have more hit points than you because it can physically survive more hits from that axe than you. But, you're tough, gritty, you're a pulp hero, you can take it! It's simply not necessary to say that you've been dodging and parrying and weaving in and out of blows, or you're just plain lucky. No! Your ass just got stabbed! Now fight on! This is the bread and butter of pulp fiction.

So... what happens when you fail your saving throw against something like a dragon's breath weapon? Mr. pulp hero just took the full brunt of 37 points of damage from a blast of fire and only has 3 hit points left. Those that made their save only took half damage, they merely got singed as they dove for cover. Not you...

What does that look like?

It should look like something "permanent" if you ask me. You have most certainly suffered serious burns. If the undead leave lasting effects from their touch, iconic attacks like dragon breath should do the same, and at the moment, I suggest 1 point lost from a random ability per 15 points of dragon breath damage taken on a failed save. There's a touch of grit for ya. You can even apply this principal to critical hits and level drain, but in those cases I would only make it 1 point lost in total and perhaps only after a failed death save.

So, you might level up and get better at what you do, but your body is taking a beating and showing the scars. That's a simple way to add some realism or "grit" to your game (and panic not, my friends, dungeons are full of ability-raising tricks!) Also, with realism in mind, "system-shock" rules should not be ignored.

As you gain levels, you do gain more damage resilience and the ability to avoid the killing blow. This is the endurance and combat savvy aspect of hit points. Regardless, when you've been hit, you are taking actual damage.

On a bit of a tangent, the size of dragons has also gotten out of control. They're iconic and they should be dangerous, but they're not Godzilla. If a lone, valorous knight is expected to have a chance... 

Also, speaking of dragon breath, we all know the house rule, "Shields shall be splintered," well, they shall be "melted" too:

  • Sacrifice your shield to turn a failed dragon breath save into a successful one, or half damage into no damage (doesn't work against poison gas.)

Clearly, your characters aren't going to lose limbs, but they will be cut and bitten and torn and burned... they will be scarred, and yet, the mythical underworld calls... again and again. 

You're not playing village wimps.

The Monsternomicon

Not gonna say too much here, but, the  Monsternomicon ,   is one of the best monster manuals ever made... The art is superb. The monsters ar...