Sunday, March 19, 2017

this game does not exist

For the last few days the thinky portions of my consciousness has been hyper-focused on a couple of presentations I did on Friday, so I haven't really had any game thoughts.  Last night this resulted in a pretty vivid but weird dream about a game.  I dreamed that I attended a convention and got to participate in a demo with the creator of a new minis game.  The game was called MORP.  If that is an acronym for anything, I didn't get that info   The guy who made the game called the figures/units in the game Morps.  All caps indicates the name of the game.  You play MORP with your friends, put you push a Morp around the table.

MORP is set in an ambiguous sci-fi post-apoc future where the world map is dotted with thousands of round/ovoid lakes that don't appear on real world maps.  The author explained that in the setting fluff no one remembers if those were cause by the nuclear war or the meteor strikes.  He acknowledged that this was just an excuse to set nearly every battle either on the edge of a lake, with a big ol' lake on the map, or actually on/under the water.  A whole chapter of the rulebook was devoted to lake/lakeside special rules.  You know how some designers just have that special itch they got to scratch?  Bruce Cordell and psionics.  S. John Ross and cooking.  James Raggi and ruining your life.  This guy's game design fetish was lakes.

The rulebook was an interesting object.  It was spiral bound, but at the top of the page rather than the left side.  The pages were stiff, thin plastic sheets or laminated.  And they were cut on the right edge of the page with chapter tabs always visible, like some dictionaries do.  Without every mentioning who they were talking about, an appendix gave complete rules for converting your 40K and WHFP figures to MORP standards.  After that was an appendix devoted to building MORP stats for any miniature you care to use in the game, based solely on what the figure looks like.

The game was new and the designer had managed to only get a few official figures manufactured.  He had two factions painted up on the table.  The first were these cyberpunk guys that looked like Duke Nukem but with trench coats and heads sprouting electronics gear.  The other were these anime girls in skimpy bunny costumes.  All their guns were shaped like bananas.  The author handed me a flamethrower trooper to inspect.  Imagine Omaha the Cat Girl but a pink bunny costume holding a big yellow 'nana with a hose to a fuel tank strapped on her back.


Wednesday, March 01, 2017

MERP, Rolemaster, and system hybridity

Back when I was a kid just getting started in the hobby, we tried out a lot of different role-playing games.  Mostly we experimented with TSR stuff: Boot Hill, Gangbusters, the original Marvel game, Gamma World, Star Frontiers.  We never quite got a successful campaign up and running for any of these, instead falling back to D&D quickly after starting any of them.  We had some more success with a couple of non-TSR games.  The Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran off and on for our last couple of years of high school was one of my earliest real successes as a referee.  Our brief flirtation with Middle-Earth Role Playing (a.k.a. MERP) also produced some good results.

In some ways, MERP was an odd choice for the group.  We had 1st edition AD&D and both BX and BECMI D&D.  We hardly needed another game involving swords and orcs.  But Dave was super into Tolkien at the time and his mom was convinced that Satan was on the payroll at TSR, so for a while we MERPed it up.  At least until the session that one d-bag sorcerer caught the entire party in a fireball and everyone took a C heat critical.  The gang was ready to go back to D&D after that.

The older I get the better MERP looks to me.  Sure, it's more complicated in some ways than D&D, but it also has an elegance of design all its own.  The relatively slow chargen combined with the deadly crit results plus holy-crap-orcs-are-3rd-level punished freeform mayhem in a not-uninteresting way.  And if you're going to hang your hat on a single setting, why not Tolkien?  All in all, MERP is one of a handful of non-D&D/non-clone fantasy RPGs I can get excited about nowadays (others include WFRP and DCC rpg).  It's sleek.  It knows what it wants to accomplish.  It doesn't mess around.

One passage early in the rulebook (paragraph 4 of section 1.0 Introduction, to be exact) has intrigued me for a long time:
In addition, I.C.E.'s Rolemaster Systems provide an expanded combat system, an expanded spell system, a more flexible character development system, and guidelines for a campaign game or larger scale game.  These systems allow MERP to be expanded to handle higher level characters and to increase the variations and options available to the Gamemaster and the players.
Note the key plural in both sentences.  Rolemaster Systems.   Rolemaster is considered a complete role-playing game today (perhaps one of the complete-iest) but when it first dribbled into existence circa 1980 or so it was actually a series of percentile dice using, universal, "for any fantasy RPG" type supplements.  You bought Arms Law as a separate booklet, for instance, if you wanted to up the ante to your D&D game by adding vicious critical hits for various weapons.  Spell Law gave you a bunch of new spells, organized into thematic lists that went well past 9th level.  I can't vouch for the 1st edition of Spell Law, but by the second edition many spell lists went to 100th level.  Character Law gave you an even more complex system for character stats and skills.  However you want to beef up your game, there was a Law for that.  Box the various booklets all up together with a module and you had the complete Rolemaster rpg.

MERP was written after the earliest Rolemaster releases and represents a solid attempt to streamline and cut down the system.  For example, in Rolemaster you had to develop each weapon skill separately, but in MERP there are only 6 weapon skills: 1 handed edge, 1 handed concussion, 2 handed, thrown, missile, and pole arm.  Rolemaster had literally more character classes than I can remember.  MERP has only six: warrior, scout (thief), ranger, bard, wizard, animist (cleric/druid). In short, the mechanical relationship between MERP and the full Rolemaster game was akin to that of Basic D&D and Advanced.

But the advice in MERP wasn't "Hey kids!  Once you hit 10th level you'll need to start playing Rolemaster!"  Remember that plural "systems."  Implicit in the quote above is that the players need to figure out what parts of Rolemaster they want to incorporate in their game.  It is an open invitation to hybridize the game you are holding with another game.  In the modern era of bigass product lines, this is a super uncommon thing, but the further back towards the dawn of the hobby you travel and the more of a necessity it becomes.  That's why you get things like the section of the 1st edition DMG that tells you have to mash up AD&D with Gamma World and Boot Hill.  Or Autoduel Champions, a supplement designed to allow HERO System supers to fight Car Wars vehicles.  The Interlock system, the strange baby of Cyberpunk and Mekton, attempted similar work.

One of the earliest published examples of this sort of hybridization would have to be Gary Gygax's "Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery, or How Effective is a Panzerfaust Against a Troll, Heinz?"  Originally published in volume 1, number 5 of The Strategic Review (precursor to Dragon magazine), "Sturmgeschutz" tells the story of an OD&D Evil High Priest and his monstrous minions wrecking the shit of a Nazi patrol from TRACTICS,  a set of WW2 minis rules published in the early days of TSR.  If you need official OD&D rules for a bazooka or a 105mm cannon, this article is the closest you're ever going to get.

As Ron Edwards notes in his essay "A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons," hybridization was basically a requirement to get early versions of D&D up and running.  My own experience as part of the 2nd wave of snot-nose kids brought in by Moldvay Basic is a long history of using BX with bits of AD&D with whatever we thought was cool in Dragon.  We didn't understand what we were up to back then.  We were just trying to do D&D "correctly."  (Here's a hypothetical scenario that is much less messy than my actual experience)  

Nowadays, I tend to intentionally pick and choose drips and drabs of various rules when putting together a new campaign.  I didn't start conceptualizing the game quite that way until encountering Edwards's essay, which is why--even though I don't agree with his overarching theory of RPGs--I consider "A Hard Look" formative to my active participation in the OSR.  Edwards made it clear to me that earlier modes of play were being under-served by the mainstream D&D circa 2003, so I started to actively investigate those other ways of doing D&D.

I want to end this ramble with some questions aimed particularly at any hardcore MERP/Rolemaster players who might be reading this.

  • Did you make some sort of switch from MERP to Rolemaster?
  • If so, did you do it piecemeal, as the quote above suggests, or all at once?
  • How did that work out?
  • Did you transition the campaign world from Middle Earth to the official Rolemaster setting (Vog Mur/Loremaster/Shadow World)?
  • If not, how did the less MERPish elements of Rolemaster (kung fu Monks, psionic Mentalists, etc.) function in Middle Earth?
  • Anyone else care to share stories of early attempts at hybridizing systems?

Sunday, February 05, 2017

just orcs, please

As a kid I was never really a miniatures guy, and my friends and I all went BattleTech crazy about the same time we got part-time jobs in high school, so I never really owned much from Citadel.  I eventually owned lots of 1:285 robots from Ral Partha, but precious few fantasy figures.

But I loved seeing Citadel's ads in Dragon.  They just oozed style.  Check out this bad boy from 1987 (it's actually the White Dwarf version, but the same basic ad ran in America as well):

(Click to embiggen)
I wish I had a larger scan of this thing handy, because it's hardy to see all the great details and to read the individual names.  While most minis makers were trying to sell you "Orc Infantry" or "Orc Advancing with Spear," Citadel presented each orc as an individual character with a unique name.

The Citadel folks did this with lots of other lines--like fighters and halflings and whatnot--but I really want to talk about these orcs because they figure into an experiment I did almost 30 years ago that I never sufficiently followed up on.  I was running a game for a whole new group, a one-off with people who were curious what all the fuss over D&D was about.  So I decided that the scenario would be that the two dozen orcs pictured above were a raiding party that had recently moved into the local area and the PCs were supposed to drive them off.

Those 24 orcs were literally the only monsters used in the scenario.  I had a map of the small cave complex (maybe 6 or 8 chambers total) that they were using as a staging area.  I whipped up some rules for how many orcs would be in which chambers at any given time and how many would be out pillaging.  And I made a list of 24 orcs.  Each one had an individual name, a hit point total, individual weapons and armor, and a line or two of description and/or personality.

All these guys were pretty much normal 1 hit die orcs.  The warrior orcs had no more than 6 hit points each, while the champions had at least 5.  Depending on the equipment depicted on the figure, some had worse ACs than a typical orc, because some of those guys above seem to be wearing clothes rather than armor.  The two shaman-looking figures among the champions were issued a single spell (cause fear for one and magic missile for the other, IIRC) that they could cast twice a day.  And I am 100% convinced to this day that the bottom right orc champion (Hakblod Stunty-Slicer) is holding a Mad Max style razor boomerang, so I made up stats for such a thing.  Other than those exceptions, these baddies were perfectly normal orcs.

I thought it worked really well.  Whenever the party encountered a batch of orcs I could say "5 more green-skinned goons round the corner" but once battle was joined or if the PCs had time to observe them, things like this could happen:
DM: The one coming at you has a big meat-cleaverish sword and a spiked helmet.
Player: Spiked helmet?  Like Colonel Klink has on his desk in Hogan's Heroes?
DM: Sorta, yeah.
Player: Fuck that guy!  I aim my spear right between his Nazi eyes!
DM: One of the bigger, armored orcs stops about 10 feet in front of your elf.  He holds his curvy sword and shield to the sky and proclaims "I am Mandig Elf-Sickle!  Today your ears will be added to my trophy collection!"
Player: I hide behind the barbarian!
My notes for these 24 orcs amounted to one or two pages but it added so much to what could have otherwise been a by-the-numbers orc slaughter.  And here's the sneaky part about the whole thing: I never showed the ad to my players or acknowledged its existence.  As far as they knew, I had customized these badguys all on my own.

UPDATE:  Ryan Clifford sent me a larger version of the picture.  Thanks, dude!

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Broodmother Skyfortress invades the US!

After an unusually long transatlantic transit time, Noble Knight games finally has Broodmother Skyfortress in stock (though they got the name slightly wrong)!  If you've been avoiding buying it because you didn't want to deal with international shipping or you're allergic to transactions in Euros, now is the time to get yourself a copy!

What People Are Saying About Broodmother Skyfortress:

"For any D&D-like system, I think this is a far better introduction to the game than the Lost Mines of Phandelver." --redditor 3d6skills

"It might be the best primer thus far on running things by the seat of your pants in an OSR manner" --Bryce Lynch of

"Broodmother Skyfortress is a chance for the Referee to kick over the ant’s hill that is his campaign" --Pookie UK of Reviews from R'lyeh

"I really like Jeff's approach to Broodmother SkyFortress - tight enough that the storyline is easy to follow, loose enough that you can flex it to the needs of your players / campaign world. That is always a trick, as most adventures are written for a certain campaign world and setting, even if that is never actually said in the adventure."     --Erik Tenkar of Tenkar's Tavern

"It's literally snap (Jeffs Gygaxian & Marvelesque tone), Crackle (the Kirby borders and thrillin' heroism) and pop (the direct incorporation of the pop-cultural elements in both content and narrative voice and the vibrant splash pages)." --Patrick Stuart at his blog False Machine

"(1) Broodmother Skyfortress is very awesome; (2) Your game will certainly improve if you use Rient's advice; (3) if we are making comparisons here, buying other adventures opens the door to the very real possibility of being disappointed – it is that good. This is probably my first review where I don't have any critiques." --Corey Walden at the Fiendish Almanack

"This is awesome! Broodmother Skyfortess is a gonzo take on the famous flying castle with giants trope. By gonzo I mean nonsensical although in a very consistent fashion (if this make sense at all). Broodmother Skyfortess not only delivers on its absurd premise but pumps it over 9000! And it does that supported in two fronts: really GM-friendly content and art/layout." --Tower of the Lonely GM

"BMSF is a module that was worth waiting for. For your money you get a kickass adventure, and some of the best advice the OSR ever provided." --Vorpal Mace

"Reading this will make you think about wrecking your campaign. I'm not sure it's a good thing, but I'll probably do it to mine." --Eric Nieudan on Google Plus

"I have never waited excitedly for an RPG product to come out ever. I just am not that kinda guy. But this--this I've been waiting for. I read and ran an early draft and it became major canon in my game because it involved a flying island crashing into a city--and it's a goddamn introductory module. It's fantastic, it's written in a breezy, eminently readable style by the smartest, funnest DM in all of gaming, it's several times longer than it was supposed to be and has crazy 4-color art and raises the module bar sooooo many notches and is exactly what the whole DIY D&D thing is supposed to be all about and I'm so happy I could kill all of you." --Zak Smith

"Broodmother Skyfortress is chock full of great content. Not only do you get all the gonzo content that will take your party to a floating fortress filled with the craziest creatures in the known multiverse, but you also get a ton of stuff that you can use for your existing or new campaigns! To top it all off, you get all of this in a beautiful package full of great art. You can't go wrong if you like over the top, mutated giantish things wrecking your world. Highly recommended!" --anonymous RPGNow review [Not me OR my mom. She bought a print copy.]

"An absurd amount of content for the price. And it's all good! It's all very useable! Great writing, too. A lot to unpack. Recommended." --review by RPGNow customer SeanP

"BMSF is also kind of weird, but the weirdness has a goofier tone that is more fun and thus easier to get to the table. It has an over-the-top tone that careens easily between desperation and high heroism. It would make a good DCC conversion as well. The bonus content is also fantastic. Highly recommended!" --KevinH on a thread at

"Rients's authorial voice & sense of unbridled fun from his blog is thankfully maintained in this module years in the making. Constantly and helpfully suggests options for ways to tune adventure to GM's sensibilities... Supplemented w/ good collection of articles from Jeff's Gameblog re: hirelings, campaign building, magic books, carousing, etc." --James Brigham on

"Taken together the book is probably one of the best getting started guides to running games. (Certainly for running games in an “old-school” style.) Jeff said he took inspiration here from the old basic modules In Search of the Unknown (B1) and Keep on the Borderlands (B2). This module does a far better job than both at teaching a DM how to run a game. It’s advice is far more clear and direct." --Review by Ramanan Sivaranjan of Save vs. Total Party Kill

"Just finished reading Broodmother Skyfortress for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's an excellent book for those interested in OSR games, being part adventure, part high quality GMing advice from Jeff Rients." --Frederick Foulds on Google Plus

"Really, this is a book that any rpg designer should read. We need more books like this." --NicholasJ on Google Plus

"I REALLY like +Jeff Rients​’ intro material to Broodmother. Top notch instructional material on how to use a game thing." --Victor Garrison (headspice) in a thread on G+

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

20 areas that might hold dungeon levels in Piranesi's Carceri, plate VI

I am slightly obsessed with 18th century artist Giovanni Piranesi's collection Carceri d'invenzione ("Imaginary Prisons").  Piranesi draws vast, gothic 3-dimensional structures that I would love to implement in my dungeons.  So I figured I'd try imagining a scenario where I'd use Piranesi directly as a handout.  The idea is that the dungeon would use one or more of the Carceri as the key branching point of the dungeon, the way the box canyon in Keep on the Borderlands allows one to access any of the various Caves of Chaos.

In other words, give the players this picture (minus the red) and ask them where they want to go.

Whaddya think?

(PS Here's the unmarked original)

Monday, January 30, 2017

donate, get free book

So here's an announcement from James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess:

29.01.2017: Donate, Get a Book

LotFP is offering a free book to anyone who donates US$50 or more to the ACLU.
  • Offer is good for donations made from January 29 2017 onward.
  • One free book per person.
  • Offer good through February 2017, or until we give away 500 books, whichever comes first.
  • Books available through this offer:
  • (yes, you can pick a t-shirt instead)
  • Email proof of your donation to along with your desired book and your shipping address.
  • You will not be added to any mailing list, your information won't be passed on, etc.

My Broodmother Skyfortress, Kiel Chenier's Blood in the Chocolate, and Zak Smith's A Red & Pleasant Land all qualify for this offer.

Pass it on!

the Winter War meeple encounter

Over the weekend I managed to get over to Winter War 44, the forty-fourth annual gathering of game weirdos in Champaign, Il.  Sometimes I give the false impression that I am an old school guy.  The dudes who founded this convention bought their copies of OD&D at GenCon the year it came out.  One of them wrote pedit5, the earliest documented dungeon crawl computer game.  (The name is designed to look like a legit program, since it was unauthorized use of U of I's computer resources.)  Compared to them, I'm one of the snot-nosed new kids.

I used to go to this convention every year and run stuff and help staff it, but grad school rearranges one's priorities in a pretty big way, especially when you feel you have to work twice as hard to keep up with people half your age.  But my daughter wanted to go and play some games with her old dad.  How can I say no to that?

Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to send a message to Andrew.  This young man introduced himself as a fan of this blog, which was quite gratifying.  I didn't chitchat with him much because sometimes find myself slightly embarrassed when I meet a gameblog fan in the real world.  Basically because I can hardly believe that my readers are actual people living in the real world.  In a  later conversation with a mutual friend I learned that Andrew lives in the same town as I.  Andrew, if you are reading this, please send me an email so we can maybe play a game together.

Anyway, my daughter and I played some AD&D first edition run by cool cat Alex Riedel.  You might've seen me post on G+ about fighting doombats, skeletons, and a Skeleton Warrior.  I'm pretty sure that if we didn't run out of time we'd also have faced an Eye of Fear and Flame and maybe a Crypt Thing, too.  There was a "you are about to be murdered by 3 exotic undead" theme going on in the scenario.

At one point I was caught in a death trap with 2 other party members.  I was certain we wouldn't be able to solve the puzzle to deactivate the trap, so I drank a potion of diminution and escaped through the bars of the portcullis that had locked us in.  Imagine my embarrassment when the other two guys figured out the puzzle and also got out.  "Sorry I left you for dead, dudes?"  One guy admitted he would've done the same thing if he had the potion.  The other gave me the side-eye.

Since my daughter Elizabeth doesn't play that much D&D and we were in a mid-level scenario, I urged her to pick a fighter from the pre-gens.  She was having none of that.  She wanted the raw power of wizardry to be hers to command.  I was so proud of her blatant lust for cosmic power.  She managed to hold onto her lightning bolt until the big boss battle and effectively deployed it without catching anyone in a ricochet.  Too bad the dang monster was immune to its effect.

The other game we played was Search for the Emperor's Treasure.
I tried to get Elizabeth to turn to face the camera for this shot,
but she was too into the game to pay any attention to me just then.
Search is a delightful number from Tom Wham designed to emulate overland D&D-type treasure hunting and monster fighting.  The original version was published in Dragon #51.  The game was also reprinted in The Best of Dragon Games, but with a less amazing map.  The original map was done by Darlene Pekul.  She's better known for the classic World of Greyhawk hexmaps and the succubus in the back of the DMG, among other things.  Check this baby out:

You could use this as the campaign map for a pretty sweet little D&D campaign.
The Best of Dragon Games version uses a function but much less pleasing map.  The rest of the components in both versions are illustrated by Tom Wham in his usual cartoony style.

Mertwig's Maze, published by TSR, is Wham covering the same ground thematically and is also fun on a bun.  I recommend omitting the final dungeon from play, though.  It's a bit anti-climactic and not needed at all.  King of the Tabletop (Dragon #77, errata #78) does fantasy battles and strategery in the Wham fashion.  It was later re-made into Kings & Things (West End Games, later Z-Man Games).

One of the most hilarious mechanics of Search for the Emperor's Treasure is that it is fairly easy for your adventurer to be be barred from a town or castle as a public nuisance.  One player's wizard ended up getting kicked out of four different spaces on the map.  That's player-charactering at its best.

As is often the case at cons, the guy running this moldy old game had given it a deluxe makeover.  I've seen this sort of work done with Kingmaker and several other boardgames.  (And I fantasize about doing the same thing to the old TSR mini-game Revolt on Antares.)  Scott, the referee, had the small map (11" x 17" originally) blown up to poster size. And he created some sweet custom character sheets, which were laminated.  He also upgraded some of the playing pieces, which is why the word "meeple" appears in the title of this post.

Instead of the original tiny cardstock chits, we marked are location on the map with these sweet-ass meeple-style silhouettes, from this set:
Actual sizes here range from 24mm to 52mm.  The human figures are roughly scaled to modern 35mm figs.
Apparently these babies were successfully kickstarted and have subsequently completely sold out without me ever catching wind of their existence!  Fantasy Meeples were kickstarted by Gamelyn Games and sold through Meeple Source.

I love minis at the game table because they help everyone understand spatial relationships between PCs, monsters, and objects.  I hate minis at the game table because the spectacle of the tabletop sometimes distracts from the imaginative space where the game is actually happening.  Fantasy Meeples do the job of game pieces while being suggestive rather than definitive.  That's the sort of ambiguity I could use in my D&D games.  And they're cute, too.

So, if like me, you'd like a set of these babies but missed them the first time around, please consider going to this page and leaving a message for Gamelyn asking them to produce more Fantasy Meeples.