Saturday, December 31, 2011

New magical item: The Gambler's Dice

This is a unique and powerful non-artifact magic item, system-agnostic but written with 4e in mind. I was inspired to finish it considering the recent "Got Loot?" blogging festival, though this is something that has been incubating in my mind since at least last April. It is my attempt to bring a sort of Fortune Cards-like aesthetic into the game, without being overly intrusive, but also having consequences. It utilizes FUDGE dice, which are special six-sided dice which have two blank faces, two faces bearing a "-" and two faces bearing a "+". It was very influenced by the Deck of Many Things, among other things, and I'd hope that its implementation and manifestation could be relatively flexible to manage in-game. Players can come across individual dice, as with cards from the DoMT, or else the entire set, whichever would seem more appropriate within the story. The item, which is a set of four ivory dice inset with golden suns and silver moons, will appear to be just an ordinary, if valuable, set of dice for a game called Canicerre (can-i-sair). It will be common in the area of the world where the dice are found, but relatively rare elsewhere. I use a combination of locales from 4th edition (Bael Turath features in the story), but also a newly invented locale (the Alvastratian Empire), which I figure for story's sake existed in the same larger geographical area as Bael Turath, but perhaps pre-dating both it and Arkhosia. There is no reason why any or all of it could not be relocated to somewhere more familiar to Pathfinder fans, such as Varisia or Katapesh. I'm less familiar with Golarion and I write chiefly for 4e (being the fantasy RPG with which I am most familiar), so it becomes my "implicit" setting. Similarly I use Tieflings and Eladrin in the story text, but the storyteller himself is suspicious of those attributions. They could readily be renamed to something more appropriate.

The dice themselves should be presented, at first, as simple treasure. They are made of a valuable material (ivory), appear to be very well made and of high quality, and two sides are inset with gold, and two sides are inset with silver. It would be assumed that a reasonable player would see the value in these, at least as loot to sell for gold or silver back in town. Likewise, the location they are found in should be relatively unremarkable; maybe they spill out of an old boot that is carelessly knocked over while one of the PCs is looking for something else. Maybe they are simply set atop a table within a cave that had been at some point previously been occupied but currently seems abandoned. However, the true value of the dice only becomes apparent once the PCs attempt to sell them. When presented to a shopkeeper, especially if asked what they are for, the following monologue might occur. Alternately, if one of the characters is particularly well versed in local history, they may know the following already:

"It's an old Alvastratian game, it's called Canicerre; it's simple. Let me show you. There are four dice, they each have these symbols on them, right? The sun represents a positive turn of fortune, the moon a negative; yeah the Alvastratians were sun worshippers, what do you want? You put all four dice in a cup, and you shake it around. You try to get one die to pop out; a lot of pros get up to some pretty fancy shaking to make it happen and land where they want it to. The rest of the dice stay in the cup, and you quick turn it over and smack it down on the table so they're under the cup, still covered. Everybody bets on whether the overall outcome will be positive or negative, and then the cup is lifted. Positive and negative sides cancel each other out, blank sides don't have an influence one way or the other. If the outcome is neutral, everyone gets their money back. If it's moons, all the people who betted suns lose their money. If it's suns, all the people who betted moons lose their money, get it? It's split up evenly from all the losers to all the winners, so if you're betting on an unpopular outcome, you stand to win more money than if you go with everyone else on it. If everyone bets one way and the result is the other, the person rolling the dice gets it all; it's the only way they can win since they can't ordinarily take bets, and it doesn't happen very often, but when it does, oh man, it can be a lot of money. There was a saying back in the old days in Alvastratia, 'rich as a roller.'

"But these dice, these are special. You probably don't know what you have here. See, there's a legend about these dice. They say that there was a guy, a gambler, who lived in the port of Arkash. Arkash was in Bael Turath, so tradition says that he was a Tiefling. Makes sense to me, since everybody knows that Canicerre is a Tiefling game anyway... At least they're the ones who are always playing it anywhere they go. Anyway, there was a gambler, nobody knows his name any more. I guess it's not important. And this guy, he gambled on everything. It was just sort of his nature. He said that if he had something, it was his to lose. If someone else had something, it was his to win. And he was always fair. If he lost, he lost graciously and moved on, never held any grudges, never carried any superstitions or excess baggage along with it. Winning and losing, that was the only thing that mattered. He wasn't even known, so the stories go, for being particularly daring with his bets, I guess he just liked to leave everything up to fate or something. I don't know.

"But one day, as the story goes, he met a traveller. Now, a lot of people say it was an eladrin, but I don't know if that's so much that it was really an eladrin or if they just want some sort of trickster figure and eladrin fit but anyway, doesn't matter. This traveller is in town for a few days, watches the Gambler gambling on everything, finally approaches him. He pulls out these ancient, ancient looking Canicerre dice, inset with gold and silver, obviously well-worn but still in great shape, and says "I'll play you for these; they have a value far beyond anything you will ever possibly know." The Gambler, he's impressed by the dice, they're good looking, but he doesn't buy the yarn about any 'immeasurable value.' But a game's a game, so they go in to it. They drop in to a gambling house, the traveler hands a dealer there the dice. See it used to be polite if you were in a new town to at least make the gesture like you're contributing to the local economy, you know, give the dealer a chance to win, yadda yadda. Anyway, the dealer drops them in the cup, and the eladrin (or whoever) gestures to the Gambler, and says 'your call.'

"The dealer swirls the cup, pops a die out, it's the sun facing. Nevertheless, the Gambler says 'favor only shines at night.' See, there are a lot of traditions with the game; some people just say positive or negative, some people say suns and moons, this guy gussied up his calls with a little poetry, guess he did it so often he had to keep it interesting. Whatever. The eladrin (whatever) says 'suns' to give the opposite bid. You know, it's polite if you're playing one-on-one to pick opposing bids, otherwise there's a lot of stalemates going on. Also it's usually smart to pick the facing symbol anyway because the odds are a little in favor of what's already showing. The dealer nods, lifts the cup. There are two moons and a sun. Stalemate. Since they're not playing for money, the dealer sweeps up the dice and drops them in the cup. One pops out, it's a sun again. Yet again, the Gambler says 'dark as night, never bright.' The eladrin nods, and replies 'the sun will forever shine.' The dealer nods, lifts the cup. Again, it's two moons and a sun. Once again, the dealer scoops up the dice, pours them into the cup, and swirls it around. He pops a die, it shows a blank face. The eladrin says 'ah, intriguing! Why don't we raise the wager? If I win, I make one request, which you must abide by for the rest of your days. If you win, I remain here in your service, until I am discharged by your command.' The Gambler says, 'no sir, we began this game over these dice, and these dice are what I'm playing for. If you want to make other wagers, we'll resolve this one first and then we'll talk.' The eladrin nods and raises his hand to gesture that the Gambler make his bet. The Gambler says 'three moons hang alone in the sky, never to meet, never to die.'

"See this is another thing I forgot to tell you about the game. Sometimes people will make a wager based on what the exact configuration of the dice will be, and then they can win more of the pot than usual, but they weren't playing this game. I guess he was just making that bet for poetic purposes, it wouldn't have had any effect on the game one way or the other, just that he had wagered on 'moons' instead of 'suns.' The eladrin says 'three times three is a risky wager indeed!' Do you see where some people might think that this character might have been an eladrin, by the way? Who talks like that but them? Well, I suppose halflings do, but nobody wants to listen to a story about a mysterious halfling. Anyway, he says 'a three times three is a risky wager indeed!' I said that already, but there's a reason for that. You know, if you bet the same thing three times in a row, there's an old superstition that you'll always lose on your third time, but this Gambler, he wasn't swayed by any superstition, so he just says 'that's my wager, and I'm standing by it.' So the dealer lifts the cup, and sure enough, plain as anything, three moons are facing upwards. The eladrin stands up, pushes his chair back from the table, and says 'the dice are yours by your right, and they are parted from me duly. Good day, and good luck.' And he walks out. Nobody ever sees him again. Nobody sees him leave, like as soon as he walks through the door, he's gone. Course it was in Arkash and nobody sees anything in Arkash, at least not without the jingle of gold in their ears, so that's not really all that remarkable. A lot of people, they like to play up the mystery there in that part, like ooooh he was a ghost or something, but I've seen plenty of ghosts, and this doesn't sound like a ghost.

"Anyway that's just the beginning of the story. I could probably talk your ear off all day about this legend, s' popular with the kids and all (course some people add in lots of moral lessons like 'don't gamble' or more dubious ones like 'don't gamble with eladrin' or some such) but anyway, long story short is Gambler finds out that he got a lot more than what he bargained for. He'd only use these dice, you know, for special occasions. They were nice, you don't just sit out in the dusty street and roll ivory dice inlaid with gold and silver, but whatever, you know what I mean. But he came to realize that, not only did winning or losing with the dice seem to bring him bigger wins or losses, but the effect seemed to last for days. And now like I said, he was no superstitious man, but when weird things happen often enough, you start to think like something weird is going on. When he won with the dice, it was like he couldn't lose. He'd have streaks for days where everything he played, he played well. When he lost, he lost everything. Got to a point where the streaks scared 'im so much he all went up and almost quit gambling altogether. Didn't like the ramifications. Occasionally he'd try to offer the dice up as a prize, just like the eladrin did, to try to get rid of them. But he'd always win. No matter what he bet, the dice were always in his favor any time he tried to get rid of them. Started to think they were a curse, never used them. Gambling lost its flavor for him, these dice weighing down on him, never knowing whether they were actually cursed or magical or anything like that, or whether he was just getting old, and eventually he just up and disappeared, they found the dice on his table, four moons staring up at the ceiling, like he was there one minute and gone the next. Nobody ever saw him again, nobody claimed the dice as their rightful property, eventually the shopkeeper in town said he'd put 'em up for sale, use the money to pay for a gravestone (they just assumed if he wasn't coming back, he was probably dead), and that's where the story leaves off. Nobody knows what happened to the dice after they sold, but they say there's a plain gravestone standing in Arkash today, no name on it, just standing there like it's proof that someone was there. Where'd you say those turned up, again?"

The Gambler's Dice can be represented, in the real world, with a set of 4 FUDGE dice. The plus side represents the sun, the minus side represents the moon. The mechanics otherwise are exactly the same, each sun cancels each moon, and any left over beyond that denotes a winner. The large majority of games will result in a draw, and it is customary among most gamblers to either raise or withdraw their bets during these instances. Canicerre can be played in-game at any time, for gambling purposes or for a quick-and-dirty method of divination (will the immediate future be favorable or unfavorable? by what degree?). It is only with the Gambler's Dice that things get "dicey." Beyond their use as a gambling tool, they can also be used to influence fate. At any time, as a standard action, as a daily power, in or out of combat, the player in possession of the Gambler's Dice may roll the dice as long as there is a reasonable surface upon which to do so. The character does not need to be able to see the results of the dice, and the effect generated begins instantaneously. It is up to the GM to determine the effect of the outcome, but it should be in line with the overall "score" achieved by the roll. In other words, a roll that evens out to zero will probably not have any effect at all, +1 might make an attack that otherwise might have just missed hit, +2 might save the player from a status effect or an environmental mishap, +3 might drastically alter the strength of an opponent or the treasure encountered, and +4 will likely be some extremely unlikely, massive, and potentially game-changing event, like a god suddenly taking direct interest in the character and personally guiding their hand. Conversely, -1 might make the character's next action fail, or prevent them from achieving a critical hit on a natural 20, or something of the like, and so on. A -4 result will be catastrophic for the character. They may be pulled into a demiplane of suffering, they may be struck down where they stand by a freak accident, but the outcome should not only be dire for the character, but for the entire party. This result should also result in the dice being "lost" and unrecoverable by the party.

The Gambler's Dice are not an "evil" item, but they are chaotic in their function. It is unclear whether the dice were invented to be magical, or with any sort of magical purpose in mind, or whether they "developed" on their own. They do not function like an artifact; they do not possess any degree of "intelligence" and do not attempt to influence or direct their possessor's behavior. But nor are they a "good" item, for they do not always act in their holder's favor, letting instead the dice fall where they may, and then influence the world around them accordingly. Primarily any effect is negated every time the dice are re-rolled, but the dice roll has no effect one way or the other if attempted more than once in 24 hours. Otherwise, the effect will subside in 1d4 days, waning in influence over time. As a static magic item, they grant the possessor +1 Streetwise (or, for Pathfinder, Knowledge [local]) and -1 Diplomacy as long as they are somewhere in the vicinity of the person. For the purpose of this mechanic their "owner" is defined as the person who last touched them with their bare hands, although if that person should travel any appreciable distance away from the dice (such as leave town), "ownership" passes to any character who is nearest or currently in possession.

Beyond this, the significance, importance, and back story for the dice are entirely up to the Game Master, and entirely dependent upon their own campaign to let the mystery of the dice develop further (or not). Perhaps one of the PCs will decide to roll the dice when they are first found absentmindedly. If this occurs make note of the results, and have their influence (if any) be felt, but be unclear about whether it is the dice that are influencing how things have suddenly turned, or something else about where they are or what they are doing, then reveal it when they learn what the dice are.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Got Loot Blogfest: Wichtrift, a unique item for Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition

About a year ago, I had a game where the players were in a dungeon populated by relatively powerful undead and incorporeal enemies (usually shadow or ghost). The cleric and the wizard were doing just fine; radiant attacks from the cleric usually did some tidy damage, and area effect spells like Burning Hands, Scorching Burst, and Fire Shroud handled the waves of insubstantial enemies more tidily; trading amount of damage for extent of damage. However, only a little bit in to the adventure, I realized that even with the cleric dishing out maximum damage against the undead, the other players didn't have anything available to them to rival it, and were getting a little frustrated. I created this item an an optional tool to be wielded by someone who was not able to dish out radiant damage, and hid it behind a puzzle in a secret compartment. I tried to write the rest of the adventure so that it would not be negatively impacted by the players not finding the item, but if they had found it, it would definitely make the dungeon a lot easier.

The setting was that they had been sucked into a pocket dimension within the Shadowfell, which had been created by an ancient Shadar Kai sorcerer-king, as a side effect of his mad attempts to establish and maintain control over his domain, which had been beset by demons. Once the players hit Paragon level they would have been able to find out who he was, why he was under attack, and who was ultimately behind all of it, but the campaign fell apart. He was the last of a now forgotten dynasty, when the Shadar Kai were still a relatively young race and not yet as given to decadence and excess as they are now; his fall, in my game, was one of the events that quickened their transformation into what they are. The two symbols of his dynasty were a magic orb and a silver misericorde.

The magic orb, despite being very beautiful and expertly crafted, was not all that powerful (it was essentially just a +1 orb with a +1d6 crit bonus), but the misericorde was the special item. It was called Wichtrift, and was created by the sorcerer-king's ancestor, the founder of the dynasty. It was crafted so keen and with such care, that it could slice through spirit-stuff as if it were solid flesh. Paradoxically, it would pass through solid flesh as if it were insubstantial. The kings of this dynasty were cruel, and increasingly insane, and they would use the knife to split the escaping spirits from those whom they had slain, and then magically bind them back together into increasingly grotesque abominations, and enslave them to do their bidding. The dagger was therefore extremely powerful, but also stained by a hideously violent and atrocious past. I wanted possession of it to create a moral quandary for the players, and for it to even cause expressions of fear from the ghosts who inhabited the place since they had been created by it and knew its power. The cruellest irony of it all would have been that the king, who had entombed himself, still living, at the bottom of this structure, would have been vulnerable to the weapon. I also wanted to give the players the opportunity to use the dagger for good, so at one point they encounter a "friendly ghost" who only wants to be freed from his place, where he had been eternally bound, and they would be able to use the dagger to do that. If they'd have held on to the dagger or the orb, by around level 12 or 13 when I had planned them going into the Shadowfell for the first time, those items could have become very powerful bargaining chips with some of the major powers in Gloomwrought and abroad; even if they didn't know exactly what they were, they would have been able to tell that they had originated in the realm, and were very ancient.

I wanted the knife to be based in an unusual stat so that it wouldn't be obvious how it dealt damage, and would also be easily wielded by even a character who was not usually martial by nature. Given its creation from and capacity for evil acts, charisma seemed a good fit. Despite this, it still deals radiant damage, however this radiance does not originate from faith in the divine, but sadistic cruelty of character. Other than that, attack rolls are resolved as normal, as if it were any other knife. I marked it as level 4, but only because that's what level the party was when they would encounter it. Based on what it does, probably 5 or 6 would have been a better fit, but given that its intrinsic power does not increase over levels, it doesn't really much matter. The name originates in Old Germanic and Old English and I take it to mean "soul-divider," a reference to its ability to slice spirit asunder.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG review

Taking advantage of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess anniversary sale on, I was able to get the PDF "Grindhouse Edition" for $1.35, instead of the full price. I've been meaning to read this game for a long time, partially because James Raggi has graciously linked to my blog from his since nearly immediately after I started this blog. I suppose the "Carcosa" in the name was what got him; I've also noticed that there is a new edition of the (in)famous eponymous RPG being released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess Press. If a PDF copy of this book were to mysteriously appear in my inbox, I would definitely feel honor-bound to write a review of it; just saying.

The "Grindhouse Edition," according to the LotFP Press site, is a box set, available for purchase online for about US$40, and which comes with three books (a total of some 360 pages), a set of dice, and some pre-printed character sheets. I'm assuming this is how it distinguishes itself from the "regular edition," which, incidentally, seems to be between printings? Two of the books are pretty standard: there is a player's guide and a GM's guide (called the Referee Book). The third, however, is labeled "Tutorial," and walks a new player through the mechanics of the game by a couple linked solo adventures. The PDF version of the Grindhouse Edition only has scans of the box cover, the box back, the three books, the OGL, and the character sheets; alas, there are no scans of dice.

The tutorial book, I think, is a phenomenal touch. Rare is the RPG solo adventure to begin with, and the "choose your own adventure" style, I think, is particularly compelling. I think that this tutorial guide really does well to introduce new players to the "world" that this game takes place in, which is a bit darker and grittier than run of the mill fantasy RPGs. Most importantly, the adventure is LONG; it will keep you occupied for quite some time, which is a huge plus if you're forced to "game alone." There's also a very long "example of play" which does what most similar, shorter versions in other RPGs fail to do: actually give you an idea of how the game works, by working through multiple encounters, start to finish, and not just a sampling. Before even reading the player or referee guides, I'm already getting a sense for how the game works, which is great.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess advertises itself as a "weird" fantasy game. This is, to say, that some of the fundamental assumptions about fantasy role-playing will be perverted, subverted, or just plain wrong. It is a far more dangerous, unsettling, and unnerving world than "mainstream" fantasy, and, at times, it may seem that the "impartial" GM might be acting against your best wishes as a player. Sometimes, this might also be true. It encourages horror, violence, and mystery, and does not shy away from unsettling imagery or situations. It is, therefore, self-consciously a "mature" RPG. Much like other "weird" role-playing games (and I'd throw Cthulhutech, Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, and other games including the word "Cthulhu," for instance), misdirection on the part of the GM should be assumed. However, just as in those games, this should not automatically mean that there is a competition between the players and the game master; the game master presents a challenge, and the players have to be smart and clever and just damn lucky to overcome it. This being said, the Referee's Guide presents a pretty good collection of tips for how to encourage this sort of play, as well as a pretty detailed run-down on how to pave the way as the game master to ensure that adventures in the world of the Flame Princess are memorable. And, of course, the tips don't only apply to this game.

There are a few things to note for anybody who might be transitioning from having played Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition. First and foremost, levelling takes a lot longer. The next thing to note is that there really is not much of an implicit setting, "points of light" or otherwise. Much of the referee's guide consists of tips on how to develop your own game world; even past the introduction, there is not even much on encouraging GMs to keep it "dark." That, if anything, is the implicit part. The adventure included at the back of the referee's guide provides a very good case in point: at one point, a player may not even know whether they are actually in control of their character or not. LotFP succeeds when it tries to disarm the players' assumptions; it fails as soon as the players begin to suspect that the GM is actively acting against them.

A brief mention of something else entirely must be made at this point. Throughout all of the books, there is very graphic (both violent and sexualized) art peppered in among the pages. LotFP apparently wants to make it very clear that this is a "mature" RPG, and inappropriate for children. This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, which markets itself to ages 12+, and Pathfinder, which markets itself to ages 13+. However, both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are very mainstream titles. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, decidedly, is not. But this also distinguishes it from an RPG which I'd consider to be both "mature" and "mainstream," Cthulhutech, which certainly includes "racy" imagery, but nothing to this degree. As far as "read an RPG in public" day is concerned, you might want to leave LotFP on the shelf, as it may raise more than a few eyebrows. Some people may find the imagery offensive, distracting, or objectionable, but for the most part it is not outrageous or over the edge. But all the same, do consider this fair warning.

One very prominent feature in character creation is starting off PCs with a static number of hit points. Dwarves get 6, clerics get 4, fighters get 8, and so on; essentially they get their maximum HD score. Then, after level 1, hit points gained are the designated class hit-die, plus constitution modifier (for a while). There are a few funky irregularities about HP gain, but those are well noted. Functionally this means a level 1 fighter will always have 8 hit points, and a level 20 fighter will have between 49 and 113 hit points, unless I severely flubbed my math skill check. More or less, though, once players reach level 10, they will be gaining HP much more slowly than they were before that point. The overall effect here is that characters gain HP early on a bit faster than similar games, but then after level 10 they gain them more slowly. One would expect this to level off at the end, but I'm not going to actually do the math. Lower-level characters will definitely need this little boost, as creatures tend to be a bit more devastating when they hit.

Experience is gained primarily through the acquisition of wealth. The players' book notes that a game where the characters get most of their experience from vanquishing foes is not ideal, and in fact, labels those sorts of characters "psychotic." Furthermore, not all styles of wealth acquisition were created equal; there is a list of what nets XP and wealth, and what simply nets wealth. To me, this seems a bit unbalanced. If you are told that you aren't supposed to go out killing monsters, but you only gain XP from collecting mineral wealth off of enemies' bodies, out of their lairs, and out of abandoned habitation structures, it creates a game where the adventuring party does more scavenging than fighting. Of course, in a game world where, with all else being equal, most characters of any level will probably not survive the encounter with any given eldritch horror, this almost seems to be a necessity.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess takes place in a "magic poor" world, where magic-users (why can't they just be called wizards?) are inherently dangerous (and probably insane), and magic items are vanishingly rare. Characters will not go on a quest to find a +1 sword, they will be on a quest to find the +1 sword. Magic items, by their definition, give characters an advantage over situations tilted against their favor, and when considering that an adventuring party may only see two or three magic items over the course of their entire lives, the loss of this advantage will be palpable. Also consider that the world of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is considerably more deadly than the "stock" fantasy RPG setting, and the absence of any advantage will be even more obvious. Players are told to not become too attached to their level 1 characters, and to not mourn their loss if they die, but, all the same, characters will stay level 1 for a disproportionately longer time than with similar RPGs, given the slow levelling inherent with the system. But where guile is preferred, if for not other reason than self-preservation, it seems that players playing certain classes might be underwhelmed by the experience. This seems to be especially uninteresting to the "fighter" class, where it says in its description in the book that fighters live for fighting. If they're not supposed to go out and get into fights, what do they do? Spoils should be secondary; a side-effect of doing what they want to do, and players will probably be loath to send their characters in to a situation where they are quite confident they are going to die, just because it makes sense for the character's personality.

Experience is evidently also not gained by hunting, scavenging for food, or succeeding on skill checks, and it is not mentioned (or if it is, I don't see it) whether there are experience bonuses above and beyond wealth accumulation for succeeding on a particular quest. Not only do individual classes not gain special experience for taking advantage of their own particular class traits, they still level at different rates. Since experience is always divided evenly between all player characters, there will always be an imbalance between what the characters are capable of, which is aggravated by the fact that the others will not level quickly enough to catch up before getting thrown into a situation that is above their ability. The ideal situation would be to have 2-3 fighter characters, 2-3 specialists, and a cleric and/or wizard to pad out the battle capabilities of the group, plus a paid retinue of hired thugs to help if things get grim, who nevertheless will probably flee in terror at the first sign of anything remotely unusual. Strength in numbers seems to be almost a necessity.

Returning to wealth for a moment, it is, at least, very easy for clerics and magic-users to find ways to spend their vast stores of wealth gained from adventuring. There are myriad opportunities in creating magic implements, potions, scrolls, and the like, as well as researching new avenues of religious or magical knowledge. Less certain is what other classes are spending their dough on, but it seems that hiring henchmen, as well as maintaining a household with appropriate staff, is the intention. There are even rules on how to invest money, and what the returns will be. Capitalism, industry, and commerce are heavily emphasized in the players' book, but one also must maintain the knowledge that the individual handling your investments might, at any moment, mutate into a fish-faced monster that sprays black acid out of its eyes, and its croaks cause paralysis. Suffice to say, not all financial gambles will be lucrative.

But perhaps all of these critiques are just based upon a bad imagination on my part. It is obviously an adventure game, obviously styled after AD&D and what came before, and the system seems pretty streamlined and straightforward, with no major surprises (Death of THAC0 Day should be a real holiday). Most of the skill tests are resolved by rolling one or more d6's, rather than rolling a d20 against a chart; many other incidentals are resolved with a d% check. For the most part it is a "chart-lite" book; players will be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not on an endeavor just by the result of their roll, more often than not. Perhaps a better comparison would be to one of the early James Ward games like Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World, where instead of "save or die" your option is simply "die."

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a "tough" RPG. There is very little opportunity for advancement, advancement progresses very slowly, and there is a high likelihood that any given adventurous endeavor will end in failure and/or death. Ordinary incidents can turn deadly at the drop of a hat, and seemingly benign situations can (and will) turn bizarre and dangerous without any provocation. "Winning," as far as LotFP is concerned, is "not dying this session," and by that definition winning seems to be very hard to do.

Does all this mean that I don't particularly like the game? No. I'd be willing to try it.  I don't think this is going to replace my "default" fantasy RPG any time soon, but I think, much like with Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, it would be a fun diversion to run in a one-off, or 2-3 session adventure setting. "Weird" works for me, and in a "weird" game, deadly is very often necessary. In a Weird World, there are entities that can destroy the world without even taking notice, not to mention the puny things that may be crushed underfoot in the process.

One last comment to make is that there is no standard set of stock monsters to choose from, and this is explicitly mentioned in the books as intentional. To keep the world as "weird" as possible, the GM is encouraged to create custom monsters for every situation (and is given guidelines to do so). However, LotFP does concede that it is compatible enough with other OSR/OGL games that many can be reskinned and dropped in to it without too much modification. There is even a conversion guide between several other d20-based games for how this might be managed, but if you're expecting to use it completely stand-alone, you don't want to be in for a shock here.

In conclusion, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (though at the end I still have no idea who the Flame Princess is, nor why she is so upset) sets out to do something specific, and makes no apologies nor pulls any punches concerning what it's trying to do, and I have to, at least, give it props for that. The world is rough around the edges, to say the very least, and I can imagine that quite a bit of houseruling would be necessary for a lot of situations, but the product that is presented is well-organized, well-presented, and imaginative. Perhaps the most important contribution that LotFP provides to the RPG world is a reminder that nothing is sacred and that all plans, no matter how meticulously wrought, have a habit, in the end, of unravelling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fantasy Flight Games' Warhammer 40,000: Black Crusade review

One of the biggest complaints I saw about Dark Heresy was that the starting characters were way too underpowered. While I sort of like the idea of starting off with seriously weak characters and having them either get tougher or perish, just like so many of the characters in the Warhammer 40,000 novels, I also understand that a lot of people aren't going to want to go through the pretty long process of building a character, and then having them geeked in the first encounter with anything larger than a rat.

Black Crusade does not have this problem. In fact, most Dark Heresy characters would be absolutely pulped by a starting-level Black Crusade character. I'd love to roll up one Chaos Space Marine, and 3-4, maybe even 5 Dark Heresy characters, and run a PvP match. Corruption by Chaos seems to have some pretty powerful benefits as far as overall power is concerned, even if you're not winning any beauty contests when you're done..

Character creation is very complex in Black Crusade, given that you have to track what Chaotic abilities are associated with which of the Ruinous Powers. As you're creating the character, every time you tack on an ability or a trait, you have to check to see where it falls on the Ruinous spectrum; certain chaos gods are opposed to each other, so as you build allegiance to one god, you set yourself in opposition to others, and therefore taking powers granted by those other gods will end up costing more. As the game goes on, and you continue to grow your character, your allegiance to your god from character creation may shift to another one, which might even earn the ire of the first god. It's hard being evil. It does, however, lead to a lot of possibilities in game play. the powers of Chaos are forever forming allegiances with each other, and then stabbing each other in the back.

The chapters on equipping your character are pretty big, if for no other reason than they have to provide materiel for both the heavy-duty Chaos Space Marine armaments, as well as the more practical equipment for human characters. Then of course they also need to provide cybernetics options for corrupted Adeptus Mechanicus characters alongside everything else. One of the most exciting sections of the book, however, is the (unfortunately) short section on daemon weapons. I sincerely hope that they release more options and traits for daemon weapons, because this was one of the most anticipated sections of the whole book for me. What is there, however, does not disappoint: you get fun traits like "Impossibly Sharp," "Fuelled by Slaughter," "Enfeebling," "Shrieking," "Mind Eater," and "Sorcerous Force." The bulk of the text is an outline of the process of actually creating a daemon weapon by summoning and binding a daemon into the blade (paving the way for characters to attempt to make their own, an awesome roleplay possibility), then it ends with five example daemon weapons that can be dropped straight into the game.

Honestly one of the coolest chapters in the book is the one on options for psykers. As with everything else, psy powers are divided by evil god, with of course no section for Khorne, who hates psykers. Beyond that, there are the standard categories of "divination," telekinesis," and such. Players who want to play corrupt psykers I don't think will be disappointed, but all the same I hope that they release another book with expanded psyker options. There is, however, absolutely no reason why psy powers can't be lifted from other books and given their own "evil" spin.

Fully the final third of the book is dedicated to covering matters of interest to the GM. There are tips on managing compacts between characters and non-player characters (including daemons), handling balance (since the PCs are quite powerful), managing crossovers with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch, and how to handle terror and insanity.

The rest of the book contains a chapter on daemonic corruption and boons granted by the Dark Gods, a setting guide (including a rough overview of the Imperium, the Calixis Sector, the Koronus Expanse, the Jericho Reach, the Screaming Vortex, the Ragged Helix, etc), and then a short section on monsters, and a sample adventure. The background chapter is thorough enough that I don't think one would need significantly more information to start a game, but probably most people who would be willing to drop sixty dollars on this book are probably also in to 40K to begin with.

I would imagine that Black Crusade characters would probably have a much larger chance of running in to xenos forces out of the gate than Dark Heresy characters. Fortunately, indeed there are some sample enemies statted out for eldar and necrons, but probably running a xenos-heavy game would require some Rogue Trader supplements. I'd say that probably the least complete-feeling section in the book is the enemies chapter, but at the same time I understand where they are coming from because practically everything within the Imperium and abroad are opposed to those aligned with Chaos. That being said, any GM running a combat-heavy game (I sort of can't imagine a Black Crusade game that wouldn't be combat heavy), will probably need some Deathwatch or Rogue Trader books to pad out their collections, or else get really creative with statting out their own enemies. You do get stats on many different agents of the Imperium, so those could probably be pretty easily skinned over to create a pretty broad spectrum of meat (or blood for the blood god, if you're of the khornate persuasion) to throw in the way of your Black Crusade players.

Overall, I'd say that Black Crusade is probably the best of the four sourcebooks, as far as I'm concerned, and it seems like it will mesh especially well with Dark Heresy, no matter what side your players are rooting for. If you're running a Dark Heresy game, you could use Black Crusade to create very complex, interesting, and dangerous villains, just as if you're running a Black Crusade game, you can give your players the opportunity to crush an aspiring band of acolytes, perhaps even corrupting them and forcing them to become unwitting minions of Chaos (did I mention there's a whole section on creating and running minions?).