Friday, April 10, 2015

Princes of the Apocalypse: A Review

Ever since Rich Baker announced the formation of Sasquatch Game Studio, I have been keeping an eye on them, waiting to see what kind of stuff they will bring to the table. I am a big fan of Mr. Baker's work: Birthright has developed a hardcore cult following over the years, and much of his design for 4th edition is among the edition's best (such as themes). His experience with the game straddles the line from classic editions to the more modern iterations, and after his wonderful design work for the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, my expectations were very high for the new D&D campaign, Princes of the Apocalypse. It lived up to them in every way.

Unfortunately, the release of the first campaign book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, was marred by numerous errors in the text, as well as some wonky formatting that made it challenging for new and experienced DMs to run. I think it got a bad rap, as it is still a very good adventure. I also sympathize with anyone trying to design a campaign of that scope while the rules are still being written. The editing was, I'm sure, a nightmarish process. But, at the end of the day, you are judged on your final product, and while Rise of Tiamat was a vast improvement in every way, its doubtful the Tyranny of Dragons storyline will ever be considered a classic.

 Princes, on the other hand, is a mind blower. I love the layout of this book. Part campaign setting, part player resource, part bad-ass adventure. The cartography is excellent throughout, there are dozens and dozens of new monsters, and there are just a lot of nice touches that really make it something special. For example, chapter 6 is devoted wholly to side treks; a couple to bring your PCs up to 3rd level, but many more that you can use to flesh out the geographical area and give your game that feel of a lot of things going on, not just a linear adventure. I LOVE that it is its own chapter, and I would steal this idea in a minute if I was ever to design something this enormous. There is also some good advice on running the game in different D&D worlds, including Athas, Krynn, and Oerth. The new take on the genasi race is welcome, and many of the new spells are flavorful must-haves.

If forced to criticize anything about the book it would be that the full player's supplement released for the adventure is not reprinted in full. I am not sure the reasoning behind that, but it would have been nice to have had all of the new options in one book. Anyhoo, not that big a deal. I would also say that converting this adventure to a classic edition would be a supreme pain in the rear, as there are so many new monsters and NPCs with idiosyncratic details that it would take forever. Some 5e adventure conversion is as simple as switching out skeletons. Not so here. This is a mammoth, complex adventure, full of new material.

Baker and company have set the bar very high here for whomever WOTC utilizes for their next storyline. This is an epic, well-written adventure with a lot of seriously challenging encounters. I'm quite happy with this purchase and I'll continue keeping an eye on Sasquatch, as these guys really know what they are doing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Santicore, One Page Dungeons, and General OSR Awesomeness

So I am writing this post knowing that if I just find one reader that has not heard of this stuff, I will make their day. Possibly their year. There are many things I admire about the OSR: the DIY attitude, the absurd amounts of talent, the commitment to keeping forgotten or out of print games alive...but what I think I like the most is the sense of community. When one person calls on another for help, it seems a legion of bad-asses form like Voltron and make something amazing happen. Such is the case with the two free gaming resources I am going to talk about today. The REALLY cool thing about them is that you yourself can participate!

So Secret Santicore was started several years ago and has since been handled and "wrangled" by a literal who's-who of the OSR. The idea is that you ask "Santicore" for something gaming related: a random table, adventure, drawing, etc. This request is then assigned to someone to complete. You don't know who it has been given to. You also reciprocate by taking on someone else's request. The results are then provided as a free download. Over one hundred talented artists and designers participated this year, and I have to be honest, I am completely blown away by how much talent is out there. See for yourself HERE. Previous years are here: 2011 ; 2013 part 1 2 3. 2012 apparently ran into some issues with formatting, and although I have a copy of the pdf, my Google-fu is weak today and since I cannot source it I am not going to upload it.

This year was my first time participating. I asked for "a drawing of some sort of undead with a bursting egg sac full of baby spiders visible inside its ribcage." What I got back from noted OSRtist Matt Adams blew my mind.


Anyway, I was just overwhelmed by the quality of the submissions and the general awesomeness of the idea. Be sure and follow along the above links or circle some of these folks on G+ for a chance to get in next year's event.

Which brings us to the second thing I wanted to bring to your attention, The One Page Dungeon Contest. This is another chance to submit your material and be included in what is eventually released as a free supplement. There are prizes for multiple categories. It is mind-numbing to scroll through the jaw-dropping inventiveness on display in these compilations. Find them archived HERE. Looking for a one shot for your group? How about 50 thousand of them? Ok that's an exaggeration, but good lord, what an amazing free resource. April 30th is this years deadline. Special thanks should go to Random Wizard for shepherding the contest and archiving previous years material. That's a lot of work.

When I step back and look at things like these, I am just thankful everyday for the dedicated, creative gamers of the OSR. If you find it as inspiring as I have, step into the ring and turn in your own submissions! Be a part of it! Meanwhile, prepare to be blown away as you read through this stuff. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mash it up! Mash it up!

One of the great things about RPGs is how versatile and flexible they are. I still use my 1e DMG for every edition and permutation of the game. OSR products might just say they are to be used with "Any Old-School Fantasy Game". Heck, Flailsnails allows you to take PCs from different systems and just use them all at the same table. Converting adventures from one system to another is old hat for many GMs. You might borrow a setting from another system, or pick and choose mechanics from one game to add to another. That's what this post is about, mashing-up systems.


There are a LOT of games that share a supernatural theme: the idea that behind the happy veneer of the world, dark forces are at work. Monsters, dark cults, name it and there is a game for it. This allows GMs pick their favorite mechanics from one or multiple systems and use the setting and background information from another. Some games seem like they were born to work together.

Some systems, such as Kult, are revered for their settings, not so much their mechanics. Other systems such as Cryptworld have fantastic, easy-to-grasp rule sets, but haven't been on the market long enough for a lot of supplemental material to be released. A GM might also just want to mix it up setting-wise, say porting World of Darkness mechanics into a setting that isn't quite as dark, maybe utilizing Chill's lighter, Universal monster-inspired adventures. The point is that all of these games deal with hidden reality and the exploration of it, and as such they can be blended in a hundred satisfying ways.

Recommended games: Kult, Cryptworld, Supernatural, World of Darkness, Hunter the Vigil, Chill, Call of Cthulhu (Cthulhu Now)


Many games deal with specific historical time periods, only the history has been twisted a bit or re-imagined, often with a dark or magical twist. Again, this allows the GM to borrow freely from multiple systems without having to make enormous adjustments. Obviously, the 1800s are not the same as the 1600s, but with a perusal of different equipment lists and skills (more on this later), the seasoned GM shouldn't have too rough a time making it work. Want to play Lamentations of the Flame Princess in a colonial American setting? Be a Boot Hill gunslinger in Victorian England? Try a mash-up of these systems and their supplements.

Recommended games: Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Colonial Gothic, Masque of the Red Death (Ravenloft), Boot Hill, Call of Cthulhu (Gaslight)


If you notice, I mentioned Call of Cthulhu twice already. That's because it is the "Rosetta stone" of mash-ups. The game has setting material for every time period from the Dark Ages to the present, the mechanics are easily convertible, and many of the scenarios are amazing.


Looking for a truly bizarre world for your intrepid space explorers to encounter? Maybe your Travellers happen upon the massive, rudderless Warden. Or crash-land on Jorune or Tekumel. Fish-out-of-water scenarios work with well with these somewhat inscrutable settings and allow the players to learn the cultures alongside the PCs.

Recommended games: Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha, Starships and Spacemen, Thousand Suns, Stars Without Number, Skyrealms of Jorune, Empire of the Petal Throne


Gygax will always be best known for D&D, but his games Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventure offer a lot of cool ideas for GMs to borrow. Dangerous Journeys is one of the most complex RPGs I have ever encountered, and you can almost just open a page at random to find some table or idea to incorporate into your games. Mythus Magick offers new schools of magick or variations of the classics that can rejuvenate your game. Apotropaists, Gray Mages, Astrologists, Exorcists...the list goes on. Lejendary Adventure offers new races (Oaf anyone?) and fun bits and pieces (knacks and quirks) that can easily be added into most fantasy games. The Epic of Aerth, the setting book for Dangerous Journeys Mythus, offers the GM an alternate version of our own planet to let his or her players explore.

Recommended games: Dangerous Journeys, Lejendary Adventure, D&D (all editions)


You may be reading this and be thinking, "But Froth, a lot of these games have very little in common mechanically. Conversion would be a nightmare." Well, I think most GMs will tend to stick with one system and primarily utilize the setting material of another. That said, I can offer some general tips with further conversions. As I mentioned in passing earlier, comparing lists of equipment from two sources is a great place to start, especially with historical games. You might dial back the damage of some Red Death weaponry if you are going to port into Lamentations of the Flame Princess. By doing this you also get an idea of current technology, accessibility to weapons or supplies, etc. You might port some skills over to your system. Compare and contrast skill lists and see which ones might benefit you to add or omit from the mechanics. Some games, such as Boot Hill, don't really have skill systems per se, so you might just borrow an entire system from another game, approximating the PCs ability with the skill. Games with percentile based skill systems are nice to use, as you can quickly convert to a "roll under" d20 mechanic a la AD&Ds proficiencies.

Most trouble will likely come when its time to bring in critters and monsters from different systems. I would start by looking for the monster's analogue within the rules system you are using. Common monsters such as zombies and skeletons will be represented in many games. You might also just find a similar monster and tweak it a bit. Eyeball the power level of a creature and its capabilities and wing it. Often an enemy might just be another human being, so use the same statistics and creation method you would for the PCs. Mash-ups can unfortunately take a little work, but its worth it to come up with something that really inspires you and your players.

I would love to hear of any mash-ups you yourself have run or been a part of! Leave a post!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Potpourri: Updates, 5e Musings, and Purple Islands

Long time, no blog! It blows me away how time flies. I didn’t really mean to neglect my blog for so long but a lot of things kind of came together at the same time to sap my motivation and take me out of the mindset. The main thing has been my father’s failing health. For a while, I didn’t have any idea what would happen or how immediate things could be, so I didn’t take on any really large projects (like the zine) and kind of just felt unmotivated. 

When I blog, I like to have something substantial to say or offer. I’m not really a prolific designer or writer. From time to time I have shared gaming news, but honestly, between Tenkar’s Tavern, OSRToday, and OSRNews, you will always stay informed of what is going on without any help from me. I used to do a lot of 4e hacking, but I've really said everything I want to say about it and already came up with all of the alternate rules that I wanted. I use G+ as my main means of posting these days because it allows you to share little bits of info without having to do full-blown blogs. I am +JeremyfrothsofSmith on there btw, if you want to link up. 

At any rate, I am going to attempt to be more productive this year. I will probably do more reviews, as that is something I think can be helpful. I tend to shy away from a lot of DMing advice, as the best advice I can give anyone is to just run a ton of games and learn from your own mistakes. I probably won’t do a lot of 5e hacking, as I like it quite a bit the way it is, especially given the alternative rules in the DMG.

I haven’t said a lot about 5e but I do think it is interesting that almost every single bone I had to pick with 4e has been addressed with it. I'm not suggesting WOTC reads my blog or anything, its just that a lot of my issues with 4e must have been nearly universal. Lets take a quick look at 4e issues I have addressed here and what 5e did about them.

-Sunrods-no longer exist in 5e
-Skill Challenges-wiped clean by the wrath of God
-Bloated skill numbers-gone
-Magic Item treadmill-gone
-Monsters-simplified, strengthened, recall my updated stat block in all the right ways
-Immediate Actions-severely curtailed
-Slow combat/Options bloat-bitch slapped

I can go on and on, but every single thing I have ever had an issue with with 4e was revisited and tweaked. What is left is a modern feeling D&D with obvious old-school influence and spirit. They did a great job.

So whats up with 4e Forever #2? Well I have a ton of good articles and now that 5e has sort of blown over and gotten fully released, you can expect it finished sometime…”soon”. It will be the final issue as I move onto a different zine project that I hope will support multiple editions (including 4e and 5e). More on that later. Here is a review for you!


I owe Mr. Venger Satanis a review. At one time I hoped to be able to run his module, The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (henceforth “PI” for Purple Islands) in return for him giving me a PDF copy. Once real life happened, things changed. I sheepishly let him know I wasn’t going to be able to run it any time soon and he was cool about it and just asked if I might review it sometime. So here we are.

If you have been around OSR circles for the last few years you have likely heard of Venger. He is extremely prolific and has a ton of energy. He posts blogs or G+ community updates near-daily, has had several products come out over the last couple of years, some funded by successful Kickstarters, and is someone that constantly looks to interact with the community and start conversations about gaming. He isn’t afraid to detail his failures or learning experiences along with his successes, and he has a very strong point of view. 

The first thing that grabs me about PI, as well as his other work, is the art. It often evokes the glory days of 70's fantasy art. Lands of barbarians in loincloths and chainmail bikini-clad women in bondage. Its very nostalgic and eye-catching. The art throughout PI is world class and gives the best artwork of the OSR (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics) a run for the money. Wonderful cartography (including some standout pieces from Dyson Logos), weird drawings, evocative monsters; the artwork alone is reason to flip through the module. 

There’s that word again, “module”. This thing is not a typical adventure module. It is more like a mini-campaign setting, with a new class (his twist on the Monk), all sorts of alternative rules and random tables, new monsters and items, and a well-designed hex crawl set in a bizarre land. To call it a module doesn’t quite do it justice. There are a LOT of ideas here. The production quality and layout is excellent.

I am a sucker for hex crawls and this one really delivers. The hexes have really nice, original adventure seeds that DMs can easily expand on. I saw a criticism in another review about the wildly varied power level of the monsters, but that is something I EXPECT in my games. Sometimes running like hell is the wisest decision. Venger does a good job with creative monsters (some pulled from Lovecraft and the like), developing multiple island “factions”, and coming up with an original history for the place that evokes the weird pulp fantasy novels and serials of the early 20th century.

This is the kind of product that you could take and develop a whole campaign around. The extra rules help reinforce the flavor and make for a unique feel. I also enjoy his writing style; its conversational and you quickly get the feeling that this is a guy who loves gaming. Its no surprise that people have taken notice of him and that he already has released another successfully funded Kickstarter project, Revelry in Torth.

If you are going to run this for your players, I would probably start them in the 4th to 7th level range. One thing that is a little different is that some of the dungeons and underground areas the characters can encounter have maps but are not stocked. This works for me; it allows DMs to inject their own ideas into the setting. Personally I would just grab some random tables and jump in. To others, this might seem a little strange though, a little unfinished. 

I don’t recommend this to anyone that insists on anything approaching “realistic” medieval fantasy. I wouldn’t quite call it gonzo, though a few bits fit that term. It is probably best enjoyed by a lighthearted group that enjoys sci-fi and horror crossing over into their swords and sorcery. You can play this pretty much straight from the page with any fantasy OSR system. Conversion to 5e will take a little bit more time, especially with the monsters. If you decide to run this I would splurge for the print version so that you and your players can more easily enjoy the art and cartography.

Venger is definitely an original voice with seemingly endless ideas. It will be interesting to follow along with his design career to see what he comes up with next.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Golden Age of the RPG Zine

My first exposure to the term “zine” came back in my skateboarding days of the mid 80s. Growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, there was no coverage of our local scene in any of the major publications at the time. If you weren’t from California or perhaps NY, you just were not represented. Local skaters took it upon themselves to take photographs, create artwork, and scrawl handwritten articles, then go to the library (if you could get a ride) and make near-illegible copies of the things for friends.

My skating led to me being exposed to many forms of music, including punk rock. Zines played a crucial role in the spread of punk. DIY labels could advertise their mail-order catalogs, and the zines provided crucial networking for touring bands. Without zines, the music would not have spread like it did, and a lot of great music would never have been heard in a lot of areas of the country.

I was oblivious during those days to the role of zines in RPGs. I mean, I knew about Dragon, but I was so young at the time I started playing RPGs that the history was not as interesting as simply playing. Fast forward to today, and I am now more aware of the role of DIY publications in the early days. After all, the gaming club newsletters of the late 60s and early 70s were, in essence, zines. They enabled gamers to connect to each other, featured alternative rules to existing games, and helped organize the first conventions. Dragon itself morphed from the Strategic Review, and early copies of White Dwarf almost feel closer to homemade zines than any slick, professional magazine. 

The thing I respect the most about the OSR movement is the DIY aspect. Don’t like where more modern games are taking the hobby? Not finding a flavor that fits your tastes? Instead of waiting for products that would never come, pioneers of new gaming frontiers fashioned their own takes on classic games, designed their own adventures, and breathed new life into the hobby. And while the golden age of RPGs is undoubtedly behind us, there has never been a time in the history of the hobby where self-published zines have flourished and thrived as much as they do today.

I won’t try to provide a comprehensive list of zines; Rended Press has done a better job then I ever could compiling info on zines both new and old. You can easily spend hours just clicking away at all of the juicy stuff. I do want to point out the wonderful diversity. You have very polished works, and those that are best described as crude. Every genre from horror to sci-fi to fantasy is represented. Some, like one of my faves, AFS, are mail-order only (“Um…did you say a new Stormbringer adventure? Here’s my wallet.”), some are PDF only, some both. Some are pay-what-you-want, some are only for sale, and many are free. Some may surprise you with their longevity, while wonderful new zines pop up seemingly every day, with more always on the horizon.

The zine community is tight, welcoming, and friendly. If you are looking for info on how to start your own zine, most folks will happily answer your questions on everything from shipping logistics to cpu programs. Hell, Tim Shorts will show you his monthly revenue. Google + groups like RPG Zines are a great place to start networking. Perhaps you aren’t ready to tackle a whole zine but want to contribute artwork or an article idea; many zines, including my own, take submissions. All it takes is a little effort. There has never been an easier time to self-publish your own work, connect with other enthusiasts, and get your stuff out there in front of your target audience. 

We are living in the golden age of RPG zines so don’t let it pass you by! Support DIY publishers and get involved!