Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Swords & Glory, Vol. 2: Tekumel Player's Handbook

Hello, 14 year-old me...
I stumbled across this post on the Tekumel Foundation blog early this last week, on Facebook (I think I traced that back correctly...) This version of Tekumel, published by Gamescience back in 1984, was my introduction to The Good Professor's astounding vision so, needless to say, I was giddy as a novitiate of Dilinala, and eager to get my hands on it.

When I expressed my joy on Facebook, Victor Raymond, one of the, well, founders, I guess, of the Tekumel Foundation pinged me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing it if he sent me a copy. I've known Victor for five or six years now, and even played in a con game he ran, poking about in the Underworld of Jakalla, so I was more than happy to help him out. Plus, you know, BOOK.

I was 14 in 1984, and a friend of mine mentioned seeing this crazy game--I think a store employee gave him the low-down on the world. Somehow I had some money, birthday maybe, so I ran out and picked it up, opened the box and whole new horizons opened up in my brain.

So, back to the actual book. Physically, it's beautiful--a gorgeous full-color cover and a nice, clean scan. DTRPG's POD services have gotten quite good. The binding is tight is flexible, and the paper good quality. There aren't a whole lot of illustrations (not unusual back then), but the art that is there is excellent--clear line drawings, some by The Good Professor himself.

Before taking a quick look at the game-system itself, it's important to point out this particular volume is vol. 2; the first volume is an almost inexhaustible sourcebook. A third Referee's Guide was advertised but, tragically, never materialized. Maybe the Foundation has notes buried away somewhere...

The rules allowing you to step into Tsolyanu are, well, plentiful. Numerous as the official epithets for the Emperor of the Petal Throne. Is that a bad thing? Not at all--I certainly liked that kind of density when I was 14. Not so much now, but such is age. We did play it back then, a number of times, and my memory is of the system flowing along smoothly. And maybe that's it--there are potential rules for almost anything you can think of, though they're mostly in the form of modifiers. The core mechanic can be summed up as "cross-referencing": You have a number on one axis of a table; you cross-reference it with a number on the other axis, and you arrive at a percentage chance for success. That consistency makes the density bearable. And, of course, you could most likely jettison a lot of it if you wanted to without harming anything.

However, here's the other thing about the rules, something I don't think I quite grokked when I was 14: they add another whole layer of Tekumel, above and beyond the previous sourcebook. Not to wander off into game theory, but there's the idea that some games are built for Simulation, formally defined as facilitating the experience of actually being in a given milieu (this is not the same thing as theoretical Immersion). I bring this up only because easing into these rules (first and foremost the process of character creation) will soon find you on a sakbe road, heading north from Bey Su to Avanthar, hearing the bellowing of chlen, the chatter of merchants, the cursing of soldiers, the chanting of priests, the singing of children, knowing in your heart of hearts that you are destined for greatness, your deeds recorded forever in azure ink on pages of paper-thin gold.

Many thanks to the Scribe of Bey Su...

In the Scribe's own hand...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Deep Carbon Observatory: The Flooded Land

 This is pretty accurate...


The always provocative and endearingly arcane Patrick Stuart at False Machine published, not so long ago, the adventure Deep Carbon Observatory. It's one of those products of which first I purchased the PDF and then had no choice but to also buy the hard copy.



2-3 months ago?

Thundarr the Barbarian + William S. Burroughs  

  • Zanuvrion Zal, Alien Scientist: Cephalopod encased in chitinous armor possessed of an inexhaustible curiousity. Exerts a low-grade mental suggestion at all times, convincing others he looks much like everyone else. This becomes problematic in stressful situations...
  • Lu Cheng, Monk of the Order of the Pernicious Wind: Human martial artist able to manipulate the wind to his advantage. When this fails, he of course uses nunchucks...
  • Dusty & JOE-BOT: Human entrepreneur and creator of the JOE-BOT mech-suit, built from the extensive ruins of a once-splendid coffee shop. Functions as either a refreshment stand or hurler of stale scones and boiling coffee, as needed...
  • Quercus McCringleberry, Necromantic Druid: Human druid focused not on growth but decay. He also carries lotus powders...
  • Rupert Grue, Seeker after Things Best Left Unsought: Human antiquarian equipped with a voluminous Encyclopedia and utter familiarity with the Abyss. He also carries lotus powders...
  • The Whisperer in Darkness (TWiD), Master of the Shadow Arts: Human ninja who gets the job done, even when his companions forget he's there. He also carries lotus powders...

...in which our eclectic band contributes to civic stability, helps a Bishop find his church, feeds the forlorn, mixes it up with a platypus, puts the dead to rest, and has words with a very large squid.

"Mind the toads..."
"As a cephalopod, I'll try to mind-control it."

  • When a group of rogue adventurers is discovered attempting to take advantage of the chaos to wrest control of the flooded town of Carrowmere from the rightful mayor, the coup is thwarted by a combination of martial arts, magic, and rabble-rousing.
  • Refugees are provided with ample scones and coffee while squatting on their rooftops.
  • A promise is made to an old man to deliver his wife's corpse to her ancestral tomb, located farther up the flooded valley.
  • Children whisper about a witch.
  • A fugitive bishop is delivered to his detached church, providing boons from the Optical God. Also there are large frogs eating corpses until they burst.
  • Our adventurers have an inconclusive tussle with a giant platypus.
  • A body is safely delivered, and an ominous warning discovered.
  • Our adventures have a conclusive tussle with a giant squid, mostly freezing and boiling it.
  • A windmill is discovered, besieged by bone-pale crabs.

  • There's a LOT going on at the beginning of this adventure. The causal flowchart helps, but I think it probably has too many arrows...
  • I love the fact that decisions made under pressure, right at the beginning, can have far-reaching repercussions.
  • T.W.E.R.P.S. worked just fine as a system for this. I spent maybe a half-hour going through the text and converting stats from the given LotFP.
  • I REALLY wish the maps were either A) NOT drawn in scratchy pencil, or B) provided at a higher scratchy-pencil resolution online somewhere.


There's a group of NPCs detailed in the text, the Crows. They're the kind of hallucinatory character-studies I'd expect from the mind behind the False Machine. While I liked the idea of them, in the end, I sorta felt that if I used them as written, the adventure would end up being more about them than the trials and tribulations of the player characters. I read a comment somewhere online about DCO that suggested it was more like a new form of literature than an adventure (I may be paraphrasing badly...); I guess that's what my sense of the Crows was. Actually, in some ways they feel like a revised version of first group of player characters to slog their way up the valley...

Now again, this doesn't make them a bad addition; I do wonder, however, how many people have actually used them? Patrick, did you use them?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Clay that Woke: Minotaurs and...well, more minotaurs!

Well? Shouldn't you?
Hey all! Just wanted to give a heads-up for an awesome Kickstarter campaign going on right now. It's for a game called The Clay that Woke, designed by Paul Czege of My Life with Master fame, and it's all about...Minotaurs! (if you hadn't figured that out already...)

Here's the introductory blurb:
Generations ago four infant minotaurs, a lost species, were pulled from the mud of the eternal river. Over centuries they develop a cultural philosophy to help them live among men: be contemplative, do not want, do not express your emotions, for breaking Silence in such a way is an expression of need. Be courageous. Act with wisdom. Work for justice. Do not use the names of women.

We employ them for menial and dangerous work. Pulling plows. Guarding wealthy estates. And for brutal entertainments.

I was lucky enough to be part of the playtesting for this game, and it's completely unique. The mechanics are "indie" in that they're focused on helping drive whatever narrative the players want to create, but it's also focused on long-term, campaign-style play in a completely intriguing setting: Minotaurs as the working-class in a gigantic, decaying, once-great city; the surrounding jungle, filled with strange powers, a secret war, and more. Silence to be broken; boundaries trespassed; desperate battles, betrayals, pain, joy, and scores of instantly memorable NPC with goals of their own. Just enough detail to set your mind on fire and make you want to fill in the rest through play.

The art is fantastic and prolific, custom-drawn by Nate Marcel in order to project the mood and surroundings; the picture at the top of this post is only the most recent example.

There's fiction, too, and while I know that many of us developed an acute allergy to game fiction in the 90s, trust me, this stuff is good, and truly contributes to the actual play of the game.

Check it out, ask Paul questions, and I'm happy to answer what questions I can as well.

Oh, and I'm quoted in the video... :)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lonewolf fan? Look no farther...

I am a Kai Lord. 'Nuff said.
Project Aon has pretty much every Lonewolf-gamebook related thing you could ever want, all in excellent, bookmarked ebooks, all for free, and all with the express permission of the author himself, Joe Dever. Awesome.

Of particular excellence is the Magnamund Companion, a classic example of Gold Age gamebookery. Though, given what PA is offering, we may indeed be headed towards a Platinum Age...

Here are a few images from the Companion:

A timeline of Magnamund

Instructions for building you own Kai Monastery! And then burning it down!

Instructions for building ships! And ramming them into each other!

A cut-out view of the Monastery. You didn't know the Secret Kai Language was Italian, did you...

Awesome color maps of all parts of the continents, uniquely split by what I guess boils down to a giant, salt-water river...

What's particularly cool is Joe Dever's making all of this freely available while still working away on re-publishing the gamebooks in hardcover Collector's Editions as well. The Lonewolf world has gone through several RPG iterations, both from Mongoose. The first was a big d20 tome, The Lonewolf RPG, and the second, after the release of 4e deflated a lot of planned d20 lines from independent publishers, a return to the gamebook's original mechanics: The Lonewolf Multiplayer Gamebook. This line also has the benefit of being entirely illustrated by Rich Longmore of LotFP Carcosa fame.

This first is still easy to get relatively cheaply; the second not so much (in that I'm not willing to pay over $30 for a 72-page book). If anyone out there is interested in unloading the Multiplayer Gamebook volumes  for reasonable sale/trade, just drop me a line!

Oh, and it looks like yet another RPG version is on the way, published by Cubicle 7...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jack Vance Memorial Game...

Rhialto Is Dead! Long Live Rhialto!

...wherein our Magicians insult twk-men, interfere in local mating rituals, perform amazing feats of regurgitive magic, and inspire filicide, all before dinner.

As the blogosphere duly noted, master author Jack Vance died a bit more than two weeks ago. The weekend following his death, I hosted a Jack Vance Memorial Game session. Inspired by the coincidental discovery of this astounding Vancian Magic Supplement, (which includes the two perfect stories to read before playing in this particular milieu) and using my large collection of Dying Earth RPG rules and supplements as grist for the mill, I decided we`d play what those in the know refer to as a Turjan-level game using the Original D&D rules. 

All players would be Magic-Users of mid-level: Rolling a d6, 1-2: Thaumaturgist; 3-4: Magician; 5-6: Enchanter. Spells were generated using the list of Vancian spells. All were assigned two Vancian taglines (as per the DERPG) and four magical items chosen by me from various DERPG supplements and the OSRIC magic items list. Otherwise they rolled up characters 3D6 in order, HP according to rules, etc. It's worth noting that Grodram secured a STR of 18, and therefore decided to wear platemail and carry a two-handed sword...

In the end, the group of truculent mages consisted of:

  • Xamruc the Gourmet, played by Jesse
  • Pupericion the Wisemonger, played by Nick
  • Grodram the Grisly, played by Sean
  • Igrex Zed the Colorful, played by Trevor
  • Abador Rex, played by Will

Normally loathe to cooperate, they had banded together to face the threat of Zaramanth, arch-mage of Almery who, displaying perhaps fatal temerity, had decided to locate his new Manse Sabulle, in the Derna river gorge in Ascolais, running through the Great Forest Da. The outline for this potentially radiant stew of conflict can be found in the pages of the first issue of the Excellent Prismatic Spray (known by all pundits and men of style as one of the best gaming magazines ever printed...) As is usual when five erudite and obfuscatory personalities congregate, chaos ensued...

We made it almost exactly halfway through the adventure, and will be finishing up this weekend. Honestly, it ended up being a lot more fun than I`d hoped, especially with me just throwing it at my beleaguered players a few days before we played. Most of them were at most tangentially familiar with the Dying Earth, but with just a bit of guidance, they all jumped in with both feet, slinging spells and taglines right and left.

One of my suggestions, taking my cue from the Rhialto stories, was for each of their characters to consider themselves as the absolute authority on some aspect of magic. E.g., Igrex Zed ended up with the spell "The Gestation of the Ignoble Servitor." He thereby considered himself to be the last word on mephit culture, physiology, psychology, and style. And therefore began working his expertise into every conversation possible. At least until he became distracted by a nubile village maiden, which led to a forest chase and a disagreement with Thrang the ghoul-bear...

I`ve come more and more lately to see ODD as an almost transparent tool or, to paraphrase Jesse, a practical engine of pastiche, and this experience really clarified it for me. Though of course there`s a large dose of Vance in ODD already, especially in the magic, it was effortless to translate DERPG-specifics into ODD terms on the fly. Pure awesome.

Friday, June 7, 2013

DCC RPG: Why the Character Funnel's been bugging me...


Okay, so, I've been reading the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and thinking about it, and probably dreaming about it, and something seemed off to me. I couldn't figure out what. Then, it hit me: The game is so literally and obviously lovingly culled from the Appendix N source literature---I mean, those spell descriptions alone are enough to bring tears of sorcerous joy to your eyes, right?
BUT, the WHOLE IDEA OF THE CHARACTER FUNNEL, while enjoyable from an old-schoolish develop-your-character-as-you-go perspecitve, COMPLETELY VIOLATES THE SPIRIT OF APPENDIX N. None of that source literature, NONE, starts off with the protagonists as, you know, sheepherders or whatever. They all start splat in the middle of their careers (and then jump all over the place, but that's not important here.)
I guess as close as I can suss it, maybe a justification would be that the character funnel, in connection to Appendix N, is, tongue-in-cheek, attempting to show just where all those protags came from. I SUPPOSE it's possible that Conan worked as a blacksmith with his father before storming the walls of Valerium. Maybe.
I mean, I can't imagine how playing through the character funnel can be anything but slapstick (I'm willing to be corrected), which Appendix N, even though displaying humor at times, is NEVER slapstick; it's anti-genre.
I wouldn't necessarily jettison it from the game, but even its declared purpose is to help get you in the mind-set of developing a serial-style character background, where it grows organically from the needs of the moment, but in our group we already do that. So.
At most I'd rule one run as zero-level characters (which is a stated option in the rules). Whoever survives moves on to 1st level.

Monday, March 25, 2013

First Flight of the Laughing Buddha, Part 1

Step right up and rub my belly!
Everyone gathered at my house last Sunday morning, and the Traveller campaign began!

Ship: The Laughing Buddha, re-purposed heavy freighter. Re-purposed for what, you ask? Only Naval Intelligence knows and, to a lesser degree, Commander Pinback...

I don't have the deck plans handy, but they'll be added in their own post.

  • Ex- Naval Officer Commander Pinback, Ship's Owner, Captain and Pilot
  • Ex-Marine Force Cmdr. Baukin Bahr, Jr., XO and Medical Officer
  • Ex-Scout Rufus Jones, Navigator and Salvage Entrepeneur
  • Ex-Merchant Donovan Braddock, Gunner and General Roustabout
  • Ex-Barbarian(?) J'Imjohtep, Warrior, Sword-wielder, Ass-kicker, Security Chief, and Back-up Gunner
  • Ex-Battlefield Armor Repair Unit RS32H, aka "Jack", Steward and Back-up Engineer
  • Jyro McAllistair, NPC Engineer
  • (One or two other retconned NPC Engineers, TBA)
Our Cosmic Saga opened in the Ragged Edge Sector; Subsector, Mad Dog's Defeat; Planet, Subsec Capital Silver Moon, with Rufus and companions Braddock (Donovan) and J'Imjohtep having come to an agreement with Laughing Buddha crew Cmdr. Pinback and Baukin Bahr about a potentially very lucrative salvage job in the Thunderbelt Asteroid Field.

Returning to the starport after recruiting some Engineers for the newly-recommisioned ship, they noticed the freight elevator was ajar. Scans of the ship's computers and onboard surveillance showed nothing amiss, but J'Imjohtep, Braddock, and Rufus went aboard while Cmdr. Pinback called the starport security. Braddock and Rufus went to their cabins to grab firearms (the Planetary Authority forbade all weapon-bearing) while J'Imjohtep grabbed his broadsword (really more of a bastard sword) from where he had left it in the cargo bay. As he moved in to check the Engineering sections, an unfamiliar alarm began to sound, and a bullet ricoccheted off the bulkhead from the open hatchway to his right. Ducking into cover by the catwalk ladder right next to the hatchway, he narrowly avoided getting shot a second time. He swarmed up the ladder, moved silently onto the catwalk, and got the first real glimpse of his attacker, who was standing next to what looked like an open compartment in the floor, maybe 1x2 meters large. Seeing his chance, J'Imjohtep leapt down and took off his assailant's gun arm with a single blow of his sword.

Then, things got complicated...

Coming up next: Robots, Mining Companies, and Alcohol...