Monday, June 29, 2015

The Dragonlance Chronicles would make a great wargame

Lord Soth's Charge by Keith Parkinson

Dungeons & Dragons has its roots in wargaming, even if a lot of its iterations today do not show up with the more obvious influences.  The concept of going into a dungeon to snag some loot while defeating and avoiding enemy monsters has a tactical feel to it, and the tracking of carrying capacity, spell duration measured in rounds and turns puts special emphasis on resource management so that you can't always fight at your best 100% of the time.  Sometimes you have to make do with what you have and retreat from the dungeon to restock.

So it might seem odd at first that I think that the original Dragonlance adventures can lend themselves well to the wargame style.  The setting is notable for beginning a trend towards the Tolkienish Epic Fantasy model in the D&D fandom as well as an overarching series beyond primarily dungeon-delving.  Tracy Hickman's influence of game design sought to weave storylines into traditional gaming experience, and this shows in his work beyond Dragonlance such as the Ravenloft adventure.

After playing many sessions of Fire Emblem Awakening and Valkyria Chronicles (two good strategy-based video game RPGs), I began to see similarities between their styles and that of Dragons of X modules.  Both are known as Tactical RPGs in the video game fandom, a sub-genre which emphasizes battle strategy over exploration elements such as traditional dungeon crawls.  Position and weapon type/range is just as important as stats and level, if not more so, and adventuring parties are less often freelance travelers and more often part of a battlefield regiment or an elite unit.

Examples of wargame elements in Dragonlance

The Death of Sturm by Eric Altinoz of deviantart

Dragonlance traditionally had a very large adventuring party (the Innfellows numbered 8, and additional characters such as Gilthanas and Tika could be added to the roster as the story progressed).  In DL1: Dragons of Despair, the PCs have the opportunity to hire mercenaries to accompany them to the ruins of Xak Tsaroth, including one woman in the 3rd Edition version notable for having an eyepatch which imposed a penalty on sight-based rolls.  Otherwise these sellswords haven't had much of a presence in the rest of the modules.  The additional PC options continue throughout the series, even when the party splits up at the onset of DL6: Dragons of Ice and have three Solamnic Knights accompanying their travels.

Many of the modules' most climactic parts revolve around grand battles where the PCs' actions can make a difference.  In DL3: Dragons of Hope, the fortress of Pax Tharkas is assaulted and the PCs escape with a large gathering of freed slaves.  Hearing of potential safety in the dwarven kingdom of Thorbadin to the south, the refugees embark southward, ahead of the Dragonarmies giving chase.  Shelter and sustenance are important factors, and the discovery of safe passages, good hunting ground, and successful skirmishes can contribute to the refugees' overall goodwill and surviving numbers.

Another climactic aspect of the adventure path is the Battle of the High Clerist's Tower in DL8: Dragons at War.  This building of a prior, mightier era is a vital strategic location for both the Knights of Solamnia and the Dragonarmies.  In order to secure the area the old tower's foundations must be first cleared of traps and monsters.  Once that is done the facility's defenses can be used in the upcoming battle.  Additionally, the PCs might have in their possession one of the Dragon Orbs, which can be used to draw the Dragonarmies' blue dragon aerial squad into the Tower's literal muder-holes where giant guillotine traps will behead them.  This possibility is one of several scenarios which the PCs can do to turn the scale of battle.

Finally, many encounters in the Chronicles emphasize large numbers of disposable minions to put up against the PCs in addition to the climactic opponents.

It's possible that my perspective on Dragonlance might be generational in the sense of spotting elements common to 80s D&D:  as a twenty-something guy who grew up on 3rd Edition D&D I may look at Dragonlance as wargamey in terms of structure, while the older generation of 80s gamers view it as a shift towards a more narrativist element due to emphasis on an overarching plot and railroading elements.  Still, I believe that Dragonlance's emphasis on themes of war, both as a setting backdrop and a mechanical element in several of its adventures, can more easily lend itself to a D&D wargame in comparison to other settings.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

D&D Rant: Our gameplay does not fit the mood

One of the biggest pieces of news in the video gaming fandom is the trend of designers using the KickStarter platform to make spiritual successors to beloved franchises.  This is the case for Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi.  Like others he turned to his fans when current major developers repeatedly turned him down, saying that side-scrolling Metroidvania games are a thing of the past.  Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was a resounding success, raising over $5.5 million dollars as of today!  As a major fan of Symphony of the Night, I've been keeping up with the news on this spiritual sequel on his YouTube channel and elsewhere.  While watching one of his Ask Iga videos I found one of his answers (3:08 mark) particularly intriguing:

For those who can't see the video, one of the initial abilities for the character to learn would allow her to climb up walls by growing an extra pair of arms out of her back.  However, this proposed move would change the core dynamics of the game exploration-wise as well as not gelling with the gritty tone they had in mind for their world.

And Now for Table-Top

This hit on something which has been sticking in my craw; ideal games have gameplay and story integrated to make the entire experience feel seamless rather than disjointed.  Done well, a proper setting takes into account how the rules and abilities of characters can affect the world and the game.  Done poorly, it can throw the player out of the experience as the inevitable questions come up: "what's this doing here?" or "how hasn't this item or class fundamentally changed things?"  Sad to say, I often feel that a lot of D&D settings fall short of this mark, and this is especially the case for cross-Edition conversions and third party material going for a specific theme without consulting how the mechanics can strengthen it.  The prime offender in a lot of these cases is magic spells and items.

There's a lot of settings out there trying to do many different things.  Ravenloft for gothic horror, Dark Sun for grim survivalism, Forgotten Realms for high-octane magic and epic power, and ultra-lethal "zero to hero" retro-clones such as Dungeon Crawl Classics.  And that's not counting the myriad licensed games out there such as D20 Call of Cthulhu, a Pathfinder conversion for Earthdawn, or even Mongoose Publishing's D20 Conan.

I don't think we've learned our lesson from the days of the D20 glut, when Wizards hailed the system as a truly universal engine and we ended up with poor matches.  OSR and Pathfinder's popularity in the D&D fandom means that we're seeing a lot of people applying the skeletal framework of a themed world without even seeing if the bones will fit in their RPG body-suit in the first place.  Would the themes and mood of gothic horror or Conanesque sword and sorcery suit a game where a spellcaster can create a permanent self-sustaining heatless light source with no negative side effects, enchant themselves with hours-long personal flight spells, and where mid-high level parties have magic items and treasure expensive enough to buy out the gross domestic product of a town?  All too often, especially with low-magic worlds, I see world and social structures set up which do not facilitate the typical adventuring aesthetic or have NPCs carrying around multiple +1 weapons and armor in a land where such goods are supposed to be the stuff of legends.

The spellcaster is an integral part of a D&D adventuring party, and in trying to keep what's familiar we often transport classes wholeheartedly into most settings, Vancian Magic and all.  When magic of all types and disciplines can be cast freely and immediately with daily rests the only limiting factor, you end up with a very high-magic world not in line with a lot of classic fantasy.  High-level D20 D&D is often akin to a superhero aesthetic, where archmages engage in land-altering power and call upon legions of extraplanar help.  Attempts to enforce a more low-fantasy approach are often ham-handed restrictions, as observed in Tomb of the Lich Queen when the adventure's location stripped out many core staples of high-level gameplay, making one ask why the adventure was published for such a level range in the first place.

We're Behind the Times

This may not be a popular thing to say, but I think that table-top is well behind video games in this aspect of game design, and trying to make our RPGs "all things for all settings" is more a hindrance than a help.  I've seen too many publishers do straight conversions of disparate Editions or to cash in on the D20 trend without asking themselves if their game evens works well with it.  D&D is not a universal fantasy system, and pretending that Pathfinder or even the OSR can simulate such a wide variety of genres is just going to contribute to the glut and create dysphoria in gameplay and story/world integration.  I think that some retro-clones which set out to emulate a specific play-style are on the right track.  Here's how I'd group the games with which I have experience with and have heard described by players who know the system better than I do:

Basic D&D/Labyrinth Lord: Strong emphasis on dungeon-delving and exploration of wilderness and forlorn locations.  Tracking resources is an important feature, often balanced with how much wealth can be attained as a primary goal.  Tables and charts for random dungeon and encounter designs encourages Roguelike gameplay.

3.5/Pathfinder: High-powered, high-magic play with strong emphasis on character customization and builds.  Magic items and wealth accumulation are a core construct.  At 11th level and higher the game dynamics experience a fundamental shift as easy access to plot-stopping spells discourages the standard dungeon delve.

4th Edition: Team-based tactical gameplay with resource management divided into encounters and daily uses.  Core components of the game are meant to scale, and skill challenges and spell rituals serve as several methods of out-of-combat interaction.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The folly of anecdotal evidence

Studies show that people are more likely to look at articles with pictures, even if said pictures have nothing to do with the subject at hand

During my old Arcana High campaign, one of my players took on the role of a gnome illusionist named Syrasi Tumblebarrow.  Coming from a long line of celebrated arcanists, she was expected to follow in her family's footsteps when she received her admission letter to Highstone Academy.  However, Syrasi was was intrigued by another school of magic, one forbidden in gnomish culture: necromancy.  At first I didn't really have much of a world set up, especially for gnomes, but over time things evolved organically.  Syrasi was played very well, who acted as the party's moral center and injected interesting story ideas which I rolled with for later sessions.  At first gnomes were but tinkers who lived in burrows and liked whimsical magic, but by the campaign's end they were so much more than that.  They were conservatives torn between isolation and interaction with the wider dangerous world, yet at the same time innovators in technology.  A culture where the widespread ability to speak with animals resulted in a progressive, almost vegetarian respect for beasts of burden.  A society where the concept of death is not just the physical kind, but also used for the mark of outcasts who are no longer welcome among their people.

In conclusion, gnomes are not an unpopular race, and are in fact just as common a playable option as elves and humans.  How can anyone argue otherwise without denying the experiences of my own gaming table?  All those gamers complaining about the race feeling superfluous, or being outright removed in various settings, are either dishonest or projecting one isolated incident as some sort of common trend!

The story of Syrasi is true, but the conclusion of this last paragraph is not.  In regards to certain arguments among the D&D fandom I often see anecdotal experience of one's own group games trotted out as some sort of trump card.  The idea that something can only be a trend, a problem, when one personally experiences it.  The idea that the comments of others are less legitimate by virtue of being told by someone outside one's circle.  I see this pop up a lot in regards to martial/caster disparity in Pathfinder, although by no means is it limited to that.

I once did a solo Labyrinth Lord game where the PC was a Paladin.  In one session she was supremely unlucky and out of 4 hours of gaming she only rolled a single D20 result higher than 10.  Our holy warrior was not doing so well and would appear to be underpowered due to the luck of the dice, but in another session she was decked out in heavy armor and fighting berserkers who laid nary a scratch on her.  I could use either session's experiences to argue that the Labyrinth Lord paladin is underpowered or overpowered solely by what I experienced, but that would be missing the bigger picture.

Gaming sessions, even when the same adventure is played, can often go off course or result in a very different experience.  DMs incorporate house rules, make alterations to personalize the adventure to their world, and configure a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff the players may never see.  A party without a magic-user and thief plays and feels very differently than one which contains both.  The dice may not go our way and turn our usually-skilled hero into a bumbling unfortunate soul.

Anecdotal experiences have their place in discussions; it is a useful tool for playtesting, after all.  But it is one story among many other games, one path in a world full of crossroads.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Incorporating Tome of Battle into Campaign Settings: Forgotten Realms (pre-Spellplague)

Monk by William O'Connor

Those who game with me for any length of time soon learn of my love for martial adepts in D20 D&D.  Without going into too much detail, I feel that the Tome of Battle (along with its spiritual successor the Path of War) is still one of the best ways of adding versatile and interesting mechanics to martial characters.  It may not bridge the all-too-wide gap between caster and noncaster, but the class and maneuver system remain a reasonable upgrade to an underpowered shtick while not trying to engage in a Tier 1 arms race with Clerics, Druids, and Wizards.

Although the Tome of Battle is pretty much setting-free, its ideas do incorporate a sense of history in its pages: the disciplines of the Sublime Way count hobgoblin practitioners as their earliest devotees, and the legacy weapons and prestige classes give a sense of shared stories among ancient warrior societies.

I think that immersing the disciplines and prestige classes into the world can help give a sense of backstory encouragement for gaming groups.  Although many archetypes can serve as generic replacements for standard warriors, dedicating martial schools, societies, and the like to the realms enmeshes it in the world much as the gods and fantasy races.

Martial Adepts in the Realms

The art of war is something virtually every culture of Faerûn knows well, and the myriad styles of battle are nearly uncountable.  From the slave-gladiators of Thay who delight at the roar of the crowds to the gnomish gunsmiths of Lantan, warriors defy easy categorization.

Still, like the Art of magic, there was a common thread linking this universal desire of power and conflict, which came to be expressed in the human Reshar's writings of the Sublime Way.  The Temple of Nine Swords in the Galena Mountains of Damara united warrior-scholars of these traditions together before its untimely demise.  Although their foundations crumbled and treasured swords were scattered to the four winds, the disciples carried their teachings on the open road and penned their secrets in scrolls for others to learn.  Nowadays one can find warpriests and crusaders trading spells and maneuvers in Tempus' sacred halls, and the hardened hobgoblin warlord is just as likely to know the ways of Iron Heart as an Illuskan sellsword.  Just like the desire for conflict, the art of the Sublime Way transcends cultural boundaries with only dedication and willpower remaining the primary obstacles for those willing to learn.

Crusaders: Although not always bound to the tenets of Law and Good, the crusaders' zeal burns just as passionately as any paladin's.  Their number can be found among warriors who court the favor of the gods, and those deities who value straightforward might count the most crusaders.  Those of Tempus exult in the battle itself, fighting for all manner of causes and each other so that they may achieve glory and enlightenment.

A few belonging to Tyr's service are surprisingly adept with one-handed weapons in emulation of their patron.  The Order of the Single Blade takes an unorthodox approach to enforcing Tyr's will, adopting the ways of the duelist and relying upon their holy endurance to protect them all the way.

The Iron Fasces are an international organization of Zhentarim soldiers dedicated to Bane. Emphasizing the group tactics of the White Raven, they seem to act as one with near-supernatural clarity.  Combined with the wealth and political clout of their superiors, they are some of the most feared warriors in the Dalelands and Moonsea regions.

Swordsage: Blending the mundane and supernatural with their practices, swordsages are the most cerebral and least-understood of martial disciples.  It is quite common for folk to mistake them for monks, and while it is true that some of them pursue physical and mental perfection to achieve enlightenment it is by no means the only path.

The Scholars of Illmater are humble folk who seek out society's disenfranchised elements.  From the slums of great cities to refugee colonies in need of aid, they protect these communities from all manner of evil, be it organized crime elements to predatory monsters thinking that their targets won't be missed.  Using nothing but their bodies and conviction, these swordsages give hope to the powerless, that one does not wealth or magical might to fight for one's beloved.

Somewhere within the Underdark is a conspiracy of drow outcasts fallen out of Lolth's favor.  Unable to join her priesthood nor learn at the arcane academies, they sought out other means of power and found the old scrolls of a Shar cult.  In a realm of eternal night the Shadow Hand discipline is might, and the masked agents are sowing discord among the many cities of the Spider Queen.

Warblade: A warblade is not identified as such by their fighting expertise, nor by the disciplines they know.  A master swordsman may gain many titles, but how he fights determines whether or not he wears this title.  When you see a knight in shining armor, you see a warrior.  When you see a knight who fights with passion, whose form in the chaos of bloodshed and death is darkly beautiful in its execution, you know you're viewing a warblade in action.

Aided by the oversight of ancient and magically-adept dragons, the Blood of Morueme counts many hobgoblin warblades among its number.  True to tradition they are all skilled in the Iron Heart discipline.  Many an orcish chieftian or warmage has looked on in horror when otherwise-insignificant goblinoid grunts shrugged off grievous blows and spells with nothing more than sheer will.

Thanks to their long lifespan and emphasis on swordplay and dancing, the worshipers of Eilistraee find the Diamond Mind discipline a natural fit.  Emphasis on grace and perception in battle complements their traditional fighting arts, and folk of Waterdeep often tell tales of dark elves who strangely come to the aid of lone wanderers beset by monsters.  Armed with nothing but swords they manage to slay dire animals and aberrations to the shock of onlookers.

The Disciplines in the Realms

Desert Wind: The genasi who claim lineage to the mighty efreet ply the forlorn roads between Calimshan's bastions of civilization.  They seem unaffected by the elements, even less so than most planetouched, and many a foolish brigand or greedy sultan sought to extract wealth and tribute from them.  Every act was met with failure, for these genasi commanded the very element of fire itself.

Practitioners of the Desert Wind now live far beyond their homeland, men and women of humble means with a reverence for nature and its power.  They are willing to teach those who share common ground, as well as some wayward sorcerers and genasi of similar heritage in need of controlling their inborn powers.

Devoted Spirit: From as far back as old Netheril to as recent as the Time of Troubles, it became apparent that the power of deities, however mighty they may be, can call just as much as anything else in the world.  The practice of drawing divine magic from one's patron deity via inner wisdom is a potent tool, but it is not the only way of forging a connection with the gods.  A few pious mortals throughout Toril's history found favor shining upon them, even if they lacked the gifts of divine magic.  By drawing on one's own inner spirit and dedication to the moral tenets of the multiverse, martial adepts could channel holy and unholy energy into themselves.

Diamond Mind: Practitioners of this discipline act as quickly as they think, their counters and strikes to fast and precise only other skilled warriors have a chance at noticing their blows, much less deflecting them.  Many elves who take up the blade gravitate to this school, and some of the earliest historical records of its techniques can be found in the halls of Myth Drannor.  Diamond Mind is also popular among the noble courts of countless nations and the Strongheart halflings of Luiren.

Iron Heart: Historically forced into extreme living conditions, the hobgoblins of Faerûn lacked the technological and magical edge of their human, dwarven, and elven enemies.  Instead they adopted a martial culture to ensure that all among their number would be ready and willing to die for their clan.  A particularly fearsome and prosperous tribe in the Nether Mountains of the North erected a monastery which gave birth to what we now know as the Iron Heart discipline.  Other civilizations which fought against the goblins sought to learn their language and culture so as to better defend against them.  The human scholar Reshar learned of Iron Heart and taught it to the other races in his Temple of the Nine, a fact which fills many hobgoblins with anger at their ways being stolen.

Setting Sun: In a world full of humanoids at least twice their size, the halflings knew early on that they could not rely on strength alone to survive.  While witnessing the martial techniques of monks in a monastery, a strongheart halfling by the name of Forrick Greenberry came upon a realization.  The use of deception against a much stronger and larger opponent in melee could give rise to potentially devastating consequences as their own size and strength were turned against them.  He took his findings to the clerics of Yondalla, who taught it to the farmers and laborers of their communities and the rest is history.

In spite of its halfling origins, other small races have adopted Setting Sun techniques as well, and its emphasis on unarmed trips and maneuvers makes it a favored school for peasants and other folk whose background denies them easy access to quality arms and armor.

Shadow Hand: It is hard to research this discipline's history with any degree of accuracy, for several groups lay claim to its invention.  Shar claims that it is a manifestation of her will; a few genealogical records of Tethyrian noble families point to its more martially-inclined members becoming one with the darkness to bring woe upon rival houses; finally, the Shadow Thieves of Amn count more than a few members who bring the chilling touch of night with their poisoned blades.

In spite of its sinister reputation, the Shadow Hand discipline is not intrinsically evil, and some more moral swordsages value its uses when one must walk in darkness.

Stone Dragon: Focusing on sheer power and a physical connection with the land itself, the dwarves of the ancient empire of Bhaerynden mastered the precursor of this discipline.  From the shield dwarves of the North to the gold dwarves of the Great Rift, all clans share a common legend of the Wardens of the Mountain.  By drawing upon the surrounding stone which comprised reality as they knew it, the Wardens gained an almost druid-like union with the rock and accomplished mighty deeds impossible for their strength and size.

Today the Stone Dragon discipline can be found among tutors in every significant dwarven hold, and more than a few Underdark races learned of it themselves by trading and stealing dwarven secrets.

Tiger Claw: The many tribes of Uthgardt barbarians long respected the power and cunning of nature's predators, and the Red Tigers sought to emulate their totem animal.  Focusing on vicious speed, vaunting leaps, and twin strikes, the Red Tigers more than lived up to their name with their favored discipline.  Sometimes a member of this tribe might teach what they know to a fellow Uthgardt or the rare warrior who has earned their respect.  Worshipers of Malar and various lycanthrope tribes also adopted this discipline, turning its power to their own deadly use.

White Raven: It was said that long ago a valiant general finally gave way to despair.  Even though she knew her cause was just and that her side's loss would lead to great suffering, the horrors of war seemed unending, that every victory of today would be washed away by the tragedies of tomorrow.  She prayed to Lathander for guidance, and was answered by the omen of a white raven.

"Do not despair," the raven said, "for your trials today bring peace and prosperity to the people of the future.  Without the shining light of Good, the world would be a bleak field of unending sorrow."

At this point she realized that her despair blinded her to her own accomplishments.  Tomorrow she marched into battle, filled with new purpose, and her hope gave strength to the soldiers who marched before her.  The story of the White Raven is is a noble tale of how one person's efforts can aid another, turning the tide of battle.  The leaders of Evil change the tale to suit their own agendas, but military historians who study the lore of this era gain insight into battle.

What the Future has in store for us

I hope you enjoyed this read.  If I feel the inspiration I might write similar articles for other official and non-official settings.  Generally speaking I plan on matching Tome of Battle with pre-Pathfinder 3rd Edition worlds, Path of War with Pathfinder worlds.  But I may mix and match depending on what seems right at the moment.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dirge of the Vampire Knight: A Homebrew World of Darkness Setting

Castlevania Concept Art

This is not a realm of modern gothic tales, where Kindred rule the city from skyscraper penthouses and command blood-addicted servants to wage war against rival covenants with crowbars and bullets.  This is not a realm of our own Earth viewed through a cracked mirror, of familiar histories and figures albeit influenced by creatures beyond the shadows.  This is a world of dark fantasy, where vampires rule openly and wield sword and spell against each other, upstart mortals, and the innumerable horrors sleeping beneath the black boughs of the woods and the bones of the earth.  This is a world where science and sorcery are misunderstood and feared in equal measure, the province of witches and alchemists dealing with powers which threaten to destroy the careless practitioner.  Undead lords and ladies rule from a court shrouded in eternal night, and neonate Kindred clad themselves in plate mail so as to better operate in the sunlit realms.

Say goodbye to the World of Darkness you knew, so that we may now sing the Dirge of the Vampire Knight.


The World of Darkness, both Old and New, is a versatile system of many mythical beasts and genres, and yet the majority of its products are set in our own world, especially in the modern nights.  Wonder and horror can be found in equal measures amid the familiar backdrop of our world, but there is a certain kind of joy in transporting one's stories into a world and society entirely of one's own making.  A section of the Mage Chronicler's Guide discussed adopting the game into a world of Epic Fantasy, while World of Darkness: Mirrors touched upon Dark Fantasy chronicles.  On the Masquerade front, Dark Ages Vampire is getting a 20th Anniversary treatment.

This inspiration is by no means limited to tabletop: the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a spiritual sequel to the acclaimed Castlevania series, and the dark fantasy world of the Witcher series makes for a fascinating setting where the confines of civilization are home to human cruelties just as pernicious as the monsters the protagonist hunts.

Although I have yet to GM a Vampire game of my own, I really like campaigns well off the beaten path.  This got me thinking: what if I were to do the same with Vampire: the Requiem?  Whether they rule from castles of stone or spires of glass and steel, the Kindred is a timeless creature, at home in any era.  And why the "real world?"  Why not be different?

Dirge of the Vampire Knight is a work in progress.  This first post is intended to provide an overview of the world of Tormil, with further articles for more specific setting detail, rules, and such.

Setting Overview

Ar-Nat Village by Andreas Rocha of deviantart

The realm of Tormil is an old and sparsely settled land of extremes.  Impenetrable forests surround meager hamlets who cut out a piece of land in the nation's dark heart, whereas the Weeping Lady Mountains of the south house the old keeps of nobles and knights of forgotten eras.  In times long past the Kindred clans came to this land and established themselves as protectors of mortal vassals and in time became the new ruling class.  An odd tradition of nobility emerged, where the gift of vitae (an old Tormil world for life-water) was taken from the mortals as tribute and granted back to a privileged few as Anointed ghouls or to join the ranks of the undead.

The people of Tormil have a common cultural history and language, but they are by no means unified.  Different Kindred dynasties and orders claim dominance over various domains, and it is only in the city of Kozhukh Lorda do they come together to debate, duel, and deal with each other in the courts of the dead.  It is not a kind world for the living or dead; the vampires are feared by their living vassals fear their powers yet rely on them so that they may be shielded from the barbarians and monsters at the gates of civilization.  Werewolves, witches, faeries, and stranger things are not only known by mortalkind, they are a real and present danger to those who travel too far off the beaten path.  Even then some dare to come into the villages and cities to wreak havoc.


Stormkirk by Wizards of the Coast

Algebere's Torch: From the cunning folk of villages who prepare herbal remedies to the pungent laboratories of great universities, the guiding hand of Algebere's Torch influences the art of alchemy.  Although not all practitioners owe allegiance to this scholarly society, their skills are so in demand, their writings so necessary to the understanding of this occult science, that many natural philosophers count themselves as torch-bearers be they Kindred or kine.

Part natural law, part occult rituals, it is hard to tell where the mundane ends and the magical begins in regards to alchemy.  The lifesblood of Vitae, so necessary for the vampiric survival, acts as a versatile and potent reagent capable of great feats.  Although not all of their concoctions need Vitae to function, it's no secret that the inclusion of Kindred powers advanced the Torch's personal and political power.

Falcons of Dawn: This martial order of Kindred and their anointed ghouls springs from a centuries-old tradition.  Back when the first Kindred warlords carved out their territory, they found that in spite of their powers and imperious commands that the sun's curse prevented them from acting.  To prevent rival mortal nobles from torching their havens, they anointed ghouls to act as favored servants and fed their falcon companions their own blood to forge a closer bond.  Newly Embraced Kindred wore layers of dark shawls and robes to cover their bodies from the sun, acting during the day and slowly learning to overcome their natural lethargy.

The mortal warlords discovered that no longer was the shield of the sun a guaranteed victory, and the more conservative Kindred who relied upon minions to guard them while sleeping the day away were ill-prepared to fight when they made enemies of the dawn-walkers.  The advent of plate mail was a boon to this new knighthood, protecting Kindred wearers from the sword blows and sun's rays alike.  It wasn't long before the Falcons of Dawn appointed themselves as defenders of the land, learning much in the arts of battle and hunting bandits and monsters beyond the village walls.  Gifted a suit of plate mail with an embossed image of a winged sun on the breast upon their initiation, all but the most isolated domains recognize the herald of the Falcons.

Penumbral Court: The city of Kozhukh Lorda is home to a peculiar feature which vampires so enjoy: a citywide shroud of darkness blankets the skyline of the settlement and surrounding land, keeping the domain in a state of eternal night.  The horizon gradually turns darker and overcast the closer one comes to Kozhukh Lorda, regardless of the time of day, until the sun is no more and only the moon and stars shed light.

It is here that the vampiric nobility of the realm gather, the only true place where they can stay active without the curse of daysleep or the threat of Final Death by morning's light.  Mortals live within Kozhukh Lorda's walls, but they all serve the vampires in some way.  Crops and meat are imported by outlying farms to feed them, and in turn the living donate a blood tax every week at the Garden Chapel.  This holy shrine contains chalices which keep the gathered vitae warm and fresh, unable to lose its potency to time.

Sleepers in Stone: The sky and surface are the domain of the sun and moon, a hostile realm to the unwary Kindred.  But the tomb-like caves and tunnels which stretch through mother earth like veins are a safe respite from light.  Although the underworld contains its fair share of dangers, many Kindred are still driven to choose this unknown blessing over the known perils of the surface.

Whatever these ancient Kindred found in the depths, they found the remnants of a prior civilization, or so they claim, and now live amid the ruins and networks in a twisted mirror of those above.  Most surface-world folk only see the topmost outposts of the Sleepers, but those who ventured further down whisper of stranger things, of Kindred and Anointed who drink from the black blood of the earth itself, imbued with strange magic and speaking of buried gods.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Vampire the Requiem: Best Bloodlines for Scheming Masterminds

by Victoria Francés

What's going on here? An RPG post not about Dungeons & Dragons?  Did we take a left turn at Waterdeep and end up in the realm of modern gothic horror?

Over the past month I joined a Vampire the Masquerade group on an IRC channel.  Even though I am an avid collector of White Wolf game lines, for years I never found a group to play with until I was contacted on Roll20 by the group's GM.  Being able to play the games instead of just reading them revived my enthusiasm for Vampire, and in no time at all I was thumbing through the marble green and blood red hardcovers on my shelves.  During my search I rediscovered many cool ideas and adventure seeds which dwelt in the forgotten corners of my mind.

Concerning Vampire the Requiem, one of the interesting features of its setting is the preponderance of bloodlines, Kindred sub-families who originated among a vampire of particular background or talent.  Most bloodline members can manipulate the properties of the blood to learn new supernatural disciplines.  To use D&D terms, vampire clans are races, whereas bloodlines are subraces.

Mastermind Bloodlines

It's virtually a prerequisite for every Vampire chronicle to have an arrogant scheming archvillain manipulating living and dead alike as pawns for their own ends.  Although the Ventrue clan and Invictus covenant embody the archetypical "vampire" noble, power comes in many forms.  Whether by game mechanics or background, below is a compiled list of bloodlines I feel make for good "mastermind" archetypes:

Architects of the Monolith (Bloodlines: the Hidden, pg. 30): A secret society of megalomaniac Venture obsessed with geomantic rituals and ley lines, their Gilded Cage discipline is capable of changing the landscape and affecting others within their sphere of influence.  Combined with a central grandmaster in France and hints of Freemason symbolism, and the Architects make for cool, occult-oriented villainous masterminds.

Asnâm (Circle of the Crone, pg. 165): Extremely arrogant pagan vampires who view themselves as potential deities, the Asnâm have a knack for establishing long-term hold over mortal cults.  They can feed members Vitae from afar, sapping their Willpower, and even gaining the ability to force their soul into that of an infant to avoid Final Death!  A campaign where cultists are tracking down a mother on the run whose baby has been chosen for their "blood god" in the vein of Shoot-Em-Up or the Golden Child?  Count me in!

Bak-Ra (Ancient Bloodlines, pg. 167): The majority of the bloodline is consigned to millennia-long torpor, but these worshipers of the ancient Egyptian god of the sun claim to possess powers to be able to walk in daylight again.  Even though many do not trust their grandiose claims, perhaps one of them rediscovers the power of their old bloodline, the power which once united all the Kindred of Egypt under one covenant!

En (Ancient Bloodlines, pg. 153): Diablerie is one of the few unforgivable acts in vampire society, but it's a great avenue for power.  Descended from ancient Babylon, the En gains gifts from an evil spirit known as the Alu, such as the ability to steal one's soul with a touch and perform mass Embraces without permanently losing Willpower.  The En pose a great threat to the power structure of any vampire domain, and their obsession with rule and outside status make for a good "usurper" role.

Lynx (Invictus, pg. 165): This bloodline has real, tangible power over social networks of all kinds, capable of tracing the various trends and interactions to know its members better than they know themselves.  The ability to manipulate public perception on a wide scale and analyze trends gives the Lynxes an almost preternatural awareness of mortal and Kindred actions.

Melissidae (Bloodlines: the Legendary pg. 103): Nearly wiped out for fear of their power, these Ventrue have a nigh-uncontrollable need to form literal hive-minds of mortals by subsuming their free will.  Melissidae hives are strange affairs, acting in unison and strange social ques indicating that things are not as they seem...

Spina (Invictus, pg. 173): Polite to a fault, the Spina are the graceful warriors of the Invictus.  Possessing a discipline which allows them to literally wound with words, a Spina who attains power in a domain can make for a multi-faceted enemy capable of defending herself in any arena.

Zelani (Carthians, pg. 166): A very small bloodline of a few souls, its founder has nationwide contacts with many covenants and they all possess an uncanny knack for manipulating luck and probability so that things turn out in their favor.  Depending on her potential goals, Lorna Zelan might have aspirations of leading the Carthian Movement itself, to perform an apocalyptic ritual, or even turn the bloodline into a new clan entirely.

Special Thanks

The World of Darkness Wiki, for consolidating all of Requiem's bloodlines in one convenient location!

Monday, June 1, 2015

OSR House Rules and Such

Village on Haunted Lake by Punknroll of Deviantart

This Saturday I finished DMing the climactic part of my Solo Heroes Labyrinth Lord campaign.  Allegra, paladin of the Red Hierach, met the army of the Winter King on the field of battle.  Successfully she united the forlorn realms and city-states of East Brendor against the 250,000 strong horde of berserkers and giants.  The Winter King was a warlord legendary for his cruelty, his very touch capable of encasing one in a tomb of ice.  Allegra fought all manner of terrible beasts and witnessed many forgotten secrets most folk would not experience in several lifetimes.  Her horse is a celestial being and divine gift, her sword imbued with the spirit of Su'ursgah the fire elemental famous for centuries-long battles against evil.  She's seen necromancers call up the bones of elder beasts, only to put them back into their graves.  She's healed the tainted ley lines within the blighted forest and wiped out the remnants of the Shadowguard.

And this was all done in the span from levels 3 to 7.  After this session it's likely that I'll be taking a break from this world, although unlike Arcana High it's possible we may come back to it to record more of Allegra's deeds, especially if the upcoming Dreams of Ruin adventure is an exemplary module.  This campaign was my first real long-running OSR game, and I took sincere joy in creating a world modeled off of old-school aesthetics while at the same time applying my own inspirations and changes.

Below are the house rules I used on a regular basis for this campaign.  Some of them are streamlined rules conversions from newer editions which we found more intuitive (both of us cut our teeth on 3rd Edition D&D), or simply modifications which felt right for the campaign.

Ability Checks

Inspired by D&D Rules Cyclopedia.  A D20 is rolled when the PC wishes to perform a task with a reasonable chance of failure not covered by spells or class features.  The result is compared to the ability score most relevant to the task at hand.  If the result is equal to or less than the score, the task succeeds.  If it is greater than, it fails.  For particularly easy or difficult tasks, a modifier ranging from -4 to +4 is added to the D20 roll.

Rationale: This was used for the times when Allegra wished to climb treacherous walls, spot hidden danger, research obscure lore in libraries, and the like.  It rewarded high ability scores by making the PC an expert in a general field of expertise.  Those with high Intelligence were veritable storehouses of knowledge and could remember plenty of detail, high Charisma characters would come off in the best light for their player's intentions, etc.

Special Materials are "Magic"

A monster's hide or magical barrier might be so strong that only an enchanted blade may hope to smash it; or perhaps one fashioned from adamantine.  Armor made from the bones of an elder beast is particularly resistant to the elements, and can grant limited protection from breath weapons and fire and ice spells.  Elf-forged weapons and armor are incredibly light but do not sacrifice durability, weighing half as much as their iron counterparts.

Although such materials are not treated as magical for the purpose of divination spells and register as 'normal' pieces of equipment, they are considered magical for the purposes of a monster's damage immunity and resistances vs. non-magical weapons and armor.  If a set of dragonbone plate was crafted by a dwarven forgemaster instead a wizard, that does not mean it can't have a +2 bonus.


Personally I found Labyrinth Lord's procedural order of turns based on weapon type to be more complicated than Pathfinder's number-based order.  When combat starts, the PC and each class of enemy rolls a D20, with a bonus or penalty in very rare situations for extremely fast or sluggish creatures.  The person with the highest result goes first, regardless of whether they're using a melee weapon, ranged weapon, or spell.  They're followed by the next character or class of enemy with the next-highest result, and so on and so forth.  Ties are resolved via a second roll-off.

A class of enemy counts as a group of characters who share the same properties.  For example, a fight with four goblins and a dragon would have the goblins' initiative rolled only once, but the dragon rolls separately.

New Equipment

Bio-luminescent Fungi: As most Underdark cities have a natural ceiling and thus no easy place for smoke to escape to, typical torches are banned and inhabitants make use of naturally glowing mushrooms hanging from baskets.  A patch of such fungi clearly illuminates out to a 30 foot radius.  The fungi needs to be fed with 1 gold pieces worth of compost every 24 hours or else it will shrivel up and die, no longer giving off illumination.

Repeating Crossbow: This crossbow has an attached box on top holding five bolts, allowing the wielder to fire projectiles without the need to reload between shots.  They deal 1d6 damage per shot and weighs 6 pounds.  Once the battery runs out it must be detached and refilled, which takes 2 turns.  Repeating Crossbows are advanced technology and thus not sold in all lands, but cost 100 gold pieces where they can be found.

This weapon saw effective use among the manticore riders of the Winter King's forces, who Allegra fought when assaulting one of their citadels.