Sunday, July 26, 2015

Spheres of Power and the New D20 Boom and Bust

Cover Art by Ben Wootten

Within the last few months a particular third party Pathfinder product is receiving lots of attention.  Spheres of Power is an alternative to the standard Vancian Magic system, where spellcasters control aspects of reality (conjuration, fate, light, weather, etc) known and divided into "spheres."  Access to a sphere grants basic abilities, and more advanced magic can be gained via talents over the course of levels to spend on spheres.  Although non-Vancian alternatives are nothing new, Spheres of Power is notable for a well-funded KickStarter, high production values, and a growing fanbase in places such as Giant in the Playground and consistently good online sales.

Interestingly, Spheres of Power was uploaded to Drive-Thru RPG a little over a year ago, and didn't get much advertisement or word of mouth, much less reviews, in 2014.  It's good to see that a well-balanced and playtested magic system is getting the attention it deserves, but the one year gap is telling.

I believe this ties into a problem among third party publishing.  As of today, there are 1,414 products in the OSR category, and 4,828 products labelled as Pathfinder in Drive-Thru RPG's online storefront.  And the number seems to grow almost every day especially in regards to Pathfinder.  Although the D20 Boom far preceded both fandoms, online products were not as ubiquitous as they are today.  Playing around with search options, roughly 1/3rd of Pathfinder products are $3 or less, more akin to mini-sourcebooks than full supplements.

There are some products, such as Realms of Beltora, which have been up since Pathfinder's heyday in 2008 yet have no significant reviews or online discussion I could find anywhere.  And I'm not talking "30 New Sword Feats" or stuff like that; Beltora has 216 pages detailing new mechanics and setting material.  This is far above the time and effort of shovelware producers and themed mini-books which repeat the same formula.

On the one hand, it is good that the barrier of entry for aspiring creators is easy; all you need is Adobe InDesign, a willingness to write and play games, and some stock art to sell a decent RPG book without needing to worry about physical distribution and such.  But it also opens up the door to quantity over quality, where truly good works are confined to obscurity in a sea of competing products of dubious value.  There are good folk who do their part to bring to light these buried gems of their respective communities, such as Endzeitgeist or Erik Tenkar, but the open tent leaves little room for quality control or a platform to gather attention unless you already have a reputation.

Fortunately there are works which are getting their dues: KickStarter remains a great way to fund projects, Dreamscarred Press started out as an obscure company before becoming the gold standard for third party design and are well-respected, and Spheres of Power is getting its time in the spotlight.  But in spite of all this I worry that the OSR and Pathfinder fandoms are repeating the mistakes of the past D20 Boom.  There are folk I know who would ordinarily be interested in checking out a lot of books, but when push comes to shove option paralysis sets in.  When you have five necromancy-themed books all by different companies, or three desert-based campaign settings for sale, how do you know which one's the best without buying them all?

Ideas to offset a D20 Bust

Seal of Quality: During the 80s and 90s, Nintendo put out an Official Seal of Quality on approved products.  The North American Video Game Crash of 1983 was due to crappy games flooding the market, many of them untested and unfinished pushed right onto market shelves.  While the table-top fandom does not have the resources for a central committee of playtesters to comb through thousands of material as a job, having more full-time reviewers can certainly help.  In-depth analysis of the books' contents therein, like Something Awful's FATAL & Friends series, are more helpful than the highly vague "this book sucks" warning or "this book is full of neat options" I see all too often.

Engagement with the Community: Many third party publishers do not advertise their works much or interact with gaming communities.  They may not have a social media profile, don't hand out complementary reviews to get coverage, or link new products in advertisement sections of forums like RPGnet's Hype Machine.  Aside from a storefront on Drive-Thru RPG, they're more or less invisible.

A good portion of Pathfinder's popularity comes from the actions of Paizo in cultivating a sense of community among their fans.  They scooped up many 3rd Edition gamers dissatisfied with the direction of 4th Edition, and gave a sense of participation with an "Open Playtest" to let players help them iron out problems to make a new and improved 3.5 (I only feel that this was partially successful mechanics-wise, but that's for another blog post).  Furthermore, unpopular material has been retconned, the Pathfinder Society gives a sense of a shared world for participating players, and recent decisions regarding diversity and representation for minority gamers was welcomed by many.

One many not like Pathfinder's system, but they do foster a connection which feels more "real" than "corporate," even though they are just as merchandise-driven as any big company.

In short: get a social media page.  Listen to not just your fans, but see if there's any concepts or demands among gamers to seize upon ideas for customer interest.  Advertise your wares anywhere you can, and be an active participant in gaming communities.

Highlight the Good: Folks such as Interjection Games pointed out that reviews and discussion can gather enough interest in one's work to the point that it generates a noticeable sale in spikes.  Are there any products out there which you really enjoy?  Under-appreciated classics, nifty settings, cool spins on old tropes?  Talk about them, review them even if you want.  The more specific, the better; don't just say that something's good, tell people why it's good.  In the best case scenario, generating positive buzz might help the creator enough that they can use the funds to continue making even more good products.

It may sound cliche, but this is part of why I'm motivated to do reviews.  A lot of the time it's to ensure a regular writing schedule, but I've noticed that review threads on message boards (especially the bigger ones such as RPGnet or GiantITP) get very high results in search results.  So if you found a gem of an RPG and start up a detailed thread on it somewhere, other gamers can get attracted to it as well.


The Open Gaming License is a double-edged sword, and there's far too many products to reasonably cover or analyze.  I love OSR and Pathfinder games, and there are several companies and authors who earned their spotlight, but I do fear the negative effects this will have on up-and-coming game designers.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Quasar Knight Products are part of the Christmas in July Sale!

Christmas Image from WP Clipart

Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow have 25% off on a wide variety of titles in their stores, and my products are all part of the sale.

Here's the Drive-Thru link.

Here's the RPGNow link.

All of my current works are small, affordable sourcebooks for Pathfinder and OSR games providing extended options for both players and GMs.  I tend to go for ideas which haven't been explored much in their respective fandoms, such as monster classes based off of iconic creatures; kickass feats and archetypes intended to help underpowered martial classes do more cool stuff; and new mechanics to apply for a consistent, alignment-free game while still retaining paladins, demons, and other popular fantasy mainstays.

If you had your eyes on my selection for some time, now is a great opportunity to get your book of choice at a bargain price.  If the works of Quasar Knight Enterprises are new to you, give them and their previews a look and see if any appeal to you.

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: Secrets of the Masquerade Reveler (Pathfinder)

Cover Art by Sai Kayden

Pathfinder introduced the concept of archetypes around 2010.  They were largely alternate class features from the 3rd Edition days, although they became much more numerous and prominent.  Over time they served as an alternative to prestige classes, covering everything from fighting styles, magical disciplines, even members of renowned organizations, all accessible from 1st level.

Third party publishers followed suit with their own ideas, but given the brevity of mechanics it's not often that an entire product is dedicated to them.  But Secrets of the Masquerade Reveler is a worthy exception, detailing a Barbarian archetype who accesses a pool of Eidolon Evolutions while "raging" to represent alternate states of being.  The concept is a person whose close encounter with the fey realms gifted them with the ability to assume the traits of entities and ideals by undergoing a trance-like state known as a Masquerade which replaces the base Rage ability.

While in this Masquerade, the reveler can don "Masks" modeled off of fey creatures and certain professions in the form of 4 to 8 Evolution Points per Mask based on class level.  A Pixie Mask can grant flight and personal invisibility, the Sage's Mask can grant +8 bonus to most Knowledge checks, and so on and so forth.  Masquerade Revelers gain one Mask per level, and potentially more with the Extra Mask feat.  The base Evolutions are versatile enough, but the archetype has a host of new Evolutions specific to them such as Fey Magic which grants access to some illusion and nature-based spell-like abilities.

Although it is possible for a player to create one's own Mask, a healthy portion of the book provides many sample Masks, all grouped into types such as Fey, Gremlin, Forbidden, Beast, Mythic, and Tane Masks.  These are not just flavoring: several new feats within this book grant access to Masks of certain types, and some Evolutions can only be taken with said types (such as quadruped abilities and Beast Masks).  Even with the samples provided, one can see the Masquerade Reveler adequately serving a variety of roles: the Jinkin's Tiny size with Skilled in Disable Device and a later Dimension Door ability is a tailor-made scout, while the Dweomercat's Pounce ability is a welcome addition to any melee-focused character.  And that's not covering the Tane Masks, who represent the most powerful of fey lords such as the Jabberwock which can grant flight, twin fire-based eye rays, and Huge size among potential other abilities.

In Conclusion

Although the Masquerade Reveler gains quite a bit by trading away standard Rage and its expansions, the class is at once versatile while not being game-breaking.  The Masquerade ability is still keyed off of a rounds-per-day resource, so it doesn't have the long-term staying power of primary spellcasters whose effects can last for hours or even days. But access to flight, +8 for skills, tremorsense, radius auras, debuffs, Pounce, and many other abilities make it able to do a lot more things than most Barbarians and martials.  The in-character fluff text and explanations of certain Masks and revelers is cool and provides inspiration for interesting character concepts.  You can get a lot of mileage out of it as both a player and Game Master with the options provided.

For those interested in the mechanical side of things, I provide an in-depth look at the archetype and its many features in this thread.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tips on how to avoid losing your work

Apologies if I haven't been posting much as of late, but currently I've been focusing my creative energies into other tasks at hand.  Hopefully I'll get another post up before the end of the month, but for now I wanted to touch on something I've sadly seen happen all too often among many creative types.

Perhaps you're writing a blog or message board post.  You spent over an hour applying the write touches and editing, setting up images and URL links.  Your mouse hovers over the "post" button, and WHAM!  Your Internet connection dies, causing all your work to be lost to the electronic abyss.  Maybe the message board hosting your material goes under, making your work similarly inaccessible.

Or maybe your hard drive breaks, causing all your work spent in InDesign to go to waste because you didn't save copies elsewhere.

When writing a post which requires a significant investment on your part, be it homebrew material, research notes, or even a political screed, have Microsoft Word or notepad open.  Copy-paste the work as you type it, so that when you're done and about to hit the "post" button you can have your hard work ready to go in case your Internet or website shorts out on you.

Secondly, when it comes to saved files, rely upon cloud storage spaces.  Save copies of your work to Google Drive, One Drive, Dropbox, etc, in addition to your hard drive: Word, InDesign, JPEG, whatever it is, upload them.  Make new copies after every saved revision, so that each place has the most current work.  Google Drive is particularly good to write on as it automatically saves your work every few seconds.

Ever since I've been doing these steps, I saved tens of hours worth of work and leisure time from the terrible fate of "Could Not Connect to the Internet" or sudden power outages due to seasonal thunderstorms.  I implore writers and game designers to take this advice to heart and not just rely upon the goodwill of a functioning connection to save them.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: the War Dancer (Pathfinder)

Cover Art by Miguel Santos

Note: I did a more in-depth review of game mechanics analysis over in this thread at Min-Max Boards if you're interested in that kind of stuff.

There are many third party classes out there for Pathfinder, and it's easy to get lost in a sea of supplements.  And a lot of existing options are derivative, recycling old mechanics instead of seeking out new rules for the game.  While there's nothing wrong with updating old information, it can get difficult at times to find a fresh take on iconic concepts, much less ones which do it well.

The War Dancer succeeds on both fronts.  It is a martial class which is geared around a "controller" role, that of using the environment, mobility, and trickery to exploit and alter enemy positions on the battlefield.  In short, it uses a limited-use daily resource of dancing as its iconic ability, and there are 13 possible dances to learn.  They ranged in use from elemental dances which can knock down enemies with earth tremors, ranged energy attacks, feats of impressive mobility which allow the dancer increased speed at its most basic and even dimension door teleportation at its most powerful!  There's even dances which contain nigh-essential features for fighter types, such as extended reach and single attack rolls which harm multiple opponents.  A tiny few dances are lackluster in power and use, but overall most have an effective application in many situations.

Beyond this the War Dancer can also cast spontaneous divine spells up to 4th level, and while most are more geared towards buffing and combat applications instead of utility, the class draws from a variety of existing spells from the cleric to the ranger to the wizard.  There is also two new archetypes, the Arcane War Dancer and Southern War Dancer, which grant the class limited access to the abilities of the magus and bard respectively while allowing armor proficiency.

My main complaint about the class is that unless one goes for an archetype, the lack of armor use makes the War Dancer very easy to hit for a melee fighter, and will require a lot of healing resources unless they make for good optimization and reach weapon extension builds.  Aside from this, the War Dancer has a variety of abilities to make for interesting stunts in combat beyond the typical "charge, full attack, manyshot/rapid shot" which tends to dominate Pathfinder martials and is a worthy purchase for its price at $2.99.

The War Dancer can be bought at Drive-Thru RPG/RPGNow, Paizo, and the D20 Pathfinder SRD.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Surprisingly fitting settings for OSR games

Even before the D20 boom there were folk designing their own worlds to share with other gamers for their favorite iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.  The Judge's Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy is probably one of the earliest known third party settings out there.  The trend continues onward with OSR and Pathfinder self-publishers, and there's already some folks using the 5th Edition ruleset to make their own material.  I'm rather worried about the last bit, as nothing approaching an OGL has been released yet by WotC, leaving the safety of said products in a sort of legal limbo.

Still, in my collecting of various gaming products, I found more than a few campaign settings which are highly appropriate for OSR games in spite of being made for newer rules engines in mind.  The mechanical rulesets of D20 D&D may be different, but a lot of the following settings are versatile enough to squeak into an old-school-style  game without much trouble.

Freeport is probably one of the most iconic pirate cities in Dungeons & Dragons, even if it's an unofficial product.  Although it originated as an early entry into 3rd Edition, over time the setting's popularity saw it converted to a variety of rulesets, from Savage Worlds to Fate and even Castles & Crusades.  The Pirate's Guide to Freeport is a system-neutral book, and the beauty of it is that the material present clearly calls out several D&Disms with a piratey flavor.  The setting has a vibe of Lovecraftian horror lurking behind the tropical seas, what with hidden cults dedicated to Great Old Ones and a former empire of serpent folk existing among the ruined remnants of former civilizations.  Freeport tends to be more down to earth; it has its fair share of mages and monsters, although the city isn't packed to the gills with high-level world-bending individuals.  Many of its more interesting denizens have something to distinguish themselves other than a character class or magical discipline, such as a muckracking journalist, a vigilante paladin stalking the drug dens and sewers for evil to thwart, and even a scholarly orc clan who seek to uplift their kin through a cultural renaissance.

Although Pathfinder can be run in all sorts of settings, Paizo's Golarion has always been its flagship product.  Their renowned adventure paths all take place in this shared world, which now expanded into a veritable Inner Sea World Guide along with numerous sourcebooks dedicated to specific regions and groups.  Golarion vies for a kitchen sink approach, where its 50-plus countries are more or less organized into distinctive themes.  Ustalav is modeled off of Gothic Horror, the River Kingdoms is a frontier region of upstart lords and independent city-states, and Cheliax is a totalitarian empire where devotees of Asmodeus direct the nation's fate.  There's something for everyone in the Inner Sea, and you can't go wrong with homing in on a set location by finding the appropriate material for it or building inspiration off each nation's 4-page overview.

The Inner Sea's most iconic organization is the Pathfinder Society, an pseudo-Masonic lodge of scholars and delvers who travel the world and record their findings for the pursuit of knowledge (and to make money off of their findings).  The Pathfinders serve as a great way for adventuring parties to explore the world and its many secrets, while also lending an Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist vibe.

The main pitch of X-Crawl is that it's set in a modern alternate Earth where elves, dragons, and other fantasy elements are real.  The repressive neo-Roman Empire rules over the North American continent, and one of the most popular means of escapism and entertainment is a reality game show where contestants fight through a constructed dungeon full of monsters and traps for fame and prizes.  That is, if they manage to survive.  I forget who made the connection or where (I believe it was RPGnet), but one person stated that this can make a great setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics.

In addition to the game show aspect of the setting, one of X-Crawl's more entertaining ideas is the implementation of a DJ, an in-character "Dungeon Master" responsible for the dungeon obstacle's oversight.  Many DJs keep in touch with adventuring teams via television sets and cameras, focusing on stellar performances for the crowd's delight while taunting their competency and recording every failure to push them further.  There are also limited rules for the use of fame, where particularly renown X-Crawl teams can gain the many privileges of media stardom (as well as its faults).

Primeval Thule Campaign Setting

Designed by Wizards of the Coast veterans, Primeval Thule is a setting which harkens back to an era of Conanesque Swords & Sorcery for Pathfinder, 13th Age, and 4th Edition D&D.  Interestingly, the majority of the book is not system-specific, instead dedicated to setting detail with the hard mechanics largely confined to appendices in the back.  It has a lot of classic Hyperborean goodness, such as magic being a mostly an unknown factor capable of terrible things.  Even the spells of priests and the like are learned via an inner circle of mystery cults part of the city-state's upper classes, so even the divine aspect is just as unknown and feared.  Demi-human races are present but tend to take a backseat to the dominant human powers.  Virtually every region of the world is brimming with adventure, from roving bands of warlords in the western plains to seemingly sentient glaciers threatening to engulf the north, with even individually-themed locations having enough variety for several kinds of adventures.  The elves are truly in decline, their people addicted to a vile drug disseminated by cultists of the Crawling Chaos so that their masters may feed upon their hallucinogen-fueled dreams.

Things I particularly like about Primeval Thule is the implementation of backgrounds, unique elements about your PCs to make them unique in the game, such as the Bearer of the Black Book where your spellcasting hero is pretty much the owner of the Necromonicon.  Also, ironworking is an art guarded by the dwarves; in the 4E version they're treated as magic weapons and armor for the purposes of game mechanics, an aspect which I'd adapt to other editions to preserve this metal's vaunted status.


All but X-Crawl is largely mechanics-free for most of its content, even if they were made for specific game lines.  I have a long and good history with Freeport, and the other three are so full of good ideas that it would be a crime to restrict them just to newer game engines.  I included links in the titles to storefronts in case you want to check out reviews and previews for yourself.  It shouldn't take much work converting them to Basic-Style OSR games, considering that a lot of their main pulls do not rely much upon 3.X tropes.

If you have any non-OSR campaigns of your own to recommend as good old-school fits, feel free to reply!