Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Year in Review for RPGs

2016 has been an interesting year; it's also not been a great one for many reasons. All the same, it's been a bumpy and wild ride. But what of table-top games? What new and interesting innovations have we seen so far, if any?

Lord of the Rings got the 5th Edition Treatment: Although there's only a Player's Guide, Cubicle 7 combined too wildly popular franchises within geekdom, an effective official stamp on campaigns many gamers have entertained throughout the years as the twin progenitors of fantasy fiction and role-playing games.

Delta Green got an update: Published not by Chaosium, but by Arc Dream Publishing, this 90s style X-Files blend of Lovecraftian horror took an interesting spin on a well-worn genre.

Exalted 3rd Edition released: After a long and worrysome KickStarter, Exalted hit virtual and store shelves to varying levels of appreciation.

7th Sea 2nd Edition produced one of the most successful crowdfunded works: At $1.3 million dollars, this is amazing even by general KickStarter standards. Many fans answered John Wick's call to once again delve into a world of romantic swashbuckling action.

Advent of the Chronicles of Darkness: Although the "core book" update got released in December 2015, the 2nd Edition of White Wolf/Onyx Path's New World of Darkness kicked into overdrive. From upgrades such as Mage the Awakening to entirely new lines like Beast the Primordial.

Godbound brought us playable divinities for old-school D&D: Kevin Crawford built up a good reputation within the OSR community for years, but 2016 was his most ambitious project to date. With mechanics both familiar yet surprisingly rules-lite and balanced, a campaign where players are part of a traveling pseudo-pantheon of rising gods graced the tabletops of many gamers as well as releasing top-quality artwork into the public domain.

Apocalypse World: Quite a lot of revised games this year, huh? Another heavy-hitter which spawned its own fanbase and a vibrant third party community, Apocalypse World came out with a 2nd Edition.

For a more fantasy-based milieu, Fellowship (an apocalypse world-derived game) came out in spring to critical acclaim among the system's fanbase.

Eclipse Phase gets the FATE treatment: Much like Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase is much beloved for its unique and innovative setting, yet the rules scared off more than a few interested viewers. As part of a successful KickStarter, Transhumanity's Fate came out to add a more rules-lite touch.

Quite a lot of high-profile works got released around this time. Although these are the most noticeable and renown, some honorable mentions go to Frog God Games' Bard's Gate (a metropolis set in their Lost Lands world with some tabletop gamer celebrity cameos), Swords & Wizardry Light (a minimalist 4-page treatment of the aforementioned RPG with over a thousand free downloads), Dark Obelisk: Berrincorte (a crazy 1,000 page Pathfinder adventure meant to be the first of a four-part series), and Onyx Path reviving the Scarred Lands setting for Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I was busy all day spending time with family, and had a very enjoyable holiday. May your hearts be filled with warmth and those you love kept close.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Are we seeing an increase in Nordic-themed RPGs?

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim received a Special Edition upgrade around late October this year. Funnily enough, the months leading up to that reignited my interest in the game but when the new version came out I did not touch it save for a few hours of experimenting. The truth of the matter was that not all of the old mods of the 2011 version were transferred or compatible, and the lack of Skyrim Script Extender or SkyUI support more or less killed any good reason to use the new version even though I got it for free.

About a month later, I saw a Pathfinder setting which combined two disparate elements of steampunk and Norse mythology into an interesting blend: Rhune, Dawn of Twilight. I'm still in the course of reading it, but it's quite a cool book. It has a strong sense of theme rather than trying for a "kitchen sink" approach, and core assumptions are built into the framework. For example, the Material Plane is not a globe, but rather the trunk of Yggdrasil the World Tree while the other planes of existence are its leaves, branches, roots, etc.

Then I was reminded of another book I got recently: the Northlands Saga by Frog God Games, which also released in its Complete version in early 2016. It was at this point I began noticing a pattern. After an illustrated book of the Poetic and Prose Eddas became a best silver seller on Drive-Thru RPG, this all but confirmed it.

Back in 2012, Cubicle 7 Entertainment released the stand-alone RPG Yggdrasil, a game set during a mythical Age of Vikings. Although Midgard by Kobold Press drew more upon Central and Eastern European themes, it did have its fair share of Nordic elements such as the world surrounded by a giant world-serpent eating its own tail.

Interest in Nordic themes is far from recent even in tabletop gaming. Going as far back as Deities & Demigods the Ă†sir–Vanir were described alongside the Greek and Egyptian pantheons, and quite a few campaign settings had their own pseudo-Scandinavian realms. But in regards to whole settings and sourcebooks there does seem to be a lot more Viking-related gaming material as of late. Part of me wonders how much this coincides with Skyrim's popularity (both the original 2011 and latest upgrade), and how much of it was just always there.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to let me know in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sacrifices in Fantasy Games

For the past month and a half, I've been DMing a 5th Edition campaign set in Primeval Thule. One of the major differences from other settings out there is the emphasis on a pre-medieval, ancient feel in keeping with its pulp sword and sorcery inspirations. There were no churches, there were woodland groves and ziggurat temples. There were no plate-clad knights, instead there were barbarians and gladiators. Although there are still some standard fantasy trappings as part of the D&D ethos, Primeval Thule does a pretty good job of emulating a realm different than the Tolkienesque model.

We're at a point in the game where the PCs have enough loot and resources to begin establishing their own stronghold, complete with hired servants. I set about making a stronghold-building-in-progress set of house rules to provide some in-game boons for certain purchases. One of them was a sacrificial altar dedicated to the gods, upon which the PCs can give up some of their loot to be consumed in exchange for temporary benefits. The idea was a huge burning brazier whose fires could burn down even metal (because a Cleric Did It), but I left things to the imagination for when the players decided to obtain it.

Then I noticed something. A distinct lack of rules for sacrifices. Going even further, I could not find other examples in other Dungeons & Dragons books beyond a generic role-playing trope or the exclusive providence of evil deities.

A common cultural and religious practice in many real-world cultures is that of the sacrifice, or a material offering to the gods and spirits. Although the reasons and forms it took varied, the general intent was giving up a material possession in exchange for divine favor. While human sacrifice is generally the most iconic, animal sacrifice, the burning of a portion of harvest, and the casting of gold and jewelry into watery depths follow a similar intent of giving up something to entities beyond the mortal realm.

While it is reasonable that a devout PC can dedicate monster-slaying as honoring his god (a 'sacrifice' of a sort) or burn down a rival's house to placate vengeance spirits, the intent of these rules are sacrifice of a more formalized affair. Basically an elaborate ritual in a location, where a supplicant gives up something belonging to themselves in exchange for a boon.

5th Edition*

*I may type up rules for Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry/Basic D&D in due time and if there's enough interest in the subject matter.

Sacrifices are conducted at a shrine, a place meant to honor a god (or gods). The shrine can come in many shapes and forms, but must be worth at least 1,500 gold pieces and cannot be portable or mobile. The shrine must be regularly maintained by a person proficient in Intelligence (Religion) or belong to a magical class whose spells come from the patron deity in question. Different deities might have different boons, but here are a few of the more common ones:

Burden-Bearer: Transfer an equivalent number of hit points worth of damage from someone else to yourself, or a single poison or disease, for 50 gp. This can result in the death of the person taking on the maladies if the effects are too great to bear.

Fortune: Gain inspiration (advantage on a single d20 roll of your choice) for 50 gp. This cannot be gained if you already have inspiration.

Insight: Gain a vision of something relevant to your immediate objectives for 50 gp.

Sanctuary: One or more parties drain a collective total of 25 hit points worth of damage as a blood offering (can come from an animal, captive, etc) at the shrine. For the next 3 days and 3 nights all participants must make a Charisma saving throw whenever they attempt to take violent action against another. If they fail, they find themselves physically unable to go through with the action, frozen in place.

Vengeance: Speak the name of a hated foe (or group of people who are sworn enemies of the deity), and gain +1d6 on your next attack roll against them for 50 gp.

Humanoid and Animal Sacrifices: Generally speaking, animals are treated as treasure for the purposes of sacrifice, using the mounts and trade goods entries under Equipment as guidelines. A single sheep is worth 2 gold pieces, whereas a mastiff is 25 gold, a riding horse 75, a cow 10, and so on and so forth.

Generally speaking, this makes the above amounts are rather costly for the lay worshiper: sacrifices are generally communal affairs, of weeks or month's worth of saving up enough money and raising choice cattle for when villagers and townsfolk really need the direct intervention of the divine.

As for sacrifices of humanoids and sapient beings, in most campaigns this is generally the province of evil deities and/or ones dedicated to battle and conflict (in the latter case, such sacrifices are restricted to prisoners of war). But regardless, deities only grant boons when a worthy subject is sacrificed. To count as worthy, the subject must have an equal or greater Challenge Rating to the person who seeks to beseech the gods. A 12th-level warlord can dedicate hapless peasants to death, but such displays are a trifling matter of no great consequence; far better to show respect and glory by capturing and felling a mighty adversary.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wizard's Academy releases for the Pathfinder RPG

Available on Drive-Thru RPG, RPGNow, and Paizo.

Long-time followers of my blog know that I have a bit of a preference for schools of magic as a fantasy trope. Well yesterday I was delighted to discover a rather large Pathfinder sourcebook just got released. The fact it is written by the folks behind the much-beloved Spheres of Power sealed the deal for me.

I have not read the whole thing, but already it's hitting a lot of buttons. A central story revolving around investigating the headmaster's disappearance, a five-tier encounter framework using different sets of monsters in dungeon rooms depending on average party level, and expanded rules for school life which give consequences if the PCs sneak off too much at the expense of their studies (and vice versa if the mystery isn't solved in time).

Adding to this is the fact that the module is made with the Spheres in Power system in mind. It is a worthy alternative to the standard Vancian system of magic, where spellcasting is both more balanced and allows for a wide variety of character concepts. The contents are available as a free online wiki, and I've been running two campaigns with it. So far sphere-using PCs held up quite nicely in adventures. While this may be a turn-off to those who prefer standard Vancian magic, the self-contained nature of Wizard's Academy can make for a nice one-off to test out an unfamiliar system.

Overall, I like what I see so far, and this book has yet to disappoint me. I recommend checking it out if you're a fan of the magic school campaign style.