Carcosacon 2019

So that was Carcosacon and it was a lot of fun. A bunch of us drove up from Prague to Czocha Castle for a weekend of games, panels and live action roleplaying all dedicated to the Cthulhu mythos. We got there on Friday morning, checked in and were gaming by one o’ clock that afternoon in a library that looked like something from Dennis Wheatley complete with a secret doorway hidden in a bookcase that swung out to reveal a spiral staircase up to yet another gaming room. I thought there never was a better setting for a Call of Cthulhu session but I was wrong, and I’ll get to that later.

The scenario itself was run by Mike Mason, line editor of Call of Cthulhu and it was exemplary. We were a small party of occult investigators sent to check out weird goings-on at a farmhouse in that well-known centre of paranormal activity, the Peak District. After a creepy encounter with some odd fertility cult stuff, we ended up blowing our chance to completely thwart the ritual and suffered some casualties, myself included. Some form of portal opened and hideous carnage ensued. First death of the weekend. Start as you mean to go on, I thought.

We attended the welcome ceremony and a panel on Mythos roleplaying in WW2. After dinner, it was into another game, run by Mark Morrison, author of the Dreamlands boxed set and editor of Horror on the Orient Express. This was set during the French Revolution, and it featured the best intro I have seen in over fourty years of RPGing. It began in flashback. We were soldiers in the French Army called in to guard the Bastille on 14th July, 1789. We immediately split along political lines with two of us refusing to fire on the crowd of fellow citizens and the rest going into the fortress and preparing to defend it.

It was a brilliant way of introducing us to our characters, a tightly knit military unit broken under political strain, and set against each other. During the course of that long afternoon we got to know our characters, a couple of us became heroes of the revolution, and the rest despised oppressors destined to come under suspicion once the Reign of Terror got into full swing.

This intro broke so many of the rules I have applied over the years, it was eye-opening. It was told in flashback, it split the party and it worked. It immersed us in the brutality and violence of the period, put everything beautifully in context, and introduced the setting, characters and a good number of the supporting cast in the most dramatic way imaginable.

After that, the story picked up years later with the sad remnants of our unit guarding the roadblocks into Paris and soon immersed in royalist escapes, escalating paranoia, a murder mystery and a ghost story. Amazingly enough, none of us died. I don’t want to say to much more for the sake of spoilers, but suffice to say it was an absolute masterclass in how to GM, our experience enhanced by the use of appropriate music and a setting that could not be bettered.

We played the game out in a castle bedroom complete with a four poster bed, antique furniture, and a chandelier. In the dark, for the light’s were often dimmed when they were in the story, it felt as if you could have been there. After the game was over the five of us who had come up from Prague agreed that we could have left the convention then and still felt like we had got our money’s worth.

That’s not take anything away from what came next day. Lynne Hardy (assistant editor of Call of Cthulhu) ran another great scenario for us in the gazebo beside the castle moat. (Somehow we avoided fireballing the gazebo–sorry old RPG joke there.)

It was another great game involving a time-slip from a modern museum exhibition to an old Scottish castle. Once again, I don’t want to say too much, but I was very surprised that we all made it out alive with our sanity intact. This was mostly down to the fact that Emmanuel’s (our psychic) die rolling was little short of astonishing. I would have suspected that his dice were loaded but for the fact that Alex’s was busily failing all his rolls with the same dice. I also suspect this may well be the only Mythos castle that has ever been escaped from by an impromptu Frank Sinatra style rendition of songs performed on a staircase in the face of a coven of astonished cultists.

Mark gave an excellent panel on storytelling in Call of Cthulhu and we hit the dealer’s room. I picked up a thematically appropriate elder sign incribed dice box and filled it with metal dice from Q Workshop. Consumerist duty done, we wandered the castle grounds, inspected the fine artwork in the dealer’s room and took a look at the Call of Cthulhu computer game in Polish.

In the evening it was LARPING time. The central premise of the story was brilliant, an auction of occult relics that could be used in the demon-god summoning ritual and which let you get swept up in the thrill of a high-stakes auction. It was a lot fun and I enjoyed myself immensely.

I was given the part of an self-aggrandising author of occult thrillers (no stretch there then, I hear you say) and cultist planning the undermining of all that is sane. Sadly my attempts to summon demon gods were undermined by the far more important business of getting my own back on a journalist who had given my character a bad review and the scurrilous knave who had sued me just because a person matching his name, description, socio-economic background, drunkenly slurred speech and deplorable personal hygene had appeared as the title character in Fatal Folly of Prudence Harrington, one of my many masterpieces. The monstrous egotism of the man! Sorry! I started channeling my character again there.

Next day, I got to talk with Ken Hite, of whom I am a big fan, and go for a last wander round the castle before attending a panel by Ken and Robin D. Laws on the King in Yellow.

I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. To sum up, Carcosacon was a small intimate con in an amazing location, an old Polish castle riddled with secret passages, a setting that pretty much invited conversation with the other guests.

My thanks to Alex, Adriano, Christian and Emmanuel for journeying with me into the heart of madness. And well done the people at Black Monk Games. We’ll be going back next year.

The Black Hack Review

Among the several anniversaries I somehow neglected to celebrate on the blog this year was the fortieth of my first encounter with Dungeons and Dragons, back when it came in three tiny booklets in a white box. I bring it up now because reading The Black Hack takes me right back to my student days of late night dungeoneering sessions and permadeath treks across hexcrawl wildernesses. And I mean that in a good way.

The Black Hack describes itself as an OSR First Edition Hack. It’s named after its author, David Black. The game reads like the distilled essence of the D&D we played back before there were Players Handbooks, Monster Manuals and DM’s Guides. When you wanted rules, you made them up yourself, and every campaign was different. The Black Hack takes D&D, boils it down to the essential elements, then it lets you get on with it. It’s a complete role-playing game in twenty pages and the clever thing is that it lets you use pretty much all the existing material you have without much adaptation. Using Black Hack I could crawl through the first dungeon I ever wrote. I could mine the mountains of third edition stuff I acquired over the years. I could run the Frog God 5th edition stuff I got from Humble Bundle a couple of weeks back. All with the same ruleset.

How is this small miracle achieved? Well, you have levels, classes, hit points but it’s the familiar six attributes (Strength, Dex, Con etc) that are the key. Black Hack is a roll under system. It uses the big six for everything. Want to hit something in melee? Roll a D20 under your strength. Want to hit something at range? Roll under your dexterity. Want to see whether you can retain that spell or solve that puzzle? Roll under your intelligence. And so on. If you are dealing with targets or tests above your level, the difference in levels is added to your roll. First level character, trying to hit a four HD Ogre with a sword? Add 3 to that Strength check.

Advantage and disadvantage rules familiar to everyone who plays D&D 5e are used to handle big situational modifiers. The way the Black Hack uses all of the familiar components of D&D and yet separates out the die-rolling mechanisms from the rest of the mechanics means you can plug stuff from almost any edition in. You don’t need to worry about THACO or different bonuses to hit or types of saving throw.

Players make pretty much all the D20 dice rolls. When a monster rolls to hit you, make a saving throw. Armor provides a secondary pool of hit points that regenerate between fights. The number provided are roughly the same as the armor’s bonus in roll high D&D/Pathfinder.

Things like torches and other disposable items are handled with a resource dice mechanism. Roll the appropriate dice when a resource check is called for. If a 1 or 2 comes up the resource dice increments down to the next size dice, a d8 becomes a d6, a d6 becomes a D4. Fail the roll on the d4 and the resource is exhausted. It’s simple and it works.

My first response when I saw all this was to think, is that it? It’s too simple, but the more I tested it, the more I came to think David Black was right and I was wrong. To do Old School role-playing simple mechanisms and your own creativity are all you need.

Each class has a few core special abilities that make them feel like that class, and that is more than we got back in the White Box days. There’s a spell list and a monster list. If you are at all familiar with role-playing games you could run this game right out of the box using any old modules you happen to have around. If you want to feed complexity back in, it’s all modular and hackable. I am presently adapting Cubicle 7’s (excellent) Adventures in Middle Earth and The One Ring and it’s a walk in the park.

The Black Hack is an open system and there are a number of variants available. I am particularly fond of The Cthulhu Hack, a quick and easy Lovecraftian horror game (now that sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?) which does away with levels completely and uses some interesting variants on the resource dice rules.

The rules are fast and flexible. Nothing gets in the way of the gaming. Prep time is low. Adapting scenarios is easy. It’s a lot of fun.

Downsides? I was not fond of the armor as hit points mechanism. The first thing I did was adapt classic D&D AC rules to the roll under system. It took me two minutes. The fighter looks grossly overpowered compared to any version in any D&D ruleset I can remember. One attack per level seems like overkill. Easily solved by making it one attack per odd-numbered level or whatever seems reasonable to you.

The Black Hack is a brilliant little book and the PDF costs $2. That’s considerably less than I paid for the White Box in pounds sterling back in 1977. Who says everything is getting more expensive? Highly recommended.

You can pick up a copy from Drivethrurpg or in print in the UK here.

The Burning Legion Returns

I’ve spent the last month in the country with very limited access to internet so I missed most of the build-up to the release of Legion. No dread lord invasions of Ogrimmar for me.

Last night though, after attending a Legion launch party at Geekarna, a splendid local cafe, I hit the beaches of the Broken Islands and began to do my part in rolling back the demonic invasion of Azeroth.

Blizzard has done an excellent job in making this feel suitably epic. I was with Sylvanas during the doomed attempt to close the demon gates and witnessed Vol’jin’s last stand. My rogue’s Outlaw spec helped me keep a suitable distance from the big monsters and not die. Then it was back to Ogrimmar to see Sylvanas take up the position of warchief and swear to avenge her predecessor. Stirring stuff.

I watched Dalaran being teleported to its new location. This was a real nostalgia-fest for me. I have always loved the flying city though I shudder to think how much time I spent there back during Wrath of the Lich King. After that, it was down into the underbelly of the city to assume my new position in the Hall of Shadows.

I decided to level Legion as an outlaw, so I took up the quest for the Dreadblades. I died a lot on the beach before I got my brain out of easy mode and I started thinking about things again.

I can’t remember how long its been since I died while questing. I’m not saying this to show how leet I am. It’s just that all of my levelling over the past few years has been done with alts in artefact gear or with a main completely empurpled from the previous expansion. This levelling has usually been done in the company of my son Dan’s similarly well-geared characters. Getting killed is not easy under those circumstances.

Anyway, once I decided to swim to the boat and climb the cliffs rather than detecting mines on the beach path by standing on them, things started to swing my way, and I was soon the proud possessor of a pair of artefact weapons.

It feels suitably epic, all the more so as Dan wields the Doomhammer but I can’t help but feel its going to start to seem a little ridiculous when Dalaran is overflowing with Doomhammer-brandishing shaman and a hundred paladins waving the Ashbringer. We’ll see soon enough.

I like the class-based Order Halls. I like running into my fellow rogues as I stalk through the tunnels. It feels like a step-up from the instancing of garrisons which I’ve always thought atomised the world a little too much.

After being inducted as a new Shadow, it was off to Stormheim for some adventuring proper. The opening questline saw me at the throat of the Alliance, which does not bode well for any sort of united front being presented by the people of Azeroth to the threat of the Burning Legion.

It was fun though to ride bats and commit acts of airborn atrocity on flying ships. When landfall was finally made on the BrokenIsles, we were off to find Sylvanas, who rather irresponsibly for a warchief had taken herself off on some sort of solo quest.

Stormheim itself has a Northrend feel to it. Lots of giant wooden elevators leading to astonishing views, huge mountains and Vyrkhul. It made me quite nostalgic triggering the holograms for the assorted Test of quests. I was up past midnight exploring the zone and I feel like I am only scratching the surface.

It was nice to see lots of people out there as I quested but things never felt too overcrowded as the opening of many previous expansions have. It took me hours to get off the beach in Northrend because I was competing with hundreds of others for every kill. Kudos to Blizzard for letting players choose their starting zone in Legion. This helps contain the overcrowding problem.

So far then Legion has been great. The presence of the Legion and the deaths of some well-known NPCs has given it a suitably epic doomy feel. It reminds me of Lich King and in a good way. I’m keen to see more. Always a good sign.

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

5th Edition D&D Goes Open License

Wizards of the Coast made a big announcement this week. The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons has gone Open License in much the same way as the 3rd edition was. In some ways they’ve gone even further with 3e by making some of their intellectual property open(ish) license as well. It seems that through their Dungeon Master’s Guild program people will be able to set adventures and supplements in the Forgotten Realms, release them and get paid for them.

I think this was a good and necessary move. I really like the 5th edition of D&D. In many ways I prefer it even to 3rd edition, which was the last edition I seriously played. The main flaw in 5e compared to 3rd edition is that it has not exactly had huge support.

Compared to previous editions, there has not been an abundance of material from WotC itself. Third party work is thin on the ground as well. I am really looking forward to seeing a wave of new worlds, supplements and scenarios for 5e. It will probably prove bad for my wallet but good for my gaming. It should also prove good for WotC as well.

In some ways this move proves that pen and paper games have become like computer operating systems and mobile phones. It’s not just about the brand, it’s about the ecosystem. I suspect the open licensing of 5e is an admission of the fact that no one game company can maintain an ecosystem by itself, not even one as large as WotC.

Currently there is a fork in the pen and paper D&D world. There is Pathfinder which is an enhanced version of 3rd edition based on the OGL and there is D&D 5e. (I’ll ignore my favourite fork, the OSR, for now.) At the moment we are in the bizarre situation of having the non-official variant of D&D better supported than the brand name version. This move by WotC should change the balance of power in that particular competitive struggle.

I’m not sure what the logic of opening up the Forgotten Realms IP is. It is a bold experiment and it does provide a way for WotC to monetise the open license. (They get a cut of everything that goes through the DungeonMaster’s Guild storefront.) I am looking forward to seeing what happens there.

For me 5th Edition is the best ever official version of D&D, and I am very hopeful that it will now get the support it deserves.

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D&D Fifth Edition

Yesterday was the official release date of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It won’t hit my FLGS for some time yet so I haven’t got my hands on a copy. I did celebrate the release by picking up the Starter Set and downloading a copy of the rules from the D&D website.

My recent D&D related experience has been with Pathfinder and the retro-clones of the Old School Renaissance. I was not a big fan of the fourth edition. It pretty much killed my interest in D&D.

It wasn’t that the fourth edition was badly done. It had all the usual WoTC virtues of high production values, beautiful art and excellent writing. And it wasn’t that it didn’t work. It did what it did very well. It was just that it was not what I wanted from a RPG.

Fourth edition always felt like the answer to a business problem rather than a gamer problem. It seemed more about selling miniatures, battlemats and rules expansions to the fanbase than making the game fun.

It focused on a battlemap with minis rather than on what was to me always the point of D&D – being inside an epic fantasy tale with my friends. It drew my attention away from the movie unfolding in my head and towards that grid, that board.

After a few sessions I gave up on it. I stalked away muttering that if I wanted to play a board game, I would play a bloody board game. I wanted to visit a magical somewhere else with my friends. I wanted to run that epic fantasy movie in my head.

That for me was always the point of D&D. I still remember my first encounter with the game 37 years ago. In no way do I exaggerate when I say it hit me with the force of a revelation. To a teenager raised on Tolkien and S&S novels it was like discovering a gateway to Narnia at the back of the wardrobe. It’s hard to convey quite how big a thing that was to a generation raised on the everyday miracles of Halo and World of Warcraft. It changed my life and gave me a career.

That’s a lot of baggage to bring to the table for any game. Anyway, to get to the point, D&D Fifth Edition –how does it measure up?

Based on my cursory readthrough, it’s great. It’s pretty much how I want D&D to be. It is clear, simple and can be played without miniatures. It focuses on getting you into that other place and it makes the most of the virtues of pen and paper RPGs. It does not try to be an ersatz miniatures game or computer game separated from cyberspace. It plays to its strengths.

The rules are clear. They’ve cut a lot of the dead wood that Pathfinder shares with the third edition. There are few die roll modifiers. Most of them can be summed up by the concept of the proficiency bonus. This starts at +2 at first level and reaches the heady heights of +6 at level 17. If you want the basic formula divide your level by 4, rounding down and add 2.

This bonus applies to everything that you are proficient in: hitting things, making skill rolls, saving throws etc. That is pretty much it.

With such flat modifiers for levels ability bonuses play a much bigger role than in third edition. They remain more or less the same as they were there. They start at +1 for an attribute of 12 and rising by +1 for every two points in the attribute you have above that.

Saving throws, skill rolls, to hit rolls are all based on your proficiency bonus if it applies and your attribute bonus. Roll a d20 and add them, meet the target number and you’re done. Rather than have a stack of modifiers you have advantage or disadvantage. Things that in previous games would have given you bonuses or penalties now give you one or the other. In both cases you roll two D20s. If you have advantage, you pick the highest. If you have disadvantage you take the lowest.

Hit points are pretty much as in the third edition, based on hit dice type by class and increasing with level. Damage uses all the familiar dice.

Spell slots are back. You use them for powering spells in much the same way a third edition sorcerer would. You can prepare your level plus your attribute bonus in spells per day and cast them as long as you have the slots to power them. Damage spells no longer scale with level. You need to power your fireball with a higher level slot to increase its damage. Simple and fair.

I could go on but I think you get the picture. The trend with this edition is towards simplicity and ease of play focusing on roleplaying and adventuring. A lot has been borrowed from the Old School Renaissance and, for me, that’s a good thing. I am impressed.

The Starter Set has a nice box. It contains pregenerated characters, dice, and two magazine-style soft cover booklets. The first booklet is a summary of all the rules you need to run the game to fifth level. The rules for the characters are all on the character sheets. The second book is a very nice looking low level campaign called The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It should see your group all the way up to level 5. I’ve not run the adventure. It seems well written and has a lot packed into it. You could do a lot worse if you want to introduce new players to the game.

I am excited by this edition. It makes me want to play D&D again. After fourth edition I did not think that was possible.

Prepping Ptolus

It’s been just over 34 years since I first encountered D&D. I can think of few things that have changed my life more. It got me interested in reading fantasy again at a time when I was slowly drifting out of it and it led indirectly to my involvement with Games Workshop and my present career.

In a world where World of Warcraft exists, it’s hard to convey exactly the impact that getting involved in D&D had back then. A generation and a half has grown up with access to movies with astonishing special effects, video games and the Internet. To me though playing a role playing game was like discovering that magic wardrobe with a gateway to Narnia. It was a portal into worlds like those in the fantasy novels I grew up reading. It, to use a phrase not quite current at the time, blew my mind.

Soon I was getting involved in playing and then creating and running dungeons. I spent a lot of time drawing huge mazes on vast sheets of graph paper and modifying systems to better suit my view of what a fantasy world should be like. This was before Advanced Dungeons and Dragons codified the whole system legalistically. There were still huge gaps in the rules that had to be filled with improvisations. There was some training here in the basic math of game design. I learned harsh lessons in audience feedback and storytelling which served me well even to this day. I like to think I learned to describe a character or evoke a place swiftly, with a few telling details.

Eventually, as many people do, I became dissatisfied by the lack of realism and flexibility inherent in the original D&D design. I tried lots of other systems. There was Runequest where I discovered that I preferred the world of Glorantha to the percentile-based, limb lopping combat system. There was Chivalry and Sorcery, a truly baroque set of rules with a cluster of interlocking magic systems so dense you might as well have been reading a real grimoire. It would have made more sense.And there were many, many more. Eventually I settled down with Champions, the forerunner of the Hero system for a decade or so.

Over the years, I watched the rise of White Wolf and the fall of TSR. I designed a role playing system (Waste World) and worked in the industry myself.

I enjoyed the return of Third Edition OGL D&D and played a fair bit of it. I could never quite get into Fourth Edition. I thought the designers did a great job on it. It just was not D&D as far as I was concerned. Hey, conservatism from a long-term gamer, who would have expected that?

Also I dislike role-playing systems intended to sell me add-ons. If I want to play a miniatures game, I will play a miniatures game. If I want to play a board-game I will buy a board-game. When I play a role-playing game I am still looking for that magic portal to another world. I don’t want things that distract me from the story I am in by focussing my attention on the table top. I felt that with Fourth Edition miniatures went from being optional to essential. Since I have worked in the industry I understand the economic benefits of selling add-ons to your core audience. It just does not provide the basic experience I am looking for in a role playing game.

My own preference at the moment is for Pathfinder. It provides what I think of as the D&D experience. It’s basically a refined version of the Third Edition OGL rules. I am familiar enough with the way the system works that I am comfortable modding it. Since I won’t be using minis, I am heavily modifying the rules for attacks of opportunity.

Using a Third Edition variant has the great advantage of letting me use Ptolus. I have wanted to play in Monte Cook’s mega-setting since I bought it five years ago but somehow I have never found the time. I have finally decided to do it anyway. So as of tonight I am starting to run the basic campaign within the book. I am looking forward to it. Last week we did party creation. We got the usual motley assemblage of half-elfs, half-orcs and halflings, not a human in sight. It’s going to be interesting seeing how this party gets on in a city that is majority human.