Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest.

Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-marsh region undergoing an ecological catastrophe caused by (this isn't much of a spoiler) ancient alien technology hidden below the surface. The sun is stuck at noon twenty-four hours a day, the marshes are slowly burning hex by hex, and only the PCs can figure out what has gone wrong. The module includes a hexmap, a cave crawl inspired by Veins of the Earth, and several interlocking dungeon areas.

This is a great example of a well-written, table-ready sandbox. Each hex has something for the PCs to actually do, not just look at. The NPCs all have goals and opinions - there are at least four who could take the role of "quest-giver" depending on how the PCs interact with them. The random encounter tables are stocked with actual situations, not just names of wandering monsters.

One thing that really stands out about Bone Marshes is its focus on ecological and environmental factors as gameplay elements. Spreading wildfires and fluctuating tides create dynamic environments for players to explore. Mud is a dangerous enemy, and fresh water a valuable resource. All these things are not just set dressing, but are backed up with hard mechanics that will force the players to engage with them.

The overall tone of the module is a little scattered. Some things, like the above-mentioned mud rules, point to a grim and gritty tone, something like the Dead Marshes scenes from Lord of the Rings. But this bleak and cruel environment is populated by a cast of rather whimsical characters: a seacaptain whose boat fell through a portal in the sky; mud-people who sell mud items but only in exchange for mud coins... The contrast is reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories. I think with the right attitude from the GM, it could work very well in play.

The useability of the text is generally good. The hex descriptions are laid out in spreads, the prose is slim and functional, and the whole document is hyperlinked. There are a few places where the text could have been cut more, and a couple of others that are vague or semi-contradictory.

For some reason, the author decided to include the entirety of the Knave rules text inside the module. It's a cute idea: you can run the whole game with this book and nothing else! But it's not helpful if you want to use a different system, or your own hacked version of Knave. Plus, important setting-specific rules (for things like mud and fire-fighting) are mixed in with the generic Knave rules, making them harder to isolate.

I like every individual part of Bone Marshes, but I don't feel that urge of "I need to run this!" which will actually get it off my shelf and onto the table. Maybe my problem is that the central quest line is a bit dull. It basically boils down to the PCs collecting a bunch of batteries so that an NPC wizard can fix everything off-screen. Also, the final area (the inside of an ancient alien spaceship) is pretty generic and doesn't have the same sense of atmosphere that the above-ground sections offer.

Here are some ideas for how I might change the module if/when I get a chance to run it:

- Although the quest-giving NPC Azimech is a well-written character, I think her presence detracts from the agency of the PCs. What if she wasn't there at all?

- Instead of mapping the Marshes for Azimech, the PCs have a royal charter that gives them exclusive rights to trade in the region. The safer they can make the trade route to the King's City, the more merchants show up.

- Instead of collecting VoltCells for Azimech, the PCs have to figure out the ecological problems on their own through experimentation and/or advice from NPCs like the Swurmp Queen and the Guardian.

- I would rewrite the Vault section to be a little more Prometheus. That's just my style though.

Despite these criticisms, I really liked Bone Marshes overall and would consider it well worth the asking price. Even if you don't run it in total, elements like the hex descriptions, the mud rules or the tide system could be transplanted easily into other adventures.

Monday, 24 February 2020

10 Alternatives to "The Spell is Too High Level"

Options for locking off a powerful spell without tying it to character level:

1. It requires a lengthy ritual
2. It requires expenditure of gold or other resources
3. It requires certain ingredients that must be sought through adventure
4. It has a permanent cost for the character (e.g. stats, limbs, memories)
5. It has a permanent cost for the environment (e.g. sickness, drought, reality tears)
6. It requires special training from an NPC
7. It's dangerous - risk of backfiring
8. It draws the attention of powerful beings (wizards, demons, archons, etc. - arguably this is a variant of #4 and #5)
9. It can only be cast in a certain location
10. It can only be cast at a certain time (of day, month, year, century...)



Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Review: Cockamania!

Cockamania! is a 30-page mini-setting based in Filipino culture and folklore. Cockfighting is the main theme of the text, but it also includes mythological backstory, a small list of wilderness encounters, village politics, and even some recipes for cooking defeated cocks. The writing is evocative and draws you into its world. The biggest flaw with the supplement is a lack of immediate usability. After reading it, I immediately wanted to run an adventure in this setting, but I felt like it would take a lot of work on my part to get something playable out of the text.

Reading Cockamania is at first a bit disorienting. Many Filipino words are dropped into the text unexplained. Things become clearer once you reach the appendices that offer translations and an explanation of the gender-neutral pronouns used for certain characters. Overall, I liked the feeling that the writer was speaking honestly from their culture rather than translating everything for a Western viewpoint. I still would have preferred to have those appendices at the front of the book.

Once you get a handle on the vocabulary, the world of Sabungan village comes alive. Small details like the recipes and gambling rules give texture to the setting. The cockfights are tied in to a mythic drama involving spirits and demi-gods, which will soon intrude decisively on the villagers' everyday lives. After the village section there are some excellent wilderness encounters, some of which could form separate adventures of their own.

"Could" is the operative word here. The book isn't really ready for use at the table. In fact there is practically no mention of PCs at all, no discussion of what they might do or how they might be involved in the situation. There is a lot of backstory, but from the players' point of view the story begins with a giant goddess showing up, demanding something nobody has heard of, and threatening to eat people if she doesn't get it. OK, that's a good hook, but what happens next? How do the PCs find out any of the backstory?

Likewise, a lot of the random encounters (in village and wilderness) give no impetus for the PCs to interact with them. "A happy gambler". "2d4 wild jungle fowl". It's up to the GM or the players to squeeze out a narrative from these, with little support from the text.

Last of my criticisms about usability is the layout. The PDF has huge amounts of white space - the text could probably have been condensed to fit in less than half as many pages. Also, having recipes and cultural details scattered throughout makes it interesting to read through, but would probably add a lot of mental overhead during gameplay.

These criticisms are not dealbreakers, though. If you are interested in Asian fantasy written by Asian people, or intertextual RPG materials, Cockamania is well worth checking out.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Monsters' Saves in Knave are Too High! 3 Reasons Why

In Knave, the monster conversion/creation rules state:

Saves: Since OSR monsters usually don’t come with ability scores, assume that monsters have ability bonuses equal to their level, with the corresponding ability defenses.
Example: A typical 4 HD monster would have a bonus of +4 and a defense of 14 in all of its abilities by default, unless modified by the referee.
This makes the monsters' saves too high! Here are 3 reasons why:

1. It's not in line with classic D&D. The monster save tables in classic D&D (I'm look specifically at Old School Essentials here) give the monsters lower chances of saving. It's hard to compare one to one, because the old-school saves vary more and only change once every three levels. But in terms of average save value, Knave monsters are at least equal to OSE monsters, and sometimes have up to a 10% edge. (All this is assuming that the monster is saving against a static DC of 15. If the monster is making an opposed save against a PC's stat, then the variables are multiplied again - but in general the PC's stat is likely to be lower than 15.)

2. It's not in line with the way player characters progress. PCs only get to raise 3 of their 6 stats when they level up, but monsters gain +1 to all stats per level. Now, you might say that PCs who rolled well in character creation can start with higher than +1, which is true. But as you go up the level chart, most PCs will eventually be eclipsed by monsters.

3. It punishes rather than rewards creative play. This is the most important one. By the book, Knave monsters will usually have saves that are at least equal to their armour class, and sometimes even higher. Generally speaking, boring attack rolls will target AC whereas interesting stuff (spells, combat stunts, clever plans) will target the monster's saves. When the players use clever tactics they should have better chances of success, not worse.

The solution I propose is to assume that monsters have saving throw bonuses equal to half their level rounded up. This ensures that even against tough monsters with many hit dice, clever plans have a reasonable chance to succeed.

(P.S. - I didn't miss the phrase "unless modified by the referee" in the above quote. Of course you can and should modify saves where it fits the fiction. A lumbering armoured tortoise might have a crappy DEX save but a great CON save, for example. Nevertheless, I think it's important to have a suitable default that you can fall back on whenever you're not sure.)

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

More Slot-Based Classes for Knave

You can fill your inventory slots with 'Prep'. This represents binding your pack, muffling your shoes, and other such preparations to improve your stealth ability.
You can have up to L slots of Prep at the start of each day.
Erase a slot of Prep for one of the following effects:
- Reroll a save made to avoid detection
- Automatically hit with an attack made from stealth
- Double your number of damage dice on an attack made from stealth

You can use totems, which are items linked to a particular animal.
Each totem allows you to transform into that animal once per day for Lx10 minutes. When transformed, you gain the appearance and abilities of the animal, and can communicate with other animals of the same type, but your ability scores and hit points are unchanged.
You can carry up to L totems at a time.
Do a favour for an animal and it will give you its skin totem.
Kill an animal yourself and you can use its organs to create a blood totem. When transformed with a blood totem, animals of the same type hate and fear you.

You can create Bonds with your allies by carrying items that they have given you.
Any item can be associated with a Bond as long as it was given to you as a gift. You can only have one Bond per ally.
You can carry up to L Bond items at any time.
Once per Bond per day, you can grant that ally one of the following advantages:
- An extra action during a combat round
- 1d6+1 temporary hit points
- Reroll a morale check or a saving throw against mental effects
Using a Bond is a free action and can be done outside of your normal turn order.

You can engrave runes on your items to improve them.
You can carry up to L engraved items at a time.
Items cannot be engraved with more than one rune.
You know the following runes:
Uruz: engrave on armour for +1 AC
Thurisaz: engrave on a weapon for +1 attack and damage
Fehu: engrave on a tool to gain advantage when using the tool for its purpose
Algiz: the item will not break except under extreme circumstances
Naudiz: the item is always to hand and can be used without awkwardness
Tiwaz: the item can affect intangible objects and creatures.

You can carry solvents - powerful potion bases that are too dangerous for other characters to handle. You can carry up to L solvents. You can make more solvents in town for 10cp each.
You can dissolve any number of items into a solvent to create a potion.
- The first item confers its primary function upon the potion.
-  Adding more items improves the potion's efficacy. By default, the potion is about as useful as the item that was dissolved. As a rule of thumb, 100cp or 1HD of fresh monster parts is enough to improve the potion by one 'step'.
- The Alchemist can choose whether to make the potion as a tonic (effective when drunk) or a grenadoe (effective when thrown).
Mixing a potion takes 10 minutes. The duration of tonics is 10xL minutes and the splash area of grenadoes is 10'.

Example: Annie the Alchemist dissolves a 10' pole into her solvent. The DM rules that the pole's primary function is "to prod", so the potion grants the imbiber the power to stretch their fingers up to 10' long. Annie adds 100cp of treasure and the guts of a 1HD monster to get two improvements. She asks to make the "prodding" telepathic and to make it stronger so it can knock enemies down.
If Annie had made a grenadoe instead, she would have a prod-bomb that prods everyone in range of its explosion.

You can use reliquaries - holy items that contain body parts or personal effects from saints. You can carry up to L reliquaries at a time.
You can pray to your god for a miracle. A miracle has one of the following effects:
- Heal 1d6+1 hp
- Reroll any one die rolled by another character
- Terrify L+1 hit dice of undead
- Negate a spell as it is cast
- Dispel an enchantment for Lx10 minutes
After a miracle, roll d20 + the number of reliquaries you carry. On a 15 or less, your god finds you unworthy and will send no more miracles until you make a burnt offering: Lx100cp worth of food, or L hit dice of monsters.
You can acquire reliquaries from senior members of your faith. You can also create a reliquary from the corpse of a character who displayed holy virtue in life.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Class Hack for Knave

Here are some simple but effective character classes to bolt onto Knave. These are not playtested so exercise your own judgment.

You can use panoply items to focus your magical power. Panoply items are wizardly accoutrements such as a staff, robes, amulet or pointy hat. Each panoply item must be different from the others.

Each panoply item can be used once per day for one of the following effects:
- Restore a spellbook that has been expended
- Force an enemy to reroll a saving throw against one of your spells
- Supercharge a spell as you cast it. Supercharging generally doubles the effect of the spell. The exact details depend on the spell and GM adjudication.

You can carry a number of panoply items equal to your level.

You can exert yourself for extra power in battle. Exerting yourself means filling one of your empty inventory slots with "Exerted". The slot must already be empty - you cannot throw away an item and exert that slot on the same combat round. Exerted slots are cleared after a night's rest.

By exerting yourself you can use one of the following effects:
- Gain advantage on an attack or defense roll
- Add 1d6 damage to a successful attack
- Add a stunt to a successful attack

The maximum number of slots you can exert is equal to your level.

When purchasing items in town, you can instead opt to fill one slot with a "Useful Item" and note the value of the item. At any time, you can declare what the Useful Item is. It must be a mundane item you could conceivably have purchased for that value or less. It can also be a specific magic item (not a spellbook) that you already own but left in storage.

The maximum number of slots you can fill with Useful Items is equal to your level.


- Credit: the panoply items are from Benjamin Baugh and Courtney Campbell, exertion is based on the stamina rules from Grave, and the Useful Items are found in Kidnap the Archpriest, Dungeon World, and probably others.

- What I like about these classes is they are simple, but distinctive and relatively potent. I've seen a few class hacks for Knave that add very light classes with just a few minor bonuses. This might seem in the spirit of the base game, but I feel that it's better to have noticeable classes or none at all.

- The Fighter's ability encourages them to carry minimal items "Conan style". I restricted them from tossing items in combat because I thought it would get silly if they were shedding random stuff during every battle (a problem I also have with the "shields will be splintered" rule).

- One issue with this system is that PCs' item slots might get chocker-block at high levels. A 10th level Fighter will have 10 Exert slots, but how many will they actually be able to use if their Constitution is at 15 or 16?

- A lot of Knave hacks seem to interact with the encumbrance system, unsurprisingly since it's at the core of the game. But the more things you load up into encumbrance slots, the more likely it is that Constitution becomes a must-have stat.

- The Rogue's ability might not scale up very well compared to the other two classes. The idea is that at low levels the Rogue is whipping out useful mundane items, but at high levels they are more focused on magic items. The limitation on not bringing spellbooks is rather inelegant, but I think if it weren't there then the Rogue would end up being a bit of a "spellbook valet" for the Magic-User.

- One oddity about the Rogue's ability is that you can use it to "protect" valuable items. Say you have a McGuffin that mustn't fall into the villain's hands. You can leave it in town and bring a "Useful Item" which might be the McGuffin if you need it, but won't be the McGuffin if the villain captures you and searches your pack. I think this is a feature, not a bug, since it lets the Rogue be Grant Morrison-era Batman, always two steps ahead of the enemy. But some people might find it a bit weird.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Many Voices at the Table

I think we are at a place now in RPG design where most people have moved beyond the idea of equating game texts with game experiences directly. We understand the rulebook does not have sole authority in defining what kind of game will play out in any given game session. The rulebook is, at most, an equal participant along with the people involved in the game.

With this understanding comes new language. Instead of thinking of the rulebook as "a game that we are playing", we think of it as a tool for the participants to use. Or alternatively, as another "voice" at the table - the voice of the game designer.

In storygames, the designer's voice is generally singular, and often the human participants will put a fair amount of effort into "listening to" that voice. When people play The Clay That Woke, they play with an interest in hearing what Paul Czege had to say when he wrote the game. This is not unreasonable since Paul Czege is really smart.

On the other hand, participants in OSR games tend to lack respect for the designer's voice. Instead, the GM's voice is privileged. Almost every GM has their own unique "rulebook", whether it's a full-blown heartbreaker or a hacked version of another game. Frequently, these GM-designers (myself included) talk in terms of creating a singular rules text that will work in concert with the GM during play. Unsurprisingly, when game master and rulebook are one entity, a large amount of power resides there (for good or ill).

But these rulebooks are not sprung fully formed from the GM's mind. They are assembled from bits and pieces of other designers' work. If you've spent much time reading OSR blogs or the OSR discord you will be familiar with discussions like this: "I'll take Into the Odd damage and mix it with stunts from Knave. I want to include GLOG magic and spell breeding, but I'm not sure if I should use the panoply rules or just give Magic Dice per level..."

This suggests a different approach to the "designer's voice" metaphor. Rather than hearing one voice from a rulebook by a singular designer, in OSR games we are hearing many voices from many designers. Maybe we are hearing Chris McDowell during combat, then Emmy Allen during exploration, and then Historian interjects briefly when the PCs decide to cook some monsters in the dungeon.

Thinking of it this way frees the GM from the Sisyphean task of creating "the perfect ruleset". Instead, the GM can speak with their own voice while calling up the voices of others as the game requires. Maybe one session is a long drawn-out skirmish, so the table needs relatively complex combat rules. The next session is a wilderness crawl, so we need rules for resource management with harsh penalties.

Of course, being able to do this on the fly requires broad knowledge and virtuosity. You still need to be the sort of GM who reads lots of design blogs and obsessively tinkers with rulesets. Perhaps there are techniques that can make this easier, like keeping a binder of modular rules hacks for quick access at the table.

A final thought: if the GM can summon designers out of thin air, why not players too? Next time you are taking the PC role in a game, try saying: "Can I breed these two spells together to make a new one? I have the rules for it right here..."

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest. Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-ma...