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.)

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...