Archive for June, 2013


Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Howdy folks,

Since I realized Google+ was making up a large part of my online gaming discussion, and I got tired of the weird authentication to comment on blogs with my WordPress account, I’ve ported the blog over to Blogger.  I’m still getting used to it, some stuff I like, some stuff I don’t, but I’m looking forward to the integration with the discussion/promotion on Google+.  So, to continue following along, please go here:

Review of “Better than Any Man” and Mercenary Group Recruitment

Posted in RPGs with tags , , , on June 19, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, after my enthusiastic blurb the other day, I figured “Better than Any Man” warranted a full review after I finished reading it last night. So, here that review is.


First off, for those that might not know, what is “Better than Any Man” (hereafter referred to as BTAM)?  BTAM is a meaty adventure/mini-sandbox written by James Raggi for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess Adventures line and specifically for “Free RPG Day 2013”.  It intentionally flies in the face of the Free RPG Day guidelines, and is about 1000 times better on account of it.

For those odd few not familiar with Raggi, he does a better job establishing what he’s about than I ever could, so allow me to quote from his “Author’s Notes” to set the tone:

“Welcome to LotFP’s Free RPG Day adventure! It isn’t what it is supposed to be. 

We were told “Include quickstarter rules!” We were advised to create a short introductory/teaser adventure.  We were warned to make it suitable for all audiences.

We didn’t do that. You know why?


That is the amount of fucks we give about what we’re supposed to do.”

I was glad to have made the drive to the Friendly Not-Quite Local Game Store to pick this up after having read just that.

Now, before I get into the adventure itself, let me clarify my relationship as a referee to Raggi’s work.  Honestly, I find most of his stuff too weird/horrific/game-changing to want to include it in my regular campaign as is.  That being said, I’d say that his published adventures are possibly the most useful I’ve bought because they force me to think in different ways and expose me to fantastically weird ideas I would never have on my own. Also, Raggi’s style of adventures and excellent referee advice in Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (LotFP) have helped me develop the crucial referee skill of not softballing my players.  Sometimes you gotta pull the trigger, and sometimes that trigger is a save or die trap.  While I’ve wholesale lifted more material from adventures by others (Gygax, Matt Finch, and so forth), Raggi’s stuff has done far more to push me out of my referee comfort zone, and that’s all to the good.

With all that out of the way, let’s talk about BTAM itself, cos that’s why you’re here, right? As mentioned, this thing is big.  96 pages in an A5 format, with teeny double column text, so there’s a lot of content there.  A lot a lot of content.  New monsters, spells, some seriously creepy NPCs, a fully statted out town, half a dozen sketched out towns, each with something of interest mentioned, something like 5 mapped and keyed adventure locations, even some surprisingly compact and functional firearms rules squeezed into a box in a corner. Oh yeah, and one hell of a time pressure creator in the form of the Swedish Army behind King Gustavus Adolphus.


If you haven’t been checking out Raggi’s recent stuff, this whole “Swedish” and “Firearms” business is probably freaking you out.  From the get go, LotFP has had a decidedly early modern flavor, but Raggi’s been pushing it even more recently, and has even taken to writing most of his material for the real world.  Initially I found this extremely off-putting.  Like, “why would I even buy that?” off-putting. After reading some positive reviews, and thinking about, and letting an extant interest in the early modern period percolate some more, though, I’ve come around.  Here’s the rationale: A) It’s super easy to translate real-world stuff into fantasy equivalents if you want to, since that’s where about 90% of fantasy content comes from anyway, B) as a game with a horror focus, it is a cheap but super effective short cut to create the necessary “grounding” to contrast with the real horror, C) All of that boring background and setting detailing is totally already done and available and D) It turns out the early modern period is a pretty good fit for standard D&D assumptions: lots of war, small, scattered states, superstition and magic, vast unexplored tracts of land peopled by dangerous intelligent humanoids (in this case actual humans), and even professional adventurers who do nothing but travel the world looking for ways to get valuable through violence and craft.

Basically, I’ve gone from finding the idea of a historical early modern game of D&D completely awful to finding it extremely compelling.  I’m way more likely to incorporate early modern elements into some other fantasy world, but I would actually consider running a historical game at this point. BTAM is the product that actually convinced me of it.

Speaking of which, good Lord am I talking about a lot of tangential stuff and not the adventure itself.  So, the cover of the adventure is not attached, and inside of it is a lovely color map showing the keyed locations and the surrounding terrain.  It depicts a part of Lower Franconia (Holy Roman Empire = crazy confusing.  Just think “basically Germany” for now) that may or may not be geographically accurate, I don’t know.  But there’s plenty or space to wander around in, some really high quality random wilderness encounters, and the seeds of ideas for some of the less-detailed towns.  The adventure has a fair number of these “you make it up, you’re the referee!” which I think is pretty great.  I mean, I’m so unlikely to run the adventure “straight” as is, that the prospect of embellishing some other things on my own is no big deal.

The items and spells have the typical Raggi flavor of “serious consequences for magic use”.  I found more of these to be potentially actually useful rather than straight up “you are screwed for even considering using magic, dummy”, which some of the magic items I’ve seen in his adventures previously come across as (I’m looking at you, everything from Devan’ku). In this adventure, I think the consequences are either rare enough or live-withable enough to instead present a compelling picture of “magic has a cost, but it works”.  There’s still the odd screw job to remind players that it really is kind of shitty to rob graves and callously kill everybody and steal things, but overall, it’s a little more adventure and a little less “we’re here to see how much awful stuff you will do/put up with”.

BTAM also does an admirable job of setting up a few “reveals” without having a “plot” per se.  This is done by seeding bits of information in different locations, such that no matter how you approach them, you’ll get a slowly growing picture of what’s going on, rather than requiring specific clues or investigative techniques.

Finally, BTAM possesses a quality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and that is modularity.  Now, I don’t mean in the sense that the whole adventure is a module you can drop in to any campaign world with minimal fuss (though it’s pretty decent for that too, if you can substitute in an appropriate invading army).  What I mean is that each element is highly useful by itself.  The elements fit together into an interesting and flavorful whole, with lots of links, but you don’t have to use all of them to use any of them.  The spells given could be found in any suitably creepy wizard’s spellbook.  The Shrine to the Insect God could go just about anywhere, the town of Karlstadt and its unique rulership could be dropped into most places, the monsters could appear on their own, et cetera.  So BTAM, besides being an interesting and well done adventure is also a pretty jam-packed toolkit.  I would venture that just about any referee/GM/DM/whatever will find at least one thing they would like to use in their game unchanged, and at least a dozen more that might take some minor tweaking, and who knows how much that serves as rough inspiration for something pretty different.

Long story short: if you weren’t lucky enough to get a backer copy for kickstarting this (like me) or to pick one up at Free RPG Day (unlike me) totally buy the PDF when it comes out.  Raggi has mentioned on Google+ that it will feature some upgrades (more printer and e-reader friendly, “loosened up” layout, stuff like that).  And don’t forget that the complete LotFP rules are available without art for free from RPGNow.  Even if you aren’t into the weird fantasy/horrific angle, they’re a pretty robust version of D&D with some good encumbrance and wilderness/overseas travel rules.

Rating: 5/5 – Enthusiastic Recommendation, especially if you don’t think you’d like it

Recruiting Groups of Mercenaries for an expedition

This is the first installment (well, second if you count the mass combat rules) of the modular rules I’m developing for an adventuring company expedition set of rules.  The idea is that you can plug it into a lot of different systems, or use the whole thing as its own setting/game variant.

When you hire a group of otherwise nondescript mercenaries for an expedition, you can use one of the following options:

1) Randomly generate each and every individual and keep track of them as separate hirelings, as you would for any standard adventure. This works best with normal sized expeditions (say, no more than 1o or 12, and when a high level of detail in play is desired) where all players are together, so that a lot of detail isn’t leaving anybody out.

2) Treat the group of hirelings/mercenaries as one “individual”.  For the sake of ease, every ability score is equal to 8+1d4 (these are thoroughly average people), but randomly determine one ability and add 1d6 to it for every 6 members of the group (there’s one exceptional individual).  HP are equal to the number of members’ HD, and all members must be equipped identically.  If using a skill system of some sort, give the group one advance past starting, but otherwise consider it to have default levels.  Additional advances can be bought using whatever system is appropriate.

3) Use a skirmish rules system of your choice to keep track of groups of mercenaries/hirelings (Mordheim is a natural choice as it was a large inspiration for these rules in the first place)


Free RPG Day

Posted in RPGs on June 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, yesterday was “Free RPG Day”.  For those of you who don’t know, participating game stores buy boxes from the Free RPG Day organizers which are chock full of free game material.  Usually this consists of one-off adventures, quick start versions of rules, that kind of thing.  And for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, that is precisely what I got (there were some others, but I didn’t want to grab stuff just for the sake of grabbing stuff when other people might get more use out of it).  But this year had the totally awesome not-quick-start, not-all-ages-appropriate “Better than Any Man” by James Raggi from his own Lamentations of the Flame Princess line of adventures.  It’s like a mini-campaign setting (Lower Franconia being invaded by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus – yes, it is a historical setting, just like “The God That Crawls”).  I’m about halfway through reading it now, and it is awesome.  Tons of disturbing content, chock full of Raggi’s signature “not just kill your characters, but fundamentally alter them and/or the world” spells and encounters.  Much like “The God That Crawls” I will personally most likely not follow Raggi’s advice from the referee book in the Grindhouse edition of LotFP – which is to make only the tweaks necessary to make an adventure fit in your world and then nothing else – because, well, I’m just not that mean.   But I like to include some of his stuff to force myself to play for keeps.


If you were not lucky enough to have a participating local game store, or to make it to one, Mr. Raggi plans to have a few leftovers available for cheap from the online store soon.  Or you could talk to some people who maybe did get their hands on one.  And once the exclusivity of getting one at Free RPG Day wears off, I think he’s talked about making a PDF version available for sale.  If so, I super recommend you get it. Really just ridiculous how much good stuff is packed in there for free.  It’s bigger than all previous LotFP adventures, so it’s easily worth 15-20 bucks print and 5-10 pdf.  And that’s a low-ball.  He could probably ask for more and it’d be worth it.  So, sorry to gush, but it’s good, it’s exciting, and you should try to find it.

Fellhold Session 32 and 33 Recap and Quick and Dirty Mass Combat Rules

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, New Rules, RPGs on June 11, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Session 32 started out with a lot of technical issues for everyone participating.  I suspect it had to do with the changes Google had just made to the hangouts/video chat format.  Speaking of which, I miss my posts about hangouts displaying the name of the video chat, because that was the primary way I reminded myself what session number we were on for the blog.  Oh well, being able to count should be good enough for the most part.

The player characters decided to spend the night in Bjergby and then ask the priests about using their library in the morning.  They want to learn more about the history of Gurgu and confirm or reject some of the rumors they picked up in Mickleheim.  Their sleep was interrupted by the innkeeper pounding on their door, however.  Priests had run down from the temple to fetch the adventurers because they remembered Yllgrad the dwarf’s boasting about killing many foul beasts, and their temple was under attack.

Now, this set up *smacks* of being set up for the PCs benefits, right in the same vein as “then ninjas pop out!”, but here’s the God’s honest truth: okay, yes, having an attack from monsters from outside was thought up to make the location more of an “adventure”, and only came up because the players ended up visiting this place, so in that sense it’s “plotted”. But after deciding that bugbears from the deep would be an adventure element, their actions have been determined either independently or in reaction to the players.  I randomly determined a number of days until the bugbears planned to attack, and then decided that they had a spy on the island, and if the players said or did certain things in front of the spy, they would push their timetable up.  Turns out their scheduled attack was at 5:00 in the morning of this day.


Thanks Tony Diterlizzi

So, the players decided that if they help out the priests, maybe they’ll give them access to the temple in gratitude, and they occasionally have vague senses of doing the right thing.  When they show up, they are lead to the bottom two floors of the temple, and they are attacked with crossbow bolts out of patches of unnatural darkness! Yllgrad’s faithful hireling Nyllan is struck and falls headlong into the lava, bringing with him most of Yllgrad’s adventuring gear besides his armor and weapon! The adventurers charge into the darkness and find themselves fighting blind against trollkin (a bugbear and his hobgoblin slaves).

They manage to dispatch the hobgoblins pretty quickly, with the help of Sir Braxton, Caleb’s dog, and a few lucky critical hits.  The bugbear takes some serious damage and decides to flee.  The party presses on to fight another similar group with similar results, except this bugbear throws sleep gas grenades before fleeing (thanks to a suggestion on Google+ for the idea for using noxious fumes, which lead to the sleep gas grenade idea).  It puts Sir Braxton, a hireling, and Caleb to sleep, along with the lone surviving hobgoblin slave.  The party ties him up for questioning before moving on to the large melee.

See, as all of this has been going on, the main force of Bugbears, Hobgoblins, Trolls, and lightning lizards have been facing off against the priests and their summoned elemental.  Then they also summoned the avatar of Gurgu, and it pretty much went against the bugbears and their slaves after that.  The players’ ranged characters and henchmen contributed by picking off some leadership and killing two of the lightning lizards.  Being hard pressed, the bugbears retreated, leaving the enraged trolls and lightning lizards fighting. They threw sleep grenades, which promptly knocked out every single priest.  Fortunately, the elemental did not go out of control and kept the trolls busy, but Gurgu just stood there without direction from the priests.


By the time the players got there, the trolls had fled in the face of so much non-regenerating damage, and they helped Bjergmund clear the whole complex, thereby getting something of a tour.  During this clearing, they found a collapsed newly dug tunnel that was the apparent retreat point of the Bugbears and their forces.  Bjergmund also answered some questions about the temple and Gurgu, confirming that the temple was built by a wizard before Gurgu was worshipped, and that he selected it so that his library of clay tablets would be in hot, dry air.  For their help in defending the temple, the PCs were all offered free lifetime access to the baths, the chest containing the offerings  of the faithful, and a chest with fancy vestements, which the party gratefully accepted.  We had to end somewhat early due to a number of early appointments, and the party decided that next time they will seek out any alternative landing places on the island to confirm that the monsters really did come from deep under the earth and to go through the library to research Gurgu. If they complete that, they will return to Mickleheim to sell some loot and refit for future adventures.


Quick and Dirty Mass Combat Rules

Alternative 1 (slightly more concrete): Treat each side as a “character”.  Assign AC, HD, HP and morale based on the overall characteristics of the side (something like 1 HP per 1 HD monster/character is probably reasonable).  When players are not involved, each side fights as if a one on one fight.  Determine initiative normally and go from there.  If players get involved, have them make attacks on the side as if against a single character if they’re indiscriminate, or if they target someone in particular (like a leader) “zoom in” and alter the side’s “character” appropriately.  For example, if they kill a 3HD leader guy, deduct 3 HP from the side as a whole, and maybe test morale. Without other special circumstances (leaders killed, horrifying magic, et cetera) start testing morale after ¼ or ½ HP damage are taken.

Alternative 2 (more abstract and potentially more swingy): Assign each side a base morale value and a morale bonus or penalty.  Each combat round, roll a d20 for each side, and the higher roll wins that round.  Deduct a point from the losing side’s morale bonus (or increase the penalty by 1).  Test morale every round.  When one side fails a morale check, it flees.  Alter the morale modifiers appropriately for character actions (deduct points when they kill leaders or big monsters, add points when they rally the troops or lead a charge, whatever). This tends to assume fairly evenly matched forces, but if you want one side to have way better fighting ability, you can always modify the vs. d20 roll, or use Alternative 1 above.

Alternative 3 (most concrete): Roll up lots of creatures/characters.  Roll initiative.  Have a big ass fight with the normal rules.  Take careful notes to avoid going insane.  Budget a lot of time.

Morale Rolls: For these rules, a morale roll of 2d6 attempting  to roll under modified morale score is assumed.  Morale scores range from 2 (totally cowardly) to 12 (fanatically loyal).  Basic humans/humanoids with a normal stake in a fight can be assumed to be morale 7. A natural 2 always passes, and a natural 12 always fails.  Note that a modifier of +3 or greater will almost guarantee passing these rolls for Morale of 7 or greater.  If you have a different preferred morale system, go with that, but a 2 or more dice roll is recommended, so that you will have a normal distribution with most results clustering around the average (7) +/- 1 or 2.