At some point in almost every gamer’s career, we get tired of being the good guy. The helpless villagers start to look less like citizens in need of aid and more like easy marks, we realize it’s easier to burn a town down instead of, searching for the bad guys, and the princess in the tower.... Well, let’s not mention that. But most systems aren’t designed with evil in mind, and keeping a group of evil PCs together is akin to herding cats. That’s where Book of Exalted Darkness comes in. Mike Myler was kind enough to sit down and talk about his book, which is aimed at providing a world where evil will thrive, mechanics to help players find the darkness in their hearts, and tools for GMs to keep their parties focused on being the horrible people they actually are.
(Editor’s Note, interview has been edited for length.)
1) The Book of Exalted Darkness introduces Sanctity and Sin attributes into 5E, which reflects on a PC’s holiness or vile intent, but what struck me is how a character loses points, namely being witnessed taking an action of the opposite nature. Why was is the perception of others so important to the loss of Sanctity and Sin, but not to gaining it?
First of all thanks for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness!
Sanctity and Sin are thematic attributes—that is to say they are mechanical expressions of themes inherent to the game. All of my 5E campaign settings use thematic attributes as a way to reinforce how the game is fundamentally different than a regular D&D 5E game. For example, Hypercorps 2099 5e uses Luck and Reputation (to quicken the futuristic cyberpunk game’s pace), Mists of Akuma has Dignity and Haitoku (how honored you’re thought to be and “fall from virtue” that ends with transformation by the mists), and 2099 Wasteland has Irradiated (which is self-explanatory).
In Book of Exalted Darkness there are two new thematic attributes each serving two purposes. Sanctity defines how easy it is for a wicked soul to seem uncorrupted and Sin is a measure of that actual corruption, but both are largely involved with inaequa, wherein your answer lies. Again I have to divert a bit to explain something important: the actual campaign setting itself is not evil, mostly it’s just the adventurers. Everything (and everyone) else is holy decopunk—think Rocketeer or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—so there are blimps, radios, telephones, trolleys, jetpacks, and what have you. The trick here is that all of that technology is fueled by inaequa, a substance that radiates energy elongating the lives of good creatures. The PCs (and other evil adventurers like them, as well as some mad scientists) are flawed souls that can take this fundamentally unjust technology and trick it to make it work for them or pervert it to overcharge and explode or produce other nasty effects.
Mostly it’s a matter of game intent—the book is built around the idea that a group playing in the world is out to wreck it. Throughout a campaign the PCs work with mad scientists lurking beneath the earths and seas, dismantling the 9 Spheres of Askis (inaequa being one of them) and restoring balance, or much more likely, imbalance in a different direction than before. By encouraging the party to secretly act in evil or good ways, it navigates gameplay towards subterfuge, reinforcing the pulp feel that decopunk brings with it.
2) What drove you to make inequality, which manifests itself as inaequa, the powersource of technology which prolongs the lives of good creatures, into the game?
We actually (we being myself, Savannah Broadway, Luis Loza, and Michael McCarthy) started writing this a year ago and it just didn’t hook. All of the other settings we’ve made all feel super distinct and are conceptually as tight as a drum, but the original pitch for Book of Exalted Darkness—a medieval world where angels had won the day, instilling a world of goodness for evil adventurers to fight against—just wasn’t clicking.
While checking on the status of the Book of Exalted Darkness pitch (which in its original form was not sent to Legendary Games but another publisher) I ran into an article about how the world needs more decopunk—and I emphatically agreed.
They decided to pass on it (which was a good call for everyone!) and since I had control of it again I started figuring out how to merge those two ideas together, then—like all my best and worst ideas—very late one evening I had an errant thought: “what if humans develop a gene that transforms electromagnetic energy in a practical way, like increased synapse firing or…” and off I went for a twenty minutes. The idea got tossed into my subconscious for a while and then a few days later it hit me: that could be the crux for the campaign setting! I ran to the computer and started a flurry of messages to my team and they were like “that’s it, we got it”. After a few more days all that germinated into inaequa and then the gold and blood encrusted grimoire of good and evil that is Book of Exalted Darkness. We actually had some other things planned for the start of the summer and ended up swapping the schedule around after figuring out inaequa because it really is something worth thinking about; it doesn’t do harm, it only unfairly grants gifts, a boon to one’s life, something more valuable than any gem or relic! I know I wouldn’t be cool with inaequa (even if it did work for me; anything that discourages free will is bad in my book) but it’s definitely a worthwhile conundrum and most importantly, it gives the party a reason to unify together and some justification for being truly despicable villains: for JUSTICE!
3) What challenges have you had bringing extra technology into 5th Edition? How have you tweaked character classes traditionally associated with medieval fantasy to integrate them into your decopunk setting?
Oooh, excellent question! Hypercorps 2099 5e is superhero cyberpunk, Mists of Akuma is eastern fantasy noir steampunk, and 2099 Wasteland is apocalyptic sci-fi, so this is going to be my fourth campaign setting where technology plays a significant role. In the past we relied on class archetypes, but starting with the most recent book we decided that technology was playing an important enough role that it needed to get entirely new class options so 2099 Wasteland has doctors, mechanics, and scrappers, all of which are available in that book’s PDF preview. We also created a customized weapon-building system but those rules don’t really have a place in Book of Exalted Darkness—we’ll be pulling the vehicle rules from 2099 Wasteland but otherwise every piece of technology is getting its own entry on how it functions (and in the case of inaequa-powered devices, the rules for how it works for a good/neutral/evil creature).
As far as technological archetypes go in Book of Exalted Darkness however, there are none yet. If backers or playtesters say, “Hey Mike! I want to ________”, I will make a draft of rules for it and toss it around with the design team, then probably include it. This book we’re shooting to make 180 pages but most of the time we end up stretching resources to the brink and producing 50% or more past what the initial budget planned on. But hey! We’re making the best books we can!
I’ve been mentioning mad scientists and those are where I’ve been putting my technological emphasis on, creating the equivalent of a warlock for the scrapper from 2099 Wasteland (which is built mostly like a wizard but with technology). Mad scientists only use their spell slots to cast offensive things through their Scientific Weapon, relying on Scientific Devices (like a warlock’s eldritch invocations) to access other magic. For their archetypes there’s an Evil Engineer (who specializes in surviving within society), Fleshworkers (chirurgeons that perform surgeries that grant a variety of benefits or things like lobotomies), Tricksters (want bombs and explosions?), and Unholy Technologists (if you’re looking to trick and manipulate inaequa, this is the way to go). There’ll be a free Mad Scientist Playtest PDF coming out before the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter ends on June 17th so keep an eye out! :D
4) What’s been the most twisted thing you or your PCs have done so far in playtesting?
Oof, that’s a hard one. There are four things that stand out for me:
5) One of the biggest challenges in running an evil campaign is keeping the party focused on a unified goal. How does Book of Exalted Darkness help GMs and PCs stay unified?
Well the whole world is quite positively arrayed against them and they have a shared enemy (albeit an uncaring global effect as opposed to entity) but those are pretty vague. Part of the Book of Exalted Darkness is going to be devoted to fleshing out as many GM tools as we can provide for keeping a cadre of villains from backstabbing one another but there’s a trinity at the core of them all—fate, thematic mechanics, and circumstance.
Fate is pretty obvious: make the party need one another through plot, tie them to one another by connections in their backgrounds, or have some very vital story reason for the group to work together. Thematic mechanics are a little more vague—these would be things like an in-game pact that has out-of-game consequences on character sheets—but there’s also Sin. Killing one or two companions might not be so bad, but going about murdering too many (unprovoked allies) will rack up your Sin. Then there’s circumstance or tertiary benefits. Having a trusted ally you know is competent means access to a network of contacts you don’t have yourself, it’s easier to survive against a state government when you have allies, different compatriots have their own unique talents (like that mad scientist you all know and are kind of afraid of but have to rely on for technological help anyway), and so on. Near the end game it’ll be very important that at least one party member be able to act as the “face” when their villainy becomes truly infamous or they’ve transformed into vilespawn, otherwise the party will be up to commando-esque raids on the workings of Askis’ most powerful defenders with little ability to manipulate the exploitable bureaucracy surrounding them.
Thanks again for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness! As of this writing we’re still in the first week and 67% funded, so we’re pretty excited about reaching the funding goal and unlocking a few stretch goals (hint: we’re looking to convert outside of 5E!) Check out the project page, download the 2 free PDFs, and consider pledging to my (6th, sure to overdeliver again) Kickstarter! :D
Check out the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Our intrepid reporter Philip reached out to Lee Moyer to discuss some of his amazing RPG art. Please check it out the interview, and then check out Lee’s site: www.leemoyer.ninja
1) When did you realize that you could make a living with your art?
When I was a boy of 8, I had favorite artists - John R. Neill, Arthur Rackham, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, MC Escher, et al. And it was probably around that time that I realized two things:
1. That not every child spoke rhapsodically about their favorite artists or could explain why they admired them. In fact kids didn't care about such things at all. And...
2. That the artists I so respected had all been professionals who were paid for their excellent work.
From these 2 points, it seemed pretty clear that I or anyone else might be paid to follow suit - providing that we paid proper attention and practiced our craft diligently.
2) How do you approach working on a new property you are not familiar with, and how much input does the designer/publisher have?
Everything depends upon the project.
In some cases, I will literally be given a one word descriptor and told to do as I like - the Art Director trusting my grasp of the genre and necessary underpinnings. In others, there will be very complex story/design "Bibles" and councils of in-house brand specialists will ride herd over anything I do. In most cases, I will do all the research I can - often going far beyond the extent expected (I was a docent at the Smithsonian' s Natural History Museum for a decade, and I well know that proper research can make an enormous difference).
3) What has been your favorite property to work on?
I love our game/media culture so much that even writing about the favorite property I'd worked on in any given year would be challenging enough! As a lifelong HP Lovecraft fan, my board game The Doom the Came To Atlantic City obviously comes to mind. But so do my online games Sanctum and Star Chamber. And my dear friend Keith Baker's card game Gloom. And my role playing game 13th Age. But do these completely overshadow Age of Empires? D&D? Star Wars? Star Trek? Shadowrun?
4) If you could Frankenstein together three other artists who work on RPGs, who would you choose, and what would you take from them?
I'd have to include the delightful Todd Lockwood, if only to see his startled face. ;)
Todd draws like a dream and paints wonderfully. I have collaborated with him twice and been pleased and surprised with the results.
I think that Dave Trampier's work in that long-ago Monster Manual is the stuff of magic. His design sense, his grasp of pattern and silhouette - whether the menace of an Intellect Devourer (imagine trying to make a brain on legs that scary!), or the elegance of that Rakshasa - just breathtaking stuff.
While I adore Errol Otis' phenomenal Lovecraftian visions, I couldn't dare mixing him with Todd and Dave, lest the whole thing curdle. Instead, I'll pick the remarkable Adam Rex. Adam's time in gaming was comparatively short, but his imagination and humor (as seen in The True Meaning of Smekday and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich) are as fine as his grasp of color and form.
I hope my answer was up the the mania of the question.
5) What projects are you working on now, or do you have coming out shortly?
I'd love to tell you in detail, but because of the way the industry works, I'm afraid I cannot. Maybe check back with me in a couple months?
That is all for now. Please take a look at Lee’s site and hire him to do some amazing art for you in the future. http://www.leemoyer.com/
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
In late March Goodman Games launched their Kickstarter to bring the legendary Lankhmar setting to their OSR game, Dungeon Crawl Classics. I asked Goodman Games' Michael Curtis a few questions about fantasy's past and DCC’s future.
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions!
My pleasure, Philip!
1) Lankhmar has been around for a long time and has had many different iterations. How do you strike a balance between handling the legacy of the city and creating something new?
It’s certainly a challenge. The Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories have been around for almost 80 years, and RPG companies have been interpreting those tales since 1976. Suffice to say, a lot of people have their own personal notions of Lankhmar and Nehwon. I don’t think it’s possible to appease everyone, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try with DCC Lankhmar.
I began by rereading the stories, first in the order they were published and then in the chronological order they were later arranged in, all the while taking copious notes. I nearly filled up two composition notebook with all my jottings, notations, and references! I then cross-referenced and highlighted this information to create a firm “canonical guide” to Lankhmar, Nehwon, and the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
This became the bedrock we needed to build upon, the facts that we had to take into account as we adapted Lankhmar to DCC RPG. Whenever possible, we strove to never overwrite or contradict these essential truths—which is something that even Leiber himself did from time to time! Instead, we looked for the holes in the narrative, the little details that Leiber might have mentioned but never fleshed out and used those as springboard to create new material.
Maintaining the tone of Lankhmar was extremely important to us as during the design phase. If we could find a way to tweak an existing DCC rule to make it feel like something that replicated life in a Lankhmar story, we did so. If we had to create a new NPC or monster, we looked back at who or what had already shown in the stories and used them as guidelines. Keeping that balance between the literary canon and the new RPG-related material for DCC Lankhmar was tough at times, but I believe we’ve done the best job of adapting Leiber’s stories to tabletop role-playing to date. DCC RPG was designed from the ground up to replicate the sword & sorcery pulp tales of authors like Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, etc., so Lankhmar is in the game’s very DNA. We didn’t have to tweak the rules much to make them fit Leiber’s stories!
2) Speaking of the new, what can DCC fans expect from the new setting?
DCC Lankhmar introduces some exciting new rules like how to handle healing in a DCC RPG game without clerical magic, a new mechanism called the patron die that allows non-spellcasters to appeal for aid from supernatural entities, and, the one I’m most excited about, the Fleeting Luck mechanic.
DCC RPG players know how important the Luck ability is in the game. It can be spent to influence rolls and plays a part in determining if you die when knocked to zero hit points. With DCC Lankhmar, we have a new system that pumps up the Luck economy of the game. Players will find it easier to earn Luck for their characters by rolling well, creative role-playing, or just engaging in actions and activities that feel properly “Nehwonian.” This increased amount of Luck allows them to pull off more daring (or foolhardy) activities, better replicating the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. But there’s a catch.
As the name implies, Fleeting Luck can disappear at almost any moment, so the PCs are encouraged to spend it quickly. This leads to bigger risks, which results in more Luck, and so the cycle perpetuates itself. It’s a terrific new system and I expect it to quickly make the jump over to more traditional DCC RPG games.
DCC Lankhmar also has loads of new monsters, spells, patrons, and other goodies to challenge and reward adventurers in Nehwon or to be borrowed for games set on other worlds. Whether you intend to base your campaign in Lankhmar or anywhere else, you’ll find the DCC Lankhmar a valuable addition to your gaming collection and judge’s tool box.
3) Lankhmar and Nehwon have been hugely influential on gaming and fantasy. How did they influence DCC?
Leiber’s stories are about what I call “blue collar heroes.” Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren’t high fantasy protagonists engaging in derring-do because of lofty ideals, self-sacrifice, or strict codes of honor. They are out to preserve their own skins and fatten their purses—things any DCC RPG character is likely to identify with. The mantra of DCC RPG is “You’re no hero,” and that reflects a lot of the grittiness of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
To a lesser extent, I think the characters of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face helped influence the concept of magical corruption in DCC RPG. The origins of the Twain’s mentors are never fully explained in the stories, but one of the possible causes of their odd physical traits is hinted as being the magic they practice. Physical mutation and malformation because of sorcery isn’t solely something from Leiber’s work, but I believe it’s one of the more visible examples of that phenomenon in sword & sorcery fiction.
4) DCC is known for being particularly brutal to player characters. How much worse is Lankhmar going to treat them?
That depends a lot on the judge! Going back to my earlier answer about the difficulty of pleasing everyone’s personal interpretations of Lankhmar, we provide a lot of rules options in the boxed set that allow judges and players to customize their gaming experience on Nehwon. Non-magical healing has a few different rule options judges can employ to make their games gritty and grim (in playtesting, some PCs became decrepit with injuries by the time they reached 3rd level) or more forgiving without mollycoddling the characters. PCs in a bleak, street-hardened DCC Lankhmar game are going to end up battered and bruised if not outright dead. It’s up to the individual gaming groups to decide how tough they want life on the streets of Lankhmar to be!
5) The Kickstarter is the first in a line of products set in Lankhmar. What’s next for the setting and Goodman Games?
We’ve got a great bunch of stretch goals we’re still working on as part of the Kickstarter. No less than six adventures have been plotted out and we’ve got a cadre of great designers like Steven Bean, Daniel J. Bishop, Bob Brinkman, Tim Callahan, Terry Olson, Harley Stroh, and myself set to tackle them. There’s also a cloth map of Lankhmar in the works, a supplement for developing Random NPCs for the players to encounter, and a book detailing a dozen location in Lankhmar the characters might visit during their adventures.
If all goes extremely well, I’m going to visit the Fritz Leiber Papers collection down in Texas and spend a week going through his original manuscripts, story notes, correspondence, and more, looking for inspiration to write a seventh adventure. That’s the closest we can come to co-creating a DCC Lankhmar module with Leiber, himself, now that he’s no longer with us.
Beyond those planned releases, Joseph Goodman and I have hashed out a multi-year schedule of DCC Lankhmar supplements designed to span the face of Nehwon and bring it and its inhabitants to DCC RPG tables everywhere. I’d love to do a Quarmall supplement covering the subterranean city and the political rivalries there, detail the intriguing city of Ool Hrusp, scale Stardock and explore the Cold Waste, set sail on the Inner and Outer Seas and fight Mingol pirates, and visit Rime Isle. There’s no shortage of material to build upon in Leiber’s stories.
I’d be remiss not to mention that DCC Lankhmar is just the first licensed property being adapted to DCC RPG. Goodman Games is also developing a supplemental line based on the Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance. Designer Jobe Bittman has been working on that for the past year, and I understand it’s coming together nicely. There may also be some other intriguing things in the works regarding the famed Appendix N that inspired DCC RPG, but you’ll have to wait for a formal announcement on those!
Check out the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Kickstarter ending the last week of April.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
RiotMinds has been busy for the past year. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign to translate their Nordic myth and folklore inspired Drakar och Demoner Trudvang into English as Trudvang Chronicles, the company has already smashed through their initial goals in a follow up campaign to bring their game of 18th century occult mysteries and secret societies, LexOccultum, to the English speaking world. I had the opportunity to ask Theo Bergquist a few questions about LexOccultum and Trudvang Chronicles, along with what's next for RiotMinds. (Full disclaimer: I backed the Trudvang Chronicles Kickstarter last year.)
1- What makes LexOccultum different from other mystery and intrigue games out there, and what makes it different from Trudvang Chronicles, which is powered by the same engine?
Theo: I guess we focus more on the occult and mystery play and less horror and also the time era. LexOccultum is set in a fictive 18th century whereas many other games take place in the 19th century. One of the main themes in the game is secret societies and conspiracies and less of vampires and werewolves. Trudvang Chronicles is a pure fantasy game and even though the two games share the same engine I’d say that LexOccultum is deadlier and more ”realistic” than Trudvang Chronicles.
2- Both Trudvang Chronicles and LexOccultum feature excellent artwork that seems to help shape the world. Did you have a setting in mind and use the art to shape the world, or did you come across the art first and build the world around the art?
Theo: Thanks, yes we work with truly great artists. Yes, we had a clear view of how and what the look and feel should be already from start. When I fist approached Paul Bonner years back I’d see his great work on Mutant Chronicles but also some great fantasy pieces. When I told him we was looking for a John Bauer look-and-feel he was really happy and I’d say he’s nailed it since then. Alvaro Tapia is very much behind the design of both worlds. I was working with Justin Sweet on some Conan covers and felt he was the perfect man for a more ”mature” and less ”fantasy” look that we decided to have for LexOccultum. So yes, even though we’re the first to acknowledge the great work of the artists, I’d say that we had a clear vision from start.
3- The game was originally called Götterdämmerung in Swedish; what does 18th century occultism have to do with the fall of the Norse/Germanic gods?
Theo: The 18th century was the great century of the enlightenment and as such, for the first time in history, the church was starting to loose it’s grip and power over the people. The ”gods” were losing power. Götterdämmerung means Ragnarok, the fall of the gods, but also Armageddon, it was a perfect name for a game combining the great mysteries, occultism and the enlightenment. Is this a second fall of man? Or is it the fall of the church? It’s a battle between man and god so to say.
4- Religion and myth play a big part in shaping Trudvang’s identity; is this something you specialize in and is there a particular reason for this focus in LexOccultum and Trudvang?
Theo: Good questions. I guess we want our worlds and settings to be believable and to have the depth in both mythology and ”every day life". Without that it’s just another hack-and-slack fantasy game. We’ve spent tons and tons of hours for both games just to do the research of which much was never used. However, it adds to the games and give them that flavor we like. For example the Stormlands (a region in the Trudvang world) is a mix of barbarian/viking culture and Mongolian culture, it’s not just another viking region. That kind of ”cross-over” and mix with our own ideas is what make the worlds different I guess.
5- You’re in the middle of what will be your second successful campaign to bring your games into English. What’s next for LexOccultum, Trudvang Chronicles, and RiotMinds?
Theo: Next up for Trudvang Chronicles is the Stormlands, Mittland and Westmark source books, and the great campaign SnowSaga. We haven’t fully decided in what order of scope they will be launched but focus on finalizing the core rules now. For LexOccultum we have tons of exciting stuff including a book about the secret societies, a monster book, campaigns and source books about the world. This will be a fun ride and for the English audience these are the two games we focus on. I have this crazy idea of expanding the Trudvang world into a more ”arabic” or ”asian” setting, but first things first.We’re so happy about the great support both our games have gained from the international audience and now it’s time for us to deliver.
Check out the LexOccultum Kickstarter here. The campaign ends Friday, March 24.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.