Whenever I’ve brought up RPGs from Japan to people, their minds go to the most obvious sort of imagery: ninja, samurai, those neat looking castles, and maybe Shaolin monks (whom are more closely related to the Chinese). After all, most games in the western market are Fantasy based on Medieval Europe, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Japan would do the same.
That isn’t exactly true, since a quick look through the Japanese Amazon site’s 本 (book) section for the term “TRPG” actually yields Call of Cthulhu as their first result, as well as (at least as of this writing, Summer of 2019) the Konosuba and Goblin Slayer TRPGs. The Japanese roleplayers seem to at least harbor a similar love for feudal Europe as we do, though mystery and horror are also big hits there.
However, with the way Amazon’s algorithms work, only the most popular things at the time will typically float to the top, and so if you want to find something really unusual, you should expect to do some digging and asking around. As it turns out, Tenra Bansho Zero isn’t the only game that provokes ye olde Nippon imagery out there the Japanese have made.
Today, for your reading pleasure, I will tell you about Shinobigami, one of Japan’s RPGs about a modern day ninja war!
1) Who Made This?
Shinobigami was originally published in Japan by Roll and Role Imprint, with the English version being translated by Kotodami Heavy Industries, the same company that brought us Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero. KotoHI announced Shinobigami and successfully funded the publishing effort via Kickstarter in 2015.
The translation effort for Shinobigami took a great deal of time, for much the same reason that Tenra did: there are numerous cultural nuances that the translation team wanted to preserve. An additional obstacle KotoHI had to overcome was some of the updates to the technology surrounding crowdfunding games such as Backerkit, and the incompatibilities these new tools have with Japanese banks.
These constant delays lead to fans of KotoHI starting a call and response in joke whenever somebody would mention Shinobigami. One group would shout “WHEN” and another would reply “SOON.”
2) What’s The Premise?
Shinobigami is a game about the very sort of thing one might expect when they hear the phrase “Japanese roleplaying game”: it’s a game set in the modern day about ninjas, fighting an invisible war against one another.
Though it’s not enough that they’re ninjas in a world of secrets and espionage; the ninjas in Shinobigami are superhuman! They all move at superhuman speeds and perform feats that are otherwise not humanly possible as if those feats were nothing. Plus, every ninja belongs to one of many different clans with their own agendas and traits that make them unique, such as a clan dedicated to serving Japan’s national interest, or another that’s composed entirely of supernatural beings such as vampires and werewolves.
Basically, Shinobigami is a game set in the modern world with all manner of intense ninja action!
3) What Are It’s Mechanics Like?
The game follows a pattern of players taking turns choosing between Drama Scenes and Combat Scenes with other characters. Their objective is to discover what each other’s secrets are, as well as setting themselves up to accomplish their mission. After so many cycles, all players take part in a grand battle known as the Climax Phase where everybody involved in the scenario fights each other. During this battle, you either team up with those you think you can trust, or against everybody else.
What truly makes Shinobigami unique is the Skill Matrix: a table of 60 some odd skills that you have no chance of mastering all of since you’ll typically only have 6. However, anytime a particular roll is called for and you don’t have that skill, you can substitute another skill in place of it at a slight penalty based on how far apart the two skills are on the matrix. Assuming you can explain why that substitution should be allowed, that is. This can lead to bizarre or even hilarious circumstances, such as explaining how Necromancy can be counteracted with Cooking.
4) What’s It Similar To?
In practice, Shinobigami is a game of hidden information: you’re learning secrets and other information, and trying to deduce what the best course of action is based on what you can find out. This makes it much akin to games like “Werewolf” or “Mafia.” Though for the unfortunate players that lack guile, there’s a few added steps between the mob deciding to kill your character and then dying.
Shinobigami uses a game engine known as Saikoro Fiction, best explained as one of Japan’s narrative focused games. The skill matrix is a recurring part of other Sai-Fi titles, such as Beginning Idol and Yankee vs Yog Sothoth. The other hallmark of these games is that the rules are built around supporting a narrative, e.g. any skill can be used in place of any other, as long as you explain why, and are willing to take the appropriate penalty. (These penalties don’t include the absurdity of your explanation, only how far apart they are on the matrix.)
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes!! Kotodama Heavy Industries has brought two other games to the English speaking world, and has done them great justice in the translation. This attention to detail made the wait for each of them worthwhile.
Shinobigami is therefore a great example of what RPGs from Japan look like, a fact that the translators took great pains with Shinobigami to ensure. The first half of its rulebook is what the Japanese call a Replay, similar to Actual Plays, but on a written medium instead. The second half of the book contains all the rules needed to play.
Shinobigami also demonstrates that gamism and narrativism can be a false dichotomy. It has rules that are specific and must be followed, yet don’t interfere with building narrative. (In fact, sometimes it promotes narrative!)
Shinobigami is in my list of games that everybody should play at least once.
Aaron der Schaedel sat on this article for half a year, waiting for the release of Shinobigami to be finalized before he passed it along to the editors. This is still a shorter time than he and many others waited for the release of Shinobigami. Apropos of nothing, here’s a link to his Youtube Channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diamondsutra/shinobigami-modern-ninja-battle-tabletop-rpg-from
When 3rd edition hit the market back in the 90’s, the “Open Gaming” design made a huge splash. Suddenly third parties could make and sell their own products for the game - hobbyists could become writers, creators, entrepreneurs. It was heady stuff, but it didn’t take long for reality to check in. Many products flopped when authors thought that everyone would love their creations as much as their players did, and others lost their heart for the task after having to do bookkeeping. Still, the hobby moves on, and while it’s not the Wild West that it used to be, every few days it seems another hobbyist tries their hand at going pro. I came across the debut module of the Magnificent Creations team, and I have to say it’s as solid as I’ve ever seen. To understand why, take a trip with me through some of the back halls of the gaming industry….
1) Extras To Make Harold Johnson Proud
Most well known as the inspiration for the kender of the Dragonlance setting, Johnson wasn’t big on the meaty stuff as a writer, but he knew his seasoning. In the space allotted to a single adventure, Johnson would cram in three small outlines, plus an abbreviated rogues gallery from the local village to inspire more. Unfortunately, as with kender, Harold often left his adventures so wide open that it was hard not to get lost; everything was an adventure hook and nothing ever concluded. He would lose the steak in all that seasoning. I believe Magnificent Creations has achieved Harold’s often-sought, rarely-found ambition: a small campaign setting packaged as a single adventure, that manages to do both jobs well. The final pages of this short adventure don’t just have a regional map, but a campaign background page with a hot take on each species that can be cross-referenced with the map for anyone who wants to go exploring. The eight deities are enough to cover any non-evil paladin or cleric concept, with symbols and portfolios ready for expansion. The art, the sidebars, the DM’s summary all lend themselves to expansion without confusing or interfering with the strong narrative of the original adventure.
2) Truly Playable NPC’s
One of the best sources of useful flavor is a strong gallery of NPC’s. Just like the balance between the adventure and the campaign hooks, each NPC has to have a balance of visible traits and subtler motivations. It’s unlikely the barkeep will ever mention his absent father issues by name, for example, but drying the same glass over and over again when eavesdropping isn’t useful when you don’t know what topics interest him. Corwyn Catacombs gives all NPC’s a three-part profile for roleplaying purposes: Appearance, Motivation, and Mannerisms/Personality. The first and last allow for strong and varied first impressions: a tall dark blacksmith who fidgets if he can’t keep his hands busy, a blonde cartwright who taps her foot and scratches the backs of her hands, constantly bickering middle-aged shopkeepers. The motivation is useful when you have to extrapolate how the mayor would react to a PC who was an orphan, or how the innkeeper gets along with other dragonborn.
3) Solid All The Way Through
This compliment may not sound like high praise but is actually among the highest: Corwyn Catacombs has everything you would want, and nothing else. There’s no embarrassing sidebar about an optional mechanic that no one would use in actual play, nor is it missing the motives of the major antagonist. There’s a tiny sidebar about how aurks have green skin because they get nutrition from sunlight, but it doesn’t distract or confuse - it inspires. The module doesn’t have any glaring contradictions in the timeline nor a conclusion that relies on the party figuring out that one bizarre weakness the author was so fond of. This may seem like a low bar, but a staggering amount of the material from “official” publications has tripped over that bar, only to land on “The DM can always ignore that part and fill in what they want.” Of course we can, but we buy modules to reduce our workload. Such advice could also be phrased, “Don’t buy our product, just make your own,” yet apologists are shocked when people do exactly that. I don’t see such a fate for Magnificent Creations. This adventure is solidly written, with a craftsmanship that needs no such excuses.
4) Flexible Spine
While DM’s don’t like being forced to do the author’s job for them, it’s still nice to have an adventure that lends itself to adaptation, and here again Corwyn Catacombs performs nicely. It has a cleverly modular structure that allows the DM to insert appropriate campaign flavor in at any point. The most obvious such point is at the end, when the party encounters the final villain. This section of the catacombs has structure and artwork that suggests an ancient and advanced culture, but apart from that, there’s very little foreshadowing as to who the villain is. This makes it amazingly easy to slot in anything appropriate to the setting. If your players would find a necromancer boring, the hibernating spellcaster can be an invoker from long-dead Netheril, or a long-lost dragon highlord, or anything else that fits the bill.
Is it a perfect adventure? Absolutely not; it starts out in a pretty stereotypical watering hole, and I did say the villain is Yet Another Necromancer. In addition, the narrative stretches belief just a little when it says a confused teenager is only “gaunt and haggard” after three days holed up in catacombs that killed a party of seasoned adventurers; more realistic DM’s might have the boy barely clinging to life, and gritty ones might just say he’s dead. Still, the risk of a who’s-on-first skit featuring half-aurcs (i.e green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) and half-orcs (i.e. green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) is far, far outweighed by the volume of information, the solid quality of the characters, and the strong narrative that manages to avoid boxing players in. New DM’s can find plenty here to get started with, and novices can work this adventure into any setting or adventure path. Experts ought to buy it just to rip off the format, so that published material stops tripping over that bar. As of this writing, Corwyn Catacombs is priced at $2.95, making it a solid bargain for any budget.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magnificent-creations.com/the-corwyn-catacombs
Three reasons you might love it, and two you might not
Do you love Dungeons and Dragons? Great! Do you love Greek mythology, and have you ever wanted to combine the two? Well, keep reading.
What is ‘Odyssey of the Dragonlords’?
Simply put, it is a campaign guide for 5th edition Dungeon and Dragons, and in this sense is not unlike the official campaigns by Wizards and plenty of other third party products. Where it differs is its setting which, according to its Kickstarter page, aims to “blend classic fantasy with Greek mythology.” Its main selling point seems to be that it is designed by James Ohlen, former creative director at Bioware, responsible for critical darlings such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic.
As someone who has long been a fan of Greek mythology, to say I was excited for this would be an understatement. As such, I approached this both as someone who loved reading the (original) Odyssey and someone who’s an avid D&D player.
So what did I think? Well, it’s complicated.
1) It’s A Well-Made Book
The campaign guide itself starts out very well, outlining its mission statement, as it were. It summarises very simply what aspects from Greek myth it will incorporate into yir auld D&D: fate and prophecy, fame and hubris, the importance of oaths. These are indeed major themes in pretty much all stories involving the Olympian gods and ancient heroes, the likes of Herakles, Achilles, Jason. Aside from that, these can make fantastic - if you’ll pardon the pun - elements to add on top of your normal dungeon crawling adventure. These can inform your roleplaying decisions, and seriously affect your characters and the world around them. To that end, I was very glad to see them included and with attached mechanics (more on that later).
Aside from the mechanical aspects, the book is well put together aesthetically too. Right from the beginning you can see the familiar format of a D&D campaign book, but with some Mediterranean flavour on top. The artwork is nice, though in some parts it can get a bit extra - it does sometimes give the impression of an anime take on Greek mythology (make of that what you will). Nevertheless, the book itself is gorgeous, and the character sheets especially are a wonder to behold.
N.B.: The “book” I’m referring to is the campaign guide itself, which is where most of the meat is. The Player’s Handbook is really just more of the same.
2) It’s Some Proper D&D
And it’s not just pretty to look at, it certainly is a competent D&D campaign. The outlined plot works well in its own universe; it even includes a major twist that the GM can have spoiled as soon as they begin preparation. You do get warned, but there isn’t really a way to avoid it if you want to be a good storyteller for the game. Also, you should get over your fear of spoilers, people.
The world that serves as your sandbox is well crafted, with place names, an established pantheon, and even constellations for you to navigate by. The world map being entirely encircled by the sea, one can imagine this will come in handy. The impressive part is that none of this is window dressing, it all has story hooks, plot hooks, with some especially linked to the unique backgrounds you can read about below. That is to say, this world feels alive.
And it’s good to get acquainted with the world, because the campaign’s story will have your party of adventurers wander all over the finely crafted map (and under it, even over it), you’ll interact with a lot of major NPCs and get to decide the fate of the world. More than that, it is a proper sandbox for your players. Not every inch of the map is linked to the story directly, but at a lull in the apocalyptic plot (yes, even the Apocalypse gets downtime), your party will want to explore some locations to discover loot, treasure, quest items, or even some side quests. At higher levels, the PCs are even encouraged to found their own settlements, which is a good way to have them truly become part of the world.
3) It Brings New Things To The Table(top)
In addition to a decent campaign, this setting offers some elements that make it more than just another D&D book. Appropriately enough, these are the Greek elements of the story.
From the beginning, the book emphasises the importance of oaths, curses, fate, and prophecy. So sure enough, these can make their way onto the tabletop. It is a good sign that the designers chose to hardwire these into the game itself by creating appropriate mechanics.
For instance, we know that hospitality is important and that breaking this custom is a heinous crime against the laws of gods and mortals. But in this world, if you break that sacred custom, you get cursed. Break an oath? Cursed. Rob a grave? Cursed! Park your chariot in the wrong spot? CURSED!
Ok, I made that last one up. But the prologue does mention a few major curses than can fall upon the heroes’ heads should they misbehave: curse of the harpy, medusa, graverobber, and the curse of the treacherous. That last one governs oathbreakers and those who abuse hospitality. Break that one and you get the furies sent after you. The literal furies. Well, not those three, but the D&D ones.
Another element, and one that is unique to this setting (in a way), is the pathway to becoming one of the eponymous dragonlords. The concept itself is not original, sure, but it carries a certain weight within the world’s own mythology. Plus, you get a dragon for a ride. Sweet! The process is thankfully more involved than that, with some more or less epic tasks that must be completed. By the end you will become a hero of legend. Which, by that point you probably will have been already, but hey - dragon mount!
Finally, the Epic Paths are another element that are worth mentioning. These are essentially backgrounds in addition to the ones that are part of character creation. Rather than giving you mechanical bonuses, though, they will come up regularly during the game to help or hinder the heroes. Each has a set of tasks that the respective PC must accomplish to fulfil their destiny. This not only adds flavour to the story, but can guide your party’s role-playing choices, as well as give the PCs a proactive task to work towards. Several, in fact.
That was the good stuff. Now onto the less than great parts of it.
4) It’s Really Not That Greek
In the end, it isn’t much more than a regular D&D campaign with a mild Greek flavour.
The story can function unchanged with any pantheon in the multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, it seems to be tailored for one such game rather than staying true to its Greek origins and breaking the mould of standard high fantasy. The elements borrowed from its Hellenic source material are essentially aesthetic rather than being a core element of the campaign. Strip aside anything about it that calls itself “Greek” and you’re left with just another D&D adventure book. A good one, but still - for those of us hoping to see proper Greek mythology in play, this is a bit of a letdown.
This is made even more jarring considering that many of the elements that it hopes would set it apart were already incorporated into D&D. The so-called “high fantasy” we’ve all become used to is a smattering of the Western world’s myths all thrown into the same salad bowl. Centaurs were already known to us; harpies, nymphs, dryads, even the erinyes - the furies - these were all present in the Player’s Handbook.
The parts that do make it stand out are really just a bit of seasoning on top of the salad. A bit of added feta, if you will. The epic paths are nice, but it boils down to “get the Mcguffin, be a hero” - you don’t need to be Herakles to do this, any old paladin with an oath is a hero on a mission. The curses are rather underwhelmingly undone by casting the spell Greater Restoration. Sure, it’s a high level spell and it is a common enough element to D&D, but this does make them just another affliction that can be encountered and subsequently ignored in a high level game. At least the oathbreaker curse sends the erinyes after you - who, I remind you, are already in the core Monster Manual.
5) Thematically Uninspired
But more than that, it feels like a huge let down to me personally, as I imagine it will be to anyone who cares enough about the source material and wanted to see it better represented in our tabletop games.
I’ll list off a few elements, as going too deep into this would require an actual thesis.
The moral ambiguity and rapacious nature of the Greek gods has been replaced with your standard D&D alignment bingo - your Lawful Goods, your Chaotic Evils, and what have you. A special notice goes to the goddess of death who, rather than being the only actually decent deity in the pantheon (your mileage may vary on that one), is just straight up evil. An evil sexy woman - for those of you playing the cliché drinking game at home, take a shot. Medusae (rather than gorgons) are a playable race now - and apparently, they got snakes for hair and petrifying gaze because they were greedy in life; it’s an odd perversion of Medusa’s story, mixed with king Midas for no apparent reason.
On top of that, there are several smaller incongruous elements that add up: centurions show up out of nowhere, which are Roman, and in no way Greek, but whatever. One of the magical Mcguffins you get is boldfaced called “the Antikythera.” This part sort of betrays the fact that research into it was probably just a quick snaffle on the webs of anything “Greek.” Sure, the name is Greek, but it literally (and I mean literally ‘literally’) means “opposite to (the island of) Kythera,” which doesn’t exist in this world. The device was named for where it was found, not for any special properties it holds.
Finally, and this part really gets to me, they’ve gone and released the Kraken. Yes, the Kraken, not Ketos, Kraken.
It’s that last gripe that shows my issue with this setting. It isn’t “Jason and the Argonauts,” it’s “Clash of the Titans” - the reboot. If you came here looking to take part a faithful retelling of Greek mythology for your D&D game, look elsewhere. If you want to roleplay in an authentic reimagining of your favourite mediterranean myth, go make your own.
Ultimately, Odyssey of the Dragonlords is a finely-crafted, well-designed campaign book for D&D that many will find fun and engaging. Those more interested in the actual source material might be disappointed, while mythology buffs will certainly be let down.
It really is just D&D with a bit of tzatziki.
Anderson is a swarm of bees in a skin suit who have attained sentience and decided to infiltrate society as a writer. Their hobbies include: kendo, painting miniatures, scheduling Warhammer and D&D. When they’re not writing, they’re studying anthropology (to better understand humans).
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arcanumworlds/odyssey-of-the-dragonlords-5th-edition-adventure-b
A while ago, I talked about Shadowrun: Anarchy, a rules-light version of Shadowrun that uses a narrativist ruleset called “The Cue System.” I’m not normally a fan of narrativist games. My experience is usually that most of the game elements I like get stripped out in favor of giving more wiggle room to keep the narrative in place.
As I was digging around, I discovered that Catalyst Games Lab applied the same rules system used in Shadowrun: Anarchy as they did the Valiant Universe RPG. Having recently got my hands on a copy of the Valiant Universe RPG, and being a casual (but uninformed) fan of Valiant Comics, I spent the next few hours reading it and sharing details about it to my friends who also like Valiant.
So today, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Reasons The Valiant Universe RPG is Super! (Hint: Most of them come down to “The Cue System Is Great For Narrativist Games.”)
1) Title Exposés
Any comic multiverse, mainstream or indie, is going to have a large collection of characters, settings, worlds, and story arcs: such is the nature of any medium that’s constantly being written, with an ever increasing lore. The Valiant Universe is no exception.
The Valiant Universe RPG uses Title Exposés, two page long series of synopses, to bring potential players and gamemasters up to speed on the setting. As many modern games seem wont to do, every Exposé is led by various tags and cues for what that arc is about. For example, if you were looking for something involving advanced technology, you can take a quick look at Shadowman’s Tags (which includes terms like magic, necromancy, and spirits) to see if it’s worth reading further.
2) Organizations and Sample Characters
The Title Exposés use a lot of Proper Nouns, without much further explanation. This is normally a pet peeve of mine, especially in original fiction. However, the Valiant Universe RPG functions a little bit more like an encyclopedia: even when something is mentioned in one place, you can often find another detail about it elsewhere. This is where Organizations and Sample Characters come in.
Many of the named characters or organizations are further described, and in the case of characters, they likely have a stat block for them. Just like the Exposés, they include tags and cues, too, so you there’s no wrong place to start; be it organizations, characters, or arcs.
The most important thing about the organization section, however, is that it describes not only their involvement in the setting, but also their day-to-day activities, meaning there’s plenty of room in the Valiant Universe for original characters!
3) Scenario Briefs
There’s sample characters, organizations, and different settings abound explained for people new to the Valiant Universe, but what if, even with all that, a potential GM still has trouble fitting all this information together? Enter the Scenario briefs!
These, like the Title Exposés, are two pages long and list cues and tags for players to work with. They follow the familiar Three Act Structure, with a setup, confrontation, and resolution across the introduction and three scenes. Furthermore, it lists objectives for the player characters to follow, and even refers to sample NPCs that might appear in given scenes!
4) The Cue System
One of the most prominent features of the Cue System is what the system gets its name from: Character Cues. These are one-liners and taglines that describe characters, settings, and scenarios. Some of the setting cues don’t mean as much if you’re not already familiar with the setting. However, if you notice a character you like in character section, you can make a note of their tags and flip through all setting, character, and scenario sections that share that tag to get a better idea of how everything fits together.
5) Valiant Comics Setting
A few years ago (when I could still afford them) I was a big fan of comic books. While I usually followed Marvel, I also really liked indie or smaller press companies, such as Malibu, Image, and even Valiant. Ever since I was a young boy, I always gravitated towards strange and unusual things, favoring Robert Frost’s proverbial Road Not Taken. It’s often led to me finding some real gems, and in modern days, things that address people’s grievances with pop culture.
Valiant is one such case. While many, including yours truly, sometimes bemoan how DC and Marvel comics reuse the same plots while rebooting their stories ad infinitum to create an eternal crisis in their universes, Valiant can only boast having done so once. (And this was because the company was being refounded two decades after it collapsed!)
Characters in the Valiant universe follow long standing arcs, many spanning thousands of years, and switching allegiances as they crossover from one story to another. This setup allows for all kinds of different stories to happen, and characters to be expressed in all manner of situations, without retconning what previously happened.
Setting all that aside, the beauty of The Valiant Universe RPG is all in it’s presentation. It’s detailed in its explanations of the setting and characters, and has all the important major characters from Valiant Comics’ story arcs. At the same time, it also includes shorter, easier to digest information via cues. The two ways of presenting this information makes it great for cover-to-cover reading, as well as just scanning and picking out specific information.
When I picked this up, I was originally only familiar with Shadowman and Bloodshot, and only had a passing familiarity with X-O Manowar. But, even with just some brief skimming, I was able to get a grasp on Bloodshot’s impact beyond his personal mission, and also found a new favorite arc in the Valiant Universe: Quantum and Woody, the two slapstick superhero brothers that fight each other almost as much as they do the villains!
Aaron der Schaedel is the host of an eponymous YouTube channel. On it, he talks about all kinds of different RPG, either slicing through the rules for really dense ones, or shining light on oddities. Aaron would greatly appreciate if you would check out his channel, and subscribe if you like what you see.
Picture Reference: https://www.catalystgamelabs.com/valiant/
Looking for a dark fantasy D&D module to slot into your early campaign, or just as a fun one-off? The Curse of Sapphire Lake is part of the Critical Hits series, each module of which is designed for a single evening’s play. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy (full disclosure: the author, Neal Litherland, contributes to this blog) and thoroughly enjoyed my night GMing this spooky tale. Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and money, presented with minimal spoilers.
1) As Dark As You Like
While the tale presented here falls within the genre of dark fantasy, I found it profoundly simple to include levity at several points throughout. One can certainly keep the tone foreboding should one wish, but should the party be in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of opportunity here. The party is investigating disappearances in a northern viking-esque town, and its leaders are desperate to solve the issue swiftly to keep the population growing. This desperation, and the cast of colorful characters, can lend themselves to keeping things light; perhaps the town leader drops the macho act when he’s alone with the PCs and begs them for help. Maybe the self-styled witch who advises the town leader joins the party and regards the situation with a bit of humor. Whatever the case, the module allows for the GM to turn the levity down and bring the spookiness back whenever they so choose. This way, the flavors of the evening never feel too vanilla.
2) Crafty References
Cinephiles and even casual horror fans will pick up on some sly references in this story. My players picked up on them, and instead of tipping them off to the direction of the narrative, they simply added to the fun with unexpected twists and turns. We had a blast exploring the town and meeting NPCs, even if I took a few liberties with some of them. The tale doesn’t feel tropey at all; even though most horror themes have been done to death, this module stayed fresh throughout. It manages to walk the tightrope that any referential material must, and does so deftly. I cannot say more without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say your players will have a good time interacting with both adversaries and locals, and the story beats will keep everyone pushing ahead.
3) Room To Improvise
The most important part of any module for me is the capacity for a GM to get off track and not be too lost. My players are like many others: they love to stop the plot train, hop off, and sightsee. Luckily, the module is written to accommodate such scenarios, and I found it simple to throw in my own details and even new NPCs to add to the story without deviating from the main thrust of the narrative. The adversaries are balanced well, and even with my terribly unlucky rolls, I was able to keep the story on track and provide an interesting challenge for the players, with minimal GM fiat. The players enjoyed their stay in the town, had fun with the combat, and I never felt like I needed to run back to the module text and retcon anything to salvage a situation. As a fun aside, let me mention that certain 1st level spells are far more powerful than they appear, and provide a challenge instead for the GM to overcome them!
4) Fun Factor
If it isn’t already apparent, we all had a blast playing this one-shot. As it is built for a small group of 1st level characters, the threat of danger was real and palpable, which allowed me to easily play up the darker aspects of the story. Then came the nervous jokes, and the party was quickly off to the races. What made this transition even easier was the inclusion of a “Reasons Why You’re Here” section. There are four great examples as to why a PC might be going to town, and I assigned them to players based on their characters (with the players’ input, of course). This gave each PC not only a backstory, but a real presence in the narrative. As an example, one of our players wanted to clear the town of misfortune because they had already purchased a home there. This ended up becoming a major plot point, because the character absolutely ran with this idea, and kept accusing the town leader of scamming him. I made his house the “flipper” house, where new arrivals would move in, then flee or simply disappear. Everyone really enjoyed diving into that aspect of the narrative, and it all sprang from the character’s motivation. Settling into roleplaying a one-off has never been easier, and I commend the creators for this inclusion.
Overall, my group, which included one new player to 5e D&D, had a ton of fun with this one. As a side benefit, I'll mention also that it includes awesome artwork and a map of the area. Really high quality stuff, and the layout is great. I especially recommend it to horror film enthusiasts, or to those who like a little darkness in their fantasy tale. Take a look, you won’t be disappointed!
David Horwitz is the Blog Manager ‘round these parts and a freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275191/Critical-Hits-The-Curse-of-Sapphire-Lake-5E?affiliate_id=657321
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Starting out in roleplaying games is more than buying the stuff and jumping in. Getting a group together is hard enough for some people, and then the extra monetary cost of buying minis, rulebooks, supplements and any extra bits and pieces for a game. Not everyone has enough surplus cash to throw at the hobby, so for those who don't want to break the bank to test the waters, here are eight free roleplaying games for you to check out. I mean why not, they’re free.
1) A+ Fantasy
A+ Fantasy has an attribute system very similar to classic RPGs but different enough to make it its own. Instead of rolling up numbers for your usual six attributes, A+ Fantasy has four to which you assign a grade, which range from A+ to D- and affect dice rolls. Modifiers are different than the norm, as to succeed you must roll two d6 and get at least one six, and the modifier adds to this. The ruleset is very easy to understand and is laid out in a great way, at least in my opinion, I read through the full rules in just over 30 minutes while sitting in a waiting room. This is definitely worth checking out if you are thinking of diving into D&D.
2) Magic and Steel
This game has more reading to it than A+ Fantasy but has a fairly well developed system, based off of old style D&D with a few modern twists to keep it interesting. The character creation seems solid and is simple enough for a new player to get to grips with and complex enough for a seasoned vet to get in there and create more interesting characters. The rule book screams fan made and admits as much in the introduction, but if you like old school fantasy this is a game for you.
3) D100 Dungeon
D100 Dungeon intrigued me to no ends, I read the description and thought, how can I be both GM and player? The answer is I can’t, but D100 Dungeon can be the GM so I can be the player. Tailored so that you are not pitted against your friends this game provides everything you need to run solo. You print out your map sheets and character sheet and read through the rules, which really are quite easy to understand. It took me a couple of days to get through them but when I did I was eager to get going, to play all you need is the roll tables in the back, the print outs and if you didn’t already guess the dice type, some D100. I haven’t got round to playing this yet but it’s definitely on my todo list.
4) GURPS Lite
A great system used in various games and inspiration to even more, it has been used in tabletop games and video games such as the first Fallout games and even adapted for the later ones. The lite version of the system is free, however, and gives a good taste of how the full system works with all the key points laid out. Choose some buffs for your character and combine them with some flaws... it contains everything you need to create a GURPS game. The only downside is that I found it rather wordy so be prepared to read.
5) The Very Important Task
I loved this game as soon as I read the rule sheet. Yes a single sheet. In The Very Important Task everyone plays and GM’s another player’s game, taking it in turns, which simulate one month at your job. Each player tries to complete a task given to them by their manager (another player) as well as completing the very important task for their overall career, to win you simply must complete the very important task, gain executive level in your job or be the last employee standing (or sitting if its an office job). It’s not a long game but can fill an evening and helps introduce some key elements of roleplay as the managers are encouraged to go to the extremes when forging the personalities.
6) The Great Long Dark
Anyone looking to get into horror RPGs should consider this their first step. A quick game aimed at small groups, the rulebook has beautifully haunting artwork which helps set the scene. You take the role of both a child travelling to a place of mystery and despair, also as a parent escaping to a better place. Play takes shape in the form of five acts, the first two acts have you play two cards and roleplay the results, after which you answer a question of your choosing from a list from your character's point of view. No dice rolling but plenty of atmosphere and personal connections to help you come back for another helping.
7) Ghosts of NPCs Passed
Aimed at groups who are currently running a campaign, this game is a nice distraction for change of pace or can even just be implemented into a session to aid the players. It allows a GM to call forth the spirit of any NPC the players may have decapitated too early or a poor passerby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon summoning a spirit the players go round one by one adding to a backstory for that NPC, ending on the second wave round the group with his last day and finally his demise at the hands of player X who plays the murderous warlock in the group. This game could also be used to emphasise how one player seems all too happy to help NPCs shuffle of the mortal coil.
8) To The Temple Of Doom!!!
A really nice little game, this easy to understand rule set has a revolving GM and a shared goal. Each player creates an archaeologist to play, assigning five stat points over three skills and then creates an artifact, ventures into the temple and takes it in turns to create a chamber within the temple. You then throw in some puzzles, bad guys and traps for the team to overcome. At the end is a big showdown against a vast evil trying to destroy the world. Death isn’t the end in this game either as anyone who falls prey to the traps of the chambers can either be possessed and show up to aid the evil or die and become the GM for the final encounter.
No matter which, if any of these you try out i’m sure you will have lots of fun and hopefully will inspire you to play other great roleplaying games out there. To compile this list I read through around 15 titles including some fan made RPGs from the likes of Inception and even the Metal Gear universe, but for the sake of the editors I chose the non fandom games, though they were really good systems and well worth checking out. Although the rules are free you will need dice and a way to print some items out in most of these but compared to a full price system the cost is much more affordable and accessible.
Ross Reid is a lover of all things tabletop, he recently hosted a gaming marathon for charity lasting 24 hours over three days, he is currently working on getting the rest of his family into roleplaying games so he no longer needs to leave the house to get his gaming fix.
The Wild West is a unique genre of fiction. It has it’s larger-than-life characters and legends, including encounters with the other world, lawless lands where might makes right, and even tales of lost treasures! This genre has all the trappings that make for fantastic tales of adventure, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at Westbound, the tabletop RPG that blends The American Wild West with Fantasy!
1) Who Made This?
Westbound is produced and published by the Canadian game company Island of Bees, and is currently their only released game. Nevertheless, they’ve put a great amount of effort into designing the game, and it shows: marvelous artwork, handy diagrams and charts, and even layout flourishes that compliment the Wild West theme.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid watching any of the classic Clint Eastwood movies, or other flicks from the spaghetti-western genre, Westbound harkens to a romanticized era in North American history called “The Western Frontier.” This was an era when settlers from Europe expanding westward from the east coast of North America, into what would become the modern day nations of the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico.
However, Island of Bees punches up the fantastical element. While the Western Frontier is already a very storied body of history full of tall tales and unbelievable legends, Westbound also includes contemporary fantasy tropes. Among them are parallel worlds, magical wands and musical instruments, and the classic fare of races including elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins.
One thing I find particularly interesting about Westbound is some of the more unusual inclusions. Ogres are included as a playable race, complete with their own variety of magic that revolves around eating themselves stupid. There’s also the inclusion of musical instruments as weapons; they may not physically harm enemies, but they can still cause a great enough amount of distress to rob enemies of the will to fight. (Meaning you can annoy somebody into submission with an accordian.)
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
Staying true to the western theme, Westbound forgoes using dice in favor of a standard deck of playing cards. (So if your GM or another player really ticks you off, you can switch to everybody’s favorite rage game of 52 Pick Up.) Outside of combat, drawing cards and comparing them to a target number is the method used for resolving checks.
In combat though is where things get interesting. The game changes from simple draw and compare to a meta-game of managing a hand of cards for your offence and defence. The long and short of it is that you can either play cards from your hand to raise your ability to resist damage, play them against opponents to take them out of a fight, or burn through your cards to get to something more useful.
To add an additional layer of strategy, though, each of the above combat actions functions a different way. Cards played to defend must be done in descending order, while cards played to attack must match the traditional sets from poker. (2 of a kind, full house, etc.)
Character creation is composed of picking a Sort, Breed, and Archetype, which are similar to Class, Race, and Background in Dungeons and Dragons. Each one grants a different kinds of abilities, with Sort mostly pertaining to combat, Archetype focusing on social interactions, and Breed granting miscellaneous abilities. Additionally, whenever a character levels up, they pick which of the three aspects they wish to improve, giving some control to the player over what their character shapes into.
4) What Is It Similar To?
As far as game mechanics go, Westbound’s use of a deck of cards is more than just a novelty. It grants some degree of certainty that a character will get an awesome moment, since used cards get discarded. It cuts both ways, though, since even those good draws will be discarded. The only other game I can think of that grants this much certainty over how much a character can truly accomplish is Golden Sky Stories, which completely eschews dice and randomness altogether!
In regards to setting, I’d be inclined to say that Westbound is a graceful advancing of the Dungeons and Dragons time period. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Western Frontier, there’s still plenty of contemporary fantasy elements to take hold of. This union of Wild West and Fantasy works really well together, because there was still lots of superstition that circulated in the 19th century to weave in magic.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Definitely. If you want to try something new, but don’t want to abandon fantasy, Westbound is a great choice. It offers a unique set of mechanics, and a setting that’s refreshing and familiar all at once. Plus, the artwork is fantastic, and featured in a few sets of special playing card. Useful for if you want to add more flair to your games of Westbound, or if you like the art, but maybe not the game.
While Aaron der Schaedel is definitely enamored with Westbound, his favorite mix of wild west and fantasy remains the video game series Wild ARMs. You can inform Island of Bees of this treachery via Twitter @WestboundGame or tell Aaron his taste in video games is trash @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82773185/westbound-revolvers-and-rituals
Character creation can be a truly enjoyable experience if done correctly, or a real chore otherwise. Sometimes this line is a fine one. Hero Builder, a new production by The Table Candle, endeavors to bring full customization to the d20 system experience. Much like Mutants and Masterminds or other similar point-buy systems, this game gives the power to the players in creating every aspect of their characters. Here are three reasons to give it a look.
1) Familiar Mechanics
Most players and GMs today are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the d20 system, be it through D&D, Pathfinder, or the countless products released after the system went OGL. While it has a few tweaks here and there, the Hero Builder system is largely the same as other d20 products. The GM (here called the Hero Master) sets a DC for each action and the players roll d20 plus skills and bonuses. It is more akin to Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 than 5th ed. While many may see this as a step backwards, those older editions did allow for more customization and less simplification, something Hero Builder benefits from immensely. The game works best on a grid system; in our test game, players took advantage of the tactical options available to get the best use of their powers and abilities.
2) Unique Abilities
Hero Builder contains a long list of abilities that modify or enhance actions characters can take, much like the proficiencies and feats of the aforementioned d20 games. These come from characters’ Bloodlines (custom races or backgrounds) or are added separately as special abilities of the character. When you create a Bloodline, other characters can be of the same bloodline and attain the same abilities, or generate their own bloodline. This not only helps create important distinctions or commonalities between characters, but also aids in world building. The Hero Master can co-opt the player-created bloodlines into their narrative to customize the game setting and provide touchstones for in-game cultures.
3) Sheer Breadth Of Power
After generating the statistics and special abilities of characters, players then build their powers from the ground up. Powers are categorized by type, and each section describes how to build the power using points assigned at character creation. Powers cost a resource to purchase and a resource to use in game. So a player might make a bruiser who has a bunch of low cost survivability and damage enhancing powers, or another may create a single utility power and one massive damage dealing power, becoming the archetypal glass cannon. Players can create anything in between, adding healing, summoning, warding, or buffing powers to their repertoire. The balance seemed to be without major issue during out playtest, with each character able to perform as intended and to satisfying effect.
Hero Builder does also have a few issues to work through in its current state. The complexity of the character creation process absolutely necessitates a “session 0.” During my second attempt at a playtest, my group sat down to make characters and play, but I had to give up in the middle of character generation because my players were getting too restless. The GM needs to sit down with each player individually to create their characters well in advance of the first session, and as such, the game does not lend itself well to one-shots. With so much time invested in creating unique and intriguing characters, players will be loath to abandon them after a single session, or more likely, loath to put the time in necessary to create them in the first place.
There are other minor issues with the book, including typos and the like, but largely, Hero Builder brings fun customizable high-fantasy flair to the d20 system. The game includes three modes of play: commoner, heroic, and godly, though I highly recommend the latter two. If you’re going to loosen the reigns and let players create their dream hero, give them the points to go wild with it.
Hero Builder is available here!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/Hero+builder/bmTzLoz/
HLG Reviews: How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck
Publisher: Goodman Games
System: System Neutral
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-David Horwitz, Blog Manager
Now here’s a book I’d been looking forward to for quite a while. In my short time writing for this site, I’ve made no secret of my esteem for Goodman Games, and that’s due in no small part to their adventure modules. Whether we’re talking about Dungeon Crawl Classics, Age of Cthulhu, or Fifth Edition Fantasy, they’re always packed with inventive new creatures, genre tropes turned on their ears, and just plain off the wall creativity that always shows me a brand new level of what fantasy RPGs can really do. Not to mention they’re a great example of how much potential often gets overlooked and unrealized, buried beneath a mountain of linear thinking and repeated ideas. If I want anyone’s advice on writing adventures, it’s theirs.
HTWAMTDS wasn’t what I thought it would be, not in a bad way, just different. It’s essentially a collection of essays written by some of the most experienced RPG writers in the business, each one ending with an “Encounter” that tries to provide an example of the advice in action. Many of the writers such as Michael Curtis and Brendan LaSalle will need no introduction if you’re familiar with the work Goodman Games offers, and though you won’t find Chris Perkins or Monte Cook here, names like Skip Williams and James M. Ward should prick your ears if you know the history of your hobby. As the word Modules in the title might tip you off, the absolute dead center bullseye of the target audience are aspiring authors interested in designing adventures for publication, but the vast majority is equally valuable for GM’s who just want advice for their home games.
Going in, I wasn’t quite sure how to review this. The value of advice is subjective by its very nature, especially in a field like Game Mastering where everyone formulates their own methods, philosophies, and opinions anyway. Right off the bat, stylistic differences were glaringly apparent even between the individual contributors, wafting from the pages like each chapter’s unique cologne. A lot of the essays are written with an obvious old school gaming mentality in mind, which again, won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with GG’s work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s quite a lot classic RPGs got right that was unfortunately lost with modern innovation, namely that classic RPGs seemed more focused on facilitating an interactive fantastical adventure, whereas more modern incarnations lean towards the concept of the game being a “game” first and foremost, with a heavier reliance on mechanics and power balance. However, there are some parts of the philosophy I’m not so keen on, such as the story-light approach left over from the White Box days when D&D’s default setting was a hole in the ground filled with orcs and goblins. I got into the hobby to tell interactive stories, and I need a strong narrative to maintain my interest. So when the venerable Jobe Bittman (writer of a litany of Dungeon Crawl Classics material and co-writer of Towers Two for Lamentations of the Flame Princess) extols the virtues of keeping an adventure light on context so the PCs can forge their own narrative out of the elements placed before them, I’m inclined to believe that I wouldn’t enjoy campaigning at his table for an extended length of time.
Some of the contributors give completely different advice for the same issue. Mike Breault (writer and editor at TSR from ‘84 to ‘89) will tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your adventure is to offer them lots of decisions. Speaking from experience, you need to be invested in the first place to care about decisions. On the rare occasion that I get to play a PC in a campaign, if my interest in the adventure starts to wane, (usually because it gets bogged down in repetitive, pointless combat encounters) I honestly couldn’t give a crap if we go left, right, or through the ogre’s butt, I’ll let those who do care make the call and keep a healing spell ready. Stephen Chenault, one half of the duo that created Troll Lord Games (most famous for Castles and Crusades) would suggest that the best way to keep players invested is to introduce conflict to give them something to do. Again, I refer you to pointless, repetitive encounters. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your campaign is to give them a reason to care. (Draw on backstories or character motivations, let them build a relationship with an NPC and then put them in peril, give them something to aspire to like a modicum of political power, there’s a million ways to do it but busy work isn’t one of them)
Regardless of stylistic decisions, however, there’s a LOT to love between these pages. It’s easy to pick out the advice that doesn’t work for me only because it stands out so much against a tapestry of extremely insightful and useful direction from veterans RPG writers. This review would be five times as long if I sat here to elucidate everything that does work, but to try to do as much justice to the product as I can, I’ll list a few highlights. Logical First Contact by Timothy Brown is without exaggeration the best advice I’ve seen for creating your own monsters, not because it helps you stat them out, but because it lays out a thought process for figuring out the ecology of these creatures, which in turn informs their unique abilities and functions. The chapter specifies “space aliens” but it works just as well for terrestrial creatures that spring from the Game Master’s imagination. Besides, if you think aliens don’t belong in a fantasy RPG you just aren’t embracing the creative possibilities of The Weird, my friend. Raison D’etre by Christopher Clark lays out one of the most important rules for maintaining player immersion, and Casey Christofferson’s Making A Villain brings forth one of the most fundamental truths that I wish more aspiring storytellers understood: Bad guys don’t see themselves as bad guys, they think their actions are justified. Also, if you are interested in creating modules for publication, Joseph Goodman’s insight into how professional publishers evaluate submissions will send the value of this book into the stratosphere.
As stated, each chapter ends with an “Encounter” that tries to translate the subject of the chapter into practical mechanics in action. Not every single one is usable, some of them don’t even have mechanics, but this is essentially a huge pile of content you can pillage for your home games. With a little elbow grease and some creativity, quite a few of them can be extended into full blown adventures. So now the book of advice from RPG veterans comes stapled to a pile of adventure seeds, monsters, and traps. It’s exceedingly difficult to not find something usable here.
So, do you need this book? Well, no, but what does it mean to need something in this hobby? You could play D&D forever with just the free Basic Rules, right? It would be far better to ask, will this book help you be a better Game Master? Will it help you create better adventures? Almost certainly. If that’s worth the price to you, you won’t be disappointed. Just remember to read with a discerning eye.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1409961192/how-to-write-adventure-modules-that-dont-suck
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games