The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2020
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 29, 2020
Tagged: osr dnd awards pbta
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The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Each year it is a battle to whittle down my long list of books to a short list, and that short list down to the 3 books that will claim the accolades and fame. These choices are never easy. The arguments I have with myself are fierce. Still, this work must be done, because for reasons I can’t remember anymore I decided I’d only call out 3 books each year.
The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2019. Before the Pandemic. A life time ago! Other than that it’s really the Wild West with these awards. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!
Is it appropriate to give an award to someone I play D&D with here in Toronto? Of course it is: this book is great.1 Michael has collected all the one page dungeons he has made over the years—the ones with the cool isometric maps—redone the layout to make them all the more wonderful, and thrown in a bunch of extra tables and setting material and monsters and so much more to round out what would already have been an excellent book. This thing is dense and full of adventure. Great for campaigns or gaming emergencies!
Silent Titans is really quite incredible. Patrick’s writing, Dirk’s art, and Christian jamming the art and writing together have resulted in a really stunning book: pretty enough for a coffee table! The world Patrick describes and Dirk illustrates in his abstract style is so thoroughly weird and unique. I was worried it was perhaps too weird: how do you even run this thing? But no, that was a foolish concern! I’ve been running this adventure straight from the book! It’s worked out great. The world we were promised.
It had to be Zombie World. I love this game! I’ve been obsessed with it for ages now. Zombie World is not really a book, I suppose. Like a game from days of yore, it came in a box with cards and markers and play mats. No matter! Zombie World is such a simple and well executed game. At its core it’s just another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but somehow all the bits and bobs that make the game come together so perfectly. It’s the most OSR Powered by the Apocalypse game. You heard it here first! I’ve ran it a handful of times and it was so effortless and enjoyable. Zombie World is the game you should all be playing. Yes, you!
All my love to Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr; Girl Underground by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross; Dirk’s Mystery Zine (that would became Super Blood Harvest) by Dirk Detweiler Leichty; The Demon Collective Volume 1 by David Shugars, Camilla Greer, Comrade Pollux, and Mabel Harper and ishadow Alex Clements and Shuyi Zhang. Mork Borg has a special place in my heart for being such a wonderful OSR throwback, but with some fucking blinding and beautiful graphic design.
I fought the urge to give all the awards to Warcry. Games Workshop didn’t disappoint. Chef’s Kiss Emoji. Painting miniatures is keeping me sane while the world implodes.
I’m not sure you will ever get impartial judging with these awards. Is that something people even want? I assume not. We already have the Ennies where we decide awards using the power of aggregation. ↩
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Tagged: shadowdersocks下载 warcry minis 28mm
In 2019 a lot of people were expecting (hoping?) Games Workshop would release a skirmish game in the vein of Mordheim, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Instead, Games Workshop announced Warcry, and I don’t think people were too upset because it was looking pretty hot. Warcry feels like a throw back to the old Realms of Chaos books: it’s a game about Chaos cultists killing each other. Warcry will look familiar to people who have been paying attention to what Games Workshop has been doing recently, but I think this might be their best game yet. (Maybe that’s a low bar, because a lot of their games aren’t actually very good? Ha!)
Becca Scott can teach you how to play in 9 minutes. You can go and watch that video now, I can wait.
Warcry feels like it strips away everything I find aggravating about traditional Warhammer games. So, if you also dislike the things I find annoying about Warhammer 40K or Kill Team this might be the game for you! Let’s dig in.
Warcry is a skirmish game. This means its model count is low. Fantastic. The number of units each faction can field is also quite small. Each unit is described by a card, and that is the end of that story. There are no data sheets with a bunch of options and upgrades and all that nonsense. A unit has some stats and one or two weapons. This makes list building pretty simple. You might have 6-10 different units available, and you would mix and match to units to end up with 3-15 models, with one leader, all costing under 1000 points.
The starter set comes with 4 decks of cards that are meant to help you kick off a game. For those of you who have used the Open War cards for Warhammer 40K, it’s very much in the same vein. A terrain card tells you how to set up the board, a deployment card tells you how to deploy troops, a victory card tells you how you will win the game, and a twist card adds a special rule to the battle. Deployment in Warcry is a bit unusual. Each deployment card has 3 symbols: a Dagger, Shield, and Hammer. You must split your models up into three groups that correspond to these symbols. You might have games where you and your opponent’s Dagger units start the game right next to each other. In other games you might be on the opposite sides of the board. Some deployment cards will indicate you deploy your troops in subsequent rounds. Your Hammer may show up in the 3rd round, turning the tide of the battle. This makes for interesting and unique games.1
The game play itself is also simpler. You move your movement score in inches, any which way you like. If you want to climb a wall go nuts. If you want to jump a gap, just jump. The game feels very dynamic. Attacking is also much more straightforward. You roll a number of d6s depending on your weapon, try to beat a target score based on your weapon’s strength and the target’s toughness (which should be familiar to any warhammer player), and finally if you score hits you do a fixed amount of damage. (If you scored a 6 that’s roll is a critical hit and do more damage.) That’s the end of that story. There is no rolling to wound, no rolling for armour saves, etc, etc. They’ve basically moved all of that dice rolling into the damage and hit point scores of the various units.
Perhaps the last notable thing about Warcry is its abilities system. You start a round by rolling 6 dice for initiative. You set aside doubles, tripples and quads. The number of singles you have is your initiative, the higher number goes first. The other dice you’ve set aside can be used during the round to use special abilities each faction posesses. These are listed on a small card. There aren’t pages and pages of strategems to worry about. Some abilities can only be used by particular units. Maybe that’s the most complicated thing about them. Abilities help differentiate the various armies, and introduce some more twists into the game, without adding a lot of complexity.
I haven’t gotten to play Warcry much: just one game with Patrick while I was in the UK. One day, when this pandemic is over, I hope to play it again. Maybe run its weird-ass campaign strucuture—a topic for another blog post.
For those of you who care about ‘balance’, there are a subset of the cards that are meant to create more symmetrical situations. ↩
Age of Fantasy Skirmish
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 22, 2020
Tagged: warcry opr onepagerules aof shadowdersocks下载 skrimish 28mm
In these days of social isolation, we must all find ways to pass the time. So, after one week of working from home, late last Friday night, I laid out my Warcry terrain, placed its two war bands on the field, and played a game of Age of Fantasy: Skirmish. One Page Rules has convenient quick play army lists to help you get going with the Warcry armies, and simple AI rules to play solo games. It was Ramanan vs. Ramanan: too close to call.
This is our life now: stay home and save lives.
One Page Rules makes a set of games seemingly designed to give you a (far) simpler alternative ruleset to play wargames using your fancy Warhammer miniatures.1 They have two main games, Age of Fantasy, which could be used as an alternative to Age of Sigmar, and Grimdark Future, an alternative to Warhammer 40,000. There are two matching skirmish games, and for those of you who miss Warhammer Fantasy Battle they also have one page rules for that style of game. Impressive!
Compared to the other games Games Workshop puts out Warcry is a pretty simple game, but Age of Fantasy Skirmish manages to be even simpler. Units are defined by: two stats (quality and defence), the weapons they may have, and in some cases a few special abilities. Weapon profiles themselves are also quite simple: a weapon tells you how many dice to roll when attacking, and if the has any special attributes—there aren’t that many to worry about. Here’s an example of the leader of one of my warbands:
Golem Dominator: Quality 3+ / Defence 3+
+ Great Weapon A3, AP2
+ Hero, Tough(3)
This character needs to roll 3 or higher to both attack and defend. His Great Weapon rolls 3 dice to attack (A3). You score a hit by beating your quality score on a d6. This is a quality test. You defend hits by rolling a d6 for each hit and trying to beat your defense score. In this case defenders will have a penalty of 2 when rolling for defense because of the weapon’s Armour Peircing score of 2 (AP2). This unit is a hero, so regular units within 12” of this model can use its quality score when rolling for morale. Tough(3) means he can take 3 wounds before he needs to start rolling to see if he’s taken out of action.
The game uses alternating activation: each player alternates activating a single unit. Units can move, shoot, or charge into melee on their turn. When your army is at half size you roll for morale. There honestly isn’t much more to the game than this. The extra abilities help differentiate units and keep things interesting.
The various One Page Rules games all play fairly similarly, so if you learn one you’ll probably have learned them all. The rules fit on a sheet of paper, you can just read them and see if they sound interesting.
The following day I set up the game again and played two games against my daughter. I was helping her with the rules, but for the most part she picked things up quickly and by the end understood the important bits and bobs of the game. I think something like Warcry or honest-to-god Age of Sigmar would be a bridge too far for her.
I plan to give Grimdark Future a go next. Will report back with how that goes.
Or, paper miniatures, stuff you bought in one of those Reaper Bones Kickstarters, stuff from a CMOM boardgame, whatever! ↩
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by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 23, 2020
Tagged: warhammer killteam 40k minis anthrodact
Evan and I finished our initial Kill Team campaign. His Anthrodact Vat Guard came out ahead against the invading Skitarii Dravidian. I would say things weren’t even close! It was a fun experience, and perhaps a good example of where both of us are at when it comes to war games: disorganized, laid back, and narratively focused.
We played 6 games in total. We decided to end on 6 because our pace of gaming was so slow we needed to call it at some point so we could try something else. In hindsight we likely should have settled on a different structure for our campaign, one with a fixed number of games. If we knew we would only play 6 games, we could have thought through what those 6 games should be. We had a grander and more open ended outline for a campaign structure, which worked well when we remembered the rules we added to Kill Team, but was maybe a bit too ambitious for us. Our games were a mix of pulling stuff from the core rule book and tweaking things a little, or coming up with brand new scenarios specific to our campaign. Our original goal was to be completely bespoke with our scenarios, but we were often figuring things out at the last minute before meeting up. We had good intentions.
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For the curious, the notes and rules for our entire campaign are available online: The War of the Intolerable Question. They are very rough. One day we will clean them up, i’m sure.
Kill Team was fun, but maybe not quite what Evan and I were looking for? At first blush with its lower model count it felt simpler than Warhammer 40K, but I am not sure this is true. With specialisms and stratagems and other army specific rules the game can get a bit complicated. We would almost always forget the rules for morale. I would regularly forget most of the things the units in my army could do. There are so many rounds of dice rolling when it comes to wounding models. (shadowdersocks下载 simplifies this immensely by giving units bigger wounds totals to differentiate who should survive longer or not.) Once a model had a flesh wouund we’d forget what that impacts or doesn’t. The list goes one. On the other hand, it’s far more rational and straightforward than Necromunda. In that way it’s likely a good middle ground between a game that’s too minimalist, and one that’s overly rules heavy and complicated.
There are a few other games I’ve discovered since we started playing Kill Team that I’m interested in playing.
- Starbreach is a miniatures agnostic ruleset, available for free, that has an interesting activation scheme. (I believe it’s borrowed from Bolt Action, which might also be the proginator of Troika’s initiative system as well.)
- Grimdark Future: Firefight is a skirmish game published by shadowsock如何使用, who make a collection of games that fit on a double sided sheet of paper.
- Using Frostgrave to run a game of Inquisitor seems doable.
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by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 05, 2019
Tagged: osr dnd awards
I used to try and get my awards published before the Ennies announced their winners. I was worried a book I liked winning an Ennie would take away from my also giving that book an award. But then I thought, “the Ennies are really stupid: they should be racing to beat me.”
Just when I think the Ennies are getting their shit together they go and nominate Dirk for best cartography, but not for best art? And then both Troika (Best Game of 2018) and Silent Titans (short-listed for 2019) don’t win anything? Come on! I do see more names I know getting the recognition they deserve, but the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG industry will never truly provide what I am looking for.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming continue to be a beacon of shining light in the darkness that is the table-top role playing game scene. The judges have deliberated at length about the merits and artistic achievement of each book, agonizing discussions that run for months on end. No votes or pandering: voting gets you Trump and Brexit.
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David Black’s simple rules for playing D&D, the eponymous Black Hack, felt like a real part of the zeitgeist with its initial release. People have always been hacking up their games of D&D, but now all of a sudden those hacks became This Hack or That Hack. The second edition of the Black Hack takes everything that made the first edition so great and refines it neatly. The game is still clear and concise, but with some refinements that makes the game stand out a bit on its own. The new book is a lovely hardback, with enough tables to keep you gaming for some time. shadowsock如何使用
I was, to put it lightly, maximum hyped for the release of Operation Unfathomable. Jason Sholtis would share all his illustrations on G+, presumably as he wrapped them up, and I would +1 those posts so hard. It felt like he was drawing for ages and ages. And then there was a Kickstarter and finally a book. True joy. In many ways this book exists in contrast to the Veins of the Earth (Best Setting of 2018). Both books present the horrors of the Underdark, but Operation Unfathomable has a sort of goofy cartoon charm that I love. There is time travel and laser guns and bug monsters: all the good stuff. That we have two glorious visions of the Mythical Underworld, each bizarre and unique in their execution, is a testament to the creativity within the OSR. Jason’s adventure is a good introduction to what could be a longer jaunt in the underworld. (His players apparently said no thank you to the terrors of the deep, forcing him to develop the next overland adventure he plans to publish.)
Technically, these are two different books. I don’t give no fucks. I got both zines at the same time, I read them at the same time, and I fell in love with them at the same time. With Dead Planet and Mothership we are given a sufficiently creepy scenario to freak your players out with, and the rules you’d need to run a sufficiently creepy science-fiction horror game. They are both short zines: an excellent format for games. Both books really stand out because of their graphic design. Sean has said he took his inspiration from magazines rather than books, and I think the approach works well. Mother Ship and Dead Planet are so visually engaging as you flip through them. Dead Planet in particular is a very colourful affair, but that colour is used to great effect. Mothership reminds me of Alien, while Dead Planet reminds me a bit more of that crossed with Warhammer 40,000. What’s not to love?
Lots of love to Trophy by Jesse Ross (found in the Gauntlet Codex Dark 2), The Dolorous Stroke by Emmy Allen, shadowdersocks下载 by Men Milton, and Through Ulthans Door by Ben Laurence. Trophy has been slowly growing with each issue of the Gauntlet’s Codex zines, and I’m really curious to see what it becomes.
My love of Warhammer continues unabated, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give Kill Team a shout out. So much of my last year has been spent playing games of Kill Team or building and painting miniatures in preparation for those games. Warhammer has helped keep me sane. Warcry is out right now, so 2019 RPG authors you are once again on notice.ishadow
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 23, 2019
Tagged: kingdomdeath miniatures boardgames
I have a giant farmhouse-style dining table. It came from a café my brother-in-law’s ex-girlfirend ran. It was too big for that space, so they replaced it with a bunch of smaller tables. It’s a really big table … but not big enough for Kingdom Death!
Kingdom Death is a boutique horror board game, most notable for being really expensive. Or for its overly grotesque and elaborate miniatures.
To play the game you need to build four starting survivors, the characters the players will play, and the White Lion, a terrible monster that is trying to kill the players. The game asks a lot from you to get going, but compared to playing Warhammer the ask is quite modest. I built the initial set of minis over the course of a few days after the game arrived. Games Workshop minis look to be engineered and sculpted with an understanding someone is eventually going to have to glue all this plastic together: seams are usually well hidden, there aren’t a billion fiddly bits to fit, most parts fit cleanly and don’t require you to take a knife to them, etc. The same can’t be said of the Kingdom Death minis I’ve built so far. Each has been a bit of a slog. That’s not to say the challenge of building them hasn’t been fun, or that the final products aren’t great. I love the Screaming Antelope, even if I’m going to have to learn how modelling putty works to finish it up. Kingdom Death has a stellar style and artistic vision.
The game is complicated, but not overly complex. The bulk of the game is the showdown, where your characters fight a monster. On your turn you can move your survivor and attack. You roll to hit, draw hit location cards for the monster you’re fighting, roll to wound each location, and repeat the process till the monster is dead or all the characters are. Hit Location cards might have extra rules about what happens if you score a critical hit at that location, or if you fail to wound the monster, etc. Monsters are controlled by an AI deck, cards that explain what they will attempt to do. This deck is also the monster’s hit points. As you wound the monster they lose cards from their AI deck: their tactics will dwindle as the fight progresses. This is really quite ingenious, and probably one of the most compelling parts of the game. A lot of the complexity in Kingdom Death has been moved to the various cards that come with the game. You don’t need to learn a lot of rules, because for the most part everything you need to know is written on a card. The game can have lots of interesting edge cases and rule tweaks throughout because you generally don’t need to flip through a rule book (that much). Using random decks also makes each fight a little unique. The lions you fight will all be a little bit different. (And as they are injured, the way they fight will change in uniquely as well.)
The rule book opens with an excellent tutorial that walks you through the important details of the game and runs you through a typical showdown. They’ve done a great job distilling a reasonably complicated game down to something quite digestible. I met up with Evan and we played through this tutorial game. It was a lot of fun, and we managed to kill the White Lion on our first try, though it cost us one of the survivors. I don’t think it took particularly long for us to get comfortable with the game and its rules.
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The last aspect of the game I haven’t discussed is the hunt. Your characters march down a small board towards the monster you are hunting. There are hunt cards on each square that you need to deal with as you move forward. Some cards will push the creature up towards you or away from you, shortening or lengthening the hunt. Each monster has their own hunt cards, and there is a big table of general events you will likely roll on as well. In our game one generic event featured a giant worm bursting from the ground and almost eating us all. We had to each spend a survival point (a resource each survivor has) or our character would die. That’s what the game is like: you can more or less randomly instantly die.
Our second fight with a White Lion actually felt smoother than our first. We had some lucky critical wounds that helped weaken the lion early in the fight. We made it out more or less unscathed. It feels like we’re in a good place to continue our adventure.
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The game is expensive as fuck. I don’t think you can really sugar coat that. It’s the most expensive board game I own, by far. That said, it’s well worth the money if you are into miniatures. The amount of plastic you get is crazy. After seeing how much Games Workshop charges for stuff Kingdom Death starts to feel like a steal. (I am guessing the Phoenix that comes with Kingdom Death would likely be a $100+ miniature if sold by Games Workshop.) Of course, none of that changes the fact the game is expensive as fuck.
Is this a review? It seems obnoxious to recommend people go buy a game famous for both being very expensive and also always out of stock. That said, you should find this game. I suspect if you like the junk I like—D&D, Dark Souls, fun, etc—then you’ll like this game.
I wrote most of this review in 2017, and then sat on it because that’s something I do. We finished our campaign at the end of 2018. Of course, we lost. We made it to Lantern Year 11 before the last of our surivors died. Our town was full of murderers, so when the monsters didn’t get us, our fellow survivors would. It was a fun campaign and we learned a lot. I decided to post this review because we just started playing again this past weekend.
The last survivors of Lion’s Fall, Murderess, Hope, and Lucky, set off on a hunt hoping to stumble upon a man … so they can hopefully make some babies. Sadly, that’s not how things worked out. They kill a White Lion cub while out and are set upon by its enraged mother. Murderess is the first to die, dying of shock when when her arms are torn off while simultaneously being decapitated. Lucky suffered an intestinal prolapse and was hamstrung before bleeding. The final survivor, Hope, was disembowelled (3 times!) and suffered a collapsed lung from vicious attacks to her body. With her last breath she speaks some words of bravery for no one to hear.
And that’s Kingdom Death!
— A summary of the last game of our first campaign of Kingdom Death, from a post on Google+ (RIP)
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Silent Titans - Mystery
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 11, 2019
Tagged: osr falsemachine shadowsock如何使用
Do you feel like one of your things with your adventures is not really explaining what’s up till the end? And even then maybe not really. — Me!
I have been reading Silent Titans. I am so hyped for the physical book, but I have the PDF right here right now and I’m not made of stone. I love Patrick’s work. He has made some of my favourite RPG books. So, I started reading. I have so much I want to say about this book, so I’ll start with something simple.
Patrick’s books all have this element of the mysterious to them. One thing I found particularly interesting about Deep Carbon Observatory is that it just begins with a bang. There isn’t any attempt to orient the reader with the larger picture. There is no overview of the adventure. There isn’t even an introduction! You are in Carrowmore and everything is shitty. As you read the adventure you learn more about what’s going on. The adventure reveals itself to the reader in a way that mirrors how it reveals itself to the players. The very end of Deep Carbon Observatory has the closet thing you’ll find to an overview of the module.
Silent Titans is very similar. The book’s opening is as dramatic as that of Deep Carbon Observatory. The players and the reader are both dropped right into the action. What the fuck is even happening? If you are the player, you play to find out. If you’re the GM, you read. There isn’t a summary or a quick start guide. There is just this book full of Patrick’s writing. Terse—for a change—but still evocative.
The book moves on to describe a town, what will likely be the PCs home base. Then some different locations and people the PCs might encounter. And then he’s talking about a Titan. I know it’s a Titan because the book is called Silent Titans. But that’s really it. There isn’t some detour to discuss Titans, the history of Titans, nothing. You are now on a Titan and it’s go time.
You must read this book carefully. It’s so terse it feels incredibly dense. So much is packed into each sentence. It’s an engaging read because as the reader you don’t know what’s coming. (And because Patrick writes well, of course.) There is a mystery to everything that’s going on, and just like the players the reader can enjoy discovering that mystery as well.
Patrick manages to make books that are engaging on and off the table.
Is this the best way to make a module? It can’t be, right? I feel like common wisdom is overviews and repeating information and cheat sheets and this and that. This book is so intense and takes real effort to process compared to other modules I’ve bought.
But it’s also intensely creative and interesting. Would the book lose some of that if Patrick had a big flow chart at the front of the book mapping everything out?
I like to introduce stuff at the same rate that players find it out. Really that’s all the DM needs to know anyway. — Patrick!
[ed. I fucked up and accidently deleted this post. This is it mostly recovered. One day maybe i’ll fix all the links. God damn it. — Me, July 18th 2019 ]Comments
Review: Black Hack
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 07, 2019
Tagged: blackhack davidblack osr
I bought the Rad Hack in April of 2017.1 Ben Milton posted one of his videos flipping through the book and I was hooked. Karl’s art is killer. The game itself is a hack of another game, The Black Hack by David Black. For reasons I don’t really recall anymore I was thoroughly disinterested in the Black Hack, despite it being everywhere in the OSR at the time. I was probably busy running my Carcosa game and obsessed with OD&D to pay it much attention.
Games like Rad Hack felt like they were coming out every week. Everyone seemed to be making a “Hack”. Just like the early days of the OSR where people were all publishing their own character classes for Basic D&D, you also saw a lot of people publishing new classes for the Black Hack. I asked David what he thought made the game so compelling to the rules hackers out there. There are so many rules lite OSR games, what made this one standout so much? He had two thoughts. First, the rules were short and to the point. The core game was 24 A5 pages long, and these pages are far from dense tracts of text. Second, Bruno Bord converted the game to plain text and put the results of his efforts online as the Black Hack SRD. The barrier for entry when it came to making your own tweaked hack of the game was certainly low. The game feels like a true viral hit.
The Black Hack is on my mind because I helped Kickstart a new edition of the game. You can now get the second edition of The Black Hack as a dope-ass hard cover book, one that marries the simplicity and terseness of the original rules with pages and pages of tables and advice on running an old school fantasy game. A smaller booklet version of the rules still exists, clocking in at 20 pages. So, anyone worried David was going to bloat up his game should relax. This second edition feels like a gentle refinement of the earlier edition of the game. I suspect only the most ardent of Black Hack fans will notice the changes that have been made. (What did he do to armour! That crazy man.)
Black Hack is a mechanically simple game. Players have 6 attributes recognizable from D&D. To accomplish any task you must roll under the appropriate stat. Almost all rolls are done by the player. You roll under your STR to attack with a sword, and you’d probably roll under your DEX to dodge a dragon’s fire breathing, for example. I want to say that’s basically it, because that’s basically it. There are small rules included that make sense for a game designed with the game play of D&D in mind: a simple encumbrance system, rules for exhausting your supplies, etc. It’s all very well done and intuitive.
Compared to the first edition of the game, the second feels rounded out with an eye to helping new players to D&D get oriented. It begins with a page about role playing games and how this game works, followed by an example of play. The rules for the game then follow, those that both players and GMs will care about. A lot of what is often left unsaid in various versions of D&D is made a bit more explicit in this version of the Black Hack. David talks about the structure of the various phases of a D&D game (in the dungeon, exploring the wilderness, being in town, etc) and tries to break that all down into a common structure of play with a common language to describe what the players and dungeon masters are up to.
For old-hands of the OSR the Black Hack feels like it has a lot to offer. The rules are simple and get out of the way. They are easy to hack and tweak as needed. Some bespoke classes and new equipment lists you’ve taken your art-house D&D setting to the next level! The larger hard cover book is also packed to the brim with all sorts of little tables and advice useful when running a D&D game. Poison! Panic & Light! Rival Heroes! Drugs! What’s on the Corpse! Etc! If you can conceive of it coming up in a D&D game it’s likely David has made a page about it in the book. There’s a sample wilderness, dungeon, and tavern, so you likely could get quite far with this book alone.
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I normally run LotFP when I’m not running OD&D. The Black Hack feels like a nice alternative to both games, being simpler and a bit more of a blank slate than LotFP. I think if I was to pick up my Carcosa game again I’d run it using the Black Hack. (Maybe write up my own Carcosa Hack, borrowing from the Black Hack and the Rad Hack.2)
Hopefully it goes without saying you should buy this game. It’s available as a PDF if your means are modest. You can grab the box, dungeon screen, booklets, folders, and hardcover book from SquareHex. I regret not getting the box. Don’t make the same mistake as me when you’re doing your shopping.
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I’m sad I can’t link to the G+ post where I talk about picking it up. We are in the darkest timeline now. ↩
Even the Rad Hack has its own SRD. This community is amazing. ↩
Review: Harlem Unbound
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 24, 2019
Tagged: shadowsock如何使用 coc callofcthulhu harlemunbound chrisspivey breakoutcon breakoutcon2019
I don’t recall exactly how it came up, but someone asked if the character we were talking to was White. They weren’t being weird: it was pertinent information. We were playing a game set in 1920s New York, most of our characters were Black, and we were worried about racism. Chris said something to the effect of, “This is Harlem. It’s the twenties. Almost everyone is Black. I’ll tell you when someone is White.”
People: this is what I am here for.1
I’ve never played a Call of Cthulhu game. Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t something I grew up on, so those sorts of games were never on my mind. But, I do love a lot of other pulp fiction, jazz music, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other things that all felt adjacent to the setting of shadowdersocks下载 game Harlem Unbound. I also love the idea of a game where everyone goes insane and dies at the end.2 I saw Chris was running a game at Breakout Con and signed right up.
In a strange inversion of my typical reviews I will write about a game I have played, but whose rulebook I haven’t read. So, maybe this is me just telling you about a game I played this one time that was fun.
Harlem Unbound was kickstarted quite successfully in 2017. Chris’s game then spent 2018 winning awards, as far as I can tell. Last Gen Con Chaosium announced they would publish the second edition of the game. Nicely done.
The mechanics of the game were very straightforward. Chris explained them quite quickly before our session got going. Your characters have some percentile attributes, similar to those found in D&D, and some percentile skills. To accomplish tasks you roll under those stats on a d100. If a task is hard, you need to roll under half that stat or skill. There are also advantage/disadvantage mechanics similar to D&D 5e where you roll two Tens dice and pick the best or worst result. All characters have a Luck skill they can use to succeed on rolls in certain situations, but you lose some each time you do so. Finally there is the infamous SAN score for your sanity. When you encounter eldritch horrors you need to roll under your sanity. You’ll take some ‘damage’ to your fragile psyche, which will be a lot or little depending on if you fail or succeed. If you take more than 5 sanity damage at a time, you roll on a special table that tells you what terrible fate befalls you. No one hit 0 sanity—I assume you explode or some such thing. The game we were playing was “pulpier” so our characters had more hit points than your typical Call of Cthulhu character, though we didn’t look to be invincible.
Call of Cthulhu is a game about investigation. There is a mystery the players are trying to solve. In this game we were hired to find out who killed a teenage boy we were all connected to in some way. He was run over by a car in a part of town he shouldn’t have been anywhere near. His sister was a famous singer at a local Harlem nightclub. There were shoot outs, other mysterious deaths, ties to local gangland drama, the mysterious past of our benefactor, and a whole host of other leads that took us around Harlem. As the game progressed we quickly realized things were weirder than they first appeared. The game culminated in the death of the women who had hired us to find her brother’s killer, a few people having nervous break downs, and a terrible spider demon being unleashed on the world. It felt like a very on-brand game of Call of Cthulhu.
A common complaint I have read (and now witnessed) with Call of Cthulhu is that investigation is such a key part of the game, but failing rolls may stymie your progress. The solution here seems to be creating scenarios where there is such a web of relationships between all the action that players will eventually make their way to centre of the mystery, though their route may be quite roundabout. (This actually feels like it may help set up stories that are quite over the top and pulpy: the librarian is also dating the mobster who is also a cultist, etc.) I thought it was fun trying to figure out what was going on. We tracked all our leads on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, so we wouldn’t forget avenues we might want to explore later. My understanding is in Gumshoe you always are making forward progress: that you can’t “fail” a roll and be blocked in your investigation. I can see the appeal there as well, though the Call of Cthulhu approach does appeal to the OSR part of my brain. Sometimes you just don’t succeed! I liked that there was the occasional dead end.
There are lots of essays about the racism of H.P. Lovecraft. So many that trying to find writing about cosmic horror as an analogy for racism are harder to find. But that writing must exist: it feels so on the nose. Setting a Cthulhu game in 1920s Harlem feels like something someone should have done already. You have gangs, prohibition, jazz bars, and all that excitement. You marry that with the experience of being Black in America at that time3 and I think you have something really compelling.
There is a new edition of shadowsock如何使用 due soon, and I’ll likely grab it when it comes out. I feel stupid for not backing the Kickstarter at the time, though that was likely the responsible thing to do. The current edition is still available as a PDF, and also includes the rules for running games using the Gumshoe system. If you’re a Call of Cthulhu fan buying this thing feels like a safe bet.
An aspect of Luke Cage that I really liked was just how aggressively Black the whole show was. The only characters who were White were those where there being white was thematically interesting: the corrupt cop and the villain Shades. It was cool to see such an inversion of your typical TV show. Mind you, that first season probably should have been several episodes shorter. I digress. Ironically, in this game I picked the White pre-gen. ↩
Chris claims this isn’t how all Call of Cthulhu games end. Sure, buddy. ↩
Well, and now: we didn’t solve racism, people. ↩
Review: Zombie World
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 17, 2019
Tagged: pbta magpie zombieworld breakoutcon breakoutcon2019
Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!
I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.
The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.
The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!
I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.
Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5
The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.
There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.
I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.
This is the hotness.
Love that guy! ↩
Joe DeSimone! You thought he was just a cartoon head on Twitter, but no, he’s real. ↩
I probably should have watched the videos on the Kickstarter page. ↩
I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. ↩
A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. ↩
This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster. ↩