Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Warrior Princess class variant for DCC

A bit of background first (if you want only the mechanics, just scroll down): About a decade ago, for reasons I can’t remember, I tried to present each of my players a “happy birthday game”. I would ask each one, during his birthday, what different game/setting/one-shot he would like to play and then I’d my best to run it. Unfortunately one of my players wanted a damn Waterworld RPG (yeah, that movie). I would say no, but he was also one of my best (and craziest) players and I did promise a game for each one of them. Real Life got in and I realized a few months ago (and almost 10 years later) that I still didn’t gave to my player his damn Waterworld one-shot game. Thank the Elder Gods, Mutant Crawl Classics (MCC) came just in time. So, using the few previews of MCC I concocted an insane one-shot about the kidnapping of Princess Black Sting, of the Radioactive Manta Rays tribe. The PCs were 3rd-level MCC characters attempting to rescue the Princess from the clutches of the Fire Demons Tribe (a.k.a. Smoker), worshippers of the Grande Marlboro, and inhabitants of a massive post-apocalyptic warship/oil driller platform. The adventure started in medias res (it was a one-shot after all) with the PCs rescuing the Princess from heir jail and trying to get out. And the Princess was, of course, one of the players. The adventure was a complete madness, from the start, with giant robots, talking plants, assassin Satellite Gods, Kevin Costner clones and an artifact that played pop 80’s and 90’s music (with mechanical effects). It was a great fun and definitely sold me on the few pieces of MCC that I’ve seen so far.

The horror! The horror! (except for Dennis Hopper)
Now, the Warrior Princess class. DCC is a lovely game with just the four core (and iconic) human classes. It’s really unnecessary to create more, but as a gamer I love to thinker with DCC (and Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds, and GURPS etc). So I tried to create a variant of the Warrior Class. Basically, I reduced its HD to a d8 and disallowed heavy armor. In exchange, I gave my Warrior Princess these two abilities:

Backstab: as a Neutral Thief of same level.

Charm & Seduction: a Warrior Princess can try to seduce, charm, beguile, mislead and otherwise make a fool of every male humanoid around (and a few females, especially if you’re playing a Paizo Adventure Path!), besides equally charming a few brutes monsters (like your archetypal giant ape). This works almost like a charm person spell, but it must be at least a bit reasonable, because it’s not a magical ability (i.e. reasonable for the genre tropes, because we’re not trying to be realistic here!). In other words, an unarmed Warrior Princess (or with a hidden dagger/short sword) can more easily fool an enemy than a Xena-equivalent with a blood-stained two-handed sword. To use ‘Charm & Seduction’ a  Warrior Princess must a burn a number of Luck Points and roll 1d6 per point spent. The total is the target’s Will save DC to resist the effect. For example: a Warrior Princess spending 4 Luck Points would roll 4d6 to trick an enemy into think that she surrenders, getting a 17. If the target thug fails his Will save he would disregard the Warrior Princess to attack her friends, opening a window for a backstab. That’s the basically idea and worked pretty well in our one-shot (the Princess Black Sting killed the Grande Marlboro with a backstab!). Warrior Princesses recover Luck as Thieves.

The main inspiration for this Warrior Princess class is (besides cheese sources) the awesome and scientifically accurate Encounter Critical RPG (specifically the Doxy Class).  And yes, this class variant is completely not-serious and (probably) not suited for more grounded DCC RPG games (I known I wouldn’t use it for my future attempts at converting DCC to Warhammer Fantasy, for example). 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Making D&D/Pathfinder races weird/different without changing their mechanics...

If you liked my Changing Gamers assumptions about Pathfinder (Part II, Races), consider this post a "Part III, More Races". Although originally intended to Pathfinder, I believe it works well for any fantasy setting (especially D&D-ish ones). It's kind of a mad (and very weird) brainstorm, actually.

I) Elves are all immortal, but just in body (that's why they have such a beautiful and young appearance, they're made to be the ideal of youth and perfection). However, their mad creators never did pay much attention to the spirit (and in fact didn't wanted to… you see, not competition). So, at exactly every 111 years, an elf spirit is replaced. The Elf just awakes one day without remembering his/her past "life" (oh, he/she knows how to speak and has some basic knacks, but just that). Elven clerics believe their spirits go to the gods after suffering 111 years here in the Material Planes (some heretics believe that every Elf is actually a god, temporarily banished to the mortal world). Elven wizards (and cynics) believe that their spirits’ accumulated knowledge and strength are consumed by their deities in order to maintain the pantheon's power. The real problem for an Elf is when he discovers that in a past "life" he was a terrible tyrant and that most human and dwarven kingdoms want him dead.

II) Dwarves are actually the Worms of Ymir, the primordial giant/titan/deity/Great Old One from whose body the world was made. The Dwarves were the first mortal beings and - not having any plant or animal life around to eat - devoured Ymir's flesh. Those first Dwarves became like their "creator" (except in size), humanoid creatures capable of cunning, magic and with great skills for crafting things of beauty – and an even greater gift for fighting (particularly against giants). The problem with Dwarves is that they still must consume carrion from humanoid corpses in order to retain the mind and body faculties. They do this in secret (although ghouls know that and consider Dwarves their "brothers in arms"). A Dwarf who refuses to eat carrion slowly becomes a pale and faceless half-worm/half-humanoid thing that, with time, grows to become a voracious and terrible monster.

Did you remember that they looked like this?

III) Gnomes, as you know, are actually children from other humanoid races (mostly taken from humans and halflings) stolen by the Fey to serve as their pets and slaves. Those Gnomes that you see around in the Material Plane are the ones who escaped the Fey Realm/First World/Arborea/Arcadia/Red & Pleasant Land. Each Gnomes dreams and can occasionally see their Fetchs - the fake copies left behind with their original mortal families. As old and fugitive children, many Gnomes try to destroy their Fetchs and return to their families. This rarely ends well (a few more disillusioned/mature Gnomes just check from time to time to see - secretly - if their loved ones are doing fine). All Gnomes also deeply fear their old Fey Overlords, who can still show up to reclaim them (yes, I'm totally stolen from Changeling the Lost). 

IV) The first Halflings were actually normal animals that learned to speak and shapechange into their known humanoid forms. The learned the knack from their old master, the dreaded and mythical Hag Queen, ruler of the fallen race. Most Halflings, long ago, decided to leave their original homeland to flee from the Hag Queen. She used them as spies, to fetch human children for her to eat (or to raise as new hag, if females). (I know I promised "no mechanics", but if you liked this allow a Halfling to shapechange into one normal small animal, maybe through a Feat or after completing a Quest... or you can use this excellent take on Hengeyokai as a shapechange mechanic)

An awesome book with horrible art...

V) Orcs are known as the cauldron-born. They're the creation of dark sorcery, made from the corpses of the fallen, mixed with worms, mud and blood. That's why they're so savage, bloodthirsty and bestial. The ritual for making orcs always show up from time to time, usually in the hands of a dark lord, necromancer or mad wizard. Each new "recipe" for orc creates a different type of creature (all similar). Most free orcs want nothing more than destroying the ritual once and for all (or at least kill their masters). The fact that they're called 'Cauldron-Born' created some interesting folklore and jokes... if a food is particularly bad, you still can always hear someone taunting the cook by saying that "an orc will eventually climb up from that if you don't improve it").

VI) Half-elves are humans who sold their souls to the bound and buried Elf Kings. In exchange for a very long lifespan some humans sell their souls not to devils but to something far worse – the dread archfey of old, trapped beneath the hills and barrows. The new half-elf gains beauty, a little fey greatness (represented by their character class gifts) and a few good centuries to enjoy. In exchange they become the Knights of the Old Kings and must occasionally do their bidding.

...and vice-versa.

Friday, July 22, 2016

About monsters as madness or diseases

OK. This isn't, I believe, original. I've been pondering it for a while. It all started with a Hobbit (Middle-Earth) campaign draft, where one of the main enemies was a barbarian king that – due to his greed – was slowly becoming a dragon (he was called the Burning Man, the King of Embers or something like that). I created that because I didn't want Middle-Earth dragons to hatch from eggs and stuff like that (the idea that Smaug was once a 'cute' wyrmling wasn’t right). Besides, in this regard, I love the Hobbit cinematic trilogy’s take that Erebor’s fall was provoked by the Dwarven King's greed and eventual madness, the Dragon itself just being a consequence. I really like this thematic/symbolic approach to monsters. Dragons used as signs of madness, vices and devastation. It fits nicely.

Let’s try that with something smaller: Bugbears!

Goblins on steroids = boring.

I don't like Bugbears. OK, I like their niche (the creepy stalker monster), but I believe other creatures do that a lot better (like Lord Dunsany's Gnoles, which are a lot scarier). Bugbears were always oddballs for me and their name sounds too ridiculous for me to take them seriously…

C’mon! Bugbears are dumb!

At least one brazilian setting ditched the word ‘bugbear’ and just called them "Giant Goblins". Anyway, I'm only keeping Bugbears in my games if I can make scarier and weird (kind like Paizo did with their goblins at the begining). In fact, I still want connection between goblins and Bugbears.

What if Bugbears are actually the main consequence of "goblin rabies"? If you're bitten by a goblin, wounded in its lair, eat its food (Ugh!) etc., you can be infected by goblin rabies.

The main symptom are Bugbears: yeah, you start to feel the presence of big scary goblin monsters, whose noises in night won’t let you sleep. After one or two nights you start to actually see a Bugbear stalking you bed, room or camp. But because we’re dealing with a weird disease, the Bugbear will actually attack you and wound you for good! (the funny thing is that ‘bugbear’ can be interpreted as ‘obsessive fear/loathing’ and one of the word’s origins is the famous bogeyman)

Now, a bad side effect of goblin rabies is that only the diseased can see the Bugbears (if you want to go more ‘fairy tales’, allow madmen and children to also see the creature). To make things worse, more Bugbears will usually show up after the first or second night.

If the victim is unlucky enough to be wounded and killed by the bugbear, then his body usually explodes in a gore fashion (it's a fey disease, we can get as bloodier and weirder as we like!).

I wish Bugbears looked like THIS!

So, to "help" his friend, the other adventurers can either remove the disease or allow themselves to be infected by it (if you go through the ‘madmen can see them’, maybe getting affected by things like a confuse spell, or getting drunk, can help other PCs to see the bugbear… 
Thinking about booze, now imagine it if Bugbears are provoked by drinking goblin wine... Now imagine a sneaky goblin switching a tavern's stock with fey wine. It would be a bloody night!)

We can say that a typical goblin rabies starts with 1 Bugbear showing up for 1d4+1 rounds. If he's killed the disease will run its natural course and be healed in a few days, after the infected heals the disease damage (if you keep track of this stuff) (and yes, the Bugbears can scape during combat... he knows how many rounds “of existence” he has so can decide do escape to show up another night). If the Bugbears isn't defeated he'll attack again and there's chance of there being more Bugbears!

It’s easy to steal the concept and estipulate that vanity brings hags, greed attract red dragons (or generate them, or the greedier monarch in a dragon slowly etc.).

Now, another day I’ll talk about hobgoblins! (or uruk-hai, as I like to think of them)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Little Encounters - The Daemonic Tricks of Ssisssuraaaaggg (DCC RPG's Portal Under The Stars)

I’m running a new table of DCC RPG – this time a physical one, with “real” players (Google Hangout really helped me to keep in touch with my players, but nothing beats actually running a game to a physically present group; it’s an entire different dynamic). So, I started with a Funnel through ‘The Portal Under the Stars’, as usual, and got the survivors through ‘Sailors in the Starless Seas’.

I learned a lot from my older DCC RPG group (via Hangout) and it was really interesting to run the same dungeons a second time (I never did that before). An example: the first group that got into The Portal Under the Stars never managed to finish the dungeon. They’re totally scared by the mortality rate of 0-level game and as soon as they figure it out that they had “enough” to go up to 1st level, their left the place. The new group was different. They took a heavy toll but they’re adamant about going to the end. The consequences were hilarious and coincidentally totally fortuitous – they won (literally) by greed. While half the party faced the terracotta army of the barbarian Wizard King, the other half was digging the pool for gems at the upper level. Those who played/read the adventure probably already figure it out what happened next.

OK, back to what matters. There’s a very cool S&S/Appendix N encounter with a snake demon at ‘The Portal Under the Stars’ and I really wanted to make it more unique/unexpected. So, here’s my take at ‘Ssisssuraaaaggg, The Immortal Demon-Snake!”.

I wanted a demon to be something different (and very traumatic) for the party, so I devised the idea that Ssisssuraaaaggg would implant different telepathic suggestions on each adventurer. I elaborated a table. Write the 6 messages on post cards and distribute it among your players (because this is a Funnel, each player controls 2-4 character, so pick the character with the lowest Luck Points to determine who gets the message).

A fifthly lie, the first poor bastard that kneel suffers a free attack from Ssisssuraaaaggg.
2. Know, o mortal, that I was invested with stewardship of this demesne. Only those that pay the Bloody Tithe due to Me in the space-time continuum may retain their four-dimensional structure”.
This player may inflict 1 point of damage to himself (in the form a bloodletting) to gain sanctuary against Ssisssuraaaaggg. However, if he attacks the snake demon, the effect is broken.
3. I warn thee that one of yours so called allies is in fact an extraplanar entity bent on extracting the eldritch secrets of this place. There It lies revealed, destroy the demon!”
The PC sees another PC shining with an evil red aura. The decision to attack or not the “demon” is entirely up to the PC that got the telepathic message. This can be a fun source of backstabbing, but I’m aware that not all groups enjoy it. In this case, you can do this: if the “demon” PC is killed,  Ssisssuraaaaggg was actually speaking the truth. The killed PC’s body turns to a corrupted demonic carcass and Ssisssuraaaaggg is freed from her Curse, becoming Sis’urech, the Elf (a 1st-level elf rolled normally, but with a free ‘16’ that can be placed in any stat). It is recommended that the killed PC gains Sis’urech, the Elf as prizing (for dying).
4. JOIN ME! Together we shall rule this dungeon!”
OK, if a PC is fool enough to accept this offer, he instantly suffers a Great Corruption (from the Wizard’s table).
5. The horn! The horn! They must not suspect my one weak spot!”
Another lie. If a PC grabs Ssisssuraaaaggg (possible suffering an attack) and succeed at a Strength check (DC 12), he must also succeed at a Will save (DC 12) or become dominated by the demon. If you’re feeling magnanimously you can allow the PC that survive this encounter, to use the horn as focus for a invoke patron (Azi Dahaka was my choice) and a good excuse for becoming a wizard after the Funnel. 
6. Oh no, adventurer… again”.
The luck fellow of the party. Grant this brave “hero” +1d3 bonus Luck Points. However, if he finishes the encounter with any bonus Luck Points remaining, reduce his remaining Luck Points by 1d6. He was granted a bless by the Gods of Mayhem! and they’d be offended if the pitiful mortal didn’t use their benediction.

The effects are intentionally contradictory (it’s a chaotic spirit after all).

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Anti-Clerics for DCC RPG (Edited: Second draft)

I started a new group of DCC RPG with a (not Hangout) group. Until now all my DCC games where through Hangout (which is excellent, but I’m literally Old School and nothing beats a real table with face-to-face roleplay experience/dynamics). This group started because two member of my local group finally start reading DCC RPG and found the True Enlightenment ;-)

The fact that Brazil is getting its first Portuguese translation of DCC RPG is also helping a lot.

OK, to the post! I find the Cleric class as written perfect… if you’re a Law Cleric. I can’t say why but I believe a Chaos Cleric (even a Neutral one) should work differently. Coincidentally, the party’s (Lawful) Cleric just feel in the Wheel of Souls, during their first run of Sailors in the Starless Sea. He defeated the Chaos Champion (a.k.a. as the Minoutaur) but emerged from the Wheel corrupted by Chaos. Now, I’m tempted to try my homemade Chaos Priest. I’m calling him Anti-Cleric, both as a homage to OD&D and to make it clear that this isn’t the Cleric Class from the core book.

This is just my first draft, still requiring playtest. Any feedback is really welcomed!

The Anti-Cleric

Hit Points, Attack, Crit Die/Table, Saves, Spells: as the Cleric.

Choosing a god: only chaotic ones (of course).

Weapon training: I’m thinking on axe (any), swords (any), dagger, dart, flail, spear and trident. Anti-Clerics may wear any armor and their spell checks are not hindered by its use, but the armor must be made of metal (spiked only), human skin or bones. Anything sufficiently “METAL!” will do.

Alignment: Guess...

Caster level: an Anti-Cleric has a natural caster level of 0. They need Power to increase their caster level above 0 (see below on Magic).
Unless otherwise decided by the Judge, the Anti-Cleric's maximum caster level is equal to his character level + 3 (artifacts or unusual blessings are good ways to increase it, besides traditional stuff like daemonic heritage, lichdom etc.).
Rising you caster level above your character level brings certain risks (see below).

I f*cking loved this movie!

Magic: to cast a spell an Anti-Cleric needs Power. This can mean a relic or a unholy place, although most of the time it means a Sacrifice (more on this soon) or Drain Life (idem).
Power works like an Anti-Cleric’s magic points. It supplements his spellcasting, increasing his caster level above 0. Without Power, the Anti-Cleric just rolls a d20 + his Personality modifier.
Power naturally depletes at the rate of 1 point/hour. Carrying too much Power can be dangerous (see below).

Sacrifice: an Anti-Cleric can sacrifice an intelligent victim (willing or not) to get Power. The victim must be healthy (usually above half their full hit points), bound or otherwise helpless and must be ritually killed in the Name of the Anti-Cleric's Patron God.
This usually takes a maximum of 1 minute of mumbo-jumbo before the death strike. The Anti-Cleric gains a number of Power points equal to the victim's total hit points (stronger creatures may require 1 minute of ritual per HD, at the Judge’s discretion).

Command Chaos: this works like the traditional ability of Evil priests in D&D. Instead of turning unholy creatures, Anti-Clerics can try to enslave undead, demons, dragons and "chaotic" monsters (Judge's call). This is resolved as a normal Turn Unholy check (but remember that an Anti-Cleric may need to spend Power), just ignore the Holy Smite column and any reference to damage.
If the Anti-Cleric gets a "Turn" result (like a T1) he can control the target creature for a number of turns equal to Turning Unholy check, minus the total HD of controlled creatures, to a minimum of 1 turn. The duration of the command is kept secret from the Anti-Cleric player (this is, after all, CHAOS!).

Drain Life: this is the Anti-Cleric's main source of Power. The Anti-Cleric roll a d20 + his Personality modifier against a target at 30 feet. The result is the DC for a Will save to resist the hit point drain. The damage is calculated using the ‘Opposed Column’ of the Lay on Hands ability, from the Cleric class. Half the drained hit points are converted directly to Power points. A target can't be drained below 1 hit point (that requires a Sacrifice).
Drain Life is a difficult skill and using it makes the Anti-Cleric goes last in the round. If attacked, the Anti-Cleric is forced to make a Will save (DC equal to 10 + damage) or lose his action. That's why Anti-Cleric love servants and bodyguards.

Lay on Hands: Anti-Cleric always heal others using the Opposed Column of the Lay on Hands ability.

The dangers following the Chaos Powers (besides burning in a pyre erected by Law Clerics and Paladins): Chaotic gods don't follow the normal Disapproval rules. Instead, each time an Anti-Cleric suffers Disapproval do this instead – roll a 1d10 for every point on the spell check (for a natural 1 on the spellcasting check roll 1d10, but if the Anti-Cleric rolled a natural 4 and that counted as Disapproval, he would roll 4d10). Check the final result against the Wizard's corruption tables (1-10 is a minor, 11-20 is major and 21+ is greater). This roll is reduced by the Anti-Cleric's Luck modifier (and he can also burn Power to reduce the roll, but he must spend ALL available Power at once).

Using Power to cast a spell above your normal character lever is dangerous and increases your Disapproval level by the same amount, for that roll. For example: a 2nd-level Anti-Cleric with Disapproval 3 that casted as spell increasing his caster level to 4 would suffer Disapproval on any natural roll of 7 or lower).

Likewise, nothing can stop an Anti-Cleric from sacrificing an entire village and filling himself with lots of Power. However, for every 20 Power, his Disapproval level is considered +1 higher. Besides, if a Anti-Cleric carries more than 20 Power, he's considered an unholy creature for the purpose of Turn Unholy (of Law Clerics) and always register as a magical/extraplanar/demonic creature (he's just carrying too much fell power).

The good part is that Chaos Powers don't care about sinful use of their magic and won't inflict Disapproval for that.

Edited (Version 1):
- Power now depletes more slowly and isn't completely erased after a long rest/sleep/knock out.
- Drain Life deal damage as usual, but now only 1/2 is converted to Power.
- Carrying too much Power inscreases the chance of gaining Corruption (i.e. Mutations).

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Having fun with Fear (Another "One Page Rule")

Most Fear mechanics in d20 (and RPGs in general, but most specifically D&D) are terribly boring. You fail a check, you run. In other words, you're practically out of combat (and the really boring part is that, even after the fear effect wears off, you usually spend a few rounds running back to the fighting). As I said: boring.

How can we make fear more fun for both GM and players? I'm stealing something from the Entropic Gaming System (which is a nice variant of Savage Worlds if you ask me).

The Entropic Gaming System (EGS) has a really cool mechanics like Heroic Points, Gaining the Advantage and Fear.

Let’s adapt EGS’ Fear for D&D and its descendants. This is how I’m doing it: when the PCs are affected by a Fear effect, the GM gains a FEAR POOL for the duration of the encounter.

A typical FEAR POOL could consist of 1 Fear Point per player character affected, plus maybe +1 Fear Point for every 2-3 HD of enemies (maybe demons, true dragons or undead would gain more Fear Points).

If you're playing D&D 3rd/Pathfinder (which has Shaken/Frightened/Panicked condition scale) you can use the numbers above for a Shaken condition. Fear effects that generates a Frightened condition could give 2 Fear Points per PC that fails a save. Panicked-scale effect would give 4 Fear Points per failed a save.

A GM can use 1 Fear Point to do one of the following:
- force a PC to reroll any dice (ability/skill checks, saves, attack/defense rolls, damage rolls etc.) and pick the worst result. This can be used once for each roll.
- force a PC to go last in the round, or to go after the scary monster (i.e. the Fear source), or let the scary monster interrupt his actions.
- force a spellcasting PC to make a concentration check to cast spell (or subject him to a misfire, if you use this kind of rule).
- forbid the PC from attacking directly or any other way harming the source of the Fear effect for 1 round.
- deal subdual/non-lethal/stress damage to all PCs that attack or any other way hamper the source of the Fear effect that round (this damage can represent the PC’s sanity, will or resolution literally eroding, to the point that the victim of the Fear effect finally falls unconscious due to sheer terror). Maybe 1 die of subdual damage for each 5 monster HD (use the same die, so in Pathfinder, a dragon would inflict 1d12 for each 5HD). Or maybe just inflict 2 dice of subdual damage per Fear Point spent.

Now, you could devise ways for the PCs to removed points from the FEAR POOL. Each of the following actions could remove Fear Points:
- spells that remove Fear effects should be able to remove a number of Fear Points equal to caster level (or maybe half that against Frightened/Panicked-scale effects – or Fear effects provoked by really strong creatures).
- a PC could use a Charisma check (or a performance check if a Bard in 3rd) to inspire his friends. The Charisma check can be substituted for any other equally heroic and inspiring deed. If successful, allow him to remove 1 or more Fear Points (a Bard using his inspiring/remove fear abilities, should work as spellcaster of the same level).
- an affected PC can do a thematically appropriate roleplay action (at least a move/standard action). Things like standing paralyzed and screaming, running while dropping one of this items etc. If the GM approves, let the PC roll a Luck roll or Will save – success removes 1 Fear Point, a natural 20 removes 2 Points (and maybe a natural 1 adds +1 Fear Point). Or just rolls a d20 (like a death save from D&D 4E and 5E): Anything from 2 to 15 would remove 1 Fear Point, 16-19 would remove 2, a natural 20 removes 3 and natural 1 adds +1 Fear Point. If the PC uses his move/standard action to do something really stupid but cool and thematically appropriate (like a non-cleric branding a holy symbol in an attempt to turn a demon, but only managing to draw the creature’s attentions, by a nice GM and remove 1 Fear Point “for free”, before rolling any die).

At the end of the encounter, if any PC managed to do a cool "fear induced" action, you should reward him (with Action Points, Hero Points, Healing Surge etc., give him at least a free reroll, use D&D 5E's advantage, or just fives a few temporary hit points or a new daily use of an ability. Oh, and if the PC acted in a properly scared way but penalized other PC (like pushing the ally against the scary undeads), then please reward the PC that was thrown in the fray, not the coward one that run away.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A review on Neoclassical Geek Revival

This is (kind of) a review of Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival (or NGR).  Zzarchov is the author behind excellent OSR modules like The Gnomes of Levnec, Thulian Echoes and ScenicDunnsmouth.

What astonished me about NGR is [First] that it is a game released back in 2011 that I have never heard about and [Second] that it is a wonderful package of ideas and gaming principles, all of which are amazingly easy to steal for your home games/systems.

This little post is based on NGR’s No Art Version (a 112 pages PDF available from DriveThruRPG - link above).

NGR is clearly inspired by the OSR but it is not (technically) a retroclone. Although I hate the term, you could say it’s a fantasy heartbreaker. It’s definitely Zzarchov’s ideas and esthetics for a generic fantasy game system, but you can clearly see some of its gaming roots.

The book start with rules for “rolling dice” (that definitely are in the spirit of OSR and the first games). My favorite ones are those for limiting bonus, the “?d#” roll (where you roll a dice until getting its maximum result, with a ?d6 meaning you roll a 1d6 until you hit 6) and the inverted die. NGR also uses a chain of dice progression, almost like DCCRPG. There’s also the awesome ‘The Known Rule’, which gives bonus to the players every time the GM has to stop the game session to check for rules in the book (I understood that the same rules forbids players from checking if they can’t remember how a rule works… just roll with it and keep gaming!).

Character creation is simple. Each character has 6 attributes: Strength, Agility, Health, Perception, Intelligence, Charisma and Will (all self-explanatory). Each attribute has a score, a modifier and a die, all used for different stuff (and NGR does uses the score itself, which is good since I believe D&D 3rd/Pathfinder could follow M&M and stop using them). Attributes scores usually vary between 1-20, with 10 being the baseline.

The next step is Species (i.e. Races). We get the usual suspects here: Mankind, Dwarves, Elves, Wee Folk (Halflings, Gnomes etc.) and Wodewose (half-giants, ogres etc.). At first, there’s nothing new here, but Zzarchov’s approach to Species is excellent and illuminating. NGR does not lose its time giving bonus and modifiers for Species. The author believes that a Specie should be foremost about flavor, so he gives them a lot of unique and interesting benefits or drawbacks (all mechanically minor; again, you don’t see bonus/penalties here, which I found excellent). For example, NGR’s Dwarves are color-blind (except for gold, silver and gemstones) and they only age when their skin is exposed to sunlight (and “getting old” for a dwarf means get slowly petrified) – this oozes flavor and I’m tempted to steal it for all my Dwarves henceforth.

Next we’re introduced to a concept that I’ve been trying to implement in my OSR/Pathfinder games since reading games like FATE or I AM ZOMBIE – the Schrodinger’s Character. Basically, you build your character during the first game session, by playing it. It’s an amazing concept, very useful for grognards like me (or just adult gamers in general) which have precious little time for their beloved hobbies due to jobs, daily responsibilities, family etc.

After that we get to the Pie System, which is basically NGR’s approach to a class system. Each character gets a number of “pie pieces” to choose from six options: Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, Bard, Bard, Priest and Fool. The number of pie pieces you place on each “class” dictates how many abilities you gain and your progression.

Each class come with a selection of 6 powers to choose from, besides a Locked Power (which you only get if you pick 4 pie pieces from that class) and rules for the class’s Personal Item (from a Warrior’s trademark item to a Priest’s relic). I won’t lose time with the class details here, except for two: the Bard and the Fool.

NGR’s Bard is my kind of Bard. Forget spellcasting minstrels or cumbersome jack-of-all-trades, NGR’s Bard is a social master. All his abilities are potent social traits and his ‘Personal Item’ are henchmen (Perfect!).

Finally, we get the Fool. This isn’t a class, but a pie piece that dictates how Luck Points progress for a character, besides also giving bonuses to awesome rolls (more on that later). Luck Points are NGR’s answer to hit points – they’re definitely abstract, they can be spent to keep the character safe from a lot of harmful effects (not only physical damage) and they’re recovered in true Sword & Sorcery fashion (Parties, Celebrations, Ho-Downs, Shindigs & Box Socials!). In other words: they’re hit points that make sense. In case you’re wondering: if you get 0 Luck Points, physical damage goes straight to your Health (i.e. Constitution in d20 games), but we’ll get to that.

Awesome rolls, mentioned above, remind a little of experience rolls in BRP, but here they’re used at end of the game session to gain Fate Points (which are NGR ‘action point’/FATE point system).

The character’s pie pieces in each class also determine their progression bonus in the following universal modifiers: Combat, Presence, Stealth, Occult and Faith (each linked to a class and an attribute). For example, Combat equals a character’s Warrior bonus plus their Agility modifier).

The next steps are ‘Character Traits’ and ‘Skills and Knowledges’. Traits are selected only at character creating (2 at most) and give a character advantages and disadvantages. For example, if you’re Arrogant it’s hard to hit you in social conflict, but when you fumble in such conflict, you lose a lot more Influence. Skills and Knowledges are divided in three basic types: Languages, Knowledges and Weapons.

Before picking up equipment each character chooses 2 Relationships, one linked to the player seated to the left, the other to the player seated to the right. Relationships help to bring the group together and are simple things like ‘Life Debt’ or ‘Family’ (they also have a small mechanic effect). NGR uses a simple and practical encumbrance system, which remind me of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other OSR approaches to equipment/load.

Thank the gods, NGR provides starting equipment packages (I can’t say why but these days buying equipment is the dumbest and more boring part of character creation for me, which is why I absolutely love the dK System’s Preparation skill).

Finally, you choose your Morality (i.e. Alignment), Lucky Number (a famous OSR blog rule) and fill the last numbers of the sheet – Mana for Wizards, Piety for Clerics, Destiny (which is 0 for beginners, unless it’s your birthday) and XP.

The system basic check uses a d20, but you must the check the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule. This basic rule is the core of the system and states that when a character is CALM he can roll a d20 or just pick d10. He can also choose to go ON EDGE and roll 3d6 instead of 20. Or he can just go RECKLESS and roll d20. Once you go from CALM to any other stance, you can‘t go back until you get a restful night of sleep in a safe area. Checks in NGR are either opposed or against a target number; you roll your die (following the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule) and add the relevant score.

NGR has a very interesting take on saving throw, one that reminds me of Chainmail. In NGR a saving throw is a check that a player can request when nothing else applies and his character is in danger. Only characters with a milestone can request a saving throw (a milestone is a very interesting parallel advancement system of NGR, linked to story deeds and accomplished quests). Now, the cool bit of the saving throw is that the exact effect of failure or success are based on the player character response to the threat. Is his idea to avoid the threat standard? (“I duck the lightning bolt”) Then a failure means normal damage and success means half damage. Is the PC’s idea crazy enough to work? (“I used my metal staff to discharge the lightning bolt around me, nullifying it!”) Then is double or nothing. As I said, it’s a very cool rule.

NGR has a considerably narrative and modern approach to damage. You can have any number of different damage types, each linked to a different (or the same) attribute. The game provides a (extensive) list of “common” types of damage ([Physical] Damage, Stun, Stress, Suspicion, Influence…) and “uncommon” types (Toxicants, Fear, Mutation…). Some kinds of damage stack. For example, stun and [physical] damage both affect Health. Also, NGR uses a brutal death spiral rule for most types of damage. For example, [physical] damage to Heath inflicts a -1 penalty per point of damage to base checks (the d20/3d6/take 10 check mentioned above or “dX” as it’s called). That’s why Luck Points are such important (and awesome) resource, they allow to ignore ANY type of damage.

NGR damage system is possibly the game’s most interesting and hard to grasp rule (for me at least). For example: NGR has a Suspicion damage track, based on Perception, which means that sneaking is now a conflict. That’s a great rule because it ads tension to scenes where the group is trying to ambush an orc scout party or get past a dragon guarding the dungeon’s only exit. However, I feel that NGR would benefit A LOT by giving examples for each kind of damage (maybe describing an actual play encounter for each type of conflict or damage). Other damage types could benefit also from a few tips – like the Mutation Damage, where I missed at least a table of possible effects or other more concrete suggestions. Social Damage like Influence and Infamy also gave me headache, especially in conflicts dealing with multiple characters and different intents (for example, one PC is trying to befriend the NPC while another is trying to seduce him… does both attempts stack? Do I keep track of “different” Influence damages?).

NGR does provide a compressive set of rules for hazards, conflict types, mass combat, trials, investigations, enemies of different sizes etc. I won’t get in details here, because I’m focusing on the game’s parts that attracted me most.

NGR provide further support for Warriors (Combat Tricks), together with the now class stuff for Wizards (Spells) and Clerics (Miracles). Combat Tricks are martial maneuvers that Warriors can learn. Wizardly Spells are basic templates (like Powers in Savage Worlds), that must be enriched with flavor – it’s not just a Bolt spell, but Marvin’s Magnificent Lightning Bolt! The magic system uses Mana Points and is a bit bland for me, but these days I consider myself extremely spoiled by games like Warhammer 2nd and DCCRPG. The author, however, does pull very flavorful mechanics – especially the Price and Magic Components rules. There’s also the excellent and weird (in a good way) rule that states that a spell’s power is inversely related to the numbers of casters that know it (which is THE BEST explanation about why wizards are such greedy and jealous bastards when it comes to their spells). Priestly Miracles are based on a caster’s divine patron and how many Piety Points he has. The Piety rules are the best part of the chapter and give divine spellcasters a flavorful style, totally different from Wizards.

NGR’s next chapter deal with Fate Points (that you gain at the end of each session through the ‘Rolling for Awesomeness’ check) and Destiny Points (which are very hard to gain but allow you to totally own a situation). This chapter also has an advancement track, Milestones rules, how to gain XP etc. The last bit is the Rolling “The 2d6” – which is a rule pertaining to each character’s Personal Item (or henchmen for Bards). NGR’s final chapter deal with ending a campaign (the game’s top level is 10).

After all this material the only thing that I missed were information and stats on monsters and NPCs, which seem to be available through a separate PDF product.

Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival is a unique and imaginative fantasy system, that will enrich any gamer’s library. For me this is the ideal game book – one that even if I never use in my table (and I intend to use it) makes me read other books with new eyes and gives me tons of ideas about how adapt campaigns and other games to me needs (yeah, that’s a 5-star review).