Tuesday, 23 December 2008

No need to take up a life of crime, free stuff to feed your fantasy RPG habit

I've been saving up a whole hamper of Christmas goodies. Firstly, we have a list of free paper models for fantasy, modern and Sci Fi, a computer tool for generating city maps at the click of a button and more tables than you can shake an entire tree at. Put down that shotgun, there's no need to raid that local supermarket to pay for your embarrassing RPG addiction, get stuck into some of this.

Free Paper Minis

Some people like lead. Some people like mild steel. Others like vulcanised rubber. For those of us who just like free stuff, there are paper minis. Paper minis are download-print-cut-fold and stick. Of course, with the help of a responsible adult. Looking at my player group of 20 and 30 somethings, responsible adults are in short supply! I like the idea of paper minis: you can squash villains with a fist, if tried with their lead counterparts would result in a trip to hospital and a rather embarrassing explanation of why a skeletal necromancer is embedded in the side of your hand. Here's a selection of places where you can get hold of paper minis, from little people through to buildings and other wargamey goodness.

City Map Generator

Obsessive cartographer types, avert your eyes! The City Map Generator is a Windows application that creates beautiful maps of cities at a click of a few buttons. Within a few moments, I had managed to create a city with buildings, rivers, a wall, plant life and more. Sadly, the website that it was home to has disappeared off the web (original here) but the downloads are available across the web. The maps do look a bit samey but then I'd argue that most fantasy/historical towns do. You can export to different formats for labelling streets. Even looking at my fiddling-about test runs, I can see mugger's alleys, bustling thoroughfares and market squares. And that's my Sci Fi addled mind. We can only hope that the original developer (who goes uncredited on the application) pops up and says hello, because I'd love to congratulate and thank him/her/them/it.

Tables for fantasy

Age of Fable has produced a plethora of Tables for fantasy games. There are 228 of them. That's staggering. Normally, quantity means a spinning plummet of the quality level. Not so here, all the tables I read through (admittedly not all 228) were well written and contained some great ideas. The tables are not specific to a single system, so even if you're using a system written in your own blood on the carcass of a swan, there's something here for you. Don't be put off with the simple design, they make for very easy printing or ready straight off a laptop at your gaming table. Many thanks

Just a brief note...
My next article will be published in the new year, I do hope you all have a fantastic holiday season and see you again in 2009.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Free images to spice up your game

Whether you are writing your own free game or looking to spice up the game you're running, free images always come in handy. I'm forever moaning about free RPGs not having quite enough images in them, so here's the help you need. I was inspired to put this together by Zach's post on the The RPG Site. Many thanks to those that contributed there.

Before I get into the linkorama it's worth noting that you should be careful what licenses are attached to the different images. If you are producing something for sale, may I recommend you pop over and throw some fabric at a proper artist. Most places would like a link back, which is no real hardship for any free RPG, right?

Art sites


If you're looking for a great tool for shaping these images for your own use, I can heartily recommend GIMP, which has radically improved in recent years to punch as hard as Photoshop.

Of course, if you are aware of any free (public domain or Creative Commons) images that might be relevant for your RPG, please pop the link in a comment!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Zenobia by Paul Elliot, a classic

Plunge into the deserts and cities of ancient Egypt and Persia in Paul Elliot's Zenobia. A magic infused mix of historic places and myth. Search for hidden cities, plunder tombs and go toe to toe with scorpion men. Bound together by a simple D6 system, Zenobia is all about the setting. And what a fabulous setting it is.


Zenobia is set around the time that the Roman Empire was going to the dogs. The Empire is not referred to as Roman, which demonstrates Paul's desire to meander around historical accuracy (for good reason). It is set in the Eastern reaches of The Empire, which was fractured into warring Kingdoms including Persians, Palmyra (run by Queen Zenobia), and Galls. Hordes of filthy Goths rampage at the fringes of The Empire; providing a hairy, slavering and uncouth monster in the closet. The depth of description feels bottomless, I'd recommend having the map at hand (downloadable from the website) to assist in placing the barrage of names and locations. There is plenty of backdrop conflict to plaster a campaign across. Tales of Farthing Wood this is not.

The setting's core explanation is partitioned into manageable chunks, starting with a history of the area. If you've never read anything from this timeframe, it can be a bit of a jolt but judicious use of Google will sort that out. Geography is painted beautifully and with map clasped in a sweaty fist, you should have no trouble working through it. I certainly felt the light headed whirl of transportation to the ancient world when reading it through. I could almost feel the dusty mountains drying my throat and the relief of the moist Middle Sea (The Med). The most useful section, Everyday Life, is next and leaves nothing to chance. I challenge you to find a better social commentary in any free RPG. Clothing, economics, law and order, housing - I can go on - entertainment, how the calendar links with the seasons... You might be agahst at first but to read it through won't burn any grey matter (just yet) as it gets to the point on each subject and drills just enough to find oil.

Character Creation

The order of Character Creation is different to most RPGs, hammering a perfectly square peg into an ideal square hole. More emphasis is placed upon your origin, rather than the raw statistics. Characters fit into (but are not constrained by) one of three types: Adventurers, Crafters and the Learned. Adventurers are the heroic types, who live up to their name. A smorgasbord of archetypes are available from the monosyllabic, bemuscled and oiled Conan-clones camply swinging their 'swords' around the ancient world through to the dark and devilishly charming Prince Kasim played by Omar Sharrif in Lawrence of Arabia. Crafters are those people who work their fingers to the bone in the hard graft of the 5-to-9 (or ...29 hours a day in the mill and pay the mill owner for the priviledge of coming to work...) and the Learned are the scrolly types (like 'booky types' but before books) who aren't invited to parties and have trouble conversing with the opposite sex. Crafter and Learned creation rules are dealt with in different sections later in the book. Most players will opt for Adventurer because there are more than enough options.

Character creation has seven steps:
  1. Select a culture of origin, which gives you a language and some character bonuses

  2. Roll up attributes Might (1D6), Fate (1D6), Hits (2D6+10), Craft (starts as 1), Learning (starts as 1)
  3. Set previous experience (character class), which furnishes you with a special skill, cash and so on

  4. Select social class, such as peasant (I like the idea of referring to my players as peasants) that give different worthy bonuses.

  5. Pick skills (of which there are only few).

  6. Choose initial equipment, scimitars and such.

  7. Fill out background.
A lot more thought is required to get through the process than in many games and I think this fits the setting like a glove. It should (and does) matter where you come from. It should (and does) matter what social class you came from. Everything it should do, it does. You will end up with only a few specialist skills, marking your position in the team carefully. The process to fill out character background is a good example where Zenobia excels; it's not just a simple paragraph saying that characters with backgrounds are more interesting, it leads the exploration process with questions, tables to roll and a list of appropriate names! An idea I'm going to scribble down and shamelessly use for my own freeness.


This could not be simpler. Roll 2D6, add your Combat modifier, highest wins and causes the loser to bleed. The more you win by, the more the loser bleeds. Until they're dead. The Combat modifier is the sum of your Might attribute and any weapon modifiers. There are some 'elaborations' (delightful phrase I've lifted from the rules) but they only add richness to the simple system rather than overcomplicated. Damage is the difference between the two rolls (of 2D6+Combat) and you take that off your hits, accounting for armour first. If you get down to 3,2 or 1 Hits then you fall over. 0 is dead. You can opt to save the difference to use later to make 'crippling blows' (more in a moment) more deadly. If you lose a round, then you lose the points you've saved. This add risk to the whole deal.

If damage dealt is more than 4 then you get to do a Crippling Blow, which are brilliant. Crippling Blows are listed in a table ranged from 4 to 10, there are a couple for each level the player gets to choose from. For example, for a value of 4, you can choose between Chest slashed open and ribs cracked or Leg cut badly, slashed to the bone. Brilliant! You can use Fate points to shrug off damage in a typically heroic way. This system leads to some wonderfully descriptive combat, something I very much approve of. There are also some unarmed combat with less lethal but still satisfying descriptions such as 'Smash Face'. Hurrah! Missiles, nets and so on are also covered but only to demonstrate how the rules fit that too, rather than introducing a raft of new rulings.


Like all good Classical Epics, calling on Gods can make actions happen automatically but burn precious Fate points until you sacrifice something to the gods. The Gods are well described (and use the Roman nomenclature for you Classics buffs out there) and are the in-game explanation for experience points, which is rather neat. You can increase your God wielding by becoming an Initiate and then a Priest. You get spell-like powers based heavily in a Priestly. Cults firm up praising the gods into definitive camps, each shown in huge detail. Magic is wielded by Philosophers and Magicians and there are special Learned character types for them; the starting Attributes are rearranged as you might imagine - both being better at writing and less good at stopping swords going through their eye sockets. A Philosopher is the keeper of arcane knowledge - part scientific, part understanding the world. A Magician calls upon dark powers.

The Other Chapters

How far can you go in a day on a camel across a stony desert? I'm a computer programmer living in middle England, that doesn't really come up that much. The action resolution chapter covers this and a huge number of other things such as surprising people or gambling. The Monsters chapter covers all those favourite classical beasties: Giant Scorpions, Cyclops, Goatmen, Furies and more. Treasures are listed in their own chapter. The Golden Fleece isn't there but Paul does cheekily mention that you can plunder myth and I feel that he left out the bleeding obvious ones to make space for one you might not have thought of. For those who felt that the first section on local geography was a little light, after reporting to a mental health worker, you might want to check out the monolithic Lands and People Chapter should satiate your thirst. All 42 pages of it. I'm willing to bet that Paul is a GM because the GM's section is glorious. He has included a huge amount of Adventure Hooks, Campaign creation help, NPCs and other secret goodies.

The Book and Resources

Originally written in 1999 and revised in 2004, this 226 page PDF is neatly formed in 2 columns with a smattering of images by the superb John Hodgeson. The in-column graphics are charming and the Monsters chapter has a few poingnant pics. The front cover image isn't in the PDF (a shame) but you can get that from the website. Tables are collated at the back and the contents page lists only what is needed. The backup resources are all of a high standard too, some submitted by other authors. If you do think that you might run out of resources then Googling any of the names or keywords Paul has used will throw a plethora of information.

What I would do to it

I've scratched the surface with this review. Zenobia is big. It's huge. It's on an appropriately Classic(al) scale. I wonder if I can level the same complaint that's been levelled at me. Is it too big? I think that 'too big' is relative but as a game writer, you either want to make your game as accessible to as many people as possible or you make it for yourself and sod everyone else. Paul's gone to great length to smooth over historical detail and endless pithy argument (I'm married to a Master Classicist) to make a more interesting game, so I'd imagine the former. To make Zenobia more accessible, you could arrange it in more manageable pieces, a step-by-step approach. Broad description, character creation and mechanics, first adventure. Then add Magicians, Priests and Gods. Then another adventure. Then more detail. Then another adventure. Repeat. This format is rubbish as a reference book but I think people might get through it with a bit more ease. In a few places, a good general description might help (especially at the start of the Gods section). The geography section needs the map included. You can get it on the website but it really needs to be there, on the page. At the end of the history, a good 'Current state of play' round up would help show where to start from. I'd like to see more of the inter-God bickering you get in classical novels, also the players get to 'use' the Gods but I'd like to see the gods being their petty, childish selves too. Spending the Fate point leads to you winning that action but then the side affects could be less than desirable.


Have you ever read the Illiad? Did you get through it? Have you seen the film Troy? Did you get through that? There's a good reason why you've sat through Troy and not the Illiad, it's more accessible. However, which one is more rewarding? In Troy, the oiled Pitt prances gaily about with his 'cousin' Patrocles before going on a pouting rampage upon hearing of his death. In the Illiad, Achilles is a fully blown deus vox psychopath who seeks revenge for the one he loves, who died because he has a teenage strop. Zenobia is enthralling and detailled. I can't do it justice here. I nearly didn't publish this today. In its stead, throwing onto the stage the next entry nervously waiting in the wings - to give me more time - but this review would end up 226 pages long. I knew I had to just finish it.

If you download anything this year. Download Zenobia.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Be horrified by Into the Shadows by Craig Griswold

Into the Shadows is a complete horror roleplaying game by Craig Griswold. The mechanics are based on West End Games' D6 system (like in the original Star Wars system) and setting inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (although not solely so). It's a modern take on horror with cars, guns, psionics and magic. A place where elephants go toe to toe with off road jeeps. It's got its ragged edges but between them is a real gem.

Character Creation

Characters are constructed from the typical mix of descriptive sections, attributes, and secondary attributes (although no called as such). The attributes in Physique, Reflex, Canny (Intelligence), Education, Technical and Will[power]. What I will refer to as secondary attributes include move rate; whether the character is magic or psyonic sensitive; Karma, Survival and Life points; special advantages and disadvantages and equipment and weaponry. If that sounds like rather a lot, you're right. However, not all are required during play so the character sheet is not overburdened. A player can choose to begin with the pre-built selections of stats or build from scratch, where you assign the stats yourself. The choice allows both quick character creation and stat wrangling, a very nice touch I've written down for the next version of Icar. Karma points allow temporary ability boost for those dramatic moments, rewarding flamboyance. Survival points work like XP, plough them back into your character. There are no levels although skills become more difficult to raise the higher they are.

Starting characters have 18 dice (which are D6) to share between attributes, special abilities, psionics and to learn magic. Simply, you can assign dice to a given attribute, the more dice you have on the attribute, the better you'll be at it. You're going to roll these dice, add them up to beat a target number, so the more you have, the more likely that will be. You can also split a single dice between lots of attributes by splitting a dice into 'pips'. A dice can be converted into three pips. A pips gives you +1 to an attribute. The upshot is that if you assign 3 dice and a pip, you would end up with 3D+1. You can receive more dice for taking disadvantages and burn more on special abilities. There isn't a big list of these but guidance on how to set them (which is enough). Psionics, Magic and Priest powers are bought in the same way. You then take 7 dice to spread between skills. This is well explained with some good illustrative examples. This system allows you to specialise in a big way or spread yourself thin. It gives the players more than enough rope to hang themselves.

Skill, Magical, Psionic and Priest abilities are chosen from large, well described lists. Skills are derived from various attributes. For example, the skill Gymnastics is derived from the Reflex attribute. The skills are not well balanced betwen the different attributes: Physique has 4 skills, Dexterity has 20. Balance is achieved later in combat as Physique can be used to avoid damage. Skill specialisations can be purchased to denote particular talents. The skill list is comprehensive and I think just about any modern world task can be found amongst them with a leaning towards the setting with skills such as Parapsychology and Mythos. The spells also have a good modern-horror taint, which echoes the setting nicely. Craig could have gone down the fantasy route but didn't. Nice one. Psyonic attributes are dealt with in a similar manner. Language is all important here and Craig has struck the right balance, giving you something of a feel for the setting through the description of the mechanics. A difficult thing to achieve.

The System

Task resolution is performed by rolling the dice next to the skill and adding any 'pip' plusses to the result. 3D6+2 means to roll three D6 and then add 2 to their sum. Try to beat a difficulty number with bonuses. One of the dice needs to be a different colour and is specified as a the Wild Die (which as a phrase in isolation sounds like the best way to shuffle off the mortal coil). Rolling 6 will add that value and then roll again. If you keep rolling 6, keep adding! This can turn marginal passes into landslide victories that could work interesting results into the narrative. Rolling a 1 either gives a penalty roll or a complication. A complication is a narrative hook, decided by the GM. A delightful opportunity for filthy evil GMs to get filthy and evil. Karma points are declared at the start of the round and double the values of the attributes. You can only save up to 5 Karma points, so they need to used wisely. Combat is performed by rolling against combat skills to hit, defensive skills to avoid. When damage is taken, you lose Life points and when they run out you're dead. Movement and vehicle combat is dealt with a similar system but there are more rules to digest.

The Setting

The given setting is with a invented modern day Bureau of Paranormal investigation, the characters playing new recruits. Assigned to a specific geographic area, the green field agents will travel around and investigate and solve. A considerable amount of background is available, including more equipment and vehicles specific to the Bureau. At this point, it seems like Craig shares my fetish for endless equipment lists! The bestiary is included in the campaign setting and includes everything from bridge troll to werewolf. Although there is enough description to get the creative juices flowing, I'd like to see more of an example adventure or two. There is a tonne of resource but the glue to bring them together for the new GM is missing. Go here, investigate this, find that, go mad etc.


The main book includes mounts (horses, elephants), humorously named vehicles that are recognisable, a huge array of weapons and equipment. Much of it doesn't have a description but I think that's ok. Little quotes adorn chapter starts and other areas of the book. All the examples are clearly labelled although some do demonstrate how complex the system can get when you're doing vehicle combat. A fully featured GM section is included, with some good advice and some slightly authoritarian ideals. That aside, it's by the most fully featured free GM guide I've seen yet and fits well with the slightly old-school feel the D6 system gives. What's more on the website there is also a bespoke GM guide (not reviewed here)and a series of adventures, each packaged in their own PDF.

For the next version

The current version is 8 years old. The last website update is 5 years ago. Impressive those statistics might be, I can only hope that a few tweaks might be made for the next version. The book is mostly single-column, making some line lengths too long for comfort, it is bereft of pictures which is a shame. As some of the sections are very text heavy, a few images would lighten the load. There are a few spelling and grammatical mistakes and although there are page numbers in the main contents page, the quick skill lists could use page numbers too. At some points rules are referred to without being explained. A little reference would help there. Finally, the setting is planted firmly in the GM section. I prefer any setting to have a player and a GM section. It's much easier to sell a game to a group of players if you can get them to read some publically available information. Perhaps some of the adventures on the website might be congealed into a single adventure to add into the book.

To conclude

I can only pray that Craig might read this and be inspired to revisit Into the Shadows. Not to paint the rules with a storyteller brush or add narrative control but to refine, expand and polish his creation. The D6 rules hold up well and the sheer weight of resources is impressive. It has that feel of something that really has been played. Into the Shadows is ideal for someone looking for system to throw a Lovecraftian setting idea at.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Go back to school with Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch

Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch does exactly what it says on the tin. A gold tin forged in the fires of Mount Doom, to be one day lobbed back in by a scrawny bipolar neurotic. It's a boiled down core rules takes from the open-sourced version of the zeroth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. So old school that Latin is its first language. It stands proud for what it is. Unashamed to be derived from the earliest incarnation of the hobby that has commanded so many hours of our lives. It makes no apology. Roll up. Gear up. Get stuck in.

A disclaimer

It might be worth mentioning that I've never really played Dungeons and Dragons. I've dabbled at conventions under the watchful gaze of very understanding RPGA gamesmasters but for a legend such as Dungeons and Dragons, you really need to campaign it. Something I've never done. My myopia stretches just to the degree that I am aware that there are lots of editions and regular verbal fights erupt across the digital landscape regarding love, betrayal and murder but I'm not got a monkey's chance of understanding it. If you read this thinking 'DUH! MUPPET!', assume that I've never read a mainstream roleplaying game before. And you'd be right.

Character Creation

This might all sound very familiar to you but for me, it's something of a revelation. Imagine having toiled over physics studied to discover, years later, Newton's three laws of motion. If you're as fantasy ignorant as I, its like discovering the Rosetta stone and realising all these funny stick men hieroglyphics you've been staring at for years actually mean something. You rolls D6 for a series of Abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution and Intelligence) and the value you roll translates to a plus or minus modifier. Once you have your Abilities and modifiers nailed down, it's off to choose your character class, which determines what sort of things you can do in the game. The classes are Cleric (a god botherer who prefers bashing people's skulls in with blunt instruments and throwing Deus driven magic, unlike my local vicar), The Fighting Man (who enjoys an evening in with Tennyson and cup of cocoa, obviously) and The Magic User (pointy hat, spell book, women's clothing). The Class gives you choice of equipment and skills but also a an advancement table, which plots how much experience you need for each level. After that, you choose a race: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. Then blow your hard rolled gold on loading up on stuff (20 foot of rope buyers are welcome). Finally, you calculate your Armour Class, which can either be either ascending or descending variants depending on what makes sense to you. Armour Class determines how hard you are to hit.

The system

You kill stuff. You gain experience points. You go up levels. You get better. Kill bigger stuff. Repeat. When you want to hit something, roll a D20 and then check the ENORMOUS table! I'm not so keen on tables. Turn action runs in order: see if there is a surprise attack, spell chuckers get to say what they're chucking, work out who goes first and then get stuck in. There's some advice on avoiding combat by lying and cheating. If players around the world are anything like mine then lying and cheating in character comes almost as easy as starting combat. So that's 23 of the 82 pages sorted.


Roll up! Roll up! Massive spells lists for you to peruse. More tables. More lists. Rule-ettes and a multitude of dice to wield. I know many people salivate at the thought of pouring over 30 pages of spellitude so I'll take a brief pause for those to collect themselves. Of course, this is a delightful hypocrisy coming from a man obsessed with pages of guns and phallic space craft. The game master section is a nod to game master sections. Blink and you'll miss it before ploughing into Monsters! Loads and loads of monsters. There's an entire ecosystem. From dragons to mould. Yes, mould. For those who have never played fantasy before, this might come as a shock. Mould. Yellow mould. A guide to making your own is also included. A brief guide to setting the right level of challenge is given before ploughing onto Treasure! Tables galore. Then some magical items.

The book and community

The book itself is 82 page PDF and is well laid with a profusion of tables images early on. It's laid out for duplex printing, so print the odd pages first. The text is curt and in plain English. It doesn't assume you know anything about Dungeons and Dragons, so complete mongs like myself have no difficulty digesting it. At 82 pages, it's quite heavy but there's no wasted space. It's currently on Lulu as a free PDF and you can even buy it there too! Smashing!

Joyously, Swords and Wizardry is new. Odd that might seem but the publish date is 2008. There is a forum that appears to have a reasonable amount of activity for a single game. It's heart warming that a niche old-school game has its own community with enthusiastic types chatting about all aspects of the game. Worth a look.

What I would change

Changing, modernising, and de-table-ifying Swords and Wizardry would ruin it. It has to be old school. It's very aim is to give a glimpse into the past, a time capsule of roleplaying. It's a little too light on images, especially in the monster bit. Mould. Need pictures of mould. I think it's also a shame there there isn't a setting here. It's crying out for a Tolkeinesque affair with Orcs, a dark Lord, hoity-toity Vulcans Elves and tiny people with the fate of the the world in their hands. Would it be an enormous ball ache to produce such a thing? A go on, Matthew, you know you want to.

To conclude

Hurrah for old school gaming. Hurrah for tables for everything. Hurrah for Matthew and the respectful dedication to Gygax. Swords and Wizardry is basic but it works. You get that solid feeling from Swords and Wizardry, the difference between a 70s VW camper van where linkages connect the steering wheel to the wheels and a modern Toyota where elastic trickery and magic does the work. It's not overburdened with rules but each Spell pulls rules in through the back door in the form of tables. Bar that, it's a nice solid base for anyone wanting to build their own setting. Or plunder Tolkein like everyone else. Dig out the old polyhedrals from the bottom of your underpants drawer and get stuck in to gaming the way they did before Star Wars existed.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Asteroid 1618 by Jeff Rients, who has scoffed all the drugs so you don't have to

Asteroid 1618 by Jeff Rients (of the famous Jeff's Gameblog) is a Worldwide Adventure Writing Month (WoAdWriMo) 2007 entry. A science fiction (with a dash of fantasy) adventure set on a planetoid called Asteroid 1618. It's a bonkers romp through the psychedelically fuelled insanity of a broken mind. It's as nuts as it is brilliant. Throw your Sci-Fi campaign players into this adventure and they'll walk out with mouths so wide open that it'll look like their jaw bones have been stolen by an overzealous tooth fairy. Excuse any nonsensical hyperbole you might encounter during this review, it's entirely inspired by Asteroid 1618. It's based on the Encounter Critical (EC) RPG but you really don't need EC to use this adventure.

The setting

Asteroid 1618 exists in the Vanth subsector of the likely future of the human race. Rampantly horny giant space dragons cause smash up the previously sane order of things while two familiarly named human empires the Klengon and the Vulkins make Tolstoy (war and peace) on each other. The Vulkins win and expand with some space travel, even against the control of the Galactic Domination Bureau. The end result is a fractured Vulkin Empire spread across a load of worlds. Confused? Then you're thinking too hard. Just let the lunacy wash over you like a Douglas Adams book, absorb the nonsense and it all starts becoming, well, sense. If you've read the EC RPG page, you'll understand why.

The setting contains a number of 'worlds' that you can lob your characters at. Each one has its own tech level and description, varying remnants of the Vulkin empire. Each planet is a cornucopia of ideas, from planets rammed full of bionically enhanced creatures through the sixth layer of hell (no really, Dante's actual sixth circle of hell) to a human tomb. It's taking every ounce of strenght not to delve into details. You might, as a player, want to hand a link to this review to your brain addled GM to throw into your campaign. Do so at your own risk. And that includes my players. Most of the crazed brain melt occurs on the Asteroid, which has a map and enough background to fuel an entire campaign. There are some additional rules to assist in being on the Asteroid. A domed city is the easy place to play but the rest of the asteroid is fun too - with environmental factors (and low gravity if you were short of humorous hooks) brought in to add flavour. The supplied adventure is crux of the book (as you might expect) having twists, turns and a large spoonful of unhinged-itude. I'd like to say more but it would spoil it for you if you ever planned to run it. If you get bored playing through this largely linear adventure, you probably bathe in beans, peel oranges with your forehead and think the Pixies' 'Where is my mind?' is your biography.

The book

The style is rough-and-ready homebrew (and I'm talking about the sort of homebrew booze you made at University, which could be used as paint stripper), in keeping with the original EC rules. It is a little difficult to read and you might laugh at the simplicity of the graphics but they fit perfectly. They are appropriately placed and contain enough detail. There are some typos and the grammar goes for a tea break now and again but then you must remember that it is a WoAdWriMo, created in a month. Given that, there's 83 PDF pages of content and more than half of that is spent on the adventure, which is a blessing. The daftness does wane in places but not such that the book becomes boring. If Jeff had spent one iota more time on it, then it would cease to be in keeping with the original system, so I can only praise him for the masterstroke of picking EC as a base for his WoAdWriMo entry. It's the sort of thing I wish I'd thought of first.

To conclude

Asteroid 1618 is crackers. A delightfully illogical brainfart. Roleplaying games should not be written to be humorous and, in a way, Asteroid 1618 isn't. It's very serious about its silliness. If you're running a quite straight campaign and you want to incorporate a bit of wackyness in (perhaps for a Christmas bit-of-fun session), you might get the characters on hallucinogens and throw them a bit of 1618. Or perhaps as a multi-session adventure, you might see if the players can play it straight on an Asteroid gone mad, the aim being to keep your sanity when confronted with Rient's unsound mind. It might be a difficult sell if your group are not used to playing in madcap scenarios, if your group turn normal scenarios into madcap ones at the drop of a hat, then they might feel very much at home on Asteroid 1618.

Disclaimer: Jeff, to my knowledge, is not actually clinically insane. Nor has he scoffed all of the drugs. Being a fair man, he'd probably share them out. ;-)

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue

WOAH THERE! Hold on, adventurer! The Legendary Dariel expanded Lost in Smaragdis into the Gods of Gondwane. So I Reviewed that too. Check that one out instead, it's like this but much, much better!

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue is a roleplaying game set in a parallel world where the Lost World meets a smorgasbord of historical eras. The core gem of Lost in Smaragdis is (unsurprisingly) Smaragdis, a parallel world filled with Dinosaurs, Conquistador, huge flying machines, Pirates, the remnants of an ancient civilisation and just about any other interesting part of history you can shoe horn into a single document. Reading that aloud sounds like a terrible mess but the setting is glued together solidly. I hope I manage to get that across in the rest of the review. If I don't, please berate me in the comments.

Character Creation

Character creation stomps along the much beaten path: The GM sets the scene, players come up with a concept, decide on abilities, traits, hooks (non-mechanical facets) and so on. A character is defined by a Main Ability (3 dice), which is a single thing that character is best at; Major Abilities (2 dice), which are those things that the character is really good at; Minor abilities (1 dice) are those things that the character can do but aren't really a speciality. As you can see, facets of the character are based around the number of dice, more on this later. Traits are like abilities but they are those things that make you better than other people. I like this mechanic because it augments the abilities. For example, you might choose to have Athletics as an ability but then 'Greased Bloody Lightening' as a trait. You can have up to 3 traits, assigning a number of dice up to each (more later). Hooks are those character quirks and oddities that you might choose to make the character more interesting, such as warts, impatience and so on. They can be physical or mental but do not have a mechanic. Each human character gets 4 health points. Simple as that. Equipment and clothing is then decided before the GM making the final finished adjustments.

There is a great onus on the player and GM to come up with the abilities, traits and so on. There are no large lists of skills and the like. Some may prefer this rules light method, experienced players brimming with imaginative insight will rustle up a character in a thrice.

The system

Is light. A near-zero calorie affair. Your roleplay dietician might recommend you take on extra gaming protein while playing this game else you might become malnourished. If you're a fast and loose personality, this system will be right up your alleyway. Every ability, trait and so on is measured by a number of D20 dice. You declare you action in cinematic sort of manner: 'I spring up out of the bush and dive to leap onto the back of the T-Rex'. By adding that colour, the GM might award some bonus dice, a reward for adding more spirit into the game. It's also recommended that the GM might ask the players how many dice that deserves. A story-telling aspect but not so huge that it might take over.

You roll the number of dice from the most appropriate ability (such as Athletics) and try and beat a target number of any of those dice. The more dice you have, the more likely it will be. Neat. You get to add trait dice too but you can only use them up to the number you assigned. Assign two dice to 'Greased Bloody Lightening' and you get to use it twice that session. A critical is when you roll the same as the target number. The target number is decided by the GM on a best guess but it is recommended that the faster the pace of the action (and thus the faster the thinking of the players), the lower this target should be. I rather like that.

Combat and conflict is performed by escalation. The instigator of the conflict declares the action and the GM sets a ceiling for the opening bid. The instigator 'bids' a target number for it. The opponent then describes a counter action and the target number changes. This goes back and forth until either of those in the conflict elects to roll. The aim here is to get a face paced back and forth of description. The person who elects is likely to be thinking [sarcasm]'Yeah, right, I am sure you are going to be able to do that'[/sarcasm] or run out of ideas. For those interested in a fast narrative and less in the physical tactics of the game, this appears to be a brilliant system. The roll-off is used to determine who gets to narrate the end of the sequence. Damage is simply handled by incapacitating the loser.

The setting

Smaragdis is a delightful setting. Campaign start would revolve around an inland sea called the Emerald Sea basin. Frankly, there is enough here to run an entire campaign and serves as a good example as to what Dariel is trying to achieve. Wildlife own most of it: dinosaurs and giant insects live amongst smaller more recognisable animals. Around the edge of the inland sea are a number of kingdoms, one based on the Spanish Conquistadors, one on French and English privateers (Pirates, really). Others included escaped South American slaves, a race based on the Punic people and Ancient Egyptians too.

As if this wasn't enough, there is an ominous background Ancient Civilisation that left a hugely complex alien machine called the Core, capable of performing acts of 'magic' (although there is no magic per se). To use the machine, sorcerers get hold of Mind Gems and are activated to take control of a number of creatures, speak telepathically or use a range of different functions available from The Core. It's a fascinating idea that I can see working really well, a magical-like system with limits.

One huge benefit of Smaragdis is that to get there, you need to go through a portal. These portals could be from and time and place, which means that you can set your campaign's characters from any period of history (or the future, naturally). It felt that the best choice would be 1930s adventure pulp, Indiana Jones and the like.

How I would change Smaragdis

Smaragdis has all of the elements you might expect from a modern RPG. The book is well laid out 19 pages but the fonts are rather uninspiring. A quick look on 1001 Free Fonts would soon throw up some more exciting type faces. The level of language is high although I think the use of obscure dinosaur names in descriptions is a little jarring. One example involves putting pistols into the mouth of a Mosasaur. I had Google at hand, so it wasn't a problem but if I was reading the book printed, a better mental image may have been constructed using more familiar dinosaurs. The full-steam clash of different times and places, I think Smaragdis would benefit greatly from pictures. Especially in the case of a map of the Emerald Sea. The description is good but a map would really help place the proximity of different cultures.

I would revisit Smaragdis and flesh it out further: hunt down some freebie graphic, add an example adventure, expand on the descriptions of different cultures, build simple equipment lists and grow the list of things The Core can perform. Perhaps governing the weather or other aspects of nature might be fun.

To conclude

Lost in Smaragdis is more a fabulous idea fleshed out into a sumptuous meal rather than a complete game. Even the most unimaginative dullard would have difficulty failing to envisage a campaign based around the Emerald Sea. However, the system leaves a lot to the players and GM, which is fine for those blessed with unstoppable imaginations but for the rest of us shoe-horning a little gaming in after a brain sapping day at work, a little prodding in the form of skill lists named in the spirit of the setting would do wonders. If you're looking for a good campaign setting, then Smaragdis will go a long way to solving that. If you like light rule systems, then they don't get much lighter. If you want something deep to sink your teeth into, then head elsewhere. Dariel has scribed a triumph of an idea in a brief PDF and it may all many GMs need to set up a thrilling campaign, full of daring do and buckled swash. We can only hope that he returns to his pulp creation to plump, polish and perfect.

Update! Rob Lang is shoddy

I should have spent more time googling Lost In Smaragdis. If I had, I would have found out that it was a 24hour RPG project in 2005, which makes the game even more astounding in my mind! I'm going to contact Dariel and try and persuade him to expand it. :)

Update 2013!

If you ask really nicely for something, and I mean really nicely... with flowers and maybe chocolate... you get what you want. No, I didn't manage to copulate with Dariel, I got better. He expanded Lost in Smaragdis to create Gods of Gondwane. What a splendid fellow.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Dominion Rules by MAB

Dominion is a mechanics system for low fantasy and quasi-historical settings. It is a low-crunch rules system written and managed by a Mysterious Anonymous Benefactor (MAB)*. Dominion has a long and varied history that includes contributions from the Illuminators Guild (site unavailable at time of writing). You might as well torch your columns of AD&D and run Dominion instead.


Dominion is based on the D12, which is refreshing. Based around the old friend of roll-under-the-skill-value, and add modifiers. 12 is an automatic fail. There are 6 statistics called Attributes: Vigour, Agility, Stamina, Intuition, Intellect and Luck. Ranged 1 to 4 for humans (other races are available), which seems like a rather low resolution. Luck allows you to choose to have a bonus to any given resolution during a round. Attributes do not change during the game. You do not get smarter, quicker or stronger. Skills are based on Attributes (as you might expect).

There are also three Composite Attributes, which are the sum of two other Attributes. For example, Combat Composite is a combination of the character's Vigor and Agility and controls all the usal fighting, running and gadavanting around. It's very simple to do, add two Attributes together and divide by two. You don't do this often, and rounding is taken favourably. All explained with simple examples. The skill list is far from obscene, detailed and athletic in build. If you were to create your own setting, you'd not need to think very much or add to the list, MAB is far ahead of you. Advancement points..., well, yes.

Character creation

Character creation is performed in six familiar steps: Decide on concept, roll on the generation table (more later), determine the Attributes, calculate the Composite Attributes, work out Advancement Points and apply the advancement points. Each step of character creation is dealt with careful consideration, a running example shows how a character might be built throughout. Characters are not pressed into classes but instead styles (archetypes) are presented to help start the flood of creative juices. The character generation table gives a random bonus to the character. They aren't feats as you can't choose them. The table has different benefits for different races, which is a nice touch.

Attributes are point assigned but there is an element of randomness so some starting characters might have higher attributes than others. Advancement points are then used to bolster those Attributes that you might be worried are a little low to fit your character concept.

Doing stuff (Task resolution)

Each round is constructed from a series of stages. Order of action or initiative (Timing Stage), declaring actions (Strategy Stage), rolling skills (Modifier Stage) and dealing a world of pain (Resolution Stage). Each stage is well described with examples. Combat is an extension to this, with an plethora different actions the characters can take, each well named and focussed on a cinematic stabbing, slashing, singing swords and crunching shields. Injuries come in different types, which reduces the lethality of the system and gives a random from "'Tis but a scratch" territory through to "Look, you silly bastard, you've got no arms left. What are you going to do, bleed on me?". "Magic" is dealt... actually, that's not fair. There is Godly-power through priesthood, which makes priests useful and then Magic, which is the old fashioned witches, wizards and so on. There are 125 spells. Enough to skin your teeth into? Up to the gums.

The book

Dominion's PDF is 301 pages and beautifully laid out in a facing page format. I recommend that if you print out Dominion, you would do well to print 'duplex' (on both sides) else you will have blank pages. The serif font is both appropriate and well type-set, a touch difficult to see on a monitor (read: my rubbish monitor) but prints beautifully. The graphics throughout are stunning. Contributing authors are credited but MAB has done a splendid job collating and placing the images. I do wonder if MAB's true identity is amongst the names. A feature of the self-contained-edness of the book is the inclusion of a fully features fantasy/quasi-medieval armour and weapon lists. In keeping with the rest of the book, every item of equipment is well explained with bonuses and enchantment. Beasts also have their own section with their own actions that can be use, accompanied by an illustrated bestiary. It came as no surprise that the book also includes guidance for creation of your own beasts.

The language is concise and in plain English. If I was a gambling man, I might guess that MAD was a technical or scientific writer.

Thoughts on Dominion

The system uses metric measurements for everything. Being a SI unit loving scientist; being British and Britain being geographically in Europe, you might think I am jumping up and down with joy. But no. I use a horrid mix of miles for distance, feet and inches for height, kilos for weight, feet for altitude, pints for beer, birth speed in cows per square ironing board and so on. I like that Dominion is up front about its units. I'd like to see more items on the generation table. I appreciate that 12 was chosen to keep the dice count low but I think you will find that someone who can get hold of a D12 will have a D20 handy. The audience is likely to be veteran GMs thirsty for something new and free.

It falls into the unfortunate trap of redefining a commonly used terms using Attributes , rather than use 'Stats' and so on. I would argue that it's not really needed to retain individuality. If I were to print the whole book, I'd worry about the page count. The margins are large, as is the text size. Some of the pages have a few words and a vast expanse of white. You would rightly argue that white space makes text easier to read but when you're printing at home, the cost needs some consideration.

MAB admitted that Dominion is on a back burner after filthy pikey cybersquatting scumbags took the original domain and real life got in the way. The website is well produced and I imagine that if MAB wanted to expand it to form a community, he/she/it/borgit would be of a high quality. It's a pity that there isn't a community surrounding Dominion as I think it deserves one.

And finally

Dominion feels like a life work. It has that maturity and depth of a game that has evolved, aged and tightened over time. What throws me about Dominion is that it's nearly a complete game!. Let me qualify that. The system is complete. If you were to pen a setting for Dominion, there's little left to do: a map, some colourful NPCs and a history. As Si Crocker would say: "Bosh, sorted". I am thrown because you expect Dominion to have a setting when you get to the end and it's slightly upsetting that there isn't one. Like then ending of the film Batman The Dark Knight, you're stranded clamouring for more but unfortunately, there isn't any. Ever written your own campaign setting as a GM? You've probably done more than enough to equip Dominion with one. My flailing text isn't doing Dominion justice, I can only hope you giving it a chance will.

* MAB wished to remain anonymous, if you know who MAB is then please do keep it to yourself and let the rest of us retain the thrill of an unsolved mystery. Many thanks!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Licenses and free fantasy resources from Crooked Staff

This is a entry of two halves. Firstly, I'll be having a brief look into game licenses and what they mean for you the gamer and you, the game designer. Secondly, I'll be reviewing some smashingly good fantasy downloads from Crooked Staff Productions: dungeon building blocks, and some D&D mini adventures.

Gaming Licenses

When you wrangle an RPG off the world wide web onto your semiconductor driven calculating device, chances are it's going to have copyright or license information attached to it somewhere. If you've parted with dearly beloved cold cash for your Portable Document Format roleplaying game, I am willing to bet a small subset of my wife's shoe collection that it will have copyright on it. It's easy to understand for paid games: I made this. Download and print for your own use but make money from it and I'll come after you with a fire axe, bottle of cheap blended whiskey and a box of safety matches.

For free games, the distinction is blurred as there are more options open to the philanthropist. The options are both broad and numerous and are worth knowing especially if you intend on extending the free system for your own ends. Here are the main different types I've found in use.


"It's mine. Download it and play it but the game itself is mine. All mine."
Free copyrighted games work in the same way as paid-for copyrighted games. You can download them and play them to your heart's content but the copyright still remains with the original owner. You can't extend it or use any of it without the author's permission and so on. It follows the usual copyright laws. You normally find this when the game, setting or supporting material is likely to be required for something else.

Open Gaming License

"Some of this is mine. You can't have that. Some of it is free. You can have that. Read this document to find out..."
The Open Gaming License (OGL) allows the author to separate things they want to share and things they don't under a single license. For example, you might want the system to be open and free to modify but not any of the branding or imagery. The OGL was created by Wizards of the Coast in 2000 to allow them to separate the mechanics of their d20 system from the copyrighted D&D material. For each game, there is a standard document listing the Open Game Content (the free stuff) and Product Identity (copyrighted stuff). If you're looking to extend an existing free game, be a bit careful with OGL games because the great idea you've had for a sourcebook might breach the copyright of the Product Identity.
Edit, I got this a little wrong. Thanks to Ricardo for setting me straight in the comments:
Product Identity (PI) is actually a form of super-trademark, as opposed to copyright. That is, it allows you to protect certain terms, as well as other concepts and ideas (not normally covered by trademark or copyright). In an OGL work there are typically four types of protection: traditional copyright, OGC, trademarks and PI.

Example: Fudge.

GNU Public License (GPL) / GNU Free Documentation License (FDL)

"It's really free! Change it! Keep it free! Hug trees! Cycle to work! Vote Democrat! etc."
These two licenses go hand in hand. The first was intended for software (dates back to 1991) and the second is newer and is used for documentation. It says that you can modify, update, copy or change the original in any way as long as you make the result free too. You can make a commercial version of it but over 100 copies, you need to make the source free. FDL licensed documents can contain 'Invariant Sections', which are things you're not allowed to change. Without that, it's the same as the GPL.
Examples: Yags (GPL) and Jags (FDL).

If you're not asleep by now and you're salivating at the thought of the legalities of free gaming, then check out Ricardo Gladwell's description of the different licenses over on Free Roleplay.org.

Crooked Staff Productions

Aimed mostly at Dungeons and Dragons, the free Crooked Staff Productions (Kristian Richards) has a clutch of delightful free material including maps and adventures. The dungeon maps come in colour and black and white depending on the flavour of printing. The tiles are beautifully produced and are avialable in a free downloadable PDF, which certainly makes the print a lot easier. Kristian also provides some instruction on how to get the best from the print. A series of foldable items for the dungeons are provided too, with doors and the like. The standard of the graphics is very high. I would imagine they would do just the job for any fantasy adventure, rather than D&D alone.

Kristian also provides five D&D adventure-ettes. These are little sections of adventure that you could easily (and I mean easily) plug straight into your campaign. The titles of the adventure-ettes give themselves away: a simple lair, a typical tomb and so on. Each adventure-ette is a two column PDF with everything you need for the adventure-ette including maps and descriptions to read to the players. A crutch I know some GMs really appreciate. They are easy to read and although not massively original in content, they do their job with aplomb. They are aimed at lower levels but have a guide to levelling the encounters up. If you need some spice on the spur of the moment, these will do just the trick. A delight that I wish someone (please, don't point at me) would do for Science Fiction. Thanks for sharing, Kristian!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Jags Revised by Marco Chacon

Jags (Just Another Gaming System) is a free generic game system by Marco Chacon which is anything but just another gaming system. Jags is a professionally produced, high quality game system with excellent graphics. Like much philanthropy, Marco's vision of Jags has been supported by a cast of proof readers, editors and artists, all listed prominently on the front page. Every effort has been made to describe, explain and demonstrate every facet of the high crunch system. Marco has clearly worked incredibly hard to bring Jags about. Jags won the Best Free Game at the Indie Awards in 2006 and rightly so.

The book

The layout is professional, a strong border encloses each page with an easy to read font and a chatty writing style. Images scattered throughout are black and white and of a high quality. The game is a single column, which means line lengths are rather long in some places. Important notes, Examples, Changes and Designers notes are pulled into coloured callout boxes, which does a good job of breaking up the text. Interspersed are snippets of stories (put back in from previous version upon request) placed in non-descript settings. Page numbers, contents page and lists in alphabetical order all help in presentation and the pages are set up for a book style print with the number of facing pages moved. At 270 pages, it's a monolith if you're going to print it or beat someone to death with it. Those pages are jam packed with words, too.

The core mechanics

The core mechanic is a simple addition of 4D6, with 6s treated as 0. This is then compared against a target number, with modifiers and a concept of degree of success. The rules and examples demonstrate these mechanics so that there would be no confusion. Degree of success is well described, with examples, which is a delight. Failing by '1' often means very little but in the Jags ruleset, descriptions of what these mean are described with examples. Success Points, which are gained by roleplaying traits, can be used to assist in passing. Beyond that there are Effect Rolls and Drama rolls. Effect rolls allow a table to be used to control the outcome. Drama rolls are less obviously described but have an affect on the situation the characters are in. Combat is where the crunch really kicks in but the example is informative enought to demonstrate a complex system at work. There is nothing shocking here, rounds of 6 seconds, initiative, taking actions in turn, hitting, blocking, calculating damage type and amount and then repeat. After the example is a detailled description of combat with a mind boggling breadth of options, each with their own rule modifications. I'd imagine many GMs would skim over many of the specific rulings to keep the pace of the combat up, especially with a group of 6 noisy players. It hints at the end that a lot of the rulings are optional or advanced but it is not immediately obvious what can be dropped and what is core.


A character defined by Statistics, Traits and Skills. Statistics, of which there are 12, are mental and physical facets of all characters. Traits are personal flaws or advantages to be roleplayed and skills represent a trained or natural ability. The character is created using two points systems: one for the generic character creation and one for genre-specific items (magic, cyberware etc). Character generation has all of the points I'd want to see in any system: concept of the person before statistics and so on. The stats system has a medium level of crunch as you have three types: Primary, Secondary and Figured. Primary stats act as a grouping (Physique) and secondary ones act as more specific areas (Strength). There are number of crunchy interactions between these two types with caveats attached. Further crunch is added using Stat modifiers, such as 'Powerful' that shows you are a meat mountain. Finally there are eight Figured Stats, which are derived abilities based on Primary/Secondary Stats and traits. These extra values show how fast you move and so on. The skill list (normally a dead give-away of intent in most generic systems) is biased toward the modern (or near future) setting, each skill containing its own rules, caveats and provisos.

Tools and GM Help

The Tools section of the rules gives more information regarding how the system interacts with the real world, such as how physics are counted. Rather than providing more assitance, it actually provides more rules, which I imagine most would take as optional. The profusion of tables and charts is a good indicator of the crunch involved here, the other coin face from an incredible inclusion of every possible solution.

For the future of Jags

How would I like Jags to be improved? For that, I'll have to become picky beyond measure as it really is well put together system, so please take with a pinch of salt. The initial contents page is somewhat jarring by its size (see what I have to work with here?). Is it useful to have so many items there for quick reference? I would argue that only large headings should be in the contents at the front with detail included in an index at the back. Even for a book of 270 pages, a 7 page contents is only going to induce repetitive strain injury through scroll wheel use. Rather than jumping straight into the system, Jags first attempts to justify its own existence. I would prefer the same content to be rephrased as "This is why Jags is good for you!" rather than "Jags solved the problem of genericity and we think it's really good at it". Jags is bloody good, there's no need to justify it or generic systems at all! There is a change list, while useful is better kept on the website.
Throughout, there are designer's notes which aren't really neccessary for learning the game system and although might be interesting to some, would be better placed on the website. Gamesmaster notes and hints should be placed in their own section so that the GM has a single place to pick up all of those nuggets.
There are a few colloquialisms and non-standard roleplaying terms are used: Jags' resisted rolls are really opposed rolls. A common language for roleplaying is not really a requirement but reduces the effort a GM would have to pick up the game. The colour callout boxes do no print well on my HP 1010 laser as the contrast between colour and text is not high enough. The notes and important rules should just be part of the text in many cases as the page sometimes gets very crowded and the flow of the rules are difficult to follow. Rounded boxes everywhere! Character skills and traits are grouped together at the end of the character creation section but do not make them any easier to find by doing so. Much better to have them at the back of the book or leave them inline with the skill/trait description. I think Marco has pre-empted most of these comments by producing a cut-down 20 page Jags called Jags-2. I'll review that at some other juncture but it's a simpler form of the 270 page Jags-Revised.

Community and settings

Jags has successfully taken the leap from free PDF to being free and a published book (definitely a good thing). Think of the PDF as try before you buy. There isn't much community to speak of at the moment, it appears that Marco is in the process of revamping the website after some villians hacked it so I will be keeping a beady and excited eye on that. There are four settings available: Wonderland, an intriguing moder day horror setting; The Thirteen Colonies (Marco and Eric Chacon) is set in an alternate near-future; and Have Not (Marco), a post-apocalyptic setting. No generic fantasy here, marvellous! It's a little out of the scope of this review to go into detail but they appear to be of similar quality.


Is Jags free? You'll have to pinch yourself but it is. A fully featured PDF, with good content and excellent artwork in free format (GNU Free Document License). It appears to be the labour of love of Marco almost entirely and as long as he keep ploughing on, you can expect more excellent material. I am not convinced that the system is completely generic as the skills/traits bend away from fantasy or historical settings. I also wonder if 270 pages is a little too large for most gamers to get through. That's 270 without any setting. If you're looking for a crunchy (and I mean take-your-teeth-out crunchy) free system to base the setting that's been bimbling around inside your brain for a year or two, then check out Jags. There aren't any parallels.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


In this post I will be investigating the unavoidable truth that to play a roleplaying game, you need to print it and that is costly and a pain in the posterior. Find out how to get you favourite free gem in hardcopy without pawning the family heirlooms. For authors of freebies, I give some friendly advice to help you prepare your parephenalia for printing.

The most striking feature of tabletop roleplaying games is that they are performed with pencil and paper at the tabletop (forgive the massive generalisation, you'll see where I'm going). A group of friends sharing a single space with caffeine, dice, air, pencils, pens, junk food and paper. Some GMs use laptops to assist in their organisation but it's rare that every player brings a laptop with them. The majority of gamers resort to print on pulp. It's difficult to avoid. The upshot of this is that there is an uneasy interface between the free online world and the physical world: if the game is going to be played it needs to be printed, which is not so-cheap-it's-nearly-free as bandwidth is. You've downloaded something superb and now you have to print it. It is going to cost you but there are ways to keep the cost down. Here are some options:

I have a printer!

Well done you. Before feeding page after page into the printer with joyous abandon, try setting the printer to print two game pages on a single sheet. You can do this through Print Properties (on Windows). Also, I'd recommend printing double sided. Do this by first printing odd pages, and then feed the result back into the printer to print the even numbered pages. If you want to go further, you could try only printing out those pages that have the crux of the rules, or the maps if it's an adventure.

I don't have a printer

If begging a player to print it doesn't work and you don't have a gun or spare horse's head to convince them, you might find that there is a local 'business print shop' nearby. These places can print, bind and finish; for a fee. For the terminally lazy or home bound, you can get to them online. The same service is available for Brits and I have also used Staples. Personally, I don't like online print shops because you can't see what you're getting necessarily. I like to hold an example in my hand, even if it does mean travelling through beautiful British meterology, carbon footprint be damned.

I don't like all these pages flying around

If ring binders are your fetish, then you can be sorted relatively quickly with punched holes. If you flush with cash, sally forth to your business print portal (see above). If you're manually dexterous and have an eye for craft, you could try Toby Craig's Book Assembly photo journal. I've never tried this but it looks a relatively simple craft without the need for expensive tools. Edit Also, as posted in the comments, David Macauley has provided another excellent tutorial. Now that there are two sets of instructions, I amvery tempted to give it a go. Now to find the time...

I love this free thing and I have more cash than China

For the extravagant, there are online print-on-demand (POD) services. More on POD in the next section. Be careful when uploading something that isn't yours. I think most free game writers would not mind you using a POD service for printing for your own use but if you try and sell to others, that's likely to be not fair and probably illegal. After all, they've uploaded this thing for free, why should you be allowed to make money from it? Shame on you, filth!

I have a free thing and I want to make it friendly to people

A perrennial piece of feedback I receive is that people love the fact a game is free but they can't be bothered to print it. It seems a shame to forever encarcerate your work. As a writer, there are some things that you can do to make your free game print friendly. I will raise my hand and admit that this list is generated mostly from mistakes I've made with Icar so if you feel a twinge of guilt reading this list, imagine the gushing horror I'm experiencing writing it.
  • Cut the fluff. Wordy chatty nonsense that does not directly assist in the person playing the game or feeling the setting should be removed. Charming that the game was inspired by the sun glinting off a loved one's hair but it doesn't need to go in the book. Put that on the website where it is hosted as downloaders love backstory. The book has to be lean and mean. Remove any lengthy licences and link to a website, linking to a well know licence (such as Open Gaming License or Creative Commons).
  • Remove pointless white space. When writing the book, you might have found it useful to structure it so that a chapter starts on a new page. In science writing, that is certainly advisable but in free RPGs, it's something of a luxury. Cutting white space can turn a 90 pages book into a 60 page one.
  • Reduce font sizes and paragraph spacing. Your own personal taste is key here, make it as small as you can stomach. Once printed, it might look super small to you but then compare with other RPG books, you'll be very surprised. A cheap-as-chips (fries for our cousins across the pond) laser printer won't bleed too badly.
  • One book. Printing eight PDFs is not as easy as printing one.
  • Convert to PDF. PDF is great because Adobe has already worked out how to get your work to print on different page sizes. You don't need to shell out loads to convert it, either.
  • Avoid colour. Colour printing is very expensive (especially in POD format) so avoid it if you can. Check your images, tables, graphs and so on that they look OK in black and white by printing yourself.
Sorry if that sounds a bit like a confession, it's not intended so.

Using Print On Demand

Ironically, the easiest way to make your free game available to people is to upload it onto a Print On Demand service such as Lulu. Ridiculous though this might seem, it costs you nothing. If it feels odd that you are selling the free game you want to keep free then sell it 'at cost' such that you make no money from each sale and really the buyer is using Lulu as as an easy print service. Also, they probably already have the PDF so they should know what they are getting.

And finally...

Bridging the gap between the free net and the cash world is not easy but with careful print options and a little forethought from the author, the cost can be kept down. If someone thinks your free game is worth paying for, they will pay and you could well argue that it's their choice.

Can you think of any alternatives? Have you printed many PDF books, free or paid for? What experience did you have? Any top tips to keep the cost down? Let's hear from you!

Friday, 17 October 2008

World Adventure Writing Month

World Adventure Writing Month (WoAdWriMo) is an event each year that seeks to get people writing adventures to share online. The challenge is to write an adventure for your favourite game in a single month. Once complete, you upload your adventure document to the site and bask in the glory that is completion. The entries then displayed proudly for all to enjoy. In 2007, Jeff Rients was inspired by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where the aim is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I made it through NaNoWriMo in 2007 and it certainly was a challenge I was thrilled to see finished. No doubt the adventure writers in WoAdWriMo see it with the same trepidation and glee for finishing. The deadline for WoAdWriMo of one month is a soft one, so if you miss it by a bit and don't quite manage to get it in on time, Jeff (and the team?) will still accept. In 2007, June was the month and 2008 was July. Support for participents is good, lots of hints and tips about writing what you know, sticking to simplicity and just getting words down. Vaguely reminiscent of NaNoWriMo and understandably so (a WoAdWriMo blog post comparing the two perhaps, Jeff?) as they are both creation under pressure.

The output of WoAdWriMo is a series of free adventures in varying quality, consisting of a raw, hot-blooded gush of ideas in PDF/Word Doc form. That might sound like a criticism but the output (as reviewed below) benefits from the rough-and-brave thought-vomit you tend to get from creating under pressure. The documents themselves are well presented, there aren't as many graphics or maps as you might hope for but in all cases that loss is subliminally felt by the respective authors and replaced with rich narrative, passion and energy.

At time of writing, only the 2007 entries were available, so I chose two very different ones to review.

Zero Sum Gain by Bobby Derie

Zero Sum Gain is an adventure for Shadowrun 4th Edition by Bobby Derie. The adventure is based around the Shadowrunners being blackmailled by a woman who has had her own lover kidnapped. It's dark, gritty and of adult content. The 'good guys' aren't particularly nice and the whole adventure is cast in a sea of human social effluent. Although essentially linear, the adventure is arranged as a series of scenes such that a GM can chop and change. Each NPCs has enough motivation and backstory for successful ad libs. The final confrontation is likely to be a mix of tough decisions depedent on the players route through the scenario.

The start of the adventure begins with the GM doing a one-on-one-roleplay with a character and although some players might resist being thrown into plot (as mine definitely would), Bobby does well to offer was around this. Each scene is well written, with tips on how to get around foreseen plot barricades while breaking up the familiar 2-column layout with pictures, some of which are impressionistic and take a little staring at before you see what they are. I must admit wishing I'd not been so clinical with some of my projects.

Zero Sum Gain is repleat with resources for the GM: NPC stats and descriptions, maps and lots of feeling. With such a large amount of content it is difficult to believe it was written in a month. If you like gritty, hard hitting near-future adventures then download it. The adventure is generic enough to be run in any dark near-future setting. Great work, well done!

The Blue Mountains by Jay A. Hafner

The Blue mountains begins with the attractive strapline: "The Blue Mountains are your clan’s next home. It is your task to do a simple cleaning up before the clan can move in." which sums it up rather well. It is an adventure written for D&D 3e in the Frostburn setting of Conan and the Hyberian Age (by Robert E. Howard and others) that describes an alternative prehistory of Earth with ancient gods, palaces, tombs and so on. It takes the daring line of requiring the GM to know a fair amount beforehand, including the Frostburn setting and Norse mythology. I soon found that this was not entirely required but would allow a keen GM to turn it into a strong campaign.

The scenario is peppered with optional new rules that dovetail into D&D 3e. These include new races and some new rules that diminish the power of magic as weilded by the players. The background is thin but Jay has taken the sneaky (and effective) move of adding hyperlinks to the Wikipedia articles on Norse, Pictish and Finnish mythos. A good when time is short. A quick blast through the different locations the characters will go adventurin' and the descriptive half is over. The rest of the document is set aside for maps and stat blocks, which is very welcome. It helps bring everything together. I would like a little more description and tie in to the setting but there are so many big ideas crammed into a small package (in a short amount of time), that it would take a considerable amount of time to fill out. We can only hope that Jay does as the setting is enthralling and the style of writing very easy. Nice one, Jay.

Thoughts on WoAdWriMo

WoAdWriMo is a great idea and superb source for free adventure material. It would be great to have all the WoAdWriMo material in one place, 2007 entries are on a defunct blog called Treasure Tables, there's also a blog and a main site (that looks like a blog) so it's a touch confusing. Perhaps a little graphic showing that a site is part of the WoAdWriMo network might help. Where the scenarios are list, it would help if there was a little more information. Perhaps a 'difficulty' grade hinting on whether it's a simple dungeon crawl or a more expansive plot idea. The text describing the scenario should read more like the back of the book. Thus, scope and tone of the adventure can be gleaned before downloading (especially important for adult oriented works like Zero Sum Gain). These aren't problems per se but would help pull the whole event together.

Like most resources, WoAdWriMo has a nifty community forum, which rightly shows that there is a burst of activity around the event month and then tails off either side. It's good to see that people want to talk about their works as they work on them. The forum is relatively new (available only this year) but I think it will be a good solid feature for next year.

An event that enthuses people (who do not ordinarily share their campaign material) to throw something onto the web for free is a great idea. It's a philanthropic challenge that should be applauded. If you're looking for a whole adventure or ideas to fit into you existing campaign, there is a wealth of ideas at WoAdWriMo. Well done to Jeff for bringing it about with such energy and congratulations to all the participants past and future. I wait with baited breath to read through the 2008 entries.