Tuesday 27 January 2009

Follow The Free RPG Blog on Twitter

The Free RPG Blog now has a Twitter feed for all those little things that I want to mention but are too small to review and what to do if you have free stuff and want to get it on the blog. A housekeeping post, if you will.


There is a lot of freeness to be had out there on the internet. Lots of it warrants a full blown review and I have something of a queue patiently waiting. However, there are lots of bits and pieces, that do not really warrant their own review: links, resources, single blog entries or just ideas all need a place. Rather than wait six months and bundle them into a post, I decided to flagrantly copy RPG Blog 2 and create a Twitter feed.

Now, you have two options to subscribe to The Free RPG Blog:

Want something reviewed?

Although I do have a big list of things to review, if you have a free RPG and want to get it out there amongst my readership then send me a link or PDF to:

If your game isn't quite ready for the world, I'll give it a read through anyway and let you know what I'd like to see in it. I'd rather do that and keep the blog posts for positive, constructive reviews of ready to play free stuffs (there's that word again) rather than using it to destroy something that needs some more work!

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Like Mariah Carey, Wonderland by Marco Chacon is beautiful and insane

Wonderland is a beautiful Alice-In-Wonderland inspired setting for the Jags roleplaying game (reviewed in October 2008). Surreal horror sits seductively on the lap of a modern setting. It's the real world where the madness we all know lurks on the edge of vision but some normal people fall into it.

Simply put

Characters are infected with Unsanity. Too much Unsanity and you go mad or vanish. Each game session is an Episode where your Character descends through layers of Wonderland, each layer more bizarre than the last. When you descend you either pick up more Unsanity or try and Master (experience points) the madness. Unlike many other horror games, you can try to use Wonderland to your own aims. This gives the Characters more of a reason to descend.

Organising Madness

Madness is a difficult thing to organise. Like RPGs that try too hard to be funny: few manage to do it (Paranoia being a good example of one that succeeds) and if you're trying to hard to be 'mad and wacky' there is a chance that you turn into that wanker at the office who thinks he's so crazy for wearing blue shirt and a red tie. Like the office muppet, those games should be torched. Fortunately, Marco has a good head on his shoulders and gives a brilliant description. My apologies for copying directly, I just can't think of a better way of explaining what Wonderland is about:
Wonderland is an infectious, predatory, alternate reality. The universe is like a stack of eight chessboards. On the top is what we think of as “reality.” That’s Chessboard Zero. You’d recognize all the pieces. You’d understand all the moves. But some of those squares are fitted with trap doors. Some of them have ladders, chutes, and stairways going down to the lower chessboards.
One level down, most of the pieces are the same but some are different.
Characters will likely meet in the Underground, a collective term for groups where those affected by Wonderland can meet. A support group for infected people going Unsane. You go from this support group and descend into Wonderland. Think of it as the classic tavern.

Reflections and Shadows

You leave a version of yourself (called a Reflection) living your life in the real world while you gallivant about a as Shadow in Wonderland. Horribly, the Shadow from the lower level in Wonderland can swap places with the Reflection. Mastery is the other side of Unsanity. If you master the Wonderland, you can use it. Experimenting with Wonderland might allow you to control it. An Episode of Descent is a gaming session, you take your mates (the other players) from your Underworld Support group. Depending on the Episode (or evening's adventure) you could choose to descend, accidental fall in or feel the need to descend. Getting back to the real world is performed by doors, ladders and the like. The character in the real world wakes from a dream or drug trip, depending on how the Episode begun. Your aim is to get back to your Reflection back in the real world but if you don't manage it then the Reflection in the real world will try and carry on as normal.

Sometimes things from Wonderland can come looking for you. You don't get the chance to choose to descend. The more you go down the rabbit hole, the more your character in Wonderland gets Twisted until it looks nothing like the original person in the real world. There are rules for types of Infection and infecting other people.  

The complexity can pile on when thinking about the interaction between the characters in different layers. You play your character in one Chessboard (or layer) and the Character in the other layers also react in the same way. For example, if you're playing in Chessboard 1 (first level into Wonderland), your Reflection in the real world (Chessboard 0) might act rather strangely. The chess boards affect each other so smashing something up in Wonderland can change things oddly in the real world. Mastery controls how much of an affect this is.

The book

The Wonderland book is 238 pages of beautiful PDF. Layout, graphics, design, typography - everything. It's fabulously put together. Marco has raised the bar. All us Free RPG writers should be rallied by this book and learn from it. It is printed on facing pages, so print odd then even. The free book has screen-resolution (72DPI) graphics and no front cover. The purchasable one is a PDF too but at full print quality with a lovely colour cover. A nice idea. Try before you buy or perhaps a donation-for-a-better-one. There's also the Book of Knots, a GM guide.

Things to think about

Regular readers will have got to know my whinge and moan sections. I don't like doing it because these masterpieces are offered for free and kicking a philanthropist is despicable. It's rather hard this time as Wonderland is so well put together. My first anxiety is its size and organisation. I would like to see a 'get in quick' section right at the front, with descriptions of what the character will do. The floral text is great reading but makes the book difficult to get into. You really do need to read most of it before you can get an idea of what it is all about. This gives the unfortunate (and incorrect) feeling that Wonderland is complicated. If this review is a little difficult to understand is that the four hours I set myself to perform a review was not quite enough. Oh, and the typewriter font is a little too rough.

In conclusion

Wonderland is a wonderful setting rammed with flavour, depth, novel ideas and great background. A beautiful book. It is a mirror into a very different sort of roleplaying. You could run Wonderland with any generic system as it is the setting that is strong here, not necessarily the connection with JAGS. The sort of game that the orphan-butchering-game-ruining-filth I call players might actually be bothered by. Even if horror isn't really your thing, check out Wonderland, it might just change your mind. Or ruin it.

Well done Marco, it's amazing.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

GM gone down with the plague? Fill your evening with Sketch by Farsight Games

The Sketch system by Jonathan Hicks of Farsight Games is a generic rule system designed for fast one shot play. Print, light the fuse, stand well back and enjoy. What's more Farsight have a load of resources to act as fuel to the fire. The rules are clean, quick and short. So short, in fact, that this review also covers the Bladerunner setting, also free on the site.

Character Creation

A Sketch Character comprises of Strength and Skills. Strength is a measure of the amount of punnishment you can take and is calculated by 1D3+2. A value of zero means you fall over with stars circulating around your head and negative values mean that you're dead (not restin', nor pining for the fjords). A character gets six skills as standard and these act as groups for things you do. For example 'Water' is a skill for anything to do with boats, swimming and so on. Some examples are given of the skill groups but more are given in the scenarios (see Bladerunner below). The values of the skills are decided by the player. Rather harshly, you split the values 6,5,4,3,2,1 between each of your skills. And that's it! The suitably simple character sheet has spaces for height, age, weight, description and equipment too but there's no rules for that.


Blink and you'll miss it. For task resolution, pick the skill that best matches whatever you want to do, GM gives a modifier depending on how difficult the task is, roll a D6, get under the modified skill value. 1s are always passes, 6s are always fails. Rounds last 5 seconds. For opposing rolls, roll a D6 and add the skill to it, highest wins. Ties mean re-rolls. Ignore the automatic pass/fail for opposed rolls. The amount of damage bleedy-hurty-ness depends on your weapon (head, knife, pistol, orbiting laser). You take the damage off the strength score, healing it back at 1 per 24 hours or some if you can find a doctor.

The book

Six pages. There's no fluff. There's more fluff in this sentance than there is in the whole book. There's no pictures, which is a shame. A nice front cover might lift it and the text is large enough for the myopic other half to read from across the room but it's well laid out and the grammar and spelling is good throughout. You can read it and digest it in about 5 minutes.


Jonathan shares my love for Bladerunner. To keep the scenario book short, he's recommended that all the players watch the film. No hardship there! Even with that introduction, Jonathan goes on to do a good description of the post Terminus War world. Sitting cheek by jowl with Bladerunner film imagery are atmospheric quotes:
Evenings are a neon-lit, rain soaked vision of bleakness and the daytime of consists of a smog-shrouded sun, the light of which barely touches street level.
Writing like that belongs in a full price setting.

There is a brief run through of the rules, which only takes a few pages (naturally) and the skills provided are sensible and fit the setting well. There are a few extra rules of vehicle damage (else you might destroy a motorbike by headbutting it three times). All the main parts of the Bladerunner world are described in depth from Voight-Kampff tests through to the Replicants. It reads a little bit more like a description of the finer points of the film, rather than a reference that is easily used by a GM or player. There are some hooks, philosophy and dare I say a just enough fluff to pack a belly button.

Although it's written well, it's not quite written to the tennet of 'Run it in a night'. The bare minimum description should be included but after that, there should be a short equipment list, some character types and then a fully featured adventure, with maps, NPCs and a few short things to do. It's recommended that a map of the local town is used but you might not live in a filthy metropolis like I do. I want to be able to print Bladerunner out, leave it in my gaming bag and then when my overconfident players blow themselves and their planet up in the first eight minutes of a session, I can whip it out (fnar fnar) and we're playing in a very short period of time. The setting doesn't quite do that for me.

Community and support

Beyond Bladerunner, there is a Horror, Star Wars and generic Space Opera scenario. Plenty for any GM to get their teeth into. Given the smart looking website, which is updated regularly (dates are DD.MM.YYYY) I think you can expect more and more from Jonathan. There's no forum but it's obvious that Jonathan wants to be contacted and he acts as Editor for an ezine, ODDS. I'd like to see a forum, hosted on the excellent and not exclusive ukroleplayers perhaps?


This review in danger of being longer than the game, which oozes Jonathan's liquid passion. Sketch forfills its desire. It's so fast, you need to down four cans of Coke just to keep up. The system is the perfect substrate for a group of gamers who just want to play something and could grow a game from thin air. The scenarios add a little needed flesh. Bladerunner could be organised a little better but frankly, if I said "It's Bladerunner" to my baby-eating players, within a breath they'd be pulling their PKDs accuse each other of syntheticity (I'm leaving that word in to etymologically irritate my Latin-gobbling wife) before Voight-Kampffing each other and spreading each other over the rain soaked pavement. It would be an evening well enjoyed. Mission accomplished. I love Sketch, it's bloody perfect for its job.

Print it out and stick it into your game bag for when your players decide to tweak the nose of the God-come-evil-personified that you slung into the campaign as an interesting undercurrent but was then sought out by those suicidal story wrecking idiots and suddenly you have a group of slavering players, an evening and you're missing a game. That's a long sentance. You won't find any of those in Sketch!

Many thanks Jonathan!

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Go Berserk! Burn, Pillage and have non-consenting sex in Midgard by Ben Redmond

Midgard Ben Redmond is a Viking Hero roleplaying system where you perform epic quests in a mythic-historic theme. There's no setting but you're probably the sort of GM who writes one for each campaign anyway. It's got a system that will give you the same face you had on when you found out Obama had become POTUS. You might be confused but you won't be disappointed.

Character Creation

Character creation follows a familiar (if a little obfuscated) set of stepping stones. The first step is to choose your Birthright and your Legend. Birthright is your background. It can either be Godly type or a bog-standard human. Both types get different bonuses and are equally worthwhile. Like all good systems, the choices you make throughout character creation really sets out the kind of character you are. The Legend (like class) determines the types of skills you get and as such suggests a sort of specialisation. Legends include Berserker, Chieftan and Trickster.

Next, you select your God Runes. God Runes are a generalised type of statistics. Rather than split things up between Strength, Intelligence and other ethereal measurements, he's gone native and chosen traits that are associated with the setting - each one representing the rune of a God. Freyja is concerned with living things and the natural world, including your constitution. Thor is about hairy-chested manly things: strength and machines. Odin is all about lobbing spells hither and thither. Heimdall is for the talky-types and pacifists and Tyr is about repeatedly mashing anyone who gets in the way. Probably the first thing you thought when you saw Vikings mentioned. You start with two points in each rune, 4 in the rune that your own special god is associated with (from the Bithright, remember?). You get 14 points to pump up your runes, with a maximum boost of 4 in any given one. Enough room for customisation.

Step three is where you work out your Qualities. Qualities are derived from your runes. They cover all those things that are difficult to pin down in an RPG - such as how much health you have or resistance to things. You add together a couple of runes and compare with a table for each result. It's all pleasantly explained.

Skills are based on your Legend (your class) and your gender (oooh, controversial). Of course, gender stereotyping worries should be cast aside to allow for a gentle lean toward historical accuracy (without inequality in history, there would be no feminists - discuss). The skill increase system is steeply non-linear, the first level costing one point but the rise from 3 to 4 costing a whopping 8! There are good range of aptly named and well described skills from Berserker (Clerks, anyone?) to Navigation (the art of not stopping to ask directions when you're lost). Some are a little weak and might be open to abuse; Luck being described as:

This skill can be used whenever you want a lucky break. Its effects are varied and often minor.

You might think that's ok but if you are blessed with a group of swap-their-grandmothers-for-a-snickers-rules-fascists like me, you'll not be able to hear yourself think with the sound of clattering Luck skill checks. Of course, the wording suggests that the GM should retort a fail with: "Oh, a fail, shame. You're not lucky. Your arm falls off and... my goodness, that is bad luck, it's the one you wank with." That can turn any RPG into a sub-genre of "Who can be the biggest git". There are a couple of skills like this that send the spine tingling with cold sweat GM fear. A bit of tightening or house rules would be advisable for those.

Stuffs (a non-word I can't help but to use for equipment, weapons and armour) is dealt with on a what-is-reasonable standing. A lasse-faire approach which suits some but I prefer a little guidance. What is too much? What is too little? The characters are heroes, so bollocks to encumbrance and the limiting penalties they incur.

Gift Runes are where the real action is at. These are special heroic powers that you can purchase to allow a huge array of feats. There's lots to read and plenty of hidden rules inside but as each character only has a few, they're worth pouring over.


The system appears quite involved due to the Midgard lexicon. However, it is quite simple and works for just about any action. A dice roll is called a Cast as you are simulating drawing runes from a bag. Therefore, the dice become runes. You're given a handy cast sheet with five stones on it: Tyr, Frejya, Heimdall, Merkstave and the special Cast Runes stone. The Cast Runes stone is a pool from which you can distribute between other stones.

For any given action, you pick a skill that matches it. You get a Cast Rune token for each rank you have in that skill. You can add Wyrd (naturalistic magical power) to that if you like. Then roll the same number of d8s for the associated God rune (that you chose right at the start of character creation in your Birthright). For each 6,7 or 8 you roll, you add a token onto the Cast Rune stone. For scores 3 to 5, you add tokens on different stones. Rolls of 1 give you a token on the Merkstave rune stone. You then distribute whatever you have on the Cast Rune stone around on the other runes depending on what you're trying to achieve.

For example, I want to beat someone's face in. I've got a skill of rank 3 in Axes (a Tyr skill, he being the god of making faces concave). Therefore, I start with 3 tokens on my cast stone. I'm no magical fellow, so no Wyrd for me. During character creation, I selected my God Rune as Tyr (naturally) and I've pumped him to be my bitch God to the tune of 6 points. So I get to roll 6 dice. I roll 1,3,4,5,6 and 7.

The 6 and 7 give me two tokens on my cast stone, now up to 5. The 1 gives me a Merkstave stone. This is bad, we'll come back to it. The 3 adds a token on a Heimdall stone. The 4 gives me a token on Frejya's stone. The 5 gives me a token on my Tyr stone. That's more like it. Now, as I'm just giving some poor Saxon some more fashionable face slots, I only need Tyr, so I take the 5 Cast Rune stone (think of it as a pool) tokens and put them on Tyr, giving me 6. Which is compared against the difficulty table. The difficulty was 5, so I manage to give the Northumbrian an incurable case of axe-face.

Merkstave Rune stone effects are for the GM to do nasties to the outcome, by slowing time down, making a failure critical and so on. Letting the GM be foul and cruel, a nice touch. There are other complexities, where one stone or another does not count for certain actions but that's pretty much the whole system. Combat has a few additions (initiative, wounding and the like) but you're still casting, which is all rather neat. The language might seem a bit daunting at first but you'll get over it, as I did.

Other sections

A reasonable bestiary is included with some additional information for GMs before a fabulous character sheet. I'm something of a nut when it comes character sheets. I can often be found perching on a rock in the high street babbling on about the horror of character sheets that look like spreadsheets. The Midgard one does not. A little rough around the edges but exceptionally well thought and laid out.

I don't normally put in big images but just take a look at this corker of a character sheet!

The book

At 26 pages, it's no hefty tome and (with acknowledgement from the author) it does not include a setting per se. Why include a setting when you can plunder Wikipedia? Well... because it's easier to run. Easier to sell to the players. Like many free games out there, Midgard nearly has a setting. The rules and the lore which it obeys sets up a setting - it's not generic. For example, not suited to Space Opera. It is such as a shame that Ben chose not to go further and write a good setting for it. The layout is good, language could do with another read through and the front-page is a toner killer. There aren't any graphics beyond the character sheet and the odd rune but with clever use of typography and few pages, I don't think it needs them. The layout butts a little close to the left edge, making binding a little tricky but I can forgive that as no text is obscured.

What I would do to Midgard

I'd add a setting, please Ben, create the setting it deserves! The rule explanations could do with some fleshing out with examples and the order of explanation should begin with a rough description of the topic - relating back to well known roleplaying concepts (statistics, feats and so on). This is done in some places but not others. The book is really the result of someone trying to get the rules out of their head and onto paper; rather than a long-playtested game where you've had to explain things 200 times and so the best way to do so comes more naturally. I wonder if the casting mechanics could be simplified a little, the act of casting is non-trivial and I think quick combat sessions could turn needlessly epic in terms of time required. Qualities too could be collapsed into something simpler, based on the God runes themselves, perhaps.

Support and Community

It's all very well having these good ideas about making Midgard more playable but is anything likely to get done? Some games, sadly, fall off the radar as their writers leave them to gather dust. However Ben appears to be still playtesting, toying and suggesting improvements. They're not the busiest forums but some activity is better than none! With fellow cohort Nigel McClelland, the worryingly entitled Black Orifice appears to be new and active. I'm going to take it upon myself to badger them into producing another version. I'll keep you informed.

In conclusion

If you like the Vikings. If you like burning, raping and pillaging Northern Europe. If you like to pooh-pooh other Viking settings for being too thick or thin and having no heart, then Midgard is for you. You can make the setting as thick or thin as you like and from there, Midgard will give it a throbbing heart. It's not perfect but then neither is my arthritic, mongrel dog and yet there is lot to love about her. There is a lot to love about them both.