Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Pangean/Retrospace Cosmology

With the recent release of Retrospace, a pulp science fiction expansion to Blood of Pangea, we wanted to reconcile these two very disparate, and yet closely linked, genres.  The following alien cosmology is NOT canonical by ANY stretch of the imagination, but might serve as inspiration still... 


Over the course of millennia, intelligent life arose on various worlds across the vast universe, and some of it, although few, possessed psychic ability.  Among these, some achieved such a high level of mastery that they acquired power over their very bodies, becoming effectively immortal and invulnerable...

As a side effect, these beings, called OMNI-SENTIENTS, became physical manifestations of their innermost natures, whether good and wise or wicked and twisted, with some, like the Six Black Names, being so utterly alien in outlook as to manifest nothing less than complete and utter madness and depravity!

Sword and sorcery and sci-fi are
closely related in many not-so-obvious ways...

These omni-sentients spread out across the universe, settling on various worlds and interacting with whatever intelligent life might reside there, becoming gods to some, devils to others, accounting for the deities (and demons) of Pangea and later epochs of this and other worlds.  This is the true source of the gods.    

Note here that if this idea seems to take the wonder out of any deities in a sword and sorcery world, understand that omnisentients are so psychically sensitive as to take on the persona so imposed upon them by their worshipers.  For all intents and purposes, these beings see themselves as the gods they are believed to be, down to the very foundation of their innermost selves...

Obviously, others will make contact with more technologically advanced worlds and manifest as cosmic life forms, which is more in keeping with a science fiction setting.  These will generally see themselves as the higher life forms they are and may or may not choose to involve themselves with interplanetary affairs, this being an excellent basis for adventures in both game systems!     


Psychic awareness sometimes emerges in animals having lower intelligence, and some of these ascend to a sort of sentience as well, becoming SUB-SENTIENT creatures that also manifest their innermost desires and motivations.  These become angelic or demonic entities, attaching themselves willingly, or otherwise, to the assorted gods and powers or acting as free agents.

Such beings appear to feed on psychic energy and are, therefore, drawn to omni-sentients or sorcerers who have the power to call and command them for short periods of time.

Pulp fantasy and sci-fi are two sides of the same coin...


What Retrospace calls psionics, Blood of Pangea calls magic, although there is a very real difference here, for while sorcerers will no doubt be psychically gifted, they have the power to call upon demons and other beings to work spells - and this is the case even when no such creatures are actually summoned!  

Ultimately, magic is more powerful than psionics because it draws upon other sources of power and thus allows for more varied magical effects, like actual shape changing, etc.    


At death, those who worship these beings will see their former consciousness taken up, or down, as the case may be, to reside with the greater mind (or the OVERMIND) they represent.  This is the afterlife of so many religions, each one being a true manifestation of the power imagining it.  Thus, we see the Hell of Set-Amon and the Great High Home of the Ostogothi Sky Fathers...

Interestingly, as all Sirians are psionic, all go to their respective Overmind at death, as do members of other races who join the Psion Order.  The great teacher Kenuba may or may not have ascended to omni-sentience, but is thought to reside in the Sirian domain, perhaps out of loyalty to his people.

It is important to remember here that the great Robert E. Howard collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft and incorporated his friend's dark blend of science/horror into his mythos.  We could do no less... 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Cellars of Castle Keep

We've just updated The Cellars of Castle Keep to clean up the PDF and to ensure a more consistent formatting.  And for those who don't know, this book is #1 in a series of modules for Pits & Perils entitled "Basement Adventures" in honor of their primitive ancestry and old-school leanings (amateur fun)...  

Quite literally, adventures cooked up in someone's basement on a clunky old typewriter back in 1976!

There was something magical about these early games, because the amateur production was ACCESSIBLE.  This was something anyone with a working typewriter (still state of the art in the 70s) and a good imagination could do.  And it really invited ANYONE to be a part of the hobby, which was altogether exciting.

But these games also left MUCH TO THE IMAGINATION, with lots of writing, but fewer pictures, so when you read the word "orc", it was invariably YOUR ORC you pictured.  It was just like those early Tolkien books with the original art that said everything while still not giving anything away, which was enigmatic and fun...

These early homebrew products made this,
at the time very young, blogger feel grown up!

It also made this eleven year old feel really grown up to see all those words and to form mental images.  These crude, primitive books literally invited young people to grow up - and showed them TRUE respect by expecting them to partake on adult terms! 

For the time being, Basement Adventures will also be the primary vehicle for expanding the game, for each contains one or more exclusive spells, enemies, or new magic items.  In fact, The Cellars of Castle Keep has two new enemies and rules for insect and animal swarms (yuck).  All in true P&P fashion...

Furthermore, while each adventure truly stands alone, they can be taken in order to form an overarching narrative, although individual referees can place additional encounters in-between.

One challenge of supporting a game like Pits & Perils is that it doesn't take long before the supplements start turning the system into the very thing we were trying to AVOID.  That is, too many supplements inevitably start to crowd out the referee and beat them to the punch.  We don't want that...  

We're attending KantCon this weekend (25 July 15) to run a P&P event, but rest assured we'll be back to continue this, and while we aren't ruling out another supplement entirely (Robyn has something up her sleeve), Basement Adventures will definitely continue!  

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dispatches From David Wesely

It looks like BARONS OF BRAUNSTEIN will be returning, hopefully sometime this fall (most likely September), and we want to make sure we get it right and do justice to the fantastic material the good major was nice enough to provide.  So expect some additional content and a few new rules, although not enough to change our simple and player-focused model of gameplay in the least!

Now, with formalities aside...

Major Wesely was literally present for the birth of our hobby, hell, he delivered the baby!  And one of the many pleasures of working with him is hearing his FIRST-HAND accounts of what went down back in the earliest days of role-playing.

Consider this gem, where Wesely talks about his Braunstein:

ON RESOLVING SOME ACTIONS: I would resolve most doubtful questions by letting the player roll dice: The banker jumps into the river to escape the angry student mob:  I say “roll 2d6: being a fat old man, you need a high number”.  He rolls 7, and I say “Do you drop the bag of gold?” and he says “Oh yes” and I say “Roll again” he rolls 12 and I say “you grab a floating body and it keeps you from drowning while you drift downstream away from the falls.  You lucky devil” or he rolls a 5 and I say, “Too bad you didn’t drop it before you dove in.  Your body will be found in a few days.”

This man was present at the birth of
our hobby and has some GREAT stories to tell!
(From a picture taken in 2008)

THE ROLE OF GAME MASTER/JUDGE/REFEREE: In some ways, Braunstein I was “interactive fiction”.  In effect, I wrote half a novel and the players then changed it by how they ran their characters. 

It just doesn't get any purer than this!  It's friends getting together and experiencing the same imaginative play they enjoyed as children, with just a few simple rules for resolving uncertainty within the fictional "adventure".  We've come a long way since then, but we must NEVER forget where our hobby first came from and how simple human interactions underscore everything that makes it fun!

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Return of Retrospace (Pangea Style)

The RETROSPACE expansion will be RE-RELEASED, this time as a supplement to Blood of Pangea!  And while this wasn't necessarily an easy decision, we nonetheless feel like it's the right one and ultimately best for the product and players, which brings us to the purpose of this post: Why do this?

For the unfamiliar, RETROSPACE was originally an expansion to our historical Braunstein! game.  But after just 20 days in circulation, the title was pulled pending an official Licensing agreement with David Wesley, creator of the original Braunstein, and Retrospace was pulled as well.  As a game expansion, it made no sense to keep it going when its source rulebook was no more. 

Retrospace was collateral damage.  Fine.  But why are we making this decision now?  Basically, we think it's best because:

(1) Retrospace is PULP SCI-FI, so it makes sense to attach it to a pulp-fantasy system.  Furthermore, Blood of Pangea's narrative approach and gameplay mechanics are better-suited, and this opens up tremendous (and exciting) possibilities...  

(2) Since Brausntein! is currently out of circulation pending an upcoming Licensing agreement, there isn't a better time to make this course correction.  It's better in the long-run...

Pulp science fiction has thrills on
par with the the very best of sword and sorcery! 

So now, the important stuff...

Those who've already purchased Braunstein/Retrospace can still access these through their Drive-Thru/RPGNow libraries (although we recommend saving them elsewhere) and therefore, have access to a complete game.  Play it and have fun!  

At some future time, Brausntein! will be UPDATED as Baron of Braunstein!, but the original Retrospace will hereafter be exclusive to Blood of Pangea.  The older one is out of print...

But still available through your libraries!

And while there's considerable overlap, we've revised the game to reference Blood of Pangea concepts and add additional materials pertaining to futuristic skills, including mechanics, robotics, and medical trades, plus revised and streamlined psionics in keeping with a narrative game.  Otherwise, expect a return of our rules for outer space combat and the living worlds!  

This is coming 30 JULY 2015, as soon as we get back from running a Pits & Perils event (the Vines of Atarak) at KantCon 2015!!!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Game Design as 95% Solution...

An abiding rule in all our games is that the GM/judge/referee is free to add or change anything to suit their own campaign or playing style because we find it BENEFICIAL.  The GM, in particular, has a great sense of ownership, using rules to launch their own ideas and enjoying a special place as an adjudicator...

Creating worlds, stocking adventures, and acting the part of supporting characters is good, but nothing gets you more personally and dynamically involved than shaping things to taste, and the finest games leave this possibility open!  

But some players are PROFOUNDLY uncomfortable with this idea, preferring hard pronouncements from the rulebook and resisting when it's even suggested that they tailor these to suit the needs of their own campaigns.  We have no hard-and-fast numbers, but we've definitely encountered this particular thinking...       

And these people HAVE A POINT:

Objective, understood, and consistently applied rules are good because they minimize disagreement.  For instance, when a character dies, it's easier to accept when said mechanics are clear and universally agreed upon.  No one wants to die, but when everyone accepts in advance that traps may inflict X-amount of damage, it's hard to claim unfairness or impropriety...     

And when these mechanics come directly from the book, with no subjective interpretation from the GM, it's all the better because now everyone is subject to an outside authority.  For some, this ensures fairness.  Allowing judges to adjudicate the fates of their characters pretty much off the cuff seems arbitrary, and going by the book more fair and useful in practice.

This is better for everyone; judges, because they know how to determine everything and have a lower risk of accidentally being unfair or making mistakes, and players because they know just what their characters can do, safe in the knowledge that their GM is bound by the same rules and on a level playing field.

When we say you can add or change
anything in our games, we REALLY mean it!

But there's a flip side too... 

Something special is lost because some GMs (and players) won't necessarily LIKE all of the rules and might have a better idea, or at least one that works better for THEM.  And as game designers ourselves, we aren't REMOTELY interested in subverting this creative process or telling people what they OUGHT to do when these things inevitably happen.  We're not THAT good...

So why bother publishing rules at all?  The answer to that particular question is what we call a 95% solution.  The best rules aren't perfect.  You can't please everyone.  But when they're 95% perfect for YOUR needs and require only a FEW minor changes to suit your game, it's a keeper.  Especially when they're full of good content and inspiration to build a great campaign.

And, of course, you enjoy the benefits given above; a sense of ownership, an opportunity to be creative, and a dynamic connection to the game and its participants.  The judge is more than just someone who rolls dice for the monsters, and the players are free to negotiate, resulting in more fun at the table!

So is there a sensible balance here?  Certainly!  Good GMs will communicate objective rules, whether by the book or any house-rules specific to the campaign and apply them consistently.

And if anyone thinks they don't have what it takes to do this, consider our little test: if you dislike a rule and already have a better idea, you're GETTING IT RIGHT...

Does it really matter WHERE the objective and consistently applied rules come from?  Rules are TOOLS.  People are living, breathing personalities with the ability to evaluate situations and adjust for conditions.  They're also capable of enforcing objective rules and entering into social contracts with one another.  The best games try to FACILITATE this process and not REPLACE it completely!   

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pangea (Or What Is Narrative)?

For those who may not know, our Blood of Pangea game has finally been released, with abundant thanks to those brave souls who've supported the title so far!  The game is a bit of an experiment, but not quite as radical as some may think.  Yes, the term narrative carries baggage in gaming circles, suggesting something new-fangled and far removed from old-school principles.

But think again!  It's true that many "narrative" games involve players having a hand in devising the plot.  A shared responsibility between the players and the judge, often, with the intention of creating "cinematic" scenes rather than taking part in a simulation with an uncertain fate.  This "story-gaming" is derided, perhaps unfairly, as fluffy, pointless fare.

This isn't the case here.  Shared narrative is very consistent with old-school ideas, and if done properly, might just be the oldest school of all!  In fact, we argue that the most traditional of games actually WERE a "shared-narrative" experience...

Sword and Sorcery was literature, NOT simulation!

Consider original Dungeons and Dragons:

(1) A traditional division of labor is preserved, with the DM creating the setting and running supporting characters, and players taking charge of a main character or hero...

(2) This IS a cooperative narrative, as everyone is "in charge" of some SPECIFIC part of the story...

(3) In other words, everyone STAYS IN THEIR LANE!

(4) That said, if players want to guide the outcome of events or otherwise shape the story, they need to make good decisions and use their skills and abilities as best they can.

This is a point of division between old-school games and certain modern forms.  The newer stuff has considerable overlap, with players and judges sharing responsibilities and, alternately, having mechanics that promote the creation of dramatic scenes within an evolving gameplay narrative.

A clear division of labor is what separates "old-school" narrative creation from "new-school" styles of play.

Blood of Pangea is described as a "narrative" system because the players write a narrative describing what their characters can do in the game, but also because spell casting is free form and not reliant on any formal spell-list.  That said, character creation is done the same way that the great pulp writers did it!

Does it really matter HOW you know your character is a tracker as long as you KNOW?  Especially when there's otherwise some system for determining success or failure and mechanics to limit individual power (and to preserve challenge) within the game? 

Blood of Pangea preserves the traditional division of labor and requires that players make good choices and use abilities as wisely as possible.  And the outcome is uncertain.  Death and/or ruin happens routinely, but smart playing can prevent that.  At the same time, it recognizes the role of writing plus fluid and free-form storytelling within certain boundaries...

How else might one recreate a purely literary genre?  Sword and sorcery was writing, not simulation.  But gaming IS simulation, with the aim of offering a challenging experience.  Blood of Pangea is our little experiment in how far one can go mixing styles while preserving the best of both - and we hope you enjoy savage Pangea!