Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Powers That Be (A Review)

This time around, we're looking at The Powers That Be, another supplement under the Pits & Perils (P&P) OSL, published and written by Bryan Steward of Black Paperclip Games; the same folks who delivered us The Uncanny Abode and Final Resting Place.  Only now, it's the very gods themselves on offer...

The Powers That Be presents a cosmology in just 10-pages
and does so with surprising results!  A must for those who like their
games laced with some old-school fun....

At just 10-pages long, don't expect Deities & Demigods.  However, this short, smart book provides some interesting ideas and insights for referees, whether running P&P or something else entirely, so it's well worth a little read.

First, we discover that the cosmos is quite literally ruled by transcendent forces of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality.  The P&P game uses this basic alignment system (called side), but the book presents these things as palpable forces in the universe, a nod to Moorcock, but far more literally...

Among other things, we learn that the fearsome and powerful deities men worship are just "Lesser" Gods, themselves beholden to the transcendent Greater Gods described herein!  

Of course, we also have the terrifying forces of Chaos; a very Lovecraftian flourish that manages to avoid the cliches' and conventions of that genre in modern gaming.  We've absolutely nothing against that, mind you, but it's nice to see this handled in refreshingly new terms!   

The Lesser Gods are listed by name, sphere of influence, and personal (holy) symbol.  This might not seem like much to players accustomed to more, but P&P already has complete rules for the manifestation of deities in physical form, making this redundant and unnecessary.  More importantly, it speaks to a fundamental truth about religion in most old-school games:

For all their importance, it's the followers of the gods, player or non-player alike, who matter most!

Give clerics a deity to serve, a holy symbol, and a sphere of influence, and they have everything they need to be an interesting persona in a campaign.  The Powers That Be delivers a quick and convenient cosmology, complete with deities, demigods, and heroes to pluck, quickly and easily, as gods to worship or even just for name-dropping and lore-building in general.

We also discover that each god has a signature magic item they sometimes allow to "fall" into the hands of worshipers in times of need, subject to the referee.  These are statted for P&P, but certainly customizable for others systems.  Steward's customary dark humor is present at times, but only until you realize this stuff will kill you!  You've been warned...

One final point of interest is that spell-casters, and not just priests, are interested in the gods, for they tap the very power of creation to ply their trade.  In other words, this supplement provides a basic physic for magic as well, something overlooked in many other (and longer) treatments on the subject.  Accordingly, there are rules for tapping into the powers of chaos to extend one's spell-power, although this is very risky! 

VERDICT: The Powers That Be presents a cosmology, complete with gods, demigods, heroes, and mysterious artifacts that can be quickly and easily inserted into things, all backed by a philosophy for referees who just want to get on with the game.  At just 10-pages, there's some really neat stuff here for those who appreciate a universe that's occasionally humorous and always old-school, being in the tradition of Judge's Guild and Flying Buffalo.

We suggest getting this with The Uncanny Abode, also by Black Paperclip Games, as some of its gods are mentioned, being derived as it is from the same venerable campaign and serving to flesh out adventures in the Ravensreach area.  In both digital and softcover!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

High Spirits: Magic in Braunstein!

Modern gaming has promoted the idea of magic as some impersonal force, like electricity, that can be harnessed and controlled for a variety of useful purposes.  However, actual history differs considerably here, seeing magic and witchcraft as summoning and binding spirits to service.  Braunstein! is a historical adventure game, so it assumes the latter case...

The Witch of Endor, Kassandra, and Prospero all worked magic by conjuring and commanding spirits.      

To keep things simple, spell-casters roll 1d6 to summon spirits, being anything from ghosts to demons (Christian) or animistic and elemental (pagan) entities.  This also represents the amount of personal LUCK the character uses, but likewise, the duration in rounds that such spirits actually linger.

Oh yeah, and spirits perform at twice normal human capacity for feats of strength and intellect, etc.

Is this limited as compared to traditional systems?  Certainly, given that most games feature overtly powerful effects of an almost divine nature at times.  But commanding spirits, in all its simplicity, still produces a wide variety of powerful and useful effects in demand by most adventurers...

Historically, magicians conjured and 
commanded powerful spirits to work their magic, 
and Braunstein! takes this approach...

Spirits may be commanded to do any of the following and much more, on behalf of the summoner:

(1) Answer obscure questions.  This is divination in its simplest form, and because spirits operate at twice human ability, they actually possess quite a bit of this and travel through realms most humans never glimpse.  So enough said here...

(2) Carry the magician (and their equipment) across a 50' wide ravine or similar obstacle.  They are spirits, after all, levitating and having the physical strength to carry perhaps even two such characters with quickness and ease.

(3) Smash open a locked door or, possibly, move through walls to open a door barred from the other side.  One can imagine a sorcerer being employed in a castle siege or similar event.

(4) Strike with great accuracy, automatically scoring 1 hit of damage per round against a single target within range; representing sorcery and witchcraft in the classic sense.

Obviously, there are many more possible...

The limits placed on
magic means that many a luckless witch
was burned at the stake...

Such power has its risks, however, as players might roll more duration and/or LUCK cost than ever needed.  Sure, you open that heavy iron door, but now you're drained and vulnerable.  This applies to combat as well, where murdering enemies comes at a hefty personal price.  These are the dark arts, after all!

Of course, Braunstein! allows players to spend LUCK improving various die rolls, expanding both the duration and killing power of magical attacks where needed, however, this is even more draining and requires some very hard choices...

This approach is distinctly historical, as this is how magic was conceived.  But it also speaks to that age old question of how anyone could capture, much less contain and roast at the steak, genuine witches and warlocks!  Obviously, these sorcerers, although magically gifted, were nonetheless still limited and probably couldn't regenerate LUCK under constant torture.

Braunstein! is a historical game with an optional magic system, historically sound and suitably understated.  As a literal footnote on the last page of its slim (32-page) rulebook, it nonetheless provides the framework for a surprisingly varied system...   

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Crown of Qthuken (A Review)

This time around, we're talking about the Crown of Qthuken, an adventure from Grumblefist Old School RPG Jams and Sean Wills, who, interestingly enough, was involved in what is possibly the first Pits & Perils campaign outside of our own, and the first outside of the continental United States; a double distinction, and so we're delighted to see him write under the OSL!

At 16-pages, this scenario packs a punch
that goes far beyond the scripted/stocked adventure alone... 

Note: Crown of Qthuken is designed specifically for Pits & Perils and requires its supplement to fully use. 

By way of explanation, this adventure setting imagines an aging empire (Tiberia, being an inspired mix of medieval Italy and imperial Spaniards of a later era) struggling to hold on to its colonies on a new continent.  The historical parallel helps create an authentic feeling to an otherwise fantastic setting, and this fact works to its general advantage.  

Additionally, the small town of Port Saint Willem is provided, chartered by a foreign guild and the King of Ausland, who hopes to reap his own riches from this new world.

Now here's the good part; the locals aren't especially keen on domination, and their deity, Qthuken, has united them in opposition to the Empire's plans.  To make matters worse, all this unrest endangers Port Saint Willem and its profits, forcing them to seek capable adventurers to investigate! 

Rival interests?  Check.  Restless locals?  You bet!  Angry indigenous gods bet of vengeance?  In spades!  There's a lot going on in Vinland, all of it adventure fodder...               

The Crown of Qthuken is a self-described "adventure toolkit" for old-school games, and it absolutely delivers on its promise, presenting both a specific adventure to play and a rich setting with abundant materials to sustain a continuing campaign, having many fully detailed materials for the game.

Port Saint Willem (home base) is presented with a clever mix of images and words that helps to tell the story without going overboard or robbing the referee of their own creativity.  Its many people, places, and things are fully statted for P&P and derived from both the basic rulebook and supplement, so you get combat maneuvers, an important detail as there are many fighters present in the port town who might later become enemies.

Oh, and there are secrets.  Lots of secrets hidden away in people's homes and in their hearts and minds, which is fertile stuff for campaigning and interesting side-treks. 

Some adventures achieve simplicity by leaving things out, which effectively leaves the referee holding the bag (and scratching their heads) wondering what to do next.  Still others do the opposite, piling on so much detail that little is left for the referee to do on their own; this time, an overstuffed bag.

The Crown of Qthuken strikes the right balance, presenting a richly detailed setting using a clever mixture of images, words, and perhaps most importantly, the reader's own imagination.  No small accomplishment, and this nails it...

The nearby Tiberian Camp is also detailed, giving the potential referee some idea of the Empire's values and interests, plus being fully stated for use when, inevitably, things happen.

Branching out, the surrounding wilderness is given or, more properly, wilderness encounters.  The forests are a deadly realm, and this adventure takes advantage of P&P's great simplicity to introduce original creatures, like thunderbirds, complete with their own magical powers drawn from the rules.  Needless to say, many surprises await those brave enough to explore!

As an aside, it's worth pointing out that while the adventure is designed for character levels 4-6th (and you'd best be before trying the great ziggurat), the referee has plenty of raw materials upon which to base other adventures, perhaps shipping in a new party from overseas and letting them work up.

The great central ziggurat (a Mesopotamian pyramid) is the goal, here residing Qthuken and his faithful.  This is multi-leveled and interesting to navigate (having a cross-sectional map), with numerous enemies and sneaky tricks for the unwary.  Expect a fight, and several deadly traps - oh, and an original spell cleverly inserted, adding to the scenario's value.

The ultimate prize is survival, for both the Tiberians and the colony of Saint Willem.  But there's also riches, and one fabulous prize that holds both value and risk.  

You've been warned...

VERDICT: Crown of Qthuken is a true adventure toolkit, but one providing a detailed and ready-to-play scenario.  Highly recommended for those serious about P&P and ready for something different, complete, and lots of fun.  Get this in softcover and eBook now!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Race as Class? Not So Fast!

In many old-school games, race is class; at least for non-human characters.  Dwarf is a class.  Ditto for elves.  It's simpler that way, and many people like it for that very reason, although some object on grounds of realism, noting that dwarves and elves surely must have clerics and thieves of their own... 

And you know what?  They're BOTH right!

Pits & Perils likes simplicity (quite a bit, actually) and so, ostensibly, race is class in the traditional way.  But there's a lot more going on than just that, and the game acknowledges the flexibility that all races, and not just humans, would reasonably possess while holding on to that old-school spirit.

So, going class by class:


Dwarves and elves have clerics that only interact with their own kind; which is convenient, but consider that non-humans also have smaller, more homogeneous societies with no competition among their deities for worshipers.  This stands in stark contrast to humanity, with their many gods all jockeying for supremacy, and this lack of evangelical zeal makes a difference.

But non-humans CAN be clerics.  

FIGHTERS: Absolutely!

Dwarves and elves are all de facto fighters, wearing armor and fighting with any weapon, and while they lack the +1 bonus of their human counterparts, their choice of weaponry alone makes a huge difference.  There's really nothing more to say.  Whatever else a character might be, they're also fighters...

This dwarf has a lot more going than meets the
eye, perhaps being a stay-at-home priest of even a cunning thief!

MAGICIANS: For elves, at least...

Dwarves are simply incapable of using magic, so this is largely excusable.  Elves, on the other hand, are naturally magical and work as magicians in addition to fighting abilities, so they CAN be spell-casters, albeit with limitations.

THIEVES: For the agile, yes!

Lastly, dwarves and elves with the dexterity ability can forego armor and operate as thieves for all intents and purposes, climbing walls, hiding, sneaking, and stealing small objects.  They can't disarm traps and/or pick locks, but this can be easily justified by the fact that non-human societies are different, and criminal behaviors less common.  Of course, the referee could easily house rule the latter, perhaps at some sort of penalty.

But stealing things?  That's thievery...

In defense of class restrictions, non-humans are mentally and physically different.  For instance, the dwarven inability to work magic of any kind can be very easily defended on racial grounds alone, because their brains operate differently.  Remember, these races enjoy many special abilities.  And so do humans, although mainly in the form of greater flexibility...   

Old-school simplicity is charming, and easier to work with, especially at the time of character creation.  Pits & perils tries to have it both ways, and this may apply to other games if the referee (DM/GM) is willing to view class as a collection of abilities that often overlap, especially if they're OK with granting stealth to non-thieves when dexterity so permits.

Class as race?  Sort of.  But it's so much more than that!