Tuesday, December 22, 2015

RIP Steve Zieser

Just heard that RPG artist extraordinaire Steve Zieser passed away yesterday after his long fight with cancer. I didn't know Steve personally, although we followed one another on Google Plus and were clearly reading one another's posts. I love Steve's line-work, and one of the things that the Old School Renaissance will always have to its credit is that its preference for art in the Grand AD&D tradition gave Steve a platform to display his talents. Condolences to Steve's family and friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Masters of Umdaar [Fate Accelerated Edition]

Evil Hat has just released Dave Joria's Masters of Umdaar, the latest "World of Adventure" for use with the Fate system (specifically the Fate Accelerated variant of the rules). As Joria notes in his introduction to the book, Masters of Umdaar is more or less a love letter to Planetary Romance; he mentions John Carter, Thundarr, Kamandi, Flash Gordon, She-Ra, Thundercats ... you get the picture. Players take on the identity of brave Archeonauts, freedom fighters protecting the Lands of Light from the evil Masters of the Dark Domains by seeking out the lost technologies of the Demiurge. The game's motto: "When in doubt, dinosaur!"

I did not take much convincing to fork over the recommended $4 PWYW price.

The real selling point, though, is the random "bioform" generator. If a player is willing, they can roll up their character's bioform—mostly inspiration for Fate aspects and stunts, but also a way of suggesting what one's best approach should be. I see this system as "Fate char-gen meets Gamma World char-gen," and I give it an Incredible Hercules thumbs up:

Results range from your bog-standard Humanoid through Energy Being and Mutawarrior to Chimera and Cytyr (a cybernetic satyr). Many of the bioform results direct you to make additional roles on the Animal Kingdom chart, which is in turn divided into sub-charts for Invertebrates and Marine Life; Reptiles, Amphibians, and Dinosauria; and Birds and Mammals.

You then select one of several classes. Joria suggests that the FAE approach attached to your bioform guide you in selecting your class: e.g., a Sneaky Mutant would do well to become a Rogue or Illusionist, while a Flashy Energy Being might make an effective Swashbuckler or Courtier. Note that this is only a suggestion, not a requirement. Your Mutant does not have to be sneaky, roguish, or illusionary. But her class choice will determine her ratings in the six FAE approaches. (New classes are as easy as assigning one approach to Good +3, two approaches to Fair +2, two approaches to Average +1, and one approach to Mediocre +0.)

Characters have just four aspects. The first is the high concept aspect (referencing the character's bioform, class, and lead approach); the second is the motive aspect (phrased as "I must [fill in the blank]"); the third is a personal aspect related to the character alone; and the fourth is a social aspect linking the character to at least one other member of the party. (The decision to pare the number of aspects down to four is a good one for a quick-playing variety of Fate.)

Finally, you are encouraged to pick two stunts. These fall into three categories: Powers (mystical and superhuman), Weapons (technological and item-based), and Adaptations (biological and evolutionary). You can randomly determine your stunts, and you are also given three very simple verbal formulas for making more. Since stunts are always the hardest part of Fate for me, I appreciate both the charts and the formulas.

There are also rules for Cliffhangers (a pulpier version of Atomic Robo RPG's already pulpy Brainstorming system) and charts for generating beasts, monsters, and artifacts. Plus a pre-generated adventure (which I want to test-drive). All in all, an awful lot for what's effectively a free product (although I do think the recommended $4 charge is fair to the creators and a steal at that).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Escape from Satarla! [Barbarians of Lemuria, Actual Play]

As close as I'm ever going to get to an image of three Satarlan
sky-boats battling it out (detail from Gino D'Achille's cover
to  ERB's Swords of Mars).

The heroes barely had time to take in the sight of their rescuer when one of her underlings reported a pair of approaching sky-boats. She called out to Gallius: "Now it's time for you to show me why I went to the trouble of breaking Satarlan law to rescue you—get this boat out of the city!" Gallius didn't hesitate, rushing to the helm and setting the boat in motion. Ralak found the boat's arbalest and aimed it at the pursuers. Koth slumped onto the deck; the wound he had received from the jemadar in the Great Arena was not as serious as it had initially seemed, but he was still losing blood. The mysterious woman called out to one of her companions as she moved to assist Gallius in operating the ship: "Zedrek, tend to the big one's injuries!" Clad in the humble garments of a street priest, Zedrek began to clean and dress Koth's injury.

Zedrek of Lysor, Servant of the Twenty

Attributes: Strength 1, Agility 2, Mind 2, Appeal 0
Combat: Initiative 1, Melee 2, Ranged 0, Defense 1
Careers: Farmer 0, Priest 2, Physician 2, Beggar 0
Boons: Detect Deception, Healing Touch, Savant
Flaws: Cloistered (a variation on City-Dweller), Landlubber

"That's a nasty cut, friend," the priest said in Koth's native Festrelian, "but I think I can keep the scarring to a minimum."

Meanwhile, Gallius was weaving his way around Satarla's numerous towers, trying to put more distance between the heroes' boat and those of the pursuing Satarlan Sky-Navy. Suddenly one particularly high minaret appeared in the boat's path. Cursing, Gallius had to turn back toward their enemies to avoid crashing into the building. At the same time, the arbalest's string broke, knocking Ralak to the deck. (The heroes' players had just rolled two Calamitous Failures in a row.) Enemy bolts struck the boat, killing one of their rescuer's party instantly and damaging a flight vane. The ship began to lose speed—until a now bandaged Koth put his back to the task and singlehandedly bent the vane back into place.

Gallius swiftly regained his equilibrium and threaded the sky-boat through a particularly twisty maze of streets. The pursuers fell behind, eventually losing track of the stolen craft. Gallius was then able to fly the ship out of the city and into the Jungles of Qush. They anchored the vessel in the canopy; while Koth and Ralak covered the fuselage with camouflage netting, the mysterious benefactress revealed some magical talents, casting a ritual of concealment to help hide the ship.

When she was finished, she turned to the heroes and identified herself as Sharangara of Oomis, a collector of rare antiquities. "There's an ancient artifact of the First Age that I want, and I need a sky-boat to get it. Which means I need a sky-pilot, and that's where you come in, Gallius." "Where are you going," the suspicious pilot asked, "and what exactly is it that you're after? Don't tell me it's some hideous weapon that will melt our flesh and send our souls screaming to hell!"

"It's nothing that dramatic, my friend," Sharangara answered. "It's a small cauldron in the shape of a bird. The ancient records call it the Kartal, which my friend Zedrek here tells me is Yggdari for 'eagle.' It may have mystical powers, but it may also just be a beautiful relic of a better age. Whatever it is, I want it for my collection, and I'm willing to reward you all handsomely for assisting me."

"What sort of reward?" asked Ralak. "To begin with, once we have the Kartal, I'm more than willing to turn this vessel over to Gallius. He can sell it to one of Satarla's rival cities, or travel around in it himself, whatever he desires. The rest of you will get more than enough gold. What do you say?" Gallius answered: "I'm intrigued, but you still haven't said where we're going to find this Kartal."

"In the Flying City of the Winged Men, somewhere over the Axos Mountains. You're my pilot, and Zedrek is my translator—he's one of the few Lemurians who speaks Windsong, the language of the Winged Men. Before we can bargain with them ..." "You mean rob them," Ralak observed with a smirk. "... bargain with them," continued Sharangara, "we have to find them. And I think that the wizard Jesharek Jool may be able to help us with that."

"Jesharek's tower is somewhere in the heart of the Qush!" exclaimed Ralak, "We'll be lucky to find it, and even luckier to leave it in one piece. Can't we take a safer path to the mountains? Say, Shamballah?" Sharangara shook her head: "If you want to risk getting scooped up by a Satarlan patrol or shot down by Tyrusian guards, sure. Flying straight north through the Qush will have its dangers, but it's a faster path, and I have some ideas about how to bargain for information with Jesharek."

The heroes agreed with the plan, and everyone settled down to sleep. It would be an early start for the flight north through some of Lemuria's most deadly jungle, and they needed to be sharp for the journey.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Gallius the Gladiator [Barbarians of Lemuria, Actual Play]

I know this isn't Lemuria, but it's still an arena, a six-legged beast,
and a guy doing the Harryhausen with a spear. A.k.a., "win."

My 13th Age campaign at the FLGS fell through once again—seems like Pathfinder and 5E have cornered the market on D20 fantasy in Urbana. But I was prepared for the flop, pulling out Barbarians of Lemuria's new Mythic Edition after I only picked up a third player this past Thursday. I was interested in seeing how the Mythic Edition rules changes shook out in play, and I also wanted to stick with a low-prep game.

The three players were more than willing to switch systems and launched themselves into character creation. Here are the heroes they generated:

Gallius of Satarla

Attributes: Strength 0, Agility 2, Mind 1, Appeal 1
Combat: Initiative 1, Melee 0, Ranged 1, Defense 2
Careers: Thief 0, Sailor 1, Soldier 1, Sky Pilot 2
Boons: Alert, Friends in High Places, Keen Eyesight
Flaws: Braggart, Greed

Koth the Festrelian

Attributes: Strength 3, Agility 1, Mind 0, Appeal 0
Combat: Initiative 1, Melee 2, Ranged 0, Defense 1
Careers: Hunter 1, Mercenary 1, Slave 2, Gladiator 0
Boons: Born Athlete, Sneaky, Strength Feat
Flaws: Fear (Whips), Illiterate

Ralak of Malakut

Attributes: Strength 0, Agility 2, Mind 2, Appeal 1
Combat: Initiative 1, Melee 1, Ranged 1, Defense 1
Careers: Thief 2, Spy 1, Noble 0, Herbalist 1
Boons: Deft Hands, Savant, Silver Tongue
Flaws: Hunted (Tyrusian Nobility), Obsession (Sorcerer-Kings' Formulae)

The heroes began play in a cell under the Great Satarlan Arena (sound familiar, BoL veterans?). Gallius was there because his superior officer caught him dallying with said officer's daughter. Ralak had been arrested for kissing a noble woman whilst trying to hide his face from the agents of the Tyrusian nobility. And poor Koth, he had been sold to the Arena management to cover his recently deceased master's debts.

As heroes, our protagonists were not going to become fodder for the games. They staged a breakout, relying on the mighty strength of Koth (and the insanely good rolling of Koth's player). First Koth lifted the metal grate locking them in their cell. Then Koth used his bare hands to rip the locked door to the prison chamber off its hinges. Ralak had freed the other prisoners in the prison chamber in the hopes of generating maximum confusion. Gallius broke legs off a chair to serve as clubs for Ralak and himself; Koth opted instead to use the chamber door as a weapon.

In the ensuing melee with the Arena guards, Koth took out nearly all of the opposition with a boxcars-driven Legendary Success: he simply bulldozed them into the walls with the door. Ralak and Gallius had much more trouble with the single foes they ended up dispatching. Rather than fight more onrushing guards, the heroes fled to the right ... and thus into the open floor of the Arena.

The guards chuckled, sealing the Arena gates and opening the passage to the beast pens. As the crowd roared for blood, a hideous jemadar launched itself at the heroes. Koth tried to ward it off with his trusty door, but the beast raked him with its claws (10 of Koth's 13 Lifeblood were lost in a single blow). But Ralak and Gallius made amends for their mediocrity in the battle against the guards. Seizing spears from the sands of the Arena, they threw themselves at the jemadar. Rallak scored a Legendary Success, hamstringing the beast and forcing it to a standstill. Then Gallius threw his spear at the jemadar's skull, striking it right between the eyes for a Mighty Success that brought it down.

Celebration was brief: the Arena guards began to approach the heroes en masse. In the open space of the Arena floor, they would be able to form Hordes and overwhelm the rebellious trio. But just then the shadow of a sky boat fell across the heroes, and a rope ladder was tossed from above. The heroes seized this unforeseen opportunity and scrambled up the ladder to the deck of the now rising sky boat. There they encountered a woman clad in the robes of an Oomisian merchant. "Now that I've freed you," she said, "we can discuss how you'll be showing me your gratitude."

BoL plays just as smoothly in its Mythic incarnation as it did when I ran this scenario using the Legendary rules. The new Initiative rules (which look very much like the Initiative house rules I developed back in 2010 but with the advantage of not requiring NPCs to roll) worked without any hitches, and I was particularly pleased with the new Damage rules for weapons: the impromptu clubs were easy to peg as 1d6L weapons, and Koth's door was a 1d6 weapon (it had the heft of a heavy 1d6H weapon, but lost the H due to its unwieldy nature). The players also appreciated the ability to buy a third Boon by way of picking a second Flaw; they felt this made for more varied heroes. All in all, I'm pleased with how the game is handling in this latest version.

In a week's time, the heroes will find out just who the mysterious benefactor is ... and what he wants from them ...

Friday, June 12, 2015

His Secrets Guard Themselves: Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

It wasn't enough to lose Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Tanith Lee so far this year, oh no. Now Death has come and claimed all-rounder Christopher Lee. There have been many tributes to the man who played Dracula, Scaramanga, Saruman, Dooku, Summerisle, etc., etc. The Lee performance I want to single out, though, is his turn as King Haggard in the 1982 adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

This was my introduction to Lee as an actor, and it's thus no surprise that it has always been his voice that most thrills me. I still consider this monologue of his one of the highlights of his career:

Rest in peace, Sir Christopher.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Night's Mistress: Tanith Lee (1947-2015)

Fantasy / horror / SF Grand Master Tanith Lee passed away on Sunday. While I was a latecomer to her books, I was sufficiently blown away by the Tales of the Flat Earth sequence to teach Night's Master in Spring 2014. Here is the transcendent ending of that amazing novel:
     But abruptly Fair, the youngest of the seven sisters, crept to the window, and there in the east she saw a single yellow sword uplifted, the token that the sun was coming. What made her do it she never knew, but she hurried to the incredible man, and, kneeling by him, she kissed his mouth, and whispered: "Azhrarn, awake, for the sun returns to earth and you must return to your own kingdom."
     And the man's eyelids flickered up, and two dark fires blazed suddenly between the bladed lashes, and he smiled, and touched the lips of Fair with his cool fingers. And then he was gone.
     The room was filled with screaming yet again, while a black eagle rose unseen into the sky of earth, turned on its broad wings, and vanished without trace.
     Moments after, the bright sun rose. But be sure, the age of Innocence was ended.
Rest in peace, Tanith Lee.

Monday, March 16, 2015

[Barbarians of Lemuria] Terry Pratchett's Moist von Lipwig

The news of Terry Pratchett's death last Thursday hit me harder than I expected, probably since I had only recently finished teaching Going Postal for the first time (and consequently binging on other  Discworld books—Feet of Clay and Raising Steam—as well). I wasn't a fan of Pratchett's at first: the Rincewind novels didn't appeal to me when I first encountered them as a teen in the 1980s. It wasn't until a friend convinced me to try Small Gods in the mid-1990s that I got the point and became a lifelong fan. The Tiffany Aching books are my particular favorites, but I have also assiduously followed the Death, Guards, and Industrial Revolution sub-series as well.

So as a tribute to Pterry I'd like to revisit my first Vargold post on his work by writing up a Barbarians of Lemuria Mythic Edition version of Moist von Lipwig to stand alongside my 2011 Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary Edition write-up for Captain Carrot Ironfounderson. I haven't had a chance to really read the Mythic Edition rules yet (despite backing the Kickstarter), so this should be fun.

Moist von Lipwig

Strength 0
Agility 0
Mind 3
Appeal 1 

Initiative 2
Melee 0
Ranged 0
Defense 2

Beastmaster 0
Merchant 0
Scribe 1
Scoundrel 3

Lifeblood 10
Hero Points 5

Nothing noteworthy

Detect Deception
Master of Disguise
Silver Tongue

City Dweller

These game stats represent Moist as he is in the novel just after he gets his first visit from an angel named Vetinari—so no golden suit yet, no avatar-y goings on, only the vaguest inklings of a change of heart. Attributes: Moist is almost Vetinari-clever, so he gets the maximum possible starting Mind score; his Appeal is only at 1 because his looks are rather average. Combat: Moist is not really much of a fighter (a plot point in Raising Steam), so I've put his points here into getting the jump on threats (so that Moist can run away) via Initiative and avoiding getting hit through Defense. Careers: His grandfather raised Lipzwigers, so there's some Beastmaster-potential in Moist; Merchant also gets a 0 to reflect Moist's ability to know just enough about the economy to scam people; Scribe has an actual level since Moist is an active forger; and Scoundrel, a variant of Thief, is obviously maxed out at 3 for our favorite conman. Boons and Flaws are all straightforward, obvious choices.

"Goodnight, sweet Hogfather, and flights of anthropomorphic
personifications sing thee to thy rest!"

Friday, February 6, 2015

[Supers!] Big Hero 6's Wasabi

With the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Disney's Big Hero 6 coming up on February 24th, I thought it might be fun to stat up at least one of the members of the team. So here's the Supers! Revised Edition sheet for Wasabi, my favorite character in the film.


Resistances (5D)
Composure 1D
Fortitude 3D
Reaction 2D
Will 3D

Aptitudes (8D)
Academia 3D (Lasers 4D, Applied Physics 4D)
Athleticism 2D
Fighting 2D
Technology 3D

Powers (7D)
Armor 3D (Device -1D)
Super Weapon 5D (Plasma Blades, Split Action 1D, Device -1D)

Advantages (1D)
I Brought This Along 1D ("What do you need, little man? Deodorant? Breath mint? Fresh pair of underpants?")

Disadvantages (-2D)
Enemy (Yokai/Callaghan) 1D
Minor Mental Hindrance ("A place for everything, everything in its place") -1D

Competency Dice (1D)

Since the characters in Big Hero 6 are all starting their characters, I built Wasabi using the standard Supers! amount of 20 build dice. He's a big guy, and he doesn't give up, so Fortitude and Will were his top Resistances. He is also easily flustered, so Composure at 1D seems appropriate. The Athleticism and Fighting Aptitudes reflect his experience with tai chi; I've given him "lasers" and "applied physics" as specializations for his Academia, but I could just as easily move "lasers" to be a Technology specialization. Note that Wasabi very deliberately doesn't have any extra dice in Vehicles ("You have to indicate your turn, it's the law!"). Powers are straightforward: his Big Hero 6 costume ("Anyone else's suit riding up on them?") doubles as high-quality Armor, and his plasma blades are a Super Weapon with a Split Action Boost (since he can use the blades independently of one another for attack and defense). The Advantage is an obvious choice given the quote I've attached to it. Even though Yokai/Callaghan's daughter is safe, he's still in play as a potential Enemy, and Wasabi's OCD is a definite Minor Mental Hindrance. I didn't give him a Phobia (Heights) because, while he whines about having to fly holding on to Baymax, he seems just fine fighting Yokai at various elevations. Finally, I left him with a Competency Die just because it's a good idea.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Teaching Contemporary Fantasy in Spring 2015

Sorry about the delay in blogging here at Vargold: the end of the Fall 2014 semester, family vacation time during the winter break, and the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester have forced me to concentrate on non-blogging and (really) non-gaming matters. But I thought that I could at least spare a few moments to talk about my current course on contemporary fantasy novels. I've done the historical approach numerous times now, and I thought it might be interesting to concentrate only on recent books instead. I also decided to bite the bullet re J. K. Rowling and finally add a Harry Potter novel to my teaching repertoire. Since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Potter book, this made 1999 the terminus ab quo for the class. I also decided to try and split the reading list down the middle in both national and gender terms: four Brits and four Americans, four men and four women. The national split was easy to accomplish, with Rowling, Miéville, Pratchett, and Walton representing the UK and Le Guin, Díaz, Jemisin, and Wilson representing the States. I ended up with a slightly lopsided gender split of five women (Rowling, Le Guin, Jemisin, Walton, and Wilson) and three men (Miéville, Díaz, and Pratchett), largely because most of the contemporary male fantasists I admire are British writers (e.g., Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, etc.) and I already had enough Brits. I also tried to increase the presence of writers of color in the class (Díaz and Jemisin), a move augmented by books by white authors with explicitly non-white protagonists (Le Guin's Memer and Wilson's Alif). Finally, I owed Jemisin one, having dropped One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from my Summer 2013 fantasy class.

In the end, I think I came up with a fairly diverse set of recent fantasy novels, both in social terms as well as thematic ones. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the odd book out as it's less a straightforward fantasy and more of a reflection on fantasy fiction's embeddedness in the imperialist and colonialist projects of the modern West. But then my sense is that most of the best fantasies are explicitly books about writing and fiction and the nature/power of language—so the more meta Oscar Wao fits right in in this regard.

Right now we've just started The Scar. Our class discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban was outstanding: the students did a great job, and I developed a new respect for what Rowling was doing in that novel, especially in relation to the uncanny and the problem of the past.