Sunday, February 05, 2017

just orcs, please

As a kid I was never really a miniatures guy, and my friends and I all went BattleTech crazy about the same time we got part-time jobs in high school, so I never really owned much from Citadel.  I eventually owned lots of 1:285 robots from Ral Partha, but precious few fantasy figures.

But I loved seeing Citadel's ads in Dragon.  They just oozed style.  Check out this bad boy from 1987 (it's actually the White Dwarf version, but the same basic ad ran in America as well):

(Click to embiggen)
I wish I had a larger scan of this thing handy, because it's hardy to see all the great details and to read the individual names.  While most minis makers were trying to sell you "Orc Infantry" or "Orc Advancing with Spear," Citadel presented each orc as an individual character with a unique name.

The Citadel folks did this with lots of other lines--like fighters and halflings and whatnot--but I really want to talk about these orcs because they figure into an experiment I did almost 30 years ago that I never sufficiently followed up on.  I was running a game for a whole new group, a one-off with people who were curious what all the fuss over D&D was about.  So I decided that the scenario would be that the two dozen orcs pictured above were a raiding party that had recently moved into the local area and the PCs were supposed to drive them off.

Those 24 orcs were literally the only monsters used in the scenario.  I had a map of the small cave complex (maybe 6 or 8 chambers total) that they were using as a staging area.  I whipped up some rules for how many orcs would be in which chambers at any given time and how many would be out pillaging.  And I made a list of 24 orcs.  Each one had an individual name, a hit point total, individual weapons and armor, and a line or two of description and/or personality.

All these guys were pretty much normal 1 hit die orcs.  The warrior orcs had no more than 6 hit points each, while the champions had at least 5.  Depending on the equipment depicted on the figure, some had worse ACs than a typical orc, because some of those guys above seem to be wearing clothes rather than armor.  The two shaman-looking figures among the champions were issued a single spell (cause fear for one and magic missile for the other, IIRC) that they could cast twice a day.  And I am 100% convinced to this day that the bottom right orc champion (Hakblod Stunty-Slicer) is holding a Mad Max style razor boomerang, so I made up stats for such a thing.  Other than those exceptions, these baddies were perfectly normal orcs.

I thought it worked really well.  Whenever the party encountered a batch of orcs I could say "5 more green-skinned goons round the corner" but once battle was joined or if the PCs had time to observe them, things like this could happen:
DM: The one coming at you has a big meat-cleaverish sword and a spiked helmet.
Player: Spiked helmet?  Like Colonel Klink has on his desk in Hogan's Heroes?
DM: Sorta, yeah.
Player: Fuck that guy!  I aim my spear right between his Nazi eyes!
DM: One of the bigger, armored orcs stops about 10 feet in front of your elf.  He holds his curvy sword and shield to the sky and proclaims "I am Mandig Elf-Sickle!  Today your ears will be added to my trophy collection!"
Player: I hide behind the barbarian!
My notes for these 24 orcs amounted to one or two pages but it added so much to what could have otherwise been a by-the-numbers orc slaughter.  And here's the sneaky part about the whole thing: I never showed the ad to my players or acknowledged its existence.  As far as they knew, I had customized these badguys all on my own.

UPDATE:  Ryan Clifford sent me a larger version of the picture.  Thanks, dude!

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Broodmother Skyfortress invades the US!

After an unusually long transatlantic transit time, Noble Knight games finally has Broodmother Skyfortress in stock (though they got the name slightly wrong)!  If you've been avoiding buying it because you didn't want to deal with international shipping or you're allergic to transactions in Euros, now is the time to get yourself a copy!

What People Are Saying About Broodmother Skyfortress:

"For any D&D-like system, I think this is a far better introduction to the game than the Lost Mines of Phandelver." --redditor 3d6skills

"It might be the best primer thus far on running things by the seat of your pants in an OSR manner" --Bryce Lynch of

"Broodmother Skyfortress is a chance for the Referee to kick over the ant’s hill that is his campaign" --Pookie UK of Reviews from R'lyeh

"I really like Jeff's approach to Broodmother SkyFortress - tight enough that the storyline is easy to follow, loose enough that you can flex it to the needs of your players / campaign world. That is always a trick, as most adventures are written for a certain campaign world and setting, even if that is never actually said in the adventure."     --Erik Tenkar of Tenkar's Tavern

"It's literally snap (Jeffs Gygaxian & Marvelesque tone), Crackle (the Kirby borders and thrillin' heroism) and pop (the direct incorporation of the pop-cultural elements in both content and narrative voice and the vibrant splash pages)." --Patrick Stuart at his blog False Machine

"(1) Broodmother Skyfortress is very awesome; (2) Your game will certainly improve if you use Rient's advice; (3) if we are making comparisons here, buying other adventures opens the door to the very real possibility of being disappointed – it is that good. This is probably my first review where I don't have any critiques." --Corey Walden at the Fiendish Almanack

"This is awesome! Broodmother Skyfortess is a gonzo take on the famous flying castle with giants trope. By gonzo I mean nonsensical although in a very consistent fashion (if this make sense at all). Broodmother Skyfortess not only delivers on its absurd premise but pumps it over 9000! And it does that supported in two fronts: really GM-friendly content and art/layout." --Tower of the Lonely GM

"BMSF is a module that was worth waiting for. For your money you get a kickass adventure, and some of the best advice the OSR ever provided." --Vorpal Mace

"Reading this will make you think about wrecking your campaign. I'm not sure it's a good thing, but I'll probably do it to mine." --Eric Nieudan on Google Plus

"I have never waited excitedly for an RPG product to come out ever. I just am not that kinda guy. But this--this I've been waiting for. I read and ran an early draft and it became major canon in my game because it involved a flying island crashing into a city--and it's a goddamn introductory module. It's fantastic, it's written in a breezy, eminently readable style by the smartest, funnest DM in all of gaming, it's several times longer than it was supposed to be and has crazy 4-color art and raises the module bar sooooo many notches and is exactly what the whole DIY D&D thing is supposed to be all about and I'm so happy I could kill all of you." --Zak Smith

"Broodmother Skyfortress is chock full of great content. Not only do you get all the gonzo content that will take your party to a floating fortress filled with the craziest creatures in the known multiverse, but you also get a ton of stuff that you can use for your existing or new campaigns! To top it all off, you get all of this in a beautiful package full of great art. You can't go wrong if you like over the top, mutated giantish things wrecking your world. Highly recommended!" --anonymous RPGNow review [Not me OR my mom. She bought a print copy.]

"An absurd amount of content for the price. And it's all good! It's all very useable! Great writing, too. A lot to unpack. Recommended." --review by RPGNow customer SeanP

"BMSF is also kind of weird, but the weirdness has a goofier tone that is more fun and thus easier to get to the table. It has an over-the-top tone that careens easily between desperation and high heroism. It would make a good DCC conversion as well. The bonus content is also fantastic. Highly recommended!" --KevinH on a thread at

"Read not run. Rients's authorial voice & sense of unbridled fun from his blog is thankfully maintained in this module years in the making. Constantly and helpfully suggests options for ways to tune adventure to GM's sensibilities... Supplemented w/ good collection of articles from Jeff's Gameblog re: hirelings, campaign building, magic books, carousing, etc." --James Brigham on

"Taken together the book is probably one of the best getting started guides to running games. (Certainly for running games in an “old-school” style.) Jeff said he took inspiration here from the old basic modules In Search of the Unknown (B1) and Keep on the Borderlands (B2). This module does a far better job than both at teaching a DM how to run a game. It’s advice is far more clear and direct." --Review by Ramanan Sivaranjan of Save vs. Total Party Kill

"Just finished reading Broodmother Skyfortress for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's an excellent book for those interested in OSR games, being part adventure, part high quality GMing advice from Jeff Rients." --Frederick Foulds on Google Plus

"Really, this is a book that any rpg designer should read. We need more books like this." --NicholasJ on Google Plus

"I REALLY like +Jeff Rients​’ intro material to Broodmother. Top notch instructional material on how to use a game thing." --Victor Garrison (headspice) in a thread on G+

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

20 areas that might hold dungeon levels in Piranesi's Carceri, plate VI

I am slightly obsessed with 18th century artist Giovanni Piranesi's collection Carceri d'invenzione ("Imaginary Prisons").  Piranesi draws vast, gothic 3-dimensional structures that I would love to implement in my dungeons.  So I figured I'd try imagining a scenario where I'd use Piranesi directly as a handout.  The idea is that the dungeon would use one or more of the Carceri as the key branching point of the dungeon, the way the box canyon in Keep on the Borderlands allows one to access any of the various Caves of Chaos.

In other words, give the players this picture (minus the red) and ask them where they want to go.

Whaddya think?

(PS Here's the unmarked original)

Monday, January 30, 2017

donate, get free book

So here's an announcement from James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess:

29.01.2017: Donate, Get a Book

LotFP is offering a free book to anyone who donates US$50 or more to the ACLU.
  • Offer is good for donations made from January 29 2017 onward.
  • One free book per person.
  • Offer good through February 2017, or until we give away 500 books, whichever comes first.
  • Books available through this offer:
  • (yes, you can pick a t-shirt instead)
  • Email proof of your donation to along with your desired book and your shipping address.
  • You will not be added to any mailing list, your information won't be passed on, etc.

My Broodmother Skyfortress, Kiel Chenier's Blood in the Chocolate, and Zak Smith's A Red & Pleasant Land all qualify for this offer.

Pass it on!

the Winter War meeple encounter

Over the weekend I managed to get over to Winter War 44, the forty-fourth annual gathering of game weirdos in Champaign, Il.  Sometimes I give the false impression that I am an old school guy.  The dudes who founded this convention bought their copies of OD&D at GenCon the year it came out.  One of them wrote pedit5, the earliest documented dungeon crawl computer game.  (The name is designed to look like a legit program, since it was unauthorized use of U of I's computer resources.)  Compared to them, I'm one of the snot-nosed new kids.

I used to go to this convention every year and run stuff and help staff it, but grad school rearranges one's priorities in a pretty big way, especially when you feel you have to work twice as hard to keep up with people half your age.  But my daughter wanted to go and play some games with her old dad.  How can I say no to that?

Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to send a message to Andrew.  This young man introduced himself as a fan of this blog, which was quite gratifying.  I didn't chitchat with him much because sometimes find myself slightly embarrassed when I meet a gameblog fan in the real world.  Basically because I can hardly believe that my readers are actual people living in the real world.  In a  later conversation with a mutual friend I learned that Andrew lives in the same town as I.  Andrew, if you are reading this, please send me an email so we can maybe play a game together.

Anyway, my daughter and I played some AD&D first edition run by cool cat Alex Riedel.  You might've seen me post on G+ about fighting doombats, skeletons, and a Skeleton Warrior.  I'm pretty sure that if we didn't run out of time we'd also have faced an Eye of Fear and Flame and maybe a Crypt Thing, too.  There was a "you are about to be murdered by 3 exotic undead" theme going on in the scenario.

At one point I was caught in a death trap with 2 other party members.  I was certain we wouldn't be able to solve the puzzle to deactivate the trap, so I drank a potion of diminution and escaped through the bars of the portcullis that had locked us in.  Imagine my embarrassment when the other two guys figured out the puzzle and also got out.  "Sorry I left you for dead, dudes?"  One guy admitted he would've done the same thing if he had the potion.  The other gave me the side-eye.

Since my daughter Elizabeth doesn't play that much D&D and we were in a mid-level scenario, I urged her to pick a fighter from the pre-gens.  She was having none of that.  She wanted the raw power of wizardry to be hers to command.  I was so proud of her blatant lust for cosmic power.  She managed to hold onto her lightning bolt until the big boss battle and effectively deployed it without catching anyone in a ricochet.  Too bad the dang monster was immune to its effect.

The other game we played was Search for the Emperor's Treasure.
I tried to get Elizabeth to turn to face the camera for this shot,
but she was too into the game to pay any attention to me just then.
Search is a delightful number from Tom Wham designed to emulate overland D&D-type treasure hunting and monster fighting.  The original version was published in Dragon #51.  The game was also reprinted in The Best of Dragon Games, but with a less amazing map.  The original map was done by Darlene Pekul.  She's better known for the classic World of Greyhawk hexmaps and the succubus in the back of the DMG, among other things.  Check this baby out:

You could use this as the campaign map for a pretty sweet little D&D campaign.
The Best of Dragon Games version uses a function but much less pleasing map.  The rest of the components in both versions are illustrated by Tom Wham in his usual cartoony style.

Mertwig's Maze, published by TSR, is Wham covering the same ground thematically and is also fun on a bun.  I recommend omitting the final dungeon from play, though.  It's a bit anti-climactic and not needed at all.  King of the Tabletop (Dragon #77, errata #78) does fantasy battles and strategery in the Wham fashion.  It was later re-made into Kings & Things (West End Games, later Z-Man Games).

One of the most hilarious mechanics of Search for the Emperor's Treasure is that it is fairly easy for your adventurer to be be barred from a town or castle as a public nuisance.  One player's wizard ended up getting kicked out of four different spaces on the map.  That's player-charactering at its best.

As is often the case at cons, the guy running this moldy old game had given it a deluxe makeover.  I've seen this sort of work done with Kingmaker and several other boardgames.  (And I fantasize about doing the same thing to the old TSR mini-game Revolt on Antares.)  Scott, the referee, had the small map (11" x 17" originally) blown up to poster size. And he created some sweet custom character sheets, which were laminated.  He also upgraded some of the playing pieces, which is why the word "meeple" appears in the title of this post.

Instead of the original tiny cardstock chits, we marked are location on the map with these sweet-ass meeple-style silhouettes, from this set:
Actual sizes here range from 24mm to 52mm.  The human figures are roughly scaled to modern 35mm figs.
Apparently these babies were successfully kickstarted and have subsequently completely sold out without me ever catching wind of their existence!  Fantasy Meeples were kickstarted by Gamelyn Games and sold through Meeple Source.

I love minis at the game table because they help everyone understand spatial relationships between PCs, monsters, and objects.  I hate minis at the game table because the spectacle of the tabletop sometimes distracts from the imaginative space where the game is actually happening.  Fantasy Meeples do the job of game pieces while being suggestive rather than definitive.  That's the sort of ambiguity I could use in my D&D games.  And they're cute, too.

So, if like me, you'd like a set of these babies but missed them the first time around, please consider going to this page and leaving a message for Gamelyn asking them to produce more Fantasy Meeples.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

how to do a thing like the Wessex online campaign

Over on the Google+ I was queried about the ins and outs of running a many-player online campaign like I did with my last big Wessex game.  I've had a couple of days to think about this, and here are the things that helped make that game work and/or what I would do if I attempted the run such a beast again.

Keep the Paper Flowing

Keeping track of a bunch of players is a logistical/bureaucratic process.  You need to know who your player pool is, how to contact them, and a way of tracking who has played when.  I recommend having people sign up by answering a survey made with Google Forms.  Experience using surveys with students suggest that you need to limit yourself to 10 questions or less and any question that requires more than a one or two word answer counts double.  Here's what I might ask:

  • What is your name?
  • What's an email address you can be reached at?
  • What is your Google+ handle?
  • If you have a FLAILSNAILS PC, what is theire name/race/class/level? (You aren't committing to playing that exact PC and no other, I'm just curious)
  • Tell me one weird thing about your PC [this would count as 2 questions]
  • Any special concerns about the game? I.e. schedule wonkiness, are you hearing impaired, is there a kind of monster that you really can't deal with?  [also 2 questions]

Google Forms allows you to dump all that info into a spreadsheet, to which I would add columns to track who played in what game.  That way I can tell at a glance that Bob has played 5 of the last 8 sessions, so maybe someone else needs a chance, meanwhile Christine has been on the list since the beginning and still hasn't got to play.  Speaking of which...

There's More Than One Way to Make a Party

I used several methods to decide who got to be in any particular session.  Random selection was a common one.  Keeping an eye out so that more people got a chance to play was another.  However, I also had really good luck with some hybrid methods, such as keeping one player from the previous session and randomly select three others.  This allowed for some continuity of play.  A couple of times I picked one player (randomly or not) and let them recruit the rest of the team.  This worked best on the occasions that I got emails from players who clearly had an interesting agenda for the game.

Communication Routes

You need a clearly labeled channel for official communiques from you to the entire player pool.  Obviously this blog was handy for that.  You also need a central venue for players to talk about the game, like G+ or a facebook group or something.  Also, the use of a single regular drinking establishment in the campaign combined with the carousing rules encouraging PC inebriation worked really well in allowing me to regularly broadcast details of the adventures that would otherwise be hush-hush.  If the players spent hundreds of gold expressly to get blotto and earned XPs in the process, then there was no room to complain about me occasionally exposing the secret results of their session.  This is important because you want enough info out there that the next party will have one or more ideas what to do with your dungeon.

Multiple Routes to Trouble

If I did one smart thing in setting up my dungeon, it was taking inspiration from the Caves of Chaos in terms of the number of ways into the adventure.  Fresh groups knew they could try one of the entrances no one else had and find a fresh new bit of fun waiting for them, while veterans could move quickly through previously covered ground to reach deeper levels and more troubles & treasures.  (By the way, if it hasn't been used I totally call dibs on Troubles & Treasures as a title for something.)  And go ahead and make some of the entrances a bigger pain than others.  Two of my favorite sessions started with players who decided to enter the most flood-prone sea cave and the time a group excavated the rubble pile to find a new stairs down.  Sometimes to have an adventure you gotta do things the hard way.  Heck, start with an obvious but magically sealed alternate entrance.  It will drive players crazy.

Simple rules, simple setting

If you want the largest possible player pool you can't really make the larger milieu the star of the game, nor can you use a system where building a new PC feels like homework.  Obviously, my setting mattered a lot to my game, but in a way that unfolded naturally through play rather than requiring significant briefing ahead of time.  Also, try making a shared Google Doc with absolutely everything needed to make a new PC for your game.  The shorter that document is, the better.

And don't run a system where you have to look up a lot of stuff all the time.  Working through mechanical problems seems even more annoying when playing with people online.  Better to run a dumb system you know down pat than a great system you're still struggling with.  And remember, when in doubt give any vaguely plausible plan a 2 in 6 chance of success, but a roll of six means things go ridiculously bad for the party.

Maintain your dungeon

PCs in dungeons are like preschoolers in a library: lots of people have fun but when it's done a bunch of shit has been haphazardly rearranged and there's bodily fluids all over the place.  In addition to noting monsters killed and treasures looted, it's extra important that you track any other changes: marks left, blood stains, traps disassembled, burnt out torches abandoned, etc.  Oozes, vermin, and kobold janitors can clean some of that stuff up for you, but the players will eat it up if you leave traces of previous expeditions about the place.  And once in a while shake up your dungeon status quo: move some monsters around, add a new trap in a previously-explored corridor, have an umber hulk or purple worm burrow some tunnels making strange new connections.

Well, that's all I got in me at the moment.  Maybe some of my supercool players will chime in with what worked and didn't work for them.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

the Broodmother that might have been

Here's a little trivia about Broodmother Skyfortress (still available here and in PDF-only here).  At one time in the development process I wanted this to be the cover art:

That's an illustration by late 19th/early 20th century artist Henry Justice Ford.  It appears in The Green Fairy Book, one of 25 or so such volumes compiled by Scottish literary critic Andrew Lang and his wife, who I've not seen addressed as anything but "Mrs. Lang."  Not that I go too deep into this stuff.

Among other stuff in its pages, The Green Fairy Book has a version of the 3 Little Pigs that features houses of mud and cabbage instead of sticks and straw.  IIRC there's a fox instead of a wolf in that one as well.  The 3 Bear also appear, but they frighten a Little Old Woman instead of Goldilocks.  You can read the stories yourself on Project Gutenberg (text-only) or check out this nice scan on the Internet Archive.

Ford's illustration above features Grumedan the Enchanter, a man so large four of the king's strongest men struggle to carry his club.  He serves as the antagonist of the delightfully named tale "Prince Narcissus and the Princes Potentilla."  As Telecanter pointed out in 2011, this illo clearly inspired Trampier's cloud giant in the original Monster Manual.

So my idea was to put this illo on the cover of Broodmother as a way of faking out the players.  As play begins they catch a glance of cover art that resembles canonical cloud giants, then WHAM!  The referee hits them over the head with shark-elephant-centaur dudes wrecking their shit.  It would have worked, too, if not for you meddling kids James Raggi's insistence that using public domain art is unprofessional.

Reason #147 to Love the Internet:
Googling "Scooby Doo unmasked shark"
got me exactly what I wanted on the first result.