Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Latest Projects for B/X D&D and/or Old School Essentials: Classes and Subclasses Genre Books

Back at the beginning of 2020, I started creating some new classes for B/X style D&D, as I became more interested in Old School Essentials (aka OSE, a modern restatement of Moldvay/Cook B/X D&D). I started out making some classes based on a discarded proposal for an Expert class guide book for 3rd Edition D&D, specifically the Alchemist, Demolitionist, and Inventor. There was also a Blacksmith, but ultimately I decided that wasn't really a strong enough concept for an adventuring character. 

Shortly after making those three classes, I ended up creating a table of "D12 Subclasses" for Experts and Specialists in a B/X style game, in which the player would pick one of the standard character classes, but then modify it slightly to create things like a Saboteur, Sage, or Sapper (or nine other subclasses that don't start with "Sa-"). 

That one subclass table got me started on a variety of subclasses for characters and adventures in the Wilderness, City, Sea-based/Naval, Horror, Fairy Tale, and Sword & Planet genres. 

And, in the middle of all this, I also took a stab at creating a B/X style Sorcerer class (an innate, spontaneous arcane caster). 

I got a lot of great comments on these posts in particular, and a few folks have asked if I would consider publishing them in PDF form. I've been working on that, and have a couple sample layout pages below to show how it's going. 

My plan is to put together three PDF "booklets" that would include the content above, as well as new, additional content that isn't on my blog, and updated versions of everything based on comments I got either on social media or here on the blog. The three books I'm working on are: 

  • B/X Experts and Specialists
    • This needs a better name of course, but it's going to have quite a bit of content and I'm about 90% done writing it
    • Everything is intended to be presented as a series of two-page spreads, just like OSE, to make it easy to use at the table and find the information you need 
    • The D12 Table of Expert/Specialist Subclasses, plus three new demi-human subclasses (since demi-humans weren't included on my original list)
    • A new version of the Alchemist, Demolitionist, and Inventor, including new experience point tables, and updated or revised class abilities for each of the three classes
    • New alchemical items and potions
    • New demolitions, including flash and smoke bombs, and even more alchemical items that are related directly to black powder 
    • New inventions for the Inventor class, including a variety of adventuring items, sensory enhancements, and weapon and armor modifications
    • Next up are a bunch of sections for referees to use expert and specialist PCs and NPCs in their games:
    • A section on including patrons in the game who are looking to hire experts for specific jobs, which will mainly be some random tables and descriptions 
    • A section on using guilds, including different types of guilds, goals, rivals, etc. 
    • A section on combining different expert types using the subclass tables and/or the new classes to create different styles of campaigns
    • Optional random tables for what happens if characters fail their Alchemy, Demolitions, or Inventor proficiency checks  
    • A list of inspirational media you can refer to to get more ideas for using experts and specialists in your games  

There's a lot of new stuff in this short book, and I'm making sure that it has material for both players and referees, as well as sticking true to the more rules-light format of B/X and leaving a lot of decisions and rulings in the hands of the referee, and working with a clean, attractive layout style. 

Here are two sample pages that my friend Bill Green (a graphic designer by trade) is working on: 

Experts-Specialist Genre Book Page 2: Sample
© 2020 Martin R. Thomas

Experts-Specialist Genre Book Page 3: Sample
© 2020 Martin R. Thomas

We're still playing around with the layout and the art hasn't been put in yet. Also, I do have a printer-friendly version as well that removes the background image. 

After I finish this book, I'll need to figure out how to get set-up on DriveThru RPG to offer it for sale (and I'm very open to advice from people who have done so!), and then I'll work on the next two books: 

  • A book of "Genre Rules" that would include each of the different D12 Subclasses tables that I mentioned above, and then a series of random tables, encounters, adventuring rules, and inspirational media for each different genre. Right now I'm envisioning a two-page spread for the subclasses table and notes, additions, or changes, and then at least one additional two-page spread per genre for all the other stuff. 
  • A book for the B/X Sorcerer I mentioned above, along with some additional ideas for the "D12 Sorcerer Bloodlines" table I created, maybe some new spells, etc. The idea is that this would be somewhat similar to the The Warlock (Designed for Future with Old School Essentials) book that Timothy Brannan wrote, although I suspect mine won't be as long. 
So, that's what I'm working on right now, in addition to continuing to edit the Longsword base RPG system for Andrew Collas Presents (basically, a restating of 2nd Edition AD&D with some 3rd Edition elements added for simplicity, and with better layout and organization), and finishing up judging this year's One Page Dungeon Contest, which is one of my favorite things to do every year. This year I added a column onto my judging spreadsheet to note which adventures I could use for the game I'm planning to run for my daughter and her friends, and that column is filling up! 

I've also two ideas for about two more "D12 Subclasses" tables rolling around in my head. 

None of that includes working on my own World of Samoth game I've been running since May 2001, getting ready to test a new campaign and set of rules modifications for a post-apocalyptic game with a group of friends, and being a player in a Savage Worlds Deadlands campaign that has replaced the Cthulhu-based game I was playing in until we came to the conclusion of our adventure last year. 

On top of all that, my friend has asked me to run a one-shot for his new workmates, none of whom have played an RPG before, as a team-building exercise and to see if they like it. 

My RPG cup is definitely running over, but in a good way. 

I look forward to hearing your comments on the B/X and/or Old School Essentials books I'm working on, what you think of the ideas and the layout, and anything else you want to chat about! 

Hanging: Home Office (laptop)
Drinking: Cold-brew coffee on ice with a dash of orange bitters (Regan's No. 6)
Listening: "Typical" by Nightmares on Wax and Jordan Rakei, from the album "Shape the Future"


Sunday, August 2, 2020

RPG Reviews: Neurocity

is a science-fiction, or perhaps better described by a term the game author uses, "Tech-Noir," tabletop role-playing game that is currently available in PDF format on DriveThruRPG. I was provided with a PDF copy for review purposes.

Neurocity is an evocative setting idea that could easily be used in a variety of different RPG systems. While the game does include a very rules-light storytelling 2d6 roll-under system, the true strong suit of this product are its setting and adventure ideas. Given its use of random tables for encounter ideas in different parts of the city, it might have been better marketed and produced as a system-neutral campaign setting supplement rather than a stand-alone RPG. However, the rules are so minimal that they can easily be stripped out. 

Those looking for a more narrative-based game that gives wide latitude to the players and referee to decide the outcome of actions may want to explore the game system, but the mechanics came across as an afterthought versus all the detail and attention put into describing the setting. 

Neurocity is a 126-page PDF that is almost all in black-and-white, with the occasional gray box to indicate commentary on the main text. A few chapters have shaded background headers, almost in a muted tone like a very light rose pink or pale yellow. There is also some bright red used as a highlight color on some pre-gen character sheets at the back of the book. 

Much of Neurocity's charm comes from its aesthetic, such as the choice of font such as Space Mono and IBM Plex Mono, which give the text a sort of 1980's style future look. There are also in-world quotes from characters to help bring the setting to life, and some fun propaganda-style art that look like in-world posters or billboards.  These little touches help to give Neurocity an organized look and portray the style of its cold, computer-driven future. 

After the cover and some introductory pages and table-of-contents, there are about 36 pages that introduce the setting and provide a summary of the different areas of the city. Following this are about 24 pages of game rules and character creation, then three pages of random encounters, and then back to another section of rules that runs about 13 pages. This does create some confusion and affects the reader's ability to quickly understand the rules or to get into the core of the setting. 

The game wraps up with a few pages on storytelling and ideas for bringing characters together, and then ends with about 29 or so pages for referees (called "directors" in Neurocity). 

The mechanics of Neurocity, as noted, take up less than a third of the book. This is best described as a story-telling type of game, without classes, levels, or skills. Instead, characters are defined by five different attributes (Logic, Personality, Technocracy, Instinct, and Violence), rated on a scale of 5-10. Scores may drop below 5 or go higher than 10 during the game due to different circumstances.  

When attempting to accomplish an action, the player describes in detail what exactly he or she is trying to accomplish, after which the director will make a determination of which attribute affects that action. The system itself uses a roll-under 2d6 mechanism, but with some rather fiddly variations that are more confusing than helpful. The rules state that if the 2d6 roll is equal to or lower than the associated attribute, then the action is successful and the director narrates the results. Then, confusingly, the text states that any 2d6 result of 8 or greater is an "outstanding success" and a result of two (which is oddly shown as a graphic icon of two dice, each with a single pip showing, instead of just the word "two") is an "insufficient success" that may require another roll. It would have been much easier to change these rules to indicate that "lower is always better" or that "rolling equal to the attribute is a success, but with consequences." Having a roll-under system, but then rewarding higher numbers while penalizing lower numbers is confusing, especially for first-time gamers. I myself have been playing RPGs for nearly 40 years and I had to read this section about five times before understanding what the author was trying to imply. 

In addition to all of the above, a roll of 12 (again portrayed by two dice icons with six pips showing on each die) is a "critical failure" with consequences to be determined by the director. 

The rules then discuss the difference between a Complex and a Simple Action; in a Complex Action, there is more at stake or the circumstances are not favorable to the character attempting the action. In these cases, a roll of "1" on either of the two dice indicates a complication, but then states that a complication cannot arise as a result of another complication, nor does a double "1 result cause a complication during a complex action." 

While the gist of the system is quite simple in theory, the presentation and the constant exceptions or variations to rules make for a system that's more complicated than it needs to be. Some rules editing and adjusting to make things more streamlined would go a long way toward making the mechanics more suitable for actual game play.

Modifiers to the die rolls come in the form of applying bonuses or penalties ranging from +3 to -3, and there are examples provided to cover a variety of circumstances in which a director might want to apply such modifiers. 

There's a section on Initiative, which is an odd addition to the game, as the rules then describe that there is no such mechanic of initiative in the game, and that combat actions happen in a "dramatic way according to a sequence set by the Director." Given the story-telling nature of the game mechanics, running combats this way is fine within the context of the game's system, but it's odd to have a whole section with a header of "Initiative" given that there is no initiative in the game. It seems that this section is there for players who are used to other RPGs in which initiative is part of the game, but referencing a rule for another type of game seems an odd choice. It would have been better to simply provide an example of a combat scenario in the game, and provide tips on how the director can narrate the action, instead of referring vaguely to a mechanic that doesn't exist. 

Another interesting section of the rules that stood out to me was the "Conflict Between Player Characters" section, which gives tips and examples for directors to adjudicate scenes in which one PC attacks another. For full disclosure, I have never played a story-telling, narrative RPG, so I'm not sure if inter-party conflict is a common part of those types of games, but it's not something I'm used to in more class-and-level or skill-based RPGs like D&D, Savage Worlds, or Call of Cthulhu

Another confusion example occurs in this section, during which one player attempts to push another player off a train platform. In the example, the director instructs each player to make a 2d6 roll against the appropriate attribute, and announces that in the event that they both succeed, the "superior result" will win. One character has an attribute score of 8, and rolls a 7 (a success, but barely), and another character has an attribute score of 7, and rolls a 4 (a success by a margin of 3). The text then indicates that the character who rolled the 7 is the winner. Again, for a roll-under system, I found this very counter-intuitive; I would have assumed that the result that has more degrees of success (7-4 = 3, versus 8-7 = 1) would be the "superior result." 

In the character creation section, players are instructed to give their character a name and an "axiom" (essentially, a catch-phrase), and then they are given 9 points to distribute among their five attributes, which each start with a score of 5. 

While there aren't classes per se, there are "Functions" that do have some minimum attribute requirements, including Enforcers (law enforcement), Cardinals (part of the "Ministry of Truth"), Monitors (surveillance who spy and snitch on those who go against the system), Techrunners (repairers of technology), and Vectors (individuals who hold a specific solution to a specific problem, but temporarily, and might not even be aware of it until they are called up to serve).     

A main component of the rules system is called a Tension Check, which is stress that affects a character's psyche, and is discharged through gaining a neurosis. Tension is gained for actions such as disobeying orders, witnessing a terrible event, or suffering psychologically "for some reason." To release tension, characters can engage in activities such as violence, alcoholism, sleep, or sexual relations. Neuroses that might be gained due to tension are things such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression. 

There is a very simple wounds system, and characters who take a number of wounds equal to their limit are considered dead, but as part of the setting of the game, dead characters have to be declared dead by a Cardinal, after which either a Rebirth Order or Renewal Order is issued, allowing the player to continue playing a similar character. 

The rules section ends with a short description of storytelling games and how they are different from traditional role-playing games, and also gets into what the core of Neurocity is all about - characters may suffer and die, but the Super Computer will also resurrect them, but each time a bit of their personality slowly dissolves away. This cycle keeps repeating endless, and characters are being watched over by an omnipresent and soulless regime, never to escape the cycle. The goal is for the players to figure out if there's a way out of this awful cycle.

The Directors section of the book at the end gives tips for running the game, including ideas for different archetypes that might represent the intelligence artificial consciousness that runs the city (there's no one true depiction in Neurocity - each director is encouraged to make the setting his own by using the examples provided or coming up with his own ideas). There's also a section on Player Backgrounds for players to roll on, so it's unclear why this section was put into the end of the book rather than in the character creation section. 

Other parts of the director's rules include examples of what exactly caused Neurocity to come about in the first place (again, there is not one single answer, so each game of Neurocity will be different than other games), and some random tables of different types of events that might occur during a game.  

The concept of Neurocity is quite different from more traditional science-fiction settings, and that alone makes it worth checking out. In an epilogue, the author, Gavriel Quiroga, notes that his goal was to create an "extreme existential experience that has as a central theme the struggle between the human spirit and the omnipotent technocracy of a brutal system." He mentions Orwell as an inspiration, and that inspiration does come through in the realization of the setting. 

The idea of characters being reborn into the system but losing personality (which has a mechanical affect on the personality score of the character) each time they die makes sense within the context of the setting as well. 

Aesthetically, the choice of fonts and the artistic style, such as the graphic propaganda style artwork helps to convey omnipresent and omnipotent technological surveillance under which the characters in the world live. These "collage art" designs are by Sol Olweder, who also contributes to the other standard artwork in teh game, along with Nexus Redline. These mainly consist of black-and-white line drawings with a distinct comic book style. The credits page mentioned "interventions made on argentine [sic] comics of the 80s." I was unclear if this credit was indicating that actual artwork from Argentine comics was used in the game (the use of the "interventions" term was unclear to me), but it that's the case, it makes sense given the style of artwork. 

The random tables throughout the book are also inspired and contain fun and engaging ideas to help the setting come to life and provide directors with a lot of options to make their setting unique and inspire adventure hooks. There are random tables for things such as the condition of a Public Computer Terminal (e.g., clean and works perfectly to having a faulty screen or ruined audio), Climate, Encounters for each different section of the city, different types of System Supervisors, the results of being "Renewed" after dying, and the Backgrounds and Events tables in the director's section. These are all system-neutral types of tables that could be useful in any Tech-Noir or Cyberpunk style game, regardless of the mechanics. In particular, I could see using all or parts of the Neurocity setting in a Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells game. 

Lastly, the author also has a custom soundtrack by Espejo Negro for the game. 

Most of the pros of the game are covered in the "Cool Bits" section above. In addition, the layout is clean and functional in most places, although I would have preferred to keep each random table on its own page rather than spilling across multiple pages (for example, there's one table with 20 entries; the first six are listed at the bottom of one page that is in a two-column format, but the remaining 14 entries are on the next page in a full-page, one-column layout format). 

The layout also does not always make good use of headers or bold type to call attention to key points or make it easy to find information quickly. This gets to my main downside of this game, which is the organization. Sections are not intuitively where they should be, making it difficult to follow how the game is played or how to create a character. While the information is all there, the presentation and organization make it very difficult to find. For example, when the attributes are explained, the rules note that every character has an attribute score of 5-10 for each of the five attributes, but it never explains how a character determines what his or her score is in the attributes. That information is not found until 11 pages later, and it's buried at the bottom of a page with no header or bold type or anything to call attention to it. Additionally, on the layout for this page, it's mainly a two-column layout, but the bit about how to determine attribute scores is instead presented at the bottom of the page in one-column layout, so it almost looks like a footnote as as opposed to an integral part of the rules. 

Then, as mentioned above, the character backgrounds are not found in the Character Creation section, but instead near the end of the book in the director's section, even though this section specifically says that "players can choose to roll d20 to obtain one of the following backgrounds" - so there's no reason this should have been confined to the director's section. 

Organizational issues like that did make it difficult to understand the game at first, including how to create a character and some of the basic concepts of how to run the game. 

Lastly, there are some language differences that do at times hinder comprehension. It's not an insurmountable issue, but there's an interesting use of the word "we" when describing rules that can be confusing. For example, in the section on making a Tension Check, the rules are written as: 

"We must use the Personality attribute if we want to avoid adding Tension under certain contexts determined by the Director. We will call these checks Tension Checks and they are always carried out using the Personality attribute." 
When first coming across passages such as this, it stuck out to me, as I kept questioning, "Who is 'we'?" After a bit, I assumed it might just be an issue in translating from the author's native language to English (it appears that Quiroga's is a native of Spain). Again, it's not a huge issue, but it does have an impact when reading the rules.  

While some of the above issues do affect the comprehension of the game system and rules, after a few readings, things become more clear. And, as I mentioned above, I am not well-versed with storytelling games, so it's possible that some of my issues wouldn't be problems for those more experienced with this genre of tabletop role-playing games. 

  • Format: 126 page PDF
  • Where to Buy: DriveThruRPG
  • Price: $6.00 USD
  • System: An original storytelling system with a 2d6 roll-under mechanic 
    • This is a very rules-light system and the rules could easily be stripped out and replaced by whatever system you're using, such as Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells or Stars Without Number
  • More Information: The author just ran a successful Kickstarter on this project, which you can read more about here. You can also follow the game's Facebook page here

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Fuzzy Recollection Hazy IPA with Peaches, by Indie Brewing Company
Listening: "It's Yours (Featuring E-Man) - Distant Music Mix" by John Cutler and E-Man, from the single "It's Yours (Featuring E-Man)"

Thursday, July 9, 2020

My Gaming Soft Cover and Boxed Sets Bookshelves

About two years ago, I wrote a post about my hardback RPG bookshelf and created a series of graphs, inspired by a really fun book, Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe. For anybody who loves comic books, this is a really fun and creative way to look at the history of things like different color schemes for superhero costumes, the differences between Green Arrow's and Hawkeye's trick arrows, or a "Who's Who" bubble map of character relationships for the comic series Sin City, as just a few examples. Graphic designers will appreciate the sheer creativity of how the author organized the information, such as using an 8-Bit version of the Flash to indicate the different Scarlet Speedsters by Personality (Barry Allen is indicated by Red, Wally West by Yellow, and Jay Garrick by tan on the Flash's face; Bart Allen is "not shown; hint-hint") or an 8-Bit Superman to rank the Superman movies (Red for Superman, Blue for Superman II, a bit of Yellow for Superman III, a tiny bit of Black on the hair for Superman IV, and a small amount of Tan on the face for Superman Returns; Man of Steel had not been released yet at the time of this book's publication). For people who need to make graphs for their work presentations, this book will give you a ton of ideas for different ways to present information aside from the standard column graph.

I thought it would be fun to make some graphs to illustrate the state of my soft cover and boxed sets (which are on two different bookshelves). On a few of them, I offer some commentary as to the information contained or to clarify a few things. 

I created all of these graphs originally in Microsoft Excel to make sure the size relationships were correct, but for a few of them, I drew over the graphs with either the box or circle tool so that I could manipulate the images more than Excel allowed. 

Please do let me know what you think of the graphs, or ask me any questions about how I created them or to get further information on the data behind the graphs with regard to my collection. I'd also love to see other people take a stab at creating their own graphs to show off their collection rather than the standard "shelfie pics" that people share. 

These first two graphs look at my boxed sets; after that, everything else is about my soft cover RPG books only. 

The colors on this one above are intended to somewhat portray the items in question; most of my adventures are from TSR and I usually use orange to indicate TSR as an homage to the orange-spine AD&D books from the mid-1980's. The "class guides" are brown because most of this section was made up from the 2nd Edition "Complete Guides" as well as Mongoose Publishing's 3rd Edition "Quintessential" guides, and these both had brown covers. Most "official" DM-related books for both 2nd and 3rd Edition tended to have a blue trade dress, while the 2nd edition "Historical" guides were green. I used the gold color for the campaign settings category as a nod to the 1st Edition AD&D boxed set version of the World of Greyhawk - while I do have the boxed set, I also own both of the books separately as well so I included their data with my soft cover graphs. The dark blue for the Atlas is for my Atlas of Dragonlance book, which has a dark blue trade dress.   

Once again, the colors here are somewhat reminiscent of the companies named. I've already talked about TSR. WOTC gets brown because a lot of my soft covers from them are in the form of the 3rd Edition books like Sword and Fist or Song and Silence, which all had a brown trade dressing that matches those of the 3rd cover hardbacks. My three Bastion Press books all have bright red spines on them, so that's where that color came from. Green Ronin is obvious. The Mongoose color is a lighter brown to indicate that most of my books from them were the 3E Quintessential guides, which were all brown, and Sword & Sorcery gets black because quite a few of their 3rd Edition books were black, although in this case my soft covers from them had a variety of different color covers but I needed to pick a color that I hadn't used for anyone else.   

Again, the colors here are intended to reflect the era; a tan color for the "three little brown books" and the supplements for OD&D (Whitebox), orange for the orange spines on the 1st Edition AD&D hardbacks from the mid-1980's, and grey was mainly because I only owned three soft covers from the 1990's and they all three had completely different colors, but one of them had some grey in it. For 2000, I kept that brown color for the various different class guides I have from WOTC and Mongoose that make up the bulk of the collection from the 2000's, and the purple for the 2010's is actually in reference to one of my books from Evil Hat Productions for their Designers & Dragons series about the history of RPGs. 

I suspect this will raise some questions in regard to its relation to the graph right above it. Out of my soft cover collection of 170 books, 64 of them are modules/adventures, but I've only actually ever played or run a total of 14 of them. As a kid, most of my DMs made up their own adventures and while they would borrow stuff from some of the published things, I didn't count that as having played that module. Frequently my game group also just didn't have the money to purchase things - we shared a 1st Edition Player's Handbook for a few years before I got a second one for us to use, so buying modules wasn't at the top of our list since we could make our own adventures for free. As I got older and got more discretionary income, I acquired a bunch of modules, including quite a few from a sale that TSR did in the 1980's in which a lot of their old modules were packaged in groups of three that were all bound together and sold at a greatly discounted price. It's one of the reasons why, to this day, I have A2, A3, and A4, but I never got A1, because A1 wasn't included in one of those packages but the other three were. 

I didn't start DM'ing until 3rd Edition, so I really haven't run most of my older 1st Edition, B/X, or BECMI modules - even the ones you see above that say "ran" are ones that I converted for my 3E game, with the exception of S3, which I ran using OSRIC

I also didn't include any adventures I've run by using PDFs (such as S4) or some very old photocopies of adventures that I still have from way back in the 1980's when my dad went to his office over the weekend and made a few copies of things for our game group. 

I'm looking forward to running a lot my classic adventures for my daughter and her friends once that campaign gets up and running.   

This is green in homage to my copy of module B1: In Search of the Unknown, which has a mono green cover. Back in the early 1990's, I used to shop at a game store in Diamond Bar, California, called All-Star Games, and at the time, they had a huge wall of TSR products and if you looked hard enough, you could find old mono versions of modules, all at the original cover price. I didn't take as much advantage of it as I should have, because I was in college at the time without a lot of discretionary income, and also I owned a lot of the modules already in their newer, four-color formats. But, I did pick up a few, and acquired a few others over the years. 

I suspect this graph above could be a bit confusing, and a lot of people might not necessary agree with the relationships I have noted between the editions. This was my attempt to map the relationships between the various different games and editions I own for my personal soft cover collection. So, right off the bat, there are going to be things missing because I don't have those pieces in my collection, so I didn't put them on my map. 

The different size of the bubbles shows the relation of how many books in my collection fall into each system. 

Chainmail sits at the top, and gives way to Original D&D, which then diverges into 1st Edition AD&D and into B/X. B/X then gives way to BECMI. All four of these games contribute to the OSR soft covers books that I own, in mechanics, aesthetics, or gaming sensibilities. 1st Edition AD&D connects to 2nd Edition AD&D, and I had both 1E and 2E connect to 3E. To me, 3rd Edition has stuff in common with 1st Edition and the parts that were missing from 2nd Edition (e.g., races like half-orcs, and classes like the monk, to name just two things). 3rd Edition (and I lumped 3E and 3.5 together just for ease of reading the graphs) spawned D20 Modern and some other non-WOTC D20 books, and D20 and 3rd Edition also were responsible for the creation of Pathfinder. I also put a line from D20 over to the OSR bubble, because without the OGL that was created from 3rd Edition and the D20 System, a lot of the legal publication and distribution of a lot of the more popular OSR games wouldn't have been possible. I also felt that Dungeon Crawl Classics was a separate thing, but inspired by the OSR movement (I went back and forth as to whether to just lump it in with the OSR but eventually pulled it out as its own thing). Aside from that, the rest of the graph are things that I have but that aren't really related to the D&D framework. I did consider that since OD&D was the first role-playing game (not including pre-D&D non-published Blackmoor games, but with regard to my collection, OD&D is the oldest RPG on here) that technically I could have said all of the RPGs were spawned from, and related to, OD&D, but I decided to just leave stuff like Ars Magica, GURPS, and any system-neutral stuff (such as Bard games Compleat Alchemist) as their own individual entries.   

That's it for the graphs. I look forward to your comments. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Jazz Potato" by Mr. Scruff, from the album "Mrs. Cruff." 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Campaign Setting: The World of Cain Anuun (from The Last God) - Review

The World of Cain Anuun is a fantasy world with elements of horror, and I wrote about it a little bit before. It's actually from a comic book from DC's "Black Label" imprint (for mature readers) and DC recently published a 5E compatible RPG sourcebook for the world, complete with maps, nation descriptions, and stats for new monsters, player character races, subclasses, and magic items.

Today is Wednesday and that means it's New Comic Book Day, although given the uncertain times we're living in now with the pandemic, that's taken on a new, different meaning. For several weeks back in March and April, most comic publishers stopped publishing their books, and the main (almost sole) distributor, Diamond, announced that it would not be shipping books anyway. Things have slowly started to pick back up, but the two main publishers, Marvel and DC, are not publishing consistently (Marvel was doing every other week for a while) and DC has begun to distribute its new books on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays, and has canceled their long arrangement with Diamond in favor of new, less proven distributors. This week, for example, neither Marvel nor DC published any new comics. Given that combined they account for about 70% of comic sales market share, this is a huge blow to comic shop retailers that are trying to stay afloat. I'll be visiting my local shop today to show my support, buy some independent comics, and take advantage of "Buy 3, Get 1 Free" sale they are having on in-stock Marvel & DC titles as a way to try to drive in more customers on a slow week.

Today's review is for a comic I picked up last week, The Last God: Tales from the Book of Ages, but while it's in comic book format, it's really an RPG supplement (it even includes an OGL statement at the back), so it's a perfect entry for someone who is interested in expanding their campaign setting collections or looking to borrow ideas for an existing campaign, with a much lower price point then most published setting books. It also might get you excited about reading the comics series The Last God. The short premise is that, a generation ago, the heroes of the age traveled "beyond the boundaries of creation" and killed all the gods, then ended up establishing themselves as the rulers of their own nations. However, their descendants are now faced with a quandary, as the legions of the so-called Last God are once again on the march, destroying everything in their path. The so-called heroes of the past may not actually be what they claimed to be, leaving a new group of unlikely champions to finally accomplish what their ancestors failed (or refused) to do, and kill the Last God. The story is clearly based on a D&D or other fantasy RPG campaign, and even the maps included in the monthly comic book are drawn by D&D cartographer Jared Blando.

(Note that I frequently review non-RPG products from the standpoint of using them as inspirations for role-playing games, as I find that sometimes it's a good idea to be inspired by sources that are different from yet another RPG sourcebook. At the end of this review, I'll provide links to all of the independent publisher comics I've reviewed here on the blog over the years, with the hope that maybe you'll seek them out, especially today, to help out your local comics shop).

The Last God: Tales from the Book of Ages, is a 40 page, full-color comic book format that provides some background of the world of Cain Anuun, covering history of the Age of Gods, then getting into descriptions of the various lands and cultures of the world. This information takes up about 1/3 of the book. The remaining pages are devoted to providing 5th Edition mechanics for new monsters, the magic system of the world, three new player character races, a few new subclasses, and new magic items.

Readers of the comic who don't even play role-playing games will find the first part of this comic invaluable in understanding the background of the world and the Age of Gods, which provides information on the original gods and goddesses such as Mol Anwe, goddess of light and music; Mol Uvanya, goddess of that which grows; Mol Kalakto, god of the forge and of the thing made; Mol Rangma, god of the hunt and of conquest; the mysterious and little known Mol Choresh, god of knowledge and of riddles; and the forgotten god of the void, Mol Uhltep.

This whole section provides the history of how the gods interacted with each other and created most of the world as it is now known, and it sets up the central conflict while still leaving enough things left unexplained for readers to wonder about, or for game masters to add their own ideas.  This is a richly detailed background that provides plenty of ideas to spark the imagination and to use as a starting point for crafting your own campaign world's mythology.

The second chapter, "Of the Land" describes the different nations of the world, starting with the Western Reach and the Hinterlands, Land of the Un-Men, Sholtua, and Vogren's Teeth. Each area is only given a short paragraph or two, just enough to provides ideas and a rough sketch of the area, but not enough to overwhelm readers and gamers with obsessive and unnecessary detail (a failure of many campaign setting descriptions).

This section goes on to describe other places in the world, such as the Greylands, the Riverlands, the Southern Continent, Tyrgolad (along with a city map and a short sidebar describing its currency), the Dragonsmoor, the Council of Stones, the Pinnacle (including a great side-view map), the Karkarok Mountains, The Fells, Dragonspyre, the Godforge, and the Black Stair. Readers of the comic will love the additional details they learn about these areas, but there is enough information provided that non-readers can make use of these areas in their RPG campaigns.

Chapter 3, "Of Beasts" is fun and includes drawings of 18 new monsters, including Barrowfiends, Drakes, Ebonsnares, the Flowering Dead (Drones, Creeping Death, and Wall of the Dead), Crownwraiths, Endwraiths, Gallows Imps, Gryndels, Gyrehawks, Harlots o' the Gale, Harpies (different than the standard D&D harpy), Hearteaters, Maertrolls, Rimefoots, Ursulons, and Water Dragons. I have to confess that I am not all that well-versed in 5th Edition mechanics, so I can't speak to whether the stats of these new monsters are correct or "balanced," and they do not include challenge ratings, if you're into that sort of thing. However, in reviewing them, I think many of the ideas could be used in a variety of different role-playing games, including more rules-light old-school type games. The ideas are creative and help with the world building. Nearly half of the monsters are undead, but they are different than the standard types seen in most D&D campaigns, and in particular, the flowering dead and their "powers of the plague" are quite creepy, and the idea of the last god speaking through certain special undead servants (the crownwraiths), while somewhat reminiscent of the Nazgul from Tolkien, is still a neat idea.

Chapter 4, "Of Magic" talks about how magic works in the world of Cain Anuun. The section explains that magic was once the life's blood of the gods. Now that the gods are dead, magic still remains in Cain Anuun within the flesh of the god's descendants, in the devices of their creation, and in devices made by others from the flesh of the dead gods. In this way, I was reminded of an old 3rd Edition book written by Monte Cook, Requiem for a God, which dealt with this very idea of a god having died and the repercussions on magic, including using the essence of the dead god to fuel spells and create new magic items.

In Cain Anuun, magic comes in the form of Fey Magic (the oldest in the world), Aelvan Magic (related mostly to magic of nature and fueled by the wind, rain, rivers, soil, the sun, and the moon), Djorruk Magic (mostly focused on power over stone, fire, and the dynamic forces below the earth), Dragon Magic (although there are no known living dragons at the time of the story, dragonhewn weapons and relics still exist), and Guild Magic (magic not passed down by gods, but created by humankind). There's also a section on "Of Music and Magic," noting that creatures that are not "godborn" (such as Fey, Aelva, Djorruks, and Dragons) can still control fey magic if they can figure out the melody and execute it in the proper way. From reading this section, it seems like a way to distinguish between the innate magic of bards and sorcerers versus how wizards need to study and memorize their spells (as described in the Guild Magic section).

This chapter also includes some new magic items, such as Bloodglass, the Claymore of the Eldritch, God's Requiem (an artifact axe, with a name that again references the Monte Cook supplement I mentioned earlier), Guildsman's Bracelet and Guildsman's Gauntlet.

Chapter 5 is for "Creating Adventurers" and it includes three new races: The Dwarrow (sort of chaotic, greedy dwarves with no aptitude for magic), the Djorruk (gentle, graceful, short beings), and the Aelva (the Cain Anuun version of elves). There are also some new subclasses for use in 5th Edition games, including one for the Guild Eldritch (which has 7 different "rings," each of which is pretty much a subclass in itself), a new Paladin Oath (Oath of the Guardian), and a new Ranger archetype, the Ferryman (with three subclasses, Ferrymen of the Long Shadow, who are more like rogue assassins; Speakers of the Dead, who focus more on magic; and Voices of the Stone Ferrymen, who are warrior priests).

The book ends with the OGL printed on the inside back cover.

There's a ton of great inspirational material in these short 40 pages, along with some great illustrations and maps. While the game mechanics are mostly useful for players of 5th Edition games, the concepts can easily be translated to other game systems with little difficulty.

The world-building bits show how a DM can take some of the inherent mechanics from D&D throughout its history (such as the old pre-3E prohibition on dwarves using arcane magic, the different types of magic, who can access magic, and the role of gods in the campaign) and use those mechanical things to world-build and create in-game reasons for why things work the way they do, all built into the mythology of the world. People have been doing this kind of thing since the game was invented, but it always helps, especially for newer gamers, to have examples of how to explain these kinds of things.

I also like the idea that the "heroes" of the world are really, when it comes down to it, frauds. This is set up very early in the first issue of the comic book series, but the world has been living under the idea that 30 years ago, the people who are now their leaders went on a quest to rid the world of the gods, and that they succeeded, but it becomes obvious that they have been lying, as the Last God is sending his legions forward to destroy everything and there's little chance of survival at this point. This was a pretty clever idea and one that goes against most heroic fantasy D&D tropes.

There's a lot to like here, and given the short, concise descriptions, great art, and low price point, there's little bad to say about this. It's a great introduction to the world of the Last God that could hopefully inspire you to start reading the comic book series, and it also can show you how you can take inspiration from other forms of media aside from just another standard RPG sourcebook as a way to spruce up your RPG campaigns.

The monsters not having challenge ratings could be a small issue for 5th Edition gamers, and the stats are a of course a little "bloated" for players of old-school games, but that shouldn't stop dedicated players and DMs from doing some minor modifications to make things work.


  • Format: 40-page full-color comic book, with a glossy cover
  • Where to Buy: Please if at all possible, buy this at a physical comic book store near you. You can use the Comic Shop Locator to find one. Many of them offer curbside pick-up. If you absolutely can't visit a local comics shop, you can order physical copies from a variety of comic shops online, such as Forbidden Planet in New York or South Side Comics in Pittsburgh. Lastly, you can buy digital copies from Comixology
  • Price: $4.99 (print or digital)
  • System: Designed for 5th Edition, but easily converted 
  • Rated: The comics in this series are part of DC's Black Label and rated Ages 17+, but for this particular sourcebook, I didn't see anything that deserved that rating (the main comic on which this is based does have a lot of violence and other situations that are not appropriate for young readers)
  • More Information: The official page on DC Comics is here, but there's really no information other than a list of the issues that have been published to date; click on each issue cover will give a short synopsis of that issue. There's no Wikipedia page yet, so your best bet is to just check out the issues to learn more for yourself. There are only five issues so far, plus the campaign sourcebook, so it wouldn't be that difficult to catch up.  


In looking at these, certain patterns in the types of comics I like to read emerged. This list includes only independent comics, so my inspirational reviews for DC and Marvel comics are not included below, but you can find them by looking through the DC or Marvel tags.

I grouped the comics below into rough categories based on genre, but many of them are cross-genre:


  • High Fantasy with Court Intrigue & Shaman Magic: Isola
    • A female captain of the guard protects, and looks for a cure for, her queen, who has been cursed by someone from her court and turned into a tiger (who can't speak)
  • "Post-Magic" Apocalyptic Fantasy Wasteland: Coda
    • The main character is a bard who is telling the story of how magic was destroyed in the world, and carries around the severed head of an elf, which holds some of the last magic in the world (and which also sarcastically complains to the bard constantly)
  • American Westward Expansion Fantasy Horror: Manifest Destiny
    • Lewis and Clark set out on a mission from Jefferson to explore, map, and "claim" the west for the fledgling United States government, but also, secretly, to remove or destroy the horrific, fantastical creatures that live there so as not to scare potential settlers
  • Fantasy Adventurer's Guilds & Mercenaries (with humor): Rat Queens
    • Four female mercenaries (a human cleric, an elf wizard, a dwarf warrior, and a halfling rogue) team up to become the top Adventurers for Hire but are constantly having to compete with, and prove themselves to, other groups such as the Four Daves, Brother Ponies (all with pony tails), Peaches, and the Obsidian Darkness (pasty-white dark elves). The Rat Queens typically win when it comes to carousing, drinking, and general hell-raising. 
  • Samurai and Pirate Vampires: Bushido
    • It has samurai and pirate vampires. What more do I need to say? 
  • Mash-Up "Gonzo" Campaign with Time Travel, Zombies, Intelligent Apes, 70's Kung Fu, and Barbarians: Bronze Age Boogie
    • I think the title says it all. There's also a Gogo boot-wearing Golem, an ape scientist in a wheelchair, and a 70's Blaxploitation female kick-ass character
  • Reality-Bending Space Travel: Black Science
    • A so-called "Anarchic League of Scientists" create a device that punches through the barriers of reality, but they leave too soon and the machine is sabotaged. It's out of control and keeps bouncing to different realities. 
  • Family as Government in the Near Future: Lazarus
    • Powerful families divided up the world among themselves after governments collapsed in an economic crisis, and now run the world in a feudal system, with families as the top 0.000001% or less, with Serfs as their vassals and skilled tradespeople, and "Waste" being the remaining 99.9999%. Each family also has a champion, known as a Lazarus, who fights for them to settle disputes in trial-by-combat.  
  • Post-Apocalyptic World Building: The First Kingdom Volume I: The Birth of Tundran
    • A dense book that covers the destruction of the civilized world and then spends multiples pages covering the aftermath and the different types of societies that arose in the wake of the apocalypse before getting to the main story and its characters. It's a great example of the various stages of "civilization" that might arise in a post-apocalyptic world. 
  • Near-Future Xenophobic United States: Undiscovered Country
    • The United States is shrouded in mystery after walling itself off 30 years ago and cutting off all communication with the outside world. A team of specialists from outside sneak across the border in an attempt to find the cure for a global pandemic, but quickly find that the United States is no longer what people remember. 
  • Modern Horror: Wytches
    • Moody and atmospheric, with witches, cursed families, sacrifices, scary forests, and more. 
  • Pulp Era Supers & Adventurers: King's Watch
    • Jungle adventures, wild and fantastic nightmare creatures, supernatural phenomena, magic, science-fiction, futuristic technology, galaxy-hopping dictators, aliens, cults...
  • Pulp-Era Vigilantes: Black Beetle
    •  A character created by artist Francesco Francavilla, with pulp adventures, crime stories, and art deco aesthetics
  • Another Pulp-Era Vigilantes Book: Masks
    • This title mixes together a bunch of old pulp-era heroes such as Green Hornet and Kato, the Shadow, the Spider and Ram Singh, Zorro, Miss Fury, and Black Bat and teams them together in 1930's New York against a criminal empire. 
  • World War Two Weird Nazi Science: Half-Past Danger
    • It's got a mysterious island, pulp-era weird science, a team of Allied soldiers fighting Nazis, a ninja, a femme fatale... oh, yeah, and Dinosaurs. 
  • Fighting Nazi Super Soldiers: Uber
    • In the waning days of World War II, Nazi scientists are finally able to perfect their version of a super soldier serum, and create three super-powered terrors who are ordered to destroy as much land and villages as they can, to make Germany a wasteland before the Allies can win the war. Little by little, they are able to push the Allies back, causing the Allies to send spies to learn the secrets of the super soldier serum for themselves. 
  • The True Story of the Golem & World War II Adventures: Breath of Bones
    • Pretty much what it says - this is an historical fantasy fiction tale that tells of where the idea of "golems" comes from, and then tells and beautiful and heart-wrenching story about a Jewish village being attacks by Nazis in World War II
  • World War II Supers: Captain Midnight
    • A perfect way to model a 1940's era World War II superhero game, with ideas for gadgets, characters, locales,and adventure seeds
  • Victorian-Era Pulp Science & Literary Characters: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    • Please, if your only knowledge of this is from the movie, forget about that and read the comic by Alan Moore, the same guy who created the WatchmenV for Vendetta, and From Hell, among others
  • 1970's Cthulhu Noir: Abbott
    • A black, female reporter in 1970's Detroit follows up on a story involving a mysterious murder. I love this story for so many reasons, but one is that it doesn't shy away from difficult questions on both race relations and gender issues that still impact us today.  
  • Twisted Young Adult Fairy Tale: Mae
    • Sort of a reverse "Alice in Wonderland" - the story focuses on what happens in the real world after one of the main characters is transported to a twisted, weird fairy-tale world
  • Hard-Boiled Detective Supernatural Thriller: Ten Grand
    • Joe Fitzgerald is a former hit-man who was killed while doing "one last job" before retiring, and he now works for the powers above to perform jobs for them. In return, if he dies while performing a righteous act, he is allowed to spend one night in Heaven with the spirit of his dead wife, before being resurrected to continue working. 
  • The True Tale of the 47 Ronin & Japanese History: 47 Ronin
    • The real story of these historical Japanese warriors is better than any fictionalized film
  • 1950's Crime Noir and the Red Scare: The Fade Out (also here)
    • A gorgeously illustrated murder mystery story about a screenwriter who witnesses the murder of blonde bombshell star and struggles through alcoholism and writer's block to find the murderer - perfect for games set in this time period

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Sweater Weather" by the Neighbourhood, from the album "I Love You."

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

RPG Reviews: Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland (Playtest Version)

This is a review for a post-apocalyptic tabletop role-playing game. I cover what's included in the game, the gaming style, some cool bits that help it stand out, and pros-and-cons.

I know a lot of people dislike Facebook, and there are valid reasons why. On a personal level, I mainly use it for sharing photos of my daughter with a select group of friends and family, and also posting my (not quite) night "cocktail and vinyl" photos. My blog also has a Facebook page. I have noticed, in post Google+ world we live in, that I get a lot more engagement and comments on my RPG Facebook posts than I get on Twitter (which is almost nothing) or MeWe (although that community does seem to be much more focused on old-school RPGs, but it also has a much larger contingent of gamers with viewpoints with whom I fundamentally disagree).

While on Facebook a few months ago, I came across some posts from a self-publisher about a new post-apocalyptic game called Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland. I'm a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, as long-term followers of my blog know. The creator asked for opinions on the game he was putting together, and I offered to look it over. It's been so long since he asked for comments, so I decided rather than just write a short paragraph in a Facebook comment, I'd dedicated a more in-depth review here on the blog.

Note that at the time of this review, I am reviewing a PDF playtest copy of the rules, which runs 64 pages long including the OGL. The book is "three color" - mainly black and white, but with two accent colors of a bright neon green and a neon pink.

This is a rulebook with some light setting information for running a post-apocalyptic style game in a "gonzo" (to use a term favored by old-school gamers) futuristic world called Neo-Terraxx. The introductory page indicates that "The Earth [sic] is a desolate wasteland full of Toxic [sic] radiation from a long forgotten war. Now there is nothing but DARKNESS and SLAVERY for Mankind [sic]."

Just to get this first part out of the way, there are typos, random capitalization (as seen in the above quote), and some grammatical errors that do have an impact on reading the text. I mentioned to the author, Brian Shutter, that he could use an editor to give the text a good once-over to correct these errors, and he agreed. I know he's publishing this himself and most likely doesn't have a huge budget, and he does seem to have caught quite a few errors between the initial version of the rules he sent me and this new playtest version, so he's going in the right direction. Note that to avoid the constant use of [sic] to indicate errors, from herein in this review, when quoting from the book, I will replicate the errors contained therein but not acknowledging them.

The premise of the setting indicates that the "Neon Wars" happened in 1992, followed by the first inter-dimensional contact with alien beings (the "Dwarflings") and others in 2000. These were then followed by demonic incursions that introduced magic into the world. In the game's default setting, these event occurred 10 million years ago.

A better explanation of the world, to me, is in the Preface in "Part I Players Section," in which Shutter notes that:

"Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland" can be summed up as HE-MAN escaping from New York in a post-apocalyptic vehicle blasting heavy metal while his wizard pal spews the most unholy evil spells out the passenger side window at a horde of mutants. Ultra-violent and style matters rpg set in the far future, after the neon wars of 1992. Half Medieval Fantasy half Sci-Fi, all Gonzo.
 "Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland" stemmed out of my love for 80's and 90's action, horror, Sci-Fi, and pop culture. It's a pen and paper rpg mix-tape of all the radness that came out of those decades.  

After that short introduction, the book's contents are revealed, including sections for a basic primer of role-playing games for those new to this type of gaming, character creation, then character options (which are listed separately instead of grouped together under a section on classes), hiring mercenaries, spells (it seems only 1st level spells are included, but that could just be because this is a playtest version), and a few sections on things like fumble tables and "to the max" tables (more on that later).

The second half of the book is devoted to referees (called a "Neon Lord" for this game), including monster and treasure descriptions, a quick reference sheet, a short introductory adventure, and some optional rules.

Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland is an old-school style game, but it is not a retro-clone and not seeking to emulate or recreate any past games. Characters are created by rolling 3d6 for each ability, in order. The abilities roughly map to the standard old-school D&D style abilities, but they are renamed as Burliness, Prowess, Endurance, Attitude, Brains, and Sleaze. The game interestingly divides Attitude ("...how cool a PC is") versus Sleaze ("...measures your overall like-ability and credibility."). The rules go on to explain that someone with a high attitude and slow sleaze would be trusted in most humanoid civilizations, but not well-liked in the Wastelands, and the opposite would be true for someone with low attitude and high sleaze. I see what Shutter was trying to go for here, but the nuances do get a little muddied, and having two scores that basically measure the same thing gets confusing. It might have been better to simply have a single score with modifiers based on background.

Another character trait that immediately follows these six ability scores is Fortune, but it works differently from the other six ability scores and at first I was confused as to whether it was rolled the same way (it is, I learned afterwards). Each different character class has different things it can do with its fortune points, noted in the class descriptions. In general, this leads me to another item that could be improved in future editions of the book, which is the layout. Again, I understand Shutter is self-publishing and most likely does not have the help of a layout person or designer, but a simple statement upfront of what different traits make up a character and listing those before getting into the details would be helpful, as would be nothing that there are seven ability scores, etc. Given that this is a playtest copy, I would encourage Shutter to look at some other similar style games to get ideas for layout and organization that will help in future editions of Neon Lords.

The game mentions nine classes: Death Bringer (melee combat masters), War Wizard (whose spells are fueled by a demon lord), Night Stalker (a rogue-type), Star Spawn (psychic aliens), Dwarfling (alien immigrants from a destroyed planet), Holy Smiter (a paladin-like class), Cosmic Barbarian (a post-apocalyptic take on the fantasy favorite), Cyberskin (cybernetic characters), and Skull Jammer (hackers of cybernetics). In this playtest version, the section for the Star Spawn says "coming soon" and there are no listings or descriptions or details for the Night Stalker, or Cyberskin classes. The Skull Jammer class is also listed as "coming soon" but for some reason it is listed out of order, following the sections on Equipment, Hirelings, and Mercenaries, instead of with the other classes.

For the classes that are described, they span 10 levels, and include different class-based powers. One of the unique aspects of Neon Lords is that each class has different "class-based ability scores" that they can spend on different actions. Death bringers spend theirs on fury (adding to attack rolls and damage) while war wizards spend theirs on chaos to ensure their spells reach the intended target. Once again, these abilities are rolled using 3d6, but that is only explained in a short side-bar that I almost missed.

The game is a mix of both old and new-school concepts, although it does adhere mainly to an old-school aesthetic by including concepts like hirelings, XP for gold (but the game also includes XP for monster-slaying), rolling attributes in order with a standard 3d6 array, and use of random tables for a wide variety of concepts. Other times, new-school concepts are included, such as ascending AC and noting that class-based ability scores are recovered after a "long rest" (a 5th Edition concept).

Other concepts are new, or are tweaks on mechanics borrowed from a variety of sources, such as the "Neon Blast Roll" which is just a renaming of the exploding dice concept from Savage Worlds (used for damage dice only). There are fumble and critical outcomes on attack rolls. Critical successes are referred to as "To the Max!" and in a fun concept, the game includes a different "To the Max!" table for each character class, so critical hits don't just do additional damage, but instead different effects determined randomly by character class. 

The art by Mustafa Bekir is fun and evocative of the setting, and his style reminds me a bit of the Russ Nicholson illustrations from the 1st Edition AD&D Fiend Folio. The style is pen-and-ink and is loose and sketch-like, which works perfectly for this type of setting. The art is relatively sparse, being relegated mostly to the section on classes with illustrations for most of the different character classes, with a few other small illustrations in the monsters section.

A lot of the creativity in this book comes from the random tables and in how they are used. It's self-described as a "gonzo" setting, so everything gets "turned up to 11" to showcase that style. The game includes a lot of random tables to determine everything from hairstyle to class-based abilities. One of my favorites is the hairstyle table, just because it is so specific and illustrative of the setting - styles include mullet, skull cap, mushroom cloud, Mohawk, Flock of Seagulls, Ice Ice, and more; the table is set up to simply pick your style, but could easily be made into a random table, which I would encourage for future editions.

The class-based ability tables are also quite descriptive and evocative. They come into play when a character has spent below a certain amount of class-based ability points to modify certain rolls during combat. As an example, Death Bringers have an ability called Fury that they can spend to modify combat-related rolls. However, if their fury drops below 5 before they are able to take a long rest, they need to roll on their Fury Class Points Table for the consequences. The die roll depends on how many points they have left (1d4 for 5 points, 1d6 for 4 points, 1d10 for 3 points, 1d12 for 2 points, 1d20 for 1 point, or 2d20 for 0 points). The consequences range from a minor inconvenience such as -2 on the next roll, to more serious effects such as higher penalties on the next roll, going into shock, or committing suicide at the most extreme. Each class has a very different able of effects, and different actions that trigger needing to roll on their class ability table for consequences. The War Wizard's most extreme consequence is also death, but it comes in the form of its demon lord "wanting payment" and sucking the war wizard's soul away, leaving in its wake a "Neon Death" (a monster) to fight the remaining party members.

There's also a spell misfire table with effects that include effects such as triggering a mutation (determined by, yes, rolling on a random table), toxic fumes engulfing the caster, hitting a random target, or opening a temporal rift, gating in an otherworldly spawn that attacks everyone in sight.

The random table for fumbles in combat applies to every character and includes concepts such as losing fortune points, damaging your weapon, penalties to AC, or having your opponent call reinforcements.

The "To the Max!" tables for critical hits are more creative and descriptive, as each one is tailored specifically to each class. Death Bringers might turn an enemy's weapon to dust, deal additional damage, stun foes, or trigger foes to make a death save. One of the effects calls "Lord Randy" aka "The Savage One" (one of the gods of the setting) to reveal himself and pass judgment on the foe. War Wizards instead might see cold or lightning effects added to their spell's damage, or might gain HP when their foes are damaged. These tables are fun and add a random element to combat, and also help to detail the type of gonzo setting Shutter is striving for in "Neon Lords." In another fun addition, each monster also has its own "To the Max!" table, but with only two different effects (having 20 would be too much for every single monster, so I understand why this choice was made).

Other random tables include Fear Effects, Drug Effects, Looting Bodies, Minor Mutations and an optional rule for Maiming and Dismemberment.

This is a fun book with some really great concepts and a lot of creativity in character descriptions, and a big focus on combat and death effects. The illustrations are quite good for a self-published book of this type, and there are a lot of ideas in here that can easily be taken and modified or included in a variety of post-apocalyptic type games. The random tables, particularly the critical hit "To the Max!" tables, are ripe for borrowing, modifying, or inspiring referees to create similar tables if they're looking for a higher level of lethality in their games, or have players who prefer to focus on combat versus adventuring.

The book is also free in its playtest format right now for download on DriveThruRPG, and has a good social media presence on Facebook providing updates on upcoming releases.

On the downside, this is not a complete game (yet). Several of the classes that are mentioned in the opening chapters aren't included, and the spell descriptions only cover 1st level spells. There is only very light information with regard to running the game or designing scenarios, and only a short list of monsters and treasure. It's clear that more will be added in the future, and a group could start with the information included to run a one-off game (such as the short scenario included in the playtest book), but long-term campaigning isn't really supported yet.

There's also the aforementioned typographical errors, particularly the random capitalization of words, and quite a few incomplete sentences or improper use of punctuation. This does impact the ability to read and comprehend the material, and ideally something that would be improved upon in future editions as more material is completed.

The layout is serviceable, but there are areas for improvement, such as being more consistent with typefaces and style. Some headers are done in color, but others are not, so there's no consistency to know where section breaks are. The tables use all-caps, which is not always the best choice for legibility. In one section, an entire paragraph is written in bold type, which was most likely an accident. In the short adventure that's included, the type faces and sizes vary throughout, making it difficult to read. All of this could be fixed with a standardized layout or a designer to help.

Lastly, there are some organizational issues, such as not having place-holders for the missing classes (I kept searching for them in the book before realizing that they simply were not yet included), or have the Skull Jammer class listed after the Equipment and Hirelings section instead of with the rest of the classes. While this was obviously an unintentional mistake, it did make reading the rules a bit difficult. Some section headers, and ideally more attention paid to simple two-page layouts that don't spill over to the next page, would help a lot in terms of comprehension of the rules.

All that said, those are all issues that could easily be addressed by some tighter editing and layout, and including the missing pieces of the rules which are most likely still in development and will help to fill in the missing pieces.


  • Format: 64-page black-and-white with two accent colors PDF
  • Where to Buy: DriveThruRPG
  • Price: Free
  • System: This is an original system; mainly an old-school D&D clone with additional modern rules tacked-on. 
    • This is a relatively rules-light system (no skills or feats) that should be grasped pretty easily by anyone familiar with Original/Basic/1st Edition D&D/AD&D, as well as 3E/3.5/Pathfinder, or 5th Edition. 
  • More Information: There does not appear to be a dedicated website or blog for this product, but the author updates the game's Facebook page pretty regularly. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Dust Bowl Confused Therapist - No Appointment Necessary Imperial India Pale Ale
Listening: "How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?" by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Open Game Content: D12 Sword & Planet Subclasses for B/X or Old School Essentials Games

Love Romances Publishing /
Allen Anderson / Public domain
After a long delay due to continuing editing work on Long Sword by Fantasy Heartbreaker Games as well as helping my daughter finish up her last month of online distance learning for her school in addition to work and helping out my dad, I'm back with another set of D12 Subclasses for B/X or Old School Essentials games. As a reminder, the genesis of these subclasses were inspired by the original D12 subclasses created by Dyson Logos.

For other subclasses in the series, you can go to the subclasses tag for the full list, which includes Experts/Specialists, Wilderness, City-Based/Urban, Naval/Sea-Based, Horror, and Fairy Tales, as well as D12 Sorcerer Bloodlines I created for a B/X-Old School Essentials Sorcerer class I developed.

As I mentioned in my last post, based on comments and requests I've received on Facebook and MeWe, I'm working on tightening these up and getting some new layout and some art done so I can publish these as PDFs for sale. I'll be writing a more official announcement on that soon.

If you're read this section before, you can just skip down to the DESIGNER NOTES.

For those are haven't seen my previous posts or Dyson's original D12 subclasses, the idea with these is that every character in the game would take a subclass to keep things balanced, as the subclasses are slightly more powerful than standard B/X classes. If a player opts not to take a subclass and prefers to use the standard B/X classes, the referee should award that player's character an extra +10% to earned XP.

These subclasses are intended to be short, quick modifications to allow for a bit of customization without creating an entirely new class, so while there may be a whole host of additional abilities you could think of to add to each subclass, they would most likely make it too overpowered or would warrant creating a new class instead of modifying an existing one. Each class adds one or two new abilities, and often removes something as well as a balancing feature.

This group of subclasses was by far the most difficult to create, both in terms of coming up with 12 distinct, but broadly defined, roles that could depict the genre, as well as figuring out which standard class would make the best option to modify to create the subclasses. The sword and planet genre is quite fascinating in that it has it roots in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series and the related pastiches that came after, but also encompasses newspaper comic strip and early movie serial characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Some 1980's animated series such as Blackstar, the Pirates of Dark Water, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe are also often considered part of the genre, and some would argue that popular works such as Dune and Star Wars are also at least tangentially related.

I tried to pick subclasses archetypes that were common among a wide of array of sword and planet source materials, while also adding some of my own ideas that fit the genre, such as the tech priest. The list started with the "Plucky Princess," inspired by Dejah Thoris, which is why I didn't also include a princess subclass in my Fairy Tale list (instead renaming her a "clever girl" for that list). Since I had added the "plucky" adjective to the name, I decided to keep that naming convention throughout this list.

One of the biggest sword and planet genre conventions is that characters typically wear little or no armor or clothing (in some cases, they might be completely naked or dressed only in a sheer gown or a cape and nothing else), so you'll notice a lot of the abilities are based on adding to the character's armor class if they are wearing little or no armor.

Another thing I struggled with a bit for this list was how to utilize dwarves, elves, and halflings. In the end, I just turned them into aliens, with the idea that I was basing the subclasses on the mechanics of the base class, but that the appearance and culture would be left up to the referee and players to determine. "Animal-men" are a frequent character archetype in this genre, which is where the birdman and catman came from. I had a longer list that also included a reptile-man but I removed it to make room for some of the other subclasses. 

You'll notice that there's a "red alien" but no others for green, yellow, white, black, etc. The "noble savage" subclass would be used to replicate a "green martian" from Barsoom, but for the most part, most of the other martians in that series are relatively human-like for the most part, other than their skin color and long life, so ultimately I decided to just use the "red alien" as an example. I encourage people who want different color martians/aliens to use these subclasses as inspirations to create your own new ones.

The heroic outlander is intended to be used to create characters like John Carter, Jonathan Dark (aka "Jandor") from the Callisto series, or Buck Rogers. For this subclass as well as the plucky princess, I got inspiration from some articles that James Maliszewski wrote about way back in 2009 on his Grognardia blog. 

The inspiration for the merciless ruler should be pretty obvious, and the cunning mentalist is another character type that appears frequently in this genre. The sky pirate seemed like a natural fit for the thief class.

This is a genre that's really ripe for experimentation and creativity, to add things like ray guns, air ships, scores of different aliens, and weird scientific gadgets. More on that will be coming soon.

In the meantime, here are the subclasses. As always, I very much welcome your comments, inputs, suggestions, and critiques.

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