Sunday, July 11, 2021

Dungeon Seeds - Out Now on Itch and Drivethrug

 Oh hey. I did a thing. 

Clicka on da pic to see it.

In His Majesty the Worm, characters adventure through a mythic underworld underneath the city at the center of the Wide World. As a gamemaster, creating a mythic underworld can seem daunting, but it’s really just a series of small, discrete tasks. It’s less making one huge megadungeon and more creating several, smaller dungeons and creating an appropriate flow between them.

Dungeon Seeds contains a procedure for laying out interconnected dungeons, as well as inspirational dungeon seeds to use as prompts. Because His Majesty the Worm is not a premade setting, the descriptions of the seeds are just suggestions—meant to be evocative. For each seed, we’ve included a map from Dyson Logos. You can use this map or make one of your own using the procedures in this book.

This book contains:

  • A procedure for laying out a Jayquayed megadungeon layout
  • Twenty-one inspirational dungeon ideas with maps
  • Dungeon checklist that encourages meaningful exploration
  • Procedures for making maps, keying rooms, and making random encounter tables
  • Thorough walkthrough of making a dungeon level

You can see the supplement's spiel by clicking on the link. Since this is my blog and you're here reading this, I'll actually take the time to go more into the nitty gritty.

His Majesty the Worm Progress and Itchfunding

As you know, I'm writing an RPG called His Majesty the Worm. Well, actually I wrote it a few years ago. The text is done. It needs an editor. It is sitting in a Word document.

Getting the game out of the Word document and into people's brains and onto their gaming tables feels way harder than writing the game. Writing is easy and fun. Playtesting is fun. (It has play right in the name!) Publishing is hard. 

One big problem is that publishing requires money. You need to hire artists, graphic designers, layout, editors, etc. This is why Kickstarter's exist. 

The idea of doing a Kickstarter gives me anxiety. I still might. But please know that it gives me anxiety.

To even get to a Kickstarter, though, you need enough cool looking stuff to justify someone backing you. My solution to this problem was Itchfunding. Chunk the supplementary material from the game (stuff that you didn't need to understand the rules to benefit from) and publish them as pay-what-you-will. 

My goals are twofold:

  • Find people who would like to play my game and tell them that it exists
  • Get money to pay collaborators
How is it working, you ask? 

So far so good! Dungeon Seeds is my third published His Majesty the Worm supplement. Each one has netted 2-3 pieces of new art. Dungeon Seeds is unique in two ways. First, it has a fixed price instead of being PWYW. Second, if you sign up for my mailing list the game is completely free. 

The mailing list speaks to the first goal above. If I can tell people who actually want to play my game that I've launched a Kickstarter/released a new supplement/whatever, that's gold. It's way different than plugging your own games on Reddit threads/Facebook groups/Twitter.

Dungeon Seeds Development

Honestly, I didn't plan to write this supplement. 

I had already written the GM's chapter for His Majesty the Worm. It has good advice in it.

I have been playtesting His Majesty for about five years now. It is an OSR-adjacent game/post OSR game. I have used the assembled wisdom of the OSR scene and blogosphere to run my playtests. 

But I realized that this is a dungeon crawling game and that this assembled wisdom was a core part of the game experience. It's not enough to just say, "Hey, go and read every blog post I've ever read so you know how to run this game." There were some essential assumptions that need to be communicated to potential GMs.

Dungeon Seeds is my attempt to tell GMs how I make and run dungeons while playing my game. It captures my experience as well as the general good advice of people who have been thinking about dungeons for forty years. 

I hope it is helpful. I hope you like it.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Two Non-Sentient Species of the Homo Genus

One of the facts about reality that I find weirdest is that 1) homo sapiens sapiens are the only members of the homo genus, and 2) this has only been true for a relatively short amount of time. 

Also, despite being pretty gung ho about Star Trek forehead ridge aliens or elves/dwarves/etc., the idea of seeing something that looks human but isn't triggers my fight or flight response. I get upset

In that spirit, here are two upsetting creatures to place into your games. Natural philosophers characterize them as being human-adjacent, but in no way are they homo sapiens. This is because they are not sapient

From The Sword of Glass by Sylviane Corgiat


Gigas

Gigas are quadrupedal non-sapient humanoids. They run sorta like people who participate in pony play. They cannot easily stand on their back legs so you measure them to their shoulder. On average, they reach about 19 hands high. 

Despite their size, gigas are quite skittish. They flee from most perceived threats, although the males can be territorial during mating season. When threatened, they can be enormously dangerous. They have muscle mass like an orangutan. Their bite carries poisonous bacteria. 

Gigas are herbivorous and subsist mostly on grasses. Herds of gigas roam in temperate plains biomes. 

Gigas have been domesticated by gnolls, who train them to act as warhorses. 

Nginikin

From Basileus by Andrew Whyte

Nginikin are non-sapient humanoids the size of action figures. They fill the same ecological niche as rats. They infest ships and are inadvertently introduced to new ecologies, which they proceed to devastate. Everybody hates them. 

Nginikin are omnivorous. Like goats, they can eat almost everything. They reproduce extraordinarily quickly and are frequently seen as symbols of fertility. As such, they are the primary ingredients for a variety of aphrodisiacs and fertility potions. 

Most upsettingly, they have the capacity for mimicry. Though about as intelligent as rabbits, they can recreate the sounds of human language. Many people are tortured by the squeaks of "Howre uu dooin" coming from their crawlspaces. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Generic Fantasy Mad Libs

The Manse is one of the most prolific posters in the blogosphere. They churn out content at a pace that leaves me in gap-mouthed awe. I wish I could be half as generative. 

Recently, they posted about the expectations of Generic Fantasy Settings. Dan from Throne of Salt took the words out of my mouth and said that he wanted a Mad Libs version. 

So here it is. Use it to further your Goal for Gonzo Principle (GfG Principle). 

The Manse's Generic Fantasy Mad Libs

  1. The world is based on the cosmic struggle or balance between [Concept] and [Concept]. 
  2. The setting has a technological level and history that is roughly analogous to Earth's [Continent] during the [Time Period].
  3. The people of the setting worship [Divinity/Divinities]. These entities [Exist/Don't Exist] and [Adverb] interact with the setting.
  4. There are several different intelligent fantasy races. These races are;
    * [Species] who mostly live on the [Biome], and tend to be the most populous race.
    * [Species] who mostly live in the [Biome].
    * [Species] who mostly live in the [Biome].
    * [Species] who mostly live in the [Biome]. They tend to be antagonistic to the other races.
  5. The primary power structure of the setting is a [Government Type] which is ruled by a [Title]. This system is one where land, wealth, and social status is gained by [Custom]. The primary inheritor class is [Biological Characteristic]. 
  6. The land is protected by [Noun] who protect it from monsters, invasions, and other threats. The most elite of these are [Job Title]. 
  7. The majority of the people survive by [Occupation]. The most common types of food cultivated is [Food]. Livestock include [Animal], [Animal], [Animal], and [Animal].
  8. The primary vehicle used by people in this setting for transport and warfare are [Animal].
  9. The most common threats people encounter when traveling on the roads [Noun] and [Animal]. Most rookie adventurers start off fighting weak monsters like [Adjective][Noun] and [Adjective][Noun]. More rare monsters can be very dangerous. The most infamous, though not necessarily most powerful or common of these monsters is the [Noun].
  10. The biggest, baddest monsters in the setting tend to have the habit of [Verbing] princesses. 
  11. There are [Adjective] Dungeons which house dangers like [Noun], [Noun], and [Noun]. The primary reason people explore these dungeons is to acquire [Noun]. 
  12. Among the things found found in Dungeons, you might also find [Adjective] [Nouns]. The most powerful and sought after are [Adjective][Nouns]. They can do things like [Verb] or [Verb]. 
  13. Magic is an [Adjective] force in this universe. Magic is [Adverb]. Those who cultivate magic can use it in the forms of [Noun], [Noun], or [Noun]. 
  14. The type of people who use magic are [Adjective] [Occupation]. They are usually [Adjective] but also [Adjective]. They tend to sequester themselves in [Type of Building].
  15. Typically, the most common end goals for a wizard is to create a [Noun] or turn [Noun] to [Noun].
  16. The most advanced weapon in the setting is a [Weapon]. 
  17. The primary currency used by people in the setting are [Adjective] [Nouns] made of [Material], [Material], or [Material].
  18. Outside of civilization, there is [Adjective] [Biome]. This is where [Animate Nouns] live, who are known to be [Adjective] who love [Verb].
  19. After people die, their souls are ferried to either [Location] or [Location] determined by how [Adjective] they are. Alternatively, they may linger as ghosts who [Verb] until they can [Verb]. 
  20. People can come back from the dead if someone uses [Adjective] magic. This is broadly considered evil. Contrastingly, people can come back from the dead if someone uses [Adjective] magic. This is broadly considered good. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Sorcery is a Sword Without a Hilt - Magic from His Majesty the Worm

Pursuant to my last post, I have released Sorcery is a Sword Without a Hilt, the magic system from my forthcoming game HIS MAJESTY THE WORM. It's PWYW, with all proceeds going to fund cool artists for the game. There's no reason whatsoever to not check it out, steal some ideas, and smash them into your own game. Click the picture below to download it. 

Click here to download!

The book contains 40 level-less spells and dozens of magical catastrophes. The spells are flexible, with variable effects depending on how much "juice" the sorcerer gives them. 

Each spell is designed to feel like a weird, useful tool. At the same time, there are no spells that solve the essential problems of dungeon crawling.

Although this is written with His Majesty the Worm in mind, it shouldn't take too much braingrease to adapt the spells into your system of choice, ala Wonder & Wickedness or Vaginas are Magic. There's a conversion guide in the back of the book to help you. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Ethos of Sorcery in His Majesty the Worm

The magic system in ​His Majesty the Worm ​is probably the subsystem that underwent the most dramatic  changes during playtesting. Four completely different systems were written, playtested, and rejected. There were a lot of babies tossed out with the bathwater (which I'm pretty okay with.)  

As I'm about to release the (final) rules for sorcery in ​His Majesty the Worm​, I wanted to reflect a bit about the design choices I made when it came to magic. 

Source unknown. Let me know if you can identify, please!


Earliest drafts

​I dug out these notes from my initial design documents. Note that this is basically how I start RPG projects--I just write down things I'm thinking about, then sort of iterate on that until it becomes words that someone else can (hopefully) understand. 


Some of these notes made it into the final version and some of them were left on the cutting room floor. Finding this document, I was impressed how many idea seeds survived.

Magic should feel magical

One of my most central design goal for magic is that it should "feel" magical. It should feel unscientific. 

Sorcerers use ​components ​to cast spells. These components are your eye of gnat, tongue of dog, toe of bat variety. Pulling out a pickled, rune-covered tongue and placing it into the mouth of a corpse to cast Speak with Dead inherently makes the sorcerer seem more magical and weird. Additionally, this system makes magic fit into the basic inventory management system that the game uses. How many spells do you have available equals how many pack slots you've dedicated to components. 

Additionally, the spell descriptions are somewhat terse. They do not have the precise legalism that 5E or M:tG cards have. The GM has a good amount of leeway to interpret the spells as they're cast, creating a sense of manageable mystery. 

Magic should be a strange Swiss-army knife

As a design goal, I don't want magic to step onto the aesthetic toes of other classes. If a wizard can cast Knock and Invisibility, they become better thieves than the thief. And that's disappointing. 

In a similar vein, I never wanted to force players to have a "balanced" party. In ​His Majesty the Worm​, you should be able to run a party of all thieves. You should also be able to run a party of all sorcerers. You should be able to have a party without magic, too. 

With magic, a party should be able to solve problems in a dramatically different way than without it. A thief can unlock a door and eavesdrop at the threshold. A wizard can cast Portable Hole onto the door and peer through it. One is subtle and one is obvious. Both have their drawbacks and advantages. 

Magic should never solve essential dungeon problems

​His Majesty the Worm's ​is about dungeon crawling. There should be no powers, abilities, talents, class features, or spells that solve the essential problems of the dungeon: light, hunger, exhaustion. There are no spells that provide darkvision, conjure food and water, or provide continual light. 

The one exception is the spell "Heavenfire" which does cast light and is harmful to undead. My rationale is that the component takes up as much space as a torch, but a sorcerer must power it through their ​Resolve. There's a trade off there, and a sorcerer casting an undead repelling light is fulfilling the "weird Swiss army knife" objective. 

---

If all goes as planned, the sorcery rules for ​His Majesty the Worm ​will be published this weekend. They should be usable for your home game, and work as a proof of concept for the system as a whole. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Tabletop Boost Games Day

A dwarf adventurer considers his pack
Art by Gobert for His Majesty the Worm

Y'all, on March 13th, there's an online event for indie RPGs.
At 1 pm EST (6 pm UTC) I'm running my first public session of my forthcoming new-school/old-school game His Majesty the Worm.


Would love to see some of y'all there.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

His Majesty the Worm - a Tarot-based Dungeon Crawler (In Development)

As a guy who does marketing as a day job, I know I need to do a better job championing myself and my projects. 

I am currently writing an RPG called HIS MAJESTY THE WORM.


His Majesty the Worm is a dungeon crawler that's focused on often forgotten mechanics like encumbrance, light, player relationships, food, etc. Though not a retroclone, it's born out of the OSR movement (similar to Into the Odd or Troika!). It uses Tarot cards as a randomizer. 

The game has been in development since 2017, and is coming into the home stretch. The game does not have a strong timeline (as I am working on this in my spare time). As the appendices are finalized, I'm releasing them as PWYW. The thinking here is that the appendices have enough flavor and moxie they'll let you know if this project is something you're interested in. All proceeds are channeled towards cool community artists and editors.

I've started a game page for this project at Itch, including a devlog. Please do follow the project, because I'm really excited to show you what I've been working on. Please do ask me questions, because I'd love to talk to you about this!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Eating Monsters for Fun and Profit - A Review of Taylor Lane's Monster-Eater Class

One of the people I've been lucky enough to meet on Twitter is Taylor Lane. They've been putting out a series of OSR compatible classes that are both interesting and usable (a narrow needle to thread). 

We were talking recently about my love of cooking mechanics in RPGs, and they pointed out that their Monster-Eater class was similar to something I was thinkering on. They were kind enough to show me the class, so I wanted to talk about it here. 

The Basics

The Monster-Eater is a class that does what it says on the tin. 

When the Monster-Eater manages to choke down a monster's corpse, they have a chance to grow a new organ based on the monster. Eat a giant spider? You can grow spider eyes, spider legs, or maybe a spinneret. 

Each Monster-Eater can only have as many active monstrous organs as their level. 

This is a double-edged sword. You also gain a monster's Hungers, which creates trouble for you--especially as they stack up.

My Impressions

Here's the reason I love this shit. Double-edged swords are interesting. Way more interesting than your single edged sword. One edge? Come on. Get with the times. 

A +1 sword is boring. The sword bloodkraeling that bites its foes deep and can't be sheathed until it's drawn blood? That's the sword you remember. 

If someone gives me "spider climb," that's fine. It opens up new game avenues! A good spell!

If I can spider climb because I have the terrible hairy carapace of the spider grafted onto me? AND I want to eat BUGS and shit? BOOM! I'm having fucking fun. 

Final Score

The Monster-Eater is a class that I would happily include in any OSR game I'm running. I'd probably smash it into a GLoG format (as is my want), but all the powers are excellent and the flavor is just my level of spice. Solid A class. 

--- 

Secret bonus content: Taylor and I collaborated on the kleptomancer class from their Thief release. So you know that's good. BUT ALSO all the other Thief classes are well thought out and intentionally designed. I have a soft spot for the Noble, especially. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Gradient Descent Review - Part 2 - Running the Module

This is a continuation of my review of Gradient Descent, the horror sci-fi megadungeon for Mothership. Part 1 can be found here. 

This review covers my experiences running Gradient Descent as a one-shot. As such, it is spoiler heavy. Avoid this review if you plan on enjoying this module in a way outside that of a snooty critic. 

--

The module claims to be about "what it means to be human." When I was prepping this game, I wondered what this meant exactly. 

Does it mean that the PCs can have meaningful roleplaying moments as they uncover infiltrator androids? Does it mean that PCs will ask themselves if they are secretly androids? Does it mean they will turn against each other? Does it mean they will be kind to the androids they encounter? 

Does the module do any of that, or was that just a snappy claim?

This is the crux of this review.

All art by Nick Tofani


Prepping the one shot

We had never played Mothership before. We had a session 0 to make characters, and it was a fucking delight. The character sheet is a work of genius. Look at it. The character sheet teaches you how to make your character. It answers questions before you can ask them. 

We also went over my basic safety tools and talked about our expectations for horror games. 

> The "patches" of Mothership is probably the biggest stroke of genius in any game. Roll d100 and gain a random patch on your coveralls. No mechanical benefit, but goddamn if it doesn't drip flavor. It's beautiful. 

The setup for the one shot was thus: The Company offered to terminate the PC's indefinite contract if they could get [random artifact] from [random location]. 
  • I tried rolling a few times for the random artifacts but kept getting disappointing answers ("marbles of an unknown substance"). These might have felt cool in an abstract way, but since this was a one shot I wanted an artifact that would w-o-w the players, so I eventually just chose the one that seemed coolest to me (a disc drive with economic predictions for the next decade). 
  • For random location, I got "The Garden" on Level 2. This felt like a good target for a one shot.
Since Gradient Descent is a megadungeon and we were still wrapping our heads around the rules, my players agreed that the spaceship rules weren't important for this one shot. As such, we decided to handwave any spaceship content. I cut the blockade and the Bell from our session. The players were to go in, get the goods, and get out. 

Play report, in brief


  • The PCs are told that they must get an anomalous disc drive from "the Garden"  in the failed AI factory of the Deep.
  • The PCs arrive on the satellite. 
  • We establish a procedure to determine if an environment past an airlock door is pressurized and has atmo. 
  • The PCs jury rig the reception terminal and access the shared calendar. They learn of the existence of something called "The Exhibit Hall" and make some educated guesses. 
  • The PCs carefully sniff around the first floor, encountering a Diver (Arkady, from the Bell) who gives them the basic rundown of MONARCH. Everybody gets itchy from the Bends. 
  • The PCs find one of the checkpoint terminals and retreat from turret gun. 
  • The PCs go to Floor 2. 
  • The PCs are sad and scared, weeping as they look upon the pseudoflesh shrine. 
  • The PCs encounter the Chosen. 
  • The PCs step backwards and close the door. They fail to jam it.
  • The Chosen open the door. 
  • The Chosen invite them to meet the Chosen King. 
  • The PCs weep and gnash their teeth as they see the pillars of flesh weeping pseudomilk. 
  • The Chosen King confirms that the exhibit hall is the Garden, and does not actively stop the PCs from searching there for the artifact they seek. 
  • He does, however, report this activity to MONARCH. 
  • MONARCH sends 4 security androids to investigate. 
  • The PCs find the disc drive hidden in a cache in the pillars of flesh of the Garden.
  • The security droids move into the room.
  • A shootout occurs. 
  • After disabling the security androids, the PCs go back to Floor 1.
  • During the long elevator ride, MONARCH comes across the radio, asking them to work for him. 
  • He promises to send infiltrator androids to fill the rest of their contract. He promises fabulous wealth. 
  • When they refuse, he agrees that it matters little, since "one of my children will be leaving with you anyway." 
  • Everybody is sad. +Bends.
  • The PCs get on their ship and blast off. Mission accomplished.
(Secret possible ending: The doctor, being extremely paranoid about MONARCH's parting sentiments, kills the rest of the crew after they enter stasis. We agreed it happened outside of canon since "play" had stopped.) 


Impressions


Usability at the Table

I had several copies of Gradient Descent open at once. 

  • One was centered on the map key (since I could not keep the icons in my head). 
  • One was centered on the enemy stats. 
  • One was focused on the PC's current room. 

This was easier than jumping up and down in the text, and is one of the advantages of PDFs. 

As I mentioned in Part 1, I desperately wished I had some of the art and the map in a spoiler free format. This would have been a big add at the table. As it was, only I got to appreciate this content. 

I had been concerned that it would be hard to track MONARCH's Stress levels and responses, but it wasn't really. When these events happened, it felt meaningful and obvious--not tedious or subtle.

Random Encounters

The PCs explored two floors of the Deep. Each floor was compelling and tense, with subject material that gave the players visceral reactions.

Random encounters are needed to break up the monotony of otherwise empty rooms. Random encounters allow both the GM and the players to be surprised by the flow of the game. In Gradient Descent, the GM rolls a d100 once for a human sized room and thrice for a factory sized room. If the GM rolls a double, a random encounter occurs. If the doubles were low, the encounter is friendly (or at least not overtly hostile). If the doubles are high, the encounter is hostile. 

In theory, I like how these rules "sound." In practice, over our five hours, I did not roll a random encounter. As such, my fears about having too few encounters were certainly unfounded. 

Panic, Stress, and the Bends

Similarly, given the somewhat limited time frame of our one shot, characters accumulated Panic and the Bends, but only minor bumps came from it. The tension was building over the one shot, but never quite popped. 

Combat

Combat was perhaps the least tense and most boring part of the encounter. This was possibly since we were all still learning the rules. Your mileage may vary.

  • Several players had not come equipped for combat. They hid behind cover the entire time. 
  • One player could not roll a success. They were obviously frustrated as they failed every single one of their initiative and to-hit rolls.
  • The factory sized room that we were fighting in made the PCs think it was too big to escape from. "How can we run out? It takes about 30 minutes to cross?"
  • The factory sized room had one or two points of interest with which to interact, but nothing dramatic or charged. They had plenty of cover, but nothing dynamic to change the combat. 

How did these answer the question of "What it means to be human?"

The Bends mechanic was interesting, but did not pay off in a 5 hour game. As a megadungeon, this is probably not surprising.

Gradient Descent is minimalist. This is both a pro and a con. In some ways, it felt like I was given a lot of really rare ingredients but not a recipe. I wondered if I was combining them in the right way. 

Silent Titans spent several pages making sure you could actually use the "pretentious artpunk trash" that it presented. There were some solid essays in the first few pages of that book. The game was ridiculous, but I also felt equipped while running it. Not so much with (the more grounded) Gradient Descent

This might not be Gradient Descent's fault as much as the one-shot format. Maybe it's designed for a slow burn, not a quick pop. 


Final Verdict

Does Gradient Descent deliver its promise that it explores what it means to be human? I'm not sure. It didn't for me, at least. 

Do I recommend it? Yes. This thing is honestly just full of cool ideas. Weird ideas. Upsetting ideas. It threads a good line between "scary" and "usable."

I think six months of play will reveal a very different experience than a one shot. I keep wondering "What if..." and wanting to go back into that. So it's definitely captured my imagination. 


Friday, February 26, 2021

There and Back Again - 2 Page RPG by Ray Otus

My post about the 1937 Hobbit as a campaign setting is my most read post. I only learned today that someone put their money where their mouth was and published a micro-RPG about it. 

Ray Otus's There and Back Again is a very charming little game, and I'm tickled to death that it exists. 

Once HIS MAJESTY THE WORM is published, I plan on publishing a series of zines called Errantry also set in this world. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Gradient Descent Review - A Horror Sci-Fi Megadungeon - Part 1

Sean McCoy was generous enough to provide me a reviewer’s copy of Gradient Descent, the new megadungeon for the sci-fi horror game Mothership. I’ll be reviewing it on this blog in two phases:


Part 1: Impressions of reading (Module as Art/Novel)

Part 2: Impressions of playing (Module as Manual)


This is part 1 of 2. 


This review is not spoiler heavy, but it does have spoilers. Read forward at your own risk.



What do we have here?

Clocking in at just 44 pages, the Mothership core book is one of my favorite (newish) games. Each rule is so simple, so tied to its core themes, and so inventive. It’s one of those games that make you think, “God, I wish I had thought of that.” 


For example, you can create a character just by following the steps embedded in the character sheet! Now that’s smart!


Plus it has this dope space butt.


Clocking in at 64 pages, Gradient Descent is also admirably terse. Pared down. Laser focused. 


At the same time, maybe it’s too much of a good thing? A few times reading through it, I wished these bones had a little more meat and a bit more advice. 

  • How does the author actually run this at the table? 

  • What common problems were encountered during playtesting? 

  • How do you overcome them? 


Is that good or bad? It’s definitely pretty clever. 


The premise

OK so here’s the deal. 


The Cloudbank Synthetic Production Facility was an orbital factory that produced androids. To coordinate its efforts and drive up shareholder prices, they utilized an AI called MONARCH. Through a campaign of subtle manipulation, MONARCH took over the factory and transformed it into a hellzone now called the Deep. 


MONARCH utilizes several parts of the Deep for its insane experiments.

  • There are android children endlessly pitted against each other in contests of mathematics, physical ability, logic, etc.
  • There are heavens and hells with castes of haves and have-nots. 
  • Crucially, MONARCH has the ability to brainscan humans and create android copies of them. 

> Sidebar: There was a Batman the Animated Series episode when I was growing up with the same premise. I could never finish it because it was too scary for me. I’d watch it until the second commercial break and change the channel.


The module explores what it means to be human through a mechanic called the Bends. As the players dive into the Deep, they accumulate a growing sense of suspicion that they might actually be an android duplicate. There’s no way to know for sure until they’re dead, and an autopsy is performed with a scanning device. 


The players are there to explore this megastructure, salvage what they can, serve as pawns for the various factions, and execute schemes of their own. The ultimate fate of the Deep and its myriad entities are left up to them. 


The art and layout

Art by Nick Tofani was a treat. He is a horror artist I follow on Twitter, and I didn’t even know he did RPG projects. This a pleasant surprise. His art is so very weird and evocative. 


(Also, I so like books with a single artist. Really provides a unifying vision throughout the module.)


I want very much to have versions of the images without spoiler text on them. The pictures are great, but I need to carefully crop them to be able to show them to players. 


One of my favorite things about Mothership was the usability in the layout. Something like Mork Borg looks cool. It’s visually very interesting. A great coffee table book, really. Mothership has just as much care and consideration in its layout but it’s all geared towards actually teaching the reader. 


All of that thoughtfulness is also present in Gradient Descent. 


Some of the visual information was easier for me to grok than others. For example, the page background (dark versus light) shows at a glance whether or not the room described is lit or not. I like that a lot, and it makes sense to me immediately. 


For example, you can tell that this section of the ship is lit and has artificial gravity, just by glancing at the page. 


Contrastingly, there’s also a series of icons to demarcate airlocks, office doors, lifts, ladders, etc. The maps look like circuits. That's cool, I reckon, but I found myself needing to frequently flip back to the map key to parse that info.


The content

Like every good megadungeon, there are interesting factions. Just to name a few: 

  • A blockade of ships and mercenaries ensure that nothing from the Deep leaves, and no players come in. The blockade can be bribed, allowing players to enter and exit, but it provides a constant outside threat in terms of Troubleshooters who make frequent raids into the Deep.

  • The Chosen are androids whose every need are provided for. They worship MONARCH. 

  • The Fallen are androids who previously enjoyed the Chosen’s status. They are now exiled into the sewers. They bitterly hate their replacements. 

  • The Minotaur is a monstrous AI offspring of MONARCH. The Minotaur is benevolent and kind. It can serve as a quasi-religious experience for those who meet it. 

  • The Mind Thief is an android child who hates MONARCH. It has constructed a virtual hell in which to trap the MONARCH, if only the PCs can help it.

  • Silus is a sub-routine who controls the pseudoflesh farm sections of the Deep. It is chatty and manipulative.


Outside of the Deep is a safepoint and home base—a retrofitted thruster-cum-satellite called the Bell. The Bell is crewed by weird individuals that hint at some of the dangers inside. These NPCs crucially provide information that lets the players make informed choices during their delvings. Since informed choices are the fun part of RPGs, this is great.


The factory levels are inimical to human life. Each factory-floor-sized room is a terrible mix of things that will grind you, chomp you, pull you apart, render you, freeze you, electrocute you, radiate you, or cover you in burning aluminum foam. 


The OSR ethos reigns supreme in this module. These dangers are obviously telegraphed, but if you get near these things, they will kill you dead. 


These all grow somewhat tedious or monotonous to read. Each room is a different flavor of instant death. This is where, I think, random encounters are needed. If each room is just a simple assortment of the buzzsaws and lasers that demolish player characters, what is there to do in the room? The answer is that the players negotiate encounters with NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, in these deadly contexts. 


A big question I have is this: Are there enough random encounters to keep things interesting? I think this will be the big revelation of play for Part 2 of this review.


As characters explore this terrifying environment, they also uncover all sorts of unlikely horrors: 

  • Furnaces painted with greasy images of human suffering

  • Relatives of the PCs suspended in cryosleep, with pictures of the PC’s childhood clutched in their hands

  • Laughing disembodied android heads


As PCs are exposed to these spooks, they slowly accumulate Stress and the Bends. This makes exploration firecrackers of Fear saves and Panic checks. I believe these will create chain reactions between the PCs that will inject further drama into each cavernous factory room. This is something else I’m keeping my eye on for Part 2.


As we’ve established, there’re a lot of sticks. The carrot of this orbital megadungeon are Artifacts. These are the OSR magic items of drawbacks and dubious use: indestructible marbles, cables that point towards hidden rooms, transplanted enhanced human eyes. Some of the Artifacts are more interesting or evocative than others, but the basic premise seems sound.


Conclusion

I buy modules for ideas I couldn’t have myself. In this, Gradient Descent absolutely delivers. 


Luke Gearing et al are tapped into the sci fi horror tropes. All of these little spine-tingling discoveries that players stumble over are fresh and evocative. Fun moments. It’s where the writing really shines.


On the other hand, reading through the book I found myself asking, “OK, but how am I going to actually use this at the table?” In this sense, I could have used additional supports from the book. 


I am excited and energized to run this module, so the book succeeds for me as “Module as Art.” 


I will see you again in about a month for Part 2!


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Things Death Wants by Gygaxian Democracy

The following is a result of Gygaxian Democracy threads on both Reddit and Twitter. Many thanks to all the contributions. Y'all have the big brains. 

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Pick up whatever rulebook you use. Flip to the spell section. Go to the entry for "Resurrection" (if one exists). Take a Sharpie. Mark through the spell description like an FBI censor returning a FOIA request about the aliens' role in the Kennedy assassination. 

Jot this down instead:

"The first time you cry over a dead body at a shrine, a church, or holy site, Death appears and offers you a bargain for the soul of the dead. 

Roll on the table below. Accept or reject Death's bargain. 

Anybody can call upon Death once. Afterwards, they will not answer your call again.

In the interim, the player of the dead character can play a henchman or roll a new character, as per usual." 

Roll 1d100

Death wants...

  1. Their hairy toe back.

  2. To tell a specific person that they are sorry.

  3. Everything listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas.

  4. An end to poverty.

  5. For you to complete the grieving process and know that it’s okay to cry.

  6. A decent pair of brogans.

  7. A day off. Here's your hit list (approved by deity so it won't affect your karma). Complete it within 24 hours and you get your favor. No special abilities, just go do what you do best. You can take your team with you.

  8. A replacement soul. The accounting daemon is exacting and quotas must be filled. You have to deliver a suitable replacement, someone who deserves to die for their crimes, and deliver it as a substitute. You can't just go murder them, you have to follow protocol: get a judgment angel to issue a death certificate for specific name and hour and day; reveal yourself secretly to the target three times in the 24 hours before so they know their time is up and can make peace with god or whatever; and then capture the soul at the appointed time using an official "ethereal death sickle." If you fail to fulfill the terms, the deal is off.

  9. An excuse they’ve never heard before. And they’ve pretty much heard them all.

  10. To create life, just once.

  11. Go down to Georgia and win a fiddling contest with some guy named Johnny, who has a lot of hubris.

  12. To harvest an innocent life that nobody wants to take. All the deaths drew lots and they got the short straw, but they just don’t have the heart to do it. Death has a cold cold heart, so you know this is going to be a gut-wrenching task.

  13. To experience death without waiting for a strange aeon. Of course when you kill death then nothing can die. 

  • Don't worry they’ll re-spawn in 24 hours, but it's gonna get crazy in the meantime. With some cleverness you might even use this to your advantage.

  1. A challenge. They’ll transform himself into a killer named Jack o’ Knives with knives for fingers, close their eyes, and count to 10, and you better run. They will hunt you in your dreams. If you can evade them for five days, your friend will be returned. Good luck!

  2. You have to win a riddle game.

  3. Listen to Death’s musical, and if you survive, give it your honest review.  They can take the criticism!

  4. Death animates your fallen comrade as a skeleton and opens the door to the positive energy plane. “Your friend must eat from that tree before they discorporate... forever”

  5. The head of a ghoul that hasn't eaten since it was reborn into undeath.

  6. Rubbings from the headstones of the oldest and newest graves in the burying ground of an abandoned village.

  7. Find and bury the body of a hero fallen and lost on the field of a forgotten battle.

  8. A dagger that has claimed only one life and still has blood on it. 

  9. Mundane herb, unrecognizably from its allegorical name in a dead language.

  10. 18 royals, 12 children, 6 peasants, 3 knights, 2 maidens, 1 PC.

  11. The requisite analogues for a full chess set.

  12. To be shown what 'fun' is.

  13. To know love.

  14. A perfect red rose from a famous garden.

  15. A date with a particular Medusa.

  16. A new handle for their scythe made from Entwood.

  17. About $1.50

  18. The extinction of a cultivar of bananas the Death really enjoys because they don’t want to share with mortals. (Death can only really enjoy things that are extinct. They really like dinosaurs.) 

  19. The perfect pet to go psychopomping with.

  20. The swaddling blanket of a newborn child.

  21. Go back in time and tell the mortal-who-has-become-Death to refuse the quest and profess their feelings to their one true love instead. (Yes, this means going back in time. Yes, this means there have been many Deaths. Yes, this means one of the party must accept the quest and risk becoming Death.)

  22. The killing hand of a murderous child, red with the blood of one it’s slain.

  23. A "Goddam minute of peace and quiet". 

  24. A day off as a human, you'll need to find a replacement Death.

  25. Kittens.

  26. The calm before a storm.

  27. The silence between lighting and thunder.

  28. A shooting star that hasn’t landed.

  29. A pen pal.

  30. A whetstone formed from a meteorite (for his scythe). 

  31. A magical dowsing rod that can locate lost spirits. 

  32. An assortment of eyes to try out. 

  33. Extra pockets. 

  34. An earring that fits. 

  35. Death wants one perfect souffle, as prepared by someone currently imprisoned by a cruel dark lord.

  36. Exactly 37 teeth from different creatures. 

  37. A really big frog (you must make your case for why your subjective standard of rally big should match theirs). 

  38. An antique tea set cursed, then blessed, then cursed again. 

  39. A very fine chess set. 

  40. One of your memories, either:

    1. Your favorite smell 

    2. Your happiest time

    3. The names of your parents

  41. An oath to take no life for a year and a day.

  42. A vestige of your form: burn an ability score off your sheet. (It no longer exists for your character.)

  43. Flowers from the grave of the recently passed queen.

  44. The true name of a newborn child at a specific address in the beggar's corner.

  45. A soul of one who has committed lethal defenestration.

  46. Shoes for Death's horse, Binky. The only iron that will last must be forged in the heat of the deep earth by the Ur-Dwarves.

  47. Advice on a gift that Death wants to get for a potential romantic interest.

  48. There is a child recently born to a destitute family in a nearby city. He will die in twelve days. Death has taken a liking for this child and doesn't want him to die, but cannot affect the fate of humans directly. Death will not touch you as long as the boy lives.

  49. Lich marrow for his pipe.

  50. The tears of a long-dead saint.

  51. A vampire's reflection.

  52. An ode to the sunset, written by a blind man, sung by a deaf man.

  53. A woman with a foot in two different oceans.

  54. An engagement ring from a broken betrothal.

  55. Death is sick of chess, but their preferred game went out of fashion three centuries ago. You're going to make it the hot new thing and spread it far and wide, aren't you?

  56. One of your kidneys (gotta find a doctor or some means to remove it).

  57. Flowers from the grave of the recently deceased queen.

  58. A single drop of blood from the crown prince.

  59. The collar of a black dog that was buried under the cornerstone of a church.

  60. Their favorite comfort food from a tiny store in the middle of nowhere.

  61. Tears of a creature that doesn’t have tear ducts.

  62. A really good cup of coffee.

  63. A sunflower.

  64. A letter written from an ill pregnant woman to the child she shall never meet.

  65. The ax of an executioner who used their own blade to kill themselves.

  66. A shroud used to swaddle a stillbirth. 

  67. The incorruptible heart of a saint.

  68. A rigged game of chance (marked cards, weighted dice, etc)

  69. Death wants the souls of those who refused to go. It can be:

    1. The soul of a powerful lich

    2. A clever wizard

    3. The souls of twenty undead minions

    4. The soul of a dragon or other immortal beasts

    5. The End of a Love Most Cherished

    6. The Birth of a Tyrant's Aspiration

    7. The Dream of an Innocent, Smothered but Alive

    8. The Reversal of Fortunes between Man & Beast

    9. The Awakening of a Long Dormant Wail

    10. The Revelation of the Obsessed and their Quarry

  70. To take another deity’s domain 

  71. A pearl from the deepest sea.

  72. To kill their nephew, a demigod.

  73. Death snaps their fingers and another 1d6 parties appear, each with their own dead companion in tow. The lot of you must plead your case as to which of your companions should be saved.

  74. The PC's favorite magic item.

  75. A hole.

  76. Mother's milk

  77. A really good bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with real mayo--not that Miracle Whip crap.

  78. To make the royal executioner laugh.

  79. Arrange a pardon for a guilty man and a death sentence for an innocent one. 

  80. Obtain a type of meat that Cerberus has never tasted. 

  81. Help them convince a mad titan they’re just not into him.

  82. A translation of a poem written in an extinct language.

  83. Moss upon which a dying man slept.

  84. The year’s first born goat.

  85. A widowers wedding ring.

  86. Fancy cloak and skull polish.

  87. Don't worry about it this time, someone else already paid your way back...