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.) 


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 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.