I was sitting down, relaxing, and knocking a couple of brews when I started thinking about my overall gaming style. I don’t mean genre but rather the style and tone of a campaign regardless whether it’s in space, a dungeon, or the back alleys of some city.
I came up with “Gritty Cinematic”. Sure, now and then I like grimdark and other times over-the-top action. But what really gets me going is something in between. It’s the tone of most of my campaigns, what I enjoy playing, and it’s also the tone I’m trying to put into YARC.
So let me explain my thinking. We all know grimdark. You can’t swing a stick without hitting yet another grimdark game. The “lucky” characters die horribly. Combat and action are something that really should be avoided. And characters quickly learn that there are worse fates than death. While cinematic games usually have untouchable, superhero like characters that really don’t face grisly ends and bouncs around the battlefield with impunity.
Gritty cinematic tries to land somewhere between them. Combat is dangerous. Death is a real threat. But characters are still able to push boundaries and do some pretty outstanding and heroic stuff. Sure you just slayed the Demon Lich Dragon Pyrohalitus but after a night of drunken carousing you’re found dead in an alley after getting knifed by a starving beggar.
However, doing such a tone can difficult when it comes to game mechanics. Grimdark puts an amount of frailty and ability limitations on characters while cinematic, as I said previously, makes them superheroes. I guess there isn’t one single mechanic that does it. It’s a combination of crunchy bits, metagame currency, and understanding on the players’ parts for how the whole thing works without feeling like the DM suddenly pulled the rug out from underneath the heroes.
I know I’m not offering anything really solid in this post because it’s can be a difficult to tone to manage and define. Much of it is like food. Season to taste. Or as that old saying goes, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Keep rolling dice. Keep imagining. And keep having fun.
I’ve already blogged about the upcoming Shadowdark RPG and guess what there’s already on official zine. I know the first thing you’re thinking, “If the game isn’t out yet then how is there a zine?” Here’s what I’ve learned so far. First, the beta rules are available and free. The rules are solid but there’s some art and a little layout to be done. I’m going to assume there might be some minor rules tweaks or other editing but like I said the rules are solid. ETA on the published version is Spring 2022. And the rules are a kissing cousin to old school systems so conversion to your rule set of choice won’t be that hard.
Sure, you can call me a fanboy but I grabbed this up when I found out about it. So what do you get with this? There’s a mini Hex Crawl, The Gloaming. It’s complete with rumors, adventure hooks, random encounters, and several subplots and mysteries. You could plenty of sessions just out of The Gloaming. But it does have a solid horror vibe to it so be advised but it isn’t over the top Edgelord stuff. Yeah, I’m so planning using in my upcoming campaign.
Then there’s a First Level adventure too! The Hideous Halls of Mugdulblub! It’s a weird and warped dungeon crawl. Once again, I think it’s pretty cool. Of course, you could just listen to the author (a few minor spoilers).
But wait there’s more. Three new classes. Witch, Warlock, and Knights of St. Ydnis. So Warlock is pretty like the 5E style Warlock but the zine comes with its own Warlock Patrons and none of them are touchy feely types. They’re pretty mean and basically evil. The Witch comes with it’s familiar and their own spell list. So yes. there’s new spells in here too. The Knights of St Ydnis are pretty interesting. They’ve sworn to fight evil by embracing it. This is sort of a Gish type class (Fighter/Magic-User). They use the Witch Spell List and gain spells at a slower rate than full casters but also have decent combat abilities augmented by demonic possession.
So we got classes, spells, a hexcrawl, and an adventure. Since there’s a hexcrawl and adventure that also means there’s also new monsters. And there’s even a random Diabolic Treasure table to finish things off.
Everything I’ve posted about YARC has been player facing stuff. This is where the whole tone of any game really happens in my opinion. It’s the options that are available for the player character that make things move. And that part is basically done. The players have a draft of the rules and it will be time to start rolling some dice in the near future. But now I want to start looking behind the screen and stuff to make the life of the DM easier.
One of the most useful axioms is that monsters and NPC’s don’t have to follow the same rules as player characters. Sure a DM can use that to cheat and just outright kill or outshine the PC’s but the true intent is to make the DM’s job easier. The less time that the DM has flip through rule books or try to puzzle out a page long monster stat block is time away from actually keeping the excitement up. This where so many of the old school games shine. Easy and to the point monster stat blocks.
If you remember from the early posts, another goal of YARC to make it so that the DM could grab just any old school adventure and quickly and easily convert it while running it.
If we boil monsters down to their most basic, there’s three things that become the core mechanics of monster: HD, AC, and Damage. Hit Dice are basically a monster’s level. It’s how many Hit Points they have plus how powerful they are overall. Sure you could roll for HP but I’m running a standard of 5 HP/HD. As far as Attack and Save Bonuses. That’s the HD. Armor Class can be just from what’s listed or compare it to what the AC might be for a player character and if you’re using a source that only has Descending AC the just take 19-AC to get the Ascending AC. Damage same thing. Just use it or think of it in terms of the what’s available to the player characters. Then adjust or run any special abilities as needed. No this isn’t a scientific approach. It’s a lot of instinct and what feels right. So let’s make a freaky swamp monster
It’s pretty tough for single low characters but it’s going to go against a whole party. Let’s give it HD : 3. So it’s got 15 HP and +3 to Attack and make any checks and Saves.
It’s got a tough rubbery hide. Let’s say that’s about leather armor so AC: 12.
Its got long nasty claws. Those are sort of like daggers but it’s really strong so let’s make damage: 1d6.
It’s a Freaky Swamp Monster so it needs a couple of freaky powers. It lives in a swamp so it should be aquatic. I know let’s make it a stealthy predator so give it Advantage on Stealth type checks in a swamp. And last let’s give it a Swamp Gas power. It’s a fog that blinds and disorients everybody but it.
Now, I know that for higher HD monsters the HD as bonus thing breaks. So I’m running with a max bonus of +10. So a HD 18 Demon Lord would have only a +10 and 90 HP. It’s a good max while it does make the monster powerful without being overpowered plus anything with that many HD is going to have really nasty special abilities that really won’t depend on hitting high level characters in combat.
And those special abilities are where a lot of monsters shine. Don’t even thing putting those into a paragraph or a sentence for use at the game table.
IMHO, too many monster books are just too damn wordy.
Let’s talk about NPC’s a bit. Unnamed, and unimportant NPC’s basically use a monster stat block. That city guard, random pickpocket, tavern keep, or merchant. They are all going to be 1 to 2 HD and might not ever be seen again or you might need even any combat stats for them. And that’s an important note right there. If an NPC isn’t going to get into combat then you don’t need stats for them.
Here’s a confession. Vasha of the Night Market is an NPC that I’ve used in two campaigns. At the very least, the player character know up front that she’s a powerful magic-user. With even the smallest bit of research, they learn that the city elders let her do pretty much whatever she wants. She’s the only person that the head of local Thieves Guild actually fears. It’s clear to the players that if they do something stupid then eight kinds of hell is going to come raining down on them. I’ve never made any kind of stat block for her.
But if that NPC is the big bad. Oh hell yes. Go crazy and make that cool stat block. And make one’s for NPC that are reoccurring that you just need to have them go into combat either with or against the player characters.
Then there’s that special time that you want make an NPC with a whole sheet just like a player character. Always keep one of those in reserve.In case a player doesn’t show up or even if there happens to an extra player show up.
I know this has been a rambling post. So it’s time for me to shut up. I’ve got a game to prep for this weekend.
And here’s the Freaky Swamp Monster
HD: 3 (15 HP)
Advantage on Stealth
Swamp Gas: Blocks vision further than 10 feet. Save Vs Magic or Confused.
Wow. This one creeped up on me out of nowhere. And I probably would have just passed it by. I’ve seen too often the blurb that combines old school and modern design that have left me saying that ain’t old school.
Let me first tell the little story of how stumble across this gem. I was just perusing my way around DrivethruRPG and I stumbled across The Nightmare at Castle Goldgloom. Hey, this is an old school adventure that’s compatible with Shadowdark. OK, what’s Shadowdark? Hmm. It isn’t on Drivethru so let’s do a quick Internet search which lead me to the Arcane Library and the beta Rules for Shadowdark. And this explains a lot why I hadn’t noticed it before. Kelsey at the Arcane Library has been doing primarily (and apparently successfully) creating 5E content and as most readers know, I haven’t really paid attention to that much of the 5E content especially stuff on DM’s Guild. Don’t let that stop you here. Shadowdark has some strong OSR DNA.
Let me start with basics. You’ve got the classic classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User and Thief. Yes, Thief and not Rogue. And yes, they have a d4 Hit Die. For Races, there’s pretty much the standards: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, and Half Orc plus Goblins are thrown in as a race. And yes Race is separate from Class. Task resolution and Saving Throws are handled with Attribute checks (d20+Mod) with any additional modifiers from Class. Shadowdark uses Ascending AC.
Since most readers here are interesting in the old school style of play, let me start there. For Attributes, it’s 3d6 in order. You can’t get more old school than that. There’s an option to start a campaign with 0 Level characters (ala Dungeon Crawl Classics) or 1st Level characters. It uses the old school three Alignment system (Law, Neutral, and Chaos). And Encumbrance is handled with a Strength based slot system similar to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Scattered throughout the PDF are many of the traditional bits of advice like those found in Matt Finch’s Old School Primer. You know the drill. The answer to a problem isn’t on your character sheet. Rulings not rules. Go ahead and houserule to make the game fit your group’s style. Player Skill vs Character Skill and so on. These are great bit advice for those new to the old school style.
Let me talk about the modern and new game mechanics that snuck into the Shadowdark. It does use the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic (which I think is the neatest thing to come out of 5E). There is a metagame currency in Luck Points which are a bit like Inspiration but not quite. Experience is handled a bit differently but you still can get XP for Treasure. The neat thing about Leveling is how character improvement is handled. On odd levels (1, 3, 5, 7, 9), each class gains a Talent. Here’s the catch it’s random. Each class has a random table to roll on to see what the character gets at that level.
There’s one mechanic that I thought was cool and I’m not sure if originates from another game. Torches last one of real time. Not game time. Real time. I like that because it actually puts some pressure on the players to move ahead and not mess around.
Magic (both arcane and divine) uses a roll to cast system. Fail or fumble and bad things can happen. The spells keep to the basics and take more inspiration from the old school versions rather than the newer ones. Like Power Word Kill: You utter the Word of Doom. One creature you target with 9 HD or less dies if it hears you. That’s basically it. The spells are to the point and simple to use at the game table without a bunch of useless fluff text or extraneous mechanics.
For the over mechanics feel of Shadowdark, I can see the inspiration from games such as Index Card RPG, Five Torches Deep, 5E Hardcore Mode, and Dungeon Crawl Classics. I will say that I’m (like many others) aren’t that fond of the “You get all your HP back with a Long Rest” but hey that can be worked around. And there’s a neat little mechanic to add a bit more of challenge. Have a Random Encounter during that Long Rest. Make a CON check, fail and you get no healing or anything else.
Even after all the above and you don’t think it’s your thing, it’s still worth looking at. Why? Well, there’s a bunch of handy random tables to use no matter what rules you happen to be playing. There’s a game within the game (Wizards & Thieves) for when the characters want to gamble at the tavern.
So yes, this well worth a look and a lot of it is going to end being used at my table. I’m going to be really bold here but IMHO Shadowdark is the kind game that fits into the so-called next wave of OSR games. It’s not artpunk. It takes the best of old and new school games and makes a game that feels and plays more like old school. The rules are clean, easy, and most importantly efficient.
I like adventures that are out of the ordinary. I can stock a cave or lair with your standard array of monsters. I really like it when an adventure has interesting monsters that can be used for more than just the adventure at hand.
Praise for the Fallen and Sision Tower are two adventures by Graphite Prime Studios. First these two adventures are tied together in that they share the same universe of fallen angels and the like. No problem. I like that sort of thing. Praise the Fallen is a more standard dungeon crawl while Sision Tower is “vertical” dungeon crawl. That is the map is a cut away side view. No biggie but kind of neat.
Both of these adventures stand out for having an array of non-standard monsters. Things like the Cherub Haunt or The Phaen Witch are just plain cool. Heck, if the DM want to do just a little adjustment, the Phaen Witch could easily become a reoccurring villain or even a darker mentor. Even the encounters with standard style monsters are interesting. So yep. These have some new opponents for the party to face off against.
So new monsters. Check. And guess what? New nifty magic items too. Sision Tower has sixteen new and interesting magic items. I mean really I’ve shelled out more bucks on adventures that don’t have a single new thing in them. Yeah, these adventures are inexpensive as well. New monsters and magic items alone make it worth the price of admission.
I usually don’t comment much on artwork. I’m more focused usually on just the content. But Graphite Prime is one of those lucky people who can write and draw. This gives both adventures even more of a similar synchronized vibe.
It takes a lot for me to get excited about so much RPG stuff that comes out these days. So much lacks personality, gets all edge lord just because, or just over complicates stuff that doesn’t need it. Both these adventures have personality. Their out of the ordinary without going over the edge. They don’t go into details that the DM and/or players might not even care about.