Riding the con high from Trolls & Légendes

I am back from Trolls & Légendes. I had a blast. It was so nice to meet so many people, many of them I consider friends, who I hadn’t seen in at least three years. Inexplicably, I do not feel drained from the constant socialising, consecutive late nights, and precious little alone time. I am riding the high and I feel energised, ready to take on all the work that’s been behind schedule for months now. If this is how extraverts feel like, I should definitely eat one to steal their powers.

I don’t have time to recount the whole thing, plus I was so underslept during the whole trip that I would probably get the details right. I won’t namedrop much either. Many publishers come to Trolls & Légendes and many of the guests are famous in our circles, so it’d look like someone’s autograph book. I did my best to get dinosaurs like François Marcela-Froideval (it’s ok, he knows I call him that sometimes 😉 to write for KNOCK! or legends like Paul Bonner to draw something for us, and though no hands were shaken, I’ll do my best to gently nag them in the coming months. I had no stock with me to sell, but I showed off KNOCK! to everyone with eyes, and I even got to sign a couple of copies of MM Noisette to the people who’d brought their PoD copies with them.

A frogperson in scale armour holding a coffee cup and a dagger says "Marco, wait before you trigger the trap, I'm finishing this macchiato"
My glasses went AWOL for the whole con, so I’m pretty happy how these turned out.

Having had COVID three weeks prior and feeling the fatigue still, I hadn’t scheduled any games, thinking I’d take a free spot should I feel up to it on the day, but between malfunctioning A/C and plain old staying up past 3am, I showed up both mornings pretty shattered. Fortunately, Thomas at the RPG tables booth accepted to pencil me in when people who’d played Macchiato Monsters with me in 2019 asked if I was running it again this year. The game was on the last slot of the con (4-7 on Sunday) and I doubted my ability to run in a space that sounds (and looks) like a plane hangar full of drunk goblins. Trolls & Légendes, more like Goblins & Breweries.

Players negotiate the best way to cross a river where a hungry crocodile awaits

So I made it as easy for myself as I could: we relocated to a patch of grass between the tents of market vendors and LARPing companies (much quieter despite a few horns and drums sounding off now and then) ; I elected to run Valley of the Desert Hound from KNOCK! 3 which was fresh enough in my mind; I used a simple, top off my head system: I wanted to playtest the core principles of Dwarfs, Elfs, Haubitz, (new project — more on it later) but ended up reverting to something like 2d6 FKR; for character creation, I asked the players to come up with classes, races, traits, etc. but gave them the Sean and Deanna Poppe paper minis from KNOCK! 2 to choose from and use as inspiration. Exploring the valley was a good time for everyone and we would even have reached a satisfying conclusion had the security people given us 10 minutes to wrap up when the closing time bell rang. Ah well, better to stop before finding out whether it’s going towards a flawless victory or a TPK…

A dwindling crowd of friends on Sunday night

But of course, the best times were had back at the hotel after dinner, where a lot of us stayed up late to sample the various alcoholic drinks we always bring with us, while nerding out about everything nerdy. I’m smiling just thinking about it. On the Saturday, I also got to tell everyone who didn’t already know I had turned 50 that day and that I was delighted to have spent it in their company at Trolls & Légendes.

Finally, I didn’t have the required energy to attend any of the gigs. I didn’t stay for Trolls & Légendes regulars Corvus Corax (who schedules a gig at 11:30, Trolls & Légendes?) but I nipped in to listen to The Sidh, and I am glad I did. Here’s a sample I took:

Italian Celtic folk/world electro people, you are on your way filling the void Garmarna left in my heart

Now that I know that conventions won’t kill quinquagenarian, post-COVID me, I may show up to more of them. At least I’ll investigate going to Octogônes in Lyon in October. And who knows, maybe Gary Con next year?

The cover of my Storm Kingdoms wip docupent

Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

Apologies for the big words. But you know, I have to get some traffic to my neglected blog. By diegetic mechanics, I mean those mechanics pertaining to the collaborative fiction. Or simply, in-world. So how can mechanics be in the world if they are rules, you ask? Let me start with context and an example.

These last few months, I’ve been running a (yet unpublished) game I call Adventures in the Storm Kingdoms. It is my homage to the old Stormbringer game from seminal publisher Chaosium by way of experimentations in the Free Kriegspiel Revolution design space. I may write later how the game came from a long unfulfilled desire to retroclone Stormbringer 1st Edition, and how it surprised me and became an engine for Moorcockian multiversal heroic fantasy in a literary mode instead. The minimalistic game design work I’m doing on this game is teaching me how tabletop roleplaying games rules can come from the world, and why they don’t always need to be expressed in dice-and-numbers mechanics.

If you haven’t followed my link above about Free Kriegspiel, here is the tl;dr: players interact with the world as presented by a referee who adjudicates actions and applies whatever rules they feel necessary to simulate the world. Most FKR groups prefer simple rules and character sheets with few to no numbers on them, but neither of these is an obligation.

How an obfuscation spell made it all clear

It dawned on me last week, when one of my players wanted his character to call on a demon of Chaos to help escaping a haunted tower. James (the player) had previously defined the demon as The Mistress of the Hidden when Jo-Jo (the character) needed to turn invisible. We’d established that the price for the spell would be to hide something from someone in the future to please the demoness with some chaotic mischief. I could tell the whole story, and how it ended up retroactively explaining why another antihero couldn’t find his lantern (while the original reason was the item had disappeared from the virtual character sheet and we’d assumed it had been lost and we’d all forgotten about it), but the important part is: we collaboratively designed a set of magical rules that require neither numbers nor dice rolls.

Jo-Jo’s Mischievious Magic

When Jo-Jo calls upon the Mistress of the Hidden to misdirect or disappear, she must promise to repay the demon by causing mischief in the near future. The Mistress will state the price in advance (James and Eric can both suggest ideas, and they must agree on the price).
Jo-Jo doesn’t have to accept it, but no magic will take place is she won’t.
If Jo-Jo hasn’t paid the price for the last spell when she petitions the Mistress again, the demands escalate and the price becomes heavier and bloodier. The Mistress may refuse to work her magic, or even play a trick on the young sorcerer to teach her a lesson.

I am just writing this to illustrate my example, but this is more or less what I have in my mind — and as a half-decent FKR referee, I’ll explain the rule to the players when needed. I’ve also given titles to the demon, as the game requires to better define a spirit. She is the Mistress of the Hidden, Unnamed Duchess, First Spy of the Courts of Chaos, and lover of the Great Deceiver, Aronax the Black.

The List of Unpaid Prices

If the Mischievious Magic rules aren’t stated in the game (or even in my campaign notes), the situation prompted me to add one rule to AitSK: the List of Unpaid Prices. At any given time, the referee should keep in plain sight a list of what promised rewards and prices have been agreed upon by sorcerers and spirits. It functions as a reminder, but can also give inspiration to set up interesting situations and choices. I’m looking forward to see it work in play.

An icon of Arioch as a Melnibonéan youth with orange skin, a chaos star as a halo, and a bleeding heart in his right hand.The background shows black and white chtuloid chaos beasts with red eyes.
Arioch Icon by Tristan Alexander (used without permission)

RPG settings have tons of diegetic rules

If you have never stopped to consider the thought, look at how the worlds we play have many rules that don’t interact with the rules / system / mechanics. Wizards don’t have healing spells. Dragons fly despite physics. Megacorporations treat freelance street operatives like shit. These are all diegetic mechanics (or rules of the setting, if you like).

So my question is, why would any in-world rule have to be modelled by mechanics? Our magic rule doesn’t require any die rolls. It sure could have a bunch of them, with tables of modifiers and parameters and options, as detailed and headache inducing as you care to make them. It works just fine as is in our rules-lite context, but it would also work fine in Rolemaster.

So why do we play with all these dice pools and modifiers? Do we love late night arithmetics so much?

But rules make the world more real, Shirley?

People will argue that we need rules to simulate the world and/or genre we want to emulate.

Sure, you can give halberds a +1 Reach Factor, an extra Attack Die when grabbing at a mounted opponent’s plate armour pieces, and a better Penetration Quotient against quilted leather than it does have against chainmail. Oh, and don’t forget the rule for going under a halberdier’s guard and easily stab them with a shorter weapon!

You can also ask your players to trust you to take all these factors into consideration when they become relevant. You then are able to come up with rulings and/or odds of success that portray each given situation much better than any set of rules ever could, however detailed.

You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so maybe do some research on halberd combat, or use a table from Halberds & Helmets (okay I didn’t go and check how detailed Alex has made his weapon lists — probably not a lot, but you know what I mean). Or make your own list of science-fantasy weapons that explain what each of them are good for in plain language. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable adjudicating situations without slowing down the game to a crawl by looking up rules and modifiers every five minutes.

An ink sketch showing the Chaos lord Xiombarg in his female form, riding a skeleton headed bull demon
from a James Cawthorn sketchbook that I can’t seem to find online (sadface emoji)

More on the topic of diegetic mechanics

On this subject, I highly recommend a series of articles called Less Rules to Do More by Justin Hamilton of the Aboleth Overlords blog (I’ve actually asked him to riff of them in an article for KNOCK! #3). And for an example of how this could work, foremost OSR thinker Chris McDowall has recurring blog posts (and some modular games) about what he calls primordial gaming.

You can learn everything there is to know about Free Kriegspiel roleplaying by following the links in my Obliviax Oracle post.

Secrets of Shadoloo cover

Obliviax Oracle: my dive into FKR design

I could have explained what FKR design means in the title, but I wanted you to click through. And now if you dare leave before you’ve read the whole post, the Ancient Dread Curse of the Drained Device Battery will plague you and the children of your children. Sorry not sorry.

The cover of the Secrets of Shadoloo supplement for the Street Fighter storytelling games by White Wolf Studio
Reading further is the only way to know why I’m posting this pic

FKR stands for Free Kriegspiel Renaissance Revolution, a school of game design experimenting with the very roots of our hobby. Here is a couple links with attempts at definitions, in case this sounds like something you’d be interested in. If not, just assume that by FKR design, I mean super simple rules, tweaked and developed at the table.

I knew precious little myself about Free Kriegspiel games until I realised than my latest attempt at designing for short online sessions had fallen squarely in the FKR wheelhouse (thankfully no one in there was harmed). So I dived into blog posts and forum threads and Discord servers to hoover all the wisdom I could. I even proposed a segment about FKR design to Radio Rôliste (which we recorded a week ago) to have an excuse to do some more research.

Long intro short, I’ve been running two weekly games for about a month, and having an absolute blast. I really needed that freedom and creative mindset after running almost excusively 5E D&D for over a year.

Obliviax Oracle, the d20 to rule them all

Obliviax Oracle is how I call this two-page ruleset. My love of cheesy alliterations is only surpassed by my love of obscure Dungeons & Dragons monsters.

It is very simple. Let me quote the game text:

The referee describes situations; the players say how their characters react, asking for details as needed. When the referee is unsure of the consequences of a course of action, the table agrees on a question and a player rolls the d20 to get an answer from the table below. The referee interprets the result and describes the consequences. Traits, knowledge, items, favourable circumstances, etc. can add a bonus to the roll. 

That’s the whole of the game: a d20 table with a suggestion of what could happen for each entry. An oracle.

Click to read, or go see the whole game

The other page gives you rules you could have made up yourself — and I encourage you to do so! — for character creation (and death), as well as some random ideas to expand the ruleset as needed.

Because you certainly will need more rules, for chases, for magical duels, for divine intervention.

Make up the rules as you need them

Of course this all depends on the kind of game you’re running. One of mine is set in Andrew Kolb’s beautiful hexcrawl Neverland, so the exploration and encounters procedures are baked in (except maybe carousing but Jeff’s Gameblog has me covered).

All I had to do was to drop the characters in hex 01. Character creation was simplified to lower the barrier to entry for non gamers, but so far I haven’t had to come up with anything else yet.

The other game is World Warriors, a nostalgic look back at the Street Fighter Storytelling Game (ah, the 90s! do you reckon there is a place on Earth where White Wolf is still making weird license games?). For this one, I thought about character creation and combat, of course. And now, after about seven hours of play over three sessions, I have thoughts about written and unwritten rules, but that will probably be the subject of another post.

In the meantime, if you want to read what I’ve done with this game, I put everything I’m happy with in the Obliviax Oracle folder.

A hard fight is about to break out in a game of Dungeons & Dragons

Lunchtime D&D: fifth time’s the charm?

It sometimes feels like since I decided to start offering lunchtime D&D games in workplaces, I’ve spent most of my time designing rules.

And it’s probably true. I blame 2020 for some of this, but I also learned a lot along the way. The initial goal was simple: have a robust adventure game for beginners and veterans alike, using the funky dice and some of my favourite old school gameplay concepts.

As you’ll see below, it changed quite a bit over the last three years.

Granddaddy’s D&D: simple original rules

I started running for work friends using a simplified version of OD&D that I was basically ran off the top of my head. I quickly had to make an experience table and other bits (I kept a summary here). I also made pregenerated characters with some fun classes from the blogosphere.

The character sheet below is what I gave the players.

I still like this one very much, but I’m a nostalgic

But of course, hacking leads to hacking and pretty soon our lunchtime DD sessions used an entirely different system. (And the players had to transfer their characters onto new character sheets, and more than once!)

Lunchtime Dungeons: a game for lunchtime campaigns

After a dozen iterations or so, I ended up with a game I really liked for our lunchtime D&D games. It used the six attributes as skills, which are a ranked from d4 to d12, Savage Worlds style. It also had a wounds system where you chose to spend one or more hit dice to avoid lasting damage and d66 special abilities for each of its seven classes as well as d100 origins (most of these I have compiled in my d200 abilities post).

Lunchtime Dungeons worked really well for bi-weekly sessions with a core group, but I realised it was too much crunch for people who showed up once a month, or for the reticent or intimidated who I had convinced to try fantasy gaming just once. Also, in the context of a billable, professional service, what did I need rules for experience and evolution for a 3-session adventure?

And back to the drawing board I went!

Dungeonsnack: a game for short sessions

It didn’t take too long: I refined the principles of Lunchtime Dungeons, dropped most of the polyhedrals, keeping the d20 because it is so iconic, along with the d6.

Dungeonsnack has a d66 table merging origin/former occupation and equipment because after all, your starting equipment is your backstory (an idea that haunted Macchiato Monsters in an unformulated way). I had the idea of printing all 36 entries on character sheets (index cards, actually) so you could just draw one as the first step of the character creation process.

Five of the 36 character cards
Some of the 36 index cards I made as character sheets

Characters in Dungeonsnack have no classes. On top of their former occupation, they start with a random special ability, and they earn skills with levels. These are freeform, but they tie to an in-game event: when you level up, you ask the other players about one time you did something memorable, in a good or bad way. You select one anecdote and the table agrees on a skill.

There are plenty of things I like in Dungeonsnack, and I’ll probably release it as a sort of abandonware thing. At some point. Maybe.

Spell lists are the best lists

As much as I’m a fan of the sort of freeform magic you find in Whitehack (and my own dK System and Macchiato Monsters), I think spell lists are easier for beginners. Spells are tools you can use in many different ways. They are a resource to manage. They add a lot of flavour to a setting and to player characters.

While Lunchtime Dungeons used Lost Pages’ excellent Marvels & Malisons and Wonders & Wickedness spell books, I decided to come up with my own spell list for Dungeonsnack. To do this, I tried to rewrite the Basic/Expert spells (initial versions on this blog). It’s a collection of quirky spells, but I think they convey a weird Jack Vance atmosphere.

Tools for short sessions

Parallel to core rules design, I also worked on prep and pacing tools to make hour-long lunchtime D&D sessions easier to run.

Among the ones that actually worked, the SNAP procedure for sandbox events, which inspired the SNACK sheet you can see below. It’s a very straightforward way to pace a one-hour session and as such, it has been integrated into Dungeonsnack.

How Do I Play Oldest School D&D?

This is actually the game‘s title. I designed it in the spring, a quick stab at a 2d6 system that would let people bring any D&D-adjacent character to my Goblinburg games. When we all ended up in lockdown, there was no way I was asking non gamers to play on a virtual tabletop, or even with online dice rollers. Not with their kids hanging about asking if they could play too.

So 2d6 and one page of rules is all I wanted. Plus an online character creator using perchange.org to save time. As an aside, I like that you can have your character on your phone, and roll dice on the screen if needed.

I ran HDIPOSD&D a handful of times, but no one brought their 15th level Sorcerer/Paladin, so I can’t attest to its capacity to seamlessly integrate characters of different editions and schools of design.

The Ogre Mage’s Oracle

This is the working title for a 1d20 system I’d like to try out soon. A 2d6 system is handy for pick up online play (who doesn’t have a couple of dice somewhere?) but let’s not kid ourselves, D&D and d20 are basically synonymous in people’s minds.

So wondering what could most streamlined 1d20 rules be, I came up with the idea of an oracle: you roll a d20 when unsure of what happens next, hoping to roll high. And the exact result gives the referee an indication of the consequences. Like so:

First draft, as screengrabbed from my notes. Don’t @ me.

If I can slap minimal character creation rules on top of this, including interesting equipment and fun spells, I think I may have made my own Ultimate Grail of Awesomeness for a very specific type of games.

More news soon.

One day we’ll be able to have picnic dungeon crawls again!