Sunday, July 25, 2021

This Google Doodle is freaking awesome

 So I'm starting to write this post on Friday evening, and the week at work was a bit stressful this time around, so you could probably put one of those apps designed to entertain cats in front of me, and it would do the trick in helping my mind drift away for a while.  But...I'm pretty sure there's something special about the current Google Doodle.  It's an entire mini-retro-RPG themed around a series of sporting events on Doodle Champion Island (celebrating the Tokyo Olympics, of course).  There's exploration, quests, teams, cute anthro characters, music in a classic style, anime interludes, and (perhaps most entertaining of it all) minigames like synchronized swimming (a rhythm game) and rugby (vs. ogres on Oni Island).  All with a 16-bit look.

Heading toward the recruitment site...

As of late into Saturday night, I have probably accomplished less than I meant to at this point in the weekend thanks to this game.  But...it actually feels like time pretty well spent.  Not that my stamp of approval means much to the tech monolith, but nicely done, Google.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Agents of the CROwN

This is an article that originally ran in the OSR fanzine Fight On! back in 2014.  As my mind has lately been meandering around a campaign set up like this -- and I've learned I'm not the only one interested in this style of adventure -- I wanted to post it here to get it out in the wild again.  Thanks to the inimitable Kelvin Green for the artwork!  Be sure to check out Fight On!'s stuff for sale HERE and especially Kelvin's still-rocking blog HERE.


The CROwN

On September 23, 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter. In a calculation error that has since become known as the “metric mixup,” the craft approached the red planet from a dangerous angle and disintegrated in seconds.

That's the story we heard, anyway. In fact, that's the story that NASA believed. Until a few months later...on Christmas morning, when technicians lucky enough to work the holiday at Cape Canaveral arrived to find a rather unexpected gift in Hangar AC – the orbiter, in pristine condition. Pristine except for one major alteration: The craft had been gutted of most of its scientific instruments. In their place stood what appeared to be a large, golden music box. The orbiter was carefully transferred to an underground lab, and its reappearance was wiped from NASA records.

It took many months of serious examination before scientists felt it was safe to wind the box. They started the music on the morning of August 21, 2001. Its ethereal harmonies resonated through the hallways of the laboratory as the massive golden cylinder turned...and turned...and turned. It soon became clear that the music box was powered by more than our usual physical laws. What's more, each time the cylinder completed a revolution, when the tune should have repeated itself, new patterns appeared to take the music into entirely new realms.

On May 28, 2006, researchers finally had a breakthrough. The songs were more than music; they were a code. And they told stories. Stories of magical lands filled with creatures from myths, from faery tales, and from nightmares. There were tales of knights and dragons, of war and exploration, of death and treasure. And most importantly, there were stories of outsiders venturing to these lands, and descriptions of how they did this. A few officials immediately organized the Commission for Research on Otherworldly Narratives (the CROwN) and began to recruit their team in secret. Early in the morning on February 19, 2011, the world's very first extraplanar traveler – half-jokingly referred to by CROwN leaders as the world's first “dungeonaut” – prepared to set foot in the realm of the fantastic...


CROwN Agents

Those who adventure for the CROwN perform a variety of jobs on their journeys. While some agents are skilled in multiple areas, there are four key roles that many agents fill: CROwN Soldiers are the combat masters of each group. This is no trivial task, as the use of modern technologies is largely forbidden on missions (in order to avoid unnecessary attention). Soldiers, therefore, must be trained in the use of weapons common in the lands they visit: swords, axes, and the like, along with the occasional black powder firearms. CROwN Spies are experts at subterfuge, helping the adventuring party in tasks such as disabling traps and picking locks and pockets. Spies are typically agile and sneaky, and other members of their teams often debate the level of trust they should be granted.

Many stories told by the music box include characters with the ability to manipulate reality in ways that researchers can only refer to as “magic.” The means of wielding this force is gradually being unraveled by the CROwN, and some agents are trained in these mysterious arts. CROwN Scientists spend hours studying arcane texts and practicing spellcraft in secret labs. As a result, they gain the ability to alter the world around them in a wide variety of ways. CROwN Medics, meanwhile, do not gain the wider perspective of the scientists, but their magic is seen by many as much more practical in nature. Medics often learn spells of healing and of fighting undead nuisances encountered on missions.


Adventuring for the CROwN

Most CROwN missions involve a very specific objective that will add to human knowledge of wonders, advancements, and threats from outside our world. The ease of sticking to the objective varies greatly by mission. Some recent adventures undertaken by CROwN agents include:

  • Exploring a dungeon to retrieve a sample of “living metal,” an alloy reported to grow organically and behave much like a plant or colonial animal. Naturally, such a dungeon attracted a sizable population of rust monsters...

  • Investigating the twisted grove of a mad druid to search for clues to the origin of the fearsome owlbear.

  • Collecting tomes from libraries on various worlds in order to conduct an analysis of multiversal linguistics.

Missions are often quite deadly, especially for new agents.


Standard Issue

Besides the standard and mission-specific adventuring equipment carried by agents, CROwN scientists have developed some items that are now considered standard issue for all adventures:

  • Orb of Vision – All agents are issued one of these small crystal globes, which can be carried or worn attached to the uniform. The orb of vision magically illuminates a 30' radius around its wearer. It also records all that the agent encounters, so that adventures can be easily reviewed by CROwN officials upon the return of the orb.

  • Planar Scroll – Each agent also receives one of these scrolls, which provides transport back to our world. By reading the scroll's inscription, an agent is quickly warped into our reality. However, the agent must read the scroll while in the exact location where he or she arrived in the fantastic realm. For each 10' in any direction that the agent is located away from this spot when reading from the scroll, there is a 5% chance that the adventurer will be transported to a random world or plane, rather than back to CROwN headquarters.

  • Good Green – Agency botanists have managed to cultivate, in limited amounts, a rather remarkable herb encountered on an early mission. Every agent begins travel with one dose of this plant, which has received the simple nickname “good green” for its ability to cure all diseases and curses encountered thus far on adventures, as well as providing 1d6 of healing when eaten.


Infinite Worlds of Wonder Await!

Now is the time to show your loyalty to the CROwN! 

Monday, July 12, 2021

5e, Iconicon, and Bo Burnham -- thoughts from the weekend

 So I did finally play Fifth Edition D&D this weekend, and I'd say that my thoughts upon finally giving it a read with the fresh eyes of a would-be player have mostly held up.  I mean, I'd enjoy playing just about anything with this group, and Watson (in what was, I believe, his first crack at DMing) led us into the realm of the Moon Warrior in style.  We didn't have a chance to work our way through the whole thing due to some technical issues during the game, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to it.

One thing I learned about 5e that really stuck out to me -- and that I don't think is just a holdover from previous editions (at least not before Fourth) -- is that the only bonus that comes from taking Two-Weapon Fighting is that you get to add your Strength bonus to damage from the second attack.  Everyone else can still function as a dual wielder, just without that bonus.  Which seems...unnecessarily liberal in what it allows any old combatant to do.  Not a huge deal, but wow.  Have I missed this in previous editions?

While I only had to be concerned with player-facing issues during the game this weekend, in related news, I also got my PDF of The Folio #27 yesterday.  It's written for First and Fifth Editions, and the 5e monster stat blocks look like they make use of a great method for keeping the blocks short and sweet.  I'm definitely going to pay attention to this approach as I move forward in exploring the current edition of D&D!


Also, yesterday was Watson's birthday.  Another happy birthday to you, man!

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I also realized that the online convention Iconicon -- focusing on pop culture of the 1980s -- was going on this weekend and managed to watch some of it.  I definitely enjoyed what I saw of the panels on iconic 80s vehicles, on comic shops during the decade, and on what they termed the "big three" toylines of the era -- G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe (that's terminology I can definitely get behind).  I am all about enjoying some 80s nostalgia, and if you are, as well, you might want to click HERE to peruse the collected content.  There are a lot of great creators involved and a lot of interesting topics to go through.  I've only hit the tip of the iceberg so far.

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Finally...Laura and I finally watched the Bo Burnham special Inside on Netflix.  We had started watching it on an evening when we knew we weren't going to be awake long, and while I thought it really looked like something special (ahem), it wasn't until we watched the whole thing yesterday that I got the full effect.

Holy shit.  I was blown away by it.

I knew very little about Bo Burnham going into it...and had no idea this is the sort of thing he could produce.  It was funny at times, and he's a comedian, but calling it a "comedy special" would do it a disservice.  It gets dark.  Like...by the end of it, if I found out it was actually a Joker origin story in disguise, that wouldn't have felt out of place.  It's overall very human, and while watching, I got the same feeling of having a brush with genius that I got the first time I watched Hamilton, or the Buffy episode "Once More, with Feeling," or...to include something other than musicals here, I guess a game-changing movie like The Matrix.

Even it doesn't seem like it's your bag, I'd recommend watching it to see if maybe it actually is your bag.  It is really, really good.

Here's a bit from it.  I hesitate to use this one because it's one of the least self-reflective pieces in the special, and some people might even think it's a little mean.  It's such a good song, though...

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Oh, and in other, much more boring news, I finally have Jersey license plates, and I'm proud of myself for being able to just screw the damn thing onto the front of my car, which had nothing set up to hold a tag.  (Side note:  I've also recently learned that calling a license plate a "tag" may be slang from my upbringing that isn't even widely understood around here.)  So...pat on the back for old Jonathan...

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Uh, I think I'm really starting to like this Fifth Edition thing...

 I'm not really sure why I've been so slow to embrace D&D Fifth Edition.  I mean...I've paid a fair amount of attention to it and tried to learn a bit about its ins and outs.  Long, long ago, I had this idea that I wanted to hack it for superhero gaming, so I started to learn the core of it (relative to the versions of D&D I had played).  I even put together a little microlite version of it that I think is both very flawed and very much playable with the right DM.

But I still didn't play 5e.  That 5e supers idea was ultimately replaced by Light City, a superhero hack using Swords & Wizardry Light as the base.  And while, like so many of my projects, I eventually let Light City wither (although I'd still love to revive it!), I did make some stuff that I found to be fun, using a system that I was simply more comfortable with and excited about.

I picked up the 5e Starter Set at one point, still with the thought of immersing myself in the mechanics for an entirely different minigame-type project that may one day see the light of day.  I enjoyed what I read of it (especially with its inclusion of Lost Mine of Phandelver), but never really did much with it.  I just didn't need it.  I have old D&D, OSR games, and all sorts of non-D&D games I can play.  Why bother with this new one?

It was with the publication of the Ravnica sourcebook that the tide started to turn.  After working on Light City stuff, I've still been pretty attached to that WhiteBox/Light take on Swords & Wizardry.  I like the low HP, the d6-only damage, the single saving throw.  And it's really just the bones of a game...very much one that you can make your own in many different ways.  But with these Ravnica species at my fingertips...well, that's when I started thinking about taking 5e races and tacking them onto S&W Light-style classes.  It's an approach that works for me, and I've recently been settling into that mindset in tinkering with my own take on a Fantasy Heartbreaker.

But now, I'm about to play in a full-on 5e game.  First game I've played in that is absolutely, officially, wholly Fifth Edition.  I had recently picked up a Player's Handbook (once again, to familiarize myself more with the rules but without necessarily having the intention to ever play it as-is) and finally started looking through it with the eyes of someone about to use the book as it's meant to be used.

And I'll be damned...5e is a good game.

I was way too willing to dismiss 5e characters as too complicated for quick generation before jumping into an adventure.  I think the formalization of character backgrounds seemed unnecessarily sprawling to me...when in reality, it's probably the best part of 5e for creating the sort of game I want to play in.  Not to mention that I'm sure there are some easy ways to approach those a little differently, giving players more freedom in telling their characters' stories while ensuring there's no sacrifice in power.

Sure, some of the classes are certainly more complicated than the ones you get in a game like Swords & Wizardry, but the old D&D standbys...well, they really don't seem much more cluttered than a typical class from most OSR games.  Heck, Vancian spellcasting isn't even totally Vancian anymore; this is a detail that had completely escaped me...because I guess I always skipped over spellcasting rules, assuming I already knew how they worked!

Kinda crazy that this is such a revelation for me this late in the game.  While the old school will certainly keep a prominent place in my heart (I'm still in the midst of an AD&D game and loving it), I expect to start thinking about and looking for chances to play 5e a lot more.  Maybe it turns out that my Fantasy Heartbreaker is actually just something along the lines of the Starter Set.  Meaning...no heartbreak actually needed...

Man.  How did I miss this?

Monday, June 28, 2021

A Monstrous Heartbreaker, Part III...keepin' it classy...

Fair warning:  There's a lot of thinking out loud in this post as I muddle through the details of putting together my own fantasy heartbreaker.  Please read on only if that's your bag...!

 First things first for this post:  It's time I decide what classes to include in this fantasy RPG that's all been done before that I'm putting together.  I'm definitely going with the "big four," as seen in games like Swords & Wizardry Light by one name or another - Wizard, Cleric, Warrior, Rogue.  (Side note:  I'm pretty sure I'm especially drawn to that nomenclature because those are the classes used in Magic: The Gathering's "party" mechanic...)  So...what else?

I mean...this is MY heartbreaker, so I can put in whatever ridiculous niche class I want to just because it makes me happy to think about having it at the core of the game.  At the same time, this whole exercise has grown out of a desire to have a very basic fantasy RPG structure to build my other projects around.  I do want to keep things simple.

The problem is that once I take the simple step in my mind of "allowing" one class or another to creep into the lineup, it becomes too easy to think, "Well, if I include a Warlock, surely a Shaman fits.  And then it would be ridiculous to not include the even more iconic Druid, and if there are Druids, why not Rangers, and then of course Paladins, and then...and then...and then..."

Back in 2017, my humble offering to the gaming world on Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day was a set of alternate classes for Swords & Wizardry Light (which you can download HERE if you're so inclined).  They were streamlined a bit (yeah, even more than the usual!) in order to fit the Dungeonstack card game project that was the focus of my attempt at the A to Z Blogging Challenge that year; I'm noting them now because I picked out five basic roles, going with the names Warrior, Mage, Priest, Rogue, and Scout to differentiate them from the standard classes.  Scout was the "nature class," intended to make sure some bits of Druid and Ranger found their way into the game, as I've always been drawn to classes of that type...although the Scout is really just a Ranger stand-in without any real hint of Druid.

Lately, some form of Scout has seemed appealing as a single addition to the "big four" noted above.  An additional bonus is that Scout is the label that has long been given to Rangers in MTG, satisfying my inclination to defer to the naming conventions found on the magical cards.  However, with the coming Adventures in the Forgotten Realms expansion for MTG, Magic is making the Ranger creature type an official part of the game, SO...

Well, I'm dancing around it while thinking out loud, but I think my choice is becoming obvious:  The five classes of the Monstrous Heartbreaker shall be Warrior, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue, and Ranger.

Now...to nail down the specifics.  I covered the Warrior in my last post on the Heartbreaker and think I'll keep the ball rolling with the non-spellcasting classes.  Because the Ranger, while essentially a variant Warrior, can also fill the roll of "skill gal/guy" in a party, I think I should look at the Rogue first to get a baseline of what skillful characters look like in the game.  So, let's try statting up this guy...

He was the first (and only, so far, although maybe I'll get back to it at some point...?) Dungeonstack Rogue.  Because the mechanics for the Heartbreaker differ a bit from what I was planning with the 'Stack, I can't quite use him verbatim, but I bet I can get something very close that can also be a model for writing up the Rogue class as a whole...

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Xenos the Wanderer

Human Rogue 4

AC 13 (leather armor)    HD 3d6 (11 HP)
Saving throw: 12
Move 30 ft.
Languages:  Common, Goblin, Thieves' Cant

STR 11    DEX 16(+1)    CON 14    INT 2    WIS 7    CHA 10

Attack:  Dagger +2, 1d6-1 damage (thrown +3, range 20 ft., 1d6-1 damage)
Sneak Attack: Xenos gets an additional +4 attack bonus on and deals double damage to a surprised enemy.

Skill/tool proficiencies:  Climb (expert), sleight of hand (expert), traps (expert), cooking

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I think I may be doing the math properly in my head, but now I need to work backwards and make sure this fits the Heartbreaker as a whole...!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Brood X is pretty darn cool (plus...Cicadafolk for 5e)

 I think "delighted" is a fair description of how I felt when I realized a few weeks ago that the trees around the office park where I work are a hotbed for a phenomenon that's gotten a bit of talk in the news (presumably in areas distant from such hotbeds as well...?) - the emergence of Brood X, the periodical cicadas that are making an appearance above ground for the first time in 17 years.  Their presence is already waning and probably won't last all that much longer; then, they'll disappear until 2038...so I feel pretty lucky to have a chance to take in this fairly rare occurrence.  (Quick note: I'm pretty sure "Brood Ten" is actually the proper way to refer to these insects, but I don't hold it against anyone - myself included - for using the letter "X" when referring to them, since it makes them sound even more awesome.  Honestly, Marvel might have missed an opportunity by not running a "Brood X" miniseries right now...!)

These bugs are pretty loud, fun to watch in somewhat clumsy flight, and pretty striking visually.  Here's one I met that first day I saw them:


As a kid in south Georgia, the song of annual cicadas was part of my regular summer soundtrack.  Like lots of youngsters, I enjoyed finding (and often attaching to my clothing) the exoskeletons left over from their molts into adulthood.  I think I would have had a field day if I could have been around one of these periodical appearances.


I realize there's a fairly small chunk of the world that's getting to see this right now, but if you're in that chunk, I hope you're enjoying the chance to see a very interesting rarity.  Next up, from what I can tell, will be two groups (Broods XIII and XIX) coming back around in 2024.  Interestingly, Brood XIII (the Northern Illinois brood, which will be making an appearance in the American midwest) also sounds to me like the focus of a work of pop speculative fiction, with the awesome appellation "Brood Thirteen"...and since Brood XIX is the Great Southern Brood, I should be able to time a visit to my family back down south to see their emergence.

Finally, they of course made me want to create a species for a fantasy RPG...

Cicadafolk (for 5e)


Snagged this piece by MRGunn-Art from DeviantArt -
you should definitely check out their stuff!

Cicadafolk, also known as Undergroundlings, are an insectoid species known for their remarkable life cycle, unseen in any of the other sapient races of the world. They spend the majority of their lives as part of a subterranean community but emerge in a regular cycle to rear their young, then pass away just as the next generation is ready to return underground.

For millennia, Cicadafolk have come to the surface every 37 years. Most quickly find a mate and produce offspring, then spend the next six years preparing the children to carry on the legacy of their people. This subsequent generation will soon take their turn underground, making their “coming of age” descent just as their parents reach the end of their lifespan. For the next 25 years, the Cicadafolk community will be largely unseen by surface dwellers; and then, like clockwork, the now-31-year-old brood will emerge to continue the cycle on the surface.

While unorthodox, this lifestyle has not prevented Cicadafolk from developing a vibrant culture. Their unique language is conveyed by stridulation and is often thought by outsiders to be music rather than mere communication. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell where the line is drawn between the two for Cicadafolk, and this approach has made many of them highly admired as musicians. The Cicadafolk language does have a written form, but it isn’t used often, as youngsters heading underground do not take written works with them, and there is rarely a system in place for the recovery of the previous generation’s artifacts upon reemergence from their subterranean phase.

Cicadafolk are also known to be formidable in battle. While they aren’t known for being especially adept with weapons and aren’t especially good flyers, their movements often come across as clumsy to those of other species, which makes fighting them an awkward and unpredictable task.

Regions can vary widely in how they feel about the cyclical reappearance of the Cicadafolk. To some, they are a nuisance to be endured until they make their way back underground. Others welcome the unique cultural contributions they bring with them and celebrate their arrival. History also shows a number of instances in which more conniving humanoid species seek to quickly ally themselves with a newly emerged brood in order to win their assistance in a quick takeover of neighboring kingdoms. If left to their own devices, however, Cicadafolk typically avoid physical altercations altogether.

Cicadafolk Names

Cicadafolk’s insectoid mouthparts and frequent inclusion of stridulation in their communication make their names nearly impossible to pronounce correctly for most other species, but close approximations are possible. Their names often include syllables that are repeated twice or more. Some common names are Egkegkegkegkin, Artodtodtod, and Gisuasuasuatodt. Or something like that.

Cicadafolk Traits

Your cicadafolk character has unique traits based upon its origins and adaptations to its unique lifestyle.

Ability Score Increase: Your Wisdom score increases by 2. Choose one additional ability score to increase by 1.

Age: Cicadafolk who are operating above ground are inevitably 01-6 or (more likely) 31-37 years old.

Alignment: The cicadafolks’ understanding of and commitment to their regimented life cycle leads to a tendency toward a lawful alignment.

Size: Adult cicadafolk are usually 5-6 feet tall but can be a bit shorter or taller. They have slender insectoid builds and usually weigh a bit less than other species of similar height.

Speed: Your base walking speed is 25 feet.

Flight: As an adult cicadafolk, you have a flying speed of 40 feet. You can’t travel at this full velocity while wearing heavy armor. You are a somewhat clumsy flier and have disadvantage on checks made to avoid obstacles. In addition, you must succeed at a medium Dexterity check when landing, or you’ll tumble, taking 1d3 damage.

Exoskeleton: Your hard outer shell provides +2 natural armor. This bonus does not stack with any armor worn.

Unsettling Song: Cicadafolk stridulation can be quite beautiful and musical, but can also be unleashed as part of a distracting cacophony. Once per combat, you can use an action to distract opponents with your noise. Opposing combatants each lose one action during their next turn.

Languages: You can speak, read, and write Common and Cicadan, although your ability to speak languages other than Cicadan is somewhat limited by your vocal range. Similarly, other species are only able to produce an approximation of Cicadan. This is usually enough to convey basic ideas, but more complex messages are often lost in such communication.