Classic RPG Review #16: Maelstrom

1st edition softcover
by Alexander Scott
1984 Puffin Books, Harmondsworth UK

When Alexander Scott started writing Maelstrom, he was only sixteen years old. Still at school. Somehow he got himself invited by Pinguin publishers to write a game in a paperback. The publishers had no idea what he talked about. “Role playing what? No idea what that is. You're the wizkid who can do it? And you say this will sell? Euh, okay.” But, they said yes. And this gave Scott a lot of freedom. Perhaps because of his age, and this freedom, he made something unexpected, different and special.

The setting of Maelstrom is a cross between the medieval world of Chaucer – pilgrim's progress – that of Dickens, and that of Remi, Alone on the World. It's nearly realistic, but with a touch of magic. Very undefined, low key magic. But magic nonetheless. It's the real world with a hint of the supernatural. Closer to literature than to fantasy. Closer to Penguin publishers than to DAW paperbacks.

And that's actually cool. If you ever contemplated studying medieval literature, or ever stood in awe of the British library or any cathedral, you'll understand the appeal of this game. You can play a traveller, a guildsman, a scholar, a craftsman, a clergyman, a noblewoman, a rogue or a military – and much in between. The rules are fairly simple, percentile based – a bit like Runequest but easier and with less emphasis on combat. Building your character is simple, and you'll learn your character's age and some of his or history in the process of creation. And not just about the character's history, but also something about real history. As said, the game is fairly realistic. And thus good for serious students.

Magic also touches on the real. There's an excellent index of herbs and plants, with their medicinal uses. And not made up, but real. If you use Maelstrom just for this index, and nothing else, you won't be the first. Again, realistic. So is there some fantasy left in this game? Yes. It's in the name: Maelstrom. The Maelstrom is a magic vortex that can draw you anywhere, any place, any time. You might end up as Catweazle, in the present time of the players. And the likelyhood of encountering this vortex becomes greater as you use more magic. Scary for mages... don't use too many spells or you're in trouble. I liked the idea so much, that I took up using something alike in the Dark Dungeon 2nd ed. game.

How does it play? Well, that's where it starts to fall down a bit. There's a good solo game to start you off. Follow the numbered paragraphs and don't stray off the path, or you may end up reading signs like: “Reading Paragraphs at Random brings Bad Luck”. Then there's a whole adventure traveling on the road to London. But then what? It remains too scetchy after that. We had no idea how to proceed from there. There is no cool backdrop with a clear conflict. There's no party of evil to fight. There isn't even a mention of Cromwell and his men, or an earlier Queen Elizabeth, Wars of the Roses or a potential Spanish Catholic invasion. Not that I remember anyway. So... we forgot about the game.

Shame, though. Because the game has a lot to go for it. Given the right background, and a clear conflict in the setting, it might have become a true classic. Now it's mostly... a gem in the rough. So if you think you can make up your own campaign, have a look. It's worth it.

(rules are elegant, simple, fairly realistic - especially in character creation -, percentile based, somewhat resembling the RuneQuest set of rules, with a scetchy but innovative way of looking at magic)
(the game uses a realistic late medieval backdrop, which resonates strongly if you have a historic interest – though it lacks a central conflict, or choice of conflict, to use as a campaign theme)
(the game plays fairly easily with the sample scenarios, but failing a clear goal or backdrop of the whole game, and failing a clear adventure format, it regretfully fizzles out)
(a complete game in a small paperback, a nice scetch of late medieval society, a fairly realistic low fantasy setting, an inspiringly real index on medicinal plants and herbs, nice sample adventures)


Pick #36: Online Paper & Pen Tabletops

So you've got pen & paper role playing games, you have live action LARPS, you have MMORPG (just say M-Morp-er-ger), you have tabletopping, you have play by mail, play by email, interactive storytelling, theater sports, lone hack and slash CRPG, and then you have Yathzee. Also with dice.

But you also have roleplaying on a tabletop, while doing a basically pen & paper RPG, while you are not in the same room. In fact, you might not even be in the same town, or the same country, or same time zone. To do this you might use programs like Skype, or Teamspeak. But you might also need a virtual gameboard. I don't, but you might, especially if you do a Dungeon romp.

Recently I stumbled on what I guess are two of the leading products. The first is Fantasy Grounds, which has a pretty high wow looks factor. If you have to make your own virtual handouts for the game, or fill in scores of sheets however you might start to think otherwise. But it has a steady fanbase, and its well tested. The other contender I found is Battlegrounds, also with pretty nifty screen shots, and a slightly friendlier pricing scheme. It's less specifically fit for role playing games, but it does feature a big selection of art packs, games and adventures, also many for free. Once you have bought a GM client licence, that is.

If you're intrigued, and live far from the civilized world, you may also have a look at the RPG Virtual Tabletop wiki. And see if it's for you.

Image cropped gratefully from Battlegrounds


Free Adventures: Ammersfurt #4

The Secret of Ammersfurt is a free role playing supplement for the Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed game. Every week for thirty-five weeks, you'll get new bits for the Ammersfurt adventure setting, like monsters, NPC's, locations, skills, character templates, role play tips, and so on. And also every week, you'll get an adventure seed, which you can turn into a weekly adventure.

Adventure Seed 4: The Caravan Robbers

The burghermaster of Ammersfurt has a problem. And he asks our heroes who are either his friends, or people he regards highly, to help him out. A gang of thugs has now robbed at least seven transports on the roads west of Ammersfurt. And they are likely to strike again. They have not killed anyone so far, and have acted with military precision. But they have stolen well over a thousand golden libram in worth. If this continues, the city may lose all trade.

Download the fourth part of The Secret of Ammersfurt here! 

Update: link has been corrected!

Art repro from public domain, detail from the Marskramer by Hieronimus Bosch.


Movies for Gamers #13: Tales from Earthsea

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

Earthsea, written by Ursula Le Guin is one of my longtime favorite book series. They are so rich in atmosphere, dreamy depth and an own sense of reality that I can still almost reach out and touch that world. I figure that more people have that feeling.

And try to put it into film. Tales from Earthsea is a Manga-like animated feature, almost two hours long, by Goro Miyazaki. And it does feature hero Ged from the books. And it does feature the Dragons. It features Arren. And it loosely follows the third book – The Farthest Shore. Very loosely.

To me it's not the same feel. It's not even really close. But you know what? It's okay. Because Tales from Earthsea works well enough on its own. It captures some of the elements of the books, and blends them into something new. Something that also sometimes feels chillingly real. To me, anyhow.

“Once Man and Dragon were one. Man chose Land and Sea. Dragon chose Wind and Fire.”

See it as the Manga version. Not Le Guin's version. Then figure that you can probably do a better version of Earthsea yourself. Better than Miyazaki. Or at least one that's also good.

Alright, with that out of the way, can we use the movie in our games? Yes, I think so. One of the nice touches is heroes who are not what they seem. A young woman is in fact a dragon, an old man is the strongest wizard around - and he can change into a bird, their main antagonist is also a dragon - an almost undead one. But at the beginning they look like normal people.

Imagine giving each of your players a character like that, without telling the others. And you also give them a reason not to reveal their true nature straight away. They're supposed to be dangerous, dark secrets. I've seen this kind of secrets work beautifully in practice, giving a new feel to the game. Giving all players something to chew on while it's not their turn. Plan their next actions while not telling their secrets. Use your dragon powers to save your friends, or use them only in a hidden way, to avoid being spotted by your arch-enemy? Tell your party members that you have just been stalked by your dark shadow self, or wait until you can solve your problem - to avoid being cast out?

Have a look at Tales from Earthsea, and see what I mean.


Pick #35: Geomorphs

Now I haven't used miniatures for gaming since 1990 or so - at least not on a regular basis. My combats are far too chaotic for that, and I find (although some players may not agree with me) that the chaos of real combat is conveyed much better by just visualizing it in your head. While resorting to a drawing or some improvised miniature setup with cups and dice only once in a while.

Nonetheless, I still love watching maps and... geomorphs. Geomorphs are tiles you can interlock into a bigger map, just as you see fit. A puzzle that always works but looks different every time. Dungeon geomorphs also can be a great way to whip up an underground tunnel system in seconds.

So, where do you find them without shelling dollars? By drawing them yourself! Or...

Have a look at the Geomorph mapping project by Dyson Logos... the centennial efforts of Risus Monkey, or at doodling enthousiast Stonewerks. They're all very good. And they seem to love using their pencils. Dyson also loves making characters. And Dizzy dragon used his geomorphs in an online adventure generator seen in an earlier pick. Doodle on guys!


Free Adventures: Ammersfurt #3

The Secret of Ammersfurt is a free role playing supplement for the Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed game. Every week for thirty-five weeks, you'll get new bits for the Ammersfurt adventure setting, like monsters, NPC's, locations, skills, character templates, role play tips, and so on. And also every week, you'll get an adventure seed, which you can turn into a weekly adventure.

Adventure Seed 3: The New Sister

As an exception, a few men are invited to the convent of St. Ursula, to see for themselves how the sisters live from day to day. One or more of the visitors are the heroes. And maybe another of the heroes is a high placed sister of St. Ursula. While they are doing their rounds, a rainstorm breaks loose, and there is heavy knocking at the doors. A young woman demands to be let in. She wants to become a sister of St. Ursula as soon as possible. Now.

Download the third part of The Secret of Ammersfurt here!


Classic RPG Review #15: Stormbringer

4th edition softcover
by Ken St. Andre, Steve Perrin, John B. Monroe
1990 Chaosium Inc, Oakland CAL USA

One of the oldest fantasy heroes, and possibly one of the most famous and dramatic, is Michael Moorcock's creation Elric of Melnibone. Together with is not so trusty, soul slurping sword Stormbringer, prince Elric lives through many an adventure. He slays his most beloved, he fights his kin, he sees far shores, he fights the forces of Chaos with a capital C and... he's an albino.

Stormbringer is the first commercial role playing game that tries to bring his adventures to life – for role players. And it's written by Tunnels & Trolls inventor Ken St. Andre, with the help of RuneQuest writer Steve Perrin, and Cthulhu buff John B. Monroe. That's quite a team. So you might expect straightforward adventuring, and no beating around the bush like in T&T. You might expect streamlined and logical, realistic rules like in RuneQuest. You might expect a touch of evil - like in CoC, not Orson Welles. And in all these expectations you are right.

Stormbringer is well written, easy to read, and full of background information and detail. It has some nice artwork, beautiful colour plates – even if they may no longer be up to todays standards, they're very evocative. And if you don't know the Elric stories, the book will help you get a long way, with character descriptions and a summary of the novels. So you shouldn't have too many problems if your fellow players did read the books and you did not.

A special part of the game is the summoning and binding of demons, chaos creatures, and controlling them. This goes so far, that a large part of the rules is spent on how many demons you can bind, what the features of the demon are – like how many legs - and how many points that would cost. And as if that's not evil enough, you can also play a follower of one of the elemental forces. Then you can collect Elan points by... converting or killing followers of other cults. Stormbringer is a game about the battle against Chaos. Evil against Chaos if need be. Stormbringer RPG is as bloodthirsty as the sword Stormbringer itself. Not too scary for the average roleplayer, but you have to like the gore.

I wanted the Stormbringer game for a long time before I bought it. And I guess I waited such a long time because I had doubts. Doubts whether you could play such dramatic, tragic heroes like Elric. And do it in Michael Moorcock's world.To me that sounds like being an elephant handling porcelain. Because... well, what if I screw up? Will Michael Moorcock come and get angry at me?

Silly of course. But Ken St. Andre might to have had the same considerations. Before providing five complete adventures (over 50 pages), he has a very short section on how you could play the game. Originally he says, Stormbringer was to be played in the Young Kingdoms, but preferably as far away from Elric as possible. Ken does not give many handles on role playing Elric or his friends and enemies – not beyond giving a fairly good resource book. Seems like I'll have to face the challenge of being Michael Moorcock on my own.

The writers do provide some nice examples of what you could do for an adventure. But if you expect real stories, you may be disappointed. They're really nicely made dungeon bashes, with a little twist, a rival party, some deadly traps and tricks and some bizarre creatures. But, they're dungeon romps, not dramatic storylines.

And that while Elric off Melnibone is dramatic in the extreme. He mistakenly kills his own wife Cymoril in one of the books, so how much more over the top can you get? Just suppose an example adventure assumed one of the player characters was Elric, and his wife was kidnapped by his evil brother. That already would have been a different sort of game.

Maybe the above is the reason I always postponed playing Stormbringer. The game looks well made. It's well written. With a great setting. But now it's too close to straight D&D for me. Then again, if you're an old style D&D fan this might exactly be the reason for you to love it.

(rules are elegant, mostly simple, easy to learn, fairly realistic and fairly balanced, based on the RuneQuest set of rules, with a good deal of attention to demons and poisons)
(the game uses the strong backdrop of Elric's world, with a lot of background information, but even though example adventures are provided, the real dread and tragedy of the novels is lacking )
(the game as such is probably easy to play as a variant of D&D using RuneQuest-esque rules, doing hard core search, destroy and get the loot missions, but there is virtually no advice on storytelling, recreating the feel of the novels, or even an introduction to role playing – as such the game master needs to do much to propel the game forward for a longer period)
(dungeon romping in the fantasy world of Elric as created by Michael Moorcock, extensive rules on making demons, lists of creatures and main characters from the novels, maps of the Young Kingdoms, and five sample adventures)


Pick #34: Land of NOD

No, I don't mean the biblical Land of Nod where Cain fled after he clobbered his brother Abel. I mean the role playing blog with the same name.

Although I suspect that Las Vegas based author John "Matt" Stater does allude to this biblical land. Nod means "the place where you keep wandering", and that's what you might do on this blog. There is lots of artwork - both bootlegged and attributed, and sometimes even commisioned - and an ever growing pile of ideas, classes, myths, locations, monsters and general stuff. The Land of Nod is huge. Try this:

"1817. A tall hill of gray stone dominates the landscape. It is topped with several menhirs that jut out at odd angles. An ancient vampiric chief of the Magog is interred within this hill along with a bodyguard of wights. The tomb is accessible from the top of the hill via a small opening near the base of a menhir. One must wriggle through the opening to reach an ante-chamber ringed with menhirs carved with undulating, swirling patterns that cause nausea when stared at for too long. Secret doors from this chamber give access to the deeper recesses of the tomb. Wandering monsters in the barrow include mites, molds, wights and zombies. At the heart of the complex is the tomb of the vampiric chief, kept in a deep slumber in a coffin of silver in the middle of a pool of holy water."

And that's just an entry in the Venatia area - featured in the free pdf issue #6 last december. See the number 1817? You can get LOST for ages in Matt's imagination!

Not that I want to. But there is a certain charm to the site that keeps me returning. Even if Matt's free Pars Fortuna game is a bit too zany for me, with orange furred humans and humanoid pangolins for player characters...

Have a look, and see if there's something there you want. You might even meet the lost tribes of Cain somewhere along.

News #11: More Maps

Thought that I showed you all magic mappers out there? Of course not. Here's another very good one needing some dough to stay in the air: Dave's Mapper. (Thanks, Thomas Denmark.)

And have a look at the Cartographers corner on the Labyrinth too. Not really a mapper tool, but very cool graphics. These guys are almost too awesome. The map on the left is theirs.

Now, don't you know I have work to do?


Pick #33: Random Dungeon Mappers

Not long ago I found an old copy of Campaign Cartographer on my brother's desk. "Yeah, that's very old, another friend also had nostalgia looking at it" he said. It reminded me of long evenings and college sessions drawing all sorts of maps. To use in my games, someday.

Nowadays I don't have the time to draw them. Or don't take the time. Or I grab a historical map.

But, if you want you can also use a random dungeon generator, or a random city mapper. Try the Adventure Generator at Dizzy Dragon for example. It even fills your rooms with encounters according to the game system you choose. Not for Dark Dungeon - but hey, that's not for hack 'n slash anyways.

Or you could go for the map creators at Inkwell. You'll have to fill up their dungeons yourself, but there is also a city map generator, and a mapper for inns. Always good if you want to have a good old saloon fight - and your players insist on having a map.

Or you can just click and click to see what happens next. Click.


RPG Blog Carnival: The Secret of Reincarnation

Last two issues for the RPG Blog Carnival I wrote on how to reincarnate player characters in your campaign. Or at least how you could go about it. This time I'll touch upon what happens to you society, if people would start to remember that they were here before. And what you could do with that in your campaign setting.

What happens all depends on three things. One is whether people reincarnate, and how commonplace it is. The second is how many people believe or rather know that reincarnation takes place. And the third is in how far you can influence where and how you reincarnate. Think these over before you decide how you incorporate past lives into your fantasy society.

Just Freak Memories
You could decide that being born into a new body happens only in very special cases. That's it's a freak accident. Or just for certain souls who are bound to this world. That only the son or daughter of a god can be born again. Or one touched by the spell of a powerful wizard. In that case, it's little more than a gimmick for your campaign. Maybe people have an opinion, maybe the church calls it witchcraft, but that's basically it.

We all are One
Or you could decide that we all reincarnate, all the time. That we travel from body to body, life to life, and experience to experience. If the people realize that this is so, they might also want to take better care of their world. And better care of their fellow man. Because you personally might be born anywhere, and you are stuck in this world, so you'd better make sure it's as close to heaven as you can make it. And as ecologically sound as you can make it. Because if you blow up your world or poison it, you'll be back to reap the bitter fruits too. Actually, most Christian values (or other religious or humanist ones) would come rather naturally. They wouldn't just be moral, but actually practical necessity! Because then we all are one.

But All was Forgotten...
Yet if we all reincarnate, then we don't have to remember. Or at least not directly. And then remembering may become dependent on whether we take fleeting recognitions and vague memories of past lives for truth. Suppose the religious dogma does not recognize reincarnation. The church might state that we cannot be reincarnated while in actuality we are. Or the dogma might state that most of us are not supposed to remember, because we were sinful in our past lives, and now we have started with a clean slate. So we could remember but it were wrong to do so. Heroes and others who would have memories would have to be careful with what they told others about it. It would be a secret. Like it would be in our own society, even if the religion in our case would be exchanged for a scientific dogma. But if the heroes could share their memories, with fellow heroes, or with secret organisations of people who know... then there would be many alleys for adventure.

The Secret Order of the Continuous Resurrection
Because if you would not only be able to remember your past lives, but also make sure where you would be borne next, this would give virtual immortal powers. Suppose such a group exists in your fantasy world. A group of wizards, akin to such secretive organisations as the Freemasons. Or a group of mother priestesses, like the Artemisian cults, or even an order of the Mother, the holy Soul and the Borne Childe. Suppose such a group would bring back heroes, powerful people, either for good or bad, back in to this world – but remembering their past powers, knowledge and lives. Or maybe there are various of such temples of reincarnation, fighting one another in a secret (or open) feud. Such a feud would continue over ages and might spark whole wars. Wars only those who remembered would understand. Or think to understand.

Enough possibilities. Dream on them. And use what you will in your coming games.


Free Adventures: Ammersfurt #2

The Secret of Ammersfurt is a free role playing supplement for the Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed game. Every week for thirty-five weeks, you'll get new bits for the Ammersfurt adventure setting, like monsters, NPC's, locations, skills, character templates, role play tips, and so on. And also every week, you'll get an adventure seed, which you can turn into a weekly adventure.

Adventure Seed 2: The Unlucky Thief

On a busy market day, while the streets are full, the roads are clogged, and the weather is too hot, our heroes meet for a social call. When one of them wants to pay for the beer they drunk, he finds that his money pouch is gone. Did he leave it at home? No, the chord is cut. Then they hear a man shout “Thief! Catch the damn thief! He stole my purse!”. It is the Burghermaster of the city who is calling out. And there runs the young man who robbed him.

Download the second part of The Secret of Ammersfurt here!


RPG Blog Carnival: The Shock of Reincarnation

Last week writing for the RPG Blog Carnival I touched upon ways to use reincarnated characters in your campaign. One of the subjects I didn't handle was what happens to your character when you change bodies. What skills do you remember? And into what kind of body can you come back?

Of course it all depends on your school of thought. And what you can use in your game. Figuring Gygax might have written something about it, I decided to look up the Reincarnation spell in the old Players Handbook. But it doesn't tell much. It's just a random table for the race the new body might be, and a note that the new body appears in 10-60 minutes. It doesn't tell about skills left, power level, memories, age, or even hit points. Seems the spell was meant more as a gimmick than it was to be used. Few ideas there. Have to do this on my own.

Whenever a hero reincarnates, I think there's a few questions to answer. Gender and race (if at all human), skills remembered or not, and memories retained or not. And for all how fast they return, if at all.

The Buddhist Monk and the Ant
Some monks, it is said, refuse to kill even the slightest insect, because the insect might be a reincarnation of a human being, or become one later. Maybe that's true. But except for half a session of gimmick, it's probably not interesting to play an ant. For game sake it's best to assume all reincarnations of humanoids are into humanoids. So elves might become humans, and humans might become orcs, orcs might reincarnate as half-elves. Whatever you prefer for story and effect. Maybe full elven bodies are less available, but heroes are heroes, and heroes are special over many incarnations.

Past life I was a Woman
Or a man. And now vice versa. Or past life I was a bigoted master, and now I'm a colored slave. Or the other way around. The idea of karma says that you try to learn from past experience, and past lives. Perhaps as a cosmic or self-punishment, probably just as a cosmic or personal lesson and learning experience. Whatever your philosophies on this, stories become more interesting if the new character somehow contrasts with the old one. Both as player and as GM you can help decide what happens here. Don't be scared to experiment!

I don't know where I learned this, It's like I always knew
If all characters remembered every skill they learned in every past life, they would be like gods. And maybe they are. But if you go this way, no holds barred, your campaign will soon be either heavily unbalanced, or skill level will mean little because everyone is level infinite anyway. So for game purposes alone, reincarnated souls should forget. From a Karma point of view, if you wouldn't forget, you wouldn't be able to learn something new. So, it's probably best to drop all former skills, and build an entirely new personage with new skills and experience.
But on the other hand, remembering some of the skills or specials may give an immense kick. It gives a character more sense of continuity, and a mystic quality. Especially if remembering parts of your past lives is not common.

In game terms, you could accomplish this by giving a few “talent” skills to the new character. And if the old skills were those of a magic user, but the new persona is a warrior? You could give the warrior a few innate magick talents, or cantrip-like powers that have to do with what the mage once did very well.

The Virtual Immortals
But reincarnation itself, or remembering your past life, could also be prerogative of an elite cult. Maybe they could arrange that you would not only be reborn in a new powerful body, or powerful family, but also that you would really remember your skills. Or eventually remember most of them, in effect losing only a few levels of what you could do before. Or temporarily lose all of them, but rebuild them much faster (perhaps a level a week). This would make for a scary, godlike elite that might work for both the good and bad of mankind. Or elfkind. Or orcs. And so on. But making this a common effect for your heroes would leave a strong mark on the whole campaign and the world. Maybe it's preferable to leave such an old cult as a legend, and a great treasure to attain. Something to work for.

Yes, I remember, I was a half-elf courtesan then
Those memories that are not skills, but just knowledge and... memories are another matter. It's certainly too much work to work out all past incarnations and add them to your character description. But it can be a very cool story device if you can use memories of past lives. Especially once the players know their character is a reincarnated version of a former character, you might allow them to use their past life knowledge to pursue their former goals. This might be complete knowledge, or it might be somewhat fuzzy. Because there's a difference in knowing there is a trap somewhere, or that someone killed you last life, or feeling it is dangerous – or that you intensely dislike someone for no obvious reason. Whatever you decide, be specific about it escpecially as a game master, and don't be afraid to change your stance if you find it would help your game. Memories tend to fade and pop up anyway.

Have fun with your reincarnated heroes, and see you next issue in what it might mean for your (fantasy) society if people remember.

Movies for Gamers #12: Floris van Rosemondt

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

Another series only available in Dutch. I'm talking about the late 1960s black and white series done by Paul Verhoeven – who you may know from Basic Instinct or Zwartboek (Black Book). Verhoeven won international fame with many films, but this was his first real thing after doing promotional films for the army.

The series was conceived as the Dutch version of shows like the English Ivanhoe – the one with Roger Moore – or the French Thierry la Fronde. And even if it looks a bit slow, stilted and black and white nowadays, the basic ideas, combats and stunts are still good. The episodes just need a little upgrade. Or the loving eye of someone who saw the shows as a kid. Like me.

Knight Floris van Rosemondt is played by Rutger Hauer – who you may know from Ladyhawke or The Hitcher. He returns from crusade to find that his family castle has been stolen by the Duke of Gelre and his henchman Maarten van Rossum – the knight, not the historian. The first thing Maarten does is put Floris in prison. But fortunately his East Indian fellow traveller and mystic Sindala, and a magician help him escape. And there the series takes off. Floris fights to get his family home back for the next twelve shows.

As a starting point for a campaign, the Floris setting is intriguing. Because if you let the players be Floris and his friends, that means they are fighting for their own small country. Floris is heir to not only a castle, but an entire fief. Automatically, the heroes have something at stake - and that's something to play the game for. It is what I call embedding the characters. They are no longer loose cannons, but essential part of the story and the land.

As a straight fantasy setting, Floris will not be enough. Magic does not exist, and if the characters seem to think it does, it will always be a straight magicians trick or a guy hidden under a sheet. But there are some nice semi-historical types, like Lange Pier the tall Pirate, painter Hieronimus Bosch, and Floris himself. And you might get a few nice low-key plot ideas from watching the series. Or reading the comic strips of same.

Did I say the series was only available in Dutch? I lied. Paul and Rutger did a remake of the series in German, five years later. Floris von Rosemunde. In full color. You didn't know that, did you? Neither did I.

Then Floris was shelved for thirty years. Only recently the story was remade as a movie, with fresh Dutch actors, but that's for another time. As a basis for a campaign, Floris needs a bit more flesh. But as I said it's a nice start. And if you're Dutch, you might consider reading up on your history if you can do better than scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman. Hey, maybe you can! Also have a look at the Ammersfurt series of adventures on this site.

Nostalgic? Curious? If you speak Dutch, you can even have a look at the old shows on web video. Here.


RPG Blog Carnival: The Joys of Reincarnation

The RPG Blog Carnival just kicked off is about Life and Death this time. So I could write about how I ran a fantasy campaign for several years in which the dead wanted to invade the world of the living. Dead from a place like the Beyond, in the novels of the Reality Dysfunction. Horrible dead. Angry dead. Jealous dead. Possessive dead. But I won't. Not now.

Instead I'd like to touch upon what happens after death – if reincarnation exists. And what that means for your campaign world, if there are folks who remember. Remember who they were. And perhaps even remember what they were planning to do this life.

You might think reincarnation is not interesting enough for player characters. Because a character that reincarnates comes back as a baby. And a baby does not makes much sense in most dungeoneering parties. It doesn't even make much sense in most other types of story either. Because most babies don't talk much. Even if they do remember what they did last time. Or who killed them then. Or whether they're out for revenge, or redemption for what happened in their past life. And waiting until the character has grown up? In most adventure campaigns that just takes too long for the other player characters.

But, there are at least four ways around this – to make Reincarnation work in your campaign.

Reincarnation Baths
You can make the newborn grow up faster, by magic. This can be done before the “birth”, in a kind of Tleilaxu Tank or Reincarnation Bathtub, with a full grown soulless body. A body which is to be entered by the soul that transfers from the dying old body. Most often this body will be a clone. This is a costly process, which will usually be only for the rich and powerful. Or Paranoia PCs. Or Cylons. But it could be used for some player characters in a regular campaign too. Figure how such reincarnation tanks would be sought after. And how they would be targets of destruction, if they belong to enemies. Especially if “regular” resurrection was virtually unattainable, a secret hiding place with growing tanks could become the focus of an entire campaign.

Rapid Growing Pains
You can make the newborn grow up faster by magic after birth. In a process of agonising days or weeks, with intense growing pains, the hero reincarnated can get used to his or her new body. Meanwhile the rest of the party will have to protect our hero. Perhaps this is one of the most suitable ways for a “normal” dungeon romp style of play. The young hero can then join the party as a halfling style thieving child for a while, then as big as a young elf throwing stuff, and finally a young adult able to actually fight – and have some hit points. Naturally you would need a powerful spell or relic, or perhaps a very particular race, to attain such fast growth.

A Generation Later
You could kill off the entire party – though I'd not recommend doing that on purpose. And then you have them reincarnated together. You just pick up play with new young adults, and gradually have them remember parts of their past lives. You don't even have to tell the players that they are playing reincarnated versions of their old character. They can slowly figure that out for themselves from the hints you give them. Memories that crop up in their dreams, strange feelings of recognition. Sudden urges, like that of a magic user wanting to throw himself into a rage and a fistfight. Something you only start to understand once you know he was the berserker barbarian last time.

Memories from Another You
You can use parallel style reincarnation – or memory transfer, where already existing adult characters suddenly start to have memories of someone who just died. Whether this involves possession, transfer of the soul, mere transfer of memories, or companionship of the ghost of the deceased character – that's up to you. The important thing is, that it would allow a player to play with the memories, and perhaps some of the personality of his or her old character. And at the same time the old character does not have to be resurrected or raised from the dead. Whether you make this a gimmick for just once, or something that's very normal in your campaign is also up to you.

Naturally, if you use one of the above ways to reincarnate one or more player characters into new bodies, you must decide how much of their knowledge and skills are retained. I'd suggest that at least some of the skills are lost, if not all. But maybe it's easier to re-learn them. More about that in a next post. In a later post I'll also explore what remembering might mean for long term goals, and (fantasy) society as a whole.

I hope that gives you some nifty ideas for your coming adventures. I used most of the above myself. With varying degrees of success. But virtually always the players seemed to be happy to play some form of their old game self again – in a very different way.

Pick #32: Labyrinth Lord & Basic Fantasy

If by any chance you felt the same enthousiasm I felt when re-reviewing the Dungeons & Dragons basic set... you may have sighed. Where can I get those rules? On an Indian reservation in Nevada? In the Library of Congress? Where?

Or you may have thought, that the guys at Osric shouldn't have taken the Advanced rules to redo, but these instead. Right they should! No worries. Someone did the same trick as OSRIC for D&D. At least two someones.

Labyrinth Lord by Daniel Proctor (et al) is a 90% rewrite of the basic D&D set. Some things have different names, some rules are slightly different. But it's basically... basic! You can download the newest version without art for free, or shell out a few dollars for one with art - or even a print. Or you could get it in german.

Basic Fantasy by Chris Gonnerman (et al) is more somewhere in between basic D&D and AD&D. But there are also more free supplements for the game - adventures, monster books, sheets, Italian stuff. And just like LL, you can download the rules themselves for free too.

Now I wonder... would all this nostalgia be enough to actually play the old games again? Or try them for the first time ever? I gaze with amazement. Even if my memories are full of joy. For me I'm still not sure. But for many the answer is a simple resounding yes.

Update: WOTC have realized there is a market for old D&D by now, and you can get the B/X D&D sets on DriveThru in pdf form.


Free Adventures: Ammersfurt #1

The Secret of Ammersfurt is a free role playing supplement for the Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed game. Every week for thirty-five weeks, you'll get new bits for the Ammersfurt adventure setting, like monsters, NPC's, locations, skills, character templates, role play tips, and so on. And also every week, you'll get an adventure seed, which you can turn into a weekly adventure.

Adventure Seed 1: The Knight on the Hof

The first of your heroes, who is a knight of the order of St. Joris, is rudely woken in the middle of the night. His brothers (in arms) tell him that there is someone who calls his name out on the Hof. It is a dangerous looking knight, with a brandished sword. Did he have an appointment to fight? Did he insult someone?

Download the first 25 pages of The Secret of Ammersfurt here!


News #10: Happy GM's Day, and Come on Player's Day!

Happy Game Masters Day!

If you have no idea what I'm talking about. It's not because Gygax died, on this day a few years ago. He died after the idea of GM's day was coined. But he chose well, and died on no better day thinkable. Because this is the day that harried and misunderstood hard working, hard blogging, hard preparing, sleepless, underestimated, handsome or not so handsome, never-boring and ever-boring refereeing, storytelling, slightly-sadistic, mostly-fair-but-always-in-for-other-ways-to-take-away-your-magic-items, geeky, nerdy, lovable or not so lovable, domineering, bored, overworked, silly, ever-plotting, games-buying, book-shelving, dice-rolling, monster-creating, dungeon-building, adventure-minded, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera GAME MASTERS are supposed to get an extra thought of their players.

On the other hand, players try to bribe me with delectable food, eyewinks, cups of coffee, cuddles, phone calls, praise and long emails much of the time anyway. I guess I'm lucky... Keep it up lovable players!

Let's start thinking about a harried, hardworking, ever-lovable, ever-patient, creative, plot-and-riddle-solving, role-playing, wisecracking, doodling, never-admitting-how-bored-you-are, I-kill-it-with-my-axe, Oogah-oogah, I-rolled-a-twenty-no-really-I-did, oops-fumble, keep-your-fingers-off-my-holy-dice, that-was-coffee-on-my-character-sheet, oh-I-forgot-my-character-sheet, how-many-xp-is-that, etcetera etcetera etcetera PLAYERS DAY!
They deserve a special day just as much.

So how about 9/11. Or was that already taken?

Classic RPG Review #14: Dungeons & Dragons Basic

basic rules
by Tom Moldvay (ed.), Eric J. Holmes (ed.)
1981 TSR

Reviewing Dungeons & Dragons more than once may seem a bit superfluous. But there really is a difference between editions. No, really. Gary Gygax his name as a developer is not mentioned in these rules, and neither is the name of Dave Arneson, his co-inventor. That's one difference for example. Why their names are not mentioned, I can only guess. Maybe Arneson was just angry that he wasn't credited enough for his part in the discovery of fantasy role playing. Missed chance, I'd say. And maybe Gygax didn't feel another set of rules was needed – as he had just written the Advanced D&D books.

Gary must have been cross. Eric Holmes even apologized for writing the first basic set, but he felt that the original D&D rules were impossible to understand for normal people. So Gary wrote AD&D. But that still was nearly impossible to understand. So, I guess, that's why Moldvay did the second basic set. And they were right. Without the basic set I would have given up on D&D.

Like in all Dungeons & Dragons games the object is to search, destroy and loot. Mostly loot. And if you have a good time imagining you're a brainless warrior, a charming sorceress or a hairy halfling, so much the better. This is a simple game, but it is one of good old Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery without any real plot, that is.

But that doesn't matter, really. There's a charm to smashing the lairs of evil creatures and slaying them in between looting and counting the treasures. Dungeons & Dragons is good at this stuff. There are ample lists of monsters and treasures, even if it's only a 64 page booklet. And building your own Dungeons (these are the monster lairs you are supposed to loot) is easy. There still won't be much plot, but hey. You can just draw a map on grid paper and dice up the contents of each and every room. Your wrist may be tired of shaking dice afterward, but you'll have something to be proud of.

And making a hero isn't too hard either. The only qualm you might have is that you have to roll up your statistics. And if the dice aren't friendly, you have bad luck for the rest of the hero his life. It will be a short life most probably, but still. It's less fun to play a wizard with only average intelligence, no strength, zero charisma and just a single hit point. Fortunately most Game Masters will let you shake the dice ad nauseum until you are satisfied with the results, or until your wrists give up. Whatever comes first.

The rules are simple, clear, not always realistic and they go only up to level three. Level three is what your heroes will reach after a few games. And then you have to buy the next book, called the expert set. There you will find even more monsters, spells and magic items. And you will learn how to fill up monster lairs that are aboveground. Then your heroes can go looting in the wilderness, too.

Maybe all this looting business isn't all that special, but me and my players loved the game. Though we did start adding plot, and tried to make more of a story between lootings. For some time we even used the AD&D monsters and stuff in our basic D&D games. But then we converted to the Advanced game, because then you could play Paladins and multi-class heroes. That you couldn't do with these basic rules. But we also were sorry for stepping up for a long time. At least I was. The freshness of the earlier games was lost, and instead we gazed a lot at complex tables and flipped through heavy tomes of rules. Boy, did we think we were smart.

Maybe basic D&D isn't the best introduction to fantasy role playing, it still is one of the best introductions to dungeon bashing and looting. Mostly looting. It's fun.

(rules are clear, easy to play, fairly balanced, and not too realistic)
(the freshness of the game still is there, and there's an amazing amount of commercial material you can use to support this basic rule set)
(maybe simple looting wears too thin after a few games, but the rules are so open and accessible that almost anyone could master a game and make it exciting)
(fantasy, with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings, class based – this means you either are of a profession or a non-human race, combat with twentysided dice and separate damage rolls, hero progression based on slaying monsters and gathering treasure, magic accesible to some, with a limited number of one-shot spells that must be chosen before actual play)