Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sandbox Advancement

After four years of playing with the XP for GP rule, I have a hankering to try something different. The genre expectations and mode of play that go with that style of play don't seem like a great fit for a psychdelic, spiritual journey, sword & planet game that I'm planning as my next campaign titled Jorune: Evolution.  

In fact, for my Jorune: Evolutions campaign I've decided to do something pretty drastic given it's OD&D-inspired chassis: to run it as a game without experience points or levels. The question this post deals with is then how to handle advancement. 

As I discussed here, one thing I like about XP for GP is that it sets up open-ended objective challenges for players to solve. I also like that it incentivizes exploration in a sandbox without forcing the exploration to head in any particular story direction. Another nice benefit is that it does this by tying advancement to retrieving something that can be used in open-ended ways to further player involvement in the setting. 

In that earlier post, I canvassed some alternatives to XP for GP, and many people pointed to still further alternatives. Here are the alternatives I've pulled together that will perform the same functions as the gold-XP nexus and the incentive of gaining levels in Jorune: Evolutions. I plan to distribute the functions played by XP for GP advancement to a variety of mechanics. We might call this "advancement decentralization". Here are a few decentralized options. 


I'm going to handle development of skills, institutions, relationships, knowledge, weapon proficiencies, and the rest, directly through my system of downtime activities. This system puts incremental advancement in an economy of activities through which players develop their characters and leave a mark on the world. So that does a fair bit of the work that XP for GP does. 

Social Advancement

In Jorune, the default premise for the game is that the characters are "tauther" undergoing the citizenship ("drennship") application process called "tothis". This process involves a time of service to the realm, during which one must win the support of a variety of drenn patrons by accomplishing things that align with their goals. This means that in order to advance socially towards the social status of citizenship, one must navigate a social space in which one win over patrons with differing (and possibly opposing) schemes and interests. 

Small Ticket Sandbox Advancement

Sandbox advancement is something I touched on in this post on experience points, but I wanted to spin it out a bit more here. The idea is that one advances by doing certain things in the sandbox. As I noted there, one sees something like this in Carcosa where one advances as a sorcerer by uncovering rituals, cthonic entities, and sorcerous materials at set locations in the sandbox. (It's as though the magic-user's spell list is distributed in space throughout the hexes of the sandbox, which is pretty cool.)

I definitely will be using this in Jorune: Evolutions. Some of the "evolutions" mentioned in the title will be things that can be undergone only in certain locations of the hexmap. These could involve evolutions in terms of Isho (psychic power) or in terms of Earth-Tec or other unknown dimensions of evolution. Similarly there will be a whole minigame about unlocking visions and powers by doing limilates (drugs). Naturally, the rare and wonderful drugs will be sprinkled (planted) throughout the sandbox. 

Big Ticket Sandbox Advancement

But this incremental development of skills and powers leaves out what we might call "big-ticket" advancement. Going up a level in D&D is a sudden big advancement. There's a certain thrill of crossing a threshold. It's also an abstract way of measuring how much of a badass your character is. And it comes with big mechanical gains that you can't get any other way: most importantly more hit dice, but also combat bonuses, better saves, more spells, improved class powers, and the like. To keep some of the flavor of OD&D, I want to discuss one way of handling "big ticket" advancement in a system without XP or levels. 

My idea is to tie big ticket advancement to a bucket list of signature Jorune achievements. These should be achievements that adventurous youths of Jorune dream about doing, the kind of thing that tells you straight away that the person who did them is at least on the way to being a badass. It is important that the achievements be objective in the sense that they are not primarily plot goals, and that players can pick them up or put them down as they like, or ignore them altogether, without in any way derailing or detracting from the game. This is what makes them sandbox friendly. They also should be known objective challenges that are hard to complete. 

This idea is clearly related to "milestone experience" from 5E, where the DM awards XP using campaign "milestones". Someone might say that a bucket list of big accomplishments is just a series of milestones. There's truth to this, but I want to start by saying that "milestones" is not the metaphor I would choose insofar as it suggests that the party is on a road to a determinate destination, i.e. it's a metaphor that pushes against open-world sandbox play towards the railroad and the adventure path. This resonance is heightened by the all too brief discussion in the 5E DMG, where we are told three things a milestone might be. 

  1. "Accomplish one in a series of goals necessary to complete an adventure". This is not a sandbox friendly formulation, insofar as it presupposes that there is "an adventure" and that it has a series of "goals" that you have to accomplish to complete the adventure.
  2. "Discover a hidden location or secret relevant to the adventure." This is better, but it still has that pesky idea of "the adventure", relevance to which makes uncovering secrets a milestone. 
  3. "Reaching an important destination". This at least has the form of a sandbox achievement in the sense I am working with. There's some place on the map. It's important and hard to reach. If you get there, then you get a big ticket advancement. Like visiting the city of Carcosa in Carcosa.

In any case, unhappy metaphors and assumed play-styles apart, I am happy to say that "Sandbox Advancement" is an experience point free variant of "Milestones".   

This raises the question what the signature accomplishments might be and what big-ticket rewards they bring with them. On Jorune a partial list might look like this (I want to expand this to 10 things for 10 possible advancements): 

  1. Exploring a skyrealm, one of the mysterious flying islands of Jorune.
  2. Exploring Shanthic ruins, the mysterious hidden ancient underground cities of a strange psychic race.
  3. Discovering a cache of Earth-Tec, the ancient technology of the travelers.
  4. Killing a Dhar Corundron, the apex predator of Jorune. (Think of it as a sword and planet version of killing a dragon.)
  5. Mapping something, sailing some river, Laying eyes on the Trinnu Gulf, AKA the Amoeba Sea 
  6. Somehow getting up into outer space, or exploring the moons of Jorune, etc.
  7. Finding The Ship (or if there were more than one, a ship) of the travelers.

When you accomplish one of these signature goals, each player in the group chooses 1 of these options to improve their character:

  • Raise HD by 1 (You can do this 3 times max)
  • Raise 1 stat modifier by 1 (You can do this 1 time only for each stat)

You make only raise your HD 3 times, and you may raise each attribute modifier only once. So you may advance in this way a total of 10 times before you are a truly legendary adventurer. Raising an HD is a big deal in this system. 

Stat modifiers are also a big deal, since in my current version of the rules, few people will start with them, and they shift the probability on 2d6-based stat, skill, and downtime checks a lot. While they matter less in d20 combat, it's hard to come by bonuses of any kind in this system, since there is no attack bonus beyond what different weapon types give you, and armor options are likely to be limited. So I imagine it will be worth it to chase whatever edge you can get.  

Next time I'll talk about the skill system. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Insectiary (Zine Review)

 The Insectiary is a zine written mainly by Andre Navoa, with smaller written contributions by Andre Tavares, artwork by Pipo Kimkiduk, and layout by Lina and Nando. It was produced as part of Zinequest II, where I heard about it. The system neutral zine presents 16 nasty bugs to include in your ttrpg game.  

The Good

The first, and most important, thing to say about the zine is that it is a beautiful object. It has unusual dimensions, being A6 rather than A5, and small and tall. It has a heavy cardstock cover and is printed on bright yellow paper in red ink, except for a single red page with yellow ink. Starting with the cover, there is a stretched out feeling to the font use. It mixes different fonts, for a page by page, boutique feel, similar to the intentionally over-designed Mörk Borg aesthetic. Despite this, things are laid out clearly and with a consistent aesthetic and use of space. The layout looks good. Very good. Lina and Nando should be proud. 

Let me mention a couple of neat layout tricks and information design that zinesters would do well to note. 

(1) The full-page illustrations of the insects come with a little magnifying glass that has a plus or minus in it, along with a percentage number. So -60% would mean that the bug is 60% smaller than the illustration, and +25% would mean that the bug is 25% bigger than the illustration depicted. This is a handy tool that immediately helps you to visualize the size. Obviously, this trick will only work for things that are consistently pretty small in size so that they bear an intuitive relation to the size of the illustration on the page, but HATS OFF in this context it works perfectly. (I could imagine it working for a bestiary of fairies or mushrooms, or butterflies, or whatever.)

(2) Interestingly, there are no descriptions for the bugs, since the zine offloads that to Kimkiduk's glorious illustrations of each insect, using supplemental random tables to provide colors and sounds. Each entry tells you the natural habitat and size of the insect (this is actually unnecessary given the magnifying glass), and focuses almost entirely on the bite effect. It also includes a humorous or horrible quote at the bottom that paints a little vignette for you. Again, designers should do well to note this trick of really leaning into the visual presentation to do work that text could do. If you are working with an amazing artist, why not consider letting the picture do the talking for you? This allows you to focus your energies elsewhere.

It is worth pausing here to emphasize how horribly delicious the illustrations of the bugs are. They remind me somehow of the best fiend folio illustrations. That they are produced in yellow on red somehow only adds to the awful beauty of the drawings. Kimkiduk has done a wonderful job. 

The Mainly Good

I have two minor gripes with the layout and information design, which I feel almost bad mentioning because the total package is so good aesthetically speaking and innovative with its information design. The first is that they chose to do a really great two-page spread illustration of insectoid horror on the interior of the cover. But the cover is stapled (attached) to the interior, which means you can't see the spread properly. As far as I can tell, the only two places where you can have a single unbroken illustration across two pages in a zine is either on the exterior of the front cover or on the center page of the zine. Or, if you have a detached cover, you can put it on the interior of the cover, as I do with my maps. 

The second minor gripe is that the entries for the bugs do not tell you what color the bug is or what noise it makes. Instead you are sent to roll on three utilitarian but fairly insubstantial tables at the front. This works against the wonderful design aesthetic of the zine to have everything about a bug on the same two-page spread and adds nothing, since what's at stake is just describing aesthetics trivia of the bug ("wait a minute, flip, clatter, clatter, it's green with mottled fuchsia spots") and the tables are very short anyway. I think it would have been better information design if this was simply included in the description. The take-way for me with this is that you should think about whether having a random table adds something or just throws up a procedural obstacle to smooth play. Again not a big deal and the main thing to say is that this zine has brilliant information design. 

The Definitely Could Have Been Better

But there is, from my point of view, a big problem with the zine. It comes out in the following text at the beginning, where Navoa writes:

"Insects are nasty little buggers that attack you during. your sleep or when you expect it the least. Or whenever the referee wants them to attack, just because you are being very annoying at the gaming table. 

The Rules: Whenever the referee sees fit, they may ask one or more of their players to make an appropriate ability check or saving throw (whatever makes the most sense according tot eh rules system you are using) on behalf of their characters. In case of failure, the character is either stung or bitten_depending upon the insect type_and must endure the effects as detailed in the description of the insect. It is that simple."

Perhaps this is meant tongue in cheek, but it relates to a real problem with using the zine. In the real world, one is usually stung by an insect before one ever realizes it's there. And this seems to be part of what horrifies Navoa about insects. 

The problem is that, at least in retro-game play, it's not fun to have things happen to your character by DM fiat without any warning. It's all well and good to hazard dangers knowingly and have the worst happen, it's another entirely to have something come from nowhere and harm your character. The classic example would be a trap that was potential lethal (save or die!) but had no external warning signs. That's bad adventure design. Instead the players should either be given signs that there is a trap there, or the context should be such that they know that the place they're walking into is chock full of traps, and they better go cautiously.

Some of the bugs are utterly lethal: they paralyze you and eat your eyeballs, or kill you from sepsis, or deliver an electrical shock like a sword blow, or compel you to kill your next sexual partner (!), and so on. Others produce mainly humorous effects like smelling bad or itching. It's obviously worse if it's lethal, but it might understandably rub a player the wrong way to just have even the less bad things happen to their character out of the blue. 

The advice about when to inflict this sudden penalty on players, which is probably intended as a joke, is also bad. The DM should never do things to players because they annoy them. That sounds like a dysfunctional power trip to me, and also pushes against the model that I enjoy most in retro-gaming play, where the DM is a fair arbitrator, who is certainly rooting for the players, but without allowing that to influence the challenge based fair play that is scrupulously established and builds trust between player and DM. 

Since the text of the zine focuses almost entirely on the bad thing that happens to you when the bug bites you, and since these are presented in the main just as bad things that happen out of the blue when something tiny without stats or even a description suddenly assaults you, it's not very usable at the table. As it turns out, the zine mainly consists of a series of gorgeous insect illustrations in a jaw-dropping layout that could be repurposed for other ends, perhaps with a bit of inspiration drawn from some of the bite effects. In other words, it's stellar design principles aside, it's not very useful at the table.

How Would I Use This Zine

Although I would mainly use this zine by repurposing the illustrations for other ends, nonetheless, I think there are some fun things that could be done with the zine as written. One way you could use the bugs is to turn them into known hazards of travel. "My God, no one goes into the Desert of Scorching. It's crawling with eyeball guzzlers that paralyze you with their sting, and pestilential fleas that give you uncontrollable itches!" Then the PCs can at least take precautions, and if something happens it will fall more into the daring known hazards category. 

Other bugs could be use as the centerpiece obstacle of an adventuring locale, as for example the moths that shock could be fluttering around an orchard with a magical pear tree with the smell of ozone in the air. The players would see the moths in huge numbers with the warning smell. So they would be primed to be careful and if someone got a painful shock it would be an acceptable cost to learn about the obstacle they had to face. 

Another idea I had was to introduce an NPC assassin who was a bug collector, and used insects to do their dirty work, almost like a ridiculous gimmicky James Bond style assassin. I think that kind of an enemy NPC could be a lot of fun. I could also imagine a murder mystery adventure where everyone died by a different kind of bug bite, and some kind of evil druid or insect collecting magic user was the culprit. In other words, I would use the zine pretty much as written as the equipment list of some bug-themed villain.

In Sum

It's OK: ***/*****

Buy this zine in print and PDF here or in PDF alone here if you want to have something beautiful or to learn from its graphic design or to repurpose its wonderful illustrations. Give it a pass if you're looking for something substantial that you can use at the table in retro-game play, unless one of my proffered ideas has grabbed you.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Downtime Activities at Underworld Adventurer: Carousing and Finding the Right Buyer

At the blog Underworld Adventurer, Nick K. has been doing some really interesting things using my framework of downtime activities. I wanted to highlight two of their posts and take it as an opportunity to talk about designing downtime activities.

Finding the Right Buyer

The way Nick handles treasure is that the more obviously liquid items like jewelry or gold bars can simply be converted to their GP value upon returning to town. But what about those valuable but more speciality items, like a gorgeously carved chair, or alchemical gear like alembics and retorts? Nick decided to create a downtime action to handle this, which you can read here

Here's how it works. The character spends a downtime action to look for a buyer and the player rolls 2d6. On a 6- they roll on a table of complications, which has entries like selling the item for less than it's worth, or attracting the attention of the thieves guild. On a 7-9 the sale goes through and the player receives the GP value. On a 10+ the player rolls on a "Noteworthy Success" table with results like selling it for more than it's worth, or finding an abiding patron. 

Nick's rationale for having a 6- be the complication was that to have a 6- be a failure to find a buyer would disincentivize the use of this downtime action, which essentially attaches a downtime cost to what in many games would be handled with a wave of the hand. In cases like this, I think Nick handles this the right way, replacing failure with an automatic success plus a complication. Keep in mind that you're pretty likely to get a complication (~40%) and pretty unlikely to get a noteworthy success (~10%). This represents the riskiness of trying to set up possible illicit sales of looted goods.

The two separate tables is also simple and direct. I would use this downtime action pretty much as written, maybe expanding the tables a bit to build in some more emerging adventure possibilities. 

Carousing at Underworld Adventurer

Carousing rules are a staple of retro-game downtime play. In fact they're the one part of downtime that has gotten sustained and broad attention. On the standard-average model proposed originally here, the player spends 1d6x100gp (or more in a big city) on a wild binge, drinking away their fortune like Conan would, and gets that many experience points. The player makes a saving throw against poison. If they fail they have to roll on a big chart of mishaps, with results like a wicked hangover, venereal disease, or ending up hitched to someone you don't remember marrying. 

There are more complicated variants out there, like Gus' pleasing approach that gives you a bonus to the roll on the consequences chart if you roll well on your save, with positive consequences at the high end like winning at gambling or becoming famous as the life of the party.  

I've been pondering how to incorporate carousing with my system of downtime actions. Well, Nick went and put together a splendid version for elves or "hobs" who can carouse in the "Twilight Shores", a sort of Lyonesse-inspired elfin hinterland. It's flavor is delicious. 

Mechanically, the way Nick made it work is this. The player rolls 1d4 and spends the result x 100 GP on the carouse, getting that much XP. They make a poison save as usual. If they pass then they add the first roll (the 1d4 roll) to their consequences roll, and if they fail they subtract the first roll. The idea, I guess, is that if you spend big that could go either really well or really badly. 

The consequences roll is the typical 2d6 downtime roll with the chart extended to 16 at the top (good results) and -2 on the bottom (bad results), sometimes with results differentiated by whether they passed or failed the save. The chart has glorious results: at the low end you can end up with an asses head, or an appointment to duel by riddle with an elf lord, and at the high end you can receive favors from elfin potentates or benefit from various temporary glamours. I like this a lot. 

But it's a little fiddly in terms of how many rolls and modifiers there are, and also breaks with system by using the 2d6 roll for the table of random results. For my own version, I'd like to keep parity with the rest of my system by whittling it down to a single 2d6 roll with bad/mixed/good results, and a single followup roll on a table. I'm interested in trying out the model Nick used for finding the right buyer here too. Here's what I came up with.

Carousing in Mazirian's Garden

Carousing is a downtime action. You go on a wild bender and spend 1d6 x 100 gp (or as much of that as you have). The character receives as many xp as gp spent for the use of the downtime action and rolls 2d6. On a 6- the player rolls on the carousing mishaps table. On a 7-9 they have a swell bender with no ill effects. On a 10+ they roll on the carousing boons table. Once again, this gives you a fairly high chance (40%) of having a mishap--a fair risk for a hefty XP reward. But there is also a small chance (10%) that something good will have come of your intemperance.

In the version for Zyan, I'd certainly follow Chris Kutalik's lead for Fever Dreaming Marlinko and have a different table of mishaps and boons for each different neighborhood. (This is another way to give a local feel and texture to the place, allowing characters to build attachments to particular parts of the city.) But for starters, here's are some tables written with Rastingdrung in mind, a city whose sole recognized religion is the Temple of Ulim, a pleasure cult dedicated to plumbing the depth of hedonism. I've drawn freely on the carousing posts I linked to earlier for inspiration, but I've tried to expand the tables in directions that will generate interesting adventure hooks or complications. 

Carousing Mishap 1d20

  1. Hangover – A soft, nauseous stomach, painful pressure behind the eyes, you’re hung over and roll at -1 on all physical actions next session.
  2. You got caught up in a tavern brawl, start the next session 1d4 HP down (min. 1) with a huge black eye or other visible wound. 
  3. You make a fool of yourself in public: you decide how. You have gained reputation as a lout. -1 on all reaction rolls and attempts to cultivate relationships in the city until you can improve your reputation somehow.
  4. You promised you'd do something for someone that you really wish you hadn't promised. Decide what it is: the promise should either be humiliating or a pain to fulfill.
  5. You vandalized property of a rival if you have one, or someone your character would disapprove of if you don't. It dawns on you that the victim will likely find out its you if they just ask around.
  6. Eating street food from that filthy cart seemed like a good idea at the end of a long night. Roll a save vs. poison to avoid having acquired a parasite. 
  7. In the euphoria of the evening, you let slip something crucial you shouldn’t have, like the location of a dungeon, or your possession of a magical weapon. This will come back to haunt you. 
  8. You lost something. Dice randomly to see which item from your character sheet you lost. 
  9. You have gotten yourself in an awkward romantic situation. You either have led on someone of consequence (a hireling, a rival, a potentate) whose feelings you do not reciprocate, or you have find yourself in an unpleasant romantic triangle. If your character would not romance, then it's the same thing but with someone who thinks they're your new best friend.
  10. While under the influence, you insulted someone  inadvertently acquiring a rival or perhaps a new frenemy. 
  11. That divine concoction, you simply must have more! You’ve matured, and you deserve the best! You have acquired expensive tastes. Your high end tastes now require double investment on your future carousing rolls. The effect of carousing is unchanged, and the extra money wasted.
  12. The Scarlet Censors raided an establishment while you were present and you were fined an additional 1d6X50 gp. If you cannot pay, you are in debtors prison in the White Halls until someone can bail you out or you can arrange an escape.
  13. You have acquired an addiction to one of the many rare substances available for consumption at the Temple of Ulim: 1d4: 1. Black Lotus 2. Opium 3. Virdian Powder 4. Hashish. Anytime you return to town you must acquire and indulge in your vice (spending 50 GP x Level) on intoxicants.  The inability to obtain sufficient intoxicants results in a -2 on all rolls during the next session.
  14. It all came down to that last roll of the dice, or that last hand of cards, and you failed, busted, rolled out, got cheated.  Either way you lose your level x 1d4 x 50 additional GP. If you cannot pay, you now have a debt to organized crime.
  15. You went on a drunken spending spree and bought something expensive that you really don't need or want 1d4 x 100 gp. (Decide what it is.) If you cannot pay, you stole the thing or promised to pay for it later.
  16. You invited someone on the next adventure who the party has reason not to want to come along, like a rash noble boy whose parents will be furious if he is harmed, or a rival, or someone who is obviously a shady character.  
  17. You did something you profoundly regret, offending a friend (lose one tick on a relationship clock). If you do not have any ticks on a relationship clock, then you spoil another party members relationship to someone (they lose a tick on the relationship clock). If no one in your party has any relationship clocks, then you ended up the night drinking alone and start the session feeling bleak (-4 on saving throws for the session). 
  18. You behaved in a contemptuous way, or otherwise caused offense, to a hireling. (Decide how.) You now have a bad reputation among the pool of available hirelings, who will only serve for double fees until you somehow make it right, say by saving the life of a hireling or displaying real generosity.
  19. You have commit a blasphemy against the Temple of Ulim that has attracted the attention of the Scarlet Censors. There is a warrant for your arrest and you will likely be subject to unpleasant consequences in the White Halls if captured. 
  20. You have no memory of the bender, but you have a feeling that something went very wrong. Likely you committed some crime, or saw something you really shouldn't have seen. You may be in trouble with criminal enterprises or the law. The DM will consult with you to see what things are not comfortable with your character having done, but otherwise will decide what you did and keep it a secret until it comes up in game.

Carousing Boon 1d20

  1. After a magical night, you feel like you're still walking on water. Take +4 on saving throws for the next session.
  2. Some substance you consumed (intentionally or unintentionally) last night has you pumped with a first time high you'll never recapture. For this session, you have 1d4 extra hp. These are not permanent, but when they fade they will leave you with a minimum of 1 hp.
  3. This one's on the house! The drinks were freeing flowing over the course of the night, and many of your expenses were covered by a drinking companion, whether a dissolute noble or the owner of a drinking establishment. Retain half the gp you spent on carousing, but take the full xp reward.
  4. The night was extraordinary and you will never forget it. If you want to you can share with the group one memory or image or scene from the evening that you will carry with you forever. Acquire an additional 50% experience from your carousing expenditure.
  5. You shared some special times with an old friend or made a new one. Increase your relationship tracker by one step with this person. You pick the NPC, or if it's a new friend make a proposal to the DM. 
  6. You begin an exciting new romantic relationship. Propose a known NPC or make one up. If you character would not engage in romance, then treat this as the prior result.
  7. You befriended an animal during the night--a playful monkey, a hungry dog with soulful eyes, a devious parrot--you decide. The animal will stay with you if you let it, and can be trained to do useful tricks.
  8. You did something to improve your relationship with hirelings, perhaps standing up for a hireling or drinking with guild members. You decide. You now have a good reputation among the pool of available hirelings, who will work for you (alone) for 50% the normal cost. 
  9. During your revels, you find yourself with a unique opportunity to set back the interests of a rival. Collaborate with the DM to decide what this means. If you have no rival, you acquire a piece of information that gives you leverage on some NPC.
  10. While under the influence, someone else lets slip a secret of some significance. The DM should say who spilled the beans, and provide you with real actionable intelligence or, at the least something very amusing (and potentially compromising) about a known NPC.
  11. It was legendary night and you did something amazing: ate a dozen ghost peppers, pulled down the pants of the hated executioner and got away with it, outdrank a minotaur--you decide. What you did is now the talk of the town: receive +1 on all reaction rolls in the city until your reputation changes.
  12. At some drinking establishment you found something valuable, a purse of coins, a ring, a scroll case, a treasure map, a weapon. The DM will roll on a treasure table to see what you found. It may present adventuring opportunities, and it is always possible that the person who has lost the item will come looking for it.
  13. It all came down to that last roll of the dice, or that last hand of cards, and it was your night to win! You receive Level x 1d4 x 50 gp.
  14. Over the course of the bender, someone offered to sell you something you desire for a greatly reduced price. Decide what the object of your desire is. The DM will price it and then cut that cost in half. 
  15. During the night, a unique business opportunity presents itself in the form of an offer from one of your co-revelers. In the cold light of day, it all checks out. Collaborate with the DM to decide what the opportunity is. You may invest up to 250 gp and roll 2d6 at the next downtime when the investment matures: 6- you made 50% on your investment 7-9 double your investment 10+ triple it.  
  16. During your debauch you met someone--perhaps a retired adventurer with grizzled beard and pain behind his eyes, or the garrulous apprentice of a great sorcerer--and learn from them about a lucrative adventuring opportunity. The DM will tell you what it is; it may or may not be time sensitive. 
  17. During your revels you party at some out of the way spots and end up discovering a new secret location, a secret drinking club, an illegal gaming house, perhaps even the locations of the thieves guild.
  18. As a result of your hedonistic experiments in drug use, your body's capacity to contain and tolerate toxic substances evolves. Lower your poison save by 1 permanently.   
  19. Your revels were watched closely by a Voluptuary in disguise, who travels amongst the people to look for those touched by the spirit of Ulim. Your excesses that night received favor with him or her, and the Temple wishes to reward you for your holy profligacy. Decide what you did to attract this religious admiration. Whatever it was, the result is that you get a rare invitation to one of the "Gaming chambers", the secret subterranean pleasure dens of the Temple of Ulim. On another downtime, you may throw a party there with access to all the pleasure enhancing equipment of the temple. Everyone who attends gets double XP for the money they spend on carousing. 
  20. As you penetrate deeper into the revels, you realize that something profound is happening: a hedonistic spiritual awakening, a vision quest, an enlightenment through excess. Decide what the spiritual journey you have embarked on is, creating a tracker for a new spiritual exercise in collaboration with the DM. Mark off one tick on the tracker for the progress. Who knows what enlightenment lies at the end of this journey? Perhaps a permanent increase in your wisdom score, or a vision that will reveal something of great value to the party, or the single use of a spell you otherwise wouldn't be able to cast. (Remember that the more potent the result, the longer the tracker should be.) If this is only the first of many spiritual exercises, perhaps you are on your way to becoming an Ulimite saint!

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Rules for Citycrawling

Let me tell you about a game my father played with me as a child. It started when we were walking home from grade school in winter, through the Greenwich Village towards the East Village where I lived with my mother in a six floor walk-up opposite Saint Mark's Church. He would pull a hat over my eyes to blindfold me. He would take a couple of quick turns and walk me around until I was "lost" (disoriented), and then he would put me in front of something, and lift the hat, shielding with his hands the rest of my view, so that I could only see what was right before my eyes. 

Although we had never walked very far, and I had been over every street dozens of times, I had never seen (noticed) any of the things he showed me. A marble bust of a polish general. A colonial looking house with huge roman columns. Once he took me inside a store and when he lifted the hat there was an airplane in there. It was a rule that he would never tell me where we had been afterwards. Cut off entirely from the map of the streets as I knew them, these glimpses gave me the sense that i was seeing an entirely different city, a hidden city, like a palimpsest lying beneath the city I knew and peeking out here and there when the hat came up. What could I do build in my mind but spin out a whole alternate city built from these glimpses of things that were in truth hidden in plain sight? This alter-New York loomed large in my imagination.

Eventually the game had to stop when my direction sense got good enough that he couldn't get me "lost" even if he spun me like a top and took many quick turns. But when I got older I played the game by myself, getting myself lost in less familiar terrain to great profit. I found too that I could lift the hat, so to speak, on myself by just looking at what was right in front of my nose, and by searching out the weird tucked-away spots, the hidden worlds, the queer and inviting side-paths of urban life. And what I found was that that other city was never far, because cities are limitless storehouses of secrets, bursting with wonders if only one stops to look. 

The Model of Dungeon Crawl

I've been thinking for a long time about how to run and design cities in a retro-game sandbox way. I've been reading older rpg city material off and on for yearsI've also been running occasional games of the City State of the Invincible Overlord for my kids and their cousins. And now, at long last, one of my two groups has finally made it up to Zyan Above for some proper adventuring. So I thought it was time to pull together something in the way of technique. 

As I talked about here, the City State of the Invincible Overlord provides one model for running a fantasy city. It takes what I would call a "street-based" approach. In CSIO, streets generally have their own name, and many have their own special encounters. You also move through the city streets like corridors in a dungeon with encounters on a turn-based system. And there's a gorgeous map. It has the same openness that location-based adventuring has, but much more, since the "dungeon" of the city is less deadly and much more open. Because it's so focused on streets, there aren't neighborhoods with write-ups, because the focus is more fine-grained. This is similar to the way that dungeons often only loosely have thematically different quadrants.  

One thing I like about this approach is that it takes a tried and true open-gaming model and tries to reimagine and repurpose it for citycrawling. It also works for discovery and exploration. Just like I explore the map of the dungeon, moving through corridors, opening room by room, so too I explore the map of the city. For example, like other Judge's Guild products, the CSIO came with both player and DM maps, so that the players could fill them in, jotting down notes on the temples, guilds, establishments, and so on they discover. 

Although untapped, by extension from the dungeon, this also suggests a possible model for uncovering hidden locations in cities, insofar as procedures exist for uncovering secret doors and hidden areas in dungeon exploration. Perhaps one could try something similar here extending the dungeon model further. 

But the problem with this approach, for what I want, is that there's no way I could build a city that feels sufficiently big to scratch my metropolis of the dreamlands itch if I insisted on treating it in this exhaustive way. The entire CSIO map, for example, would only be the size of part of a single neighborhood in the city I've been imagining. 

A second problem is that I don't yet have a city map, and I'm not up to drawing one myself. This technique depends almost entirely on having a beautiful and interesting map. 

A third problem is that a map-focused approach doesn't have rules for getting lost. The simplest most fun version of using this technique would probably involve giving the players their own map of the city so that we didn't get bogged down in narrating details of the map. But in that case, the players would always know where they were.

A fourth problem is that by taking the street as the level of analysis, it loses something of the texture of a city. I want an approach that emphasizes the different feel of  different neighborhoods. I want a city with neighborhoods that feel as different as the East Village feels from Washington Heights or Red Hook or Astoria, or, to take a different city, as a different as Friendship feels from Polish Hill or Mount Lebanon. (Of course, one could recapture this through a well-designed map, but one could also try a different approach that built in the neighborhood as a unit more directly.) 

The Model of Procedural Generation

From early on, a different model competed with the completist dungeon-crawl model of the CSIO. This model involved procedural generation, either on the fly or in preparation for the game. There probably are precursors to this, but there are two relatively early products I know of that apply procedural generation techniques familiar from dungeon construction to cities. If you know more in the comments, then please let me know. 

The first is Midkemia system, first presented (I think) in the second edition of Cities, which involves a rich technique for randomly "stocking" a street with various shops and residences by rolling dice, with some neat rules for businesses clustering on a given street. Here we could see them applying the sorts of methods the Dungeon Master's Guide gave us for randomly generating dungeon rooms and stocking them via rolling on tables. 

The second came in Lankhmar: City of Adventure, which borrowed the procedural generation of dungeons using geomorphs: cut out dungeon chunks cleverly designed so that one can assemble them in any number of combinations by laying down connecting tiles. Lankhmar used a city geomorph to map the mazy slum of alleyways that connect buildings in a sort of city-within-a-city way in Lankhmar. The thought was that there was no way or point in mapping them, and that their jerry-rigged structures shift often as well, so better to capture the mazy, infinite, and shifting feel of it it with procedural generation. In a delicious coup, the gorgeous Lankhmar map left blank spots to indicate where one entered geomorph space, so that you would generate a chase through the streets after a cutpurse (say) in this fashion, and players could know in advance when they stepping into an area with this sort of procedure. 

Again, what I like about this is that it takes tried and true techniques from open-world dungeon crawling and design, and repurposes them to work on the city environment. 

The early OSR fastened on techniques like these to deal with city crawling, focusing on procedural methods of generating city environments, although without much awareness of the early hobby precursors. Vornheim was intended to capture an infinite city, of which its author, the abuser Zak Smith, grudgingly drew a map of on the inside cover, while telling the reader not to use it. Instead, streets were to be procedurally generated using a (too) cute system that involved writing words, with a separate die drop system for generating buildings and streets. This was supplemented by copious random tables did the rest of the work, along with illustrative examples of buildings and the like. [New copies of this book are not for sale any more, so discussing it will not produce profits for its author.]

The reason why this procedural generation approach won't work for me, as flexible and wonderful as these techniques can be, is that if you procedurally generate locations on the fly, you systematically disable the pleasure of uncovering something hidden, since it's all made up as you go along. As a player (not a character), I can only find something if it's already there to be found. Furthermore, if the map is infinite and generated on the fly, then although it sure will feel big, there also will be no such thing as coming to know it. And my love of cities is all about coming to know them, and this is what I want to capture in my city crawling rules. 

The Model of the Pointcrawl

Another model we could try in this context is the pointcrawl. The term "pointcrawl" was coined by Chris Kutalik for techniques that use points of interest connected to one another by abstract paths one moves along. The pointcrawl abstracts movement through a much larger space where not everything is of equal interest, and so where a micro-focus on the environment is not fun. It also mirrors the way one orients oneself in a wilderness space, navigating by landmarks, trails, paths of least resistance, and the like. 

This is promising since it would allow exploration while focusing prep energy as a DM on a set number of notable locations, with possibly multiple things there, e.g. a location could be a single notable bathhouse, or it could be a theater row, or a bustling square with numerous establishments. If we wanted to focus on different neighborhoods, we could make each it's own pointcrawl. A pointcrawl models in abstract ways the distance between things without presupposing that one has a gorgeous map sufficient to capture the fascination and interest of players. So that's a plus too.

There is an obstacle to this otherwise promising approach in the city context in that one can usually reach a location in a city without being forced to move through any given location by going a slightly roundabout way. Thus cities don't really have the chokepoint feature of pointcrawl maps. But one can handle this by simply giving players the option of not interacting with points they pass through. 

To make this work, we'll also need rules for getting lost on a pointcrawl, and a way to model off the beaten path or "hidden locations" in each neighborhood, which are often not literally hidden (although sometimes they are), but rather places that are easy to miss secret locations. Luckily, I have a system for this I developed for the sewer crawl in issue 3 of Through Ultan's Door, that uses a system of floating hidden nodes on the pointcrawl. I'll repurpose that here.

My Citycrawling System (V.1)

City Size

The number of neighborhoods, and locations in a given neighborhood, depends on the size of the city. There are the same number of hidden locations per neighborhood as regular locations, and the number must correspond to a die size (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, etc. unless you use funny DCC dice). The hidden locations are ordered in a numbered list in terms of how hard they are to find, the higher the number, the harder it is to stumble on them. 

  • Small City: 3-5 neighborhoods; 4 nodes and hidden location per neighborhood 
  • Middling City: 4-6 neighborhoods; 6 nodes and hidden location per neighborhood 
  • Large City: 5-7 neighborhoods; 8 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood
  • Metropolis (the size of Zyan): 6-8 neighborhoods: 10 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood
  • Megalopolis: 7-10 neighborhoods: 12 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood

At the bottom end you have a city with three neighborhoods, 12 notable and 12 hidden locations. At the top end you have a city with a staggering 10 neighborhoods with 120 notable and 120 hidden locations. Zyan is on the big side, with 6 neighborhoods, and so 60 notable locations and 60 hidden locations. While prepping a giant city like this is a lot of work, the idea is that it could sustain years of possible play, a whole campaign in a single city. (And should players just visit, I want them to be like: HOLY HELL that's a proper city of the dreamlands.) This number feels right to me.


When entering a neighborhood roll an encounter check. Also roll an encounter check when moving from any node to another other node. Encounters in cities are somewhat less perilous (although they can be dangerous), less to give pressure to exploration, and more to provide color, introduce NPCs, and provide hooks for adventure. Encounter checks occur 2 in 6. 

Searching for Secret Locations

The party can at any time lift the metaphorical hat from their eyes as they move between nodes in the pointcrawl by wandering down less known byways to their destination or by taking the time to pay special attention to what is in front of their noses. When they do so, they incur an additional encounter check and can roll to see if they have discovered a hidden location with a 1 in 6 chance. 

If they discover a hidden location, roll the die of the size corresponding to the number of hidden locations in the neighborhoods. Cross off hidden locations from the list as players discover them. If you re-roll an already discovered location, take the lowest (easiest to find) remaining undiscovered location on the list. Write the location down in its present location as a new node on your pointcrawl.

What stops players from gaming the system by just searching limitlessly for secret locations? Nothing; if they want to have a session that's full of city encounters and stumbling upon less known locations that sounds like a fun session to me! A hidden location is not like a secret room full of treasure. It's more like a hook for adventuring and exploration. If players want to uncover more of those, God bless.  

Getting Lost

When entering a neighborhood, or moving between locations in it, check to see if the party becomes lost. Roll a die corresponding to the number of locations in the neighborhood (4=1d4, 6=1d6, etc.). The chance of becoming lost is initially very high, n-1/n (so 3 in 4, 5 in 6, 7 in 8, etc.). Decrease that chance by 1 for each location the party has visited in the neighborhood. When the number is 0, the party knows their way around well enough that they can no longer become lost in that neighborhood. (This necessitates a minimal book-keeping for each neighborhood, with a score equal to the number of locations the party has visited in that neighborhood.) 

If the party is lost, that's not necessarily a bad thing. First give them a free roll to see if they stumble upon a secret location, since getting lost is the best way to find something off the beaten path. Next roll an encounter check. Finally, if they don't find a hidden location, dice randomly to see at what (non-hidden) location the party arrives, the spot where they can ask for directions and get their bearing. 

Hiring Transportation or a Guide

I discussed methods of transit in Zyan here. Generally speaking, what these means of transport do is allow one to travel to any known (non-hidden) location in the city without undergoing encounter checks to get there. Probably what I'll do is substitute a single 2 in 6 chance of an incident occurring en route, with a different table for each method of transport (Ferry, Palanquin, Carriage, or Nimbus Barque). You can also give them directions to hidden locations that you know.

One can also hire a guide. To find a guide, roll 2d6 modified by +1 in a bustling location, and -1 in a quiet location. On a 7+ you find a guide who knows the neighborhood you want to visit for a fee. You roll on the table of guides to see who you turned up. (As I envision it, the table of guides will have modifiers for how fancy the neighborhood is, and some of the guides will be dubious characters, naturally.) 

The guide will know all the known locations in a neighborhood, and can take the players to any of them, or on a walking tour of the neighborhood that will reveal the entire pointcrawl map. While traveling with the guide your party will not become lost. Some of the guides on the chart will also have a percentage chance to know a hidden location. 

That's all for now. In my next post I'll likely talk about some city exploration based downtime actions. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Evils of Ilmire (Zine Review)


The Evils of Illmire is a zine written by Zack Wolf. It was funded by another very respectable Zinequest 2 kickstarter (506 backers). The zine centers on the cursed town of Illmire and a 19 hex map that surrounds it, an entire campaign worth of material in 68 packed pages of small type--along with numerous downloadable bonuses including a 4-page "underdark expansion"--that you could run as is with almost no preparation. 

Damn Big

I can't emphasize how much material the zine contains: a map and write up for Illmire the starting town; a keyed map for the inn where the players are likely to stay; nineteen meaty hex descriptions each with their own random encounter table (!); and FOURTEEN completely keyed and mapped dungeons (!!). Aside from the high page count and small print, the zine accomplishes this with a pair of nifty tricks. 

  1. All stat blocks are relegated to a monster stat block section at the end of the book. The same for descriptions of the copious magical items inn the zine. Aside from one problem I'm mention later, I found it very easy to flip to the back to check on stats. (If I were running it, I would print this section out ahead of time.) This is a neat trick that save a lot of space; while not everyone will want to do this, it's a nice tool to have. 
  2. All the dungeons in the zine are attractive two page spreads, unless they have a key factional player in them, in which case the two page spread is supplemented by a further two page illustrated spread on the major players involved. This makes the dungeons all pretty small, mainly lairs and hideouts.
Although The Evils of Illmire almost comically pushes the limits of how much material one zine can deliver, it still manages to feel like a zine. It was graphically designed and written for the page size of a zine, as one can tell from the relentless two page dungeon spreads. Furthermore, the zine uses thin paper and a professional printer (perhaps Mixam?) with the capacity to fold and staple high page counts, so that despite being thick, it is well-folded and lies almost flat when closed like a proper zine.  

Note, what follows contains some spoilers. If you might play in the world of this zine, probably don't read on.

Good Vanilla

I would describe the setting of the zine as vanilla, but in a good way. By vanilla I mean that it uses a lot of classic D&D monsters (not always by name), and the town of Illmire bears a very strong resemblance to Gary Gygax's classic module T1 Village of Hommlet. (In fact, you might think of the town of Illmire as a reskinning of Hommlet in an alternate universe where the forces of good in the town had been driven out or destroyed.) When I say it's "good" vanilla, I mean that it works with these iconic elements in ways that are refreshing and not stale. In that sense, this module would serve as an excellent introduction to players who wanted to experience classic D&D for the first time, while also offering surprises to old hands like me. While I'm obviously not a vanilla man myself (my zine is lilac flavored with candied orchids on top), I can appreciate a vanilla sundae with fudge sauce from time to time.

But I found myself vacillating between two very different views of the setting of this zine. On the one hand, there's something refreshingly light or fairytale like about a lot of things in the zine. There are alpine woods with enchanted lumberjacks. There's a lake covered in strange mists with a legendary giant fish in it. There's an impenetrable forest of thorny brambles, and a crystal palace in the mountains where a giant lives who will host you at a feast. 

There's also a sandbox with a lot of mystery, with multiple layers, some more and some less obvious. There are a lot of ongoing dastardly schemes with villains hiding in plain sight.  The mystery feels almost Scooby-Dooish at times, in a good way. I feel like the aesthetic of fairytale cursed countryside plus the Scooby-Doo vibe is embodied visually in the cover by Heather Shinn and Jack Badashski. It fits well with the "good vanilla" aspects of the setting. 

On the other hand, the cult at the heart of things seems to be drawn from a different aesthetic universal. If anything, it reminded me most of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. The cult is evil. Like, really evil. Extreme torture. Slavery, including vaguely implied sex slavery (the giant king has sex slaves too). Human Sacrifice. Total mind control. Poisoning children. Nurturing hideous entities in terrible basements filled with gore. There's something called "the Fearmother" involved. Of course there is. 

This excellent illustration by Patrick Olsson belongs more in this other aesthetic universe

Reading this stuff left me feeling kind of awful. I'm a fan of Call of Cthulhu and a huge fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (1E), so I can roll with demonology, hideous cults, and deadly alien entities in the right aesthetic context. But somehow these grubby and vile notes sounded dissonant when played alongside the charming mystery melody of the rest of the zine. But hey, I'm just one person. Maybe the notes struck together will be a dulcet harmony in your ear.

Interesting Approach to the Hexcrawling

The zine contains tidy little systems for hexcrawling, weather, and mountain climbing for exploring the peaks on the map, all of which I enjoyed. The map is nicely divided into three different geographical regions, one mountainous, one forested, and one swampy. But the map is less about region or terrain type, since each six mile hex is really a little world world unto itself.

There are no empty hexes, since each hex has a meaty write-up and almost all hexes have a dungeon hidden in them that players can find (3 in 6 chance) by searching the hex and hazarding an extra encounter check. Each hex also has its own separate encounter table drawing on the secret dungeon to be found there and what's in the surrounding hexes. As a result, there's a lot of texture, and individual hexes would, I think, be very memorable. Again, it's a sort of innovative model that could be emulated, although it wouldn't work for a very large map. 

The 14 mini-dungeons on the hexmap are mainly very well done. Dyson Logos did lovely and highly functional maps for them all. While not all are equally gripping some are very good, like The Observer's Tower, and Prismatic Grotto of the Fishmen. Those few dungeons with big NPCs in them are also accompanied by nice illustrations that hang together well. 

Some Things That Could Be Better 

There are some elements of the zine that could definitely be better. The prose could be more evocative, shorter, and punchier in places. The zine also has some organizational foibles that would be relatively easy to avoid.

For one thing, Wolf begins the hexmap key with a sequential overview of each numbered hex. I didn't find this very helpful, since the overview often didn't contain enough information for me to know what was going in the hex. The overview is then followed by a hexkey that has an almost random numeric order. It covers the hexes in this order: 19, 15, 16, 11, 10, 14, 18, 7, 12, 5, etc. You might be thinking this ordering corresponds to the different geographical regions of the map, but you'd be wrong. The sequence starts off with things in the order players are likely to encounter them, but then eventually jumps a fair bit around the map. 

Here are some basic principles about keying maps of whatever kind: 1. Every numbered area must be keyed 2. The areas must be keyed in numeric order. If you want the description in the key to flow a certain way, plan ahead and number things accordingly. For this reason, I recommend numbering rooms and hexes on the map last, so you can move the keys for them around in the text as suits your purposes.

Bizarrely, the same thing happens in the stat-blocks of monsters and NPCs. They are roughly in alphabetical order. Are you kidding me? There are also some inconsistencies I noticed; for examples the demons are said to have magical powers in their descriptions, but none were listed in the stat blocks. 

How I would Run This Zine

The truth is that you could run an entire campaign from this zine pretty much right out of the box without doing much more than reading it first. But here are some things I would do to prep.

  1. I would start the party off coming into town and consider carefully how villagers and the cult are likely to react to them. I would think about how the villagers, who are all suffering from paranoia, would react to strangers coming into town. I think I would have the cult play it cooly at first, given that the adventurers are likely to seem initially like a capable group.
  2. I would pick a few starting dungeons and give the players hooks that tell them where to look for them. I would try to pick some that made them tromp across several hexes to get there. I would also make the hexcrawling rules known so that they realize that each hex has secrets to uncover.
  3. I would tone down the gore horror of the cult involved areas a bit, remove sexual slavery from the module, reduce torture references, and so on, to bring it more in line with the mystery woods vibe. 
  4. I would drop hints about a couple of mysteries from early on, like where did the the druid go, and so on. I would try to give them a sense over time of how desperate people in the town were and make sure some of the townspeople were likable and memorable characters.
  5. I would probably add one larger-size dungeon to break up the relentless lair-sized vibe of the dungeons on the map, I'm not sure which one. I would likely add it to the underdark portion, since that's least explored. I also love the idea that Zack Wolf floats in his 4 page underdark supplement of a parallel underdark pointcrawl map with locations beneath various hexes. I would also think about adding Matt Finch's underdark module: Demonspore: Secrets of the Shroom. 

Rating and Capsule Review

If you want an entire "good vanilla" campaign with a comfortable but fresh classic vibe, ready to run right out of the zine, then buy it right now here. If you want a repository of small dungeons to steal for your own hexmap, this product is also an excellent value. It also holds some interest for those who are looking for different models for how to develop hexcrawls. If vanilla's not your flavor, maybe give it a pass. At only $10 for print, and $5 for PDF it is a steal.

****/***** It gets four out of five stars: it's good! 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

You've Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! (Zine Review)

You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! is a zine by Amanda Lee Franck with a series of stretch goal collaborators, including Scrap Princess, Aaron King, Dungeons and Possums, Sasha Sienna & Jonathan Sims, and Zedeck Siew. The zine was funded through a very successful Zinequest kickstarter that had 700 backers. 

This zine is a system neutral campaign setting in 58 pages, a little world in a bottle that could, with a fair amount of work sustain a full campaign of retro-gaming play. The zine builds a sandbox (trashbox?) aboard a cyclopean multi-level dilapidated garbage barge that has been perpetually slogging up and down the coast, stopping to take garbage in exchange for fuel. The patrons and NPCs are a motley crew of down to earth laborers from tugboat operators named Irene (an AI) to dock workers, garbage sorters, trash miners and the like. As you might expect, there are people with a lot of pluck and grit, and not a few hearts of gold. There are also thieving racoons, fighting fish, talking bugs, evil interdimensional garbage wizards, forests of rebar, self-replicating frogs, and much more.

The Good

The setting has a heck of a lot of mystery: Who made the garbage barge and where did they go? What is the burning city and how did it get on the garbage barge? What is the lake of glowing orange gas? Is the trash in the barge infinitely deep? What happened to the third tugboat? I’m on record saying that every sandbox setting should come with big mysteries, so I certainly approve.


Another thing I like about the setting, admittedly under-explored in the already stuffed zine, is that it is a mobile campaign setting. The barge moves between different ports of call. The players can disembark the trashbox for brief episodic adventures or fun (all carousing should happen in ports). As someone who has run a thematically focused sandbox campaign for four years, I can tell you that these kind of episodic side hooks can be a lifeline. It's neat the way the setting builds in an "outside" to the sandbox for diversions like this.


The zine also has a lovely sideways cutaway map by Franck wryly labelled “The Known Barge”, which shows the relations of different locations, the terrain that lies between them, and also some different ways of getting there. As play starts many parts of the barge have just recently opened up by the discovery and magical enlargement of a defunct pneumatic tube mail system that intersects with a warren of raccoon tunnels. The opening up of formerly closed territory and the opportunity this provides for exploration and adventuring in the unknown is an excellent campaign starter. (The opening of Ultan's door is another instance of this type.)


The Mainly Good

The kickstarter for this zine had a festival air. The art and text were great. Quirky trash scavenging is reminiscent of themes with heavy circulation in the OSR during the heydays of Google plus, evoking nostalgia for earlier days of the scene that had giant sandbox ruined sea vessels (HMS Apollyon) and scavenging trash aplenty. As stretch goals were hit, the zine expanded from 32 pages to its current 58 pages. The large list of collaborators, some new, some old hands, gave it a feeling of a passing of the torch. 


The zine clearly gained a lot of heart through the recruitment of stretch goal collaborators. It also gained some amazing content. But through this process I suspect it became a bit more like the garbage barge it describes: from a tightly conceived and charming campaign setting, with each stretch goal it became a bit more like a motley assortment of ideas, art, writing tones, layout decisions, and presupposed rulesets, jumbled together, with quirky and delicious “finds” peeking out from a bed of rusted toasters and cracked porcelain.

Just look at this amazing toad king wearing a chandelier as a necklace, drawn by Franck. Badass!

The art by Franck and stretch goal illustrations by Scrap Princess are excellent. Franck is an illustrator whose work you can see here. Her illustrations in the zine run the gamut from charming to downright striking. I loved them! Scrap Princess works in their distinctive style, which fits thematically with the setting, but isn’t entirely in line with Franck’s style. The difference isn't jarring, but nor is it a perfect fit. 

This fox snake by Scrap Princess is pretty great.

Some of the other stretch goal contributions are wonderful. 

  • Scrap’s rules for running Kat’s salvage armory. You bring her useful scrap and she puts together jerry-rigged equipment—the settings very own scrap princess! 
  • Aaron King's extensive tables of different garbage smells  are also fantastic, especially when paired with the accompanying economy of smells mini-game, and the scent skald bard college rules (which seem to be for 5E). 
  • Zedeck Siew’s speaking bettas—a kind of noble and divine fighting fish--are evocative and fun, although the tone is different from the rest of the zine, and they seem a little over-powered as an optional PC class.

Other contributions worked less for me, including Scrap’s Yoo-Hoos--confused, amalgamated, pop-culture weirdos, and an adventure by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims I’ll come to in a minute.

This brings me to an important point: collaboration is hard if you want to maintain a consistent vision and level of quality. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my zine, since I’m trying to open it up to greater collaboration. Zines, being so short and focused, are perfect vehicles for a singular vision, but they’re hard to collaborate on in exacting ways—because, hey it’s just a zine, and if someone is nice enough to throw their hat in the ring to support your vision. Franck paid her contributors generously, but in the DIY scene who wants to police the content of paid contributors like you were their boss? No one. 


The Definitely Could be Better 

The zine looks good, quite good, but there are some eyebrow raising layout decisions. Not a big deal--nitpicks really--but I thought I'd mention them. Like the zine contains this table with fonts of all different sizes, including some that practically require a magnifying glass for aged eyes. Don't ever vary fonts in a single table, and don't go this small ever.

Or, again, here's a table for "New Items" at Kat's salvage shop that looks like it was laid out in MS Word, with a box around the whole thing, including the title, and then broken up between two page spreads. This also doesn't look great. 

Look at Franck's great drawing of that raccoon!

Retro-gamers loves tables. My take away from this is that you can't just throw any kind of table into a zine. Think about cutting your tables down, or doing a table that can be presented as a numbered list rather than a multi-celled table, or presenting the same material without a table at all. Even if you're laying things out in MS Word, you can probably make it look pretty good if you remember you're writing a zine and not an a4 sized book, and there are some constraints given the format. I struggle with this in my own zine, even with the help of layout people using InDesign. Try not to split tables across multiple spreads, especially if the table is in a box. 

A Difference of Play Style

Initially, I thought that a more significant weak spot of this otherwise wonderful zine is that the keyed locations it provides on the map, while fun and interesting, with factions and mysteries aplenty, are not written up as sites for location-based adventures.This is the main business of a map in the style of retro-gaming that I'm accustomed to: it presents locations for adventure in the mode of dungeon or pointcrawl that can be discovered through geographical exploration. (To be fair, there are a couple of candidate locations. For example, the three bilges deep in the vessel are easy to imagine building out into full locations for exploration with excellent treasure opportunities; but that’s about it.) 

At first I was very confused about this--how could the zine do such a good job in general but miss this?--but then it became clear to me that I was misunderstanding how Franck envisions play proceeding. The problem lay with my assumptions rather than the zine itself.

I got a clue from both the title of the zine and the two included adventures, both of which have PCs taking a job for a boss to go do a specific thing. The envisioned mode of play of the zine is less self-directed exploration of the unknown in search of treasure (salvage) and more taking  job offers from patrons to go to specific locations and do specific work under the threat of various hazards and complications. The location entries are not really written as seeds for imagining a dungeon or point-crawl to be explored by free-wheeling PCs as I had assumed, but rather as fuel for imagining jobs that the PCs might get hired to do.  The two adventures in the zine, one by Franck ("your first job on the garbage barge") and one by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims, probably are intended to give us some sense of how this might go. 

Franck's adventure involves the players taking a job to vent a concrete enclosed gas lake that's gonna blow. It seems promising given that it's a sort of "hands on" job dealing with weird decaying situation that fits the setting well. Unfortunately it is marred by a confusing presentation. Despite several readings I had trouble understanding how the two maps included were related to one another and to the description of the site. Franck also presents things in a disorienting order, omitting entries for several numbered locations. She also mixes in important NPCs and generalized threats in the middle of the key for the map, rather than pulling them out and presenting them at the beginning. But the adventure is flavorful, industrial, and useful in that it gives you the general gist of how this whole getting hired to do jobs thing might go.

The other adventure, by Sienna and Sims is a riff on Journey to the Center of the Earth. It has the players taking a job to help crew a drill ship that is to explore the question whether the trash on the barge is in fact infinitely deep. The adventure is well-written and presented, with a nice set of characters on the drill ship, and a simmering open-ended plot involving a plan by some of the crew to mutiny and steer the vessel elsewhere. But unfortunately the adventure does not seem to be written with sandbox style play in mind. For the different "locations" the drill ship encounters as it goes down read more like a series of amusing planned encounter scenes, admittedly with a lively cast of characters and (at lower levels) things getting suitably cosmic. The adventure is not really compatible with retro-gaming play: the rails are there plain to see in the set sequence of encounter scenes at various strata, and the space of creative anarchy is in the struggle that takes place within the railroad car hurtling along its otherwise fixed course.

The problems with the adventures aside, for a retro-game analogy, I think the setting if run as intended would feel a lot like Traveler, which is less focused on exploring unknown locations, and more focused on picking between jobs for various patrons (some shady) that drop the crew into complicated situations with various factions. Even in retro-D&D, hooks consisting of patrons wanting players to do jobs for them are a staple. But so is self-directed exploration of location-based open-ended adventuring sites. The zine gives you tools to do the former, but not so many to do the latter. 

This seems to me like a missed opportunity, since the map and the conceit of the newly opened pneumatic tubes suggest so strongly that one of the pleasures will be exploring the unknown, crawling through tubes and raccoon tunnels to new locations that can be explored for salvage and wonder--and getting their before rival salvage crews. To be clear, it's not that there's anything incompatible with this kind of play in this zine, but it also doesn't do much to help you to do this.

How I Would Use This Zine

This zine could be the foundation for an amazing campaign. Here's the work I would do to lay launch such a game. 

  1. I would steal the coastline from a published map, maybe something by Judge's Guild or any fantasy (or real) map you could find by googling online. I would put a series of ports (maybe 6) on the coast if they weren't there already. Eyeballing the map, I would assign a number of downtimes between adventures that would have to pass before arriving at each port. I would next write three sentences describing each port, and list one adventure opportunity at each. For these adventures, I would simply plop in my favorite adventures. I would definitely use carousing rules, but only for ports, and if I was feeling ambitious, might write up different carousing tables for different ports. 
  2. Since I like dungeon-crawling and site based adventures, I would place a bunch of (ideally free) written site-based adventure locations on the map. Michael Raston's Tower of the Weretoads would definitely fit, and maybe even Pollute the Elfen Memory Water with some heavy reskinning. I would probably use Dyson Logo's Challenge of the Frog Idol for the Toad Hotel location, treating the Toad King as the idol, the troglodytes as Yoo-Hoos, nixies as dryads, and so on. 
  3. I would develop several (probably three or four) rival salvage crews (rival adventuring parties). I would write a short system for rolling each downtime to see what kind of exploration or work they had been doing, if any, and how they had fared. I would use this system to make jobs disappear if they players didn't take them, and also to pressure the players to race ahead to new sites before they were already looted for salvage by other crews. I would be sure to have at least one rival salvage crew work for patrons the party ends up siding against, as a sort of enemy party.  
  4. I would look at all of Gus's HMS Apollyon posts on Dungeon of Signs for further inspiration in general for running a salvage-based sandbox on a giant rotting ship, and for some suitable location and monster writeups.
  5. I would come up with a bunch of starting hooks that would direct players to these different locations, and I would also follow Franck's lead and list a few "jobs" that PCs could take for pay. I would use the NPCs and factions she provides to develop a set of possible patrons at the starting location with opposed interests and schemes.

And then I think we would be ready to go. 


I've decided to adopt a stars system. Five stars is the max.
*         Bad
**        Mediocre
***      OK
****     Good
*****    Excellent

I give You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge **** four out of five stars: it's good. If a quirky campaign setting in a trashbox sounds appealing, where PCs will get hired as laborers to do dangerous jobs, definitely pick it up. It is a zine with a lot of heart, stuffed with cool ideas that fit its distinctive vision. it's well worth the cost. Get it here.