RPG Quick Shots

This post contains some thoughts on a few shorter RPG books I’ve read lately:

  • The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu by Sandy Peterson
  • Beasties: A Manual of New Monsters for Your Original Edition Game by Thomas Denmark
  • Caves of Shadow by Monte Cook
  • Fate Accelerated  by Clark Valentine with Leonard Balsera, Fred Hicks, Mike Olson, and Amanda Valentine

If that doesn’t appeal, this may be a post to skip. 

Sandy Peterson’s The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu

This is a short writeup of a single locale (a ship trapped in the ice) with a single monster (a “sciapod,” an invisible, one-legged archer horror taken from an unspecified Viking Age narrative that Peterson read at some point). The maps are high quality, the writeup simple and clear, and the sciapod a nasty critter.  

It’s simple, nicely open-ended, and straightforwardly describes the locale and the monster, presenting a simple situation for the player characters to explore, bumble through, master, or die within, precisely like what old OSR evangelists like to claim trad RPG play scenarios were “always” like. It’s designed for Call of Cthulhu but I think you could use it with any investigative horror game, and I’d be likeliest to run it using Trail of Cthulhu, if anything. 

I was surprised that about half the book is taken up by pregenerated player character sheets, but then again, I did find myself thinking about how it’d make a nice, simple one-shot for a convention or other event. (Which makes sense: the copy left in my keeping by Ahimsa Kerp is a Lulu PoD copy, but this was originally a Free RPG Day offering for 2016.) 

Beasties: A Manual of New Monsters for Your Original Edition Game by Thomas Denmark

This short collection of OSR monsters is also a Lulu PoD item (you can also get it at DTRPG, if you prefer) that was left with me by my buddy Ahimsa Kerp. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a simple, short collection of “new monsters” for OSR games. 

Some of the creatures I quite liked, though it’s fair to say that even among those, the majority of the monsters in this book are variants on existing OSR monsters: even the names of a lot of the creatures—alligator men, zombie lich, werecoyote, ogre gladiator, the red-maned hobgoblin, the Xenoc succubus—tell you that we’re in variant country, as opposed to the weird originality of some other monster manual-type supplements that were released during the heyday of the OSR movement. 

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: the variations would be easy to drop into an OSR game of any flavor, and won’t feel too much like they were yanked from some other setting or world, at least not if you’re playing using a flavor of OSR game in which the standard complement of Monster Manual monsters are used. Oh, and while the mostly-great illustrations (by Terry Olsen) share more stylistic consistency with one another than those in the original 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual (because they’re all by Terry Olsen) they clearly are drawn in tribute to the RPG illustrations of that era. These monsters are straightforward critters, not the products of some febrile and quixotic genius, but this means they’re probably much easier to slip into a game for most traditionally-minded RPG groups.  

The book ends with a collection of NPCs, minor undead horrors (which were cool), some “new” traps that weren’t so new to me (I’ve thought up a few of those on my own, at least), and a weirdly monstrous “Flying Locust Citadel” that goes around despoiling regions one at a time—another modular item you could easily drag-and-drop into your game almost no matter what the setting or style. Bingo: instant sky-dungeon. I feel like the author probably has a weirder home campaign than this book alone suggests… and probably some of that’s evident in later OSR products he’s put out, though I haven’t had a chance to check them out. 

My favorite monster, incidentally, is the Catacomb Saint, an animated, good aligned undead being that repels all evil undead and is reanimated at a time of need, at which point it defends its former community or is sent on a holy mission; along the way, it cures diseases, wounds, and even resurrects the odd deserving soul from death. You can see a version of the basic statblock on the author’s blog, though the art is part of what makes me dig it:

“Catacomb Saint” by Terry Olsen

Caves of Shadow by Monte Cook

Caves of Shadow seems to be some kind of proto-Free RPG Day-type adventure: a mass-produced free adventure/quickstart/ruleset primer for newbies, for the 3.0 edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which I’ve never played), which was penned by Monte Cook. 

The writeup contains not just an adventure but also some detailed notes and scaffolding for the GM. On the pro side, for a novice it provides some notes about how to run encounters and is kind of the platonic form of Everyone’s First Dungeon, with a balance of tasks, combat, and roleplaying. On the disappointing side, it’s also kind of railroady and has a clear bias toward a specific mode of play, as in, “D&D is for heroic play, other kinds of play are bad.”

The ethical assumptions are one thing—I’m not crazy about them, but I do think people who complain about them wouldn’t complain if the ethical assumptions were ones they liked, like, say, “murderhobo chic”—but the plot railroading is a little more troubling. Early in this scenario, there’s an old man being tortured by orcs: the players’ job is to save him. If players hang back too long, the GM is intructed to essentially tell them, “Do your damned job!” My problem with this is that the writeup models, for the novice GM, a hidebound, inflexible, and punitive approach: if players don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do, then they don’t get the information, where an experienced GM would probably find another way to provide it: put the info into a letter on the old man’s corpse, say, or have the players stumble onto the old man’s grandson in the woods.) Forward motion shouldn’t depend on obedience or on guessing the GM’s expectations, is what I’m saying, it it’s better not to model that for a new GM. I know, considerations of space likely precluded much of that, but this kind of improvisatory substitution is a fundamental GM skill, isn’t it? 

I found it interesting to compare this product to the Free RPG Day adventures for Numenera: the latter are a bit better about providing contingencies for a range of player decisions at least in spots, though they still read (and, for the one I played in) somewhat railroady. I can understand the reasons for that, and the reasons against it: novice GMs face challenges it’s hard for non-novices to remember. I think Monte Cook’s tendency is to err on the side of caution and make that first adventure runnable for a GM with no experience… and it’s fair, though I think training new GMs to be flexible is a good idea.  

In any case, the rest of the adventure is a short mini-dungeon filled with “evil humanoids” that the party’s been signed up to clear out. It’s a typical mini-dungeon, well-balanced, relying on multiple character types and skills, and exemplary of the design aesthetics that seem to have been part and parcel of 3E, whatever you feel about that. 

This adventure is available for free as a PDF from DriveThruRPG. (However, I based my comments on a slightly damaged print copy that was tossed in for free with some old RPG books I bought from a shop in Seoul last year.) That said, if you have any GMing experience at all, you could create this dungeon in about ten minutes of work, because this product wasn’t designed for someone like you. (And that’s fine.)

Fate Accelerated  by Clark Valentine with Leonard Balsera, Fred Hicks, Mike Olson, and Amanda Valentine

One of the major RPG systems I’ve never really looked at before is FATE. The system has the reputation of being great for allowing a GM to gamify any setting, world, or concept: if you want to do Avatar: The Last Airbender, people say, FATE will do it for you. Dark City? Pirates of the Caribbean? Gundam heroics? Retired superheroes who flee their incarceration complex (er, “retirement village”) to take on evil one last time? Like with Savage Worlds (another system I’ve never played), people often say, “You could do totally that with FATE!”

That said, I’ve also seen people say that FATE is the “crunchiest” or most “complex” of the rules-light systems, and more than once I’ve heard people opine that, rather than being a “beginner” version of FATE, the FATE Accelerated (or FAE) system is really just an admirably streamlined and, for most purposes, generally a more flexible and distinct—or possibly, for many people, simply better—version of the ruleset.

(I can’t judge that assessment, since FAE is all I have managed to read, but I’ve seen it plenty of times online.)

That said, Evil Hat Productions is a RPG publishing company, so they have a good reason to pitch FAE as a starter version of FATE, the Mentzer Red Box to Gygax’s hardback collection: after all, it only costs $5, so the company has a clear reason for wanting you to feel like you should go and buy the FATE Core rulebook. I don’t begrudge them that, though I wonder how many people ended up starting down that progression path only to backtrack toward FAE in the end. 

Anyway, beyond that it seems like a pretty reasonable system. The rules are simple and clear and I feel like it’s no harder to learn than the Mentzer D&D Basic rules I learned to RPG with. The advantage of FAE (and, I guess, FATE) is that it provides rules-scaffolding for things other than martial combat or clear-cut skills tests: the system is open-ended enough that characters can attempt to realize similar objectives in wildly different ways, based on their character’s qualities or “Aspects.” My only qualm about action resolution was that using Aspects to modify the result of an action roll came after the roll… until I realized that this is because there’s a cost for invoking most Aspects, and that it would doubtless be resented by most players if they went around spending Fate points to invoke Aspects only to learn that they hadn’t needed to.

(Still, I like die rolls to include some tension, so I prefer people know what they’re rolling for and don’t feel like, “Oh, if I miss by a few points I’ll just spend…” Pondering this, I realized that there’s a comparable workaround I’ve seen in one or another iteration of Gumshoe that might work: in the Gumshoe version, if you failed, you got the spend refunded, whereas I think in FAE I’d reverse it so that if you would’ve succeeded without the spend, you can get it refunded.)

Beyond that, the rules system seems pretty straightforward and I think it would be fun to play. It’s interesting that Fate Accelerated is slimmed down from Fate: I can’t help but wonder how much more crunchy Fate Core—and that makes me nod while I remember people saying how it felt oddly crunchy for a story game. I’ve also heard people bang on about how system does matter and that generic systems lead to bland, flavorless games… but I don’t know how seriously I take that idea. As one of my long-ago teachers (in another field entirely) commented when people said stuff like that, “That’s easy to say, but is it true?”

Probably a lot depends on the players and the GM. On the other hand, anyone who’s played Fiasco knows how that system is built to reliably produce really crackerjack stories of a specific type, and if the PbtA explosion has taught us anything, it’s that hacks can really help help solidify the genre and story type. But then, a lot of the hacks I see of PbtA games happen primarily on the playbook level—specific character mechanics, which correspond more closely with character generation in FAE/FATE, right? So… I dunno. I guess I’ll see what I think once I get it to the table, someday. 

Speaking of PbtA, I feel like I can sort of see some mechanics-DNA from Fate in the Apocalypse World and other PbtA systems. Aren’t playbooks sort of codified versions of what players do freeform when they design a character, choosing aspects and stunts? PbtA games even have a sort of simplified success/fail resolution, like FATE/FAE: strong success, weak success, or failure feel pretty much like they’re simplified but generally isomorphic to the Fail/Tie/Success/Success With Style set of outcomes in Fate Accelerated outcomes. Playbooks simply enforce some niche protection (in most games, though maybe not all: for example, there’s a single playbook in The Warren, a game about which I recently posted). Playbooks also help shape the genre expectations of the play group. Even so, I found this discussion comparing FATE with PbtA games interesting… and it echoes my concern about the core resolution mechanic mentioned above. 

Fate Accelerated is available (in an array of electronic formats) as a Pay What You Want product on DriveThru RPG, but, again, I am basing my comments in the print edition, which was included with some other stuff I bought from someone online. 

Oh, and while I’m talking about Evil Hat, they’re having a clearance sale right now. Fate Accelerated isn’t on sale, but it only costs $5 so it doesn’t need to be, does it? However, a lot of people seem to like the Atomic Robo RPG… though that’s sold out, the Atomic Robo supplement is still available. If you’re a regular GM for FATE games, there’s a number of setting books available for good prices, too. 

(Personally, I picked up a copy of Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, because at half price it’s a steal, and because I hope to try it out with my son when he’s old enough to play—I really want to get a copy of the earlier—and now out-of-print—Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and the accompanying book Do: Book of Letters, but they’re scarce so I have to keep an eye out for people selling their Kickstarter copies, I guess. That is, unless it ever comes up as a PoD product. It was supposed to, but that seems never to have materialized.)

(Oh, and if you’re in Korea and prefer not to just use regular six-sided dice, FATE dice are pretty affordable on Chinese websites like Wish, which are closer and cheaper, shipping-wise, than ordering Fudge dice from the States.)

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