Bad luck with dice?

Sly Flourish, one of my favorite gaming bloggers, tweeted the following today:

The many replies seem to fit one of these three ideas:

  1. adjusting difficulty: fudge things on the fly, behind the GM screen
  2. breaking the rules: give their character bonus options and actions
  3. doing nothing at all: tell the players to get over it and be tougher

None of those answers felt satisfying to me.

  1. Adjusting difficulty on the fly feels like the wrong solution. It comes across as condescending or patronizing. From my experience, I hated it when the GM ignored a failure or backtracked the narrative on my behalf. I can’t really explain why I felt this way.
  2. Breaking the rules means more management and record-keeping of house rules. If a ruling was made for one player, then it should be for anyone else in the same situation, right? This could lead to inconsistencies and even perceived unfairness.
  3. Doing nothing at all and macho posturing about gamers getting “tougher” or more “macho” is completely ludicrous to me so I won’t even address it.

So how can we fix it?

Well, here are some ideas:

Bonus experience points on a failed dice roll

This is from Apocalypse World-derived games, such as Dungeon World. It softens the blow a lot! I’ve seen it first hand with many different groups. You could even be consistent about it: give them some base amount multiplied by their level. Example: 10 x level. So 10xp at level 1, 100 at level 10, etc…

Let them expend “effort”

This is from the Cypher System. Basically, after a failed dice roll, let the character spend some kind of in-game resource to nudge that failure into a success. This could be:

  • A point of inspiration
  • One or more hit dice
  • Or a number of hit points equal to the difference (if the character failed their roll by 3, let them spend 3 hit points to succeed)

Each player gets their own “escalation” die

This is inspired by 13th Age. The idea is that each player gets a special d6 called an escalation die. When they fail a dice roll, they set their escalation die to “2” and places it on their character sheet. Their next dice roll gets a bonus of 2 to it.

If they fail their next dice roll too, then their escalation die goes up to 3, granting a bonus of +3 to their next dice roll.

For each successive failure, the die goes up, granting the bonus on its top face to the next roll. Up to a maximum of +6.

Once they actually succeed at a task, then their escalation die “resets” to 1 and gets removed from their character sheet.

Why not grant a bonus of +1? Because a 5% increase of chance is so minimal that I wouldn’t even bother. +2 is 10% and it “feels” more substantial.

imaginary player character gives the player the middle finger because their action failed on the result of a 1, again.
source: Penny Arcade

So what do you think? Have you ever tried something like this? Do any of these options appeal to you?

Please check out Sly Flourish’s website

Review of Save Yourself from Hell

Save Yourself from Hell is a one-shot scenario. It is flexible enough to be dragged out to 2 or 3 sessions if the players really want to play things out in detail. All over it are Venger’s familiar trademark of gonzo sci-fi sleaze, with dashes of horror (especially of the Lovecraftian persuasion).

While written for Venger’s VSd6 system (which is used by Alpha Blue, Crimson Dragon Slayer or even the Outer Presence) this module is simple enough to be used with other game systems. To be honest, while I like the VSd6 rules, I appreciate how easily Venger’s adventures and settings can be ported over into other games.

Disclaimer

I acquired the PDF complimentary from the writer himself, Venger Satanis. I’ve done several reviews of his works in the past, which you can see here on my site.

Quick facts

The PDF is 20 pages, including the cover, credits and 6 full-page illustrations, so the actual content is about 12 pages long. This is a one-shot scenario, so the brevity is intentional.

My review is of the “print-friendly” PDF, which was absent of watermarks (the text is black on a plain white background). Nothing wrong with the colourful version; the watermarks are non-obtrusive. This is just how I prefer to read PDFs.

Visuals and usability

As usual the artwork and design flourishes do not interfere with basic readability. The illustrations are very good, the typography and layout excellent. As usual, Monkey Blood design did another real fine job.

The cover painting depicts a beautiful,  innocuous scene that could grace the cover of any science fiction work: it is actually kind of atypical from the gonzo sleaze of Alpha Blue. Calm before the storm. It has elements of a still-life, even (one wonders about the significance, if any, of that dish of sea shells and coral).

An aside about branding

It seems like Venger and Glenn Seal (Monkey Blood design) have settled on a style guide of sorts. Body text and headings consistently use the same standardized fonts and formatting between all of the recent publications. This is great and I think that they should continue down this path. The Korthalis Brand, so to speak.

Rules update: “Pulling a Stunt”

SYfH includes a new rule for all of Venger’s Vsd6 system (Alpha Blue, Crimson Dragon Slayer and even for The Outer Presence). The basic gist is that each PC may perform a neat manoeuver once per session (although there are rare, remarkable circumstances that allow this ability to recharge).

The caveat is that the Stunt has to be believable in the established fiction. For example, a PC couldn’t suddenly pull a space dragon out of their pocket. But they get to fully narrate what they intend to do and it happens with the DM’s consent. Very interesting.

Emotional Trauma

This scenario includes a surprisingly mature and serious rule. It is important that each character explores  and dwells on a past tragedy or shame. If, by the end of the scenario, the character gets some form of closure, they get a high-powered moment of “Spotlight” time.

Admittedly this raised a red flag in my mind: after all, part of the fun of Alpha Blue is it’s light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek sense of escapism. However, the suggested table of past traumatic events contain nothing squicky. None of these suggested traumas involve the character being a victim; they’re all about shameful mistakes, misunderstandings and failings. I’m quite impressed with how Venger handled this!

…and then the adventure starts and we’re right back on the silly sleaze train. The abrupt change in tone is hilarious.

The Adventure Hook

The description of the first encounter, and the introduction of the first NPC, sets the tone perfectly. It’s grotesque, X-rated, slapstick.

Basically the party gets hired, in some form or another, to find out what happened to an exploratory space ship.

There’s a very interesting feline (like, literally) NPC in this adventure. His connection to the PCs transport ship can be determined randomly via a table. This character is a quirky but useful addition to the party; one that I’ve never encountered before in a RPG module. Again, kudos to Venger for this idea.

The adventure kicks off in media res with a bounty hunter attack and his minions. A nice chance for an action scene within the confines of the ship.

A Truckstop

There’s a quick stop en route to the adventure because the ship needs to refuel. The station includes a Hooters-type place which, once again, is shameless in it’s sleaze factor. It’s like whenever the adventure starts to feel like traditional science fiction, we get “Blonde space waitress bimbos in tight pink and white uniforms” who have a 2 in 6 chance of offering extra kink to the protagonists.

There’s a random table of interesting events, one of which is an obvious homage to Space Balls, but which could quickly change the encounter to one of frantic action-horror due to the fallout.

There are several interesting NPCs here that the party might encounter (or will encounter as passengers and even a fascinating stowaway). This entire section reveals the author’s love of Science Fiction, I have to say (well, also of B-Movie sleaze, but that’s par for the course).

A series of events

The rest of the adventure is structured as a bunch of things that happen. As pointed out at the beginning, each of these can be breezed through (some even skipped without greatly affecting the final outcome, I think) or each could be the basis of an entire “episode” or game session. We’ve got

  • a space battle that kicks off by another joke from Space Balls
  • the discovery of an escape pod and its quirky NPC passenger
  • an awful reveal about some NPC crew members
  • Space Cthulhu and a doomed ship (time clock sets off before imminent destruction)
  • Space Cenobites that screw around with PCs and NPCs alike
  • A climax reminiscent of the film Event Horizon (the title of the adventure itself is a huge reference)

For such an intense, action-packed and horrific setting as the X-III starship, I’m curious about the absence of a floorplan. There are plenty of chances for haunted house exploration, intense chases and a ticking timebomb race to save the universe (or just to escape).  Strange.

The end of the book contains another few tables for name generation and NPC personalities. A small bonus, mostly an afterthought.

Conclusion

Of all of Venger’s works, this one has the greatest range of tonal shifts. You’ve got so many extremes: kinky sleaze, cheesy comedy, cosmic horror and disturbing Clive Barker-esque grotesqueness. It’s all over the place. The obvious references make this the most gonzo of all of his gonzo works. It was a bit jarring at times: I would definitely stretch this out to a campaign, not 2-3 quick episodes.

There’s a lot to do in each event, but the events happen regardless of what the players choose to do. This isn’t a railroad: there’s a LOT of options for the players. This could end in many ways; just as easily a high-five 80s action movie victory to mind-blasted, torturous madness and death. It just felt a bit like “this happens and then THIS happens and then THIS happens what do the characters do now?” including a bit of “the PCs might get captured here, but that’s another adventure” however, there’s nothing there for the GM to work with; they’ll have to come up with their own side scenarios. They’re all interesting, mind you, but still: the GM will need to do some extra work depending on the outcome of a few of the encounters.

I think that this would have greatly benefited from a few floor-plans or maps. Most of the time the set pieces could be done “theater of the mind” style but it really felt lacking here considering how much of the action occurs in 2-3 of the locations. Glynn Seal does great floor plans; I’m surprised that he didn’t make some for this adventure.

It looks like lots of fun, though. If I ran it, I might trim out a few of the encounters. Some of the sex bits felt a bit gratuitous, some of the NPCs could’ve been given a bit more to do; they get introduced but there aren’t many hooks for them later one (except as potential victims of the horrors in the climax).

 

Review of Blood in the Chocolate

Kiel Chenier’s 17th Century tongue-in-cheek horror adaptation of Road Dahl’s classic about a chocolate factory is a splendidly disturbing adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

Parodies of the subject matter have been done to death (ie, the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy etc…), but this one remains fresh to me because it subverts so many expectations:

  • yes, of course the stand-in “Oompah Loompahs” are essentially slaves, we’re over that, but exactly who (or what) they’re slaves TO is a departure from other satires.
  • yes, the proprietor of the factory is a disturbing, selfish creature, but here we have a completely non-whimsical sadist who’s truly selfish and greedy for regular human reasons.
  • yes, the food can transform people, punishing them for their selfish flaws. But here the transformations are full-on body horror: stuff that I’d be reluctant to throw at my players’ characters.

Look and Feel and Usability

It’s a pretty booklet with vivid cartoony artwork, which is entirely appropriate given the subject matter: innocence with a slightly twisted edge. The illustrations represent actual events, characters and places featured in the adventure, which is always appreciated.

Each chapter has a different coloured background which aids in flipping through the book to find something. None of the watermarks or imagery inhibited readability.

The PDF has a clickable index. Always glad to have it included.

My favourite feature was the high level summary of the contents of every room. This is incredibly useful and amazing. Great thought was put into this document.

Structure

We’re given a nice bit of background and historical context. To me, that’s important because it grounds the weirdness into the semblance of reality. After all, if everything’s weird, nothing really is. The charm of this module depends greatly on the players’ campaign setting. I would not use any LotFP modules in High Fantasy worlds. Well, maybe in a G-Rated world of pristine cleanliness. But otherwise, I’d use something more relate-able and “real”.

We’re given a nice backstory to the villain who is refreshingly evil for banal reasons: she’s not a misunderstood, tragic figure, nor possessed by otherworldly demons. She’s just an asshole.

The module has nice, simple keyed maps of every room and corridor. The room descriptions are vivid but not overburdened with fluff. Everything is easy to grasp and understand.

Themes

The introduction makes a note that there are plenty of psycho-sexual themes in this module. I agree, but they’re applicable to male and female characters. The twisted horror is gender neutral.

As mentioned earlier, there are lots of body horror themes. These are typically inflicted through many traps and weapons that inflict awful diseases. Many have permanent effects if they don’t outright kill someone.

This adventure is gross and bizarre, but clever and fun. Hard to imagine, right?

As with many adventures for LotFP, this one rewards player (or character) cleverness and ingenuity. Charging in pistols blazing is a bad, awful idea.

There are several explanations for different outcomes, based on what the players do. There’s even a direct hook to another popular LotFP module, if you want to go into that direction.

Unlike some other punishing horror adventures, this one has many possible riches and rewards for adventurers who survive and thrive. They might even take over the factory itself and retire (but only if they accept the ethical dilemma of inflicting terrible diseases upon humanity).

Conclusion

This is a very well-written adventure module. There are may different options and ways for the GM to handle it. It is efficiently and elegantly laid out and would be easy to run. A fun, but bizarre and revolting adventure that will surely be memorable for both players and for their characters.

I recommend it.

You can buy it here at DriveThruRPG