Review of Adventure Writing like a F’ing Boss

A brief but interesting take on the subject with some great advice.

I actually think of it as a companion piece, or addendum to How to Game Master like a F’ing Boss (link to my review of that work). Much of the advice is similar: try to entertain, don’t railroad, present situations not plot lines and keep a good balance between the three pillars of RPGs: Interaction, Exploration and Action (or Combat).

A lot of the information familiar to me, but it was helpful to read it in a structured way. Venger’s conversational tone makes it an easy, approachable read. There’s always a bit of humour which is always a bonus.

The actual PDF is well presented: the watermarks are mostly unobtrusive, and anyway, there’s a print-friendly version without them. I really appreciate this!

The artwork is done by familiar artists of Venger’s line of books. A mix of monsters, fantasy, sci fi, gonzo and cheesecake.

What was also interesting was to find out where Venger draws the line in terms of poor taste. He makes it explicit, in fact. I wonder how he feels about some of the more twisted modules by Lamentations of the Flame Princess…

In the back of my mind, I wondered about the handful of modules that I’ve been working on over the past four or five years. I can see a fresh way to approach them now, so there’s that.

For the price of a fancy coffee at Starbucks you get a decent little book with good advice on adventure module writing. I recommend it, but in all honesty I think that his book on Gamemastering is even more useful when it comes to explaining what makes a good game session.

You can buy this book here at DrivethruRPG.

Review of Stairway of V’dreen

This adventure module is 19 pages long and is one of the latest of works by Venger Satanis for the Crimson Dragon Slayer RPG. You can read my review of this game here.

My review was a read through of the PDF (not a play-through, sadly).

Layout and readability

The cover and interior page backgrounds (watermarks) are in full colour. All of the illustrations are in black and white or grey-scale. The print friendly version has no watermarks and is clean, crisp and crystal clear.

Kudos once again to Glynn Seal of MonkeyBlood Design. The text is nicely readable, the headings clear and obvious, the stat blocks distinct. The watermarked backgrounds did not interfere with the text too much: occasionally the blood stains made me squint at the tables. However, Glynn and Venger have supplied a print-friendly version without any watermarks which is wonderful (for both actual printing or better readability at the table). Then again, the eerie blood vessels are gore stains on every page part of the experience.

A nice looking product that balances style with readability.

Artwork

All good stuff by familiar artists. Most of the subject matter is disturbing tentacled horrors or fantasy/post-apocalyptic scenes evocative of Heavy Metal magazine.

There is one image with some cheesecake (a masked goon with a trio of chained female prisoners) but they’re looking bored or tired rather than distressed.

The adventure

The whole thing gives me vibes of the original Star Trek series. The environmental colour scheme and the situations make me envision typical planets seen on that 60s TV show. It helps that there are a more than a few references to Star Trek as well.

The adventure kicks off with the PCs needing to seek out shelter immediately from some lethal effect of the DM’s choosing. It’s hilariously straightforward. Practically speaking, it could be used in the middle of any campaign in just about any environment.

Shortly after, the PCs voluntarily (or involuntarily) choose to enter a portal that leads to the realm of the titular V’dreen.

V’dreen is a fantasy world that is vanishing; its borders are literally fading  away to a void resembling graph paper!

There are some rules using random tables to set up the setting of V’dreen, including:

  • strange voices on the “wind”, some of which kind of break the 4th wall. Very funny.
  • a table to generate beings for random encounters. As usual, they’re a mix of gonzo weirdness and generic, so you’ll have some contrast. Example: sure you could end up with a zombie or skeleton, but they could be made of pizza or be a Ghost-Dinosaur.
  • A few random NPCs. After reading the rest of the module, I saw several opportunities to use them for unnamed extras features in a few encounters.

There are a few hooks, but this module is very loose with only a few clear goals. Not a bad thing, just that I would need to fill many gaps myself (which I don’t mind doing, personally).

There is a fiendishly powerful monster called the Arachnosaur (such an awesome name) that the party might encounter, a Demon that wants to barter with the party to help him get free (who the hell ever falls for that) and a town populated by V’Dreen’s three factions:  insect people, Klingon elves and amorphous blob creatures. Good on Venger for going beyond Tolkienisms or Barsoom… uh… isms.

Overall impressions

This module is surreal, schlock and gonzo. I actually see myself using this product (and perhaps a few other of Venger’s works) to fill out the many gaps in Carcosa (from Lamentations of the Flame Princess). Perhaps replacing some of the more horrific and disturbing elements of that setting with the more light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek material by Venger.

While I like shorter modules, I tend to prefer a more narrow focus and smaller setting. In such a small page count, I would rather use it as a one-shot. There are a lot of characters and encounters here that are open-ended and without player buy-in to be creative, goofy and fun, they could turn out a little stale. I think that a DM should heavily use the random tables in this module to add some unpredictability to every encounter.

Finally, I wish that there was a map of some kind. The module is meant to be loose, but I think that it would have benefited greatly by having some cartography. Not necessarily full-on hexes; even a simple point crawl or sketch would have been appreciated. I’d probably draw one up myself during prep. Venger’s maps are always great.

Conclusion

I’d recommend this to anyone who’s already a fan of Venger’s “Mythos”. It contains lots of tie-ins into his other products, especially the Islands of Purple Putrescence (review here). On it’s own, it has some fun ideas but I think that it is dependant on the core game (and other books by Venger for thematic random tables that really make his works sing).

You can purchase Stairway of V’dreen here.

My 1st tabletop gaming convention

This article was started a month or two ago, fresh from the convention. Sadly I’ve been delayed in updating my blog. Still, for whatever it’s worth, here are my take-away impressions of my first gaming convention.

CanGames occurs in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. It features all sorts of games: card, board, war and roleplaying.

My goal was to play as many different roleplaying games as possible, to network and to gain some experience on the other side of the Dungeon Master’s screen. My preference is DMing, not being a player. I wanted to learn more about how other people perform that role.

I was a bit nervous at first. My previous experiences with new gaming groups have usually been negative. Either I had a conflicting take on DM styles or I didn’t get along with the other players.

A note on demographics at the RPG tables: predominantly white men in their mid to late 20s up to their 40s. I can only remember seeing a handful of women at all. There was a greater variety (in terms of age, gender and ethnicity) at the board and card game tables, though. No judgment being passed here, just an observation.

Overall my experience was positive. People were very nice and I only had a few negative social experiences (from players, not from DMs or convention staff).

Each session began with an explanation of the “X Card”. People were cool about it, or at the very least, slightly surprised or confused that such an item was needed at all. I was glad that it was there, to be frank, based on crappy experiences in the past (of mine and those of others).

Session One: Dungeon World

This is a game that I’ve GMed several times, but never, ever played. It is one of my favourite games ever, so this was very interesting for me.

A great game session with a very friendly, generous DM by the name of Frank. We had a clever group and players usually fed off of, and built on, each other’s ideas. There was a dull moment toward the middle where I simply couldn’t get a word in due to the number of players (6!) but otherwise it was lots of fun and everyone had a moment to shine.

The DM used special cards to randomly generate encounters, traps and treasures. They were really, really cool and he gifted a stack of them to me (a duplicate copy of the cards that were play-tested during a Kickstarter). I’ll make good use of them, thanks Frank!

My character was a Thief named Mouse. I was reading Mike Mignola’s interpretation of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and so I used that to build up my concept nice and quick. Had a pretty good time.

Biggest takeaways as a player

  • I think that this game needs a fun, easygoing GM, someone who wants to see what cool ideas the players come up with. Frank was great and I had a blast.
  • It’s really a downer when another player shuts down one of my ideas with straight up negation. To be clear, I’m referring to negation that hinders or halts all progress. It feels demoralizing and boring.
  • When I explicitly tell the other players that I feel that the momentum is stalling and that we should try to move things along, it doesn’t work. If anything, it can have the opposite effect (see the previous point).

Night Witches

This is a game that I already own and love, but never played (neither as DM or a player).

It was fantastic and probably the most memorable game session of all. So many intensely difficult choices to make. It wasn’t always apparent which was the best and any tragedies that befell our squadron had heavy dramatic weight.

My character was a “Raven” named Vera from the Ukraine. She was a “Protector” (a trait that was picked for me by the rest of the players based on my in-game actions).  She and the “Pigeon” made a hell of a team (I was the Navigator, she the Pilot). We were the most talented and successful of teams but at great cost (to others, mostly). I’d like to think that these two were successful in the war but with many ghosts haunting their dreams.

We had many great, intense moments and it was easy to create connections, drama and camaraderie. Very memorable and powerful game session.

I was sorely tempted to stick with that game the entire convention, but I stuck to my guns.

Biggest takeaways as a player

  • Debates about historical or canon facts (ie, nitpicks) ruin the tension and momentum. Such debates need to be outlawed (I remember being tempted to reach for the “X card” because all the pedantic nitpicking).  When I next GM a historical game, I’ll make a rule before the session starts that discussions about things that aren’t happening IN the game are to be kept out of it.
  • Supporting another player’s choices and coming to their aid even when it doesn’t have any clear benefit to my character had a big pay off. Created bonds between characters and players!
  • RPGs are better with really hard choices: especially when something goes really wrong (in a dramatic and cool way). Lesson learned.

Psi*Run

My usual game was cancelled on Saturday morning and my new friend Frank (from the Dungeon World game) graciously invited me into his session of Psi*Run.

A fascinating game with a narrow focus but limitless character development options. Fast, frantic and fun (sorry if that sounded like a sales pitch).

I made some blunders during character creation that I still cringe about, but I adjusted quickly and Frank and the other players were forgiving.

This was another game that really stuck with me. I will try to run it when I can.

It began with shared world creation. We ended up with a post-apocalyptic world full of dome cities and a Jetsons-style civilization. My character was Judy Rocketson: a valley girl teen with impossibly huge telekinetically-augmented cybernetic strength. She had an expensive designer purse with a decapitated robot head in it.

Really a blast with a great few scenes of high tension and/or hilarity!

Definitely snagging a copy of this game sometime, somehow.

Biggest takeaways as a player

  • I really appreciate group player creation and wish I’d spoken with other players more before settling on my concept. I started off with a neat concept but terrible choices of powers (shouldn’t have been plural!) and questions that were impossible to answer in such a short session.
  • I loved shared world building in-game later (tying concepts together as we fed off each other’s ideas). I built on another player’s ideas to build on my own.
  • I dislike other players describing my character’s actions or intentions. I don’t know exactly why it bothers me so much, but there you go.

Gothic World

This is an Apocalypse World hack reminiscent of gothic-action-horror games such as Unhallowed Metropolis, Accursed or even Hellboy.  The idea is that the PCs are monster-hunters who happen to be monsters themselves. The setting is a pseudo-victorian with a dash of steampunk but mostly occult gothic horror. Very, very cool.

I ended up with an occultist playbook which was really cool. The game isn’t finalized so this was a bit of play-testing. I had some feedback on the nature of the demonic bargains and pacts but I got sidetracked.

The game started off well but one of the players was randomly allocated as the group leader. This can be ok, but it quickly led to disagreements and debate. Well, mostly from me. I didn’t get along with this fellow; I resent being bossed around in-game or out of it (by anyone other than the GM’s NPCs).

I had a solid plan but couldn’t get a word in. The party leader had an idea and didn’t care what the other characters had to say. I found myself strongly resisting the desire to rebel against him, but this would start up shit and make me look like a jerk so I bit my tongue.

Things got bad and I’m not proud of my behaviour. From a combination of too many players, a party split up and some unintentional sulking by me, I got severely bored. I would have left but the convention rules are clear: if you leave before the end of the session you’re banned from the rest of the weekend. So I sat there, silent, rarely able to get a word in.

The session concluded with a decisive battle against a frightening foe. A great scene and conclusion to the story despite the odd player chemistry. This wasn’t a fault of the DM, nor of the rules of the game.

I’m eager to see the completed version of Gothic World and I wish the creator(s) all the best!

Biggest takeaways as a player

  • I strongly dislike large groups. It creates waiting periods of inactivity, frequently makes you unable to voice  your opinion or to get involved with the action in the heat of the moment. The game had a lot of character and I would have liked to be able to spend more time with it.
  • I despise being told what to do by other players, or to be bossed around. I don’t mean other players offering suggestions, but being flat-out told that I should do something specific. Which leads directly into:
  • Don’t ever make one player the leader of the others unless they’ve been elected into such a role unanimously by the players.

Conclusion

It was a good experience, but I don’t know if I’ll go back again as a player (unless the GM is from the Ottawa Story Games group). I’m glad to have met some genuinely nice folks and I had a few great gaming moments.

Lastly, I think that I’ll stick with GMing. I’m not a very good player, I’ve come to realize, despite my best intentions!