Dangerous Space Jail by Phil Vecchione

On Google+, Phil Vecchione was asking for people to review his Dungeon World adventure Dangerous Space Jail. I jumped.

I love Phil’s Never Unprepared from Engine Publishing. It’s a guide for getting things done, with a focus on bringing awesome adventures to your gaming table.

Encoded Design’s tagline is “Weaponizing Games for Busy GMs.” It is important to keep in mind that this adventure is for Busy GMs.

Preamble

Dangerous Space Jail devotes five pages to the preamble.

One page for an introduction to Encoded Design‘s first publication as well as how the adventure came about.

Two pages of adventure background. Astral prison for ancient foes.

Two pages explaining how to use this adventure. There is good advice, especially those new to running role-playing games.

Adventure

There are several prescribed scenes in this adventure with the following visually scannable structure:

  • Scene Name – for reference and flavor
  • Purpose – a quick explanation of the scene
  • Location – where are things happening
  • Opposition – who/what is opposing the PCs
  • Opening – Setting up the scene
  • Body – Interacting with the scene
  • Closing – Wrapping things up

This structure is fantastic. The Scene Name, Purpose, Location, and Opposition are a quick list. Easy to reference and get your bearings.

The Opening, Body, and Closing contain the bulk of the scene information.

The Opening conveys to the GM what once may have been the read aloud text. There is plenty of information, and a GM would do well to paraphrase this information.

The Body is how the scene should be run. What happens as the characters interact with the environment. Throughout the body:

  • Tactics of the support and opposition.
  • Additional hard moves for the GM to use against the player characters.
  • Callout text of the NPCs (with an Actor/Actress Shortcut).
  • Callout text for additional information – a cue for a paladin to take a vow, a bit of lore, guidance for if they go off the rails.
  • Custom Moves for features of the scene

The Closing provides additional information that can be found in the scene after the conflict has died down.

On Custom Moves and Their Ilk

Dungeon World and its kin, are all about moves. I find the custom moves and defy danger advice of Dangerous Space Jail is weak or not as precise as it could be.

Below is one example.

When a character enters the Dimensional Anchor room or when someone disturbs the fabric of reality, Roll + Int. On a 10+, Enter the room with no issue; 7-9 choose one [from the list]; 6- choose two [from the list]

  • Fall out of sync with the room: -1 ongoing to all actions until leaving the room.
  • Placed in harm’s way: transport near one of the monsters.
  • Separated from your gear: pick one item you are carrying (weapon, shield, backpack, etc.) and it appears across the room from you.
  • Release another Astral Tendril.

The move is unclear, who is choosing? That could be tidied up by saying “when you enter” instead of “when a character enters.”

I am not enamored with a -1 ongoing to all actions. That is a lot of failure stacking up. Maybe give the GM one hold to pick something else from the list while in the room.

I also don’t like that 6- gives choices to the player. Let the list tell the GM of possible responses and give an “Additional Hard Move” advice for the room.

There is also a section in which Dangerous Space Jail gives advice for adjudicating a Defy Danger roll.

  • Unbalanced: the rocks are unstable. (-2 going forward for their next action)
  • Just short: catch the ledge. (d6 damage from a nearby Ver’sha as they hang)
  • Forced back: make a second Defy Danger roll
  • Rain of gravel: get pelted by thrown rocks. (b[2d6])

A -2 penalty is huge…and boring. The damage is reasonable, especially since an adversary is now nearby.

But I take umbrage with the “Forced back” option. I find this uninspiring as it does nothing to advance the state of the game.

How about: “You catch the ledge with one hand while your other hand holds your pack. You are hanging there…what do you do?”

The Ending

Dangerous Space Jail provides an optional director’s cut ending to resolve – because there is just a bit more going on. Its a nice touch.

The epilogue provides guidance for what happens if the characters succeed or fail at their task. Again helpful advice for the GM.

Adventure Mechanics

There are four adventure mechanics in play:

  • The Countdown Timer – rules for the race against the clock
  • Moving Through the Fortress – a custom move to reflect the nature of the jail
  • Variable Resistance – Based on the time, opposition will be greater
  • New Creatures – All adventures have some adversary

The Countdown Timer is the in-game incarnation of “Show signs of an approaching threat.” And the Variable Resistance is how the timer impacts the characters throughout the adventure.

The custom move for Moving Through the Fortress doesn’t do much for me. It’s a bit too scattered for my tastes. Is its focus to chew up resources? Time? And again, if it is a PC facing move, writing it up as “When you…” helps clarify who decides things.

The new creatures are good. They encapsulate a few “race against time” concepts. Some moves could be more precise; As written the monster move could eliminate a character. But that is one of the challenges of Dungeon World; There is precision of some things and then a lot of room for interpretation in the moves.

Hacking the Adventure

This section addresses several concerns, namely the railroad. Phil clearly states that this is designed and written for busy GMs.

Phil does a great job of calling attention to the various dials he has put in this race against the clock adventure. He gives some advice on how to adjust those dials.

Handouts and Cartography

There is a countdown timer handout for the PCs. Also a nice external picture to give shape to the adventure.

The cartography is minimal but helps give mental form to the adventure location.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Dangerous Space Jail if you:

  • Are looking to kick off a planar adventure
  • Are looking for an adventure that is easy to use as a one-shot
  • Are interested in a fully baked adventure
  • Would like in-depth guidance on running an adventure
  • Want a race against the clock adventure

Do not buy Dangerous Space Jail if you:

  • Are a Dungeon World purist that requires crisp player moves
  • Aren’t interested in planar antics
  • Can’t handle working with a railroad adventure
  • Want lots of blank spaces in your adventure
  • Prefer adventures with ample social interactions

Editorializing

Having just read and reviewed The Gnomes of Levnec, I’ll draw this comparison:

Dangerous Space Jail appears to have its procedural ancestry from late era D&D 3.5 and D&D 4E adventures: Exploration through combat.

Whereas The Gnomes of Levnec feels much more Old School meets Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You explore a region where action unfolds as the players interact and the GM adjudicates responses.

Seeking a 2015 Ennies Nomination

Ennies 2015 Logo

Ennies 2015 Logo

This year, I am seeking your vote! To be an Ennies’ Judge.

I would appreciate it if you would take a bit of your time to go vote for the 2105 Ennie JudgesRead up on the 2015 nominees.

The Ennies are “an annual fan-based celebration of excellence in tabletop roleplaying gaming.”

One challenge that I believe faces the Ennies is the issue of 800 pound gorillas. The games and companies that are the gateway into our hobby.

I acknowledge that many gamers stay in the entry way, playing only their gateway game. That is awesome and works for them.

But I would like to also celebrate the games that are less well-known. That may scratch a very niche itch.

This may require a few adjustments to the game categories; And I believe my answer to one of the nominee questions helps illuminate where I would like to help shape the Ennies:

I would love to recognize first time entrants for their own award. This could be a general grab bag, or a narrow set of categories.

 

I would love to see awards for best third party material.

A vibrant third-party community is something to celebrate.

Best open content, either licensed under the OGL or Creative Commons (or other licenses), would be a great addition.

So, if you would also like to celebrate excellence in tabletop roleplaying gaming, please take some time and read up on the 2015 nominees then go vote.

The Gnomes of Levnec by Zzarchov Kowolski

Admiring Zzarchov Kowolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth, I reached out to him for a review copy of The Gnomes of Levnec. He was gracious to oblige.

I was curious for two reasons:

  1. Scenic Dunnsmouth is a masterful adventure toolkit.
  2. My wife is The Soapy Gnome, a soap maker

What Do We Have Here

Gnomes of Levnec provides a handful of locations. The village of Levnec is the “obvious” starting place.

The village is small and not bustling…something is amiss…there are a few clues. There are a handful of NPC descriptions along with possible responses to enquiry. And a few descriptions of buildings. Player interaction will be key.

Along with the village, Gnomes of Levnec describes a few other locations and creatures. Places to explore. Opposition to overcome. Creatures whose time is passing.

Random Tables

And a fantastic “so you are lost in the woods” table. Based on the map, and the awesomeness of the table, I would make sure that I roll on that table the first time they head into the woods. And at least one more time.

At its core, you roll a d8, d6, and a d4 consulting the corresponding table. If you roll triples, doubles, or max then you will apply a kicker to the results. There is a lot of information encoded in the tables.

As with many well written random tables, I appreciate the potentiality of the random table. Things that could happen, but won’t. Early on, I would skim random tables. Now, I read them as they help to convey and reinforce the author’s intent. They are like a baton hand-off from the writer to the GM…with the author saying “I’ve done my part, now you make sense of this.”

What about the Gnomes

Yes, there are gnomes, and their role is important to this adventure. It is unique and unexpected.

Picking Some Nits

Gnomes of Levnec has nice headers but its paragraphs are dense affairs; Scanning the text is difficult.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy The Gnomes of Levnec if you are:

  • Wanting an interesting take on gnomes
  • Willing to fill in some blanks
  • Fleshing out the edges of civilization, where the old and bizarre still live and breath
  • Interested in things off kilter
  • Looking to have your characters’s crawling through the woods

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)
  • Are not up for a mix of morbidity and whimsy
  • Not wanting to come up with a hook for adventure
  • If you are wanting explicit instructions on how to run this
  • Certain your players won’t talk with NPCs
  • A strict believer in traditional gnomes
  • Interested in adventures using “formal” language

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

I believe the complete list of adventures I have run closely from a book are:

  • The Red Hand of Doom (D&D 3E)
  • The Night Below (AD&D 2E)
  • The Dramune Run (Star Frontiers)
  • Under the House of the Three Squires (Torchbearer)
  • Breakout (Marvel Heroic)
  • Bloodstone (D&D 3E, Burning Wheel)
  • The Trouble in Hochen (Burning Wheel)

Yet I own lots of adventures. And keep buying more. Because I like smashing the ideas of the adventures into my brain for later reference.

Screencapture of the PDF cover of Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

Zzarchov Kowolski‘s “Scenic Dunnsmouth” piqued my curiosity after I read the following back cover text:

Scenic Dunnsmouth features an innovative village generation system using dice and playing cards to ensure that every expedition to Dunnsmouth is unique.

It delivers on that promise.

What Do We Have Here

Most adventures I’ve read provide a “fully formed” adventure. A living creature with skin, guts, skeleton, and sinew.

A fully formed adventure may work for an adventure with a simple relationship graph (i.e. Dungeon Crawl) but for a mystery, attempting to hold the concepts and pieces of the adventure in my mind is challenging.

Scenic Dunnsmouth takes an interesting and divergent approach from a standard adventure. It provides you with:

  • the guts – the core mystery
  • some disassembled mixbag of bones – d4, d6, d8, and d12 kind of bones
  • a bolt of mottled skin – the look, feel, and tone of the writing
  • some connective tissues – Families, relationships, and even possible feuds
  • a toolkit for assembling the adventure

And there lies its genius.

Some Assembly Required

Yes there is a core mystery and evil. But Zzarchov provides a procedure for assembling your Frankenstein’s monster of an adventure.

With a fistful of dice you determine:

  • The locations of the town
  • The weirdness level
  • Where to position a few of the stock characters

Then, you shuffle up some cards and determine the town’s inhabitants. And that is it.

If someone or somewhere doesn’t show up in your town construction, it does not exist in this incarnation of Dunnsmouth.

Taking Notes to Help Remember

When I am reading, I’m a terrible note taker. I don’t mark in my books. The exercise of finalizing Dunnsmouth was the best note taking session for any of my adventure preparation.

The final result of the procedure was a map with numerous locations keyed by:

  • dice size
  • rolled value
  • card suit
  • card value

With those four bits of information, I can get a general sense for the tone of Dunnsmouth. I can also lookup in the character index more information about the inhabitants and locations.

Not bad for 30 minutes of adventure preparation!

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Scenic Dunnsmouth if you are:

  • Interested in unique procedures for adventure creation
  • Looking for weird fantasy
  • Looking for an interrogation/observation-based mystery

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)

Other Reviews

A Handful of other reviews of Scenic Dunnsmouth.

Fond Memories of the Kenku

For a few years in high school and college, I had a tradition of running a New Year’s Eve one shot. We would order up a six foot sub, plenty of caffeine, and start gaming around 5pm. Our sessions would last until 8am or so.

One session, I believe it was December 31st, 1993, I had a very rudimentary adventure planned out. The characters were going to escort a diplomat to another dignitary’s seat of power. I had a few set pieces in mind:

I also provided the characters. If memory serves they were 8th level or so in AD&D 2E. The characters were:

  • A human priestess of Sune
  • A dwarf fighter/thief
  • A human thief/diviner
  • A human fighter
  • And a few others now lost to my memory

As I was handing out characters, I gave my friend Matt the Diviner/Thief. It was a finesse character with no apparent ability to directly influence things (poor Strength and Charisma).

Matt looked at the character sheet and ask: “Why do I speak Gnomish?”

And that is when the wheels went in motion. He was working for the gnomes but something went sour. An early scene established that Kenku were slighted by the gnomes and were going to take it out on him.

This was one of the first times that I had truly improvised my game based on a question from the player. And as it turned out, this left a lasting impression on me.

First, I have always been particular to diviners. Even when I play Apocalypse World I gravitate towards high Sharp characters, attempting to observe and build an advantage.

Second, the power of asking questions at the table cannot be understated. While the details of the encounter with the Kenku are lost, I believe everyone at the table enjoyed the dynamism of an encounter where it wasn’t simply “Kill someone.”

Third, Kenku. I fell in love with the avian masters of subterfuge. While I haven’t brought them back into play, I’ve always had them waiting in the wings.

So this past week, I began exploring how I might use Kenku. Thinking more about their motivations and social structure.

Write-up for Fate Core

Kenku
Aspects: That Shiny will be Mine!, Blackmailing Information Broker
Skills: Good (+3) Deceive, Fair (+2) Stealth, Average (+1) Contacts, Burglary
Stunts: Mimicry. Can mimic familiar sounds, voices, and accents.
Stress: 2 boxes

Write-up for Dungeon World

Kenku Group, Stealthy, Devious, Organized, Intelligent, Cautious, Hoarder
Short sword (d4 damage 1 piercing) 6 HP 2 armor
Close

“I’m telling you, he had a beak and clawed hands!” said the prisoner.

“Right. I’ve heard that one before. And there were a dozen of them,” said the jailer.

“Yeah! How’d you know?”

“Because you ain’t the first. I’ve heard lots of things. But the idea that there are a bunch bird men running things in this city is absurd. Think about it? Wouldn’t someone have caught on by now? The council? The guards? The guilders? Shut up and face up to it…you did something stupid, and 10 years hard labor is your reward.”

Instinct: To collect that which shines

  • Pass through society without drawing attention
  • Mimic the sound of anything ever heard
  • Blackmail: Let other people do your dirty work!
  • Where there is one, many are sure to be found

Fascination with the Flame Princess

Last week, I found myself once again in Chicago. I had plans to meetup with Nathan, and we agreed to connect at our usual rendezvous – The Wanderer’s Refuge. While waiting for Nathan, I stumbled upon a few copies of Better than Any Man, a product that I had kickstarted for Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s 2013 Free RPG Day drive.

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

I had been unable to get a physical copy – what with it being released while I was neck deep in RPGs at Origins last year. So I quickly snagged a copy of this gorgeous adventure. I asked the store owner the cost, and he said “It was part of Free RPG Day, so its free!”

Later, I had an afternoon to kill and found myself again at Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL. My first visit there, I had bought The God that Crawls and The Monolith from beyond Space and Time.

This visit, they had 4 copies LotFP Rules & Magic. But I already had my copy from a previous order. Though I stood over those books and admired their quality.

Late last year, during one of James Raggi’s crazy “Things are On Sale” days, I purchased a physical copy LotFP Rules & Magic as well as Geoffrey McKinney’s Isle of the Unknown and Carcosa – having read and reviewed the PDF a few years prior.

I kickstarted indigogoed Vincent Backer’s The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions during James’s crazy indigogo blitz – 19 concurrent indigogo campaigns many of which did not fully fund. I wanted to see Vincent’s take on the more OSR related things.

Last month, when James was asking for volunteers to test out a payment processing system, I jumped at the chance to both help out and get a discount. I ordered Kelving Green’s Forgive Us, Zzarchov Kowlolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth, and Kenneth Hite’s Qelong.

I also have the Grindhouse Edition of the LotFP rules and Zak S’s fantastic Vornheim. The Grindhouse Edition rules provide a digestible introduction to a game that just isn’t quite like the games that I remember from years past. Things are more fragile and mysterious.

Vornheim is amongst my favorite supplements. It is not an exhaustive description of the city, but instead provides tools, guideposts, brief “essays” each for bringing Vornheim to life.

So confident am I that I will love everything Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I joined the Pembrooktonshire Gardening Society. And my card arrived today.

But here is the dirty secret…

I’ve never once played a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. But they are amongst my most favorite role-playing books.

First, they are gorgeously produced – from the evocative cover art to the decadent paper stock. Just handling them is enough to drive the bibliophile wild.

Second, they are different. They are weird – in comparison to much of what is out there. In some ways reading each of the books transports me. As I crack open one of these books, it is as though I am given another chance at being introduced to RPGs.

So cheers to you James, for all of your crazy endeavors! You are taking risks in what you publish – acknowledging as much in The Monolith from beyond Space and Time – and I’m enjoying seeing the end results. Especially in their high quality printed form.

 

Getting the Band Back Together

Thus far, 2014 has been a year of very little gaming. Normally I would be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, but that has not been the case.

I’ve focused on helping my wife get her soap business off of the ground. We are in year two of the Soapy Gnome,  with the next month focusing on opening a shop in downtown Goshen, Indiana.

My children are involved in more after school activities, which means more time spent in transit. They are teenagers and I can see the window of time with them closing. So I won’t give up those hours.

I’ve also had a significant amount of work related travel over the last two years. This has meant I’ve had face to face time with a handful of gamers from other parts of the country. But it chews into any continuity in game schedules.

I had an opportunity to do some freelance work, and have opted to not pursue it. When I crunched the numbers I had at best 2 hours of unaccounted for time each weekday. And perhaps 20 hours on any given weekend. In other words 138 hours of my 168 hour week are accounted for.

All to say I’ve been busy.

But I want to get back to gaming. I would want to try to find an evening and establish a schedule. I would love for someone else to run the games, and coordinate things, but that may be wishful thinking.

My brother has suggested that we play games via Google Hangouts. And I’m working my way up to that. I love sitting around the game table and playing an RPG. The social aspect is so very fantastic.