Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Requirement Roll
Emily Carroll
Thinking about changing things up with my (I am tired of saying old schoolish, DIY, dndish, etc, and I don't really find the term OSR useful, so how about) Basic Red classes. In the process I think I'm going to reassess the ability score requirements of so many old games and exotic classes. I like the idea of people being to play a really shitty dwarf in the same way someone can play a really shitty thief. But I like the idea of requirements as gatekeepers from everybody just playing nine elves in a row. So how about a d10 roll? You roll 1d10 and then you can be anything equal to or less than the value rolled.

This is what I'm thinking about for thresholds and classes, and what comic book artists I'd associate with each class (you don't have to look like that but you get 5% bonus XP if you do; that's right, I'm decoupling bonus XP too):

1 Halflings are a consolation class where each ability score 6 and lower unlocks bonus abilities, I will update this when I finish that article. They come from Vaughn Bode and Jeff Smith.
2 Thieves work weird now also working on that. They are from Mike Mignola.
3 Fighters work like LotFP and can make death saves to not die at 0HP like everyone else does. John Buscema.
4 Priests work like Prophets and follow Magic-User rules for armor and weapons. They all have strange faiths and new gods. Charles Vess.
5 Dwarfs are much the same but instead of deep dwellers they're just nocturnal. Mark Buckingham.
6 Magic-User work like Wonder & Wickedness/VAM! and they all look like the came from a Doom Patrol comic except for the ones John Byrne made.
7 Clerics are straight about healing and turning undead but get the good armor and weapons. They serve The Church, whatever church that is. Brian Bolland or Kevin O'Neill.
8 Witches work like Fuck Druids and Emily Carroll draws them
9 Elfs all work like BX Halflings. Wendy Pini, or maybe Jill Thompson, or Moebius.
10 Druids, Paladins, Monks, Rangers, Assassins, or any other AD&D style class that we just kitbash until it fits. Yoshitaka Amano, which I think is cheating.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Action Philosophers for TSR 

If you don't want to skip to the bottom just remember that TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes is a great fucking game. This kind of thing isn't something I love writing and posting here for a few reasons but it has been on my mind and I need to get it out so better things can come through the tunnel.

I have a weird thing when I'm drunk where I end up sounding like I'm trying to make an opposite point to what I'm trying to do. This is bad with sensitive subjects. On a lighter note I recently took a big digression dump in some conversation of Zak's and made it sound like I think the best thing comics can be is Aesop's Fables, teaching morals and life lessons.

I won't bore you with the 3000 word preamble this could have been but by now I suspect my initial point doesn't need explaining to most folks: comics aren't superheroes. One's a medium and the other's a signal. And while I respect everyone who uses the medium to tell a story (especially a personal one that might be difficult to tell) or explore a theme (I can't imagine it's possible to run out of worthwhile ways to evidence the stupidity of racism) or serve a demand or need (sure my niece will buy anything with Disney characters on it, might as well give her some Frozen comics) the medium is, like film, a visual first medium. It's #1 job is to give people interesting things to see.

There's lots of reasons superheroes exploded in the States to the point of dominating our comics industry, a lot of reasons for their longevity, but Job One pretty much sums it up. It's a genre umbrella whose definition is pretty much "stuff interesting to look at," and developed to encompass crime stories, melodramas, O. Henry schtick, war comics, comedy, science fantasy, whatever meant there would be something cool to look at. Sometimes this can be facile - pretty naked people are great and well drawn naked people are great, sure, but so much of the Avengelyne era of hero was about some weird Tex-Avery-As-Envisioned-By-Larry-Flynt draftmanship focused solely on basically alien erotica at the expense of any other aspect of a composition. Sometimes it can be demanding - a lot of comic artists' real strength lies not in their gallery-level talent but in the way they use the medium, which forces you to kind of learn on the go and eschew medium shot gridlock comfort zones. But there's always something to see, and from characters who can punch somebody right through the panel barrier to books whose whole schtick relies on the fact that (unlike film) there are no depth of focus or depth of field issues, you could find 90% of comics pet-rock-boring and still keep finding showcases for Cool Stuff To See.

That's really all that's on the written test when you get your superhero comic license, which is why superhero comics have turned into Every Genre But More So over the years. Frankly HORROR is better at consistently passing the Cool Stuff To See test and really consumes and envelops genres faster and more smoothly than superheroes do. Horror just doesn't have the penetration with the markets for which superheroes are so eminently merchandisable. No, not even now in the post-Walking Dead gold rush for horror franchise properties. You can sell Batman to Methodists but not Babadook. Not a coincidence the spandex set had its renaissance after the horror market got its balls chopped off.

There's another thing superheroes have going for them that explains their longevity advantage over horror beyond the obvious (which is that horror loses its teeth when you try the same scare for too long, in the same way a joke becomes trite). It's their philosophical underpinnings. Not all heroes are specifically built around them but they inherit a lot implicitly from Superman, the ultimate fuck you from a couple Jewish guys to Nazi notions of Nietzsche, subverting or inverting their self-actualizing excuses for general fuckery. To be best is not to be better, to be best is to do better.

Some characters ARE built around a specific underpinning, or they come to be. Animal Man is a good example of the latter, Wonder Woman is something of an ur-example of the former. But from Peter Parker to Barda Free to Elektra to Punisher to Invincible to the modern day Carol Danvers everybody has a little bit of this in them, a positing of This Is What Good Is that is challenged by and proved by responding to different evils as a pretty explicit structure. Again, it can be facile, it can sure be repetitive, but it ultimately drives all the conflict in the way that a situation, location, context, or other characters might for other (and some better) stories.

This is good because while it can be as conservative and simplistic as any morality in a horror movie it gives superheroes an edge which is An Excuse For Things To Happen. Horror conveys temptation by the devil largely through tone and atmosphere. Superheroes do it with the protagonist strapped into a rocket train blasted into outer space filled with mind controlled POWs.

That's what I love about the best superhero comics and what I feel is missing from more modern day superbooks: even the most childlike view of good an evil can be used to drive the Make Stuff Happen boat and give us interesting things to see, which is what we're really here for.

Too many modern superhero comics, and this is coming from someone who does still love the industry, come at it the other way: all the action is an excuse for superheroes to stand around or fly around shouting philosophy at each other. This is an approach that, say, a prose book handles well. One inciting incident and a few bursts of excitement can keep characters reassessing the proper course of action, reconsidering past actions, expose old tensions and new connections...I love reading this shit. I love a lot of movies that are like this, a lot of comics that are like this. Hell, most of Star Trek is like this. But for action movies or action comics the DO and the LOOK AT THAT are always going to be more important than the why. Having your fistfights drive philosophical discourse would be disaster in a Die Hard movie. I contend that it is the same for the Justice League.

I think it's an instinct for wanting the thing you loved when you were younger to grow up with you and become more like other, mature fiction, so you can still enjoy it. To that I say just enjoy the things you love, people, and enjoy them for what they are. Adventure Time will never be Lord of the Rings and that's fine. When it's just allowed to be the best version if itself, frankly it's better.

So RPGs...

I have not played all the superhero RPGs in the world. I don't know that I could, at the rate they pop up. But so many of them are very concerned with capturing the melodrama in superhero comics. Built in rewards for tension-ratcheting failure, stat blocks for Perry White so you can roll your Not Superman against his Newshound value, some weird moralist elements, advice on designing your world so you can have the Street Level or Cosmic campaign you desire, a Super Friends like balance emphasis to make sure Green Arrow is as useful at the table as Metamorpho or Sapphire Stagg.

I think that's effort out of proportion with necessity, an attempt to make playing an RPG feel like reading or writing a comic book. If you're looking for that then cool, let's get these dice out of the way and talk about this idea you have for a Saturn Girl detective series, I'd be interested in that. I'd love to get the cast-off Marvel Micronauts a gig myself...

Any comic nerd can have and has had conversations like these that run for hours. Many turn them into cool little fan fiction, and that's neat. Sure, I'll read that, even if it's more filled with sex and romance than I'm looking for. If you're a pal then I'm interested in your voice, your perspective, your ideas...You have an idea for a new superhero series that you don't think will ever get published? I'm your audience of one, and I'm sure in return you won't mind listening to my pitch for MANK, the half man half tank.

When it comes to a superhero RPG, though, what I look for at the table is something that feels like DRAWING a comic. Shit Is Happening, Look At That, What Other Interesting Thing Can We Cram In Here, Check Out That NPC's Shitty Beard Ha Ha, Oh Shit Space Bees, Deep Inky Shadows, Time Dilation, Hard Cuts, That Was Slowing Down So Now We Are Over Here With These People Where Something More Interesting Is Happening...

TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes has a philosophical underpinning that takes up maybe half a page and can be used to romp in the old 616 Sandbox or make your own whole thing. It's this: you can do awesome things better and easier if you Act Like A Superhero. The philosophy drives the action, gives us more Cool Shit To Look At. We can't see these illustrations this time but the point where this gets us fighting the Hand to protect a runaway mother and child, NOW we're playing a comic. It's small, simple, and largely invisible. Best of all if you object to the morality it espouses (or rightly point out that it's a morality not always even espoused by its source material, but a version made safe for mass marketing to 8 year olds in a bright yellow box) you can change the whole thing and therefore redirect the energies of the whole campaign in about fiiiiiiiiiive minutes.

Every aspect of those rules, even this, maybe especially this, is devoted to doing interesting or explosive things to keep things moving forward and ride a momentum of Something New Happened Now. It's not breaking things into separate rooms, considered discussions over HERE and giant Civil War clusterfucks to take nine sessions to adjudicate over HERE. It's just going "if this then that" in a very elegant way. In a lot of ways I think this system is even smoother than D&D.

That feels a lot more like a superhero comic to me: not going "I see what you did there, very clever," but "HOLY CRAP WHAT JUST HAPPENED?"

Brave Little Tailors (another subclass)


Brave Little Tailors can be any class, be it a cleric who dresses divinely, a harried dwarf who can't keep ahead of all the clothing needs of a culture that's notoriously hard on their work wear, or a strange druid who cloaks themselves in the seasons quite literally. It costs you an extra 1000XP to reach level 2, 2000 XP to reach level 3, 4000 XP to reach level 4, etc. until you stop gaining Hit Dice. Additionally, before you can level you must completely update your Look.

Brave Little Tailors have three abilities:

Looks Can Kill

Each BLT has a Look all their own, utilitarian or fashionable, always idiosyncratic. They cannot wear magic robes, cloaks, capes, or armor, but they can copy the pattern of any wearable magic item and stitch it into their outfit. This works like the Blue Mage's copy ability but 1) for magic items, 2) it scales differently and you get no bonus from ability scores, 3) it's constantly renewed. You can have a number of effects equal to your level and a daily total number of magic-effect-uses equal to your Charisma score. As mentioned above you can only level up by changing your Look. That means even if you hit your XP threshold you have to sacrifice all learned magic abilities and put together a whole new outfit, losing all your stored abilities! You can relearn abilities in the new outfit but you have to still have access to the items you are copying.


A BLT may make a melee or ranged (-3 to hit) attack roll on an enemy or creature and attempt to use their satchel of scraps (no encumbrance, stock up on fabric remnants as you would rope) to re/design an outfit for their target. They must be successful in this attempt 3 times in order to create a finished effect. There are three effects of Makeovers, chosen by the BLT at time of completion, when the whole ensemble comes together:
  • Entangle for a number of rounds up to your number of Hit Dice, target gets a save each round.
  • Make them look stupid, forcing a Morale check at -2.
  • Try to capture their inner essence and true self, forcing a Reaction Roll.
You may only give any creature a Makeover once per level.


A BLT may dress themselves in a makeshift approximation of an enemy's costume as a 1 minute action. They do not gain Look benefits while in this costume. When the BLT is injured in this outfit, the enemy they are dressed as takes damage equal to half what the BLT took. A BLT may also use one of their sewing needles to prick themselves, dealing up to 1 damage per HD to themselves and an equal number of d4 damage to the enemy they are copying.

Possible Mods

You can have as many magic effects copied as you can find but only use as many effects per-day as you have Hit Dice.

Classes may give up a benefit (Fighter to-hit bonus, spell slot, Sneak Attack damage) on a Makeover roll to make it a one-shot thing instead of 3. Surprise Makeovers!

You can sew little simulacra or dolls of your enemies instead of dressing like them. They encumber you like chains and the cost is like Thieves Tools.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Crazy Boys (Lovecraft Level Drain)

What the FUCK, yugioh, that's awesome! Where is THIS show?

Everything I can think of that does Level Drain is either some unspeakable abomination, some crazy weird eldritch trinket or trap, or something along those lines. People hate Level Drain because it can be hard to recover from without shlepping back to town and paying a bunch of money. Not every party cleric is going to roll something capable of helping you. You are determining your spells randomly, right?

And I get it. Putting your cool stuff from next level further away is a bummer. Taking away toys you thought you already earned can feel disappointing. The loss of HP involved could be deadly. In the past I have usually made Level Drain work more like XP debt, something extra you have to clear or be cured of before being able to advance. That's not a fix in fiction, though.

Cort the Druid doesn't head back to the tavern going "Ah hell, I got Level Drained." Or even "That spirit raked its claws upon me and I did feel my essence weaken; it will be long before I am what once I was, longer still before I am up to the challenge of the Hazeon Hex." That second example sounds fine in fiction except for focusing on the energy lost. That kind of thing, from a monster's perspective, puts focus on energy GAINED and opens us up to a boring Ecology Of post that describes all these hoary horrors in knowable, safe terms. How does the Friggit use the energy it takes from level drain? Does it sustain it? If so how often does it need to feed? What happens when it doesn't? If it just gets more powerful from level drain why isn't that reflected in a called-out monster level-up mechanic?

That kind of thing makes for an interesting episode of Planet Earth but I don't want someone interested in my nightmare creature. I want them to go OH SHIT.

Level Drain should be about the Oh Shit experience from the character's perspective. Not just fear - running away from the dragon is a pragmatic solution and failing a morale check or a save vs. a Fear spell is no different really than being outclassed by a level 36 wizard's Lock. You're just dealing with a bigger number at that point. Not just the player's anxiety about losing toys. This is something primal, superseding normal mental or physical reactions and mucking about in your soul. Your spirit, your kung fu, is reduced by these interactions. They are less about taking from you and more about shaking you. Creating cracks in your foundation, cracks you might fall into.

Lovecraft's dedicated authors and those of his imitators largely don't have to worry about death-by-octomonkey. A lot of them die from 1200 CCs of sheer crazy.

That's what I think we're talking about with, say, a wight. It's not there to claw you open or suck you dry like Shang Tsung. It's there to stop your heart in terror, cosmic force-of-the-universe terror, and if your body fails from your mind and soul falling away like ashes in a rainstorm then that aperture in creation is what makes your old wormbait start walking around under its own power again, as something outside of nature drives you like a car. It's not enough to leave you a shell of your former self. Nature abhors vacuum. An empty shell must be filled.

I think a lot of monsters are defined by how they can kill you, how many attacks doing how much damage and such. I think it's a pure way to think about a monster in a childlike, fairy tale, folklore, Pearce Shea, wendigo, Dracula, demoniac, Roswell sense to think about how a monster can GET you. I think this is why Slenderman caught on. Honestly it's probably a lot of how Freddy caught on: most movie killers have to chase or trap you, while Mr. K only had to exist. The child murder and rape and stuff was barely necessary except to justify how upstanding lawman John Saxon could ever commit a crime. Those of us more familiar with his filmography know that he's actually committed lots.

That was a big digression but my point is, I hope, clear. We have whole games built around sanity mechanics. We have lots of people trying to adapt those and bolt those on to D&D in some way. We've also got this mechanic for ghoulish apparitions that nobody likes to use. Seems to me an economic sort of rehab would be just folding the new spice into the existing batter.

So, Level Drain:

Level Drain works like it says on the tin. You lose one of your HD worth of HP. If you're one of these fancy classes with d12 for a hit die then sorry bro, you're subtracting 1d12. That's your chi being fucked with by this experience. A lot of those classes with huge hit dice are things like barbarians which, yeah, them having a worse reaction to the unnatural works in the fiction. In this way, though, you can actually survive being LD'd down to Level 0/Normal Human, as long as you are lucky with your HP loss. The only thing I don't love is that this is usually a to-hit roll instead of a save. Making it a save would let you deal more in Presence, so more in atmosphere. The to-hit roll works for Game of Thrones, though, so I'll leave it there. That's easy enough to mod on the fly.

That XP loss though...where does that go?


Every time you suffer the effects of Level Drain you gain what I normally would refer to as "1 point of Shock" or something. Today I'm saying you gain 1 level in Being a Crazy Boy. That XP you lost? It goes here, but there aren't hard XP thresholds. It's abstracted as a level of psycho-spiritual wounds.

A common fix for LD in many campaigns is letting Remove Curse fix it. In that case, this is also a good way to have on-the-fly Curse/Remove effects, damaging your willpower patchwork. Also fun and fast for those crazy monsters later on who drain multiple levels at a time.

When you gain enough XP to level up you may EITHER advance to your new level as normal OR "spend" that XP to remove a Crazy Boy level. Actually, this setup works even if you never reduce the target's XP, it just gets a different KIND of experience from its contact with the weird.

Crazy Boys are:
-X to all saves, where X is their Crazy Boy level.
-X to all healing, where X is their Crazy Boy level.
+X to damage with melee weapons, where X is CBL.
+X to the difficulty of saves against your spells (or +X to your Turn Undead result)
After your first CBL you are +1 to defense/save/whatever vs creatures with Level Drain.
When you have CBL 4 you gain your level as a bonus to morale checks vs the supernatural, attempts to understand madmen, and attempts to interpret the primordial tongues from beyond.
When you have CBL 8 you can no longer sleep and are never surprised.

You can see how some people, especially murderous or power-hungry ones, might allow themselves to gain levels in Crazy Boy. This isn't just good for Sanity effects, this can act as a kind of moral damage.

Characters reaching CBL 9, what would normally be Name Level in another traditional class, basically become monsters. They haven't been consumed and filled by the Outside. They have been changed by it, embraced it, and are now something perhaps no mightier than a man but much much different from one. The DM controls your character now and no amount of house rules and Remove Curse will save you. You're an other thing now. This, by the way, is how Moon Slave finds both his generals and the gristly body offal which greases the spindles of new wars.

Sum up: I can use Level Drain to close off parts of the existing game as written. I think it wouldn't take much, though, to open its victims up to a whole new game inside the one they're already playing.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Start with any base class and add this on as a modifier. It costs you 1000XP more to reach 2nd level, modifying how long it takes you to level all the way until you stop gaining hit dice (+2000 to reach 3rd, +4000 to reach 4th, etc). Explicitly stole this gag from Josie X.

You can be a fighter trying to make ends meet, a cleric selling kitschy Pelor memorabilia, a regular old hobbit waitress, etc. Shopgirls can be boys too and you can call that whatever you want. I'd probably call them Shopgirls still but if that's sensitive for you then use whatever, or just call it Shopkeep.

Shopgirls have four abilities:

Heavy Duty

Shopgirls count as one size larger for determining encumbrance, lifting, forcing doors, etc. If there are attack or AC penalties for being over-encumbered in your game they do not suffer those.

Cleaning Up

Shopgirls can clean a non-supernatural mess in a room in the span of an exploration round. Afterwards they must rest or be exhausted until their next meal, where they will consume 3X normal. A successful save against magic also allows them to clean supernatural messes (within reason; green slime still eats their mops) but a failure means they make it twice as bad in the process.


Once per day a Shopgirl can raise her voice and put her foot down, forcing a morale check from creatures with fewer HD than she or a second initial reaction check from creatures with greater HD than she.

Have You Seen The New BT-16?

You choose what kind of shop you work for. Whenever you encounter the kind of thing sold in that shop you can identify its type and provenance, and tell if there is something remarkable about it. "Those are Chiluhixan shoes. They look magic!" "That's a Kingsbury loaf. OH, that's a bad bake Mary, it smells like poison!" "I'd recognize a Henderson quill anywhere. Henderson quills, because geese don't grow on trees. Anyway, this model hasn't seen circulation for a hundred years..."

Shopgirls require some manner of certificate, promotion, honorific, official recognition, or bonus perk in order to level. These cannot be granted by a god or king but someone much more important: a Shopgirl's boss. Means even if you bust your ass in the dungeon you've still got to be punctual and impress people back at the shop.