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Reviews Aren’t Easy

A lot of modern traditionally-published fantasy and sci-fi is dreadful. Heck, a lot of independently-published fantasy and sci-fi is dreadful. Many big fantasy and sci-fi media properties are worse than my singing.

While I’m not quite to Rawle Nyanzi’s #BrandZero, I’m pretty close.

However, there are some exciting things coming out of independent creators. Therefore, supporting independent creators (and small companies) who are doing good work should come naturally, right? Right.

I try to support as best I can with limited funds. (Haven’t become a billionaire yet, so the plan to create a giant community for all my favorite creators / internet friends to come live at won’t be happening anytime soon)

As I understand it, reviews are the best way to help small, independent creators. And here’s the thing: I want to help these people, but I am awful at writing reviews.

Pug Derp
My brain when trying to review something

So, here is a list of small authors / RPG designers whose stuff you should support (presented in alphabetical order and will be updated / edited over time):

Autarch
The company that publishes ACKS, best old-school game on the market. In addition to rules expansions, they also publish their own adventures. I promise they are MUCH better than what I’ve made! Drive-Thru RPG Official Website

Misha Burnett
One of the most wildly imaginative writers out there today and a darn fine ACKS player, too! His name on something pretty much makes it an instant buy. Amazon Blog

Cirsova
Best short fiction magazine on the market. Period. Amazon Blog

Jon Del Arroz
Comic / book writer who produces so much quality content, I wonder if he sleeps. Amazon Blog

Alexander Hellene
He likes flaming swords and coffee… and exciting adventure stories. Amazon Blog

Brian Niemeier
Intellectually stimulating author who loves giant robots more than I love mozzarella cheese sticks. Also an excellent witch finder. Amazon Blog

Rawle Nyanzi
Someone once gave me a strawberry that was dipped in sour cream and sprinkled with brown sugar. Those flavors should not work together, but they do. That’s Rawle. Puritans and pop idols? Giant robots, ninja villages, and schoolgirls? He does it and does it well! Amazon Blog

Venger Satanis
Gonzo gaming greatness! So much fun to see my players get into trouble with his adventures. Drive-Thru RPG Blog


You’ll notice that there are no classics on here. No one needs me to say that ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ or ‘B2: The Keep on the Borderlands’ is good. Also, these are NOT affiliate links. I ain’t making any money if you buy anything from the links in this post.

The Keep on the Borderlands is Full of Awesome

I had the misfortune of coming across a blog post about the classic B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.

Here it is in an archive, because I don’t want the original author getting clicks. Maybe the author is serious, maybe he is click-baiting, I don’t know. But it is stirring up anger, which can’t be good for my heart (especially since I was all-but-forced to get the vaxx in order to keep familial relationships intact). There will be some cursing. Please forgive my outbursts, dear reader.

I’m going to quote a few passages at length and dissect them. Let’s go.

Author’s Note: I am not trying to police anyone’s fun. I think running Borderlands entirely straight could be a lot of fun. However, I want to present a reinterpretation based on the text of the adventure. I present a world that is less black-vs-white and more gray-vs-gray. This tends to open up more choices for players to make. And more choices lead to better games.

I’ve played B2 (never ran it) and it IS a lot of fun. Do it sometime with a new party.

The phrase “reinterpretation based on the text of the adventure” is telling. Let me translate it into plain English. “I want to be a subversive edgelord by playing semantic games with the text as written. I want to take things out of context and put my 21st-century ideas into a game full of pre-modern ideas.”

Also…

FUCK GRAY MORALITY

We are all adults. We know that people are complex. Good people sometimes do bad things and bad people sometimes do good things. This does not make good and evil (or in the case, law and chaos) meaningless. Only Chaotic degenerates promote that kind of thinking. DO NOT ALLOW THESE KINDS OF PEOPLE TO HAVE A POSITION OF INFLUENCE IN YOUR HOBBY / CHURCH / SOCIETY.

Picture thanks to Kes

If you have an inkling of morality, you will understand. If this makes no sense to you and you believe that evil is good / good is evil, go to church.

The Keep is “one of civilization’s strongholds between good lands and bad.” The player characters arrive with “heart[s] that [cry] out for adventure,” so they have come to the Borderlands to make “forays against the wicked monsters who lurk in the wilds.” To satisfy their crying hearts, they are sent to the nearby Caves of Chaos (hereinafter, the “Caves”), “where fell creatures lie in wait.” 65% of the rumor table for the Keep is all about the Caves, and many of the other entries are tangentially about the Caves. It is the talk of the town. And once there, it is primarily a slug fest. There is little information given about the motivations of the Caves’ denizens beyond wanton destruction, so player-characters must clear the caves with bloodshed. No treaties are to be negotiated. This is a tale as old as time. The heroes are exceptional people, defending the good from all the evil that means it harm.

Yes, the keep IS a stronghold of civilization. Yes, the players (and thus, the characters) DO want to go adventuring. That is why they sat down at your table! If you don’t want to go adventuring, don’t play D&D. Play a sodomy simulator like 5E or something.*

You might think that the Caves of Chaos are a combat slog if you have never cracked the pages of a D&D rulebook. There’s this weird thing on page B24 of the Basic book, you know the system that this module was designed for. You see, when you encounter monsters, there are these dice you roll and you know what, there is a chance they may not attack. Maybe they’ll talk. Maybe they will work with the adventurers.

Now, what could the monsters want? Good question! Before I answer that question, let me ask one. Ever been to an HOA meeting? Ever hear about an HOA meeting?

People in an HOA are all (theoretically) united in one goal: keeping their community a good place to live. But they disagree on how to do it. They will say savage things to each other. Making deals, backstabbing, grasping for power, etc. The entire spectrum of human cooperation (and non-cooperation) exists there.

How much more would a bunch of different inhuman monster groups disagree with each other? Instead of Susan backstabbing Larry by withdrawing her support regarding his proposal to change the acceptable grass length in everyone’s front lawn, it could be the goblins asking the party to literally stab the orcs in the back. Maybe monster group A wants the treasure that monster group B has. Perhaps monster group C wants to be the supreme leader of the other monster groups and they ask the party to help beat the other groups into submission. There are so many things you can do with these different factions of monsters.

And regarding the author’s point that the player characters are exceptional people that defend the good from the evil… YES, that is the point! It takes an exceptional kind of person to go into the dark, to go into the unknown to fight the evil that lurks there. If everyone could do it, there wouldn’t be evil monsters out in the wilderness!

The tone of Borderland’s Background section left me a bit incredulous. It paints a picture of a contest Good versus Evil. The Keep and its inhabitants are Good, the monsters in the Caves are Evil. The player characters must “remain faithful and ready to fight chaos wherever it threatens to infect the Realm.” The player-characters must be the fittest, in the social Darwinist sense: “adventurers meet the forces of Chaos in a testing ground, where only the fittest will return to relate the tale.” The evil denizens of the Caves “press upon [the Realm’s] borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures.” Frankly, it sounds like thin blue line propaganda—the adventurers are all that stands between the Realms of law and good and the forces of Chaos which threaten to overwhelm civilization. But maybe the Keep really is so good and virtuous!

Yes, the Keep is Good! Civilization is better than savagery. Imperfectly trying to enforce laws and defend the innocent is infinitely better than eating babies. This isn’t fucking rocket science. You don’t have to be a PhD in philosophy to grasp this point.

And yes, the social Darwinist thing does exist in a way. While there is always a random roll that can mess things up, better players tend to have characters that survive. The characters may not have the best stats, but if the players are smart and make good decisions, the characters might survive. #YouCanWinAtRPGs Level up your game. Try a new tactic, try being more careful. D&D isn’t Candyland. Play better. Pursue excellence.

Let’s look at the “thin blue line propaganda” line. WOO BOY! I’m not here to talk about real life issues regarding the police. There is a time and a place for those kinds of discussions. But D&D ain’t it. It’s not some false propaganda when THERE ARE LITERAL MONSTERS THAT LIVE IN NEARBY CAVES THAT WILL KILL AND EAT YOU IF GIVEN THE CHANCE. THEY ARE AGENTS OF PRIMORDIAL CHAOS AND EVIL, THEY ARE NOT SIMPLY HUMANS WITH GREEN SKIN. Say what you will about modern policing, but the police deal with other humans, not monsters. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

If brutal monsters that are vaguely human shaped were coming into my community and attacking people, I would want them violently put down. If an orc were trying to kill a loved one, perhaps your spouse or parent or child, wouldn’t you want the orc taken care of permanently as well?

Remember, the most peaceful scenario in dealing with inhuman monsters is bribing them to leave you alone. And there’s no guarantee that they will keep to their agreement. Or demand more and more. These monsters truly are the OTHER. They are not human, nor will they ever be. Much modern media tries to depict monstrous beings as misunderstood (or even worse, noble savages), but this is NOT the context they are presented as in this module. If you want orcs to be misunderstood beings, PLAY A DIFFERENT GAME.

“The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders.” This is the first line in the Background section (the first line of the narrator—before that it is simply Gygax as Gygax giving GMing advice). But is it true? Returning briefly to 4e D&D’s Points of Light setting, the “Realm of mankind” is certainly in decline. People live in the wake of fallen empires, and ruins dot the landscape. This is a world in which chaos is pressing on the borders of lawful societies. But while the Keep exists on the borderlands of this Realm of mankind, it appears that the border is expanding, not contracting. If it were contracting, we might expect abandoned keeps or other ruins of mankind beyond the Keep. Instead, there is nothing of the sort (although, again, the wilderness is lightly keyed). Instead, the Keep seems to be built to mark and defend the borders—it is an expansionary project, an imperialist project. Does the enthusiasm to clear the Keep of their monstrous inhabitants stem from a desire to protect the Keep and its citizens, or from a desire to expand further?

The very structure of the adventure is evidence that, even if the Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted now, it is attempting to expand. If the forces of Chaos were truly hellbent on the destruction of the Keep and all it represents, perhaps there would be evidence of a recent assault on the Keep when the player-characters arrive, an assault that the Keep was barely able to fend off. The Castellan implores the player-characters to lend a hand to protect the Keep from a vicious onslaught. The combined forces of Chaos, a rare alliance between goblins, gnolls and orcs, rally an even larger invasion force, and the player-characters must rally the Keep and beat back the advance of Chaos. After they save the Keep from certain destruction, the player-characters would then sally forth to deal a final blow to the remaining agents of Chaos, who fled the battle of the Keep with their tails between their legs. This is not how the adventure is structured. It is the player-characters, as agents of the Keep, that make the first move—invading the Caves of Chaos. And it doesn’t appear the fractious tribes pose any threat to the Keep. They aren’t making any attempts to join forces. Even the orcs have a tenuous relationship with…the other orcs. And you won’t find any siege weapons under construction in the Caves of Chaos. Instead, you mostly find tribes of these humanoids, simply residing in their homes. The module takes great pains to illustrate the family structures of these groups. Even the number of young is listed. They do mostly attack the player-characters on sight, but is that so unreasonable in the face of a home invasion?

OH NO! IMPERIALISM AND COLONIALISM IS BAD!

Actually, it is good.

To be fair, we cannot compare historical imperialism and colonialism to fantasy imperialism and colonialism. As terrible as the Aztecs were, they were still human beings, not primordial creatures of chaos and evil.

Orcs =/= human beings

Goblins =/= human beings

Kobolds =/= human beings

Tieflings =/= human beings

Is it clear yet?

These monsters may not seem to be a threat right now, but they are a threat to humanity. They are beings spawned in the darkest reaches of the earth. They are chaos given a mockery of human form and even reproduce in a mockery of humans. Killing monster children is a good and noble act in the same way that killing human children is an evil and ignoble.

IFYKYK

Even if the orcs aren’t building siege engines, they will still raid the country side. And they WILL be a problem in the future. Remember, they aren’t human, they are physical manifestation of chaos!

Much like pests in your home, if you see one, there are more in hiding. You must take care of the problem when it is small.

Also, I would like to point out, far from being innocents living in caves, these monsters have done something evil. Where did they get their treasure from? Innocently trading homemade goods with human merchants?
No.
They stole it from someone. An innocent family looking for a new life on the frontier, a lonely merchant peddling his wares far from home, or a humble traveler.

Kill all monsters. B2 is awesome.


* I regret anything kind I ever said about 5E. I was wrong.

Recent Good Fiction

I think you should cut your hands off, wave your bloody stumps around.*

Maybe that is a bad idea, but do cut out the big media companies out of your media diet! As Brian Niemeier says, “Don’t give money to people who hate you”. And let’s be frank, other than your money, most big media companies hate you. They put out garbage that insults your morality and is of low quality. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that all fiction must be pure and wholesome and explicitly put forth a Christian worldview full of scenes where characters listen to sermons.

I mean something with defined good and evil, even if characters don’t always live up to it (just like real people). Something that doesn’t glorify moral relativism and evil acts.

Lately, I have been doing that by reading books by smaller publishers and self-published. And, I don’t want to go back. The fiction is cheaper and better quality. A real win-win.

First up, there is Deus Vult written by Jon Del Arroz. I’m more a fan of his novels than his comics**, but his comics are an enjoyable read. In particular, Deus Vult portrays a crusader who gets taken to another realm and fights demons. Ready for this?

THE CRUSADER IS THE GOOD GUY

He tries to help the cat people he meets and kill the demons that torment them. He isn’t some deluded zealot looking to hurt innocent people. He wants to protect them. On top of that, the art and colors evoke a 70s comic book look, which I thought worked. The back cover preview on Amazon will give a good look at the colors and art style you can expect to see inside. The writing, art, and colors all mesh together quite well. If you had handed this to me and told me that it came from the 1970s, I would believe it. Nothing like this is coming out of the modern big company comics industry.

Next is The Paths of Cormanor by Jim Breyfogle. If you are a frequent reader of Cirsova (which you better be!!!), you will recognize Mr. Breyfogle’s name from the Mongoose and Meerkat stories. Those are good stories. Top notch stuff. I backed the Kickstarter, so I received the book before it was made available to the general public.

This is mythic literature. It is myth and fairy tale, close enough to the real world, yet it is not our world. If Mongoose and Meerkat are good, this is great. The characters are believable and down-to-earth, despite the strange events that occur. They make sense in a way that is truly real. I struggle to find the words to describe how good this is. In my eyes, Mr. Breyfogle has elevated himself from “that guy who writes some fun stories” to “that guy who writes incredible fiction”.

Light Unto Another World by Yakov Merkin has been a surprise hit for me. I backed his crowdfunding campaign, so I have read the first five volumes. It is a genre (isekai) and style (light novel) I don’t have much familiarity with. Fast paced tales of action and adventure in another world.

Mr. Merkin really emphasizes the Jewishness of the character, which gives his series a unique twist. His character tries to follow the Jewish faith as best he can far from any rabbis or synagogues. As a Christian, I desire that all non-Christians (including, but not limited to, Jews, Muslims, pagans, and atheists) to come to the Lord Jesus Christ, but this series still gets my seal of approval. The story flows quick and is a great afternoon read! There will be more volumes, and I am looking forward to it.

Finally, Jon Del Arroz is on this list again with his Aryshan War trilogy. It scratches the itch for space opera and romance. It even pokes a little fun at Star Trek in book 2. (If you read this Mr. Del Arroz, I saw what you did there) Pure sci-fi entertainment with space battles and aliens, which is exactly what I was looking for. Now that the whole trilogy is out, it is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending.

Are you reading anything good?


* Do not actually cut your hands off. https://open.spotify.com/track/0LbiWdxopGqqOVZh9pe36H?si=1f1e7c9179664fcb

** Never read many comics until recently. Growing up, I read a handful of (non-superhero) comics from the 60s, but next to nothing modern. A lot of my knowledge of comic books comes second-hand via cultural osmosis. Recently, I gave independent comics a chance. Only a few, but so far, I have been pleased.

I make no money from any purchases made via the links in this post. Neither from the product itself or any sort of affiliate program.

Cirsova 2022 Lineup! — Cirsova

We have finalized the Cirsova lineup for 2022! This is going to be an incredibly exciting year. Major features include not only the serialization of Michael Tierney’s Orphan of the Shadowy Moons, a sword & sandal sci-fi epic from the 70s seeing publication for first time, but the serialization of an original sword & sorcery […]

Cirsova 2022 Lineup! — Cirsova

Check out the Winter 2022 issue! Under my pen name of “John Daker”, I have a story in that issue.

Of course, I highly recommend each and every issue of Cirsova. I’ve said it before and I will said it again: Cirsova is the best short fiction magazine on the market right now. Period.

Pick up some back issues, back the latest Kickstarter, and check out his blog for the latest information.

Adding Patrons to Your D&D Game

Lately, the fine folks of the #BrOSR have been really digging deep into the the rules of the game. Mostly AD&D 1E. This has led to a push of playing games RAW (Rules As Written). Simply put, this is a blast. Playing RAW levels the playing field, not to be a rules lawyer, but to put the GM into a more impartial frame of mind. The GM interprets the rules of the game as the situation requires. There is a reason ACKS refers to GMs as “Judges”!

Contrary to what some might say, the #BrOSR is not some weird “sola Gygaxia” semi-Protestant cult. There is at least one innovation (perhaps “just” a rediscovery) these fine gentlemen have made.

PATRONS.

The face every patron makes

Combined with 1:1 real time (1 in-game day equals 1 real life day, so unless you are planning to sleep in the dungeon for a week, you gotta get out by the end of the session), allowing other players to be patrons really ramps up the shenanigans of the game.

What is a patron?

Simply put, a patron is a powerful NPC run by a person who is not a GM and not in the game. These NPCs have their own agendas, which may run counter to the PC’s, and the resources to get it done. For example, I run a patron in BDubs’ ACKS game. No, I will not tell you who I run! I do not show up to any sessions; every interaction I have is outside the normal game time.

Because other humans are running these patrons, the players cannot accuse the GM of being too mean or too arbitrary with what happens, because the GM has no control over what the patron does. With the 1:1 real time, the patrons make the world feel real as they scheme and act. The GM does not need to think about what the world did over the past week, the patrons did that for him.

Now, this does mean that the GM is running the game more than just a few hours once a week. There will be messages from patrons that need to be processed, rolls made, rules adjudicated, etc. Our modern world makes it easier than ever with messaging apps and cell phone texting. You can be waiting in line at the DMV and fire off a message to a patron or make a ruling.

If you are trying to add a little more depth to your game and you have a few friends who cannot commit to the game time, try 1:1 real time and patrons.

Full disclosure, I do not run 1:1 real time in my 2+ year ACKS game, but I have played 1:1 real time in Jeffro’s Trollopulous campaign.

The Only Acceptable 5-Page Character Background

This post was inspired / shamelessly stolen from the #elite Daniel J Davis.

Have you found yourself in a situation where you are required to have a multi-page character background for D&D (or other fantasy RPG)?

First of all, what is wrong with your GM?
Secondly, why did you agree to this game?
Finally, everyone realizes that if there is not a strong chance of death in your game, it is probably not worth playing, right?

If you have thought about the above questions and still need a character background, the Mixed GM is here to help you!

Just download the following document (5 pages long) and adjust the character name / race / etc. If you need to lengthen it, just use a little copy and paste magic.

GET THE DOCUMENT HERE

(If you don’t get the joke: check this out.)

Let’s Look At ‘Lumberlands – Wampus County Travel Guide’

A while back, I backed the Kickstarter for the Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide (now available here and here). I received the ‘zine, but have never talked much about it.

A copy of the ‘zine with a sticky note for scale.

Before I go any further, I need to make a confession.

I don’t really “get” RPG ‘zine culture. Please understand that will color my views on Lumberlands. Now, someone is going to make some snarky comment about the long list of things I don’t “get”. To stop them, here is a partial list:

  • Hatred toward wearing socks and sandals
  • The ‘Call of Duty’ video game franchise once it left World War II
  • The book of Psalms
  • Anime and Manga titling conventions
  • RPG ‘zine culture
  • Sea shanty haters
  • Anyone who thinks 3.5 is the best edition of D&D

Okay, back to Lumberlands.

The first thing I noticed as I read this ‘zine was the lack of specific game mechanics (such as Armor Class, Hit Dice, etc). I suppose in order to stay small (and not waste pages on an OGL), that was a deliberate choice. If you want to use this in your game, you will need to supply all the mechanical bits yourself.

This ‘zine is about a region, a mini-world for your adventurers to roam around in. It has a culture (stereotypical lumberjack stuff), factions (competing lumberjack groups, talking animals, and sasquatches), a settlement full of colorful characters (shout out to The Fabulous Four for being the oddest, yet most realistic fate for NPC adventurers ever made), a gonzo portal land, a d30 table of random encounters, and more tables of than you can shake a stick at.

The tables are where Lumberlands really shines. From personalities of gunkeys (donkey-like beasts of burden) to sasquatch special abilities to memorable familiars (you can have a Big Mouth Billy Bass!!!), the tables are full of gameable ideas that ripe for sticking into your own game, if you are willing to work out the mechanical implications yourself. I know where I am turning the next time the party wants to hire a henchman (page 46 & 47 of Lumberlands!)

As mentioned before, I do not “get” RPG ‘zine culture. The lack of specific game mechanics may be a deal breaker for you. It almost was for me, but there is enough wonderful ideas to latch on to, that I overlook it. There are a few little hints to help guide the GM when working up stats (such as sasquatch coven-mothers being as powerful as old dragons) and I appreciate those little touches.

If you are into RPG ‘zines and/or want a wild forest full of adventure to run around in, I’d suggest checking out ‘Lumberlands – Wampus County Travel Guide’.

Sorta Florida Playtest

Artsy dice photo taken after the game

I’ve been working on a little document tentatively called Supplement VI: Florida Methery. Imagine that all the Florida Man stories you see online truly represented what happened in Florida all the time and you will get an idea of what is going on in that document. During “The Devastation”, the technologically advanced society of modern day Florida was destroyed. Over the centuries, a new quasi-medieval society appeared.

On January 30th, I ran a little bit of it with a small IRL ACKS group that meets infrequently. The party took a boat to the Empire of Long Florida, ruled by Jimothy “Jimmy” Buffet III. He has asked them to retrieve his lost shaker of salt (a symbol of his rule).

He says that a woman is to blame, the Witch of the Swamps. Despite the fact that almost everyone at the table knew the song “Margaritaville, they chose to go after the woman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohDqjRGqpIU

They went looking around in the swamps for her (they lost a hireling to a dire ‘Gator and ran away from a flock of Flamingolems) and stumbled across a dilapidated trailer. The party knocked on the door and was greeted by a Florida Man. They asked him a few questions about the location of the Witch of the Swamps and then my father-in-law (playing the Magic-User Wango Tango)… said things.

He grew up in Mississippi and, in that moment, channeled his entire upbringing into his words. His voice changed, the way he spoke… it was magical. In order to better gain the Florida Man’s trust, he started talking about jumping off the railroad bridge with Cooter from down the way, you know Cooter, right? Lives down the way?

My jaw actually dropped.

At no point did I have a “Cooter” character in mind. He didn’t exist. My father-in-law had no reason to believe that “Cooter” existed (other than living in close proximity to IRL Florida Men during his formative years).

So I ran with it. The Florida Man knew “Cooter” and the party got more information than they would have otherwise. Now, they are trying to find a way to sneak past the Swamp Witch and loot her hut without rousing her army of angry, naked men.

They are going to be so furious when they find out the woman isn’t to blame for the loss of the shaker of salt.

“Dungeon Design and You”

This video teaches everything you need to know about creating a dungeon.

Yet there’s nothing about monster placement, how to draw a dungeon, how many traps to set, or how much treasure to put in each room.

But what it DOES give is the mindset you should have when making a dungeon for your party to delve into.

Watch it. Live it.