Colony of Death

Colony of Death: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying in 17th Century Maryland is a third-party adventure module for Lamentations of the Flame Princess by Mark Hess. It is available in print via Lulu and via PDF from DriveThruRPG (affiliate link). This review is based on a reading of the print version, not on actual play. The author, Mark Hess, has released two other third-party products for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but this is the first one available in print.

Colony of Death is a 58 page softcover adventure setting, including a high level summary of the English colony of Maryland in 1650, a colour hex map of the setting, a bestiary, random encounter tables, four brief adventures, and several other sections to bring some 17th century colonial flavour to your table, including New World Diseases and rules for growing tobacco in Maryland colony. There’s a lot of value packed into those 58 pages at a very reasonable price – $1.14 for the PDF and $4.99 for the printed book! The module would be terrific value at three times the price.

I have been drawn to the idea of the New World (or a fantasy analogue for it) for my next Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign for some time. You have wilderness exploration and relative isolation – both useful breeding grounds for horror. The existence of early European colonies in America was precarious – and that’s before you add any weird fantasy or horror complications. Colony of Death does a good job of giving us a sense of this historical precariousness with brief descriptions of the history of the colony and its people. The early religious tolerance between Catholics and Protestants gives way to the violence of the Plundering Times, for example, during which the English Civil War visits Maryland. The disease rules are suitably gritty and nasty, and establish deadly illness as an ever present and omnipresent fact of life in the colony (an historical state which somehow feels less distant in 2020 than it felt in 2019). In a short space, Hess paints an evocative picture of early colonial Maryland as an adventuring locale.

The bestiary is a combination of natural wildlife, supernatural creatures, and potential human foes. There’s 22 entries and random encounter tables for every type of hex in the Maryland map included in the module. The bestiary is not illustrated – some entries have a brief description text before the equally brief LotFP stat block, others are most self-explanatory and jump straight into the stat block. It’s a no-nonsense, working bestiary which will keep the player characters on their toes as they move about the colony. Like most LotFP products Colony of Death seems aimed at low-level characters so the encounters are mostly lower-level creatures, although there are a couple of 7 hit dice creatures too. It would be better with some artwork, but the bestiary is undeniably useful.

The adventures are a nice mixture of “mundane” and supernatural horror. They’re all sufficiently different from each other both to provide your campaign with some variety and to get you to think about the right mix of adventures for your own game. Any historical or pseudo-historical setting can only absorb so much “weird” before the historical aspects are so eclipsed by the weird ones that the setting no longer feels grounded and real – which in turn makes the weird fantasy elements feel less special. It’s important to get a mixture of mundane and supernatural adventures in your campaign in order to make sure the “weird” keeps feeling “weird”. I think this is the motivation for some recent official Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases such as No Rest for the Wicked and The Punchline. It is nice to see a mix of adventure types in a third-party product.

Colony of Death is 58 pages of gameable early colonial era weird fantasy roleplaying content with zero waste, and represents fantastic value in both formats. I highly recommend it. My only minor quibble is that the physical book I bought from US Lulu (it only seems to be available from the US at the moment) is printed in 6×9 inch format, which is slightly taller (just over 1cm) than the A5 size preferred by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. But that’s really nothing. This is a value-packed module, one of the best third-party publications for Lamentations of the Flame Princess I have purchased. If you want to run an OSR game in early colonial America, buy this book, you will not regret it.

Adventure Anthology: Blood

Adventure Anthology: Blood is the last of the planned three volumes of previously independently published LotFP features. The Adventure Anthology series has included Fire, Death, and Blood. Blood was recently released in print and PDF, and my print version has not yet arrived, so I am basing this review on the PDF. Blood is available from the LotFP webstore (EU store and US store) and in PDF only from DriveThruRPG (affiliate link).

Whereas the previous Adventure Anthology volumes reprinted adventures from the period after LotFP had found its feet as a publisher, which were already beautifully illustrated and laid-out, Adventure Anthology: Blood reprints some of the publisher’s earliest modules, and has therefore been given all new artwork and layout. This means that the PDF version of Blood is a PDF of the newly laid out and illustrated versions of the originals, not a ZIP file of the PDFs of the original adventures as was the case for Fire and Death. This makes Blood worthy of purchase even for those who own the originals, and even in PDF format, and appears to be why it was released on DriveThruRPG whereas the others were not. The artwork is by the talented author, artist, designer (and soon to be nude portraitist) Kelvin Green and the layout is by Alex Mayo. Both are mainstays of LotFP and their work updates the look of these adventures to be consistent with the high standards expected of the publisher in 2020.

The adventures in Blood are quite different from the “normal” LotFP fare from the era of the Rules & Magic book onwards. As James Raggi (who wrote all of the adventures in this volume) says in the foreword, these adventures are from “back in the day when I was still trying to fuse traditional heroic fantasy with my nascent understanding of the Weird.” This is actually a fondly remembered period in LotFP‘s history with many OSR Grognards found online, who complain that Raggi’s later works are “negadungeons” or less obliquely and more crassly, “party fucks”. While I don’t really agree with this assessment of the later LotFP titles, it does mean that this may be the first LotFP product in some time which may appeal to this “traditionalist” wing of the OSR, if they are willing to give a new title from LotFP a second look. This also means that these adventures are, on the whole, easier to adapt to a “standard” D&D campaign than most LotFP modules. It could even serve as a “gateway” book to gift a 5e DM looking for something different to do with their next game.

The first adventure in Blood is The Grinding Gear. Although I own the PDF of the original, I’ve never run this adventure. The premise is that an innkeeper with good cause to hate adventurers had his own tomb constructed as an adventurer-trap dungeon as revenge on adventurers as a social class as a cruel practical joke. It’s a fun, tongue in cheek premise. At first the adventurers will find an abandoned inn, but as they blunder through it, they will find the entry to the dungeon and there the real fun begins. The dungeon is initially surprisingly conventional (remember: this Raggi’s early work before all the elements of the current LotFP formula had come together), with progressively more devious traps and puzzles, especially once the players reach the second level. If the players do “beat” the dungeon and get the final treasure, they will have earned themselves a recurring opponent who “will test them again” – more like a determined prankster than a truly malevolent villain. I can imagine that players will feel pushed very hard by the traps and puzzles in the second level of the dungeon, and will indeed start to feel like the dungeon’s designer has tortured them for his own amusement. It’s not exactly eldritch horror, but it is a lot of fun and I think between the details of the dungeon’s designer and the types of traps and clues left in the dungeon, the tone is perfect, albeit quite different from newer LotFP adventures.

The second adventure in Blood is Weird New World. I’ve nearly used this module as the basis for a campaign twice, and each time reverted to the English Civil War because the players wanted to stay there. Weird New World is a sandbox inspired by the search for the Northwest Passage (but not actually based on the geography of the real world). LotFP had not definitively settled on Earth in the Early Modern period as its default setting when this adventure was originally published – in fact, the Grindhouse Referee’s Guide actively advises against using the real world as a setting – but it would be easy enough to imagine that this giant hexcrawl could take place in our own world, as a conceit to the idea that the area being explored really was unknown to those exploring it and that almost anything could be encountered up there in the icy northern waters. There’s a good mix between natural phenomena and beasts and fantasy creatures (elves most notably). Weird New World also features the “Eskuit”, a native people of many tribes, generally with a bad impression of elves (understandable given the nasty elves found in this module). In the political climate of 2020, I am genuinely not sure how the Eskuit will be perceived – to my reading, they are presented as a fairly obvious stand-in for the Inuit and nothing seems to be intentionally offensive or insensitive in their portrayal but I am not the one who gets to make that call. Exploration and colonial exploitation were themes of adventuring in the real-life 17th Century which seem like they are important and worthy of inclusion in any game using this historical setting however broadly. Weird New World may not be our “New World” but it seems far more appropriate to me that it has native peoples of its own just as the real “New World” which was explored and exploited by the European powers in this period did. Weird New World is an interesting sandbox for an exploration/wilderness survival horror campaign, and it’s one I keep coming back with the intent to use myself. Maybe someday!

The third adventure in the Blood volume is No Dignity in Death. This module is an extremely early one in LotFP history and until now I’ve only had it in A4-sized PDF, so the format update to be consistent with the rest of the LotFP line is extremely welcome. This adventure features “gypsies”, with Raggi’s heavy disclaimer that the portrayal is intentionally inaccurate and explanation of the prejudice against these people which he observed when he first moved to Finland and how surprising it was and how this influenced his decision to make the victims in this adventure gypsies to see what his players would do with the setup. Dealing with the prejudices of your players towards the ethnic group of the people they are supposed to be helping in an adventure may be a lot heavier than you might prefer in your elfgame! Much as the presence of the Eskuit in Weird New World may offend some, so may the presence of gypsies in No Dignity in Death – and it is not my place to declare these portrayals as “fine”, but at least in this adventure Raggi has made a conscious decision to make the victims who need the party’s assistance an exaggerated stereotype of an ethic group which is the victim of discrimination even in “enlightened” 2020 Europe. No Dignity in Death is set in Pembrooktonshire, a fictitious community which would be easily enough incorporated into a typical fantasy campaign setting or into Early Modern Europe (although it will require significant modification to really strike an historical feel, which may end up ruining the vibe).

There are really three different “adventures” presented in No Dignity in Death all presented in and around Pembrooktonshire, which is enormously detailed, with about one hundred pages of this volume given over to describing the community and its inhabitants in the People of Pembrooktonshire chapter. There’s a huge amount of material to mine here and Pembrooktonshire could easily become the base of your campaign. The key thing to know is that Pembrooktonshire is isolated and insular and has a strong sense of character which will come across in play. The players will realise that this is a distinct community with its own traditions and local culture. It’s also a profoundly weird place, albeit a very different kind of weird from the weird found in most of the more modern Lamentations of the Flame Princess line – it’s more surreal than horror, in my assessment. The three adventures in No Dignity in Death can be summarized as: a murder mystery, a deeply messed up local competition/human sacrifice, and a location-based adventure in the mountains. With all the details from the People of Pembrooktonshire chapter, these adventures have the potential to come to life, especially if you and your players like to get into character and roleplay social interactions.

The final adventure in Blood is Hammers of the God. In another departure from “modern” LotFP, which eschews demihumans, this adventure is based around dwarfs. This has advantages and disadvantages. How much do you like dwarfs? Depending on how much “dwarf lore” is established in your campaign setting, you may find that the adventure isn’t usable because dwarfs as they appear here are not the dwarfs of your campaign setting. If your dwarf lore is a bit more malleable, however, then this adventure is a world-building romp. Despite this being the most “traditional fantasy” adventure in the module, the weird horror flavour of Lamentations of the Flame Princess starts to come through with wormholes, aliens, and tentacles on random tables and in room descriptions. The appendices of this adventure have some useful tables, but one of them is very strangely laid out – “Appendix II: Book Descriptions” is a d100 table which spans many pages, but strangely, the reverse pages are blank. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this layout decision – I am just reviewing the PDF though since the book has not shipped yet, so perhaps I am missing something which will be obvious once I have the physical copy.

Overall, Adventure Anthology: Blood revisits some early Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules with modern art and layout. Even for owners of the original modules, the new art and layout certainly justifies the cost of the PDF. I look forward to receiving my physical copy, which I am sure will be up to LotFP‘s usual excellent standards for physical products. As someone who discovered Lamentations of the Flame Princess after the originals of these modules were already out of print, I am very pleased that these adventures have been made available again in anthology form.

Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti

Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti (henceforth Fermentum) is a new adventure from Lamentations of the Flame Princess available in print and PDF from the LotFP web stores (EU Store and US Store) and DriveThruRPG (affiliate link). This review is based on the PDF version of the book so I cannot comment directly on the book quality except to say I expect it to be outstanding as all my other hardcover Lamentations of the Flame Princess books have been.

Fermentum is a weird fantasy monastery-crawl (that’s a thing now) featuring zombies controlled by an intelligent alien yeast which is used by the monks of the aforementioned monastery to brew outstanding beer famous through the local area of your campaign setting. The designer, Gord Sellar, cites as one source of inspiration “The Color(sic) Out of Space” by HP Lovecraft1, and this story probably best captures the initial premise of what is going on at the monastery, although Fermentum adapts this heavily both to the ostensible theme (monastic brewing) and to gaming purposes. This is not quite Gord Sellar’s LotFP debut, as he contributed to Green Devil Face #6, which is for some reason not available on DriveThruRPG and is thus the only issue I don’t have a copy of, but it is the first complete LotFP book he has completed as sole author. I believe it is one very worth of his reputation as a SF/weird fiction writer. This review attempts to avoid significant spoilers.

Fermentum features a unique set of infection rules for what happens when the “Black Barm” (the intelligent alien yeast) infects the player characters. This system features infection cards, which appear in the back of the PDF (presumably they’ll appear in the print book too) which should be printed out, cut out, and shuffled into decks to be drawn at the appropriate stage in the infection. At first I was disappointed to see this design choice as this product is a book, after all, and does not include separate cards, and it struck me initially like an awkward gimmick. Having read the cards and the explanation of how they are to be used, I feel much more comfortable with the decision and think that they neatly resolve what might otherwise be a fundamentally “unfun” (in a bad way) aspect of play with the adventure. Without spoiling the contents of any card, the infection cards are mostly provided as a tool for players to roleplay out the result of their player character’s infection. This mitigates the problem in play which some spells, powers, and effects have of taking control away from a player and effectively rendering them a spectator rather than a participant in the game. It is true that they are gradually losing control of their characters as the infection becomes worse, but through the use of infection cards, the players are given a lot of scope to interpret the effects of the infection on their character. The infection cards are the primary new game mechanic in Fermentum and I think they achieve both the narrative purpose (protagonists falling under the “spell” of the unknowable alien entity as in “The Colour Out of Space”) and the gaming purpose (preserving the players as active participants in the game and in the shaping of the impact of the infection on their character) admirably.

While I’ve visited medieval monasteries as a tourist, I’ve no particular expertise in their particulars. With that disclaimer, the monastery itself (the Abbey of St. Christopher, technically) feels realistic to me, and Sellar has rendered the primary adventure location in a way which feeds true to historical reality, overlaid and overwhelmed by the weird caused by the Black Barm. This creates wonderful contrast between the mundane and the extraordinary. The adventure is assisted in this with maps which are both attractive and functional, and which are generally presented on the same spreads as the description of the locations depicted on the maps. It’s functional, realistic, and evocative.

Although it is by a different artist, the obviously Gonzalo Aeneas, the interior art work is reminiscent (in a good way) of Jez Gordon’s work in earlier Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases. Fermentum is illustrated with high contrast black and white interior artwork featuring recognisable but distorted human forms highly suggestive of “the weird” which is going on. The layout is reminiscent of a 17th century printed book in many ways, with supposedly handwritten marginalia in a variety of languages. The effect is slightly spoiled by the use of modern “hand writing” fonts rather than being actually handwritten (although that’s probably necessary for legibility). Colour coded tabs adorn the outer edge of each page to make it easy to find your way through the book (very handy given the PDF is 104 pages long including the infection cards). The whole presentation is consistent with the high standards we have come to expect from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Fermentum is an inspiring and substantial addition to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess product line-up, at over double the size of the largest of 2019’s offerings. It is at once something new and impressive from a new (to our hobby bookshelves anyway) and impressive author, and entirely at home thematically and aesthetically with the existing Lamentations of the Flame Princess range. I highly recommend it!

  1. Lovecraft of course being an Anglophile retained the proper u in the word colour in his title, unlike the recent film adaptation of the story, which is excellent despite the spelling.

Deep Carbon Observatory Remastered

I backed the Deep Carbon Observatory Remastered Kickstarter, and received the hard copy of my new book yesterday. I have never played Deep Carbon Observatory (either version) so this review is based on a reading only. I will start my review with a section aimed at those familiar with the original, and then move on with a section aimed at anyone, whether they are familiar with DCO or not.

DCO Remastered (left) vs DCO from Lulu (right). Not shown: professional photography.

What’s New?

The new book is an A4 hardcover, with glossy interior pages and two ribbons. Its layout preserves the aesthetic of the original but seems much more functional. Each spread is clearly numbered (in the top left and right corners), and the maps are keyed to each spread. The maps in the remastered version as much more legible than they were in the original, redrawn in isometric projections on much larger scales, at both the front and back of the book to be easy to reference in play. The spread numbers and keys on the map make it very easy to quickly flick between maps and the appropriate page. The Remastered book now features an index rich in detail (not just titles and page numbers, but including a very brief summary of key information). These features make the new book a great deal more functional than the original as a publication.

The book also features expanded content as opposed to the original. Once again, this new content has the effect of making the adventure substantially easier to use, in my personal view. I found the dive straight into the crisis of Carrowmore without any real context in the original DCO disorienting in my read through of the original book. The book now provides 30 different hooks, an introduction to DCO, how it should be run, intended character levels, and so on. Even once we move into the material which was there before (e.g. the 18 box “The Flood” flowchart), this material is made more usable with small enhancements to the content and formatting. The Crows are now stated more clearly for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and have clearer advice for the referee about how to run them. This pattern continues throughout the book, especially for the more important encounters.

The new maps from Dirk Detweiler Leichty and new, larger artwork from Scrap Princess now add much more visual interest to the Remastered book. The art style is consistent with the original but the size and improved printing quality has enhanced the effect considerably. The style may still remain divisive and is not necessarily for everyone – but for me, Scrap Princess captures the frenetic energy, the sense of despair and desperation which perfectly matches the write-ups of creatures and encounters in the module. I also really like the new maps by Dirk Detweiler Leichty – they are much more functional in play than the maps included in the original, and much more clearly communicate the three dimensional nature especially of the “dungeon” parts of the adventure. You can pick these up PWYW on DriveThruRPG right now (affiliate link) if you are fence sitting about the new remastered book and it might help you make up your mind.

If, like me, you were always interested in the original Deep Carbon Observatory and found the adventure compelling, but hesitated running it in your campaign because you didn’t find it sufficiently accessible to actually try running it, the remastered version is a worthy upgrade. I now definitely want to actually play this module, and feel that the new book will actually help me run it. In short, Deep Carbon Observatory now feels like it wants to be actually played. If you found the old version perfectly playable, and you already enjoyed it, though, then I think the question really is – do you want a “deluxe” version of the physical book? If you do, and you’re prepared to pay £25 for it, then the remastered DCO is there for you. Otherwise, you are probably fine keeping your existing book, and maybe just checking out the maps from the remastered version.

New to DCO?

Deep Carbon Observatory is an OSR adventure with a DIY, art house aesthetic by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. It is a dark, bleak module, which starts off in a drowning town and finishes in an observatory at the bottom of a deep mineshaft carved out of the depths of the earth by slaves in aeons past. If they survive, the player characters will pick over the bones of a long dead civilization for its discarded and forgotten treasure. This is not Faerûn – this is grimdark survival horror fantasy.

The module describes itself as “theoretically survivable” for a level 1 party, but is aimed at a party of characters of levels 3 to 5. Most monsters and hostile NPCs have less than 5 HD, but the toughest enemies have more, and the biggest foe has 15 HD. As with most OSR games and adventures, the raw challenge rating of encounters is far from the full story about how challenging the adventure is likely to be. Player skill and strategy will be more important for success in DCO than player character levels and abilities.

Unlike the original version of the module, Deep Carbon Observatory‘s remastered edition has a number of compelling hooks for player characters. The ultimate objective is to reach an ancient magical gate deep within the earth, underneath a lake, upriver from the town of Carrowmore, and from there perhaps to escape with the treasure of an ancient empire.

The adventure starts with the characters on the scene of a natural disaster – this is an uncommon opening in adventure modules to say the least, and will certainly set the tone of darkness and despair as no matter what the players do they will be unable to save everybody. On the other hand, if your player characters don’t even try, as a referee you’ll know from the start that your PCs are amoral arseholes and maybe the tone of the rest of the adventure won’t affect them very much either. The adventure provides a flowchart-based approach for witnessing the various small human tragedies which comprise the flood of Carrowmore, and I believe this will create a dynamic and chaotic feeling in play as the players respond to some events and not to others, with consequences for both. It’s a unique opening to an adventure.

From this opening the adventure moves on to a race to the observatory through the devastated valley beyond Carrowmore, up the walls of the destroyed dam, and to the vast, ancient underground structure where the gate and the eponymous observatory lie. The race strikes me as both crucial to maintaining the pace of the adventure and as the part which will likely be the most difficult to run “as designed” in play. Players like being fully rested, with their full array of spells prepared, before they go into danger. To maintain a sense of desperation and keep that “survival horror” feeling established early on in the adventure, the players can’t be allowed to rest lightly. Any delay on their part must cost them. This is clearly the intention of the race as described in the book – rival adventuring parties (and other groups) are hot on their tails, and delays will lead to more challenges and complications in the form of dealing with these rival parties. Many players, especially those used to 5e D&D’s rest mechanics, will push back on this pressure and respond in ways which will lead them onto sidetracks – they refuse to be harried and will try to “take out” the pursuers so that they can approach the rest of the adventure at their leisure. Referees will need to play the rival parties and adversaries in the race “smart” in order to keep the pressure on, so that the party feels that the best direction for them to keep going is forward. Even then, a smart party knowing it is going to play a long term campaign which will last beyond the Deep Carbon Observatory module may reason that they may as well stop and fight their pursuers now, as otherwise they will have to fight them on their way back, when they will presumably be in substantially worse shape. There’s nothing wrong with the party succeeding at destroying its pursuers, of course, but it will mean there’s a lot less tension in the remainder of the adventure if they do so.

Where I find Deep Carbon Observatory most compelling is in its description and the exploration of the ancient structures left behind by the long extinct civilisation, and in the guardians that ancient culture has left behind. The description of the ancient culture’s structures and its guardians are compelling, but sometimes, only the referee will be able to properly appreciate this. The ancient golems, for example, are both ominous and tragic foes. They are slowly dying through the course of the adventure, and the longer the player characters take to meet the golems, the weaker the golems will be when they are encountered (all the more reason why the race must succeed at keeping up the pace!). Unfortunately, only the referee is likely to feel the sense of inevitable doom which makes these golems so compelling as an encounter. The golems, weakening day by day, are slowly dying. The player characters are unlikely to realise this – they’re going to encounter golems with x many hitpoints and that’s likely to be the only encounter they have with them. They will not realise that if they met the golems a day earlier, x would be larger, or if they had encountered them a day leater, x would be smaller – and this is a shame because the size of x is the only way a player character can directly observe the decay of these ancient servitors. The sense of ancient decay and despair will be more properly appreciated by the players in locations such as “The Slave Caves”, however, where the suffering and aeons of misery will be more directly observable.

There are very many great modules in the OSR scene where the adventurers themselves will rarely get more than glimpses of what is truly going on. This is not necessarily a problem – in fact, it rather helps the richness of the sense of mystery about an ancient dungeon if the players catch glimpses of it but the referee knows much more. If the details even the referee has are few and disjointed, however, then the players are more likely to be confused by the glimpses they get than they are to develop a sense of mystery and awe. It is my feeling that Deep Carbon Observatory belongs more in the former camp – that the players will finish the adventure with a sense of mystery, albeit one which they have only glimpsed in incomplete but compelling pieces. This is based only a reading, and not on actual play, so I may be proved wrong. I am, however, now determined to find out, which is the great success of the remastered Deep Carbon Observatory in my view – the compelling promise of the original has been developed into something which I now find playable and want very much to run.

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Eternal Five Fantasy Roleplaying

First Five Fantasy Roleplaying is my retroclone of the 1991 black box Dungeons & Dragons set. When I first got into the hobby, it was surprisingly hard to find the Rules Cyclopedia in my city in Australia, or even the AD&D core books for that matter. Adventures, modules, campaign settings, etc were plentiful on the other hand – I was able to find The Poor Wizard’s Almanac II so at least I had an introduction to the world of Mystara – but it was difficult to find the rules to take my game past the limitations of the black box. When TSR shut down, even these D&D supplements disappeared from the shelves of the three combination comic book/FLGS stores which served my own city. Unlike previous basic sets, the 1991 black box took player characters to level 5, hence the name of my retroclone – a game which focusses on the first five levels of play. Unfortunately this means it gets mistaken for a game based on 5th edition, a demonstration of my shockingly misguided marketing! Since all I had was the black box, I never had a rules set for D&D characters beyond level 5 in my earlier years of playing the game. Granted, this rarely seemed to be a problem – but for the few characters who survived long enough to advance beyond the constraints of the black box, they were stuck at level 5 forever.

Many of the original player characters in my current First Five Fantasy Roleplaying campaign (for my children and their friends) are now at level 5 or nearing it rapidly. I have directed them, as I have directed purchasers of F5FR, to the Rules Cyclopedia (now available in both hard cover and soft cover through the wonders of print-on-demand – I have been very happy with my hard cover version), for rules for level 6 and beyond. But as at least one reviewer of First Five Fantasy Roleplaying has said – there’s a lot of adventure to be had at low levels, and indeed, much of the OSR seems aimed specifically at low-level play. Indeed, I have only recently become aware that back in the late 3.5 days there was a popular “hack” to 3.5 D&D to stop level progression at level 6 and instead give players feats rather than new levels as they continued to earn XP, and apparently most 5th edition D&D campaigns don’t progress much beyond level 7 and 90% stop before level 10. So I have started to think – what if the first five levels weren’t just the first five levels? What if they were the only levels?

It’s not as simple as just stopping after level 5, mind you. As the E6 designer explains in the wiki linked above, players still want there to be a sense of their characters making progress. Back in my days of being constrained entirely to the black box, once a character reached level 5, they tended to be retired/abandoned in favour of new characters who could advance. Clearly, players want their characters to make progress, it is a key motivator for play! So, below are some playtest rules for consideration if you want to keep your First Five Fantasy Roleplaying (or really, any Basic-type D&D) at level 5 forever while still allowing for some character progression:

Each character class will gain some hit points and some additional ability after level 5 every time they earn an additional quantity of experience points equal to the amount they needed to reach level 5 in the first place. The hit points and abilities given below are cumulative – thus bonuses or additional spells can be gained multiple times and “stack”.

In terms of balance – characters who continue to progress beyond level 5 will be more capable than characters who just reached level 5, but not dramatically so. In particular, the higher-level monsters in the First Five Fantasy Roleplaying game should continue to be an appropriate challenge for such characters functionally indefinitely!

Cleric

After reaching level 5, every additional 12,000 experience points earned, the Cleric gains:

  • 1 hit point (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • Choose one of:
    • One additional level 1 Cleric spell per day
    • +1 to rolls to Turn Undead

Fighter

After reaching level 5, every additional 16,000 experience points earned, the Fighter gains:

  • 2 hit points (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • A weapon specialization in a chosen weapon type, granting the Fighter a +1 bonus to rolls to hit with that weapon type. The Fighter must take three other weapon specializations before they take another specialization in the same weapon type again.

Magic-User

After reaching level 5, every additional 20,000 experience points earned, the Magic-User gains:

  • 1 hit point (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • Choose one of:
    • One additional spell of level 1, 2, or 3 in their spell book. This also takes one week of research and 1000gp per level of the spell learned.
    • One additional level 1 Magic-User spell per day.

Thief

After reaching level 5, every additional 9,600 experience points earned, the Thief gains:

  • 2 hit points (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • 30% to divide between their Thief skills – with no single Thief skill to receive more than 15%

Dwarf

After reaching level 5, every additional 17,000 experience points earned, the Dwarf gains:

  • 3 hit points (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • A weapon specialization in a chosen weapon type, granting the Dwarf a +1 bonus to rolls to hit with that weapon type. The Dwarf must take three other weapon specializations before they take another specialization in the same weapon type again.

Elf

After reaching level 5, every additional 32,000 experience points earned, the Elf gains:

  • 1 hit point (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • Choose one of:
    • One additional spell of level 1, 2, or 3 in their spell book. This also takes one week of research and 1000gp per level of the spell learned.
    • One additional level 1 Magic-User spell per day.
    • A weapon specialization in a chosen weapon type, granting the Elf a +1 bonus to rolls to hit with that weapon type. The Elf must take three other weapon specializations before they take another specialization in the same weapon type again.

Halfling

After reaching level 5, every additional 16,000 experience points earned, the Halfling gains:

  • 1 hit point (irrespective of CON modifier)
  • A weapon specialization in a chosen weapon type, granting the Halfling a +1 bonus to rolls to hit with that weapon type. The Halfling must take three other weapon specializations before they take another specialization in the same weapon type again.

PS All links to products other than my own on this page are affiliate links, not that I have ever earned a cent from the affiliate program at DriveThruRPG despite many referrals and apparent sales. I’m not complaining, I’m just letting you know that bloggers who include affiliate links are not exactly rolling in lucrative rewards for including them 🙂

The Grand Campaign

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition opened with an introduction to the concept of the Grand Campaign. There was no succinct single sentence definition which I can reproduce here, but rather a description of the Grand Campaign as encompassing an entire fantasy world and permitting play at any and all levels of detail within that world – as kings and commanders of armies, to individual characters of any social rank. This is fundamentally different from most modern roleplaying game campaigns, which are often described in terms of “stories” in which the player characters are protagonists. Rather, in the Grand Campaign as described by Simbalist and Backhaus in the 1st edition of Chivalry & Sorcery, it is really the history of a simulated fantasy world which is being “played out” rather than an individual story within that world. Individual players may control many different characters in that world, indeed, they may play powerful kings, chivalrous knights, or humble peasants, and anything between. The Grand Campaign encapsulates this idea of play happening (or at least, being able to happen) at multiple levels of play, with groups of players choosing to play at all the levels or just those which interest them.

Building and expanding on the Grand Campaign as described in Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition with my thoughts after some time spent with the 5th edition of that august gaming lineage, the levels of play in the Grand Campaign could be described as follows, listed in order, with “1” at the “highest” level of play and “4” at the “lowest” or most narrowly focussed-level:

  1. Grand Strategy – This level of play is primarily military and geopolitical in nature. It will focus on the struggles between baronies and kingdoms and on the clash of armies, and deal with questions of economics and resources.
  2. The Nobility – This level of play complements Grand Strategy by fleshing out the important political and military characters – princes, generals, knights. C&S 1e notes that “the military miniatures enthusiast will probably elect only to deal with Knights and Nobles”.
  3. The Fantasy Campaign – This level of play is probably the more typical fantasy roleplaying game’s fare (albeit with more C&S-style realism). It adds magicians to the mix, expanding the game beyond the knights and nobles of the historical ruling class.
  4. Village Life – This level of play includes ordinary life in the game world, down to the lowest serf. I have called this “Village Life” to emphasis the micro-nature of this level of play within the Grand Campaign, but it could just as easily focus on the day-to-day in towns or cities. This level of play is not typically a feature of fantasy roleplaying games – this sort of activity is generally performed by NPCs in the background of play.

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition was intended as a single-volume rulebook to address the whole of the Grand Campaign (or at least levels 1 through 3 in my improvised hierarchy):

“The essential feature of Chivalry & Sorcery is the flexibility built into all of the campaign types. Players may choose the type of campaign that they desire and may ignore all elements that are not relevant to their needs and aims.”

Ed Simbalist & Wilf Backhaus (1977), Chivalry & Sorcery, 1st edition

My own Chivalry & Sorcery campaign is at level 3. Indeed, probably every fantasy roleplaying campaign I have ever run or played in has been at level 3. There is certainly nothing wrong with level 3, but there’s a lot of play which can happen at other levels which isn’t a feature of my own games or my own experience. The Grand Campaign would involve play at multiple levels, possibly with many more players and even multiple GMs, not necessarily all playing together at the same time, but all playing in the same world, with the potential to interact and affect each other.

This explains why, as previously discussed, the concept of time and a relationship between real world time and campaign time is also strangely (to modern eyes) so important in Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition. Indeed, C&S 1st edition is not alone in this – it seems to have been a feature of the Greyhawk and Blackmoor D&D campaigns as well. In this context, the infamous Gygax quote in the AD&D DMG that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” makes a lot more sense than it might from a purely “modern” (really, 1980s onwards) roleplaying game perspective. This sort of defined relationship between real-world and game time would have been essential for games which spanned levels 1 to 3 of the Grand Campaign.

I have been drafting and re-drafting my own rules-lite game which spans levels 1 to 3 of the Grand Campaign (with play focussed at level 2) for a year and a half. I am about to re-embark on yet another re-write. But since I am presently running (and enjoying) a level 3 “Fantasy Campaign” using Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition, and since Chivalry & Sorcery introduced the concept, I have started to think about the practicalities of using Chivalry & Sorcery‘s latest incarnation for the Grand Campaign.

The first thing I would note is that the wargaming clubs which predominated in the hobby in the 1970s are now, effectively, a separate world from the roleplaying game one. Campaigns as run by Arneson and Gygax, and indeed, Simbalist and Backhaus, with 20+ players drifting in and out between sessions are generally impractical – unless maybe you were playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (and even then, that would not be a very Critical Role-like experience so maybe not). I suspect but I am not sure about early C&S campaigns, but it was certainly a feature of early D&D campaigns that players had multiple characters, and would choose which of their characters to play at the start of each adventuring session, alternating between them over the course of many sessions. I think a similar approach would be necessary in the Grand Campaign in 2020, and this would also help facilitate running such an ambitious exercise with a more realistic-sized play group.

I believe the Grand Campaign calls for players to take more responsibility and direct control of many aspects of the game world, albeit underneath the Gamemaster’s supervision. The Player-Referee (as the GM is occasionally called in Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition) of course has the most characters at their disposal, but the game actually rails against the injustice of this somewhat, and explains how player characters may marshal armies and enlist the support of allies and vassals and how such characters are in effect, under their control rather than the Player-Referee. In the Grand Campaign, players can be expected to manage the resources and incomes available to their estates and feudal holdings at levels 1 and 2 of play.

A good way to invest the players in these additional responsibilities, and in play at level 1 especially, is to involve them in the world building process. Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition has a solid introduction to world building, starting with map making (just as 1st edition notes), description of feudal society, and a detailed system for building feudal holdings from the level of kingdom down. There is no reason why this work should only be done by the GM – and indeed, there will be more investment in a collaborative world building effort. After the initial preparation is complete, of course, world building will continue to be on-going during play in order to satisfy the demands of play, and the GM will need to do this “just in time” worldbuilding largely by themselves, but they will be building upon a shared foundation.

Unlike in 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery, which started with miniature wargaming rules first and eventually moved onto character generation around the halfway mark, level 1 play is not entirely facilitated by the 5th edition core rulebook. The Kickstarter included the stretch goal to deliver the Ars Bellica supplement, a mass-combat system which can also serve as a miniature wargame in its own right. Subscribers to the Brittannia Game Designs Patreon can get access to the latest draft of this supplement. The current draft is certainly usable, and as an alternative to the full miniature rules most of the supplement describes, it also includes an “Art of Maths” option for mass combat to be resolved with some maths based on troops and resources and a few rolls. Either one of these should bridge the gap and satisfy the requirements of level 1 play nicely. The core rulebook does provide the economic details which would be necessary for Grand Strategy level play.

Play at levels 2, 3 and even 4 are all well-provided for by the Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition core rulebook. No other game in my collection so admirably and comprehensively caters to characters drawn from every class of feudal society. Non-human options are already dealt with in the core rulebook, but are greatly expanded upon by the previous edition’s Elves Companion and Dwarves Companion (which are still compatible with 5th edition), and by the recently released Nightwalkers supplement (that’s an affiliate link) which greatly expands on lycanthropes and vampires in Chivalry & Sorcery (remember: monsters are people too!). A supplement is on its way for Goblins, Orcs, and Trolls as well. The non-human races have their own societies, social classes, vocations, etc, sufficient to support play at levels 2, 3, and 4. As I discussed in my reviews of the Elves Companion and Dwarves Companion, it is a mistake to think of Chivalry & Sorcery‘s demihuman and monstrous races as “vanilla D&D” versions – but they could still be incorporated into a newly built world with just the geographic features adapted to your own setting (as indeed, these books do for Marakush).

I am not sure whether I ever will run the Grand Campaign, but I’d certainly like to try, and Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition is the first game in my collection I’d use for it. In the meantime, I will press on with my own Fantasy Campaign, level 3 game!

Chivalry & Sorcery 5e: 5+1 Sessions In

Some time ago, I reviewed the Chivalry & Sorcery 5e PDF, on the basis of reading it through and rolling up a character myself, but not after actual play. Since that time, the printed books have been shipped, and I’ve started a Chivalry & Sorcery campaign. Now we’re a few sessions in (four “regular play” sessions and one “session zero” character generation session), I feel like I am better placed to comment on the game in play.

As a group we are still learning the system, and given C&S 5e is a 600+ page book, this is going to take a little longer. We are still looking things up in play just to make sure we are doing it right, but as of the fourth session of regular play, we are now, as a group, more looking things up to be sure we’re doing them right than we are to resolve differences of interpretation or different recollections of the rules. In my review of the PDF, I described the game as complete not complicated. After playing for a while, I think this is generally true, there are definitely some “crunchy” parts – especially in the magick system. Generally, the “crunch” feels like it adds both realism and tactical thinking which is welcome, but it can also slow us down in play when we use a new subsystem for the first time. As with all such subsystems, the more familiar we become with using it in play, the faster we get with it. By the second or third time we do something in C&S we do it quite quickly and smoothly.

Expressed in GNS terms, without intending to affirm any kind of validity to that hot mess of a model, C&S is heavily simulationist. The core mechanics are not complex, but there’s a lot of detail in procedures for particular situations, and a lot of granularity in the skills list. There are also some rules which have needed clarification/expansion after the book was printed (link to publisher’s webpage here), which helps with the more complicated aspects of magick in particular. In general, these detailed procedures are smooth in play, but there are some stress points when some players try to play the game like D&D. For example, the game has an action point pool-based approach to determining who can act first in combat and how much they can do. This is excellent, and feels realistic to me. However, when players try to “hold actions” until certain conditions take place, as if they were playing 3rd edition D&D, which in mechanical terms means they build up action points since they don’t spend them on an action, which leads to a glut of action points. This doesn’t actually break the C&S rules, mind you – in fact, you are intended to be able to bank action points, but typically you’d be banking “left over” action points in a round, not one’s entire allocation of action points for a round. So we are making good progress on the learning curve with respect to the C&S rules themselves – but as a group we still need to make some progress on learning how to play C&S as C&S.

As I discussed in my initial review of the PDF, the PDF is hyper-functional, filled with links, and particularly useful electronic tabs to skip between major sections. The physical book does not have such conveniences, but it is a distinctly satisfying 600+ page full-colour book, with a ribbon. The pages are nicely laid out, and visually appealing. The artwork sets the tone for the game beautifully, much more “low fantasy” and medieval than modern Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. Given the size of the book, I find that some extra ribbons are useful during play as I deal with procedures for magick with some characters, certain skills with others, NPC stats, etc, at the same time. Occasionally, I think some information could be better co-located in the book. For example, if some of the information about magickal vocations and modes of magick from the Vocations chapter could be repeated in the Magick chapter, it would save some flicking around in play. This is less of an issue with the PDF than the physical book, and illustrative of why I have started to use multiple ribbons in play. The information is laid out logically in the book – just the size of the book naturally means one has to move around quite a bit.

I enjoy the book a lot and commend Brittannia for running an outstanding Kickstarter, and getting the physical book out promptly. Many other Kickstarters I backed, with long, drawn out deliveries, are now frozen, with physical rewards only partially fulfilled, but my C&S book arrived early, and is all the more cherished for it. More importantly, I am enjoying the game, even though we have moved play online, and I don’t hesitate to recommend Chivalry & Sorcery for anyone who wants a more “realistic” medieval fantasy roleplaying game.

Chivalry & Sorcery on Roll20

I recently started a new Chivalry & Sorcery campaign, and COVID-19 comes to rain on our parade! So we moved our most recent session online, and that’s where the campaign will stay for the foreseeable future. Since I already have a Roll20 Pro subscription and since I am familiar with it from my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign (still going strong), I went to Roll20 as my default. Unfortunately Roll20 doesn’t have a character sheet built for Chivalry & Sorcery – I am pretty sure that none of the VTT platforms out there do! But that’s OK, I don’t need all of the VTT bells and whistles, since at this stage I am still assuming that the campaign will be able to move back to a face-to-face campaign in the medium term. There are some Roll20 features I can make good use of though.

Dice Macros

Chivalry & Sorcery has an elegant dice mechanic. Once you have calculated the Total Success Chance (TSC) for all your skills during character creation, in play, the dice mechanic is quick and easy to use. Face-to-face we roll 1d100 and 1d10 – the 1d100 is the roll to determine success or failure and the 1d10 is the “Crit die”. If the 1d100 result is equal to or below the TSC, the roll is a success, and the Crit die shows how successful the success was (a 10 = a critical success). If the 1d100 result is above the TSC, the roll is a failure, and the Crit die shows how much of a failure the failure was (a 10 = a critical failure).

There is nothing to stop you just rolling your dice in Roll20 the same way, or at least in two steps (/roll 1d100 then /roll 1d10) but we are not familiar enough as a group with the Crit die tables that all of us know how much of a success or failure a given Crit die roll is. Complicating this, the Crit die roll is modified by very high and very low TSCs. So I thought I would setup some simple macros to semi-automate the resolution mechanic.

Click the “In Bar” check box and “Show macro quick bar?” check box so that you can get your macro as a convenient button to click.

Unfortunately, this was much more difficult than I anticipated, because the functions Roll20 exposes for dice mechanics are limited unless you can use APIs in your game (which requires a Pro subscription). I am going to keep refining these macros, but for now, this is what I have.

Percentile Pair Roll

Percentile Pair Roll is the simplest macro and is one which can be implemented without API support:

/roll 1d100<?{Total Success Chance|01}

This macro rolls 1d100 and compares it to a number provided by the player called “Total Success Chance”. If we have an electronic character sheet, this could point at the sheet, but we don’t, so instead we need a pop-up box to ask the player to type in their TSC manually. This is OK for now as it helps the players learn the system.

Crit Die Macros

My Crit Die macros include a conditional statement and format results nicely, so I used the Power Card API. To use this API, I needed a Pro account (which I already had), and I needed to go into the Game Settings and add the API to the game.

Burning Jacques de Molay courtesy of talented artist Luigi Castellani

Once Power Cards was added, the macros I use are coded like this:

!power {{
--name|Success with Crit Die
--Crit Die Roll:| [[ [$crit] 1d10 + ?{Crit Die Modifier (pp37-38)|0} ]]
--?? $crit.total <= 1 ?? Result:|Mediocre Success
--?? $crit.total >= 2 AND $crit.total <= 5 ?? Result:|Middling Success
--?? $crit.total >= 6 AND $crit.total <= 9 ?? Result:|Competent Success
--?? $crit.total >= 10 ?? Result:|Critical Success
}}

The failure with Crit die code is very similar – just with the text after the “Result:|” on each line of the conditional statement changed to match the Failure Crit die table from Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition. When the player runs this macro, they are asked to enter any modifier for their Crit die in a pop-up box, like they were with their TSC for the Percentile Pair roll. Then the final result is displayed in the chat log.

If you hover over the number, you can see a tool-tip with the actual roll and any modifiers shown.

Combat

Although in most face-to-face games I eschew the use of miniatures or tokens, in Roll20, it’s relatively easy to do combat on a battle mat. There’s no reason this has to be very elaborate – Roll20 admirably emulates a wet-erase gaming mat. C&S is battle mat agnostic – so you can use a square grid or a hex grid as you prefer. I’ve used a hex map for this demonstration. The scale which makes most sense for C&S for either squares or hexes is 5 feet. Naturally, each character has a token. Since I don’t have character sheets I am not going to link these tokens to a character sheet, but I will use the green bar for Body Points (BP) and the blue bar for Fatigue Points (FP).

The Turn Order tracking feature is quite useful for C&S

As I mentioned in my review of the PDF, Chivalry & Sorcery features (by default) an action point-based combat system. As mentioned in that review there is also an alternative blows-based system provided, but I am not using that in my game so I’ll stick with the default for this discussion.

Each combat round, every combatant has a fresh, partially-randomly generated pool of action points. Combatants act in order of who has the most action points left to the least, using up to 10 action points (10 AP) for a single action phase. After a combatant’s action phase, the character with the next-most remaining action points acts, and so on, until everyone is out of action points or has decided to hold onto them for the next round. This means a character may take multiple actions in a single round, the sequence always determined by who has the most action points left. At a physical table, it can be quite complex to track this in a way where all the players can see what is going on – but using the “Turn Order” tracker in Roll20, everyone can easily see who has the most action points left and therefore who will act next.

In my example combat with 3 combatants:

  • Aalis has 12 Base Action Points (BAP). She is wearing heavy armour (-3 AP/round), and is wielding a long sword.
  • The Black Knight has 9 Base Action Points (BAP). He is wearing battle armour (-5 AP/round), and is wielding a two-handed Battle Axe.
  • The Witch has 8 Base Action Points (BAP). She is wearing no armour (+3 AP/round).

When you “roll for initiative” in Roll20, you need to select your token, then send the result of a roll to the Turn Order tracker by appending &{tracker} to the end of your roll command. For example, in a system using 1d6 with no modifiers for initiative, you would select your token and type /roll 1d6&{tracker} into the chat window, then press enter, to send the result of the 1d6 roll to the Turn Order tracker. If you screw this up, the GM can always add a token for you and manually enter a number, but that should be a “fall back” position. So, the roll commands to randomly generate an Action Point pool for each combatant in our combat are:

  • Aalis: /roll 1d10+12-3&{tracker} because she has 12 BAP, and -3 AP for heavy armour.
  • The Black Knight: /roll 1d10+9-5&{tracker} because he has 9 BAP, and -5 AP for battle armour.
  • Witch: /roll 1d10+8+3&{tracker} because she has 8 BAP and +3 AP for wearing no armour.
Select a token then roll to determine AP pool for the round

As you can see from the screenshot, the Turn Order tracker will add characters in the order the rolls come through. We need to change this to sort by AP remaining.

Click on the blue cog thingy then on “Descending” to sort by remaining AP

After sorting the Turn Order in descending order, it is now obvious to everyone that the Witch goes first. She casts a hex, which takes 2 actions and will cost her a total of 15 AP. Her first action takes 10 AP of this, so we have to adjust her AP in the counter.

You can click on the number next to a character’s name to manually adjust the Turn Order.

Then you have to re-sort descending. In fact, we will need to do this same step again after every character’s action phase:

Re-sort after each action to show the new sequence of who gets to act.

It is now Aalis’ turn. She moves 10 feet (2 AP) towards the Witch and attacks with her long sword (8 AP). Since she is in heavy armour, this also costs 1 Fatigue Point. Let’s assume she hits. To do damage, she rolls a Crit Die with +1 for using a longsword, +5 base damage, +8 for her Strength bonus, and +2 attacker’s bonus for being level 2 with a medium weapon. This can be rolled with /roll 1d10+1+5+8+2. Damage is applied first to Fatigue Points (blue bar) then to Body Points (green bar).

After deducting the 10AP, the Turn Order needs to be re-sorted

After re-sorting the Turn Order counter, The Black Knight moves next! He cannot both close with Aalis and attack in the same action phase (i.e. within the 10 AP limit), so he moves 15 feet (3 AP). This costs him 2 FP in the process for wearing battle armour so that is deducted from the blue bar.

Hexes give extra wargaming cred

Fortunately for The Black Knight, even after paying the 3 AP, his current action point pool is still the largest, so he takes the next action – attacking with his battle axe (8 AP). Let’s assume he also hits. To do damage, he rolls a Crit Die with +1 for using a Battle Axe, +8 base damage, +10 for his Strength bonus, +3 attacker’s bonus for being level 6 with a 2H weapon. The command to roll this is /roll 1d10+1+8+10+3.

After spend 8 AP, The Black Knight has no AP left for the rest of the round.

Now we go back to the Witch’s turn to act… and so the round continues until all AP are spent or a combatant wishes to “bank” their remaining AP to the next round. Let’s say after the Witch has spent her 7 AP, Aalis wishes to bank her remaining 2 AP. When we re-roll her action point pool for the next round, we just add 2 to the same command we used before to generate the action point pool for Aalis: /roll 1d10+12-3+2&{tracker} Remember to select the correct token before rolling for the action point pool or the wrong character will get the pool added to the Turn Order window!

Regional Map

The regional map is a simple but really useful feature, especially since my campaign is set in a fictitious region. My region map is drawn using Hex Kit (affiliate link) and uploaded into Roll20 and then agonizingly resized until it fits the hex grid.

See the tool highlighted in the sidebar? Useful for measuring.

My map is setup with a scale of 1 hex = 2 miles. The ruler tool (highlighted in the sidebar in the screenshot above) is handy to measure the distance between arbitrary points. Useful for determining the range of scrying spells and many other functions!

Depending on how long the COVID-19 quarantine continues, I may expand on how much automation I build into Roll20 for Chivalry & Sorcery, and I may learn other tricks which are useful for using Roll20 for the game. For the time being, however, that’s about all I am doing for now with my temporarily online Chivalry & Sorcery game!

Campaign Time

Most old school players would remember the (in)famous Dungeon Masters Guide quote:

YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT

Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide 1e, p37

There are some other curiosities about game time and keeping track of it relative to real-world time which appear in contemporary game products. For example, the same section of the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide advances that “it is best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening”. First edition Chivalry & Sorcery is perhaps even more interesting:

The time frame of Chivalry & Sorcery as a game is different from other games of its general type, for the one day = one game day concept has been dropped in favour of a more telescoped time period…

The recommended time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.

Ed Simbalist & Wilf Backhaus, Chivalry & Sorcery 1e, p2

In fact, Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition goes further, noting that different seasons provide less adventure time (e.g. Winter) and therefore recommending a shorter real world time be allocated to their play. The table below is adapted from Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition:

SeasonGame World MonthsReal World Duration
SpringApril and May2-3 real weeks
SummerJune to October8-10 real weeks
FallNovember and December2-3 real weeks
WinterJanuary to March1 real week

Not quite the same but similar is King Arthur Pendragon‘s suggested campaign structure, where each session of play corresponds to one year of campaign time. Although I try to adhere to this fairly strictly, there are some years where this is impractical and the year has to be split between two game sessions.

It is rare that modern games make such links between real time and game time – even though rules for downtime abound. This is even true in modern OSR games which actively attempt to recreate old school playing styles from the 70s and 80s. This is commented on in Courtney Campbell’s excellent On Downtime and Demesnes (affiliate link for B/X and 5e):

Classic Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax used the Gregorian Calendar, and had one day pass in the game as one day passed in the real world. But Gygax and co. ran their games much like a tabletop massively multiplayer role-playing game. Modern players are much more likely to have weeks of downtime pass in a few minutes.

Courtney Campbell, On Downtime and Demesnes, p206

In my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign, I track each day of game time closely. There’s a little downtime, and quite a bit of journey time, especially when the party is travelling by ship, but our campaign is over two years old and we have only advanced one year of game time in that period. My sense is that this is typical of other campaigns even where strict records of time are kept. One of the reasons I backed the Kickstarter for On Downtime and Demesnes was to give interesting downtime options for players, in the hope that in my D&D games the players would start choosing to allow more game world time to pass. There’s an interesting difference, I think, between what my players seem to want out of game world time and what I want as a referee. In this campaign and in others I have played, players seem keen not to “waste” game world time on uninteresting downtime. As a referee, I would like for more game world time to pass during a campaign, to allow characters and the broader game world to credibly develop in significant ways, and for those developments to have time to “be felt”.

For example, in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign set in Civil War England, the Civil War is still in its infancy, and both aliens and monsters have been loosed on 17th Century England. More game world time progressing would allow both the Civil War itself to progress (which would itself drive the characters forward since they wish to affect the outcome of that conflict), and would allow a game world which predates mass communication to slowly become aware of the alien civilisations now at large on the planet’s surface, and to react accordingly. At the moment, most Londoners still scoff when they hear that a giant coral castle on the back of a dead giant turtle is slowly rotting in a field in Lincolnshire. As a referee, I am perhaps more engaged in the development of the game world itself than are my players. The players, for their part, are urgently carrying out their purposes with an efficiency more typical of the 21st Century military than the rank amateurs of both the King and Parliament’s armies in the Civil War’s opening months. I can’t fault them – they are right to do so. Up until now neither the game rules nor I have provided them with any interesting options for downtime rather than leaping into the next adventure.

I am about to start a Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition campaign. We had our character generation session last weekend, and the first actual play sessions should be in a week or two. Just as it always have been in Chivalry & Sorcery, downtime is especially important for magick users, and several magick user characters were created at last weekend’s session. It takes anywhere from 2 to 130 days for a mage to reduce the magick resistance of materials in order to allow them to be enchanted, for example. It takes between 7 and 21 days to learn a spell. Magick users need downtime. Nor is downtime a waste for other characters – all characters can gain experience points during downtime, although magi, priests, and scholars gain more experience points than other character types by spending their time studying, researching, meditating and so on. Characters of all types also need downtime to learn new skills – with most skills taking approximately one month of game time to learn depending on a character’s Discipline attribute, whether they have a teacher, and on the difficulty factor of the skill (learning how to count is a lot easier than learning how to cast magick, for example). So not only does Chivalry & Sorcery benefit from downtime in the ways I think my other games could benefit, it actually needs downtime as a core game mechanic, and this will require keeping track of time (and downtime plans) rather more closely than some campaigns do, even, despite Gygax’s admonition, some of my own.

One final piece of wisdom from Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition which I will apply in my just starting Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition game:

KEEPING A CALENDAR

The important thing to establish is the relation of real time to game time, so that all of the players know what the game date is in a particular week of play. Once general agreement is reached among the players, everyone knows how much time is passing. This fixing of a definite calendar for the game is especially vital for Magick Users, who operate on a very strict time scale when learning spells or doing enchantments.

Ed Simbalist & Wilf Backhaus, Chivalry & Sorcery 1e, p2

Wisdom which I think equally applies to the Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition game we are now starting! To facilitate this, I will give every player a calendar with which to track the game world date and record/plan their own downtime activities. Hopefully, that will prove to be detail they enjoy, rather than resist.

Time will tell…

Womb Cult

Over a year ago, my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign encountered a cult of alien hybrids of my own devising, whose cults and rituals were dedicated to the perpetuation of their reproductive cycle. I developed quite a bit of detail about that cult, and eventually the idea struck me that it might make a reasonable module to publish. I am pleased to say that I finally made the adventure available to the public earlier this week: Womb Cult, available on DriveThruRPG in PDF, and print (soft cover and hard cover)!

Preparing an adventure for your home campaign is different from preparing one with the intention to publish it for a broader audience. I am still not sure I have entirely succeeded – maybe somebody will review Womb Cult and I will find out. I thought I’d write anyway about the approach I took and why, in case that is useful to anybody. That way, at least if you get Womb Cult and decide it is bad, you will know what not to do!

Setting

My campaign is set in England during the early years of the English Civil War, so when I ran Womb Cult in my regular campaign, it was set in rural England. Most of the official Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures have a defined setting, although it is rarely difficult to modify them to place the adventure somewhere else. Sometimes modifying them is more difficult. I have quite a few adventures which I have yet to use in my own campaign because they are not easily integrated into Civil War England. This is not a problem unique to Lamentations of the Flame Princess of course, but I feel less able to easily muck around with an historical real-world setting (albeit with weird fantasy overlays) to make an adventure fit than I would in a purely fantasy setting. This could well be an issue other referees do not have, but it informed my choices as I prepared Womb Cult for other people’s games.

I wanted Womb Cult to be usable for the “generic setting” of Lamentations of the Flame Princess – namely, Early Modern Europe. I didn’t want to tie it to a particular country or region, though. So instead of a defined region with named towns and villages with the location of all the cultists precisely mapped out, I developed the module as a “tool kit” to infest any region area in your campaign with an alien-hybrid womb cult. This would make the module usable in any rural area of Early Modern Europe. At the same time, I know that many referees buy published modules to reduce preparation time, so I still provided maps with the locations of hybrid households and the like mapped out – but these were “generic villages” without names, so the referee can use the maps as they like, assigning them names appropriate for their campaigns. I was assisted in fully realising this objective by the other half of Grimm Aramil Publishing, credited in the book as the killer of my darlings, Adam, who made sure I stripped out the English Civil War-specific timeline showing how the cult integrated itself into the events of my own campaign.

There are some traces of the original setting left in the module – the pagan gods honoured by the cult are based adapted and morphed from a base of the ancient paganism of the British Isles, and I do give an English name for the cult’s leader. I don’t think the gods should be a problem and names are easily localisable.

Investigation

Done well, investigations are great tabletop fodder, especially with a horror/weird fantasy vibe – the success of Call of Cthulhu is testament enough to that I think. Before the player characters are likely to find the cult’s lair in Womb Cult, they need to investigate the cult and its goings on. It’s easy to fall into a trap with investigation scenarios. Even among published modules railroads abound which drag the “investigators” from scene to scene, stopping them until they find whatever clue is necessary to progress them to the next scene, all the way until the inevitable confrontation with the bad guy. I wanted to avoid that. I was also aware that given I deliberately designed the publication version of Womb Cult as “setting neutral” (within the broader assumed Early Modern Europe setting), the adventure as presented could use more hooks to encourage the player characters to be involved.

I tried to combine random events caused by the cult’s actions (some of which might directly involve or even target the PCs) with random clues and stories for NPCs to give to the players when they were interrogated. After all, there’s no forensic science in the Early Modern Era – if you want to know what’s going on you’re going to need a witness, or a carefully chosen magic spell, or both. The party should build up both real clues and red herrings as their investigation proceeds – or they may even have a relatively early confrontation with alien hybrids which, if they are triumphant, presents them an opportunity to force the most important details out of their captives.

Womb Cult‘s approach is an attempt to address an investigation with an OSR style of play and a generic setting. It has worked for me when I have run the module – I hope it works for other people too. Maybe I screwed it up completely – constructive criticism welcome!

Art

I’m not an artist but I have been privileged to collaborate with a very talented one on Womb Cult, who has brought the alien hybrids and their life cycle to life in the artwork throughout the book. From the “birth ritual” depicted on the cover, to the three full-page black and white interior pieces depicting hybrids and hosts, to the illustration of the womb parasite which manages to look vicious and malignant despite its slug-like size and shape, I am really pleased with the artwork. The cover has so far attracted quite a few positive comments so hopefully whatever audience Womb Cult finds enjoys the art too.

The art also serves as a useful content warning!

More work than it looks like

The main thing I discovered producing Womb Cult is that preparing an adventure for publication is a lot more work than it looks like. I have a full-time job and I worked on other projects between, but I have been working on Womb Cult in bits and pieces since 2017, when I first started preparing it for my Lamentations campaign. I started and stopped and wrote and re-wrote and abandoned it and picked it up again several times over 2018 before finally settling on the “setting neutral” approach for my final rewrite in 2019. After some constructive criticism, fat trimming, and more play testing, it was finally ready in late 2019, but didn’t go live on DriveThruRPG until January 2020 because I had to wait for proofs to arrive over the busy Christmas period. The whole process gave me a new found respect for published adventure modules, even the ones which I don’t think are very good. I sincerely hope Womb Cult doesn’t fall into that latter category, but getting it into print was a huge learning process in any event, and holding the printed product at the end – especially the A5-sized hardcover (which fits in so well with other Lamentations books) – ultimately immensely satisfying.