Thursday, September 28, 2023

Your OSR Setting is a Deathworld

Art by Cristian Ibarra Santillan; used under CC license

Your OSR setting is a deathworld. This may not seem obvious - indeed, many settings appear to have an expansive and relatively safe countryside - but an examination of the encounter tables and monster descriptions of popular Old School Revolution (OSR) games speaks otherwise.

A "deathworld" is a term popularized (or maybe coined) by the Warhammer 40K universe. It refers to a world which is inimical to Humanity, be that due to climate, atmosphere, or biosphere. Such worlds require a major effort to survive on, and, in Warhammer 40K, typically breed elite warriors forged by the world's overall hostility.

Encounter tables in various OSR games, if you examine their implications, depict a world not unlike these deathworlds. Even in the perfect fantasy environment, with a temperate climate and pleasant terrain, monsters abound. Not just wolves and goblins, but rather dragons, powerful undead, owlbears, and worse. A sea journey may even be interrupted by a dragon turtle or a kraken - monsters sometimes above the ability of even "Name Level" (level 9) characters to fight without specialized tactics, or even with them.

The encounter tables are laden with powerful monsters. In OSE, for example, on pp.218-222 of the Roles Tome, the encounter tables depict a frightening world. There is a 1-in-8 (!) chance, for example, to encounter a dragon in most biomes, always a tough encounter for characters of any level. While some dragons may be reasoned with, many of these regal beasts would demand tribute, or simply try to eat whomever they encounter. Lycanthropes are common, as are undead, including powerful mummies and vampires. In ACKS, tables are similar to those in OSE, with a 1-in-8 risk of a dragon and a major piracy risk (yarr!) in the high seas. In the Basic Fantasy RPG, 4th Edition, pp.180-181, dragons are a somewhat less common (only encountered on the results of 2 and 16 on 2d8), but still an extant threat in almost all biomes. Giants and rocs in the mountains and giant octopi in the sea are more common.

Note that neither ruleset has a "safe countryside" column. Even ACKS's "Inhabited" column has a dragon in it! It's either cities, with their own criminal and undead problems, or the deadly Wilderness!

Anything PCs can encounter, villagers and even sedentary villages will encounter often. Even if you reduce the encounter rate in "Civilized" areas to once a month, on the long run, dragons, giants, and other monsters will come to your village to raze it or demand tribute. Goblinoid tribes will raid villages on a frequent basis. It's a dangerous world out there! Not your idyllic fantasy countryside. Not the Lord of the Rings Shire, where danger is a rare occasion worthy of an epic saga. It's closer to Catachan of Warhammer 40K fame!

And add to that monsters outside the encounter tables, but present in your typical OSR ruleset's Monsters chapter, such as Cloud Giants in their flying castles.

The implications are numerous:

  • The default setting, given the encounter tables and monster chapters, would be Points of Light. That is, most of the world is deadly, and Humanity huddles around the few safer spots - typically city-states as noted below. Outside these safer points - the world is out to get you.
  • It is likely that the setting is post-apocalyptic, with a strong Gamma World vibe to it. Maybe the past was safer, with a mighty empire keeping the monsters at bay. Maybe even most monsters did not exist before the apocalyptic event.
  • A dispersed population would be at much greater risk than a concentrated settlement pattern. Defending disparate villages is much harden than defending a walled city-state and its adjacent farmland. Thus, settlement pattern will be closer to that depicted in sword & sorcery literature, namely city-states rather than vast expanses of countryside.
  • There is a reason Name Level - when characters can become "proper" lords - is at Level 9. Below that, the local lord would be hard pressed to defend his protection ra---- sorry, feudal domain - from roving monsters and humanoid hordes. But even then, remote villages ruled by high-level characters would still be at greater risk than the city-states, with their high concentration of name-level characters, strong walls, and the ability to raise large armies.
  • Personal power would equal political power - the ability to defend one's turf against monsters and usurpers.
  • Outside Civilized territory, monsters will form their own domains. A dragon may be worshiped as a protective deity, sometimes enjoying human sacrifices from its subjects. A powerful undead monster may be able to carve a domain of death or even construct a necropolis around it. Humanoid tribes are also affected by this - they will often be at the bottom of the monstrous food chain, giving tribute to more powerful monsters, and sometimes serving them as cannon fodder.
So, expect a Points of Light setting with a concentrated settlement pattern, mighty city-states, and a vast, deadly wilderness challenging adventurers seeking danger, glory, and wealth.

Friday, September 15, 2023

On the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution


A new wave washes over the shores of role-playing games - the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution (FKR). While the concept itself is not new by any means, this Revolution follows the heels of the traditional OSR, brushing aside the stricter rule systems and granting greater freedom to players and Referees alike.

The name "Free Kriegsspiel" itself comes from 19th century Prussian wargames initially used for training military officers in battlefield tactics (the word "Kiegsspiel" simply means "Wargame" in German). Originally, there was Strict Kriegsspiel, a rules-heavy, high-complexity refereed Napoleonic tabletop wargame using a map, counters, and dice, first developed in 1824.

The rules, however, were of such complexity that many officers had to invest much time learning the rules, at the expense of playing the game itself and learning tactics. Thus, half a century later, in 1873, a new movement began - the Free Kriegsspiel Movement. This movement dispensed of most rules, in some cases of all rules, and replaced them with referee discretion. The game became a conversation between the players and the referee (often an experienced military expert), where the referee would adjudicate military actions based on his expertise rather than using complex table and dice (at least for the most part). This movement became highly popular among Prussian officers, as this permitted faster play, as well as allowed for expert referees to utilize their knowledge and experience in a more realistic manner rather than rely on tables.

A century and a half later, the term Free Kriegsspiel was adopted by role-players. While this was a translation of the principles from wargaming to role-playing games, the core idea remained - "ruling, not rules", and a Simulationist approach based on conversation between the Referee (or Game Master) and the players and the Referee's judgement of the situation, with dice kept in the secondary role of resolving dangerous situations where luck is of great importance.

This does follow the "rulings, not rules" approach presented by the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch. However, the new Revolution crystalizes the greater freedom and secondary nature of rules, presenting a strong case against the "new school" approach. "New school" being the spirit of post-2000 d20 and similar games, where it is customary to use dice to resolve many, if not most, in-game situations.

For example, in a (new school) D&D 5E game I am a player in, the Dungeon Master calls for ability or skill checks very often, sometimes even 5-10 times per scene or dungeon room. I find this fatiguing and distracting from the game world, especially when basic clues are "gated" behind linear 1d20 die rolls. This also makes characters feel incompetent, as even a high-level character may fail in relatively trivial tasks he or she should be an expert in.

In comparison, in an FKR game, the table resolves most exploration by conversation between the Referee and the players, with the players asking questions about their environment and the Referee answering them. The dice come out only where there is imminent danger and when luck plays a role even for competent experts such as higher-level player characters. There may be structured minigames with more die rolling (such as combat and character generation in Classic Traveller, for example), but the core game loop is conversational.

This seems to be the way Marc Miller, Traveller's creator, Referees his own game. Yes, even with the high-complexity Traveller 5th Edition rules, from what I understand. Outside of minigames, his games are often very conversational in nature, and with limited die rolls. This also explains why Classic Traveller has no clear "task system" outside of the minigames, as the game assumes such situations would be resolved by discussion between the Referee and the players, or, at most, that the Referee will improvise a die roll when needed, based on the situation and not on a rigid resolution mechanic.

Note, however, that FKR games are Simulationist and not Narrativist. The key here is exploring a living world and interacting with it, with the "story" being emergent, rather than explicitly weaving a story together or following the GM's pre-planned story. However, this simulation relies more on Referee judgement than on complex rules, except for specific situations where, again, there is danger and luck plays a part.

I am now in love with this concept of FKR, and it may inspire my future game design!

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Starfield Video Game Review

I began playing the new video game, Starfield, immediately when it came out, and I have clocked 18.9 hours in it. It is thus a good time to review it for the benefit of my readers, based on my experience with the game. Note that I am greatly enjoying Starfield, and that I was drawn deeply into it in a manner which did not happen to me with video games since Cyberpunk 2077.

My System Specs:

  • AMD Ryzen 5700X CPU.
  • 32 GB RAM DDR 4.
  • AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT 12 GB VRAM.
  • MVMe SSD.

Rating: 7/10


This is an enjoyable game, but flawed. It is also a very typical Bethesda game. If you enjoyed Fallout 4 and Skyrim, by all means give Starfield a try. If not, you may consider waiting for a discount on it in a few months, as well as for quality-of-life and graphics mods.

I made an effort to keep this review spoiler-free.

The Good

  • Starfield's space and ground combat, while not perfect, are highly enjoyable to me, with a vast array of weapons having different "feel" to each.
  • The engine runs smoothly on my good machine at 54 FPS on average, on maximum settings, with relatively few bugs in my case so far.
  • Side missions are quite often very fun and interesting, with different worlds having different flavors. As expected from Bethesda.
  • The musical score is amazing!
  • I like the crafting and outpost system, which is an upgrade from the Fallout 4 system, which I liked very much.
  • I like exploration! While the content is procedurally generated, which is a disadvantage, I enjoy visiting the various planets and feeling like a space explorer.
  • Mercifully, the game lets you "fast travel" quite easily, with certain limitations, conveniently even between star systems, though I usually avoid doing this as flavor. But, see below for the associated flaw.
The Bad

  • The engine used by Starfield is Bethesda's own Creation Engine, in what is marked as its second version. However, the original engine from 2011 still shows up very clearly under the layers of new paint, with all the associated aspects. It feels like a 2011 game in some respects. The engine aged poorly, with multiple content "cells" gated by loading screen between them as in Skyrim/Fallout 4 and with graphics that look dated even on maximum settings.
  • Enemies are not very varied; you have alien monsters on life-bearing worlds, which are often similar to each other across worlds, and about 4 hostile or semi-hostile factions repeatedly thrown at you.
  • Space travel is by fast travel and cinematics/loading screens. On one hand, I like the convenience of this, as noted above, but on the other hand, this reduces from the space travel flavor.

The Ugly

  • Starfield's main quest is downright boring. It has no urgency to it, no existential threat, no portal to Oblivion, dragon attacks, or abducted children. The story itself involves exploration and some artifacts, but, so far (almost 20 hours into the game!), nothing interesting.
  • "Dungeons" are recycled! I entered a mine on one world on random, then went to a main story mission on another world, and lo and behold, it is the same mine exactly! Not even slightly changed as in, say, Dragon Age 2. Which was a huge disappointment from a game with such a massive development budget!
The Bottom Line

Starfield feels like Fallout 4 in space. It is an enjoyable game, marred by a dreary main quest, content recycling, and an aging engine. If you liked Fallout 4, as I do (I have 323 hours on F4!), you are likely to enjoy Starfield very much. If you dislike Fallout 4, you should consider waiting with its purchase for a good discount and for quality of life and graphics mods to come out.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Sword & Planet & Sorcery Careers for Classic Traveller

Following my musings about a sword & sorcery setting for Classic Traveller, I have created six careers, as well as supporting rules, for playing humans in a Classic Traveller sword & planet & sorcery setting. Note that this assumes a relatively "conservative" approach to sorcery, that is, "magic" being Classic Traveller psionics and badly-understood alien "Xenotech" rather than a new, full-blown magic system.

Get the careers HERE.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

ProtoTraveller Sword & Planet!

Something I want to run in "strict" Books 1-3 + Supplement 4 Classic Traveller. Maybe later in Barbaric! or The Sword of Cepheus.

The elevator pitch is: Grays abducted humans (and other aliens?) to a colony in a tropical part of a planet inhabited by xenoreptiles. The Grays are now gone, leaving behind their former captives and tech. Now, heroes (and villains!) must adapt and survive on a hostile world using barely-understood Xenotech (TL15-16 alien tech) and psionics. 

Think a less "kitchen sink" Gamma World meets X-Com meets various Lost World stories, all using ProtoTraveller rules. 

Another feature of this setting would be Godlings - powerful unique alien creatures with "eldritch"/miraculous-level psionic abilities. Such as healing/regenerating people, having vast arrays of esoteric knowledge, turning people into monsters, influencing the weather, influencing land fertility, etc.

They all are ageless but have physical localized bodies, and may be killed by mighty heroes, or negotiated with to use their powers on a mortal's behalf - usually for a price.

And have special combat abilities, such as unlimited Powerful Blows and multiple attacks per round. 

There is no "D&D Magic", or even Barbaric!/SoC-style sorcery in this setting, but rather a combination of tech, psionics, and "Godlings". A Sorcerer in this setting acts by combining salvaged Xenotech, psionics, and (roleplaying-based, rather than mechanics-based) deals with Godlings.

Rules would be ProtoTraveller with a few additions such as more TL16 tech, careers for "barbaric" people born on that forsaken world, rules for Godlings and rules for "barbarians" trying to use tech well above their own tech level. But, in general - ProtoTraveller by the book.

(Godlings being an idea I am exploring for other settings and rulesets as well).

I still have no name for such setting, but am toying with the idea quite widely.

Modern Careers for Classic Traveller


Classic Traveller is a highly versatile role-playing game, capable of simulating a wide range of exciting and gritty scenarios. While the rules were, of course, written with science fiction in mind, they can serve for other genres as well. One such genre is modern gaming, which herein I define as taking place between 1923 to 2023 – and most likely a bit beyond that. Prohibition-era gangsters, World War II, the Cold War, and various tales of adventure, warfare, and espionage in the 20th and 21st centuries. This also include science fiction scenarios involving modern-day humans, such as X-Com - special operatives vs. an alien invasion, The Thing, and other thrilling tales.

So, I have created 12 careers, using mostly Classic Traveller Book 1 and Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, to generate modern-day characters for the aforementioned scenarios. They use the Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat and Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium rules as written.


Saturday, January 7, 2023

Sector 23: Week 1!

I have been working, one world a day, on Sector 23. Here are the first seven worlds in the project!

Subsector A

0103 Melqart B741544-9 Ni Po Scout and Naval Bases

An otherwise marginal colony, Melqart housed an Imperial Naval Station before the Collapse, with a Scout attachment. When the Star Empire fell, Melqart’s population retained both the advanced starport and a few naval assets, which they still maintain, albeit at a partial level. Their fleet, however, is aging, and they can only manufacture replacement small craft locally. Melqart lacks the industrial might to become even a regional power, but its strong martial roots and remaining advanced facilities permit it to repel foreign intervention and keep pirates away from their system. However, this still leaves Melqart as a prime target for technological larceny.

Themes: vast decaying starport and naval yard; jury-rigged, patchwork technology; strong martial culture.

0104 Anu E563270-7 Lo Ni Gas Giant RED ZONE

A dry but otherwise hospitable world, Anu was devastated by a pandemic - potentially a bioweapon - during the Collapse. The few survivors live in three isolated, tiny tribes in the ruins if past civilization. Developing an effective vaccine for that pandemic would permit re-colonization, and several neighboring worlds are developing such technologies to open up Anu for their own colonization.

Themes: vast ruined cities; biohazard; zombies???

0106 Suen C510585-9 Ni Gas Giant

Suen is a small, remote, but active, mining colony. While it lost part of its population to migration during the Collapse, it did retain its technological base and starport, and was thankfully not a frequent target for raiders. Suen has a well-known Antediluvian site, which was already excavated and explored centuries ago during Imperial times, but rumors persist of further, untapped sites deep within the local cavern systems.

Themes: heavy mining; heavy equipment; hidden alien ruins?

0110 Tammuz B674774-9 Ag Scout

Tammuz is a “breadbasket” world, a prime agricultural technology with a population of 80 millions. While its technology partially regressed following the Imperial Collapse, it still aggressively exports food and other agricultural products. Its main weakness, however, is its balkanized nature, with three agricorp-dominated “trading blocs” vying for control over their market shares. So far, violence was kept at the tolerable level of petty border skirmishes, but tensions are slowly increasing in the past few years, opening the possibility of all-out war.

Themes: agriculture; cold war; espionage and sabotage. Potential open warfare.

0201 Asherah B567888-9 Ri

The jewel of the subsector, Asherah is a pleasant, well-managed rich world boasting the highest living standard in the Subsector - or so its government claims. Originally ruled by a self-proclaimed Emepror who cited continuity-of-government rules to declare himself the true ruler of the (dead) Star-Empire, such regime was short-lived. Following a successful coup, and a short-lived Revolutionary Council, Asherah developed a stable civil-service bureaucratic government. However, while the so-called Emperor is long dead, rumors have it that his family still plots to regain control of Asherah and build a new Empire funded by this world’s wealth.

Themes: comfort; sleepy but friendly bureaucracy; plots and intrigue under the surface.

0203 Milkom C620266-7 De Gas Giant Scout

Milkom is a minor transit station on the Main going to the Trailing from Melquart. The government of Melqart operates this station, maintaining a starport crew of approx. 500 people on-site. The station can produce lower-grade (unrefined) liquid hydrogen fuel (and water) by chemical means from Milkom’s soil, but lacks the equipment to refine it. Melqart also permits the Scout Guild to operate a small base on Milkom for the benefit of interstellar communications. One must note, however, that Milkom was overlooked and held a small transit station even at the height of the Star Empire, so much of its extensive cave systems are barely mapped. Who knows what may await deep in these caves…

Themes: loneliness; close-knit community of professionals; caves; hidden alien ruins?

0206 Ashtoreth C566521-7 Ag Scout Gas Giant

When the Empire fell, Ashtoreth, an under-populated frontier world, was settled by the staff of its Scout Base, most of whom became farmers. Only a few still operate the old base, as well as the small starport. The local culture is informal, as is the government. The main threat to the locals’ way of life, however, is the sorry state the remnant fusion power plant is in; it was a TL15 model, so spare parts are rare. The locals are looking for such parts, and slowly building a fission plant as a failsafe.

Themes: rural anarchy; informality; decaying technology.