Monday, August 19, 2019

Pipedream Review

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to review Pipedream, an investigative roleplaying game written by Kai Poh for the Dream Jam on The game is a hack of Cthulhu Dark and inspired by my own investigative ttrpg, Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave. Right now, Pipedream is still in beta but I find that's often the most helpful time to get critical feedback. Let's get into the reviewing.

Pipedream is about a party of Wisefellows, Halfling community problem solvers who smoke copious amounts of the mind altering Elder Weed. Sometimes the Wisefellows just get up to mischief and other times they actually have to stop dark forces from causing trouble or settle disputes within their community. No matter what, they always get high. The world the Wisefellows inhabit is a cross between Tolkien's Middle Earth and the ancient Near East. Irisfields, the setting's take on Hobbiton, is essentially the marshier parts of Mesopotamia. Half of Pipedream is rules for playing as the Wisefellows while the other half is setting information and other tools for generating mysteries to solve and challenges to face.

Mechanically, Pipedream is mostly Cthulhu Dark with extra systems, such as rules for magic, attached. Like in Cthulhu Dark, players try to accumulate advantages and risk their minds to add more d6s to their rolls. Dark's sanity stat is replaced by dream, a measure of how much a Wisefellow's mind has been expanded by their smoking and exposure to the wider world. Dream is cleverly woven nicely into the game's other systems. As your dream increases you get closer to losing your character but you gain benefits from the blend of Elder Weed you smoke and can scupper the investigation to try and reduce your dream as well.

The game is also adamant that Wisefellows cannot fight the larger people and creatures who they encounter without being killed. I think this is a fine choice that puts the emphasis of the game in the right place: on hiding, running, outsmarting. Still, I think this strong mechanical choice can be leveraged better. Knowing that the outcome of an action is death is a lot more powerful if you have a reason to do it anyway. I can imagine that if fighting, though deadly, could provide a brief distraction or something similar you could generate a lot of dramatic moments. Selfless sacrifices, in the vein of 'You shall not pass', do go together with Pipedream's Tolkienian inspiration.

I like Pipedream's character creation too. Players choose character flaws, background information, items, and special abilities all at once. Building an inventory and a character are tied together, as personality details are as likely as equipment to be helpful in getting more dice for action rolls. It's an elegant little system that gives players a lot of freedom and room to express their characters.

My last note on the mechanics is that I find the rules for blending elder weed to be a little too fiddly for such a usually rules light game. I'd be inclined leave rulings about blending the weeds up to a referee instead of writing it into the game, though planting the idea that the weeds can be mixed in the players' heads is a good move.

Irisfields is fascinating in the ways it tries to emulate and undermine Tolkien's own secondary world. Irisfields is more morally gray, light and dark alignments are not guarantees of good or bad behavior. The community the small folk live in is far from an innocent and idyllic Hobbition. Instead, Irisfields is full of greedy landlords, untrustworthy sheriffs, and unreliable Wisefellows. All this, of course, makes the setting a much more interesting place to solve a mystery in. This social dysfunction is probably what is borrowed most from Beyond the Fence. Though both games feature communities beset by dangerous outside forces, those communities were already full of their own problems in the first place.

Though I like a lot of the referee facing tools, I feel like some things are missing. The bestiary is great, all the entries feel mundane and fantastic at once, like they're all part of an ecology but still tinged with magic. The adventure seeds for each region of Irisfields are simple and effective little mysteries or dilemmas, I'd just like to see more of them. There's lots of information on the kinds of big folk in the world but there's no suggestions for why any of them would be in Irisfields, beyond the few big folk mentioned in the adventure seeds.

 What seems to be really missing is a table to cover the non-investigative half of Pipedream: causing mischief. Here's a good suggestion from earlier in the document: "Let’s say you actually want to solve a case instead of, say, trying to squeeze as many goats as possible into the Mayor’s bedchambers before he awakens." I would love to see a table of similar gambits, pranks, wagers for Wisefellows to busy themselves with.

Lastly, my art gripe. The public domain art in Pipedream is nice but a lot of the images look like they're drawn on paper.

This lovely drawing of a pipe shows up several times in the document and it is always surrounded by this papery shadow which is just sightly different from the background. Here is a tutorial for fixing this issue using photoshop, and here's one for inkarnate.

Overall, Pipedream is a game with a simple, smart set of mechanics, great character creation, and a fascinating setting to explore. I'd say it's main strength is how the carefree whimsy of the Wisefellows and their adventurers can turn so quickly grim in the face of malevolent outsiders and internal conflict. The game is narrow in the sense that it is about a few very specific people in a very specific place, but the range of tones it wants to convey is excitingly broad. It could still use a bit more development, but I'm sure that development will come. You can buy Pipedream on

This post is dedicated to the Niflungs

Monday, August 12, 2019

Dreams and Fevers Turns One!

Piece of Cake by Joy Argento

Last year on August 12, I uploaded my first post to this blog. 'Hello All!'

The passing of the year has got me feeling reflective. I'd like to take some time to consider what I've been aiming to do with this blog. I'd also like to celebrate a little and express some gratitude because this is an anniversary, but it's a delicate balance to strike between thanks and false humility, careful pride and self congratulation. Let's see how I do.

"Blogs shouldn’t be conversations. They should be writing."

As G+ was going down, I shared this blog post by Chris Warley there. It's a post about the consequences of speed, how email and texting and twitter shape the kind of discourse which occur through them. It's about how complex topics demand that we slow down to understand them. It's about the value of reading, of paying attention, of taking one's time. It's about how going too quickly, having too much data to sort through, destroys our ability to understand what we're looking at. It's also about Italian food, but I digress.

I happen to agree with Chris, but he's an English professor. He's trying to understand Adorno and Donne. I'm trying to get prepped for my game this weekend. But I think often about Chris' post and about what I'm trying to do here. Though rpgs may be less complicated than literature and critical theory, that is not to say they are simple. Thinking about them, about system and aesthetics and rulings, in a way which is useful to playing the game also requires a speed which is not as slow as academia or as fast as an exchange over twitter.

Up to this day, I think Straits of Anián is the best D&D blog out there. It hasn't updated since 2014 but I keep coming back to it. Each post, especially We are Eaten Forever, feels complete, rich, and dense. It starts with one idea, devouring spirits, and expands to rules for soul loss, rules for possessions, a warrior society, a whole bestiary of cannibal monsters. I feel like Straits' posts are worth the close attention of reading and rereading, they are slow blog posts.

I probably won't ever run something pulled straight from Straits (except those possession rules, they're great), but I won't forget it either. I find that I don't read blogs to rip things directly from them into my games but to be constantly inspired by them. I probably won't have one of Zedeck Siew's Priests of Want at my table, but I want my Devouring Priests to capture the same sort of terror.

When I write here, on Dreams and Fevers, it is Chris' slow ethos that I follow and Straits' standard of richness that I try to achieve. I want to write things which are worth rereading as much as they are worth using at the table. When I place that dedication at the end of each post I want it to be well earned. I don't think I've always lived up to that standard. I've hit 'publish' on drafts that were a bit too rough, refused to cut for concision too often, but I've gotten better too.

 At the same time, I've been stretching myself into areas where the same standards aren't as applicable. I've written a review and a one page setting, essays and a manifesto. So Dreams and Fevers has changed a little, but I try to keep the same goals as mind even as what I write changes. Richness, completeness, rereadability, slowness. I doubt that these goals will always be fit to the task at hand, but having them close to heart has never hurt.

As I go forward, I want to write more dense, Straits-esque posts while still trying new things. Again, another tricky balance to strike. Maybe I'll try going a tad faster this year, maybe even slower, the future is never easy to describe. All I know is that I'm looking forward to what comes next, be it continuity or change or something else.

Hornsgaten by Night by Eugene Jansson

So that's it, that's me. A lot has changed this year. I'm happy to have made it this far. Thank you all for coming along with me. Special thanks to those of you who have never commented or made yourselves known but just read, I know you're around somewhere and I'm grateful for your silent attention. Thank you to everyone who has put me on their blog list or linked to one of my posts, I appreciate that vote of confidence.

Finally, thank you to everyone who's been inspired by what I do here enough to start their own blog or undertake their own project. Thank you Kai Poh for writing Pipe Dream (which I'll get around to reviewing eventually). Thank you Gundobad for all the excellent posts about history and rpgs. Thank you Paperweight for Akavan. Thank you Lexi for starting A Blasted, Cratered Land, which constantly impresses me. And, finally, finally, thanks to Joe Fatula and Boris Stremlin, who have made a great impression on me.

This is a lot of thanks for just one year on just one small D&D blog, but this is how I feel. I look forward to the next year of Dreams and Fevers, I hope that you do too.

This post is dedicated to Thomas Ligotti