Monday, December 30, 2019

Garm Bays Loudly

I'm happy to announce the release of a new scenario for my old Norse magic trpg: Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave. Garm Bays Loudly focuses on a Norse community on the edge of the arctic as they struggle with winter, Viking age economics, and (as usual) the supernatural.

For the first month, Garm Bays Loudly will be pay what you can. Also, Fall at Old Uppsala will be pay what you can for the next week.

I'm excited to hear what you think of the new scenario!

This post is dedicated to Johan Turi 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Avalon Campaign Post Mortem

Image result for ballad of tamlin

At the request of Fiona Geist, I've taken some time to go over the campaign I've been running recently. This is a good excuse, I think, to talk about what I tried, what worked, and what didn't.
I've alluded to this game before in my last post and my knight table was based on a simpler version I use at the table for random encounters. So this was the pitch: original GLoG rules, British fairy tale/history pastiche setting. So it was founded: The mighty kingdom of Avalon (yes, I know), caught somewhere between Arthurian feudalism and the grasping rise of early modernity. The land is being enclosed, the work houses are going up, but the knight in arms still practices his chivalry.

I started by running Patrick Stuart's Sun Princess mystery and then stapled together other adventurers as we moved forward. My plan was to do as little prep as possible. I gave myself 1 hour a week to get the session ready and I mostly kept to my pledge. My memory is spotty but I promise that I will play the hits, and there are many.

So the heroes sally forth, the pickpocket (thief) Penny, the nanny (barbarian) Svetlana, and the chimney sweep (acrobat) Ishmael to save the Sun Princess' skin. They follow the clues, investigate the suspects (Lord Bluebeard and the Witch of the Black Woods absent at once? What!?), and from the churls on the street learn how to summon the Master Thief. He swindles them but shows them the way to the Goblin Market. The party, keenly, suspect the Princess' monkey is to blame.

At the market, the party solve the goblin riddles and acquire some trinkets at the expense of having to kiss goblins. They make their way to the Auction of Things that Cannot be Sold. They become acquainted with the guests and find their way to a secret chamber, the home of the Millipede King. The King's grubs are being held hostage in the pastoral pocket dimension of the mysterious event organizer, which the party punctures by disguise. Unfortunately, Ishmael is killed by the invisible guard dog. With the grubs safe, the millipedes are free to take the auction house back from the beetles who have captured it. Ishmael is luckily replaced by a chimney sweep named Queeqag (yes, I know). A scuffle ensues for the Princesses' skin as it goes up for auction and the millipede soldiers storm in. The Grand Vizier is killed by the Dry Necromancer, who is killed by the Executioner. Svetlana is captured in Queen Mab's amber bead as she rages, Queeqag is turned into a pig by the Witch of the Blackwoods as the party flees with the skin.

The campaign begins in earnest, and what a start! There are lots of threads to pull on. A angry Bluebeard, a loose Executioner, a party member imprisoned!

We abandon the original GLoG classes. So the next party members are Nicolai the Spider Boy (son of Svetlana) and some kind of odd cleric. With the Sun Princess' gratitude, they head to the Night School of Lord Stodore (from the Demon Collective) to save an estranged friend. After sneaking in and breaking out of the Night School several times, getting captured and escaping, the party finds the enclave of children hiding in the library and is able to organize a revolt against the teachers. Something like 1/3 of the children die, including the cleric, but the result is freedom. The hulking, monstrous Registrar is left alone in the abandoned school with one book, chosen by the party: The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (oh no). We also rule that saving 1 child's life is worth 100 xp. The child whom they were after has a wealthy uncle who awards the party with a fine dueling cane.

The latest party member is a former student from the night school and literally a giant spider. The party goes off in search of a new hermit for King Gloom's garden. The old one lost his mind and fled. Through some investigating, the party discovers that the hermit had discovered the workings of the Gardens of Ynn (which needs no introduction) and that someone who matches the description of the Executioner was spotted on the castle grounds. They recover a tooth that can bite anything from the Garden and make their way to Tintern Abbey's ruins, where they stand a good chance of finding a new beggar to promote to official garden hermit. They experience a quadruple success: the former hermit, the Executioner, a new hermit, and the romantic poet William Wordsworth are all at the abbey. William tries to explain the power of nature to renovate the human mind and the devastating effect of the enclosure movement. The party decides they could use an adviser. All of them, minus the old, mutated hermit make their way back to the castle.

Image result for al annuri

Immediately, the Executioner is thrown into the dungeon at the request Al Annuri, ally to King Gloom in his war against the Spanish, for being an Abbasid spy. The party then heads north to assist the Laird o' Roxburgh in his hunt of Puck, servant of Queen Mab. Through this business they intend to discover the fate of Svetlana. They are thrown from their course when they encounter the Knight Tamlin on the road. He shares his tale of woe with them. Tamlin was kidnapped by Mab years ago and he can only be free if his true love, Janet, who carries his child, grabs him from his saddle on the night that he is to be sacrificed to the Devil as Mab's tithe to the kingdom of hell. The Laird o' Murray is Janet's father and just after the party shows up so to does Lord Bluebeard to seek Janet's hand in marriage.

As they plan for the eventful night, the party gets distracted by a haunting. The ghost of the Witch Agatha, sister of the Witch of the Black Woods, has been hunting children in Murray. Simply put, they decide to fight the ghost. They manage to drive off the spirit temporarily, but the spider-child (not the Spider Boy!) is killed and Penny develops several new organs. Luckily, a local book witch is able to join the party's quest. The next day, the party go to raid the witch's old cottage. They sneak around the cottage, steal valuables, and encounter Agatha's roommate: a young fiddler who is really the Devil. After gathering a posse in town, the party returns to the cottage to burn it to the ground. Some trapped children may have been killed but the party is able find the rest of the witch's money and smash the enchanted lantern which kept her spirit in this world. Casually, the Devil challenges the party to a fiddling/story telling contest. By revealing the Devil's true identity in the middle of the performance, the party turns the audience against the performer and win the contest.

Now, the party can return to the task at hand. They dress Janet in all the armor they can find: oven mits, heavy robes, pillows lashed to her. Tamlin has given them permission to enter the autumnal realm of Queen Mab: Carterhaugh. All but Penny enter, for she is known by name to Mab. They view the procession of Eldritch Knights and all the Lord and Ladies of Carterhuagh. There is Tamlin on the white steed! Janet, awkwardly armored, pulls him down. Mab, with a squeal of  displeasure, bays her court not lay a finger on her enemies. She instead calls upon her champion: none other than Svetlana (gasps from the table!). As Mab works her magic, turning Tamlin into dreadful animal shapes to make Janet drop him, Nicolai tries to reason with his mother and stop her from killing him. The party buys time, Janet keeps her hold of her love, Svetlana's old self flickers in her eyes. But once the curse on Tamlin is broken, Mab needs another tithe to hell! So she grabs Svetlana as she rides on her charger towards a gaping, blazing barrow mound. The party snatches Svetlana back and feeds her a rose which once belonged to Tamlin, which frees her of her own spell. But the tithe is still not paid! Someone says: "I give her William Wordsworth!" Indeed, she accepts. Betrayed, William cries out: "Oh will I never gaze upon the sylvan wye, never lay my eyes upon the face of Coleridge, my dear dear friend?" It is of no use! Mab throws him down, down, down into the pit.

Fin. Janet and Tamlin have fled but the rest of the party, now including Svetlana (kitted out with Elf  magic), are still in Carterhaugh. Now, there are different rules in this place. They are simple. To enter you need permission and to leave you need permission. Only the courtiers of Mab, who the party saw in the procession, can grant leave. Mab herself, King Oberon, the King of Birds, the Lord of Gnomes, the Laird o' Goblinkind, Morgan la Fey, and the Alder King all have this right. But Morgan is a witch and a witch is in the party, so they seek her. They discover that in Carterhaugh they do not have hit points, rather their sense of self decreases when they are hurt or when they go a day without eating food from their own world. After days of marching and tangling with fey nonsense they find Morgan's cottage. She is old and regretful that she has left witchery in such a poor state. She will free the party if they check in on her apprentices to make sure they have not turned to wickedness. Cat Leon, the book witch, pretends to be organizing a witch union to gain the trust of the other witches. They meet both the Alder King, who wants the party to dance with his daughters, and the Lord of Gnomes, who's geode heart was stolen by Mab.

I'll level with you. Most of what was in Carterhuagh was based directly on Over the Garden Wall. Morgan's two apprentices are Adelaide of the Pasture and Auntie Whispers. The party determined that, because she stabbed Cat Leon in the brain with a knitting needle, Adelaide was probably wicked. Whispers was a tougher nut for the party to crack. While staking out her cottage, they realized that their senses of self  were awfully low. They had only one source of food. It was pork. Yes, Queeqag. With heavy hearts they butchered the former human being. They snuck into the cottage and determined that Whispers was not yet wicked. Though there was a veritable mausoleum under her estate and she seemed to be keeping a child slave, it was all with good intentions. Happily, the party returned to Morgan and gained her blessing. They saw Mab one final time as they crossed the border again. They found time had passed them by, Penny was no where to be found! Months? Years? Days? I hope they'll find out soon.

Ah, and there the story closes. If I've learned two things from this it's that meaningless character deaths suck, that adding historical figures to games is good, and thirdly 1 hour is enough time to prep a good session. Let's go over those. When characters died in my campaign, it was often due to 'bad play' (for instance, just going to fight a ghost without any preparation). But these deaths didn't have any weight, they just felt empty. Secondly, using parts of real history or literature helped my players understand more quickly what was going on in the world. Queen Mab is instantly recognizable like 'vampire' is. Players automatically have an idea of what to expect. Finally, I've got much better at prep just from relying more on pre-published material and forcing myself into a time limit.

Image result for william wordsworth

Who else could this post be dedicated to but William Wordsworth?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Revisiting the Original GLoG

Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth by Erol Otus

For the last few months, I’ve been running GLoG. Not rat on a stick edition or Mimics and Miscreants, but the original Goblin Laws of Gaming published in the halcyon days of 2016. Since then a tremendous number of GLoG hacks have been written and each has decided to carry forward or abandon elements from Arnold K’s original ruleset. For me it’s been valuable to experience the original rules first hand and see how my players, all new to the OSR, reacted to them. I hope to share what I’ve noticed and bring some less copied parts of the rules into the light of the GLoG-osphere again.

The Numbers

GLoG’s stat generation and its use of stealth and movement stats are used to make the game riskier in specific ways. Rolling 4d4, instead of 3d6, to generate stats lowers the maximum stat one can roll to 16, raises the minimum to 4, and makes it more likely for any stat to be roughly 10. This is a break from tradition but it works well with the roll under rules. Characters with an 18 strength have a slim chance of ever failing a strength roll made on a d20. But characters with 16 strength are still strong but doubly likely to miss their target number. The new equation for deriving stat bonuses has a similar effect, but the calculation is so fiddly that I’d much rather have a table with the values of each stat.

Stealth and movement are also not usually carried into GLoG hacks. They seem a bit redundant, many GMs would much rather have players roll dex. But GLoG wants most characters to be equally good at running away and for the odds of escape to be likely, so the base movement is 12. The same is true of stealth, but the system would prefer players to run instead of hiding, so the base stealth is 9.
Rolling the dice in GLoG is always risky to encourage players to avoid doing so. But the system’s numbers want to make certain actions riskier than others. Making ability rolls should always carry significant risk of failure, but fleeing should naturally be a little more likely to result in success.


I feel like convictions are a good idea but not a great tool. The way Arnold intends them to be used in the original rules makes sense. He wants to encourage more risk taking and role playing, but the application of the rule feels very narrow. Players, in my experience, won’t go very far out of their way to take risks and the conviction system doesn’t do much to help that. The design feels very carrot and stick, it tries to manipulate player psychology without adding much to play. I think I’d like convictions more if there was a table of them so at least players always started with a sense of what motivated their character from the get-go.

In play, I’ve found that convictions are more interesting if they’re used more like inspiration from 5e. If the parameters of what counts as acting to your conviction is broader then players are more interested in looking for opportunities to earn their conviction point. Personally, I like the idea of inspiration being tied more strongly to a particular character motivation instead of being nebulously awarded for good role playing. I, however, see how this approach doesn’t work for every GM’s style.

Illithid, Erol Otus, 1980


The skill system is another clever idea but a poor tool to use at the table. The 2d12 skill rolls and skill progression are interesting but they don’t get a lot of attention in play. The amount of complexity they introduce feels unwarranted.  I’m also not sure about what sort of things skills should cover. The vagueness is freeing, yes, but the guidelines in the rules only tell me what skills should not be, not what they should be. A lot of refereeing for GLoG comes down to enforcing the philosophy behind the rules but there’s almost nothing to go off of here. As a GM, the skill guidelines empower me to say ‘no’ but not ‘yes’ to player suggestions.


GLoG class design has changed drastically from the original Goblin Guts classes. In my experience, the original classes are a mixed bag. I love the barbarian, whose powers are all unique and uniquely useful, but the acrobat gets a hodgepodge of situational advantages which are nowhere near as interesting. Perhaps it was just my players, but nobody seemed particularly enthusiastic to play any of the original classes. The ingenuity of players is supposed to be more important than the power of their characters and so the classes take a back seat, seem less appealing. I’m perfectly ok with this, but I feel like the classes could use more energy, more interesting tools to use from 1st level. In my game, we started choosing classes randomly from the complete table of GLoG classes, which improved the game noticeably.

The stacking template bonuses are also an interesting feature which has become less popular. Original GLoG characters are supposed to get numerically better in many ways as they level up, their save rises, their attack rises, and another number on their character sheet usually increases as well. There’s a general consensus, I feel, that a broader toolbox is a better reward for leveling up than numerical increases but I feel there’s a good balance to be struck in the middle.

From all this, I think I understand much better why certain parts of the original GLoG rules have not been widely adopted by hacks. Maybe there’s a campaign out there where the original rules all make perfect sense - a game with plenty of temptations for convictions and high risk dungeon crawling – but it is not the game I run. Still, there are parts of the original rules which remain valuable or interesting and have not been translated into hacks.

This post is dedicated to Sam Vimes