Monday, September 26, 2022

Playtest Palooza


Got to run another playtest session of Encounter Critical III this morning [wrote this yesterday afternoon].

Here is the Encounter Critical III kickstarter.

Fantastic game and fantastically weird!  I tried to incorporate as many of my proposed ideas as possible.  This contains the various concepts and mechanics I wanted to test out.

There was some combat, but not much, and no one rolled a critical-success or failure.  So, Obsidian Escalation didn't really come up.  Which is fine, I tried it out last session, and will include that in subsequent sessions.

I don't know if the stars aligned or what, but I had SIX players.  Normally, it's two; occasionally three.  Text only, I feel, is easier with bigger groups than voice & camera, but still challenging.

Before I dive-in, let me give you an overall impression:  I feel like the playtest was a success because the ideas seemed to fuel an immersive, fun-filled game.  And one of the highlights was having Jeff Rients as a player!  Achievement unlocked, bitches.  ;)

All the information gathering prior to the session's start had a specific purpose - to give players a better idea of their characters, so they actually had backgrounds to roleplay off of.  Any RPG can encourage backgrounds, but what I'm trying to accomplish with the new rules is in-game incentives.

The scenario was to search the interior of a dimension traveling space-worm and find an unknown artifact.

Here's a window into my playtesting soul... good, bad, and ugly.  Instead of a carefully crafted scenario providing a curated experience, I like to playtest by the seat of my pants.  Given enough time and creative juice [Venger juice], I feel like the GM can turn a shitty system with dumb mechanics into something pretty cool.  I don't want to do that because engineering a fool-proof experience isn't going to help me figure out if I'm doing something right or headed in the wrong direction.

Instead, I prefer to attune myself to the world in the campaign setting, rules, vibe, and whatever else... becoming an integral part of the game..  Having a few ideas in the form of loose notes and winging the rest will show me what I need to see.  

Every designer eventually hands-off his ideas to another GM in hopes that he'll get it and be able to run a great game.  So, the improv also helps put me in the perspective of the GM who most likely has a vague notion of what I said in the rules, or was trying to get across.

Can this anonymous GM take what I give him and make gold?  That's the question.

The players did great with coming up with background stuff.  I didn't need to break out the random tables that I had ready to go just in case.

Since this was just a one-shot, I didn't meticulously write every flaw and obsession and drive down in my GMing notes.  Everything exists in the chat log on Roll20, though, which is another good reason for running games as text-only.

But I realized the PCs had plenty of material to riff, and riff they did.  I told them about the point of Divine Favor they'd receive for roleplaying their backgrounds.  If this was several adventures into a campaign, I can only imagine the heights of roleplaying and social interaction we'd reach.  As it was, there was enough to prove my theory - an "old-school" RPG focused on social interaction (as opposed to combat and exploration) is not only needed, but totally awesome.

And I asked them to take part in a flashback scene.  I neglected to mention that relationships should include another PC, my bad, so the first thing that came to my mind was a tavern where they hear the proposed mission.  That went well.  For instance, without even realizing it, one of the players, Judd, came up with an identity for the "quest giver"... a wizard.  

The free exchange of ideas before solidifying what's going on is exactly the sort of Fiasco-like scene creation I was hoping for.  The vibe was assuredly set because a little later, when I was describing the immediate, present-day environment, one of the players provided some bonus description all on his own.  "Reeks of  bile, but then again, what doesn't?"  Excellent!

So, the PCs are wandering around the inside of a space-worm traveling through dimensions... and PSYCHOCOSM was had by all.  Well, certainly me.  Staring into the psychedelic depths of the Kort'thalis meta-sigil didn't hurt.

They follow a trail of popsicle sticks (a subtle nod to Cremza'amirikza'am that one player picked-up on) to find something pretty weird, dark, and gross.  I'll save that for another time, or perhaps a future adventure that you'll be apart of.

The PCs fought some toadlike humanoids who desired tasty flesh.  Combat ensued, but the adventuring party was so large that 4 toad dudes didn't last too long.  It was pretty much over before the spellcaster could do anything.

After a bit, and learning of Xedra'as, an evil sorceress currently residing within the space-worm, the PCs came face-to-face with Xedra'as and her demon minions.

The PC sorcerer who didn't get a chance to act wanted to go first.  Since combat hadn't even begun, I said Hell yeah, go for it.  He cast a spell, and I had him roll a couple of six-siders (because I'm also workshopping an alternative system of magic for EC3 - check back here in a couple days).  He rolled really well, a critical-success, in fact.  Xedra'as and the demons were caught in the sorcerer's ectoplasmic webbing.

The session was coming to a close, all too quickly.  Some of the PCs were wondering if they should keep searching for the mysterious artifact the tavern wizard told them to recover.  They had found a magic item (and a powerful one at that), but was this what they'd been seeking?  Others wanted to leave as the space-worm seemed to be blinking out of existence as we know it.  Since we had about 6 or 7 minutes remaining and there wasn't enough time for another encounter, I decided we should do another scene.  This time a flash-forward.

The "kid" who'd been traipsing through the space-worm with the adventurers was all grown-up.  Another player volunteered to be part of the scene but only if he could roleplay an NPC who was also present during the scene.  I was all for it.

The young man who had grown since that adventure taking place several years ago was accompanied by his butler Gerhart.  The wizard from the tavern addressed him, asking what he found in the worm.

Sadly, there wasn't much interaction between the young man and the wizard, so the wizard said his peace and promptly vanished... again!

"That pain was necessary for this world to grow, to change, to become what it must. There is no stopping the evolution of Cha'alt. Freeing the Duke allowed it to evolve. That's what was needed."

It was an extremely bizarre adventure (even for me), but it was equally awesome.  And just as the camera faded to black, there was a little bit of not-quite-necrophilia, thanks to one of my favorite recurring players.  Why have an online game tagged "sleazy" without a cherry on top?

Below are a few choice lines copy/pasted from the chat log...

  • "I have never been inside a purple space worm before, unless you count this one tentacled lady in Port Grenthak."
  • At a lull in the conversation, full of liquid courage, the kid asks "How come you're not going?"
  • "WHERE IS THE CONTROL CENTER? I WOULD HAVE HIS BODY." You see the inner mole rat tugging at various nerves/wires within the golem-body.
  • Mork Borg draws his untrustworthy blade.
  • "This transdimensional space-worm gets a lot more traffic than I expected."
  • "Ok, here's what we need to do.  On the count of three, I pull the sheet and whoever can kill her the fastest gets it done. Ready?"
  • Once again, the playthings of gods and wizards. Thus is always the fate of honest, hardworking adventurers.
  • "I assumed he had a name like Slartibartfast."
  • "I am Barry Fastslart, or Duke Fastslart, if you prefer.  Do you know of me?"
  • I was going balls-deep as we faded out...

In a couple days, I'll post what I have for the proposed magic system (working on the details right now).

As always, thanks to the guys for playing; and thanks to you for reading.  Don't miss the next session (I'm going to squeeze-in two sessions a week for the next couple months).


p.s. Like what you're reading?  Want to be part of the action?  For $5 a month, you can have first-crack at playing in one of my weekly one-shots!  Subscribe to me on SubscribeStar!

Friday, September 23, 2022

Delving Design


Months ago, years even, I was hesitantly perched upon a dozen different fences about what to do with Encounter Critical.  I'm Kickstarting the 3rd edition, if you didn't know!

Part of the problem was knowing that whatever direction I went, some people would be disappointed.  But the whole making an omelet thing reminds me that I've got to please myself at the end of the day... which is fitting, because I was (still am, to some degree) a huge fan of Encounter Critical after discovering it - with no small help from the imagination and blog of Jeff Rients.

At any rate, I'm trying to find a yin-yang sort of balance between traditional and what we now call "story-games".  The black (yin) has a little bit of white in it.  Basically, I'm trying to take "modern" and "innovative" RPG design and adapt it to OSR sensibilities.

I did make a video about fiction-first, Obsidian Escalation, and several other things.

The following is what's on the playtest menu for the moment.  Anything can change at any moment.  I don't expect it to, but I am expecting tweaks, fine-tuning, and possibly weird organic growth that I didn't realize was part of this project's evolutionary journey.

Without further ado, here we go...

One Page Cheat-Sheet

  •          Every PC must come up with a Background that’s broken-up into the following aspects: Look (appearance, aesthetics, vibe, etc.), Drive (motivation for adventuring, reason for being, core values), 2 Relationships (either members of the party or an NPC in the world), Flaw (downfall, vice, or something that keeps getting in your way), and 3 Obsessions (something you love, something you hate, and something that fascinates, perplexes, or strangely amuses you).
  •          A character gets 1 point of Divine Favor every time he indulges in or falls prey to his Flaw.
  •          When a character is confronted with one of his Obsessions, he’s easily distracted and/or manipulated… unless a successful saving throw is rolled.
  •          If running a one-shot, start the session with a Flashback scene from an earlier time in the PCs’ lives, when they first met or were all together… perhaps a montage (micro-scenes with a common theme unfolding in quick succession) of each PC discovering the startling revelation that “reality” is merely densely coiled layers of illusion.  Ahead of the scene, the players and GM should discuss where events happened (location), who’s there and why (relationships) and the general mood, conflict, and/or resolution they’d like to see.  The GM, who should have an inkling of what’s to come, might suggest a motif, object (McGuffin), or major/recurring NPC (villain, helpful contact, rival, comic-relief) for inclusion, in order to strengthen narrative ties between the Flashback and future events.  The players roleplay the social interaction until everyone is content that the scene should conclude.  A point of Divine Favor is awarded to every player who participated.
  •          If running a campaign, start each session with a Flashback scene from an earlier time in either one or two PCs’ lives (see above for details).  Players who don’t have their character present in the unfolding scene are encouraged to roleplay whatever NPCs might also be in the Flashback scene.
  •          Between encounters (and occasionally during) PCs are encouraged to roleplay.  PCs earn a point of Divine Favor when they demonstrate (talk about, think about, or act out) an aspect of their Background. No more than 1 point per scene.
  •          Obsidian Escalation during combat!
  •          Skill-Checks: Natural 1s the GM (or mischievous player, if preferred) narrates the failure.  Natural 20 means the player can describe his own success.
  •          Top result on a saving throw, skill-check, or damage die means the player can narrate his epically awesome deed with an additional embellishment that may provide a modest edge, asset, or godsend (with GM approval, of course).

This cheat-sheet is 1) based off changes or amendments to Crimson Dragon Slayer D20, and 2) written down in a sort of shorthand that's explained just enough so I know what's going on.  

If YOU would be interested in running your OSR ruleset with the above modifications, I'd love to hear your story.  Please share it with us.  Better yet, email me your feedback:

After a few playtests of this stuff, I'm going to go back to the proverbial drawing-board with other fundamental concepts, such as magic.  I've been doing magic the same way for a few years, and want to try something radically different than my comfortable go-to system.

Feel free to comment, ask questions, throw tomatoes, or whatever.  ;)


p.s. You can support me for $5 a month on SubscribeStar, and next July's Madison WI VENGER CON II is happening with or without you, so grab a ticket and play with us!

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Encounter Critical III


What's up?  I've got news...

I finally have a new Kickstarter campaign, and it's for Encounter Critical III.

Let's get down to brass tacks, hoss.  The original EC is great and all, but many find it virtually unplayable because of its OMG WTF?!? system (game mechanics).  I want to take my version of EC into a smooth, easy, and light OSR ruleset while making the things outside the system OMG, WTF?!?

The very first playtest was earlier today, and I think that went well.  It's going to take a lot more, and each time I hope to learn new things.

Obviously, I'm building on what came before... the original EC, Crimson Dragon Slayer D20, and Cha'alt.  The concept is there, now I just need to refine it and come up with awesome stuff to make it really fly.

I'll post more about the playtest session in a couple days.  For now, I'll just say thanks for supporting me, and feel free to ask questions or volunteer to playtest Encounter Critical III as we go into fall.  


Saturday, September 10, 2022

Cha'altian Session Reports


I was able to squeeze two virtual sessions in this week.

Both were on Roll20 (I gave a couple other platforms a shot, but quickly got confused and abandoned my quest for an alternative), 90 minutes, text only, 18+ (even though we never got to explore anything sexual or erotic... hey, it happens!).

The 90 minute structure is something I'm extraordinarily familiar with.  A lot of people don't like it.  I receive a decent amount of criticism for running shorter sessions.  All I can say is that if you have 5 kids and a day job, then you know how difficult it is to carve out 4 hours on a weekly or even bi-weekly schedule.

Both sessions involved exploring a network of tunnels and caves.  Another similarity is that both sessions had two players by the end.  I accept random drop-ins, so that's to be expected.  People are flaky on the internet.

For those curious, I usually don't have anything specific in mind when constructing these maps.  I just start drawing.  Automatic drawing is a technique invented by Austin Osman Spare.  I've forgotten more than I remember about him, and don't think scribbling lines via my mouse counts as a magical act, but it is part of the greater whole.  And I do view my current roleplaying sessions as magic rituals.

As usual, I gazed upon the Kort'thalis meta-sigil as I prepared for my sessions.

Before I get into more detail, here's a list of guidelines that have appeared out of play...

  • If a player has not chosen a race for his character, I'm just going to assume he's human.
  • If a player suddenly disappears, the GM (me) will roleplay his character - assuming there's a small party of adventurers.  It's not fair to a pair of adventurers who go in a dangerous environment when they believed there were three of them.  If the party wouldn't miss a character, then I occasionally describe his gruesome death as that abandoned PC steps in a trap or fiddles with sorcerous runes discovered on a cave wall.
  • Engagement is crucial!  With noobs, I'm constantly inviting them to take part in the action, make decisions.  "While the thief is scouting up ahead, what is Ba'ab doing?" Stuff like that.
  • If players make leaps of logic, I'll usually let the first one or two go, but then will quickly put the kabosh on that stuff when it seems less likely and/or taking advantage.  For instance, Vindl, a thief cyborg wanted to use the phosphorescent fungi in the cave system for energy, and be able to turn his mechanical arm into a blaster.  So, I said sure.  But shortly after he wanted to construct a shield out of scales picked off a dead creature.  I told him it would take time and the proper tools.

Halfway through the second session, I took over the missing player's character, Ja'ay the demon warrior.  Every GM worth his essential salt knows that GM NPCs shouldn't overshadow the actual PCs.  So, I used Ja'ay as an interesting background character, spurring action like taking one tunnel over another when the PCs couldn't make a decision.  Precious minutes ticking away.

The second session was the first game after vocalizing my theory... the GM's paradigm should make its presence known every single encounter!  While I've been doing that, more or less, unconsciously for years, this session I consciously looked for opportunities to make the game's reality feel more eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, and post-apocalypse.  Did it change the session dramatically?  No, I don't think so.  But going back and observing the session a day later, I'd say consciously trying to infuse my chosen paradigm into every single encounter improved immersion and the game in general by about 5-10%.

Going back to the first session, the couple of PCs were too intimidated to fight the giant Lovecraftian spider things in their network of tunnels and caves.  You know me, I'm all about quick and easy minimal rules.  So, each PC incurred an attack of opportunity whenever they ran past the creature in order to evade it.  I think that worked well.  It happened a couple of times and each time one PC was wounded.

Oh yeah, I got to use my Eldritch Hit Location table over on my SubscribeStar page (publicly available). I think the players got a kick out of slashing or bashing large, scaly rodents in the umthra'ax.  I'll need to use it once or twice more before seeing the true value of something like that.

I don't want to ruin the endings of either adventure because I like running the same adventure (with small variations each time) with different players.  Both were fun, though!

As sometimes happens with my open and welcoming drop-in approach to running sessions, I popped someone's roleplaying game cherry.  That player had never played before, and somehow wound up at my virtual table.  Introducing people to the hobby is definitely a highlight of my weird journey.

Will probably run another session or two next week now that ALL KICKSTARTER CHA'ALT BOOKS HAVE BEEN MAILED OUT TO BACKERS!!!  Yes, I finally got to the end, and it feels fantastic.  Gonna make the most of my free time - it's all about playing, well mostly about playing.  I'd say at least 85%.  Writing and designing game mechanics and such is absolutely worthwhile, but creating a world through the act of roleplaying is something that's above and beyond the background construction.

Last night, I tweeted something out that seemed profound at the time when I was not totally baked.  I'd like to share it here.

"Creating tales of pulp sword-and-sorcery is all that is."

That's it.  That's the tweet.  Lol.  Focusing on that, while leaving all the peripheral bullshit fiddle-faddle outside, will restore your faith in this hobby.  And that's something I believe is in short supply.  

Being part of the magic, fashioning awesome stories of wizards, warriors, dungeons, and dragons will get you closer to PSYCHOCOSM than worrying about campaign lore, balanced encounters, extensive PC backgrounds, the unfairness of monsters critting, and "racist" flying squirrel-monkeys in space.

Lose yourself in the fantasy, and that becomes reality.  


p.s. My new Kickstarter campaign for Encounter Critical III just got approved, so will launch that early next week (probably Tuesday).  

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Every Encounter Is An Opportunity


As the title states, every encounter is an opportunity.  But an opportunity for what?  A better game, of course.  And, as always, better means more immersive!

This blog post was going to be a session report, but now I'm just going to explain and expand on a video I uploaded yesterday... here.

It was just after my last Roll20 session that I realized I needed to continue upping my game.  From now on, EVERY SINGLE ENCOUNTER must push the Game Master's paradigm, drawn from the campaign setting and directly influenced by whatever words or phrases (I suggest three) he's chosen as the primary mood, tone, atmosphere, vibe, etc.

What do I mean by paradigm?  Well, I thought about using "agenda", instead.  But that's kind of a scary word for a variety of reasons.  For starters, it reminds me of those 00's Forge type games that broke everything down into gameist, narrativist, and simulationist categories.  Also, it seems too political these days.  I'm not trying to unfairly castigate and scapegoat 74 million Americans just because my administration is an authoritarian dumpster fire, I just want to create a more immersive game.

So, what do I mean by paradigm?  Basically, I'm talking about the worldview.  Think of it as a forced perspective... or the focus.  The GM's paradigm is a conscious pattern being woven throughout the entire session.  In the video, I may have streamed-out into the weeds, so let's discuss a concrete example.

There's a group of orcs... evil, pig-faced orcs just over that hill.  The PCs will undoubtedly run into them.  How's that encounter going to go?  Well, what do you want out of this session or the entire campaign?  

Back up a bit.  Describe your ideal (what you'd most like to run at the moment) game to GM in three words or phrases, keeping in mind the rule-set, players, campaign world, and your own abilities, preferences, etc.  Those three things shall be the watchwords, the battle-cries, the call to arms of your game.  Choose wisely. 

I know it seems like extra work (and it is), but if we're going to the trouble of drastically improving the entire roleplaying game experience, it's going to take a little forethought and planning.

Taking a few standard watchwords that I've seen floating around cyberspace, we get 1) Grim/dark, 2) Whimsical, and 3) Spooky... Halloween will be here before you know it.

Now, that we have those three things driving our paradigm, we can easily inject one or more (grim/dark, whimsical, and/or spooky) elements into the orc encounter... and EVERY encounter.  That's why, when picking out your watchwords, you should make them open-ended and inspirational enough to keep using over and over again.

So, if I was to whip-up something on the spot, I'd make those evil, pig-faced orcs carrying the hollowed-out heads of their latest victims.  Maybe a tight, leathery skin covers the scooped-out holes so the orcs can beat a particular rhythm like a drum on these gory severed heads.  I'd probably write that stuff on a notecard if I was doing GM prep as "Bongo Orcs".  

Wow, that satisfies grim/dark, whimsical, and spooky.  Well done, Venger!  Thank you, hoss. ;)

Creating a singular effect, as Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft wrote, by keeping specific watchwords in mind, is like infusing the game with whatever paradigm you're going for.  And that infusion should happen at the microscopic level of your gaming.  In other words, EVERY SINGLE ENCOUNTER.  

Now, in the above example, I seeded the encounter directly with my chosen paradigm.  An alternative might have described the orcs standing over a human body like a pincushion, with a dozen daggers, spears, and swords sticking out of him.  Or, at the end of the encounter, the PCs might have found gold coins pushed into cowpies.  If you can make a case for the encounter, in some small way, furthering your paradigm, then it's a success!

Having just committed to this theory, consciously, I haven't fully explored it yet.  As an RPG scientist, that's what I (we) should do.  Use it.  Test it.  See if it works.  If not, why not?  But if it does... then celebration ensues.  Pretend you're carrying me around on a tentacled throne or something cool like that.

Questions?  Yes, let's hear 'em.  Shoot!


p.s. Want to buy some Cha'alt?  This handy price guide will help.  Like my blog posts, videos, vibe, freebies, and other stuff?  For only $5 a month, you can support what I'm doing on SubscribeStar!

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows


By now, you've probably heard about the third book of the Cha'alt trilogy - Chartreuse Shadows.

I'm only a couple days away from finishing my shipping duties.  By next Tuesday, all Kickstarter backer rewards should be out the door (pre-sales, as well).  Damn, that was a long time coming, but I'm so glad the end is in sight.

That means I'm officially opening the way for regular old sales.  Here's the price guide...

  • Cha'alt - $50 (add $40 for non-USA shipping)
  • Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise - $50 (add $40 for non-USA shipping)
  • Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows - $65 (add $40 for non-USA shipping)
  • The entire trilogy - $140 (add $60 for non-USA shipping)

All books are fancy, hardcover, first editions, signed, numbered, and personalized by me.  These gorgeous tomes will go up in value, just as Cha'alt will take over the world one day!

Below is a testimonial from a KS backer...

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from physical editions of your work. I’ve supported a lot of KS with physical printings, most of which were zine-styled stapled prints, but some were hardbacks and full-color and just felt cheap. I know there are lots of reasons dictating printing bla bla bla, but I was a little nervous of pledging for physical editions.

Dude, these are great. Thank you so much! Honestly, I didn’t get far into Chartreuse Shadows, but my group knows I have pulled from Fuchsia Malaise. I think there might be a tableflip when I show up with a hard copy 🤣

What is Cha'alt?  Glad you asked, hoss...  Cha'alt is my home campaign, my own little slice of heaven (or Hell, depends on your point of view), an eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, post-apocalypse world where I come home to hang my Game Mastering hat.

Also, I'll be launching a new Kickstarter campaign towards the end of September... and it's for Encounter Critical III.  

What else?  I've got some new (publicly available, not behind the paywall) content over at SubscribeStar.  If you want to support me at $5 a month and get the occasional freebie along with first pick of the online games I run, I'd love to have your patronage.  

Don't forget about VENGER CON II: Electric Boogaloo.  Just a nice, intimate (50 - 75 attendee) convention for those who love old-school, OSR, and traditional RPGs in Madison, WI next July.  Join us!