Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Weird on the Waves (Review)

For a while now1, I’ve been dreaming of a maritime campaign, so I jumped on Weird on the Waves a year or so ago. It’s finally out, and it’s OK I guess.

Background

Weird on the Waves started taking pre-orders in 2017 as a LotFP-compatible product. It released in 2020 with generic D&D rules and notes for both “old school” and “new school” styles of play. It is available from Kiel Chenier’s itch.io page for $5.99 or from his other storefront (?) for $10.99. I don’t know what the difference is, but I got mine from itch.io if there is one.

The Elephant in the Room

Is Kiel Chenier cancelled? I don’t know man. If he’s a grifter, he seems benign. I did keep an eye out for any of the worst issues of Blood in the Chocolate and didn’t find them here.

Overview

The setting is the Caribbean in 1666, just before the “golden age of piracy”. But something is wrong: ships can travel to the Caribbean, but they can’t leave again. Instead, they find the islands surrounded by a sentient, hateful ocean full of strange and magical islands.

Chapter 1 - The Weird Waves

In addition to the setting pitch and the list of inspirational media, this chapter also explains basic D&D terminology in a way that’s not enough to be useful on its own, but enough that it might not match whichever system you are using. I would have preferred if it just owned OSR-style stats or 5e-compatibility, and didn’t feel the need to explain dice notation again.

This chapter also contains the part of the game that I’m most likely to borrow from: the basic “gameplay loop” of Weird on the Waves. That is the structure of finding a lead and following through and the procedures for sailing (like other games have procedures for exploring a dungeon or hexcrawling).

Chapter 2 - Character Creation and Play

This chapter also suffers from system indecision. It has rules for things that your base game should already have2, like swimming, drowning, encumbrance, experience, etc. It has some suggested backgrounds, but without the mechanical heft of full 5e backgrounds, which is probably fine. It does also have rules the base game is unlikely to have, like firearms and a general-purpose “maritime” skill.

Chapter 3 - The Mermaid

When characters die in Weird on the Waves, they can be brought back as a mermaid by the ocean, but without their memories. The mermaids here are suitably weird (we are treated to some of Kiel’s own art), and the bulk of the class is a d100 random-advancement table. It has details for “New School” and “Old School” games.

Chapter 4 - Goods and Equipment

Maybe someone likes this, but for the most part I don’t care what the cost of a cutlass is, or the range of a blunderbuss compared to a musket, meticulously-researched though I’m sure it is. I appreciate the miscellaneous bonuses that come from ship’s pets, and I like that all the currency conversion rates are as simple as possible.

Rules for disease also end up in this chapter, because medicine is here. Fair enough.

Chapter 5 - Ships and Sea Vessels

Like equipment tables for boats. I would be perfectly fine with four basic ships and then keep the section with perks and customizations, but I assume that some people get a lot out of this.

Chapter 6 - Sailing the Sea

Here is real meat. If Chapter 1 had procedures for “dungeon exploration”, Chapter 6 is the random encounter tables and rules for morale. (It is actually random encounter tables and rules for morale, so that wasn’t a great analogy.)

Chapter 7 - Ship Combat

I’ve read a bunch of ship combat rules, but I’ve never actually run any. This looks simpler than Pathfinder but more helpful than B/X, so that’s promising. Ocean hazards are also in this chapter, and I’m not sure why they’re not in the previous one instead.

Chapter 8 - Ending Combat, Days, and Voyages

Unlike the last section of Chapter 7 (“Ending Combat”), the title of this chapter refers to repairs after combat and also other parts of the sailing procedure that happen at the end of the day (e.g. morale checks) or the end of voyages (e.g. selling treasure).

Chapter 9 - Wave Master Rules

This chapter has a setting overview (“the ocean is magic and hates you”) and details (“the government of Cuba”) and GM advice (“historical accuracy is overrated”). There are also rules for “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe” dice, which represent the will of the malevolent sea. Wave dice get added to the GM-side of contested rolls, Weal dice are added to player rolls (like inspiration maybe), and Woe dice are rolled for prompts to make a situation worse whenever a player rolls a natural “1”.

This chapter also has all the random tables, and they seem all right.

Chapter 10 - Adversaries and Monsters

There are three kinds of monster in here: small or mundane animals, NPCs, and weird creatures. I could probably do without stats for “Cat” and “Dog”, especially because the important parts (bonuses for having a ship’s pet) are already elsewhere. I could also do without stats for “Sailor” and “Commoner”, because the base system should already have these, and I wouldn’t have to convert anything.

The weird creatures are one of the best parts of the book though, from a flavor standpoint. We’ve been told before that the sea hates humans and mocks them, but these creatures are actually showing that. The ocean learns that humans need vitamin C to survive, so it makes carnivorous citruses that suck vitamin C. Explorers start littering guns and ammunition, so the ocean induces crabs to become fortresses. It really captures the weirdness and hatred and confusion of the setting.

There are also some named NPCs (mostly historical figures) to serve as rivals, patrons, etc. These are fine and useful.

Chapter 11 - The Horrors of Pig Island

A short adventure, but probably solid. There are only so many ways to do a shipwreck adventure, but this one is cleaned up, with a little bit of Circe, and showcasing some of the atmosphere of the Weird on the Waves setting.

Chapter 12 - Race to Mondo Island

This adventure really showcases the sailing protocols, but doesn’t seem to add much. The PCs have a map, hire a crew, encounter some weird stuff, and hopefully return with the treasure. If nothing else, this is a useful illustration of how to use the tools in the book.

Impressions

  • The PDF is not accessible at all. This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against this book. The text is not searchable, there are no bookmarks, and every page is a flat, lo-res, grayscale image. Ostensibly, this is to prevent piracy (irony noted), but I don’t understand quite how, because people pirate PDFs all the time. This is only slightly alleviated by the inclusion of a hi-res map booklet.
  • In what I assume is a result of this decision, the text of some tables is larger than the space allows, leading to crowded, hard-to-read entries like this:
  • The book is a one-person effort and the limits of that show. For example, it could really use an editing pass to catch all manner of little things (the wrong “its”, “Île/Isle” confusion, etc. In one place, the book refers to a “Weird” die, even though the new types of dice are “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe”.) It reminds me of Ynn in that respect: strong concept but lots of loose ends.
  • No rules are given for renown, although the text mentions it a few times. It’s not a big deal to improvise, but I remember one of the things I did like about the Pathfinder pirate rules was a subsystem for tracking “infamy”.
  • It doesn't need to be 224 pages. A lot of space could have been saved if a single system was picked, or some things were left assumed. But I wouldn’t mind the length so much if the PDF were searchable and indexed.
  • The art is a bit of a letdown. Kiel referred to the book as a “millstone around his neck” in the preface, and I’m glad for him that he finally got it finished (I know the feeling). But somewhere between concept and finished product Kiel’s own art was replaced with standard-issue public domain art3, and I find it uninspiring. To see what could have been, I have reproduced two pages from a 2019 sample document (left) next to their released counterparts (right).

Conclusion

Would you like me to review your product? Here’s how to make that happen:

  • Write a solid product that blows me away.
  • Write a product of any quality that happens to be on top of my pile when I’m in a writing mood.
  • Ask me? I don’t know if this will work, nobody’s ever tried.
  • Write a product that doesn’t exist, that I already really want to read and make it infuriatingly close to good.
I would say that I could definitely get some use out of this, except for the accessibility issues. If I can’t search it or navigate it, it’s going to be more hindrance than help at the table.

Islands!

Weird on the Waves has a weird island generator, so as is tradition, I gave it a half-dozen spins. It’s got occupants (1d12, 9 entries), shape (1d20), resources (1d8, 6 entries), buried or hidden treasure (1d6), and noteworthy features (1d100, ~30 entries).

Island 1

Occupants: Spanish colonists (60 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 noble)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Buried trove (Ivory (0.1 tons, 12000 gp), Fresh water (1 ton, 100 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 2

Occupants: Coconauts (110 coconauts)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: Site of a cursed item. A random cursed item is hidden somewhere on the island. The item is a valuable treasure, but holds a terrible curse if used or possessed by a character. The exact nature of the cursed item is up to the Wave Master.

Island 3

Occupants: Uninhabited by humans
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Spanish wine (0.2 tons, 300 gp), Livestock (2.1 tons, 75 gp), Clothing (1 ton, 300 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 4

Occupants: Dutch merchants (100 sailors, 2 captains)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Dyes (0.2 tons, 500 gp), Textiles (0.3 tons, 525 gp), 14 Provisions (0.4 tons, 140 gp), Materials (1 ton, 100 gp), Narcotics (0.5 tons, 1000 gp), Rum (1 ton, 400 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: Within the island is a cave system with 17 chambers, forming a treasure-laden but heavily trapped dungeon.

Island 5

Occupants: Buccaneer camp (13 buccaneers, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Island 6

Occupants: English colonists (50 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Sea cave (Hiding place)
Buried Treasure: Cache of Barbados rum (12 barrels, 480 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Notes

These are pretty good, combining a lot of the best features of other tables I’ve liked. I like that most islands are inhabited, I like that every island has a secret treasure, and I like the little maps. The only thing that feels “off” is the specificity. When it lines up well, the specificity makes the whole thing come together beautifully (Why does Island 4 have two captains? Obviously there are North and South camps, and they are fighting over the extensive treasure caverns.) But then when it doesn’t line up obviously, it can be tough to make it fit (How is the livestock “hidden” on Island 3?). In other places, I wish there was a little more detail, like about the cursed item on Island 2. The "weighting" of some of the tabes feels off slightly, but I can't put my finger on it.

Are any of the islands giant turtles?

No turtles, but one possible island is a fossilized whale that begins to move again when the characters uncover its calcified heart. Same vibes.


1 I recently caught up with an old friend and we were talking about D&D. I told him about the nautical campaign I was dreaming and he said, “Ian, you need to do that already. You gave me the same pitch in High School.” Now I’m worried because I don't remember that at all.back

2 Or not, as you might know if you’d ever looked for LotFP’s drowning rules. This uncertainty goes some way to explaining, if not excusing the bulk.back

3 Which isn’t to say that this can’t be done well. I quite like the public-domain collages in Johnstone Metzger’s work, and I find that Emmy Allen’s work tends to recontextualize the images enough that they don’t bother me.back

Monday, July 27, 2020

House Rules in a Digital House

I've been running D&D 5e for a group of remote friends recently. These are the “house rules” that I've adopted to make things go smoother, or at least reassure myself. I'm sure I got most of these from other places, but I can only credit what I remember.

Absence

Characters of absent players will be ignored and their departure and return unremarked on. I will make no effort to explain this in the fiction, but in future sessions we can act as though they were there. So “remember that time we all burned down a fortress?” or “aren’t you those people who tried to murder my brother?” will still include characters of players who were absent at the time.

I don't plan to spend a lot of time balancing encounters, so I think “fading into the background” is a fine solution. I want to encourage roleplaying, but also a shared group identity, so this doesn't let anyone off the hook or force anyone to miss opportunities because of real-life concerns.

Experience

Experience will be awarded using the “Milestone” option. While we are in a dungeon, “clearing” a level will be worth one level of experience. Outside of a dungeon, other goals may be used. These are negotiable.

I started the game in a dungeon and expected the first level to be cleared fairly quickly (it was). So this gave us a quick level-up without math on my end, but still tied to a measurable achievement. For the first-time players in the group, the early level-up lets them engage with the rules differently and see possibilities for (mechanical) growth. Because I do not know what parts of the game this group will enjoy most, the “Milestone” option allows them to pivot away from the dungeon later.

Inspiration

Inspiration will be awarded at the end of each session by player vote for favorite moment.

This is something I borrowed from DIE TRYING, although I've seen similar things in other systems. The practical effect is a moment of reflection at the end of the session when players can say what they liked best and what they're looking forward to most. It also reminds me that inspiration exists.

Quorum

We will not play D&D with less than half the party. To keep the appointment, we can play other games with however many people we have.

It feels bad for the players who do show up when there aren't enough people to play, so I really wanted to get in the habit of playing even if we can't play the main game. Games under consideration for backup have to be lightweight. So far they include:

Timekeeping

Generally, I will assume an “exploration turn” of 10 minutes, which is enough time to fully explore a room and interact with all of its contents (excluding combat etc.). After 8 hours (48 turns) without rest, characters will take a level of exhaustion.

I didn't find timekeeping rules that I liked in 5e, and as long as we were in a dungeon I wanted to build expectations around that procedure. In practice, the biggest effect of this change is that ritual casting now carries some cost. It does seem like 48 turns is unlikely to be an actual concern.

Encumbrance

I haven't adopted these rules yet, but I'm considering something like Electric Bastionland (paraphrased):

Some items are [bulky]. You can carry two [bulky] items: one on your back and one in your hands.
The hope is that these rules are just enough to make looting things complicated, but not enough that I have to worry about weight or spreadsheets. The worry is that with six characters, this just still doesn't matter.

Hexcrawling

These are also rules still under consideration:

Travel 3 hexes (6 miles each) per day, walking 8 hours per day.
Roll a d6 2x every day of travel, once during the day and once during camp.
On a 1, an Encounter occurs (something interesting).
On a 2, an Omen occurs (signs of something interesting).
Difficult terrain (mountain, swamp) counts as 2 hexes.
Travel -1 hex to explore for hidden locations in one hex.
Travel -1 hex to forage, gaining 1d4-1 rations per forager.
Travel +1 hex on a road.
Travel +1 hex if everyone has fast mounts.
Travel +1 hex over another 4 hours but [take a level of] Exhaustion.
I didn't find any hexcrawl rules in 5e, so I stole these ones wholesale from Moonhop. Because we have new players, I'm trying to fit as many “modes” as I can into the game, to showcase it a bit. At the same time, I'd like to minimize the overhead of learning a hundred new subsystems and then abandoning them later. I might have to make it two levels of exhaustion though, in order for it to matter.

Other Notes

I've observed some other things about the group in particular and online play in general.

  • Playing on a weekday evening, and given the limits of engagement online, 3 hours is about as long as I can go.
  • Some players fare better than others with “theater of the mind”. There has been a request for a VTT system of some kind, which terrifies me, but I'm considering it. On the other hand, I'd like everyone to be on the same footing, so maybe I can strike a balance with a whiteboard of some kind or some more defined abstractions (“Zones” from Fate or “Abstract Distances” from The Black Hack).
  • None of the players has actually used their inspiration yet, so I'll have to be better about reminding them when they can. The post-game ritual seems to go over well though.
  • D&D is actually fun! This should be obvious, because why else would be be here? But it's always refreshing to play.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Chuckleheads and The ’Valizzi

Dan D. at Throne of Salt requests from the jackalope:

d6 Chuckleheads you have to deal with from the local wizard mafia

The Plan

This should be easy:

  1. Binge-listen to Crimetown.
  2. Define the Local Wizard Mafia.
  3. Write up some chuckleheads.


Wizard mobsters are probably like normal mobsters, but with funny hats. (Funny hats are by Lorc and Delapouite via game-icons.net, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.)

The ’Valizzi

Description

The ’Valizzi is the local wizard mafia, an organized magical crime syndicate. Even when their ends are mundane, their means are supernatural. They run extraplanar smuggling rings, deal in apotropaic protection rackets, and arbitrate disputes between wizards and godlings. Where magic is illegal or disreputable, they have business with necromancy, fortune-telling, and the manufacture of consumables (potions, scrolls, drugs, and so on).

There is no requirement of blood relation to join the ’Valizzi, only magical ability. Because of their persecution, proper members of the ’Valizzi are magically bound to never verbally confirm if an individual is or is not a member of the ’Valizzi. This curse is taken voluntarily, and has never been known to be broken. Current members will also never knowingly risk letting an outsider know who is or isn't in the ’Valizzi through other means.

Motto

Anything in the world is ours to take, and in exchange we offer order.

Beliefs

  • Always repay debts.
  • All magic and all crime should be conducted under our auspices.

Goals

  • Enrich selves.
  • Control all forms of magic.

Hooks

  • The PCs need a divination, and the only purveyors in town are ’Valizzi.
  • Returning to town, the lone guard at the gate doesn't remember them at all. He is being memory-wiped with some regularity by potion smugglers.
  • The flood of magic items brought back to town by the PCs has upset a local wizard, who calls in a favor from the ’Valizzi to see about cutting off the supply.
  • The PCs perform some minor magical service in town, for example a healing or a detection spell. The ’Valizzi won't be happy to hear about upstarts cutting in on their turf.

The Chuckleheads

1. Father Corx

Overview: Father Corx is a dapper priest who goes way back with the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: He has neat salt-and-pepper hair and a low booming voice.

Abilities: He has the spellcasting ability of a low-level cleric.

Talents: He assuages people's guilt, including his own.

Mannerisms: He takes long pauses between sentences (or as dramatically appropriate).

Interactions: He is very understanding of others, to the point of condescension.

Knowledge: He always knows how to make things right and who to set up meetings with.

Ideals: A strong, if twisted, belief in hierarchy governs his actions.

Bond: He is childhood friends with the current leaders of the ’Valizzi, and sees no conflict between his religious teachings and their actions.

Secrets: He has covered for the ’Valizzi in several large court cases, using his station to sway the jury.

2. Jerry "the Ferret"

Overview: Jerry used to be a smuggler and a burglar with the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: Even bent over a cane, his wiry frame is still tall.

Abilities: He can open a door to any other door in the same building, one-way, provided they both have doorknobs.

Talents: He misdirects at every scale.

Mannerisms: His teeth whistle slightly, enough to stop him casting spells (part of the terms of his release).

Interactions: Jerry is faultlessly polite and fabulously generous, so long as he thinks he might learn something from you.

Knowledge: He can get into and out of any building, or at least knows how.

Ideals: Jerry is a self-made man and values that independence.

Bond: Jerry's only loyalty is to his immediate family, to the chagrin of his former compatriots and cell-mates.

Secrets: Jerry knows where the gold from his last big heist is buried, and intends it to be his son's inheritance.

3. Nicalos, Old Fredward's Boy

Overview: Nicalos is a goon and errand-runner employed by the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: His personal grooming is impeccable, but he wears outdated, fraying clothes.

Abilities: Nicalos is slightly un-magical, and if a spell can fail around him, it will tend to.

Talents: Nicalos has a real knack for hiding and sneaking.

Mannerisms: His speech is heavily-affected cartoonish mob-speak (Nyah, see?).

Interactions: He always seeks to make himself look good, and to win approval from others.

Knowledge: Whatever the characters' business with the ’Valizzi, Nicalos will have a better understanding of the implications and repercussions than they do.

Ideals: Nicalos has aspirations to run the show, and will take initiative given the opportunity.

Bond: Nicalos keeps his mother sheltered from his activities a ways outside town.

Secrets: Depending on the characters' goals, Nicalos' are either exactly the same or exactly opposite. He will not let on to this.

4. Barb, the Lightning Witch

Overview: Barb is an electric witch, an invaluable asset to the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: Short middle-aged woman, long blond hair always floating on end with static charge.

Abilities: Barb can unerringly send one-way messages to the deceased.

Talents: Barb has a flair for the theatrical, which serves her well in séances and rain-calling.

Mannerisms: Cackles.

Interactions: Barb's interactions with others are purely transactional, and she works to maintain her image at all times.

Knowledge: Barb has a finger on the pulse of all the metaphysical movers and shakers, like who is researching what spells, where Excalibur was last seen, which godlings haven't been properly appeased, etc.

Ideals: Barb delights in the exercise of power.

Bond: Everyone owes Barb something, and it makes them uncomfortable, and she knows it.

Secrets: She can no longer charge the batteries that power her magical equipment, and is currently running on fumes.

5. Buddy, the Actual Elected Mayor

Overview: Not a wizard, not a mobster, but in deep with the ’Valizzi regardless.

Appearance: A broad-shouldered, square-chinned, deep-voiced, white-toothed perfect politician.

Abilities: Buddy commands local law enforcement and municipal services.

Talents: People trust Buddy, unless they know him well.

Mannerisms: When he's thinking, Buddy fiddles with a fancy gold fountain pen, occasionally dropping it and surreptitiously retrieving it.

Interactions: Buddy will readily agree to any seemingly-fair deal, but won't do any work to uphold his end of a bargain.

Knowledge: Buddy knows just the right words to sway an audience, or the right gestures to get their attention.

Ideals: Buddy believes in the status quo and in his city. He believes that all of its faults are necessary, and that he can protect it.

Bond: Buddy knows who got him elected.

Secrets: Buddy knows where the bodies are buried.

6. Ruby

Overview: Ruby is a promising young wizard that the ’Valizzi is actively recruiting.

Appearance: She has ankle-length black hair and wears baggy clothing, but she's in there somewhere.

Abilities: Ruby knows a charm to silence her movement at will.

Talents: Ruby learns quick, be careful what spells you let her see.

Mannerisms: When she's not talking, Ruby stands unnervingly still.

Interactions: You can rely on Ruby if she says she'll do something, but she doesn't say much.

Knowledge: She has some idea what the magical abilities of everyone else in the wizard mafia are, and how they work.

Ideals: Ruby values novelty, and will want to try anything new that she hasn't seen before.

Bond: The ’Valizzi bankrolled her magical education, and she's working off that debt one job at a time.

Secrets: Ruby wants out, and will leave once her obligations are fulfilled.

Thoughts

I really like the 5e method of defining an organization, which I first saw used in Krevborna and Cinderheim, so it was a natural fit for defining the organization. Then I thought I'd try the 5e method for defining NPCs also, which ended up being a lot more work than I would normally put into a single NPC.