Finished Compost Bins

Here are the some shots of Mrs. Filbanto’s new compost bins. You’ll notice they differ from my plans!

First, I made them about a foot taller than the plans depict. They were just too short. Maybe a halfling would want something that small, but we needed some bigger bins. I used 3 hinges for the lids instead of two. The lids are longer than my old bins and I felt the extra hinge would give it some added strength. I was able to reclaim the hinges from my old bins so they cost me nothing. I also added a strip 1×2 to the front of the bin to “dress it up” a bit. The gaps between the top boards felt too far apart when I spaced them across a 2-foot span. The 1×2 allowed me to space them about the same distance (5/8″) as all the other 1x6s. Finally, I decided to use T-nuts and bolts to hold the bottom two boards instead of hinges. That was a mistake. As I started filling them up, the pressure of the compost pushed the damn T-nuts right out. After a lot of swearing and wondering what to do, my Dad suggested driving a couple of nails in next to the T-nut with the head overlapping them to keep them in place. So far so good!

You’ll need 3 extra 1x6s and an extra 1×3 to build this version.

Lesson learned on never publishing stuff until you try it out!

Review: Troika

Hi everybody! It’s me, Wouldzee the Owl. You may remember me from such great posts as The Belle of the Ball Loses It! and… well maybe they weren’t all that great, but I did tell you about my adventures and maybe you want to know all of the things that have been going on since we saved the world.

Anyhoo, we all live in Liberty now and it is a lot of fun and everybody was really happy that we saved the world from getting all blowed up again and the Dandelion Lady made us all these really nice Lifetime Achievement awards for being the heroes and I hung mine up in my nest and it looks really nice there by the shelf where I keep my matches. Sally is still doing a lot of drugs and I was really worried about her for a while, but she only shoots at those coyote-guys like once a month now and I honestly don’t think she is even trying to hit them because she is usually a pretty good shot and most of the time she tells me she “only winged a few” and I still wish she’d stop shooting at them, but it does seem like progress. Oh yeah, Beyoh and the Dandelion Lady are a couple now and they have like 6 saplings and I think they really wanted to have a wedding, but John had told them that if they ever got married he’d DJ the wedding for them and nobody wanted that, so it was just easier for them to shack up together than tell John “no”, and so they are “life partners” or something like that now. John is busy working on a secret project and every time I ask if he needs some help he tells me “NO!” and his quills get all bristly and he mutters “I’ll never get off this benighted world with you helping me. Go bother someone else.” I’ve been applying to grad school at Upper Prairie Dog Town University because I want to get a master’s degree Speech-Language Pathology and I’ve written them like a zillion letters and they haven’t gotten back to me or anything, but I’ll keep trying and maybe I should fly over there one of these days to see if they got my letters.

Anyhoo, Filbanto asked me if I’d review a game for him because he’s been writing all of the reviews lately and he was thinking that maybe people would want a different opinion and I think that nobody ever wants to hear Filbanto’s opinion on anything and even Jovvana started following the blog because of some stuff that Icculus wrote and I wasn’t too sure about it. So Filbanto said, “It would be quite an achievement.” and I was all like, “I already have a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dandelion Lady and so I really don’t need to achieve anything anymore.” And he was like, but this is a totally gonzo and crazy game so you’d be perfect to review it and I was like “OK, but it will probably be a four-tentacle job.” And that might be confusing to some folks that don’t remember that I have eight tentacles instead of legs, so I usually say it instead of saying a half-ass job, but now that I really think about it, I cough up pellets instead of pooping so maybe a half-beak job would be a better phrase? Anyhoo, onto the review. Hey, that rhymes!

Have you ever stumbled across a game and it looks really cool and you’re all like “I wonder why I hadn’t heard of it before?” And you search it up on itch.io and there are like 800 supplements for it including one about a shaving baby and you’re all like “That’s weird”? Well, that game was written by this guy named Daniel Sell and it’s called Troika and it is published by the Melonsian Arts Council and they’ve got these six pigs doing ring around the rosy on their website and John once told me that song was about the Black Plague and that’s kind of depressing, but bacon comes from pigs so I guess it kind of evens out.

So I read the cover and saw it was a Science Fantasy RPG and I was all like, “Don’t you have Numenera already?” and Filbanto was like, “This is different.” and he got all excited and said something about Acid Death Fantasy and I was reaching for my Mauser when he explained that it was a supplement to the game and it was really groovy and had kind of a Sword and Planet vibe and I just nodded, because I haven’t read much because all the good stuff is written in Canadian and John doesn’t like reading to me because he is usually reading technical manuals, oh, and Hustler, he reads a lot of Hustler, but he tells everybody he just reads it for the articles…

Anyhoo, turns out this Troika game is based on this old game from the Eighties called Fighting Fantasy and they were like choose your own adventure books and Filbanto had a couple of them back when he was a fledgling, but he doesn’t know where they got to now and he probably loaned them to a friend and never got them back or something. So the game is really easy to learn because characters only have three attributes and they are Skill, Stamina and Luck and most of the time you are rolling against your Skill and you try to roll low using 2D6 and if you roll below your skill you succeed and if not you fail and you can sometimes use your Luck to mess about with success. Stamina is kind of like hit points in that they are pretty much exactly like hit points and when someone roughs you up in a fight you will lose some, but if you eat a bit of food later on you can gain them back and it is kind of cool how that works and it really makes people worry about tracking their provisions because half the time when you are playing D&D you usually don’t worry about it and then notice when you are fifth level that you have the same ‘2 weeks iron rations’ on your character sheet from when your guy was first level, but they only cost a copper or something and you usually leave copper behind in the dungeon, so what’s the point?

So the coolest thing about this game is all of the crazy professions you can choose from and they are all really zany and you can roll a D66 to randomize them and I didn’t understand how you could roll a D66 because it is not a platonic solid and John told me I had it all wrong and drew up this table for me and it still didn’t make sense and John said I was being willfully ignorant and it was something they did in Traveller ages ago and to stop bothering him. Anyhoo, these professions are really cool and most of the book is about building the world through stuff like describing the professions and the monsters and the spells and it kind of has a vibe like The Book of the New Sun and also like a lot of stuff that Michael Moorcock wrote and I have to rely on Filbanto for those examples because, like I said, I don’t read Canadian, but it is also zany and funny and a little self-deprecating and the author sprinkles some clever quips throughout the book like always writing in pen and stuff.

Anyhoo, there are all sorts of rules on fighting and making your character better and they are all really easy to understand, oh and they have this initiative system that is totally unlike anything you have seen before, even if you’ve been gaming for ages and are really old like Filbanto and you put a bunch of tokens in a bag and draw to see who goes next and there is also and end of round token in there and it could be that your character won’t even have a chance to blast a foe before the next round starts and it looked kind of like something I would totally give a try even though I might be a little cheesed off if I couldn’t unload my Mauser at the monster during a combat round, but there’s always the chance that it couldn’t get me with it’s death gaze or acid spittle or some other terrible attack, so I guess it evens out.

Also, there are a lot of cool spells in the book and they sometimes do weird things and there is one that looks completely useless unless you decided you were sick of playing the game and you wanted to just write up another character and the GM was being a dick and said “No, you can’t.” and so you just cast that Zed spell and kind of have the last laugh. Oh, and if you mess up your spell there is also this “Oops” table and it has a lot of really clever ideas for the terrible thing that happens to your wizard and your teeth can fall out on one of the results and I’m surprised at the penalty it imposes because I do pretty well without teeth since I have a beak and all.

There are a bunch of monsters in the book and some of them are cool and they all have this little table that you can roll on to determine what kind of mood they are in and they may not always want to eat your face which is kind of cool because I like to talk things out even though Sally hardly ever lets us do stuff like that, especially when she is on a Psycho bender. Monsters are kind of like player characters only monsters don’t have Luck and use Skill when they need to make a Luck roll and they usually have lower stamina and they explain why it is in the rules and it kind of makes sense, but I also wonder if it would be OK to beef up the stamina of some of the big monsters since usually the whole party is involved in the boss fight and you probably wouldn’t want them to be too much of a pushover or things wouldn’t be too exciting and your players would think “That was lame.”.

Finally, there is this crazy adventure and it is set in the hotel where you are staying and the whole adventure is basically about getting to this party on the top floor of the hotel and hopefully you don’t always need to do this kind of stuff when you check into a hotel or most people would probably sleep outside, but it is really inventive and there are lots of interesting people to meet and most of the time you don’t even need to shoot them since you can often figure out how to handle things peaceful-like and it doesn’t impact how much XP you get during the adventure either.

Anyhoo, there are some other books for the game and I already mentioned Acid Death Fantasy which I mentioned before and is like a whole different game world for Troika unless you decide that it is the same world and want to mix it up with all the other crazy. There is also this adventure called Fronds of Benevolence and it is super weird, but I think I got the gist of it, but I’d also want to give it another read before I tried to GM it since it is a little confusing. And all of the games come in these little hardcover editions and they are pretty small, but I think they are just so cool and they have great art that is really neat and not like the kind of art you usually see in a RPG, but something way different and neat and some cheapskates may think they are overpriced for their size, but it’s not the Eighties anymore man so stop being such a skinflint, they are totally worth it.

You have totally got to go out and buy these books and if you are in the UK you can order them from the Melsonian Arts Council website and in the USA, Filbanto suggests giving Noble Knight a go first since they are a local business and are pretty cool folks, but there is also Spearwitch and Exalted Funeral, but Filbanto has never ordered anything from them, but they are probably cool and if they are local to you they might be a better option and it looks like Noble Knight is currently out of the main rules right now, oh or you can search them up on Amazon if you cannot find them anywhere else.

Numenera: Maga gives Archibald an Earful

Hey Bucky! Whilst you was snoopin around in the buffet line, we was was wipin the red powder off our faces and walking to the “throne room” to talk to the Regent about them floaters and gettin some help. Shoulda known since the dude was a dude that Dudley wasn’t gonna git nowhere with him. If Dudley can’t flash his oiled up legs and arms to the ladies, it might as well be me talkin. Alla sudden the dude gets pissed and jumps off the “throne” and hollers “seize them” or some shit and then disappears out the secret back door. So we’re fightin tons and tons of Thrynn guards and Siku is like stone cold and freezes like three of them in the first six seconds of the fight. Dudley hauls ass outta there after the Regent as you might expect. Jemmy is shootin butt darts everywhere and I’m like tryin to smash them pretty Thrynn helmets. Never saw Varas once. We’re doing alright but there’s more and more of them guards pouring in the door from the hallway, so I get pissed and notice that them stone columns in the room ain’t load-bearin, just fake, so I push one of em onto two guards and pin em down, Then Siku jumps over and sprays a ice wall over the door so no more can get in. That’s when I notice that everyone else was tryin not to kill these guys, just freezin them and knockin em out. Except Jemmy, I guess he got tired of being merciful and started pokin em with that spear of his. So the room is like littered with blood and bodies and frozen and knocked out guys, and we’re like, let’s take their weapons and get outta here. Bout then Dudley comes running back down the secret staircase yellin, “three robots and two floaters!” and I’m like, “hell yeah.” So we’re fightin three robots on the stairs and Dudley is helpin me out with my targetin laser on the cannon and I’m like I’m gonna really try to make this one count and sure enough I nailed the robot right in fronta Dudley with a big splosion. Once them robots were greased, Siku sealed up the secret door with more ice and we went upstairs through a bunch a doors and rooms and then Dudley thought he heard the tiny King callin for help down some stairs but it turned out to be a back stairs to where all them guards were trying to get into the throne room we already done sealed up. So they’re like “there they are, let’s kill em.” So they come running up the stairs and I’m like, “I got this,” and start blastin away. I’m in a fury by this point, mind you. Dudley took off again looking to rescue the little royal and Varas locked all the doors behind us as we went. Then alla sudden there’s a room with five robots, one of them really big and tough, and two floaters sittin there. The Regent, the little king and some lady are there too. Now by this time, I’m still in a fury, mind you, but I’m gettin tired and could use a sit down and a cigarette. Not sure what happened first, but I think Siku was like controllin the big robot, and Dudley was fightin the others and I feel that floater tryin to get into my mind and I’m like, “fuck off little fat fuck,” and I shot my cannon at one of them floaters and it popped like a meat ballon, and some of the splosion got on the little king and then the Regent dove on top of the kid to like shield him. I think the lady got sploded too. A robot kept wailin on me and I was like,”I think I gotta go lie down a while,” and then I think Varas and Siku both gave me some kinda shot cuz then I was feelin a whole lot more lively. Dudley got up there and pushed that Regent and baby king outta the way and wailed on a robot and then somethin real bad happened and his axe girlfriend turned to ice and shattered into a million pieces. And then right before the last floater was gonna get out his cube and vanish I popped off another shot and nailed him before it could. I was hopin the robots would like not know what to do without the floaters, but they did and we had to keep fightin. Siku used his boss robot to finish them off. Not sure what’s next, but I’m hopin you grabbed the rest of the red powder from that smorgasboard, cuz I’ll be damned if I didn’t drop my to-go pouch somewhere. Probly we’re gonna grab that king and Siku is mutterin somethin about “now’s I’m gonna walk him off the void chasm.” I hope he don’t mean the little king, as he din’t do nothin to Siku.

Compost Bin Plans

I am not a gardener (although Mrs. Filbanto is…), but being a conscientious steward of the environment I do have a compost bin to dispose of food scraps and the occasional halfling corpse. Containing the waste helps keep it away from the wargs too. It really sucks when they barf all over the dungeon.

I figured I’d share my plans with folks in case they are as cheap as I am and don’t want to pay for some. These are designed to sit on our existing garden beds. I think they would be too short “as is”, so you may need to fiddle with the design a bit to meet your needs. Full disclosure, I haven’t built one yet. Just came back from the Home Despot… They are out of 1x6s and the rest of their wood looks crappy (big surprise, huh?). I built a “scaled up” model of this about 10 years ago, but it is showing its age.

There’s a materials list in the drawing. I’m not sure if the scale will work on the image, but the bins are 4x2x2 feet and do not have a bottom. To assemble, build some 2×2 foot squares out of the 1x3s. Cut the 1x6s to length (either 4 or 2 feet depending on the side) and assemble them on the frame. Manually space them to get them even. My recollection from the first one was I left about a 3/4″ gap between the boards. Remember, you’re just throwing rotting food in them, they don’t need to be perfect. The doors are just boards attached to the 1x2s. Once you get them assembled you position them on the openings and screw the hinges in place. Now that I read that, it sounds pretty confusing… Hopefully the picture will work better.

Alien RPG: Liars & Shadows, Act 3 – Finale

We left off with the group standing outside a pair of double doors. Miller had passed out stims or talked us down so stress was pretty low. Addie had gotten a ping off the motion track from 20-25 meters beyond the doors. Monroe and Padilla try to open the doors quietly. KA-CHUNK! We catch a glimpse of what looks like a hydroponics facility and suddenly this things comes screaming across the room.

Everyone opens up, tearing it apart with bullets. Rye puts the killing blow on it with her bolt gun. We all had a laugh about this. Rye is not a combat character, but she’s turned into the Ripley of the party as far as killing monsters goes…

We find a Marine, Cpl. Shakeel Giles, holed up behind some tables in this room. (We had one too many players so the GM inserted an extra PC.) He’s been cowering up here with the remains of his squad mate hoping that thing would leave. We give him the skinny and he’s more than happy to join our merry band for a ticket off of this rock. His buddy was carrying an incinerator and Monroe appropriates it since his shotgun is kind of pants against anything with armor.

Addie is still getting that ping from deeper in the complex. We hit the next door and it opens into a partially collapsed room with more hydroponics equipment. There are doors to the right and left. We can hear screaming coming from the door to the right. It sounds like someone is in trouble! Rye wants to help them, but Miller says: “No. It’s too late for them.” We decide to check out the room without an obvious monster first. It looks like a living chamber and again, the ceiling has partially collapsed. We see a narrow fissure through the rubble and Abbie thinks she can squeeze through. Being brave adventurers, we let the teenage girl take point. She wiggles her way into what looks like a bathroom. “Hey, there’s another door in here.” After a bit of work from Rye – widening and reinforcing the tunnel – we get through.

The whole complex is structurally unsound. There area occasional groans and creaks and some of the rooms we explore are partially collapsed. We find more living quarters, a mess hall, some sort of methane processing room that is swimming in pig shit, a loading dock area with a (broken) lift up to the surface and the comms center. Finally! We’ve also found enough parts to repair the Demeter – too bad our ride is broken and we’d be killed by solar radiation before we made it back to the miner’s camp. Oh, the biggest score of the night was 3 grenades. We hand one each to Miller, Padilla and Monroe.

Rye and Addie look over the comm station and (you guessed it) it is broken. We think we can repair it, if we can find the parts. They should be in a room nearby. Conveniently, there is door leading out of this room. Yes, it looks like it leads to the only part of the complex we haven’t explored. You know, the part of the complex where the monster is! Addie uses the motion tracker and yep, it’s still there. She’s pretty sure she can open the door more quietly than Monroe or Padilla. We line up around the door. Addie’s player makes her role and starts freaking out. You can’t blame her, this is what she sees:

Miraculously, we manage to go before this thing. Monroe, Padilla and Miller all drop grenades on it. Ka-boom!

We house-ruled grenade damage to be a flat 9 damage if caught within 5 meters of the blast. Up to 20 meters from the blast you took 9 dice of damage. Armor and cover worked normally. This really pumped up the lethality of the grenade. I don’t think it unbalanced things too much. The monster still put up a hell of a fight. I’m wondering if frag grenades should do 6 at 5m & 6 dice up to 20m and offensive grenades (HE, not frag) should do 9 at 5m.

Addie and Giles take some shrapnel from the blast. Poor Addie’s arm is broken, but Giles armor keeps him alive. Giles starts stabilizing her. The creature let’s out a blood-curdling scream and charges across the room. Half the party is freaking out due to the noise and even though Rye and Miller are keeping their shit together, stress levels are through the roof. The creature reaches the door – it’s too big to get through – it’s also strong enough to just make the door wider! It hits Miller and sends her flying. Rye moves around to cover Addie and Giles with her bolt gun. “Time to put this fucker down.” She thinks. Click. “Oh shit, out of ammo.” Monroe finally recovers and lets rip with the incinerator. The thing screams in pain and a few seconds later literally explodes in a shower of black goo. Time for more Stamina rolls – I’ve (wisely) saved Rye’s last story point for this moment.

After taking some time to cool down, we search the room, finding the parts we need to repair the comm center. Rye and Addie patch things back up and we get a signal from Danko (the pirate). “What the fuck is going on?” We fill him in as best we can. Danko tells us that he’s got his engines back on line, but he’s still shot to shit. He gives us coordinates for the Marine corvette and asks us to light it up with some ground-based missiles he’s installed near the base. “Yeah, we’ll get right on that.” Rye replies.

Addie gets the sensors online and does a system scan. We get a ping on the Montero. It’s hidden nearby in an asteroid cluster. Monroe takes the controls and sets a course for its shuttle to come down and get us. The radio squawks and Danko is screaming at us. “You fucks! You’re dead. I’m coming down there to kill you!” He seems pretty pissed off that we are stealing back the ship he took. “OK.” Rye replies. “We’ll be waiting for you on the landing pad.” Click radio to off. “Hey Giles, here’s the coordinates to that pirate ship you guys have been after. How about giving them to the Corvette?” He complies.

Monroe has been turning a deeper shade of green during this exchange. “Guys, I’m not feeling so good…” Suddenly his back splits open as gory spines emerge. He turns on us enraged with the incinerator! We luck out on initiative again. Everyone opens up on Monroe and he goes down under a hail of bullets.

Nobody was eager to backtrack through the complex. We go up the lift shaft and cut back over the mountains to get to the landing area. It is bright outside and I mean BRIGHT. More Stamina roles to avoid the radiation, but the group sticks to the shadows and finally crests a rise just in time to see a ship coming in hot. Then we see a pair of missiles streaking towards it. A brilliant explosion, a distant rumble and that’s all she wrote for pirate Danko.

Beyond all expectations most of the party survived. We’ve got the Montero back and it’s loaded with Helium-3. We’ve made an enemy in Ruth Santos by abandoning the Demeter. There’s probably another adventure in there somewhere.

So, is this really the end? Only Icculus knows…

We Should Play Nice

Greetings Filbanto Stew readers! Icculus here. I’m going to first preface this post by saying this is my opinion, not necessarily Filbanto’s. 

In a previous post, Filbanto reviewed a game which included a link to the X-Card tool, created in (as near as I can gather) 2013 by John Stavropolous. I had run across the name of the tool and it’s general concept before, but had never actually read any details of its use in RPG games. This probably puts me squarely into a particular demographic of “RPG gamer of a certain age.”  I don’t like to think of myself as old or old-fashioned, and having just recently had another birthday, I determined that it was time for me to look into this “newfangled idea.” For those of you who, like me, were unfamiliar with X-Card, the idea at the heart of the tool is that participating in a RPG game is a social activity that should be fun and emotionally safe for all participants. Its use involves the GM introducing the idea to the gaming group that any player at any time, if they are uncomfortable with game content or plot that has transpired can display the X-Card (literally a card with an “X” written on it), a simple, even silent request for the awkward or offending game content to be edited/removed/evolved, for any reason, with no questions asked. That idea has now been around long enough that we should have some sense of the need for it and for its efficacy. Looking into it a little, X-Card hasn’t vanished into obscurity, but has gained momentum and popularity for game groups, not only in North America, but worldwide wherever RPG games happen. I could foresee a day when it, or an idea similar to it, is part of every new RPG game published. And after some reflection about it, I think that would be a good thing. 

I almost hate to admit that my initial reaction to the X-Card concept was, “well that seems a little unnecessary and over the top.” Again, this probably dates me. As a point of reference for you, and in order to explore my initial response to the X-Card concept, please indulge me a moment in tracing the history of my involvement with RPG games. It goes way back the era of scantily-clad-heroines-in-distress and chainmail-bikini-clad-warrioress paintings of Boris Vallejo, and the racial stereotypes of first edition D&D (orcs=ugly and stupid, dark elves=evil, dwarves=grumpy and money grubbing, etc.) So, for me, coming up during the 70’s and 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance or emotional consideration involved with playing RPG’s. At that time, it never really occurred to me that girls or women would even want to take part in such an activity. I guess, to their credit, the 1940’s and 50’s born white suburban (or small town) men who created D&D in the 1970’s did at least include some artwork of female characters, and the rules they wrote didn’t distinguish between sex or gender in terms of statistics and attributes the way they did with character races. Nowhere that I recall in 1E D&D did it state that female dwarves had to have beards or that female elves were smaller and had a lower strength score than males. But neither did those guys choose to depict characters who were queer (I am using “queer” as a reclaimed term, inclusive to refer to those who fall outside of cisgender or heterosexual identities—NOT as a pejorative!!), or black- or brown-skinned, or who had Asian features. I don’t believe that the intention of those game publishers was to deliberately exclude groups of people, simply that inclusion just wasn’t a thing most people thought of then, especially for something as “trivial” as a game. Nor was diverse representation common in much published fantasy or sci-fi literature we had access to then, which inspired our games.

My own personal horizons expanded hugely when I escaped the suburban middle class world I grew up in to attend an urban university and study art and theater. Coincidentally, the world was changing as well. AIDS activism and gay rights became a public discussion. There at college, I got to meet people who were different from me, and got to play games with a bunch of them. 

One group I played with was made up largely of guys (yes, all men) who were theater actors and members of a comedy improv group. Those were some of the most hilariously unpredictable and absurd game sessions I ever experienced, but ultimately it was still a group of people from backgrounds pretty much like mine, using current fantasy and sci-fi novels as models for the storytelling. The odds that one of us would be likely to really offend another, or to go down a path that was untenable for another player were lower because we shared a similar background. We spoke the same “game language” and so had few, if any, misunderstandings about game content, or what lines should not be crossed. Truth be told, there weren’t many lines that weren’t crossed at some point.  

Another group I played with in college was made up of roughly half queer members, which, in all honesty, , seemed like it was reflected in the game content almost not at all. The games we played were still heavily influenced by the fiction of the time, which was all hetero-normative (with a few scif-fi exceptions I can think of) and only just beginning to contain a larger share of female protagonists. I don’t remember any specific examples of anyone in that game group being offended or uncomfortable with the content of the games we had, but I’d be willing to bet that was because there weren’t any specifically queer characters or story-lines being explored. It was most likely (in retrospect, I’m guessing) a case of the queer players not “rocking the boat” by introducing queer themes into the game. In fact, this was probably the most “normal,” traditional fantasy-themed of any group I’ve played in. This was the late 80’s/early 90’s (tough to recall too many details of the games we played) and that is only my speculation about what took place back then.

A little later, one of the most memorable groups I gamed with was comprised of people with backgrounds that were different than mine. They were a trio transplanted from the Deep South, to the Midwest for school and work. They were a married couple, both openly bisexual, she very “Goth” and Wiccan, and he basically a tobacco chewing good ol’ boy who wore plaid shirts, a long ponytail and a ragged ballcap, always. And their roommate, a gay man who worked as a chemist (who always brought to mind a young Truman Capote). All very intelligent, creative people. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend who soon after left town for grad school. Every time I went to this trio’s house for a game session, I knew something truly weird and unique was going to happen. In this group, I was the odd one. And I enjoyed that. The storyline of the D&D game we played took place all within one huge city, and had the party (comprised of evil-aligned, often scheming characters, kept in check by mutual fear of our boss) working for a wealthy patron who ultimately turned out to be a vampire lord, who at one point had the party drink a potion to become undead so we could carry out a mission on the Negative Plane of Existence. The DM wove this whole weird, dark story completely out of thin air (or at least I hadn’t read anything remotely like that she could have borrowed from.) There were endless explorations and detailed drawings for a tower stronghold we designed and built, down to the secret passages, deadly traps and furnishings therein, and by one player, super meticulous accounts of the extravagant apparel his character designed (complete with watercolor sketches) (yes, it was the gay chemist, okay?) All in all, it was a bizarre and wonderful experience that I still think about almost 30 years later. 

What’s my point in going down this memory lane? 

First, that gaming with people who come from similar backgrounds to you can be really, really fun. 

Second, that gaming with people who come from different backgrounds from you can be really, really fun.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, to seek to join a diverse group. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t done it as often as I should. The likelihood for a heterogeneous group to experience something really unique and eye-opening exists. And to have our eyes opened is good for us. Intuition tells me that gaming groups, like the world at large, are becoming more diverse. And as a result, the chances that someone might be made uncomfortable by the game content increases. Groups from diverse backgrounds don’t necessarily come equipped with a common “game language” of shared experience or even a contextual body language for communicating any discomfort that might arise. I can see where an X-Card might be really useful for a diverse group of people who aren’t as familiar with each other and each others’ backgrounds, as a tool for broaching the subject. If the alternative is a player biting the bullet, not having fun, experiencing discomfort or pain, or even feeling traumatized, and maybe ultimately needing to leave the group, then the group as a whole suffers. A simple edit of the story might be enough to move past it and prevent that discomfort. 

Also, since we live in a time when we are (or should be) aware that we need to be more open about emotional and mental health issues, the X-Card could be just the ticket to initiate a difficult conversation, or at least acknowledge the fly in the ointment. There are bound to be in-game triggers for discomfort, fear, or anxiety from traumas people have experienced in real life. I don’t believe that people today are experiencing more trauma than they used to, merely that we are better at recognizing it and more aware that we need to talk about it in order to conquer it, or at the very least manage it. Talking about mental health is not easy, so here’s a tool to make it easier. That’s a positive shift for all of us. 

An offshoot (an essential one, if you ask me) of the X-Card, the O-Card, encourages players (and the GM) to use the opposite O-side of the card to approve of game content, a signal to encourage more story in the same vein. Our game group uses a similar convention, the “red chip” (a red poker chip or its virtual equivalent) that the GM awards to players for developing fun game content. Players can also share “red chips” with other players (and by the same “token,” we should probably be sharing them with the GM as well) to encourage fun storylines. The red chips can be “spent” on a re-roll and to avoid “GM-intrusion” (for a fumbled dice roll most commonly) in the storyline. We all need encouragement and positive strokes in life, right? Here’s a specific way to show that we appreciate someone’s creativity and contribution to the shared game.

I’m glad our society is evolving and the gaming community is coming along with it, if not pioneering it in some ways. Thanks to Mr. Stavropolous for creating this needed tool. As I write this, I just saw a blurb about a wheelchair-accessible dungeon adventure that WoTC is publishing for D&D. How cool would that be for a kid who uses a wheelchair to at least have that content available to game with? With a little thought about other people, we can include them in our fun. As a straight white suburban male, RPG games were originally created for specifically for me. Now we can and should share the joy of gaming with everyone who wants to join in.

Thank you for indulging my musings on the X-Card and gaming in general. I feel so grateful to be part of a RPG and boardgame community. Gaming is one of the things in my life that makes me happiest, and I am old enough and (questionably) mature enough not to feel self-conscious about that. For a big chunk of my adulthood, I had set aside gaming as something that “grownups” did not partake in, as too “trivial” for the real world and its real problems. What a loss! From here on out, I’m doing my best to make up for that lost time by saying “yes” to as much shared game experience as I can.

Alien RPG: Liars & Shadows, Act 3B

Our GM keeps telling us that we’ll finish the scenario “that night”, but we still haven’t wrapped up. Now I get why “Liars” is in the scenario title:-)

Last week we had entered a pirate complex. It was converted from an old mining works. The portion we had explored was shaped like an “H”. The entrance was in the lower right leg. We went in, turned left at the first intersection, turned left again into what looked like a crew lounge where we had a big battle with some terrible mutant. We had not explored either of the upper passageways. We picked up the game from here.

The characters are all catching their breath from the fight. Miller is trying to calm some of them down when Addie gets pings on the motion tracker. Multiple bogeys coming from both of the upper passages. After a collective “oh shit” we decide to get the hell out of Dodge. We’ve got no place to retreat where we are now. We make it to the first “T” intersection when the mutants hit us. Four of them:

The Marines are brining up the rear and open up on the things. We decide to “shoot and scoot”. I’m pretty sure Rye pegged that centaur-looking thing with her bolt gun for 6 points of damage and it was hardly phased. They jumped the Marines and brought them down. The rest of us hauled ass towards the entrance. The best part of this combat was Miller’s character tried to trip up Fowler during the panicked dash outside. Her player flubbed both the original roll and the push. He used s story point to make it happen. As it was, this tactic probably saved the original crew. We all got outside and tried to pile into the Daihotai tractor.

Here’s where the game system let us down. The Marines were overwhelmed in hand-to-hand combat and the GM decided that Pvt. Asaph would pull a “Gorman/Vasquez” and set off a grenade. He rolls 9 dice for blast power and not one success.

The grenade rules need some serious help, or we interpreted them incorrectly. I’d like to house-rule that grenades do their blast damage (e.g., 9 points) to anything in the square it lands in and immediate surrounding squares. They do 3 points to anyone up to 20 (?) meters away. Armor and cover can be used to mitigate damage.

Padilla lost it and ran off to hide in some of the crates. Miller was behind the wheel of the Daihotai. When she saw that Padilla wasn’t going to make it, she gunned it and smashed into one of the mutants. We reverse and holler at Padilla to get into the car. Now Monroe opens up on the mutants with our plasma gun and (you guessed it) “click” out of ammo. He loses his shit and goes berserk. “Rye, I’m going to kill you!” Rye, retreats into the rear of the tractor to get away from Monroe. Addie freaks out and jumps out of the truck running as fast as she can move. Miller jams it into drive and hits another mutant. Basically, we ended up killing all of the damn things by running them over. Monroe and Addie had gone catatonic by the time the battle was over.

We gathered up enough stims to get everyone calmed down and assess the situation: The Marines are dead. Monroe went in to check on Fowler and we hear shotgun blast. Fowler’s dead, his head blown off so he won’t come back as a mutant and Monroe has more of the black goo on him (and guess who failed his Stamina roll this time…). We don’t have the parts we need to repair our ship. Our Daihotai isn’t running anymore. Oh yeah, remember that we are going to all be cooked alive when the planet turns to face the dual suns? Yeah, that’ll happen before we can get back to the mining colony in our mostly destroyed tractor…

We go back into the complex. We really don’t have any other option. We take the right passage this time and come into a kitchen/dining area. The place looks like an abattoir. Dead bodies, blood and some of that goo all over the pace. We take a passage off to the right and find the reactor room and an armory. The door to the armory has been blocked off due to a cave-in. Rye and Padilla manage to get the reactor started, so at least we can see now. We head back down and determine we’ve pretty much explored this level, but there is a ramp leading down to a sub level. We end the game looking at a big set of doors and Addie noticing a ping on the motion tracker.

Review: The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game

TL/DR: Buy if you are a fan of the novels.

One of the cool things about Christmas is you’ll occasionally get a present you’d forgotten you’d even put on your “wish list”. This is how The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game made its way into my collection. In case you are unfamiliar with Brian McClellan’s work, the Powder Mage series postulates a fantastic world where magic exists alongside technology similar to the Napoleonic period in Europe. I read the first trilogy set in this in this world several years ago. They are well worth a read. A Kickstarter for a Savage Worlds roleplaying game set in this world was done back in the Fall of 2016. I had weaned myself off jumping on every RPG Crackstarter by then, but always intended to pick up a copy.

My copy was from DrivethruRPG. It is a 6×9-inch, full color paperback. For the most part, the art is nice. There are some really good maps that have appeared in the novels. The size of this game limits their utility for actual gaming, I’d love to have larger copies of these, even if in PDF form. Much of the art looks like “watercolor sketches” of the various peoples of this world. The artist has concentrated on the military uniforms and this is a great choice, both given the nature of the Powder Mage stories and because the uniforms are quasi-Napoleonic in design. Most of the art appears a little dark, or “muddy”. I think this is less an issue with the art itself and more due to the paper quality and printing process.

The game begins with brief introductions from Brian McClellan (who I think did most of the work on the background chapters) and Alan Bahr (who I am guessing wrote all the rules). After that we get four pages on how to be a GM in this universe, including a page and a half about using the X-card. It is an interesting tool and could be useful for some groups Given the stuff that is missing from the game, it would have been nice to spend less space on it. The last two pages of the chapter are a concise overview of the Powdermage universe.

Character Creation is the next chapter. I haven’t played Savage Worlds in years, but it looks like you generate characters pretty closely to the core rules. There are no non-human races in this game. Characters do get some starting skills, based on their homeland, to add a little variety to the game. There’s a new skill, Third Eye, which characters with arcane backgrounds have access too. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it onto the character sheet. There are also two prohibited skills, Driving and Piloting, but (you guessed it) they are on the character sheet… Next we dive into the rules for the new arcane backgrounds. Powder Mages gain their abilities by ingesting blackpowder. The rules handle all the “normal” abilities that I recall from reading the novels (faster, stronger, more observant and able to do amazing things with a firearm). The special abilities that Taniel and Tamas have are not discussed. Privileged are very similar to mages in other games. The conceit of this universe is they can reach into “The Else” and manipulate reality. They must where special gloves to do so, or they will burn their hands on the raw magic. Knacked are characters with special abilities. For the most part this means they have an Advantage. Many of the Knacked advantages, like Darkvision, would not require an arcane background in other games. The final arcane background is the Magebreaker. These are characters who gave up the ability to be Privileged, but can instead suppress magic if they are near to the caster. You’ll notice there are no rules of “Bone-eyes”, the type of magic that Ka-Poel uses. This type of blood-magic is supposed to be rare and powerful, but it is a shame that we didn’t get a hint about how to run a character like this. The chapter rounds out with a few rules changes for the game (update to Shaken which always seems like a contentious condition in Savage Worlds) and tables for weapons. I’m going to go off on a little rant about this section: there are no Muskets only Rifles. My bet is Mr. Bahr doesn’t know what the distinction is, but it is important in a game using this technology. Muskets should have shorter range and be quicker to reload than rifles. Also, the melee weapon table is predominantly a list of medieval weapons. I don’t think anyone was swinging a great sword in these tales and there is no entry for a bayonet – a crucial weapon for armies of this period.

The next three chapters: Nations of the Nine, Lands Beyond the Nine and A Brief History of the Nine contain the background and history for the world of Powder Mage. I’m spending the smallest part of the review on this section, but honestly this is the best part of the book. The chapters form excellent reference material for fans of the novels and give a lot more details on some of the nations and peoples that the novels have only touched on. I really loved the “current schemes” sections and all the adventure fodder they contained.

The Pregenerated Characters chapter was a considerable let down. It looks unfinished. There are five characters, but they are just the stats, hindrances, etc. There are no names, background or sketches to go with them. Each of the characters takes a full page up in the book, but half of that page is blank. As is, this chapter feels like a waste of space. If the characters had been named and had a background fleshed-out they could be handed out to players for a quick gaming session. Even if we were only to get the stats, these characters could fit two to a page to avoid the white space.

The final chapter, Adventures, has four scenarios for the game. I’m always happy when a game book includes some sample scenarios. Even if I don’t use them “as is”, they give you ideas on how to structure your own scenarios. Each scenario looks like about a single session’s worth of play. None of them really knocked my socks off. They felt a little unfinished and the endings… Well, there were so many loose endings that the GM would need to do a lot to resolve them. I’ll give an example. (I can’t figure out how to do “spoilers” in wordpress, so I’ll change the background to black. Highlight the next paragraph and hopefully you can read it, but only if you don’t plan on playing the first scenario.)

Spoiler:

The first scenario is a murder mystery. A nobleman has been murdered. When the characters track down the killer they discover that he was not murdered. He has a Knacked ability to switch appearance with another person. He faked his own death because his sister was trying to poison him. Well… He is still a murderer and there is no information on checking out the story about his sister the poisoner. The premise of this adventure is really interesting and I think it could be made to work. First, let’s make the nobleman a more sympathetic character. Instead of him murdering someone and switching identities, what if he was attacked and killed the assailant while defending himself? Seeing an opportunity, he switches identities with his attacker. He has a manservant who can vouch for the story and the characters could try to locate a Knacked that can detect lies if they still don’t believe him. Now we can move onto the sister… What if she was getting tired of failed poison attempts and hired that thug to murder her brother? They find evidence of it… Maybe a handwritten note explaining where to collect payment? The nobleman suggests switching appearance with the character with the best social skills to talk to his sister and get her to admit to the deed. Of course, the sister wants no loose ends and has planned to get rid of the assassin. She springs an ambush after admitting the deed and all hell breaks loose.

I’ve already mentioned problems with the character sheet; it is also nearly too small to be usable. The lack of rules for Bone-eyes is disappointing. All magic in Savage Worlds uses the same mechanic, so we really just needed the types of spells that blood magicians can utilize and some ideas for “trappings”. The lack of information on Wardens is a real oversight. They play a significant role in the novels and stats for these sorcerously-warped beings should really have been included. Heck, they show one on the cover of the game for Hastur’s sake!

If you are a fan of the series and want more information on the world this game is certainly worth picking up. I don’t think the rules for playing Powder Mages, Privileged, Knacked or Magebreakers are revolutionary enough that they are worth the price alone. This game could have been a lot better and it would have only taken a little polishing on the adventures, characters and inclusion of Wardens and Bone-eyes to take it to that level.

The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game is available at DriveThruRPG.

Review: The Darkening by Chris Sarantopoulos

TL/DR: A good page-turner, but hard to get over the premise.

The Darkening is not a book that I would have normally picked up. I was looking for post apocalyptic fiction in the vein of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series when I stumbled across it. The “back cover” description sounded intriguing and the reviews were generally positive so I picked up a copy.

I want to start with the premise of the novel, because it was the hardest thing for me to come to grips with: light, or rather the shadows cast by light can kill. Imagine this for a couple of minutes… People would have to learn to adapt to complete darkness in order to survive such an environment. You’d need to stay indoors, in a room with no window, except during the night hours when the moon was not in the sky. I couldn’t suspend disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the novel. I kept questioning how people could survive these conditions. Anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a Lego-strewn living-room floor to let their dogs out in the middle of the night understands how utterly dangerous it is to be without any light. Also, you can’t make a fire to boil drinking water or cook food. Even if you didn’t break your leg stumbling around a forest on the first night, you’d probably die of dysentery in a week.

OK. Put that paragraph in a box for a little while and let’s dig into what this novel does well. The first thing that struck me was the excellent portrayal of the main character. John Piscus is a survivor. He’s seen horrible things. He’s done horrible things. He’s filthy, frightened, practically starving to death and he’s batshit crazy. It’s not surprising. He’s been living on his own since the world changed. His personality has fragmented. He constantly plays with his cigarette lighter, but can’t bring himself to light it up and end it all. I simultaneously loved and loathed this character. He was a complete and utter son-of-a-bitch, but the author still managed to portray him as someone you could empathize with. Hastur only knows how far any of us would go to survive if the world ended.

After the author established John’s character, he introduces the big wrinkle. John meets a girl. A girl who glows with a soft light. Light kills, remember? Is she a demon? Is she the ghost of his daughter back to haunt him? John doesn’t want anything to do with her. He tries to drive her off, even threatening her with violence so he can go on with his miserable existence. It doesn’t work and when he finally believes she is not there to hurt him, John begins to regain some of his humanity.

The girl is being pursued by unknown forces. Men who can walk in the light. John reluctantly decides to help her and continually confuses her with his long-dead daughter. The author shows John’s inner turmoil during this portion of the novel. The “survivor” in him wants him to kill or abandon the girl, while the “father” in him is desperate to help her. John is no hero though. He’s barely capable of taking care of himself. He stumbles through the next sections of the novel bringing death and pain to the only people that tried to help him.

I really can’t describe the rest of the book without spoiling it, but I do want to say that it was a real “page turner”. I spent a couple of late nights reading chapter after chapter to find out what the next calamity would be. It’s a bang-up job. Despite my inability to come to grips with the premise, I was drawn into the story and wanted to see where it would go.

Unfortunately, it took a wrong turn. The “big reveal” was another place that I had a lot of trouble suspending disbelief. The main adversary was two-dimensional and seemed a little too much like a mustache-twisting villain in some sections. The final showdown was messy and left of lot of things unresolved. I had come to like the main character despite the horrible things he had done and while there was redemption, the ending of the novel didn’t give me the closure I had hoped it would.

Would I recommend it? Probably no… There are better tales out there. If you are interested in how far someone would go to survive a holocaust, the portrayal of John and many of the other characters in the book would be great source material. Check the library for a copy or if all else fails you can grab it at Amazon.

Alien RPG: Liars and Shadows Act 3A

We continued the Alien game last week. As a reminder, a couple of the characters that survived the Chariot of the Gods scenario are trying to recover the Montero that had been lost at the end of that adventure. We took work as smugglers to a distant star system where the Montero is supposed to be. After a tangle with a Marine Corvette, we crash landed at an illegal mining colony and our smuggling ship, the Demeter, needs parts badly. We needed to travel to a “pirate base” several hundred kilometers away to try and secure parts for our vessel. Marines are on patrol for these pirates and we were pretty sure that they engaged them at their base since we overheard gunfire and screaming when we tried to raise them. Out of options, we decided to drive on over there and see if we could scrounge anything. We were nearing the base when a Cheyenne dropship crested a ridge a few klicks in front of us. We picked up the session from there…

The GM described the dropship as listing and smoking. I think Icculus was really hoping we’d be spoiling for a fight here, but we all decided that discretion was the way to go. We handled the encounter by laying out the starship combat map. I’d made a few tokens for Icculus of some ground vehicles and a dropship. We needed to “sneak” by the Cheyenne by opposing Monroe’s Pilot skill against the dropship pilot’s CommTech. Addie was able to run interference by jamming sensors (when she wasn’t dropping her tablet due to stress). Rye tried to get the pirates to help out, but there wasn’t anything they were able or willing to do for us. After some incredible piloting rolls from Monroe’s player and some lousy sensor rolls from Icculus, we slipped by the dropship and made it to the pirate base.

Addie is our sneakiest character and we sent her out to check out the base. It was basically a landing area in a mountain pass. The base was dug into the mountain face – probably an old mine drift. There were crates and shipping containers scattered about, but she didn’t see any sign of life. We got on the horn with the pirates to see if they would have bolted to a safe location if they were hit and Danko Morrison told us “yep” and gave us coordinates. We decided our best option was to check out the base while it was clear. If we could help ourselves to any supplies we needed and cut out it would be the best option.

We pull up to the front of the base and suddenly three marines pop out from behind an overturned APC and tell us to get out of our vehicle. “Fuck that.” Padilla says cutting loose with the plasma gun. The Marines decided that it wasn’t worth fucking with us since they were so outgunned and they had a wounded man to deal with. Miller and Rye got out to see if they could help. The Marines were Sgt. Pat Yeong, Pvt. Harold Asaph and Cpl. Isa Detroit. While we were trying to patch up their squad-mate (who’s throat was practically torn out), another Marine stumbles out of the pirate base and raises his pulse rifle at Padilla. The gangster opens up with the plasma gun again, making short work of him. As if on cue, the guy with the wounded neck gets to his feet and grabs Yeong in a bear hug. With a sickening crunch, we hear the poor bastard’s spine snap. Rye bolts for our vehicle and Miller follows suit. With the help of the Marines we eventually put down the maddened Marine.

Tensions are running high. Rye thinks we can call down the Montero’s shuttle remotely if we can get the radio in the APC working and if we can find out where the damned ship is. Fowler, one of the men from the mining colony, tells us that this base was their listening post and there should be plenty of sensor and radio equipment inside. If nothing else, we can probably find the equipment we need to repair the Demeter in there. Of course, a squad of nine Marines went into that hole in the ground and the only one to come out started shooting randomly. Something is seriously fucked up in that place…

We make a deal with the Marines: let’s not kill each other, find any survivors and get our asses off this rock. They take point and we head in. The base is in shambles, the interior lit by dim red emergency lighting. It’s hard to see anything and only the Marines have flashlights on their suits… The first thing we encounter is a pair of horribly burnt Marines sitting in a pool of black gunk.

Addie manages to find a motion tracker that has somehow escaped destruction in the mess. We go deeper into the complex and eventually come into the living quarters. Abbie gets a ping on the motion tracker. The jarheads kick open the door. Holy fuck! What is that thing?

After a lot of ineffectual blazing away, Cpl. Detroit finally gets it in the sights of her smart gun and cuts it in half. The thing splatters the whole party (except Rye who was still out in the hallway) with black goo. Stamina saves anyone? Fortunately everyone succeeded, although Monroe needed to use a story point for it (his player is not quite ready to swap out this character for another one I guess).

As you can guess from the title of this post, Act 3 is not quite done. We still need to make our way through this complex without getting killed by horrible mutants or turned into horrible mutants. Oh, did I forget to say the base looks structurally compromised after they lit it up with grenades earlier? Assuming we make it through this deathtrap we need to either loot it for spacecraft parts or find out if the Montero is close enough that we can call in its shuttle for extraction.