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Hey, would this the right place to look for volunteer reviewers? If anyone promises to do a serious review - I'd arrange for complimentary copies to be sent if you chat me and send me an email.
The podcast of this look at Night's Black Agents is available here.
Greetings from a shadowy coffee shop with suspicious customers leaving with someone else’s briefcases. I’ve ordered a latte and a coffee cake and fully expect a secret message in one of them.
Vampires have a prominent place in popular culture. This includes books, movies, series, and so on. The same thing is true of spies and spy thrillers. Writer and game designer Ken Hite combined the two in the form of Night’s Black Agents. This combination is good – it’s like combining chocolate and peanut butter. It’s so natural I’m surprised no one really used it before.
I will review the game’s mechanics before diving into some of the game’s nuances and making irresponsible meta-commentary.
Night’s Black Agents uses the Gumshoe engine. Robin D. Laws developed this game system. Laws and Hite share a long-running podcast, “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.” On the podcast the pair is like someone crossed Professor X and Magneto with Statler and Waldorf.
Laws developed the Gumshoe engine to handle games that involve mysteries. The Gumshoe engine addresses an ongoing issue in RPGs involving finding clues. The characters can miss clues – even obvious ones – based on dice rolls. An archetypal example is the party needs to find a secret door to get into the villain’s lair. But everyone fails in any attempt to find the door because of dice rolls. So they spend hours wandering in a circle around the villain’s living room.
The characters always find clues in the Gumshoe system. They will always find the secret door, the envelope with a map tucked behind the desk, the memory stick hidden in a jar of dry beans, and so on. What they do with the clues is a different matter. The party might follow a false lead. But even falling a false lead means the game and story are in motion (Hite & Laws, 2011-2022).
Gumshoe is a rules-light system. The only dice it requires is a d6. In character creation players choose from a list of skills and abilities. These include computer hacking, driving cars, medicine, etc. A character’s ranks in the skills are marked by points – these are added to the d6 roll. The base difficulty is 4 – the player wants to roll high. It is more likely a character will succeed at a particular skill roll if they have points.
Hite makes some changes to this base system. One of the most exciting changes is the rules in Night’s Black Agents for trust and betrayal. Hite writes that while groups can role-play through trust and betrayal, “…a mechanical system offers reinforcement both in game terms and around the game.” This is to say trust and betrayal cannot be dealt with a handwave – making them rules means they become part of the game’s economics. This system of game economics will involve the entire group because it can involve success and failure at dice rolls. Players must stay alert as the vampires consistently try to turn the characters against each other (Hite, Night’s Black Agents, 2012).
Another interesting aspect Hite provides in the book are the four different modes of play. Night’s Black Agents draws inspiration from spy movies and literature – but there are many kinds of these stories. The Jason Borne movies strike a different tone than the George Smiley movies. Hite provides different modes in the book to allow a Night’s Black Agents game to closely match a specific style. The Dust mode is designed to fit the tone of “Three Days of the Condor,” while the Burn mode matches the vibe of the Borne movies, the Mirror mode matches the tone of the John le Carré books, and the Stakes mode is closer to films like “Taken.” Hite adjusts the rules of Night’s Black Agents for each mode – so these modes are not abstractions but are types of play where the mechanics reinforce the desired tone.
Night’s Black Agents
I will praise the book’s graphic design before diving into the book’s themes. This aspect – which can be overlooked or taken for granted – is good in Night’s Black Agents. Hite covers a lot of proverbial ground in the book. But the text is easy to follow, the table of content clear and thoroughly hyperlinked, and the fonts easy on the eyes. A minor complaint is the chapter on character creation should have appeared after the chapter on the rules. Presenting the rules second is somewhat confusing.
The book uses art well. Art comes from Alessandro Alaia, Chris Huth, and Phil Reeves – and it all helps convey the book’s vibe. The cover art is superb.
In terms of the book as a spy thriller game…
Spy literature in a recognizable form appeared in the early 20th century. It grew from social awareness of how the great nations – mostly of Europe – maneuvered to gain power and did dirty deeds to maintain that power. It also grew from a romanticized view of nationalism (Woods, 2007). Some of these early stories include Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling, The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad, and The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers. Writers kept the genre going in different styles and with different moods. Ian Fleming gave agents style and panache with James Bond. John le Carré gave agents the opposite of style and panache with George Smiley (Polmar & Allen, 2004).
The spy genre has been around for about as long as science fiction. It has also created easily recognizable characters and popular tropes. And it appeared as a genre only a few years after the publication of the novel Dracula.
Hite has said the elevator pitch for Night’s Black Agents is to imagine Jason Borne meets vampires. This combination is a good one. It’s so natural I’m surprised no one really used it before.
Hite has also said Night’s Black Agents is a deliberate pushback against the relative softening of vampires in popular culture. This includes their depiction in the Twilight books and movies, the “True Blood” series, and “The Vampire Diaries.” There has arguably been a cultural shift in how vampires are used and depicted. They were metaphors for slum lords, abusers, and predatory assholes once. Now they are often portrayed as inherently attractive, stylish, and tragically maligned people. People have stopped using vampires as a metaphor for something to destroy – vampires have become an aspirational metaphor. Hite pushes back on that in his use of vampires in Night’s Black Agents. I will get back to this point.
The game starts with the players running characters – called agents – as highly trained and experienced military or intelligence service operatives. Then they discovered vampires are real and involved in politics. The agents are burned as a result: they are considered persona non grata by the office for whom they formally worked. The agents must fight to survive and ideally demolish the scheme the vampires pursue.
The game’s stress on the characters as extraordinary is a minor thematic issue. This concept precludes having “everyman” characters. Some of the best thriller movies involve an average person pulled – often by accident – into a dangerous conspiracy. This includes films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Three Days of the Condor.” Night’s Black Agents expressly cites “Three Days of the Condor” as a source even when it does not help build the everyman character. This worth noting even if it isn’t a major flaw.
Night’s Black Agents is written to encourage play and use. Hite frequently advises the game master – called the director in the book – to anticipate being surprised and support the player’s actions. He writes that “information is only withheld when it makes the story more interesting.” He also notes that a game master should say yes to coolness and go with the players’ ideas or choices that are cooler than the game master. Hite provides a broad and flexible outline for a campaign but is against railroading players into a predetermined plot. He does not place the power entirely in the hands of the director or pit the agents against the director.
The book also provides some solid rules for chases, including on foot, in vehicles, and in three-party chases. Other rules in the book cover many of the actions you might find in a spy thriller, such as fist fights, gun fights, leaping out of things, and carousing. Night’s Black Agents has rules for dealing with agent burnout and even descent into mental illness. This level of detail will not be needed for all possible modes of play – but its inclusion here is good for when it will be required.
Hite provides four possible types of vampires in the book. Night’s Black Agents is home to many options that game masters and players may tailor to suit themselves and their game. The possible types of vampires include the supernatural, the damned, aliens, and mutants. Hite discusses determining the best match of vampire type to game mode. The various powers and weaknesses of the vampires are also detailed.
Night’s Black Agents presents three possible cities for a campaign and a discussion to guide a game master in developing their own city setting. Hite also provides a flexible outline for campaigns. He calls this the “Thriller Skeleton.” Another tool he gives is the “Vampyrimid.” It is another helpful tool for a game master to handle a campaign as it develops even if the name the “Vampyrimid” is twee.
The title of Nights Black Agents comes from Shakespeare. Specifically, Act 3, Scene 2 of Macbeth. It is a scene where Macbeth invokes powers of darkness and evil to fortify him in his evil deeds. “Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse” (Shakespeare, 1601).
The phrase is also the title of a fiction collection by Fritz Leiber in 1947 (Leiber, 1947). A variation, “Night’s Black Agent,” in the singular, is also the title of a thriller by British writer John Bingham (Bingham, 1961). This detail has an interesting wrinkle – I might need a conspiracy board with note cards connected with a spiderweb of string to explain it.
One of the most influential British writers of spy novels and thrillers was John le Carré – the pen name of David John Cornwell. George Smiley is one of his most memorable and reoccurring characters (Harding, 2016). Cornwell served in British intelligence and worked for Bingham. George Smiley is based in part on Bingham (Carré, 2012). The model for George Smiley wrote a book with nearly the same title as this RPG about spies and vampires. It’s all connected – it doesn’t mean anything that it’s all connected aside from some interesting trivia, but it’s all connected!
There are also some interesting etymological connections with the term’s agents and agency. In social science, “agency” is the capacity of individuals to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential (Barker, 2003). Moral agency is an individual’s ability to make moral choices based on right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions. A moral agent can act concerning right and wrong (Angus, 2003). But most intelligence agencies require their operatives to surrender their own individual agency – moral and otherwise – in service to the agency itself. This often happens in fiction. How often it happens in real life is a matter of debate.
Intelligence agencies often function as a kind of secular mystery cult. Again, at least in fiction – how often that happens in real life is a matter of debate. The mystery cults were religious schools of the Greco-Roman world for which participation was reserved for initiates. The central character of a mystery cult is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the ritual practice that were not revealed to outsiders. Members learned more of the secrets as they served the cult and became initiated into leadership circles (Barnes, 1947).
Intelligence agencies – secular mystery cults or not – perform in service of the state. The evil and purported good they do serve the state’s goals. Sociologist Max Weber defined the “state” as a political body maintaining a monopoly on violence. This is a cogent and amoral definition (Cudworth, 2007). French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault wrote that the state “…is no more than a composite reality and a mythologized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think” (Gabbard & Beaulieu, 2005).
As a corollary, the statement from Foucault reminds me of the quote from Game of Thrones, when the character of Littlefinger spoke to Lord Varys, “The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s… a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.”
Hite’s definition of the state includes actual predators for the purposes of this game. To put it another way, the state – or at least some of its apparatus – stands revealed as an abattoir engine run by and for vampires in Night’s Black Agents.
The terms state and society are not interchangeable. But for good and evil, the state can be a defining force in terms of morals, and ethics, in the form of law and law enforcement. People often conflate morals, ethics, and the law. The state also helps to define identity in the formal of nationalism and patriotism. This is relevant here because there are several different story types, including man against man, man against himself, and man against society (Ross, 2003). Night’s Black Agents is a man-against-society game.
Characters in Night’s Black Agents are on the run, opposing the state in many ways and in many ways in opposition to society. Does this make the characters immoral? It might in the “social contract” sense of society if the state and its vampires are the only things that keep chaos away (Hobbes, 2017). It would in a “rational-legal authority” sense, if the rational-legal authority is cold and ruthlessly practical (Gerth & Mills, 1948). So be it. The moral high ground is to oppose abattoir engine rather than feeding it.
That said, Hite should have presented an option where the players run willing servants of the state, seeking out traitors, malcontents, revisionists, and so on. Hite provides other modes and opportunities in the book, including one with no supernatural elements and one for using Lovecraftian cosmic horror in the setting. The book is admirably thorough in most mechanical and thematic aspects. But not supporting a game option where the players run huntsmen serving the state is an issue.
Night’s Black Agents is thoroughly emulative. It is mechanically simple and arguably conceptually simple – it requires players and game masters to be familiar with the genres. But that is not a big ask.
Most works of any kind should be judged by how well they achieve their goals. Hite set a goal for this book of effectively, and compellingly, combining the spy thriller with vampire horror and to make it all an RPG. In this he succeeded.
The core rulebook won Best Game (Silver Award) and Best Writing (Silver Award) at the 2013 ENnie Awards. The game deserved these wins. I am comfortable in saying Night’s Black Agents represents RPGs as art. Hite has done good work welding two genres into a single high-concept game and compellingly presenting them. Reading the book does make me want to play the game. And a central conceit of my series is group buy-in is the deciding factor in an RPG being art. Based on its popular success, Night’s Black Agents does that well.
Angus, T. (2003). Animals & ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate. Ontario: Broadview Press.
Barker, C. (2003). Cultural studies: Theory and practice. London: Sage.
Barnes, E. W. (1947). The rise of Christianity. New York: Longmans Green and Company.
Bingham, J. (1961). Night’s Black Agent. London: Gollancz.
Carré, J. l. (2012). Call for the Dead. London: Penguin Books.
Cudworth, E. (2007). The modern state: Theories and ideologies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Gabbard, D. A., & Beaulieu, A. (2005). Michel Foucault and power today: International multidisciplinary studies in the history of the present. Lexington Books: Lexington.
Gerth, H., & Mills, C. W. (1948). Bureaucracy. In M. Weber, Max Weber: Essays in sociology. London: Routledge.
Harding, L. (2016, September 2). John le Carré: I was beaten by my father, abandoned by my mother. The Guardian.
Hite, K. (2012). Night’s Black Agents. London: Pelgrane Press.
Hite, K., & Laws, R. D. (2011-2022, October 8). Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Retrieved August 2022, from Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: https://www.kenandrobintalkaboutstuff.com/index.php/episode-466-foolish-enough-to-get-near-us/
Hobbes, T. (2017). Leviathan. New York: Penguin Classics.
Leiber, F. (1947). Night’s Black Agents. Sauk City: Arkham House.
Polmar, N., & Allen, T. (2004). Spy Book. New York: Random House Reference.
Ross, E. I. (2003). Write now! Suprising ways to Increase your creativity. New York: Barnes and Nobles.
Shakespeare, W. (1601). The Tragedy of MacBeth. London: Norton Critical Editions.
Woods, B. F. (2007). Neutral ground: A political history of espionage. New York: Algora Publishing.
This is a link to the podcast.
Greetings from the Cheesecake Factory in Doomtown.
The American West – and its violent colonization – assumes a large part of American fiction. This colonizing violence influences most RPGs: if not in the game’s mechanics, then in the narratives that the settings seek to inspire. This is tacitly true of all RPG settings to some degree.
It is most expressly the case in Deadlands, the setting from the Pinnacle Entertainment Group. We will get to the setting in a moment – we first look at the game system for the most recent edition.
The game system called Savage Worlds is the engine the setting currently uses (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2021). This system prioritizes speed of play over detail or arguable realism, and it falls on the emulation end of the simulation to the emulation spectrum. Savage Worlds emulates fast-paced movies, TV programs, and stories with a lot of engaging action. It emulates the mode of high-energy storytelling rather than a specific genre, such as horror or science fiction (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2018).
There are many different game engines. Each resolves game challenges in different ways. It is generally best to compare like to like. So, Savage Worlds is best compared to other game engines that use dice to handle task resolution. These fall in different places along the complexity and simplicity scale. For example, D&D leans towards complication, and more complicated still is Phoenix Command (Leading Edge Games, 1986). Savage Worlds is one of the least complicated systems in this context. Probably only Fate and Gumshoe are less complex systems that still uses dice (Evil Hat Productions, 2013).
Savage Worlds uses a point buy system – a player starts with a set number of points which they distribute to various abilities and skills of the character. Different dice, including 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, and 10-sided, define the characters’ traits. The standard difficulty for tasks is 4. Hitting (to say nothing of exceeding) the four is more likely with a die with more sides. The system provides edges and hindrances, or advantages and disadvantages, allowing players to customize their character. The system also provides bennies, or points used to grant rerolls or other remarkable results.
Most table-top RPGs have systems for adjudicating special powers. This includes magic, impossible science fiction devices, mental abilities, etcetera. The system used by Savage Worlds is one of the cleanest and most elegant. Characters possess a set of power points with which they may use a set of power. The game provides a uniform set of powers used by magicians, mad scientists, priests, and mentalists. The description of the power determines in-game effects. At the same time, the player must describe how the power looks in a way consistent with their character (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2018). This is effective and simpler way than seemingly endless lists of spells and categories in D&D.
The system has other nuances, but that covers the broad strokes. Suffice it to say Savage Worlds is a clean and efficient system. The system works in many genres, including action, science fiction, horror, and high fantasy. So, Savage Worlds is a compelling game system. In 2003 it won the Origins Gamers’ Choice Awards in the Roleplaying Game category (Origins Game Fair, 2003).
The publishers have used Savage Worlds as the default game engine for Deadlands since 2006.
The American frontier, and the violence involved in colonizing the region, have a deep place in American identity. Traditional ways of understanding this colonizing and violence shaped American philosophy and folklore.
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner used the term “frontier” as a model for understanding American culture in his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Turner argued that the frontier was “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” and that this violent process served as the foundation for American identity and politics. This idea did not start with Frederick Jackson Turner. Still, he was the first to organize this as a philosophy and to express it coherently. A part of his thesis included the claim that Native Americans, the terrain, and geography of North America, transformed the pioneers as they moved from the East to the West. The process made the pioneers into individuals prizing freedom and individualism (Turner, 2017). Turner published his essay three years after the American Census Bureau declared the frontier closed.
Turner’s thesis has influenced American rhetoric and thinking until today. Pushback on his thesis did not begin until World War II. Moreover, significant pushback against Turner did not start until decades later and happened as a part of social movements (Slotkin, 1985).
The supposed closing of the frontier in 1890 and the publishing of Turner’s thesis in 1893 are important dates to American mythmaking because of their proximity to Hollywood movies. Short films featuring Western iconography appeared before the turn of the century, and actual movies with fictional narratives set in the West appeared as early as 1903. The number of Western movies began to decline with the advent of sound in 1927 – it would pick up again later (Nenin & Everson, 1962). However, even in that early period, hundreds of western movies saw production and release. For example, actor Tom Mix appeared in 282 movies between 1909 and 1935 (Oklahoma Historical Society, 2022). This period also saw white and black hats as visual imagery to signal heroes and villains (Mackay & Maples, 2013).
So, movies featuring the West, and western themes and stories, began mass production when the violent colonization of the West was still a living memory. Mix himself had been born in 1880 – a decade before the census declared the frontier closed. Movies helped to disseminate that imagery and iconography to a broad audience. On a related note, Hollywood chose the specifics of the Western because of cheapness and simplicity – the deserts around Hollywood were easily accessible and cheap to use. Turner was right in that the frontier had been a shifting thing across American history. Around 250 years pass between the first enduring European colonies on the East coast in the early 17th century and the end of the American Civil War. About 35 years passed from the end of the civil war to the end of the frontier. Despite that time difference – 35 years after the Civil War versus the 250 years before – the colonization of the Westernmost states looms most prominent in American folklore and imagery. This is because movies disseminated those images, stories, and Turner’s thesis.
All that to say, frontier colonization is part of American culture, and the ideas that come with it can serve as a reflex for many American people. A lot of these ideas appear in Dungeons and Dragons as a result.
Robin Van Gilder points out in a 2020 essay that a necessary part of the colonialist mindset is the myth of available land. This land, and all its resources, are out there and effectively waiting for someone strong to come along, take it, and make use of it. An RPG campaign world is a problem to be resolved by what Turner would call pioneers. Van Gilder writes, “It is not something to be approached as an existing system to be engaged with on an equal social level, but something to be challenged and conquered” (Gilder, 2020). Thor Olavsrud wrote an essay with a similar theme. Olavsrud observes that the difference between our present narratives about the American West and the standard narratives of D&D is that the locals are evil. Drow are evil, kobolds are evil, orcs are evil in addition to being ugly and foul smelling. However, as Olavsrud points out, evil, savage, and unappealing are the same rhetoric used to describe non-whites at the time Turner composed his thesis. As Olavsrud writes, “You don’t really need even to squint to see that these stories are cut from the same cloth” (Olavsrud, 2020). In D&D, the party kills the drow, kobolds, and orcs and takes their stuff. In the frontier, the pioneers kill the Natives and take their stuff – including real estate.
With all that groundwork laid out, we can finally get onto Deadlands.
In 1996 Shane Lacy Hensley published the RPG setting Deadlands, which is expressly the best and worst of the American frontier as a fantasy table-top RPG. Since its inception, the setting has served as a mix of genres, most clearly the western but also horror, action-adventure, science fiction in a steam-punk sense, and fantasy.
The setting of the game is the American West in an alternate history. History is openly the same until 1863 and the battle of Gettysburg. The battle-dead rose as zombies at that point. Zombies at Gettysburg meant more than Robert E. Lee and George Meade saying, “what the fuck.” It meant magic had become possible in the world – broadly speaking, this included steam-punk devices, divinely granted powers, and more. These changes meant the Civil War drug on for an entire decade rather than five years. A magically induced earthquake sunk much of coastal California and left a dense island network behind. A supernatural version of coal called ghost rock appeared and allowed for impossible technical devices. The Union needed a coast-to-coast railroad after the eventual end of the protracted Civil War. That need turned into a protracted shooting war between the companies trying to build that rail line. The Mormons of Utah establish their nation during this chaos, and independent native American nations form in the northern and southern great plains.
Any number of actual monsters began appearing all the while, sinister forces schemed, and the light of Western civilization faded. Because behind the zombies at Gettysburg, the appearance of ghost rock, the sinking of California, and other troubles are four malevolent spirits called the Reckoners. These entities are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the goal behind their manipulations is to end the world. They have powerful servants in the form of a cannibal preacher (now dead), a zombie gunfighter, a mad scientist who is like a much worse version of Rick Sanchez, and a malevolent Native American shaman.
This is the landscape in which the player characters find themselves. A party will usually find themselves grappling with some local problem that in a small in a way that matches the narrative of many old western movies. Except in the Deadlands, threats the townsfolk face are usually not just local bandits but witches, robots, and robot witches. Later the adventures scale up to grander and more terrible things – but that is only a possibility. This edition of the setting mostly avoids epic-scale adventures.
Like most TT RPG books, the 2021 edition of Deadlands discusses using the rules, character creation, provides special rules unique to the setting, information on monsters, and narrative details of the setting. It is also ergodic literature. The prose is clear, though a fake Old West patois sometimes appears. Deadlands provides some novel uses for playing cards, which helped inspire my use of cards in my book Inn Between Worlds.
Throughout the book, the art is striking. It is all full color and does an excellent job of conveying the setting excitingly. Some of the best pieces are the flying ghosts with a train engine on page 78, the zombie bandits on page 100, the Indians killing monster buffalo on page 130, and the werewolf on page 193 (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2021).
Now, we explore the problems with the setting.
The book also permits using Texas Rangers as characters and monster hunters. This is like a game set in the wake of WWII letting players have former SS officers as monster hunters and characters. Gamers can do this but ignoring the catalog of sins is problematic. This is the Rule of Cool trumping the Rule of the Plausible, to say nothing of the Rule of Good Taste. This is a problem that runs through the entire setting.
The strength and presence of the American government are vague in this setting. 1884 is the starting date for the setting – more than a decade after its version of the Civil War ended. It is plausible that the prolonged war preoccupied the military and government. However, that ended more than a decade ago in the setting. Why has this government not responded to a Chinese warlord seizing many of the remaining islands of California? Why is it not at war with the Coyote Confederation? It is silly to assume the military and government are such non-entities 13 years later. This is particularly true in the face of such persistent and dire threats to America’s power and prestige.
The book presents a setting where the American government will tolerate explicit corporate war crimes against American citizens inside its territory with mass casualties – this happened during the rail wars. Either this is an incompetent American government to the point of being a non-entity, or it will abide by any sin against its people to protect its power. Either interpretation changes the tone of the setting. This government cannot control anything or does not give a damn so long as it gets a cut. This has significant implications. For example, if that is the situation then why hasn’t most of the Deadlands not just dissolved into feuding warlord territories?
On a related note, why are the only native groups permitted nations the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa? Why have tribes like the Modoc and Yana not turned the situation to their advantage and seized control of Californian islands?
The setting uses the notion of magic, weird science, and other powers as a mix of large-scale secret and one-off gags. This is implausible. It is vastly more likely that elite circles, business interests, and government officers would attempt to monopolize all these powers. The existence of the powers would be openly known, but not openly available, and made to control the population. It is easy to imagine people like Helena Blavatsky and the Fox Sisters running such companies or agencies. This is when they were alive and claimed to have magical powers.
One of the major villains of the setting is named Raven – the evil Native American shaman. Use of the character in the setting smacks of the “Savage Indian” and the “Magical Native American” tropes. The character seems like one of the worst creations of Robert E. Howard. Running a Native American character is possible for a player. Still, these characters smack of red face, and the book casts the heroic Indians squarely in the “Hollywood Natives” and “Braids, Beads, and Buckskins” ideas of Native American cultures and people.
A meta-level goal of the players is they fight the Reckoners by reducing levels of fear across the countryside. They do this by slaying monsters, defeating bad guys, and making the country a better place. A better place for who is the salient question. The tacit answer is the people who call the west a frontier and are shedding blood to claim and colonize the region.
The book uses the term “frontier” in a Frederick Jackson Turner way. The native Americans use the word “home” and dislike all the illegal immigrants violently moving in. Every small town the party saves from monsters is a town of squatters and land thieves who got that property through violence. This, along with its treatment of Native American issues and the implausible aspects of human behavior in the setting, renders it all shallow.
In short – the setting should be much madder. It strikes a tone where things are familiar enough to be recognizable and strange enough to be interesting. It does this at the expense of exploring the ideas and possibilities of the setting.
For context, Wraith the Oblivion is a challenging game. Deadlands goes out of its way to not be challenging and be thematically comfortable – even when it would make sense for it to be uncomfortable and thoroughly challenging. This prevents it from achieving what it could have in terms of RPGs as an art form. However, credit where credit is due, the setting remains widely popular. It continues to make money for Shane Hensley and the others at Pinnacle Entertainment Group. There is no shame in that position.
But this put me in an interesting position. Temperamentally I cannot say Deadlands is RPG art because it refuses to engage with the more profound questions of the material and even with its premise. However, the thesis of this series is that group engagement is the meaningful quality of RPGs as art. Deadlands is thoroughly popular. So, I must acknowledge that its success should qualify it as an artifact of RPG art to be true to my premise.
However, I would have preferred something tonally closer to watching Django Unchained while on acid, while Deadlands is more like watching Blazing Saddles while drinking.
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Pinnacle Entertainment Group. (2021). Deadlands: the weird west . Chandler, AZ: PEG.
Slotkin, R. (1985). The fatal environment: The myth of the frontier in the age of industrialization. New York: Atheneum.
Turner, F. J. (2017). The frontier in American history. London: Penguin Classics.
Tower of the Rakshasa
An old ruined temple
With gardens green
And shadows lean
There’s dukes and ghouls
Caged imp and snake
There’s thorns and statues
And traps in wait
Vomiter and swan
Doors and treasure
Smoking at his leisure
This module comes with a copy of the Bestiary and D1000 Treasure tables – and contains multiple challenging enemies, a concise and challenging structure to navigate, and more than one way to include hooks to or locations of other adventures.
The module itself is ready made to have a MacGuffin at the end, is entirely conveyed in a single two page spread – which is enlarged for ease of viewing – and is very beautifully illustrated.
This module also includes a page from the Cube World Atlas – the map of the Peacock isles, which has common jungle encounters, multiple islands and what is contained on them, and some info on other adventures contained in the peacock isles.
How many other adventures are contained in two pages?
How many artists know that Rakshasa hands are supposed to be backwards, but still draw them not transposed, as a homage to the original Trampier ad&d picture?
How many adventure modules come with a gigantic D1000 treasure table and a Bestiary of ~468 creatures?
Well, Cube World #34: Tower of the Rakshasa has all these things, and if any of that sounds good, then the 12$ pricetag is a great price.
Some things people might not like:
The map, adventure text, and overall document are small ink drawings – scanned and given a small amount of pretext – So most people will have to look a while and really carefully read in order to not get confused – as there are many small details, and the cost of compacting the adventure makes the image packed with details.
However, as always, the author thinks it all should be legible without any extra gloss but if not: ask the author, he always responds to questions!
While Red and Pleasant Land is a world (psychedelic, psychotic, imaginative) and Vornhein is a tool (urban movement, scenarios, culture), Death Frost Doom is a mood (horrific, crushing despair). This relatively short module can turn your campaign into a post-apocalyptic nightmare — assuming they survive.
I played the 2019 Raggi and Zak S. version which is quite similar to the original.
The scenario is set in Lamentations of the Flame Princess world, but I used it in a Cube World variant and it can work in any OSR where the characters are pretty low level. The adventure is very linear and taut. It begins with the approach, which sets the stakes (innocent village) and the scene (creepy mountain, graveyard, cabin, etc.)
From the creepy cabin, the party will enter an underground shrine and see various horrible things. Nothing bad actually happens but the environment gets grimmer and they begin to learn about what happened here hundreds of years ago.
The final phase has them inadvertently unleashing the zombie apocalypse and quite likely a mega-villain that will make their lives miserable for years to come. They can also choose to die.
You get a map of the area and shrines, the usual adventure stuff, and some nifty black and white art. Not many tables — the one I remember is Effects of the Purple Lotus. The back third has some wonderfully creepy villains. It’s a module not a kit.
Why would anyone want to play this? There are very few player choices, it’s extremely narrow in its range, and you won’t be able to use the tricks twice. But the tone really is special and this was the first module I played that had a long, doom-filled, horrific build-up ending with a cataclysmic finale. It was genuinely creepy. And while I cannot use the module itself, mechanisms like chairs re-arranging themselves, magic paintings that include the heroes, and read-aloud curses that actually work, can fill any adventure with danger and horror.
My party ended up totally depressed and defeated.
The tone is hard to capture, but I’ll do my best:
- It recommended Celtic Frost’s Dying God Coming into Human Flesh. This was apt.
- “Yes touch us, touch as we wallow in filth”,
- “I commandeth the seventy blasphemies, I speak through the worms in the heart of the Grey-Black Star,”
- Write “This is the time of taking. This is the hour of gratitude. This vessel receives the immense disorder” on a piece of paper and give it to the player translating the inscription. If they read it aloud, word for word, each player must save vs Magic, going clockwise from the translator. If they fail they will attempt to commit suicide.
- etc. You get the idea.
This may be the least obvious element, but you can use this module to make dramatic changes in your campaign.
First, the fulcrum of the adventure is a perfect place for whatever mcguffin you are running in your campaign. If any of the characters have a Quest, the item that fulfills that Quest should be in the High Alter. Good news is they fulfill their quest. Bad news is they unleash hell. I always struggle with how to deal with long-term quest objects and this was a useful solution.
Second, once they unleash the zombie apocalypse, assuming they survive, you now have a world filled with zombies! They can destroy towns, burn down villages, and reduce the surround area to a dangerous, feral wasteland. Old alliance can be torn asunder, foes can find themselves on the same side. If you feel your world has gotten a little stale this can reboot the entire area. My major city, Vornheim, now lies in ruins. I guess they cannot return there for a while.
Lastly, they will probably make a deal with an extremely evil undead mastermind and set him free. After 700 years he’ll be eager to learn about this new world, and then start scheming. You can bring him back whenever you like in the future.
To summarize, what looks like a narrow story is actually a flexible module you can use to move your campaign into a new period. Tie up loose ends, shake up the landscape, and kick off whole new problems. And it’s metal.
Hello, we are looking for reviews a new system. We created a system from the ground up call tyrants conquest that is a d100 rollover system we would love for you to review. Would anyone be interested in that?
Elevator pitch* We have built a d100 rollover system geared toward ultimate customizability. Everything in our system uses the same mechanics so it become intuitive very quickly. You will only need a set of percentile dice and a d10 to play. We use 81 classes that you use like legos to make your organic character grow over the course of an adventure. We also have two distinct ways of casting spells using mana and channeling. A lot of people are excited about our simultaneous rounds and customizability of equipment. We would love to hear your thoughts
Vornheim has delivered more hours of play per page than any other module I’ve run. It clocks in at just 64 pages, but my party has spent 3 months running through this grey maze without exhausting the adventure possibilities. If you want to learn how to run city adventures, Vornheim is for you. If you want a generic city you can turn in Lankhmar, Ankh Morpork, or any particular DnD city of your choice, Vornheim is for you. If you want to get beyond modules, and get a toolkit that lets you create and improvise on the fly, going wherever the party takes you, and ratcheting up tension and consequences all the way, Vornheim is for you.
The book outlines the city of Vornheim, fills it with a cast of characters, architecture, and methods for generating layouts and neighborhoods quickly. It’s filled with encounter tables, backstory you can pick from, and a rich environment of intrigue, mystery, and corruption. It has a handful of maps and adventures you can weave into any campaign all of which are fun and characterful. You have so many pieces to play with, it’s easy to create adventure after adventure and tangle the party ever deeper into the factions and politicking of this great city.
It has four major maps, all of which are useful.
The first is an area map situating Vornheim south of Nornrik (where Frost Bitten and Mutilated takes place) and Death Frost Mountain (where Death Frost Doom takes place) so if you want to extend the adventure, or have events up north impact the city, you're all set. It also has the city south of Gaxen Kane, so if you want to introduce goblins, or move the campaign to a more Mediterranean setting that's easy as well.
The city itself is built around the twin power centers of the Eminent Cathedral and the Palace Massive, both rendered in beautiful, evocative detail. Whether these two play a direct or indirect role in the adventure, the Church and Nobility can be ever-present.
The sample maps include the House of the Medusa, who was a major character in my campaign, the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, which I renamed the Black Menagerie, and the Library of Zorlac. House of the Medusa is straightforward but potentially deadly for low level characters, and can be played as a heist. Ping Feng is rather bizarre but very flexible and easy to weave into campaigns. The Library is too difficult/dangerous to treat as a straight dungeon, but libraries and rare book collections are excellent campaign mechanisms, especially if your party is bookish, and it's been at the center of my story.
Vornheim, as described, has enough color and detail to make it feel distinctive, but at the same time is a generic location that you’ve read about or played a million times. This means it is much easier to run than the wildly imaginative, but far more alien, Red and Pleasant Land. The rivalries are easier to dream up, and the adventures run on a logic of greed, ruthlessness, and ambition vs the illogic of madness, dreams, and horror that drives Volvodja (RaPL). Atmospherically then, Vornheim is straightforward to run as the stakes are clearer, the danger more sharply defined, and the psychology more familiar than the fun-house mirror of terror that characterized RaPL.
The beginning of the book has "oddities of the city" aka Vornheim lore, and while I cannot imagine running a campaign where I incorporate every one of these, it's easy to just pick one or two and make a session feel special. They are also full of adventure hooks. Some examples:
- "Vosculous Eeben is the current Duke Regent. Like most who have donned the Three Beaked Mask of the Regent, he is a vain compromiser, given to fits of solitary drinking..." OK, so who is the real power behind the throne?
- "The stranger and most common form of theatre in Vornheim is descended from the brutal opera of the Reptile Men, and requires actors to both improvise within roles and engage in ritual combat at crucial moments..." this was a setting for a whole adventure, and included a public appendectomy.
- "Vornheim is home to a dizzying variety of festivals but only two are celebrated throughout the city: the Day of Masks where everyone must wear a disguise (which supposedly fools the Demon of the Eightfold Wind into believing Vornheim is a different city entirely and therefore ignoring it..." which turned into a masquerade ball, ending in murder. And of yeah, the Demon is going to show up at some point.
You get the idea.
The real power of this book is how it’s filled with explicitly generative mechanics that show you how to create a city on the fly. It’s setup as a rats nest of possibility, so when you enter a building why not roll for number of rooms, how they are laid out, what’s in each one, who is guarding it, what stores are available, who runs them, etc? If you are comfortable improvising, you can create all the detail you need, on demand, at every level from a neighborhood, to an aristocratic clique, to a particular tower block. My players know that anything is possible, everything has consequences, and only the dice know what’s going to happen next. Every strange and unexpected outcome has consequences, often unintended, and it’s easy to setup a rhythm of but/therefore between story beats that will give you and your party a DnD game unlike any you’ve experienced before. These principals extend far beyond Vornheim and will make you a better DM.
- You can just roll on the front cover (literally) with a d4 and generate NPCs
- You can roll on the back cover (literally) and generate combat outcomes
- You're in a city so you need aristocrats. Roll on the aristocrat table to generate as many as you need, and on the NPC connection table for how they relate to each other.
- Your characters go into a new neighborhood. Write the number down (in words) to create a street map. Roll for wealth. Roll for major landmarks. Roll to create buildings. Roll to populate with the city NPC table. Roll to populate with City Shopkeepers and contacts.
- Traveling through the city? Roll for an encounter (if you want).
Magic effects, fortunes, "I search the body", legal encounters, and more all have tables so you can make something interesting happen and improvise around it. This enables a very fluid and open play style.
After three months in real time, my party has had to flee the city because they successfully eliminated their political enemy, but in doing so empowered a different city faction that left them running for their lives. Therefore they allied with some witches to make things right, but in doing so unleashed the zombie apocalypse. Their new plan is to make a deal with a god. What could go wrong?
Review of a Red and Pleasant Land
R&PL was the first homebrew adventure I ran, which is both good and bad. The book doesn't include much directive content, so you'll be making it up as you go along. But isn't that what it's all about?
Let's start with the bad.
A novice DM may struggle to run this adventure. Many of the locations are lethal, and low level parties may all die unless they just run away. The four (4!) political factions generate very complex alliances and betrayals, which are difficult to keep straight and navigate as a DM, never mind a player. Even fairly low level NPCs are lethal. There's a complicated cosmology of mirrors that is difficult to keep straight. Overall, the tone of the world is weird, equal parts whimsy and terror, and because it is meant to follow the strange dream logic of Alice in Wonderland, it's difficult to predict what happens next. This makes it hard for a DM to come up with "what's next" and players to navigate with any confidence.
Let's move onto the good.
This book changed my understanding of what a D&D campaign could be. The setting is simple yet brilliant -- Alice in Wonderland meets Dracula -- and you get such richness of themes, metaphors, and mechanics by combining these two ideas.The Heart Queen (cards, chance) with the Red King (chess, determinism) alone creates conflicts, styles, and environments that are starkly different from each other but can interact in imaginative ways. Add mirrors (reversals, inversions, reflections), an amazing cast of secondary NPCs (Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Bishops, Knights) and you have a huge playground filled with wonderful toys. In D&D you're only meant to be limited by your imagination, but this is the first time I've viscerally felt that to be true.
The best way to start is to drop the characters into the premade maps, let them get a sense of the world, and introduce them to the major characters that are in some sort of conflict. If you can figure out a motivation that gets the party excited ("how did we end up here? How do we go home?") then let them drive.
I wanted to come back to tone, and I think that having a DM that can set that, and players who can run with it, will make this a truly special experience. Blood-soaked, dream-like, cruel, and fantastic is difficult, but if you succeed you can create a wonderland that keeps slipping in and out of nightmare. I hope to try it again when everyone is more seasoned.
Finally, the gritty.
The book is a handsome volume with striking, evocative art. Lay out is great, with useful maps on the front cover, tables and resources at the back that let you generate encounters on the fly, and a rich beasts and people section that is unique and fun to read. There are three basic sample locations, which will help you get started, and a few adventure locations that are useful for higher level parties or lower level characters who know what they are doing. Nothing in the middle. World rules are sparse but really set the tone -- which is what I think this adventure is all about -- so you can run trials, banquets, duels, and more with a suitably psychotic edge. I think the book's hard to find now, but if you come across it, I would recommend it for inspiration alone.
Name: Cube World Bestiary and D1000 Treasure Table
Author: Zak Sabbath
What is it: Gigantic book of monsters and treasures for Lamentation of the Flame Princess or other OSR games.
It is found on Zak’s Store on his blog, dndwithpornstars, and all the Cube World Modules are individually purchasable*.
*(In the upper right-hand corner, read through, pick what you like, and read how to order.)*
When you buy a Cube World Supplement, you get a free copy of the Bestiary and d1000 Treasure table that are current to the latest supplement.
The best way to describe the bestiary is essentially that it is the LotFP’s Monster Manual+, making it nigh essential for anyone who collects LotFP, and lots of other OSR games.
It has ~468 creatures, all fully statted, with lots of additional things – such as a witch generator, Faerie generator, tons of creatures with random qualities for variety, variants of creatures, and of course art and descriptions.
For reference, The Fiend Folio has 160 creatures, The Monster Manual has 350, and the Monster Manual II has 250.
This means that a single free PDF that comes with every Cube World purchase has ~468/760 creatures, so it is almost equivalent amount-wise to the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual combined and creatures are added as each new cube world comes out – when you get a bestiary, it is the most current one.
Some creatures are from Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land, Maze of the Blue Medusa, Frostbitten and Mutilated, but the majority are from Cube World supplements.
There is plenty of art – some of it is only in this bestiary or in other Cube World supplements!
When I create creatures, I look here first for something analogous, to use, or to use as a template.
It is great for anyone making LotFP or other OSR creatures, it has become an indispensable book for me - and seeing as it comes free with Cube World Purchases, it is one of the most affordable tools I have ever purchased!
As for the d1000 treasure table – it is split into the following sections:
Random Key, which is just a d100
Random Items, which is a d100+500
Random Potion, which is D100+600
Interesting Book, which is D100+700
Magic Weapon, which is d100+800
Other Magic Items, which is d100+900
There are so many unique treasures in the items, potions, and weapons sections, and are more than enough to last a lifetime of playing RPGs, but when you get into the interesting books it stops being just amazing and becomes better than anything else I have ever seen.
Each book has unique purposes based on a roll of a d6, with each book entry being worth money on a 1, increasing specific skills when held on leveling up on 2-4, and special kick-ass entries for 5-6 which all are excellent and magical or very useful.
Beyond the D1000 table, there is also 20 well-written book descriptions for when players pull a random book off the shelves, which function as hooks or clues for future events.
All in all, the D1000 treasure table has so much material it could easily last forever, and like all tables, would be very easy to modify or borrow from – so it is extremely versatile.
The D1000 Treasure Table comes with all Cube World Supplements – adding tons to the value of any purchase.
So, are these worth buying a Cube World Supplement?
I would say that anyone who enjoyed any of Zak’s published works will find extreme value and versatility with these books – So yes, unequivocally these books are worth purchase, they stand on their own and are given for free with each supplement, an extremely generous offer.
More reviews to come, and if you are interested in any individual Cube World please comment and I will carefully read it and discuss it.
I am still learning LotFP, but have ALL current Cube World modules, and have skimmed or read all of them. Eventually I plan to playtest some or all of them as well, and that will also be put somewhere, and long-form reviews/discussion about full length books of Zak and LOTFP will be created eventually. Any questions posed will be answered, so please feel free to raise any query in the comments!
Thank you for reading!
(Art by Zak S)
First and last time you'll be hearing from me about this, but myself and some folks from r/RPGdesign have set up a place dedicated to rethinking RPG adventure design - our main goal is to make sure we create RPGs that ship as "complete games." We see "Adventures" as the bridge between RPG systems and the actual players trying to enjoy the game. It's the interface through which you're going to experience any new system.
This means its important to do adventures right! We think that what an "adventure" looks like for a certain game and playstyle may be completely different from mainstream examples, but every game should include something that fills the role. We don't want to leave it up to players to improvise this critical part of the game experience. We want you to be able to just read the manual, understand it, follow the steps, and have "GAME" pop out the other end. No more guesswork, prep work, or vague GM advice required.
Examples of what we're talking about include "A Pound of Flesh" from Mothership, "Fall of Silverpine Watch" for DnD, and the gameplay loop of Blades in the Dark. These are three varied examples of "adventure styles" intent on delivering immediately playable experiences for three different systems/playstyles. We suspect there are whole genres of adventure design still undiscovered, and hope to explore the field together.
TLDR check out r/TheRPGAdventureForge where we're trying to make great RPGs even better, and see the original thread that spawned this idea: https://www.reddit.com/r/RPGdesign/comments/sd4tp1/design_adventures_not_entire_rpg_systems/hufjfp1/?context=3
Thanks for reading