Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
For great poems about (possibly) haunted houses, there's Poe and Walter De La Mare's The Listeners, but Poe describes the situation where the ghost is trying to get in - which is the theme of the second scenario for The Ghost Hack.
UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY underwent a playtest last week and here's the session report. Of course, massive SPOILERS ahead.
Evocative cover art by Bob Greyvenstein. Interior art (used below) is copyright Steve Miller (2015). Click image to link to drivethrurpg.
The scenario played out over two sessions, with a shifting cast of PCs:
After the events of HELL HATH NO FURY, the PCs are all second level and Joshua Pflint has a wightblade sword (for a while longer anyway).
The story begins (as they usually do) with the PC ghosts checking on their Mortal Coils.
Lexi is furious to find a new manager at her beloved bar, The Crash Lounge, has installed a massive TV screen to play noisy sports to customers. She uses Ghostly Caress to change the password on the satellite box, locking it down.
Oscar visits his wife, who has moved the children to a new home in an old signalman's house beside an abandoned railway line. There's a crisis when his son Dale goes missing. Oscar finds the boy in the railway cutting, playing safely and watched over by another ghost. This ghost is an old signalman and introduces himself as Edwyn Sullivan - or 'Sully'. He manifests in order to return Dale to his mother and asks in return that Oscar helps him. Sully haunts the old Trevalyan House, but a team of Ghost Hunters has moved into it, using salt to lock Sully out and trap his ghostly wife inside. Oscar agrees to find a way into the House and rescue the ghost trapped inside.
In fact, 'Sully' is really evil Dr Reinhardt, a dead serial killer, using Apparition to take another form. The bit about the Ghost Hunters and his wife is true. He hasn't mentioned the cellar full of ghostly victims he and his wife have been torturing for half a century, now all dangerous Wights.
Who ya gonna call?
Oscar assembles fellow-ghosts Gregg and Lexi to visit the Trevalyan House. They can see it's been recently renovated but then abandoned. A crazy old lady sticks up posters warning people to STAY AWAY - EVIL LIVES HERE! A mysterious blonde girl takes photographs of the building until the old lady chases her away. The PC ghosts decide to enter.
The two mortals are important NPCs. The crazy old lady is Kathleen Dawson who escaped from the Trevalyan House 50 years ago when she was just a young woman, bringing the Reinhardts' murder spree to an end. The younger woman is Michelle 'Misty' Quint, a wannabe serial-killer under the spell of Dr Reinhardt's evil ghost. The players debate for a while and decide it would be best to ignore these blatant plot-hooks.
The building has been warded with salt, making it hard to pass through the walls. Gregg enters the back pantry and finds one of the Ghost Hunters there, making lunch for the team. When Oscar joins him, they accidentally set of the EMF Meter the hunter is carrying. The young man lashes out with a wrought iron baton. These hunters are well-equipped to deal with ghosts! Oscar retreats out of the house but Gregg stays at a safe distance and observes.
The hunter, Lloyd, is joined by an older man in an iron wheelchair. He is Fyodor Herzog and he has trapped a ghost in the kitchen, inside a circle of salt. Gregg notes with dismay that the trapped ghost is a feral Wight that bashes the kitchen table about in impotent rage. Herzog appears to be trying to interview the creature, as if he can actually hear it. More Wights are trapped in the cellar, including one who is a witch-like woman who seems to possess more rationality and wickedness than the others.
The salt wards are salt crystals stuck to adhesive tape that the Hunters have slapped down across doorways and windows, making entire rooms impenetrable to ghosts. As starting characters, the PCs have relatively un-rotted souls (in game terms, their Grave Die is only a d6) so they can push through walls and doorways with effort - they have to make a CON test at a penalty. This creates a lot of anxiety as some PCs succeed and others fail, splitting up the group, while those who get inside worry about being able to get back out again.
Lexi enters the study instead and finds the team leader, Greta, working on salt-based grenades. Staying clear of Greta's EMF Meter, Lexi reads Greta's notes on the house, learning about 18th century murders who laired here and a more recent spree of murders in the '70s.
Greta, leader of the Ghost Hunters
P.A. arrives and investigates the team's van. He discovers that the team is from The Ghost Society and has been recruited by the house's new owner, Jerome Maxwell-Goode, to investigate the strange goings-on in his new property.
The Ghost Hunters are a complex bunch with dynamic interpersonal relationships. Lloyd's boyfriend Harvey is down in the cellar, being driven mad by the Wights. Herzog is having a nervous breakdown. A love triangle is leading to a violent resolution between Bernard, Lee and Anushika. A random encounter table mixes these developments up so that no two scenarios unfold in quite the same way.
Trouble on the Tracks
Lexi and Oscar decide to find and possess someone with the authority to enter the House. Lexi possesses a woman police officer, Chayan Kaur, and Oscar rides along unseen. Kaur is visiting a house where a child as gone missing and Oscar realises it is his own family. Dale has disappeared again and this time has not returned. Lexi guides PC Kaur and her partner PC Gill down the old railway track, to an abandoned siding where there is a big shed full of iron chains and an abandoned wagon.
They realise that there are people locked inside the wagon, but the iron in the frame makes it impenetrable to ghosts. One prisoner is a ghost and he identifies himself as the real Edwyn Sullivan - the 'Sully' who introduced himself to Oscar was an imposter. The imposter reveals himself soon after as a vicious ghost with scalpel fingers who possesses PC Gill and attacks the PCs, along with his human accomplice, the blonde girl who swings an iron chain.
Lexi knocks the evil ghost out of Gill by pushing him into the iron chains in the shed. She abandons Chayan's body to attack the ghost in person, but is outmatched. The ghost carves her up so badly she turns into a Wight herself and slips into Hades. Consumed by hatred, she visits her Mortal Coil and demonises the place, chasing out terrified staff and customers.
Seeing what happened too Lexi, Oscar flees. The only good outcome is the PC Gill phones in a report to his superiors, so police will come to open up the wagon.
Reinhardt's deadliness took the players by surprise. Lexi was unlocky to exhaust her Grave Die when she reached 0 HP but those are the breaks. Her Mortal Coil ended up shrinking by one dice step and she reformed amidst the wreckage she had caused, on 2 HP, feeling very traumatised.
The survivor's story
Gregg and P.A. have followed the crazy poster lady back to her cat-infested bungalow. They realise she's Kathleen Dawson and is obsessed with the Trevalyan House because she's the sole survivor of a string of murders there in the '60s and '70s by husband-and-wife serial killers Fitz and Beverley Reinhardt. As well as postering the house, she's pestering its new owner, Jerome Maxwell-Goode, but he is away on a cruise.
The mysterious blonde woman arrives at the door and threatens Kathleen, telling her that Dr Reinhardt misses her and wants to see her again. She chases Kathleen into the kitchen where the old lady suffers a heart attack. Gregg manifests in his Charnel Form of a burning corpse and chases the young woman out of the house. Using ghostly caress, they contrive to get Kathleen her heart medication.
Reinhardt was planning for Misty to kill Kathleen so he could chain her ghost up in chthonic fetters and take her to his wife Beverley as a gift. Now he's properly angry with the PCs for interfering.
Meeting together, the PCs conclude that the evil ghost who has engineered everything is Dr Reinhardt, the serial killer, and his wife must be the powerful Wight trapped in the cellar, which puts the Ghost Hunters in danger. They suspect the blonde woman is a murderess that Dr Reinhardt is mentoring to carry own his murderous legacy. They resolve to warn the Hunters and are joined by the Poltergeist Joshua Pflint.
Return to Trevalyan House
Back at the House, events have moved on. The Ghost Hunters have lost one of their number, Harvey, who disappeared investigating the cellar. The team's mechanic, Bernard, is working on drones to fly downstairs and investigate. Greta has nearly finished her salt bombs. Herzog has had a breakdown after psychic abuse from the Wights in the cellar. Tensions are brewing between Bernard and his girlfriend Anushika over team-mate Lee's attraction to her, which is clearly reciprocated.
Beverley Reinhardt (in pre-Wight days)
Oscar enters the kitchen and manifests to warn Bernard about the ghosts in the cellar. However, the team has no intention of leaving while team-mate Harvey is still missing. Greta (followed by Gregg) goes to try to shake Herzog out of his funk and Bernard (followed by Joshua) runs upstairs to find Lee and Anushika embracing. That produces a fight which sees Bernard badly beaten.
Meanwhile, Lloyd, who is Harvey's lover, is lured into the cellar by Beverley Reinhardt, imitating Harvey's voice using manifest and apparition. Once down there, he is possessed by her and calls for help. Greta descends and the two of them drag Harvey up the steps, with the possessed Lloyd contriving to drop Harvey on the top step, breaking the salt ward there.
Gregg decides to reveal himself to old Herzog, warning him about the Wights in the cellar. He advises Herzog to get to safety behind salt wards, ideally upstairs. However, he is too late to avert catastrophe.
Herzog, the psychic
The events in the house have triggered "the Crisis" - this is when the Ghost Hunters enter the cellar and unwittingly release the Wights.
The rest of the team convenes in the kitchen to examine Harvey's body. Beverley Reinhardt steps out of Lloyd and summons her Wights up the stairs.
Joshua uses his Poltergeist powers to snatch one of Greta's salt grenades and throw it into the cellar staircase, driving the Wights back. He attacks Beverley with his wightblade sword, but to no effect. Beverley demonises the room, shattering windows and flinging knives about, then blowing up the boiler. The humans are killed or traumatised in the carnage. Greta escapes but her salt grenades detonate, stunning her. Joshua resolves to hold the room against a small army of Wights.
Spying on the outside, Oscar sees a taxi pull up. Out step the ghostly Dr Reinhardt and his mortal apprentice, Misty. The blonde girl starts to break upon the front door to the house with a crowbar.
Misty, serial-killer apprentice
Joshua escapes, dragging the unconscious Anushika out of the house and leaving the other hunters for dead. Greta drags Herzog to the front door, only for it to be opened by Misty, the young serial killer. She smashes Herzog's skull with an iron bar. Gregg tries to intervene by manifesting again in his burning-corpse form but Beverley appears and is far too strong, throwing him through the walls, gravely injured. Oscar contrives to get Greta to safety, by keening positive emotions into her and guiding her out through the study.
At this point, the players realise they are overwhelmed. Four Wights would be a challenge on any day, but added in super-Wight Beverley, evil Doctor Reinhardt and Misty with her iron chain and the PC Ghosts realise they have to escape..
The Wights escape the house. They are the tortured spirits of the Reinhardts' old victims and now they desire only to find their own Mortal Coils and visit terrible sufferings on them.
Dr Reinhardt is taken aback to see his wife is now a Wight. Beverley is furious to see he has been grooming a mortal protege. In a jealous rage, she attacks Misty and, gripped by a noble impulse, Reinhardt attacks his monstrous wife. They are lost to sight as the house burns down.
Post Credit Scenes
The PC Ghosts realise that the four Wight victims of the Reinhardts will race back to their Mortal Coils to visit unspeakable horrors on them. AS they are partly responsible for releasing them, the PCs stand to increase their own Grave Dice if they allow this to happen. So we have a follow-on scebnario: finding the Wights' Mortal Coils before the Wights do. In their favour, 50 years have passed since the Wights died in the cellar so the monsters will be a bit confused about where things are now.
A closing scene has frail Kathleen Dawson recovering in hospital. She tells a kind nurse she is feeling much better and hopes to go home soon. This is greeted by cruel laughter from the patient in the next bed. The patient is Misty, recovering from her injuries in the Trevalyan House. She turns her burned face towards the terrified Kathleen and keeps laughing.
The scenario unfolded beautifully. The PCs failed in the primary mission (defeating the Wights and Dr Reinhardt) but they did save a couple of Ghost Hunters from the House at the end.
HELL HATH NO FURY had a linear plot that unfolded in a string of encounters in a more-or-less fixed order. Successful players were well-equipped for the final showdown. This scenario has a different structure. The House is a location with a cast of NPCs and monsters inside and a random encounter table dictating their interactions. The players can interact with this setting in any way they like. This makes UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY far more open-ended.
Exploring the Trevalyan House was delightfully tense, because of the difficulty with crossing the salt-wards separating each room. PCs were often in danger of finding themselves trapped in a room, unable to press on or retreat. Later, they found ways to disrupt some of the wards, making movement easier. But of course, easy movement for the PC ghosts also means easy movement for the horrid Wights.
The players engaged with several plot strands (the wagon in the old railway siding, Kathleen Dawson, the history of the House, the team of Ghost Hunters) but never really pursued any of them. As a result, when the Crisis blew up, it caught the players on the back foot. Gregg (played by Karl) was only just revealing himself the the psychic Herzog. If that had happened earlier, things could have unfolded differently, with the Ghost Hunters as well-armed allies helping the PCs take on the Wights.
As it turned out, the players found the least-optimal outcome and also the most alarming one, with the Wights rampaging through the House, the salt wards failing, the humans dying horribly... bad times.
But also, good times. The players have a clear follow-on scenario to protect mortals from the spirits of as tragedy half a century ago now released and bearing down on unsuspecting families, former lovers, homes and grandchildren. Then there's Beverley Reinhardt, already established as a great villainess, and the merrily deranged Misty, the apprentice serial-killer, now operating without her beloved Dr Reinhardt guiding her murderous steps.
The playtest threw up some valuable rules tweaks too, mostly to make the ghostly 'Crafts' more consistent in how they work. The 2.1 rules set on drivethrurpg incorporates these changes.
Michael Thomas' Blueholme Prentice RPG introduced Eric Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D rules to a new audience. His Blueholme Journeymanne positions the game as a serious retroclone contender, muscling up against White Box and Delving Deeper for the title of 'Heir to Seventies D&D.'.
The last blog reviewed these two: Blueholme Prentice for 1st-3rd level PCs; Blueholme Journeymanne for up to 20th level. Click the images for drivethrurpg links.
Blueholme has an advantage over its competitors. They have to draw something coherent out of the jumble of Original D&D materials, picking and choosing their rules and supplementary material and trying to give it a character of its own (I feel White Box succeeds at this; Delving Deeper less so). Blueholme is channeling one man's singular vision of D&D. It has distinctiveness built-in.
The trick is to reveal it. The solution is an introductory scenario. So welcome to THE NECROPOLIS OF NUROMEN, Blueholme's first module for starting characters.
The contender: Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen (click image for link to download).
The reigning champ: Eric Holmes' Ruined Tower of Zenopus from the 1977 Basic D&D Rules Set.
The brief for this is a tough one. Of course, it has to be an excellent dungeon-crawl that will challenge and intrigue experienced players paddling at the shallow end with first level characters but also work well for newcomers. More than that, it has to showcase what's special about Blueholme: how does this version of OSR roleplaying help tell stories that the others don't?
The scenario has a collaborative history, emerging from Justin Becker's 'Forbidden Mazes of the Jennerak' campaign, which is being adapted by Michael Thomas into a 3-part scenario series, of which this is the first. This gives context to some criticisms I make later.
Leaf through Blueholme Prentice and you'll see that Michael Thomas has a gift for sourcing public domain art with a fantasy vibe. The cover here looks like an Ayleid Ruin from Elder Scrolls IV, but it's a piece of stunning Romantic art by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German landscape painter with a taste for the spinetingling. He's best known for that one where the chap stands with his back to you on a mountain top, looking down on the clouds.
Monastery Ruins in the Snow (1819) - which is going on ALL my Christmas cards from now on - and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) which seems to be a painting about both nature AND humanity.
Friedrich's landscapes defy improvement (that sky!!!) but Michael Thomas gives the whole thing an eerie blue tint, because branding, right? It's a great cover that sets the tone for his game.
The scenario is only 20 pages long, but Thomas devotes the first 4 pages to the setting. This is a bit of a gamble. Some people just want to wrench dungeons out, bleeding, from their settings, like Molam Ram plucking out hearts for Kali. You can do that. Just skip this stuff and go straight to the dungeon. But you're missing out!
Don't be this guy.
The setting is a distinctive High Fantasy realm. The town of Camlann gets its own map, its mystic porcelain tower, Lady Leika of the Lily and her griffon-riding guards. There are local celebrities, rivalries and gossip. This takes the lightly-sketched idea of Portown and the Green Dragon Inn from Holmes' sample dungeon and improves on it. The Camlann setting has its own magical quality, while rooted in the earthy down-homeliness that's needed to make a journey away, out into the darkness and danger, so compelling.
Outside Camlann is the Delvingwood where the local Elves are declining and the Goblins are advancing, turning the fairy forest to evil. This is an evocative setting, with more of Narnia to it than Middle-Earth. A broad grassy road, the Elfway, cuts through the woods but if you leave this highway and enter the trees, why, you're stepping into the Otherworld, crossing Joseph Campbell's Threshold for the Hero's Journey. This is all very nicely structured.
Holmes' 'Zenopus' dungeon had a menace to it and Thomas parallels this. Instead of the morally-murky Zenopus, we have Nuromen who's an outright rotter. This necromancer sets up a Chaotic enclave in the woods called Law's End but his gang of villains are blasted by an unspecified catastrophe, doubtless of his own making. His underground Necropolis stands unguarded beneath a 'ghost town' in ruins with the forest advancing over it.
As is standard, the PCs are greedy and ambitious dungeon raiders looking for a fortune and a name for themselves. However, Thomas adds a feature that Holmes misses. The PCs encounter the Elves on their way to the dungeon and are tasked with the recovery of a magical heirloom. This gives the players a focus and a sense of dignity to their mission: they're not just looters.
I really like this set-up. The tone is very effective: an elegaic sense of decline and lengthening shadows, an evil from the past, a noble mission and a wilderness journey, all set in a fairy tale kingdom with just enough darkness to it to head off sentimentality. It reminds me of the setting sketched out for Jean Wells' Module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981). If Holmes drew inspiration from Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, then the world of Justin Becker/Michael Thomas feels like it owes more to Lord Dunsany and Lloyd Alexander's Prydein Chronicles.
The downside is that this material is not well laid-out. The text starts with the description of Nuromen's downfall, then outlines the geography of the forest, then the set-up in Camlann. There are NPCs and Rumours in Camlann, then back into the Forest we go, with Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables for on and off the Elfway landing us back in the Ruins of Law's End and the abandoned Necropolis. It's an odd structure, involving repetition and redundancy while also allowing you to forget or muddle important material. A bit of editing would help here: Camlann > Elfway > Delvingwood Forest > Law's End/Necropolis is the structure that GMs need.
It's a shame that this background material is (slightly) impenetrable, since it encourages careless readers to skip it. A lot of thought has gone into offering low level characters a wilderness journey with real dangers but balanced encounters and a metric ton of theme.
Jeff Jones' Dunsany-inspired art also captures the world Thomas is exploring
The dungeon is a two-level affair, but it's built to an epic scale. The party have to drop down into a vast shaft - 50ft across and 100ft deep - using ropes that a squad of Goblins have left behind. Deep underground, the PCs move through corridors and chambers carved out of the limestone crag. Holmes' dungeon evoked suffocating darkness, opening out into immense, echoing chambers; Thomas' Necropolis is different, it has an eerie but sinister beauty in its carved murals and looming doorways.
There are 20 rooms on the First Level, 6 of them empty and the rest more often interesting than dangerous. A gigantic subterranean courtyard offers a safe hub that the party can branch out from in their explorations. Most of the traps can be avoided with forethought. There are ghosts and illusions and remnants of Nuromen's old spells. Aside from the Goblin raiders, the monsters are largely dungeon pests and mindless undead, but the Big Bad on this level is a nest of Harpies who could easily overwhelm an incautious party. There's treasure to collect but not much: a couple of thousand GP total, so no one is levelling up by clearing this out. There are magical items to pick up, especially for Magic-Users.
The highlight of the First Level is the study and workshops of Nuromen himself. There are lots of things for players to tinker with and surmise, plus a few windows into the dead wizard's psyche and rewards for players who can figure out what motivated the old villain. Unlike the opaque figure of Zenopus, Nuromen is present here in spirit if not in body. There are signs of his handiwork everywhere.
If the First Level is a slow-paced investigation into long-dead mysteries, down on Level Two things take a turn for the weird and the wonderful. There are 15 rooms, but only 3 are empty, so it's more densely packed and more unforgiving. There are nastier traps (an over-reliance on poison, which I hate!), riddles, some quirky magic items and chilling scenes of evil occultism. Troglodytes will give first level characters a run for their money. The climax comes when the party access Nuromen's Tomb and go up against Nuromen himself, now a very dangerous undead antagonist. The treasure here is stupendous, so survivors are definitely leveling up.
The dungeon is beautifully structured, offering players radiating spokes to explore on the First Level while the Second Level funnels them towards an inevitable showdown with Undead Evil. The maps look lovely. They are all tucked at the back, after the OGL pages, which confused me at first. It would be nice if the maps appeared alongside the room keys, making it easy to read off the screen/page and hold a picture of the layout in your mind as you do.
Similarly, there's a lot of high quality description, but it's usually mixed in with exposition and mechanics. The Dungeon Key would benefit from introductory descriptive paragraphs for each location: something the GM can read aloud, providing all the visual detail for players, with the GM-only material underneath.
It's a pity that the Rumours back at Camlann don't help the players make more sense of what they encounter in the Necropolis. For example, there's Robin the Thief, now turned into a riddling Ghoul and guarding some of Nuromen's treasure. How much better for the PCs to hear the tale of Robin's hideous fate back in Camlann, then recall it here, rather than the GM having to info-dump for Thieves in the party. Other snippets about the Cult of Gamosh and Nuromen's wife and child would make helpful Rumours too.
The stinginess of treasures is a problem. Blueholme sets its XP rewards for killing monsters quite low and, in any event, there's not that much combat to be had. It's desirable that at least some of the party be second level by the time they go up against Nuromen. If (say) the Thieves and Clerics are going to get to second level, then a party of 4 needs to earn over 5,000 XP. There just aren't enough combat encounters or valuable treasures to do this. I think doubling the treasure rewards in the dungeon and halving the size of the big hoard in room 25 could result in a party of mixed 1st/2nd level characters going up against Nuromen at the climax. Some of those second level characters will probably lose a level in the fight. 'Nuff said.
Alternatively, instead of placing the key to the treasure chamber (25) around the undead necromancer's neck, it could be found instead upstairs in his chambers (12 or 13), perhaps with a map indicating the presence of a secret vault, reached through the caves on the lower level (18). This would allow canny players to access the treasure before they run into Nuromen himself: flight is then the prudent choice.
Certainly, when the PCs emerge blinking from the Necropolis at the end, they will feel that they have earned their spurs.
More Caspar David Friedrich: Evening (1820-1) makes a great image for the faerie Delvingwoods
Epilogue: Bandits, grr-rrr
The scenario doesn't end there. Back in Camlann, bandits are up to no good. A breakaway faction of the outlawed White Company is kidnapping merchants. Tracking them back to their cave lair is in order, then bloody retribution.
This is a welcome epilogue. The Dungeon itself was mostly investigation, mystery and puzzles, with just a handful of combats, the latter ones very stressful. Some players might be in the mood for uncomplicated monster-bashing as a way to unwind, especially if everyone is second level now. Bandits make great punchbags.
Well, guess again. The Bandits all have 6hp, so they're surprisingly resilient. Their boss, Lothar, is a 6th level fighter, also with above-average HP, and he's got half a dozen Gnolls backing him up. There's an Owl Bear in there!
The good news is that Lothar is sitting on a hoard that should get all the survivors up to third level. However, his treasure is the only loot in this place, so if the Bandits send the adventurers away with their tails between their legs, they'll have nothing to show for the adventure but bruises.
This section of the adventure feels undercooked. The Bandits are well-organised in defense of their lair, but there's no option but to slog through them.
Lothar is supposed to be defying the Bandit Prince who leads the White Company. It would be helpful if some of the Bandits were loyalists who would turn against Lothar. There's a prison pit, crying out for a prisoner to occupy it, a useful NPC who knows the caverns and could guide the PCs.
As it stands, this side-quest is a brutal skirmish that will probably overwhelm second level characters and doesn't offer much to reward experienced players who want to try more devious or diplomatic strategies. Of course, the party don't have to take on Lothar. They could just rescue the merchants and claim a modest reward. But c'mon now, is that what HEROES do?
Michael Thomas confirms his intention that PCs do NOT fight Lothar to the death, but instead try to capture Bandits for the reward (50gp a head!). Blueholme doesn't provide any mechanism for subduing enemies nor does the scenario suggest one, but here's a thought. The GM could rule that, with any group of Bandits, once half are dead, the other half surrender. This makes skirmishing in the caves easier and more lucrative. Alternatively (or additionally) a force of 2d6 1st level Fighters from the Camlann Constabulary could bolster the PCs in the final showdown with Lothar - and Lothar could surrender once he has lost half his Hit Points.
Can't get enough Caspar: Cairn in the Snow (1807) is great for the entrance to Lothar's Lair
This is a deeply atmospheric dungeon in a great High Fantasy setting. It's got a distinctive mystical vibe to it that takes its cues from Eric Holmes. It's clearly a Blueholme Dungeon and it promotes its brand.
The Dungeon is structured around exploring and investigating rather than fighting. There are treasure troves to pick up but not enough to level up. The massive hoard at the end (should it be found) will level everyone up, perhaps placing Thieves at third level. That feels 'off' - especially considering the climactic battle the players have to endure to get the key. It's tempting to dial back the danger (Nuromen would be quite deadly enough as a Ghoul or a Wight) or shift some of the loot out of the hoard or put the key elsewhere in the dungeon; that way, PCs could retreat to their camp, level up, then descend to vanquish Nuromen or run away from the encounter with him.
The problem is even more pronounced in the Lothar epilogue. Lothar's hoard exceeds 10,000gp, so half a dozen PCs could level up from that, but he's 6th level and protected by Gnolls! Part of the charm of Blueholme Prentice is its third level 'ceiling'. Why can't Lothar be a really nasty 3rd level Fighter? Couldn't his loot be scattered throughout the lair so that PCs can pick some of it up during other skirmishes? Alternatively, rules are needed for capturing and subduing the Bandits rather than battling them to the death.
These aren't damning criticisms. It's easy to adjust treasure and threat, based on how quickly you envisage the PCs progressing through the levels and how many need to die doing so. GMs will need to make their own minds up about what they expect players to accomplish and whether The Necropolis of Nuromen is supposed to end in hard-won victory, tactical retreat with riches or an ignominious death.
However, set all that aside. The scenario has much greater strengths. The journey down the Elfway, into the Delvingwood and then deep down below ground, into the vaults of the Necropolis: this is a deeply memorable start to anyone's campaign and a calling card for Blueholme as an RPG with a distinctive style.
Michael Thomas is working on a new scenario that will function as "a real introductory adventure" to Blueholme (rather than just being a low-level adventure): The Shrine of Sobek should be out next year but I hope The Necropolis of Nuromen gets its sequels too.
No, not the sensational 1959 Miles Davis album, but the equally seminal 1977 'Blue Book' D&D rules by Dr J. Eric Holmes. I want to review Holmes' treatment by a pair recent retroclone RPGs: Blueholme and The Blue Hack, both by Michael Thomas.
If one of these things interests you more than the other, you MIGHT be in for a disappointment with this blog...
Holmes' 'Blue Book' rules set has a legendary status among D&D fans, and deservedly. Before Holmes volunteered his services, D&D was a rag tag collection of cheap booklets and magazine articles supplemented by fan products of varying credibility. Since few gamers owned them all, no one who played D&D was really playing the same game and the game itself was pretty impenetrable if someone hadn't shown you how to play it first.
Eric Holmes changed all that. His 50-page softback manual set about building the Original D&D game from the ground up, starting with character creation, rules for combat, spells, monsters, treasures and concluding with his wonderful sample dungeon, the 'Tower of Zenopus'.
By modern standards of rules design, Holmes' book is cluttered in places, sparse in others and confusing all over the place, but compared to what had gone before this was a lean, modernist take on the baroque grotesquerie that D&D had quickly become. Oh, and it only went to third level for PCs. To go further with the game, the reader was directed to the then-forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules set that Gary Gygax had been working on and was to emerge, with the Players Handbook, the following year.
AD&D pulled down the tower that Holmes had built. In Holmes' game, rolled attributes counted for very little. Your prime requisite (e.g. Intelligence for Magic-Users) boosted your earned XP. Dexterity awarded you +1 or -1 to hit with missiles. Constitution earned you +1, 2 or 3 Hit Points. That's it. No Strength Bonuses. No extra spells for Clerics. No Armour Class modifiers. Oh, and all the weapons dealt 1d6 damage, whether they were a dagger or a two-handed sword.
The effect of this was to de-emphasise combat as the central pillar of What D&D Is All About, in favour of exploration, traps, riddles, puzzles and NPC encounters. PCs are individuated, not by their attributes, but by the player's imagination. Since a Strength 17 Fighting Man functioned no differently from a Strength 7 Fighting Man, the colour had to come from characterisation. Holmes offers the standard D&D classes (including Thieves and Dwarves, Elves and Halflings functioning as classes too) but offers encouragement to go beyond this, citing his famous example of a diverse party of adventurers:
Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
In a 1981 article in Dragon Magazine, Holmes is quite explicit about his free-wheeling approach to character generation:
Most game systems rather rigidly specify what kinds of characters players may assume, but the majority of referees are lenient. If a player particularly wants to be an unusual or inhuman character, many referees will let him. It's not unusual to encounter player characters that are werewolves, Vulcans, samurai, centaurs or whatever. Fantasy role playing is, after all, an exercise in imagination
In another Dragon article, Holmes confesses his own preferences for non-canon characters:
For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Uh-oh. Dreenoi. Roll for initiative.
Gary Gygax dismantled this approach with AD&D. Character attributes were exalted and character classes nailed down to very specific collections of powers and advancements. Whereas Holmes might identify his character as a 'Lawful Werebear', AD&D invited you to become a a 4th/5th level Half-Elven Cleric/Thief with a 17 Dex and a 16 Wisdom.
Perhaps that's the fascination with Holmes' work: it offers a brief window into a year (1977) when D&D could have gone another way. If AD&D was prog rock, with complexity and grand pretensions, then Holmes was that other flower of 1977: punk rock, with its three-chord simplicity and vigorous DIY ethos.
Eric Holmes. Johnny Rotten. Rarely mistaken for one another.
Two figures bestride the Internet, bearing the Holmsian lamp aloft. Zach Howard runs a fantastic Holmes blog and website, the Zenopus Archives, making the case in fair weather and foul for continuing to play D&D the way Holmes envisaged. He has done fantastic advocacy for the 'Tower of Zenopus' dungeon and delved into Holmes' manuscripts to explore how much Gygax diluted and redirected Holmes' intentions.
Click the image to explore the underworld of Holmes Basic.
The other is Michael Thomas, over at Dreamscape Design, who has published two loving Holmesian D&D retroclones: Blueholme (in two versions) and Blue Hack.
Blueholme Prentice is pay-nothing on drivethrurpg; Blueholme Journeymanne is quite cheap on drivethrurpg or there's a nice hardback from Lulu; Blue Hack costs next-to-nothing on drivethrurpg
The 2013 Blueholme Prentice rules (62pp) is a fairly standard OSR retroclone. Thomas takes Holmes' rules set and presents it in his own words, with the orderliness we now expect in good games design. There's a bit of advice on how to play the game and how to referee it. There's nice (public domain) B&W art. The ambiguities (e.g. elven fighter/magic-users) are cleared up. The attributes still offer almost no distinctions. Weapons all deal 1d6 damage. This is vintage Holmes, straight from the cellars. Carrion Crawlers get a copyright-dodging name change but I think Johnny Rotten and other veterans of 1977 will feel right at home here.
Is there a use for this sort of game, besides nostalgia? After all, Charlie Mason's White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game one-ups Blueholme by going back to the original D&D rules set, but compressing character progression into 10 levels and adding variable weapon damage (well.... 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1 but it's variable!). It only slightly expands the modifiers for high/low attributes, it's got a low price point and it's rather more lovely in its typeface and old school William McAusland art.
The appeal of Blueholme Prentice is precisely its strict boundaries. It offers a D&D experience with just three levels of experience. The King of the Realm, he's a third level Fighter. His Court Magician? He's a third level Magic-User. The Guildmaster Thief? Third level too! This is a world with a ceiling on it and, rather like crafting a haiku, composing scenarios within such limits draws forth surprising creativity.
If you're not psyched by a 3rd-level-campaign, fear not! In 2017, along came Blueholme Journeymanne (118pp) on the back of a successful Kickstarter, with hardback rules and lots of original art by old school veterans like Russ 'Firetop Mountain' Nicholson that has a great late-Seventies vibe.
Russ Nicholson's homage to David C Sutherland III's art panel that introduced the original Holmes Basic Set makes me feel happy in ways only the Germans have words for.
All of this and twenty (count them, TWENTY) character levels, spells up to 7th level, hirelings and strongholds and VARIABLE WEAPON DAMAGE. Yes, at last. But not just different dice for different weapons. Oh no. All weapons still roll d6s (take THAT, Gygax) but puny daggers roll two dice and pick the worst while heavy weapons roll 2 or 3 dice and pick the best. Delightful!
In just over a hundred pages, Blueholme Journeymanne muscles up alongside White Box and thoroughly intimidates it. Actually, they're both great games. It really boils down to whether you want your D&D campaign concertina-ed into ten levels or twenty. White Box has a cool fey-themed thing going on with its monsters but Blueholme Journeymanne is more Sci-Fi, with Lovecraftian Mi-Go and Deep Ones in the mix alongside Dreenoi. Yes, Dreenoi.
Human, Dwarf and Dreenoi, together at last. Watch out for that Green Slime!
This is where Journeymanne plays its Holmsian trump card. Character races are gone: poof! Instead, this:
It's been a long journey, but we finally got there. You can play that Lawful Werebear at last. I like to think John Eric Holmes (who sadly died in 2010 and missed this renaissance in RPGs) is smiling upon this, up there, in the Outer Planes of Chaotic Neutral. Journeymanne gets the next-best endorsement from his son, Chris Holmes:
These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when we explored the dungeons of John Eric Holmes.
If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you ought to be reading reviews of Miles Davis jazz albums.
The Hacks I like, all on drivethrurpg (click on images for links)
Blue Hack is a different beast. It's a variation on David Black's The Black Hack (2016), which offered an alternative streamlined take on D&D, with attribute tests replacing skills and abilities, ten character levels, super simplified classes, monsters and spells and groovy Usage Dice replacing tallying arrows, torches and rations. It spawned a host of imitators with various degrees of professionalism. Karl Stjernberg's Rad Hack is a fantastic pop art take on Gamma World, while Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is a cheerfully amateur (but very imaginative) interpretation of Vampire: The Masquade.
All well and good, but how do you Holmesify The Black Hack, which is about as stripped-back as an old school fantasy RPG can get? How is Blue Hack any different from The Black Hack?
The answer, oddly, is to make it more like the sort of D&D that Black Hack is trying to escape from.
The Black Hack enjoyed a recent Kickstarter and there's a fancy Second Edition out there but the original rules are a trim 20 pages that are a master class in clarity and elegant graphic design. The 'Big Six' stats here here (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) and four classes (Warrior, Cleric, Conjuror and Thief). Going up a level boosts your Hit Dice and lets you improve your Stats. Spells are summed up in no more than a dozen words each.
This is the spell description for Power Word Kill:
A Nearby target with 50HP or fewer dies and cannot be resurrected.
Blue Hack takes all this and stirs back in some recognisable D&D. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings re-appear as character races, adding familiar flavour abilities, and Fighter-Mages are added to the class roster to accommodate those mystical elves. The presentation is a bit more expansive (it runs to 26 pages) and illustrated by the ubiquitous William McAusland's adorable B&W art, but the descriptions retain that charming "figure-it-out-yourself" brevity. Here's the explanation for the spell Limited Wish:
Change reality in a limited way or time.
When I think of the ink that's been spilled in D&D rulebooks and magazines trying to codify, limit, clarify and define what a 'wish' spell can do, this makes me want to break down and cry.
Like a lot of Hack RPGs, Blue Hack feels like a slap in the face. Why did you just spend all that time and effort mastering Blueholme Journeymanne (never mind freakin' Dungeon Crawl Classics or D&D 5th ed.) if you could play fantasy RPGs as simply as this? Like a stage magician's prestige, it makes you blink your eyes and look for the trick. Can it really work like that?
Well it can and it probably should, but something is lost. Perhaps what's lost is Holmes himself, whose genial ghost presides over every page of Blueholme in both its iterations but seems absent from Blue Hack, which is really just a pretty version of any already pretty game, given a more recognizably D&Dish spin. No rules for Dreenoi PCs. No Lawful Werebears. Maybe that's my beef with it.
Skip to the end. My feeling is that, while the Hack RPGs are a fantastic development in roleplaying rules, they're not necessarily the way I want to go with old-school dungeonbashing. Sometimes, the flavour is in the rules themselves and, with minimal rules, you often get minimal flavour. With, say, the Rad Hack, the flavour is in the whacky radioactive post-holocaust setting. But with D&D-hacks, the flavour is in the D&D, which is exactly what you're taking out.
Blueholme does a stunning job at honouring Holmes' legacy and provides a set of OSR rules that should be right up there for anyone wanting to explore the wild frontier of '70s-style D&D. Blue Hack is a solid Hack version of D&D, but I guess I don't really have a need for such a thing when the more conventional OSR D&D retroclones are already so sweet, simple and inspirational.
There's a module for Blueholme - The Necropolis of Nuromen - which I'll review later this week.
The Ghost Hack has launched on a surge of enthusiasm. There's a welcome pack over on drivethrurpg now, with quick start character templates, fillable character sheets and an introductory scenario, Hell Hath No Fury. The scenario was playtested last week and held up beautifully.
Here's a peek at the second wave of material over the next month.
Cover art by Bob Greyvenstein (left) and Christopher Smith-Wong (centre and right)
I want to take a moment to unpack these projects...
Upon a Midnight Dreary
The brief for Hell Hath No Fury was to write a scenario that showcased important features of The Ghost Hack, such as how ghostly powers affect the living, the Dread and the importance of Fanes, Wights, Portals to Hades and the currency of the Afterlife.
That still leaves quite a bit still to cover, like mortal Psychics, the baneful properties of iron and salt, the importance of Mortal Coils and the Rot.
So this is a second introductory scenario, something that could follow on straight after Hell Hath No Fury, and it tackles some of the more esoteric ideas in the game. The assumption is that the PCs are all second level by now.
Upon a Midnight Dreary starts off as a classic case of bio-exorcism. A NPC ghost has been evicted from his home and Fane by a crew of psychic investigators who understand iron and salt. Moreover, his ghostly wife is still stuck inside the property. The PCs have the job of breaking into a salt-warded house and chasing away knowledgeable interlopers who are equipped with ghost-fighting tools.
Of course, it turns out to be nothing like as simple as that.
Do Not Go Gentle
This is a bigger project. It's billed as the 'Hades Expansion.' The Ghost Hack offers all you need for quick'n'easy post-mortem roleplaying but there's a lot more setting to be explored, most of it relating to the realm of Hades to which ghosts can travel.
First off, there are new Phantom Trades (character classes), with three previewed on this site. The Anubians are members of a secretive sect that can hold back the Rot and master Wights, but leverages its mystical abilities for power. The Helgaunts are ghostly paladins, hunting down Wights and putting them to the soultempered sword. Grimliches actually are Wights, albeit Wights with Mortal Coils. The thing is, they hate their mortal attachments and want to torment them in every way.
I'm planning a few more Trades, such as the Soulforgers, who craft things out of ectoplasm and Soulfire, and the Vivimancers and Phantasms, who practise schools of magic relating to the Living World and Dreaming World respectively.
I want to look at Wights in more depth and explore both Paradises and Infernos and the angels and demons that rule them.
Finally, there's politics. I want to introduce the Misericordium, the vast bureaucracy of the dead that services the fabled City of Dis. The Misericordium offers to take away your Rot (in game terms, no more Grave Die) in return for draining your individuality. Ghosts are recruited as clerks to record every detail of their mortal existence in magical ledgers, not realising (or maybe not caring) that they are transferring their Mortal Coils to the service of Dis. As their memories fade, they become the unquestioning footsoldiers of Dis and ultimately mindless Echoes of their former selves. It's not pretty, but for a lot of ghosts it's better than Rotting. And for the rest, well, they weren't really offered a choice...
Tears Such as Angels Shed
This is the biggest project and might take most of the summer. Hell Hath No Fury and Upon a Midnight Dreary are both introductory scenarios of the sort that can be played out in a couple of sessions or raced through in one. Tears is a bit more epic in scope and build on the world-building in Do Not Go Gently.
It concerns an Angel who approaches the PCs with an unusual quest: to cross Hades in search of a particular Inferno and rescue one damned soul from there.
The resulting journey will take the PCs to hell and back - literally - and skirt the suburbs of Dis and the caverns of Tarterus, where the Wights go to dwell and from which the Dread emerges. It should take PCs from 3rd to 7th level and position them as movers and shakers in the politics of Hades.
It also might just introduce the Fey, heralding the next ...Hack RPG on my to-do list.
The Fey Hack
Yup. That's the next one. Saddle up the Wild Hunt. It's time to ride out...
Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
It's a great plot device: the vengeful ex, especially if the ex is a ghost.
HELL HATH NO FURY is my first scenario for The Ghost Hack RPG and this weekend it was playtested over Zoom. If you hate SPOILERS, look away, because I'm offering a session report and analysis.
Great cover, eh? That's artist Christopher Smith, working on drivethrurpg as Wooden Vampire Games
Creating characters from scratch can take an idea afternoon, but Ghost Hack is really simple, especially with the Quick Character Creation Templates. Four players invites a PC from each character class, so we soon arrived at:
The Oath Die
In Hell Hath No Fury I introduce a little mechanic to give ghostly RPGs some cohesion, one I stole from The One Ring RPG. This is the Oath Die; a d6 for a 4-player group. The players can call on their Oath to one another to get Advantage on a roll or to be 'just passing by' when they are needed. It's a usage die so you roll it every time you use it and on a 1-2 it shrinks, eventually turning into a d4 then disappearing, all used up. Of course, you can only call on your Oath to do things that are in the group's interest, not to pursue your side projects.
The story starts with each PC checking in on their Mortal Coil - the people or places or objects they still care about and which can fuel their powers. Peter finds young Dylan in great shape, starting an apprenticeship and attending rehab meetings. Lexi similarly finds the Lounge in great shape but is concerned that a bar worker, Jill York, has not been turning up for her shifts.
Gregg has a crisis. A businessman is talking to Fire Officer Reg about buying Bessie to put in a themepark. Gregg is a Nightmane and has no useful abilities for influencing the living, but uses the Oath Die to catch Lexi passing by. As a Revenant, Lexi excels at this sort of thing. While the buyer inspects the old truck in the shed, Lexi takes on her Charnel Form (an obese, rotting witch) and manifests in front of him, chasing him round and round the truck but disappearing when the sceptical Reg turns up. The businessman believes himself to be the victim of a hoax and storms off. Bessie is safe.
Joshua is tracking down a Japanese sword-cleaning kit he lent out to a young woman who seemed enraptured by it a year ago. Arriving at Jill York's flat, he finds the place a mess and Jill distraught, clutching a steak knife and about to harm herself. As a Poltergeist, he has no trouble wrestling the knife from her and embedding it in the wall. Terrified, Jill flees, leaving Joshua to explore. He finds a ghostly photograph pinned above Jill's bed: it's Jill and her ex, an Asian girl, but the photo has been ripped in half. Joshua keeps the photo and uses the Oath to have his friends drop by.
Spying on the Neighbours
The ghosts search the tiny flat and find a wormhole through to Hades under the bathroom sink. Something has crept into the flat, attracted by the misery here. Peter searches the aura of the place and confirms that ghostly Keening has caused Jill's self-harming. Lexi spots another ghost in the tenement opposite who has been spying on Jill's flat.
It's easy for Lexi and Joshua to walk through a wall and float down to the street below. It takes longer to climb the stairwell of the condemned building over the road. By the time they reach the loft, the peeping-tom is fleeing across the roof. Josh gives chase and captures the other ghost on the edge of a waste ground known as Pickman's Lot where a big Portal to Hades belches out stinking smoke.
Lexi searches the loft and concludes it's an old drug-users' gallery. There are two ghosts here that are mindless Echoes: a woman endlessly searching for her stash of money to pay her dealer, a man crouched in the corner, endlessly performing the ritual of shooting up. She realises the place is a Fane, a sanctum for ghosts.
Joshua drags his prisoner back: he's Derek Fiske and he spies on the living through a ghostly telescope at the loft's window. He's chronically shy and a little creepy but he saw Jill visited by an Asian lady ghost who keened over her to make her suicidal. He also saw a Miserlisk arrive to feed on the anguish.
Hunt the Miserlisk
Gregg tracks the Miserlisk down and Peter flushes it out by keening joyous feelings. Gregg whacks it with his fire axe a few times but it escapes through the wormhole, expanding the portal slightly.
Jill York returns with her friend Blythe. The women inspect the knife in the wall, but Blythe is dubious and thinks that Jill is being melodramatic. They discuss Mayu, Jill's ex, and the guilt Jill feels about not visiting her in hospital before she died, six months ago. Blythe is impatient: Mayu was a crazy stalker.
The ghosts decide it's not safe for the girls to stay here, so Peter keens joy into Jill, so that she suggests going out on the town. He then uses Ghostly Caress to blow a flyer for the Crash Lounge onto the floor. Blythe picks it up and suggests it as their venue. Greg and Josh accompany the women to keep an eye on them.
Desperately Seeking Mayu
Peter and Lexi visit the local hospital where Peter's Ghostly Caress can access the patient records and confirms Mayu Roberts died here after a self-inflicted wound. He also finds her address. The pair consider looking for the ward where she died, but find the hospital full of frenzied Echoes and highly territorial ghosts, so they head off to her address instead.
Mayu lived in an attic studio flat in an old and shabby boarding house. The room has been empty since but ghosts can see a spectral bloodstain on the floor where she harmed herself. Peter can sense the claustrophobic emotions here of love, loss and obsession.
Jill and Blythe have returned to the apartment and fallen asleep. Joshua and Gregg stop the Miserlisk from crawling inside Jill's mouth to possess her. They drag it out and chop the thing up.
They are surprised by the appearance of Mayu's ghost. She is deathly pale, soaked in blood and carries a katana. She is trying to whisper into Jill's sleeping mind but Gregg drags her away. Mayu cuts a portal in the air and escapes into Hades. At the same time, the Dread erupts out of Hades to imperil ghosts in the Living World.
Amazing illustration by Alex Borg
Gregg and Josh shelter from the malevolent mist in Derek Fiske's Fane. Lexi and Peter retreat through the false wall into Mayu's secret room and find that it too is a Fane. It is also a shrine to Mayu's twin obsessions: martial arts and Jill. They piece together the timeline of Mayu and Jill's relationship, Mayu's obsession and attempted seppuku and they gather some totems, which are ghostly objects that are real to the dead. They also find Joshua's missing sword-cleaning kit.
The next day, Jill's friend Vaughan visits her, offering a shoulder to cry on. Mayu manifests again and easily evades the PC ghosts. She possesses Vaughan but Peter (from the loft opposite, via the telescope) uses Keening to create joy in her. There is an almost-reconciliation between Mayu-as-Vaughan and Jill, that comes unstuck when Mayu/Vaughan tells Jill he loves her and she rejects him. Mayu delivers a vicious diatribe through Vaughan's mouth and storms out. In the street outside, she positions Vaughan before oncoming traffic and then steps out, leaving him to be killed in front of Jill's eyes.
Lexi possesses Jill to stop her doing anything reckless. The other three ghosts rush to confront Mayu. Despite her sword skills, they overwhelm her but she returns from defeat as an invulnerable Wight and once more escapes into Hades, pursued by Gregg.
The PCs decide they need more powerful weapons against a Wight and head to Pickman's Lot, where the Detritus Gate is belching out ectoplasm from Hades while booming like a bell. Lots of ghosts arrive to pick through the flotsam, looking for totems. A helpful old lady Irina advises the PCs to visit Fort Pluto, on the other side of the Gate. Among the refuse, they find a few valuable totems, including a 17th century breastplate.
On the other side of the Gate, Hades appears as a leafless forest with a safe trail cutting through the mists of the Dread. Fort Pluto is a trading post run by the enterprising Reuben Dismal-Jones who serves up distilled-emotion ichor to Nightmanes and trades in Echoes and totems. In exchange for the breastplate, some totems and a soul crystal he offers a pair of soultempered weapons, a sword and dagger that can inflict Grave Damage on ghosts and Wights.
Gregg arrives. He has plotted a route through Hades to the wormhole in Jill's flat. Using the Pallid Lamp to protect them, the ghosts cut through the Dread and pass through the portal into the apartment, in time to find the Mayu-Wight wrecking the place.
The battle is a satisfying one, because as well as their soultempered weapons, the PCs use the totem-photos from Mayu's lair to stun the Wight with grief and joy. Once the Wight is destroyed, Lexi releases Jill, who remembers little of what occurred. Jill and Blythe attend Vaughan's funeral and, by offering comfort to her friend, Jill learns to overcome her own troubled past.
This sort of roleplaying is never best through the online medium. It's hard to establish the intimacy and set the tone. Nonetheless, the story unfolded in a single afternoon session and if it started uncertainly it quickly became compelling. The players felt that this was a superior roleplaying experience and were struck by the element of emotional detective work, the value of empathy as a weapon and the contrast between high fantasy and the ordinary everyday, as ghosts battle it out on the roofs of cars while crowds gather round a tragic road accident victim.
I rushed things a bit to get it to fit the time frame. Jill's relationship with Blythe and Vaughan only got lightly sketched. Bogart and Tomasz never appeared. Shamus and his goons never threatened anyone. Fort Pluto could not be explored properly for lack of time. I allowed Lexi to possess Jill even though she shouldn't (Jill has 2HD and Lexi is first level) but Emily had to step out early so it provided a fitting way for her character to contribute as a NPC.
Nevertheless, the the ending was meaningful, so the story works even in condensed form.
There are some things the scenario needs. One is scaling. Mayu is a daunting opponent for a couple of ghosts, but four ghosts never felt seriously threatened by her, even though she's 4th level. I did however forget to use her Haste power to attack twice a round. Nonetheless, a simple scaling mechanism is called for to beef up Mayu and the Miserlisk for groups of 4-5 and 6+.
Usage Dice are funny things. Jill never lost one die during the scenario, despite rolling six or seven times. If she had deriorated rapidly, events would have been on more of a knife's-edge. But that's dice for you!
Soul Dice were rarely used and consequently Mortal Coils were not needed to recharge. In part, this is because it wasn't really a combat-heavy adventure rather than a problem needing fixing. Soul Usage is a bit all-or-nothing: with 1d4 for the Soul Dice, starting characters tend only to get one or perhaps two uses out of them, so if you demand more rolls you exhaust more characters.
The next scenario project is TEARS SUCH AS ANGELS WEEP, which is a bit more epic in scope. An angel recruits the PCs to travel to an Inferno to rescue a soul from its own private hell. That should offer more danger and Soul Usage but it will take me a few weeks to put together.
Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what
Back in the '90s, waiting for the next chapter of White Wolf's World of Darkness game line to see print occupied the space in my life that was later occupied by waiting for Game of Thrones to release a new season. 1991 brought out Vampire: The Masquerade and then Werewolf: The Apocalypse in 1992 and Mage: The Ascension in 1993.
By 1994, I was a frothing fan and the arrival of Wraith: The Oblivion was a bombshell, with its fantastic cover of interlinked chains, moody spectral art and surreal, grotesque setting of the rotting Shadowlands and hyper-real Tempest, with slave-harvesting wraiths and Oblivion-worshiping Spectres.
And yet. And yet. Wraith remains the one World of Darkness game that has never worked for me. I've run long campaigns with the other main games but every attempt to launch Wraith has met with, well, dissatisfaction. The closest I came to making Wraith fly was a campaign set in the 18th century Caribbean. Pirate Wraiths are cool.
Part of the problem is Wraith's setting. The other World of Darkness games are set in a bleak dystopian version of our world. Although werewolves and mages can step away into the more fantastical spirit worlds, they are still products of this world and this world is recognisable. Wraith is weird. Where are you? A sort of parallel reality called the Shadowlands that both is and yet is not the same as the world the living inhabit. There's a nightmarish hyperspace called 'the Tempest' that extends beyond the Shadowlands and that's hard to grasp too.
The moment you start playing Wraith, you butt up against confusions about what everything looks like. Do buildings in the Shadowlands have doors and windows? Are cars real there too? Can wraiths read newspapers and watch TV - or is the paper rotten and the screen cracked for them? What happens if a human stands in a spot which is a Nihil (a portal to the Tempest)?
Wraiths get discorporated by rough contact with 'real' things. This makes crossing a street or moving through a house rather difficult. Wraiths are perpetually being bashed into insubstantiality every time someone opens a door into them, drives through them, kicks a ball at them. So where do Wraiths live? What do they do?
Wraiths are supposed to be driven by obsessive Passions and tied to Tethers, which are objects or people that mattered to them. Yet they are also supposed to be servile minions in the Hierarchy, a Kafka-esque slave state of the dead. There doesn't seem to be a way to combine both ideas of what a wraith is.
Then there's the Shadow, which is your dark-side given voice, whispering in your mind and offering power in exchange for the gratifixcation of its own Dark Passions. If every Wraith NPC has this sort of Jekyl-and-Hyde persona, the social world of wraiths becomes unimaginably weird. The game recommends players roleplay each other's Shadows, ascting as tempters and tormentors to one another. Great on paper, but I've never been able to get it to work. Some players are too amiable to play the Shadow with gusto; others throw themselves into it with such cackling enthusiasm that it derails the plot.
All of these existential conundrums weigh down a game that was already way too fiddly. Wraiths have Passions and Tethers, but also Dark Passions and Shadow Thorns, and Memoriam and Angst, they are loyal to a Faction and a Legion as well as a Guild plus their own mortal attachments, as well as ... look, there's a lot to keep track of, a lot of dice to roll, a lot of points to tot up.
TLDR: Wraith's concept is brilliant, the execution gets in the way.
Let's Hack Away the Dead Wood
I've written about my delight in Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack, which takes David Black's ... Hack skeletal rules set and applies them to vampire, creating a OSR spin on the '90s game.
This set me thinking, could the Hack system be the way to turn Wraith into the sort of game I could actually play - that my players could wrap their heads around and I could Referee? And could I write The Ghost Hack myself?
So, I did. There's a PDF on drivethrurpg but I can't for the life of me make drivethru's print-on-demand system do what I want so the softback physical copy is available through Amazon.
Click the image for Amazon or visit drivethrurpg
The Hack system is very streamlined. You have the 'classic six' attributes of STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA and you do everything by rolling equal or under them on a d20. Advanatage lets you roll twice, choosing the best, and Disadvantage forces you to choose the worst. David Black's Usage Die mechanic replaces points: every time you use a dwindling resource you roll its die and on a 1-2 it shrinks a step, with d4 being the lowest step after which the resource is gone.
'Soul' becomes a Usage die that you roll every time you apply your supernatural energy to accomplish something. You replenish your Soul by feeding off your Mortal Coil. This is a group of living people and perhaps objects or places that matters to you and it is represented by another Usage Die. Mortal Coil shrinks when you suck spiritual power out of it, grows when you nurture it.
The other Usage Die is the Grave Die, which gets BIGGER when you roll 1-2 and it represents your spiritual Rot: a d6 Grave Die means you're still pretty human, with d8 and d10 losing humanity and d12 becoming monstrous. When the Grave Die is rolled you assume your Charnel Form - your horror movie appearance - and when the Die gets too big you stay stuck like that.
Four character classes give PCs their main options: Banshees manipulate and trade in emotions, Nightmanes explore the realms of death, Poltergeists can manipulate objects in the living world and Revenants can take form that the living can see. You choose your Crafts to complement your class abilities and off you go.
I sourced some nice pulp-style art
Out of respect to ghost-lore (and perhaps TV's Supernatural), these ghosts are harmed by iron and repelled by salt.
Rather than get bogged down by a metaphysically-muddled Shadowlands, these ghosts are alongside us in our world but insubstantial to everything except solid iron. There are portals to a ghostly realm of Hades - the underworld - which has Paradises and Infernos run by angels and demons (who probably used to be ghosts themselves) and a mysterious city of Dis run by powerful ghosts. Soulfire lets you recharge your Soul if your Mortal Coil is no more and soul crystals make a ghostly currency. A freezing mist - the Dread - emerges from Hades and forces ghosts to shelter in Fanes, which are places of spiritual strength. Ghosts overcome by the Rot turn into Wights, either temporarily or permanently, and wreck havoc.
If you want a Ghost Empire built on enslaving the dead, I cover this as an optional rule. Also optional is allowing other players to roleplay each other's 'Rot' if that's important to you.
A nice character sheet
Is it any good? Well, you'll have to tell me! Reviews are much appreciated! Contact me for a copy! There comes a point with the Hack games where, if you add on too many fiddly sub-systems, the essential simplicity has been lost. I think the Ghost Hack sails close to that but stays on the simple side: you can tell complex stories with sturdy yet uncomplicated mechanics.
I'd like to develop The Ghost Hack a bit further. There's a mini-campaign I want to get onto paper at last - with the PCs haunting a hospital with a strange past under threat from terrorists with a sinister agenda - and my next project (The Fey Hack) will tie in with the Ghost Hack, because ghosts and fey should adventure together. In folklore, they are almost indistinguishable.
Milton's poem describes the poet waking from gloom to throw himself into the busy tumult of life, traveling from the farm, through the beautiful countryside, to the city, and a life given over to pleasure and romance, with poetry being the highest pleasure of all.
It doesn't start in the lovely city. The poem begins in a place of nightmare:
Hence loathed Melancholy,
It's quirky that Milton's description of his nightmares resembles a dungeon adventure, with Cerberus the hell-hound, Stygian caves and Cimmerian deserts. The whole poem (whose title, L'Allegro, means 'The Happy Man') reads like the experience of dungeon adventurers, returning from their harrowing escapade through the peaceful realms, past farms, through woods, at last to a great city, where they will spend their loot and, y'know, level up.
Ah. Downtime. Every Referee has his or her own system for it. Go to drivethrurpg and there's an embarrassment of house rules on offer. No one needs to add to this tottering pile.
So obviously I'm going to tell you about mine!
But I'll make up for it by explaining my thinking as I go and maybe raise a few issues about why we need systems like this in Fantasy RPGs - and why we don't.
What's Downtime for?
In a nutshell, roleplaying.
Look, in some idealised gaming world, there would be no 'downtime': the roleplaying experience would move seamlessly from the quest or dungeon to the home town, to the Green Dragon Inn in Portown, to negotiations with merchants and feudal lords, reunions with family and friends, flirtations with lovers, marriages, funerals, the highs and lows of a life well-lived. Fighting monsters and unearthing treasure would be one of the things fantasy adventurers do - but they would also ask Rosie the barmaid to marry them. And really, which would be the greater achievement?
But it's not always so easy. Some Referees are uncomfortable narrating domestic joys and tribulations, some players find it boring; at the end of an adventure many gamers (players and Referees) are tired and want to relax with treasure distribution and XP calculation, not launch into arduous personal roleplaying. The sheer open-endedness of downtime can be daunting: at least with a dungeon the Referee can plan things out in advance.
Before Lockdown moved us online and into more conventional dungeon-bashing, I was running a One Ring campaign set in Bree. The characters were humble Hobbits, a Dwarf tinker and a troubled Woodsman and much of the roleplaying revolved around running their businesses, pursuing their love lives and exploring their families and neighbours. In other words, activities that would usually be assigned to Downtime dominated the roleplaying. The players found this refreshing and addictive but, for a Referee, it was fatiguing. Moderating a dungeon-crawl is, by comparison, a relaxing activity.
Ignoring Downtime is unsatisfactory too. The PCs end up lacking a context and a world outside of adventuring. They accumulate huge amounts of loot but have little to spend it on.
My Downtime system is based on a couple of core concepts:
One last note. I'm using White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game alongside Simon Piecha's Expanded Lore supplement with his rules for Feats. White Box condenses the whole D&D level system into 10 levels (well... 12 for Magic-Users) and the dice rolls here are based on that rather condensed approach.
Staying at the Inn
Staying at 'the Inn' between adventures is a sort of default option for players who really don't want to engage with Downtime or who need to save money. Time passes, you heal your Hit Points, it doesn't cost much, then back down the dungeon we go.
Adventurers heal 1 HP for every day of rest; luxury guests can add their Constitution Bonus to this. Merchants at the Inn will buy gems and jewellery but will only offer 50% of its value. No one will buy or sell magic items.
Going to the Big City
Accommodation in the City charges double the rates of an Inn.
During each week in the Big City, players engage in City Activities.A character may undertake 4 activities per week modified by their Charisma (from -3 to +3) but each activity may only be chosen once.
These activities usually have a cost based on a d8 die roll and a multiplier. For some activities, the cost is multiplied by the character's current level. Many activities generate Favours or Insights, which are explained later. All die rolls are capped by the player character's level: if you get a result higher than your level, the result is treated as being equivalent to your level.
When a character reaches 9th level, builds a stronghold of some sort and attracts followers, they roll 1d12 instead of the d8.
Bawdiness & Harlotry*: Enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Have a Random Encounter (roll at +1 or +2 for expensive bawdiness). Cost: 1d8 x 50gp or x 100gp for the expensive sort.
Black Market*: Buy illegal goods/hirelings or standard goods/hirelings at 75% cost (contraband, slaves).
Carouse*: Drink, eat, dance then do it all over again. Have Random Encounters (one for ordinary carousing, two for the expensive sort). Cost: 1d8 x 10gp or x 100gp for expensive carousing.
Craft*: Manufacture potions, scrolls and other magic items at higher levels. War Smiths create arms and armour with this activity (which represents spending up to 5 Craft points).
Debt Management: If you overspend, this MUST be your next City Activity. Visit your debtors. Spend a Favour. Add 50% to your debt. You can do this once, plus one extra time for each bonus point of Charisma. Debtors will send collectors (i.e. assassins) after a month. If you leave the city without meeting your debtors this way, the debts are doubled and the collectors/assassins are dispatched after a week.
Devotion*: Carry out the rites, sacrifices and services of your religion. Gain 1d6 Insight. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Fence*: Sell stolen gems/jewellery or illegal valuables to criminal deals. You will get 50% of the value.
Gambling*: Dice, cards, pit fights and races. Spend the cost then pass a Saving Throw to recover it and another Saving Throw to double it. Thieves and Street Mages add +2. Have a Random Encounter at -1. Cost: 1d8 x 10gp or x 100gp.
Good Works: Devote yourself to a project you believe in. Gain 1d8-1 Favour and 1d8-1 Insight (0 means nothing is gained). Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Lotus Eating*: Take mind-bending drugs and lie in a stupor.Gain 1d8-1 Insight (0 means nothing is gained) or 1d8 Insight for Luxury Lotus. Gain 1 Trauma. Have a Random Encounter at -2 or a normal Random Encounter for luxury Lotus). No further activities this week. Cost: 1d8 x 25gp or x 150gp for luxury Lotus.
Magickal Market*: Spend a Favour to inquire to buy a magic item or sell one. If buying, roll a magic item randomly (White Box p117) to see what is for sale. The cost is in Favour/Insight. Potions and Protection Scrolls cost 10 Favour/Insight, 25 for Lesser Items/Lesser Rings and 50 for Medium Items, Lesser Wands/Staves and non-unusual Arms/Armour. More powerful treasures are not for sale: if you roll these, treat "nothing for sale this week." If selling, the PC earns half the sale amount (5, 12 or 25) but can choose whether to be paid in Favour, Insight or a combination. Optional: roll a Random Encounter.
Market: Buy standard equipment and recruit Hirelings at normal prices. Optional: roll a Random Encounter.
Physicks and Leeches: Hire a skilled doctor to treat you. Add +1 to the number of HP you heal each day and heal 1 Injury (in addition to any normal healing). Cost: 1d8 x 100 gp
Politicking*: Meet with the movers and shakers and influence their plans. Gain 1d8 Favour. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Quest*: There are downtime quests, like following a treasure map. Cost: 1d8 x 10gp for supplies, porters, horses.
Spiritual Comfort: Hire a cleric or mystic to help you pray or meditate on your problems. This counts as Spiritual Comfort, removing 1 Trauma for a week of rest (no * activities) and removing 1 point of Derangement after 4 weeks of rest. Cost: 1d8 x 25gp (or 1d6 x 100gp for a month).
Study*: Visit a library, laboratory or Sage to find answers to questions. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp.
Trade: Sell your gems and jewellery to respectable dealers. You will get 75% of the value or 100% if you spend 1 Favour.
Training*: One week of training per level you currently possess is required before you can advance a level in your class. You must spend 1 Insight or Favour to use this activity. Spending extra Insight or Favour halves the cost (multiple Insight/Favour may be spent in this way). Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level
Work*: Spend a week earning money from your profession. Thieves may roll twice and choose the higher amount. Assassins roll Assassinate ability and claim fee if successful. Gain XP equal to 50% of your earnings. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Gain: 1d8 x 10gp per level
Horatio is a 3rd level Magic-User with a +1 Charisma Bonus so he gets 5 City Activities a week. He spends his 10gp accommodation undertakes these activities:
At the end of a week, Horatio has completed a third of his training, gained a Trauma and spent 1,135gp. He also earned 90gp and realised 1,000gp cash from some dungeon loot. He has to roll on the Encounter Table from his lotus binge.
Random Encounters must occur while Carousing, Gambling, Lotus-Eating or carrying on with Bawdiness & Harlotry and are optional with several other activities. They are rolled on 2d6. Charisma Bonuses apply, but there is a penalty of -1 if you have debts and -1 per Favour you owe to NPCs.
Favour can be lost and turn into negative favour (Favours you owe rather than favours owed to you) but you cannot reduce Insight below 0.
Horatio has a +1 Charisma Bonus and rolls 7, minus 2 (for cheap lotus) and plus 1 (Charisma), resulting in 6: someone robbed him while he was at that drug den. He rolls a d8 and the result of 8 is reduced to 3 (because he's third level) so Horatio has lost 90gp. That was his weekly earnings! Horatio begins a roleplayed encounter as he blearily pursues the thief through the night time streets.
Favours & Insights
Favours/Insights are a sort of currency for Downtime, representing leverage with NPCs or institutions or else your own growing understanding of plots, factions and power in your community. Ideally, I like to turn each favour or insight into a roleplayed moment: an incident, a new NPC, a flashback or cut-scene.
Insight can be traded for a (true, relevant) rumour about a dungeon. Insights can be spent to engage in Training or halve its cost.
Favour can be used to get the full gold value of a Trade or 75% for a Fence/sale of a magical treasure. A Favour enables you to manage your Debts or engage in Training. A Favour can also be spent to halve the cost of a week’s training.
Horatio has 3 Insight and 2 Favours. As a third level Magic-User, his To Hit Bonus is +0 so a temporary Feat costs him a basic 1 Insight. He purchases Iron Will for +2 to all his saving throws during the next adventure. He wants someone to cast continual light on his dagger so he doesn't have to worry about his torch going out. This is a 2nd level spell so spending 2 Favours will turn up a friendly mage willing to cast the spell. Horatio trades his other Insight in for rumours about the dungeon.
Homebrew rules are funny. You create them to be as simple and unfussy as possible, but anyone else looking at them sees only a dog's breakfast of otiose tables, dice-rolls and redundancy. Then they offer their suggestions which strike you as insanely baroque and over-complicated. Ah well...
I wanted this system to be ABSTRACT. I didn't want it to dictate to me that Dian the Cleric has been mugged in an alleyway by 3 fifth level Thieves or that Konall the War Smith has offended the Dowager Princess' favourite eunuch. Those are campaign specifics that I can come up with myself once I know that someone has lost money or made an enemy. I get that some people want a system to tell them much more detailed events but that's just not a requirement for me.
I also wanted the system to be EXPENSIVE and it's been through several drafts to get the economics right. Players emerge from dungeons with huge amounts of loot. I want to take it off them, partly so that they value finding the next haul and partly to provide an economic incentive for adventuring. Arranging the money and the Favour/Insight to go up levels is becoming an abiding concern for players and I think that's as it should be. My early drafts were too punitive, though - I think this one is about right.
I want the system to LEVEL UP because D&D is all about levels. First level characters potter about, gambling with small stakes, making modest donations, politicking with low-tier bureacrats, carousing in inexpensive taverns. Higher level characters incur much bigger costs for greater benefits. A first level character might spend 100gp at the temple and earn a single Insight but a fifth level character could part with 2,500gp for 5 Insight. That's why fifth level characters are down on the lower dungeon levels, doing dangerous stuff for big rewards.
Favour and Insight quantify the ebb and flow of a character's influence and awareness about what's happening in their world. Using them as the currency for magic items and spells spares me quantifying the cash value of a +1 sword or getting remove curse cast to remove that lycanthropy. The option to buy 'temporary Feats' lets PCs power-up ahead of important or dangerous missions. They also generate roleplayed encounters, in-character flashbacks and NPC allies, patrons and contacts.
Remember Vampire: the Masquerade? Mark Rein-Hagen's broody vamp RPG crashed into the hobby in 1991 and changed everything. It established White Wolf as a major gaming industry name and their Storyteller System as an influential rules set. It opened the World of Darkness as a compelling modern day setting, with contemporary heroes exploring a 'Gothic Punk' version of the world we know, one where supernatural evils manipulate humanity from the shadows. Perhaps most importantly, it offered a radical approach to roleplaying, with anguished characters possessing vivid inner lives, a focus on themes over action and a sort of bruised romanticism that hooked players at once. In Vampire, you play the monster, but you are horrified by what you have become and what you might turn into.
I was drawn in by V:tM's coffee-table chic. So minimalist. So teasing. The 1st edition cover gave nothing away beyond "A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror"
Vampire presented us a world familiar from much-loved '80s media - the American heartlands of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, the world of Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, the music of John Cougar Mellancamp and Bob Seger, the Blues Brothers, Halloween. Then it flipped it, focusing on the decaying industrial 'Rust Belt' and the hollowed-out cities. The mythology of feuding clans and warring sects, the historical revisionism that placed undead puppet-masters behind civilisation's great events, the concept of a 'Masquerade' that exposed the wholesome suburbia of a John Hughes movie to be a cynical lie... That's a heady cocktail.
Vampire and its successor-games (werewolves, mages, wraiths and changelings) pretty much defined '90s roleplaying. Gone were the gritty, matrix-dominated high fantasy worlds of the '80s - take that, Rolemaster! - and in came improvisation, drama, roll-the-dice-then-make-something-up. Light candles! Play a Dead Can Dance CD! Wear a funny hat! Vampire didn't birth LARPing but it gave it focus and White Wolf threw itself behind the LARP trend with its 'Minds Eye Theater' line.
I loved Vampire as much as anyone. It probably sustained my post-university interest in roleplaying which would have faded away otherwise, under the squeeze from career and family and ennui with dungeons and, I suppose, dragons. The great thing about Vampire was that the scenarios wrote themselves. Session One, you awaken as a vampire and you have to go and find food. From this premise, everything else flows and the tragedies, misadventures and dilemmas of that first night on the prowl set everything else in motion. You have to hide a body. You've offended another vampire. You've been discovered by your boyfriend. You've been introduced to the vampiric Prince and he wants you to do a little job for him.
It wasn't perfect though. The Great Handfuls Of Dice (GHOD) offered a cluttered and blunt mechanic that didn't allow meaningful assessment of risk. No matter how many editions the game went through, they couldn't fix overpowered Celerity or underpowered guns.
Roll all these and tell me if you hit...
New Clans and Bloodlines were twinky and power-creeping and, from a 21st century perspective, insensitive in the representation of race and culture (so... Gypsies vampires are all thieves and the only two black factions are devoted to murder and demonism?).
The representation of Middle Eastern vampires as a clan of fanatical assassins... problematic!
And of course, that intoxicating lore which was such a springboard for the imagination back in '91 got codified, nailed down, explicated and quantified. It became a straightjacket, with its canonical timelines and dominating conflicts. Although a supplement exploring the anti-human Sabbat sect was extremely imaginative, it took the Jungian 'Shadow' of Vampire and gave it a face and the night lost its mystery as a result.
There's a new version of Vampire: the Masquerade out - 2018's 'fifth edition' - and it's supposed to be very good. It takes a root-and-branch approach, restructuring the (terrible) dice system and Year Zero-ing the convoluted mythology. It can't overcome the game's '90s legacy, it seems, and has encoded characters with neo-Nazi iconography. Edge-lordery or Ass-holery? I can't comment. I've not read it.
The reason I'm not wading back into Vampire: the Masquerade is that I've discovered The Blood Hack.
I can buy the new 5th edition for £18 as a PDF - which is good value for a slick product - or The Blood Hack for £3 from drivethrurpg
Author Matthew Skail describes The Blood Hack as "a love letter to dark games of the 90's that allow you to play the monster!" So we know what he's talking about, right?
A bit of context. There are a lot of ...Hack RPGs out there, but the progenitor is David Black's The Black Hack (2013). The Black Hack is a super-streamlined retroclone of original D&D that takes a lot of liberties in order to capture the essence of Old School dungeon-bashing. It replaces all the tables and matrices with a simple mechanic: roll a d20 and get equal to or less than your relevant attribute (STR, DEX, etc). Players do all the rolling so you test STR to attack a monster and STR again to avoid being damaged by its attack. Saving throws are tests of CON or DEX or whatever. You might have penalties (actually, plusses, since you're trying to roll low) but the usual mechanic is to roll with either Advantage (roll twice, keep the lowest) or Disadvantage (roll twice, keep the highest).
Black's innovation is the Usage Die. If your character has a crossbow it might have a d6 Usage Die. Every time you fire it you roll your d6 and if you roll 1-2 your Usage Die shrinks down to a d4. If you roll 1-2 again, your Usage Die is gone. You're out of ammo. Black applies the Usage Die concept to things like ammo, supplies, rations and torches, to avoid the fiddliness of keeping track of individual arrows or oil flasks. However, imitators have gone much further with this design.
A Black Hack character, with Usage Dice
Because Black is writing under the Open Gaming Licence, he offers up his game as a 'Hack' and a living document, inviting corrections and additions. Before long, there is a Space Hack, a Zombie Hack and a Cthulhu Hack and many other adaptations of popular RPG properties into this streamlined OSR rules set.
Enter Matthew Skail, who takes up Black's distinctive approach and creates a sort of OSR Vampire game: Vampire but with levels and Hit Dice and the familiar six attributes of D&D, with the vampiric bloodlines as character classes. Obviously, intellectual property means that Skail cannot poach the Tremere and Gangrel, but his Anunnaki are sorcerers and Enkidu are shapeshifters, the Dracul are lordly warriors and the Lillim seductive manipulators: if you know V:tM, you can join the dots.
Usage Dice do a lot more work in Skail's game. You have a Blood Usage Die and whenever you use it (to power abilities or go without feeding) you roll it and on a 1-2 it shrinks. Characters start off with a d4 Blood Usage Die, so there's a 50% chance any vampy exertion will leave you bloodless and hungry. Top vampires have a d10 Blood Die and you can do a lot with that: it will shrink to a d8 then a d6 then a d4 before you end up bloodless. Have fun!
Feeding on a victim lets you take a step of their Blood Die (reducing a human from d4 to nothing) and add it to yours (boosting you from nothing to a d4). You can gorge yourself, taking your Blood Die to a step higher than your level-limit (ie. a d6 for first level characters). Feed on someone without a Blood Die and they die.
Morality is also a Usage Die, but this is a die that gets bigger when it rolls 1-2. You start of with a d6 Morality (basic human, nothing special) and when you drain someone dry you roll it and on a 1-2 it increases to a d8. Now you're coldly inhuman in many ways; you're tougher in combat but you need to feed every night and sunlight deals Killing Damage. Vampires with a d10 Morality are nasty, d12 are monsters and d20 are doomed to become NPC horrors. With each step up, you get more vicious in combat but more vulnerable to sunlight, silver and holiness.
Skail's vampires don't have reflections (I remember the brilliant 1998 TV series Ultraviolet and perhaps Skail does too because he's alert to the implication that vampires do not show up on film and their voices don't carry over telephones or the Internet).
This show rocked and, yes, that's Idris Elba
Skail also reinstates silver as a source of Killing Damage for vampires and downplays the idea that they're controlling the world: he presents his clans as engaged in little turf wars rather than directing massive corporations, but of course you can take the game in any direction you like.
There's a comprehensive set of Blood Gifts and you get more by going up levels. Some of these Gifts are permanent powers (you can climb walls!), some require victims to have no more Hit Dice than you (the commanding Voice) and others require a stat test and a Blood Usage die roll. Super-strength 'Might' is another Usage Die that exhausts as you use it and refreshes the next evening. There are Blood Rituals you can use as an Anunnaki or buy into through the Mysticism Blood Gift and these let you create Renfield-esque Thralls, protect your Lair, recreate your reflection and other cools tricks.
All of this is packed in to 54 pages with big typeface, lots of white space and some B&W art that's amateur but effective.
It's not a perfect document. If you hate typos, then sedate yourself, because Matthew Skail has autocorrect turned 'off'. The ordering of material is haphazard and would be baffling in a larger or more complex rules set. Some material has been ported in from other hacks in a rather undigested way: we get lists of firearms and vehicles and their stats and prices as if this was a set of skirmish rules. but only perfunctory rules on humans, Thralls and vampire politics. The assumption is that you're fighting other supernatural mooks in the night. But of course, you can make use of the game in any way you like.
I've found The Blood Hack to be a fantastic gateway back into vampire-themed roleplaying with a OSR aesthetic. It lets me ditch the baggage of the World of Darkness and construct my own setting with vamps who are rather more mystical and varied than the White Wolf varieties. I've started a campaign - Nights of Fire, set in London in 1940 on the eve of the Blitz - and of course that's going to end up hacking the Hack, with my own rules and variants, new clans, new powers, all of that stuff.
The Blood Hack doesn't have Malkavians! That so needs to be fixed...
We're playing a campaign using White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game, which makes a virtue out of simplicity. We like to impose a critical hit (maximum damage!) on a 20, so there needs to be a critical failure on a 1. Currently we go with the old drop-your-weapon standby.
There's nothing wrong with drop-your-weapon (DYW). It's simple. You can spend a round picking it up again (foregoing your attack) or someone else can pick it up for you (foregoing their action) or you can just draw another weapon and bash on with that.
I note with a sinking heart that White Box uses the ghastly one minute melee round (p31) that Gary Gygax introduced for AD&D. Why?!?!? I wrote about this back when I was reviewing Forge: Out of Chaos. In a one minute melee round you have plenty of opportunity to pick up a dropped weapon yourself. Needless to say, my White Box melee rounds are a brisk 10 seconds.
The problem with DYW is that it gets a bit boring. Players never get tired of dealing maximum damage but they do get fed up of dropping their weapons, especially the Dark Elf War Smith whose warhammer seems to be made out of banana skins. DYW also gets comedic, which is fine on some occasions but not the vibe you want in more dramatic showdowns.
I need to resist the urge to create a complicated Critical Fail table, partly because this is White Box here and partly because whatever I create for PC fumbles will have to apply to monsters too and, as a Referee, I don't want extra book-keeping.
Option 1: Fumbles Are Stressful
I already use the Trauma & Insanity system, adapted from Goblinpunch. I find it pretty easy to track and it doesn't alter the structure of the game too much, but it helps spotlight scary moments and indicates to players when danger is looming. So far only two characters (both belonging to the same player!) have contracted any permanent derangements, but a few people have had awkward breakdowns.
A simple mechanic is: if you roll a natural 1 in combat, gain a Trauma point.
Of course, you then have to make a Breakdown Test by rolling over your current Trauma on a d20 (Wisdom modifiers apply) and if you fail that you freak out in the manner of your choosing for 1d6 rounds or else 'suck it up' and waive the penalty at the cost of taking on a derangement. This means combat fumbles don't always produce a bad side-effect, but they contribute to your overall stress and, when they do explode in your face, you could be quite severely discomfitted.
The beauty of this is elegance: it relates to a mechanic I already use and my players understand and it's a mechanic which periodically causes PCs to freeze or flee or freak out. Of course, it doesn't apply to monsters - instead, a Natural-1 could cause them to make a Morale Check. There are some monsters (Berserkers, Undead) who simply don't fail Morale Checks, so a Natural-1 is just an ordinary fail for them. Is that a problem?
Option 2: Fumbles Are Feints
Another view is that a fumble in combat represents, not your clumsiness, but your opponent's craftiness. They feinted or somehow drew you into a reckless attack that exposed yourself.
A simple mechanic is: the enemy you are attacking gets a free attack.
In other versions of D&D, this could be quite punishing, but remember two things:
The beauty of this is that it speeds fights up by adding in extra attacks now and again. Given the damage output that PCs have, it probably plays in favour of PCs. It rewards high-HP, high-AC characters who can endure multiple attacks. Most importantly, it's REALLY SIMPLE. You roll a 1 and your opponent hits you: simples.
Option 3: A Critical Miss Table
It's a classic solution:
This was my first solution, but on reflection it's the least attractive. It's another damn table to roll on. The results won't always make sense in the narrative. It can be unintentionally comedic at the wrong times. But it does introduce uncertainty and drama to combat.
One option is to decide which to use on a case-by-case basis, announcing it at the start of any given fight. Being swarmed by Giant Rats or an army of rotting Skeletons is stressful, so Option 1 fits best: your fumbles means the rats are in your hair, the skeletons' bony fingers are at your throat. A duel or matched melee against humanoid opponents fits Option 2 better: you are both trying to break through each other's guard. A party attack on a big enemy fits Option 3 better: if you are all fighting a Dragon or a Giant, it keeps swatting you away and deafening you with its roars.
It's time to go way back. I'm talking White Dwarf 4 (1977/8) and Brian Asbury's Barbarian character class. This is the Barbarian from the twilit time before the Players Handbook (1978) introduced AD&D. This is the Barbarian before Unearthed Arcane (1985) made his Hit Dice 12-sided (just... no, I don't want to talk about that). This is the original Barbarian.
Most people know the revised version from Best of White Dwarf Articles I (left) but click the cover to peek at White Dwarf 4
Brian Asbury's lively imagination later introduced the Houri, but back in 1977 he was ploughing a fresh furrow with a character class like this. There were few templates except for the outlines of Rangers and Illusionists in Strategic Review and player-made classes in fanzines. There was no standardised layout, little consensus about power creep or overlap. Lots of fan-made classes were pretty crass. You just piled on all the cool powers you could think of and presented it to your Dungeon Master on badly-typed foolscap.
Asbury is guilty of some of this with his Barbarian class. Nevertheless, he anticipates the way official character classes would develop and sets a pattern White Dwarf contributors would follow. This class was very popular: people were still using Asbury's Barbarian for AD&D right up to 1985 when it was officially eclipsed by the 'official' AD&D Barbarian ... and for some time afterwards, since the 'official' Barbarian sucked so badly.
1985 was the year of the Unearthed Arcana supplement for AD&D and New Coke. They had much in common. The UA Barbarian was a lumbering powerhouse that wouldn't associate with magic or Magic-Users, creating much party division and many dead Magic-Users
It's worth pausing and wondering what a 'Barbarian' is supposed to be in a fantasy RPG. Assassins were often criticised for their redundancy: anyone can be an assassin, after all; it's a role rather than a character class. If you're a Fighter or a Thief but someone offers you a sack of gold to go murder Curtis the Cleric then all of a sudden you're an assassin - but you don't need to change class. Something similar is true of barbarians. If your character is from a tribal, pre-literate culture with little taste for living in cities, then you're a barbarian. You're a barbarian Fighter or a barbarian Cleric. It's flavour, not a class in itself. The same could be said of characters who are nobles or gypsies or mercenaries or gladiators.
And yet, barbarians have a special status in the sort of fantasy literature that D&D descends from. 'Barbarian' means Conan, Rod Sonja, Fafhrd, Ka-Zar, Tarzan, Asterix and Obelix, anyone from Rohan, Boadicea, mythic meatheads like Beowulf and Cuchulain and just about everyone who appears in a Norse Saga.
In other words, it's a literary device. It's a bit like Consulting Detectives: they don't really exist and they're really just a job title but if your RPG involves tracking down the Ripper in the fog-ridden streets of Whitechapel some player will want to be one.
Robert E Howard's Conan is, of course, the paradigm. He's a footloose bruiser with some talents for sneaking and scaling towers, handy with a sword, sharp of wit if slow of intellect, triumphing over enemies who are smarter and stronger and better-equipped by virtue of his ferocity and a certain happy instinct for mayhem.
The core trait, then, is that what others accomplish through training or study or craft, the literary barbarian achieves by instinct - which in this case means a sort of unreflective energy that is smothered in civilised people. She's not really a sub-class of Fighter so much as an anti-Monk!
Brian Asbury's Barbarian is a Constitution-based class of its own:
Prime requisite is constitution, because one of the barbarian's greatest assets is his sheer hardiness and capacity for survival.
From this, the Barbarian gets to save as a Cleric 4 levels higher than her actual level, which is a rather clumsy formulation. They are also "twice as resistant to disease" as other classes. They are also always treated as one Armour Class better than their normal AC. When you factor in the requirement that they have a minimum of 13 or 14 in Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom (Wisdom?!?) then you are already looking at a rather over-powered class and we haven't reached the good stuff yet.
Barbarians have the same tracking abilities as Rangers. I really dislike this sort of overlap. If you want to play a barbaric wilderness tracker, play a Ranger and give him a barbaric name like 'Wulf' or 'Gnar'.
Barbarians are also fearless and have a 50% chance of going berserk (+2 To Hit) rather than fleeing if affected by fear effects. They have a chance of sensing danger based on a d6 roll that scales almost exactly like Charlie Mason's d6 abilities for Thieves in White Box. I wonder if Asbury influenced Mason in this?
The fearlessness seems a bit heavy-handed. By all means give Barbarians a bonus to save vs fear, but the berserking benefit overloads it. Szymon Piecha offers a Berserker sub-class for Fighters in White Box: Expanded Lore so, once again, if you want to be that guy, just play a Fighter with barbaric flavour.
Sensing danger, though, is a nice ability and something no other class possesses. Brian Asbury suggests it is "on" constantly. This puts an obligation on the Referee to be checking whenever danger approaches and warning the player if the dice come up right. I don't like putting tasks like this onto Referees and I feel abilities should involve player choice. Danger Sense needs to be something the player asks for, rather than an ongoing 'spidey-sense' that requires no player agency.
Barbarians also get Sign Language, allowing them to get over language barriers with monsters. Once again, this is a nice idea, but it's too powerful as it stands, since it renders spells like tongues or high-Intelligence characters with lots of languages completely redundant.
Next are a bunch of stealth skills: hearing noise, climbing and (in the revised version) hiding in shadows. The revised version justifies these by claiming Barbarians should be able to "emulate the feats of the greatest barbarian of them all" (i.e. Conan). I'm not at all convinced of this; just because Conan did a feat once, with a grappling hook and a rope (climbing Yara's Tower in The Tower of the Elephant), it doesn't follow Barbarians in D&D should be able to do this all the time. Just as Sign Languages walks on the lawns of Magic-Users and Bards, these stealth skills just crowd out Thieves.
Click the image to read The Tower of the Elephant (1933)
Then we get the combat skills. Barbarians have a chance of catching missiles out of the air. I have no idea where this comes from. It imitates a Monk ability and, frankly, Monks should be left alone.
First-attack Ferocity is much more interesting. Barbarians enjoy +1 To Hit as a matter of course (naturally) but the Barbarian gets a special bonus if he wins initiative on his very first attack against an opponent:
This is their chance of whipping themselves up into such a frenzy that their first attack only will be carried out at a +2 hit bonus, and do double damage if the barbarian is 1st to 4th level, triple damage for 5-8th levels, and quadruple damage for 9th level and above.
POW! I love the energy in the illustration by (I think) Albie Fiore
I like this power, but once again, there's too little agency. Thieves get an attack with +2 To Hit and double damage, but they have to earn their Back Stab by hiding or positioning themselves. Barbarians get the same bonus automatically and every fight by just rolling well on initiative (or the monsters rolling badly).
Are there any down-sides to being a Barbarian? There's a bit of confusion over Barbarians being illiterate if their Wisdom is 13 or less, since a Wisdom of 14+ is a prerequisite for the class.
The main penalty is armour. These are your loincloth-only Barbarians, with skimpy armoured bikinis available for the ladies. Levels 1-5 limits you to a shield only; leather armour at level 6 and chainmail at level 11. This is a big limitation, but it's a shame Brian Asbury lacks the courage of his convictions and allows higher level Barbarians to cower behind their armour. Barbarians already get tougher as they go up in levels, with more ferocious first-attacks and better chances of sensing danger, catching missiles and thieving: their signature restriction is being gradually dismantled too!
The other problem with the lack of armour is conceptual. It's great for imitating Tarzan, Kazar and comic-book Conan/Red Sonja, but it doesn't reflect Vikings or Beowulf. Is the Barbarian meant to be a half-naked berserker or not?
In a nutshell...
The Asbury-Barbarian is an overpowered confection that poaches important aptitudes from other classes and confers benefits without asking the player to make meaningful choices about employing them: the Referee rolls for danger-sense and First-attack Ferocity is resolved by winning initiative. The armour limitations that might balance this are half-hearted and only restricts lower-level characters.
Great fun though!
The Barbarian for White Box
White Box doesn't do Attribute minimums. If you want to be a fat, clumsy Barbarian with hay fever, go for it. It also avoids gradated powers, except for signature skills like Thievery. Powers don't 'kick in' at arbitrary levels, but White Box: Expanded Lore introduces Feats as a way of customising your character at higher levels. There are only 10 levels, so the whole Barbarian life-journey has to be compressed into this.
Barbarians must be Humans or (at the Referee's discretion) Half-Orcs. Some campaign settings might include Savage Elves, Neanderhalflings or Cave Dwarves who would qualify as Barbarians. The Prime Attribute is Constitution and a Barbarian character gains +05% to earned XP if this is 15+. Barbarians may be any alignment.
Armour & Weapon Restrictions
Barbarians cannot wear armour. They can carry shields. They can use any weapons. They can make use of all magic items usable by Fighters but also Cloaks of Protection.
Barbarians progress slightly slower than Fighters but with superior To Hit Bonuses at lower levels. At some levels they get +3HP rather than a new Hit Dice. This is a mixed blessing, since +3 avoids the danger of rolling lower but you don't add your Constitution Bonus since it isn't a new Hit Die.
The player may ask the Referee if their instincts warn of danger and the Referee secretly rolls a d6 and compares it to the Instincts score; if successful, the Referee warns the player of danger (but not its nature) and direction or source. This could detect approaching monsters or traps.
The Instincts score is added to the Barbarian's Armour Class. It is also added to some saving throws (see below).
A successful Instincts test enables a Barbarian to communicate simple intentions, directions or requests to an animal or non-magical creature of animal-like intelligence. It does not enable the Barbarian to understand replies.
Undead and creatures that can only be harmed by magical weapons will not respond to Sign Language.
Sign Language also enables two Barbarians to communicate wordlessly (often while hunting or trading). In this case, the Instincts test can be rolled to succeed in communicating complicated ideas or to use Sign Language without bystanders noticing.
First Attack Ferocity
At the start of a combat encounter, the Barbarian can forfeit one round to work herself into a battle frenzy. She then gains +2 To Hit and rolls the damage dice twice on her next attack. This can only be attempted once per combat (and cannot be used a second time if the Barbarian moves to attack a fresh opponent).
Sometimes adventurers are aware of monsters before combat starts and a Barbarian can work himself into a frenzy before the first round of combat, without forfeiting any actions. This is allowed, but the noise of the Barbarian's attack will instead forfeit any surprise round that the party might have enjoyed. It might be better for a Barbarian to use a round of surprise bringing on the frenzy in order to allow the rest of the party to enjoy surprise attacks.
Barbarians are not used to civilised ways or actively disdain them. They suffer a -2 penalty on Reaction Tests in towns and cities and pay double for supplies, armour and weapons from trading stores.
This is discrimination. If other PCs offer to buy supplies for a Barbarian PC, they too will pick up these penalties until they stop offering! If the Barbarian's player argues that their character is now accustomed to civilisation and accepted by civilised people, remove this penalty but also remove the Barbarian's Instinct ability, since they have clearly gone soft!
Barbarians add their Instincts to saving throws vs fear and disease. At the Referee's discretion, Instincts may also be added to saving throws versus effects which can be dodged or evaded (spell effects like fireball, gaze attacks of monsters like Medusas, falling rocks, dragon breath).
Don't allow a bonus to saving throws against magical effects that target the Barbarian mystically (like hold person or charm person) or which have already 'hit' because of another roll (like poison or paralysation from the successful attack of a monster or an activated trap).
Establish a Lodge
At 9th level, the Barbarian becomes a Barbarian Chief and can build a Lodge, which is a sort of camp-cum-fortress in the wilderness where the Barbarian celebrates victories, feasts and hunts. He will attract a group of tribesmen and women, who might be Barbarians or barbarian-flavoured Fighters, Clerics, Rangers, etc.
Barbarians do not gain Trauma from the death of companions in battle or from traveling through the wilderness in extreme weather. They can return to action after a Fatal Wound without gaining Trauma because they didn't rest for an hour. They gain extra Trauma from one type of monster they hold in superstitious dread: Demons, Fey, Giants, Giant Animals, Undead.
The player chooses the monster type they dread. On the first appearance of that type of monster in an adventure, the Barbarian gains 1 Trauma. For example, if the player chooses Undead, they gain 1 Trauma the first time they see Skeletons, Zombies, etc. If the creature would ordinary impose Trauma for its appearance (e.g. Mummies, Sidhe) then the Barbarian gains 2 Trauma.
Barbarian Flavour for other classes
A simple way to give your Ranger, Druid or other character class the 'Barbarian Flavour' is to give them the Uncivilised restriction in exchange for the use of Sign Language or any Barbarian Feat (except Armoured Barbarian/Frenzy). If a test of Instincts is required, the barbarian-flavoured character is assumed to have Instincts 2.
The barbaric character can choose Feats (except Armoured Barbarian/Frenzy) from the Barbarian Feats instead of their own Feats. However, their Instinct score never increases. If they forego the Uncivilised restriction later on, they lose the benefits of Barbarian Feats or abilities they picked up.
For example, Emily creates a Druid character and wants her to be a barbarian-flavoured Druid. She takes the Uncivilised restriction: townsfolk distrust her and she pays double for adventuring suipplies. In return she takes a free Barbarian Feat and chooses Hunter, so she can track in the wilderness with 2-in-6 success. As long as she remains Uncivilised, she has the option to choose Barbarian Feats (and Sign Language as if it were a Feat) instead of Druid Feats when she reaches odd-numbered levels.
I've retained three key ingredients of the Asbury-Barbarian: First-attack Ferocity, Sense Danger and Sign Language.
First-attack Ferocity no longer depends on winning initiative: it's a given. However, you have to do something to activate it, which is take a round out of combat. This makes the double damage a rather equivocal benefit, since you're losing out on another attack opportunity. Really, you will do this for the +2 To Hit Bonus. It stacks nicely with Blade Venom too.
Sense Danger is now something the player has to ask for. This runs the risk of a player over-using it, ruining immersion and wasting time by 'sensing for danger' as every corridor or doorway. If the Referee feels the power is being used trivially, it's easy to balance this by imposing a point of Trauma. After all, if your character is worried about possible danger all the time, they must be stressed, right?
Sign Language is now something you use with animals and animal-like monsters rather than a Babel-fish that crosses all language barriers. It doesn't work automatically. The Sign Language shared by these characters is based on the Plains Sign Talk of Native Americans.
Gone are the stealth skills. If you want to climb walls and hide in the shadows, create a Thief with barbarian flavour. Tracking is now a Feat if you want to develop your Barbarian in that way, but it only applies in the Wilderness and so the Ranger is left as the pre-eminent character class for tracking.
The armour restriction is fixed to shields-only but you can earn yourself exceptions by taking the Armoured Barbarian Feat once or twice. This is quite a big investment of Feats but if you have a Viking huscarl in mind rather than a Navajo scout you might want to do this. Since Instincts now adds to AC, a first level Human Barbarian with a shield will be AC 7  or AC 5  if they took the Feat to wear leather armour. Dexterity and magic might improve that. At tenth level, in chain mail and shield, your Barbarian could be AC -2 , which might make some Fighters jealous, except that they're probably wearing magical plate mail by that point and they didn't have to invest Feats to do it.
The idea of superstitious dread is really just a roleplaying opportunity. A Barbarian who dreads Undead but has to enter a haunted crypt will get a Trauma point when the Undead first appear, but after that there are no further penalties except the doubling of Trauma from the Undead that everybody finds uniquely horrific (like Mummies or Banshee shrieks).
How big a deal the Uncivilised restriction is depends on the Referee and the setting. Most first level Barbarians can afford to buy a shield and a sword even if the costs are doubled. If it's easy for the Barbarian to slope off back to his own people, the -2 Reaction penalty won't affect many things. In other campaigns, harassment and distrust from merchants, town guards, innkeepers and local lords will be a constant aggravation. If the Referee intends to make this a defining part of the Barbarian experience, rather than an occasional annoyance, it might be kind to reward Barbarian PCs with an extra Feat at character creation.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: