Thursday, September 22, 2022

Failed Experiments, or, Slush Pile 09.22

Over the past year or two or three, I made and attempted to run a whole bucket of weird little experimental RPG projects. Most of them died. Here are some post-mortems.

#1: Harrowhame, aka "40-mile Dwarf Tunnel"

The pitch: I saw this old MERP map. Then I reread LOTR, which says that the Mines of Moria are about 40 miles long. You play the leaders of a dwarf expedition to reclaim Harrowhame, the totally-not-Mines-of-Moria. You start outside, work your way in, send out scouts, fight battles with the denizens, mine gold, build fortresses, and fix the train.

Sessions played: 4.

What went wrong: Two things: first, an overabundance of dungeon nodes. I was trying to run it like a huge pointcrawl megadungeon with hundreds of mundane nodes and a few spicy ones, when I should've taken a leaf from UVG's book and just had a few dozen really cool exciting nodes (some of which could be dungeons). Second, there was just too much management overhead from the players: they were tracking a dozen squads of 10 dwarves, their work assignments, resources (metal, gold, food, and fuel), and a bunch of other shit. It would be a sick videogame, but was basically untenable as a tabletop RPG.

What's worth salvaging: The pitch. That's about it, really. The idea's really cool but basically every mechanical angle I took with the project sucked.

#2: Ten Thousand Miles

The pitch: You play mailmen (of the "Special Mail Service") going on a 10,000-mile delivery most of the way across the world. Every month, me and kahva release another 500 × 500-mile topographical map (on patreon, maybe?), which knit together into one contiguous 500 × 10,000 mile map. (And then release it eventually on a fucking scroll, or something?)

Sessions played: 5.

What went wrong: Again, two things: first, it just took a lot of coordination and effort and work ahead of time for me and kahva, which is difficult to muster in the best of circumstances. Second, and possibly more damning, is that these were maps basically devoid of content. A big topograpical map is very fun and cool, but you gotta have things to do there besides just walking, and a big map (even with some weather and random encounter tables) just doesn't really provide that.

What's worth salvaging: The map-a-month subscription model. I also wrote a little language system that's kinda fun and will eventually go in its own post. Oh, also, I came up with this three-point Mail Service Code of Honor, which I love (as well as the idea of delivering the mail as a campaign pitch):
  1. The mail must go through.
  2. Never open the mail.
  3. Always hold yourself to highest standards of decency.

#3: Beowulf-3, aka "Mars Colony"

The pitch: An almost entirely rules-free (we used one basic PbtA-ish 2d6 resolution roll and nothing else) system set on an alternate-history '90s Martian colony (the mission you're on is called Beowulf-3). You're some of the first permanent colonists on Mars, and have to deal with the competing interests of NASA, the Clinton Administration, corporate executives, and the aftershocks of the Cold War. 

Sessions played: 1. 

What went wrong: Turns out that a lot of the problems Martian colonists face are extremely boring but also pretty relevant. Like, maintaining water filtration pipes is very necessary but hard to really grapple with in an engaging way without having a chemical engineering degree. You can kinda just skip from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, but we wanted more structural mechanisms for all the boring shit that's still important. 

What's worth salvaging: A very light core ruleset actually works super well for these kinds of community-drama focused games. With a little bit of tactical rules elision, I think this could really shine.

#4: PbtA Mutable Moves

The pitch: A Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset where every move follows the "10+: all three, 7-9: choose two, 6-: choose one" model (pioneered by moves like Read a Sitch). Every time you make a move, you cross out one of the options and replace it with one of your own design. Here's a version I made for a kind of Biblical-mythical Bronze Age-type setting.

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: Turns out game design is hard, kids. Even with a load of examples, coming up with new move options on the fly takes a lot of time and effort, so my players often ended up just resorting to shafting over other players or writing precisely what they wanted. Which was allowed and I sort of saw coming, but ended up being more an issue than I expected.

What's worth salvaging: Letting players modify existing moves—or write new ones—is an extremely potent tool. It's an amazing way to let them modify the game how they want, to literally rewrite the rules to better fit your game. I think as a playbook capstone, for example, or a once-every-5-sessions kind of move, it could work really well. 

#5: Downtime Grunge Heroes

The pitch: You play, like, a bunch of shitty college students living in a house together, but you also all have superpowers. Deal with your life. Here's the draft I started writing. One of my big-brain ideas for this was to reverse the downtime-mission emphasis: in lots of games, you play out the mission in detail, then roll to see what happens in downtime. What if it was the reverse here? You roll to see what happened on your mission ("ah fuck, I got blinded for two weeks by acid," "ah fuck, I totaled my car"), then play out what actually happens in the rest of your life in detail.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: What do you actually do in this game? What happens? If I don't want to write a whole bunch of weird emotional-tracker systems (a la Masks), what mechanics are there actually? Do I really want to play a game where you say "yeah I spend 3 hours of my sleep tonight to finish my homework" ??

What's worth salvaging: I think basically everything in that draft is actually pretty okay. Like, it's reasonably good, reasonably-gameable content. I dunno.

#6: PbtA Communal Cyberpunk

The pitch: Apocalpyse World, the original Powered by the Apocalypse game, is really interesting in that you-the-PCs essentially play the pillars of a community. Not the leaders, necessarily, but certainly the important people. Gang bosses, cult icons, weird freaks, all the movers and shakers in a given apocalyptic commune. It's something almost no PbtA game since has managed to replicate. What if it was cyberpunk?

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: It's just... Apocalpyse World but cyberpunk. It's fine. It's bland. (Also, my players didn't really seem to get the cool things I was trying to do with rules-lite cybernetics because they were all poisoned by storygames, but that's okay.)

What's worth salvaging: This was the start of my "holy shit god fuck I never want to write a system again" arc. Here's the existing rules draft (NSFW?), it'd probably be playable with a good 3 hours of work to fill out the classes. 

#7: Maximalist Ritual Spells

The pitch: What if spells were actually complex things you needed to learn? What if they were serious rituals that required study and time and effort? What if a wizard was not somebody who has four 1st-level spells per day and a Spell Save DC of 17 and whatever else, but somebody who was actually wise and knowledgeable? The idea was to write a whole bunch of complex ritual spells that could be hugely powerful but had tons of complex requirements. A wizard who knew one spell would be dangerous; a wizard who knew five spells would be immensely powerful.

Sessions played: 4 (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: It's kind of a pain in the ass, honestly. There's like a million things to keep track of as the GM, and I didn't have a good way to do that. It's also just a huge barrier to entry for the players. Turns out making magic really complicated means that magic is really complicated. It's also just an absolute fuckload of legwork on the part of the designer. 

What's worth salvaging: Here's what the Sleep spell might look like. Here's what a pyromancy spell list might look like (scroll down a bit). Despite the issues, I do think these might kind of work, and I may well return to them at some point. They're also just a fantastic way to do a lot of sneaky cool backdoor worldbuilding. In the meantime, check out Luke Gearing's much more usable version of basically this same idea (for the already-amazing Wolves Upon the Coast).

#8: Cyberpunk Lady Blackbird

The pitch: Lady Blackbird, John Harper's landmark focused-but-open narrative game, but done up in a cyberpunk style. The tentative name was "Blackbird Protocol," about escorting a revolutionary cell leader ("Blackbird") through the city to a corporate tower.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out Lady Blackbird actually just kind of sucks? It's a very fun concept and pitch, but there's just... nothing there? It gives you one macro map and a bunch of vague hooks, then says "go." If there was an actual adventure to it, more maps and NPCs and challenges and details, I think it'd be great. As is, it's a complete ruleset and barebones adventure masquerading as an entire world. If you're willing to improv the entire thing it's pretty fun, but that's true of just about any game.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? Honestly I'm not sure.

#9: Back Alley Razor Gangs, aka "Blades in the Dark but actually good this time"

The pitch: Take Blades in the Dark, another landmark John Harper joint, but add some actual backbone and procedure and content to it. Blades, as is, has the weird storygame problem of saying "here's a whole woooorld" and then basically just assigning all of it as homework for the GM. BARG was an attempt to fix that by adding district-generation procedures and adding some structure, primarily by using Tim Denee's really excellent Doskvol Street Maps. At some point it also turned into a rewrite of Blades (lmao).

Session played: 15-20, ish? A lot.

What went wrong: It had a really rocky start—we found that trying to take over an entire neighborhood when you're a bunch of nobodies is really fucking hard. (Let's just say both me and my players really earned a lot of respect for the Sopranos and the Peaky Blinders.) After some soul-searching and a big ol' timeskip, I just gave my players an entire neighborhood to start with. From then, it was actually pretty smooth sailing.

What's worth salvaging: Honestly, this project was mostly a success, it just needs an absolute fuckload more legwork and prep and work on my end before it can really be called finished. Here's the draft, though (and some very incomplete tables). Maybe keep an eye out for this one sometime next year or two, if you're interested. 

#10: LANCER Hexcrawl

The pitch: Make a big ol' hexcrawl for LANCER. Four or five regions, a half-dozen dungeon-type locations, three-ish factions, a handful of quest lists/lines, maybe 100 keyed hexes total. A fat zine's worth of concise content. 

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out I really can't stand LANCER. It's far and away the game that I want to like the most, but the rules writing is just abysmal and the game offers absolutely zero guidance on how to actually balance it. While I really like weird mythic sci-fi mech about playing giant robots that fight each other, sitting through minimum one (more likely two-three) hours of really dense crunchy combat is my breaking point. It bores me as a player and taxes the hell out of me as a GM.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? What LANCER is really in dire need of is good old-fashioned content. (Or, at least, content that you can actually play, as opposed to whatever the hell Wallflower is doing.)

#11: Locks & Keys

The pitch: One of the cool things about Lady Blackbird is that characters all have these things called "Keys," like "Key of Secrecy: Hit your Key when you go undercover or lie to hide your identity." Hitting your key gets you XP and other stuff. Narrative triggers, basically. I made a bunch of these once for a classless-type OSR game: the keys are Keys, the associated perks you get are, hilariously, called Locks.

Sessions played: 3, I think (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: On paper, nothing. These work as intended. In practice, though, it just feels pretty against the whole ethos to be incentivizing players like this. (We are against incentive here, after all.) 

What's worth salvaging: If you really love this idea, take it and go. This one basically works mechanically, I'm more just opposed to it on a, like, ideological level. 

#12: Forged in the Dark Scooby-Doo

The pitch: you play the Scooby Gang, pillars of the American mythos that they are. You go into a collection of places around town (the Abandoned Factory, the Seaside Cove, the Old High School) to solve mysteries. Here's the twist: when you go looking for clues (or otherwise touch the dice, really), there are two sets of clues per location-mystery to find:
  1. If you fail the roll (pretty common), your clumsy incompetence leads you to actually find evidence that it's Old Man Withers! Bank statements, machinery, human footprints, lost wills, etc. etc.
  2. If you succeed the roll (pretty rare), you find evidence that holy shit, Bigfoot is real. Once in a blue moon on a mystery, you actually see aliens, you actually talk to ghosts, etc. etc.
After finding all the clues from one set (regardless of how far you got on the other), you conclude the mystery.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Mysteries are hard, man. While Scooby-Doo offers the amazing affordance of not actually being about mysteries, really, it's still tricky. Is it too contrived? Is there any tension? Is it too weird to have the results of the mystery be based on fucking dice rolls? Isn't this whole twin-solution thing like way too meta anyways? All questions that vex me. 

There's also the issue of people trying to play as like, weird Scooby-Doo OC, which I am absolutely not here for—if we're playing the Scooby-Doo game, we're playing as Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby, goddamn it. (There's also the question of, you know, copyright? Unclear.)

What's worth salvaging: Thing is, I really, really love this one. Scooby-Doo is near and dear to my heart, and getting to kick off sessions by having the Fred-player say "Let's split up and look for clues, gang!" fills me with joy. God, maybe I need to make this game.


Okay. I think that's it. If you ever wonder why it's taking me so goddamn long to release Seas of Sand and Time After Time, it's because I keep getting distracted every five seconds with all of these (not to mention my projects that actually have released since starting, like Lowlife and The Big Wet). Ugh. A blessing and a curse, roleplaying games.

How I Fixed 5e

After trying and failing at a whole bunch of experimental shit over the past year-ish (which might become a slush pile at some point), my regular homegame players and I gave up. We went back to 5e, which we're all extremely familiar with and thus need to spend a minimal amount of time dicking around with.

Here's how I run it.

1. Use E5. 

E5, a variation of the venerable E6 from the 3.5 days, is a version of 5e that stops leveling at level 5. In E5, you stop leveling up at level 5, but every level thereafter gets you a new feat.

It's really good. It makes a lot of 5e's design decisions make a lot more sense. It makes all the random feats that seem kinda cool but you can never really afford suddenly viable. It makes all the "you get one 1st level and one 2nd level spell extra per day" feats useful. It makes Sharpshooter and GWM a lot costlier, since your proficiency bonus never really gets above +3. It allows for a smidgen of build-crafting but keeps a firm lid on power level.

It's good. If I could only make one change to 5e, I think this'd be it.

2. Use Extended Rests.

Extended Rests, aka "Gritty Realism," is a controversial-ish alternate rule from the DMG. It makes short rests 8 hours (one night's sleep) and makes long rests 3 days. 

Much ink has been spilled over this, but I think it's basically good. On a practical level, it effectively means that players can only reliably long rest in a safe place, and can only short rest outside the dungeon. It makes them more cautious, more wary. It's a really good way to preserve some of the light shows of 5e but slow down the timeline. It also makes feats and perks that let you heal more on short rests really good, and provides a (much-needed, imo) buff to the short-rest classes like Fighter, Monk, and Warlock. 

You'll also want to extend the duration on spells: anything that used to take 10 minutes or more gets kicked up one "time class." 10 minute spells become 1 hour, 1 hour spells become 8 hours, 8 hours becomes 1 day, 1 day becomes 1 week, and so on. 1 minute and instantaneous spells don't change, because those are "single-combat spells" and combat pace hasn't changed.

My players hated it at first but now have gotten used to it. It's good.

3. Cut damage cantrips from every class except Sorcerer.

No firebolt. No toll the dead. No vicious mockery. No fucking eldritch blast. 

Suddenly, all your casters suddenly have to use their brains in combat. Suddenly, all your casters might consider putting points into something other than their main stat. Suddenly, Sorcerers actually feel cool and unique and special because they get to shoot lightning out of their fucking hands whenever they want

My players almost rioted when I first dropped this on them, but from my view it's an extremely good change. They still get cantrips, they can even still use those cantrips in combat (minor illusion remains very good), but there's suddenly no default action for casters. 

It also helps make damage actually matter. A Fighter or Barbarian who can reliably get 20+ damage off per round is actually very, very helpful, because your casters will need to actually commit to get damage numbers that high. 

It makes your martials feel cooler, it makes Sorcerers feel cooler, it makes everybody actually think about combat a little more. It's the most controversial thing here but also very good.

4. A million other tiny tweaks that are basically unnecessary but I added anyways. 

Here's an incomplete list:
  1. Strip ASIs out of species and attach them to backgrounds instead. (Apparently 5.5 is doing this, but I thought of it first.)
  2. Use inventory slots. Most items take 1, big weapons take 2 or 3 or 4. Armor takes slots equal to AC - 10. You get slots equal to STR score + CON score.
  3. Add a dismemberment table they roll on whenever they reach 0HP. If they roll above a 10 (higher is deadlier), they automatically fail one death save.
  4. Every time they would take 1 exhaustion level, fill 1d6 inventory slots with "exhaustion slots" instead. You clear [HD roll] exhaustion slots per short rest, and all exhaustion slots on a long rest.
  5. Fuck the common tongue. Use my gigantic language chart instead. You start with languages equal to INT score / 5, rounding down. Backgrounds and classes still grant bonus languages, as normal. (Someday I'll make this into a flowchart poster that you can buy.)
  6. Replace all the non-resistance related stuff from the Barbarian's rage with a flat STR bonus, starting from +4 and ending at +8. 
  7. Let Barbarians spend one use of rage to negate 1d6 inventory slots of exhaustion.
  8. Give all Barbarians the features of the Berserker Path on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Barbarian features.
  9. Give all Bards the features of the College of Lore on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Bard features.
  10. Cut guidance.
  11. Cut the bit from Wild Shape that says "all your clothes and gear transform with you." Let your Druids be direwolves with their swords in the mouths, but then have to be naked afterwards.
  12. Let Land Druids change their chosen Land once every full moon.
  13. Let Fighters use Second Wind while they're unconscious.
  14. Give all Fighters the features of the Battlemaster. Figure out which subclasses get which maneuvers as you need them.
  15. Let Eldritch Knights and Arcane Tricksters choose two magic schools of four to get their spells from (EK: Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Transmutation // AT: Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, Transmutation).
  16. Give all Monks the Open Hand Technique feature at level 2. 
  17. Give Open Hand monks a feature called "Thousand Steps" that lets them add their proficiency bonus to their AC against one attack as a reaction, then rename the subclass to "Way of the Mountaintop."
  18. Give Four Elements Monks control flame, gust, mold earth, and shape water at levels 3, 6, 11, and 17, in any order they choose.
  19. Make Divine Sense an always-on passive for Paladins.
  20. Use the revised rules from Tasha's for Rangers.
  21. Let Thief Rogues use DEX in place of STR to determine their inventory size.
  22. Give all Sorcerers the features of Wild Magic on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Sorcerer features.
  23. Give Sorcerers an extra Metamagic at level 6.
  24. On the Wild Magic table, change basically any entry that says "1 minute" to "1d6 hours" or "1d6 days." Cut any line that says anything like "it [disappears/reverts to normal/returns] after 1 minute." Let Sorcerers actually be fucking weird.
  25. Give Sorcerers chaos bolt for free.
  26. Attach the Hexblade feature that allows you to use CHA for attacks with your sword to Pact of the Blade instead of Hexblade (they'll be fine without anything to compensate).
  27. Add an invocation called "Fell Legions" for Blade Pact Warlocks that gives proficiency in medium armor and shields.
  28. Any invocation that essentially expand your spell list (Bewitching Whispers, Dreadful Word, etc.) now provide one free casting of the spell per short rest. 
  29. Cut prepared spells from Wizards, they can just cast any spell from their spellbook. Only give them 1 free spell per level, rather than 2.
  30. Add a line to the Grappler feat that lets you grapple a target 1 size larger than normal, and you deal 1d4 bonus damage to targets you're grappling.
  31. Make light and dancing lights 1st level spells instead of cantrips.
  32. When combat starts, PCs roll initiative trying to beat [10 + enemy DEX mod]. If they succeed, they go first; if they fail, they go after the monsters.

5. Move fast and break things.

Stop caring about balance. Make lots of rulings. Tweak and modify the game rules even further. Use OSR monsters stat blocks. Play fast and loose. 


This is, obviously, just how I roll. There are lots of other ways to do it. But my players are now basically on board with basically all of these, and our game actually feels like D&D instead of... whatever 5e normally feels like. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Some Book Reviews

I recently got myself a Kindle, so I've been doing a fair bit more reading than previously. Here are some reviews and thoughts on books I've been reading over the past few months. This post is kind of a mess (sorry).

The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, The Thousandfold Thought // Bakker

Some pretty fun deep-lore fantasy with both a more historical and psychological bent. Bakker's got a knack for naming things really well. His battles and politics are tense and engaging. He's very willing to have weird fantasy elements you just have to accept—for example, most (but not all) characters' names are Surname -> Personal Name, so Ikurei Conphas is colloquially addressed as Conphas. There is a strong important between Anagogic and Gnostic sorcerers (which is never fully clarified but is cool anyways). There's a sprawling etymological language tree in one of the appendices. Bakker's got lots of weird fun fantasy ideas, and they run deep throughout the book.

The books are also just very obviously written by a white man 20-something years ago. Sexual assault is commonplace. The books depict a fantasy version of the First Crusade, and we have essentially zero perspective on what it's like for the non-Crusaders (oh, except for one chapter, where a character's internal monologue narrates how being a slave suits her). One character casually mentions that no women have ever been taught to read. Of the three major women in the book, one is a sex worker, one is a concubine, and one is an incestuous mother-empress. Of the two explicitly queer characters, one exclusively uses sex as a tool and the other despises himself (and is despised by his family) for loving a man. While this doesn't make the books uncompelling and these issues are (mostly) grappled with in a genuine way by the characters, it does make it just... tiring. I get that """realism""" is important, but it also weighs the book down—and I say this as a pretty basic white dude.

There's also a character, essentially the would-be protagonist, who in classic fantasy novel fashion is just superhumanly good at everything. He's the best fighter, the best wizard, the best tactician, the best friend. He's also regularly described as being super white, super blond, and super masculine. While Bakker is clearly doing the Dune thing of questioning heroism and our elevation of leaders as heroes, it's also just kind of tiring and discomforting. 

On the whole, the books have some good parts but also lots of questionable decisions that don't feel entirely earned. I doubt I'll weird the sequal-quadrilogy. Three stars.

Dune*, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune // Herbert

This was my first reread of Dune, and I enjoyed it far more after having seen the movie and watched some lore videos and read some thorough analyses. There are so many details and intricacies I missed on my first time that I found very gratifying on the reread. Dune remains basically undefeated.

I loved Dune Messiah. I'm a strong proponent of the "what happens in the aftermath?" question of storytelling, and Messiah is all aftermath. What does Paul's gargantuan galactic empire look like? How do the Fremen change after accepting Paul as the prophet? How does a society change after the fulfillment of its own zealot prophecies? All fascinating questions, ones that Messiah is very interested in exploring. I also love the ending—I genuinely think Herbert could've ended the books as a duology and they would've been basically perfect.

Children of Dune is fine. It's pretty good. It's got the classic sequel problem of needing to alter characters in order for there to be a plot, but for the ways it does alter those characters, it works reasonably well. My biggest issue is that it basically doesn't have anything new to say. In Messiah I think that worked, because Messiah is mostly tragic and that hammers home the original message about the dangers of heroism and zealotry. But Children needs new problems to face, and so it has to warp certain characters and elements to get where it needs to go. It's fine.

On the whole, very good. I can see why Dune is so foundational to '60s and '70s geek culture, and how it inspired so many works I love now. I'll read the second trilogy soon. Dune and Messiah get five stars, Children gets three, maybe four.

The Five Books of Jesus* // Goldberg

Imagine the Gospels, but they're told like a fairytale or a children's fable or an ancient myth—that's the Five Books. If you've never the Gospels before I'm not entirely sure what it would read like, but for me (somebody who has read the Gospels many times, both willingly and unwillingly), the Five Books are a deeply, deeply refreshing take. The book is strange, playful, funny, terrifying, approachable, and meaningful. I'm reminded of that old line about John—the book is shallow enough for a child to splash in, but deep enough to drown an elephant.

I've reread the Five Books several times, and I don't think this will be the last. Five stars.

Anatomy: A Love Story // Schwartz

Extremely charming historical YA about a young noblewoman who wants to be a surgeon in 19th-century Scotland and the impoverished orphan boy who works as a resurrection man. I saw basically every plot point coming, but it was still a very enjoyable read. It's got the exact right blend of drama, humor, romance, historical tidbits, gothic spookiness, and just a touch of horror. 

I can't wait for the sequel. Five stars. 

Gideon the Ninth // Muir

The currently-very-popular space-fantasy romance(?) drama. Imagine, like an episode of Scooby Doo playing out in Warhammer 40k, but also everyone is gay. It's pretty good. 

I really like the level of worldbuilding Muir landed on: it's a fun blend of real-world science and history combined with a shot of bonkers 40k fanatic theology and real spooky space-magic. There are clear references to things you'll be familiar with, but also a lot of weird unique sci fi elements and magic. It's good. 

The tone is a little... jarring. Gideon's internal narration is extremely irreverant: on the one hand, this works really well to balance out some of the self-seriousness of space necromancer cults; on the other, the phrase "gangbanged to death by skeletons" takes something away from a novel that wants me to care about it. 

It's also got some structural issues. The entire intro felt very off to me; I wasn't sure at all what was happening until about 20% of the way in, where the plot finally appears. Likewise, the final battle and answer to the mystery felt like they came a little out of nowhere, ones reliant on lore nobody had bothered to explain. Maybe it's better on a reread?

Still, it's pretty fun, and does a good job balancing both the familiar and the unexpected. Four stars. 

(I fell off halfway through Harrow, we'll see if I get back to it at some point.)

Hero of Two Worlds // Duncan

A sprawling biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, specifically focusing on his involvement in various revolutions, primarily American and French. You may know Duncan from creating and hosting two historical podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions, both of which I love.

HOTW is great. Duncan's always been a master of injecting human emotion and narrative into the historical timeline without compromising the facts or complexities of history, and HOTW takes it to the next level. Because Duncan has one singular focus, Lafayette, it allows him to constantly frame the historical events occurring through the lens of Lafayette not only as a force of history but as a human. The book delves pretty deeply into the man's feelings, thoughts, convictions, and motivations. It's a portrait not just of what Lafayette did, but who Lafayette actually was. 

It's really good. Five stars.

House of Leaves // Danielewski

The beast. 

My roommate left the book sitting on our kitchen table, and on a lark I decided to start reading it right before I went to bed, around 2am. I then proceeded to spend the next six hours straight doing nothing but read House of Leaves, and scared the absolute shit out of myself multiple times throughout that night. 

It's pretty good! I see why everyone lost (and continues to lose, to some extent) their mind over it. The multiple layers of narrative, the very entertaining (sometimes-)pseudo-academia, the bizarre layout, the layers of meaning in the appendices. I am sure that the book still holds some secrets that I've missed, but puzzling out the details I did find was very rewarding. It's weird to talk about a book like an ARG, but that's sort of what it is.

That said, I'm not sure the book really needs to be as long as it is. There are definitely chapters that feel like they're spinning their proverbial wheels. Sure, it being 700-plus pages is impressive, but I'm not wholly convinced Danielewski couldn't have pulled it off in 500, or even 300. And while I do find the core Zampano - Navidson story quite compelling, especially the house itself, I found Johnny's sections oftentimes a bit of a drag—very '90s, very Infinite Jest.

Still, I liked it quite a bit. I'll definitely have it on the mind for some time. Four stars.

The Martian // Weir

I saw the Matt Damon movie in theaters, but hadn't read the book before. It's fun! It's one of the most OSR-feeling books I've ever read, I think, in that so much of the book is a fairly-procedural movement (dare I say crawl?) through lots of scientific logistics problems, and much of the drama comes from how Watney solves those problems. It's got food rationing, long-range communications, hostile environments, overland travel, complicated teammate dynamics, the works. 

The last third falls off a bit, I think, once Watney's main survival is established and he finally connects to NASA. Granted, that third is basically Oregon Trail: Mars, which is understandably a bit dry, but I wish Weir injected a little more juice into it. 

Still, it's pretty good—got lots of little tidbits the movie had to gloss over. Four stars.


Should I do more reviews? Not sure.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Review: Wolves Upon the Coast


Wolves Upon the Coast is a “grand campaign” written by Luke Gearing—of Gradient Descent, Fever Swamp, Acid Death Fantasy, and many others—and is, basically, brilliant.

What is Wolves Upon the Coast? What it says on the tin. Wolves is a giant campaign, one that has everything you need to sustain sessions for months or years. 

The slightly longer answer is that it’s several things: an oddball D&D clone, a vast semi-fantasy-historical viking hexcrawl, a boatload of magical items, a very clever magic system, and a fascinating monster manual. We’re going to talk about each of these in turn, as they come.

(I should mention now that I’ve hung out with Luke once or twice on a couple of discord servers, a lot of our RPG-friends overlap, and I’m generally a fan of his work. He gave me a code for Wolves.)

Wolves is also simultaneously a deeply idiosyncratic piece. It rejects modern design trends. It’s rooted in the old school not just in highbrow philosophy or design ethos but in the way it presents itself and its rules. It’s not uninviting to play, per se, but it has a kind of baroque jank that has largely been scrubbed from most modern OSR-ish work. It reminds me of OD&D and B2; it reminds me of the original GLOG. It’s a work that is invested in procedure (as distinct from rules), and in being actively played. 

In general, Gearing’s work consistently shows a high words-to-game ratio: a sentence of his prose can fuel a scene, while a page of it can fuel a session. Wolves, like The Empire of Texas before it, is full of extremely terse, extremely usable text. That’s not to say there isn’t flavor and prose and richness—there certainly is, not just mere descriptors—but it’s never empty metaphor. Everything Gearing writes is there for a reason, and typically that reason is to be put into your game.

Like I said: it’s brilliant. Let’s talk about it. (Apologies for formatting weirdness, blogger didn't like me trying to copy-paste from gdocs.)

Part 1: System

Wolves does come with its own built-in system; it’s basically just D&D, with a few key changes and lots of small ones. Key changes like:
  • No mental or social stats.
  • No classes.
  • Advancement based on boasts: make a boast, gain +1HD. Fulfill that boast, keep the bonus; fail the boast, lose it. Chicken out on your boast, and you can never boast again.
  • Hireling rules based on the amount of wealth you own—not spend, but own.
  • Lots of little niche rules for random bits and bobs: sinking boats, wind speed, ripostes, ransoming ships, and so on.
Two things really strike me about the core system of Wolves as a D&D system: first, it’s got a lot of neat structural tricks to allow players to set their own goals and pursue their own paths. The boasting-as-leveling system is the cleverest, I think—it allows players to essentially determine their own milestones for advancement (with a kind of soft GM-veto for acts deemed not “suitably heroic” enough). Want to go kill a dragon? Boast about it. Want to steal ancient treasure? Boast about it. Want to explore new lands and meet new people? Boast about it. It gives players all the tools they need, and turns them loose.

My second major impression is that there’s a strong sense of, for lack of better word, fiddliness to it all. Listen to this:
When a vessel may begin sinking, roll 1d6 - on a 1-3, it is fine. On a 4-6, it begins sinking. This process takes 3d6 Turns. If half the crew works to save the vessel, it might (70% chance) avoid this fate. This takes 1d6 Turns, and cannot be done if under attack. 
Any further Sinking result halves the time left before the vessel sinks.
Very niche, very specific, and very non-generalizable. You can’t use these rules for anything other than the deliberate use-case they were created for, and no other rules would or really could be used in place of them. They’re fiddly.

On the one hand, these kinds of rules require a non-zero quantity of rules-checking; these are complicated enough that, for probably the first dozen times a boat started sinking, I’d have to look these rules up at the table. On the other hand, this is an extremely useful rule for a game using Wolves—island-hopping and ship combat is quite common, and so ships will sink in your campaign. When that happens, you need to know how a ship sinks, how long it takes, how it might be saved, and what happens if it’s damaged again: all of which these rules provide. This has everything I’d want to know if and when my naval battles begin.

This kind of design crops up again and again in Wolves: highly specific rules that feel sort of vaguely rough-edged and harsh, but actually remain exceedingly usable at the table in play.

Specificity of this particular kind stands in stark contrast to two broad trends I see within RPGs as a whole: first, it’s very anti-universal-resolution. In 5e they literally assigned the six stats to boats and said “yeah, just run ‘em like monsters I guess.” (Bizarrely, Games Workshop decided to do the same thing with later editions of 40k vehicles.) While I do get the impetus—learning new rules is hard and not fun—it leads to a genericization, a kind of middling vanilla milieu that renders new and exciting things into saminess. Fiddliness like this means that specific situations can herald deliberately designed outcomes, ones better suited than generalized mush.

While there are a lot of hyper-specific rules in here that remind me of some of the old AD&D and GURPS manuals, there very clearly aren’t rules for everything. Lots of the stuff you’d normally find in a system like this (in-depth combat rules, advancement, character archetypes, genre info, anything social) just aren’t present.

Which, despite what Forge and post-Forge types like to say, doesn’t mean that Wolves isn’t about combat or advancement or characters or genre or social stuff—quite the opposite. As someone cleverer than me once said, “rules elide.” Rules exist to take away the responsibility of players and GMs so you can focus on everything else. While the rules are very fiddly, they’re fiddly so you don’t have to think about them: you can look them up, roll a few dice, and get back to the meat of the game—that is, everything other than the rules.

Also, there’s a postscript I’ll include in its entirety: “The great tool of Creation is the knife.”

Part 2: Hexcrawl

Here are the raw specs: it’s a 51 × 32 hexcrawl of 6 mile hexes detailing a Northern Europe-ish region that’s about half ocean. It’s still a work-in-progress: at time of writing, I’d guess that currently it’s about 80% of the way to completion; it currently has north of 250 keyed hexes. I don’t know the exact word count, but I’d guess it’s more than 75k words but less than 100k (though the other chunks of Wolves, the system and items and magic and monsters, probably boost it above that). 

Currently, the hexcrawl is divided into five sections, based on five of the major-ish landmass-ish sections: Ruislip, Albann, the Mid-Isles, Faroe, and Noos. Here’s the map. Each has their own PDF, weather tables, and encounter tables (sometimes multiple). There’s seven or eight dungeons scattered across these, each with a couple dozen rooms. I’d guess there’ll be six or seven major sections once the project’s finished. 

A confession: I have not read 100% of the hexcrawl. I’ve read most of it and skimmed through all of it, but I haven’t read everything in total. It’s huge.

Again, the short version here’s is that it’s all just really fucking good. Gearing’s got this terse, direct style of writing: it’s written to communicate to the GM. It’s among the clearest, least-fuzzy adventure language I think I’ve ever read. It tells you what you need, and little more.

That’s not to say it isn’t evocative or engaging—it absolutely is. Gearing has these little dramatic flairs he inserts in from time to time; they’re not overbearing or distracting, but they add spice. 

Here’s a short example, from the northern coast of Albann:

12.03 Crabs

Thousands of crabs in a small set of rockpools. They move in circles, dancing, locking claws with one another. If disturbed, they all scuttle into the ocean.

You see what I mean? It’s such a simple encounter, one of the shortest in the whole hexcrawl, but it’s delightful. It’s the dancing that makes it—a thousand crabs is one thing, but a thousand crabs dancing in circles to music none of us can hear? Fascinating.

Here’s a longer one, from central Noos:

37.16 Pyramids

Between the trees, small pyramids of clay-brick stand amongst their collapsed siblings. Most are no larger than 10’ square, vegetation crawling over their surfaces, their peaks 12’ in the air. Open doorways allow access to the interiors - most now home wildlife, their nests filling the enclosed space, hiding old firepits.

Hundreds cluster - closer the centre, they increase in size and ruination, some showing signs of burning long ago. Presences still lurk in these despoiled homes - denied the sun, they wait in the deep shadows until night lets them creep forth and devour the living.It has been centuries since they saw humans not descended from the invaders of so long ago.

All of these buildings have been emptied of their contents long ago. A single, smaller pyramid towards the centre is made of red bricks, the top brick missing. 121 bricks were used in its construction, and the top 60 contain a rod of gold worth 100sp. 

The spectral inhabitants consist of families of 2d6 Wraiths, the lower d6 of which are armed with bows.

There’s so much packed into just a few paragraphs: raw description, yes, but also bits and pieces of history and nuance, not to mention the immediately-gameable content between the loot and the wraiths. 

It’s this kind of design, I think, where Gearing truly excels: layers of potential energy wrapped up in each other. Every sentence in Wolves is there to add more to your game. A sentence can sustain a scene of play; a paragraph might give you enough for an hour. 

There’s a common trend I’ve found in RPGs to lean into tighter and tighter designs. Design as a tool for the delivery of an intended experience: something the designer as author is placing upon you, the player as audience. It’s easiest to see this, obviously, in post-Forge games of the past decade or so: look at any popular PbtA game (e.g. Masks, Bluebeard’s Bride, Monsterhearts) and there is a strong sense of designer intent: you play the game as the designers intended, and you have fun in that experience. Yes, there are strong elements of improvisation and expression, but everything the designer gives you is clearly structured for a specific outcome. (A harsher critic might describe those games as feeling like they play themselves.)

Wolves is antithetical to this ethos, this kind of intentionality of design. Obviously, Gearing writes with purpose, but that purpose is almost always to be expanded upon. Everything across the hexcrawl begs to be played with, to be investigated and tinkered with and added into the players’ own self-determined path forwards. As players cross the vast miles of land and see, every group will encounter different enemies, different villages, different quests, different treasures. By playing Wolves—no matter how you play Wolves—you will come away with your own unique, engaging tales, ones specific to your table and your players. 

I could gush on and on about this, but I’ll keep it to three last points:

First, the semi-historicity. Wolves is more “historical” than most D&D content: for example, characters don’t speak Common or Dwarvish, they speak Pictish, Brythonic, Latin, or Noos. The names for people and places often (though certainly not always) draw from actual northern European history and folklore. It gives the hexcrawl a strong sense of place and time, a kind of groundedness that’s rare in RPGs—and, critically, it does it without ever dumping on pages and pages of lore.

Second, Wolves is huge, but it understands how to use that scope and scale effectively. There are definite lows and highs to the crawl: there are tiny shitty villages with tiny shitty problems rubbing up against dragon hoards and sunken sea monsters. Raiders and monsters prowl across the landscape, defining chunks of the map by their own unique dangers. Languages force cultural divides. As players travel across the map, the political, geographic, and cultural barriers can all be felt. You could run Wolves for years probably, and I’m sure your players would notice the shifts as they did. The sharp contrast between regions and locations is impressive, made all the more so by the fact that it remains tonally and simulationally consistent.

Third, Wolves is weird. It always creeps up on me: in between the vikings and giants and dragons, it will drop something totally bizarre: a 9-foot human skeleton with an elongated skull inside a giant crustacean shell that’s worshiped by the locals. An avatar-incarnation of some ancient chthonic god wrapped in its own myriad tongues. A chain-gang of mummies with their lower jaws removed, tongues swinging with golden weights. A merperson pregnant with a thousand eggs, each with a prophecy inside. I could go on and on and on, but I am consistently impressed by how Gearing can, over two pages, swap from intense feudal politicking to describing horrific ritual—and all still have it work.

In short: the hexcrawl, the bulk of Wolves, is just phenomenal.

Part 3: Treasure

Wolves includes a separate document for its treasure titled &&&&&&&& Treasure, usually shortened to & Treasure, or just &T. &T, like Volume 2 Monster & (see below) is also available as a separate release in a charming A6 spiral-bound format.

The content of &T is as follows: 120 magic items, 20 less-magical artefacts, a d100 table of trade goods, and 12 varieties of coin. 

It also comes with some fast-but-robust tables for different sizes and scales of loot: for example, you might roll for “Tomb III” and determine that a given loot cache has 1d12 × 100sp, 1d4 × 100sp worth of trade goods, a 70% chance of an artefact, and a 10% chance of a magic. Meanwhile, “Magic-User I” has 1d4 × 100sp, 1d6 × 100sp worth of trade goods, 20% chance of an artefact, 20% chance of a map (to more treasure), and 1d4 magic items. 

I love these tables. They’re way, way more intuitive to use than Treasure Tables A–J while simultaneously expanding on the reasons to use those kinds of. The hexcrawl of Wolves makes direct mention of both individual items and treasure tables: it’s pretty common to see a dungeon’s main cache have both a few individual items, plus a roll on the tables. 

&T is, I think, probably the weakest point of Wolves as an entire project. That’s not to say it’s bad—it isn’t, it’s good—but it struggles in unusual ways. 

Part of this is that Gearing’s normal style has been turned up a few notches on the poetic scale, often at cost to its usability. Here’s an example from the weapons:

18. Red-Pouch

A generous sling, made all of one continuous piece of oxblood leather. The cords whip the slinger upon release, always drawing blood and spraying it about.

Adds 2 to damage. Pursuers can always find your trail of blood.

When the ransom was not paid for the Red Bull, it’s [sic] captors chose humiliation. They castrated the bull and made weapons of its scrotum. The river of blood from this castration led the rightful owners to the camp of the raiders.

Like, it’s a cool item, right? Bull testicle sling that gets significant bonus damage draws trackable blood whenever you throw it. Fun item. 

Then, Gearing adds the extra paragraph at the end, some snippet of lore or history; almost all items in &T have a description like this, sometimes more than one. 

I don’t think they work, really. That kind of prose really adds to a hexcrawl because it informs how you as GM describe the encounter: it clues you into the tone, the vibes, often a smidgen of backstory you can have NPCs reference or explain. With a magic item, the prose just kinda… sits there. I don’t know how you’d communicate to players, and I don’t know how it’d influence them even if you did. Most of the prose in &T feels empty; it doesn’t need to be there.

That said, a lot of these items are pretty rad. The armor pieces in particular are a high point. Check this out:

14. The Bearskin

It smells like the forest. The scent fills your head - soil on the tongue, moss tickling the roof of your skull. Twigs scrape your throat. Walls offend - ursine eyes and ursine paws are not made for containment. Drop down on to all fours and wander outside...

Unless you learn to control it - tame it. Throw the pelt around your shoulders slowly. Do not let the smell entice you. Do not drop down onto all fours. Stride like human. Two legs, hands. Draw the head, eyes hollow, up over your own, but do not close your jaws around salmon or the invaders of your forest realm.

Always take it off as soon as you are finished spilling blood.

AC as Leather. The wearer rolls damage dealt twice and takes the best result. Warding Save once a week or become a bear for 1d6 days.

A very fun item, very cool, very evocative. I would love to give this to my players, and I would love to wear it as a player.

But also—I think you could trim down the first two paragraphs into one. I get why Gearing split them, there are two separate concepts being communicated, but even still: it’s one magic item, I don’t think it needs four paragraphs to describe what it does.

At the end of the day, &T’s issues are just bloat: that most common, endemic, and forgivable sin of RPGs. Bloat is everywhere, we’ve all gotten used to dealing with it. Nothing in the book will actively ruin your game, all of the treasure and items are still extremely usable. It’s just got too much fat around the edges.

And honestly, &T is still one of the best books of just treasure I’ve seen; a sub-par Luke Gearing project still stands head and shoulders above almost all other RPG books.

Part 4: Magic

Wolves packages its magic in a separate document, which has two things: a list of spells, and a list of charms.

There are no classes in Wolves. You don’t play a Fighter or a Thief or a Wizard, you just play a dude. Because of that, spells have different requirements: there are no slots or mana points or whatever. Instead, every spell has a specific ritual associated with it: to cast the spell, you need to perform the ritual. 

Here’s an example (slightly edited for formatting):
Anti-Magic Shield
Achieved by: A circle described with ‘chalk’ formed from diamond-dust and dragonbone (One Use).
Effect: No magic may pass through, under, or over this barrier - those within are utterly immune to magic. 
I really love this kind of spellcasting. This structure—ritual and effect—is just fantastic. It’s such a good way to do quiet backdoor worldbuilding, to build in little mini quest-hooks for your players, to make spells a big important deal without needing mountains of mechanics.

Basically all of the spells in Wolves are pretty standard D&D spells: you’ve got your polymorphs and fireballs and dimension doors and so on. Most are “One Use:” you do the ritual, you cast the spell, the ritual components are spent or gone, and you need more to cast them again. Some, though, are 1/day, meaning if you achieve some very difficult task, you can cast them once per day forever. A very few are permanent, requiring monumental, borderline-impossible tasks to achieve.

I do think some of these ritual requirements get a little ridiculous and out-of-scope—to get the permanent version of Comprehend Languages, for example, “the caster’s tongue is split open with a golden sickle beneath a moon hidden behind the Tower of Babel.” Like, come on, how the hell are my players supposed to get the moon to hide behind the Tower of Babel? On the other hand, the One Use version is pretty reasonable (swallow a poisonous snake local to the region you want to learn the language of) and permanent spells are pretty powerful. But I digress.

The hidden detail here, the one that Gearing never mentions in the text but is very compelling, is that these rituals are an excellent kind of reward for players. Put the ritual for some spell carved onto an ancient rock buried in a dungeon, and that’s just as valuable as any gold or weapon. Have a Druid offer to trade magical secrets as reward for some task, and players will genuinely be tempted. These kinds of spells feel more spooky and mysterious and actually magical. 

By default, Wolves has three saves, only one of which is used against magic effects: the eponymous Warding Save. Whenever you make a save against magic, it’s Warding. By default, the chance of success against Warding is very low: you need to a roll a 17 or higher to succeed.
After the spells, the book also has a section of Warding charms, small ritual elements that can be used to protect you against ill magic. Here’s an example:
Yew - Another storied tree, the berries used to avoid capture - the eaters escaping into death. It has authority over the dead, and demands they remain asleep. Shields of yew carry this charm with them. 
+4 Warding vs effects from the undead beneath a Yew tree. +3 Warding for a yew-shield bearer.
It’s simple: stand underneath a yew tree, resist the undead; carry a shield of yew, carry some of that protection. Here’s another example:
Pocket Figures - Carved figures of saints, gods and heroes are widespread and multivarious. Each has a story, and are said to protect from that which they overcame.
Heroes and Saints grant +2 Warding against that which they overcame in their stories. Gods grant +0 Warding against things within their dominion, and against anything they opposed.
It’s brilliant. These charms add so much depth and color and texture to the world. Every plant, every animal, every item has the possibility of carrying some small magic inside of it, something you might be able to use on your way.

These, too, like spells, make for powerful treasures. Either the items themselves—you could imagine finding a yew-shield or carved icon in a treasure trove—but also the information and means to create them. Each charm is its own little micro-quest, something to look forward to on your main journey.

I love this magic system so much. Wizards are no longer just “the people that can cast spells,” but the people that fundamentally understand the rules of magic, the hidden secrets that ordinary people never learn. It’s amazing; I don’t really know what else to say. I want to hack this magic system into every game I play, with custom-tooled spells and rituals and wards for each setting. It’s fantastic.

Part 5: Monsters

Alright, technically, the stuff I’m about to review isn’t part of Wolves. Last year, Gearing released a short A6 zine titled Volume 2 Monster &. It was given away as part of Exalted Funeral’s Free RPG Day. It’s not officially part of Wolves, you have to buy the $5 PDF separately, but all of the monsters in Wolves come out of V2M&, the treasure rolls in &T reference it, they’re all tonally part of the same package. (It’s also got some absolutely ripping layout by international man of mystery, Bonito—seriously, check out the screenshots on EF.)

Volume 2 Monsters & is one of the most fascinating pieces of RPG work I’ve ever seen.

In short, it’s a monster manual: it has some very short stat blocks for all of the classic monsters, and then a short bit of text. I say “text” because it ranges between prose and poetry and just kind of open-ended vibes. Here’s an example:


HD 1†



The body is as loyal as the mind, 

unwilling to die despite horrific wounds.

All took the mask willingly. To those not

understanding what it entails, the mask is inert.

It is made of thick stone. It depicts a snarling dog.

Once donned by the willing, it cannot be removed.

One wearing the mask is utterly loyal to the one who

offered them the mask. If this chain is broken,

they are free but retain their subordinates.

All await this day, but are powerless to hasten it.

Domesticated animals and crops despise them, and

wither in their captivity.

This is but one of the paths a man may walk to

leave mortality behind. 

And here’s another one, just to see the full range:


HD 7








the horse is in two halves


and away

the eyes of a bird contain only flat madness.

The horse continues to scream.

There are about 50 monsters in V2M&, and all of them are like this. A very short but complete stat block, and a bizarre bit of writing based on it. 

With one exception—the juggernaut, basically a colossus from Shadow of the Colossus—all of these monsters are classic D&D monsters that’ve been around forever. (A couple got renamed, like ennts and gothrogs, but you can figure them out instantly.) You know these monsters, you’ve stats for them a dozen times, you could run them in your sleep.

What makes these monsters so interesting, then, is the absence of the traditional “monster explanation.” It gives snippets and slivers of a much wider world—there are like a dozen monsters that end with “This is but one of the paths a man may walk to leave mortality behind.”—but never elaborates. Every time I read one of these monsters, I come away with new ideas and views and angles about how to run them in my games. I don’t always like these new visions of monsters (though I often do), but they’re always thought-provoking.

If V2M& hadn’t had the stat blocks, if it was just a list of monster names and associated vibes, I’d take it as a pretty interesting reflection on monsters: a book of poetry, basically, specifically on the topic D&D and monsters. But it does have stat blocks, it is inarguably a monster manual—I’ve used it in my games! But it’s more. And less. Somehow.

Here’s a tangent: my preferred definition of lyric games—that nebulous category of art-game RPGs—is a piece of writing, a game, that is fundamentally more about the act of reading it than it is actually “playing” it at the table. Biswas’ You Will Be Liquid is, like, the premiere example of this kind of game. 

This leads a lot of lyric games to deliberately be pretty light on mechanics: their rules are way more about the vibes they instill in the reader than how they literally play out at the table (because, you know, most lyric games never see the table). Evocative prose matters a lot more than clarity of design or balance or whatever. Some people really don’t like lyrics games because of this; I think they’re mostly whatever. 

Regardless, I bring all this up to say: V2M& isn’t a lyric game. It’s playable. It’s usable. It’s meant to see use at the table, and to have players interact with the content it provides. Despite being so poetic and romanticized and lyrical, V2M& is a stolidly useful tool as a GM. It has hooks. It has mysteries. It expands your view of the monsters you know and love and recontextualizes them with less than a paragraph apiece. 

I don’t think this would work with new monsters, or unfamiliar ones. The books works specifically because it’s playing in a familiar space, taking age-old monsters and doing something new with them. For my money, pretentious as it sounds, V2M& is a genuinely postmodern piece. 

It’s brilliant. It’s fascinating. It’s the most interesting monster manual I’ve ever read.


Wolves Upon the Coast is among the most ambitious and impressive RPG projects I’ve ever seen. It gives itself a huge goal—rewrite OD&D and then write the best hexcrawl ever—and then hits it near-perfectly. Every page is new and exciting, bursting with content and ideas and things for your players to do. I could run a dozen campaigns in Wolves and not grow tired of it.

Wolves is simultaneously a meditation on 50 years of RPG design and history, a groundbreaking piece of writing and design, and a genuinely delightful campaign. If you want to delve into its mysteries and complexities, you totally can; if you just want to run a good old fashioned Viking campaign, you totally can. It’s gargantuan yet intimate, sweeping yet personal, conceptual yet tangible. It’s Gearing’s best piece of work to date. 

A masterpiece.