"Oh cool... So you're STILL working on this?" -- A guy at GenCon

"If I see Drah-koo-lah, I will. kick. him. in. the eye!!!" -- My 4 (almost 5) year old daughter. She GETS it!

"Meatpie Forever!" -- A playtester at GenCon 2013

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Happy Halloween

Don't thank me. Thank Deadstop.

Here to add some treat to your holiday are some of Dr. Frankenstein's prized creations with a few tricks up their sleeve. This is the first entry in the monsters section of The Hanging Judge's Guide to Transylvania.


And don't forget to leave the lights on when you go to sleep.

Transylvanian Adventures' Abominations

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Been a Long Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Lonely Time

Ugh. I suppose I could sum up the last few months with that classic scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The one where Shelley Duvall finds Jack Nicholson's manuscript...

I haven't lost my mind or anything. But time devoted to anything outside of paying the bills has been hard to come by.

The Good

  • +Doug Kovacs. Just Doug Kovacs. He was the sole representation of Transylvanian Adventures at GenCon and continues to be an amazing supporter even through this relatively dark period in my productivity. Thank you, Doug.
  • +Joseph Goodman gave me a very generous opportunity to put an ad in the GenCon program. Much thanks to him. I appreciate that he hasn't given up on me.
  • I've finished re-writing the Monsters section. I still have about 18 or so new monsters to add in. But progress has been made.
  • 5e. I've had the opportunity to play and peruse the latest edition of The World's Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game. It's good and is the first official edition that's been released since 2e that has made me okay with the edition switch. I don't know if we'd have 5e without the infamous 4th edition. But I'd say it was worth it. The right edition at the right time. Good job, +Mike Mearls.
  • Following on 5e, I'm taking this opportunity to "future proof" TA to an extent. I want these monsters to be maximally useful. I wouldn't mind even giving some guidance on bringing some of the good parts of 5e into a DCC RPG game. Maybe some good article material when I get the chance.
  • With all the changes in my life at this period (new house, new job, and personal stuff going down), I think I was over-optimistic with how much I could put together on The Hanging Judge's Guide and the Transylvanian Grimoire. That's on me. Stuff happens and I apologize for the wait. That said, I've reached out for reinforcements. I'm not stopping. Not at all. But I've contacted one of my favorite DCC RPG authors with the hope or idea of collaborating and partnering on the last two books. Tentatively, we are a go and I'm excited. I don't want to prematurely drop names but this is a bellwether moment in TA. More details as they become available. The cavalry is coming. And the cavalry is bad-ass.

The Bad

  • I can't report much bad that directly relates to the books, other than the pace is about 1/5 of what I'd hoped I could commit to. I'm just dreadfully busy and have no time for anything. That's bad, I guess.

The Ugly

  • Apparently, the character sheet in the PDF is still giving some people problems. I apologize for that. I've contacted RPGNow/DriveThruRPG about updating the PDF without taking it down and... well, they're not very responsive. I'll continue efforts in that regard.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Only Mostly Dead

Well, that went by quickly.

It's been a couple of very challenging months here. I've been able to dive into TA sporadically. But it's not uncommon at this point for my work hours to be 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later. So time has been at a premium the last few months.

Here's a brief update to remind everybody that I am still, in fact, working on this.


  • I did not make it. I was on a plane with my 7-year-old and 5-year-old to fly them to the grandparents. I was optimistic that this would free up some time for the book but it didn't work out that way.

As far as the book, here's where it stands.

The Good

  • I'm about a third of the way through re-writing the monsters. The new format works fairly well for me and exists in some strange place in between DCC RPG, 13th Age, and Dungeon World.
  • As part of the Monsters section, I'm working on the Advanced Rule Options as well. This where the infamous "cleavage rule" joins us. The primary reason for working on them together is that some of the monsters have interesting things to do when combined with some of the AROs. And don't worry, the AROs are pretty limited in scope. And all entirely optional.

The Bad

  • I'm just slammed at the day job right now. So I'm forced to work on TA in short increments -- 30 minutes here, 15 minutes there. You get the picture. It's not progressing along at all like I'd planned. I was hoping that the Monsters section would be done (or approaching done) by now.

The Ugly

  • Not much ugly to report this time around.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Alive and Kicking

I finished my last blogpost by saying "Here's hoping time is on my side over the next few month". Insert maniacal laughter here. Work and staging my house to sell (and then moving across town) are the big blockers for me right now. I haven't been completely dead to the world, however. Here's a few things that've been going on in the "Coming Soon" column of Transylvanian Adventures.



  • I will be there. Hoping to be there all of Friday and Saturday. I've signed up for a couple of games but was unable to get a slot to run games. I'll be there, though. So if anyone wants to play TA, just grab me. Next year, I'm hoping to have an official spot in which I can demo TA. The NTRPG guys have explained the ins and outs of getting a table there, so I'm fairly sure I can nail that down.


The S&S Game

Yup, it happened. Here's some notes.

The Good

  • The DCC Wizard hack that makes the Wizard a playable TA class works very well. So, there's a spell-slinging class to use for TA when DAMN #2 comes out.
  • The S&S Hack makes for a really weird type of D&D/DCC game. I mean, really weird. I consider that a success.
  • With a slight tweak, the "Matters of Scale" rules that have been flying under the radar worked well too. This is one of the trickier points of some upcoming awesomeness in The Hanging Judge's Guide.
  • Everyone seemed to enjoy the game well enough. The S&S Hack is a very different beast from vanilla TA, though.

The Bad

  • For the most part, I populated Frozen in Time with monsters in the style of TA. It worked fine. But it wasn't polished. So there's a degree of going back to the drawing board that needs to happen with the monsters.

The Ugly

  • The S&S Hack doesn't translate as well to the In-Between Adventures tables or even the Investigation tables. I tried that out and, frankly, it just didn't fit the Hammer vibe. There is an implicit degree of melodrama in TA that fits the idea of the monster hunter that  comes home and tries and keep his (or her) life together. This aspect doesn't resonate with the Sword & Sorcery genre. So it's probably best to just roll with a more traditional approach between adventures with the S&S Hack.
  • The players in the S&S Hack of TA went balls out with the modifications to the core classes in TA. This was mainly to test the breaking points in the S&S Hack. Good news, nothing broke. Everything held together well. But, as you might've guessed, it gave the party a Monster Mash kind of vibe. No real cross-class combinations seemed to break the game into a thousand little pieces. But the classes were made to be played and, let's face it, the combos implicit in the classes were optimized for a specific type of experience. Too much cross-class craziness dilutes the coolness of the core classes a bit. In retrospect, this probably should've been expected. But it surprised me nonetheless. The more mishmash we went with the classes, the less they felt unique from one another.


The Monsters

  • I hit a bump with the Monsters. I need to rethink them. This is a good thing. I had to do the same thing with the classes. It will probably wind up as a significant rewrite.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Testing... Testing... Is This Thing On?

It's been a while. Usually, that's a good thing when it comes to progress with Transylvanian Adventures. At this point, I can't say it's a good or great thing. It just kind of is. But I felt we were way past due a status update. Here's what I've been up to lately.

  • I finished a Sword & Sorcery Hack for Transylvanian Adventures earlier in the year. It's slated to appear in D.A.M.N. #2. This is a full chapter from the upcoming (third) book, The Transylvanian Grimoire. But it isn't just trading in your tophats for loincloths. It includes a conversion that makes the DCC RPG Wizard a fully playable class in Transylvanian Adventures. It also covers a metric cluckton of ways to twist and mold the Halfbreed, Exotic, and Reaver classes to create demi-humans in a S&S-themed game of Transylvanian Adventures or to spice up your 19th century game with something really, really weird. As an add-on, there's rules to use the S&S hack for a Lasers & Longswords type of game. And rules for freeform, hippy magic akin to Divine Aid for Wizards. There's a lot there and hopefully it's preview in D.A.M.N. will get everyone excited from more from the Grimoire.
  • Transylvanian Adventures officially broke even -- or at least close enough that I can squint and say, "Yeah, it broke even". All right before everything pretty much just plateaued. So nobody's getting rich. But there's a clear path there to at least not lose money and justify continuing the effort on books two and three. So, yay?
  • Monsters are coming along... slowly. Work is... um... busy. And so I've pretty much been running backwards through a stampede of charging unicorns the last, seems like, forever. So progress is being made. One. Line. At. A. Time. Some of the monsters are really, really cool. But translating it all to play may require a rewrite or somewhat. They're mostly in the same vein (muwahahaha) as the Bloodnymphs in The Winter Home. I realize that can be a lot to remember, so I'm trying to get a handle on how to make these monsters fun and exciting while not overloading them so that they become an exercise in existential terror for the wrong reasons.
  • Spells hit a bump. Mechanically, they're on a more solid ground than the Monsters. But I feel the monsters need more love right now. Monsters need work. So I'm focusing there until it just hurts too much.
  • I'm planning to be at NTRPG this year. Happy to run, play, or whatever. I'll probably have another setting hack to inflict on people by that point. I'm hoping a few people are up for some epic awesomeness in Transylvania.
  • Earlier this month I ran a Transylvanian Adventures funnel through the Portal Under the Stars adventure. I think it went over well, although the mortality rate was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I tried a few Transylvanian Adventures' monsters on for size in place of the monsters in the module. They worked out well. They were just weirder. And slightly less... forgiving. Most of the fatalities were PvP, which was just how that group wanted to be. Final body count: 11 0-level characters and 38 NPCs. That's right, 38 NPCs.
  • Later this week, I'm doing a 1st level S&S hack for Transylvanian Adventures with the local Austin crew. We're going to be using Frozen in Time with only minor modifications. The players built out the setting and gave me a lot of really cool things to work with. Not only are we working with the new demi-humans in Exotic and Half-Breed flavor. But we've also got robots, blood magic, lasers, and a couple of brilliant opportunities to work with some of the new monsters from The Hanging Judge's Guide.
Here's hoping time is on my side over the next few months. Once the Monsters are in good shape, I should be able to offer that up on RPGNow as one of the initial installments from The Hanging Judge's Guide.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tales from the Tomb: Tables, Emergent Play, and Antagonism

I'll begin this post with a quote that is so good it deserved to lead off the post...

The rules shouldn't be the game -- playing the game should be the game. (Ben Lathrop) 

Ben's comment to my last post was well said.

It resonated with a couple of questions that have come up over the past few weeks:

Why are there so many tables in Transylvanian Adventures? 100 pages???
Why Ruin?

It may not be clear at first. But the answer to both of those questions is Ben's quote right up there. Playing the game should be the game.

Why So Many Tables?

I thought there was a good chance that Transylvanian Adventures would fail to find an audience. There was a possibility that this would be the only book. Ever.

That sobering realization forced my hand to put the items that I felt were necessary to play these types of games (Gothic Ass-Kicking Horror) into the first (and possibly only) book.

Some of the best playtests we had were from the In-Between Adventures chapters and Investigation phase. The "mad-libs" section was initially intended as an optional section for the second book. But it, too, was too much fun to leave out.

I also noticed that players never asked for more monsters (we had books and books full of them) or more magic (there was plenty in DCC RPG that we used). They instead echoed the same question: "What's next?"

It was clear to me that the In-Between Adventures and Investigation chapters had to go into the first book. They were the answer to that ubiquitous question.

But there's more to it than that. That's where Ben's quote comes in.

Emergent Play

I'm a big fan of emergent play in table-top roleplaying games. According to wikipedia, emergent play is:
"complex situations that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics"
I view emergent play as things being introduced into the roleplaying game (often randomly) that take the story in unexpected directions. For me, it's story emerging in a non-directed fashion from the result of play.

Transylvanian Adventures tackles this in three ways.
  1. Shared Authorial Role. Some of the character classes in Transylvanian Adventures have abilities that change the game intentionally. Luck (and even Ruin) can also be used by players to affect the game in unexpected ways.
  2. Tables. More about these in a bit.
  3. Gambling. Ruin makes a gambling mechanic out of other games' "death spiral". Gambling mechanics introduce risk and surprising results. More on this in a bit too.

What's So Great About Emergent Play?

Emergent play breaks us out of routines. If left to our own devices, we may find ourselves playing similar characters and similar adventures featuring all-too-familiar plotlines. Emergent play drives us in new directions. Transylvanian Adventures does this from the moment a character is created, not just with the 3d6 down-the-line attributes, but also with the tables associated with character generation.

The character in that linked blog post enjoys sculpting and is driven to "always get things done especially when patience is the best course of action". I wouldn't have chosen either of those out of thin air. 

I've played many, many games where the tools for introducing emergent play are readily available, yet time and again I've seen inspiration either come up short or take us down repetitive paths.

This is one of the reasons I chose tables as a tool for emergent play.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Antagonism is the other reason I was heavy on emergent play and, especially, on tables. On many rpg blogs, we read about "protagonism" -- empowering the players to do what they want in the game world. But what about antagonism?

That's right. I'm advocating that the Judge actively oppose the players.

Common wisdom among roleplaying game circles advise Judges to empower players, give them just enough resistance to make them care about their goals, and generally not be a jerk.

This is because most games rely on intentional emergent play. Meaning that they only introduce elements into play that players and the Judge want to be there. Someone owns that big pile of crap that was just dropped on that player. And this makes whoever dropped that big pile of crap on the player a big jerk.

Some games make "being the jerk" part of the game mechanics. I never found this satisfactory. I felt these types of mechanics fomented a player-versus-player mentality. I didn't find that fun. It was the kind of antagonism that ruined games, in my opinion.

But I didn't enjoy games with faux-antagonism either -- where the Judge was complicit in our success as players. The challenge, it was clear, was an illusion. Yet I had no desire to revisit the old days of authoritarian and slightly unhinged "Dungeon Masters" who, at times, really were just jerks.

Here's something true and slightly awesome. In DCC RPG, a Wizard can cast a spell and wind up with the head of a chicken. In what other spawn of the WMPFRPG would that be possible by any other means besides the Judge being a complete bastard?

Yet this can happen in a game of DCC RPG and everyone is okay with it because it is the result of a table, not an arbitrary invention of the Judge. 

The table is the bastard, not the Judge.

In Transylvanian Adventures, the tables help Judges introduce real antagonism to oppose the players. It does so within boundaries that help insure players are not de-protagonized. But it does not pull any punches either. 

Likewise with Ruin. It's a bit like rolling dice out in the open. If you roll a "20", everyone sees it. It's no one's fault that a character just got critted. It just is. The dice fall as they may, for good or ill. 

In other games, I (as the Judge) would be a cad if I announced a character was dead in the first encounter. There are all sorts of mechanics that have been introduced of late to bring characters back from the dead or to insure they won't ever die -- to protect players from evil DMs.

But that's not necessary in Transylvanian Adventures. If a character gets dropped with 1 Ruin or 8 Ruin and doesn't make the roll, the character is dead. But there are times where a character might have 5 or more Ruin and still makes the roll. And when this happens, it's memorable. Moreso because the players are (often rightly) assuming I'm actively trying to kill the characters -- within the scope of the rules, mind you.

In summary, Transylvanian Adventures was designed to play. I like it because I can throw the kitchen sink at players and they can give it back to me just as much. I also like it because terrible things can happen to the characters without me being a completely evil bastard.

The class abilities, tables, and mechanics are what help make this possible. It's what fuels the engine that allows a Judge to be a "nice guy Judge" and brutal antagonist.

And I haven't even mentioned the Adversary Die.

POD available on RPGNow

The print-on-demand version of Transylvanian Adventures is now available. Sorry for the long wait. Those who purchased a PDF copy have been sent a coupon directing them to a $14.99 discount. This means that, for a limited time, they can purchase the hardcover for $20 + shipping.

There is a Print + PDF bundle version available on RPGNow. I will continue to offer free PDFs for those who purchase the hardcover through Lulu. Of the two printings, I prefer the Lulu hardcover. But it is nice to have options for sure.

Thanks to everyone for the continued support.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Tales From the Tomb: Character Mortality

When I first began writing Transylvanian Adventures, it was at an awkward nexus of playing the fourth edition of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game and, by comparison, my favorite edition(s) of said game -- Basic, OD&D, AD&D -- as well as numerous independent games I'd played the decade plus prior to the Fourth's release.

It didn't take a statistician to gauge where some things had gone right and other things had gone wrong. And still more things had been kicked off the boat needlessly, even thoughtlessly.

Most of my musings circled, like a hungry vulture, over the topic of Character Mortality.

It's Important To Be Able To Die

One of the recent trends I've noticed is the exclusion of one of the key NPCs in a roleplaying game: the Angel of Death. I've read many roleplaying games where death is eliminated from the game altogether. Here is what I found.

Removal of the threat of death did not lead to more risk-taking among players. It did not lead to more heroism. Even when heroic acts were genre appropriate.

The reason for this appeared to be that nothing was at risk for players. Survival was a given. Defeating vile monstrosities was an exercise in accounting. DPR (damage per round) was the real focus. It was like fantasy football, with elves.

I will never forget sitting there, as a player, begging a GM to let my character sacrifice himself to save the party. It was a comical loophole in the rules of that game. Because not only could my character not die. But even if I were to have stayed behind, I could've taken on hordes and hordes of opponents with only a 5% chance of dying. The sacrifice was superfluous. Even disallowed.

Boromir takes dozens of arrows to the chest and still fights off the orc horde anyway.

I never forgot that feeling of cognitive dissonance towards Character Mortality and vowed to give death a feature role in Transylvanian Adventures. The threat of character death is why the Accountants, Circus Performers, and Chronologists in TATG seem so badass. They're like salmon swimming upstream. If they can get past that big nasty Grim Reaper, they will create a better world.

But the Grim Reaper has to be real for it to mean anything. And in Transylvanian Adventures it is.

Most Players Do Less With More And Vice-Versa

As we'll discover with the continuation of the Paper Hero series, characters in Transylvanian Adventures are about as super-powered as an AD&D Thief, Ranger, or Cavalier. They aren't the Justice League or anything.

So why do players engage in cathartic action-hero stunts with these characters?

One thing I noticed from playing and running games with heavily codified rules is that players don't do a whole lot in them. And I think I get it.

Players aren't likely to play reckless with a character that takes two hours to create. There's no return on investment. Especially when the safe path is the one that is best supported in the rules.

Second, complex rules inspire people to work within the rules. This means players will explore the options at their disposal, as opposed to trying to improvise a solution that meets the situation. Many times, I've seen rules disempower characters who want to try something awesome. This requires the Judge to improvise rulings to empower the players, often with no support in the ruleset.

That's not what I wanted Transylvanian Adventures to be.

To inspire players to do courageous, even reckless, things, I endeavored to work within a system that encourages those actions. DCC RPG does this spectacularly. I wanted to keep character generation to a minimum, in effect giving the player less investment in a character, while finding a way to make that "less" something "more".

Characters in other games are given things to fight with. Characters in Transylvanian Adventures are supplied with things to fight for. And with the "less" in terms of rules, I've found that players do more. Punching sharks. Jumping onto the backs of dinosaurs and stabbing them in the eyes. Dropkicking velociraptors. Wrestling a werewolf with their bare hands.

Crazy, awesome heroic deeds that are remembered long after the dice hit the table, given all the more gravity because a bad die roll could mean that the character bites the big one.

The engine that powers all of this in Transylvanian Adventures is made of Mighty Deeds, Ruin, Luck, and character class abilities that empower players.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year's

2013 in Review

First off, thanks to everyone who has purchased a copy of Transylvanian Adventures. My hope was to create a game that would become a new way of roleplaying in the Victorian/Gothic Horror era -- a way that relied heavily on emergent play, the familiarity of OSR gaming, and the foundation established by DCC RPG. Time will tell if I have hit that mark or not.

Transylvanian Adventures has done well. I'm projecting breaking even on the project by the end of March. Breaking even means I've paid myself back for the art and other expenses I've incurred specifically in putting the book together. These expenses do not include the time I spent writing it or that Jenn spent laying it out. So it's a very lean "break even".

At the beginning, I'd hoped to break even on the book. I wasn't at all sure that would be possible. As a stretch goal I'd hoped to make enough money to bring on another writer and buy even more art for the second and third books.

That is not likely to materialize.

2014 in Preview

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest announcement in this "State of the Land of Phantoms" post. The publishing model by which I was hoping to release the second and third books has to change. I figured this might be the case but I at least wanted to give the first book to the end of the year to prove me wrong. If I were to stick to the original plan, I likely wouldn't be releasing The Hanging Judge's Guide until 2015 and I'm in no position to incur the kind of costs that went into the first book.

By my estimation, that's a loss for both of us -- you all for having to wait a full year to get anything new and me for having to rush it and pay for it with money I don't have and can't recoup.

I've mentioned on the Spellburn podcast why I'm not likely to go the Kickstarter route. But even if I were to do so, it only solves one axis of the problem.

My solution, therefore, is to move to a publishing model whereby I release sections of books two and three as they are completed. These releases would feature minimal or no art. They will be PDF only and will be very affordable. They may even be pay-what-you-want. All the proceeds from these downloads will go towards art and completion of books two and three.

Even better, those who have a driving interest in the books will have a say in what is released when -- following the first couple of sections I plan on completing. If, for example, you all say you'd rather have the spells from book three before the Adversaries in book two, I'll be able to oblige. Or if you want a shot at the Theorist. Or the setting hacks I have planned.

I've put a great deal of thought into this and it's grown on me over time. It gives me a chance to release additional material more quickly, yet still have the time I would need to put together a quality product with the print books.

When all the sections of each book are finished, they'll be compiled with art and released as print-on-demand. I don't know if I'll make the compiled books available as PDFs. That's something you'll help me decide. It's conceivable (by this model) that the Grimoire might see print before the Judge's Guide. I'm okay with that.

I'd also like to know your thoughts on the proposed publishing model. Please feel free to do so in the comments.


Here's what's coming up in 2014 for TATG:
  • Print-on-demand through RPGNow. I underestimated the impact of the holidays on the POD approval process and missed the final buzzer by a good deal. It was my intention to have this ready by Christmas. It's now looking like a January release. As soon as it's available, PDF owners will get a discount on the hardcover.
  • Updating the LoP site. It needs a facelift badly. I got it together in a rush. I'd like to make it look better.
  • TA Basic. I'm still planning to release a low-fidelity, download only copy of Transylvanian Adventures. It will have no art. It will not have the Half-Breed, Scoundrel, or Exotic. It will not have the optional tables for the "Mad-Lib" character generation. It will have some of the other tables. But not all of them. It will be 33-40% of the big book. But it will be affordably priced for those looking to try-before-they-buy.
  • Hexmap/Setting and Monsters. In an order based on popular demand, I'd like to make these my first two releases in 2014. I'm hoping one by the end of May and the other in July or August. After that, we can decide what we'd like to release next. There's been some demand for spells. So maybe we dive into Book Three before finishing up Book Two. Or maybe we branch off completely and do another adventure.
I think these are reasonable goals for 2014. We'll see how much I'm able to accomplish. I'd like very much to participate more in the DCC RPG community in 2014. I would also be open to running an online game of Transylvanian Adventures or even putting together a podcast or two to walk people through character generation, the In-Between Adventures phase, the Investigation phase, and some of the rules listed in Transylvanian Adventures.