Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tall Tales RPG - A Review

Tall Tales: Wild West B/X Fantasy Adventure Game by Mark A. Hunt is currently available in ebook (pdf) format from DriveThruRPG for $8. I'm not affiliated with Mark, don't get a dime for this review, or if you click on the link.

Tall Tales is, as you can guess from the full title and cover, an RPG set in the Wild West using the basic mechanics of the BX edition of D&D. The pdf is 96 pages, but it's in digest size and single-column layout, which makes it convenient for viewing on a tablet, I'd guess (haven't checked mine on my tablet yet). It's illustrated in color, using plenty of paintings found in the public domain, including several full-page illustrations.

The game covers character generation, has six character classes (plus a pay-what-you-want supplement with three more classes is available), money & equipment, rules for running the game in and out of combat, animal and human opponents, a section on XP/rewards/treasure, and a lot of novel little touches that fit the setting and mood of a Western. There's an appendix of suggested readings, mostly historical from the looks of it. There is also a character sheet (reminiscent of the classic BX/BECMI sheet) both on the final pages and as a separate pdf file in the zip.

For game mechanics, it uses the six ability scores we all know and love, AC, HD and HP, XP, Morale, yadda yadda yadda. If you know BX or BECMI D&D, you know most of the mechanics. One novel renovation of the rules is the saving throw categories. Instead of magic wands and dragon breath, you have things like Gumption and Observation. In other words, the saves function both as avoidance rolls for negative consequences and as skill rolls. And they're thematically appropriate to the setting.

The six character classes are Gunfighter, Desperado, Snake Oil Salesman, Mountain Man, Brave, and Singing Cowboy. The PWYW supplement adds the Lawman, Gambler and Preacher classes. Each character class is capped at 6th level, and hit dice cap at 4. It's interesting to me that Simon Washbourne's Go Fer Yer Gun rules (and all of his other games that I've checked out) also cap at 4 hit dice. I'm curious if it's some sort of convention laid down by Boot Hill? I never played BH, but was under the impression that it was level-less. It's not hard for anyone with any old school edition of D&D or a retro-clone to extrapolate higher levels if desired, although since the prevailing genre is medieval fantasy, maybe six levels of Western RPG are enough for most people.

Of the classes, they all have two to four simple special abilities that they can use. Some improve with level, some don't. Most are what you'd expect. Gunfighters are the toughest and ablest combatants. Desperadoes try to cheat and swindle, Mountain Men are adept at survival and get a wild animal companion. Braves are excellent trackers with a few spiritual gifts for healing and divination. The Medicine Man gets an interesting potion brewing ability, which becomes more reliable as the character gains levels. With enough time and some luck, they can brew potions to help the party (eight sample potions are provided in the rules). The Singing Cowboy has the ability to charm their way through encounters and also has a trusty mount.

The three classes in the supplement add more of the same. The Gambler has some luck influencing abilities. The Lawman gets community support and a deputy/sidekick. The Preacher gets a charm-like ability and minor healing ability. I'd say they look like they're not necessary additions, but don't seem likely to break anything if added in to a campaign.

Instead of dollars, the game uses gold pieces. Weapons cover common melee and ranged weapons of the period (tomahawks, spears, cavalry sabers, pistols, rifles, shotguns, dynamite, bows, etc.) Armor has an interesting twist. How well you're dressed determines your AC. Work clothes are like leather, fancy duds are like chain (but cost the same as plate in D&D), and heavy clothes protect like plate (but cost the same as chain in D&D). Wearing a white/black hat and/or a tin star can act like a shield, improving AC by -1 each (optional rule, but I like  it). General equipment covers lots of period-specific gear you might want, including livestock, land, town services, and musical instruments. There are special rules for mounts, as well as construction costs for buildings. Several pages are devoted to retainers (all in all similar to BX).

The game mechanics are all, as far as I've seen, identical to BX or BECMI mechanics (searching for secret doors, pursuit and evasion, falling damage, stuff like that). I'll be honest that I did skim through this section since it does seem so similar. There may be a few small differences and tweaks to some of the mechanics, but for the most part it looks the same to me. One area where it does make some changes is the saving throw rules. Not only are the categories different (and also used as skill rolls in some instances), but the rules also suggest that failures don't always need to be drastic failures. Sometimes, a failure might be a success but with complications. A failed jump might leave you hanging by your fingertips on the opposite ledge. A failed Riding save might mean you drop your weapon. Things like that. Again, this is a nice modification to the rules that helps set the feel of a lot of Western media (especially old serials like The Lone Ranger or Zorro).

The rules for running encounters and combat also seem more or less, if not exactly, the same as BX. There are a few additions. There's a fast draw rule for modifying initiative and chance to hit. There's a "shields shall be splintered" type rule where once per session a character can avoid damage but take a penalty to hit and movement for 24 hours by getting "shot in the arm." These are some nice touches that make it a bit different from standard D&D but again fit the theme and tropes of the source material well.

The last 20 pages or so of the book have details and suggestions for fleshing out the setting (including the wild animal and human opponent/NPC stats). There are lots of interesting bits of advice, lots of random charts, and all sorts of goodness to get the feel right. What is the town like? What are the NPCs like? What happens if the PCs get arrested and sent to trial? What happens if the PCs hang around town all day or all night? How much loot do the opponents carry? How much money can the party get if they pull off a stage coach or bank robbery? This section has a lot of useful information to help spur your imagination and present interesting challenges to the players, and to help the GM keep the game moving.

I mentioned above that the format is digest size pages and single column. This makes the pdf very easy to read. The pdf is also bookmarked, making it easy to navigate. I did find plenty of spelling/formatting errors...but then I teach English as a Foreign Language so spotting mistakes like that is just something I'm trained to do. And since I have found a few mistakes of my own in Chanbara now that I'm playing it again, I can't complain.

The game has an Open Game License at the end, so you're free to use the Open Game Content in it in your own products or create your own derivative works.

Overall, it's a nice simple set of rules. I should probably go over Go Fer Yer Gun again and do a comparison post some day. I like both, but Tall Tales seems a bit simpler over all which means it's probably going to be the base rules set if I ever get my Caverns & Cowboys game idea going.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Three years ago, I had to teach this summer corporate class for Samsung Electronics through my university. Pay was great, but the hours were horrible. 8~11am, then 8~11pm. And it was so far from my home that I would have wasted about 5 to 6 hours of my day commuting there twice. So I rented a room for the weeks I was there. The pay for these classes was awesome, and the room was cheap. So there was that.

Anyway, officially we were supposed to start at 8:00, which meant I had to be there by 7:45 or so. But the workers were usually just getting off their shift, and never made it to the classroom before 8:30 or so. I got a lot of reading done while waiting around in that classroom for students to show up. Played some classic Nintendo games on my phone emulator (to prevent corporate spying, there was very limited internet access), and for a few days, drawing dungeon maps on this little pocket graph paper notepad I'd found.

Quite a few of them are Asian fantasy themed, since I was working on Chanbara at the time.

I found that mini graph paper pad today, and the maps are still in it. That will save me some time while putting together my new Chanbara campaign. Just need to stock these locations and decide where they are on the area map.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Putting together a new Chanbara Campaign

This evening, I got out my Chanbara book (one of them, I have several proof copies) and flipped it open to page 41. That has the chart Well-Rounded Nobles, Daimyo, Abbots, Ministers, Clan Leaders, and other important NPCs. Yes, it's a long and convoluted, archaic name for a chart. But it's one of my favorite innovations I put into Chanbara.

I started listing possible types of organizational Lieges that characters might want (or that I'd want them to have in this campaign), and rolling dice on the chart to figure out what each organization's leaders want, what they need, and what they are trying to keep secret. I came up with 10 different organizations and their leaders on the fly.

And the dice made some interesting ideas spring forth. The very first one, the want and need have the same target, and the want makes sense considering the need. Other results later on refer back to this. And different results here and there are easily construed as entangling the various lieges. Other complications arise from outside factions not listed, which gives me ideas for factions that cannot serve as a Liege to the PCs. In other words, groups that the PCs can easily come together to fight against since it won't go against their Liege.

Now I'm thinking of a setting for this campaign. Probably a smallish island with several resources that different factions want, two or three small coastal towns, and several dungeons/ruins/mystical locations around the island that will serve as good places to adventure. The various conflicts within the notes derived from rolling dice on the table can easily play out in a small, confined setting like that.

Sorry for not posting any definite details, but some of my potential players for this game read my blog.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Old School West Marches

Today was our first session of my West Marches campaign since the switch to Classic D&D rules. And one of the two new players hurt his back yesterday and couldn't make it. The other (already my acquaintance) had told me in advance that he couldn't make this game but planned to start next session, which is in two weeks. I did lose all three players that I feared I'd lose. Which is too bad. Only one father & daughter came, playing a Gnome Thief and Fairy Princess Magic-User, both 5th level. Oh, and previously the Fairy Princess had tamed a giant boar, so it came too!

They decided, with just the two of them, to go somewhere relatively low risk - the Caves of Chaos. They hadn't been back there since they defeated Warduke long ago, but another party of adventurers (my online group) had recently been there and returned to report that the caves were once again populated. [Only the kobold caves had been cleared before, actually, and after a long absence, those that fled have returned.]

After a bit of explanation of what the new versions of the old characters can (and can't) do, they set out. They spotted kobold skirmishers above the kobold cave so avoided it, choosing the second orc lair. They got caught in the trap, but the M-U was only caught for 1 round, so when the orc guards showed up, she used phantasmal force to create a gigantic spider. One morale check later, the orcs ran away. Deciding to try another cave, they headed to the bugbear cave. The sign out front didn't fool them, they came in wary. They fought the guards, killing one and capturing the other two (morale check failure again) and got information that prisoners were east and down, treasure was up the stairs just outside the door. Going after the treasure, they ran right into the bugbear chieftain's room, but with the Fairy Princess's wand of magic missiles and the boar's tusks, they managed to take them down in two rounds of combat! They scoured the room for treasure, and high-tailed it back to town, where they found some of the treasure was magical.

Then, they did something I've been hinting is allowed but players never took advantage of it. They visited the town alchemist and had him duplicate some of their potions! I also mentioned that there are retainers/men-at-arms available to hire in town, in case they ever head out with a small party again.

Both players really enjoyed it, and for the first time ever, the player of the Fairy Princess was able to manage her own spells, and she used them to very good effect. In addition to the phantasmal force and wand of magic missiles, she protected herself with mirror image, used floating disk to safely carry the heavy statue (a bit of a stretch from rules as written, but it was clever thinking so I allowed it), and detect magic let them know that the axe was something to be identified back in town.

Even though it sucks to have lost three fun players, it was great to see that the switch did what I was hoping it would do. I'm more motivated to prep adventures, and our 9-year old is finally able to manage her own PC. Her dad also enjoyed it, although he did somewhat miss being able to do multiple things in a round the way he could in 5E. He was really happy with how smoothly combat went, and with how well his daughter was able to pay attention, though, which more than made up for any lack of tactical fiddliness that we lost.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Retainers - Overlooking a Rule Again

The other evening I rolled up a bunch of potential retainers for my old & improved West Marches campaign on 3x5 cards. And looking once more at the rules in the Mentzer Basic Set, I again noticed a rule I never used back in the day but had noted when I did my Cover to Cover series.

Once hired, a retainer will serve until their contract expires (as set when negotiating their service) OR until they gain a level.

Frank even made a note that a retainer just shy of gaining a level may ask to stay on just long enough to level up (not that anyone should know in character how far they are from gaining a level, or even that there are levels to gain for most classes, or that killing monsters and taking their stuff is the way to gain levels... so there are a few holes in the concept -- but I like it!).

I guess that's what, in AD&D terms, would separate a retainer from a henchman. The henchman is there come rain or shine, while the retainer is just there to make a buck and if possible gain a level of experience.

Recently, when I have had players with hired sellswords or porters and the like, I have the hirelings make a morale check at the end of the adventure to see if they are willing to stay on. I think I need to remember this "quit after gaining a level" rule, as it means the players will need to renegotiate their contracts if the retainer becomes more powerful/capable if the player wants to keep that retainer around.

I'm looking forward to the extra bit of characterization and complication that having retainers will bring to the game.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Captain Marvel Review -- no spoilers

I literally just got home from seeing Captain Marvel about 30 minutes ago. Lucky me, my new work schedule has me only teaching morning classes, so I caught an afternoon show. And since I just saw it, this is going to be fairly impressionistic and subject to change upon a second, closer viewing.

Captain Marvel is of course the latest of the MCU films, and has direct ties to Iron Man 1, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and of course Avengers: Infinity War and the soon to be released Avengers: Endgame.

Since it's set in the 1990's, it's very much a Gen X film. Lots of popular songs from the era help set the mood, along with plenty of jokes about 90's tech (dial-up internet, video rentals, slow loading CD-ROM drives). It also uses the time period to place in some familiar characters - Agent Coulson (I guess he's still alive on Agents of Shield? I haven't watched it.), Ronan the Accuser, and Korath.

It's also very much a feminist movie, but it doesn't preach a feminist message. It shows for the most part rather than tells. It blows the Bechdel Test out of the water by having a movie with a strong female lead and there is absolutely NO romantic subplot. There are relationships galore with meaning and significance, but at no time during the film does Carol Danvers consider love/romance. Maybe it's because of the advanced Kree culture she's part of, where she's treated as a sentient being rather than as a love object. :) Other than some advice to her best friend's young daughter (and I bet that character, as an adult, will be returning in future films), there's not much talk of "girl power" either. It's just a film about a human being involved in, and central to, a plot with galaxy-wide implications. I can see a certain section of the Marvel fanbase having a love-hate relationship with this movie. Or just straight up hating it.

Next, it's an origin story of sorts, but it's also not an origin story. Captain Marvel has her powers at the start, and while there are flashbacks that show her origin, and they are important to the plot, the movie isn't about that. Marvel hasn't really done that since The Hulk (Ed Norton)...well, I guess Black Panther sort of did that too. Anyway, it's refreshing not to have this be another "bitten by radioactive spider/parents gunned down in Crime Alley" type plot.

On the down side, while the action scenes were good, there's a lot of snappy dialogue, and Sam Jackson is Sam Jackson, there wasn't much that was really amazing about the movie. It does take an interesting approach to the Kree-Skrull War, and it was entertaining. In the end, though, it's probably not going to go to the top of my list of MCU films the way Thor: Ragnarok did.

What it does do well is tie together some of the loose ends of the plot leading into Avengers: Endgame. Along with the above mentioned well-done feminist action movie thing and the Gen X/90's nostalgia.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

If you build it, they will come.

Haven't seen Field of Dreams in forever, but the line is fitting today. I put up my usual "event" post on the D&D in Busan Facebook group to advertise my West Marches game next Sunday (already Sunday evening here in Busan). And in the post, I mentioned I'm switching to Classic D&D.

Soon after, I got two messages. One's from an acquaintance who games but we've never gamed together. One's from a stranger. But both want in on my old school game.

So I may lose a player or three, but it looks like there are plenty of people willing to take those spots.

Now I've got to get a bit more work done preparing to run Classic D&D again! And switching over my notes. Should be fun!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Not a fan of "gotcha" monsters

A long time ago, I did a "beast of the week" series here on the blog, where I created new monsters for Classic D&D based on a variety of myths, legends, pop culture, and etc. references. Someone somewhere once commented that an OSR blogger had made a generic monster out of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. That was me in this series.

When I completed it, I created a bestiary document for my home games that included all of the monsters in BE plus most of CM from BECMI (left out a few I thought I didn't need) plus all of the BotW series monsters, and a few critters from the 3E SRD that weren't in AD&D (to my knowledge).

Well, with my new conversion of the 5E game to Classic, I'm now revising that document. I took out a few of the joke/gimmick monsters I'd created in BotW (Sauron's still in there though!), and I'm adding in a few more AD&D and 5E monsters that I like.

Going through the original Monster Manual, I notice there are quite a few monsters where I'm just instantly saying NO, I don't want that in my game. And for the most part, they're the "gotcha" or "fuck you" monsters. Rot grubs, ear seekers, lurkers above, trappers. I understand that they were a big part of Gary's games. Players do things like search a wall for secret doors or search a door for traps -- surprise! The wall is actually a monster that will suffocate you.

That's not the style of game I want to play, though. I've had way to many players over the years that spend way too much time paranoid that the dungeon itself is out to get them. And while a little of that can be a good thing, it's not something I want to do often.

Maybe I'll make a room in a dungeon sometime where each wall is a trapper, the ceiling is a lurker above, the treasure chest inside is a mimic (I did decide to keep that one just for fun), and every door is infested with rot grubs and ear seekers and there's a brain mole waiting inside the mimic. Maybe the floor can have a pit trap full of green slime, too! Just get them all out into one horrible encounter. Then be done with them. :D