Sunday, October 23, 2011

Going Back to Work Tomorrow

Would have been excited if I wasn't, eh, six hours past my bedtime. On the plus side, three new groups are beginning next week. One is a hellish gang of XP-chasers if ever there was one, the other two I know nothing about yet.

Just for the hell of it, I'm going to mention every time the group takes an extended rest that one of the moons of their world looks a little closer. Will see how many sessions pass before they begin to worry.

Let's hope it won't be that long...

That is all. Now I will sleep and dream of nasty things that can happen to PCs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jails and Juvies #1

One of my groups managed to get itself arrested. At court, being nine year-old kids with twisted concepts of justice, i.e that you convince the judge through rhetorics rather than through gold and blackmail, they got sent to prison. Now, I could have skipped their incarceration and just continue from the point they got released, but instead I decided to roleplay the whole thing. I mean - a prison is a cool place (not really, but bear with me) - it's got gangs who control different sections and fight for control and honor, bad and honest guards you must deal with, conspiracies, injustice, chained monsters... it's kind of awesome. Except when you drop the soap in the shower, then everyone points at you and laughs. This is awfully embarrassing really.

To make this whole affair less random, the kids were offered an early release by the Lord Prosecutor in return for discovering who smuggles magical components into the prison and why. They started asking around rather conspicuously and gotten beaten half to death by the Sons of the Dragon, a dragonborn racist gang with real weapons. In retribution, they improvised weapons from spoons and chairs, joined forces with the elves and the eladrin and staged a full-scale assault on the Sons' cell. Unbeknownst to them, the humanoid guards were replaced that day by a new kind of guard, one which takes neither bribes nor nonsense - a golem.

Hilarity insured.
Art by Udon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Freelancing in a free world

Except for being a storyteller, I'm also a game writer. I write fiction too, but for me it's just an extension of my game writing. Writing fiction is the ultimate solo gaming experience. You should try it and none of this "I don't have writing skills" nonsense please. If you can write, you can write. Period.

Now, since I started writing in 2005, I'd quite a few things published. Because I plan to take a break from freelancing soon, and focus on my own ideas, I thought it would be nice to go over my "career" and see what I'd produced in the last six years.

Because I think every article should have pictures, I'm attaching a couple of "fan art" pictures good people sent me over the years. Want to see more? Draw some! :)

An Israeli artist's fan art for one of my stories.  Expect to see a lot
more of him soon, because he's now on board the rat ship! Also, he's awesome.

Gunmetal Games, "From Gaza with Love", 2014
A fun little cyberpunk adventure about spies, gangsters and tribesmen in the radiated space between future Tel Aviv and future Gaza.

Gunmetal Games, Interface Zero 2.0, 2014
I was tasked with writing the chapters about future Russia and the future Middle East. Guess why.

Mongoose Publishing, Traveller: Campaign Guide, 2012
The largest and most difficult project I've ever worked on. Basically this book is full of what my players love best - random tables. Seriously, it's got a random table for just about anything, you should give it a try, it's really fun! :)

Postmortem Studios, Gangworld, 2011
An ongoing series of dark and gritty gangs for fantasy settings. The series started with the question: what would have happened if Oz was filmed on Middle Earth...

Frog God Games, The Hollow Mountain, 2011
My first proper old-school dungeon crawl. It has a crazy tree, flowers that kill and elves who don't sing and dance... my ex thought it was my best adventure, but then again she also dated me, so you can't really trust her tastes... :P

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Girls at the Table”, 2011
This is the article that started my persecution by the rabid fanatics who soil the good name of feminism with their mindless aggression. Thankfully, I have friends as well as enemies so this article, as well as all my other DNDkids articles, can now be found on Geekcentricity. God bless them! :)

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Campaign Setting”, 2011
This article has the highest ideas-to-words ratio ever. Guaranteed!

Mongoose Publishing, RuneQuest Compendium 1, "Alternative Elementals," 2011
I've made it to Traveller's best, now it's RuneQuest's turn. The article included in this compendium is a collection of elementals based on opposing emotions and opposing physics terms.

Wizards of the Coast, "Leopard Cub Against the Poachers," 2011
A fun little solo adventure I originally wrote as a gift for my nephew. This is my only work for Wizards that survived the 3e purge, being system neutral. The name more or less sums the plot... but there is a twist!

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Punishment”, 2011
My first ever work to ever cause internet wide flame wars and debates. This was my first brush with the roaming pack of internet trolls who prey on men in the night. The real war, however, would start a few months later...

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Rewards”, 2011
The third article in the series - full of things that make kids smile and DMs sigh...

Mongoose Publishing, Traveller Compendium 1, "Gods of the Space Age," 2010
"This first volume of the Traveller Compendiums collates all the most popular articles that have appeared in Signs & Portents over the years..." Wow, that's flattering :)

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Combat Encounters”, 2011
The second in a series of articles about my work with children. This time we tackle (and hopefully drop) the issue of combat encounters and character death.

Mongoose Publishing, Traveller 9: Robots, 2010
This is the first book I wrote alone, cover to cover. I'm quite proud of it. Also, I learned a great deal about robotics, both real and imagined, while researching for it.

Wizards of the Coast, D&D Tutorials, “D&D Kids: Character Generation”, 2011
The first in a series of articles about my work with children. I really enjoy writing those (to this very day....)

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #79, "Traveller: The Xenologist", 2010
Dr. Dolittle in space!

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #77, "Conan: The Bloodling", 2010
To quote a great editor of yore, "a murderous baby corpse made out of blood is both sick and awesome!"

Kobold Quarterly, Monday Monster, "Razor Treant," 2010
Death of a thousand cuts anyone? I mean, this is a nasty, nasty tree!

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #78, "Traveller - Gods of the Space Age,", 2010
My first ever Traveller article and, in my opinion, one of the best articles I ever wrote.

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #77, "Conan: Piercing Magic", 2010
This article deals with the magic of piercing. Will you clamp your nipples and pierce your lips for great power? If the answer is yes, then go forth and read it. It's free.

Zombie Sky Press, Rituals from the Spaces Beyond: Spirit Magic, "Slavic Magic", 2010
I wrote the chapter about Russian spirits and rituals. This book has gorgeous art and excellent contents from my esteemed colleagues Clinton Boomer and Scott Gable who wrote the chapters on Voodoo and Lovecraftian rituals. If you want to diversify your game, this is simply a MUST!

Kobold Quarterly online, Friday Funny, "A Coward's Life, pt. 2" , 2009
Kobold Quarterly online, Friday Funny, "A Coward's Life, pt. 1" , 2009
Probably the most fun article I ever wrote! Perfect for those who place survival above courage. Of all my works, this one is the most appropriate for games with kids.

Mongoose Publishing, Adventures in the Hyborian Age, "Kingdom of Apes", 2009
I just love the cover of this one! It's so Howard! The adventure itself is not my best work, although I am quite proud of some of the evil monkeys in it. EVIL MONKEYS RULE!

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #62, "Fantasy Regimes", 2008
Probably my most imaginative article to date... I consider it more of a literary work than a game. Basically for what-if regimes; a dwarf collective, an elf patriarchy and a human direct theocracy.

Wizards of The Coast, Dragon Magazine Issue #363, "Oligarchy of Mavet Rav", 2008
Best article I ever wrote. Wizards really squeezed the best out of me. Don't worry though, I have some best left in me yet! Wizards have removed the article because it was written for 3e, so I uploaded it on my blog (with the original art) for your pleasure and entertainment.

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #53, "Conan: The Temple of Tears", 2008
My attempt at writing a highly emotional and melodramatic adventure in the world of Conan. Did it work? You tell me!

Mongoose Publishing, Signs & Portents Issue #48, "RuneQuest: Alternative Elementals", 2007
I think creating these monsters has made me slightly less sane, and I didn't even mention Cthulhu, just mixed science and magic... BOOM!

RPG Objects, Legends of the Samurai: the Escape from the Haunted Lands, 2007
My first sojourn into the land of Japanese adventures, I had a great time researching and writing this adventure. I think I also managed to design some really adorable ghosts for this one.

Paizo Publishing, Dungeon Magazine Issue #129, "Murder in Oakbridge", 2005
Wow, my first publication. It's a dark and very cerebral investigative adventure that can be played from prologue to epilogue without a single combat encounter.

This one was drawn by a girl from Virginia whose name I suspect is Anna. This is her character meeting  the villain from Murder in Oakbridge.  She (Anna, not the villain) wrote a little fanfic in which my bleak adventure had a happy ending.
Ever Burning Light, The Roots of Names, 2012 (co-translator) coming soon

Ever Burning Light, The Book of Combinations, 2012 (co-translator) coming soon

Despite the lame names, these are actually awesome books full of Jewish demons, spells, spirits and curses! Working on these dusty old tomes had proved to be a major source of inspiration for both my games and my fiction.

Murderous Rat, Tales from an Israeli Storyteller, 2015
My first self-published work. Was great fun to write. Hope it's also fun to read.

The Red Phone Box: A Darkly Magical Story Cycle, 2012
A very awesome story cycle to which I had the honor of contributing a couple of semi- autobiographical stories. Warren Ellis is also among the contributors so... AWESOME!

Library of the Living Dead, Malicious Deviance, "A Wife From Hell," 2010
A story about a bad husband, a good wife and the devil. Guess who survives in the end?

Blood Bound Books, D.O.A. - Extreme Horror Collection, "Daddy," 2010
This is the darkest, vilest, sickest story I've ever written. Everything that's dark in my soul went into creating it. Your probably shouldn't read it.

Necrotic Tissue #12, Siberian Escape, 2010
A 100-word (count 'em!) retelling of a horrible Russian urban legend. This one is not based on a true story. At least, I hope it's not based on a true story...

Brain Harvest, "A Woman Made of Gold," 2010
Another very short story. This time about the dangers of materialism not tempered with spirituality.

Bull Spec #2, "The Sad Story of the Naga," 2010
My story about Christ, Christianity, paganism and a sad naga with a quest. My first pro fiction sale and, in my opinion, one of the best stories I'd ever written.

Strange Publications, Fifty-Two Stitches, "Eulogy for Jimmy," 2010
My first fiction publication. Poor Jimmy...

Munchkin's Paradise

I have posted this on my dA before, but thought you fine gamers could enjoy it too as an, eh, commentary on the new generation of gamers :)

Munchkin's Paradise
As I walk through some poorly generated terrain
I take a look at my sheet
And realize there's nothing left.
'Cause I've been blasting and casting so long
That even NPCs think that my mind has gone.
But I ain't never crossed an NPC that didn't deserve it.
Me be treated like a low-le'el char, you know that's unheard of.
You betta' watch your Diplomacy rolls,
And the auras you're emanating
Or you and your minions might be stroke off the encounter list.
I really hate to roll initiative but I gotta hack,
As they croak, I hear myself in the rollin' dice.
Newb, I'm the kind of PC that young gamers wanna be like,
On my knees in the night
Reading the monster manual in the street light.

We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.

Look at this dungeon, they got me crawling,
I can't play a normal character, I was raised by world of Warcraft.
So I gotta be down with the power players,
Too much cheating in Diablo, got me chasing dreams.
I'm a bored teenager with XP on my mind
Got my d20 in my hand and thick spectacles on my eyes.
I'm a washed out munchkin, set vorpal war sword
And my cohorts are down so don't provoke my OOP.
Newb, a new character ain't nothing but a die roll away,
I'm going for level 20, do or die, what can I say?
It's session three now, will I ever live to see session four?
The way this encounter is going, I don't know.

Tell me why are we,
so blind to see
That the ones we roll,
are ain't good PC
Tell me why are we,
so blind to see
That the ones we roll,
are ain't good PC

We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.

XP and level-up, level-up and XP
Die roll after die roll, 20 after 20
Everybody's rollin', but half of them ain't readin
What's written in da book, but I don't know what we're playin'
They say I gotta make new chars
But nobody's here to teach me.
If they can't understand this edition, how can they improve me?
I guess they can't,
I guess they won't,
I guess they front,
That's why I know this character just won't work, newb!

We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We've been spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.
We keep spending most our lives
Living in a munchkin's paradise.

Tell me why are we,
so blind to see
That the ones we roll,
are ain't good PC
Tell me why are we,
so blind to see
That the ones we roll,
are ain't good PC.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Death of the Deathless

I don't enjoy combat encounters which you win simply by dealing so-and-so damage to the monster. I guess they are all right as appetizers, but as a main course they're hardly filling. There's something very anti-climatic in meeting the final bonus and simply trading blows until one of you runs out of hp.

Significant encounters should challenge the players' brain more than the PCs' brawn. Furthermore, I think the best encounter should allow each class to shine and each player to feel important. In this regard, Koschei the Deathless is simply the perfect villain.
Perfection. This is how it looks like
Art by Smolin

My Koschei is a deathly thin and pale old man clad in black steel, with cruel and cynical eyes and a sardonic smile full of rotting teeth. He lives in a gloomy castle full of skeletons, giant spiders and damp callers. Koschei is not very powerful, but after several turns it should become apparent to the players that they simply cannot harm him, sending them on a quest to find out his weakness. Note that kids are very persistent and unless you explicitly state them a fight is hopeless, they are likely to fight to the death.

The Eladrin Fey Knight (MM 102) stats make a good Koschei. I suggest replacing the fey step with the darker Shadow Jaunt (MM 279) and making Harvest’s Sorrow direct damage from Koschei to his minion and not vice versa.

Investigation should reveal that Koschei's soul is hidden separately from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under an oak, which is on an island.

Now, I like to make all these supernatural and really tough to crack. The island is protected by sea monsters and requires a master navigator to get to. The oak tree is protected by a powerful primal spirit that isn't too excited about people messing with its roots, requiring nature/spirit-based characters to devise ways to placate the spirit and extract the chest without harming the oak. The iron chest summons golems that the group has to fight while the rogue cracks the complex lock. The hare is the Monty Python bunny... Okay, I've started losing it... but you get the idea, yes? EVERYONE gets to contribute their expertise in finding Koschei’s death.

"Would you leave that bloody rabbit alone?! We have company!"

A dramatic, though not very believable way to end this is to have Koschei show on the island as the PCs are breaking the chest and attack them, forcing the group to multitask and think on their feet.

By the way, the above picture is the work of the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, my favorite illustrator of Russian folklore. No one brings the old folk tales to life better than him.

We'll end today post with a little quiz:
Which classic D&D adventure has a villain inspired by Koschei?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wet Ladies and Foolish Knights

I've recently started an adventure inspired by Russian folklore. I blame a friend for giving me a copy of Nikolai Dante and myself for going over my photo album from my last trip to Russia. Also, I wrote the Russian chapter for ZSP's excellent Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic. Also, I was born in Russia.

Not this Russia...

There's something about the pristine vastness of mythical Russia and the rawness of its villages, people and spirits that suits my current inclination as well as the gaming pace favored by this particular group. The closest Western folklore is probably Celtic, but whereas the Celtic forest is teeming with magic, passion, dance and song, the Russian forest is lyrical, sleepy and bittersweetly melancholic. Watch Petrov's Rusalka to see, or rather feel, what I mean.

But this Russia...

Coincidentally, the first encounter the kids had, after their shipped had crushed on my Russian planet, was with a Rusalka (in a wet bridal gown) who was very cold and allowed people to cross her river only in return for 50 hp worth of body warmth. Now, the group consists of eight 1st level characters (25 average hp). Thus, if anyone volunteered around 6 hp, all would be well. If the group, with its paladins and avengers, attacked the malignant spirit it would be well too. If the group found out what drove the poor girl to undeath and released her from the curse, it would be grand too. If the group decided crossing the river is not THAT important, it would be sensible too.

Instead, the strongest paladin selflessly jumped into the river. And we just finished rolling the bloody character two sessions ago!


Anyway, if you're interested in a taste of proper Russian adventure I cannot recommend highly enough the wonderful folk tale of the warrior princess Marya Morevna. It's got a typical Russian heroes, male (lazy, stupid but well-meaning and lucky) and female (noble, wise and with a soft spot for idiots), helping animals and spirits and features two of the most iconic villains of Russian culture; Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless.

Also, it's very fun.

Who knows what dark secrets hide in this rustic village...? I do. None.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

No PC is an Island

Recently I’ve heard many attacks on published RPG materials and on the people who buy them. Why do I need to pay for stuff I can come up with by myself? Where’s the fun in running some other person’s adventure? What makes the writer more qualified than me to think up worlds anyhow... and so forth.

I think people who make these claims are vain and dumb. They are the people who know everything, the people who think they embody the lawyer, the doctor, the mechanic, the political analyst and God in one sexy, sexy body, even as they usher anyone willing to take their advice into untimely death. But I understand that nowadays simply calling people “vain and dumb” doesn’t count as much of an argument and so, without further ado (whatever the hell this word means...) I present you with my four points:

1) The Variety
Your mind does not encompass the whole of creation and everything in it. You’re neither Doctor Who, nor the less famous but still popular God. If you won’t read the works of other authors, you’ll only be able to go so far with your supposedly limitless imagination. Sure, you can think of some stuff by yourself if you’re the creative sort, but why not take ideas from other writers and combine your wits with theirs to create something much better than you could ever hope to achieve by yourself? Newton saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants, not because he was an arrogant dwarf who bit giants’ ankles and ran back into a dark cave to giggle.

2) The Immersion
Using published materials often saves time by removing the need for a lengthy exposition of your world prior to the campaign. Players having knowledge of hundreds, if not thousands, of locations and NPCs in the world enjoy the game much more than newbs going through endless lectures of introduction. This also adds depth and clarity to the game, as players feel they’re adventuring in their own world, not exploring a Minesweeper field. And, while we’re at it...

3) The Community
Using published materials gives players and DMs a sense of being part of something greater than themselves. “Yeah man, I saw Cthulhu last year and just can’t stop chewing on my toes ever since...” “I feel you brother...” Players who gamed in published settings can share their experiences and thoughts with other players of the same setting to a degree that players of unique and isolated worlds never could. A published world is a ticket to a new club or a subculture. This added value is not to be ignored. Don’t be a hermit, come and live in our fun and happy community!

4) The Art
Published materials are accompanied by art that helps players and DMs to visualize the world and its people and to get a better feeling of the atmosphere of the game. Ever heard of the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Well, that’s a lie. Pictures and words operate in entirely different planes and appeal to entirely different receptors. And let’s be honest, while most DMs can write, very few can draw well enough to convey emotions and complex ideas. Pictures are not just eye candies, they are an important part of establishing the mood and tone of the setting.

These are my five points. Accept them or be forever cast from the garden of Eden.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dinosaurs in Israel

The wise and noble rulers of Modi'in, in their exalted wisdom and unbridled kindness, had elected to place life-sized dinosaur models in the parks of their city.

My co-DM making a peace offering to the newcomers.

This is SO awesome!

Okay. Let me elaborate. You obviously do not grasp the profundity of the awesomisity we're dealing with. The sheer epic win inherent to this situation. The triumph of geek delights over the banality of bourgeois urbanization.

I mean for crying out loud (and I am crying out loud right now) this is the city that officially encouraged D&D in schools as beneficial to the learning process. That urged us, the strange people who tell strange stories, to organize a fantasy parade in the streets of their city with full municipal backing.

This is better than Sparta.


And to the little ones too..