Sunday, August 16, 2020

LOTFP Review: Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti


A strange stone, tumbling through the void of endless space and into the secret history of the world… the cursed legacy of a doomed witch’s family… a terrified abbot whose desperate plea has gone ignored by Rome… a vile conspiracy of whispers, visions, and delusions among drunken, stumbling brothers… and a black secret, black as the bubbling foam that gushes forth from the ale-barrels and the corpses of the fallen alike…

That's the evocative blurb from the dust jacket on LOTFP's recent book, Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti (Black Yeast of the Buried God).  The adventure is site-based, and kicks off when the adventurers are staying at the inn near the monastery; an overnight massacre happens within the monastery walls as the monks devolve into armed conflict with each other, and fires break out in several buildings.  As the adventurers respond to the chaos, they get drawn into an unfolding horror, which ultimately leads them into exploring the catacombs beneath the monastery.  I should warn you, like any review there's the risk of spoilers if you are a player.

Fermentum is written by Gord Sellars, supported by some recognizable names on Team Raggi (Alex Mayo, Jacob Hurst, and Gonzalo Aeneas as the artist).  Like every LOTFP book I own, it's A5 sized, and the production values of Fermentum as an artifact are impressive.  It has a textured, foil cover (although it does look like on my purchased copy, the foiling didn't reach the bottom cover text.  Jim!).  The pages are heavy weight and feel good to touch, the spine is stitched, the layouts and text are all well done.  I look with dismay at my shelf of falling apart 5E books, broken spines and pages falling out, and wonder why a small publisher in Finland can figure this out but Hasbro's quality is trash?  These LOTFP books are meant to last.  Naturally, they are a little pricier than disposable mass published books.

Here's a view with the layout, art, and feel of the text.

I'd never heard of Gord Sellars; the wise Google indicates he is a professional writer and teacher, not a professional RPG author.  As such, he makes different choices than what you'd see in a traditional dungeon crawl.  (There have been a few cases where Jim Raggi went with non-traditional RPG writers for his books, they don't always work out, but Gord has done a great job with Fermentum).  There's a cinematic quality to the adventuring party exploring the devastated monastery, walking in the wake of the carnage, as the knowledge they gain ratchets the tension like a horror movie plot.  Furthermore, as the adventurers reveal the secrets of the monastery, they become embroiled in the mystery themselves - they become infected.  The central twist is the monastery is the site of an alien infection, and as the players piece together the horror that befell the monks, they risk falling victim themselves.  It's a spectacular premise for a horror story, and works equally well here in a site-based exploration adventure.  Incidentally, the monastery locale covers about 50-60 keyed areas (the above ground monastery and underground catacombs), some new monsters (the GarĂ¼nger), a rival adventuring party, a couple of unique magic items, including a cursed grimoire, and new rules for managing the rising infection afflicting the characters.

I was intrigued by Fermentum because it revolves around a Medieval monastery, with brewing monks and a nearby tavern - the kind of locale you should be able to drop unobtrusively into almost any fantasy campaign (and certainly the early Medieval home brew, pun intended, I've been building out for myself).  LOTFP's adventures frequently take place in a pseudo-historical early 17th century milieu, but you could easily change place names and religious institutions to reskin this for a standard fantasy realm.  Furthermore, the monastery and nearby inn make an excellent locale to put into your sandbox early in a campaign, so it's a well-known and safe stopping point for your players.  This would create even more contrast with the terror during the night the monastery falls.

The book is written for the LOTFP rules.  It's been a while since we talked about them much here, since I've been running the 5E for my gang, but LOTFP is basically a customization of the old BX 1980's rules with stylistic updates.  You could run Fermentum with BX or similar old school rules sets.  In LOTFP, the spell lists are curated so magic is less flashy than core D&D (no fireballs or lightning bolts or raise dead).  It has a solid d6 skill system, an improved thief (the specialist), and strong niches for the core classes and demi-humans.  Stylistically, the LOTFP rules assume a setting like early modern earth, with a silver coin standard, and equipment you'd find in the 16th or 17th centuries, including simple one-shot firearms.  There's definitely a market niche for class-based adventuring rules (D&D style) but using adventures that deliver into horror and weirdness, borrowing from the Call of Cthulhu color palette.  LOTFP fits that niche well and this is an adventure that hits the right notes of D&D style exploration, lots of opportunities for roleplaying and combat, and mounting dread.

If you can't tell, I enjoyed the book a lot and look forward to running it.  This is a great little horror-themed exploration and dungeon crawl, with escalating tension as the players hope to discover a resolution while facing rising infection and loss.  The beer and brewing theme is fantastic, and I can imagine unnerving the players with Guinesses or stouts all around as we sit down to play this one (except maybe sodas for the kids).  Cheers!  Salut!  (It's available here at the LOTFP web store).

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What Are Your Favorite Blog Posts?

I am not a particularly deep thinker; my gaming is more about applied science rather than theoretical science.  But there have been many deep thinkers in the blogosphere through the years, and I've sopped up ideas like a sponge and made them part of how I run games.  My best games are the product of inherited wisdom.

When I was thinking last week about participation in the OSR blogosphere, I couldn't help but remember posts that had a lasting impact on my ref style.  Here are a few that come readily to mind, although this list is only scratching the surface.  If you have your own favorites (and wouldn't mind linking in the comments) I'd be greatly appreciative.  There are tons of D&D blogs, and I personally only see or read a narrow subset.

Back in the early days of the OSR, Grognardia was massively influential, and James Mal frequently posted multiple times per day!  We embraced randomness as we returned to old school gaming, and it's been an important part of my make up ever since - random tables for encounters and content creation, sure, but it's just as important for things like reaction rolls and morale checks (which modern games have mostly left behind).  Give yourself the chance, as referee, to be just as surprised at the direction your game goes as the players by allowing ill fortune or serendipity to intervene.  Plus a little randomness lets you flex your improv muscles.

Back to Grognardia, I'm fairly sure that blog coined the phrase "Gygaxian Naturalism" - the idea that random tables becomes a short hand descriptor of the game world in the "show don't tell" vein.  Furthermore, if those monster listings also contain randomization (number appearing, and percentages of also appearing) you begin to create a deeper picture of the world through tables.  I'm firmly in the camp that random tables for encounters help put the world in motion and support the simulation of a fantasy world.

In the early days of LOTFP, James Raggi was a prolific blogger.  A lot of it was promotional but there are thoughtful essays here and there; discussions of the "Weird" and using horror in D&D, for instance, and "I Hate Fun" - a polemic against modern D&D's predilection for putting the game on easy mode (and this was in 2008 !!  Long before the elimination of Save or Die effects and massive healing).  D&D is a casual beer and pretzels game for the majority, but that doesn't mean *you* can't run your game to challenge your players.  My players are firmly in the modern camp of "winning is fun" but even they'll admin prevailing against challenges with real consequences is the best.

Rogues in the Sandbox
Long before the Zakpocalypse, you could find jewels over on PDNDWPS.  The one I remember is the idea that super heroes are reactive, defenders of the status quo, like firemen in the station waiting for an alarm to go off.  The villains are the ones that initiate action and make plans; they make the first move; they upset the status quo.  In fantasy gaming, this has implications for your open world sandbox game.  Are your players Conan-like scoundrels willing to plan capers?  Or are they more like the police and firemen that want the local lord or patron to dole out missions smiting malefactors?  I always thought this conceit did a good job of illuminating why some groups are better off doing guided adventure paths and not sandboxes.  One thing I carried forward from 4E was the "points of light" setting concept, because it imagines a world that's almost entirely hostile surrounding small islands of civilization - allowing your sandbox to potentially appeal to scoundrels and do-rights alike,

This wasn't exactly a blog post, I believe it first showed up on En World.  For the combat as sport crowd, the encounters in the game are the end in themselves, and players in that style of game want a good, balanced fight between their characters and the monsters, highlighting the way their clever tactics and play skill lets them win during combat.  For the combat as war crowd, encounters are obstacles to their real goals; they see a balanced encounter as a strategic failure; proper play is about tilting the battle field so the odds heavily favor your side.  Good game play is about creating a plan so you never have to fight a balanced encounter, and can get on to the real goals with resources intact.

Matt's quick primer for old school games is a free PDF over on, but I encountered it through lots of blogs.  Although it's called "the old school primer", I'd say most of it could just be called "good game mastering advice".  It's about making your games interactive and not dice-rolling bore fests.  Things like challenging the players, not their character abilities, and advice on narrating the game so it's evocative and descriptive and engaging.  It's solid gold for referees.  The primer holds up well across editions (except maybe the advice of keeping the game heroic, not super heroic... both 4E and 5E eschewed gritty "zero to hero" starting points for player characters.  Otherwise it all applies just fine for 5E.)

I've clearly landed firmly in the camp of "no dice fudging" but can't remember any landmark posts laying out an iron clad argument.  For me it comes down to integrity and unforeseen results are the most interesting; if that means my dice are on a cold streak and the monsters get smoked one night, good for the players; if the dice are on fire and they can't catch a break, well you need nights like that too, to appreciate when you actually have good fortune.

I've also stayed committed to resource management.  Much like the combat as war crowd, where the planning is the game, so it is with managing resources.  Not exactly "OSR-era", but here's a cool post I came across recently that had an insightful twist on the resource sub-game:  If Your Torches Burn for only One Hour your NPCs will be More Important.  Dealing with logistics forces the players to engage with the game setting - visiting towns, villages, markets, and worrying about henchman, hirelings, and ordinary people.  I felt it.  Looking through this new lens, I think this is why I love the domain game in old school play so much; it forces engagement with the game world because the players have to interact like fellow citizens of the fantasy realm, and not just unconstrained super powered tourists.

That's enough for this time.  As requested, would love to hear some of your favorites.  What's the saying, when you talk (or blog) you're only sharing stuff you already know, but when you listen (or read other people's stuff...) you get the chance to learn.