Thursday, June 6, 2024

Revisiting GRIDSHOCK 20XX Zine 3: Regions

My baby blue.

Somewhat delayed, here's the post-mortem for GRIDSHOCK 20XX Zine 3: Regions, which gives GMs "all the details on a world in the grip of super-villainy." Well, maybe not all the details, but a good deal of them, anyway.

The Cover
  • Each region in GRIDSHOCK 20XX has its own unique "big bad" in charge of it. For the cover, I asked Steven De Waele for an image of Lord Thunder, the daemon-possessed former hero and head honcho of The Sanction, with his right-hand man Atramentus at his side. I think Steven understood the assignment. Lord Thunder looks like a nasty customer. In retrospect, Atramentus' visual design is too similar to the Omegas, an entirely different type of adversary, so I would give different guidance to the artist if I were to do it over. He still looks sinister and cool, though. I'm not going to lose sleep over it.
  • You may have noticed that this zine is in landscape format, so pages turn vertically. I've heard a little bit of grumbling about that, but I think it worked well, particularly because it gave Steven room to provide a panoramic view of each region. We set up the PDF version to display those landscape format pages properly. I honestly don't regret that design decision.
Region Entries
  • Descriptions of each of the eight regions of the GRIDSHOCK setting take up the entire zine; even the inside covers are used to convey setting information (except for the inside back cover, which the ICONS license required to be OGL information).
  • I think the regions themselves are pretty cool. Each one is designed to present a distinct flavor of dystopia, each with its own issues, locales, and badguys for player characters to deal with (or have as part of their origin). The presentation of each region includes important NPCs, locations, etcetera in a standardized format with numbered lists. The intent was to provide enough information for GMs and players to have an idea of what the regions were about without bogging them down with tons of text. I think it worked, though my predilection for circuitous sentence structure is on display. I see a lot that should be tightened up, trimmed down, or made clearer.
  • A few adversaries got full stat blocks. These are presented in the typical format for ICONS, which means that the GM would almost certainly need to look up what all their powers do. Ideally, I'd want the character writeups to be more immediately usable.
  • Really, the map that was in Zine 1: Roadmap should probably have been included here instead.
  • This is probably my favorite of the four GRIDSHOCK 20XX zines.
Fear not: The next blog post will wrap up this retrospective on GRIDSHOCK 20XX. It might be a little while before you see it, as I'm moving house and starting a new job this month. Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Revisiting GRIDSHOCK 20XX Zine 2: Roster


Pink noise, delicious.
My "autopsy" of the GRIDSHOCK 20XX zines I published a couple of years ago continues. This time I'll be looking at Zine 2: Roster, which "supplements hero creation with new templates and adversaries custom-built for dystopian world of toyetic assicking." You know, that still sounds pretty good to me.

I wanna get into it, man:

The Cover

  • Steven De Waele turned in an illustration that I think does a good job of showing off the unusual types of characters players can create and play in GRIDSHOCK. The idea for the scene was a diverse group of Vector heroes watching as a psychic Free Agent telekinetically lifts a truck motor aloft. A truxorcist performs a mystical ritual, perhaps protecting it from daemonic possession. What's important is that I think the illustration is interesting to look at on its own. I think it gets across that trucking is important in the game, and that there are lots of interesting character options.

Power Sources and Vector Templates

  • I spent a page discussing where the different Vector (player character) types get their powers from, and why that's important. This may be a little over-exacting, but my hope was that it would help give players an idea of how their character fits into the world. There are a lot of things like that in the zines; whether they accomplish that goal is a good question. Some probably help, others might just make things more complicated than necessary.
  • The bulk of the rest of Zine 2 consists of the twelve customizable Vector templates that GRIDSHOCK players use to create characters. Each has a two-page spread with an illustration taking up nearly half of it, and each has its own unique layout style. Steven did a great job with the art for each one -- he pulled off an impressive blend of American, European, and Japanese art styles that works really well for the subject matter, and each character has a lot of personality. I'm also glad that I gave Chris the chance to play around with layout and typefaces here. I might have him dial it down a little next time, since a couple of them are less clear as a result. (I think Chris agrees with this assessment.) Giving each template's name its own "logo" is fitting, I think, and I'd probably keep that.
  • Although it might look intimidating to newcomers, I think giving three examples of how each template can be customized is a good idea, considering how much impact power selection has on creating characters. I think it's also useful for players who might be looking to play a specific type of character and don't want to do it from scratch.
  • Next time, I might cut two or four templates from the initial range of options. Eight or ten would still be enough to choose from, I think -- again, choice of powers can completely change how a character plays and that provides a lot of customization.

Threats and Menaces

  • This tries to boil two of the GRIDSHOCK setting's major adversaries -- daemons and Exhumans -- down to a couple of pages. It works, technically speaking, but it's a stopgap measure. It would be much better to provide at least as much detail on each of them as the Vector templates got, but space didn't allow for it. Ideally, each one would have had more flavor text, as well as suggestions on how the GM should use the powers I listed for them. Something to correct next time.
Next time, I'll dissect Zine 3: Regions, maybe the most ambitious one of the four.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Revisiting GRIDSHOCK 20XX Zine 1: Roadmap


It was all yellow.
I Kickstarted and published GRIDSHOCK 20XX as a set of four zines, each presenting a few chapters that, at least in theory, added up to "a post-apocalyptic setting for use with ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying." Zine 1: Roadmap provides "a crash course on the world of GRIDSHOCK 20XX and its history," and includes optional and variant rules for use with ICONS.

Since I worked on the world of GRIDSHOCK for years before I finally released it in this form, there's a lot for me to unpack. The temptation to blather on and on about my creation is strong, but I think the best way to resist that urge is to just tackle the zines section by section, as presented. (I will try not to be too hard on myself, but I also think it's important to point out when things don't work -- or do.)

The Cover 

  • This depicts a motorig (basically a super-semi truck) smashing through a gate while fascist Supremacy goons blast at it. I always like Steven De Waele's art, but I feel like it's a little tough to tell what's happening on the cover at a glance. I probably asked for too many elements to be included for the price point, so I blame the art director (me) rather than the artist here.
  • I still love the logo, but if I was to do it over, I would probably ask Chris to make it more horizontal, to make it clearer that it's "GRIDSHOCK" and not "GRID SHOCK" (which I have seen it listed as on several online retailers).
  • I think having "You can make it if you run" to kick off the back cover blurb is cool. Your mileage may vary.
  • Chris' map on the inside cover looks great -- if you got one from the first print run. The second run is too dark for reasons I have never been able to figure out, and that makes it hard to read, unfortunately.
Welcome to the Shock
  • I'm proud of this chapter. I think it summarizes what the world of GRIDSHOCK is like pretty well, and without over-explaining. It effectively lets players and GMs know how it's different from other settings and gives a quick rundown of how it got that way.
  • The "What Do Vectors Do?" section, which lays out exactly what the game is about, is solid. Next time, I will make it even clearer: GRIDSHOCK is about heroes driving around in big trucks, fighting stuff with superpowers, fixing problems, righting wrongs, and then getting the hell out of Dodge before the bastards in charge drop the hammer on them.
  • Though I see some things that could be improved, I stand by this section, and will probably keep big chunks of it more or less intact in the next iteration. I'll tone down the discussion of how GRIDSHOCK fits into the superhero genre, though, because so many of its assumptions are not part of what most people consider that genre to be, especially now.
Timeline of the GRIDSHOCK 20XX Universe
  • This chapter doesn't hold up as well, unfortunately. It's just too much information. I think I was hoping to impart a sense that this is a rich, complex tapestry of a setting, and I went with a writing style reminiscent of the analytical (and often downright dry) presentation you get in something like the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I think that what it ends up doing is feeling restrictive instead.
  • If I was a GM coming to this setting cold, I'd be concerned that whatever cool stuff I thought could happen in GRIDSHOCK while reading the comparatively fun, evocative preceding chapter might not fit into this terminology-laden, intricate timeline. I think the history that is described in these few pages is cool, but it's so verbose and information-dense that it's overwhelming, maybe even boring at times. There are probably people who liked it, but in retrospect, it doesn't do what I wanted it to, which was to show off a rich setting.
  • Looks cool, though. Using public domain photography was a financial necessity, but when combined with the flowchart layout, it imparts a textbook feel that I think is unique in RPGs and consistent with what's being presented. And the artwork that Grey Wizard made to introduce the section is fantastic. It just happens that what follows isn't a very inspiring read. If I keep the timeline at all, it'll be completely revamped next time. I suspect it may not be needed at all.
Rules Changes for GRIDSHOCK 20XX
  • This chapter forces me to have a tough talk with myself. I think ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying is a great superhero game. It's my favorite. However, from the perspective of moving units and finding players, using it for GRIDSHOCK was probably unwise. The roleplaying game industry is one with a handful of big games that have long lifespans, and innumerable indie darlings which, while often deserving, don't attract long-term attention. ICONS made a splash when it debuted in 2010. By the time I published GRIDSHOCK, over ten years had passed, at which point it had a small but loyal fanbase, who largely use ICONS for its intended purpose: classic "animated series"-style superheroics, not genre-warping post-apocalyptic ass-kicking super-truckers.
  • To be blunt, GRIDSHOCK is really "high concept" and would still face an uphill battle regardless of what system it used, but it should have been a standalone game. Releasing it as a modular supplement instead -- even for a really damn good game like ICONS -- limited its reach.
  • All that having been said, I playtested all of the new rules presented in this chapter and they work well in ICONS. The alternate rules I wrote for things like specialties, qualities, and combat deliver the intended experience more effectively than the standard ones. Some of them are good enough that I have adapted them to an entirely different system, the Year Zero Engine, and after playtesting them again, found that they work well there, too.
  • Let me be absolutely clear that none of this is said with any disrespect for ICONS or its designer, Steve Kenson. Steve is one of the industry's best, and is undoubtedly the most important designer of superhero RPGs working today. He has never been anything but supportive of GRIDSHOCK 20XX, which I sincerely appreciate.
Next week, I'll dig into GRIDSHOCK 20XX Zine 2: Roster, which details the various types of characters you can play in GRIDSHOCK.

Monday, April 29, 2024

A Look Back at GRIDSHOCK 20XX

In 2021, I launched a Kickstarter for GRIDSHOCK 20XX. GRIDSHOCK was a setting concept I had been writing about on Google+ until that social media site was rendered defunct. You can skim the Kickstarter page for a more detailed idea of what it's about, but the ad copy I used to sum it up works as an elevator pitch:

In 1945, superheroes saved the world.
In 1986, it ended.
In 20XX, supervillains rule what's left.
Welcome to GRIDSHOCK 20XX.

Though I had been messing around with writing a new set of rules specifically for GRIDSHOCK more or less since I first thought it up, when Kickstarter's second Zine Quest promotion rolled around, I impulsively decided "screw it" and chose to publish the concept as a set of zines for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying, a game I like a lot. 

Since it was a snap decision, I had to scramble to get the Kickstarter funded -- which it just barely did, with a bit over 100 backers. With the invaluable help of the project's other contributors, including Steven De Waele and Grey Wizard on art duties, Anne Hunter and Trey Causey editing, and my brother Chris Vermeren's layout and graphic design, I delivered the printed zines and PDFs in 2022 as promised. Not long after that, I inked a deal with indie RPG publishing juggernaut Exalted Funeral for a second print run of the zines.

None of that is meant to sound like bragging. On the contrary, while I'm quite proud of what my collaborators and I put together, I made a lot of mistakes -- both in terms of promotion and production, as well as in how I conceptualized and then presented this GRIDSHOCK thing. I'm planning to relaunch it as a standalone roleplaying game, so I've started re-reading the GRIDSHOCK 20XX zines for the first time since they were published. In the next few posts, I'll talk about what I think works in GRIDSHOCK, what doesn't, and what will change.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Dragonbane Kin: Underworld Otter

New illustration kindly provided by Jason Sholtis

Note: The Underworld otter originally appeared in the Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide and was created by Jason Sholtis.

I've already covered the citizen lich and woolly Neanderthal, so here's the Underworld otter, the remaining new race from Operation Unfathomable, reworked for use as a player kin in Dragonbane.

As described in the Players' Guide, Underworld otters are quite literally magically uplifted, semi-humanoid otters:

"Generations ago, the magic user responsible for their creation (Zaracanth, a noted Underworld celebrity) released the otters into the Black Ooze river valley, and callously washed his hands of all responsibility for their fate. The otters quickly adapted to their environment, dwelling in shore caverns and subsisting upon various river oozes and young basking sharks native to the Black Ooze river. Otters, strict carnivores, can and do enjoy the flesh of most animals, including those creatures warped by Chaos and those in an advanced state of decomposition."

Much like the other new player races presented in Operation Unfathomable, Underworld otters do not have a large array of special abilities. They are as comfortable moving on two legs as on all fours, and have some restrictions to wearing armor and learning to use weapons based on their unusual body proportions and lack of material culture. Their main ability is a resistance to the attacks of oozes, a type of monster that is common in D&D-derived games, but much less so in Dragonbane (aside from the Giant Amoeba presented in the Bestiary supplement). As always, the goal is to adapt the spirit of the original to the rules and assumptions of Dragonbane, so here goes.


Underworld Otter
Underworld otters are a magically created kin native to ooze-infested rivers. Comfortable moving on two legs or four, they look nearly identical to mundane river otters, save for being human-sized and having hands rather than paws. Underworld otters are a young kin who are as capable and intelligent as their older brethren, but who have not yet developed a material culture. While
 deadly warriors, they retain the fun-loving frivolity of their ancestors, and never miss an opportunity to propel themselves down an Underworld waterfall, douse themselves in the foulest smelling swamp sloughs, or sample the flavor of monster meats in advanced states of decay.

Ability: Slippery
Willpower Points: 1
By activating this ability, Underworld otters get a boon on a BRAWLING roll for avoiding or escaping a grapple (page 48 in the Rulebook) or other forms of physical restraint. They are immune to the corrosive and poisonous attacks of giant amoebas (page 78 of the Bestiary, no WP required), but not their bludgeoning attacks. In addition, Underworld otters cannot eat plants or fungi, but can always eat raw or even spoiled meat without falling ill (no WP required).

Ability: Webbed Feet
Willpower Points: --
This is identical to the mallard kin ability Webbed Feet (page 12 in the Rulebook).

GM Notes
As presented in the original Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide, Underworld otters can only wear armor specially designed for them at "exorbitant cost." Since they are described as strict carnivores, they can't eat plants, and therefore cannot benefit from foraging (page 103 of the Rulebook). Finally, I would automatically give an Underworld otter the Reckless weakness at the game's start (and regularly remind the player of it) to mimic their "save versus fun" habits from the original write-up.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Dragonbane Kin: Woolly Neanderthal

Note: The woolly Neanderthal originally appeared in the Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide and was created by Jason Sholtis.

Last week, I made an attempt to convert a player race from Operation Unfathomable, designed for use with Swords & Wizardry, to a Dragonbane player kin. This week I will give another of its unusual player options, the woolly Neanderthal, a try.

In the original publication, woolly Neanderthals are described as follows:

"Native to the chilly northern lands of Mastodonia, the woolly Neanderthals abide in small, physically isolated clans, often making their homes in and among great piles of huge glacially deposited stones. They subsist upon a variety of mastodon meats and have refined the arts of drying, smoking, curing, and barbecuing this sole source of nutrition to a high level of sophistication. Gourmands from civilization have been known to risk travel through the savage provinces to feast among the Woollies. Their material culture remains at a Stone Age level, despite (generally unwanted) contact with humans and other cultures."

Again, there is a bit more description than that, but this gets the gist across. Woollies don't have much in the way of special abilities. Instead, they are more likely to have high Strength and Constitution scores. They do have a natural armor class of 6 in the original rules, but no kin in Dragonbane have innate armor, so I will skip that. Still, by looking at some of the other kin in Dragonbane and its Bestiary, one can make something that feels roughly appropriate.


Woolly Neanderthal
Woolly Neanderthals are large, hairy, and sturdily built people who dwell among the rocks of the northern realms. 
They are hardy folk who live hard lives. Lacking the knowledge of metallurgy, theirs is a rustic culture that revolves exclusively around the hunting and preparation of giant mastodons. A reclusive, even shy folk, woollies tend to avoid the company of other kin, but a few are known to form strong bonds with outsiders. They often possess great natural cunning, but their tendency to use few words means that other kin may underestimate their intelligence.

Ability: Rugged
Willpower Points: 1
By activating this ability, woolly Neanderthals get a boon on a CON roll for resisting cold (page 54 in the Rulebook), a boon on a HUNTING & FISHING roll, or can make camp without rolling BUSHCRAFT (page 103 in the Rulebook). In addition, woollies can always eat raw food without falling ill (no WP required).

GM Notes
As presented in the original Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide, woolly Neanderthals must pay 50% more for weapons and armor "due to their exceptional size." (Personally, I would skip this, especially since I haven't given them their innate armor from the original.) As they are described as averaging 6 and 1/2 feet in height, they are not considered Large creatures in Dragonbane. I suggest automatically giving them the Child of the Wild weakness at the game's start.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Dragonbane Kin: Citizen Lich

Note: The citizen lich originally appeared in the Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide and was created by Jason Sholtis.

I am an avowed fan of the "internally consistent gonzo fun house module" Operation Unfathomable (as well as the companion volume, Odious Uplands). I have threatened to run it ever since it was released in 2018, but have never actually done so -- and still haven't, in fact. Part of the hang-up for me is that it's designed for use with Swords & Wizardry, a more-or-less retroclone of the original edition of D&D. While I still have some appreciation for ye olde school, I found that I am not a big fan of running D&D regardless of edition. (There's also a version for Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I appreciate the aesthetics of, but otherwise isn't my cup of tea, either. If you enjoy it, cool!)

Anyway, considering its emphasis on "mirth and mayhem," I feel like I might be able to do Operation Unfathomable justice and have fun running it with Dragonbane. To do that, there are a few things I'd want to convert over, including some of the character options that are unique to Jason Sholtis' whacked-out, 70s sword & sorcery-comic-influenced setting. One of which is the citizen lich. Operation Unfathomable designer Jason Sholtis introduces them as follows:

"In civilized areas of Planet Uluros, where magocracy remains the predominant form of government, magic-users frequently attempt to extend their lives by making a transition to an undead condition. These attempts succeed often enough, but more commonly end in the magic-user’s destruction, or, more rarely, in a transformation to a lesser form of lich called a citizen lich. As the name implies, citizen liches are recognized members of their communities (though true liches regard them as second class)."

There are further details, but I really enjoy the idea of having a semi-undead character in an adventuring party. Dragonbane kin don't have as many special abilities as a D&D race usually would, but luckily for me, citizen liches don't really have a ton of them. They lack the usual suite of undead immunities; their main ability is that they have "limited immortality" in the form of being hard to kill permanently. In fact, that's literally what the ability is called in the Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide. So, I will give it a go. I haven't had a chance to try this out at the table, so incorporate the citizen lich into your game with caution.

Citizen Lich
Citizen liches are semi-undead beings created when a powerful mage's attempt to achieve immortality via arcane ritual is not fully successful. As a result, they retain only a small fraction of the sorcerous power they possessed prior to undeath. While not necessarily malevolent, when traveling in lands less cultured than the magocratic cities from which they hail, citizen liches usually conceal their shriveled, skeletal features from others. They tend to be grandiose in their behavior, driven by a desire to restore their lost wizardry.

Citizen liches are automatically considered Old, with the attendant skill and attribute modifiers for that age category. They are affected by spells or items that work against the undead.

Ability: Hard to Kill (Permanently)
Willpower Points: 3
When reduced to 0 hit points, you can activate this ability to stop making death rolls and immediately regain D6 hit points. You can also activate this ability to ignore additional damage when at 0 hit points. This ability does not prevent severe injuries.

GM Notes
As presented in the original Operation Unfathomable Players' Guide, all citizen liches are effectively magic-users. Given their background, if you wish, you may limit a citizen lich's profession options to mage. Alternately, you may give the player the option to replace their profession's usual heroic ability with Magic Talent and allow them to slowly learn spells as described under that heroic ability.

Lastly, in the original description, citizen liches were once human magic-users, but if one wanted to adapt them to a different setting using the Dragonbane rules, I would probably allow them to have been mages of any kin before becoming a citizen lich. In that case, whatever their kin ability was in life would be replaced with Hard to Kill (Permanently). Alternately, one could use the Hard to Kill (Permanently) ability for a different quasi-undead kin concept.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Two Modest House Rule Proposals for Dragonbane

"You sure about that?"

Hey, I'm not dead! Though I guess Dungeonskull Mountain basically has been for a while now. Let's fix that.

I've been playing Free League's Dragonbane since the early backer PDF of the game came out, and am about to start running it for a nice group of folks next week. It's pretty good! Probably my favorite dungeon fantasy game on the market right now. In terms of its rules, it does most of the stuff I want one of those games to do, with few of the things I don't. Still, I guess I can't leave enough alone, because I do find some rules here and there that I think could be improved:

Opposed Rolls
For one, the way opposed rolls work feels off to me (and I'm not alone, as other people pointed this out during playtesting). As written, opposed rolls are pretty simple: both characters roll against their attribute or skill on a d20 as always, and if both succeed at the roll, whoever rolls lower wins. Since Dragonbane is a roll-under system, I can understand why the designers didn't want opposed rolls to be an exception to that. They also probably feel that they don't come up often enough for it to be a big deal. 

However, things get weird when the two characters who are making the opposed roll have different skill (or attribute) levels. As written, it makes no difference if one of them has a skill of 15 and the other one has a 5, which I think is somewhat unsatisfying. It's an easy fix: just say that when making an opposed roll, if both characters succeed, the one who rolls higher wins. Yes, it's not as elegant as the general "you always want to roll low for skills and attributes" Dragonbane mechanic, but it makes much more sense. I'm okay with the rule being very slightly clunkier for this one, relatively uncommon type of roll.

Free Monster Attacks
Another thing I've been thinking about is the concept of free attacks, particularly when monsters get to make them. See, in Dragonbane (and many other Free League games), each monster has a random table of attacks that the GM rolls on the monster's turn. These attacks are usually quite nasty and are assumed to hit, unless the targeted characters make a dodge roll (which costs them their own turn).

Now, in melee combat, if you're fighting an enemy and want to move away, you have to roll the EVADE skill to avoid leaving yourself open to attack from that enemy. If that enemy is an NPC -- which in Dragonbane could be something that another game might consider a "monster," like a bandit or a hobgoblin -- they just roll to attack as normal. But if it's a monster, the GM is told to roll a random monster attack (as one always does with a monster). Often, that means that the free attack could be something like a "Sweeping Blow!" that hits every character around it, or "Spike Rain!" that poisons everyone within 10 meters. When you add in the fact that monsters already have a Ferocity rating that allows them to act more than once on their turn -- something characters are almost never capable of -- this means that monsters are extremely dangerous in Dragonbane.

Which is cool with me, honestly! I think that having to run away is a desirable outcome in a game like this. Still, if one wanted to make it a little bit easier to run away from these terrifyingly deadly monsters without being murdered in the attempt, I would suggest having it so the free attacks a monster gets when a character fails their EVADE roll when breaking away from combat with it simply inflict damage equal to their least powerful attack, with none of the attack's extra effects. Now, Dragonbane bills itself as "mirth and mayhem roleplaying," so I'll admit that pulling this particular punch may detract from the mayhem (and perhaps even the mirth) a little bit. It could also slow combat down very slightly, so I could understand if a GM would rather just let the dice fall where they may. I will test this idea out and report back on it.