Mini Review – Automata Run Amok by John Carlson

As I have mentioned multiple times here on the blog, I am in a weekly Wednesday night AD&D [Aff] campaign, Graveyard of Empires, on Roll20. We hit session 132 on November 23rd. John Carlson, our DM, has published an adventure on DriveThruRPG [Aff] & RPGNow [Aff] based on our first few sessions in the game. Being one of two players still running the same characters from session 1, I can say that this look behind the scenes is interesting.

You can read the release announcement on his blog Dwarven Automata, which is the name of his publishing venture.

Here is the marketing blurb:

Out-of-Control automata have driven a wizard from his shop. He would like the PCs to solve the problem (without damaging his creations) while his rival will pay for evidence of the wizard’s dabbling in forbidden knowledge.

This is an adventure suitable for four to five low-level characters written to be compatible with OSRIC and early editions of the world’s most popular RPG.  In addition to full details on a tinkerer-wizard’s tower overrun by rampaging automata, this module includes:

* Random tables to generate elements of a bustling port city situated in the tropics and titles for books on both magic and techno-magic

* Twenty unique magical items of variable usefulness and danger with which to tempt players

* Several unique NPCs and monsters, from a clock maker revolutionary to a brain floating in a machine animated by the spirit of a long-dead racist dwarf

* Eight illustrations by the wondefully talented Luka Rejec

This twenty-page adventure should provide between four and eight hours of Old School fun. Enjoy!

I will say up front that I admit my bias. I think John is an excellent DM who has detailed his world and it is a living campaign where player actions influence the flow of events. Looking back on this from what we have learned over more than 100 sessions shows just how much planning went into this adventure. Even though it is PWYW, and I have  the pre-release, I am buying it.

This 23 page booklet has it all, art by Luka Rejec, maps, new creatures. tables with rumors, random encounters, new magic items, and an introduction for a setting with promises of more cool stuff to come. Luka Rejec is also credited as the editor.

The premise is that a mage has been driven from his tower by ancient automata he has activated but drove him from his tower. The party has multiple ways to get involved with working for the mage, and can even end up working for a rival. Politics and rivalries within the city of Midmark are outlined, and there are suggestions for the GM in different contingencies the players may take to accomplish their mission(s). It is suitable for 4-5 players of 1st or 2nd level.

Luka Rejec’s art is awesome! I love the front cover. Having lived through this adventure in the campaign, my mental images are totally different than the characters and creatures depicted in this booklet. However, that is a personal thing and in no way is a slight to the pictures within.

Of course, John left out things that we haven’t learned yet in the campaign, or that might influence us. What he put in place is a well thought out adventure with various options for how to handle the players depending on what kinds of things they might do in an effort to wrangle the automata.

Our group had opportunity to see the PDF before the art and make suggestions. Finally, we had a look before the PDF was released for final comments and typo spotting.

What I liked:

  • The art and layout is sharp.
  • There is vocabulary to learn.
  • The table of contents is hyperlinked.
  • There is a one page isometric map of the tower showing how each level fits, and each section on each level has the level map.
    • On the following page it completes a DM Quick Reference Sheet with a timeline tracker, options in case of party retreat, and lose ends and future opportunities.
  • New monsters are stated out with a checklist for the DM to keep track of them.
  • There are suggestions for how to deal with the various puzzles/challenges present in each level.
  • There is a table to generate random book titles that is useful beyond this module.
  • Bestiary for new monsters.
  • Table of minor/interesting magic items the players might find searching different locales in the wizard’s tower.
    • These are some very creative items that many will easily find a use for in their game.

What I’d Like To See:

  • In all honesty, there’s not much else I’d like to see, other than the actual DM notes….
  • Seriously, I can’t think of what I’d add. As I mentioned at the start, I am biased and impressed with the scope and breadth of John’s campaign.
  • In the author’s note, I don’t think the bit about ascertaining his talent is needed. A quick glance will show John’s talent.

In John’s blog, Dwarven Automata,  he writes about his campaign and reviews session write ups by the players from his perspective.

I look forward to more modules in the future.

I interviewed John about our weekly game hitting 100 sessions here.

NOTE: Links followed by [Aff] are affiliate links where a portion of your purchase price supports this blog and helps buy products for use and review.

UCon 2016 in Ann Arbor, MI

This weekend is my second con – Ucon, after Gamehole Con last weekend.

After my failed attempt to blog each day of Gamehole Con, I won’t attempt it at UCon. I’m also running four games and my youngest son, Zach, is coming with me for his first con. He is 19 and not sure what he is getting into. I’m sure he will have fun seeing his dad in a different environment.

I’m looking forward to catching up with friends I haven’t seen for awhile, and some of the same ones I just saw at Gamehole last week. I will also me online friends in real life, and of course, make new friends.

I have most things packed and ready to load in the car.

Tonight is session 130 of the weekly AD&D game I play in on Roll20. Before last week’s session, I had just over 800 hours on Roll20. Now it says 810, so should be about 814 when we break at midnight. So after tonight, I will have played about 30 hours of various RPGs, and will add 16 hours of running games, and I think another 16 hours of games I play in. Wow, that will be over 60 hours of gaming in a week and a half! It’s been a long time since I’ve played so much in so short a time. Thankfully not the sleep deprived super marathon all weekend sessions we used to do in high school and college.

I’m still dragging from Gamehole Con, so hopefully, my internal clock lets me sleep in a little tomorrow.

I’ve got some articles and other things in the works with Multiverse, after meeting with Jayson Elliot, of the new TSR, at Gamehole Con, so I’m looking forward to that once I’m back from the con and things settle down.

May you all enjoy your weekend and if you’re not at a convention, may you still be able to play!

Dungeon Grappling – A Review

I am honored that based on my review of the grappling rules in +Tim Short’s The Manor #8, +Doug Cole asked me to review the current grappling rules for the Dungeon Grappling Kickstarter as is.

I can confirm that the layout is complete with placeholders for all of the art. The Table of Contents and Index are not yet finished.

Doug confirmed to me that he has taken +Erik Tenkar’s Kickstarter suggestions to heart, and learned from other successful Kickstarters. With no physical product, this PDF only offering will be very easy to deliver once the art is complete.

The one thing that concerned me as soon as I opened the file was that it has a background color/image, but it is faded to the point of no issue where text is concerned. The text is legible on both my computer’s LED monitor and the glass screen of my tablet. Those of us with aging eye will appreciate that.

This paragraph early in the PDF gives the whole reason for such supplemental rules.

Grappling rules do not have to suck the fun out of a
game. The key is to take rules that are usually well
developed and understood, and not fight the base
mechanical system when it’s time to grapple. All of
this is in service to the story, contributing to a sense
of action, excitement, and danger. If the rules get in
the way, or if the mechanics do not produce interesting
outcomes, then why bother?

Scattered throughout the text are quotes from 16th century combat manuals, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other stories about wrestling and grappling.

As one who loves history, I know that knights in full plate were afraid of being pinned and approached with weapons designed or suited for the gaps in their armor. The current growth of medieval martial arts touches on more than just waving weapons, but using them and one’s body to take down their opponents. One can easily find such things on YouTube.

Grappling applies to characters, NPC’s, animals, and monsters.

I was asked on G+, “What rules systems does it use?” It is aimed at the original game, but applies to any version, variant, and clone.

Chapter 1 – Core Concepts

  • Grappling actions use the same dice and mechanics as the rules for weapons.
  • 3 Concepts: Attack Roll, Defense Target Number, and Effects
  • Grapple Difficulty Class (DC) – Basically Armor Class for grabs.
    • Factor in strength & dexterity and level.
    • Characters and Monsters have different calculations
  • There is a basic calculation and then options based on different abilities, and different rules.
    • Dexterity, PFRPG, Fifth Edition, and Acrobatics
    • Feats and Class Features are also mentioned.
      • New 5e feats are presented for consideration.
      • Suggestions for PFRPG feats are given.
  • Control Points are analogous to Hit Points, and are based on hit dice, but are not the same as HP.
  • One handed grappling, such as using a dagger in the other hand is addressed.

Chapter 2 – Grappling Effects

The goal of grappling is to gain control and force consequences on one’s opponent. Such as being pinned in a wrestling match.

Control Points are explained as counting up from zero instead of being reduced from a maximum. As CP increases, effects such as grabbed, grappled, restrained, etc. occur. There is a Control Point Effects table that lists the effects of different degrees of CP.

The Control Maximum (CM) is the most CP a target can take before being incapacitated. There are two options for the base rules, and an option for 5e, and one for PFRPG. In the base rules, one has 10 CP plus or minus modifiers. There is a bit different for 5e & PFRPG.

The Control Point Effects table and its explanation gives spell casters a chance to cast spells in various lesser states of being grappled. That’s not to my taste, but as an old school player, I don’t have an issue ignoring a rule. However, as I read the explanation, I can see that grabbed might not ruins some spells. I’ll have to think more about that.

There is also an Attacking Grappler Effects table. It lists the effects of grappling an opponent. For example, wrapping one’s arms and legs around an opponent causes the grappler to also be immobile for the duration of that grapple.

The section on Instant Conditions discusses how to grapple a foe and gain control instantly.

There is a list of conditions specific to 5e, and a list specific to PFRPG.

Chapter 3 Grappling Techniques

Means of ending the fight: points (like a wrestling match), fight-ending position, change foe’s position, inflict pain, render unconscious, injury, kill.

One can tell that the author has experience with wrestling and martial arts by some of the descriptions. This takes verisimilitude and applies it to the system without breaking the system. A very rare thing.

Wrestling for items is also mentioned.

Size is also important and refers the reader to Monstrous Grappling. My brother had a large weight advantage to me in high school. While walking down the hall he’d shove me and I’d go across the hall. I’d try shoving him, and I moved more than he did.

The sued of weapons and magic is also covered. Some weapons, like whips are designed to grapple. Entangle is used as an example of a spell with grappling effects.

Chapter 4 Monstrous Grappling

This quote exactly describes why monsters would grapple:

But many creatures, especially beasts, aren’t trying
to kill you because your alignment is different than
theirs is, or they’re acting on orders from the evil
Foom the Woc God. They’re trying to kill you because
they’re hungry, and for whatever reason, you look
like a moveable feast.

An example of how to convert a monster with a system that doesn’t have all the information in its stats block as some systems, shows how easily one can implement this system on the fly. A later example shows how converting an early edition ogre gives a similar CP value as using the 5e formula. This indicates that the author has a quick, flexible, and accurate solution to determining this value.

There is a size adjustment table that illustrates how size inhibits or enhances the effectiveness of a particular creature at grappling.

Tiny and small creatures get a table for how much lower their control damage is due to their lesser strength.

Finally, this chapter concludes with ten sample monsters using PFRPG, S&W, and 5e variants. There are representative monsters for each of those systems, but not a listing of each of those monsters in all three systems.

My take – This is something that has been needed in RPG’s for a long time. The Grappling Rules in AD&D are notoriously challenging to implement in play. The short and simple system introduced in Manor #8 is expanded in these pages. It gives a bare bones system and adds options and touches on how it can be used in specific systems. The basic rules will work for variations of the original game and clones, as well as later editions and variants of the original game.

The system is built on a basis of normal combat resolution. I like this approach. Use what is there instead of building a new system that doesn’t feel right. Another good example of this is what +James Spahn did in White Star with vehicle combat using the same format as individual combat.

I can’t think of a situation not explicitly covered in these rules. I wrestled a lot with my brothers growing up

Caveats – I don’t know the 5e rules – I’m way behind on reading them. I don’t have PFRPG, and never played so I can’t comment on how well these rules fit those systems.

I didn’t have time to do a test of these rules as part of this review. However, based on the similarities to regular combat in AD&D, this looks to be a useful replacement for those grappling rules.

What I’d like to see – These are all fitting for the end of the PDF.

  • One page with all the tables
  • A summary of the suggested calculations for each rule variant.
  • A listing of the various conditions and effects.
  • These later additions in black & white for clean & simple printing.
  • A Black & white option for the entire PDF for printing whether at home or a print shop.

A five dollar buy-in for the PDF is a definite bargain. Pledge to the Kickstarter if you’re interested.

Gamehole Con – A Second Unexpected Occurrance

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the most unexpected coincidence. Today I write about another unexpected thing that happened on Sunday.

On Sunday, I had a game of DCC’s Excape from the Purple Planet from 10 am to 2 pm. I was in a group of experienced players and we all made the right choices and were done in an hour and a half.

I went downstairs to see what was going on, and I ran into Michael Witwer, author of Empire of Imagination. I did a mini review here. Michael and I first met back at Gary Con 8 in March. I wrote about how I ended up being the only person present for his presentation Genesis: Unexpected Journey of Gary Gygax.

Michael was at the autograph table outside the vendor hall. He was talking to a couple of people. Michael just finished talking about Empire of Imagination. Then mentioned his next project: opening day at Disney Land.

That was my queue. When the people he was talking to left, we exchanged pleasantries and then I said, “I have to tell you this because you mentioned Disney.”

My paternal grandmother was a first cousin of Disney’s chief sculptor, Blaine Gibson. My grandmother’s generation, my father’s generation, and many of my own first cousins were all born in the same town. I went into detail about my cousin.

Michael then said, “That’s incredible, I just finished reading about him the other day.” He then pulled out his book and showed me all the underlining about Blaine. “Can I contact you later for some background?” I had an article when Blaine died in July, 2015.

I said, “Sure! I can probably get you in touch with his son.”

Michael then signed a few more books and then started making preparations to leave. He was only there for a short time. If my game had not wrapped early, I would not have ran into him.

As Michael and I were approaching saying goodbye, +Chad Parrish, of Dead Games Society, walks out of the vendor hall, and I call him over and introduce the two of them. Of course, we had to tell the story of being from the same town. Then Michael and I share the Disney connection. Chad then says he wants Michael on his podcast, and they exchange contact information. Michael and Chad are both in different suburbs of Chicago, so they will be getting together for that podcast soon.

Now I just need to figure out how to monetize this newfound role as a broker of information/connections….

Gamehole Con IV – The Most Unexpected Coincidence

By way of explanation (and burying the lede): I had hoped to be able to do a running blog post for each day of Gamehole Con, unfortunately, the available WiFi was not up to the task. I could not even stay connected to my blog long enough to get to the drafts using my cell. I’ll do a wrap up post later today.

On Friday, after dying in Jim Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha game, I had a Gamma World 2e game with +Chad Parrish of the  Dead Games Society podcast.

Chad also does a podcast with +Satine Phoenix, Gameschool, under the new TSR. (See here for all of the TSR Podcast Network Podcasts.) I write for Multiverse, which is also part of the new TSR. Chad and I met back in March, at Gary Con 8.

At one point either before we started or after a break, he mentioned to another player at the table that he went to the University of Missouri. My ears perked up at that, and I asked him if he was from Missouri.

Chad said, “Yes, but it’s a small town, you’ve probably never heard of it.”

I replied, “That’s OK, just tell me the name.” (I have lived in 6 different places in 4 different parts of the state, and driven through a lot of other places, and know people from small towns all over the state. So I’m thinking I might know the name of the town.)

Chad said, “OK, it’s a small town called Oak Grove.”

My eyes got big, I said, “Jackson County?” (There are at least 4 towns in Missouri with the name, the one I’m from is the only one with a zip code.)


“[zip code]?” “Yes”

He says, “Panthers?”

I say, “Orange and black?”


Then Chad says, “Do you know the Hamiltons?”

I just hold up my name badge.

Chad almost jumped out of his seat and says, “No way, you’re Robert Hamilton’s brother?”

My turn to say, “Yes.” “He’s the older of my two brothers.”

Chad says, “Robert Hamilton! He’s like the best DM ever!”

I said, “I know, right?”

It turns out that Chad was seven years behind me in school. My brother Robert and I are only ten months apart, and went through school in the same grade. I didn’t know Chad because after graduation, I went off to college and wasn’t around.

When he was in middle school, Chad tried to get someone from my youngest brother’s class, Michael, to get him into Robert’s game. So Michael took this 13/14 year old kid over to my parent’s house (I can only imagine the interaction with my father, who did the whole dad thing to anyone who stopped by.) Robert would have been like 20 or 21.

Michael told Chad he didn’t get in because Robert said he was, “Kind of a spaz.” I can just see it now.

I confirmed that Robert is still running the same campaign from back then, just not as often. If we manage to coordinate our schedules we still play.

Chad was telling this story to everyone at the con, I did too.

Chad had a similar thing happen later that same day. He was talking to Steven Chenault of Troll Lord Games, and it turns out that Chad’s father is from the same town where Steven is from. I was amazed something like that happened once to me, I can’t imagine having two such instances on the same day at a convention.

I had met Steven and mentioned to him that I was the one from his hometown, so we talked about the oddity of that for a bit.

After all these years, Chad still wants to play in a Hamilton’s D&D game. I tried to get him to let me pull together a game Sunday afternoon, but he had to leave before my Sunday morning game finished. So he’s talking about some Roll20 action with some DGS fans and himself.

Packing & Heading Out For Gamehole Con

I made the decision to go to Gamehole Con for the first time.

I am looking forward to all the games. I’m even a bit anxious to start the five hour drive.

If I have the bars/wifi access, I’ll attempt some live posting via Twitter and Periscope. I’m sure Twitter will be easy, since it’s just a few characters.

I’ll do a wrap up post for each day here on the blog.

GHC has rented the conference rooms in the two nearby hotels to accommodate 24 hour open gaming. I don’t know if they are the only con to do that, but for those who are too pumped to sleep, they have something to do besides channel surf in the wee hours.

Well, time to load up the car and hit the road. I want to be there in time for will call so I can get my stuff before my first game and not have to rush in the morning.