We played another game the other night. Below is a short machine-generated summary. Click through to read the full report. This was a fully improvised affair. Players latched on to a tossed-off rumor about mysterious goings-on in the farmers’ guild hall, and wouldn’t you know it, they wanted to go “investigate.”
Planet Karus session 19, in which the party, comprising Konn and Ploikal, embarks on a stealthy heist at the Farmers’ Guild Hall, uncovering its secret as a base for a cult devoted to the harvest goddess Yiggub. Utilizing magic, invisibility, and summoned creatures, they navigate through guards and a sudden onslaught of skeletons, successfully looting treasure, including gemstone eyes from a statue, before making a narrow escape into the night.
I figured I could post summaries of our current campaign’s actual play reports here, seeing as how I write full reports on the campaign website anyway. These are generated with a little help from ChatGPT 4.
Session 18 was the first after a 29-week hiatus and the first in-person game since we switched to online play after the first lockdown of March 2020. It was a tremendous joy to do this while sitting around a table, slinging physical dice and all the rest.
Planet Karus session 18, in which the party navigates a series of challenges and encounters, such as dealing with large spiders, disarming traps, and fighting bonecrusher dogs. They find treasures like gold pieces, platinum machine parts, silver idols, and an unusual crossbow. The session concludes without any casualties, and the party successfully avoids detection by bearded pigs in a room they explore.
Not dead but dreaming. Welcome to the fourth year in review of this blog and the first post in over nine months. (Previous annual reviews: 2020, 2021, 2022.)
As the title suggests, my duties to science prevented me from blogging and, at some point, even from playing for the better part of the year. The heavy lifting on my Ph.D. thesis is now behind me, so I hope to reactivate the D&D campaign and become at least a bit more active here in the coming year.
But before all that, here’s the customary year-in-review post, with an overview of what we played, some play statistics specific to the current D&D campaign, games acquired, books read, the state of the blog, and a look ahead.
What We Played
We played ten sessions of Planet Karus. This is my fully homebrewed sword and planet campaign, which we play with my also fully homebrewed classic D&D ruleset, Hackbut.
The campaign has a dedicated website, which should give you a sense of the sources I am tapping into and some of our house rules. Recently, I have also begun posting play reports. These are less fleshed out than those I used to do for Castle Xyntillan and contain no referee commentary. They are very much written for the players’ benefit and my own. But maybe some of you will still get something out of it.
Maybe in the future, I will share some bits from the campaign here, like I previously did with the wilderness monster and treasure method I developed to populate the campaign hex map. We will see.
In any case, this has been a lot of fun to run so far. It is a different experience from running published materials. It is more freeing on the one hand. Anything I fancy goes. At the same time, it is more daunting because I sometimes wonder what, if anything, to prep beforehand, particularly when it comes to wilderness locales. How much is enough? For this, I am always on the lookout for models to emulate. The constraint is that any examples I look to for guidance need to operate within classic D&D rules assumptions.
This year, we enjoyed eleven board game nights.
Across those, we played Skull (4 plays), Inis (4), Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition) (3), Quantum (3), Tigris & Euphrates (2), Cosmic Encounter (1), Kemet: Blood and Sand (1), and Power Grid (1).
This year’s new favorite has to be Mission: Red Planet. It scratches that dudes-on-a-map itch while remaining streamlined and, best of all, accommodates up to six players. It’s as if Cathala and Faidutti sat down to design a game specifically for our group’s needs.
We played eleven roleplaying game sessions. One to finish up the MOTHERSHIP: Bloom and ten sessions of Planet Karus, using my classic D&D homebrew ruleset Hackbut.
We basically stopped playing after June. That puts us at an average of a little under two sessions per month in the active period of play.
The number of players ranged from 1 to 3 (M = 2.3, SD = 0.6).
We added two new players to our group. So we now have a pool of nine players total. It is nice to have some fresh blood in the mix. The new players shake things up because they bring in their own assumptions, interests, and playstyles.
The top three players were responsible for over 70% of the attendance. That’s even higher than in previous years. I believe this may point to a narrowing interest in joining our group’s RPG sessions. But maybe it also indicates folks have other things going on that prevent them from playing.
We had no PC deaths, only retainer deaths (four in total). Deaths per session ranged from 0 to 3 (M = 0.4, SD = 0.9).
The deadliest single session was #13, in which three heavy footmen succumbed to a swarm of giant plague rats while covering the retreat at the end of a very fruitful foray into The Balok.
The MilliWhack rating of the Planet Karus campaign’s 2023 sessions ranged from 93 to 174 (M = 125, SD = 26). Things are becoming way less deadly after a spiky beginning (see the chart below), probably mainly due to more careful play and a more capable party.
The XP per session ranged from 0 to 4,847 (M = 1,120, SD = 1,357).
The most gainful session was also #13. As mentioned, three footmen died, but the party did abscond with many riches from the treasury of the late gremlin king Zaiden on the first level of The Balok.
We currently have a stable of nine player characters. Their levels range from 1 to 4 (M = 1.9, SD = 1.3). These characters have, between them, now acquired 20,644 XP.
All of the below were either direct purchases or Kickstarter reward deliveries.
PDF Game Books: The Monster Overhaul, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness Beyond, X1 The Isle of Dread, Blackmarsh, Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism, Echoes From Fomalhaut #08: Welcome to Castle Sullogh, HYPERBOREA Ready Reference Sheets, Gathox Vertical Slum, Monster of the Week.
Most of the above were acquired to pilfer game content from for use with Planet Karus or as models to emulate, particularly for the wilderness section of the game. The Monster Overhaul was a Kickstarter delivery. An impressive GM tool, but not one I will be using because it has drifted too far off from classic D&D.
Physical Books: AD&D First Edition Dungeon Masters Guide (Easley cover), Vaults of Vaarn, The Scourge of Northland, TROIKA!.
Vaults of Vaarn I acquired for Planet Karus inspiration. Scourge of Northland and TROIKA! were Kickstarter deliveries. I continue to enjoy Fleming’s publications’ structure, art, and production qualities. TROIKA! was mainly purchased for completionism’s sake. It has really nice paper.
Board Games: Sidereal Confluence, Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition) and Modern Art.
Sidereal Confluence is a beast, and I have yet to bring it to the table. As mentioned, Mission: Red Planet is a new favorite. Modern Art we have yet to play as well.
Kit: ZucatiCorp Holmage Dice, DriveThruRPG Game Master Screen (landscape), Chessex Polycarbonate Dice Boot, selection of Mini Meeples.
The above was acquired mainly for use with our in-person marathon session, which I had to cancel. I now have snazzy custom referee inserts for the screen. The mini meeples were long on my list after reading this Reddit post.
The Holmage dice were a birthday gift. I have an actual set still in shrink wrap in my vintage Holmes box. These are for actual playing with. Although I think I still prefer my selection of Gamescience dice more.
Here I introduce a new section where I review the sci-fi and fantasy fiction I consumed over the year. As you will notice, I am, for the most part focusing my reading on the science fantasy and sword and planet genres. The idea is to immerse myself in the genre that best matches the feel I am going for with Planet Karus. I have found it is beginning to pay off in my ability to spontaneously improvise genre-appropriate content on the spot.
Novels: Swordsmen in the Sky, The Jewel in the Skull (History of the Runestaff, #1), While the Gods Laugh, Bazaar of the Bizarre, R.U.R., Servants of the Wankh (Planet of Adventure, #2), The Serpent (Atlan Saga, Volume 1 of 5), The Mad God’s Amulet (The History of the Runestaff, #2), The Dirdir (Planet of Adventure, #3), The Pnume (Planet of Adventure, #4), Red World of Polaris: The Adventures of Captain Volmar, The Sword of the Dawn (History of the Runestaff, #3), The Runestaff (History of the Runestaff, #4), The Eyes of the Overworld (The Dying Earth, #2).
If I had to pick a single book from this list to recommend, it would have to be The Dirdir. The extended sequence set in the alien hunting ground of the Carabas is one part Predator, one part Roadside Picnic, and a hundred percent terrifyingly awesome. (Close contenders were The Mad God’s Amulet and The Eyes of the Overworld.)
Comics: Het Geheim van de Nitronstralen (Storm, #6), De Legende van Yggdrasil (Storm, #7), DEN Volume 1: Neverwhere, Stad der Verdoemden (Storm, #8), The Adventures of Red Sonja Vol. 1.
Here the pick is easy. DEN is a remarkable feat of psychedelic picaresque storytelling and mind-blowing art. I wish I could find more sword and planet comics in a similar vein.
Let’s finish by reflecting on last year’s resolutions, and make some new ones for the year ahead.
Last Year’s Resolutions
We did indeed finish MOTHERSHIP: Bloom which ended suitably grimly.
We played Planet Karus online, but as already stated, at some point, we basically stopped.
Our group continued to play board games once a month, pretty religiously. This has been, for a very long time, the backbone of our group, the thing that keeps us together, and I value it greatly
Blogging basically stopped as well.
Finally, the last resolution was to play an extended in-person game of D&D. We were all set to play a marathon Planet Karus session in mid-November, but I had to cancel at the last moment due to illness.
In closing, some resolutions for the new year. I will reactivate the Planet Karus campaign. A weekly game appears to be too tall an order, so we will try to convene once a month instead.
We will also continue our monthly board game night, of course.
I want to run that in-person marathon and have already sent out a new date picker. Fingers crossed that no act of god will prevent it from occurring this time around.
Finally, I hope to return to the occasional spot of blogging here. Monthly is probably still the best target. Less than that is equal to basically no target at all. More than that is very unlikely to happen.
Another year, another annual review. This marks the third full year of publishing on this website. Let’s hope there are many more yet to come. (Previous annual reviews: 2020, 2021.)
The previous two years were marked by the global pandemic. This year was characterized by our collective emergence from that strange and challenging time and the resumption of what I guess can be called normalcy.
Most COVID measures in this country were lifted by the end of February. I was worried that increasing competing activities would end our weekly roleplaying game. This was luckily not the case, as will become clear. We settled into what I think is a “new new normal” or the old normal, one with fewer plays but still enough to sustain a satisfying campaign.
Table of contents:
What we played: Castle Xyntillan, Planet Karus, MOTHERSHIP: Bloom, boardgames.
Play statistics: sessions, attendance, character deaths, experience points.
We played a fourth and final season of Castle Xyntillan from mid-January to mid-April numbering seven sessions in total. These are all written up here on the blog. (See the index.) It was a very satisfying conclusion to a very memorable campaign, one that taught me a lot about how to run classic D&D and also gave me the insight and the confidence to start creating my own material. This brings me to the next thing we played.
We went on a bit of a hiatus as I finalized preparations for a new campaign named Planet Karus. Its setting is homebrew sword and planet inspired by other planets, including Eternia, Skaith, and Pandarve. For the rules, we continue to use Hackbut, with some setting-specific tweaks sprinkled on top. My ambition is for this to be the campaign world where I can run classic D&D games until the end of my days. So one goal was to keep it compatible with baseline classic D&D, to make it easy to develop things using stock tools out there (like the original book’s treasure tables). But to use a setting that resonates with my younger self’s first encounters with fantasy, which is not EDO, but decidedly more science-fantasy, horrific and weird. (This approach was inspired, among other things, by this great now-gone blog post by Robert Parker.) The idea is to just reskin classic D&D where necessary. To basically reinterpret classic D&D’s implied setting through a sword and planet lens. (More on Planet Karus can be found on the campaign’s site.)
Anyway, we played seven sessions of Planet Karus from early September to early December. Let’s call it Season 1. I have not written those up on the blog here, contrary to my stated intentions in the previous annual review. Writing up CX was fun and useful but also quite a bit of work. The posts found an audience because they were about a published module. The same does not apply to my homebrew campaign even if I at some point publish the materials here (as was previously suggested by commenter DC.) I am keeping notes, of course, if only for my own reflection and analysis. But those are too rough for public consumption. It will probably stay that way. It makes running the game more sustainable, and I can focus my blogging energies on other types of posts.
We concluded the year’s roleplaying with frequent player HB taking over the game-mastering reigns from me for another MOTHERSHIP miniseries. This time we used the latest preview versions of the first edition rules and the module BLOOM by Daniel Hallinan. I’ve enjoyed playing through this so far. The module gave me some good underwater sci-fi vibes in the vein of The Abyss (and, I am told, also Underwater) as well as bio horror along the lines of Annihilation (novel, film).
We played two sessions in December and will pick it up again in January to finish up in another session or two.
MOTHERSHIP as a system is fine. The changes made to the classes for the new edition are definitely improvements over the original version. But I continue to feel like the skill-tree design is a poor fit for a game that purports to be “old school” in its sensibilities. I notice players tend to look at their character sheet when they are faced with a problem, looking for something they can roll against to solve it rather than engaging with the fiction directly. Also, at character creation, choosing skills is still a significant speed bump, as it invites planning ahead and offers a large number of choices at the outset. Better to randomize them, like we do with magic-user spells in classic D&D.
We sat down eight times this year for face-to-face board games on the last Friday of the month. BoardGameGeek tells me these were the games we played in order of the number of plays.
King of Tokyo and Skull are quick games that we like to break out at the end of an evening when we are too tired for the big stuff, but we do not want to go home just yet. “Tokyo” is always a riot, and Skull is a great shortcut to some of the bluffing kicks one also gets from games like poker.
Dragomino is a kids’ game I acquired for my boys (who are now getting into tabletop gaming themselves, an exciting development.) It is surprisingly appealing even for adults as well.
7 Wonders mainly sees table time when we have a big turnout, and some of the other meatier games’ player limits are exceeded. I have a love-hate relationship with this one, I find the engine-building aspect of it kind of tedious, but I have yet to find a satisfying replacement.
This brings us to the top three.
Quantum I acquired second hand late 2021. I have been looking to add it to my collection ever since my game design consultancy days when I was acquainted with its designer. It is quite good and strikes a nice balance between quick-to-play and crunchy. The way it uses chunky six-sided dice is elegant and satisfying.
Galaxy Trucker I received for my birthday in spring. Another one that had been sitting on the list for a long time already. Ever since playing Space Alert, I have been a Vlaada Chvátil fan. Galaxy Trucker has recently had a revamp, and the components are all very nice. I also love how, as is usually the case with Chvátil games, the how-to-play is integrated with the rulebook. This game was an instant hit with the group. It is very funny and plays really fast, but it still has a satisfying amount of crunch. It feels like riding a rodeo on a chaos-generating engine that is quickly tearing itself apart.
And finally, my personal favorite, Inis, which we now play with the Seasons of Inis expansion so that it allows for five players. I adore this game. It looks gorgeous, plays really quick, scratches that “dudes on a map” itch in a way that is not obvious, and does not lead to analysis paralysis like its close contender Kemet does. Highly recommended.
Moving on to some data and analysis of how often we played, what the attendance was like, and the two most important data points in the D&D resource economy: character deaths and experience points. What follows is limited to our classic D&D roleplaying sessions, which continue to take place online.
We had a total of 16 sessions in 2022 (down from a whopping 37 in 2021). That is an average of 1.3 sessions per month (SD 1.2). In 2021, by contrast, the average was 3.1 (SD 1.5). This can be explained for the most part by the long break between the final Castle Xyntillan season and the new Planet Karus campaign kicking off. If we removed the months when no plays happened from the data, we get an average of 2 sessions per month in 2022 (SD 0.8) versus 3.4 in 2021 (SD 1.2). Still lower, but not as dramatic a drop as it would first seem, and it can largely be explained by the fact that one Friday a month is now devoted to face-to-face board games.
Our group still consists of seven players (eight, if you include the undersigned). Two players did not participate in any of our roleplaying at all (they did join in on the board games occasionally). This year we had an average of 2.6 players per session (SD 0.7). That is down from 3.7 (SD 1.4) in 2021. However, in the last season of 2021, that number is 2.6 (SD 0.7). So things are staying pretty stable. Barring significant life events that impact the ability to participate, this looks like the “new new normal” for our group for the foreseeable future. As in the previous year, the top three players are once again responsible for 66% of attendance, but players did trade places.
And now, for the statistic that all classic D&D referees care about the most: character deaths. It is interesting that I now get to compare a module written by someone known for their grasp of classic module design, and my own home campaign, in terms of deadliness (as well as XP, for which see the next section). Just to reiterate, rules and procedures have remained basically the same: My homebrew rules Hackbut, which largely has parity with OD&D, B/X D&D, and its retro-clones.
Castle Xyntillan season 4: Seven sessions, zero player-character deaths, and 11 retainer deaths, for an average of 1.6 deaths per session (SD 2.1). The single deadliest session was #37 in which five retainers died when the company breached the Crusaders’ Tomb, went head-to-head with undead crusaders, faced off against the Giant Snail Guardian, and pilfered the treasury.
Planet Karus season 1: Seven sessions as well, four player-character deaths, eight retainer deaths, for a total of 12 deaths, and an average of 1.3 per session (SD 1.5). The deadliest single session was #4, in which the same player lost two characters, and two retainers died as well, during a foray into The Balok (the campaign’s current tentpole dungeon). One fighter was killed by a volley of gremlin javelins. (Gremlins are Planet Karus’ equivalent of kobolds.) As a result, a porter failed his morale check and fled back out of the dungeon, triggering a trap on the way out. The same player’s second fighter later stepped on a large venomous snake while heading back out of the dungeon and failed his save versus death. The last retainer also failed their morale roll at this incident and fled into the dungeon’s darkness to be captured by boogieman slavers (read: hobgoblins). (The party later declines to pay the ransom.)
So, it looks like Planet Karus is about as deadly as Castle Xyntillan, but we see more PC deaths on Planet Karus. This can be explained by the fact that the number of monsters and their deadliness is about equal, but PCs in Planet Karus are just starting out and so have far fewer hit points to rely on when things go south.
Moving on to the flip side of character deaths: The sweet rewards reaped for braving danger in the form of experience points. I should point out that I only reward XP for treasure recovered at the traditional rate of 1 GP = 1 XP. (Although in Planet Karus, we use a silver standard for flavor reasons, the game is balanced accordingly, basically as Delta recommends here.)
Castle Xyntillan season 4: The company gained 14,800 XP, all in a single haul in the very last session when they ransacked the suite of the countess. That amounts to an average of 2,114 XP per session (SD 5,594). By comparison, in the previous year’s gaming, they collected 132,796 XP, on average, 5,533 XP per session (SD 5,281). A pretty big drop which can be explained by the fact that by this point, they had cleared out most of the easy-to-reach treasure. The campaign ended with the company on average at level 4.4 (min 1, max 6, SD 1.9). Between the active characters, they had collected 126,926 XP.
Planet Karus season 1: Here the picture is quite different. So far, the party has collected 7,071 XP in total, averaging 780 XP per session (SD 1,830). Am I being too stingy? I know there are big hauls tucked away in the tentpole dungeon, but players have been repeatedly repelled by the gremlin tribe that has made the first level their home base and appear to have lost interest in making a concerted effort to oust them. This dungeon has been set up more as a classic assault-style scenario in the vein of the original G series of modules. It is something the players are less accustomed to, and it is certainly a very different approach compared to Castle Xyntillan.
The single biggest haul (5,000 XP) was actually from a wilderness adventure where they cleaned out the treasury of a clan of swinelings holed out in a somewhat remote swamp. (Swinelings are the Planet Karus equivalent of hobbits. Don’t ask.) This may have taught them the “wrong” lesson.
The current total XP for the party is 5,631. The average level is 1.3 (SD 0.5), although 2 out of 7 characters in the active stable have managed to reach level 2. I guess I will not change anything about the treasure distribution for now, but if I place new treasure, I will err on the side of making it easier to reach.
So much for play statistics. Let’s move on to the games I acquired and then wrap up with some blogging numbers.
I will not account for every acquisition that sits in my DriveThruRPG account. When I went through the 2022 purchases, I was kind of shocked by the volume. I will call out some notable items instead.
The book I actually pulled things from, technological items in particular, is Hyperborea 3e. I love the vibe of the items in this book, and they can be transplanted easily into any classic D&D rules framework.
(I should also mention Warriors of the Red Planet, Xuhlan and Carcosa; three books that I have drawn significant inspiration from for Planet Karus, but which I had already acquired some time ago.)
I also got the Hill Cantons Compendium II specifically for the white wizard class in there, which I adapted for my own Planet Karus “celestial wizard” NPC class (there are no clerics in this setting, so I needed an alternative source of magical healing).
I also received some physical books from kickstarters I backed. Knock! Issue Three was once again fun to leaf through and sits nicely next to the first two editions. Through the Valley of the Manticore I liked for its solid art and compact yet comprehensive design. And Into the Odd Remastered is a refreshing example of what can be achieved by a formally trained graphic designer when they take a stab at a game book.
On the board games front, I managed to limit myself to two acquisitions, one for my birthday and one for Christmas. My shelf space thanks me. These were the aforementioned Galaxy Trucker, and Power Grid, another game I have played in the past but was still missing from my collection of classics.
I did way less blogging this year. Seven Castle Xyntillan reports and two entries into the new “Running Xyntillan” series (on magic swords, and on downtime). That’s nine posts versus 33 in 2021. A big drop. A lot of my creative energies went into completing Planet Karus materials instead. The first note I wrote towards this when I was still following the Gygax 75 framework that I would later abandon dates from 29 August 2021.
My writing energies were otherwise pretty depleted by a lot of heavy lifting on my Ph.D. labors. I will have to complete my thesis in the upcoming year, so it is unlikely I will have a lot more room for blogging. But I will try to hit about a post a month.
On to some readership statistics: The blog had 3,896 views and 1,108 visitors. In 2021 the numbers were 3,519 and 1,188, respectively. So about the same despite way fewer posts. This can be explained by those Castle Xyntillan play reports being of enduring interest to people who are (considering) running it themselves.
The top sources of traffic are search engines (329 views) and Reddit (191). These are followed by a bunch of classic D&D blogs: Beyond Fomalhaut (run by Melan, the designers of Castle Xyntillan, 91 views). Twitter has yielded a mere 23 views. The final referrers I will mention are A Distant Chime (home to a great Castle Xyntillan campaign write-up, 16 views), Tales of the Rambling Bumblers (Joshua was kind enough to link to an old post of mine about ability checks, 11 views), and DIY & dragons (11 views).
Okay, let’s wrap this thing up with a reflection on last year’s resolutions and make some new ones for this year.
Last year’s resolutions
2022’s notable achievements include bringing our Castle Xyntillan campaign to a satisfactory conclusion and starting up the new Planet Karus one, which, as planned, is indeed so far 100% homebrew.
I also did manage to get Quantum to the table, but not my other acquisition from back in 2021, Tigris & Euphrates, which I will have to amend soon.
Blogging-wise, I did not continue writing play reports and also did not continue the series on Hackbut. Reasons for the former, I have already addressed. I might revive the Hackbut series, but probably not by continuing to go through the rules section by section.
Finally, we ended up not adding any new players to our group, although I did ask around and got some enthusiastic responses from potential candidates. This year I hope to actually get them to join in.
And finally, here are some new year’s resolutions: We will finish up the MOTHERSHIP: Bloom miniseries. Then we will pick up the Planet Karus campaign again, and I hope to run 2-3 seasons this year. One in winter, one in spring, and one in the fall. Maybe we can hit 20+ sessions this year? That would be great.
We will obviously also continue our last Friday-of-the-month board game nights, of course. Those are always great.
Blogging-wise, as already mentioned, I hope to post maybe once a month this year. Who knows if I will actually manage that. But this monster-size annual review is at least a solid start.
And finally, a “dream” I’ve had for some time is to get together physically with the group and play D&D for more than a few hours but do one of those marathon sessions we used to always do over the weekend when we were teenagers. Maybe rent a holiday home? It would be great to play face-to-face again sometime. Roll physical dice, scribble maps, and stain character sheets with crisps-soiled fingers.