May 182017
 
Cover to Harrow County Issue one

Cover to issue #1. It can’t contain the goodness inside any more than that box can contain that… thing.

About 2 years ago I started picking up Harrow County at World’s Greatest Comics. I expected to buy a few issues (because you can’t get enough story in a single issue to make an accurate decision on a comic book these days, a condition I’ll undoubtedly rant about at a later time) and drop it when it turned out to be lame. Instead it’s one of my favorite comics. Not of all time, but definitely of the stuff currently coming out.

The protagonist is a girl named Emmy who lives on a farm with her father in the American South — in the eponymous Harrow county. I can’t remember if they ever definitively stated her age but Emmy seems to be in her mid-teens; she has a strong independent streak coupled with a lack of experience with social interaction (due to the isolation of living in the middle of nowhere) that makes it hard to pin down her exact age. I’m no expert but judging from the clothing and level of available technology, the story’s set in the 1930s? It’s hard to tell, because however advanced the world at large may be, you get the sense that Harrow county is always a decade or two behind the times.

The first few story arcs center around Emmy exploring her world which, despite being small geographically, is rich with monsters, haunts (or “haints” as they’re colloquially called in the book), and various other supernatural entities that defy categorization. Seriously. What do you call the still “living” skin of a dead boy? It’s physical skin so it’s not a ghost. It’s not interested in eating people, so it’s not a monster. It crawls around (sort-of) and can talk so… not a zombie. So WTF is that thing?

Just one of a lot of the gross and cool creatures populating the shadows of Harrow County.

As the story goes on, it starts to delve into Emmy’s origins, a plot line which I found less interesting the more time they spent on it, as I’m one of those guys who likes a little bit of mystery in characters; I’d rather know what a character does next than how they spent the last ten summer vacations. So that may just be my personal bias.

The one thing that never disappoints is the art. It’s just plain pretty. Every page seems to be a real live watercolor painting (as opposed to a Photoshop paint-job) and each is a masterpiece. The colors are vibrant and highly saturated without seeming garish or crayola-unnatural. They also never turn muddy, which is what happens every time I pick up a brush; I’m a terrible painter. And an envious one. I’d probably keep buying the book if the story was nothing more than Emmy doing chores around the farm. It’s that good.

Just look at the pictures. That’ll save us all a few thousand words.

Interior art from the Harrow County Comic book

This is just trees and birds and rocks. Imagine how awesome the monsters must be?

Harrow County Interior Panel

This image is more typical of the use of color. Just enough modeling to give a sense of form but not so much that it loses any sense of spontaneity.

But I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. There’s usually a single-page “Tales of Harrow County” story at the back of most issues that packs as much creepiness as the rest of the book does. They have the feel of ghost stories told around the campfire, except actually creepy and not told by doddering old relatives who meander through digression after digression like a ball-bearing in one of those mazes you have to tilt. They feel like real folklore and bring a richer sense of the “Harrow County world” to the main stories.

I also really enjoy (and recommend) the letters column. People send in their own creepy stories about local legends they’ve heard or brushes with the supernatural they think they might’ve had. Normally, I just skip the letters because 95% fall into one of three categories:

  1. This book is awesome. Please have my babies.
  2. This book is terrible. I buy it only to burn it.
  3. Will you tell me the secret of X? I lack the patience to find out by reading future issues.

But not the Harrow County fans. They actually have something to say. Each letters page will save you a trip to the folklore section of your local library.

…which is why I’m writing about a horror comic book on an RPG website. Harrow County is a great source of inspiration for coming up with horror and fantasy adventures. I’m just itching to run a campaign where I can use some of the single-pagers or letter column stories as background material. It’d be cool to photocopy (or scan) one of the letters and reformat it as an ancillary character’s journal entry. Or if one character solos for a while I can pass out prints of the single-pagers and say: While Nik is exploring the abandoned factory, the rest of you can interact with the townsfolk. Here’s what they have to tell you.

I’m a big fan of multi-media in role playing. Also player hand-outs. They give your game world more context, make it feel more immersive for the players (even if they’re not big roleplayers themselves). I find that if you make it obvious that you put in a little prep work, not only will your players enjoy the game more but most will think more about their characters and how those characters  interact with the world in ways other than battling monsters. The more you develop your part of the campaign, the more they’ll tend to develop theirs (i.e. their character). Mostly. There’s one guy who shows up every week who only seems interested in moving his guy around the map and occasionally rolling some dice. But then there’s always one at every table, isn’t there.

Anyway, If you can, try to track down the back issues of Harrow County rather than buying the trade paperback. For one, it supports local retailers by helping them unload inventory. For two, I don’t think the trades reprint the single-page stories that are so great. I know they won’t reprint the letters columns.

 May 18, 2017  Posted by at 8:56 am Fun Stuff, Not Game Reviews No Responses »
Feb 072017
 

In my last post, I advocated limiting player character racial options to foster character development, reduce stereotypical character behavior, and generally foster creativity. Those weren’t idle words, I practice what I preach. The last fantasy game I ran was in Savage Worlds in a world I called Byelloterrania (as a riff on “Mediterranean”. Plus I just like “Byello” as a prefix). Giving your world a name is important because it shows that you’ve put at least some thought into things and it immediately sets that world apart from any “default” world your players might assume they’re going to be playing in. Byelloterrania had only 3 player character races.

In ancient times Byelloterrania was ruled by one sprawling empire, which was a paradise for humans. Unfortunately it was a paradise built on orc slave labor. When the orcs inevitably rebelled a multi-generation long war shredded the Empire. From the ashes, 3 kingdoms emerged.

Picture of effete author Ashley Wilkes

I’d like to strengthen the Empire but all this ennui is just too crushing.

Effetroix

What’s left of the old Empire reorganized into a country called Effetroix (a name I derived from “effete”). Effetroixan orcs are still enslaved there and the humans have become decadent and lazy. They’re more interested in recapturing the glory days (and preventing further rebellions) and have lost the drive to innovate.

Pellucid

The other human-run kingdom, Pellucid (a name I found up by looking up synonyms for “clear”) is a monotheistic theocracy comprised largely of fiefs who supported the orc rebellion. Despite being the smallest kingdom it has a rapidly growing economy and is the leading source of technological innovation having recently domesticated horzes and dolgs. (Changing the spelling is an attempt to make ordinary animals seem strange and foreign.)

Picture of Groucho Marx looking wistful

Guess where I stole the name “Freedonia” from?

Freedonia

The kingdom of orcs, for orcs, and by orcs. Since most orcs are poorly educated and they eschew anything Empire-related, the government is a hot mess. Still, it beats slavery and things are gradually getting more organized.

Effetroixan Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.
  • Uneducated: Efetroxian Orcs may not begin play with any Knowledge (skill) although they may buy the skill(s) through normal character advancement. They are illiterate unless they acquire the Knowledge (Language: Reading) skill.

Free Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Cursed: Although Efetroxian wizards were unable to destroy the rebelling Fredonians with magic, various lingering curses cling to the nation nonetheless. Fredonian Orcs receive one less Benny per game session.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.

Effetroixan Humans

Effetroixan humans have the following traits:

  • Racial Enemy: Efetroxian humans suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with free orcs.
  • Refined: Efextroxians have exceptionally refined hearing and receive a +2 bonus to any Notice skill rolls relying on hearing.

As with any other human, they also receive a free advance during character creation.

Non-Effetroixan Humans

Humans from Pellucidia or Freedonia have no special traits other than the usual free advance during character creation.

Astute readers will notice that I mentioned there were three races… not four. That’s because the differences between Effetroixan and non-Effetroixan characters are cultural, not racial. There’s still only orcs and humans. The third race, I added as a joke.

Hobbits

The most universally hated race in Byelloterrania, hobbits are small, nimble humanoids with large, bare feet. During the Great War, a group of hobbits somehow acquired powerful magics which could have turned the tide conclusively to one side or the other. Refusing to choose sides, the hobbits destroyed these magical artifacts rather than let either side get them.

Hobbits live in remote small villages where they avoid contact with outsiders. Any hobbits encountered traveling outside of their home village are usually exiled, making them doubly-reviled. Not even other hobbits can trust the shifty little creeps.

  • Devil’s Luck: Luck may be the only think keeping the wretched race alive. Hobbits draw one additional Benny per game session. This may be combined with the Luck and Great Luck Edges.
  • Low-Light Vision: Hobbits ignore penalties for Dim and Dark lighting, allowing them to see in all but pitch black conditions.
  • Mockers: Accustomed to abuse, Hobbits have learned to give as good as they get. They begin play with a d6 Taunt skill.
  • Reviled: Hobbits suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with either humans or orcs.
  • Short: Hobbits average only 4’ tall, giving them a Size of -1 and reduces Toughness by 1.
  • Spirited: Hobbits are generally optimistic. They start with a d6 Spirit instead of a d4.

Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play a hobbit. Ever.

Now, when I was putting this together I expected everyone to create characters from all over the place — just like they do in every Pathfinder game. To my surprise, everyone played an orc — except for one player who went human. Moreover they all chose to live in (and be from) Freedonia.

Yehani was the token human from a formerly noble family, willing to do anything to reclaim her ancestral lands from the orcs — even earning the orcs trust and building infrastructure like roads.

Thorn was a former orc mercenary hoping to make up for a troubled past by seeking justice for others, kicking butt, and writing wrongs.

Elmer was an orc witch with a hatred of slavery so intense he was willing to back Yehani’s power grab if it means someday there will be an army strong enough to invade Effetroix.

Jonan was basically an orc jester who originally was solely motivated by profit but after an expedition to Pellucid, became obsessed with horzes and importing to Freedonia so no Orc would ever have to pull a plow or wagon again.

Had I opened up the floodgates to the standard array of races, Thorn would probably have been a dwarf, Elmer an elf, and Jonan either a hobbit or half-elf… but don’t they just seem more interesting as orcs? Furthermore, if they were all different races their only reason together would have been for the money and the campaign would have just been another series of dungeon crawls (which, to be honest, was all I was going for… at first). I know it would have been just ‘crawls, having played with that particular group before and that’s how they roll.

Instead, their mutual orc-ness gave them a reason to band together and a motivation to try to improve the lives of the orc peasants they lived among. Over time, the campaign became about empire-building and political alliances — and not because of anything I did as the GM. It was the players who took things in a completely different direction because their characters were more fleshed out than mere racial stereotypes. They only had to stretch a little at first… but they kept on stretching. And had fun in the process.

As one player said, “If you’d told me when we started this campaign that I’d be mediating disputes between the Bricklayers Guild and the Livery Coalition… and having fun doing it, I’d have said you were crazy and refused to play.”

Luckily for all of us, they did play and it was a blast.

 February 7, 2017  Posted by at 8:14 pm Anecdotes, Fun Stuff, Rants No Responses »
May 012013
 

paNik productions has released our second free product:  “Dr. Nik’s Happy Fun Rules”

Happy Dr. Nik

Happy Dr. Nik

The Happy Fun Rules are FUDGE  mechanic based and are has been tested over years of campaign, LARP,  & convention RPG  play.   Originally designed as a four page set of rules, the current release tops out at a whopping Five pages.   Dr. Nik’s Happy Fun Rules are FUDGE based and make for fast, simple RPG play that puts role-playing above complicated rule mechanics.

These FUDGE based rules are campaign independent, work equally well in any genre or setting, and are designed to be light and hyper-flexible. Dr. Nik’s Happy Fun Rules is designed for fast interactive story-telling and is not intended to simulate strict realism.

  • Accessible to teens & older
  • Basic rules for first time or experienced players
  • Compatibility with almost any genre
  • Dynamic story telling
  • Easy conflict resolution
  • FUDGE mechanics

Let us know what you play with Happy Fun rules.

Free Download Link:  http://www.rpgnow.com/product/114072/Happy-Fun-Rules-(FUDGE)

 May 1, 2013  Posted by at 8:43 am Fun Stuff, Palmer's Blog, Products Tagged with: , , ,  4 Responses »
Apr 212013
 

Does life imitate chickens before eggs? Or does art come before the egg imitating art? Regardless of whether you prefer your metaphors mixed or shaken, not stirred, there’s a fair degree of overlap between fact and fiction from time to time. In this case: Science House, real-world instance of a R.E.A.C.T. -style research base.

There’s already been gobs written about the wonder that is Science House, as well as the official sciencehouse.com website.

Explore the many levels of science house.

An image we swiped from the Science House Website.

 April 21, 2013  Posted by at 12:31 pm Fun Stuff Tagged with: ,  No Responses »