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Of the Rakuli

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 09/16/2020 - 11:11
By Simon Miles Dunromin University Press OSRIC

[…] These days there are few that have ever heard of the Great Old Ones, fewer still that have heard of the Rakuli.  Learned scribes argue over the legitimacy of any trace of their ancient culture.  Their artistic relics and magical items are often misappropriated by lesser species.  They have passed into the mists of irrelevance. So what were they?  What happened to them?

And why are adventurers returning from the deep Darkworld telling tales of powerful entities and carrying strange and powerful items they have stolen from these new foes?

This 52 page supplement is not an adventure. It just details the history and culture of some evil ancient race. 

Note that it is in the Adventure section of DriveThru. Note that the blurb talks about adventurers returning. Note that the blurb says “there are adventure hooks …” implying that there is an adventure. 

There is not any sort of adventure in this. 

I am NOT amused.

I am VERY MUCH not amused.

This is an ongoing issue with DriveThru. Not only is poetic license taken with putting non-D&D in the OSR category, but the publishers/designers seem to revel in placing non-adventures in the adventure category. I’m guessing this is some kind of cross-listing ploy, in order to maximize the visibility of a product?

Whatever it is, it sucks. Now I’m stuck with this thing. Frankly, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen to me more often, given the frequency with which I buy. I guess I’m getting better at figuring out from the descriptions that things are not D&D and/or not adventures/cross-posted crap. (And to be clear, it’s crap because of the trickery, regardless of the quality.) It seems amazing to me that you can’t actually buy what you intend to buy anymore. I ordered a power supply for my kids computer last night … and the same thing popped up. Right size? Right rating? Right format? Who knows.

I’m convinced that the key is a generous return policy. In this case it’s Pay What You Want, but I wish DriveThru had a more substantial return policy.

This is Pay What you Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $4.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

A Shadow Over the Greatwood

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 09/14/2020 - 10:53
By WR Beatty Rosethrorn Publishing S&W Levels 5-7

Trouble is brewing in the Rosewood Highlands. Wild Animals, usually timid and shy around the encroaching wave of human civilization, have become very hostile, attacking with no provocation whatsoever. More concerning is the fact that predators and prey are running in packs together. To top it all off, Old Joby swears he was some kind of beast-man up north of Gabon’s Ridge… and then he says a cougar was talking to the other day and then it exploded! (Of course, Old Joby is drunk a lot…)

This one hundred page sandbox region is stuffed full of interesting things, in a lower fantasy setting environment. Interesting areas and some above average writing combined with an organizational style that is not too bad, to create one of the more interesting sandboxes I’ve seen. Almost like a MERP region, but without the stuffiness and with actual adventure.

First off, I’m used to seeing large page counts padded out with appendices that are sometimes larger than the actual adventure. No so here. You’re getting at least seventy pages of locations and people, with the last thirty pages being monster descriptions, detailed new magic items descriptions, a monster summary sheet, and maps. This, alone, is refreshing. And then you get to the sandbox.

This region has some things going on. Chiefly there’s the animal isse, mentioned in the introduction blurb. But, along with that, are wise women, hags, a bear herder, caves, towers, dungeons, a couple of civilized area (with their own things going on) and the list goes on and on and on. 

The entire region feels ALIVE and REAL. There’s just enough specificity to breathe life in to things and make them seem that way without it going too overboard on the text length, bogging down the DMs ability to run the game. There’s a hill, and the locals in the village tend to give directions according to the hill. “Stay to the right of the Old Nob …” or “Through the swamp side of the Old Nob …” The villagers are common folk, and say common folk things, and get riled up in common folk ways. Argumentative meetings, Ghost Hill, hills barren of vegetation, hills that the locals claim they see spirits dancing on sometimes … Let’s talk the criminals to the bog mother and have her deal with them. Fancy some stewed potatoes deary? It’s hard to describe just how interesting this place is, and its those little details that both make it interesting and breathe life in to the setting. Not stodgy. Not bogged down. Life.

Rumors are in voice. Wanderers are doing things. There’s a little chart on who you might find in an abandoned house and what they might be doing. You can talk to people, and monsters, and maybe remove a thorn from one or two of their sides. Goblins are sheltered, unknowingly by the villagers, by a priest in the church. It’s fucking DENSE, man. Almost every single area, almost every single room/encounter, has something to bring it to life. 

Villager descriptions are brief, about one line or two. Locations don’t get bogged down in too much detail and generally have some interesting writing going on, evocative sentences and details. There are some order of battle notes for certain areas and monsters, where appropriate. There are a fair number of cross-references to keep the DM from hunting too much. 

It could probably do with a few more cross-references though. And some of the monsters could use some evocative descriptions, instead of just SPirit Goblins or The White Ghu, and undead knight. I didn’t really see distance notes, or a distance key on the hex map. 

And it’s big. Really big. Seventy or so pages crammed full. There’s a lot to pour over here. I’m not sure “study” is the right word; I do think you could almost run this without a read-over first, but pouring over it a bit WILL result in a more rewarding experience, I’m sure. But unique magic items, mostly unique monsters, and a place that feels ALIVE, even at first glance of the text, is something that you just don’t run across every day. Sure, the text could use a little work, pruning it back a bit would make it have even more clarity, but it’s not BAD in that regard, just not perfect. This one os worth the extra effort.

You could buy this and run the HELL out of it for many MANY sessions, and for only … $4? Uh, fuck yes, please!

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. You get to see some of the village some of the wanderers, some of the regional encounters, and all of the other text in the adventure is similar, so it’s a good preview in that you get a good idea of what you are buying first.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Desert Ange Fiasco

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 09/12/2020 - 11:11
By Joseph Robert Lewis Dungeon Age Adventures OSR Levels 1-3

Today an enchanted flying ship, the Desert Angel, will attempt to cross the uncharted Great Sand Sea. The Vahid Trading Company has convinced enough merchants to fill its hold with silks and spices, as well as some other strange odds and ends.  But Master Vahid is very worried about the safety of his new ship and crew, as well as the cargo. He is looking for trustworthy mercenaries to provide security on the Desert Angel’s maiden voyage. Payment upon (safe) arrival!

This 25 page adventure is a delightful little railroad as you cross the desert on the trans-desert flying ship route. It has about fifteen locations/events to experience. Well organized, well written, interesting encounters that, for being arrayed like a railroad, give the party as much freedom as possible under the circumstances. A fun little romp.

So, camel caravans no longer! The first flying transport ship is ready to sail across the desert in record time, three days instead of three weeks and three times the cargo! And it needs some mercenaries to ensure it makes it and the cargo stays safe. Enter our level one caravan guards. Now, this is a caravan assignment I can get behind! It’s not just that it’s fantastic, but that it FEELS like something that will appeal to the players. I’d play it up all Trip to the Moon style, or at least the Tonight, Tonight version of it. A brass band playing. The mayor and town worthies in their finery. Dudes holding ropes to keep it down, banners and pennants, a key to the city presentation … that should appeal to the party! It is on donkey kong!

The adventure is laid out with a brief (very brief) description of the ship and a very simple sailing system; roll a d6 and add/subtract a few modifiers. Captain Alive? +1. Quartermaster alive? +1. Ship damaged? -1. Pretty easy. Then comes a few NPC’s. Captain, crew, merchants. Just a little note on their appearance and another on their mannerisms, in a format that’s quite to easy to follow and scan. If they have a secret then there’s a bolded SECRET section. Quite nice format and the NPC descriptions are interesting, evocative, and easy (and fun!) to imagine. And, really nice use of triple column layout. It gives lots of room, is easy to scan in the font size used. Good use of breaks, bullets, whitespace, sections … JRL has this format thing down. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY way to format an adventure, or even the BEST way, but it certainly does what it needs to do. Good job JRL!

The ship is sailing across the desert to another city, so, it’s a railroad. Kind of. The captain mostly listens to the party and what they want to do. So the party, or a sailor, will generally see something from the ship and then they can decide if they want to stop the ship or not. There are a few events and/or “random” encounters for the ship as well, but, for the most part, the party gets to decide if they want to stop at the huge pyramid made of solid gold. So, as much freedom as possible given that it’s a journey from point A to B. 

Speaking of that pyramid … it’s got a mummy inside. The walking, talking kind. And, she doesn’t fuck the party over unless they steal or lie. Nice lady, except for the dessication. The party can actually recruit her to join the ship; she’s interested in seeing the world. Another stop has an old hermit lady who wears a mask. She can cast warp wood at will, which can repair the ship. Yeah! She worships an elder abomination … but isn’t fussy/forceful about it. Wanna learn more? That mask hides a mouth full of tentacles; you’ll need a kiss. So … she’s a little crazy, but not in an evil way. And that comes across in an easy way, without mountains and mountains of text. 

Descriptions are great, short, terse and evocative. There’s a decent amount of interactivity, mostly from character interactions on the ship and some puzzle type things (like a laser trap in the pyramid … solved, in one way, by fucking with the white crystal at the top of the pyramid, for example.) 

It may be a bit heavy on the die rolls are times … or, maybe, it just seems that way. There are a lot of sailing checks to be made, to avoid hazards, and so on, and that can feel a little heavy sometimes. 

Otherwise, this is a nice solid little adventure. It’s as close to pick and play/zero prep as I think you can get. A quick scan of the intro page and you’re off! It’s a credit to the organization and writing abilities of its designer.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages and shows you the ship, the NPC section, and several of the encounters. I encourage you to check out the NPC’s on page 9 of the preview and the Day 1 section, with two encounters, on the next page. They are a great example of the formatting and writing style used throughout. Nicely done.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Lie of Destiny

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 09/09/2020 - 11:11
By Denver Cheney Self Published Modulus Level ?

In The Lie of Destiny, an adventure for the Modulus system, your players get to kick in the door on some cultists and piece together the clues for a chance to save the Great Library from being burned! Pursue the fleeing cultists down back alleys and capture them before they make their escape to the Howling Sea aboard a stolen ship! This adventure drops your players in the thick of an important quest as agents for the Crown. While the enemies are weak, they are numerous and have paranoia on their side. Your players will have to be decisive, clever, and good at working together to achieve complete victory in this scenario.

This 12 page adventure is actually just a series of linked combats for your combat-oriented RPG of choice. 

This isn’t an OSR adventure, but it does say up from it’s for Modulus, and it in the Other category on DriveThru. It also says “adaptable for any age of sail game”, so that’s why I’m reviewing it. And, by Age of Sail, it means “Any game that can have a boat in it.”

There is a very popular mini’s game by Games WOrkshop. It’s just minis combat. What if you took that, or something like that, and had a little minis battle scenario. Then at the end you added some statement like “you find a clue that they are also headed to the library!” Then you’d have a series of minis combats interlinked by some VERY light roleplay-y elements. That’s what this is. It reminds me of those interlinked scenarios from Star Fleet Battles, another minis game. Thus you have a “campaign” defined by “ a series of interlinked combats.” Essentially 4e, if the roleplay elements were even lighter in 4e. (It’s always a good day when you can work in a 4e slam.)

There’s some background, but mostly on the game world. You’re agents for the EMpire and you’ve tracked the cultists to their lair. That’s how it starts. The pretext here is VERY light, starting, essentially, outside the shop the cultists use. The actual scene is described in half a column, so, two scenes per page. There are hints to the DM for reinforcements and the cultists running away to warn others, but that’s about it. Interactivity is limited to “looking for clues after the combat is done” or “stop the cultists from burning a paper during the combat” and the ilk. This really is just a series of four combats. 

The clues after the combat are meant to be the pretext to get you to the next scene, but they are VERY light. One cultists had ink stained hands. There are old books around. There are books marked off of a list. A scholar outfit is in the closet. THis means, of course, that the next scene/combat is in the Great Library. 

I would suggest that this isn’t a roleplaying adventure. It’s just a mini;s combat thing. Maybe that’s what the Modulus RPG is, just a combat game. Which is ok .. except when advertised, perhaps, as “compatible with any age of sail RPG.” There’s no real scene. No real interactivity byond combat. Just one combat followed by a teleport to the next combat scene. “You’re in the library. The cutists drop a lantern to start burning books!”

So, 4e was too heavy on the roleplaying front? Just want to stab some shit? This is the adventure for you. 

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages and just shows the intro text. It would have been better if it had shown an actual encounter, then you could have made a better decision on if the adventure was something or a type you’re interested in.–A-Modulus-Adventure?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Witch Shack

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 09/07/2020 - 11:01
By Mark Hess Self Published LotFP Level 2? 3? Not listed ...

They told you the place was haunted, but you just had to go in anyway.

This sixteen page “adventure” describes 30 random rooms in an extra-dimensional shack. That’s all it does. While it occasionally has some good ideas, it lacks interesting interactivity, consistently good descriptions, purpose, and treasure. Nope.

When this thing is good it’s quite good. The initial description of the Witch Shack, in the opening words of the adventure, are: “The Witch Shack is an adventure location that may be encountered anywhere, in any patch of woods, across a lonely field, on the far edge of some small town or village. It always appears as a rotting, falling down wooden shack. Made of old gray boards, the roof is collapsing and one side is already crumbled, allowing easy entrance.

It is always considered bad ground. No curious children play here, no young lovers seeking privacy, no rambling vagabonds looking for shelter. All kinds of ghost stories will be attributed to the Shack, someone was murdered there and it’s haunted; a witch once lived there and it’s cursed; etc.” That’s pretty good. And there are occasional other sections of text that are quite evocative, as that section is. But, the vast vast majority of the text isn’t.

And it has some decent ideas also. One of the rooms is: “Rusty Cages. Here is a large room like a barn loft, with cages hanging from the rafters. The cages contain children, some healthy, some starving. Some are dead, and of those some are dry skeletons.” That’s not bad, as an idea. It’s pretty classic folklore. The description isn’t really very good, but the concept is a decent one. Likewise a room bisected with a deep crevasse, spanned by an enormous spider web made of flayed human corpses. Oof! And the, there’s the spider: “A cursed child stalks the web as if he had Spider Climb, as the characters enter they see the boy vomit on a chunk of meat and then slurp it up as it dissolves. The child also has mandibles and four extra appendages hanging from his sides, limp and useless things.” That’s a great concept and not a half bad description either! When the adventure is doing this then it’s doing a pretty decent job. 

But, ultimately, it doesn’t do this, at least consistently. First, the adventure design is a cop out. You enter a room (with a decent description at that: “The main room is sparse, with only a small wooden table, a chair and a cold, crumbling fireplace. The roof sags heavily, the windows are boarded up and the floor is covered in layers of ancient dust. [p] From the main room a hallway leads into the shadows.”) But, then, you’re in a maze of hallways and doors. Every time you open one, even the same one, the DM rolls a d30 to determine what’s behind it. L.A.M.E. Just put in a fucking map, man. What do you gain from this kind of nonsense, besides the scorn of the payers as they roll their fucking eyes. This shit is a cop out. It’s like someone wrote “30 ideas for a room” and then wrapped it in a pretext to bring it in to play. Not. Cool. And, of course, you just can’t go back. You have to search for the exit. Each failed search roll means weird time has passed on the outside, potentially sending you in to the far future, or trapping you in the house forever. Ok, War Game, I guess the only way to win, in this adventure that punishes you and doesn’t have treasure, is to not play and instead stay home that night from the game. Is that what makes D&D fun? Staying home? Pretentious wank fest of a concept. 

And most of the rooms are NOT up to the quality of the ones I cited earlier. “A corpse, someone from the local village who has recently gone missing.” Well, gee, that’s exciting. Maybe some details on state and condition? No? Just gonna leave it abstracted like it is? “Your own childhood fears!” *sigh*, enough said on that one, although, I’d like to see the DM handle my eternal search for meaning in a world devoid of it while battling the ennui that results from it. 

Anyway, there’s a witch in the witch house. A classic crone with a hairy mole on her sagging nose, as per her description. That’s it. Then the stat block starts. I guess she attacks. As does the White Wolf in the cold room. A does the snack man in the snake man room. Just a brief description of the monster, not the scene, and the implication that they attack, without any roleplay notes or anything else. Boring as all fuck.

This thing is an empty shell. It’s an empty pretext with a few good room concepts and a few good room descriptions, but with nothing to hold it all together, and not enough of either good concepts or well executed rooms to make it remotely worthwhile. The rooms are passive, with no potential energy. TOo many of the descriptions are abstracted instead of specific. While it does a good job remaining terse, it does not do so in a good way. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview don’t work, and there’s no level range given. Naughty naughty! I don’t like either of those!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Adventures in Midshire

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 09/05/2020 - 11:11
By James Embry Self Published Raven in the Scythe

Monsters lurk in the wilderness, mysterious caves hold unknown treasure to be found, and restless spirits haunt an abandoned manor house.  It looks like Midshire is in need of adventurers.

This 72 page adventure uses about thirty pages to describe four small “adventures”. Oof, does it have issues. 

First, it’s not OSR. It’s in the OSR section of DriveThru but it for some homebrew system. It looks vaguely D&D fantasy, but with different stats, combat, etc. Who knows why. Anyway, not a good start. But, I’m going to review it anyway for it is a good example of how to not do things with adventures.

Note the large page count, but, the adventure page count is rather short. That’s normally a sign something is wrong. This IS a regional type thing, with a town, etc, so we can make allowances for that, but it still is off. This indicates some sort of overinvestment in something other than usability/interactivity at the table. Only what the players will experience, and little else, is what an adventure supplement should generally be about.

In this case we have a small town at the beginning of the book. It is full of extensive price lists. The shop descriptions contain such descriptions as “A baker is someone who bakes bread into various forms such as loafs or even sweet pastries.” So …. Yeah. A chair is something you sit in. This s the definition of padded. I’m not sure what is going on here. A brief look at the RPG system seems to indicate its not explicitly targeted at children, which might be one reason to do this. Another might be some kind of misguided format that the designer feels they must stick to. There might be a Ghjsdfiuyd in town, and even old hands might not know what kind of shop that is, so, we get a little description, which is fine. But then, because we think we need to do that with EVERY entry, we get in to the padded text situation where we’re told what a baker is. This is of pandering to the lowest common denominator, or slavish devotion to a format is NOT OK. Designers need to leverage the DM at the table instead of pandering to them. This format countries with the wandering monsters “This is an encounter with a Black Bear” or in the dungeons “This room is a Kitchen.”, describing what we already know about things, padding them out.

Our four adventures consist of Rats in the Basement, Basilisk on the Prowl, A two level cave system, and a hunted mansion. None are good.

Rats takes about a column to describe. There are rats. The map of the basement just shows a map with things like “4 rats” labeled in the rooms. A text description notes two rooms have boxes and the retreating rats flee to the “7 rats’ room. Oof. Just fucking number it. Put in a room description. Try to do SOMETHING along the lines of evocative writing and interactivity other than combat? Cause that’s all this is: a video game grind quest of just killing rats. I can’t think of anything worse. Maybe if it were an old ladies house, maybe.

The Basilisk is, hmmm. Strange. People don’t really care that it eats their livestock, but, her, it would nice if this dangerous creature was taken care of. It’s this weirdly abstracted and generic description of things, the situation. It lives in a cave. Up a cliff. That requires an acrobatics roll to get to. How the fuck does IT get in to the cave? I’m not a super stickler for realism, I think it’s usually not appropriate. An appearance of realism, a grounding in it, sure, but I don’t care about the monster having access to fresh water” and so on. But sticking your monster in a cave up on a cliff, a monster that doesn’t fly? It’s just … like no one was putting two and two together. And the cave system … it’s full of slimes and fish people. Well, three of the rooms. I guess the basilisk doesn’t care? And the fish people don’t care about the basilisk? It’s just weird. And the text goes on and on for no real purpose. Room two in the cave take sup a quarter a page to tell us there are bats in a room with a wooden box. It’s just … I don’t know. Strange, how abstracted, padded, and generic it is. SImple, and not in a good way.

The haunted mansion just has super long room descriptions and little else, relying on wandering rolls for “atmosphere.” A column. A quarter page. To describe … nothing.

There’s very little evocative writing. There’s almost no interactivity beyond pure combat “the attack as soon as the party enters the room.” The encounters, proper, fully describe one thing before moving on to a another, making it difficult to summarize the room quickly. 

This one just makes no sense at all. I mean, sure, you can figure out the adventure. But, the choices made for how to get there. I guess it’s better than being incomprehensible?

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. It shows you a few pages of the town. “This is the bakery. They make bread.” A preview needs to show some of the adventure, so the purchaser can get an idea of what they are buying before they buy. This don’t do that.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Curse of Buckthorn Valley

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 09/02/2020 - 11:03
By Jon Aspenheim Random Table Games Relics & Ruins Level 1

People in Buckthorn Valley are randomly becoming mutated, transformig with demonic features. In order to stop this curse the adventurers have to explore a 3 level dungeon, meddle in kobold affairs, trek through a mushroom forest and face the God-Fish-Snake-Thing. All the while trying to not become mutated themselves. It won’t be an easy task, but someone has to put an end to – the Curse of Buckthorn Valley!

This 33 page adventure uses fourteen pages to describe three level of a dungeon with about thirty rooms. It’s pretty basic. Like, remember how some of those B/X adventures were almost childish? Language, etc? This does that. Writing is unfocused, but it has some decent evocative ideas … it just doesn’t do so well executing them. 

So, descriptions. Here’s The Mother of Vicious Spiders: “She’s large as a dog. Dark green with red stripes. Purple goo is dripping from her mouth.” Not so bad! A little simplistic, but its trying. Likewise an entrance covered by hanging moss or “Old wet stairs lead downwards. Descending the stairs feels like you’re walking forever before eventually reaching the bottom.” When the adventure is doing this like this then it’s doing a good job, or at least a decent one. Writing evocative descriptions takes practice, but you have to START with an idea in your mind, and the descriptions here show that the designer has that, at least in some cases. Execution could be better, but that’s just about universal.

Alas, those descriptions are the exception rather than the rule. Far too often the adventure engages in Used to Be’s.  This room used to be this thing but not it’s not. That adds nothing to the adventure. All it does is distract the DM from the important bits, y hiding them in these unimportant bits. Noone cares what he room used to be. What is it NOW? How does it contribute to play NOW? This is not, as I said, a victimless crime. All of these extra words hide the important stuff from the DM.

“The water appears to be blue-green.” No, it’s not. It’s blue-green. The water is blue-green. This appears stuff is just padding. Rays book on Editing covers these sorts of padding words quite well.

Linear map. Joy. 

Long italics sections that are, because they are in italics, hard to read. Joy.

But, it does have a decent wanderer chart. A shepard is convinced someone in the party owes him 2SP and won’t let it alone. That’s great! Other encounters show the same type if idiosyncrasy that is required, specificity that brings the encounter to life without dragging out the word out to something cumbersome. Another regional site is with bandits in a ruined tower. A suspicious village mayor wants them cleaned out. Except they are just lepers, not bandits, friendly and want to be left alone. Fun!

It’s got a good idea. This kind of failing valley because of a curse (unknown to everyone) water source. Mutants/lepers wandering around, not evil, but pariahs.  And then there’s the dungeon. It’s just basically an also-ran. Mostly very little interactivity with basic descriptions that tend to the “kiddie game” D&D B/X genre from the bad 80’s adventures.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview proper is 8 pages, but you can of course download the entire thing for free.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Murder on the Primewater Pleasure

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 08/31/2020 - 11:11
By Liam Murphy Self Published 5e Level 4

The characters recently did Gellan Primewater, a local merchant from the Town of Saltmarsh, a great service by recovering property deeds worth a large sum of money, that he had long thought lost. In return Gellan throws a party for them on his pleasure ship, the Primewater Pleasure. However, this weekend cruise is plunged into chaos when one of the guests is murdered. The party must dive in and find the murderer before the ship gets back to shore, and the murderer can escape.

This 38 page adventure details a murder mystery investigation aboard a small-ish ship. It understands how a murder investigation should go in D&D, but it fails somewhat in the presentation of the facts. Meaning it knows whats important but it doesn’t necessarily, yet, have the ability to implement it in the best way possible.

D&D Murder adventures have a rough go. D&D is built for exploration, so many divination spells are lower-levels to help the party with their explorations. They act as a tax, to keep your MU away from too many fireballs, in case that princes isn’t actually a princess. But Murder stories rely on a lack of information, something that the low level divination spells actively work against. Thus murder plots in D&D have to be very low level adventures, before the party generally has access to those spells, or have to go through a number of contortions … chief among which is the dreaded Ring of Mind Shielding. Basically, if you find yourself in a murder investigation you should just slaughter anyone wearing a magic ring. 

But … this adventure recognizes those issues. It states up front the issue. And it suggests some work around to the problems, including just letting the party do their thing instead of gimping them. It notes the DM must have the ability to jostle things around based on the parties actions, and so on. This is all great. It does smart things like putting all of the NPC’s up front in the adventure and describing them, then a brief overview of the ship, all before getting to the “plot” based/investigation portion of the adventure. It knows that in a murder adventure the NPC’s and the parties interaction with them tends to be the most important part of the adventure. It is, after all, generally a social adventure, muyrder investigations. 

After the little “plot” sections (which is really just the first-ish murder) then there’s a section that puts the various clues in their own bolded section. If the party wants to investigate X then it’s pretty easy to find tex text on X in that section. This is all great. There’s even a little mind-map-ish thing that shows the various relationships between all of the NPC’s. Liam has thought things through. They know whats important and whats not in a murder investigation and are working towards that end.

Working towards that end, not “succeeded.”

While the basics of the organization are well understand, IE: what NEEDS to be accomplished, the actual implementation of it is somewhat lacking. Let us take, for example, that NPC section. It spends a lot of time detailing the NPC’s. It’s got good section breaks on the various aspects of each individual, from Motivations to Means to Reasons to Be Nervous/Red Herrings, and so on. But then it has a section called Notes on Roleplaying.” This is the real meat and potatoes of the NPC, their quirks and how to play them. And it’s all kind of mixed in together in a paragraph. There is also, if you can believe it, too MUCH whitespace. A more compact format, easier to read at a glance, would have served the adventure far better and made things easier for the DM. That Mind-map? It’s really just the basics of the relationships. Bob is Franks butler. Tim is Joe’s cook. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but if some personality quirks were added, and/or motivations and/or means, and/or  … well, you get the picture … that one page mind-map would have then become a mini-reference sheet for the entire adventure, making running the social aspects much much easier. 

The plot portion and the ship description likewise have some issues. Using long paragraph forms to describe things, bolding, breaks, and more emphasis on the important things, bullets, and so on, would have helped the DM locate information much more readily than the stand paragraph prose format.

It does a great job though, on giving advice on how to handle ability checks. And the adventure itself is a reward for the party; its linked to the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book, and the boat trips might be thought of as a rich guy taking you out on his yacht to thank you for doing something for him in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventure. (And, I think, the adventure would have been better to have given that comparison up front. It IS the hook, but “day out on a rich guys yacht” and/or “three hour tour” would have put the party in a certain mindset that could have then ben upended with the murder mystery coming along). 

There are other weird things, like, in the end of one room description we’re told that this guest is the only one that doesn’t lock his cabin or trunk. Well, that sort of general information is not exactly something that belongs in one specific room, is it? 

Still, again, there’s an understanding of how things SHOULD go, so even if the implementation is not great the fact that it knows what it SHOULD be doing means that the basics are covered. And implementation takes practice. I’m sure the designer will only get better.

This is Pay What you Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $1. It’s free, so essentially the entire thing is a preview, but the preview proper is 21 pages. This lets you see A LOT, including how the NPC’s are organized. That alone is a good thing to look at, to see how they were organized. You can see that the right concepts were understood but that the implementation was not quite up to perfection.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Hidden Necropolis

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 08/29/2020 - 11:11
By Robert Nemeth Caulbearer Press Five Torches Deep/5e Levels 3-5

Miners at a copper mine in the foothills of a large mountain range have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization and something more mysterious. A lone survivor of the mine arrives at the nearby town, but is delirious from his experience. Will the adventurers sent to unravel the mystery find out what dark fate has befallen the mine?

This forty page digest adventure uses about nineteen pages to describe a thirteen room dungeon. It is, essentially, combat, with a terrain obstacle or two. The descriptions are boring. The read-aloud fumbling. Today, only wishes are peces. WHich has nothing to do with the adventure.

There’s a weird thing with electronic adventures: page count tends to be meaningless. Your appendix can be as long as you want. You can include as much supporting material as you want. Without limitations, the DM should be more capability supported. And yet … it STILl remains that that a high page count to room number ratio means, almost always, that the adventure will be a poor one. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is some overemphasis on the NOT the adventure that is indicative? When effort is put in to places other than the adventure it can pad out the page count AND the adventure encounter, proper, suffer, if only from an academic standpoint. In the best case, the thirty extra hours you put in to the appendix could have been used to make the A adventure an A+ adventure, maybe. More typically, though, the adventure text is of rather poor quality and the investment in the appendix, etc, tends to indicate an over-investment in “other areas” … either the designer thinks the adventure proper is good enough or they think that the other material is just as good. None of which means you can’t have a decent appendix, or supporting material, but, rather, are you SURE that the core adventure is as good as it reasonably can be? Or, at least, you are at the point where the law of diminishing returns means that you are really not returning much? 

In any event, even in a digest adventure, where the page count ratios can be appropriately off, a high page count to low room number means something is wrong. And it’s wrong here. The rooms are a little padded out with “direction text”, telling us where every passage goes, what it looks like, how wide it is, and, generally, repeating the EXACT same information that is shown on the map. Yeah yeah, you like to know the room dimensions. But do you like to be told, in the DM text, where that south door goes, when a glance at the map shows that? “The closed door on the southern wall opens to a 20’ hallway and to a second door to the mess hall, area 3.” I don’t get it. But, more importantly, the rooms are boring, from both a descriptive standpoint and from an interactivity standpoint. More time investment required.

The rumors are good; they are in voice. The wanderers are good, they are generally doing something, like a river troll who lures the party with the sounds of a drowning child. (I saw another adventure use a will o’ the wisp like this once, I find both cases interesting.) This is though, just about the end of what the adventure does well. Sure, the bolding and bullet points of the text work well from an organization standpoint, but , all you get from that is something akin to a minimally keyed adventure: you can actually run it. 

The read-aloud is in italics. It gives masic, fact-based descriptions of the rooms and can, therefore, be long. Long read-aloud is bad enough but when combined with italics it then gets hard to read. Hard to Read violates Rule 1: be useful to the DM at the table. Further, the read-aloud tends to place the party ‘in’ the action. “You stand before …” or “You come across …” This is just fumbling writing. That is then combined with the poor descriptive text to create boring scenes. There’s no joy or mystery or wonder in those descriptions. “Large’ is used as an adjective. Why do this? Why use one of the most boring descriptive words ever? I guess “big” was unavailable? “Cavernous” “titanic” “colossal”, or something else, you get the idea. When the adventure DOES resort to better words we get text like “Blank eyes within a pale lifeless face stare in your direction [as they move to attack you.]” Blank eyes. Lifeless faces. Good! But it doesn’t fucking do this. That line is the rare exception. And don’t give that fucking “it makes the text too long” bullshit. It’s your job as the writer to make it usable (which usually means short) AND evocative. 

Ok, so, most room are full of “You enter and then … THEY ATTACK” nonsense. Stab stab stab. There are a couple of obstacles in a few rooms; a cave in, a pit/depression to negotiate, but interactivity is quite limited. Some room text has notes for the entire dungeon; the best example being one of the rooms telling the DM how to handle stuck doors in the dungeon. That would be better served in another part of the adventure, like, before the dungeon proper, maybe? Or, of course, we could always flip back to that page to figure out how to open a door … assuming we could remember the page. Sometimes it makes sense to put information inline … and sometimes it don’t. 

The dungeon/hook exists to lure in fresh adventurers to kill. *sigh* When did this become a thing? Is that really as original as a designer can get? 

“Modify the read aloud” says the read aloud notes “based on which entrance the party arrives from, east to west and so on.” Or, don’t buy/run the adventure. That’s another option. Ok, so, that’s mean. But I grow weary of Execution Not Meeting Vision. I’m being overly harsh on this one, it does use section breaks, bolding and bullets effectively. It has an idea. I’m just in a shitty mood today

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You don’t get to see any of the encounter rooms, which is a miss. The preview should show you at least one room.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Sea Caves of Doom

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 08/26/2020 - 11:16
By James Abendroth Black Guard Press Trophy Level ?

Ruined lair of a bloodthirsty cult. Home to a pirate’s treasure. Anyone who dares explore these sea caves puts their life in Fate’s hands. Do your treasure hunters have what it takes to venture into the Sea Caves of Doom? Do they have what it takes to make it back out?

Look man, it’s in the OSR section DriveThru … what exactly am I supposed to do when indie games show up like that? I guess, maybe “Rooted in Trophy” or “A Trophy Incursion” is supposed to tell you what the system is? I guess I thought that was just the publishers “line” for these adventures. Meh.

This sixteen page adventure describes five rooms in a indie storygames system. At least I think it’s a story game. The system is in some $7 zine and the “adventure” has some notes that make it seem very scene based. That, plus, the sixteen pages for five rooms. Still, it has some decent ideas deriving, I think, from the story game concepts but relevant to evocative writing and interactive adventuring.

It’s a story game system and I don’t think I’m qualified to review a system that far away from B/X. And thus, how do I review this adventure, WHICH WAS IN THE FUCKING OSR SECTION OF DRIVETHRU!!!!   So … not super happy about that. I mean, I was looking for an OSR adventure to review. Is an indie game system an OSR adventure? Is it fucking compatiple IN ANY WAY with B/X? No? Not OSR sez I. Shouldn’t be in the OSR section sez I. Fucking rip off sez I. Not happy sez I. But, it’s got a few interesting things about it so I’m going to talk about that. If you like story games then, I don’t know, buy this? Most 3x/5x D&D is story game anyway, so scene based stuff isn’t really THAT far of a stretch. I suspect some enterprising young lad could convert this to a 5E adventure with various scenes, or at least “fake scenes” called “linear dungeon” pretty easily. Maybe I will? I don’t know, I’ll ad it to the fucking ToDo list.

Anyway, let’s look at room one. It starts as:

“Overview: The entrance to the sea caves is barely visible just above the waterline at the base of a crumbling seaside cliff. Large, jagged rocks thrust above the waves, hinting at even more flesh and boat rending stone below the surface.” Ok, that’s not a bad start, imagery wise. Barely visible just above a waterline on a crumbling seaside cliff? I’ll buy that. Up until this point it could almost be read-aloud but then switches to “The rocks attract fish trying to hide which attract seals which attract sharks, although the last don’t need such mundane reasons to haunt the area as ancient magics still linger and draw them close. The tide here is as vicious as the aquatic occupants and batter anything not accustomed to the currents against the rocks.” This is a switch to “explainer/god mode” description.From a design standpoint I suspect that, even in the story game system, one type or the other of description would be appropriate but not a mixture of both. But, let’s ignore that, and look at the scene the designer is trying to imagine.

Crumbling seaside cliffs. Seacaves barely visible above the waterline with water/wave lapping up against it. Jagged rocks in the water with seals on it … that alone would not be bad. Seeing seals, diving and eating fish, would normally be a good clue for the party to ask more questions … hinting at but not explicitly telling the party that there are seal predators on the loose. That’s exactly the kind of hint of a trap/monster that good adventures contain. It’s not exactly what the designer is doing here, with the mixed meta flat out stating sharks, but ignoring that then the “little vignette for the party to see” is pretty evocative. 

What follows is then a set of bullet points for “moments.” It feels like this means something in the system I know nothing about, but, let’s look at those moments anyway: “

• The entrance peeking above the surface for a moment before being submerged again.

• Water rushing toward the jagged, unyielding rocks.

• The boom of water violently smashing again stone.

• A triangular fin breaking the surface of the water nearby.

• Sea spray coating clothing and skin

You can see, from this, imagine if you will, a series of “events” in this room that are happening to the party. Or things for them to see. That lapping water at the cave entrance. A BOOM of water r someone getting splashed. As a series of little things the party could see or experience I’m a big fan of these moments. You can imagine what they might be like in a chasm room, or so on. A series of window dressing for the DM to toss in. Nice.

After this things get more boring with “props” just describing things in the room. Oyster shells on the jagged rocks a little rowboat, etc. Nothing much interesting there. Traps continues in the same vein, Sharks and Unpredictable currents. That’s ok, I guess, as an obstacle or challenge section for the room, but nothing that unusual. There’s a treasure section also, but, what I really want to focus on here are the descriptions of both the treasure and the monsters.

“An ancient amulet of a petrified sharks tooth the size of a dagger with the image of a single eye carved in to it.” Hey, that’s a pretty decent magic item description. Non traditional dagger. The single eye thing. Petrified. Nice! And then, for the monsters, a shark: “a stream-line fish as long as a man with sharp find and mouthful of jagged razor sharp teeth. A murderous hunger fills its otherwise dead, soulless eyes.” Good description! That’s full of shit I can steal as I describe combat with the shark to the party, from staring at it in its dead, soulless eyes, to the hunger thing, to the man-sized, to the jagged ror razor teeth. Those sorts of descriptions are very visceral and help me convey a vibe to the party. And that’s what the monster description is supposed to do. Nice!

So, as an adventure? Meh  … I don’t know. It’s for a story game I know nothing about. But I”M NOT HAPPY it’s in the OSR section. If you were looking for a B/X adventure then you just wasted your $3 … and no one feels good thinking they were tricked. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You can see that first sea cave/shark encounter. I’d encourage you to check out the preview for that reason alone. You can see how the moments and shark description and actions could be used/stolen for some kind of system for a real OSR game.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Down and Out in Dredgeburg

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 08/24/2020 - 11:25
By Skullfungus? Self Published World of Dungeons Level: Any

Welcome to Dredgeburg! You have died and woken up in the city of Dredgeburg, a dark oasis of sorts, wedged in between the many hells of the Underworld. Dredgeburg is a massive city, located deep within the Underworld where it sits in the middle of a fetid swamp. It’s a strange and often dangerous place where anything can happen and where much adventure is to be had.

This twenty page supplement sets the scene for a wicked city and has a brief adventure generator. It’s flavorful, even if a little low on specifics and deserving of more “city” rather than “city generator.” 

I don’t know. I like city adventures. Some of the most funnest-est-est games I’ve run have been city campaigns. They are near and dear to my heart. The party has a connections to things, or builds one anyway. Recurring content. And all the wackiness that a big city can generate, fantasy world or no. “New Greyhawks hottest club is Bzoing-a-gong!” So, I’m reviewing this.

It’s got three sections. There’s a short section on how to make a character and level them. You can ignore this. It’s got another section that is a kind of adventure generator. Roll on a bunch of tables to get inspiration and use your brain to glue it all together. Then, the longest section at about half the book, describes the city proper. Let’s say, six districts. Each one with three or so NPC’s and two or so places. And then a long list of one sentences “scenes” that kind of describe the tone of the place. Drunk people outside of a trendy nightclub in the Throne district and and old blind woman smoking a pipe in a rocking chair in The Gutter. A mad scream in the distance, and then a laugh. And so on.

The NPC’s and businesses are both in the same format. A name, filled by a couple of adjectives/adverbs “Small Imp, Big Ambitions”. There is then a brief description, one sentence long  Wears oversized jumpsuit, breathe stinks of smoke, stubby tail wags when excited.” Then a Wnts section “Help with extending his drug running operation, “Just have to get rid of the competition” Then a small sentence on mannerisms. It works well for both the NPC’s and the businesses. It’s short enough to scan quickly and they are iconic and specific enough to cement them in your head. The last thing in each section is: Ask. This is supposed to be something the DM asks the players for each thing. For the imp it’s “What is something truly terrifying about him?” 

Clearly, this is story game related, where the players get some control over the situation. The “Ask” thing appears repeatedly in the adventure, in just about every section/specific part of it. It’s the only story game aspect and is easy enough to ignore if you want. It’s pretty innocuous though, and a decent way to get the players engaged more without handing over full control to them. Your mileage on this may vary.

So, that’s the town. About six quarters and two or three NPC’s and two or three places in each, along with a short list of 10-15 “vignette” things, like the old women in the chair smoking a pipe. The end of the booklet has a section on creating adventures. Let’s see, my adventure inspiration is “In the Judgement district, a retired pit fighter. My mission is to disguise, An expensive pet ot beast, there’s a hunger motivation, the complication is the target/client is missing, There’s a tower rooftop in the market district thats important, with the risk being high and the reward being a power relic or spellbook. Mist Tentacle is my two words for further inspiration. I’ll combine this with something from the Judgement district table, “Line of miserable people waiting to be processed.” Now … create an adventure from that! Seems do-able. 

As a city supplement and idea generator I don’t think that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. The location impressions are specific and interesting, as are the sample NPC’s and buildings/businesses/events. The idea generator is good enough. Combined you could come up with some good ideas. And the setting, a city in hell, could certainly be replaced with any evil city, from the Draw Meznobalahblahblah to Iuz to whatever. 

Ultimately, your value here is going to be derived from how much you want to do yourself and be inspired vs how much you want spelled out for you ahead of time. Are you looking for a book of NPC’s, events, and places, or are you looking for something to help you inspire your own? This is inspiration. 

And now you know why I don’t review fluff products, in general. I don’t know how to review “inspiration” products. Yeah, it’s ok, if you’re in to that. Ok, MORE than ok, if you’re in to that. I think, though, this will take a place in my city toolkit. That’s the rough collection of just about every city/own supplement every published, with parts jerked out and combined, From The Butcher Baker Candlestick maker stuff to Lankhmar (multiple versions) to every other city supplement every published. What’s that orc bar again? The one with the troughs of slop? That one also.

This is $6.66 at Itch.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Bonepicker’s Tower

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 08/22/2020 - 11:11
By WR Beatty Rosethorn Publishing S&W Levels 2-4

They say the old baron went mad. They say he killed his lover. They say those ruins where once stood his opulent castle are haunted. Most people avoid the Broken Tower high on Eagle Peak, haunted or not. Bad things have happened up there. But some winged demon has been terrorizing Glynn Rock and something has to be done. They say the demon has been seen roosting on the crumbling crenelations of the Mad Baron’s Tower. And then there’s the bones…

This 34 page adventure describes a small region with about eleven locations and two small dungeons, including the titular one. Great interactivity and a relatively easy to scan format are augments by good treasure, magic, and decent descriptions. This entire thing FEELS like a place of mystery you want to explore.

The woodcutters boy is sick. You know this because there’s a merchant selling a magi dagger that he bought at a cut rate from the woodcutter. Get it? A round about hook. Nice! Or, Baron Wyrmslayer wants you to go kill the Bonepicker, the flying beast demon that lairs in the old ruined tower. Nice one that also. That drips with imagery … the flying wyvern lairing in the tower. Note how it’s not a Wyvern. It is, in fact THE BONEPICKER. Monsters gets names. That brings a mythic vibe. Also, the wyvern has pus nodules all over it because its suffering from a curse … the same one laying over the tower. The same one impacting the woodcutters son. A small village, not described much at all, just enough, with GREAT supporting in voice rumors, to give you what you need to run the adventure. A wilderness with eleven or so areas, a few decently expanded upon. There’s an ancient fey giant in the forest, dressed in bearskins and wearing a woven hat of leaves. There’s also that woodcutter, desperate for a cure for his son … and his QUITE alluring wife … give her a kiss? Ancient ruined gates stand in the wilderness. The Green Stone waits in the forest for the party. Then there’s that band of 64 gnoles, replete with human slaves, waiting to bring down the wrath of the gnoles on the villages in the area. And the goblin band. And that giant … he’s looking for the gnoles … him and his buddies got a score to settle. And, of course, then there’s those trees. The ones with circular areas of their bark removed. And some sigil cut in to them. Beyond, a dense green mist hangs in the forest. Uh … it’s a shortcut? This fucking things BRINGS IT. Augmented by EXCELLENT art choices (and you know how seldom I mention art …) all of those locations spring to mind instantly. Just the idea. Just the set up. Right outside of the village, right outside of the reach of civilization, just beyond the boundary of the forest … the world is magic again. The grass a little greener. Mist hangs in the vales. The sun shines a little brighter. Interconnected, fully realized (for whatever that means …) the place FEELS real like the MERP products felt like real places. This is a very, very good accomplishment.

Interactivity is high. From the wanderers, always up to something, to the various NPC’s to talk to and the things to play with and investigate. And it’s not just the same old same old shit either. A body at the bottom of a well, a bag of rocks tied to his waist.  The Black Pudding in this FEELS not like a black pudding but like a nameless horror of a blob. Ghosts and Spirits abound, looking for weal or woe. The BEST fucking doppleganger I have ever fucking seen in any fucking adventure. Why? Because the entire place FEELS real. You’re invested. Because this thing has that most elusive of design principles. That thing I seldom mention. DESIGN. 

And yet … I have three specific criticisms. 

First, the monsters are … weird? I mean, I like unique monsters. I love them, in fact. But in this case we get a monster name and no/little description … with “no” being the most common. Thus the Crawling Horrors, the Skin Spirits, the Hostile Spirit etc, get no description. This is a serious miss. Maybe they are the S&W book, and are just rethemed for copyright purposes, from OFFICIAL d&d? Or in some supplement? Or in a Rosethorn campaign guide? I don’t know. But, even if they were, cross-references would have been nice. I do like a description for a creature, like the Firbolg giant with the hat of woven leaves that I mentioned earlier. Even a brown bear, in context. This don’t do that. Again, open to being wrong, if these are in a book somewhere.

Descriptions are likewise somewhat lacking. “…ragged sheets of some translucent material hang from the wall […] Skin Spirits re-possess their physical remains and tear themselves from the hooks anchoring them to the ceiling.”  This is not a tour-de-force of evocative writing. Which is weird because the IDEAS in this are QUITE striking. They recall those ancestral/cultural memory imprints we all have, which should lead to STELLAR outcomes for the DM … but the descriptions just don’t make it there.  

Finally, there’s a format used. The designer notes that they are experimenting with a new format to help with scanability and usage at the table. Yeah! Groove On! I applaud you! They note they are trying something from Castle Thadrian for Engines & Empires. (A brief interweb perusal indicates this is a physical product from 2009, and I see no copies readily available to consult in my library in the Volcano Lair.) I assume, though, I get what’s been taken. Rooms start with a box of text divided in to at least two sections: First Impressions and What Happens. From there the rest of the room is described outside of the boxed text, in a more traditional format. I get what’s being tried here. The first part, in particular, of First Impressions, is more like what the party sees when they enter the room and the second What Happens, a summary of the rooms deal-e-o. I’m not sure though that the format used is more effective than a more traditional Summary Paragraph (with bolded words) and the bolded words followed up on in subsequent paragraphs. I said I’m Not Sure and I mean that. I’m not sure. It seems weaker in this particular implementation, but there could be other things going on and it could be tweaked, I think, to provide a decent organization system. More evocative writing and those bolded words in the First/What sections followed by those bolds being expanded upon, or something like that? I don’t know. I can say, though, that it doesn’t feel more effective or better in this implementation. 

The Crooked Dwarf is catatonic. If engaged in combat there is a 50% chance he will turn in to an albino fish for d4 rounds, otherwise he will fight with long sharp claws. In his mouth is a single gold tooth. Magic, of course, when placed in a toothless gap. Good stuff.

This is not a home run. More evocative descriptions may have made it so. But it is still a solid solid adventure. It is immersive and brings magical wonder, mystery, and a kind of realism … without becoming simulationist. Design is nailed. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is 18 pages, which is more than enough to get a good look at the wilderness and dungeon encounters and see how they are written and get a sense of the adventure. It’s a great preview.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Year Four: Fighting On!

Beyond Fomalhaut - Thu, 08/20/2020 - 22:13

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making earl August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …You say it isn’t early August anymore? Yeah, that’s part of it. So:

The State of the Blog

In its first year, Beyond Fomalhaut had 55 published posts (but some of those were reposts); the second, 42; the third, 37; and this one a princely 33. You could say it is not much less than last year, but it is obviously less than two yeard ago. As it goes, at first you don’t notice a blog is posting less, then you don’t notice a blog is still around. Part of it is quality control: I don’t want to half-ass posts. Part of it is motivation: my heart was not into writing extensive updates. But the main reason is fairly prosaic: managing my shrinking free time, the blog had to take a backseat to actual gaming and publishing. This was the price of playing fairly regularly (indeed, more than any time since college), and completing, or moving forward with projects that had been on the drawing board for years. There are posts I miss not writing – as they tend to stay unwritten once the initial spark is gone – but that’s the way of it. And this paragraph will be the end of this year’s pity party – on with the better stuff!

The posts I wrote were mainly reviews, and there were a healthy 15, almost as many as the 18 least year. My average score was a nice, round 3.0, close to the total average of all published reviews (3.0625). However, this score now conceals more variance than last year; with more high- and low-scoring reviews. Truthfully, I did not review some averagish supplements I read, but there was also good cause for the outliers.

Here is how the scores break down:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. For the first time in the blog’s history, there was reason to award this rating, and it went to the Wormskin fanzine, a joint effort mainly by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk. This is not a rating awarded liberally, and I thought long about giving it out, but Dolmenwood, the setting introduced in Wormskin clearly deserves it for an original, flavourful, and highly playable take on D&D gaming. It is deserving of your attention, although I also hear a consolidated book is in the works. 
  • 5 was also awarded once, to the idiosynchratic Broken Castle, a mega-module and regional adventure supplement by Gene Weigel. Broken Castle is a mess of editing, and sometimes presentation, but it is full of heart, and the true AD&D spirit. Taken together, or as individual pieces, the adventures and setting therein perfectly capture what old-school gaming is about (even its warts).
  • 4 went to three products, all worthy materials: the exotic, dark wonder of Ben Laurence’s Through Ultan’s Door 2; Jeff Bezio’s excellent B/X vanilla module, Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag, and Brian Richmond’s Rakehell #01: The Rift of Mar-Milloir, a great “backwoods France” mini-setting.
  • 3 went to five products, mainly decent ones, and the sometimes inspired, but hellishly uneven and definitely assholish On Downtime and Demesnes (mainly by Courtney Campbell).
  • 2 went to only three adventures – it could have been awarded more often if I reviewed everything I bought from DriveThruRPG, but unlike Bryce, I have a low pain tolerance, and most of these things are bad in ways that is neither entertaining nor educational.
  • 1 was, however, awarded two times: to a cynical piece of shovelware art, and an adventure showing off a range of dreadful design trends. Head over to the pillory, and gawk!

We will be continuing from this point with a one-star review, so stay tuned! .)

Some swag

The State of the Fanzine

There is a feeling of accomplishment after releasing a publication, and the same goes for taking the picture of the year’s lineup for this post series. (My ultimate goal is to create a hell of a hall of mirrors effect with successive years’ pictures.) The EMDT series has grown by five titles (one of these in two languages), and the only reason you don’t see the whole back catalogue in the back row is due to me taking insufficient copies on my vacation. Here are two zine issues and two modules, and I am happy with all of them. As always, I owe my thanks to my printer, a good and steadfast friend, and my illustrators, who have given form to sketched ideas and given the zine its visual identity: Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen and Matthew Ray, Graphite Prime and Jerry Boucher. Thank you, gentlemen!

Zines and modules are selling rather well – my big Excel file says I have shipped 1568 packages so far. They are now seeing reprints (indeed, every issue up to #06 have been reprinted at least once), and despite the gap left by the Bat Plague, these sales are sufficiently good that I don’t have to worry about financing future projects, even if they are fancier stuff. I did have to put up the printing costs for Castle Xyntillan, but even though it was a hefty sum, it has made it back and then some. As of now, the 500 copies of the first printing are gone, and 90 more of the second have also been shipped. This is, I think, as successful as it gets for module sales in old-school gaming. This feels damn good. [Word now underlines “damn”, telling me “This language may be offensive to your reader.” This, on the other hand, feels fucking stupid.]

I could finally get to publishing the core materials of our City of Vultures campaign, which would be plain too much continuous work in a single supplement, but the piecemeal approach has proven successful. The campaign itself (the third in this locale) goes on, and as we revisit the materials, new ideas and possibilities emerge, and unforeseen combinations gain significance. Game materials are never a finished deal; they grow, shift, and surprise us with every reuse. The zine issues have now focused on these relatively exotic materials, although this balance is temporary – the next issues will be more vanilla fare, even if some of it will become independent modules due to size and scope. My main debt here is Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes, a supplement detailing Erillion’s ruling city, from its teeming ports to back alley intrigues and what lies beyond the surface. This will be my next project (one, a Hungarian wilderness module that will also see English publication, is already done and 95% ready to go.) Of course, as cities go, the year has been fairly good, but then EMDT is a city-heavy publisher: Trail of the Sea Demon as a collection of three loosely connected, city-based mini-adventures, the City of Vultures, and the excellent In the Shadow of the City-God, which, I believe, fulfils the unkept promise of David Cook’sVeiled Society.

My happiest accomplishment is, of course, Castle Xyntillan, which was finally completed and released after several years of on and off work. As Rob Conley had wisely noted back in 2012, “The work on a RPG Projects increases geometrically not linearly with the size of the locale being covered. Writing nine levels of a mega dungeon is not nine times the work of writing one but more.” I can once again confirm this post (and it turns out I already did last year): writing, editing, laying out and publishing a 130-page hardcover is in no way the same as three, or even four pamphlet-sized things of similar length. It is about the magical 90%: half the work happens after a project is 90% done. But done it is, and to my pleasant surprise, it has not just sold well and reviewed well, it has given rise to a number of active campaigns, and stood the test of actual play (this campaign journal is worth checking out).

Speaking of debts, I have not completed the upgraded PDF edition yet, and for that omission, I am genuinely sorry. The cause is burnout: as the newly minted deputy editor of a quarterly academic journal, and the editor of a new book that has gone to the publisher this year, I am thoroughly burned out on editing work, and burnout has lead to procrastination. The update will happen, and I hope it will happen relatively soon.

Helvéczia - books from the first edition

The State of My Other Projects

Here is the big one: I have finished editing and layout on the rulebook for Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Remember that Rob Conley quote? Yeah. Helvéczia was originally published in the Hungarian in 2013 (rulebooks depicted), and the English translation was quite ahead by 2016. Well, mostly – and it burned me out so bad I could not look at it for years. Now I am getting into it again, playing in one campaign and gearing up to run another. It will not be ready by late 2020… but I hope it will be ready by early 2021. In my defence, Helvéczia is bigger than Xyntillan: the rulebook runs 200 pages, and when all is said and done, the supplement that goes with it will also be a hefty thing. That is to say, it is more than a system framework or a hack: it is a game that has substantial support material in the form of (mostly) new spells, creatures and magic items, extensive GMing advice, and a range of adventures to showcase the system’s workings.

In the end, I think Helvéczia is something that has not been done yet. If you will, it is a D&D-style game building on most of the same game concepts old-school gaming does (from classes and levels – six of them – to spell memorisation and alignment, and from random encounters to hex-crawling), but viewed through the lens of a different “Appendix N”. D&D is built on pulp fantasy and North European influences; Helvéczia, on the other hand set in an alternate Switzerland ca. 1698 – on historical adventure movies, 17th and 18th century picaresque novels, the work of the Brothers Grimm (mostly their less known work on German legends), local folklore and historical oddities. That in turn influences everything.

If you are unfamiliar with the genre (and they are a lot of fun to read), picaresque stories are surprisingly close to modern “adventurer fantasy” – they tend to be about disreputable scoundrels and unfortunate everymen making a name for themselves in a corrupt and dangerous world, and about the vagaries of fortune along the way. If that sounds like RPG adventurers you have known, the feeling is not accidental: a Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber story is a picaresque tale, just set in a fantastic land instead of historical Europe (which is, also, a fantastic land of its own to our modern selves). Helvéczia is a game that captures that kind of freewheeling spirit, concerned more with colourful and fantastic tales than moralising, or historical and social accuracy. As a game, it should be familiar, and fit comfortably like a set of old clothes, but it should also be new and unfamiliar – every rule and concept has been examined an customised to fit the source material.

This is not going to be a game for everyone, but I think there will be an audience who will get a kick out of it. Want to play a French duellist, a German landsknecht, a student from Prague versed in the occult, an Italian preacher on a mission to punish the wicked (and sample some of the region’s choice temptations), or a crafty vagabond from Poland out for fame and fortune? Teach those louts at the next table about manners with Judicious Lesson or Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell? Hunt the dreaded threeyard cat or go toe-to-toe with a krampus (just don’t forget they come in groups of 1d3, and have 1:3 to carry 1d2 naughty children)? Gain devilish assistance in a tricky situation with a deck of cards, or heavenly aid with the Holy Bible? Go dungeon crawling in Hell and live to tell the tale, or wander into the faerie realms and strange uncharted locales of the Mittelmarch? Or just swing from a chandelier, intercept a stagecoach, woo the local lasses, win a noble title of questionable value at a game of dice, and find yourself pursued by very angry agents from the Gebrüder Lehmann banking house? All that in a single evening? If your answer to these questions is yes, welcome: this is very likely the game you are looking for.

We have not crunched the numbers with my printer yet, but I am foreseeing a one-book hardcover edition for around the same price as Xyntillan (to be followed by a PDF), and a more expensive, but fairly priced boxed set containing the rulebook, the first supplement, eight hex maps (four each for the GM and player), and a few odds and ends. In 2013, we made a very sturdy boxed set for the Hungarian edition (it is rated at 1d6 damage), and we hope we can do it again. The initial supplement, an A4-sized softcover, will serve as a hex-crawl-based regional supplement to the mountainous cantons of Ammertal, Zwillings, the Oberammsbund, Bundli and Oberwalden, and include a selection of adventure scenarios from larger affairs to minor “penny dreadfuls” (as the game refers to situation-based mini-adventures).

Adventures in Fantasy Catalonia...

Gaming Under the Bat Plague

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade; when life throws you a global pandemic… what else to do but start two campaigns set in doomed cities? Yeah, this thing knocked out our real-life games for a few months, and killed our slow-going Kassadia campaign. But necessity is the mother of attention. At the local university, an entire decade was spent hemming and hawing about digital lectures, but once the lockdown was on, the switch happened under the course of a week. In gaming, I was entirely uninterested in trying virtual tabletop, but with no other options, I joined a game, and soon decided to set up my own. It turns out this form of gaming, while not up to sitting down around a table and bullshitting around glasses of beer and various printouts, works just fine as a substitute, and even has a few useful functions which are harder to set up in real life (e.g. fog of war).

Having nowhere else to waste our time during quarantine, we played three times a week. One of the two campaigns, run by Istvan Boldog-Bernad (author of In the Shadow of the City-God) was a Helvéczia game series set in an alternate Catalonia, in and around the town of San Escobar during the time of the plague. Much could be written about the exploits of the diabolical Don José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera, who reached 4th level as a Student, before having to hastily depart the party after his companions tried to have him burned at the sake by the Spanish Inquisition (long story; Don José escaped with the aid of a Holy Bible he had borrowed from Father Giusto, the head inquisitor, and is currently at large), and about Little Juan, Don José’s erstwhile protégé, and later a scoundrel and self-made soldier. Little Juan almost reached 6th level (the highest in Helvéczia), and has accordingly retired to become a freedom fighter, to be replaced by his brother Rodrigo, 2nd level Cleric, and failed Franciscan who only joined the order as a family tradition (dreadful Wisdom score, although a splendid Intelligence and Charisma). But this is a story for another time.

...and around the doomed city of Thisium...

The other campaign, The Four Dooms of Thisium, was a classic “West Marches” campaign using a local B/X-inspired ruleset, set around the decadent, coastal city of Thisium. (A region inspired by the concept of capriccio, the artistic genre focused on painting imaginary ruins in an idyllic, ruined post-Classical setting.) As the Wise Owl, the city’s oracle and patron had announced, the gods had decided to condemn Thisium to four dooms due to an unspecified list of terrible sins: one would come from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the seas and one from beneath the city itself. As an added twist, the gods also forbade Thisium’s citizens to take action, or even offer aid, reward or compensation to any group attempting the same – only a band of outsiders acting on their own volition could undo this terrible fate. The gods had left Thisium 90 days before the end; the campaign started on day 45, after it had already turned out Thisium had far more enemies than anyone who actually gave a damn.

Thus began a campaign that ran 26 sessions in a relatively short time span, two times a week, with a roster of seven players and a bazillion PCs and followers (the game proved outrageously deadly, with an impressive list of casualties). Due to the scope of the campaign, which rapidly exceeded my initial plans, and the frequency of gaming, this was a situation with high creative pressure, which necessitated the rapid-fire development of substantial campaign materials. The four dooms involved the city of Thisium itself, two large dungeon complexes, a wilderness area, and an archipelago of islands populated with ideas out of peplum movies, the Odyssey, and similar works.

The base areas soon started expanding into additional mini-dungeons, islands, and other side-tracks – the proverbial feature creep. This is where you get at least some idea about the kind of challenges Gary might have been facing when he was running D&D 24/7 in the early 70s – it required every trick and shortcut to keep a few steps ahead of the players, and come up with fresh material for our Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. I ended up throwing everything from semi-geomorph-based map generation to various random tables at the problem, while trying to stay true to the campaign’s stylistic influences – and my players ended up enthusiastically wrecking the place, losing a small army’s worth of characters to the monsters and death-traps they would encounter, as the gods intended. At the end, Thisium was saved on exactly Day 90 – and by that time, the venerable city-state had seen things that would be enough for multiple lifetimes.

I am hoping to publish the campaign materials in some form (first in the Hungarian – a lot of the text already exists), probably as a two-module set that would let you play as a campaign, a regular sandbox module, or a collection of smaller adventures. This is not going to be as polished or in-depth as Xyntillan; as trying to do it that way would defeat the purpose, bloat the stuff, and rob it of its free-wheeling nature. I feel that the only way to do it justice is to keep the raw energy, and stick to the slightly vague, open-ended notes I was working from. It ill happen if the gods will it!

And now that the campaign's over, we have returned to our original "Plan A" - to continue adventuring in the Twelve Kingdoms, a region to the northwest of the Isle of Erillion (our next session is scheduled for Sunday).

...and in the Twelve Kingdoms

The State of the Old School

When making predictions about gaming, it is easy to go into doom and gloom. I am as guilty as anyone; I have written sceptical comments about the future survival of old-school gaming since before it became an acronym. To tell the truth, I was not entirely wrong about my worries, but I was proven too pessimistic about the ultimate conclusions. This game style and the community around it has survived, and proven remarkably successful and resilient. So here is something more positive.

Last year, I was writing about the end of the OSR as a cohesive movement, as a unified community. I still believe this is the case – we now see separate sub-movements, developing in different directions and losing the common ground which had once linked them. But all in all, this is not a tragedy, just the end of a phase of development. What we have (and by “we”, I count people who want to stick with old D&D and its derivatives) has lost its mainstream commercial appeal, but matured into a classic, and transcended the status of a simple retro movement. Revivals and retro tendencies come and go: old-school D&D has proven popular and appealing since at least the early 2000s. It offers more than simple nostalgia. There have been, and there will be ups and downs, but its future is as secure as tabletop gaming itself. Like chess and Risk, it is timeless, and here to stay.

This is our game now. It is, thankfully, not owned by anyone in specific, but it belongs to everyone who wants to play it, and puts in a small effort to familiarise himself with its general rules and traditions. That is excellent news: nobody owns most of the true classics either. In our time, this is an advantage and a key to survival. Large corporations, who see the world as brands and need constant revenue streams like a junkie needs his fix, would be a threat to the integrity of the game as we like to enjoy it. Political mobs would subvert it to their ideological perversions, exclude the people they don’t like from its enjoyment, or destroy it outright for not conforming to their brochures. But nobody can actually prevent people from enjoying a classic. Even if they are owned as an IP, the material is too widespread to truly be at risk.

Old-school D&D is open and inclusive in the best sense: neither money nor power controls access to it, and there are no terms and conditions (beyond the simple and open rules of the OGL), nor any means to restrict who gets to play and how. Therefore, we can play the game according to our wishes, publish materials for it without passing a corporate or political loyalty test. This makes us better off than the players of 5e, who are beholden to corporate interests, and now considerations which control the corporations. We also possess the creative freedom to enjoy and advance our game. That’s no small thing either – this freedom is valuable, it is appealing (and this appeal will only increase as people gradually realise how controlling and unpleasant the emerging, China-inspired brave new world is going to get), and there is much we can do with it.

Not this time, Lady. Not this time!

For now, old-school gaming is all right. Its creative output last year has been good, it shows signs of creative health, and many projects which had been in development for years have been completed and made available. Some of the more recent offerings are vanilla in the finest sense, a return to the creative origins which remain as timeless as ever: Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag, Broken Castle, and Hoard of Delusion (on which I will write more later) are good representatives of the continued power old-school D&D holds. Likewise, the stranger, more odd branches are also bearing creative fruit. Altogether, this is a fine place to be: prosperous, reasonably friendly, and above all things, free. That is a peculiar word, and we will yet learn how much that means.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeons & Dragons Elves, Alien Gods, & Hellish Demons For Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 08/20/2020 - 19:20
 Tonight I'm thinking about the  Original Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons PC race of Elves. Elves from pop culture have always to a certain extent been well problematic. Though I know where they come from Tolkein's Hobbit & Lord of the Rings books. In my mind there's always been a distinct disconnect from the Elves of mythology & Dungeons & Dragons.  But the ideas that these Needles
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Several Glitches in the Program - The A.B.C. Warriors For Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 08/20/2020 - 14:38
 A couple of  days ago I noticed a post on Joe The Lawyer's blog (Joe's Blog) about The Realm of Chaos book from Games Workshop which saw the light of day in 1988 Here . The same year which saw my introduction to one of the coolest teams of anti heroes ever to crawl out of the pages of  2000 AD program. The ABC Warriors aren't easy  to classify. A rather simple explaination of their origin comes Needles
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Bat in the Attic Kickstarter, Attributes in the Basic Rules

Bat in the Attic - Thu, 08/20/2020 - 13:41

In this series of posts I will be talking about some of the design choices I made. In addition to explaining what the system is about, it will also help folks in deciding which elements are the most useful to them as one of my overall goals is to support kitbashing.

The goal is to remain compatible with the various classic editions. When I needed to make a specific choice I opted for supporting the Swords and Wizardry RPG. Thus I use the  same six attributes found in most systems based on the classic editions: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. In the this section I also discuss several other secondary attribute that most classic edition characters possess like armor class, and hit points.

Attribute modifiers
I put a lot of thought into this. Historically the various editions had several scales of different modifiers. The original edition along with Swords & Wizardry generally gives just a -1 or +1 bonus. The advanced editions generally ranged from -4 to +4. The newest editions opted to give a modifiers every other attribute points for example a 16 score would give a +3 bonus.

I felt that just having a -1 or +1 bonus was too narrow to reflect how attribute impact the things that players try as their characters. Likewise from experence I felt that the -4 to +4 range of the advanced edition, the D20 SRD, and the 5e SRD, was too generous. So I opted for a scale where a character gets a modifier for every three attribute points. With a +1 kicking in at 12, and an 18 granting a +3. This worked out in the campaigns I ran and continues to remain the bonus scale I use.

As far as incorporating different scale, the Majestic Fantasy rules will shift in feel slightly. Adopting the original edition scaled of -1 to +1 will make class and level count for more in what the character can do. Adopting the -4 to +4 scale of the advanced edition will allow characters to tackle greater challenges slightly earlier in the campaign. It start to make a noticeable difference after the middle levels of 6th to 8th levels when the party acquires more than one or two magic items.

The Other Attributes.
I write about how I interpret the various the secondary attributes classic edition character have like Armor Class, Hit Points, Movement, and Saving Throws. One of my goals when I started writing material for Swords and Wizardry is to stick closely to the original mechanics. What helped this was all the new research about the origins of the hobby and the system behind the original edition that started to be released ten years ago. One thing that was clear that the hobbyists of the time were experimenting all the time with different ideas and systems. So as old newsletters were unearthed and anecdotes recounted, I saw some of the thinking that went behind the abstract concepts of mechanics like armor class, hit points, and saving throws.

This help me build a foundation for these mechanics for when I had to make rulings. To answer questions like whether a blow completely missed or was it resisted by armor? Was kind of injury does damage represent? How does a character avoid getting a chalice of power knocked out of their hands? Players can imagine these things happening. It not always relevant but when it is it help to have something on which construct a ruling.

In the basic rules this section is an overview. Later in the rulebook in the chapter on rulings, I get into the nuts and bolts of how make rulings based on these secondary attributes.

Next I will be talking about classes.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Star Trek Ranger: Romulan Encounter

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 08/20/2020 - 11:00

Player Characters:
The Crew of the USS Ranger, Federation scout ship:
Aaron as Lt., j.g. Cayson Randolph, Operations Officer
Andrea as Capt. Ada Greer
Billy as Lt. Cmdt. Sobek, Ship's Counselor
Dennis as Lt. Osvaldo Marquez, Medical Officer
Paul as Cmdr. D.K. Mohan, Chief Helmsman

Synposis: After capturing the Romulans planetside, the away team beams back to the ship to find they have just received a distress call from the Burnell. It's systems are failing and it's running out of time. A painstaking search of the nebula brings them to the warp shuttle--and none to soon because its power is failing and life-support with it. Before they can rescue the crew, the Romulan cruiser Veritex uncloaks and demands they turn over everything they have on the energy weapon on the planet!
Not eager to fight, the Ranger crew negotiates an exchange with the Romulan commander: the Ranger lowers it's shields and beams over the Burnell's crew, while the Romulan's transporter their captured shuttle crew off the Ranger.

Commentary: While I was all set to run a space combat here, the players took the Star Trekian way out and found a nonviolent solution. Mohan's skill at persuasion proved extremely useful as did the ship's counselor Sobek's unexpected acumen with the sensors.
The Romulan vessel was a V-9 temar vastaram "Night Flyer" cruiser, from the FASA Romulan supplement. The Burnell was also a type of ship FASA created: the Pulsar Class warp shuttle.

The Frightening OSR Fifties - Alien Invasions, Mutants, & Megadungeons

Swords & Stitchery - Wed, 08/19/2020 - 21:19
 This is not my first foray into 'alternative Popcultural history megadungeons' but what is a first is how it comes fast it comes together. Our first tentative steps into this alternative history begins in 1947 with the continuation of the Occult World War with the crash of the Roswell UFO out in the New Mexico desert. This was merely another Grey scouting mission in a World War II that had Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

1d10 Random Catacomb Treasures & Finds Table For Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Wed, 08/19/2020 - 15:54
 Ancient Tombs & catacombs are always places of local legend & surrounded by clouds of myth. This table will help to bring the other half of the equation of terror & danger to your table top. Adventurers are always stumbling across weird and ancient catacombs, places where the piled treasures of forty thousand years or more have been buried with royalty, scoundrels, and the rich of ages past. Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Sand Rats 'The Invasive Pests' For Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Wed, 08/19/2020 - 15:20
 Nasty, dangerous, and completely ready to finish off anything that comes into their clawed and fanged purview. The sand rat is found throughout many different world,a pest of a bygone age when Atlantis might war fleets sailed the deepest depths of space and these little four foot tall horrors stowed away aboard the mighty void ships. Sand Rats are   a degenerate species of nasty and dangerous Needles
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