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(5e) The Color of Chaos

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/18/2020 - 12:17
By Spencer Crittenden Self-Published 5e Level 2

What power lies behind the mischievous colored constructs marauding the Prang Manor? Find out in this colorful and unique single session adventure module that can be run on its own or added to an ongoing campaign! 

This 28 page adventure takes place in a thirteen room manor home. Two-dimensional crayon monsters are attacking people, traced back to the manor. Decent organization and descriptions are high points, while the tone is going to be the hardest thing to overcome. 

So, right off the bat we have this statement in the adventure from the designer: “… Is meant to bring some light fun without completely upturning the fantasy and suspended disbelief of D&D.” And that is the core issue of the adventure. The adventure revolves around a 2 year old kid who has found some magic crayons. Thus we get scribble monsters in crayon, two-dimensional, and other challenges like drawn gold coins, colored in doorways, crayon-drawn watermelon bombs and the like. Your ability to enjoy this adventure is going to directly relate to your ability to handle those elements and handle something on the silly side on your D&D game. This is too much for me, but maybe you’re different. I will note, however, that the adventure description on DM’s Guild could be more up front on these points. As in: it does not mention them in any way, shape or form. Expectations are everything and if you go in expecting a “normal” adventure only to find this silly one, well, you’re not likely to be a happy consumer. This, ultimately, was the problem with the Great Betrayer: WG7. 

Beyond two-dimensional crayon-monsters drawn by a two year old, there is also the “magical world” tone. The kids parents are stuffy pants arts lovers who ignore and pamper him and have a set of Nystuls Magical Crayons in the attic. (Hmmm, found, perhaps, in the still yet to be delivered Infinite Dungeon … not written by Mike?) There is a Wand of Scrubbing hanging in the kitchen that refreshes three charges a day and is kind of like a magic eraser. Sovereign Glue. EVerything oriented around this kind of setting where magic is common and you use +! Toothpicks at dinner that are then thrown away down your Sphere of Annihilation garbage disposal. Again, another niche setting to contend with. 

Many things I normally take issue with in an adventure are NOT present. Information NPC’s can relate to the party is given in bullet point format, making it easy to find and relate. Monsters have an emphasis on their descriptions, and the descriptions that matter to the party, instead of backstories that will not come up during play. Encounters are well constructed with several elements. One room has statues in it and short rules for shoving them over … and monsters behind them to shove them over on the characters. The manor home gets a short little overview, something for the DM to relate to the party to give them a glimpse of the manor “as a whole” to get them oriented to it and where they should begin investigations. This is a kind of “I’m standing on a hill looking down on a manor, what do I see?” sort of thing that more adventures could do more with. Rooms have hints in descriptions, with one standing out as having black cracks in the walls … which of course have some kind of trap in them. 

There’s also a decent progression in room descriptions, from a general overview for the DM to bolded sections that expand on the information given. THis is a good organization technique, putting what the DM needs first in the first section of txt and making it easy to find follow-up information.

Treasure is pretty good, from the magic crayons (The entire box of which may be overpowered for level two’s) to a magic stirring ladle to a masterwork greatsword with an adamantium hilt like an orchid. There’s an emphasis on the non-standard, on descriptions of effects (like the ladle) instead of mechanics, and in making mundane items, to be looted, in to something that the party may actually keep instead of just selling. Not the best implementation but definitely better than most adventures. 

Interactivity tends to combat and a couple of puzzle/riddles. That could be better, although the encounters are decent and layered. The first is with a candyman who is trying to run away with a gnome merchant. He has some buddies. He can throw a watermelon bomb. Appearing out of the bomb is a tiny man holding a knife and flintlock pistol. When’s the last time an adventure encounter had that many layers? 

There’s also some other issues, beyond tone. Some of the background imagery in the PDF is yellow, which makes the text hard to read. There’s also a time or two where things are missing from the general room overviews. A monster here and in one place the parlor furnishings and and an old chest that comes from out of nowhere. So, a lack of consistency, but these seem like infrequent mistakes, more akin to typos than a fundamental lack of understanding in how to write an adventure. Some of the read-alouds get long and the DM text DOES get long in places. Manageable, though, because so much of it can be ignored, and, as I said, the progression from general to specific and bolding helps organize it.

There’s a reason for this. Spencer, the designer, has a following. I know him from the animated HarmonQuest Tv series, but I take it there was a progenitor series as well, maybe podcasts or youtubes or something? You can think of these as Actual Plays, in the vein of the others like Critical Role, etc. Thus he is bringing to the market a whole slew of people who genuinely have NOT played before and ARE noobs. I’m a bit more tolerant in this situation of text aimed at a new DM, much more so than an esoteric OSR title that will not be seen beyond a few diehards. Still, there are better ways to accomplish the goal of orienting completely new players/DM’s while retaining a format that is easy for them to run. No one needs to be told, on something like eight separate occasions, that the kids parents are wealthy dilettante aristo’s. 

Spencer has one title to his name: this one. Either he is the greatest natural adventure writer ever born or there is an uncredited editor attached. And even if that’s so it’s much better than I would expect even WITH an editor attached. The tonal issue and the longish text put this on the edge of No Regerts. But … if you were looking for a light-hearted one-shot? Absolutely, I’d run this. 

This is $6 at DMsGuild. The preview is six pages. It shows you the bullet point NPC data overviews, the intro read-aloud that I think is a bit long, the longish DM’s text, and the first encounter with the candyman and the watermelon bomb, etc, a couple of room entries, including the statue encounter, and some art that is evocative of the monsters encountered. As such it’s a GREAT preview in that it shows you EXACTLY what to expect from your purchase. More designers/publishers could follow Spencer’s lead.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

It’s Gnoll Time!

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 01/15/2020 - 12:17
by Megan Irving Self Published For every game system ever Level ?

Deep in the forest is a village that has been destroyed by gnolls. Gnolls are corrupted hyena monsters that crave innocent flesh. They eat anyone in their way and spread across the land like a plague, corrupting more hyenas and creating more gnolls as they go. The only way to stop them is to track them down and kill them all. This is your quest.

This twenty page adventure, in zine digest format, details a forest region plagued by a gnoll war band. It has some interesting writing and items and is trying to be a kind of loose framework for an adventure. Alas it was a little too unstructured for me to figure out … which was exacerbated by the issue I had figuring out the order the pages were supposed to be in(!)

Let’s imagine a forest. There’s a smoking ruin of a village in the middle of it. There are locations in the forest (maybe?) and some NPC’s to run in to. Thus the adventure is intended to be a a kind of investigation in to the ruined village (I guess?) and a then some travel in the forest meeting people and, eventually, dealing with the gnolls.

Each page of the digest represents one “idea”/location/NPC. There’s a short little intro text, that reads like read-aloud (IN FUCKING ITALICS! DON”T USE FUCKIGN ITALICS FOR LONG BLOCKS OF FUCKING TEXT! IT”S FUCKING HARD TO READ!) There are short and evocative little snippets of text that introduce the place/person to the party. A stench of rotting flesh. Rattling bones, teeth clattering, or a stretched humanoid form made of shadows with a strange rune on its forehead, drifting between trees and strange obelisks … not bad little snippets of text for introducing something new to the players, two or three sentences, full of flavour. What follows is a little background, goals, etc, some “fronts” (more on that later) and then some notes, like where to find them, how to use them, etc.

There’s a random treasure table, with no real treasure set. A magic cloak: the wearer isn’t easily noticeable even when they should stick out like a sore thumb. A golden tiara, might be magical, or just extremely valuable. Someone’s definitely looking for it.  A magical bow and arrow that fire arrows of pure darkness that can punch through anything, but can only be fired on a moonless night. That’s some fucking PHAT L00T! The magic retains its wonder. 

The NPC’s have goals. The “fronts” for various entries appear to be a kind of timeline of events for them, a progression as they further their own goals while the party is fucking about.

At this point things start to break down.

I will admit that I had a hard time comprehending this adventure. It’s a zine thing where you can print if out and fold it to make a booklet, or read the other version provided on the screen. The screen read seemed … like the pages were out of order? And then the zone, when printed, came out backwards and, again, seemed like the pages were out of order? So, heads up, I dug through it but, ultimately, I’ve decided that my confusion is in some part to the type of product being presented. 

The designers is, I think, trying to do something relatively new. A zine, one page per concept, a kind of framework of an adventure, open ended with the DM to bring themselves but enough structure to provide the grounding needed. That is, I think, the intent. Unrealized.

You can see some of this “looseness” of the framework in the description of that tiera: someone is looking for it. SOMEONE. Likewise the looseness of the loot proper, not given per location but on its own table to fill in the encounters with as they see fit. Further, the random encounters are “a peaceful and beautiful place to rest” or “a feral and aggressive animal that can be calmed and healed with love and kindness.” While these two tables are the extreme, there’s also a kind of looseness, as exemplified by the tables, present in most other areas. Down to the map which is more of a conceptual map, disguised as a real one. In isolation I’m ok with all of these. A conceptual map can be ok. Ideas to sprinkle in the adventure are ok. A little looseness is ok. But when EVERY element is this loose, and combine it with a kind of looseness in the layout/organization of the book itself (which may be my own lack of ability to understand it) then I’m just a confused mess. I can’t figure out how/why/where the graveyard is, in relation to other things, where the gnolls are, where the scavengers are, where the NPC’s are, or anything else. Of everything presented in the adventure the only thing I can truly understand is “The Village” the first/center location, and even then I don’t really understand how it is supposed to work. And the “fronts” that are advancing with time? Either the adventure is too short or there are too many or the wanderer chart is too small or … I don’t know. I get the IDEA but I think it’s implemented in a manner that I might call “unrefined” if I were being generous.It doesn’t work.

And that’s is, essentially, my summary of the adventure as a whole. It’ doesn’t work. I can’t really figure out how its supposed to work. (And after 2000+ reviews I’d like to think I have some comprehension in that area …) Mechanical issues with the layout/printing. The front issue. The kind of aggressive abstraction of conceptual encounters and items … would it hurt to say WHO is after the tiera? That would add color. Or the creature that needs love? Why the emphasis on the conceptual instead of the concrete?

I think I can understand what Megan is going after here. And I think I can see the promise in the concept. And the evocative writing and treasure is good. I think it just needs to be a bit more grounded. More specificity. If I understand the intent correctly then I think the goals can still be accomplished while being more specific in wanderers, magic, encounters … maos. EVerything more … comprehensible, without resorting to something like a more traditional format. I look forward to seeing how this format progresses in the future. And “I look forward to …” are not words I write often. It’s interesting as a design idea and needs some further refinement, if I understand what’s being attempted.

This is $5 on DriveThru. There’s no preview. Ouch! Put in a preview, please? And there’s no level given. And it’s listed for every system under the sun from 0e to 5e, include 4e. This is another clue to that … abstracted framework thingy that is being aimed at.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

DM David - Tue, 01/14/2020 - 11:52

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for his Dungeons & Dragons co-creator, Gary Gygax’s biggest impression came from two innovations: (1) the dungeon expedition and (2) how characters improved with experience. In Playing at the World, author Jon Peterson describes reactions to the revolutionary game and shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. I shared their fervor. In my junior high cafeteria, when I overheard some kids talking about a strange game where you could kill an orc, gain experience points, and get better at fighting, that single notion hooked me.

Early in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign, characters earned one experience point for each hit point of the monsters they killed. Players rarely saw the details. Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls, “We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another.” Dave liked to shield players from his game’s numbers, partly for mystery, partly so he could change rules whenever he thought of something better.

His method for awarding experience certainly evolved. In a 1978 interview, Dave Arneson recalled awarding experience for characters who used skills associated with their class. “Each player increases in ability in a given area by engaging in an activity in that area. For a fighter this meant by killing opponents (normal types of monster), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.”

While realistic, awarding experience points (XP) for different activities could have split groups to work their separate professions. If characters gained, say, spellcasting ability through endless hours of practice and study, players would face choosing between the fun of exploring dungeons and the drudgery of practice. “While it is more ‘realistic’ for clerics to study holy writings, pray, chant, practice self-discipline, etc. to gain experience, it would not make a playable game,” Gary wrote in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Magic users should be deciphering old scrolls, searching tomes, experimenting alchemically, and so forth, while thieves should spend their off-hours honing their skills, casing various buildings, watching potential victims, and carefully planning their next job. All very realistic, but conducive to boredom.”

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so seriously that the authors argue that magic users shouldn’t leave their labs at all. “What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon?”

Gary saw dungeon expeditions as the second compelling innovation in Dave’s game. To succeed, the budding D&D game needed a way to lure every character into the dungeon, and then to reward their risk taking. Players loved seeing their characters gain power, so Gary motivated them to explore dungeons by stocking the underworld with treasure and by awarding characters experience for winning gold. The rogue might want wealth, and the paladin might want to smite monsters and to give to the church, but they could both win experience in the dungeon. Plus, the hunt for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?”

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offered another benefit: It created a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new PC in the original game, potentially with 1 hit point, you had little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game, you were better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning led to gold, you got experience.

In the original game, characters earned much more experience for gold than for monster slaying. This rewarded players for engaging in exactly the dungeon exploration that made the game so much fun.

Once treasure led characters to the dungeon, Gary harnessed the system to tempt players to higher risks. In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To draw characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: Low-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave newer characters a boost and so made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made monsters that drained characters of levels a bit less punishing.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system.

The XP-for-gold system struck players everywhere as unrealistic. In the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his game, “[Experience] points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” In 1989, with the second edition, D&D would follow suit. The game would never award XP for gold again.

Without XP for gold, only killing monsters earned specific experience awards. Players liked to say the D&D only awarded XP for killing things, but that has never been true. While second edition stopped granting experience for gold, “a character can earn experience points for successfully completing an adventure or achieving a goal the DM has set.” But neither dungeon masters nor published adventures tended to follow the advice. Everyone, professionals included, tended to ignore improvised awards for experience in favor of the set numbers printed for each monster.

In the countless video games that adopted experience points, the mechanic proved its psychological draw. With every battlefield victory, gamers saw their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. Electronic games brought advantages to an XP system. The computer freed players from working the math, and CPUs patiently served an endless stream of foes to characters who needed to grind their way to the next level. Still, grinding hardly sounds fun.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever. Except D&D matured anyway. Adventures started spinning stories deeper than that one time we killed a minotaur for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. And that worked so long as when players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to find reason for their character to accompany the other characters in following the plot.

In the newer, story-driven play style, some players stopped seeing the point of counting experience. Those players included current D&D head, Mike Mearls. “Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they’ll gain for defeating it,” Mike wrote.

“In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign’s story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters’ goals, behind the dragon’s importance in the narrative. The reward lies in making the kingdom safe and completing the mission, not necessarily in collecting loot. Leveling up might feel like the best way to mark that campaign milestone, even if the XP earned by slaying the dragon doesn’t quite cover it.”

In addition to faulting XP for failing to serve narrative campaigns, D&D’s designers disliked the bookkeeping behind XP. Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the designers behind D&D’s 3rd and 4th editions wrote, “We think that XP systems are better left to computer games.

Even today, players still mischaracterize D&D as a game that only awards experience for slaying, mainly because every monster lists an XP number, while diplomatic and other challenges lack them.

Meanwhile, the game’s designers abandoned experience points in favor of milestones—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. Mearls wrote, “In the past, we’ve always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don’t level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.”

When Mike complains about jamming in combat encounters, he reinforces the canard that the D&D rules only allow XP for killing monsters. Even a long-time designer never considers other XP awards. To be fair, story awards that help characters meet the level requirements of an adventure yield the same result as a DM announcing that everyone gains a level. Milestones lose the math, but they also lose the hook of small XP rewards for successes, seeing progress, and then earning levels.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures lack enough monster-slaying XP to keep characters on pace with the adventure’s target levels. The designers could have added XP awards for other accomplishments, but they show little interest in supporting XP. This disinterest posed a problem for those of us who ran the hardcover adventures for the Adventurers League through the first 7 seasons. The league used experience then, and if the characters had only earned XP for slaying, they would never reach the levels targeted by the adventure. I may have violated the letter of League rules by awarding extra XP for overcoming non-combat challenges. I may be good, but I’m not completely lawful. Don’t tell the administrators.

Now, the League follows the D&D designers by dropping XP in favor of granting players the option to advance after an adventure, chapter, or other milestone.

Next: XP versus milestone advancement—at least we can all agree that awarding XP just for combat is terrible.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Dungeon of Kursh Velgont

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/13/2020 - 12:24
By Jonathan Hicks Farsight Games S&W No Level Given. Shame on you!

You and your friends are about to embark on a dangerous yet rewarding adventure into the floating dungeons of Kursh Velgont, a powerful but long-dead wizard. The magical dungeons of the wizard have risen from the ground and toppled the abandoned castle that it used to be part of. Right now it is drifting through the air towards Chalisan, and the undead denizens of the dungeon are falling from the rapidly collapsing hunk of earth and corridors and terrorising decent folk! How has the dungeon risen? What power keeps it aloft, and what damage will it do to the lands? The PCs have been commissioned to get into the floating prison and find out why this is happening, and to try and find a way to stop it before it reaches the town of Chalisan and the evil dead are deposited upon it!

This sixteen page adventure, details a seventeen room dungeon that if floating through the sky, dropping undead and dirt and stuff from it as it floats towards a major town. It’s a conversion from Advanced Fighting Fantasy and shows it. A few neato lines of descriptions are scattered throughout, but that can’t stop the disco: long italics read-aloud, and bad design.

How shall I rail against thee? Let me count the ways … 

This is a conversion from AFF. It shows. This is where I now go on and on about the unique flavour in a game system and how most conversions don’t capture that. Let us take a game like Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North. (AKA: The Harry Clark game containing no Harry Clark.) Sad tragedy marked by failure and people saying “but though are but a warrior …” to fail you. Now, let’s take G1/Steading and stat convert it to Polaris. Is it a Polaris adventure? What if I don’t convert it AT ALL and just call G1 a Polaris adventure? What if G1 had no stats, could I call it a Polaris adventure? What if I took an adventure for a game like Polaris or Lacuna, something with esoteric targeted rules and just said “Yeah, It’s an OSR adventure now” … a game whose entire concept was based around player ingenuity, no forced combats, gold giving you XP. That’s what this is. The designer has little understanding of what makes a D&D adventure and has just stat converted the thing from AFF to S&W. The big loot at the end is 200gp in gems. That’s great, right? Let’s see, split five ways … better to stay home and ambush people in the alley and take THEIR stuff for xp. Being a hero don’t pay, at least in XP. And then there are other things, like falling damage. You can fall from the floating dungeon. You take a d6 damage, even though its very high up. Is that how falling damage works in S&W? I don’t think so. Or, maybe, “high up” means 10 feet from the ground?

Nevermind the abstracted treasure in the form of “200gp in gems”. Nevermind that we’re not told how fucking far offt he ground the dungeon floats. A super basic quality. Something everyone wants to ask, I’m sure, as they approach it. “How long are the ropes hanging down from it? How long must we endure undead attacks while we climb?” Or even “how fast is it travelling?” since that’s a main theme of the adventure. Nope, none of that. It’s all fucking abstracted. No brave little tailors here. Look, yeah, I can make it up. But that’s not the point. It’s a pattern. It’s a basic lack of understanding of what to include and not include in an adventure.

What should NOT be included? How about column after column of read-aloud? And it’s in italics, making it super hard to read! And it’s full of bad fiction writing! 

“The lands are rife with danger, but there are plenty of rewards for adventurers willing to take the risks and face the evils that threaten to plunge the lands and lives of decent folk into darkness. Most days pass by without incident and people go about their affairs peacefully, but some days are dangerous and can change lives forever.Today is one of those dangerous days.”

Uh huh. That’s the read-aloud?

It goes on and on with the read-aloud. “Which way do you venture?” the read-aloud tells us. Uh huh. Priorities misplaced. And none of that fucking “its for beginners” shit. We don’t fucking pander. Besides, thats just justifying bad writing, there are better ways to present to n00bs. 

So, mountains of read-aloud. Including a big bad monologue. Joy. A room description of a hallway junction that takes a quarter page .. for nothing more than a hallway junction. 

And then there’s just bad design. There’s enforced morality “no matter how many foes the players defeat they should not receive any XP.” No, that’s not how D&D works. That’s how bullshit enforced morality works. “Once you defeat the monster you notice the large key on its belt.” No, that’s bad design. By making the party notice the key in the outset you make it a temptation. The point becomes getting the key rather than just engaging in another fight, which is how it’s written. AFF or no, a fight for the sake of a fight is bad design. “Don’t be too hard on them this early in the adventure, just have one or two skeletons per player attack the party.” No, that’s not how things work. Again, combat for the sake of combat and an ATTEMPT to have a dramatic moment. Those enforced moments SUCK BALLS. Better are the moments that come from the players own attempts. That’s what you’re writing for. 

The writing is muddled, with various elements all knotted up in the same paragraphs making it hard to find information. It’s conversations “don’t tell the players, but in 6 rounds a numbers of skeletons will come to investigate.”

What’s sad here is that there’s some good imagery. Buried in a column of read-aloud is, in the opener., a woman riding up frantically yelling “Have you seen it?! Have you seen the dungeon?!” That’s a good opened. The lower parts of the ropes leading up to the floating dungeon are slick with blood. Skeleton heads have an inner green glow. There are bloody handprints on doors. That’s all greta. It’s just too little, too far in between, and buried under mountains of useless text and bad design.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages. You don’t get any dungeon rooms, which is bad, but the last two pages DO show you almost two full pages of read-aloud. That’s a pretty good indication of whats to come. Also, THERE’S NO FUCKING LEVEL RANGE GIVEN. *sigh*

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) DDAL-EB-01 The Night Land

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/11/2020 - 12:17
By Shawn Merwin Self-published 5e Level 1

The brokers of Salvation pay good coin for artifacts scavenged from the haunted battlefields of the Mournland. In this nest of cutthroats, daring explorers gather to carve their destinies from the ruins of Cyre. They’ll need all the help they can get: it’s no secret that most scavengers don’t survive their first expedition in the Gray.

This 29 page adventure is a collection of three short “one encounter” adventures in sixteen pages. Set in a kind of post-apocalyptic “Bartertown”/salvage-town bordertown, it has you making trips in to a Forbidden Zone to do short missions. Nice concepts with the whole thing, but the actual implementation is boring. There’s little continuity and the “creative” part of evocative writing is missing.

Ok, so, evidently I’m an asshole. All this time I’ve thought of Eberron as a techno- fantasy setting, kind of RenFaire stuff, which has absolutely no appeal to me at all.  Magic railroads and Sphere of Annihilation toilets and the like. But this adventure seems to imply NOT. This is a kind of post-apocalyptic people living in Bartertown kind of vibe going on, or tries to anyway. A less gonzo Rifts or a Gamma World with some magic tossed in? Fuck yeah I’m in! Maybe it’s just this setting and I’ll gouge my eyes out later when magic Zeppelin races appear. Anyway, there’s this underlying vibe of a barely there town and people salvaging things from The Forbidden Zone.

A cloud bank straight out Fury Road, a little ways off from town. Screaming faces and buildings collapsing sometimes appear in the fog. Fuck Yeah! That’s what I want to see! Talk about a transition to the mythic underworld! The description for the threshold is pretty good and gives this great sense of impending danger and YOU ARE ELSEWHERE NOW. The whole town vibe is enhanced by a little newspaper handout with some decently Orwellian writing that again adds to the mood. “Remember: Sheriff is watching. So keep your troubles outside the outpost.” Orwellian inside but a free for all outside! I’m in! And the newspaper announcing 70% of people who go in don’t come back out? Uh huh uh huh. I’m in LUUUUUUV.

Substantial information is conveyed through bullets, with what you can learn from NPC’s being the primary usage of them. Bolding and section headings, indents and a summary table are all present. And, there’s job board handouts in addition to the newspaper. Very nice. And there’s this little NPC, the leader of a fellow salvage gang, with a great little table of how they know you/how you’re connected to you. “Saved from kneecapping” and the like; the table is full of flavour!

And the entire fucking thing is actually implemented lame as all fuck. 

That NPC reference table? Full of the wrong things. Instead of it being a table that helps you run the NPC’s it’s more a writers reference. “Chaotic Good Human Female Artificer.” Great. How about quirks? Goals? A train? Something to help me actually run the NPC? No. For that you need to reference the text and hope that the designer put in a little offset box for that NPC. The table is ineffectual for its intended purpose.

The three “missions” come from the job board in a tavern. There’s really nothing tying the three together at all … which may be ok, I think, if it’s serving as an introduction to the town and the salvage lifestyle. But then THAT becomes the theming and tie to hold them together, and it’s just not there. It feels like three changes of scenery rather than “my life as a salvage worker on the edge.” And that salvage board … a centerpiece of the adventure and the entire town built around salvage? A boring ass bulletin board in a tavern. No mementoes or shrines to the fallen salvagers, no rituals, nothing. This was a SUBSTANTIAL miss in adding to the “Salvage Life 4EVAR” thing that should be going on in this adventure.

Most of the writing it boring. A ghost train comes across as boring. The writing is just not evocative at all. Now, we should all know by now that I’m NOT looking for a lot of text, but I expect the text that IS present it be interesting and describe the scene/thing in a way that makes it comes alive. “The air around you suddenly fills with cracking, ringing noises. Some of the larger black glass shards twitch and fragment, reforming into lizard- like beasts with maws of razor-sharp glass teeth.” B O R I N G. Nice idea, ozone, crackling, maws of obsidian glass … but a “lizard like creature” is boring, as is anything with the fucking word “Suddenly.” This is poor writing. 

More than that though .. The Mournland, inside the fog cloud, is boring. The fog is a barrier. No dust storms. No 70% death rate. No littered landscape. Just more featureless plains. And no wanderers. No hint of danger. I was excited for this shit! “In the morning of the second day of travel …” It’s not even the slow burn of Stalker or Annihilation. Just nothing. No text to speak of and what there is “decrepit wood buildings.”  The whole place comes off as dumb and boring. Just Another Shitty Lame Ass Boring Generic D&D Setting. Go somewhere, have an encounter, mission over.

It tries. With that Mournland text. With a sculpture made out of corpses. But it fails. It feels thrown together and as if not much work in to it beyond a draft. Repetition of text, and not in a Salome way but in a Didn’t Think About It way. Some read-aloud gets long. There’s a section in the beginning, in which bar patrons gets hushed when an old salvager gets on top of a table to speak … a load of nonsense. I’d guess it has to do with the overall plot that will eventually show up in these, but it telegraphed HORRIBLY. Everyone should recognize “yeah, this is the evil cult thing we’ll eventually have to stop,” and, at the same time, it would have been MUCH more effective if introduced as a part of one of the other missions (NO! NOT A FUCKIGN DIARY!) or somehow his exposition had an impact. The hushed voices of the rowdy scavvers? Great! Just anti-climactic as fuck. “Oh, it’s a fucking monologue. Great.”

Missed opportunities include a little construct Dog, which should have been called Timmy, or had a Timmy/well codeword/connotation/theming. And a goblin turned to stone with a ghost train hurtling down on her NEEDS to be her caught in the train tracks. No, I don’t know how it works … that’s the designers job. But fuck me if rescuing people from train tracks isn’t iconic.

And then again that scene shows the problems. The train arrives in five rounds to crush the little girl. How far away are you? Who the fuck knows, we’re never told. And this sort of Missing Information thing, critical information for a scene, is not  uncommon. The overall impact is that the 70% of people who die in the Mournlands do so of boredom. 

It’s so full of promise, you can see it in the edge. But the actual implementation, the writing, the “now the D&D encounter starts” format … it’s kills the thing. It should be enhancing that half-glimped themes and vibes. I’m not sure I’d tout my MFA in Creative Writing if I turned this out.

This is $5 at DmsGuild. The preview is four pages. The last page actually has something for you to look at. You can see a long/useless read-aloud for the tavern and then the little gnomes speech … that has no impact on the adventure. Bad preview.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Anthropophagi of Xambaala

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 01/08/2020 - 12:11
By Corey Walden North Wind Adventures AS&SH Levels 1-3

Furtive and odious tales circle through various Hyperborean ports of call. Rumours whisper of an ancient occult city, Xambaala, clinging to the edge of the Zakath Desert. Perhaps the hideous horrors said to assail the city in the darkest hours are exaggerated. Maybe too another explanation can be found for the foreigners who are said to have disappeared to some uncanny fate. But the whispering tongues also hint that gold glints in the shadows of Xambaala, ready to be taken by the bold.

This sixty page adventure details a desert trading city in about twenty pages, a couple of desert locales, and then a seventy-ish room three-level dungeon full of cannibals and snake-men. The primary adventure locale, the three level dungeon, is fairly interesting if a little heavy on the hack & trap side of the interactivity spectrum. While the writing is better than most North Wind adventures it is still burdened by the cramped layout and phrasing that plagues almost all of them. Do you like to READ adventures? Buy this.

It is pure speculation, but I suspect that the hand of Talanian and his editors are HEAVILY involved in the writing of these adventures. So many of them show the same issues that it’s hard to believe that the designers are all engaging in the same ponderous habits. As such the review becomes as much about the production style of North Wind as it does about what the designer has produced. How much is their work and how much is corruption by the snake-men?

What’s the purpose of an adventure? Is it to run a game at the table? That’s my take on them. And therefore I expect the adventure to facilitate that. But it is certainly the case that others, Paizo most notably, have deduced that most adventures purchased are never run. People buy them and read them and that’s the enjoyment they obtain. And thus the publisher is then working at a cross-purpose: to produce adventures that are enjoyable to read … and thus make money therein. They want to make money by writing something that appeals to the reader consumers. I want to have something to help me run it at the table. I guess it’s possible that the two are not mutually exclusive.Like, maybe, a quantum event suddenly turning my keyboard to old platinum is a possibility.  Possible & probable: different definitions. 

And I don’t give a FUCK about the readers. And I especially don’t give a MOTHER FUCK about the publishers who are writing for the readers. Fuck. You. You’re not producing adventures. You’re producing some fan service bullshit. Further, you’re producition of these fucking things is dragging the entire fucking hobby down because you insist of labeling them “adventures.” They are not adventures. Adventures are written to be used at the table. “It COULD be used at the table” is not a viable response. At this point I think it’s safe to say that North Wind is producing adventures meant to be consumed by reading. 

The primary issues, as with ALL North Wind adventures, is the ponderous writing and the layout. The fonts are less legible but evocative of the pulp fiction novels of old. The margins are wide to allow border art … reducing the overall space for text. And the writing is ponderous. “The iron door has yielded to rust and the force of grave robbers.” That’s not technical writing meant to help the DM. That’s fiction writing. “In some areas the exterior plaster still retains its

original decorations of monsters, warlords, and illustrious merchants.” Again, more fiction writing. This is not a phrasing or word choice that enables the running of the adventure. The phrasing and word choice gets in the way. It’s ponderous. You don’t have to appeal to lowest common denominator. That’s not what this is about. You have to target the writing so that it’s easy for a DM to run. Making them fight through illustrious merchants and yielding to rust is not in service to that. That sort of writing is fiction writing. Technical writing, for D&D adventure, is in service, in these examples, of creating an image in the DM’s mind. Yielding to rust and Illustrious merchants doesn’t do that. And no, it’s not just those phrases. It’s the entire sentences. Which are just examples of the problems inherent to ALL of the writing in this adventure.

There ARE bullet point summaries at the start of each room. This DOES help somewhat. There is a style of writing in which general overview concepts, or the room, are introduced and as the players are mucking about deciding what to do, the DM is reading further ahead and/or the follow-up information helps expand on that general overview. The bullets in this adventure serve much the same purpose. They introduce room concepts quickly and then the DM gets to … wade through the ponderous text that follows, digging for more information. There are a lot of decent styles to choose from to help the DM, this is one, and it DOES help. It’s just dragged down by the “DM text” in the usual North Wind style. 

It’s a shame. The core of the adventure isn’t bad. Cannibal slaves  with sharp pointy teeth “Uh, Sir, I recommend that we examine the mouth of each slave and kill all of the ones with pointy teethe.” A cult, duped by snake men. A nice ruined palace to explore. Evil norse dwarves. A toad-woman. It’s all pretty good, in theory. Heavy on the combat, I think (especially for level 1’s)  and on the trap side of interactivity. Some of the treasure is ok: a magic bow very briefly described to be of laminated white wood, or ion stones that “Once the gunk has been cleaned away, the stones will slip out and begin floating around the head of the investigating

Character.” That’s decent imagery, a little wondrous, which is what magic should be.

I don’t know man. I’ve always WANTED to like AS&SH. There are promises made by the setting that are great. But the execution of them is SO bad. I don’t see how this is usable at the table in any way that I would find meaningful to run. (Which is to say: easy.) It’s SO disappointing. And it seems so avoidable. There seems to be such a devotion to the style guide, over usability, and that’s what is making me question the actual intent of North Wind: playability vs just producing things to read. There has got to be some middle ground in which North Wind can still evoke the style they are going for while enhancing playability rather than detracting from it. 

Also, first level my ass. This is a hard ass adventure.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows you nothing of the adventure writing AT ALL. Just a map and the title pages. That’s a bad preview. For it’s faults, North Wind IS professional and I would expect a preview from them, on a $10 product, that actually shows us a few rooms and therefore the writing and content style of the adventure.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Tabletop or Battle Board? Cover? What Cover?

Two Hour Wargames - Tue, 01/07/2020 - 23:50
Saw a post on the web where someone said they thought THW was getting away from minis on the Tabletop with terrain. Well, that's not true and here's why.

Some rules will use the Battle Board - those with 4 or 5 man Bands in a skirmish setting. But for larger games with multiple larger units like NUTS and 5150 Star Army, you'll see that's for the tabletop.

Now just about all of the rules that use the Battle Board have Tabletop rules as well. If it doesn't, then download this freebie; a 4 page How to for Battle Board to Tabletop rules.

And Cover? Heck yeah, ALL rules use Cover; just check out the Shooting Tables; pass 1d6 or score a 8 or 9. 

Hope this helps.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Concentration Frustrates D&D’s Rangers More than Paladins and Hexblades, but Unearthed Arcana Helps

DM David - Tue, 01/07/2020 - 11:58

Concentration rates as one of the best additions to the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight layered with spells like haste, invisibility, fly, blur, protection from energy, and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while dungeon masters struggled to create any challenge. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

In earlier editions, the same caster behind the buffs could also immobilize foes with Evard’s black tentacles, and then smother them with cloudkill. Now, the need for concentration limits the power of spellcasters, helping to eliminate D&D’s old problem of wizards who surged in power with every level until they overshadowed other classes. (See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.)

Plus, concentration enriches the game by adding a fresh, tactical element. Combatants can end spell effects by targeting casters and breaking their concentration.

While concentration improved D&D and put wizards in their place, the innovation proved mixed for class archetypes that cross swords and spells.

For exhibit A, see the paladin. In my last game, the party’s smite-happy paladin relished the chance to lock down a monster with compelled duel. This 1st-level spell boosts the paladin’s flavor of champion and protector. But compelled duel requires concentration, so while the paladin trades blows, every hit threatens to end the duel. Paladins want to bear the brunt of attacks, and they lack proficiency with Constitution saves, so their concentration is fragile. Why would a paladin ever cast shield of faith?

Worse, the paladin’s smite spells also require concentration, so even momentary attention to a smite spell ends the compelled duel. With smites serving as a cornerstone of the paladin’s offense, the need for concentration brings some frustration. Spells like magic weapon, heroism, and bless seem perfect for paladins, but all demand concentration.

In the D&D Next playtest, the paladins smite spells skipped the concentration requirement, but spells like banishing smite and blinding smite impose ongoing effects that merit concentration. The designers added concentration to add the tactical element where foes can break concentration to end punishing effects.

The same tension between concentration and a melee archetype hinders warlock hexblades and pact of the blade warlocks who aim to use their pact blade for more than posing. Hexblades gain smite spells that require concentration, yet the class also features spells like hex that demand attention.

Surely rangers suffer the most friction between concentration and the class’s featured abilities. The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark. (This exposes another spot where fifth edition punishes melee archetypes, but I’ve written about that already.)

The D&D design team uses their Unearthed Arcana series to test player reaction to potential game additions. A collection of class feature variants reveals one feature intended to smooth the rough spots from hunter’s mark. Read my annotated description.

Favored Foe
1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy)¹
You can call on your bond with nature² to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: You know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it.³ You can use4 it a certain number of of times without expending a spell slot5 and without requiring concentration6—a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

When you gain the Spellcasting feature at 2nd level, hunter’s mark doesn’t count against the number of ranger spells you know7.

1. Instead of changing the base ranger class by adding a new feature missing from the Player’s Handbook, this variant adds an option that replaces a weak class feature. Most players would opt for Favored Foe, but rangers built from the core book keep a unique feature. The D&D design team has chosen not to make changes to the game that supplant anything in the published books. New players should never join a game and then learn that their Player’s Handbook character fails to match the latest rules.

2. The hunter’s mark spell implements a 4th-edition power called Hunter’s Quarry, a non-magical exploit that seemed to behave in some magical ways because the rules said so. Now, the replacement works like magic because it is.

3. First-level rangers can’t normally cast spells, but this feature needs the hunter’s mark spell. This line adds the one spell to a 1st-level ranger’s knowledge.

4. Oddly, the description says “use” rather than “cast”. This shows the designer thinking of this feature as an ability more than a spell. The whole feature description reads like something written by committee, but surely a final version will show more polish.

5. Because hunter’s mark implements a marquee ranger class feature, having to spend a spell slot on it feels like a tax. Here the ability goes tax free.

6. This waives the concentration requirement. Dual-wielding Drizzt admirers everywhere can cheer.

7. Hunter’s mark no longer taxes a ranger’s list of known spells either.

Favored Foe offers a good way eliminate a frustrating edge in the ranger class. I predict we’ll see it in a class options book toward the end of 2020.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Warrens of Zagash

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/06/2020 - 12:20
By Keith Sloan XRP OSRIC Levels 6-8

[…] A recently acquired treasure map points to an ancient dwarven tunnel complex. Could this be the place? Are these the dangerous halls that were once the home for a dwarven cult worshipping an entity they called the Earth Dragon?

This sixteen page adventure details a two level dungeon with about a hundred rooms. Themed to “evil dwarf cult” it comes across as stoic and stuffy. Writing is typical for XRP, being denser than it needs to be for whatever reasons. And treasure is generally boring old book stuff, although a dwarven ring of power is present. Weaker than Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords.

Dwarf themed areas have some major hurdles to overcome. Given the stoic stereotype, an area trying to evoke a dwarf theme tends to come across stoic. Imagine, for example, exploring the one hundred room dungeon of the cult of nothing … which contains 99 rooms that are empty and dusty, each in their own way. Maybe the cult of nothing wasn’t a good choice for a dungeon, for while an excellent designer can evoke the cults asthetic it’s not wise to do so since it’s boring as all fuck. While that’s a hyperbolic example, the same issue exists in this adventure.

The chambers come across as empty. The creatures a mix of undead dwarves and “stone guardian” statues with a few others tossed in. A lot of empty rooms with dust. Geometric designs and feelings of uneasiness in a alot of/most temple rooms. So, yes, excellent ability to invoke evil stoic dwarf cult. Maybe not a good choice though. Another room with geometric designs. Hmmm. Another temple room where we feel uneasy. Hmmm.

Combine this with OSRIC being OSRIC. Another _2 dagger. Another potion of x, another +1 sword. Another boring old gold bowl worth x amount. It’s flat. It’s abstracted. It’s generic. Not vanilla. Generic. Is that really a design ethos to embrace? To be generic? Abstracted descriptions? 

This is then combined with the abstracted writing style. GREATER TOMB: This room is filled with 30 low biers each containing the long desiccated body of a dwarf, among the leaders of this cult.” Not exactly awe-inspiring or evocative. Just facts. And then the writing is muddled up with ineffective phrasing and techniques. There’s a lot of “What appears to be …” and “… but it is simply a painting”  (Another person needing Ray’s books on editing) Geometric carving after geometric carving. And I really mean “geometric carving.” That’s the text used. A little more theming would be in order. 

Speaking of. “Stone statue attacks” will be a common DM phrase. Other than that, there are some undead dwarves and just a small smattering of something else. This is the “tomb” problem. Tomb adventures require a tomb layout and some guardians that are, all, essentially the sam. Abandoned dwarf cult halls means some undead dwarves and stone statues and maybe a few vermin with little else. It’s hard to justify more in these circumstances … but the end goal is a fun adventure, right, not an accurate one? Only enough simulation to be in service of fun, not the end all be all?

I will say it’s nice to see a dwarf ring of power, good effects and bad effects both present. There’s also a nice wasting curse that, if you choose to die rather than submit to the god (who’s causing you worship him or else waste away) then you get to heal fully when you would die. That’s good design. Keith can design well, but the writing is flat and the setting boring, with to many stone statues and chilling room effects. Too much abstraction.

I shall also mention my new pet peeve: if you’re going to tell me about constant dungeon effects then it needs to go on the map, or someplace else that it’s always available to me. 

How much of this is Keith’s writing style is Keiths, How much is OSRIC-enforced genericism, How much is the selected locale, and How much is XRP’s style bringing to the table? Yes, it’s 100 room dungeon in the old style. Yes, it has a theme and executes it. But that doesn’t mean it was the right decision.

This is $14 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Naughty Joe! Go stick in a preview!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Blacksmith’s Folly

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/04/2020 - 12:11
By Brett Bloczynski Encoded Designs 5e Low levels

… With this hope Marion searched the dusty library in her home and found the long-forgotten diaries of Samuel. Marion learned that Samuel did indeed imprison a Lamplighter with the intention of forcing it to grant him a wish. Unfortunately, the final pages of the journal were blank, and Marion never learned if Samuel got his wish fulfilled. Grief-stricken Marion, however, is certain it happened. It must have happened. She would MAKE it happen… and her daughter would live again.

This twenty digest page city adventure is a short investigation in to a murder and a couple of combats along the way. Simple, but with some unexpected flavor, it does an ok job with a short one-night adventure format. A little more work on it and it could be a decent short little adventure. Also, remember, I like adventures. 

I was predisposed to not like this adventure. It’s got a project manager attached. And two art directors, and someone in charge of development. I see that and I think “ought oh!” Further, it’s about a woman trying to bring her kid back. That’s another warning sign: treating your D&D game with modern morality. What was the child mortality rate back then? Like 30%-50%, I think? Actually, that gives me an idea. People MOB the party for cash and raise dead. The entire campaign. Talk about high level world problems! Actually, that doesn’t sound like fun for more than a session or two. But, anyway, predisposed thanks to the marketing and the ilk to not like it.

But imagine my surprise! The woman “Once the work was done, Marion drugged Horace, chained him to his anvil, and cut off his hands while collecting his blood in a copper

bowl. Horace died as a result of this process.” Well no fucking shit he died! Brutal! That was unexpected! And then the city portion comes in to play “The Griffins were called and, after a hasty investigation, labeled the tragedy as a “robbery gone wrong.” WooHoo! Police procedural callback where they are all incompetent! God I love city adventures!

So, that got me interested in this adventure in a hurry …

In short, you’re at a wake for the dead smith. There are some people to talk to. You investigate his shop, find some clues, go to the womans house, and find her in the basement torturing a lamplighter to get a wish to bring her kid back to life. Along the way are some shadows to fight, attracted to the evil. (The lamplights are some kind of a Charon-like entity/group, I gather. No much info on them, I assume it’s in some setting book. A couple of words on adapting this adventure to a non-lamplighter world, or a bit more info would have useful for those of us blind buying without the setting book.)

The Lamplighter is weird and cool. It’s a mystery Charlie Brown! She’s torturing this THING for a wish. They are some kind of weird hive mind entity that lights the lamps I guess. But the imagery … There’s only one lamp lit on the characters street, in front of the smiths, with a lamplighter solo in front of it/under it. It talks in archaic form. At the end a bunch fo them gather in a circle around the building and take the woman away to deal with. Creepy fucking imagery! Good Job! And an excellent example of why less is more when it comes to mystery. Explaining things ruins the magic. 

The NPC’s in the tavern/wake are presented on pne page per, with personalities and quirks easily summarized at top and clue/info to relate in bullet form. This makes it pretty easy to run them. Likewise the clues in the two other locations (the smithy, womans house) and other important points are also bullet related. 

The shadows, a “normal” book monster, are handled … ok. A little creepy, but it could have been handled better with their sliding under doors, attacks, etc. There’s been a small attempt at more flavour, but more in this area would have really heightened the adventure. 

On the down side …

The location descriptions don’t work well. Yes, the clue data is done well, but the general descriptions, etc. are not done very well. I feel like this a formatting/[resentatin decision, since the floors of the buildings ares summarized. That might be an ok way to do it but I would suggest it wad not done very well. It’s not easy to scan at the table and relate. Somehow concentrating more on the environs and less on the commentary, while keeping the flavour, is needed.

A lot of information is also presented in italics. I like to beat this point to death, but let me try again: large sections of italics are not easy to read. More than a word or two is bad. You need to find another way. Shaded background, something, but don’t use italics for large sections of text: it’s hard to read and makes eyes tired. Some brief research indicates that this is a well known fact in the editing/typeface world. 

It’s also the case that the digest format is a little limiting in this case. One page per NPC in the tavern meet & greet is ok, but the ability to summarize them on a one page would have been even better. Digest is a fine format … but not for all adventures. If you need to REFERENCE things then digest can be challenging and requires some extra effort to help usability at the table.

Finally, and I can’t believe I’m saying this … some of the descriptions are not adequate and don’t have enough detail. Quick! Think of a forge! Because that’s the description of the Forge area of the blacksmiths shop. IE: it’s a forge. That’s about it. Now … how many of you thought about a quenching bucket/tub? I didn’t, and was surprised to find one in the text. Likewise the coals. Yes, in retrospect, once mentioned, they are obvious. But when the party first comes in and I describe it … I didn’t think of either and the text doesn’t mention it … the description overview is non-traditional and therefore leaves that out in it’s more “overview than description” format. Normally, I would suggest that a bedroom or kitchen doesn’t need a contents list. And that remains true. But if an element is a key point of an adventure then it should be mentioned. And both the tub and coals are key points in this. Key elements should be noted previously. 

But, hey, still a workable adventure and much  better than almost every other 5e adventure I’ve seen! Good Job! And I applaud the designer for avoiding the DMs Guild nonsense!

This is $3 at DriveThru.The preview is the first four pages. The last two kind of give you an idea of the organization of the text with bullets, heading, indents and the like. Including a page that shows an encounter would have been much better, but the preview DOES give you an idea of what to expect.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Blog Watch: Defining Aesthetics, Blatant Hatred, the Dead-Egg Division, and Midlist Diaspora

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Fri, 01/03/2020 - 12:53

Realism Isn’t (Ben Cheah) Going Bright — “In the name of realism, many artists today chase the darkness. Every vice is elevated, every taboo broken, every blasphemy committed. Nothing is sacred, everything is false. There are no heroes, only degrees of evil. No saviours, only monsters wearing the masks of men. No virtue, only the will to power. The intelligentsia claim this is ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’. It is the defining aesthetic of our times, a relentless march towards deeper depths of degradation and desecration.”

Game Over (Wasteland and Sky) End of the ’10s — “But things have change a lot in such a short time. I can’t imagine going back twenty, or even ten, years and telling myself that just about every piece of art worth engaging in would be independent while corporations cratered due to outright, and blatant, hatred of their audience. This is how they’re dealing with the death of the old paradigm. It’s a glorified temper tantrum.”

Women Ruin Everything (Kairos) Fempub — “At first blush, it’s not unreasonable to look at these numbers and conclude that oldpub’s catering to female readers is just a common sense reaction to market forces. After all, if most of your customers are women, your products should target them. With all respect to Ben, this explanation puts the cart before the horse. It’s not that men don’t like to read. We know they love to read. Male-targeted fiction dominated pop culture during the reign of the pulps. It took frustrated lit fic authors-turned-editors at NYC houses to suppress men’s adventure fiction and usher in the pink revolt.”

There’s Always a Woman (DMR Books) Sword & Planet: A Genre of Mashups — “Speaking of natives, the protagonist encounters a lovely female who has a big problem. Whether it be an unwanted marriage arrangement, a hostile city about to declare war, or simply being lost / stranded in the wilderness, this problem is serious enough that she could use some help. The protagonist, being usually an honorable sort (or at least wanting to impress the lady), volunteers to give assistance. There is almost always a woman involved in a pulp Western story, even if only as a background element. Whether a good woman or a bad one, she offers obvious motivations and complications to the protagonist’s life.”

Something Happened (Walker’s Retreat) My Life As A Writer: Brian & David Talk Mecha On “NewPub Talk” — “In short, the Dead Egg Division of frustrated Bitch Lit authors turned their pity positions in OldPub into power positions by 1980. During this time the malaise of misery porn in the West that polluted popular science fiction got stymied only due to Star Trek and Star Wars, with some off-brand examples getting some traction because of this (e.g. The Black Hole, released to theaters in 1979). ‘Respectable’ opinion shat on them and the tradition of the Pulps they–Star Wars in particular– represented.”

Bro, Do You Even Regress? (Breitbart) 11 Ways Kathleen Kennedy Killed the Star Wars Golden Goose — “Hey, I’m someone who believes Hollywood should make movies for everyone, including the alphabet people. But just like people don’t want to be told Jesus Is Lord in a Star Wars movie,  they don’t want to see a lesbian kiss. That’s why Christian movies are their own genre, and that’s why gay should be its own genre…”

Wind is Changing! (Jon Mollison) Stopped Clocks and the Midlist Midwit Diaspora — “We’re talking about guys who are very online and very dialed into the culture of the SJWs. They have contacts and ‘ins’ and rumor-mills at their disposal that we plucky underdogs do not. So their change in attitude from as recently as a few months ago means something big is in the wind.”

Get with It, Y’all (Effective Nerd) An Interview with P. Alexander of Cirsova Publishing — “There are more tools and resources for authors and publishers than ever before. What’s out there may not be perfect, and sometimes changes (like Amazon folding Createspace into KDP) aren’t always for the better, there has still never been a better time to get into publishing. Anyone with a finished book waiting for a golden ticket from tradpub is wasting valuable time that they could be spending getting their work out there and in front of readers.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Monthly Sale on Certain Printed Books 50% Off

Two Hour Wargames - Thu, 01/02/2020 - 02:59
Here's a list of printed books on sale this month. Follow the link and save big bucks! Supplies limited so don't wait.
Red Sand Black Moon
Piathoe's Peaks
5150: Missions Infestation
Warrior Heroes - Legends
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Squarehex 2019 Review and 2020 Plans

Oubliette - Wed, 01/01/2020 - 23:13

2019 was a good year for the business. The two highlights for me were getting The Black Hack Second Edition rewards sent out to our Kickstarter backers and The Black Hack picking up a Silver Ennie award at GenCon. Ongoing sales of The Black Hack have been strong and we now have 2 distributors in the US (Exalted Funeral and Noble Knight) and in the UK Leisure Games are carrying stock. We should also soon have copies of The Black Hack in general UK distribution via Asmodee.
Once the main work associated with The Black Hack was over it was nice to get back to a few smaller Kickstarter projects to fund print runs of several notebooks and booklets. In addition to the Kickstarters I'm always on the lookout for small niche publishing projects. In the last few years I've had the pleasure of printing material featuring the creative talents of Kristian Richards, James West, David Black, Dyson Logos, Charley Phipps and Karl Stjernberg. In 2020 I'll be helping Fish in the Pot with the UK/EU distribution of their one page dungeon zine.
During the year we managed to attend 5 conventions (Hammerhead, UK Games Expo, Barrage, Chillcon and Dragonmeet). I hope to do a few more shows than that in 2020, but they are very time consuming and apart from the Expo and Dragonmeet the financial rewards are fairly small.
I start 2020 with a Kickstarter project (Combat Counters) to complete which should be finished by the end of February. Then I want to run a follow-up project for The Black Hack to fund a booklet of classic monsters which will be a useful supplement for GMs running modules from other OSR/original games. After that I would really like to tackle a reprint of The Lichway. I first talked about my plans for that project in 2015. Although that was a long time ago, when you consider the adventure was first published in 1978, it's still the recent past really. I have done more groundwork on the project over the last 4 years, but more importantly, my ideas on how to best present the adventure have evolved considerably. In between these major projects I should still have time for a few small projects to produce paper pads, booklets and more 2.5D dungeon expansions.
When I started Squarehex I set a very low financial bar for the business. Essentially, I wanted a hobby business that would allow me to print niche items with little regard for how commercially viable they were. That sounds more reckless than it is in reality as I've never lost money on a project. Indeed all my Kickstarters are planned so I know the exact weight, cost and postage for every item before I start. The business has now almost reached the point where it could be a full-time job. If you'd told me at age 20, 30, or even 40 that I could be doing this for a living at the age of 50 I don't think I would have believed it. Even though the pay is a fraction of what I used to earn in the corporate world, I think I'm now in that small group of people who get to do a job that doesn't really feel like work. Thank you to everyone that has supported our projects or bought things from us via the webstore or at a convention in 2019. I hope we can tempt you back for more in 2020.
Happy New Year!
Peter Regan

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Trials of a Young Wizard

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 01/01/2020 - 12:11
By Simon Miles Dunromin University press OSRIC Level 1

Fresh-faced and more than a little hung-over our newly graduated mage of the great Dunromin College of Magic and his friends step into the tea-room next to the Porter’s Lodge and ask for something for a headache. Within minutes they find themselves accosted by the smiling figure of Malcolm Darkstar, Bursar of the College and owner of the tea-rooms, keen to ask them a favour…

This 48 page book has three adventures: a small kobold lair, a fetch quest in a dead wizards manor home, and a side-quest burning farmstead/argument with a doppleganger spouse. It makes some attempts at verisimilitude but fails in being usable, as it asserts it wants to be. Or even interesting.

Three little adventures for level one’s in OSRIC. There’s not much going on in these. There are, though, a lot of words. There are page long room encounters. There are LOOOOONG sections of read-aloud. There’s an attempt to use bolding to highlight keywords and phrases in the long text but it largely misses its mark, being the wrong words bolded to to get the flavor of an encounter. It largely shows an unfamiliarity with better formatting techniques like bullets and indentations. This isn’t a one-size fits all, an adventure should not be all bullets and indents, but a mix of text, bullets, indents, and bolding usually does a better job than just one of those techniques alone. Further, when bolding and text are used by themselves then it becomes critical to keep the text short, use para breaks appropriately, and bold the right things. And none of that is done here. The net impact is a kind text wall that resists scanning. And if you can’t scan the text easily then you can’t run the adventure easily. 

There’s also this kind of mania for physical descriptions. Read-aloud and DM text both are pretty specific. 8’ high, 4’ wide, 5’ long passage, and so forth. Does that matter to the players? Short and stumpy, or other flavour text, would be better. This mania for EXACT dimensions, especially in read-aloud, drives me nuts. 

Dungeon trappings are buried in text instead of on the (linear) maps. (Well, the kobold map at least is linear.) Embedding the smells and noises on the mpa, for example, keeps them fresh in front of the DM’s eyes, helping them add flavor to the game as they are running it. Remember: the published adventure is supposed to be a play aid for the DM, helping them run it. 

There’s also a weird tone in this. King Modred and Lord Darkstar. The text refers to a bizarre land, and the whole “beginning wizard” thing makes me think of some juvenile audience … but then there’s murdered kids in a house on fire and other darker things. It’s got a weird tone. And almost no loot for a 1e adventure that, by definition, requires hold to get XP to level. There’s some handwaving about doing this on purpose, but by doing so you’re destroying one of the key posts of the game. 

This makes me think, for all the world, that the designer is VERY new to this. They have a vision in their head. It makes sense to them, and they try to put it down on paper. But, that’s not the goal. The goal is to get it in to the running DM’s head so they can run it during actual play. What makes sense to the designer, who is intimately familiar with their own work, doesn’t to someone who has to slog through all of the text text to get out the good bits.

And the good bits are few and far between. This is mostly kobolds and goblins and the like, with snare traps and other relatively boring things. There’s a ncie order of battle for monsters in how they react, but, like everything else, it’s too long and too prescriptive. Evocative is not prescriptive. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $4. The preview is the entire thing, at 48 pages. Yeah!  Try pages five, six, and seven as the overland/intro and tell me you can run that easily. Or pages eight, nine and ten for approaching the kobold lair. It’s just little to no organization at all except paragraph this and then paragraph that happens.

Happy Fucking New Year. What a way to start it.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

New Printable Initiative Trackers for Dungeons & Dragons

DM David - Tue, 12/31/2019 - 12:35

When I described the best ways to track initiative in Dungeons & Dragons, I showed how I track initiative by draping named initiative tents over my dungeon master’s screen. I favor this method because I like a visible reference to the characters’ and especially the monsters’ stats. At the table, paging through the monster manual or finding monster pages shuffled in my other papers takes me too long. Hanging key numbers in plain sight speeds play.

Collected Monster Initiative Tents

When I fill a monster’s initiative tracker, I save it for future games. Over a couple of years, I’ve accumulated hundred of tents, from aboleth to zombie. I appreciate this resource, but when the reuse proved helpful, I wished for monster tents that could hold more information: all the saves and an fuller outline of actions. So I created bigger trackers for more complicated monsters. These large tents work better for aboleth, while the small ones still work fine for zombie. My new design means I’ll be rewriting older tents as needed.

Download a PDF of my blank tents.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some helpful players won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game.

Top Dog Games makes a line of pre-printed Stat Trackers that already come printed with monster information.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Lost Treasure of Atlantis

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 12/30/2019 - 12:10
By Chainsaw North Wind Adventures AS&SH Levels 6-8

In the far reaches of Hyperborea’s Crab Archipelago lies a small, mountainous island known as Crystal Point. Passing sailors recently have witnessed a crimson glow in Crystal Point’s waters and beams of russet light shining up from its steep cliffs. Too, unusually frequent lightning storms in the area have torn the sky in blinding flashes, shattering the air with their awesome sound. The seedy wharf taverns of Khromarium and elsewhere buzz with these strange tales—some even speculate that Crystal Point may hold the lost treasure of Atlantis! 

This 68 pages adventure OOZES with flavour. Primarily a “dungeon” of tunnels & caves, it also includes an island exploration to get there and little social adventure in an “evil” village to learn of the island. It, finally, lives up to the promises made of AS&SH. Flavour & interactivity abounds … diminished only by the layout (and editing?)  choices made. Buy More. Buy More Now, and Be Happy!

I was not looking forward to this review. I’m off, and lazy when I’m off work. And it’s an AS&SH adventure, and I’m not fond of those. And a 68 page slog through crap is no fun AT ALL when you have holiday things to do. But wait … what’s this? Talanian didn’t write this? Chainsaw did?Hmmm, He’s on my internal mental list as “Not a complete fucking idiot.” (And to be clear, this ranks right below “Bryce is fanboy Of” … there’s a big gap there that explains many things about me psychologically speaking.) To my delight Chainsaw has finally produced an AS*SH adventure that FEELS like a pulp adventure. It’s full of flavour and action and interactivity and is evocative as all fuck. 

A zombie has a map tattooed on his back, or a toothless sailor with glinting eyes grins and shows you a platinum coin, or a noble “of little renown” has gone missing. Even my own fucked up summaries of the hooks communicates some of the awesome of these hooks. Not long, but PACKED with flavour. 

And this continues in every part of the adventure. Onboard ship to get an island there’s wandering monsters, of course. I often lament “they attack!” encounters … but these are different. They have flavour. “A group drifts into the party’s path and crawls hand

over hand up their ship’s sides.” or “Giant tentacles burst from the water,

attempting to rip the party’s ship to pieces.” This communicates the encounter vibe well. One short sentence and the DM has something to work with. Evocative writing is important in an adventure, especially these days. Most of us have packed lives. By writing evocatively the designer communicates tone, tenor, flavour of an encounter directly to the DM’s brain, and then the DM can take over and build upon it. Encounter after encounter after encounter does this.

The very first location is an “evil” village. The people paint themselves red, like crabs. It’s full of crab parts. The blacksmith has a birth defect that looks like a crab hand. They keep slaves. They have two dudes in hanging iron cages …errr … one, the other, his brother, was burnt to death in his cage. There’s … oh fuck, why am I even trying. This is place is PACKED. Several subplots in just the opening village. The dude in the cage, another brother trying to free him, the village elders hiding a crab conspiracy (duh …) and a villanous merchant, a … it’s just fucking packed! And the island is also … including a mi-go automaton with rudimentary intelligence that has broken free and is repeating why me WHY ME” over and over again. Fucking Flavour. And, it should be obvious by now: Fucking Interactivity. More than just combat. Telegraphing. Plans to be made. Plots to be foiled. ADVENTURE!

And, as per usual, it’s fucked over by the layout and editing. There ARE cross–references, and bolding, and some indents, all of which make things easier to find. There’s also the usual mania found in all Northwind adventures to laying out every word in a paragraph style. I don’t know if it’s in the designers manuscript or not. But I do know that the editor and “development person” should have done something about it no matter who did it. Unless they did it. In which case BAD! YOU’RE BAD PEOPLE! You can’t just bury information in a quarter page paragraph of small font type. I’m scanning the page, looking for the encounter description. I can’t read a column before relating it to my players. Get it? Do you get it? No? You don’t get it? That’s why it continues to show up in adventure after adventure? Look, I’m not saying you have to sell your soul down the river. What I AM saying is that you need to find another layout and editing style that both works for the “Howard wrote this a hundred years ago and look out layout looks like that!” and “usability at the table for quick scanning.” Do some work and find something that works for you from now on. And keep publishing from people like Chainsaw that know how to write.

I can poke some more holes in this. A reference sheet for NPC’s in the village. A kind of “overview look” for the large open vistas, like when you enter the village, see the island, etc. Landmarks, first things you see, etc. 

Chainsaw writes viscerally. You FEEL the encounter, NPC, etc. 

Plus, there’s a Lightning Reactor in this adventure. With levers you can pull. FUCK! YES!

This is a great place to adventure and a great adventure module. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is broken! Fix the preview!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dumbarton Arena: APFSDS Ammo vs. Flaming Oil!

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Mon, 12/30/2019 - 03:23

Time for some more Car Wars!

My opponent’s character “Borf” had achieved Gunner-1. My character Egon had one kill and a couple of expensive cars he could salvage. Winning this game would be huge. “Borf” would probably shift to Driver-1 and Gunner-1. “Egon” would maybe jump to Gunner-1.

Now… technically it’s “not fair” for my guy to be going up against a more skilled driver. Some people would object to this. In our games, it takes maybe two or three games to level up a character. If you make it that far, you’re probably lucky… and your luck is liable to have run out. We figure it’s more fun to be able to enjoy being awesome while you can. The glory of beating a superior character more than makes up for the lack of “fairness.” The fun of having continuing characters more than makes up for any potential game balance issues– it’s all just part of the game.

We made some changes to the previous game’s car to make for a more fun event. Gone are the heavy duty anti-lock brakes, PFE, IBA, AVR, flaming oil dischargers, wheel guards, and armored wheel hubs. In their place we got stuff that would make everything more awesome: a HRSWC and HD shocks!

Gothmog II — Luxury, x-hvy chassis, hvy suspension, sport power plant with superconductors, 4 solid tires, driver,  2 linked ATGs with APFSDS ammo front, HFOJ back, spoiler, airdam, heavy duty shocks, HRSWC. Armor: F 55, R 25, L 25, B 25, T 0, U 0, 10-points CA on plant, 10-points CA on driver. Accel 10, top speed 120 mph, HC 3, 6,570 lbs, $29,900.

In the opening moves my opponent let me accelerate out in front of him in the hopes that I would turn away out of the gate so that he could shoot me up at his leisure. Instead I cut towards him, fired my guns, and t-boned him. I did enough damage to injure his driver but not take him out. So close! This dropped my handling status way low but I managed to maintain control. Taking a fire modifier from the flaming oil was dangerous. A second hit of from the HFOJ could very well take me out of the game. A nail-biting parity ensued that would continue through the rest of the game!

Getting that second flaming oil hit was not trivial, though. Having to maneuver while on the unlit oil proved to be about as dangerous, though!

Both of us took steadied on a bit to try to get back in control. My opponent then cut left to force me onto one more flaming oil slick. He lost control and went into a spin-out. This should have been my game! He made a right angle turn as he spun around. I fired my ATGs, killing his driver… a spun around again laying flaming oil in his own path of travel… and then slammed into the wall, coming to rest on his own flaming oil slick!

All I had to do was stay in control and not catch on fire and I would win the game! Sitting on top of a flaming oil slick, it would be crazy to maneuver. I opted to hit the obstacle counter that had dropped when I took out my opponent. I lost control, fish-tailed, and then spun out… coming to rest on the same flaming oil slick that was burning up my opponent’s car!

My driver jumped out of the car to try to get away before the vehicles exploded. I wasn’t fast enough and my awesome continuing character died a horrible death in an explosion.

So after a nail-biting game that lasted an hour and a half, our continuing campaign fell prey to a de facto total party kill– an outcome made more hilarious by the fact that I would have won the game outright had I not fired my weapons producing an obstacle directly on my path of travel…!

What do you do when your entire campaign goes up in smoke…? Come up with something even more awesome, natch!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Lowcountry Crawl

Beyond Fomalhaut - Sun, 12/29/2019 - 18:16
Lowcountry Crawl
Lowcountry Crawl (2019)by John GregoryPublished by Technical Grimoire Games
The inaugural issue of a fanzine describing a “Southern Gothic” setting – something based on early 19th century coastal South Carolina by way of D&D-ish RPGs (it is barely statted, but would go well with the common B/X-based systems). As the intro states, this is a fairly underexplored setting idea, but once you look inside, you will see that it would fit very nicely into any pirate- or smuggler-themed RPG set around the Caribbean, or in colonial America. The “Barrier Islands” of the first issue are a chain of small islands, somewhere between sandbanks and habitable land. The coast is by and large modular and self-contained – you don’t need future issues of the zine to find this useful.
What you get is a decent mini-setting: basic guidelines to generate new islands, with a description of the environments you may find there; a sample island chain; random encounters; and a selection of setting-appropriate stuff. There is a good mixture of approaches from the naturalistic (the hazards and opportunities of wildlife, mud, and the tides) to the folkloric (pulled from local legends and folk tales) and the fantastic (wild stuff like giant eye islands and giant reed rafts supporting an entire village). It is not “in-depth”, remaining closer to the surface concept level than presenting a fully detailed adventure, but it is more than a zoomed-out overview. The four major islands present a place where you can venture from the safety of civilisation to the odder, more dangerous corners of the wilderness. The further you go, the tougher it gets. There are basic connections to link it together and give you a structure for improvisation. I find this approach useful; it is perhaps closest to what Wilderlands of High Fantasy gives you (but on a much smaller scale). There is a listing of local creatures and magic items, which are the high point of the zine, with a macabre sense of wonder. Here is a one-eyed dog monster bound to hidden treasure; a bloody skeleton in the marshes with hanging strips of skin called Tommy Rawbones; raccoon baculum (yes, really), or magical chewing tobacco (nasty stuff).
This is the first RPG product I have come across that lists a sensitivity reader (granted, I live under a rock). I surmise it is a very sensible idea to hire one if you randomly find yourself writing sentences like “Actually, slavery is pretty cool”, or “The lesbians at the tavern have damn fine tits.” Your sensitivity reader will just find these passages and recommend that you remove them, all at a modest price. It is a very useful invention that I see getting widely adopted. Beyond sensitivity, “Akelah” has contributed a strange merchant selling odd semi-magical gewgaws. It is not the high point of the publication, but it is fairly okay.
Altogether, Lowcountry Crawl is an “idea zine” with an interesting theme and an excellent sense of place. It is neither a fully described locale nor a toolbox, but a set of related ideas to provide a framework for adventures you will write or make up on the spot. In that respect, it is the potential beginning of something good – although not necessarily the thing itself.
No playtesters are credited in this publication. However, there is a sensitivity reader!
Rating: *** / *****
Chew on this!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Depths of Felk Mor

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 12/28/2019 - 12:21
By Roderick Waibel Sacrosanct Games 5e Levels 1-10

Normally a time of year for celebration of the harvests, there is a tangible pall over the keep.  People are on edge, and a level of inherent distrust seems to be festering underneath weak smiles and cordial habitual greetings.  It seems as though the harvest celebration is happening out of routine, rather than genuine excitement. It is as if somehow the people are trying to use it as a way to get their minds off the pervasive sense of dread that is brought with each wave of fog. The circumstances that brought you to the keep are varied, but one thing is for certain: something is amiss.

This 236 page adventure uses about a hundred pages to describe a multi-level underground caves/tunnel/dungeon with about 250 rooms. Maddingly, it develops well but it missing in a kind of overview to get the DM oriented to it. Combined with a casual writing style, you can tell its got some interesting things going on but the amount of work required to massage it in to playable form would be substantial. 

Multiple levels of a single mega-dungeon here, with a very brief regional map. The adventure is, though, in the dungeon. It starts with some ant tunnels. They take up a pretty substantial part of the adventure, about fifty of the 250 or so rooms. Then it leads to some intermediate caverns, and then a large underground cave with several subterranean races living in it. It ends up with a more traditional dungeon down there, in a tomb with some cutists, etc. 

The ant tunnels and upper levels are relatively interesting from a ,,, developing story? standpoint. You get this initial impression and then there are little hints of things going on that develop in to more. It has a kind of developing horror present in it. It also reminds me of the Buggems lair in Legion of Gold, and, Gamma World My Favoritests, I am perhaps biased.

Things tend to go downhill after that. The underground community section has five factions present, but while each get a decently extensive write up I don’t feel like it lives up to its potential in any way. And the final dungeon levels, in  a temple, etc, do bring back more interesting ideas again but … it just feels off.

The thing is not organized well. For such a large adventure, 250 rooms and level one through ten and 260 pages, it feels … sparse? Almost half the pages are appendix but it’s really lacking in organizational, or summarizing data that could help orient the DM to the play of the thing. A few overviews would have been in order, and the ones that are present could be much better. The humanoid settlements get a page of so write up each with their motivations but then revert to traditional room key. And the write-ups are not really in a manner that help you use them. It’s more of a style guide that one could then use to develop DM aides and text for running an adventure. The lore guide full of background data that helps you write the actual play guide, so to speak. Oh! I like that analogy! And it works so well for so many descriptive errors in an adventure. “This room used to be …” Hey! That goes in the lore guide that the adventure writer uses to write the adventure! Not in the adventure proper! And this adventure does that a lot, with used to be’s and this is that way because Y …  That sort of tex almost never contributes to the actual play of the adventure and gets in the way of the DM running it.

Descriptions also feel sloppy. One that sticks out, aboveground, is with some caravan ruins. A short description of a ruined wagon, torns pits of cloth, destroyed goods. Then the DM text mentions, in an off hand way, the survivors relating … whit, what? Survivors? And also that the ants rendered people … ants did this? It’s as if the writer knows what they want, what they have in mind, but they don’t get it down on the paper in a way that orients the DM to the actual play. Information is not well organized. The focus is not on the core of a room but rather tangential room details. Muddied descriptions. And then, when the text gets LOOOONG, and it does get column-length or longer in places, it becomes nigh impossible to discern playability. 

I note as well that this thing could use a lot more cross-references. There’s a bunch of mini-plots present but no help for the DM about where to find out more. You’ve got a missing relative? Better read all 250 pages to find out their name; it’s buried in there somewhere! Some cross-references would have helped a lot. It aso uses room name description “Laboratory” and so on, but also mixes in commentary “Looks like a hot time!” or something like that. You can totally do things this way … but given the weakness of the room descriptions and DM text then an evocative room description would have helped orient the DM to the room in a much better way. 

There’s also some weirdness in the communities giant cavern that is strains disbelief. The entire thing in on a piece of graph paper with 1 square equaling 300 feet. Those are pretty tight confins for five factions plus some wilderness. And there’s this 1 kilometer zone around each community where you encounter those inhabitants … which means around three-ish squares in the middle of the map where you DON’T have those encounters. It feels really small for what it is. And then there is some conflicting information about one of them, with mi-gos servants collecting sacrifices/slaves .. .but they also can be befriended? That doesn’t have to be impossible, but it feels more like an error than a possibility. 

Megadungeons are difficult beasts. They require some special organization to help the DM run these large and complex environments. Combined with the casual writing style in this it comes out as a product in which individual zones (of which there are a lot. yeah!) and rooms have pretty good ideas that hit over and over again, but they don’t fit well for the DM to run at the table.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is fifteen pages. Page eleven of the preview/page sixteen of the book shows you the Abandoned Camp encounters with the survivors/ants thing I referenced earlier, for you to draw your own conclusions. Read the last three or four pages of the preview to get a sense of the writing style. It’s an ok preview, but would have been better also showing some dungeon pages.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Grayharrowing Adventures

3d6 Traps & Thieves - Wed, 12/25/2019 - 06:13

Design & Development
Because a few people have actually asked some questions, and because I do benefit from examining my own creative process, I’d like to share some notes and observations for a campaign setting built from the ground-up. Avremier has been building for nearly forty years and I actually struggle to recall many of the earliest details. Grayharrow was started within the last few years – though its origins do lie in an earlier iteration of Avremier (from the mid-1980s). Very little from that Grayharrow survives to this project, but those small kernels are very important.
Project History
Vythakhar was an unused realm in the first iteration of what is now the Avremier setting. It was a place of strange magic and an atmosphere I could only describe as, “eldritch.” It was a weird place created by a very young me, and none of my players ever reached it. Maybe a shadowy reflection of Melniboné. When I set out to bring Avremier “to the masses,” I found that Vythakhar just didn’t fit my current vision of the setting. So, rather than attempt to force a triangular peg into a round hole, I decided to create an Avremier spinoff, of sorts. Not that Vythakhar is part of Avremier. It is just a mini-setting that takes much of its flavor and detail from the early days of Avremier’s development. Like an archaeological site recently unearthed for study and possible appreciation. What you have here is Vythakhar placed within a more suitable setting, developed by a more mature and experienced me. It is my hope that both have aged well.
So – that’s where Grayharrow comes from. An exotic kingdom that never saw use in my game, poised at the edge of a hand-drawn map that no longer exists. The players just never travelled that far. Possibly for the best. Recently, when I dusted off some of my notes from the 80s and 90s, Vythakhar and its environs came fully to my attention after years of neglect. The timing seemed right, because I immediately began brainstorming a new campaign setting. But, I was no longer a kid living at home, with hours and hours to spare in the building of another sprawling and detailed fantasy world. I’d have to exercise some restraint – something I’m rarely good at when it comes to creative endeavors.
Guidelines and Ground Rules
This was not going to be a project that would grow and develop at a leisurely pace after extensive playtesting. I had set out to build a fantasy world with boundaries and some measure of focus. I would have an overall genius loci, in the form of a fallen deity that left behind titanic skeletal remains. The initial visual was very appealing to me – creating a landscape around a massive skeleton. In fact, this dominant physical feature would help define the true scope of the setting. With a bit of number-crunching and mathematical reckoning (not my personal strengths) I determined that the divine remains would be about 38 miles long. So, Vythakhar would have to be at least that size. And, I just had to place Imharra, the main city of the setting, directly into the palm of one dead hand. Nothing less would do. Also, the skull would be one of the most important features of the setting. The place where the mind of the departed deity would reside. A crucial focal point for the intended flavor and subtext of the campaign world – psionics.
Those who know me are aware that I generally exclude psionics from my own game and campaign setting. Still, over the years, I have come up with psionics-based ideas that seem fun to me. Grayharrow gives me an environment suited to those ideas. A showcase, of sorts. A psionic lich-king with an exposed crystallized brain, served by lawful-neutral psionic paladin enforcers, with leashed crystalline intellect devourers as hunting hounds. Clans of psionically-endowed grell totake the place of a certain type of octopoid-headed humanoid known for psionicallytenderizing and physically devouring the brains of its victims. Hidden domains of mad duergar. Isolated orders of psionic monks. Psionics that originated within the brain of the Dead God – emanating outward into the surrounding realms. I wanted a source that I could isolate and control – just in case.

Imports & Recycling
Honestly, I have a lot of ideas that just don’t suit my existing settings. Tons of stuff that don’t really fit within the established framework of Avremier. Concepts that aren’t funny enough for Duckin’ & Braggin’. That’s how the ‘Color-Titledsettingscame about. Each one embodies a distinct atmosphere or flavor that I’d like to explore in-depth.  Grayharrow’s signature flavor is something I sometimes struggle to describe in simple terms. It is built upon a solid foundation of psionic-based science-fantasy, with a pseudo-Victorian veneer. Not quite Steampunk. Gothic Gaslight, but not always traditional Gothic. There are a few strong literary influences, but I don’t really want to dwell on them. I’ve taken them in different directions and woven them into something more my own. There are other Avremier concepts that have been transplanted fully into Grayharrow – the pivotal city of Imharra being one. Then, there are concepts that were introduced in Avremier, but taken to different levels and in other directions for Grayharrow. Gargoyles, sphinxes, paladins, monks, arcane magic, nonhuman PC races, nonhuman domains, psionics-aided combat, other dimensions, undead, psidead, and more. Just a lot of standards or trappings that I wanted to twist or repurpose into something I found engaging.
Culture, Myth, History & Folklore
Quite a few real-world cultures manage to inspire and flavor the creation of my fantasy civilizations or concepts, but not always to their fullest extent. I’m not interested in creating a fantasy version of Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, or China – but I do like to take bits and pieces of the look or feel of older cultures for a foundation or framework. I like to give players something they can recognize, but not necessarily something they’ve seen before. I’m not re-creating cultures for use in my game. This is true of Grayharrow even more, perhaps, than Avremier.  
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