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Updated: 7 hours 4 min ago

[ZINE] 2019 Shipping Cost Changes

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 20:25
TL;DR version: Due to recent changes in postal tariffs, my store has switched to a flat $6.50 shipping fee as of 4 February. Shipping for single items will increase by 50%, shipping for two items will stay identical, and shipping for 3-5 items will be reduced. Customers are kindly asked to batch their orders into no more than 5 items each. 

Longer version: The entrepreneur’s life is an exciting one. Changes in the tax code, shifting regulations, economic cycles, and acts of Government introduce new challenges to overcome, and in the end, good old “creative destruction” sorts it all out. Here is a new one, and a post on what it means for you. Less fun than a pack of owlbears digging up your cabbage patch. 
Today, as I was bringing a handful of zines to the post, I was surprised to find shipping rates had increased overnight by a whopping 50%. Ooops. Price increases are a fact of life, but I didn’t see this one coming. Here is what happened.
  • In a price reorganisation scheme, the Post has eliminated several weight categories to “create a more transparent and customer-friendly structure, which conforms to the modernisation process of mailing services” (their words).
  • This included the 50-100 g category, which just happens to be the one I have been using the most, since the materials I publish weigh between 88-95 g apiece. This is how I set up my enterprise – I consider one below-100 g product “one unit”. Everything has been carefully set up to fit into into this specification.
  • What we have instead is a new scheme where we have one category for everything between 50 and 499 g (see Fig 1., below).

Postal prices, January to February 2019
In the “under 100 g” category, the price increase is a whopping 50%, so Worldwide shipping has just increased from $4.00 to $6.50 (European shipping is slightly lower, but the same principle applies). This change is bad news for most of my customers, who tend to be regulars buying single items (typically right after publication), and also tend to be located in North America and Australia (about 70% of my orders). Selling to them is my business model – and it is also something more: return customers are also a matter of professional pride. They tell me I should keep doing this – and I should aim high. 

Now then. There is no doubt the change sucks, but if you bear with me, there is a way to reduce its impact. 
You may note that there is now a single weight category between 50 and 499 g. This means it does not matter to the Post if the package is 100 g, 200 g, or 490 g. It is all $6.50 (or $5.4 in Europe). Compared to my old shipping formula ($4.00 for the first item, and $2.50 for each additional item), this is what the flat fee means:
  • If you order a single item, you pay $6.50 ($2.50 over the old price).
  • If you order two items, you pay $6.50 (NO CHANGE).
  • If you order three to five items, you still pay $6.50 (and you save $2.50, $5.00 and $7.50, respectively).
  • If you order six items, you still pay $6.50, but I would have to absorb the loss, since shipping jumps from $6.50 to $23.40! Instead, I will batch your order into multiple packages, since until I exceed 12 units, I am better off sending you two smaller envelopes at $13.00 than a single big one at $23.40. I hope the inconvenience will be a minor one.


This is kind of crazy, but it is the doing of the Postal Gods (I really should have been more diligent with those sacrifices).

What is the best solution for both you and me? Simple. Order two to five items on a single occasion. If you want to save some cash, wait until the next zine issue. Or… if you like the zine, buy a module to go with it. There will be a few in this coming year, and I hope they will be worth your consideration. I will remain a print-oriented publisher as long as it remains viable, but PDFs are an option, too. And in the US, Exalted Funeral is stocking my releases as well.
In the general sense, this is a hobby enterprise, and my intention with it is to take the high road of good, honest game materials, sold at an affordable and fair price. My strategy is to make things which are worth buying. As long as I can carry out this mission, I will feel good, and keep doing it.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Ruins of Quinstead

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 22:06

The Ruins of Quinstead (1994)by Roland O' Connell (only credited as R.O.C.)Published by Gamer’s Group PublicationsLevel 1-12 (but see below)
Depicted: the castle that's NOT
actually in the moduleThere is no mistake about the year. This is an authentic third party AD&D module from 1994, recently made available again as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. Of course, it is careful not to call itself AD&D and get sued by TSR, Inc. – it is the kind of thing where you might encounter, say, a Level 2 Zealot with 13 Dps, owning a Vial of Curing Potion and a Level 1 Cloak of Guarding. Nobody is fooling anyone. In a way, it is a direct challenge to the TSR Overlords: as the introduction states, “As an avid supporter of the fantasy role playing games, I became discouraged by the lack of quality in the modules I was purchasing. Several of my gaming counterparts also felt this same dissatisfaction. The modules published by Gamer’s Group Publication come from a group of experienced role players who enjoy creating and playing fantasy role playing scenarios. (…) The original the Ruins of Quinstead adventure was created in 1980 by a novice game-master for use with the fantasy role playing system distributed by TSR industries. [sic] As this novice game-master improved his skills and knowledge of fantasy role playing games, the adventure underwent several modifications in an attempt to create a truly enjoyable gaming experience. The result, is the product you have just purchased.
I wonder if this could be one of the first game scenarios to have bragging rights about taking a deliberately old-school stance. It is there if you look at it carefully:1) It identifies the problem (that the craft of adventure writing has declined radically, and TSR was pushing worthless junk on gamers);2) It draws on a better tradition (1980-style dungeoneering);3) It adapts that tradition through experience into something combining old and new ideas.4) It is produced and published independently of AD&D’s existing owner.How’s that for an “Old School Renaissance”? Are there earlier third party modules with a consciously declared back-to-the-roots message? Here is a puzzle for the Acaeum sleuths!
This, however, is an adventure review, so let’s have at it.
The Ruins of Quinstead takes you into the dungeons beneath the cursed castle of Quinstead, once owned by an evil marauder who had in the end met a tragic fate. As it happens in Not-AD&D, the castle is once again showing signs of habitation, and adventurers are tasked to learn what’s happening. In 44 pages, the adventure presents a three-level, 76-room dungeon (the castle itself is left undescribed), from a humanoid-inhabited entrance complex to more varied fare down below.
There is a lot of content in the dungeon, and when comparing it to modern old-school offerings, it is immediately apparent how much larger dungeons used to be in the past. Quinstead’s two main levels are both substantial, with 31 and 36 keyed areas, respectively. It is not megadungeon-sized, but it is a proper labyrinth calling for exploration, discovery, and lots and lots of combat. Interestingly, there is a notable difficulty spike between the levels: the first one is suitable for a large beginning party, but as you go deeper, it becomes downright brutal with high-level undead, demons, and save-or-die traps. You either start higher than first level, level up those characters quickly, or you should expect a break in play before tackling the dangerous areas on the second and third levels.
This split is also apparent in the quality of the content. Unfortunately, for all the old-school credentials, the entrance level is largely one humanoid-infested barrack room after another, with hordes of low-level humanoids and lovingly described “cabinet contents”-style fare. Boxes with 10 neatly folded blankets and 60 candles, crates with 12 weeks’ worth of mouldy food, or an iron box with hams, a 5 lb. sack of flour, and a jar of pickles (but “hidden at the bottom of the box is 250 gc’s”). This is the kind of thing that grounds adventures in reality in small quantities, and turns them dull when there is too much of it. And there is definitely too much of it.
Another issue with the setup is that the module tries to tell a story in a way we now largely recognise as The Wrong Way To Do It. The adventure is liberally peppered with roadblocks preventing completion until the characters find the proper keys hidden somewhere else, decipher an obscure clue, or do things in a specific way. There is an unfolding tragic backstory which is very AD&D in its execution, but the drama is largely between NPCs, with the characters as helpers and perhaps just spectators. In the end, the adventure becomes much more linear than you would think from the map, because you have to turn every stone to find the next progression token, and do it in sequence. This in turn exacerbates the module’s weaknesses – you can’t skip them until you find the damn keys.
On the other hand, the second and third levels suddenly become more interesting. The encounters are more varied, with a better roster of monsters, a higher number of “specials”, and more interesting locations. There are distinctly themed subsections with their own mapping style and challenges. There is an underground arena, a vast chasm, a vampire named Jennifer, treasure vaults, upscale living quarters, and undead/troll caverns. Perhaps it was written later, or mid-to-high-level AD&D just fired up the author’s imagination better, but this part is a substantial improvement, if ­ a bit heavy on brutal traps (if your Thief doesn’t die here, he is good). Nothing earth-shattering, just good, solid dungeoneering.
So in the end, this might be a first. Unfortunately, it is not the best. You could improve it by opening it up so it is not as linear and scripted, but you will still be left with the radical jumps in encounter difficulty, and a lacklustre first level. It stacks up well when we compare it to early 90s TSR modules, but why would you compare something to Swamplight or Terrible Trouble at Tragidore?
(And a random observation: the first level is oriented differently than the other two, so check that compass before you give your players directions.)
No playtesters are credited in this publication (and the author is only credited by his initials so the TSR goons don't break his legs).
Rating: ** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 21:20

Revenge of the FrogsI am pleased to announce the publication of the fourth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Matthew Ray, and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, and others. 
Revenge of the Frogs is, of course, dedicated to the best monsters in gaming, and it ain’t dragons! The titular adventure module takes the characters to Silvash, a dying port town facing a batrachian menace, and beyond to a weird swampland inhabited by strange inhabitants, and teeming with… but let that be a surprise. 
Those who do not find frogs to their liking shall surely find solace in the fact that Echoes #04 also presents a small city state. Arfel: City State of the Charnel God is a small city ruled by the cult of a dead god, but administered by the living – and those who would come between them might find either riches or an unpleasant death! A fold-out player’s map of the city state forms this issue’s map supplement. 
This issue concludes the hex key of the Isle of Erillion. Feudal lords, tiny settlements lost in the wilderness, and enigmas of nature and magic await in deep forests, forbidding mountains, and on the high seas. As before, Erillion may be used as a sandbox of its own, or incorporated into the GM’s preferred setting. 
And if you like lasers, there are lasers! Previously published on this blog, The Technological Table is a repository of technological instruments, from futuristic weaponry to the sinister relics of an advanced age. 
The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through RPGNow with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Woodfall

Tue, 01/22/2019 - 22:42
Woodfall
Woodfall (2018)by Shane WalsheSelf-PublishedLow-level
Woodfall is a “dark fantasy mini setting” designed to be dropped into a desolate corner of a campaign world, and use as a locale for your adventures. It covers a village of sympathetic outlaws menaced by a tyrannical king and his goons, the surrounding swamplands, and various locations and groups based therein. This is a system-neutral product devoid of stats, but obviously meant for rules-light D&D derivatives and sandbox play – the assumed principles of the intended play style are presented clearly and unambiguously at the beginning. This is a general feature of the setting book: it never wastes words, it gets good use out of layout, tables, and illustrations to convey information, and it is very solidly put together. The whole thing is profusely and expertly illustrated by the author, lending it a consistent tone. Everything is in place to enter an enchanted realm of fantasy populated by witches, necromancers, socialism, and swamp monsters.
Wait, did I just say socialism?
Wew lads. This is Tumblr Politics, The Setting. Consensual necromancy only? Fairy safe spaces? “The Faerie Liberation Front is a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries. In Woodfall, the FLF’s base of operations is in the second biggest tree”? Intelligent undead living in Woodfall village because this is the one place in the kingdom where they are not persecuted? An intelligent undead whose main goal is to solve world hunger by cultivating mushrooms and “new super strains of edible plants”? A gender neutral troll tending to a small garden? (“They live alone, and have not been able to make friends with any of the other monsters or creatures in the swamp. Others tend to run and scream when they see them and this has encouraged the troll to become defensive and develop crippling social anxiety.”) A collectively run trading house where fenced goods are bought and sold, and the proceeds are reinvested into the village welfare system, and common causes? A Thieves Guild whose revenues are shared with a healing tent, the FLF, village welfare, donations to villages outside the swamp, and CAT (Crisis Action Team, an all-female association of witches running a women’s shelter)? Well, you get the idea. Woodfall is a setting book which is pretty thoroughly built on extolling the virtues of anarchism – I will not venture to guess which specific brand – and which infuses pretty much every aspect of the work.
No Kings, No GMsNow, let us get this out of the way: fantasy is a great place for thought experiments (cue Swift, Heinlein and Lem), and thought experiments about placing weird ideologies in an anachronistic fantasy context and letting them run their course to their logical conclusions are excellent adventure fodder. Satirical or more straightforward, there are interesting dilemmas, what-ifs, and potential for conflict in placing a bunch of anarchists on the fringes of Furyondy. But then Woodfall, while written eminently well, reads a lot like a pamphlet. Woodfall Village is basically a squat (or protest camp) occupied by sympathetic oddballs fighting for justice and diversity, while the king’s soldiers watching them from outside and planning to put an end to their commune are basically Fuck The Cops, a monolithic evil regime whose main activities seem to involve oppression, witch-burning, wife-beating, and doing all kinds of bad things ever committed by The Man. There are other antagonists as well: the greens (a bunch of druids intending to destroy civilisation), goblin punks with a spiky fortress, and the Revolutionary Corpse Council, who are communist necromancers. Meanwhile, Woodfall Village consists of plucky rebels who operate co-ops, pay taxes on a voluntary basis (mainly for a collective welfare system), and live on a bunch of connected islands of equal size, each one an autonomous collective. Monsters are not-evil-just-misunderstood. NPCs are either allies or ideologically impure evildoers. Alex the leatherface monster is “very anxious, and worries endlessly about how they will survive outside their home” after they were evicted from their dungeon by the RCC. Meanwhile, Captain Blake, in charge of the soldier encampment, “totally obsessed with seeing Woodfall Village destroyed and all its residents put in dungeons or executed. He will stop at absolutely nothing, and is incredibly highstrung and prone to bursts of anger”. Dragonlance was more morally ambiguous.
Did I mention it is all a bait-and-switch, and none of this stuff got mentioned in either the Kickstarter pitch (“Explore a dark fairytale setting, wade through a misty swamp, get caught up in the fighting between warring monster clans, discover a strange town of witches and thieves, and search for forgotten treasure. Woodfall is a swamp belonging to a king where witches, thieves and outlaws are squatting. They have built a town on top of the swamp and have resisted several evictions. The town is a hub for black market activity and magical folk. The surrounding forest and swamp is a hexcrawl filled with various monster factions.”) or the present DriveThruRPG page? It would have been the polite thing to signpost this a little better. We can say everything is politics and Keep on the Borderlands is murder, but it does change things. For example, it is clear that Woodfall’s portability – illustrated with a helpful diagram, even – is vastly overstated. You could theoretically insert it into every campaign in the same way you could drop Darth Vader and a detachment of Tie-Fighters in the middle of the Wild Coast – sure, it is still Greyhawk, but it is probably going to be a different kind of campaign.
Typical RCC Meeting
But let’s put that aside, because it is what it is: you will either like the premise or not. How about the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Some of it is rather imaginative, even flavourful – the various shops, societies and inhabitants of Woodfall Village form a cohesive whole which is directly game-relevant while providing the GM with an idea of the bigger picture and good potential for further expansion. The information to run a game is mostly at your fingertips (once again, this does not include stats), exactly where and how you need it. The appendices on new monsters, magic items, wand and potion creation guidelines, monster component prices, and other bits and pieces are helpful. There is an “Appendix N” ranging from Vornheim to Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure and the Rise of Capitalism, a book (well, pamphlet) written by Lady Stardust, and available on Amazon.
On the other hand, the wilderness segment – where much of the presumed adventuring is likely to take place – is much weaker, suffering from a lack of depth despite trying to create a complex environment. The brief treatment of people and places works in the village, where the whole is greater than the sum of a dozen one- or two-page components, but it does not work that well with a range of mini-locales. Consequently, location-based adventures (like dungeons) consist of simplistic maps with a bare room key (“Drinking & Drumming Room, Doomsday Spore Device, Mushroom Cultivation, The Orb, Toilet/Mysterious Whole” – that’s all there is to the dungeon of the punk goblins), taking the extreme of the one page dungeon even further in a direction where functionality disappears up art’s ass. [I should have deleted this sentence, but Mr. Nixon told me to leave it in.] Hexes describing a faction of monsters or NPCs are generally better – the author seems to have a better eye for social conflict than location-based adventures. There is no scale to the wilderness areas – is the swampland a day’s rowing across? Multiple days? There are well-structured random encounter charts, but they aren’t telling either.Yes It Is Art, But Is It A Game?So that is Woodfall. It is compact, well put together in a way, and does accomplish what is trying. It is kinda “Crazy Activist GF The RPG Supplement”. Does great art, claims to be doing the right thing, but make the wrong move, and your name might be all over Twitter as a fascist pig and counter-revolutionary. As a cynical reactionary with deeply ingrained suspicions about ideology, and way too much into bourgeois conceits like “actually having stuff” and “liking it when the stores are stocking toilet paper”, I would rather observe it from beyond the reach of my trusty ten foot pole.
No bourgeois scum or playtesters were harmed during the production of this publication.
Rating: *** / ***** (Mr. Nixon was not too happy about this, but it is worth about this much.)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Village and the Witch

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 17:43

The Village and the Witch (2018)by Davide PignedoliPublished by Daimon Gameslow levels
The Village and the WitchUnderwater Basketweaving, you say? Not that specific, but kinda-sorta. The product on review here is a brief toolkit to randomly generate adventures concerning an Early Modern village, a witch with evil designs, and various details to connect the two and instigate a catastrophic conflict. Kindling table not included. Now, this is certainly a specific product. You need to be running LotFP (or Davide’s rather interesting variant of it, published in the Black Dogs zine), pre-derp WFRP, or something sharing their basic assumptions to find this useful. This is not going to fill in the details between B2 and X1. If you want to burn some witches, though, it is practically what your friendly plague doctor ordered.
The procedure works with die drop tables. You roll all your polyhedra, and while the die results determine the individual elements of the adventure (from village layout and buildings to the specifics and peculiarities of the case), their positioning determines how these elements are connected. This provides a simple, yet adaptable framework to run the adventure, in both the physical and non-physical sense. For instance, rolling 3 on the 1d10 table establishes that the witch is aided by a crippled veteran, and lives at the location where the d10 stops on your sheet of paper. A similar set of procedures lets you create the witch (since we live in modern, or at least Early Modern times, xir gender can be male, female, both or none). This take on witches makes them more of a monster than an NPC, since they plainly exist outside the regular rule framework, with some pretty snazzy evil powers. Their goals, sadly, are fairly simplistic, revolving around killing a lot of people and destroying their opposition. Mechanics are provided to “manage” the spreading influence of the witch, and the local attempts to put a stop to it, complete with false accusations and such. This replaces plot fiat (“on day 3, the witch will kill the local miller”) with a GM-facing minigame and more dice rolling. The other half of the supplement goes into details on general local NPCs who may get involved, random stories, and magic items and spells. There is a two-page discussion on hammering the square peg of D&Desque Lawful – Neutral – Chaotic alignment into the round hole of Early Modern Christianity, and it works exactly as well as you would suspect. Was Jesus Chaotic? The answer may surprise you.
How does it stack up? The results of the random generation system, while nothing out of the ordinary, are robust. The suggestions to make it work are sensible. It is not a packaged adventure, but it is a module (in the original sense). You can create the basics for a good witch-hunt with a little rolling, and connecting the dots. However, flaws are also apparent in the supplement’s construction. It is all about the outlines; the depth is missing, and it does not go beyond stereotype (unless we consider the interesting implication that going by the results, there is always a witch somewhere nearby). There are also limits to the variety of the content that can be generated. Good random generators have wide applicability; this one is good for perhaps three small scenarios before it starts repeating itself. Good enough? Not enough? It is somewhere on the boundary.
The Village and the Witch is a specific product for a specific kind of game. I personally prefer the reliable old Hexenhammer, but when you want to do some decent community witchburning, this one will certainly do a good job. In the general sense, it is a product that could open up the possibilities for similar, although hopefully more detailed supplements. The die drop mechanism has potential as a plot generator, if its simplifications can be corrected.
Burn, baby, burn!
Rating: *** / *****
Wholesome Family Entertainment

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 released in PDF

Sun, 12/09/2018 - 15:34
Blood, Death, and Tourism!
I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF version of Echoes From Fomalhaut #03, now available from RPGNow. This issue of the zine features an adventure set on a tropical island paradise dotted with odd ruins, a GM’s guide to the Isle of Erillion mini-setting, monsters converted from the excellent Wizardry VII computer game, and the description of a destructive magical enigma, as well as the people who follow its path of devastation. People who have purchased the zine in print are eligible for a free copy of this edition (these download links have just been sent out). Print copies are still available at emdt.bigcartel.com. Looking at typical shipping times, a US order still has good odds of making it before Christmas.
In other news… Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper has been reprinted, and 38 out of 120 copies have already been sold of the new printing. In yet other news, Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 is going to be slightly delayed – I am looking at a January release. When I posted about the zine’s regular, quarterly schedule, a little voice in my head was trying to warn me not to jinx it. So much for listening to good advice!
However, the late few months have not been spent idle. I published a module for the 10th anniversary of my RPG, and judged a module writing contest. Two of the entries will also be released in English; one in Echoes, and one as a standalone scenario. And of course, there will be more to come.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Dark Anniversary

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 20:03
Rose Garden
It has been twenty years (and one week) since the publication of Looking Glass Studios’ unconventional masterpiece: Thief: The Dark Project was released 30 November, 1998. Thief would invert the formula of first-person shooter games: instead of shooting enemies, you would have to hide from them (or carefully sneak up on them and knock them out with a blackjack); instead of playing a badass space marine, the main character was a thief who could hardly fight a single guard; and instead of a rocket launcher, your ammo would consist of water arrows to extinguish torches, and moss arrows to coat loud surfaces with a sound-dampening moss. Thief had replaced non-stop action with carefuly scrutiny of the environment and the patrols around you, and quick, panicked bursts of action while trying to move from one safe, shadowed spot to another. Getting through a loud, tile-covered corridor segment before the patrol would return; nabbing a priceless gemstone from behind the back of a guard looking the other way; or breaking the lock on a well-illuminated door before bolting back into the shadows – these are the building blocks of the Thief experience. Thief had originally been planned as a swordfighting game (Dark Camelot was never realised, but the fencing system is still fairly robust), but something went fatefully wrong during development, when one of the lead designer tried to infiltrate a room while hiding behind an enemy. This kind of tension can prove addictive.
Shadow PlayThief’s main attraction lies not just in its conceptual originality, but also its precise and narrow focus. Deus Ex (2000), often held up as the best game ever, is a mediocre shooter, a mediocre sneaking game and a mediocre CRPG, with some decent but hardly outstanding environmental simulation – but the individually flawed bits make for something much more than the sum of its parts. Thief does two things (sneaking and exploration), but does it impeccably. Its graphics were already dated on the date of its publication (contemporary reviews were surprisingly critical about it, even though its “look” is iconic, and uses colours and shapes in a very clever way). However, its audio– consisting of noises, odd echoes and monotonous tension loops – is one of a kind, and has rarely been approached in its atmosphere. The guards’ drunken rambling and lowbrow conversations are not just a matter of establishing a certain feel, but cues to help you locate and avoid them: they will signal whether they are preoccupied with their crappy night job (“I don't see why I should have to be the one down here in the cold and the dark and the damp....”), looking for you (“Is it just me or did something move?”), preparing to rush and kill The Sound of a Burrick in a Roomyou (“All right, you're in for it now, thief!”), or summoning help (“Intruder! Help, help!”). The stealth system, based on shadow-light patterns and the loudness of footsteps on various surfaces (wood, earth, carpet, metal, stone, tile, etc.) requires a minimal user interface in the shape of a small “light gem”, while being fully immersive and providing excellent visual and aural feedback. Learning to move silently is a talent you have to learn, and then master to get ahead. Thief is, in many ways, a fully player skill kind of game.


Whistling of the GearsThen there is the world: a clash of the middle ages and an industrial revolution, surrounded by the soot-covered walls of a claustrophobic, nameless city that has grown well beyond its natural limits. A place filled with inscrutable, ticking machinery; pipes and grates belching steam and smoke; arc lights and generators – and on the other side of the coin, guards in mail, snooty lords and dark magic. Progress in this world is represented by the Hammerites, a fanatical religious order maintaining much of the City’s technological infrastructure, slowly losing out to more commercially-minded lay smiths, while trying to root out the pagan heretics who would return the world to an irrational (and entirely wretched) bucolic past. Most of the citizens, however, are corrupt or simply uncaring guards, cruel crime bosses, indolent aristocrats and their snivelling servants. While In and OutThief may seem steampunk, it is in truth outside the confines of genre: like its distant successor, Dishonored, it is an original creation that has more to do with film noir (particularly The Third Man – when you steal from The Third Man, you are stealing from the best) and Dungeons & Dragons. The story is a highlight: the protagonist, the cynical and embittered thief Garrett, is an anti-hero in the truest sense: he is egoistic, arrogant, petty, and his own worst enemy – under the mask of professionalism, he is motivated by enormous vanity, and resentment against his former benefactors. By the time the story ends, he loses all he has gained, but learns nothing.
Darkness Walk With UsThief has never been continued in a truly worthy way. The story reaches its due conclusion at the end of the first game. The sequel, while often more refined, loses much from the energy and the aesthetic; the third and fourth games are increasingly fruitless efforts to sell the original formula to a mass-market audience. The results are at first questionable, then catastrophic: the 2014 reboot is a complete failure both as a Thief game and a corporate moneymaker. Underworld Ascendant, the new game by Looking Glass alumni, is a creative and financial black hole. The true successors are found in the Dishonored series (which remakes the original idea as an assassination game where you don’t actually have to kill anyone), and in the free, fan-made Dark Mod. However, the richest content lies among the community-made fan missions, still going strong after 20 years.
Lost Among the ForsakenThe Thief community has always been tight-knit and motivated, verging on the fanatical. It was their incessant lobbying at Looking Glass which had earned us the release of the editor, followed by a stream of fan missions from small, simple affairs to sprawling, campaign-length epics (some still under development). It would be too much to play all 1200 of them, and of course, they have an enormous range in style and quality. However, the best, including Gems of Provenance, The Seven Sisters, Endless Rain, the Rocksbourg Seriesor Calendra’s Cistern/Legacy, are worthy successors to the original game.
The Burning BedlamWith a build time of a whole year, the recently completed 20th anniversary contest has seen the release of no less than 24 missions (and one out of competition). They are wildly different takes, from beginner efforts (proving that Dromed, the game’s quirky editor, is still inviting) to a surprising number of missions which should become modern classics (see this article’s illustrations). One of the missions, Rose Garden, is mine – I returned to Thief after a 10 year hiatus, and spent much of this year on constructing a giant, complex city map. Of course, you should play the basic game first if you haven’t. Make sure you do so without any texture or model “upgrades” (and if you have particularly good taste, stay with software rendering), and enjoy Thief the way it was meant to be played. It has aged well, and it is just as intriguing and mysterious as in its year of publication.
(A post on Thief's lessons for tabletop gaming will follow shortly.)
Rose GardenRose Garden
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] A Year of Anniversaries

Sun, 11/25/2018 - 14:27

By coincidence or unknown heavenly purpose, 2018 has been a year of gaming anniversaries: multiple games which have had an impact on me are celebrating something. The oldest of them is M.A.G.U.S., Hungary’s most popular role-playing game, now 25. M.A.G.U.S. is both an AD&D imitator and its own thing, and its effects on the local gaming scene has been tremendous, even though the original publisher is long defunct, and no popular edition has been released in a long while. I have had a conflicted relationship with it, and my tastes are often in opposition to the surrounding play culture, but I recognise its basic appeal. But more on that in a later post. The second game is Thief: The Dark Project. Thief is not an RPG, but it has captured my imagination like no other computer game (except maybe Wizardry VII). Thief is going to be 20 at the end of November, and I will, again, write about it a bit later (right now, I am working overtime to have my anniversary fan mission playtested). The third game is closer to this blog: it is none else but Swords & Wizardry. Matt Finch’s take on OD&D is 10; there have been several edition, a boatload of modules, and it has an enduring popularity as one of the simpler, easily moddable old-school rulesets. But this article is about a different game: mine. Accordingly, most of this is inevitably personal, and none of it is an objective, outsider’s view.
Cover designs for Sword and Magic modulesSword and Magic (“Kard és Mágia”) shares its name with S&W, and by some unseemly miracle of timing, they share a release date: both were published on October 15, 2008. There is an abbreviated English-language version of the basic mechanics, but this is not really the full game, which is a complete RPG in three booklets with some 190 very densely typeset pages (and no illustrations whatsoever). The real game is in those details. Sword and Magic, which I would be ill advised to abbreviate, was published as an effort to introduce the idea of old-school gaming to the Hungarian gaming scene, in the form of a free ruleset, and a range of fan-made adventures and supplements. This is a plan I had had since at least 2003: at that time, I published a homemade d20 module (The Garden of al-Astorion), but never followed up on the initial effort. But the idea, inspired by Judges Guild, Necromancer Games, and their ilk, was always there: I envisioned people sharing and sometimes selling their own home-made content online and at conventions, and creating a creative community from which all could benefit.
The effort was in part borne of the enthusiasm to share an exciting discovery (the old-school playstyle, then newly rediscovered, and still in the process of taking shape in discussion and flame wars around the net). But it was also an effort to get away from the top-down content creation model dominating the Hungarian RPG scene, where amateur efforts had died off to yield to a supplement treadmill mainly consisting off – no offence – unplaytested, unplayable, and often actively play-hostile rubbish. I felt like an outsider in that world, but recognised there were a lot of other gamers who would appreciate something different. After all, I could sell my group on the idea – why not the others?
Sword and Magic was created around the same time as the first Castles&Crusades playtests. It arose from the same discussions, but ended up going in an entirely different direction. Ironically, so did OSRIC, the legal precedent for retroclones: our disagreements were wide, and often very acrimonious. Sword and Magic is mechanically closer to the idea of a “d20 light” system than a faithful retroclone like OSRIC, and makes much fewer compromises towards recreating a specific “AD&D feel” than C&C. It also has a simplified skill system, which neither of the other two games ended up adopting, and which dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers tend to scoff at. However, it guts the 3.0 rules without mercy, and cuts out much of the game’s subsystems (Feats, most classes) and mechanical complexity (almost all special cases, the byzantine rules to stat monsters and NPCs), and creates a game that is medium-powered, dirt simple, and sword&sorcery-flavoured (much more than any of the big old-school systems, but not in a purist way – people have used it to play on Titan, the Fighting Fantasy world, and there is a very elegant Middle Earth-focused variant). It is also a game you can hand to a new player, and have them playing in your game in about 15-20 minutes (real-life statistics).
Sword and Magic was mostly system complete by 2006, along with its Monsters & Treasures booklet, but took two more years to publish due to the third. I spent two years writing and polishing Gamemasters’ Guidelines, a comprehensive, bottom-up guidebook on gamemastering, from running a game to designing adventures, campaigns, and fantastic worlds (as well as a treatment on different playstyles, pulp fantasy genres, a brief domain management system, and a set of random tables). Nobody had really done this before in Hungary (actually, very few have done it in the US either – most games traditionally gloss over teaching you GMing in a structured, bottom-to-top way), and it took a while to get right. I think you could probably hand the resulting guidelines to any starting GM, and it would be useful – my hope was that it’d spread beyond the specific system, and prove itself as a general play aid (this did not work in the short run, but apparently, it has had some success over the years).
Tesco Value layout
The game was released on 15 October, 2008, with a range of four modules, and the odd techno-Hellenic world of Fomalhaut as its example setting. I consciously chose a minimal design style for the product line, sometimes expressed as a “Tesco Value” (i.e. “store brand”) RPG. There were no illustrations beyond the simple and op-art-inspired cover logos (I live in Victor Vasarely’shometown, and quite like his geometric style); layout was two-column 9-point Arial; and it was, and to this day remains absolutely free in PDF. (There were no print edition at the time, although I broke the rule with my second RPG, the lavish Helvéczia boxed set, and the new 2018-2019 releases). It received no store distribution, and was entirely dependent on word-of-mouth – local game magazines had died out by the time. For all that, Sword and Magic found its place in the Hungarian gaming scene. Not without the usual acrimony and rejection – quite a lot of gamers had been deeply convinced by the makers of M.A.G.U.S. that “AD&D” was a primitive, worthless game, and it was only suitable (perhaps) for small children… despite having the oldest fanbase of any locally available RPGs. But in the end, you can’t win them all, and acrimony is publicity.
Most of the game’s fans came from the wider D&D community, an even mixture of veterans (who had fondly remembered the amateur roots of the local gaming scene) and newcomers (who had discovered it as a new thing). Its most successful years were between 2008 and 2013, when the surrounding forum community was the most active; since then, things have settled down a bit, but it is still surrounded by a fairly good community of active players. It did not take the hobby by storm, but it has established a foothold and legitimised a previously neglected playstyle.
It is also fairly well supported by the standards of a small non-English-speaking country. Someone looking at the back cover of the latest Echoes From Fomalhaut issue could note 33 supplements (the rest are either for Helvéczia, or in English), about a third of which are by guest authors. These are mostly short to medium-length; however, all are game-friendly and playtested, having withstood the test of actual play. (Having been burned by quite a lot of bad game materials, which ended up driving me away from the hobby in the 1990s, it has been my firm policy to publish playtested materials only, and insisting on giving playtester credit.)
Over the years, much of the community around the game have embraced new systems (5e has been a strong rival, although I am arrogant enough to claim my game does the same things better, and with less work), while keeping around some of the game’s ideas and house rules. It has inspired the creation of new rulesets – Kazamaták és Kompániák (Dungeons and Companies, a more OD&Dish game with robust follower rules, now gearing up for a second edition), and more recently, Kardok és Másodteremtés (Swords and the Second Creation, which is Middle-Earth-based). The community has also created its own series of mini-conventions, entirely focused on getting together and gaming for a day: Random Encounters had had 6 events (mostly focused on old-school systems and indie games), followed by The Society of Adventurers, which had its 8thevent yesterday (this one also has a robust 5e presence, but this particular instalment was in celebration of our 10th anniversary). As much as anything else, this is what makes me the most happy: inspiring people to go forward and develop their own ideas (the “Fight On!” principle). And of course, keeping it play-oriented, bottom-up, and close to the actual fans. This is our game; perhaps not the largest in town, but it is ours.
Cloister of the Frog God: 10th anniversary moduleWhat has the anniversary meant for English-speaking gamers?
Well, Echoes #04 is going to be slightly late, an early 2019 release. Beyond my day job, a lot of my time has been taken up by my Thief mission for the 20thanniversary contest (now in late playtesting stages, to be released in early December), and four adventure modules. One of these, Cloister of the Frog God, a 40-page wilderness-and-dungeon module, has already been published. This module has a complicated history. It comes from my old, never released Tegel Manor manuscript, which I largely cannibalised for this module, and later for my upcoming megadungeon, Castle Xyntillan. (Note, bits and pieces may turn up in Frog God Games’ recently kickstarted take on it – but that one is mostly going to be Bill Webb’s work, and I am interested in what that fiendish mind will come up with!) The Cloister dungeons were published in the Frog God edition of Rappan Athuk (it is one of the wilderness locales), and will also be part of the new, revised 5e volume. Accordingly, I am not going to publish it as a separate module. However, the wilderness section will become a standalone adventure, and the main feature for Echoes From Fomalhaut #04, with an excellent Matt Ray cover, and illustrations by Andrew Walter and Denis McCarthy. If you speak German, the whole module is going to be published in a special issue of the Abenteuerfanzine (Settembrini will be able to tell you when).
But there is more. As part of the anniversary, my friends in the community organised a Sword and Magic module writing contest, with me as the judge. The three submitted entries were all worthy of publication, with very different takes on the game and its concepts. They include Murderous Devices by Mátyás Nagy, a sinister murder mystery set in a French Caribbean town (not unlike the Freeport series, the module doubles as a city supplement); The Enchantment of Vashundara by Zsolt Varga, a surreal adventure taking place on the home plane of a god in trouble (with an original and well-realised perspective); and The Lost Valley of Kishar by Gábor Csomós, the best damn lost world adventure I have seen. These adventures will all see publication, in both print and PDF (and this time, with worthy illustrations), and the latter two will also receive an English translation, one in Echoes, and one as a standalone (Murderous Devices, while very cool, lies a bit outside the scope of EMDT’s thematic focus). I am confident people will love them when they see them.
Until then… Fight On!
Contest winners: Coming 2019 to your gaming table!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Mortuary Temple of Esma

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 13:24
The Mortuary Temple of Esma
The Mortuary Temple of Esma (2018)by Anthony HusoSelf-published5th to 7th level (or slightly higher)
This is a long overdue review of a module that deserves more attention. I had planned to review it as soon as I read it in the Spring – but misplaced my copy, which only turned up again at my weekend house as I was readying it for Winter. So here it is, a bit belatedly: a great AD&D module based on the author’s personal notes from the 1980s, given a new polish and some expansion and rewriting. It is both a good document of the way high-level AD&D was often played (I remember fairly similar, although less good dungeons from a very different time and place), and something that has excellent playing value today. It should be no surprise the module is good. I have known Anthony’s work since the early 2000s, when he created some of the best Thief fan missions of that time, with a signature design style featuring expansive, sinister cities, labyrinthine plots, high drama, purple prose, and brooding sluts. He had later worked as a level designer on various computer games including the Dishonored computer games – again, a standout series – and he has recently published a range of AD&D supplements, with the same imagination and attention to quality.
As acknowledged in the Foreword, The Mortuary Temple of Esma was inspired by the eerie and strange Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the “White Album” of Gygaxian fantasy scenarios. Tharizdun is the most Lovecraftian AD&D module in a line which had always drawn generously from Lovecraft, but this time without being imitative: it conjures the same ideas of wrongness and blasphemy while constructing its own disturbing imagery. It is also a tough meatgrinder of a module, with deadly battles to test a hardened adventuring group; not to mention how much of the content is hidden in fair but progressively more obscure ways. Finally, it has art completely outside the established AD&D style, so much so that it feels like a weird third-party bootleg to a mainstream family game. I bring this up because, beyond the acknowledgement, Mortuary Temple is to Tharizdun what Tharizdun is to Lovecraft: a homage, but an original one which carries forward the general idea while following its own path. The design features I noted for Tharizdun all apply to the Mortuary Temple – in their own natural context.
What the module offers is a three-level dungeon underneath the mausoleum of an elf lord (for four total levels). It is somewhat a mixture between a monument to love similar to the Taj Mahal, a testing ground, and a place to bury unpleasant cosmic secrets. It has its own strong style, featuring a clash between lost beauty and unwholesome corruption – not only in the place’s trappings, but the content of the encounters. Accessing the mortuary temple’s secrets involves not just careful discovery, but making sacrifices and wagering one’s life and belongings. It certainly has strong choices and consequences – and the rewards are artifact-level magical treasures both iconic and powerful. This is a module for a large party of characters who have grown into their stature and earned their experience levels and magic items (it is not a low-magic scenario either – it is ideal for groups who know how to exploit two wands of Orcus and three hands of Vecna). Whatever the outcome, it will be a memorable adventure.
Module interiorsIt pays off that the author knows and respects the AD&D ruleswithout becoming their creative servant. The module leverages this knowledge to build a deadly gauntlet of encounters with powerful and resourceful enemies who know and exploit their environment (without being omniscient about it). The top level alone is a brutal battleground, which will test a party’s mettle before they can descend to the dungeons. The encounters mix the familiar with the new – well-known AD&D monsters with original creations (or old mainstays given a new spin). The following levels are more focused on puzzles and smaller mysteries, while the final one is once again a brutal tactical slaughterfest (note, the module practically requires a battle mat or a table setup to run fairly). The encounters are puzzling mini-scenarios on their own, from forgotten tombs to a nightmarish underwater realm and a place of emtombment forgotten by the outside world, and beyond the scope of what one would expect from a sacred elven resting place.
There are two aspects of the module I find less good (and the reason why it did not receive the rare five-star rating despite being close to it). First, while the individual encounters are almost always excellent, the core puzzles to progress deeper into the module feel mechanical, a bit like CRPG quests instead of D&D’s creative problem solving (although the module predates most actual CRPGs). I think these are the artifacts of 1980s play which did not age so well, even if they are, in fact, authentic (here, Tarizdun has stood the test of time much better). The second reason is that the two final levels are somehow less inspired than the materials preceding them. This is no accident, since the original group of players never actually reached them, and the magic of playtesting – the transformative force which puts the GM’s materials into their final context – is not present.
The adventure is presented in a fairly easy to follow format, although I suspect table use would require a fair amount of underlining and a bit of cross-referencing due to the material’s interrelatedness and complexity. The prose, when it comes to the brief but heavy descriptions, is sort of a familiar trademark: “Shod in plated steel, gallant valves of white stone hang picturesque, but unsecured. The wind whimpers and, across the walls, curtains of unchecked clematis flutter and sway. No longer square, the doors pivot on huge pins, making ravenous sounds where stone brushes stone.” (Compare this with the introduction to Calendra’s Cistern, a Thief mission from the year 2000 – some things are reassuringly constant.) It is not long, but it is as purple as it comes – and yes, there is ancient elven love poetry, an almost disturbing amount of it. On the other hand, the information in the location key is broken down sensibly, the various forms of highlighting and side boxes are helpful, and the whole thing is well put together. I usually don’t review production values, but like Tharizdun, Mortuary Temple features a non-standard art style featuring the author’s pencils and crayons, mostly greyscale with rare dashes of colour – fitting the mood of an original module. It is pleasing to look at, as are the maps – which are original, with digital enhancements.
The Mortuary Temple of Esma is among the best releases of this year, and even its slight weaknesses should not detract from its power of imagination and skilful execution. It is as good as deadly mid-to-high (but more emphasis on “high”) level AD&D gets.
This publication credits its playtesters (or at least it seems so from the Special Thanks section).
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs