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[REVIEW] Under the Temple Crypt

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 13:48

Under the Temple Crypt (2018)
by ExtildepoPublished by Verisimilitude Society Press4th to 7th level
Under the Temple Crypt“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I avoided making this quip when I reviewed the author’s previous adventure, because it would have been crude in a negative review. And here I am again, fallen for a pretty cover hook, line and sinker. But what a cover it is! One of the best and most visually striking I have seen in old-school gaming – sure, a lot of artists are more technically adept, but when it comes to evoking an air of mystery and adventure, this rendition of a cavern framed by red limestone formations is perfect at what it sets out to do. It recalls Thracia without aping it, and it is bold in that same Judges Guild style.
Under the Temple Crypt is a short “micro module” for Swords&Wizardry, designed for utility and sold for all of a buck. As the cover states, “No underlying story-hook or rational [sic] for exploring the site is given here.” This was a good decision. Tyranny of the Black Tower was suffering from a surfeit of underwhelming background detail; Under the Temple Crypt scraps the explanations and focuses on the content, presenting a well-rounded, 23-area dungeon level in 5 pages. This is the threshold where mini-dungeons become interesting and transcend simple monster lairs.
The crypt in the title is only the starting point, leading into a mixture of ruins and caverns. The ruins are the remains of an ancient city drawing on Imperial Roman imagery; it is not a large one, but it captures D&D’s combined fascination with archaeology and tomb-robbing. As an interesting dynamic element, the random encounter chart treats it as a very unstable place which is currently in the process of collapsing upon itself, adding a sense of urgency to the company’s investigations. One of the module’s most fun traps (area L, exploiting the company’s greed and curiosity) also builds on this unstable quality. Most of the challenge comes from the cavern’s current monster inhabitants; the rooms are largely a mixture of descriptive detail and monster lairs. I could live with a few more tricks, traps and enigmas, but all in all, it is quite successful. Some of the treasure is cleverly hidden without resorting to pixel-hunting, there are combat encounters which are bound to be memorable due to their setup or location (the scene on the cover is just one of them), and the place has a good, organic feel with an air of mystery.
No cover saves a bad adventure, but Under the Temple Crypt does not need saving. It is a marked improvement over Tyranny of the Black Tower, exactly the kind of solid, meat-and-potatoes adventure I expected more of from old-school gaming. I would like to see more of this series.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: *** / *****
For comparison: The Caverns of Thracia (Paul Jaquays, 1979)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Sunken Fort

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 11:10
The Sunken Fort
The Sunken Fort (2018)by Nickolas Z BrownPublished by Five Cataclysms1st to 4th level
Here is a module following the now mostly lost art of funhouse dungeon design. Where old-school gaming has rediscovered a lot of things about AD&D, Basic D&D and OD&D, there are things it mostly didn’t touch with a ten foot pole. One of these things is the art of creating enormous dungeons stocked to the gills with encounters which make no sense whatsoever except through the lens of game logic. There are exceptions, but not many, and this corner of vintage gaming lies gathering cobwebs and dust, even though it seemed to have dominated the late 1970s. Without writing a separate posts on these classic funhouse dungeons, here are a few features they seemed to have in common:
  • a complete disregard for historical or social accuracy, and little attempt to emulate genre fiction;
  • a fondness for anachronism (elevators, balrog janitors, ice cream parlours) and pop culture content;
  • Disneyland fantasy (modern people operating modern shops and behaving as modern Americans, but dressed up as fantastic characters);
  • the world outside the core dungeon can also be completely abstracted (as seen in early CRPGs: “the Shop”, “the Temple”, “the Inn”);
  • reliance on cartoon logic to design some puzzles (giant magnets and stuff), and out of game knowledge to solve them (the proverbial chess problem on a giant chessboard);
  • interaction with dungeon denizens is possible, but not explicitly encouraged as a “core” feature of dungeoneering;
  • the only true goal is to entertain and challenge the players and the Dungeon Master.

The roots go back to the earliest megadungeons, and for a while, the style’s influence was tremendously influential on computer games – not necessarily CRPGs (which never got the freewheeling fantasy and high-interaction environments right), but text and graphical adventure games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure, which ruled the gaming world until their extinction in the late 1990s. Tabletop itself had mostly moved beyond funhouse design by the AD&D period, although late attempts like Jim Grunst’s fanmade modules (The Olde Abbey Dungeon, House of the Hawk, The Tower of Pascal the Bio-Wizard) were still floating around the Internet in the late 90s.
The Sunken Fort seems to have come from a bizarro parallel dimension where OD&D still reigns and dungeons are not Serious Business. It starts on a promising note, with a good rooms per page ratio: there are 80 keyed rooms described in 27 pages. The map never goes off the grid, but that grid is absolutely filled with rooms, and each one has something going on (this is perhaps the main thing separating the dungeon from its trve OD&D peers). Encounters are written up in a sparse format starting with an initial “first glance” summary, and moving onto individual details one by one. It is a fairly minimalist and factual treatment without flourishes or digressions; the background and the “possible lead-in quest” are intriguing (someone or something has stolen a bunch of townspeople’s shadows, and retreated into this ancient subterranean fortress), but entirely optional.
This is where the bizarre OD&D aspects start. The Sunken Fort is not actually written for pre-supplements OD&D (or S&W White Box), but an offshoot that, after a little investigation, seems to be an unpublished homebrew variant. The framework is familiar (everything uses 1d6 for HD, GP=XP is in effect, etc.), but the rules have been tinkered with, and the menagerie, magic and mental framework are “off”. It is a bit like switching on the TV late at night, and happening on a foreign channel with an intriguing TV show you almost, but don’t quite understand. As a positive, this makes for a more authentic OD&D experience than playing something after decades of familiarity: the module’s fire-bats, tube-heads (the only description we get is “1d4 tubular headed creatures with far too many fangs”) and blue hunting bears (intelligent, bipedal, have blue fur and wear tam hats) are almost all new. They are not simple reskins, but – as good monsters do – many of them bring new functionality to the game.
Not Fucking AroundThis kind of creativity extends to the encounters. All 80 rooms have a point of interest, sometimes more, and what they lack in window dressing (they often amount to “A ring of purple metal hangs from a string”, or “There are several small crates here”), they make up for in interaction. Beyond the combat encounters, tricks and traps abound: like a proper funhouse, there are always interesting, if crazy things to play with. “A skeleton rests beneath a glass panel in the floor. In its hands is clutched a scroll.” You know there is something to this room, and it is up to you to find out. Or: “The air smells of fire oil, and there are 20 pots on the floor. The floor is littered with the skeletons of mice.” Or: “A pair of legs walks about this room, bumping into various walls.” There are also classics like magic statues, rooms full of doors, rooms filled with black water, and so on. Most modern dungeons have four or five of these “specials” or set-piece encounters scattered around (if that); in The Sunken Fort, they are the main dungeon feature. It makes no literal sense, but in a roundabout way, it belongs there. Characters bit by a golden serpent will bleed gold pieces at a rate of 1 gp per Hp. A puzzle box is solved by tossing your players a Rubik’s cube [notably, a Hungarian invention]. If you start to pick up tiny magic mushrooms, you will be attacked by a swarm of tiny Conjurers (one might get ideas about how this module came to be). A room filled by a writhing mass of limbs and bodies makes for a nasty bottleneck where you can be dragged down and killed if you don’t find a way through. Quick thinking and dungeoneering skills will be put to the test several times.
Now, is this the world’s best puzzle dungeon? It has its flaws. The “special” rooms are mostly one-offs floating separately in the void, with little connecting tissue (the module introduction admits as much, although there are potential links and even mini-quests if you look at the dungeon sideways). And there is too many of them. It is very clever, and amazingly creative, but after so many puzzle rooms so close together, it sort of blurs together. This is a problem. A few such rooms drive the players to try crazy schemes and combinations; this emergent quality can get lost in a chaos when everything is a “special” (and thus, nothing is). The rooms themselves can be one-note, too. Sometimes, it is more fun to discover special features yourself, and here, they are mostly right out there before you. The “digging below the surface” aspect is there in a few places, but it is mostly missing.
Even with all these reservations, this is a good module to show your players what puzzle-oriented funhouse dungeons were made of, and it makes for a fairly authentic booklets-only OD&D experience (again, because it is so bizarre and unfamiliar).
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 released in PDF

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 08:51
Echoes From Fomalhaut #02
I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF version of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02, now available from RPGNow. This issue of the zine features a complete town supplement, a guide to the Isle of Erillion mini-setting, and two adventure scenarios. People who have purchased the module in print are eligible for a free copy of this edition (these download links have just been sent out). Print copies are still available atemdt.bigcartel.com.
In other news… Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper is now getting close to sold out. I still have around 15 copies left, and a reprint is forthcoming, but if you’d like a copy of the first printing, this is the last call.
In yet other news, Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 is undergoing proofreading, and awaiting a few illustrations. If things go according to plan, it will be published in the second half of September. When I set out, I planned to maintain a more-or-less quarterly schedule with the zine; so far, so good!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box: On the Scope of Module Design

Mon, 08/27/2018 - 17:30

The inspiration for writing this post has been Pookie’s review of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02. Positive reviews make you feel good inside, while critical reviews make you rethink the things you are doing, and why you are doing them. Something Pookie has criticised (in a point he has also brought up WRT issue #01) was the apparent purposelessness of the adventures in the zine: that is, the lack of strong plot hooks and background information to get the player characters involved. This is a fair point, but it is something I do entirely on purpose (sorry!), because I believe it ultimately makes the adventures stronger, and more suitable for others’ home games. Our disagreement lies in our ideas about what should go into the module text (what should be its scope) – except we may not actually be disagreeing at all.
The purpose of adventure modules is to assist the GM in setting up and running a home game. This much is obvious, even if many people use them for loose inspiration for home games they are or aren’t running. At the end of the day, they are a combination of a reference document and inspiring material – a module communicates an idea about running a game, something which can’t be faithfully replicated, but which can be recaptured and created anew through our collective imagination. It is both “the” Keep on the Borderlands and your own Keep on the Borderlands. Adventures are personal and products of the moment, while modules are fixed in terms of both intent and time. Good modules recognise and accommodate this contradiction as an integral feature of role-playing games, something which separates them from literature and drama (I will not consider here the failed forms of adventure design which try to imitate either). They create the potential for action and adventure – we could say the module is the question, and the game around the dinner table is the answer. Much has been written about why some adventures work so well in creating memorable game experiences and some don’t; this post focuses on one aspect of published modules – the relationship between their scope and purpose
***
Against the GiantsIn my mind, there are two main approaches setting the scope for published old-school modules: we could call one the tapestry and the other the mosaic box. There are no clear boundaries between them, and both encompass multiple different sub-types, but the basic distinction is present. The tapestry is what we would consider a mostly self-contained scenario. In this case, all the necessary information you might need to run a home game is presented in the text, in a more or less set way. TSR’s classic module line is a prime example of this design approach. These modules, many of them originating in tournaments, have a fixed premise (from “stop the giants” to “explore the Ghost Tower of Inverness”) and assumed boundaries of play, which suggest the scope of the described material. They also have set structures; the way the bits and pieces in the adventure connect together are decided in advance. The module is “complete” with its elements already in place – like a colourful tapestry, it has been woven together, and the threads are there to hold it together. This approach gives the adventure a focus which makes them straightforward to use and rewarding to play: the players are motivated, the action flows well, and the conclusions are memorable. 
You are not going to make friends with the giants. Theoretically, you could (it is a valid solution to convince them the drow are probable oath-breakers and using them as disposable cannon fodder against human kingdoms who will eventually hunt them down), but you probably won’t. The adventure works from this assumption, and sets out to describe what you need to run the adventure. There are possible courses of action and probable outcomes – dungeons, for instance, can be described as flowcharts, and flowcharts have more or less likely paths in them, as well as beginnings and end points. At the end of the day, either you or a lot of giants will be dead, you may or may not have discovered why they are raiding the human lands beyond the lulz and plunder, and you might have found a few bothersome details which present a greater mystery behind the giant clans. The module is over for most intents and purposes, and you may move on to the next one. 
These adventures are not closed systems. They are adaptable to different campaigns and circumstances; they are sometimes considered generic, but what campaign world doesn’t have a place for a bunch of evil slavers to kill, or bands of rampaging giants to stop? They also offer up interesting and worthwhile choices which can lead the participants to different (anticipated or entirely unplanned) conclusions. The boundaries which exist in presentation are permeable in play; the module’s scope is not rigid. You can expand, repurpose, and in a way, “break” these modules, from exploring the unwritten parts of Descent Into the Depths of the Earth to flipping Keep on the Borderlands on its head, and breaking the great piggy bank that is the keep itself. These choices exist as unwritten potential due to both the adventures’ focus (they describe what they need to describe) and flexibility (they leave open what they don’t need to describe). The possibility is there if you need it, although in most cases, the players won’t cross the module’s planned boundaries. Many will head into the ogre cave or the minotaur lair in the Caves of Chaos; fewer will choose to seek out the Cave of the Unknown on the edges of the wilderness map, and very few indeed will set up a deal with the denizens of the Caves to lead merchant caravans into their ambushes to split up the resulting loot (and, this being D&D, the easy XP!). You are not running the module wrong if only the first one happens, although it can be very cool if all three do. 
***
VerboshLet us move on to the other approach, the mosaic box. This is a much looser and more probabilistic way of giving you playable materials, and it should come with a standard warning: “Some assembly required!” Mosaic box modules are as notable for the content they choose to exclude as they are for the material they have. They come as loose frameworks of disparate components whose connections and place must be decided by the GM, or even spontaneously “discovered” with the group over the course of play. These frameworks are incomplete because they invite further input to make them work; they are also open to all sorts of use and abuse. This approach was pioneered by Judges Guild’s early products: not always ready-made adventures per se, but play aids which could range from “adventure construction kits” to “adventure components” (the original meaning of the word “module” – an interchangeable component you can insert into our own design!) It also crops up in TSR’s output, most clearly in The Secret of Bone Hill, a multi-purpose adventure kit if there ever was one, but also in The Lost City and other looser site-based adventures. 
These modules have a different take on information design, and a different scope. Some of the high-level information is not present on purpose. Many of these modules have no pre-determined goal or even a set way to engage with their content: there are easy guesses but no universal answers. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor never tells you how to approach it (not even in an out-of-game way like Gary’s classic “Realms of Man” intro to B2), even though it easily could. The owners of the titular fortress are bandits and other assholes who maintain a slave market on the premises; the dungeon is half their hideout and half the headquarters of an evil cult, separated by a level containing a cluster of super-deadly dragons. You could do a lot of things in and around this bizarro universe Keep on the Borderlands (or its one-page cousin, Huberic of Haghill), and the way your GM integrated it into his campaign would probably set the stage for the way you ought to approach it, but there is no firm premise like in the G series. Interestingly, even the lines between good and evil, friend or foe are less clearly drawn. 
Portals of TorshIt goes further. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Tegel Manor or The Secret of Bone Hill present a fairly systematic, organised playground to explore and have fun with, but the outlines, relationships and boundaries can become even more blurred. Hex-crawls, city supplements and other sandbox settings (even those which don’t present physical settings but, for instance, social relationships and interpersonal conflict) are truly mosaic-like in that they are composed of several bits which may or may not be connected by a network of pre-set relations. The pieces can connect virtually any way, since there are so many of them and they are typically linked in a fairly loose manner. Perhaps there is a war going on between the island-kingdom of Croy and the city state of Warvik; perhaps the nearby islands are connected via a smuggling ring the characters might come into conflict with; and perhaps the assassins’ guild from Zarthstone is fanning the flames of conflict from the background. It could, however, also be that Croy and Warvik co-exist in an uneasy alliance against the smugglers, descended from a group of freedom fighters the characters may team up with; and that the assassins are minding their own business while doing stuff for the highest bidder. Which piece goes where and how is your responsibility, but they will prove useful either way. 
The eventual purpose of the material is created by the GM, or the GM and the players working together and surprising each other. This kind of module is a framework to insert your own adventure scenarios into, and a puzzle where the pieces might fit together in a dozen different ways. Some uncertainty is actually fairly helpful in this situation. Ideally, not spelling out the connections lets other GMs discover their own, and leaving some things mysterious evokes a sense of wonder which is conductive to personal imagination. We can actually see this well in tapestry-style adventures: the most intriguing and speculated-on parts of the G-D series involve the role of the Elder Elemental God and his abandoned temples, while the Caverns of Tsojcanth leaves open the mystery of Iggwilw. Leaving those doors open is essential for less deterministic scenarios! In the case of the mosaic, presenting a complete pattern (as opposed to a vague outline or a departure point which can lead in several possible directions) would defeat the purpose of handing you the box of pieces, just like LEGO has been reduced from its early universal sets to highly specific, expensive collectibles. 
City EncountersThere are multiple possible scales here as well. We could bring up JG’s less known Verbosh (a complete mini-setting complete with wilderness, dungeons and multiple towns, which are sufficiently described to serve as adventures), Portals of Torsh (a self-contained alternate world reached through magical gates, again containing multiple towns and adventure sites), or the more recent Vault of Larin Karr from Necromancer Games (a mini-setting describing a valley, its communities and dungeons, all connected in various ways). At the end of the line, we could have the likes of the now sadly OOP City Encounters, an excellent 600-entry city encounter table which is a full-on toolkit and has very little explicit structure. And yet, City Encounters does have rhyme and reason: through a myriad unrelated encounters which might take place, it presents a certain idea of a grand city, sinful and dangerous; generating conflict, adventure, and even links between the different entries through the table’s consistent application. You could run a city campaign with nothing more than this supplement, a good map, and perhaps one or two pages of background. 
The mosaic approach is fun but tricky. While we may correctly assume game materials made this way allow for a high degree of freedom, this freedom is not always easy to achieve, nor necessarily superior to a focused play experience. The absence of concrete hooks and boundaries can be immensely liberating, or it can halt a game right in its tracks. I enjoy the sandbox gaming they foster and accommodate, but also see a lot of online discussions describing dysfunctional or even “false” sandbox play: because the players are lost, because there is a communication problem between the GM and the players about how they should play in an open setting; or because there is subtle railroading going on (you can do “anything” but only the GM’s assumed adventure will be “real” or provide a fun play experience, etc.). This approach is neither universally applicable nor truly superior to the more focused tapestry approach. 
*** 
Finally, where does this leave me? I have employed both approaches to adventure design, and don’t consider them an either/or proposition. I gravitate slightly towards the second in running a campaign, but my published materials are often closer to the first. It is generally easier to write a focused module because it lends itself to a logical and structured presentation. The mosaic box approach works more on intuition, making connections and leaps of logic; therefore, its design is often more impressionistic and reliant on imagery and loose association. This is always harder to do, so it happens less often, even if it comes fairly easy to me by the table. 
The House of Rogat DemazienHowever, I also think that even more structured and precisely adventures are fairly easy to place in someone’s game with some forethought and adaptation, and that they benefit from keeping them reasonably open and a bit mysterious. This is why the majority of the adventures and campaign materials I have published in Echoes From Fomalhaut (and before it, Fight On!, Knockspell, and various places all over the Internet) are “missing” bits and pieces, and aren’t coming with strong adventure hooks and specific setups. I find it interesting that multiple people have singled out The House of Rogat Demazien from among my stuff as something they have used and enjoyed in particular. For some time, this came as a complete surprise, since Rogat Demazien was never more than a minor project, an afterthought to the much more complex city-state of Zothay; it was also directionless without offering more of an adventure hook than “it is there and there may be treasure involved”. And yet, it has been reasonably popular with people. And that’s my guess now: while a bit aimless, it is on the right scale, it is adaptable, and it is open enough for multiple different purposes. This has been my guiding philosophy for the materials I am releasing for the Isle of Erillion mini-campaign, too: they will make sense as pieces of the whole, but they will also be useable on their own (future releases from our City of Vultures campaign will be a bit more tightly integrated, but they will also retain a basic modularity and open-endedness). 
Make no mistake, this is not a universal solution, but it is the way that, at least to me, makes personal sense.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Museum of Living Arts

Sat, 08/18/2018 - 10:32

The Museum of Living Arts (2018)by Miihkali Tuominen and Thaumiel NerubPublished by D-OOM ProductsLow levels
The Museum of Bad Xerox MachinesMurderous statues and sordid experiments are to fantasy museums as giant rats in the basement are to fantasy pubs: they come with the territory, and they are not at all unexpected. If I heard there was a museum in the fantasy city my character was visiting, I would immediately prepare for strange disappearances and bloody murders. And surprisingly…
This LotFP scenario does it well. It takes the predictable premise and does something entertaining and imaginative with it. If there is good vanilla, this is good fantasy horror, missing the juvenile edgelordism found in many official LotFP releases. It still features plentiful gore and grotesque murder, but, if it can be said, it is all done tastefully. There is just enough of the tragic and otherworldly lurking inside the museum hall to make the horror underneath the not-so-innocuous surface feel interesting.
Much of the module revolves around the individual exhibits, and the central mystery of the place and the surrounding disappearances. The museum is a physically compact space (24 keyed areas split between two levels), but sufficiently labyrinthine, and divided into visitor areas and more restricted “staff only” zones. It offers good possibilities for infiltration and even reconnaissance – this is a dungeon the characters can visit by day and buy a ticket to look around unmolested! The exhibits are largely tricks/traps and inventive dungeon puzzles; they demonstrate a good sense of the macabre, and should be fun to deal with. There are occasional places where we get into LotFP’s tendency for lolrandom tables, but by and large, it is a nice, thematic dungeon revolving around (fairly modern and fairly high-concept) art. Creepy details like an interactive exhibit of stuffed demi-humans, or a secret arena where the owner pits his captives against each other in ridiculous costumes lend the place its character.
Nine new monsters / NPCs are presented in a preliminary bestiary section, variations on familiar concepts which give them a sense of the uncanny. Silver-plated skeletons constructed from former victims which are both monster and treasure. Clay “limb studies” which choke you. Hairless sphinx cats which lurk on the perimeter of your vision, watching. These monsters are put to good use inside the module; they are integrated into the area descriptions fairly nicely.
The Museum of Living Arts looks and reads well. It has an underground DIY look mostly using overexposed stock art (that looks like metal zines run through a photocopier one time too many), and a breezy, light layout which would make it ideal for digest-sized printing. (The 40 pages could easily be condensed to 20 while remaining readable, but that’s a quibble.) The writing has a fairly good balance between style and functionality; I was happy with it. This is an amateur module in the best sense. It would make for a good Halloween one-shot, or it could come in handy if you need a creepy museum for a reasonably cosmopolitan city.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Year Two, and Onwards

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 12:08
Things I made this year
Beyond Fomalhaut started two years ago, and while most people tend to do this in late December or early January, this is my regular time for stock-taking and reflecting (and ranting). I should actually have posted this a day or two earlier to make it exactly one year, but we were gaming. Gaming takes precedence. Sitting down by the table with my circle of friends and playing is the reason to participate in this hobby, and it is the wellspring from which everything else flows. I am making a point here, and I will return to it at the end of the post. But for now,
The State of the Blog
Last year, I had 55 posts; this year, I had 42, this one included. It is slightly less (although some of my 2016 posts were reposts), and there have been more reviews than discussion. I have always been more of an actual play guy than a theorist, and I just had less to say about general matters than I used to. (I also canned some posts I did not think were up to par.) Reviews, on the other hand, are not just easy and enjoyable to write, they sometimes involve discussion on practical game design. The 23 I posted average out at 3.0, about the same as in 2016-2017 (3.1). This year, there were more outliers and slightly less reviews in the middle. This is how the rating break down:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence (). This rating was not awarded this year.
  • 5 went to one new product, The Red Prophet Rises. This is a great sword&sorcery adventure module which I would recommend without reservations.
  • 4 went to eight products, ranging from the fairly high-profile (The Hyqueous Vaults and Deep Carbon Observatory) to the oddball little surprises you find in PDFs, zines, and even a blog post (Sanctum of the Snail, The Quarrymen and The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre). These are very good, too.
  • 3 went to seven adventures. Most of them were in the “decent but could have been better” league, with the only flawed gem being Crypt of the Lilac High Priest and I almost gave that one a four. I would recommend Lilac High Priest with some reworking, and Fever Swamp if you like a good helping of masochism in your gaming.
  • 2 went to four adventures. This mostly means there is an entire category of lacking modules I am successfully avoiding, or leafing through and not writing the review. To turn Tolstoy’s quote on its head, “every good adventure is good in its own way, while the poor ones are all alike”. There are patterns common to this rating which can become helpful warning signs for the reader, and a time-saver for the harried reviewer. I will post on this issue soonish.
  • 1 went to three adventures. One, The Wrath of Grapes, was classic shovelware, the kind you pick up out of curiosity and regret immediately afterwards. Then we come to Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb and The Exfiltrators, which both caught me off guard at the end of this year. Neither of these were newbie efforts; in fact, they were both written by people with fairly well-known names and industry awards. Something went wrong in both cases: one is a creative failure as an intro adventure, and the other is a return to bad writing and design practices which have been around in the hobby for a long while. I suppose both are instructive in the “don’t do this” sense.

My campaign journal, still going strong last year, died an ignoble death after its 13th instalment. I don’t think it had too many followers: the posts were too long, increasingly convoluted (a fairly natural progression for a campaign, but not easy to buy into as a reader), and I am no writer. It has also been more useful to share actual game materials, which brings us to...
The State of the Fanzine
From concept...E.M.D.T. lives, again! After a lot of vacillation about the business end of things, I took the jump and launched my zine. This has been a tremendously enjoyable experience, and probably the best way to publish game materials these days. I have long been complaining that social media and blogs have the wrong kind of architecture to make things last – posts inevitably drop out of sight in the information churn, and hobby publications do not receive enough time to prove themselves and find their proper place in the popular imagination. Zines are small and inexpensive enough to be personal, but substantial enough to have staying power. These are not exactly the newsletter-style zines of the 70s to 90s: their information exchange role has been assumed by the Internet, so you don’t really get much of correspondence and commentaries-upon-commentaries that had once served to connect fandom. (This was still the case in Chaos Ultra, the late-90s diskmag where my first game-related writings appeared.) Instead, they are an excellent venue for self-expression and craftmanship.
...to reality.This aspect has always drawn me to zines and newsletters. For a long time, most of my output was in the form of PDFs, but I grew to miss the look and substance of a physical product. I knew Echoes From Fomalhaut would have to be a physical zine, and I had very specific ideas about the way it would look and feel (mainly influenced by the early Judges Guild instalments). There is something slower and more old-fashioned about a paper zine than an RPGNow PDF. I buy and enjoy a lot of those, too, but receiving an envelope in the mail and poring over someone’s handmade booklet is a feeling like no other. It also goes for publishing my own. Writing and disseminating a zine involves a lot of busywork from editing to packing envelopes and doing taxes, and now that I’m working out of the weekend house, it is kind of physical, too – the post is 40 minutes away on foot, and a round trip in the summer heat is a good daily walk. But it is tremendously enjoyable labour. So much of what we do these days is virtual or hard to put into concrete terms that the routine of processing orders feels like a task that produces clearly understandable value. Seeing the first working proofs after multiple homemade prototypes, or bringing three or four envelopes’ worth of zines to the post at a time is a reward onto itself.
The ideologues among us could be right to point out that Echoes, like most of its peers, kinda betrays the DIY principle. That’s correct: I did not actually make it all by myself. I have had help, and lots of it. The unsung hero behind the zine is Akos Barta, my printer: an old gamer friend from way back, he owns the printing company which had published my 2013 Helvéczia boxed set, and now prints and assembles my booklets. I have also been lucky to commission excellent illustrators who truly “get” the old-school style: Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Matthew Ray and Andrew Walter (so far). As Denis had once remarked in our personal correspondence, they draw on different old-school predecessors from Sutherland, Russ Nicholson, Trampier and a bit of Otus; I will add that they also have developed personal styles that are their own, and which fire my imagination. Last but not least, my players: obviously, but sometimes you have to restate the obvious. Thanks, guys!
Zine readers vs. zine publishersSo how’s the business going? The first two issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut, and The Barbarian King, which was kind of a test balloon to see if I could also do print modules, have sold sufficiently well to recoup my costs and generate a modest profit after social security and the taxman’s cut (you are welcome, guys). Echoes #01 is getting close to selling out its first print run at 194 of 220 copies sold (this does not count a 30-copy pre-release I distributed at a Hungarian game convention), and will be reprinted; TBK and Echoes #02 are at 121 and 115 copies out of 240. This means the zine project is financially self-sustainable, and generates a profit I can reinvest into subsequent issues, more modules, as well as larger projects down the line. That’s pretty good. The next issue of Echoes is scheduled for late September, and I would like to make it run on a quarterly schedule, with the odd module and supplement on the side. The next module will be in the Hungarian, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of my RPG (it will also be the 50th E.M.D.T. release). If time allows, I would also like to release something in English, a utility product based on something I had once worked on with Matt Finch, but never ended up releasing. This may or may not come out before Christmas.
I did not finish this
The State of My Other Projects

People who have been reading this blog might remember the promises. Well, burnout and a stronger focus on the zine has also meant that Castle Xyntillan, my Tegel Manor homage, has been very slow to progress, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. I was dissatisfied with some of my ideas for the dungeons, and rather than beat my head against the wall, I scrapped the problem areas and replaced them with something completely different. We are also in the final stages of our campaign, meaning we will wrap it up soon and if I can find the time, it will be reasonably easy to complete the manuscript and hand it out to people for comments and criticism while I redraw the maps (they will still be hand-drawn, just a bit prettier). Xyntillan is going to be a larger book, maybe a hardcover similar in size to the 1e PHB, with large foldout GM and player maps (either two or three of them each). It is also for OD&D/S&W.
Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG, has been lying untouched for almost two years now (the last major work I did on it was in August 2016). The rulebooks and the first two adventures are translated and mostly laid out, but as projects tend to go, I stalled at 90% readiness and haven’t been inspired to progress ever since. It will happen, although I don’t know if it will happen in 2019. Maybe the end of it. Helvéczia is a game I believe in, and want to see it done right no matter what it takes (apparently, years).
Other things I made this yearThere is also something else I haven’t been talking much about on RPG forums. Thief: The Dark Project, my favourite computer game will have its 20th anniversary at the end of November, and there is a level design contest for an old-school thieving experience. Some ten years ago, I was one of the people trying to go for an old-school aesthetic in the Thief level design community, and I have since found a following of talentedpeople (for some reason mainly French) who have taken things to the next level. In the last eight years, I have been focusing on The Dark Mod, the free Thief-inspired stealth game, but the anniversary and the contest were a one of a time opportunity to return to Thief level editing. It turns out Dromed, the hoary old level editor used to build Thief fan missions, is as quirky as ever, but it has gotten some improvements to make it easier to work with and remove some of its hard limitations.
"That stupid thing with all the lines"Building Thief levels is an incredibly addictive hobby; using simple geometric shapes (cubes, wedges, cylinders, pyramids, corner-apex pyramids and dodecahedrons) to construct complex terrain and build rewarding gameplay is time-consuming and utterly absorbing. Where a simple house could be a cube with two wedges on the top, a sequence of interlocking shapes (which can be solid, “air” or water) can result in some pretty sophisticated stuff. Of course, by current computer game standards, Thief is incredibly low-fi: even on its release 20 years ago, it didn’t win any awards for graphics. But it is this low-fi aesthetic which makes it look timeless, and its other features (a revolutionary stealth system, the world’s best sound design, and the ability to build huge, labyrinthine levels have stood the test of time very well. If some of my RPG projects have been slow to appear, Thief and Dromed are partly to blame.
The State of the Old School
Old-school gaming is as stable these days as it gets. It may not be obvious to many, but with its roots in communities like Dragonsfoot, the OD&Dities fanzine, and the Necromancer Games forums, it has been around since 2000 and 2001. OSRIC was published in 2006, and Swords & Wizardry will turn ten this October. Contrary to a lot of doomsaying and wishful thinking on part of its detractors, it has not been proven a passing fad, or a few nostalgiacs clinging to their childhood. Instead, our niche interest (and a niche interest it will remain) has established itself as a legitimate approach to gaming. It is here to stay, although not necessarily at the level of its 2010-2012 peak. Being fan-based and decentralised without a dominant lead product, old-school gaming has weathered its boom years better than the d20 system.
The breadth of old-school gaming has necessarily brought divisions: with common roots in the classics, the communities around OSRIC, LotFP, Into the ODD and Dungeon Crawl Classics can easily remain in communication, but they are otherwise increasingly separated by taste, design interests, and the kind of people they attract. I personally think early 1st edition AD&D is the game with the strongest and most distinct creative legacy, and the common wellspring to which we can (and should) all return time and time again. There is, however, no denying that there is an equally strong interest in the Basic/Expert lineage, a segment of the OSR which has strongly overlapped with the indies, and ideas which have drifted off into far-flung corners of gaming. In some of these cases, the influence and mutations of old-school philosophies may yield surprising new result. It may also turn out we may not like some of them. So it goes; this is, fortunately, a corner of the hobby where the stakes are small, and everyone can create the kind of gaming they want. More or less, anyway.
Social_media.pngThe last time, I mentioned commercialisation and a loss of our focus (as bottom-up, actual play-focused DIY communities) as one of the threats which can seriously harm us in the future. I am not too happy to bring it up, but this time, it is politics. Make no mistake, I am not anti-political (to the contrary, I am a politics junkie), and if releasing a politically charged game is your poison, be my guest. But there is too much of a good thing, and the people who can’t shut up about their specific brand of radicalism are becoming a nuisance. Perhaps a lot of things are political, including my chair, my table, and especially the parasol I am sitting under (all bourgeois conceits when I could be building barricades), but the people who try to bring their crummy politics into everything are rapidly becoming “that guy”. And they never seem to notice themselves.
But there is more than nuisance, there is just plain shitty behaviour. When you see people clamouring to punish other gamers for imagined or real ideological transgressions, or for associating with the wrong kind of people, or as it happened, for interviewing someone on a podcast who had associated with the wrong kind of people, that is not a “nuisance”. These people will incessantly talk about toxicity and bad guys, while consistently making the Internet a worse place for everyone. They will try to ruin you, get you fired from your job and destroy your business and reputation for failing their self-made ideological tests. The thing to realise is that fuck no they aren’t fighting the good fight, and they are not acting out of good intentions, let alone “self-defence”. These ideological bullies want power, and they’ll be sure to start abusing it as soon as they get their hands on it. We ought to recognise it. We have known Pat Pulling and her ilk, and these new heirs of her are just the same, the same, the same. They don’t own gaming and they only speak for a small clique. The correct response to their jackassery is found in the classics: “Well, hello, Mister Fancypants. Well, I've got news for you, pal, you ain't leadin’ but two things right now: jack and shit... and Jack left town.”
What to do, then, if you perceive something political in gaming that annoys you? My plan is to game more, and that should be your plan, too. First of all, a commitment to gaming will weed out the people who are in “the community” to spread misery and generate outrage. They can fuck off back to wherever they came from. Second, in its own modest way, I think gaming is beneficial. Our hobby is built around friendship and hospitality, and if there is something our world needs more of, it is those two.  How many times do modern people invite friends over to sit around their dinner table for a few hours of conversation? More than that, enjoying gaming lets us realise the things we have in common. Shared creativity and friendship enriches us all. Is gaming a recipe for moral improvement? Do not ask too much of it. But do not undersell the small things either.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Exfiltrators

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 05:03

The Exfiltrators (2018)by Lance HawvermaleSelf-published5th to 7th level
The ExfiltratorsFirst things first, this module was produced by one of the best Kickstarter campaigns I have seen. The objectives were simple and clearly laid out. The product description stated the designer’s aims without cloudy obfuscation and deceptive language. There were no stretch goals to build false expectations and stretch out production into infinity, and the pitch was based on a written, edited manuscript. The Kickstarter did something which very few Kickstarters actually do: it was meant to bridge the gap between manuscript stage and delivery. Finally, the campaign was launched February 2018, and the completed books were delivered April 2018. Hardcore! This approach gets my official endorsement. If you want to crowdfund something, this is the way to do it. (Note also that it raised all of $1,613, which makes my wisdom highly dubious.)
In The Exfiltrators, you must enter Velgate Prison, the kingdom’s most notorious penitentiary for those criminals who have to be put away very securely. The place is staffed by professionals, the prisoners are under continuous surveillance, and escape is impossible. Time to prove the warden wrong – your characters either get to break out of the most secure prison in the land, or break into the prison to investigate who is targeting them and other adventurers with perfectly orchestrated ambushes.
A good prison break hinges on confronting an interesting, complex security system to find its gaps or contradictions, and exploit them for your purposes. This is how they work. Unfortunately, Velgate Prison itself is completely underwhelming, which is not a good thing as the module’s lynchpin location. You would expect “the kingdom’s most notorious jail” to be a sinister, imposing and labyrinthine place, with prisoners lost somewhere on the lower levels. Instead, you get a much more modern and much-much more modest outfit using the panopticon design. It is, in fact, mostly one big room with a central observation chamber surrounded by multiple stacked levels of cells with the inmates inside them. This one room carries much of the adventure. All the rest of the prison is made up of humdrum support rooms like the guard barracks, the weapons locker, the quartermaster, and personal domiciles for the senior staff. It is all firmly in the “fantastic realism” school, mostly stating the obvious.
Nipple rings and tattoos: clearly EVULThere are altogether 12 guards in the whole prison, ten inmates, and (beyond individual jail cells, which are counted separately in the key) 15 keyed areas, including a sloping passage, a description of a door, etc. The prisoners are your motley crew of maniacs, murderers and bandits, given lots of personal details and some personal effects. One of the intended ways to play the module is to get caught in the panopticon and McGyver an escape plan from old combs, hairpins and what have you while under watch. There is a convenient deus ex machine / complication due to a haunting spirit if the plan doesn’t succeed. In a more interesting case, the characters enter as investigators, and must pick the falsely accused from the convicts who deserve to rot. This is a good deal better (it is left to the GM who is who).
I must admit writing this review was hard. I had to read and reread parts of the module to recall the details, which doesn’t usually happen. The material is slippery, lacking the memorable bits which stick in your mind. Outside the aforementioned panopticon and a weak extraplanar plot thread (including the laziest planar maze I have ever seen), the module seemed to lack a distinct character. It is more in the late AD&D style where the game abandoned conceptual simplicity for increasingly self-referential designs. In my mind, this is an important paradigm shift. Early AD&D starts out as an open framework which finds inspiration in outside sources it incorporates into its own logic (rules, procedures, content). It is straightforward, action-oriented, sometimes not very elaborate, but it is open to new infusions of pop culture. Comic books, horror movies, TV shows, pulp fantasy, mythology and all kinds of board and puzzle games the players enjoyed could find a way into their shared imagination. Late AD&D, in contrast, becomes a closed world which largely refers to its own legacy.* Reusing and combining pre-existing elements becomes the norm.
One feature of this period is the substitution of rules and canon knowledge in place of finding new outside stuff to mine. The stuff that turns up in Sage Advice, the worst column in gaming after the Ecology of… series. This module has both of that in spades; it relies on rule exploits to build some of its encounters, and the AD&D canon to build its background. This is more a personal taste than a design issue, but I don’t like it. I can appreciate someone who knows the AD&D rules deeply enough to use them creatively (this is a skill I never mastered), but here, we mostly find mechanical creativity instead of something out of the box – on the other hand, it is not the kind of vanilla I enjoy. If you like late 1e and 2e, this might be more to your taste.
The demiplane of randomly generated suckageHowever, the cop-outs sting. The setup includes a thoroughly choreographed ambush where the orchestrator is “meant” to get away, and the adventure really stacks the deck in his favour. By the book? 100% by the book. Are magical commando tactics legitimate in AD&D? Logically, they would evolve in a magical setting, but again, this is a device which feels off. Multiple times, the GM is instructed to add or subtract opponents to scale the module. The prison has a secret deus ex machina NPC who is meant to even out the odds. If you need him to open the cell doors and let the PCs get away, he will give them the key, just like that. Or “a crowbar appears magically beside one of the PC’s cots”. Yes, that’s a quote. Or “using shape change, the Boy in the Box appears as a giant lizard or other monster, prompting the guards to flee the spire and regroup elsewhere”. Or if you need him to open a door leading to the extraplanar segment, he will be there for the characters. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Once Upon a Time in the West: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.
The writing is competent and obviously done by someone who knows how to write prose, but it is not a good adventure text. The sentences work but it is a dreadful reference where information gets lost and the information you get is often not the right kind of information. A high wall: “Optionally, the PCs can throw a grapple onto the wall’s upper edge, but quick-thinking players might believe such sounds have a chance of alerting one of the guards.” An observation post: “The windows have been darkened with a special alchemical process so as to permit the guard to see out while blocking attempts to see inside the spire from without. However, those with infravision can still clearly see the heat signature of the guard within.” A lot of clutter; a lot of important details left in obscure corners of the module, the works.
The Exfiltrators is not a cynical cash grab, and it is not designed carelessly. There are parts of it which are competent; the author is a writer who has been published professionally in fiction, poetry and RPGs. Some of his modules are fairly good. This scenario isn’t. It reminds me of the worse kind of Dungeon Magazine adventures (quoth Bryce: “Jesus H. Fucking Christ I hate reviewing Dungeon Magazine.”) Verdict: Skip this harder than Skip Williams.
No playtesters are listed for this publication.
Rating: * / *****_____________________* Note: in recent decades, this trend has turned into an endless recycling of the D&D classics. These exercises have more to do with brand-building and IP management than actually learning from the things the same products were attempting to do.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 13:38

Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)by Kiel Chenier (and Paul Jaquays)Published by ZeroBarrier Productions (and Paul Jaquays, reprinted by Judges Guild)1st to 2nd level (5thedition D&D) vs. low-level (OD&D)
Orcs in Tarodun's Tomb“A sepulchral tomb. Magical tricks and traps. Brutish orcs guarding a vast underground treasure.” This is how Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb describes the “quintessential first-time D&D experience” it seeks to recapture in this beginner-oriented scenario. It rings a Pavlovian bell. Many of us have played this adventure in one way or another. In your case, it might have been Keep on the Borderlands. In my case, it was a mine, and my character died was killed by the orcs in one of the early rooms, but close enough. I don’t think Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb is a good low-level orcs-in-a-hole module, and I will outline why below.
It may not sound fair, but I will compare it to the gold standard of low-level orcs-in-a-hole modules, Paul Jaquays’ Borshak’s Lair(it is found in The Dungeoneer’s Compendium, one of the more accessible and affordable of the forgotten classics). The two are fairly comparable:
  • they are both low-level affairs (although Borshak’s assumes the YUGE OD&D-style party of several PCs and flunkies);
  • they are both short: Borshak’s is 7 dense, typewritten pages, with an updated, cleaned-up version in 13; Tarodun’s is 16 with breezier layout and frequent illustrations); 
  • they share the same premise and aesthetics (vanilla fantasy, both rooted in their respective era).

And yet, Borshak’s makes for a hell of a beginner mini-dungeon, and Tarodun’s doesn’t. What makes for the difference?
I have said it before, but here it is again: like most of the modern mini-adventures, this one lacks scope. In its day, Borshak’s Lair would have been considered a mini-dungeon: nevertheless, it has 29 encounter areas, and it is brimming with creative encounters. Based on a circular layout, it is a small, complex environment divided between a humanoid-inhabited western, and a haunted eastern half; it is full of magical enigmas, tricks, and secrets, and there are oodles of vicious combat with hordes of enemies. In comparison, Tarodun’s Tomb is an eight-room lair: mostly a linear sequence of encounters with a mini-boss, a puzzle, and a final boss. Even considering changes in the style of play since the 1970s, and the more involved tactical combat of recent editions, this is a huge difference, and a shame. The width and complexity of Borshak’s opens up the playing field to enable strategic decision-making within a fairly compact space: there are many ways the scenario may play out, the players (or the orcs) may use the terrain to their advantage, and there are numerous exploration opportunities. You will never find everything in Borshak’s, but you will find a lot of stuff even if you don’t pay too much attention. Tarodun’s Tomb does not offer these possibilities: you can’t do much more than move through the dungeon and deal with the encounters as the GM dictates the pace. Even if you find everything, you will not come away with much. It is bite-sized, and linear.
The Map ProblemThere are differences in the approaches you can take. Physical space does have an effect: where there are multiple routes through, you can find more or less direct approaches, try stealth or an ambush (essential against numerical superiority), and perhaps even avoid the denizens directly in your way. There are even voluminous drapes to hide behind and exploit. In a linear lair dungeon, these possibilities are not present. The same goes for a more social approach. In Borshak, only two of the orcs (their Hero leader, and a magic-user underling) have personalities, but the presence of different dungeon groups may be exploited as different factions (although it is not known if this was a common thing in the 70s, it features heavily in Jaquays’ later work). In Tarodun’s, although the orcs are suggested to be women, and they can be customised through an optional random table, the possibilities of out-of-the-box play are more restricted. Admittedly, there is a shortcut allowing the company to “hack” the adventure by either making off with the treasure with minimal confrontation, or letting two opposing forces in the mini-dungeon fight it out. This is very nice, and the best thing about the module, but there is too little of it.
The encounters have different depth in the two modules. Tarodun’s doesn’t offer much beyond a little descriptive detail and some extra looting. The encounters are functional, but one-note. There is an inexplicable double-cross where an NPC saved from certain and painful death will decide to fight her saviours (who are bound to outnumber and outclass her) to the death. This is, no offence, dumb and a terrible lesson for beginners; the absolute nadir of the adventure. There is a central “keyhole puzzle” gating off an area which has one way through (two if we include the secret shortcut). This is not a good thing. You can’t do much with it. Borshak’s Lair is brimming with ideas. There is an intelligent magic amulet who can be an asset or a huge liability. The central area has a “bottomless pit” teleporting you into an insidious trap, an evil orc prank, and five ways forward through secret passages (some of which can also be used to hide baddies who can assault the PCs from all sides). In the next room, there is an animated statue who is really a cursed Hero compelled to fight the party. In the middle of the barracks area, there are four statues with special powers/functions. It is funhouse design, but you can fiddle with things, find secrets, and secrets-within-secrets-within secrets (there is a trap containing treasure, concealing another treasure hoard guarded by a dangerous monster).
Finally, let’s consider the module’s suitability for the “quintessential first-time D&D experience”. There is a philosophy which says first adventures should have training wheels, and should not be too overwhelming. I don’t think this is a good approach, particularly in the age of ubiquitous, affordable digital entertainment. Providing a focus for play is fine (“here be orcs and treasure, have at them!”), but I fully believe RPGs should be sold by highlighting their full creative potential. In a truncated scenario, you will see the game’s limitations (slower pace, lack of visual stimulus), but not its versatility and freedom. Tarodun’s Tombhas the same limits as every eight-rooms-in-16-pages module on RPGNow. You don’t get Borshak’s, and you don’t even get the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands (let alone the full, rich B2 experience with the Keep’s intrigue, the killer wilderness, and the digressions hinting at a wider world). You get one cave, and for all the ‘Bree Yark’ it can provide, the magic of interlocking mini-dungeons, the mystery of several cave mouths opening before you in the sides of a ravine, the hazards of picking the more dangerous areas are not present. Tarodun’s Tomb does not serve as a good gateway to gaming: it is a cat’s flap into a 10’ by 10’ supply closet, with orcs.
This adventure module is not badly written (in fact, the text is fairly compact and well-presented via bullet-point lists), and the information is structured efficiently. The map is pleasing to look at, with good cross-hatching. The stock illustrations are nice. I like the cover. But it is not a good scenario, for beginners or otherwise. Where recent old-school offerings are considered, get Tomb of the Serpent Kings, a far superior beginner scenario with all its structural issues (just in quantitative terms, 52 keyed areas in 22 pages) and forget this one. Or roll up a YUGE party of retainers and hangers-on, and go for broke in the Caves of Chaos or Borshak’s Lair.
No playtesters are listed in this publication.
Rating: * / ***** vs. ***** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Tyranny of the Black Tower

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 19:47

Tyranny of the Black Tower (2018)by ExtildepoPublished by Verisimilitude Society Press3rd to 5th level
Do Not Judge a Book By Its Awesome CoverFell things are afoot in the village of Scarabad. Since the disappearance of a benevolent wizard, the locals have lived under the brutal rule of the evil lord Nim Sheog, who extorts and plunders his own people while letting the nearby goblins wreak further havoc. The Black Tower, the fortress built on the hilltop overlooking the village, sees everything. It is time for a brave band of adventurers to investigate what is amiss and set things right.
This adventure starts with a great illustration promising wahoo action, and offers an excellent initial impression with its skilfully drawn, interesting location maps, but ends up delivering an altogether different, disappointing experience. The bizarre monster the adventurers are fighting is just an afterthought to a much more mundane scenario describing a farming village ruled by an evil landlord, his castle, and the castle’s dungeons. It follows in the tradition of the “fantastic realism” you can find in The Village of Hommlet, but lacks the latter’s versatility and scope. There is a lot of “tell” (superfluous background information and lengthy explanations pointing out the obvious) and much less “show” (play-relevant details the characters may fruitfully interact with). You could cut the page count in half without losing anything interesting, and you would still have a wordy adventure in your hands.
This is a problem of presentation, but there are similar issues with the content as well. Fantastic realism succeeds when it presents interesting, believable conflicts and situations where setting logic and history matter, and can be applied in the course of complex problem-solving. It does not work here, because the situation is not very interesting: Nim Sheog is a clear baddy responsible for some evil stuff, the village denizens who receive a description are opposed to his reign, and the imprisoned wizard in his dungeon is basically benevolent. The decisions you can make in this environment are mostly obvious. On the other hand, the infiltration of the Black Tower and its dungeons, the defeat of Nim Sheog or the freeing of the wizard Bibotrop take place in an adventure site that’s not very interesting either. The tower is a succession of common rooms you’d find in a tower (guard posts, bedroom, a great hall, etc.), containing the obvious things you’d put there on the basis of their names. The dungeon rooms are fairly standard as well. There is also a kind of bet-hedging that leaves a bad aftertaste – a protective item that “only works against this particular [monster]and no other creature”, or treasure in the form of precious jewels (“quartz or diamond, Referee’s choice”).
The module should be playable, and you could get a decent gaming session or two out of it. However, the realism it brings to the table is the boring kind, and the overwriting does not help fix this impression. There is something seriously wrong with the idea density it offers – too much padding, too little meat. Without the sense of wonder or tactical complexity that defined the early TSR modules, what we are left with is a rather one-note village setting, a generic dungeon full of the obvious, and – ironically – a decent extra dungeon map that is left underdeveloped. I don’t think this module is worth bothering with. It is not really bad, but it is boring, and that’s probably worse.
No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.
Rating: ** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre

Wed, 07/04/2018 - 18:49

The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre (2018)by Nate L.Published as a blog post1st level
[NOTE TO MY PLAYERS: STAY AWAY FROM THIS REVIEW!]
Yes, that's the mapCreativity does not need production values. The essence of role-playing is DIY, and self-expression manages to do fine without worldly concessions like interior art, layout, or formatting. This review is about an adventure published as a blog post, with a map that’s a mobile photo of a notebook page, complete with the author’s thumb (the map itself is a collection of interlinked boxes, untidy scrawl, and hard to decipher numbers). It is the cat’s meow. As the author describes it, “I made this for my first level players, who stumbled into it while poking around the start town and avoiding the other dungeon I made. It's hidden under a statue in city hall, so they have to do a little sneaking or run a scam every time they want to go in. It's not too lethal, there's a moderate amount of treasure, and it's not too big.” It seems to be written for 5thedition (this is only an educated guess), but it converts easily and it is as old-school as it gets.
Lord Vyre, former ruler of Fishtown, had constructed a secret underground garden under city hall, first as a retreat for Franndis, his elemental lover, then as her prison when their love went sour. Now, a hundred years later, the place has gone both wild and strange, inhabited by unlikely creatures and enigmatic garden ornaments. It is a surreal underground garden setting with a strong sense of the fantastic: nothing is by the book, and everything is magical in a lush, dreamlike way. Dangerous topiary; temporal distortions; poisonous gemstone flowers; a dream tiger smoking cigarettes of scented herbs; the grave of an elf “who committed suicide by staring at a poisoned star for a year and a day”; a giant tree with three mould-covered corpses crawling among its roots. There is also a killer peacock that’s a lot like mine from The Garden of al-Astorion. Simple and powerful imagery that combines effortlessly with organic puzzle design: in their odd, otherworldly way, the encounters make sense and make for fair puzzles. The adventure follows its theme scrupulously, but also demonstrates the principles of good old-school dungeon design.
The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre is a reasonably open-ended scenario in its 37 keyed areas. The layout is mostly open, but the range of possibilities is mainly thanks to the range of NPCs you can befriend, avoid or fight. The NPCs, encountered randomly or in their lairs, are a colourful lot: a black cat who knows secret paths and doors, but “[o]nly the first thing he says in any conversation will be true.” A troupe of dancing, merry skeletons preceded by their songs as they get closer (they will kill you without mercy). Faceless men who are excellent chess players and who serve the garden’s more powerful beings. All (well, most) of them have both interesting ways to interact with them, and imaginative special abilities if it comes to a confrontation. This is all new stuff.
I am pleased with the writing. In a recent conversation with Patrick Stuart, we were discussing evocative vs. opaque writing. This is an adventure I’d bring up as a good example of how good writing can combine colour with descriptive clarity. It is more a collection of notes than flowing prose, but it does a proper job communicating the feeling, function, and purpose of the encounters. One NPC, the King of Flowers, is described as “(…) a blue-robed man, his hands are bright red, he wears a crown of roses. He can hear through any flower in the garden. In his footsteps bloom flowers.” The main antagonist “plays solitaire and knocks tunes on a painted and hinged turtle shell, which thumps in heartbeat”. It is not overdone, but it is neat.
Once again, this is not a published module in the traditional sense. What you get is somebody’s raw game notes with minimalist explanations, but it is fairly easy to understand after giving it a good read. It is advisable to spend some time with the map, whose numbering is rather counter-intuitive (with related things appearing out of logical order), and which is hard to read. I would just redraw it to commit the thing to memory.
All in all, it is great. It does something original while also being well-designed. Grab it, put it in a document, format it a bit and print it for your home game – or encourage the author to turn it into a published adventure. It deserves wider exposure.
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 16:18
Gont, Nest of SpiesI am pleased to announce the publication of the second 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 illustrations by Denis McCarthy (who also did the cover), Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, Matthew J. Finch and more.
This issue was a hard fit even with its four extra pages, and required some juggling to make it happen. This means one of the shoggoths did not make it this time, and it will have to return in a future issue – sorry for the inconvenience! What Echoes #02 does have is an odd Dreamlands scenario by Laszlo Feher, which I hope will be the first of many, and which takes place in the city of Hlanith, on the coast of the Cerenarian Sea. On its heels comes a guide to the Isle of Erillion, a mini-campaign setting caught between declining kingdoms, and mostly covered by untamed wilderness. This issue features the players’ information, accompanied by a fold-out hex map; the full key, along with a more detailed and accurate GM’s map, will be published in the next two issues. More adventures set on Erillion – but presented in a way to make them suitable for use with other settings – will follow. Those of you who own the first issue of Echoes have already seen two examples; this issue provides two more.
The bulk of the fanzine is dedicated to the town of Gont: it is a self-contained town supplement in under 20 pages, complete with adventure hooks, schemes, schemers, and notes from the underground. As my players have found, Gont is a tough nut to crack: the deeper you dig beneath the respectable surface, the more dangerous it gets. A players’ map to Gont is featured on the other side of the fold-out map. All is also not as it seems in the issue’s final scenario, a short wilderness location. What is causing the disappearances in the Valley of the Witching Way? And what happened to the rich but foolhardy Gurnald Yex, who had retired there after a life of adventure? The answer might surprise you!
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] The Quarrymen

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 21:36

The Quarrymen (2016)by Duncan McPhedranPublished by The Zorathan City State Press3rd level, 6-10 characters
[NOTE TO MY PLAYERS: STAY AWAY FROM THIS REVIEW!]
The QuarrymenNinety percent of everything is crap. A clear majority of homebrew adventures up on RPGNow are crap, too, and disappointing in fairly predictable ways – low page count coupled with low idea density and a narrow scope; the proverbial “twelve encounters in 18 pages” dungeon headed by a padded intro. These modules don’t really make it to this blog, because it’d usually break my heart to savage an obvious labour of love that just happens to be lacklustre, and because they are so alike it’d be dull to read and write about them. But I buy them and read them because one day, somebody’s dodgy PDF with an uninspiring piece of public domain art for the cover will turn out to be cool and awesome and worth all the slog. The Quarrymen (for the DCC RPG) is one of those modules.
When I say this is a gem in the rough, I mean it. The production values are dire, and never mind the public domain cover art. The PDF was obviously cobbled together in Microsoft Word, badly. This is what happens when you leave the factory settings on, indent your titles, don’t give a hoot about structuring information, use no page numbers, and create your location key with the numbered list function. Accordingly, every keyed location is a single block of text instead of a series of paragraphs; and each one is broken up into read-aloud text (set in italics), monster statistics (set in bold), and underlined text for everything else in the room key. It all flows together without paragraph or line breaks, and the monster stats are embedded into the text just like that. Yes, it is just as terrible as it sounds, and while I am far from a layout snob, this took some time getting used to.
But then we get to the adventure, and it is so great. Basically, the town quarry’s sixty-six workers have disappeared through a tunnel among the rocks, and only the foreman has stumbled back to the surface, raving about “the Creature”, “jars, jars, jars, endless jars”, and “tentacles”. You go in to investigate. This is the first ray of hope, because all this background is two paragraphs long, followed by the Creature’s stats (basically a store-brand mind flayer), a few magic items, and then we jump straight to the dungeon key, which manages to pack a 37-area dungeon into 5.5 pages, with very generous margins. That’s respectable even if it is partly due to the limited layout. You could say some of the read-aloud text is superfluous, since it is a minimalistic thing mostly telling you what you’d read off of the map anyway, but it is not bad, because the rest is a ton of fun.
You get the idea part of the adventure was randomly generated because the ideas are all over the place and they are fairly straightforward, but they have that dastardly GM spirit and sense of fantasy which makes a dungeon fun to explore. Here is an alcove full of dead bodies who might animate if you come close (coincidentally, they may do that if you try to flee the dungeon and block your exit). Here are a bunch of jars filled with internal organs… and here is a detailed table for what happens if the characters decide to scarf them down (yes, really – this was the point where I knew I had hit gold). Here is a lake of oil and here is what happens when you fall into it with your torch. The author took a Dyson Logos map, and just stocked it to the gills with exuberant, madcap stuff that often makes no strict sense except as dungeon encounters. It is not exactly balanced to be level-appropriate; if you die, you die. There are stone golems who will attack trespassers, but you can fool them if you wear some fake tentacles. There are five very dodgy handouts drawn by the author, and I kid you not, one of them is Cthulhu in the style of Van Gogh (no, really), and one of them, a tapestry, is Leonardo’s Last Supper, but with a mindflayer and a bunch of headless corpses slumped over the table. What the hell. I love it.
Then the adventure goes from slightly random to “Aieeeee! Get it off me! Get it off me!” as we enter what could be best described as a high-tech Cthulhu outpost. It is bizarre, but not predictably bizarre – it is not, say, a Giger knockoff or a place with obvious parallels to our modern technology, but the kind of slightly unsettling place where the players will start asking each other if they really made the best decision coming down here. A lot of it is unpredictable, or just eerie. A row of vats with something indefinable floating inside them. A door whose “close inspection leaves you dizzy and vertiginous”. A dressing room where the mind flayer’s monsters put on strange coats and jackets to venture out into the city (I loved this one!). A mind flayer harem which is exactly as wrong as you’d expect. It feels like a proper mind flayer lair, certainly the best I have seen. Bad things can happen to characters here, and there is enough combat to turn it into an ugly slaughterfest; yet it also has a gleeful, grotesque sense of fun that fits DCC without copying its default heavy metal trappings.
I don’t really want more from a small adventure than what this one gives me. Solid, unpretentious, sometimes goofy fun is all right with me, and the imagination is outstanding. Well, it may be a little on the linear side, but actually, you can even get around that if you are observant, and it is a one-session affair where a little linearity is forgivable. I certainly want to see more. The first issue of the author’s zine, The Cities Zorathi, has been more of a setting primer, and it was not really this interesting, but the second issue is supposed to feature “the first level of the Great Maze”, and if it is similar in style and scope, sign me up.
No playtesters have been listed for this publication. It deserves to be played.
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 13:48

Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail (2018)by Joshua L.H. BurnettSelf-published0-level funnel
Crepuscular #01Even though it is often considered generic fantasy, there is just something about D&D’s monster selection that’s not found in your typical fantasy game. You have floating balls full of eyes which can blast you into atoms; an aardvark that’s also a shark which burrows under the earth; a jello cube that eats people (but not their stuff)... a dolphin skeleton from another plane?! Uh… and also a psionic mole and giant mushrooms. It is profoundly silly, but it is also deadly serious and slightly disturbing: the screwed-up things you meet will eat you if you aren’t careful. This kind of weird dissonance is one of the great things about D&D, and the sensibility which has informed the first issue of this DCC fanzine. Crepuscular’s success comes from walking the fine line expertly. It is not afraid to be funny or silly (the cover might be an indication), but it is not afraid to kill your characters in gruesome yet hilarious ways either.
Much of Crepuscular’sfirst issue is dedicated to Sanctum of the Snail, a 26-page romp through a dungeon that’s built around a mollusc theme. The characters are shipwrecked on a forlorn island that’s a bit like R’Lyeh, and their only way out of the monster-haunted reef leads down under the sea to a wondrous cavern system dedicated to Blorgamorg the Cthonic Snail, mollusc deity of the Cosmic Balance. It is a classical funnel in the sense that you push in the PCs at one end, and what comes out at the other will either be adventurers, or ground meat. There are plenty of killer encounters even when we discount the fragility of zero-level characters, and most of these ways to die have a satisfying splat factor (you can fall to your doom if you miss a jump, get lost in outer space, be mashed into a pulp by a piston mechanism, or choose between fiery death and drowning in a pit trap filled with oily water). However, the smart and lucky also gain access to some neat goodies: this is as much a chance to stock up as a place to weed out the weak, and the rewards are both generous and unique.
The strength of the adventure lies in the well-designed encounters. The challenges involve navigation through dangerous terrain, uncovering ancient secrets (and dealing with what happens when you prod them), and combat with the Sanctum’s odd denizens. Plenty of magical and fantastic stuff. I think all, or almost all content here is new, from the oddball magic items to the creepy-crawlies you must fight. Crumbling stairs over a swirling sea divided between Law and Chaos; a gigantic dead turtle; the tomb of a hero and a summoning chamber. As you’d guess, there are a lot of slugs and slug-related squishy things, but there are also some neat elements related to the cosmic war between War and Chaos, as well as grotesque finds that are just there. This is imaginative, vivid stuff embodying D&D at its weirdest, put into the service of good gameplay (player creativity goes a long way here). The writing is good through the module; even the boxed text sticks to the essentials.
Sanctum is not without problems. It follows a mostly linear structure, and the action is more focused on dealing with various encounters sequentially than on exploration. Like many DCC modules, it also lacks “breathing room” – every place has something going on, things are too close to each other, and it can feel a little busy. This is a legitimate way to construct an adventure, but a few more rooms with limited descriptive detail, or some more navigation-related content would have felt more right... as it is, the Sanctum does not really feel as large as the writeup would suggest; many of the spaces after the first few are decidedly on the small side. I would personally unwrap it on a slightly larger map to make finding various rooms more of an accomplishment.
Moonblossom and Chance find a treasure mapCrepuscular also offers a handful of miscellaneous articles (a little less than half the issue): a hilarious two-page comic, Blorgamorg as a DCC patron, two more unique magic items, and a d30 table of miscreants you can pick up as hirelings in the city of Xöthma-Ghül (to be presented in more detail in subsequent issues). These are all good, with the hirelings being my favourite – they range from “Tiberius Plum, man-at-arms; pragmatic, obsessed with the colour purple” to Quvark, a platypus man with a venomous heel-spur.
Altogether, Crepuscular is an interesting, quirky take on DCC – consistently high-energy, somewhere in the middle between deadly and hilarious. The comedy ranges from the sly to the tremendously unsubtle, but somehow, it all works. The snail theme doesn’t overstay its welcome, with enough variations to keep it from feeling one-note, and I am actually interested in learning more about the game world behind the zine.
The module in the zine gives credit to its playtesters, and even an editor!
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs