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[BLOG] Great Tables of D&D History

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 14:10

...very pleased to meet youThe random element in D&D gameplay is one of the great, underappreciated design features of role-playing games. We rarely question its presence, and only notice it when it is absent from a particularly contrarian ruleset. Things could have gone differently: if RPGs had emerged from experimental theatre, randomness would presumably play a much lesser, even marginal role. But random chance in game, character generation, and game prep, is at the heart of the role-playing experience, responsible for a lot of its variety and unpredictability. “Roll a saving throw against poison” is one of the tense moments in any adventure – for a moment, the whole world stops as the fate of adventurers hangs in the balance, and great things are decided by the roll of a 20-sider.
Random and semi-random methods have added a curious layer of chance to running the game as well. The GM runs the game, but even with a pre-written adventure, he does not know exactly what game he will be running. What if the players blow a few crucial rolls and they cannot get through a particular locked door? What if the bad guys roll terribly, and a dangerous foe goes down in a few rounds of desperate melee? What if a random encounter is taken as a major clue, derailing the course of the campaign? These factors, even beyond player decisions, make sure we are kept guessing – and hopefully at the edge of the seat.
And of course, random generation is useful in preparing adventures, from the general framework to the room- or encounter-level descriptions. Random tables – used intelligently – take our mind where it would not go without prodding. What the computer people call “procedural generation” can determine a lot of incidental detail in a lot of CRPGs beyond the basic RNG – going all the way to the construction of random landscapes and political systems. But computers have not been given an imagination yet: they work fast, but they can only regurgitate and combine; they cannot truly create and interpret. And so, tabletop gaming’s random tables remain wedded to a combination of random rolls and the human personality. Your take on “ruined tower, giant snails, archives” will be different from mine, and from one random “seed”, we would build radically different worlds.
Of course, not all tables are created equal. We may try a lot, but we will gravitate to a few which are particularly useful.Some are plain better, more useful than others. This is why I present here my personal list of favourites, all of which I have used extensively due to their usefulness and longevity. No distinction is made here on the basis of age, nor official or unofficial status: tables are a meritocracy. However, there is no order to the choices in this final selection: all are great in their own way, and to rank them further would not be useful. So!
* * *
The Concept Generator: The Locations (Overview) Table (Tome of Adventure Design)

It would take long to sing the praises of the great ToAD, this modern classic of utility products, so let it suffice that its over 300 pages of tables is an inexhaustible mine of what the author, Matt Finch calls “deep creativity” – half-formed idea fragments which emerge into full-blown game material. Like Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, its treasures are endless. Someone in the middle, there is a four-page 1d100 table for the generation of random thrones. There is enough in that table alone to create and stock The Dungeon of Thrones, if you wanted to. That’s the kind of book the ToAD is. But there, among the tables for “complex architectural tricks”, “corpse malformations”, “religious processions and ceremonies”, and “mist creatures” – which I am sometimes using – there are some that come up all the time (such as a table collection for generating individual-, item-, location-, and event-based missions), and one that is beyond useful. And this is actually the first table in the book: the “Locations (Overview)” table.

The Locations Overview Table

This is a four-column 1d100 table to create basic concepts for major locations (there is one for dungeon complexes, dungeon rooms, and strange features, of course – the book scales down nicely). It could work as a module title generator, of the “Adjective Noun of the Adjective Noun” variety. I have been using this particular table since its original appearance in Mythmere's Adventure Design Deskbook, vol. 1., and found it a great companion for coming up with the initial building block of future adventures, or just interesting places to scatter in a campaign world. Consider these examples:
  • Moaning Chapterhouse of the Bat-Sorcerer
  • Collapsing Edifice of the Many-Legged Burrower
  • Dilapidated Castle of the Bitter Apparition
  • Aerial Cliffs of the Hyena-Keeper
I am not saying every one of these results does something for me right now, but three or four rolls almost always provide a basic framework to build on. I can imagine the Moaning Chapterhouse of the Bat-Sorcerer as a place in a campaign inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea stories, and the Dilapidated Castle as a locale in a chivalric high fantasy/fairy tale setting. The other two, as the average result tends to be, is weird fantasy; the Aerial Cliffs are great, while the Collapsing Edifice just gives me “centipede monster lair”, and that’s not much added value. The other three, I could use. Sometimes, I take a folded paper sheet, and fill one page with random idea seeds that seem to fit my current mood, then build an adventure around them (The Singing Cavernsfrom Echoes #01 was partially built with this method).
Of course, there is something about this table I have not noted yet: it is not just one table. It is followed by another identical d100 table with different keywords (Sinister Grotto of the Howling Wolves… OK, this is not much – but how about Fossilised Pagoda of the Mist-Pirates, the greatest wuxia OSR adventure never written?), and a two-column table that uses the “purpose approach” for truly weird but sometimes quite cool results (Skin Altar, Time-Well, Spider Separator [?], Perfume Pools [that’s a winner]). That’s a lot of stuff to work with. You could fill a mini-setting with adventures based solely on these tables, because why not.
* * *
Muddle's Generator

The Wilderness Workhorse: Muddle’s Wilderness Location Generator

Yes, this is an internet tool, and you can try it for free, so go ahead. The ToAD, exhausting as it is, is not much focused on wilderness play, and its tables in this section are cool but just not as varied as the dungeon chapter. Muddle’s wilderness table is a good alternative. It combines nouns and adjectives into a list of 50 locations for your wilderness adventure. A lot of these results will be irrelevant to your current project, but you can check these and delete them, then replace them with a new batch of entries, repeat until you have the precise 50-entry roster you need. Here are the first few from the selection I got this time:

  • Deep Hills of the Elder Piller (sic)
  • Mausoleum of Adamantite Drows
  • Dreary Treasury
  • Inner Tomb
  • Skeletonelder Hole
  • Slimefist Tower

A lot need to be weeded out (I have developed a soft spot for Awful Peak, it is staying), and the vocabulary is much more limited than Mythmere’s thesaury(Sorry! Sorry!), but it is quick, cheap, and often does its job. You can use it to build. Deep Hills of the Elder Pillar sounds like the place where people possess a lot of good ol’ folksy wisdom, much of it involving goat sacrifice and non-euclidean things, Dreary Treasury is a place offering an interesting internal contradiction, and Inner Tomb either lies deeper in the wilderness, or it is a tomb with a hidden sub-section. And we have a cultist hideout at the end, I believe.

But that’s not all! Muddle’s set also has a dungeon room generator that’s almost as decent,  and you can force it to select by theme. The other tools are less useful, although the deity generator might make Petty Gods a run for its money (Grundermir Ratvoid, Dread Fiend of Bad Breath; Malumdrim Biscuitfinger, Queen of Ants; Asheeltrym Grumblespoons, Lord of Bannanas (sic); Mulelroun, Godess of Apples; and Grelderthul the Beautiful, Queen of Aggression is certainly a pantheon).

* * *

The Implied Setting: Outdoor Random Monster Encounter Tables (AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide)

In the book that has everything, everyone will find something. Gary’s magnum opus is less methodical guidebook than an occult tome that teaches you, the fledgling DUNGEON MASTER, that horizons are infinite, and the true scope of the reaches far beyond a few narrow possibilities. Last evening, we looked up its advice on underwater combat after two characters fell into a deep pool inhabited by a water spider, and I am sure the “how much damage will I take in my armour type if I transform into a specific lycanthrope type” table has been useful to someone, somewhere – at least once in history.

When the DMG’s readers are asked which is the most important section in there, the teenage munchkin will say “Of course it is the magic items table! Here, have a vorpal mace and two Wands of Orcus!”. The journeyman will point to the dungeon dressing appendix – it is useful indeed – and the old-schooler will at once point to Appendix N for its listing of AD&D’s thematic roots, which we all know is better than the stupid dreck everyone else is reading. The connoisseur of obscure gems will note the “Abbreviated Monster Manual” from Appendix E. Bad people who need to be put on a watchlist will cite “the Zowie Slot Variant”. These are not bad answers, but for my pick, I would go with Appendix C, AD&D’s outdoor encounter system.

You encounter 2d6 Catoblepas

Random dungeon dressing and treasure tables help you fill your rooms, and Appendix N will help you develop a refined taste in genre literature; Appendix C gives you the most practical tool for AD&D’s implied frontier setting. We can appreciate the points of light concept because it gives us our points of light in the practical sense – not as aesthetic, but also as practical procedure. Random encounters, particularly when also used to populate wilderness areas, as in a hex-crawl, give you the gameplay texture to make expeditions in the outdoors varied, fun, and very hazardous. That is, they give you the everyday reality of travelling between two points on the landscape. Here is an expedition of six encounters moving between two cities separated by plains, then hills, a stretch of forest, more hills, marsh, then plains again, assuming one encounter occurring on each stretch:

  • Plains: Men, nomads (150), with 13 levelled Fighters between 3rd and 6th level, a 8th level Fighter leader with a 6thlevel subcommander, 12 guards of 2nd level, plus two lesser Clerics and a lesser Magic-User. Assuming the nomads do not force you back in town, or just take you as captives, we can move on to…
  • Hills: Elves (140), with 10 levelled Fighters of 2nd or 3rdlevel, 3 Magic-Users of 1st or 2nd level, and 4 multi-classed elves (4/5 level, plus a 4/8 leader). Let us not consider the giant eagles in their lair – the elves are bros, anyway. We share lembas and move on.
  • Forest: 2 Giant weasels, which are 3 HD creatures. Luck was with us, unless the encounter occurs by surprise, since giant weasels suck blood at a rate of 2d6 Hp/round. They have no treasure, but their pelts are worth 1d6*1000 gp, each enough to hire 100 porters for 10 to 60 months of work, or an army of 50 heavy footmen for the same time span!
  • Hills again: 16 Wolves, the basic unit of fantasy wildlife. They are 75% to be hungry when you meet them. Of course, they are hungry this time, too.
  • Marsh: this is a great place to meet a beholder, catoblepas, or other high-level monsters, but instead, we get Men, pilgrims (60), 9 Clerics of 2ndto 6th level, and a 8th level Cleric with a 3rdto 5th level assistant. There is 60% of 1d10 Fighters (random level, 1st to 8th), and 30% for a Magic-User of 6thto 9th level, but they are not here right now. Still, these badasses are travelling in the world’s most dangerous terrain type except mountains. Don’t screw with.
  • Plains again: 1 Huge spider, which is a good roll on 1d12, and fortunately, it is not the calf-sized 4+4 HD type, but the dog-sized 2+2 HD type. The only downside is that they surprise 5:6, which is a bad value, considering their poison is deadly.

Just a random encounter, bro!

After this trip, you start to appreciate those sexy harlot encounters in the city (and hope if it comes to worse, it is 8th to 11th level Thieves out for your purse, and not a Weretiger or a Goodwife out for your blood), and you start understanding why those points of light remain points, not larger blots, or why those pilgrims travel in groups of 10-100. It also puts your mind into a different frame than level-balanced games with random monsters numbering in the 1d4 or 1d8 range. You can’t fight all those roving death armies, and besides, it does not pay (weasel pelts excepting). You learn to scout, you learn to run, you learn to leave behind food to distract your pursuers (this scales up from rations to pack animals and fellow adventurers – as the great Grey Fox once shouted back to a companion stuck in a bad situation, “What ‘party’? The party is already over here!”), bribes of gold or good, old-fashioned bullshitting to tip over that reaction roll. You learn to grovel before that dragon, planning future revenge. You learn to plan an ambush to plunder that lair you just discovered, and carry away the best valuables. Welcome to the AD&D World Milieu!

* * * 

The Chad Sword & Sorcery Milieu: Ravaged Ruins (Wilderlands of High Fantasy / Ready Ref Sheets)

Wilderlands of Highly AwesomeSo you got to know Appendix C, and suddenly gained a new understanding of AD&D. You are on a different level. Here is where it gets stranger. From the OD&D era, Judges Guild’s Wilderlands setting presents a truly bottom-up sandbox setting of minimal detail and high weirdness – recognisably D&D fantasy, but more “Appendix N” and Frazetta than the comparative classicism of Greyhawkor Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. The “High” in Wilderlands of High Fantasy might stand for something else than “Tolkienesque” here, even though the setting also has a generous helping of Tolkien pastiche – right next to old-school Star Trek, classical mythology, pulp fantasy, and Dark Ages Europe/Near East mini-kingdoms. It is just general fantasy enough to kick you out of your comfort zone when it turns out the Invincible Overlord has captured a stray MIG fighter, or that the dungeons under Thunderhold, castle of the Dwarf King have half-buried railway tracks and a gateway to Venus on their fourth level. The described Wilderlands is filled with odd, short idea fragments and juxtapositions, a few throwaway lines like

  • “Villagers charged with a centuries old oath to the ‘King of the Lost-Lands’, maintain an eternal bonfire atop a crag to warn ships off the hidden reef.”
  • “In a well hidden crypt is a ring of Brathecol, one of the kings of old Altantis. (sic –  ‘Altanis’ vs. ‘Atlantis’ is one of the strange ambiguities of the setting)) A stone golem is  guardian of the crypt which appears as a monolithic block of limestone.”
  • “The crystallized skeleton of a dragon turtle is buried on the sandy beach. The skull houses a giant leech.”

However, there is also a procedural Wilderlands that lives in its weirdo random tables and guidelines, which were collected in the supremely fun Ready Ref Sheets, Volume I (no second volume was released, but the first one is a great look into OD&D, and remarkably easy to obtain). Here you can find rudimentary rules for taxation, trade and mining – but the most useful table is the self-explanatory Ravaged Ruins. This table generates wilderness locations to scatter across your hex maps, and let your players wonder about the fallen glories of past ages – something that already establishes one of the major themes of the Wilderlands. The table is relatively small, a simple two-pager with results drawn from archaeology... at least at first glance. It generates a basic ruin type, with nested sub-tables to determine the specific subtype – there are not that many results, but the number of combinations is at least decent. Supplemental columns also establish the condition of the ruins, their covering (definitely archaeological in sensibilities), state, and the monsters guarding the ruin. And it gets weird, as seen in these six rolls:

  • Statued fountain, found in a large crater, covered with vines, crumbled and decayed, protected by lycanthropes.
  • Bones, above ground and covered with slime, partially operational, no guardians. (What does partially operational mean in the case of a bone pile? Mediocre Judges will frown and reroll. Superior Judges will find an explanation. Perhaps this is a bone mine of extinct creatures, still excavated by locals as trade goods or building material? What of the slimes?)
  • Sea-horse carriage, partially sunken and buried in a thicket, dangerous operational, protected by insects.
  • Periscope inside cavern, covered in rocks, collapsed and tumbled, mechanical guardians. (Wait a minute! We are not in Middle Earth anymore, Bilbo!)
  • Man o’ War inside cavern, dangerous operational, protected by trap. (It has to be a fairly big cavern for that… and what if we roll it for a place far, far from a sea coast?)
  • Asphault (sic) road, partially covered in thickets, corroded & eroded, protected by giant types. (So this setting has old, overgrown, eroded asphalt roads.)

Ravaged Ruins


Something, even a random detail, becomes a theme through repetition and exploration: and this is the Wilderlands’: picking through the remnants of older ages, part Dark Ages, part Classical Antiquity, part fallen star-faring civilisation. Antigrav sleds, nuclear submarines and re-entry capsules lie wrecked in ancient ruins guarded by dragons and mechanical guardians next to crystallised skeletons and eroded old idols; the grand works of past cultures lie abandoned in dusty deserts and frozen tundra. There are rat chariots pyramidal palaces. What is this place? In a compact, two-page table, Wilderlands of High Fantasy speaks louder, and in a more game-relevant way, than a full supplement. Yes, this table can be exhausted through use, but by that time, you get the Wilderlands.
* * *
The Panic Button: The Table of Despair (Original D&D Discussion / Fight On!)

Not every great table is enormous, and this one is just a throwaway forum post by korgoth. However, The Table of Despair is a great gameplay innovation, and a high achievement of old-school design. It becomes useful when the characters don’t get the hell out of Dodge before the curtain falls; when someone is separated from the main party for longer than healthy, or when someone flees in blind panic. You roll on the table and weep, mortal. Those are not great odds – in fact, they are downright crummy odds – but this is Jakkalá, and they may in fact be the best odds you can get. All that for a fistful of káitars!

The Table of Dessssspair!

Aside from its chuckling evil glee, the table communicates the danger of the Underworld very clearly. The results are appropriate, and should be pronounced in a booming, hollow voice. It is not applicable to every campaign, and it is a bit repetitive, but it is a work of simple genius. I have included a milder variant in Castle Xyntillan (“The Table of Terror”), which is derived from Helvéczia’s “Through Branch and Bush”, but all of these trace their lineage back to korgoth’s now classic post.

* * * 

The Carousing Table

The Equation Changer: Party Like it’s 999 (Jeff’s Gameblog)

Curiously, very little of the definitive old-school gaming blog has seen print; Jeff Rients just wrote tons of material he gave away for free. And 2008 was a great year, even by the Gameblog’s standards. These carousing guidelinesare not radically new, since they build on older principles which go right back to Orgies, Inc. (The Dragon, 1977) and even Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (Judges Guild, 1977), already in vogue by 2006-2007. But Jeff’s take is the iconic, recognised version; he was not there the earliest, but he was there the mostest. It is simple: at the start of every session, you can just throw away a bunch of gold pieces in wild parties, and earn the same amount in experience points. There is, also, a random table to add risk and complication to the downtime activity. The party may have just been looking for some good fun and easy XP, but a few bad rolls later...

  • Brother Otto wakes up with the hangover from hell, cramping his spellcasting.
  • Nick the Knife accidentally burned down the inn, and everyone in town knows.
  • Sir Wullam wakes up and finds himself with the symbol of the Brotherhood of the Purple Tentacle tattooed on his... oh no! Oh nooooooo!
  • Sorceric has a minor misunderstanding with the guards, and is hauled in for six days in the lockup.
The adventure has not even started yet... or has it just started?

At least this inn is not on fire, RIGHT, Nick?

The carousing rule inverts D&D’s core equation, the 1 gp = 1 XP rule. Here, you do not gain XP for treasure you find, you gain XP for treasure you spend. AD&D’s model – which, mind you, works great, although for different reasons – hoovers up excess gold from the campaign through training costs (most of my current Hoard of Delusion party is stuck at their current level, having the XP but not the gp for training), and introduces the strategic dilemma – do we spend it on advancement or other useful stuff? It is also quintessentially 80s action movie – our hero, experiencing hardship, goes to the gym or the old karate master to bulk up for the tougher challenges coming his way. The inverted model removes money through living it up through excessive partying. OD&D’s upkeep rule is a predecessor (1% of your current XP total per arbitrary time period), but Jeff’s carousing table turns it into a mini-game and a source of new mini-adventures. You can also see Ffahrd, the Grey Mouser or Conan doing this, more than them learning new moves under the watch of a wise old instructor. Of course, it is just a table of 20 entries, with a comical aesthetic. But it is a hell of a beginning. I have my own 64-result downtime complications table from the Helvéczia RPG: here are four results for late 17th century picaresque adventures:

  • One of Father Gérome Gantin’s noted enemies has vanished from town, and everyone is eyeing him suspiciously.
  • Bettina von Vilingen, the noted scoundrel, finds herself the elected mayor of a tiny podunk village.
  • Sebastiano Gianini, Bettina’s partner in crime, has indulged in sins better left unmentioned, and loses 3 Virtue.
  • Domenico Pessi, retired mercenary, survives a close encounter with Death, but to correct the mistake, the Grim Reaper is once more on Domenico’s trail...

* * *

The Dipper: The Monster Determination and Level of Monster Matrix (OD&D vol. 3)

For our final table, let us return to the roots: OD&D’s random monster chart. OD&D has often been called badly designed (and until its mid-2000s revival, it was mostly considered a historical footnote), but what it is is badly written, and barely if at all explained. The design itself, taken at face value instead of handwaved or second-guessed, is surprisingly tight – blow the dust off of the covers, and you find yourself something that hangs together quite well as a game. We have already mentioned AD&D’s wilderness encounter charts – here is a simple, elegant and universal matrix for running expeditions into the Mythic Underworld.

The Dipper

The matrix cross-references level depth – the basic measure of zone difficulty – with a 1d6 roll to select a random chart, followed by a roll on the chart itself. It is trivial, but it is quite different from modern random charts, which usually go for weighted results for every level. The matrix mixes up the results by occasionally introducing lower-level (more powerful) monster types to the first dungeon levels, or hordes of low-level types for the depths below. Dangerous monsters travel up from the depths, and weaker creatures band together to establish strongholds and outposts in the deeper reaches. Consider the following expedition, going down to Level 3 and back, with two encounters on the average each level (it is not stated, but usually implied that the number of creatures appearing will be worth one dice per baseline, adjusted upwards and downwards):

  • LVL 1: 6 Kobolds (LVL 1)
  • LVL 1: 3 Lizards (LVL 2)
  • LVL 2: 1 Hero (LVL 3, a 4th level Fighting Man)
  • LVL 2: 1 Manticore (LVL 5 – ooops!)
  • LVL 3: 2 Superheroes (LVL 5, 8th level Fighting Men)
  • LVL 3: 9 Gnolls (LVL 2)
  • LVL 2: 2 Ogres (LVL 4)
  • LVL 2: 3 Thaumaturgists (LVL 3, 5th level Magic-Users)
  • LVL 1: 2 Goblins (LVL 1)
  • LVL 1: 1 Swashbuckler (LVL 3, 5th level Fighting Man)

Although basically meant for on-the-run wandering monsters, this little chart comes into its own during stocking dungeons. Follow the general stocking procedure for rooms along with the room treasure charts on p. 7, and you will soon have something fairly serviceable for a starting effort. It is quick and a lot of fun. Of course, for established monster lairs, I would use a higher “No. Appearing” – perhaps not the 40-400 goblins of the outdoor charts, but at least 1d8*5 for a start – if it’s got treasure, it can defend it. You can also expand the monster listings, or “slot in” alternate subtables while preserving the master matrix. You could have one for mediaeval fantasy, desert tomb-raiding, undercities, or what have you.

The AD&D Matrix

Now, I am not 100% happy with this table – chalk it up to personal preference, or the benefit of hindsight. I do believe it goes too deep. Six levels of difficulty should be enough, for a neat 6×6 matrix. Second, it is weighted towards the more powerful encounters, dredging up deep horrors as soon as you enter Level 3. On Level 2, you are more likely to encounter Level 3 monsters (Wights, 4th and 5th level NPCs and Giant Snakes) than Level 2-ones; on Level 3, you will regularly meet Mummies, Wyverns, Hydrae and Balrogs. On the other hand, fun low-strength critters are phased out too soon – Orc, Skeletons, Bandits and the like disappear after Level 2. That is too steep for a good difficulty curve. In our LBB-only, reasonable by-the-book Morthimion campaign, I have adjusted things by using the Level 1 charts for the first two levels, Level 2 for the second two, and so on: that was more than enough for a modern OD&D game (i.e. one played casually, not obsessively every day, every week, as people would do in the 1970s). I also tended to bump treasure values up by one row for largely the same reasons.

E..excuse me, is this Level Two? I thought this was Level Two

All that said, the OD&D monster table is an excellent example of compact, elegant design. With a few alterations – cut it down to 6 levels, rebalance a little, increase encounter numbers for some monsters – it would be powerful even in our day and time. I would adjust it just slightly, but keep the “dipper” aspect. AD&D’s equivalent dungeon encounter chart (Appendix C) is certainly more balanced, but missing some of the cool chaos introduced by its predecessor. It is weighted a bit too much towards “slog” instead of “swing”. Somewhere between the two, I believe we could find the perfect monster encounter chart.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL + STUFF] The Infernal Wedding (Helvéczia Campaign Journal and Mini-Adventure)

Sun, 03/14/2021 - 18:12

[This play report covers two sessions of our most recent adventure played with the forthcoming Helvéczia RPG. Like the previous similar post on this blog, the Capuchin, an infamous brigand leader, makes his appearance – but in different circumstances than the last time, and to an entirely new stable of characters. This excerpt goes more deeply into the magical and supernatural side of Helvéczia, and features a larger cast of characters, as well as a short dungeon expedition. There will be a more formal announcement with a preview of the game’s introductory chapter (and a few more things), but this introduction is as good as any.
Courtesy of the author, Istvan Boldog-Bernad, I have provided a transcription of his GM notes in a separate post: these are, of course, minimal notes (which Istvan is a master of spinning into much larger adventures), but they should serve to illustrate what follows below.

Once again, unlike the game default, this campaign takes place in an alternate Catalonia, in the year 1697. The Catalonian Republic is now a distant memory, but ruins from the time of its suppression dot the countryside. Prince Franco’s forces, dispatched by the court in Madrid, rule the coastal cities with an iron hand, while the Saint Hernandad Society and the Inquisition scour the land looking for rebels and heretics. Off the main roads, however, the law is weak, and the grip of power very tenuous. Bandits, monsters, revolutionaries, hermits and much stranger beings prowl the forests and mountains, and only good steel and a brace of pistols can guarantee survival…]

Exactly two months have passed since three adventurers routed the rapacious bandit leader and defrocked clergyman, the Capuchin, and saved the damsel he had wanted to marry in the mockery of a wedding ceremony. Our company has changed much in these times: Jean-Fado de Béziers had retired to the small lakeside town of Lagoscoro with a pretty widow, and the cheerful Little Juan Cordial had joined his brother’s band of highwaymen and freedom fighters, while losing Rodrigo Cordial, his oldest, Franciscan brother. Two more 6th level characters (the highest in Helvéczia) followed them: Farkas Cserei, the Transylvanian scholar had decided to return to his homeland, and Santiago, the revenge-obsessed Aztec, had forgiven his defeated mortal enemy, and disappeared from Migalloc (although some might suspect a pretty Gypsy girl had played a role in this decision).  It was time for Álvar Díaz Garcia Vega de Valencia y Vivar, who has since claimed the sword of El Cid, and become the greatest swordsman of Catalonia, to go his own way. Leaving the great city of Migalloc, he parted from his companions, and rode towards the estate of Don Santiago Serrano, where the cruel aristocrat was known to keep slaves captured from the mountain villages.

The others pressed on towards the ranges of the Picos del Bosque, where they had heard rumours of an enchanted garden belonging to the mythical Hesperides. Diminished in numbers, the company now included:

  • Father Taddeo Previti, 5th level Italian Cleric, and a member of the Holy Inquisition (yours truly);
  • Gérard Pradas, 6th level Occitan Student, now in possession of the game’s most formidable destructive spell, as well as an intelligent giant parrot calling himself Jago, and a nest’s worth of giant raven hatchlings (captured way back after the adventure with the Capuchin);
  • Guiellmo Gallardo de Barcino, 1st/2nd level Catalan Duellist/Student, a freethinker and pamphleteer recently returning from Engeland;
  • Rupert van den Rosenfluyt, 3rd level Dutch Vagabond 3, a wandering botanist looking for rare cultivars;
  • Benito Cortizo de Soto, 2nd level Gallego Vagabond 2, a low-born scoundrel; and
  • Luís Bartolomeu Lopes de Coimbra, 2nd level Portuguese Vagabond, a sailor following a mysterious treasure map.

Into the Picos del Bosque

On the forest trail, the company found a camp of loggers clearing the forest. Inquiring about the way to Altinadea, their intended destination, a woman stirring an enormous cauldron of soup pointed them north: the village would be to the north-west, but just a little way to the north, there would also be closer shelter: the cloister of Saint Agnes. Father Taddeo immediately seized on the opportunity, and guided the group towards the place, where they might find a place to rest, and the father might learn useful spells. By mid-afternoon, they had spotted a walled enclosure with vegetable gardens, side-buildings, and a central structure. A dozen robed monks were outside in the fields, offering friendly greetings. They were not nuns, as expected, but brothers; and they welcomed the travellers, asking them to leave their mounts at the stables before joining them in prayer.

Father Taddeo happily led Eusebio, his donkey, to a manger, and returned to the brothers who were already explaining the way to Altinadea to his companions.

“¡Manos arriba! Hands in the air! You are now the prisoners of the Capuchin!one of the monks shouted, levelling a blunderbuss at the party, while a heavy-set, greying man in monks’ robes strode forward with something that had previously seemed a rake, but was actually a concealed Lucerne hammer. Multiple guns, and as many swords, were pointed at the party. The Capuchin looked at the guests before him very carefully, but he recognised no one, especially not those who had previously spoiled his wedding. Unfortunately for the brigands, this was a party of six heavily armed and freshly rested adventurers aching for a fight, and soon found themselves outclassed. They fled in several directions; and the Capuchin shamefully beat a hasty retreat, catching a bullet in his cuirass, and riding off on his horse amidst curses and invective. The garden was entirely deserted.

From the large building emerged two dozen nuns, who had been under siege from the concealed brigands just when the newcomers arrived. Worse, one of them, Sister Agnes, had disappeared. She was known to often wander off and seek out an abandoned old house to the east for meditation, and perhaps she was still there. If the fleeing bandits would get their hands on her, the consequences would be terrible. The nuns also recommended caution, as there was rumoured to be a large black dog living in the area, which came straight from Hell – and would drag its victims down with it. Since sunset was approaching, time was of the essence: the eastern mountain trail too narrow and treacherous for horses, the company proceeded on foot through the thickets and forests.

***

The ruined house was found by nightfall: it was dark inside, and there were signs of long abandonment. A lonely owl sat ominously on a nearby tree branch. Seeing no light but wary of an ambush, they approached and called out for those inside to come out; but as there was no answer, they entered the ramshackle building. A small eerie light illuminated the only room: a transparent, sad old man. Father Taddeo raised, then lowered his cross: the apparition was not hostile. Indeed, the spirit introduced himself as a Hermit who had lived in this small house, but receiving no proper rites, could not go on to Heaven, and was stuck wandering this world. Worse, the devil had stolen away his physical body, making burial impossible. After questioning him further, it turned out the spirit had seen Sister Agnes: and she, too, had just been seized by devils, and taken down to Hell. Worse, she had drawn the interest of none other but Don García Deselvado, one of the aristocrats of the infernal court, and the second highest-ranked in Catalonia – below the mighty Don D himself! Don García had decided to marry the pretty Agnes, and the wedding was set for tonight: all manner of guests would present themselves at the high occasion.

“And how might we follow in their tracks and save the worthy sister?” Gérard inquired.

“The black dog runs at night! Go you to the crossroads, and follow if you dare!” spoke the apparition.

“Thank you, oh noble spirit. We will try to recover your body as well.”

“Just remember! He who goes to a wedding, should bring wedding presents!” whispered the pale lips.

The Black Dog Runs at NightReturning to the crossroads the company had recently passed on their way to the abandoned house, they sat down on the nearby rocks and waited. This was a strange place, for their trail was narrow, and the one crossing it just seemed to disappear in both directions after a short while. Hours passed and an unnatural cold settled on the Picos del Bosque. From the dark woods came a blood-curdling howl, and an enormous hound the size of a calf appeared from between the branches. The hound looked over the characters with its bloodshot eyes and growled; then turned and slowly ran towards the end of the crossroads.

“Don’t lose it!” whispered Rupert van den Rosenfluyt, and broke into a jog. They entered the forest on the trail of the beast, through branch and bush, and passed a dark opening leading underground. Now they were beneath the earth, and lit lanterns to see the cavern descend downwards, their guide gone. There was a thick smell in the air, and the walls were dark with soot. Here and there, sulphurous gasses hissed from cracks in the walls. The black dog had not gone far, in fact: pressing on, they found themselves before a pair of enormous wooden gates. The hound had settled itself on a large pile of skeletal remains, and was busy gnawing on an enormous, juicy bone.

“Well, here we are – he gates of Hell. Are we sure we want to pay a visit?”

“Very sure. Who is a bad boy?”

The dog growled, but gave them no further heed. They opened the heavy portals, which swung outwards to let out billowing smoke and the stench of sulphur. They entered, and the gates closed behind them, to reveal a gallery of vividly painted frescoes and plush couches. If this was indeed Hell, it was a remarkably comfy part of it.

The Church of HELL

On examination, the frescoes proved to be tantalisings depiction of the seven cardinal sins. Benito and Luís were lost in the study of two particularly fetching ones (having failed their Temptation saving throws), and had to be dragged onwards. The next chamber was an anteroom. Stairs descended downwards, while from forward came the sounds of music of merrymaking through a heavy door. Opening it just a crack, Benito Cortizo spied a room with about a dozen thin, spindly apparitions of smoke resembling small devils, dancing to the tunes of unseen musicians. Another door lead further on. After short discussion, Father Taddeo suggested that Sister Agnes would probably be kept imprisoned, and she might be found deeper down. Taking the stairs, they found themselves in a small baptismal chapel, but it was a most unwholesome place: it was built upside down, with pews and a font of dark water on the ceiling, and tiny baskets hanging from ropes. There was a most unholy reek here.

“The water does not pour down from the font! It is an unholy magic!” proclaimed Father Taddeo. “If we sanctify it with holy water and good incense, the wedding may come to a bad end if it starts at all. Help me stand on your shoulders so I can reach this...”

“I do not like those baskets. We will stand ready with guns drawn.”

It is upside down, and EVIL!The elderly father, blessed by vigour despite his advanced years (and 18 Dexterity!), climbed and reached towards the dark liquid with a vial of holy water. There was a loud *SCHLURP* as the “water”, a heavy gelatinous mass fell on the three characters standing beneath. None were engulfed, and Don Guillelmo fought valiantly, but the deadly pudding proved very strong, multiple characters were badly wounded, and the company decided to flee back to the anteroom instead of fighting it in this dead end.

“I have a plan,” said Gérard Pradas. “I am good at calligraphy: we will forge a letter of introduction to Don Deselvado from... the arch-devil of Lust? Do you know a suitable name, Father?”

“That would be Belphégor.”

“Splendid! Belphégor will wish the newlyweds good fortune, and recommend that they consummate their wedding night in the baptismal chapel, an auspicious sign for strong offspring. We can turn that to our advantage, or at least delay the festivities.”

They proceeded forward to the dancing room, carefully covering their ears to defend from some sort of devilish music. The wispy smoke-devils were dancing happily, and invited the wedding guests to join them. They didn’t know anything useful, and weren’t interested in their letter, so the characters tried passing through the dance floor, but the devil spirits were very ardent, and tried to drag them into their wild frolic. Benito and Luís failed to save vs. Temptation, and joined. A melee ensued to drag them away and destroy the devils; they were dispatched, but Luís lay dead on the floor, his heart stopped due to the heavy dancing. Searching the room, there was still no trace of musicians, but someone had carelessly left a decorative walking stick worth 7 golden Escudos in a corner, as well as a lost pouch with 30 copper Maravedi, and 90 silver Reals. Luís also had a treasure map on his person, which Don Guillelmo dutifully pocketed.


The next door was quiet, and the opposite side revealed a room piled with a mouth-watering feast of juicy meats, piled fruits of known and unknown varieties, and bottles of the most noble Tokaj wines – well known for their curative and invigorating properties. [And among the Habsburgs, the wine of wedding nights!] Spiral stairs descended downwards, and from a door further on came arguing voices. On more careful scrutiny, the bottles of Tokaj were found to be tampered with, and filled not with wine at all, but piss.

“Blasphemy! Now I really believe we are in hell!” exclaimed Father Taddeo. [This is where session one ended.]

Listening through the keyhole of the next door, Rupert van den Rosenfluyt heard the boisterous laughter of three card players.

“Twenty-one!”

“Devil take you, you cheated!”

“It was a twenty-one!”

“You deal!”

“I hereby wager the molar of Judas!”

“That’s a fake too! Put up the real money!”

Rupert shrugged and opened the door, while Father Previti melted into the shadows. The room held a card table, around which two devils were playing cards with a manacled prisoner for a large sum of coinage. The devils were friendly enough, and encouraged anyone to sit down and play a hand. Their prisoner slid to the side and hurriedly said, “Very good, and I liked the game too! But I shall be going now, and let these fine gentlemen take a seat.”

“Wait just now! You are not going anywhere. You have not wagered your soul yet!”

Father Taddeo had heard enough. Someone’s salvation was at risk! He exclaimed from behind the door:

“Do you know what you are not expecting?”

The devils shrugged dumbfounded, then one hollered back: “Your mother!”

“Yeah, your mother!”

“Incorrect answer. The Italian Inquisition, that’s what! In nomine Patris et Fili et Spiritus Sancti!” yelled the father, charging the card players with his heavy staff. A short melee developed, and the devils found themselves completely outclassed and surrounded. One tried to flee, but was blocked by Father Taddeo and Don Guillelmo, and seeing this, they both surrendered. The miscreants proved slippery and tried to strike a bargain, but finally, when the father promised he would baptise both of them if they didn’t confess, they explained that the wedding was taking place downstairs, down in the main chapel.

“Now give back the money to that poor man you have dispossessed,” demanded the inquisitor.

“That’s robbery! It is our money, we swear!” they protested to no effect, as their winnings, were transferred at gunpoint to the company’s purses, half to the freed captive, and half split among the others. Two bottles of real Tokaji were also liberated; Don Guillelmo quickly took one. With this, the devils were ordeed to stay in the room, and Benito dutifully jammed the lock with some bent cutlery. Rupert unlocked the manacles of the former prisoner, who introduced himself as Miguel – he had just been playing cards at the inn in a far-away town in his native Castilia, and found himself in this room after blacking out from too much wine. The company was whole once again.

Miguel the Gambler

Descending a deep set of spiral stairs, they arrived at a corridor running left and right. From the right came cacophonic organ music, and there seemed to be further steps down; the other direction was more quiet, with occasional creaks or squeaks.

“The chapel is that way,” noted Rupert, leading by example. Down the stairs, they came to an anteroom again, with a very large double wooden gate. All kinds of blasphemous statues were carved on the inverted portal (as everything is the opposite in Hell), and from beyond came the music and the sounds of backwards Latin preaching. Very quietly, they opened the door, and peered in, unnoticed by the wedding guests.

The Infernal Wedding

This was a large, dark gothic hall, with statues of Judas, some ram-headed demon, and other illustrious evildoers. The congregation, a ragged host of miscreants and knaves, had their backs turned, and the adventurers quickly noticed the Capuchin and his surviving men – the brigand leader was in high spirits, loudly sharing tasteless jokes about the wedding night. On two sides of an altar, two grinning devils played pranks and sommersaults, while before it stood the bride and groom: the crying Sister Agnes, and a finely dressed, bespectacled arch-devil licking his lips in anticipation – Don García Deselvado! The don seemed to be playing a puppet with his left hand while holding the nun with his right, and the purpose of the strange act was soon clear: the priest, a lifeless old corpse reciting a litany of backwards Latin, was visibly controlled by several strings dangling from the ceiling.

Don García DeselvadoQuickly taking stock of the situation, everyone occupied their places. Father Taddeo cast the Stumble spell on the entrance threshold to cover their flight, then crept in like a shadow, hiding behind the statue of Judas, and looking around until he found the source of the organ music – a balcony reached by some spiral stairs – that rare Heavenly Choir spell he kept in mind might come in handy. Don Guillelmo and Benito hid close to the portal, readying guns, while Gérard retrieved something from his pockets. Miguel, taking the forged letter of introduction, stepped forward, and the devils by the altar immediately noticed him, beckoning to the new guest. Swallowing, Miguel stepped forward, and bowed before Don Deselvado, presenting the letter. The don nodded and pocketed the letter.

“It is from Don Belphégor, my Lord, and it concerns your wedding night! Aren’t you going to read it?” Miguel inquired.

Don Deselvado cast an irritated glance at the Spaniard, but relented, and, continuing his puppetry, handed Sister Agnes to the newcomer for a moment while unrolling the parchment. He scanned the message quickly, then spoke: “That’s all good. Give him some drink for his troubles.”

The two devils made Miguel chug a large bottle of brandy, gaily explaining: “Oh, this is Hell, amigo! We do everything backwards. The happy wedding has already been consummated!”

Miguel, coughing from the alcohol, glanced back at the portal, and showed a quick sign. He lunged forward, seizing Sister Agnes and yanking her on the floor as a volley of fire cut across the temple. Don Deselvado was hit with a bullet from Benito’s gun, but remained standing, and held on to his half of the nun. Father Taddeo, who had meanwhile snuck up to the organist’s nest and positioned himself behind him, seized the hapless devil and hurled him down from the balcony, breaking his neck on the stone floor. Don Deselvado tried to pull Agnes back, rolling a very high score, but Miguel rolled a natural 20, and jumped with her towards a northern archway, leading to an upwards staircase. All Hell broke loose in the Church of Hell, and Gérard Pradas chose this moment to throw the egg of a black rooster, procured through unholy practices and fermented for weeks in manure and sulphur, at the congregation, while speaking Latin words. The Fireball detonated in the midst of the agitated wedding guests. Don Deselvado was hurled back but mostly unhurt, but the Capuchin was torn limb from limb along with his men, and the surrounding revellers and the two sommersaulting devils. Further detonations came from the Capuchin’s grenades, and there was a tremendous racking sound as the ceiling shook and caved in, burying the centre of the church, and separating the company.

Father Taddeo stood up, still reeling. From the northern door came Miguel. Don Deselvado, seeing he was in peril, fled through a door to the west, abandoning the stunned Agnese. Knowing that raising the alarms would not do them much good, Father Taddeo reached for the last resort: his trusty Bible, which he opened at a random passage, and read aloud:

“Book of Ruth, 4:4! ‘No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down.”

To his horror, Don Deselvado found himself unable to move, compelled by the Good Book to stay where he was. Father Taddeo advanced with an ugly look in his eyes.

“Don García Deselvado, for your deeds against this innocent sister, I shall do the worst thing to you that I can inflict upon you. I shall baptise you.” and he took out the holy water, the incense, and raised his Bible. Don Deselvado emitted a pitiful cry, and pleaded for mercy, offering vast riches and infernal powers, but the father baptised him, and the arch-devil was burned into a pile of ashes.

***

Safe PuzzleThe company was divided by the collapsed rubble, and it would have taken several hours to dig through, an appalling prospect. It was decided that each half would try to return to the surface through some way, and rejoin when possible. Rupert, Don Guillelmo, Benito and Gérard had a known route, but before the Father, the shaken and badly shocked Sister Agnes, and Miguel, there were only unknown passages. Miguel scouted ahead while Father Taddeo comforted Agnes as he could, using his healing to heal her wounds, and the last of a blessed relic, the handkerchief of Saint Lucia, to wipe her brow. Sister Agnes somewhat regained her faculties. Miguel returned: he had found a rich bedroom with Don Deselvado’s giant portrait hiding a puzzle safe he could not crack, but no way forward. The passage went on, but was too dark without a light source. After a brief discussion, they decided to try the spiral stairs leading up from the church. Deducing that the dead, strangely mummified body of the priest controlled by the Don had once belonged to the Hermit, they carried the cadaver with them.

Meanwhile, the larger part of the company retraced their steps to the feasting room, still hearing the devilish card-players from behind the door, guessing whether it was safe to come out. By approximate measures, the baptismal chapel was somewhere above the Church of Hell – might there be a secret door they had overlooked while fleeing from the pudding? They returned, hoping the monster has returned to the font on the ceiling. Unfortunately, it did not: it pounced on the characters, and with one slurping sound, swallowed Gérard Pradas, who was now struggling mightily to get it off with his remaining spells before getting devoured. A secret door opened, and Father Taddeo, Sister Agnes, and Miguel stepped into the chapel, joining the melee.

“Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition! Now begone, you infernal aspic!” the Father tried to exorcise [turn] the pudding, to no effect. The fight continued, and even Sister Agnes joined in with a torch to avenge the wrongs done to her. The gelatinous horror was defeated, the gambler Miguel striking the last blow. Rupert van den Rosenfluyt was unconscious, and the others were badly wounded, Gérard at a single hit point. Worse, the father’s attempts at medicine almost ended up killing Gérard, who passed out from the pain, and was ony saved by the last healing spell, while Rupert had to be resusciated with a swig of Tokaj wine.

There was one last challenge before leaving this hellish place. The outside gate was guarded by the Black Dog, and obviously, it would not allow them to pass outside as easily as inside. Rupert had brought a large bone from the feasting table, while Father Taddeo again reached for his Bible. Unfortunately, the growling hound did not care for the scrap of old meat, and when the Bible was opened to a New Testament verse, the passage had no relevance for the situation. The Black Dog stood up and attacked, while Don Guillelmo heroically tried to hold it back. It breathed a cone of fire, and while none died, Gérard was at -4 Hp again (one shy of death), and everyone was badly hurt. Miguel muttered a curse and threw the mummified body of the Hermit at the creature: “Go chew on this!” He turned and fled with Gérard on his strong back, quickly followed by Father Taddeo, and then the others, Don Guillelmo being the last to head for the surface...

***

EPILOGUE: Returning to the Cloister of Saint Agnes, the nuns were overjoyed to see the return of their lost Sister, thanking the adventurers profusely. They, in turn, decided to stay until Sunday, and enjoy the hospitality. Father Taddeocontinued with his doctoral work, “A Most Useful Treatise on Deviltry & Other Sins, with Practical Applications towards their Expurgation Through the Element of Surprise”. He also gained easy permission to memorise the spells found at the cloister: from the first level, Bless and The Bountiful Herbarist; and from the second, Protective Circle and Withdraw Poison. Rupert van den Rosenfluyt and Gérard Pradas, who found their adventure a little too virtuous, tried to pick up a few comelier nuns with honeyed words and roguish charm, in which Rupert easily beat his rival for the attentions of one Sister Margarethe. “And that is how we do it with your colonies, too,” remarked the crafty Dutchman, which only shows us the wickedness of Godless Calvinism.

Watch out, sin!As for Miguel Hernandez, the freshly freed gambler, he was soon at the card table again with Gérard and Don Guillelmo. Noting the sinful activity, Father Previti watched it for a while, then asked if he could join in memory of his young days at Seminary. The stakes were high – two golden Escudos each, winner takes it all. To everyone’s surprise, in a company of professional card sharks and scoundrels, the elderly inquisitor came out on top, sweeping 8 Escudos into his purse – a nice sum to finance the publication of his doctoral theses. Was it blind luck? [A natural 20] That ineffable Italian magic? [Indeed, Italians are lucky at dice and cards, receiving +2 on their Gambling rolls.] Or was Father Previti’s 18 Dexterity at play? On this matter, the angels are stubbornly silent. We can only say that on Monday, the 8th of May Anno Domini 1697, the company was mounted again, riding northwest towards the mountain village of Valfogona, a place known for a ruined mill, a few abandoned manor houses, and the fiendish Comte Arnau, whose horse was known to eat the odd peasant, and who had infamous assembled a collection of kidnapped wives.

TO BE CONTINUED


Designer commentary: This long session report is a fairly an accurate recapitulation of what Helvéczia intends to deliver: fast-paced, colourful, and hazardous adventures in a fantastic paraphrasis of historical Europe, drawing liberally from swashbuckling stories, odd legends, folk tales, and modern fantasy alike. It is not a serious study in historiography, nor an exercise in physical or social realism. Instead of grimdark – a tone that I have long felt to be creatively exhausted – its tone mixes picaresque adventure, romance, low comedy and a grotesque element. It does not shy away from the dark side of late 17th century Europe, but it is not a catalogue of atrocities; rather, it is a celebration of a certain time and its people. As such, it has a touch of the strange and alien: it is firmly rooted in the pre-Enlightment mindset, of deeply held religious conviction, military virtue and obstinately held tradition, but also relentless social climbing, low-class mischief, and an interest in the lives of extraordinary scoundrels and never-do-wells (the player characters). Is it fun? We think so.

Luís Bartolomeu Lopes
de Coimbra: By the Time
You Remember His
Name, He is DeadThe two sessions also reflect the system’s workings and the campaign dynamic. The scale of power is limited: characters usually begin on the 2nd level (although Little Juan had been a simple servant boy who had climbed all the ranks almost to the top), and players, NPCs, and monsters are limited to 6th level – but this achievement is quite a rarity in the game setting. A capable band can accomplish much, but always has to watch out for a stroke of misfortune, or the consequences of a bad decision (as the case of Luís demonstrates). There is no level scaling in Helvéczia, and none of the released adventures bear a level designation: a group of freshly rolled characters can try to tackle them just as well as seasoned hands – and as in the great picaresques, Fortune is a fickle mistress!

We could see the forms of magic at play, and their differences: Father Taddeo would memorise his spells at the churches and convents he visits (always doing his best with a limited and ever-changing repertoire), while Gérard Pradaswould have to procure rare magical components for his spells, which he has obtained from rare manuscripts and copied into a spellbook. (I do not know how he obtained that egg for the rare and supremely useful Fireball even as a player, although I am starting to have ideas about those giant raven hatchlings he carts around on the journey...) We could also see a use of the Holy Bible as a last-resort saving mechanic; but not its counterpart, involving a deck of cards and bets against the Devil himself; nor a third, very hazardous random table for those cases where nothing helps and you must seize the last shred of hope.

As for adventure design, these sessions combined a wilderness expedition with dungeoneering. Helvécziatends to have relatively small dungeons (although this is relative – the first supplement, to be included with the boxed set and also sold separately, has a much larger one), and in general, has an emphasis for situation-based mini-adventures which it calls “penny dreadfuls”. Wilderness expeditions and strange things in backwoods areas are of a particular interest, which also feature heavily in the Catalonia campaign – we have by now explored much of the south-western quadrant of the hex map, and our travels have brought us to its central areas. Helvéczia has a high interest in wilderness adventures, either as overland hex-crawls, or localised point-crawls describing a smaller area.

The Infernal Wedding (Helvéczia Mini-Adventure) (PDF, 1 MB)

The Infernal Wedding (original scanned notes in the Hungarian) (PDF, 2 MB)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] From Baklin to the Black Soup: News Roundup

Sat, 02/27/2021 - 11:46

I have been flying under the radar for a while now, and haven’t had a news in a long time – so here it goes: what has EMDT been up to?

***

Baklin in PDF

Baklin: Jewel of the SeasFirst things first: Baklin: Jewel of the Seas is now published in PDF at DriveThruRPG. The proper thing to say on the se occasions is to note that the release was late, and that’s correct – Baklin took its time to emerge from campaign materials, session notes, and stuff that was just made up. How to translate a dynamic place like a city into a manageable, GM-friendly setting guide? Baklin’s answer is to focus on locations, personalities, and conflicts which can generate mini-adventures if the players choose to interact with them, and which are connected in a loose fashion: enough to get the sparks going, but not to entangle the poor GM and his players in a web of cross-references. And Baklin also has three dungeon levels; some of them explored, some never seen. Yes, cities with extensive dungeons beneath them are as sure to come up in my games as mysterious stone faces, eccentric mini-states, and giant frogs: they have continued to fascinate me through my life. This one is, I think, a locale that offers an interesting combination of the mundane and the fantastic – there is a bit of the criminal underworld down there, and a little bit of the proverbial mythical one (with a capital “U”).
Baklin also serves as the capstone of the Isle of Erillion mini-setting which has been serialised in various zine issues (mainly Echoes #02 to #05). That is not to say there are no more adventures from that campaign left (one is set for Echoes #08), but the main cornerstones of Erillion are all released: a primer, the wilderness hexes, and the main towns are all out there. From here, we will venture in different directions.
  • One will be the lands of Kassadia, a domain of colourful city states built on a Roman Empire that dwindled into irrelevance but never fell. Kassadia, once a label on the map of Erillion, was really co-created by Istvan Boldog-Bernad; first through Armand the Scumbag, his Assassin character, and then In the Shadow of the City-God, set in one of Kassadia’s ancient cities.
  • The other direction will go towards the northwest of Erillion, to the Twelve Kingdoms: a set of warring domains, neither twelve nor true kingdoms for the most part. This is a cold and unforgiving land, but also one of weird beauty and curious customs: it draws on sources like Lyonesse, The Lords of Midnight, Smith’s Hyperborea, and others.
  • And of course, the City of Vultures is not yet finished: its secret societies, its surroundings, and its strange Underworld realms shall be explored in due time.

***

Castle Xyntillan back in print

Castle Xyntillan ran out of stock sooner than expected as sales suddenly spiked after the Questing Beast review, but the book is back in print in a third printing, and available from my store. The module’s first printing consisted of 500 copies; the second, 400 – as numbers go, I am happy with them.

***

Das Froschgottkloster

Abenteuer #08The third thing concerns a most prestigious development (monocled parrots optional). Abenteuer #08, the German adventure gaming magazine, is set to feature my module, Cloister of the Frog-God; and more than that, it is set to be printed and distributed by EMDT.  For those not in the know, Abenteuer is an occasional magazine for and by German hobbyists hewing close to the “traditional”, or “old-school” side of the RPG world. Not unlike Hungary, the German role-playing hobby is centred around games focusing on detailed, quasi-realistic settings with a lot of historical and cultural detail, and the people around Abenteuer, like EMDT, represent a sort of counter-current to that. The current issue of the magazine is a guest issue, featuring international contributions: from Jeff Rients comes Dundagel – could this be one of the main dungeons from his Wessex campaign – and something about potion machines? That sounds utterly Rientsian. Likewise, Asen, from Bulgaria, brings an article titled “Melee” (or so I think). And then, the Cloister (also featured on the cover by Kelly Coleman).

Cloister of the Frog God is kind of a patchwork module that came together from the bits and pieces of my unpublished 2006 Tegel Manor manuscript. Since Tegel was quite dead at the time, I started thinking about reusing my original contributions to the module for something new – maybe as articles for Knockspell or Fight On! magazine. At the same time, Bill Webb was starting on a new edition of Rappan Athuk, and asked me if I wanted to contribute something to it, perhaps using these materials. This was a start. I took the figurative scissors to my room key, and reversing my usual development process, drew a dungeon around the existing encounters. A once mighty, now partially ruined and semi-abandoned cloister complex came from two mini-dungeons once located in the wilderness around Tegel; the three-level catacomb complex underneath came from the manor’s dungeons (the original module treats these as very simple monster listings, so I had quite a lot of original stuff to work with).

Tumula the Marshman,
Proud (?) FatherThe finished dungeon is a long ridge with two intact parts of the original cloister complex; one inhabited by a much diminished but still terribly dangerous group of frog-worshippers, and another one where a great evil has been set loose to cause terrible devastation. The ridge itself is crisscrossed with tunnels, forming what may be called an “inverse B2” – several alternative entrances leading inwards towards a set of core areas, making the dungeon generally accessible, but some sections still out of the way due to the multi-level maze of the rooms and passages. The dungeon provided a good opportunity to create a collection of strange tombs, each with different tricks, monsters, and furnishings. Memorably, the test party spent a lot of time climbing the outside walls and rooftops to “hack” the structure they were infiltrating without having to fight its guardians, and they eventually succeeded in triggering a localised Frogocalypse, which served as a good conclusion to wrap things up.

So Cloister shipped, got published as a chapter of the big 2012 Rappan Athuk book (where few people have found it among the mountains of other stuff), but this was not yet the end of the story. Something about the frog theme was still kicking around in my head, and in 2016, I ran the adventure in a form that was half Frogocalypse Now-style boat ride through the surrounding marshlands, and half dungeon crawl in the Cloister ruins, culminating in a deadly battle with a procession of frog-cultists, and the assassination of their leader, Abbot Grosso. Then, the wilderness section was reused again in 2018 as a standalone game for the original Cloister team (still following?), resulting in Against the Frog, the eccentric swamp crawling scenario finally published in Echoes #04. Rotar the Raftsman (a haf-orc) was reunited with his incredulous and ancient father, Tumula the Marshman (the same player’s old character from the earlier adventure), and a new plague of frogs was prevented from devastating the nearby lands.

The storied life of the module now enters another chapter: after Rappan Athuk (dungeons), the Hungarian edition (dungeons and wilderness), and Revenge of the Frogs (wilderness only, different scenario), Das Froschgottkloster is set for imminent release, featuring more frogs than you can shake a stick at. How many frogs? At least 666 frogs, but potentially even more. And that’s a lot of frogs.

The 2018 Hungarian edition

***

Echoes From Fomalhaut #08

The Sullogh are Coming!Yes, almost a year has passed since Echoes #07, and this is the kind of occasion when it is time to check if the body still has a pulse. It does! Other projects have demanded their due while this was sitting on a back burner, but it is now fairly safe to say Echoes #04 will be a mid-March release. This zine will feature Castle Sullogh, the penultimate adventure from our Erillion campaign, and one that tested the resourcefulness of a powerful group of 7th to 9th level characters. It is a place that may be accessible – and its treasures and secrets most attractive! – to less powerful PCs as well. You place the bait, and get to watch them reach for it. You will also get to meet the charming Sullogh and their masters, who will all be happy to have you for dinner.

Where some things end, some are set to begin: Yrrtwano’s Repose, the first adventure drawn from the cold lands of the Twelve Kindoms will be included here. And from the City of Vultures, the fantastic wilderlands around the sinful city-state – detailing the hex map whose player version was included in Echoes #06. The eighth issue will also be the first to feature two map sheets, and I hope that, seeing them, you will agree it should not be the last one.

***

Helvéczia

Not the Helvéczia Boxed setMy picaresque fantasy RPG is proceeding towards a Spring release. The rulebook is complete and almost ready to print, with all indices, tables and illustrations in place, multiple rounds of proofreading (for which I am very grateful – it is the kind of work that is invisible if done well), and only waiting for the endpapers. The cover – and what a cover! – is in. The supplement still needs translation for one of the adventures. The hex maps are done; a players’ overview map is being worked on. The boxes for the boxed version have been designed, but not yet manufactured. It will come in a heavy-duty box that will stand up to prolonged use, and inflict 1d6 damage if used as a mêlée weapon. For Christmas, I released Casemates and Companies, a Hungarian B/X-based game, and we used this opportunity with my printer to do a smaller test run with boxes. It all worked out well, so we are going in.

This is a project with a lot of moving parts, but every so often, another part is locked in its place, and the working bench gets less cluttered. Now it is close to empty. April? Could be April. A more detailed preview will follow in March.

***

Shipping increases

“Last comes the black soup.” This is a saying in Hungary, originally referring to coffee, and meaning “bad news last”. Last year, postage increased slightly, in a way I didn’t feel like annoying customers with. This year, the increase, while not radical, is a bit steeper, and comes with added paperwork on non-EU orders – or you can let the Post do it, and increase postage further. I decided to do the paperwork – electronic data entry stuff, not too bad – and go with a smaller shipping price increase. So here is how it is going to look from now:

  • Any quantity of zines, Europe (incl. UK): $6.00 to $6.50
  • Any quantity of zines, worldwide: $7.00 to $8.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, Europe (incl. UK): $20.00 to $23.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, worldwide: $25.00 to $28.00

Let There be OrderThese are still flat rates, so ordering one zine will set you back as much as ordering ALL zines and pamphlet-sized modules (they may ship in multiple envelopes, but a large order deserves a discount). There will be one exception: the Helvéczia boxed set is going to ship alone, because it will weigh right below the 2 kg (4.4 pounds) postal weight limit after packaging, and if you add just one zine, shipping suddenly jumps from $28 to $60 or so.

In summary, I will go with a small price increase, you will start seeing custom form stickers on your envelopes, large and heavy supplements will be a bit pricier to order (but hopefully well worth the price). Death and taxes, ladies and gentlemen!

These changes will come into effect after the first week of March, so if you'd like to buy something with the lower shipping rates, there is still a week for that.

The Fruits of Endeavour

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Barrow of Sorn

Fri, 02/12/2021 - 22:47

Barrow of Sorn
Barrow of Sorn (2021)

by Mason Waaler

Self-published

Levels 1–2

If you have been playing D&D for a while, you approximately know what kind of adventure Barrow of Sorn will be – this is one of those common mini-adventure subgenres which make up a lot of the cheaper DrivethruRPG releases. So, barrows. Every campaign setting can use them, you can put them anywhere (the barrow-building people are long dead), and they contain traps, treasure, and undead warlords. Barrowmaze, the king of barrow adventures, contains an entire megadungeon, but it is kind of an outlier, and not discussed here. This is the smaller kind that’s all plug and play, and suitable for about one evening’s worth of play.

Barrow of Sorn, originally written for a D&D-like system that is practically D&D, is short and decently made. It is a 20-room dungeon in a 12-page pamphlet, written in a to-the-point style that is unornamented but GM-friendly, with strategically used bolding to draw attention to the important stuff, and meticulously applied cross-references. The map, created with the excellent and free Dungeon Scrawl, is crisp and readable (the dungeon layout itself, a collection of rectangular rooms, is not too interesting). The dungeon has all the usual stuff of barrow exploration – six adventure hooks, an entrance section leading to a false tomb, subsequent traps, magical enigmas, puzzles, and an undead monarch.

There are a few aspects where this particular barrow stands out. Unlike the static tomb scenarios, this has a decent dynamic element with its simple but fun random encounter table. It is not just “a giant spider” or “warrior apparitions”, but a giant spider dragging a frozen body, and warrior apparitions still fighting some long-gone battle. There you have it – in a single step, we have gone from basic to inspired! Encounters with undead include a few intelligent denizens bound to the place, adding an element of interaction. Finally, there is a fun final hook of turning this beginner-level adventure into an exercise in unintended consequences, something I heartily approve of. There are a few weaknesses to note. The puzzles feel slightly artificial (the “keycard” approach, where you have to collect three gewgaws to open the way forward), there is way too much magical treasure (it is mostly low-level stuff, cheapening the thrill of finding something really good), and sometimes, the “monsters appear when the runes are disturbed” way of generating extra combat wears thin. It is a module looking for a missing "WOW" factor, perhaps, unless we count that final idea.

For a single buck, you get a beginner dungeon with a decent variety of encounters. Could you make up something similar yourself? Yes, most likely. Would it make for a good game if you ran this particular barrow module? Also yes. Does it slot easily into your campaign? Yes, as long as it is a D&D-like game, this will fit.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Beyond the Borderlands

Fri, 02/05/2021 - 20:40

Beyond the Borderlands (2020)

by Alex Damaceno

Published by Jacob Hurst & Swordfish Island LLC.

Level 1

Ah, Keep on the Borderlands! Beginner of a million campaigns, grave for a dumpster’s worth of character sheets, and template for a host of followers, imitators, and heartfelt homages! The most meat-and-potatoes D&D fare, so influential that the original template now seems nothing special! The Keep, however, bears an unholy curse: those who seek to recreate it, are cursed to frustration and failure. Such are the bewitchments of Gary Gygax. And it is so: all B2 homages invariably lack something from the original’s greatness. Perhaps their “Caves of Chaos” lack a convincing “Keep” to serve as a counterpoint to dungeon-delving, or they are missing B2’s killer wilderness encounters to drive home how this is a dangerous world.* Perhaps their Caves are not a panorama of immediately available, secretly interconnected lairs making for a surprisingly complex environment built from the most simple of micro-adventures. Perhaps the adventure locations are not given the context of the wild frontier, beset by the forces of Chaos. For such a straightforward scenario – I think it has been revealed that Gary penned it in just a few days – it has a mystery that has not been broken, a secret ingredient that has been left out in the imitators. The closest contender and B2’s meaner, weirder cousin, Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (“the Keep on the Borderland for assholes”), is the only legitimate rival, and it actually predates B2 by a year. The borderlands have some sort of terrible secret. And so we come to this module.

Beyond the Borderlands
(Image courtesy of Swordfish Islands LLC)

Beyond the Borderlands #1 is the first part of a three-part zine aiming to provide a reimagination of the original module. The first issue – the only one published so far – covers the keep and the wilderness, but not the Bloody Ravine, with the six dungeons of this take on the Caves of Chaos. This obviously limits the scope of this review, but with 20 pages of material to go by, it is about sufficient to form an impression, doubly so because the zine uses a hyper-condensed style to present information – even the most complex areas are covered by a few short sentences.

This is a Borderlands imagined in bold colours, the unnatural hues of some forgotten early 1990s JRPG-meets-LEGO-set. My reviews do not dwell much on artwork – they are an aspect of imagining something, but text is still the main course – yet here, the artwork is the centrepiece, and the text the afterthought. What you will get is two very colourful main maps, one for the keep and one for the 36 hexes of the surrounding wilderness. The wilderness map is also broken up so its “regions” form two-page spreads with the map and descriptions both at your fingertips. As quality of life features go, this is decent, but it will in fact be this module’s limitation, the source of downfall. Having to fit the text produces the same issue you see elsewhere in ultra-minimalist design, and limits both style and meaning to miniature snippets. You have to be a very good writer to convey meaning in short work – poetry works this way, and so does the terse, weird JG classic, Huberic of Haghill – and you have to be precise, essential. But the author is not at this stage of his craft.

Stronglaw Keep

The resulting Borderlands is one that has everything a good B2-inspired adventure should formally have, but none of it is consequential. You have Stronglaw Keep, a home base that’s a fairly close replica of the original (down to the nameless Castellan), but does not suggest ideas beyond a cursory reading of the location names. The stables have horses, and the warehouse is used to store heavy goods. The hidden skulduggery and intrigue of B2’s outpost, however elementary, are not in evidence. A noticeboard’s random proclamations are perhaps the best part, although even here, what we have is the elementary fetch quest (“Looking for fresh blue mushrooms. Bring them to the tavern!”), the rescue mission (“Merchant kidnapped by ravine monsters. Reward if returned alive.”), and the odd detail that’s kinda fun (“The scarlet night is coming. Be ready.”) Consider the cryptic rumours from gaming’s early master of terseness, Bob Bledsaw (from City State of the Invincible Overlord): “A Basilisk has wrecked havoc [sic] in Naughty Nannies, 400 GP offered.”; or “A knight of the Inner-Circle to be Yellow-Striped in the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures.”; or “Rumor of retaliation by Clan of the Venerate against the Clan of the Host on Caravan Street tonight.” Here are rumours – and they are just those, without context or detail – which sparkle, and pack a punch in a single line. “The ruins have buried treasure” is not much of a rumour. B2’s “Bree-Yark!” is simple but memorable with its in-game consequences – no wonder everyone remembers it (not to mention the one with the imprisoned fair maiden).

Similar concerns emerge in the Wicked Palovalley, the zine’s primary adventure location. This is a hex-crawl with every hex keyed, plus region-based random encounter/rumour rolls, simple travelling and weather rules, the works. Six regions of the valley, individually six hexes each, are described on the basis of the isometric illustrations. There are many mysterious sites deep in the Palovalley, and the rumours link this up in a decent fashion. It almost, almost works. But, once again, the text is inadequate to carry the vision. There is no other way of saying this. There are interesting kernels of ideas, like a mushroom grove with strange magical mushroom effects, a lost magic sword, and a few NPCs with potential, but they are mostly fairly underdeveloped, lacking a punch or clever twist. Some hidden beauty lurks in the art that depicts this improbably coloured piece of wilderness, and combining the text with the imagery may improve the module, somewhat. But the well does not run as deep as the art suggests.

Hexy.

Beyond the Borderlands #1 seems to be a perfect example of the art-above-writing trend that’s everywhere in the itch.io brand of old-school products. Its never-ever retrogame aesthetics may suggest something, a vague sense of strangeness that seems to be deeper than the zine’s reality, but the aesthetics are thin, and there is really very little underneath that is not blatantly obvious. The module comes with two cool frogman stickers. These are pretty neat.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

________________

* Fun note: when running B2 about 15 years ago for my then local group – none of them D&D vets – they headed out from the keep armed with backstories and elaborate “character goals” that had disappointingly little with killing goblinoids, and all of them were killed by the black widow spiders lurking in the forest. They never came near the Caves of Chaos.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Palace of Unquiet Repose

Wed, 01/27/2021 - 20:05

The Palace of Unquiet ReposeThe Palace of Unquiet Repose (2020)

by Prince of Nothing

Published by The Merciless Merchants

Levels 3-5 (HAH!)

Know, oh Prince, that good sword & sorcery adventures in old-school gaming are still hard to come by; and for all the talk of the mouldering tomes of Appendix N, few have struck the right balance between the imagery and spirit of S&S, and the playability of old-school D&D. Most old-school adventures do not reach deep into the pulp tradition, or fail to grasp what is in there; and most S&S adventures remain semi-interactive railroads, failing on the game level. Indeed, one of the most credible efforts in the last few years has been The Red Prophet Rises, by Malrex and Prince of Nothing; and furthermore, Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers by Malrex was pretty good too. So here is another adventure written by the Prince – and by the gods, he gets it right once again!

The Palace of Unquiet Repose, an expedition into a dead city serving as the tomb and prison of a haughty demi-god, is a monster of a module, a blood-and-guts nightmare in under 60 pages (a further ten or so are dedicated to The Screaming Caverns, an extra dungeon scenario). Those pages are not wasted. The substance – the information to help you run the module – is present, while padding is excluded. Everything serves a purpose, and the text is highly polished. No, it is not an exercise in layout-as-avantgarde-art. The maps are simple, plain-looking, highly readable affairs. The text is ultra-orthodox two-column century gothic, occasionally broken up by mini-maps showing the present area, and pieces of inky-looking art that do not really add much. Bullet points and bolding are used in appropriate places for structure and emphasis. Important details in the text are cross-referenced with the appendices and other parts of the module. It looks as adventurous as Swiss technical documentation, and it all works as unobtrusively and efficiently as Swiss technical documentation – in the background.

The writing is the heart of the monstrosity. It has power, menace, and gloomy pomp; expressive terseness. Opening it up at random points: “The double door is set in the naked rock, man-high, of tarnished, ancient bronze. Faded imagery can barely be made out on the surface.” Or: “These Sial-Atun have been led to the Palace by Captain Sarakhar with promises of infinite riches and godlike might. Instead they find only ennui and ancient horror while they wait for their comrades to return.” Or: “A great marble hall contains rows of carved sepulchers of worked obsidian, edges sharp like razors, gleaming from the light source. Alcoves on both sides of the room stretch off into darkness. Faint glimmers can be discerned within.” It earns its barbarian chops, although the appendices wander into purple prose. Where it matters most, though, the lean-and-mean writing succeeds on the technical level, as a mood-setter, and as a scenario rife with potential for conflict, exploration, and off-the-wall ideas. There are great names. Diorag the Breaker. Uyu-Yadmogh. The Children of the Tree. Gate of the Host Incarnadine. Chamber of Tribute by Conquest.

Leading to a land of dead empires, the Palace beckons. A hazardous wilderness trek is followed by two entrance levels, leading into a vast subterranean necropolis surrounded by a lake of liquid mercury, and then the titular Palace, a 26-area dungeon serving as the resting place of Uyu-Yadmogh, accursed sorcerer king, and his vast treasury. You are not alone: three factions, two coming from outside and one established inside, contend for the ultimate prize (whatever that may be). Death and horror will follow.

Mr. Thing, He Who Must Be
Fun at PartiesThe genre is high-magic sword & sorcery turned up to 11. It is not for everyone. It is macabre, loud, album cover art S&S, set to metal riffs. (Or so I think, since this is a musical genre that goes right over my head, and feels pretty much like random environmental noise to my ears.) It is a lot more baroque and grandiose than even most S&S fare, a bit in the manner of Diablo and a bit in the manner of the Final Fantasy series, and I have to confess that it feels rather over the top. Grimdark easily becomes its own parody, and The Palace of Unquiet Repose is on the borderline, because it has no “normal” to fall back on, no section that is just a modest “/11”, and no counterpoints to its sensory assault. Here is a grand grimdark dungeon-palace “dotted with all manner of hideous gargoyles”, and haunted by tattooed, cannibalistic, insane, deformed, gem-studded things. That eat souls. The writhing souls of the eternally damned. Here are the grimmest motherfuckers of a rival NPC party, one “a beautiful golden, hairless child, one of its eyes (…) an orb of absolute blackness”, another one “a monstrous silhouette etched in absolute blackness”, and he is called “An Unbearable Thing, Drawn From The End of Time, Given Hatred and Substance (Wolf of Final Night)”. The leader of the other guys wears “the gilded skulls of lords and generals (500 gp total)” on his plate mail. The leader of the third faction has “a single wild green eye staring out of a skull-like face”. Sometimes, you can’t catch a break. After a while, “Fred the Fighter” starts to look like an appealing concept.

This is not a Palace of honour. Indeed, the wasteland hellhole is more containment zone for a grand sort of evil than convenient treasure-hole, and those who disturb it mostly go here to die. Yes, the cover indicates a 3–5th-level range, but it is the sort of 3–5th-level adventure which will kill off entire parties of characters, starting before the dungeon entrance. Everything here is dead, dangerous, insane, or cursed (sometimes all four). It does not quite become what the loud kids call a “negadungeon” (a punishing killer dungeon where you are much better off backing out and not adventuring), but it is a dungeon where you have to bet with dear stuff to start rolling, and the odds are stacked in favour of the house. It is also a fundamentally static setting even with the rival factions, and in this respect, it is less successful than the lively Red Prophet Rises. “Do you touch the horrible soul-devouring trap for its fabled treasures?” This is the central premise, and it shall determine whether you and your group will like the module. If you like poking bear traps (and the sleeping bears trapped therein), this module has a lot of exciting things to poke, and princely prices to extract. Break off chunks of a massive golden idol. Pry blasphemous death masks off of a mindless golem-thing. Rouse a reanimated demi-god chained with adamantium chains to “a monstrous throne of jagged glass” and find out what happens. You know you want to.

While a bit one-note in its themes, the Palace is very open-ended. This is a place to develop bold plans and win big or lose big. There are useful suggestions in the text to run the scenario and resolve some of the encounters, but there are so many ways you could exploit the Palace and its moving parts (not to mention the rival NPCs) to “break the bank” that it would be folly to list them all. You can sic the proverbial irresistible force against the proverbial immovable object. You can build yourself an invincible army, or a Rube Goldberg contraption to entrap soul-eating 15 HD monstrosities. You can become just a bit too powerful. The resourceful will thrive, and the weak shall be weeded out. Kill or be killed.

In summary, The Palace of Unquiet Repose is a grand module of a very specific sort – one maniacal and meticulously perfected note played very loudly by people who know exactly what they are doing. It is exemplary as a “GM-friendly” module, and it has splendid imagination. All of it, or most of it is brand new – aside from scorpions, the monsters, magic, and NPCs are original creations. And it goes up to 11. Yes, it is very good, if you like this kind of fringe thing.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ***** / *****

Mouths. Why did it have to be mouths?


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BEYONDE] Nox Archaist, the Hottest Apple ][ Game of 2020/2021

Sat, 01/02/2021 - 13:49

Nox ArchaistA little known but useful Internet fact: Ultima fans and their money are quickly separated. Yes, Gentle Reader, YOU too can make good money selling more Ultima to people who were once into Ultima (most likely back in the 1980s), and now want more Ultima (most likely in the style of the 1980s). That is: in its day, the Ultima CRPG series had elicited so many positive feelings, and built such a fanatically loyal audience that even today, thirty-something years after the heyday of the series, and more than twenty after the days the Ultima Dragons (an overactive fan group who seemed to run half the late 90s Internet), pitching an Ultima project to the Kickstarter audience is sure to start a stampede. The fans will pay, and they have deep pockets – so make sure to open up those “name a Pirate/Barkeep/Lord after yourself” reward tiers, and design a stretch goal where Lord British and Iolo will personally deliver your boxed copy, and sing Stones right in your living room.
Indeed, Yours Truly (although a Johnny-come-lately, and not an Ultima Dragon) has spent generously on various Ultima-inspired Kickstarters. There was Unknown Realm for the PC and Commodore-64, which, three years after its proposed date of delivery, increasingly looks like either a very unsuccessful game development project, or a very successful scam. There is Skald: Against the Black Priory, which has released multiple increasingly impressive demos, and seems to be late but firmly on track. There was Underworld Ascendant, a game… no, come to think of it, that one did not exist, and I did not foolishly waste $100 on a boxed copy that never even shipped in any form people were promised. Yes: too many failures can harden a man’s heart, and make him wary of funding Yet Another Ultima-Knockoff Kickstarter. Thus, I missed out on Nox Archaist, which promised all the usual things these projects tend to promise (a new Ultima homage game! an endorsement by Lord British! pixels! a game box! a thick manual on real PAPER! a CLOTH MAP! some useless renfaire gizmo related to the game story!), and then I forgot all about it. But Nox Archaist came out just as promised, game box and hand-sealed letter and all – and you can still buy a post-Kickstarter version, along with the T-shirt and the spiral-bound notepad. (Or you can buy an inexpensive digital version if you make your saving throw vs. Temptation. Go on, I will wait.)
The following review is the result of around 8-10 hours of play, encompassing the “first act” of a highly open-ended and obviously much larger game – certainly not the whole picture, but a reasonably wide one.
For a hundred dollars, you also get a dongle
If you are asking yourself, “Did he really write ‘Apple ][?’” or “Isn’t that something very old?”, the answer is “yes”. This game was developed for an early 1980s computer system, and although it was done with a lot of hindsight, and pushes the system’s capabilities beyond the limits possible in 1983-1985, it is not just a game with a vaguely chic retro aesthetic – it is a real approximation of a major, no-expenses-spared Apple ][ title. On your PC, it will run on an emulator (no special computer wizardry required), but if you are so inclined, you can make a disk image on a handful of Apple ][ floppy disks, and play it like it was really meant to be played.
Shipwrecked in CGAlandTo say Nox Archaist has “crude” graphics, or that its speaker-based beeps and boops (lovingly emulated on your sound card, running in a high-end Windows 10 environment) is to miss the point. Nox Archaist has varied and fairly sophisticated graphics for 1984, with sprites to simulate your character swinging his (or her, or xir – yes, there is an “other” gender, and weirdly enough, that’s not woke posturing, but a loving homage to Ultima III: Exodus) sword, or sitting in a chair, or swimming in shallow water, or sinking into quicksand. This is the best simple tile-based graphics can offer with its weird colour artefactsand reliance on basic symbols to carry its meaning. Modern games depict; old games symbolise; and this lost art is new again in Nox Archaist. From simple props come surprisingly meaningful and distinct places – the crude hovels of a wayside village, the throne room of a castle, or the depths of the Mythical Underworld. In fact, the game even features bits of modulated speech, something which would only come to Ultima with Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992). This is, if anything, a game way before its time.
On the trail of the orcsBehind the archaic façade runs a remarkably complex game. It has a rather intricate user interface with very Ultima-like quirks – you still e(X)it your horse to dismount, (I)gnite a torch to illuminate your surroundings, and execute a series of Tabs and number keys to bring up inventory and character sheets – but it is not really hard to learn, and quickly becomes second nature while allowing a fairly good level of environmental interaction. The charm of the early Ultimas often comes from layering a dozen small “tricks” on a simple basic system of movement, fighting, and conversing with NPCs, and using them to build a rich world and a complicated game. Nox Archaist has this stuff in spades – lockpicking, jumping over obstacles with horses, engaging in ship-to-ship combat with cannons or boarding action, day/night cycles for NPCs, line-of-sight vision (and the cover of nighttime/underground darkness) for your party, excavating rubble with a pickaxe, falling into quicksand, and all these individually tiny little things – make for a rich and fascinating game environment.
***
NAME! JOB! BYE! NAME! JOB! BYE!At its core, Nox Archaist is a game of investigation. Sent by Queen Issa to investigate a mysterious cult that has taken foothold over a cluster of islands, captured by your enemies and imprisoned in a ship’s brig, but saved in a shipwreck, you will have to uncover a way to an unseen and powerful enemy while building a powerful and well-equipped adventuring party on the side. Your first clues will lead to a small town, then an increasingly open world crisscrossed by clues and leads. This is Ultima in its best sense: talking to NPCs, you hit on capitalised KEYWORDS, which lead to other places and people you will find in a different corner of the world.
There is a “quality-of-life” feature in the form of a simple quest journal, but to untangle the leads in Nox Archaist, you will have to take notes in a real notebook, and spend time poring over your player map (this is missing a whole lot of locations you will gradually discover, or get pointed to). Perhaps you will have to journey to Castle Suurtheld and consult Nox Yvviar on CULT activities. Or you will have to visit one of the Queen’s agents in Knaerwood and ask him for HELP. Perhaps you will also seek out one of the local trainers to improve your skills. Or the answer may lie in a book in some library (these are small, brief vignettes high on local flavour).
8 AM. Lord Hraakvar is still asleepThe essence is the sense of an interconnected milieu, one whose locations you will revisit again and again, getting deeper into a labyrinth of sub-quests, references, and mysterious finds. Like Ultima, the world opens up gradually. First sticking to the overland and the proximity of settlements, you eventually start exploring the wilderness and smaller dungeons; then find that these dungeons open into enormous multi-level affairs that feel like OD&D’s “Mythical Underworld” megadungeons (and they might all be connected on the bottom in a deep interconnected realm: at least this was the case in the greatest of Ultimas, Warriors of Destiny). You will acquire new ways of navigating the world: horses which let you easily ford rivers which were once hazardous; skiffs to sail shallow waters; and ships to brave the stormy seas and visit distant islands (these larger ships can store up to two skiffs to make landing convenient). The setting expands as you play – and there might even be a flying carpet at the end.
BuxomThe Isles of Wynmar is a high fantasy setting. In our ultra-modern age of ceaseless deconstruction, this vaguely positive Merrie Olde Englande hodge-podge of benevolent monarchs, wise-cracking peasants and chivalric nobles looks almost avant-garde. The isles have their troubles with corruption, mountain orcs emerging from their strongholds to raid human villages, and the scheming cult that’s spreading tentacles across the land, but it is a place where good and evil are distinct and well demarcated. It loses some shades of grey, but it gains playfulness and colour, something refreshing in a more cynical era where mediaeval worlds are usually presented through a ubiquitous mud-filter. Wynmar scales back some of Britannia’s “thee and thou” pretension, but it has its jocular bards, stout bowmen and saucy tavern wenches in the best traditions of the genre. Public order is maintained vigorously: I once attacked a cloud of buzzing insects near a rural outhouse, and was soon attacked and decimated by the local militia. Now that’s law and order!
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Nox Archaist’s character building is nominally free-form – you can advance your characters in any direction from hand-to-hand combat to archery, assassination and magic – but the difficulty curve encourages strong specialisation. You are better off with three niche heroes than three generalists, as they will be able to wield better equipment (there are strong stat limits) and dish out better punishment, while a jack-of-all-trades group of PCs will find themselves in a serious difficulty trap.
The Goblin Shaman: Attempt 32After the first few battles with hooligans and rabble-rousers, the level of challenge goes up. Your first dungeon foray will bring you against a group of wolves, and here, the need to toughen up will be made obvious after the first few utter defeats. The true test of your offensive and defensive abilities will be the mini-boss of the first serious dungeon, the Goblin Shaman. If you can beat him and his band, you have built your adventuring party correctly – if you can’t, you may want to earn some more experience, or reconsider your options. And it will get harder: just venture a bit beyond the shaman’s cave to find out.
With these considerations in mind, the stat/equipment accumulation game is simple but satisfying. You do not have Ultima’s fascinating reagent-based magic system, but there is an abundance of stuff to obtain, equip, and go to town with. Armour goes from cloth, leather and brigandine to chain, scale, and plate, and right up to frost, storm, drake and dragon (for the mightiest heroes). For the start, having the requisite Strength to equip a pair of chain gauntlets feels like a reward well earned.
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A round for the local ladsAs I have outlined above, Nox Archaist is a worthy successor to the Ultima tradition. Here, you will find a large and deep game comparable to Quest of the Avatar or Warriors of Destiny (although with the graphics of the older Exodus) with all the quirks of something out of the early 1980s. This is an important qualifier: the game is from a tradition that predates a lot of the games that established the way modern CRPGs are made, and while it makes numerous improvements to make the formula easy on gamers today, it comes with CGA-tier aesthetics, bizarro discoloured fonts, and antediluvian ideas about game design. That is to say, I can’t recommend it highly enough to fellow old-school gamers. If this is the particular experience you are looking for, Nox Archaist will deliver in spades; if you are too young to have experienced the old Ultimas in their time (this also describes Yours Truly), this is a good occasion to try.
Some well-deserved rest

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