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Updated: 4 days 18 hours ago

[REVIEW] Tyranny of the Black Tower

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 19:47

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

[REVIEW] The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre

Wed, 07/04/2018 - 18:49

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

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

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

[REVIEW] The Quarrymen

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 21:36

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

[REVIEW] Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 13:48

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

[BLOG] Combat and Magic: A Look Back at The First Hungarian RPG

Sun, 05/27/2018 - 20:02
Combat and MagicSpoiler: Mummies
Role-playing in Hungary does not have a particularly long history. It is telling that people who had started in the early 1990s are considered veterans of gaming, a generation which would barely count as neophytes in the US or the UK. More than that, we know little of that early gaming period. From the first groups in the mid-1980s to its first boom of popularity in 1990-1992, precious little material evidence has remained. By all accounts, people had fun playing (mostly) AD&D, and photocopied translations were circulated among fans (the best known version being The Ruby Codex), but the publication of homebrew materials was minimal, or at least extremely limited. It was a different time: photocopiers were hard to access, and home (or even workplace) printers were expensive equipment mainly found in research institutes and universities. Therefore, we cannot really speak of an age of fanzines, nor extensive home publishing. I know of (and own) one homemade module which was available at the time: The Great Pyramid, a mid-level dungeon whose themes and ideas should be hardly surprising.

Without external support, game groups had to make do with what they had: a few fantasy novels (Tolkien, a dash of Conan, and some disreputable but fun pulp literature), the occasional photocopied game supplement they could get from other groups, an increasing number of computer games, Fighting Fantasy, and their imagination. The results were varied, from the deadly dull to the quite imaginative (or at least somewhat original). One of these results is Combat and Magic [Harc és Varázslat], the first Hungarian RPG, whose brief appearance and fast downfall went mostly unnoticed at the time. But not by all: this was the first “real” RPG I ever played (after a systemless dungeoneering game at the Scouts I then believed to be an innovative sort of puzzle), and I still have good memories of the experience, even though in my first adventure, my nameless Fighter went down into some mines and got summarily killed by orcs in one of the first encounters. I barely knew what hit me, but I was hooked!
Thus, this post: part reminiscence, part a look at a game that’s both utterly predictable and compellingly oddball, a product of a naïve fascination with fantasy literature and an exciting new game form.
***
Combat and Magic was published in 1991 by the completely unknown company “SPORTORG Ltd.” Its authors, Tamás Galgóczi and Péter László were AD&D players (a decade later, I would buy Galgóczi’s lovingly bound and much used photocopies of the 1stedition AD&D rulebooks – these ancient bootlegs are as treasured parts of my collection as my OD&D set), and they had planned to spread their hobby through an introductory game, to be followed by more “advanced” supplements down the line. Combat and Magic comes in the form of two full-sized 56-page booklets, one for the players and one for the Gamemaster (called, according to local custom, the “Storyteller”). The second booklet also includes a folded map of the three-level intro dungeon (on which more later), and the whole package was originally sold with something called a “lucky die”, a ten-sider! (Considering the difficulties involving in obtaining a d10, people would apparently buy the game just for the die alone.)
Combat and Magic proudly wears its influence on its sleeve. The cover on the players’ booklet is graced by a notoriously bad rendition of Frazetta’s Conan the Destroyer fighting some lizard-things, while the Storyteller’s booklet depicts a scene right out of Tolkien, an adventurer menaced by something that looks like a ringwraith. The Conan-meets-LotR theme continues through the entire game in a strange manifestation of schizophrenia – sometimes the game has its semi-naked amazons, war galleys and buff fellows in leather gear holding various murder implements, and sometimes we are in Moria or Rivendell (and not a homage either: it is clearly Frodo and Co. investigating the tomb of Balin, facing the Balrog, or finding the mountain door).
An American Fantasy Game Similar to
Combat and MagicAs the introduction proclaims, “You have surely read J. R. R. Tolkien’s exciting book, The Lord of the Rings. This game leads you to a similar world, and you can live there, adventuring among the creatures of fantasy. You can meet goblins, elves, dwarves, dragons, and you only need a little imagination... If you like our offer, forward to adventure! You are awaited by the forbidding lands of the unknown world, its cities and peoples! Your imagination will wander the land of fantasy, the world of DRAGONFLAME...” In a charmingly earnest way, it goes further – the back cover of both rulebooks reproduces the cover of the Mentzer Set, the caption reading “The cover of one of the American fantasy games similar to Combat and Magic”. Similar indeed! Interestingly, just like Original D&D was billed as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns”, Combat and Magic is called a “Personality Game” (and on at least one occasion, a “Cooperative Personality Game”), and not an RPG – no common local term for RPGs having been accepted yet.
***
Vorg saves
an old PriestAs introductory games go, Combat and Magic is remarkably newbie-friendly. The future player is guided on his journey by “Vorg the Wolf”, an in-game character. Vorg, a 7th level Fighter, is somewhere between Conan and a wise Indian from a western (showing that the new concept of the barbarian had not yet taken solid shape in the local imagination, and the gaps were filled in by prior references). We first meet Vorg in a short story where he seeks out, confronts and kills Surat, the dark mage who had recently decimated a village, and now lives in a dungeon under a ruined castle built by the dwarves (“You have come to the right place if you seek Surat! He is I!” and “You wanted to kill me, warrior? You shall die instead!”). Vorg helps the player at all stages of character creation, introducing game concepts from an in-character stance that is at once weird, wrong, and completely charming. (“I, Vorg, the wolf, the highest level fighter among the long-haired ones, say to you that the most important attribute in the world is Strength.” Or: “You have surely read my adventure. The personality sheet for Surat the evil Mage would look like this: Intellect 88%. Number of languages 4, modifier +30 days. He knew four foreign languages before I killed him, which he had learned over half a year and +30 days. By my sword, I say it was a great accomplishment that I had destroyed him!”)
The game, not surprising considering its AD&D roots, uses seven attributes, but measures them on a percentile scale (Intellect, Strength, Agility, Speed, Endurance, Manual Dexterity and Physical Looks). Yes, they are rolled with entirely random 1d100 rolls, in order, no takebacks. Or as Vorg tells us: “Let us begin, and may the gods guide your hand!” These attributes provide modifiers for a whole lot of secondary values from combat ratings to poison resistance and the ability to read and write (Vorg, with a Manual Dexterity of 8%, is completely illiterate, and his 14% Physical Looks is fairly dire – but he has an impressive 92% Strength). Some people say chicks dig scars, but this is clearly incorrect on the world of DRAGONFLAME: when you receive face wounds in combat, your rating drops pretty substantially. On the other hand, chicks receive a 1.2 multiplier to their Physical Looks because “If your personality is a woman (…) you take better care of yourself and your beauty.” On the other hand, many other modifiers are fairly moderate, and much of the attribute range does nothing whatsoever or very little: there is, for example, no difference whatsoever between an Endurance of 26 and 70.
Haven't we seen this before? The three alignments (Good, Evil and Neutral) are followed by the character races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins (here mostly thieves and wizards) and Orcs, set apart by ability score modifiers and limits (e.g. Orcs have a maximum Intellect of 60, get +15 on their Endurance, but -15 on their Manual Dexterity) and the occasional modifier to specific weapon types. Furthermore, Elves can sense the presence of the freshly slain dead, and see wandering souls, Dwarves see in the darkness and can withstand extreme temperatures; Goblins are stealthy; and Orcs almost never get lost in the wilderness. Actually, “Goblins” are probably meant to be hobbits, since they live in covered pits close to the earth, and have a democratic worldwide government run by a hidden ten-goblin council.
Combat and Magic has a fairly weird Vitality system: every character starts with 100 Vitality, plus race-based dice (Elves have 1d10 more Vitality, Humans, Goblins and Orcs have 2d10 more, and Dwarves have 3d10 more). At 0 Vitality, you are dead. However, the system also has something called Damage Absorption Percentage (DA), which starts at 20% of your character’s full rating, and goes up 2% every level, up to 38% (Fighters also gain a one percent bonus per level, but none of the other classes do). Should you receive more damage than this percentage, you fall into a comatose state, where you bleed out at a rate of 1 Vitality per wound per round – only healing can bring recovery. In practice, your average longsword does 1d10 damage, a staff does 1d5, and a cavalry lance – the mightiest weapon – does 1d10+10, so a few successful hits can dispatch even a relatively hardy character. As an obvious AD&D legacy, saving throws(or their equivalent, “Chance Rolls”) also exist as three flat percentile ratings to escape the effects of poison, magic, and dragon breath, respectively (although dragon breath, an oddly specific choice, still causes half damage). The real rating which matters is your DA: it is not entirely clear why the ridiculously high total Vitality is used at all.
This looks oddly familiarFrom classes (or, rather, “castes”, a really bad word choice which would then gain traction and crop up in almost every subsequent Hungarian RPG), the system offers four: Fighters, Trackers, Priests and Mages. These are somewhat less restrictive classes than D&D traditions would dictate: there is little difference between different classes when it comes to Attack and Defence %, Vitality or Chance Rolls; rather, each class gives a basically competent adventurer a set of bonuses and limitations. Accordingly,
  • Fighters learn to use multiple weapon types, and have slightly better combat values. Noble fighters (player’s choice to try for a 75+ percentile roll) get training with more kinds of weapons, but suffer a small Endurance penalty. Nobles also have to abide by a code of conduct: they may only attack a woman in self-defence, they must always attack from the front, and they may not use poison (“except evil nobles, because they are capable of it”). Even evil nobles, as we learn, “Follow etiquette, and only rarely have their captives tortured – and never by their own hands.” Their commoner counterparts start with a small penalty to either mounted or footman’s combat, which they “grow out of” by level 5.
  • Trackers are skilled hunters, who either work alone, or as guides to travelling companies. They can call an “animal companion”, with one attempt possible per level (if it is a failure, the beast attacks). A tracker must avenge and mourn two years for a companion if it is ever slain before calling another. They also have versatile wilderness skills: tracking, speaking with animals, hiding, and recognising traps.
  • Priests are spellcasters, who, unlike fighting classes, can only gain levels by returning to their churches, where they are also required to donate all their unneeded money. Priests are either Good or Evil, but never Neutral (this will become important a bit later). They are not limited by weapon type, but only know to use a few of them (up to 4, while a Fighter would start from 3-4 and proceed from there). Priests can contact the gods directly for advice and help. They also have a bunch of different abilities based on the specific god they worship, who are quite varied. The followers of Perlin, goddess of dreams and fairy tales (Neutral, Priests can be either Good or Evil) can perform divinations, but they must regularly interpret a dream as a form of sacrifice; meanwhile, the Priests of Dorl, god of earth (Neutral, Priests must be Good) have a special spell to hurl pebbles, can sense buried items under their feet, but they must bring home a clod of earth from every land they have visited, and can only use bludgeoning and cutting weapons.
  • Mages aren’t D&D’s physical wretches (having lower, but still passable combat abilities and Vitality), although they are limited to daggers and staves, and must not wear armour. They must return to their master to gain levels. Mages belong to one of two schools: Moonlight Mages are Good, and practice white magic; while Grey Mages are Evil, dealing in black magic (these orders also give their members assistance if they show the correct hand signs). Mages sense other spellcasters in a 10 metre circle.

After you determine your class, you must also roll for social status. This is another flat 1d100 roll,: you may start with 40 copper pieces as a “free homeless” (1-14), 1 gold piece as a servant (15-29), 75 gp as one of the “famed” (75-84), or 1000 gp as royalty (00). For reference, 10 gp is the price of a longsword, while for 1000 gp, you get a suit of plate mail.
Like true-blue old-school games, there are no skills in Combat and Magic. However, your character may have a profession, unless you are a noble fighter, because work is beneath nobles. Your choice of profession depends on your social status, your ability scores (with some racial bonuses and limitations), and your class. Here, Combat and Magic again delves into the oddly specific, letting you play a more conventional healer (restore up to 10 Vitality per week), sailor (you can navigate ships) and thief (you get the thief skill), or professions like a gravedigger (you recognise religious symbols and tolerate the stench of the grave), executioner (you can easily kill restrained victims) or miner (you don’t get lost underground). Your profession is, once again, rated at an utterly random percentile value, which never, ever improves. You might be the best weaponsmith out there with a 100%, or you can be a random fool who drops the hammer on his feet with a 3%.
Ironically, neither six- nor four-sided dice
are featured in Combat and MagicCombat in the game is a fairly straightforward but ultimately quite fiddly you-swing-I-swing affair based on an Attack % and a Defence %. Both of these are modified by a whole range of tiny little things which are individually minor, but can add up if taken together
  • In each round, characters must decide to either attack their opponent or forego it and defend themselves.
  • Initiative is a simple d10 roll for your whole group.
  • Your Attack % is used to figure if you score a connecting hit.
  • Armour (if any) can stop a blow outright, based on a matrix cross-referencing five armour types (leather, studded, chain, scale and plate) and three weapon types (piercing, slashing and bludgeoning) that’s reminiscent of AD&D’s infamous weapon-vs-AC chart. For instance, chain is 25% vs. piercing, 50% vs. slashing, and 35% vs. bludgeoning.
  • If a hit is scored, but the subject has chosen to defend himself instead of attacking, he can still roll a successful Defence % to avoid getting hit. Many weapons grant a bonus to Defence %, from 10 (daggers and hammers) to 15-20% (most swords and maces) to 30% (polearms), and you also get some from shields (10% or 20%), but you must choose whether you’d like to defend with your weapon or your shield.
  • If neither form of defence succeeds, you get to roll damage, which, as previously noted, can be pretty dire.

This system comes with a fair whiff factor, although Defence % tends to be fairly low, and if you know enough weapons, you can use one which gives your opponent a lower Armour roll (it pays to stock up on different weapon types).
No, reallySpellcasting in Combat and Magic uses a spell point system: both Priests and Mages have 10 spell points per level, recovered through meditation (Clerics) or 1d10 hours of sleep (Mages). It is possible to cast spells over one’s point limit, at a risk to the character’s sanity (the chance of escaping unharmed is 70% the first time, 40% the second, and a mere 10% the third). The spell list goes up five levels, and beyond the Wizard/Priest split, each spell is also associated with an alignment. Characters can use spells of their own alignment, and neutral ones (remember, spellcasters can’t be neutral). The spells themselves are mostly D&D ripoffs (Hebron’s Smashing Fist, Call Monster I, Tiny Hut, Prayer...), but there are also some compelling oddities, such as…
  • Almos’ Blue Parasol: protection vs. falling rocks, hail, and rain spells
  • Hair Growth: uncontrollable hair growth entangles victim
  • The Quarrelsome Door: creates a talking door
  • Dream Voyage: the victim sleeps for 1d10 days, dreaming of a fantastic voyage that feels like the same number of years, and ages accordingly
  • The Dark Blue Berries of Pavlovich: creates 30 berries, eater sleeps one day for each, losing 2 Vitality per day

The lands of RôhenAlthough the Storyteller’s Booklet is dedicated specifically to running the game, and players are admonished to avoid reading it, it starts with a brief world guide that would probably be a better fit for the main rules. The world of DRAGONFLAME (no longer capitalised here) is a naïve fantasy mishmash, but it has its own creation myth, and a huge, active pantheon of gods with quite silly names (Kayar, Zomur, Serlafor, Zorikon, Xirfon etc.). The planet of Rôhen (note the Tolkienesque diacritic) has three continents, but the game is focused on one called, appropriately enough, Draco, and specifically its north-western corner called the Four Kingdoms. To keep with the tone from the LotR appendices (the definitive model for fantasy world-building in early 1990s Hungary), Draco’s history is punctuated by a lot of blood and thunder, like “the Second Metal War”, “the rise of Tarrakis, Lord of Darkness” (he had the Twelve Knights of Death on his side, but was eventually driven out of the known world), “the foundation of Divide” by King Farseer the First, “the imprisonment of Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap and eight demon by the Moon Mages”, and “the Second Dragon War”.
Three of the Four Kingdoms
(the Kingdom of the Dead Land is off to the east)Draco’s geography is no less fancy, with a giant inner sea (divided into the Sea of Three Moons, the Sea of Two Moons, and the Cold Sea), and a bunch of doggerel toponyms like Faradas, Eld Virg, M’Bo, Búrnan and the Forest of Gerildor. However, the published game is focused on the so-called Four Kingdoms, to the north of Shadia, and east of the vast Orc Swamp. Actually, only three of the kingdoms are nice places to visit: the Kingdom of Black Land, the Kingdom of Lagos, and the Bonecrusher Kingdom, whose ruling dynasty has died out, and left behind a war of succession (the most likely successor, Ed Morrison, lives in the town of Helltop; the capital city is named Skull Hill, but the kingdom is actually a fairly normal place with a sheep-based economy). This is less true about the Kingdom of Dead Land, whose southern part is a confederation of independent mercantile towns, but the north has been taken over by bandit gangs lead by the evil wizard, Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap.
Pretty sure this is Éowyn or GaladrielThis mini-setting is quite charming in its own way; half Tolkien, half AD&D, but with the Northwest-European cultural references exchanged for a decidedly Hungarian perspective. This is quite intriguing, since the Hungarian fantasy genre, and Hungarian RPG fandom in specific has shied away from its own history and culture. It is still a European mishmash ranging from Finland and France equivalents to something feeling a bit like fantasy Ukraine (with NPCs named Pierre Vandel, Oleg Isakov, Stefan Schaller, Valdemar Kanagas, Commander Tony Elton, and Arnold Denman), but there is something almost indescribably Hungarian about the land’s large plains, agricultural towns and, above all, the slightly rustic tone of its place names. As strange as it sounds, this familiarity is the strangest thing about the whole Combat and Magic experience, because nobody has evertried anything like this again – Hungarian fantasy has focused on discovering the fantastic in distant lands, to the neglect of our own.
The majority of the Storyteller’s Booklet is occupied by the obligatory monsters and treasures. Like the spells, much of this section consists of AD&D ripoffs and a mish-mash of mythology and the stuff you lift out of every fantasy book you have read and liked – that is, it is derivative but actually pretty good. Some of them come from the excellent Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, such as the Bao a Ku (a monster tied to a set of stairs, which becomes more and more real as someone goes up, and attacks on the top), and some are just strange in the way RPG bestiaries can be strange:
  • the Dorag is a huge blue snake with two feathered wings, which lives until you cut off its head… twice;
  • the Ilmex resembles a rug with a wavy edge, with three three-fingered hands on each side, and a bird’s head perched on a long, thin neck at the front – it is a subterranean predator;
  • Armoured Toads are... toads in black armour, with a hop attack;
  • Fuzzballs! They are big fuzzballs with... legs capable of long jumps up to three metres. And a large toothy mouth. “They are always on the move to attack any kind of mobile meat.”
  • The Vilotoner is a mixture between a huge eagle and a bat. It is very intelligent, able to converse in three languages, and cast Wizard spells. It is curious, vain, egoistic and easy to offend.


The Caverns of Singing Mountain, LVL I-III
There is some decent guidance on setting up and running a game (actually, more than many subsequent Hungarian games, which often wouldn’t think too deep about the question), and a bunch of Storyteller-specific rules, but the other big interesting thing about the booklet is the example scenario, The Dragon of Singing Mountain. Nothing less than a three-level dungeon, it is a tutorial for both the players and the Storyteller. You have to defeat a dragon and save a kidnapped princess – but before that, you have to get through the caverns of Singing Mountain. The caverns – really dungeons – are mostly linear, and the action largely features combat and basic exploration. You get to fight morlochs, dog-headed men, a wererat, skeletons, zombies, black dwarves, and an evil wizard. There is an underground smithy, an evil temple (the idol has gemstone eyes and a poison gas trap), a mirror room, a plant room (with life-draining plants), a library and a well, but disappointingly, it lacks the wahoo nature of some of the rulebooks..
What is interesting is how the adventure starts in a way that explains everything to the Storyteller, with a choose-your-own-adventure structure and readout text, and starts to hand over more and more responsibilities as it goes on. The first level is full of handholding, but halfway through the second, the room descriptions become sparse outlines to be filled out on your own. The third level, with a deep, dark underground lake, is only described in brief and left to your development: here lives Tungar the Dragon in an island tower, there is an old orc Priest who serves as the ferryman, and other mysteries are also in evidence.
***
Is Combat and Magic a good RPG? Not really. It is simultaneously awkward and simplistic, with fairly fiddly rules to realise simple concepts. The character generation is more complicated than in AD&D for less mileage, and the combat system has its awkward spots. There are puzzling ideas, like the Vitality/Damage Absorption concept. I don’t think many people had played by the book – I am pretty sure we didn’t, because the combat I remember was far deadlier than the baseline. I do not count the game’s high randomness as a design mistake (although many people in the 90s would, if they had even heard of it); it is endearing and almost feels fresh in our day. In practice, all those flat 1d100 rolls would tend to even themselves out, and your character would have a few areas where he would be better than the others (at least I don’t remember my PC being overshadowed, which definitely did happen in our attempt to play M.A.G.U.S.,the second Hungarian RPG.
Seen through modern eyes an incredible 27 years later (has it really been that long?), the areas where Combat and Magic feels fresh is the enthusiastic spirit of adventure, the way it embraces the fantastic, and the way it tries to make most of a very narrow set of influences. It owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings and it owes just as much to AD&D, but there are a few things there which are beyond imitation.
Why did Combat and Magic disappear from the public consciousness, so much so that most gamers have never even heard of it? In a way, it came too early, at a time when there were no established communication channels for roleplayers yet – no magazines (the first would come out late 1992), no fanzines, only two game stores in the entire country, and often little contact between the isolated gaming groups out there. Interestingly, the game was by no means unknown. I know multiple people who have started with it, usually for a few months before they would find their way to AD&D (either the bootleg translations or the real deal). It was also a mainstay at a few game clubs; apparently, fans in the city of Miskolc had come up with multiple typewritten fan supplements and their own shared setting (“Sword World”).
Combat and Magic had sold well enough to merit a follow-up, and its creators had ideas to bring it forward with new booklets. What happened to it was much more banal: the owners of the publisher, SPORTORG Ltd., had just disappeared with the money and let the company go bankrupt. It was not an uncommon way to make easy money those days – most of these cases would never be solved by a sluggish unprepared court system. It was an ominous sign of things yet to come – and as we will see from later parts of this series, far from the last case where legal issues would intrude upon the hobby.
“And now, stranger, the time of farewells has come. I have told you everything I know about the world of fantasy. I bid you farewell, for I am called by faraway lands, furious battles, and by glory… perhaps we will meet again somewhere. Only the gods know. Good luck!--Vorg, the Wolf”
What price glory?
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Arwich Grinder

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 17:34

The Arwich Grinder (2014)by Daniel J. BishopPublished in Crawl! #9 by Straycouches Press0-level funnel
Something has gone terribly wrong up in them hills where the Curwen family has lived in their homestead for several generations, and young Bessie Curwen’s bonnet has been found in the possession of an odd beast that lumbers into the village inn and drops dead before the assembled patrons. The reclusive and tight-knit Curwens had saved the village from starvation two winters ago, so it’s time to return the favour. A group of brave volunteers is assembled to venture up into the dark woods and see what’s up at the Curwens’ lucrative pig farm.
To everybody’s surprise, it wasn’t pig after all.

Warning: cover spoils module theme and final encounter

This funnel adventure – filling a full issue of Crawl! fanzine – is a gruesome one-shot combining Lovecraftian themes with a hilarious amount of gore. There are no surprises as far as the module’s themes are concerned – yup, the backwoods rustics are up to no good, and they are right in the middle of doing something really bad when the adventurers show up. However, as something you get into with full foreknowledge of walking into the jaws of a deadly trap, it is remarkably well made. Perhaps the horror does not lie in the familiar (and by now almost cozy) horror trappings, but in the vulnerability and disposability of 0-level characters. When you are at three hit points, the axe maniac coming at you suddenly takes on a more grave than usual significance.
This is something The Arwich Grinder shines at. Low-level D&D’s lethality makes it hard to design for, since an unlucky hit can kill a character, and a few unlucky hits can decimate a party and either stop their progress outright or trap them in hostile territory. However, if you softball it, you kind of lose the excitement of rolling that d20. This module is somewhere in that middle spot, even if a few of the encounters end up under-statted (including the bad guys right at the end).
Something else that works well here is the way the scenario builds towards its conclusion. It is not a railroad, and you can actually get around the Curwens’ place in multiple different ways, but any way you go, you will start from smaller hints of something being dreadfully wrong to very obvious signs of something, indeed, being gosh-darned wrong. There is a clear element of progression from the family homestead (exploration-oriented, few encounters, not terribly dangerous as long as you don’t disregard obvious hints) through the Curwens’ underground tunnels (a combination of exploration and action, multiple instances of combat and traps) to even deeper caverns (where things turn nasty). This is what makes the scenario nicely Lovecraftian. You know you are getting into something bad, and lo, you are getting into something bad. There are big, dark things lurking under the earth. Old families conceal terrible secrets. If you look too closely at things, you might find more than you’d bargained for. Never trust people of inferior racial stock. That’s Lovecraft. The rest is equally good, including one of the best GM takedowns of meta-gaming players, a few suitably dark magic items, and the Curwens, who are fun to take down, and have a few tricks up their sleeves.
The encounters are short and essential. The entire module is well-written, and fits the 27-area farmstead and 15-area dungeon into a 24-page booklet (set in a generous font size). It is right at the level where bits of descriptive detail carry the tone, without suffering from under- or overwriting. The illustrations are cool (and the cover is great great GREAT, one of the best I have seen in recent years). This is a good adventure.
The module credits its playtesters.
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[MODULE] The Barbarian King

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 13:49
The Barbarian King
I am happy to announce the publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian Kingpits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. As the introduction goes:
Beyond the border city of Velft where the legion of General José Antonio Balazán upholds the law, the great eastern trading route leaves civilisation. After the ploughed fields of the townlands and the small villages and guard towers of the valleys stand endless mountain ranges, cold and unforgiving.
These harsh wastelands were once the domain of the Barbarian King, whose men bowed before animalistic spirits and fought with weapons of brass. In their raids, they showed no mercy: not consent with pillaging, they took their victims as slaves or killed them when they could. So it was until the death of the king, after which men in mail came from the plains, and as their foes once, they had no pity for those they met.
Today, there is a fortress city named Castle Evening on the lands where the barbarians had roamed, and barges plow their once holy lake. The initial conquerors, the knighthoods of Alliria and Mitra, were eventually defeated by the fanatical inquisitor-priests of Talorn; shamefully exiled from the land of their hard-won victories. The abundant mines and rich pastures have since transformed the wilderness into something else, a place of order and watchful sentries. Yet beyond the lands of the settlers, the mountains are silent as they had always been. And it is said, in a valley haunted by the shades of the barbarian warriors, there stands yet the burial place of that last warlord: the Barbarian King.
First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). It has been disassembled, reassembled, bootlegged on the DM’s Guild (no kidding) and put back together again. This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy.
The Barbarian King is available from the new SHOP. (The reason for the switch was to allow people to buy more than one products at once, which is harder with Paypal buttons. Bigcartel has been used by other zine creators, and seems to be a good platform.)
Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.
***
In other news: Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 is now available in PDF from RPGNow! This edition also includes a map pack for home printing.Echoes #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading. With art orders and my day job taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!
Until then…
Fight On!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Masks of Lankhmar

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 16:40

Masks of Lankhmar (2015)by Michael CurtisPublished by Goodman Games1st level
Warning: Severe ending spoilersHeists are hard to capture in the form of a D&D module. A party of adventurers is usually not well equipped with the skills to pull off a smooth, silent burglary; someone is inevitably too loud, too clumsy, or there are just too many people in the way. City-based heists also have many variables which can lead to unpredictable cascading events, or branch off in ways you can’t fully cover in the scenario without making it bloated and unmanageable. In play, this calls for a loose interpretation of the rules; and in writing, compromises between text and suggestion, written module and improvisation. When D&D thievery works, it is exhilarating, fun, and full of unlikely victories and dramatic reversals.
Masks of Lankhmar, introductory module to Goodman Games’ yet-unpublished Lankhmar supplement, errs on the side of being a sweet slice of nothing. There is a superb plot in the background that’d make for a hell of a Leiber story: it has intrigue, dark irony, urban gloom and a hokey ending that’s completely Leiberesque, but there is not much of an adventure inside it. It evokes something from what makes Lankhmar so fascinating, but it is limited as an RPG scenario.
A Map Illustrating
the ProblemBriefly, Masks follows the fate of a long-gone religious order who have left behind a bunch of valuable masks… and the characters stumble on their trail in a heist gone bad. Thus, the module is divided into an in medias resbeginning (an interrupted burglary in the mansion of a rich magnate), an intermission for information gathering, the recovery of the masks in the order’s now crumbling (but hardly vacant) temple, and finally the denouement. It is mostly a railroad in the segments covered in detail. There are branches here and there in how the players can get through a problem (such as escaping the magnate’s manor), but the action usually takes place in small physical locales where you either can’t go anywhere but forward, or you can go places but only forward matters (since the scenario doesn’t cover the other places). There are no side areas, no alternate approaches, no unlikely discoveries, and the progression of events is mostly preordained. The beginning heist is a linear sequence of five encounters taking place in three small rooms, followed by an escape with three alternative paths through a not much larger location. The main adventure area is a complex place, but only one encounter (to get through all the complex scenery which barely plays a role), followed by seven sequential encounters on the Adventure Express.

Masks of Lankhmar, ironically, becomes the most interesting in the areas it does not try to cover. Following the trail of the initial clues can be fun and open-ended if the GM drags it out a little, and the multiple ending possibilities tie up the heist in ways that establish the characters’ standing with different city factions, and lead to interesting new adventures. There are proper consequences to the players’ actions! It also shows evidence of imagination in the rooms and situations it sets up. Golden masks glittering through the funereal shrouds of the dead. A posh party thrown by an upstart who wants to get into high society. The Thieves’ Guild trailing the characters. A slum tenement filled with the dregs of society. Lankhmar’s soot and filth, glamour and decadence are all on display, and some of the encounters are pretty good – although in a severely lacking structure which inhibits the players in properly interacting with them.
The module serves its purpose of getting the characters together (in Lankhmar RPG terms, this is called “the Meet”) and launching a campaign. On the other hand, it is small and very limited in scope, while simultaneously feeling overwritten, with the boxed text and background information overwhelming the action. I don’t usually review production values (life and experience have left me bitter and cynical in this regard), but this booklet’s layout bothered me. Nothing wrong with the two-column solution, but leaving in orphans and stat blocks which necessitate page flipping is lazy, especially for a pro publisher.
I vacillated on Masks of Lankhmar’s rating, and gave it three stars on the strength of its imagery, and its evocation of mood. However, taken on its own – pure gameplay – it is severely lacking. Decision-making is superficial, player agency is mostly illusory. Of course, not every module has to have the same level of player agency, but this felt unnecessarily stifling. The same general storyline could be reconstructed as a much more open adventure, and re-written as a more efficient yet equally expressive piece of writing. There is a philosophy which suggests intro adventures should be small and unassuming, while explaining everything to the GM in detail. Personally, I’d rather see the exact opposite: intro adventures which offer GM advice economically, and offer the full, complex game experience in a newbie-friendly package.
The adventure credits its playtesters, and it had been through play on three conventions.
Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] The Barbarian King (revised edition) / Echoes From Fomalhaut #02

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 13:58

Cover art by Matthew RayI am happy to announce the forthcoming publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. 

First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art seen to the left), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. It will be available in print in May, and in PDF with a few months’ delay, at a price of $6 plus shipping. 
Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading (you should see how many tiny errors I catch before releasing something still riddled with a whole lot of tiny errors). With art orders taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!
City State of the Invincible Typographical Error
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] The Rustic Monster Hunter Campaign (Concept)

Fri, 04/27/2018 - 11:27

Your bog standard podunk fantasy barony is menaced by monsters. The goblins are stealing the chickens, the werewolves are eyeing the chicks, you can’t go visit Uncle Rufus in the graveyard over the hill without him repaying the visit, orcs are plundering the merchant caravans, and there are rumours of a doom of wyverns nesting in the Raewynskill (the big dark forest to the north, a ways away). Heroes are needed to save the day! Unfortunately, the heroes are all busy saving the day for more important people, or they are just doing their stuff somewhere else. What you get instead are mercenary monster hunters. So the villagers/townsfolk grit their teeth, pool their money, and establish a common fund to finance monster hunting. Good luck, the campaign is on.
This is a low level campaign framework inspired by a discussion on LFG.HU (link in Hungarian), David Pignedoli’s Black Dogs fanzine (also about a monster hunting company, but more gritty and mediaeval), the DCC funnel, my old domain management campaigns, and of course the wilderness clearing concepts from various versions of D&D. It is basically low-level D&D where you grow a character pool instead of one or two main PCs. Here is how it works.
The GM creates a small wilderness sandbox, and seeds it very liberally with monsters and small adventure sites. Go over the top with low-level monsters, they should be lurking behind every tree. You could use any generic fantasy setting to run the campaign. Perhaps it even needs to be utterly generic, you just need a home base village (or small town), and a bunch of interesting terrain and landmarks around it. Something like 4e’s Nentir Vale would do – why not? (Or you can use The Stoneheart Valley, the classic Necromancer Games wilderness romp. Or you can easily make your own.) Then, monster lairs – the kind of not terribly ambitious mini-dungeons you can find on the net by the dozens, or just make up on your own. Be generous. Keep it deadly for low-level groups.
The Nentir ValeThe big limitation is on the character side. This is a low-scale campaign. Not even E6-style. You will each be playing low-level fighters rolled with the 3d6 in order method, or more like a growing roster of them. Every player starts with one 1st level guy (or gal – the villagers don’t really care) down on his luck, and these guys can band together to go on expeditions to claim bounties posted on the tavern wall, or announced by the town crier. Your first character – and replacements – are free. You must hire the rest out of the gp budget you raise by killing monsters, and you must also pay to train up your guys to higher levels. It is a bit like a pyramid scheme for adventurers. Adventures take place on a weekly basis, the rest being spent carousing, wooing lasses, making a fool of yourself and getting into local trouble.
For example: Claude, Jehan and Karl go on an expedition against the orcs. They plunder a small tower which is an advance orc outpost, but they are beset by giant spiders in the cellar, and Karl goes down, stone cold dead. However, the other two survive, and now they have enough money to pay for a month’s upkeep and hire a few more first-level guys to go out with. Next week, Player A keeps Claude, and hires Sarah and Fred. Player B makes Jehan stay at home (he has good stats, and he’d rather not lose them) while he hires Lefty, Hank and Little Tim. Player C is stuck with a new entry-level guy he names Bullfrog Bill. They head out for the orcish keep.
Finally, a use for all those mapsRemember, it is the bounties that matter. If you just kill something randomly, the villagers may or may not care (you could give it a 1:6 probability of a halved “pity fee”). Everyone is interested in The Orc Problem, and The Giant Rats Down the Cellar (you thought you would be rid of them by now? Think again!), while the Raewynskill wyverns and Sir Otto’s Undead Keep are probably distant concerns, for now (as long as the wyverns only carry off the odd cow, and not the mayor’s niece).
You are not running real adventurers, more like a growing band of disposable miscreants. Beyond the funds for training, you need to keep up a number of troops to support higher-level characters. You first have to raise a stable of ten mercenaries before you can promote one to second level status, and at least 50 to raise an elite leader (4th level, this could be a party-based limit). Perhaps you can only have one of those guys. Perhaps special classes (in this case, non-fighters) are also available, but proportionally more expensive. You need twice as much for a ranger or a thief, and three times as much for a cleric (magic-users are all NPCs in this campaign… although you could persuade one to join your team on a special errand). You need to keep the mercenary ecosystem going or your guys will just pack up and look for trouble elsewhere in the kingdom, or marry the innkeeper’s daughter and settle down.
Another fine map by Mike SchleyGradually, you work your way up to try larger targets with a whole bunch of disposable mercenaries led by your precious few 2nd and 3rd level guys (who are almostheroes by now). There can be all kinds of complications: a bunch of do-gooders show up to ruin your business by killing monsters for free. A sinister merchant offers to rent some monsters which are trained to run away for you and let you triumph easily… for a small price. There is a fair and you can use those jousting rules from Chainmail. Some of the monsters finally have enough and band together to protect themselves from The Mercenary Problem. The local landlord decides that what the villagers do with their money is their business, but treasures found in his lands should be subject to proper taxation. And so on.
You could actually also use this structure to play out a peasant uprising, except with the bourgeoisie corrupt landlords and evil barons instead of the monsters, Robin Hood and company style.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Red Prophet Rises

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 13:00

The Red Prophet Rises (2018)by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex) and Prince of NothingPublished by The Merciless Merchants3rd to 5th level
The Red Prophet RisesThere are probably more good sword&sorcery rulesets than there are good sword&sorcery adventure modules. You can try it yourself, and the list in the left column will be longer than the one in the right. After a lot of hullaballoo about D&D’s pulp fantasy roots, and the importance of reading the “Appendix N” books to truly understand where Gary and friends were coming from, we still get more lip service in this area than the actual good stuff. S&S-style modules either miss something essential from the genre ingredients (most of them are just regular ol’ D&D with a thin S&S veneer), or – almost as often – they work better as stories than complex, open-ended game scenarios. It is a sad state of affairs. This review is about an exception.
The big thing about The Red Prophet Rises is that it does three things very well. It taps into the earnest violence of the genre, it presents an interesting situation offering a variety of in-game approaches in a complex, dynamic environment, and it is written in a way that combines functionality with flavour (proving once and for all that the two can be reconciled). Here is why it is great.
This is a module that takes one of the things sword&sorcery is famous for – unflinching brutality in barren, hostile natural environments – and sticks to its theme with both talent and consistency. Now, this is not “all” S&S is about, but it is S&S at its most recognisable – Frazetta, Brom, Conan (the movie version), buff people in S&M gear with horned helmets, butchery and raw violence. The module is set in a series of canyons in the middle of a rocky wasteland, as well as a series of caverns off to the sides. This unpleasant place is currently inhabited by a crazed cult of plainsmen engaged in a frenzy of killing, feasting and drugged orgies, awaiting the opening of their new paradise foretold by Khazra, their new prophet. It is the good stuff, and where the D&Disms creep in, they are handled in a way that doesn’t diminish the vision of this bloody spectacle.
There is a visceral quality to the writing which creates a great sense of place. You can smell the fires and smoke, hear the nomads carousing as they gorge themselves on charred rabbit by their fire pits, hear the brutal overseers bellow with whips in their hands, and feel the chaos as livestock runs wild among the plainsmen. There is blood, dust, an arena of death with a great throne above it, something called The Pit of Despair (hell yes!), a temple of blood, and living quarters carved into the rocks.  There is something feverish about the bacchanalian festivities in this wasteland hellhole, part the drugged orgy of the snake-cult from Conan the Barbarian, part the raiders from Mad Max 2 (Khazra and his underlings are basically Lord Humungus and his psycho bikers). This kind of thing hasn’t really been done before in old-school D&D modules.
Best of all, The Red Prophet Rises is an actually well-designed adventure scenario. The canyons and the surrounding caverns serve as a complex, dynamic environment which operates under its own logic and rules. As a dungeon (it is a dungeon kind of the same way Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is a dungeon), it is a dangerous cul-de-sac where it is much easier to get in than to get out, not to mention it is packed to the gills with frenzied marauders out for blood, run by two distracted but fairly wily leaders. However, it is also a sufficiently chaotic and busy place that a party of adventurers can come up with any number of plans to infiltrate it and accomplish whatever they came for (by default, the module was written for a paladin to find his special mount). There are great opportunities for strategy, underpinned by a fairly simple, yet reasonably believable timetable to determine what the cultists are doing any specific time of the day, robust encounter tables to complicate things (lots of hidden agendas and odd personalities in this camp of misfits), and notes on tactics to determine the inhabitants’ reactions when the party inevitably mess up.
The care also shows in the encounter design. Most locations on the key have their own, small-scale encounter dynamic or conflict going on, which can impact the way the scenario unfolds in multiple ways. There are hard decisions, surprises that call for quick thinking and improvisation, and there are also opportunities to seize, allies to find and hidden enmities to exploit. Getting into parts of the canyon system through social engineering, stealth, disguise, or a (potentially suicidal, although surely awesome) frontal assault can be a challenge by itself. The design really rewards groups who can think on their feet and move with the flow – there may even be ways to keep the action moving if the party’s cover is blown and they find themselves surrounded by a small army of armed killers. There is also good exploration, which puts the focus on being observant and imaginative rather than repeating rote dungeon routines (this is also the case for finding the magic items, which are almost all interesting new items with non-standard capabilities).
There is a second level to the module, in the same way In Search of Unknown has a second level – of course it does, but you tend to gloss over it because while it is not bad, it is superfluous. It does not really add to the experience, and it might even distract from the brutal revelry of the barbarian camp one level higher. The infiltration of an unholy yet living place gives way to more straightforward dungeon fare in a mostly abandoned environment, one that is altogether more in the vein of high-level D&D than the grim chaos of the canyon encampment. There is less to do, there are fewer ways to do it, and it is fairly disconnected from the things going up above ground (even in the physical sense). Finally, this dungeon level ends up revealing some of the mysteries behind the canyon and its holy site, and as it so often happens, we are better off not knowing – something raw and powerful is lost once things are made too literal, and we have an explanation instead of a hunch. I would just cut the whole thing (including area 27 on level 1) and reuse it elsewhere – it would work as a standalone mini-dungeon with some fairly cool obsidian-centric monsters and traps.
The Red Prophet Rises features good, effective writing, the kind I would like to see more often in game products. It is economic, and written to help the GM, but it is not a dry, soulless technical text. It is expressive without wasting words, giving you just the right kind of impressions to get the idea. “A brute with arms covered in ritual scars whips and brutalizes a bleeding and injured man kneeling on the ground”, or “The walls of the cavern are decorated with a variety of weapons, shields, and tapestries depicting lurid scenes of sacrifice, murder and war. Red curtains frame a throne of carved stone (…)”. Location information is broken down into a bullet point list, giving you more specific details after establishing the general scene. Helpful tables and side bars contain additional information. The booklet is well-edited; the information you need is placed at your fingertips, or you receive helpful references to help running the game. This is the kind of polish you don’t tend to notice consciously, but it makes a difference at the table. There is a monster cheat sheet.
The Red Prophet Rises is one of the pleasant surprises of the year. It holds up well any way I look at it, and achieves such a high level of overall polish that it sets a good standard to look up to and learn from. Furthermore, it is one of the rare sword&sorcery modules which combines a great understanding of the genre with the considerations of a fantasy RPG. As I argued above, the module does not really need its second level, and I would recommend just omitting it in play. Sure, you’d miss nine pages of fairly good stuff (in the three or lower four star range), but you are left with about 20 or so pages of pitch-perfect material, and that’s the real treasure.
No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.
Rating: ***** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] City Backdrop: Languard

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 17:51

City Backdrop: Languard (2018)by Creighton BroadhurstPublished by Raging Swan PressCity supplement
Yes, that's the coverLanguard is one in a long series of system-neutral supplements released by Raging Swan Press. The 24-page booklet contains no game statistics except NPC alignment and class and level designations, but the content is obviously meant for use with D&D and its various offshoots – the main audience seems to be 5th edition players.
Here is a coastal city with its aristocracy, merchants, gates and wharves; realistic in tone with many shades of grey. It is right there in the middle between idealised fantasy feudalism and the grim urban hellholes where you will get mugged going out for a beer, twice. The streets are muddy and the city’s enemies are displayed on the parapets of Traitor’s Gate, but it is not a bad place to visit. The feeling is distinctly North European (most everyone has a Finnish name), with maybe a little bit of London thrown in. It is fairly lawful and organised, except for the Shambles, the run-down part where the poor live; the Fishshambles, which is the same but on the waterfront, and the Wrecks, a maze of rotting boats moored along the river, which has its own pariah group, the slightly fishy Takolen.
The guidebook first describes the city in the general, then location by location. It is potentially useful information – you learn how to get into and out of the city, who are the main power groups and religions, and there are a lot of adventure hooks, rumours and minor event tables along the way. The important locations are summed up across the map on a one-page spread, and there are text boxes throughout the supplement to help you with useful references. There are two maps, one keyed for the GM and one unlabelled for the players.
Languard does not go too deep into the fantastic, although it has its thieves, assassins and evil cults. Depending on what you value in your games, this can make it appealing or uninteresting. It gives you an internally consistent place with its own power dynamics, and the feel of an up-and-coming mercantile city. But it is mostly about the regular things, the society with its power dynamics and stock characters, not the strange edge cases. That is, you can meet your favourite “nondescript men in cloaks” on the waterfront, get in trouble with the Duke’s men, and hear rumours about a haunted building, but it is the kind of fantasy you expect to be there, not the kind that makes you jump. It would be more surprising if there was no murderous cult and Low Market wasn’t a den of thievery. The Duke, he is not the Duke of New York. Likewise, sometimes it feels too much like window dressing and not like material for adventures. Some of the random events are things like the sounds of an argument, or a weary peasant in a crowd carrying a sack over his shoulder. Part of the city experience? Absolutely. Useful for creating adventures? Only if you imbue them with your own meaning.
There are no surprises here, although all the middle-of-the-road stuff is well executed. It is not overwritten, and it serves its purpose. It is perhaps too low-key for its own good. Could Languard be the most True Neutral RPG supplement?
No playtesters have been listed for this publication.
Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[MODULE] New Module Announcement and Preview

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 09:54


Original Module Cover

At long last, under special arrangements from TSR, Inc. and rights owner Lorraine Williams, E.M.D.T., Inc. is proud to present the newest addition to our growing product family: the republication of a “lost” TSR, Inc. module! The legendary, rarely discussed and even more rarely seen Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ was produced under license for MoodCon 1980, but after the scandalous events at the venue, and increasingly hostile press coverage about what was going on in Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ tournament games, the module never saw general release. In fact, remaining copies were shortly withdrawn from the TSR, Inc. design room, and they were pulped shortly thereafter. Even collectors thought all copies had been lost forever. They thought wrong.
Lovingly scanned and remastered based on a weather-beaten and rather suspiciously stained copy which had seen much use, and been found in a garage among stacks of vintage “magazines”, Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ can be yours at a special introductory price on this very special day.
Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ is currently available in two editions:
  • A regular editionfeaturing a full reprint of the real deal, including the remaining parts of the illustration booklet (see Fig 2). $19.95 + S&H
  • A very special collector’s edition featuring the real deal, a reconstruction of the original centrefold featuring Pam Grier in all her glory, as well as a real ziplock baggie of the special stuff that had delighted gamers, and even “Big Ernesto G” in those halcyon days of yore, all lovingly wrapped in Original Shrinkwrap™ (Original Shrinkwrap™ also available separately at $49.95 a huff). $79.95 + S&H
Fig 2: The Disco Emperor (presumably)



Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs