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[REVIEW] On Downtime and Demesnes

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 21:58
Downtime and Demesnes
On Downtime and Demesnes (2019)by Courtney C. CampbellPublished by Hack & Slash Publishing
Old-school D&D has been fairly well supported by adventures over the last decade. Rules and character options, we have had more than we needed (we honestly didn’t need that many). This book targets a fairly neglected niche: campaign-level play. This is the stuff that happens between the characters go on adventures – when they spend their well-earned money, advance character and party goals, and gear up for the next expedition. In modern models of play, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside; the role-assumption-vs-adventuring dichotomy has taken hold too firmly in peoples’ minds. You are either supposed to be doing silly voices, or you are supposed to be heaving skulls (silly accents optional).
I suspect many old-school games also forgo this element, or simplify it to “okay you buy equipment, you go to the cleric, you ask the sage, what about you?” This is all right. However, OD&D, Ready Ref Sheets, and the Dungeon Masters Guide hint at a game that expands the scope of D&D into domain management, trade, diplomacy, hireling management, and similar activities… something D&D’s “complex wargaming” precursors like Blackmoor and Tony Bath’s Hyboria were already doing. It is a loss that most “OSR” rulesets – even the better ones – have largely stuck to copying the rules or inventing their own, while failing to cover the true scope of expanded play you can find in the AD&D rulebooks.
On Downtime and Demesnes is a supplement meant to introduce these elements to your game. (The default system is B/X, but the lessons apply just as well to all the other D&D variants out there.) Its approach is to create easy, straightforward procedures to turn downtime activities and strategic-level play into gameable content. This is undoubtedly the right way to do it. The guidelines the book offers are not as hard as ironclad rules (game mechanics), but they are also not vague like general guidance – they are somewhere in-between, a tool to navigate game situations in a fair and interesting way, a bit like dungeon crawls have procedures for random encounters, treasure allocation, or light sources. The end result should provide a challenge, have a meaningful stake, and produce a better game experience. As the book suggests, only significant or interesting forms of interaction are worth the attention (a wise principle regarding spending game time), and the subsequent guidelines tend to stick to this maxim.Laying the GroundworkAccordingly, the book covers all the varied situations that may come up during downtime. This is a comprehensive work, in that it offers either a procedure, a random idea generator, or at least basic advice for most things that could reasonably come up in a realistic game situation. Healing from sustained injuries – there are guidelines for that. Earning an income – here is a way to handle it. Amassing a library of exotic books for future benefit – yes. Hiring specialists or launching the career of a secondary character to step in the main PC’s footsteps – it is there. Investment in mercantile ventures? Mining? Clearing terrain? Building stuff? Breeding bizarre monstrosities to terrorise the land? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
These guidelines are of varied complexity. None of them would make play burdensome, and most tend to be something you can resolve with a few player decisions and random rolls. Earning extra XP by carousing is a 1d8*100 roll, deducted from gp and added to XP, followed by a saving throw to see if there have been complications. Sacrifices to dark gods can net you gold, XP, a magic item or the services of an evil creature, depending on the implied value of the sacrificed person/animal. Spending a week bragging about the party’s adventures nets 5% more experience (but you have to roll maintenance). Racketeering gains 100 gp per level per month on a successful Move Silently roll (but has a small, unspecified odd of attracting unwanted attention). A few guidelines are on the level of mini-games – designing your own fortress and clearing/developing the land around it is more involved, as it should be.
Making it Come TogetherI believe some areas are underserved by this otherwise useful book. I was excited to read the guidelines on political influence, but it only outlines what influence entails, and how you can gain it – not how you might use it in concrete terms, what you may gain through influence (and how much), or what happens when two influence conflict or simply overlap. It seems to be the beginning of something, a thought experiment that was never properly finished. This is the case with a few more interesting guidelines – the author pitches an intriguing what-if, but doesn’t give a satisfying answer. There is an extensive set of tables to ideas and guidelines to build ships with various capabilities and unstandard quirks, but no system for sea battles or just sailing adventures to put these capabilities to the test. The end results are a bit fragmentary and scattershot, even if it is very strong on the idea level.
Where the general procedures are fairly universal, the “random ideas” are oddly specific. A list of 10 bizarre pet stores includes a shop selling attack chickens, an ant farm, and a balloon animal store. Do you really need one of those? If yes, how many times?
Then we come to a curious flaw that seems to permeate the whole work. All of this seems to take place on Horror World. I can’t put it otherwise: there is such a strain of pessimism and negativity about mankind running through the book that it seems deeply misanthropic. The philosophy, in turn, messes with the systematic outcomes. This is an implied setting where bad things happen, people are rapacious and evil, and you are screwed from day one. It first becomes visible in the random tables. An early one, “100 Obnoxious Peasants”, should have been rightfully amended “…who Will Ruin Your Life”. These village bumpkins are not annoying but funny louts – these are peasants who will flirt with your characters only to rile up their whole clan against them (94), offer them friendly handshakes while unwittingly infecting them with the plague (86), or buy them a beer while trying to provoke them to say something treasonous (99). Then there are “100 Noble Patrons”, more appropriately “100 Noble Patrons From HELL. Here, we have a lady who invites the party for dinner to pick their mind, only to beat them to the score with a self-sponsored party (03), another lady who hires adventurers to awaken her evil god under the guise of making trade deals (96), a baron who invites adventurers to his castle to use them for flesh golem parts (35), another lady pursued by killers who will try to befriend you (27), and a baroness who runs a charity for orphans, sacrifices 10% of them to devils, and “If killed she arises as a vampire due to a wish she got from hell.” (09) You would think I am cherry-picking, but these are just two sequences of random rolls – most (almost all) of these peasants and patrons are literal or social deathtraps if you interact with them. Or not interact with them, because many will become extremely vengeful and dangerous anyway if spurned, and will come after you if you give them a wide berth.
Random Goblins Destroy Your Life's WorkCertainly, nothing like a corrupt, dangerous fantasy world to generate adventure opportunities. Sometimes it is appropriate – sure, goblins are nasty little evildoers, so 12 horrid goblin pranks are sort of useful (although, being so specific, they have much less use than the procedural elements). But in a bunch of these mini-games, the only winning move is not to play, and that pushes the players towards disengagement, non-interaction, and a foul kind of cynicism. Would you play Russian roulette with one chamber? Yeah? How about five chambers? This is like the social equivalent of a “negadungeon”, those stupid things promising to wreck your campaigns and the player campaigns therein if you play them. Fortunately, this particular mean streak does not invalidate the book, and is much less present on the procedural level than the “idea generator” level. But there, you can run into nasty stuff in seemingly inconsequential situations. Perhaps you were happy to inherit something – but you are fucked, because it is a necklace of decapitation, or a peculiar curse. The odds are really bad, and that makes for dull gaming.
So here is an enjoyable book (handsomely illustrated by the multi-talented author) filled with a whole lot of highly useful guidance for running campaign-level sessions, either to expand on the existing action, or to enter new domains of play. The procedures it introduces are clear, elegant, low-maintenance, and appropriate. In this respect, Downtime and Demesnes is an excellent resource and a great idea mine. It also has aspects which are half-baked, or damaged by a very peculiar view of how your average D&D world was supposed to function. These elements, good and bad, are mixed together in a single volume. You will need to exercise judgement to decide what to use from it (or how to use the flawed content in a fruitful way – this is a distinct possibility). It should be fairly easy. But it should have happened in the writing phase.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Treasures of the Old Kingdom

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 17:00
Treasures of the Old Kingdom
[REVIEW] The Treasures of the Old Kingdom (2020)by Jonathan HicksPublished by Farsight GamesLow levels
Disappointment comes in many forms. The cynical cash grab, the sloppy mess, the paint-by-the numbers borefest, the formulaic knockoff, the fantasy module with no sense of the fantastic, the outrageous disaster. None are more tragic than the misguided labour of love. This is the adventure you would like to succeed, but which end up failing. Treasures of the Old Kingdom is a tragic failure, because it is built on multiple fundamental adventure design mistakes. It is not bad because its author failed at doing something – rather, it did because he kept doing the wrong things. Not out of malice, but because we – the hobby, collectively – have failed to make a proper distinction between good and bad adventure design. This module keeps making mistakes in an entirely typical manner – typical enough among many disappointing modules to make me choose it as an exhibit of “DON’T DO THIS!” So here we are.
To begin with the good, this adventure is entirely self-illustrated in an amateurish but endearing style. Nobody will call it good art, but it has charm – there is a soul to it. It is also a module that has a few pieces of good imagery poking out from the bad baseline. A tiny kingdom whose king is little better than a local bandit; a muddy, half-built settlement that’s between an encampment and a new village; its tavern, a great tent with a tree sticking out through a big hole in the canvas; a great ruined statue standing over a river, Colossus of Rhodes-style; a military camp preparing for a battle with invading orcs. These are well realised, and there is certainly a visual imagination at play.Best TavernBut these are set pieces. Not interactive bits, not even things which get a part in play (none of the above do). They are scenery in a predetermined story. It is clearly intended as an epic that starts as skirmishes against monster lairs, and builds up into an epic secret quest into dangerous territory involving a mysterious benefactor and an evil magic item… and you get to sail beneath a great statue from a forgotten age (where could that come from?). What actually happens over the course of the adventure follows the stages of a linear narrative, with a fairly inconsequential side quest. You know it will be bad when you see it is set up as a story – “Part One”, “Part Two”, and so on. It is railroading, with a lack of player agency – things happen because they happen, and because the adventure would be over if the players didn’t go along with the GM. If they don’t take the mission… if they follow a different course of action or a different route… if they do something differently than intended… the adventure as written is over.
Meaningful player agency is missing from the big picture, but also from decisions on the level of individual encounters. There is nothing useful to do outside the adventure plot, and there is not much opportunity to do something more than go along. Initially, the players can pick between clearing out multiple monster lairs, a choice which does not matter (because the lairs are simple 1-4 room affairs with little content going for them). Later, they get a Plot Chaperone, who feeds them plot points in exchange for doing as she tells them. Except for the last segment, they don’t have to make hard decisions, or figure out something on their own, or come up with a clever stratagem that saves the day. They are just along for the ride. Ironically, the railroading even removes the usefulness of the content that might actually serve as a basis for something better. For example, there is some not-entirely-bad background info on the mini-kingdom, along with a nice regional map, but it gets no play because it does not matter – the plot train passes them by.The Kingdom of Cardigul (not actually featured in a meaningful sense in this module)As it often goes with tragically bad adventures, the proportion of functional and utterly useless content is seriously skewed. A lot of attention is dedicated to background detail (that does not enter play), read-aloud texts and NPC monologue (that only pulls down the experience), and a lot of framing for utterly inconsequential scenes (that are basically filler). There is the obligatory “next morning” section, one of the sure-fire signs the author wanted to write a story instead of playing a multi-player game. Lengthy exposition on trivial material, usually as a way to link important scenes to form a coherent narrative structure. That is the mistake: trying to enforce a vision instead of letting it happen spontaneously. Railroading is not just a removal of player agency. I have observed in many similar modules that it also tends to result in a lot more effort to accomplish simple things than normal. In a better constructed module, one good paragraphs could convey the GM the ideas which several bad ones do not. This is a 28 page adventure which could have easily been two pages (as it stands), or which could have used so many words to give us a much more rounded, complex adventure, and a mini-gazetteer to boot. However, this adventure does not even trust the GM to do obvious, simple things. Paradoxically, it becomes over-detailed in filler sections which do not matter, and remains underdeveloped in sections which might (adventure content).
The adventure’s dungeons are not dungeons. Not in the sense envisioned by D&D’s makers. They are quite minuscule even by lair standards. The lair of the Mutant Ogre is a 4-room cave system, the two optional side-encounters are single-area affairs, and the burial vault – the final objective – is a corridor with four rooms to the sides, and a fifth room at the end. But even this vault has barely anything in it except overlong boxed text focused on mundane detail, and four basic encounters which are slightly fancy combats.
Ce n'est pas un dungeon.The story must triumph over all impediments, including pesky players. We encounter the typical design tactic of second-guessing. In an early lair encounter, the GM is advised to fudge an encounter:“If you feel that the players outmatch the Mutant Ogre too much, or they are defeating it too easily, then have another walk in from cave 4 – it seems the Mutant Ogre wasn’t working alone, after all! However, don’t make it too hard for the players as this is their first encounter and there’s a lot for them to do before this adventure is even remotely over.”I have seen many similar adventures as a player (and have been guilty of GMing them in the past), where, for the sake of “correct pacing”, the GM sacrificed the game’s ability to offer surprises, setbacks, and grand victories. You can never be too clever, or just absolutely lucky, nor can you fail conclusively. If you rise above the “plot zone”, you are hammered down; if you fail, your defeat is snatched from your grasp to keep you trudging along the Storyline – one that is no longer your own.
Later in the adventure, the characters must venture into a war zone to retrieve the MacGuffin, hidden in a small dungeon. A battle between orcs and men rages around them as they race against time to find a hidden switch, but there are no stakes, because the GM is instructed to control the scene:“Make sure that the PCs who fight aren’t hurt too badly and run the battle as cinematically as possible; the enemy should be easy to fight, foes the PCs can take down with pretty much one hit, and any attacks on the PCs should be weak and lacking damage – minus 1 from all rolls with a minimum of 1. (…) If the PCs do engage in the fight, make it exciting and incredibly tense as the orcs try their hardest to get over the wall and into the compound. (…) The battle is fierce, and just as it seems the walls are about to be breached have Carthean or one of the PCs find the symbol (…).”Carthean Outlines
the PlotThe culprit is there in plain sight: “cinematically”. This undoubtedly is a cinematic event, but one that makes for a lousy game: the characters have plot armour, their enemies are impotent, and the search for the switch succeeds or drags on purely at the discretion of an all-important Storyteller manipulating a GMPC. The encounter accomplishes the exact opposite of what it sets out to do: there is no real tension or challenge (because things are continuously being fudged to make things a bit easier or a bit harder), and no real accomplishment or sense of victory. A proper setup for this encounter would give the players a puzzle, and a countdown to hold back the tide until they can solve it (perhaps with the provision that on round 6+1d4, Carthean will do it on her own, should the players be absolutely incompetent puzzle-solvers). It would actually make it easier to describe and set up the encounter, and it would give the characters a real sense of beating the race against the clock. But this is obviously not what happens in this module.
It is fairly clear the author does not quite understand the game system he is writing for. It is no accident. The credits reveal it to be a scenario originally made for Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition. I grew up on the Fighting Fantasy books, and love them to pieces – but they are obviously not D&D in their assumptions, and AFF is no exception. For example, D&D awards the bulk of its experience points for treasure – mountains of it. Like it or not (I have my reservations, on which I will write later), GP = XP is the grand equation of old-school D&D. Treasures of the Old Kingdom offers measly bounties of 60 gp (for the Mutant Ogre, going up to 80 if the characters haggle successfully), anaemic lair treasure at 1d6*100 gp (same place), and a princely tomb with “jewels worth 2d6*100 gp”. Or you can always search the trash for 2d6*2 gp (page 7). One thing is made clear here: the author does not know what “treasure” means in old-school D&D – only the final dungeon helps things. But don’t forget – you will have to divide up the loot among the party members.
For another case, let us take the module’s deathtraps, found in the final dungeon. Consider the following:“Every three rounds the tiles shift colour and if a player is not standing on a red tile (…) a vial of poison gas will drop from a hole in the ceiling onto the player and, if they do not make a Save roll [sic] they will suffer 1d6 damage.”Or:“The floor is false and once more than one person is on it the flagstones will give way and reveal a drop six foot drop [sic] down to spikes that inflict 1D6 damage if they fail a Save!”Or even:“Also, each chest has a 1 in 6 chance of being trapped with a mechanism so that when the chest is opened a poison dart shoots out of the lock doing 1 point of damage per round for 1D6 rounds. These traps can be found with a successful roll, and the dart avoided with a successful Save roll.”Disregard the typos, the lack of punctuation, the varieties of notation and the wrong terminology, and focus on the principal issue: the supposed deathtraps don’t do their job. They are feeble. Now yes, S&W Whitebox (a.k.a. LBB-only OD&D) is a game where first-level PCs have 1d6 Hp on the average, and damage is also 1d6 by default. Your character might die in them... if you trigger that 1:6 chance, followed by a failed save, followed by an unlucky rolls. Maybe. But these traps will never get respect. Here is a good one, from Tomb of the Serpent Kings:“When the bar is lifted, the iron pegs begin to rise. When the bar is fully removed a trap is activated. A huge stone hammer swings down from the ceiling, aiming straight for the backsof the now-trapped PCs. It nearly fills the corridor, but there is a small gap on either side. The PCs can:1. Save to Dodge OR2. Use another PC as a springboard, giving them +2 to Dodge but giving the shoved PC –2.PCs hit by the hammer automatically die (or take serious damage, like 2d6+4).”That is a trap that accomplishes what traps should do in a dungeon: make you very, very careful about taking the next step. I could also mention the ferocious animated statues guarding the vault’s treasures: they have what I would call (pardon my English) “shit HD and damage”. Something that is described as something like a hulking golem-like thing has 1+2 HD, and your regular 1d6 Hp damage. They are worth – no joke – 30 XP each. That's terror.I could no doubt go on about Treasures of the Old Kingdom. It seems to be wrong on many levels. But the central flaw of the adventure is that it is not written and set up as a worthwhile interactive experience. Why would you take a game whose central conceit is that you can “inhabit” fantastic characters and attempt the heroics you see in books and movies, and then take that control back through GM shenanigans? It is perhaps the bad question to ask from a small self-published affair like The Treasures of the Old Kingdom. The author did not do this to us. The module’s sins are not his. Other game designers, much more influential ones, did this to the author and all of us. It took so many of us a lot of effort to break free of our mental shackles after being taught – conditioned, even – to Love The Story or face the rats. This is the fate old-school gaming was supposed to liberate us from, and have us appreciate being free once more. And yet we still see this stuff, again and again and again. It is such a sadness.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: * / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Abandoned Tower

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 20:45
The (An) Abandoned Tower
The Abandoned Tower (2020)by “Ed S”Published by FEI Games Inc
Small, dodgy homebrew adventures are the realm of the pleasant surprise, the rough gem, the underappreciated talent, the enthusiastic beginner effort, the artsy amateur project. Then there are these things. They are small, dodgy, and... yeah, they are small and dodgy. I buy them and usually don’t bother to review them because what’s the point. This time, they have gone too far.
The Abandoned Tower (called An Abandoned Tower in its DTRPG listing) is an 8-page adventure written by “Ed S” (more on this later). It is a marvel of engineering. Two of the 8 pages are dedicated to the OPEN GAME LICENSE Version 1.0a. Some publishers try to shunt this off into a half-page section – not Ed S. He lets it stretch, comfortably, over ¼ of his adventure. One page is reserved for the Credits & Thanks section, where the author thanks, among others, E. Gary Gygax (spinning mightily), Wizards of the Coast for their OGL/SRD, Open Office Writer, Dungeon Painter Studio, PDF Architect, Microsoft Paint, GOOGLE Search Engine, YAHOO Search Engine, LuLu Printing,, and more. This page also includes the three maps for the (an?) abandoned tower. This has some fancy-pants objects placed here and there, but in a classic TSR blue map, it would be three circles with a spiral staircase symbol each, an exterior stair, and two doors.Credits & ThanksBut how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? I am glad you asked, for the next four pages are dedicated to the actual adventure (including a quarter-page illustration of a rose of all things). When I call an adventure’s margins “generous”, I mean it. This adventure has generous margins, and a font size to match. So then we get to the actual adventure, which begins with 1¼ pages of read-aloud text describes how the party is led to “a modest but well kept cottage” in the village of Blue Lake, and how the village elder, Shem Long, makes a long-winded speech to the party about investigating this “old abandoned tower” in the woods, and offers them a 30 gp merchant voucher (“can go up to 35 gp”, he notes, parenthetically). After the introduction, we get ½ page on the Lakeside Inn, where the party will be sleeping. “The bar, tables and chairs are all well worn but stable.” Unquote. There are rumours, and “The rest of the night goes by without any incidents…..” (it is not an ellipse, it is FIVE dots) This is followed by a section titled “Next Morning”. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck.
Next Morning… Ahem. This is followed by a section titled “Next Morning”. The adventure informs us that Shem Long is now waiting for the party, sitting on the bench outside, and generously also adds that “If the party refuses the job offer, this adventure is over….” (four DOTS) Otherwise, Shem takes them shopping to the “General Store (25% of stocking anything common), a Simple Butcher & Cheese Shop, a Bakery, and a Blacksmith. The DM can build upon this if needed.”Am I IMAGINING this SHIT?! WHaT?! “As the party uses the merchant voucher the amount spent is written on it with ink.”
Then, no kidding, it has a wilderness section in a ¼ page paragraph called “Area Around The Abandoned Tower”. It is a world of limitless imagination, because the module tells you the area around the tower should be mostly encounter free, except for wildlife. But you can hunt or fish, find tracks, or outright make up things. “If anybody checks for tracks they will find the tracks of typical small wildlife, horses and ponies, and various sizes of human and humanoid footprints going in all directions. The DM should feel free to ass [sic] anything if so desired.”
Some of you vulgarians might be wondering “But where is the adventure? Aren’t we running out of pages?” Why, yes, this is where we get our tower adventure, on one (1) page. There are kobolds and an ogre, described with basic tactics – this is elementary but not entirely terrible, with watches, alarms, and sallies. Some of the text describes the tower, describing pretty much the same thing you could gleam from the map. “The tower appears to be 3 stories tall with 2 doors on the outside.” Appears to be? …appears to be but isn’t? …appears to be but secretly, one of the stories is divided horizontally? …appears to be but there are dungeons? No. Subverting all expectations, it is just a shit boring forest tower. “The structure of the tower is made of large stones mortared together. The roof is made of your typical clay tiles.” What am I reading here. Help. The horror. The HORROR.
The tower has no key. Everything about the description is a jumbled mess, describing the tower by describing the battle the characters will have there. It is a chaotic affair, for we never actually know how many kobolds there are. Are there 25 kobolds? Or is the ambush party of five kobolds counted separately? But wait, there are five more kobolds armed with bows… are they the same as the ambush party? Well, there are no stat blocks in the text. The ogre will escape during this final battle, and make away with the collected treasure, for the TRV and AVTHENTIC “Ye Olde Crapsacke Fantasye” feel. But only if the ogre rolls his rope climbing check – this is specifically mentioned, although how this check should be conducted, or what are the odds of its success, are left to A Wild World of Wondrous Imagination. The ogre can then become a recurring villain, or the party can track him to an old cabin, where he will “try to bargin [sic] his life for the sack of treasure. If this offer is refused then the Ogre will challenge the party to a one on one [sic] to the death duel between himself and one of the party members…..” FIVE dots. And so ends the expedition to the (an) Abandoned Tower.
But wait! There is another page with a monster section! This section, surrounded by more of those generous margins, describe the “kobold” and the “ogre”. Wow! The kobold is ½ HD, does 1-4 or weapon-1 damage, and is of the Chaotic alignment, while the ogre is 4+1 HD, does 1-10 damage, and is of the Chaotic alignment. Both of these monsters are illustrated by the artists credited in the Credits & Thanks section as “Unknown Artists”. You can find the ogre in the 1stedition WFRPG rulebook, page 224, under “Ogre”. Anyway, the module also comes with helpful DM advice, saying, “All treasure found within this adventure should be chosen by the DM, randomly rolled according to the treasure charts in the rule book, or a combination of both to ensure game balance in each individual game…” As you can see, this greatly aids customisation, as well as adaptation to different rulesets, in A Wild World of Wondrous Imagination.Unknown ArtistsNo playtesters are credited in this publication. Actually, the author is not credited either, here or anywhere else. He knows this would be a bad idea. The only reason I know his name is from his response to a DTRPG comment complaining about this goddamn ripoff. To which “Ed S” responds, quote, “Did you expect a $10 module for a $2 8 page pdf?????? I will be happy to refund your money....”Well, yeah, fuck you, too, Ed, fuck you too. You win this round.
Rating: * / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Lowcountry Crawl

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

[NEWS] Judgement of the Postal Gods & A Day in Xyntillan (Double Feature)

Thu, 12/19/2019 - 23:24
About two weeks after mailing them, copies of Castle Xyntillan are now arriving at various US destinations. That’s part reassuring and part frustrating. Reassuring because, in spite of what my lizard brain tries to tell me, the postal services of the world are not dumping mailed packages right into a flaming ditch filled with ravenous crocodiles. Well, not wilfully, not while laughing, and not en masse, at least. But let me tell you, oh frustrated customer who is still waiting for your promised copy (you know who you are), that I made foolish time estimates on the basis of previously solid shipping times, and the only thing I forgot was to correctly factor in the effects Christmas season would have on postal traffic. “In the end, they may receive their books a day or two later,” I thought. Well, that was optimistic.
In other words, to all those who have not received Castle Xyntillan yet: I am sorry some of you have had to wait longer than promised – and I hope the book you will soon hold in your hands will make the wait worthwhile. May the Postal Gods be gracious, and may thy packages make their saving throws vs. crushing blow!
Also, if you have received your book, I appreciate a confirmation message – puts my mind at ease, and makes these final days of frantic office work before Christmas go smoother.
In other Xyntillan-related news, we held an official launch event for the book last Sunday. We organised a whole-day OD&D game in a small, private game club, and played two expeditions’ worth of Xyntillan in a group of seven players and one GM. Ironically, the players were friends who had not actually experienced the module before, at least beyond the odd convention one-shot (the original playtesters will get to play something entirely new and different, as is the way with RPGs).
The following report contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
Xyntillan was playtested with the later, post-supplement iteration of the rules (as seen in Dungeons & Companies, a Hungarian OSR ruleset, fairly close to S&W), but this time, to make the occasion special, we went for a three booklets-only OD&D game. We took my booklets, and a copy of the single volume edition, and soon had a ready first-level adventure party:
  • Eugene the Cleric (Lawful in appearance, oddly Chaotic in action)
  • Darius the Magic-User
  • Slink the Hobbit (a poor translation of “Sumák”, a word implying a combination of laziness, and dishonesty)
  • John the Cleric(Lawful)
  • Grumb the Dwarf (With a suitably low appearance)
  • Wolus of the Gloom, gender-ambiguous Elf
  • Nubin, also a Dwarf

Arriving in the mountain town of Tours-en-Savoy, this band of miscreants soon purchased extra equipment, and recruited additional NPC flunkies to round out the party. The pickings were fairly slim due to bad rolls, so they ended up with some fairly useless louts:
  • Honest Jacques Foltyat[untranslatable pun] the porter
  • Jean, light footman (the only competent fighter of the lot)
  • Heave, porter (orig. “Hórukk”, trying to earn money for the medicine of his sick mother)
  • Dorko the mule driver
  • Jean-Jacques, porter (also trying to earn money for the medicine of his sick mother, and increasing the Jean/Jacques confusion within the party to a new level)

First ExpeditionLeaving town after gathering some information, they headed for the mountains, arriving near Castle Xyntillan after two days of travel. The adventure was on!
  • The company decided to avoid the two obvious entrances, and cross the nearby lake on a makeshift raft (ordering their henchmen to cut down a dry tree, and sacrificing two coils of rope).
  • They arrived in an abandoned garden, and in addition to a chapel and two double doors leading inside the castle complex, soon found two secret entrances. Here, they first experimented with what looked like a talking well, and were then ambushed by a group of goatrices lurking in the bushes. Poor Heave was killed and turned to stone, and Honest Jacques was gored to death.
  • They decided to investigate the chapel next. Prying two valuable emeralds from a holy water font, Eugene the Cleric and Wolus of the Gloom were marked with letters on their forehead spelling “KNAVE”, and found they could not re-enter the chapel. The rest of the company headed to investigate the structure’s attic, finding a derelict study inhabited by Aristide Malévol the Patrician, the liche of Xyntillan! Aristide was too bored to destroy them then and there, and was satisfied with placing a geas on the nosy Slink to retrieve a magical book “from the eastern laboratory”.
  • Entering the castle proper, they investigated a ruined drinking hall with singing poltergeists, a gallery with talking portraits, an adjoining hall with a rolling boulder, and a large trophy room with decaying trophies. The company unwisely split up to investigate these rooms indivisually, abandoning Nubin’s position as the party caller. Eugene was almost flattened by the boulder, and they lost Jean and Jean-Jacques to a group of undead, moss-eaten stuffed deer. However, Wolus also found a dagger +1, and Slink gained a bottle of ectoplasmic brandy from the poltergeists in exchange for a bottle of rum he first got from the talking portrait of a pirate.
  • Slink now felt the effects of the gease, so they proceeded eastwards, investigating but avoiding a large steam bath, and looting a humble bedroom, where they found a hidden treasure. To their fortune, they ran into one of the place’s live inhabitants, a strange youth named Claude Malévol. This scion of Xyntillan’s ruling family fell under Wolus’s charm spell, and directed them towards the laboratory.
  • Crossing a courtyard beneath the massive donjon, they checked out a great marble-covered throne room, and a nearby ballroom filled with indistinct, ghostly figures dancing to dissonant tunes. They bypassed these rooms to find a nice retreat, resulting in some valuable artwork, and containing a magical hookah which sent Slink into a healing sleep (a lucky occasion, as he was heavily wounded). Investigating a secret passage, Wolus stepped on a hidden bear trap, and died from shock as he had his leg taken clean off. Without Wolus, Claude grew more and more erratic, and soon ran away, sobbing and cursing the party. At last, they could awaken Slink with a quaff of his ectoplasmic brandy.
  • A side venture lead to a music room with golden harp strings and a sheet music manuscript they could later sell at a decent prize. Even better, they found the laboratory, inhabited by the hunchbacked Mandrake Malévol the Mixer. Mandrake was taken by surprise as they bashed in his door, and while he managed to throw a heavy flask of acid at his attackers, he went down with little effort. However, Dorko the mule driver (now controlled by Wolus’s player) was dragged into a nearby room as he was exploring the nearby corridor, encountering Lydia Malévol the Luckless, who strangled and devoured him.
  • Rewarded with the book they were seeking (Nicholas Flamel’s work on alchemy), and the salamander amulet of detoxication, they headed back to the chapel to complete the geas. Aristide was not present, so they placed the book on his writing desk, while Eugene and Grumb (I think) made away with one of the liche’s unguarded treasures, the gem-bedecked libram of heinous damnation!

Back in Tours-en-Savoy, the company’s success drew much attention, and new companions. The characters could advance to Level 2 with their loot and the monster XP (which is pretty good, if not outstanding on low levels by the pre-Greyhawk LBB rules). A new adventurer rose to replace the late Wolus:
  • Tiara Fiery-Eyes, Cleric 1 (Pagan priestess of CHAOS!)

…and, seeing all the gold the newcomers threw around like mere coppers, new henchmen with good fighting skills were also recruited, despite the first expedition’s 100% casualty rate:
  • Ubul, heavy footman (been “down there”, and knew some rumours about Xyntillan)
  • Rick, heavy footman
  • Ali, crossbowman
  • Dupré, heavy footman and party animal
  • Jean, paranoid heavy footman
  • Wilhelm, crossbowman
Second ExpeditionThus strengthened, a new expedition was launched to explore the unknown reaches of Xyntillan. (This had to be a shorter delve, as it was already mid-afternoon):
  • Choosing to enter through the western gatehouse, the company was cornered by a band of brigands hiding among the ruins. Gilbert Malévol “the Fox” demanded a hefty tithe, but a sleep spell from Darius caught his men, and he beat a hasty retreat as the remaining brigands were cut down, leaving a lone survivor alive in exchange for rumours.
  • This time, the company chose to explore the northwestern reaches of the castle, known to be a particularly dangerous area from a random rumour. They found a secret entrance leading inside, and found themselves in a bar inhabited by spirits. The encounter did not turn hostile, and they gained a bottle of ghost gin for their troubles, as well as information leading to a nearby treasure.
  • Following the spirits’ directions, they arrived in a section of red carpeted floors. A cluttered storehouse contained the wooden statue of a six-armed dancing girl holding six daggers, standing on a pedestal with a coin slot and a hand crank. They also found a niche with a mummy sarcophagus and canopic jars (which proved to be made of precious gold). The greedy Slink pried open the sarcophagus, but when he tried to burn the mummy inside, it pronounced a curse, and Slink crumbled into 200 gp worth of gold dust!
  • Tiara Fiery-Eyes brought the dancing girl back to life, and gained a powerful servant, but this gain was immediately undone by his companions, who looted the statue’s coin box, enraging the wooden killing machine. To save himself, Grumb rushed outside and spiked the door, leaving his companions to fight it out. The statue cut down poor Ubul, Rick and Jean, but was then brought low with a few lucky hits. Valuable silk bales were obtained from the storeroom.
  • A mysterious stairway lead upstairs, even deeper into Xyntillan. Braving the route, they found a marble corridor with a pair of magically locked doors, two regular doors, and a side corridor. The cold winds soon coalesced into the ghost of Malvin Malévol the Strangler, eager to strangle the interlopers. They decided to check out one of the doors, leading to a side chapel. A mysterious clue prompted many of the characters to donate some valuables, except Eugene. However, this left him cursed, turning his armour into lead he had to discard to be able to move. They returned to the corridor, Malvin having departed.
  • The northern doors lead to a room of half-melted, immobile wax statues, followed by a storeroom with bottles of alcohol. The party split again: Eugene stayed outside, while the others proceeded, finding a massive metal gate flanked by several shelves of skulls, bedecked with complicated-looking gears and gizmos, and marked “THE MASTERPIECE OF DEATH” in large metal letters. This did not seem very attractive, especially as they got attacked by a group of undead ladies. Grumb decided to run and alert Eugene, but was in turn attacked by three of the now animate wax figures. Running from them, he ran into Eugene, who now had his hands full with fending off the returned Malvin Malévol. A large battle developed, involving several combatants against three groups of monsters (including a ghost they could only hit with a single magical dagger). Here, the bottles of alcohol proved useful when lit, but ultimately, they had to flee from Malvin to avoid suffering casualties. Low on Hp and depleted of spells, they looted some of the red carpets on the lower floor, and headed for the outside, and the road back to Tours-en-Savoy!

Although the expedition was on the short side, the treasures were good, and allowed Tiara to get to Level 2, and the others to get up to Level 3. (OD&D is funny that way - the first level gains can go reasonably quickly if the party trikes gold).
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BEYONDE] Random Encounter in Ohio

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 22:27

Now that the first 75 or so copies of Castle Xyntillan are in transit (and some are already arriving at European destinations!), and I have an evening when I am not packing boxes and writing invoices, it is time to settle down and recount this unlikely encounter of three D&D reviewers. Like great minds tend to do, we met in Athens – not the original one, but at least a namesake.
As fortune would have it, my old university has a long-standing cooperation programme with Ohio University, Athens – now over 30, it extends to courses, student exchange, common research, and of course academic visits, which is where I came in. I arrived by plane in Columbus, and took a bus to Athens (I can’t drive, which I assure you is a better idea in Hungary than enormous countries like the US). The frostbitten prairies of Ohio receded to give way to forests; then Athens emerged with its red warehouse buildings, cranes and flocks of white birds which could not have been seagulls. There was a bitterness in the air; chimney smoke, acrid chemicals, and cold November air. The bus stopped at a mid-century red brick station, a massive cold structure of glass and steel windowpanes, filled with activity. I alighted, carrying my briefcases – one with an abundance of paperwork, and another with a spare shirt, toothbrush, personal effects, a laptop and a ham sandwich – to the nearest Uber, and my hotel.
View From the UberI spent most of these three days on campus, at the usual workshops and meetings, which are largely the same all over the world from Athens to Yekaterinburg – the name tags, brochures, conference materials, powerpoints (although some are using Prezinowadays, a hipster thing from a Hungarian startup), even the sandwiches and coffee – Italian espresso machines (probably partly made in China) have pretty much conquered the globe. All in all, an American conference is like a conference everywhere else, but there are more genders, and the auditoriums are bigger.
Eager to finally see local colour, I eloped from the afternoon sessions on social engagement with an eye towards sustainable urban development to see some of the city. In Athens, do as the Athenians do: as usual, I followed the crowds for a while, but most people were eager to get inside to avoid the weather, and most of them either went to offices or to shopping centres. Athens is fairly chilly this time of the year, although I was told it can be even colder, -18 degrees and below; the winds did not help, and I forgot my cap in my hotel room. Following student tips, I tried some hipster cafés near my hotel, which were quite like the hipster cafés in my town, with approximately the same kind of people, except the artisan hamburger is better in its homeland, and they serve it with a sauce which is authentic to this corner of Ohio (I did miss the famous Ohio chili dog, unfortunately – maybe next time). I tried to look up a game store in the vain hope I would pick up a lonesome woodgrain box or something unique for a steal, but no luck. After trying Ohio’s original chili con carne, I retreated for the night, and had a drink on the hotel’s top floor, enjoying the view of the Athenian skyscrapers, and the industrial sites beyond the city perimeter.
City Lights (from Another Uber)
Hotel Bar, RooftopsHowever, the gaming gods would be kind after all. Browsing a conference programme, I happened upon a name that sounded oddly familiar – had I shipped a zine to this person? It was not easy getting hold of him on campus, but I eventually caught up with Prince of Nothing, who was apparently there at some training programme involving tensile plastic filaments or project management (one of these two, he will have to correct me if I am wrong). Turns out he had been here a few weeks, and already discussed an evening meet with none else but Bryce Lynch – none of us three Athenians, but brought together by random circumstance!
Empowering the ArcticI watched a few more presentations, but eventually skipped the plenary about empowering arctic communities and the workshop about using technology-based solutions to facilitate meaningful social change in peri-urban locations to join the two bloggers at a local diner. Bryce Lynch (not his real name) and Prince of Nothing (not his real name) had already drunk a few beers, and I joined for a few hours – I would be leaving for the airport the next morning, and needed a rest before my departure. Bryce had picked a place downtown which he assured us was authentic, which was immediately apparent by the flickering neon lights, aging waitresses and cold coffee. This was a piece of all-American history, like something out of a David Lynch movie! Encouraged by the environment, I made some coffee-related comments, but none of the staff understood the reference - it turned out they had not seen Twin Peaks (let alone Fire Walk With Me) at all, which left my cleverly devised punchline in a rather awkward position. However, I must say they knew their hamburgers – these were some of the best I have ever partaken during my travels. Which only shows the genius loci, that special something David Lynch and Jack Kérouac discovered in the American psyche, is still important in our placeless age.
Prince was either speaking Dutch, or speaking English with a cold, or either of these two while already slightly drunk. Bryce talked very fast and very excited, so I did not understand either of them perfectly, so we got along mighty fine. We did talk gaming for a while, although now that the OSR is dead, and no exciting new thing is taking its place, the general tenor was tinged with an amount of gloom (the diner’s green formica and aluminium tables, and the hypnotic neons must have contributed, although by that time we must have had a few whiskey sours on top of the beer – they had Coors, which as I understand is an authentic American experience).
All-American Diner!We asked some frat guy to take a group photo, then I took another with the photographer standing in for my place – under the posts by Prince and Bryce, people have expressed some scepticism about the picture’s authenticity, but this is nonsense – the picture is authentic, and all people depicted on it are real. In any case, I think Bryce is trying to explore new venues with computer game reviews, which is where the real audience is at, although I extracted a vague promise about continuing his OD&D megadungeon. Prince, who somehow became more understandable after a few drinks, was mostly talking about the genuine American atmosphere the place was having, a matter on which we would all agree – Bryce had an eye for these places even though he had never been in Athens previously, despite having some distant kin in Ohio (apparently into organised crime? Bryce will have to correct this, I was out to take a leak in the diner's mosaic-bedecked toilet, which was perhaps even more reminiscent of the movies which capture the American experience). In any event, we spent some of the evening discussing various forum personalities and blog issues. Prince has grand plans to continue reviewing LotFP modules, which he called his “life’s work”, and I was mostly anxious whether Xyntillan would get published or some natural or man-made disaster would prevent its publication in the last possible moment. Bryce showed us his game dice, painstakingly explaining their origins and which of them killed which AD&D characters in his fondly remembered 2e days. I did not have any dice with me to show – they were in my briefcase in my hotel room, as always, so I could not show them my original self-inked Gamescience sets and the original OD&D-style GaryCon dice Lord Metal Demon gave me when he visited me this Summer. Unfortunately, our meeting was all too short – I had to return to my hotel to sleep off the drink and have time to pack my stuff (I did pocket Bryce’s pen by accident, which I promise to return to him if we ever meet again – although frankly, like most academics, it is some crappy thing he must have gotten for free in a conference bag).
A Cold Winter MorningThe next morning, I checked out from the hotel, and went for the airport. A local post-doc was kind enough to take me to Columbus, as he was heading in the same direction. We talked about academia, mainly, and how it was all going downhill from America to Yekaterinburg and presumably beyond that. It turns out he had also gamed in his 20s, although it was 3.5, and he thought the Pathfinder crowd was just too weird, so fortunately, we did not press the issue. He switched to football, which I mercifully know nothing about, but nodded sympathetically enough to convince him I was really into it. At the airport, I checked in my luggage, purchased some American memorabilia at the duty free store (including a fridge magnet, a plastic cactus and a small novelty bottle of tequila from Texas). The airport hamburgers were also done with a lot of skill – I did not dare to try the wilder maple syrup burger, although next time I should – although nothing beats the ones in Athens. With that, I drank a last bottle of Coca-Cola, and headed for the gates to catch my flight and take one of the reserved seats with extra leg room.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[MODULE] Castle Xyntillan (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Mon, 12/02/2019 - 17:52
Chocolate coins not included
“The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!” 
I am happy to announce the publication of Castle Xyntillan, a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game (and broadly compatible with other old-school systems). With cartography by Robert S. Conley, cover art by Peter Mullen, and interior illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen (again) and The Dead Victorians, Xyntillan is a 132-page hardcover describing the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). Four map sheets, featuring GM’s and player’s cartography of the labyrinthine complex, chart the passageways and hidden rooms, providing ample opportunities for exploration, confrontation, and subterfuge. Castle Xyntillan has been designed to be versatile, open-ended, complex, and accessible (more detailed thoughts are found in this post). It is above all, a fantastic place – built on surrealism and dream logic, yet a place which makes a certain amount of sense if you look at it sideways. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. Whether you would like a dungeon for one-off expeditions and convention play, or repeated forays and full campaigns, Castle Xyntillan should suit the demands and particulars of your campaign!
The hardcover set (book and four map sheets) sells for $40 plus shipping, and is available from my Bigcartel store. This is a larger and heavier product than the previous zines, and requires a sturdier cardboard envelope. Thus, it has a flat shipping rate of $18 (Europe) and $22 (Worldwide). As before, adding further items to your order does not increase shipping. Shipping times should be 3-7 days for most European destinations, 8-12 days for the US and Canada, and up to two weeks for Australia. (At the time of writing, all orders submitted this week should arrive before Christmas!)
A PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay (early or mid-April). As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive this PDF version free of charge.
Three free downloads are also available for this product:
  • A two-page sample describing a section of The Upper Quarters, and showcasing the approach taken in presenting these materials.
  • A GM’sWorksheet, used to track time and characters as the company explores the depths of Xyntillan. Adapted from Dungeons and Companies, a Hungarian retro-clone, this is a highly useful play aid for dungeon scenarios.
  • A set of blank player maps, ready for printing (if you need spares).

385 out of 500 copies

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Wormskin #01–#08

Fri, 11/29/2019 - 11:51
Wormskin #01–#08 (2015–2018)
by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk (with further contributions by Yves Geens, Matthew Schmeer, Andrew Walter and Brian Richmond)Published by Necrotic Gnome ProductionsLow-to-mid-level
Fanzines may be the ideal vehicle to publish offbeat, visionary RPG ideas. The format is suitably inexpensive to produce and buy, and the scope of a single issue just right for personal, creative takes on a game or setting. Zines can speak to niche audiences, and afford to be small enough to be unconcerned by the dictates of mass-market viability – if you have a zine you are selling to a circle of 30 happy friends and acquaintances, it may still be worth it just for the pleasure of creating something. That is the theory: in practice, zines are all over the place, from the deadly dull to the inspired, and from dodgy photocopies to lavishly produced physical artefacts. A lot of them will have no meaning outside a small scene – they are memorabilia, physical embodiments of collective memories and ephemeral personal networks. A lot of them are, also, hipster bullshit. Yet sometimes, zine creators strike solid gold, and produce a run that develops into something amazing, and sets standards for years to come. Welcome to Wormskin.
Wormskin #1-3Wormskin is a zine with a precisely defined theme: it presents guidelines, background detail, and materials for Dolmenwood, a faerie-haunted woodland setting “somewhere” in a fantastic England. It is a setting with no link to a precise time and place, and if you look deeper, it is a mishmash of mediaeval superstitions and folk tales, Victorian fantasy (mostly Dunsany and Morris), and romanticised Georgian-era rural life – in roughly the same way vanilla D&D is a hodgepodge of disparate influences from the “Appendix N” novels to monster movies, fantasy wargaming, and comic books. And yet, this mixture has a strong internal consistency, with a characteristic rustic and earthy feel to it, conjuring images of muddy roads, mossy tree trunks, crumbling monasteries in the deeper forests, stone circles avoided by men, and rowdy taverns offering sweet and savoury delicacies with bitter ales and the warmth of the fireplace.
This imagery has a long presence in D&D, whose idyllic forests, wayside inns and sleepy rural communities are intristic parts of the assumed milieu, even if they often feel more like more early 1900s American farming settlements than historical English villages. Which is not a criticism: D&D, even at its most specific (and it can get very specific), deals with a wider range of influences from westerns to planetary romance, while Dolmenwood focuses on a much narrower range in an undiluted fashion. It is a setting with a strong and peculiar flavour, something that has been done before many times, and subsumed into the tired cliché of Merrie Olde Englandeso that all its individuality has been lost in modern renfaire fantasy.  But Dolmenwood is not that setting: by returning to its imaginary roots, it highlights the fresh, fantastic and uncanny aspects of the English countryside.
Issue #02, back coverOne of the primary strengths of Dolmenwood come precisely from its synthesisingand (particularly) transformativenature: it can accommodate and blend together ideas from very dissimilar sources, and make them work in a whole that becomes a new, original thing of its own. It takes folktales and ballads about forest-dwelling faeries and witches, and recreates them as the powerful antagonists of a role-playing game; or it tackles the legends of druids as the secretive order of the Drune, complete with machinations around ley lines and places of power. All of this has a veneer of familiarity, but the end result always comes with a clever twist or surprise – not deconstruction (a gotcha that’s more tired now than playing things straight), but a few steps towards reaffirming the unfamiliarity and oddness of the woodlands.
In particular, the zine is very skilful about repurposing Victorian kitsch: syrupy and domestic source material (bowdlerised fairy tales with red-cheeked garden gnomes and talking animals, idealised depictions of “the good country life” with its rotund monks and beer-loving farmers, and so on) becomes great game fodder in the creators’ hands; random public domain woodcuts are given new life in a newly imagined context. The village of Prigwort, renowned for its brewmasters, is accompanied by a random table of fantastic beverages (the minstrel’s cordial is a frothy orange with a taste of malty rye, and encourages the imbiber to engage in unexpected poetry), and gingerbread golems have been known to lurk in certain bakeries. The zines pay a lot of attention to the material comforts of the region – beers, common tavern fare, fashionable garments and places worth visiting all receive their due. This is a place painted with warm tones, yet without sentimentalism.
The articles in Wormskin range from setting background and hex descriptions to game procedures, the obligatory monsters/magic items, and random tables. Not unlike early Judges Guild, it offers a diverse selection of materials, which are useful enough on their own, but also come together to form a certain vision of running a campaign. There is a free introductory PDF to serve as an overview; but Dolmenwood is mostly described by way of example, through the tone and content of its more specific articles. Somehow, it works admirably well.

The Drugsssss of DolmenwoodSome of the ideas are idiosyncratic, and open up new aspects of play. Moss dwarves (stunted gnomes from the deep forests) and grimalkin (a race of mischievous and creepy talking cats) are not simple character options, they are more or less new specialist character types, adding a specific spin to the way we play D&D. A set of guidelines on identifying, consuming, and buying/selling the fungi of Dolmenwood introduces a new possibility for wilderness expeditions, and comes with a d30 table featuring such entries as sludgenuts (smell like wet dog, nourishing but repulsively slimy), polkadot pig (a mild psychedelic causing creeping paranoia), or jack-in-the-green (found in fairy rings, random enchantment). This is a table I adapted for my own campaign, for the benefit of a hobbit character, whose expertise in mushrooms added flavour to both the character, and the fun of wilderness expeditions. A different issue features guidelines for camping out – these are way too detailed for my taste, with fiddly modifiers for fetching firewood and the effectiveness of sleep, but they can be scaled down, and there is, again, a table of random campsites which can lead to new adventures (a ring of identical trees haunted by strange sounds, or a verdant clearing with signs of ancient habitation). What these ideas have in common is encouraging actual play, and providing new ideas to expand the scope of running a game in an enchanted forest.
It bears mention that Dolmenwood is a complex and heavily interconnected mini-setting. You can run it by using the details (and you can also take it apart to use the bits and pieces), but there is a deeper layer to the setting where the pieces fit together, and even the footnotes refer to other footnotes. Locations, rival factions, setting-crossing elements like the ley lines and sun stones, and new guidelines make for a mighty tangle of moving parts. The resulting network of references is very rich, revealing the thought and careful planning behind the milieu; it is also too much for a casual game, and rather hard to keep in mind. It does not help that, owing to its piecemeal publication history and the variety of content on the pages of a zine, all of this material is disorganised, lacking any sort of index or reference. This level of the Wormskin materials is perhaps best used as an occasional spice, instead of the compulsion to use all of it all the time. In a way, “learning” your way around Dolmenwood is fairly close to learning a new D&D-based game system – and it is best done gradually.
Don't Lose Your HeadOccasionally, the wealth of detail also obscures the clarity and intent of the articles. This is not that apparent in the case of the hex descriptions, even if they are far more detailed than the usual hex-crawl fare. These issues do, however, haunt the faction descriptions and the adventure scenarios. The Ruined Abbey of St. Clewd, a major adventure location, is split between two issues – and while it is a good one, it is rather overdone for a place with 26 keyed areas. In another issue, the description of a three-room cottage (The Atacorn’s Retreat) spans seven pages, offering a loving detail of interesting clutter. It is a very good article, yet it is overpoweringly dense, and would be a logistical nightmare to run at the table. In these aspects, Wormskin feels like too much of a good thing.
And with these flaws in mind, it still comes across very clearly. Perhaps the best aspect of the articles is how the pieces reflect the whole, and vice versa. Even after eight issues, the materials on Dolmenwood are fragmentary – there are guidelines for magical waters, but no comprehensive encounter tables; we know the goat-headed lords of Lankshorn, but not the Court of the Nag-Lord or the lake of the Dark Mirror. A lot is missing, and a lot is too much to commit into memory. However, even after a single issue, the reader gets a sufficient idea about the setting and its workings that allows him to extrapolate from the details. The campaign materials are very helpful in setting the tone and encouraging you to go further on your own. And this is what great game supplements are made of.
With respect to production values, issues of Wormskin come in the form of handsome digest-sized booklets. It is printed in colour, and features colour maps and artwork. Once again, its use and repurposing of “found art” from the fin de siècle tradition is exemplary, and it is done with such a sure hand that it feels visionary rather than cheap. Tasteful layout and good accessibility are also a positive. It has a rich writing style which is a pleasure to read in comparison with the myriad stale game texts you can encounter out in the wild. This is a classy, elegant series. Perhaps it even feels “out of genre” for the wild and unruly zine scene – are zines allowed to look so good?
The Drune IssueIn summary, Wormskin is a visionary product with an intriguing setting. It uses its source material masterfully, turning the generica of Old England into a particular, cohesive experience. Once you get the central idea, it works like a charm. Dolmenwood wears the B/X D&D rules like a familiar and comfortable outfit, while altering them to fit its own tone and set of influences. It doesn’t simply present a few house rules, or small variations on the basic D&D framework, neither does it create something radically new; rather, it presents a new way of thinking about D&D’s core concepts and building blocks without compromising either. Campaigns set in Dolmenwood should be halfway between the familiar and the strange, with sufficiently fresh takes on a lot of D&D’s common elements to feel fresh and ripe for exploration. I do not believe much in the proliferation of old-school systems as long as they offer the same underlying experience (once you have one system based on OD&D, AD&D and B/X, you are set for life), but I would make the jump into a Dolmenwood campaign because the distance is just right to make that jump worthwhile.
All that is old is new again: like the best of the old school on offer, Wormskin provides a fresh take on concepts we had thought tired, and innovates while staying true to the game’s traditions. It is visionary, colourful, game-oriented and above all, just very well made. This is the reason why Wormskin ranks among the best of the best in old-school gaming, a position previously shared by The Tome of Adventure Design, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, and Yoon-Suin.
For the first time in the history of this blog, I hereby awardWormskin a rating of five stars with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.
Rating: ***** / *****

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