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[REVIEW] Tower of the Moon

Sat, 10/05/2019 - 21:24

Tower of the Moon (2019)by David PulverPublished by Night Owl WorkshopLevels 3-6
Towers adventures are hard to design. Limited by their shape, most are linear, small affairs that don’t really offer many exploration opportunities; the exceptions tend to experiment with fantastic architecture (The Ghost Tower of Inverness, Sision Tower), add extra areas below or near the tower (Citadel of Fire), or both (Dark Tower, which is cheating a bit). To its credit, Tower of the Moon makes good use of the simple tower format: it presents a complete, 23-area mini-dungeon in as many pages.
Tower of the MoonThis is a “fairy tale gothic” ghost tower, featuring a heavy werewolf theme. It describes what was the sacred place of a neutral/good-aligned goddess associated with wolves, love, dance and hunting. As the premise goes, the tower fell after Mordark, a magic-user whose very name must have evoked the denizens’ trust, betrayed the tower’s high priestess and destroyed the place with a powerful curse. Now, of course, the haunted ruin is active again, and a young local noblewoman has disappeared inside along with a company of adventurers. The tone of the adventure is more 2nd-edition era high fantasy than murderhobo stuff; at points, it is unabashed gothic romance, and it is built on assumptions which would be better fit for a heroic 2e campaign than something more mercenary. In that respect, it uses both the werewolf theme and the romance element skilfully.
Hewing closer to 2e (where gold is no longer the main source of XP), the module has little in the way of treasure: its monetary rewards are almost comically meagre, with loot like 20 lbs worth of cooking implements valued at 10 gp, two glass goblets worth 2 gp each, a well-aged bottle of white wine marked Hawkwood Estates (4 gp), or a 200 gp throne weighing 400 lbs. This is agreeable as long as you use either a gp or an XP multiplier – I would use at least ×10 here, and still drop some of the junk loot. Then there is inexcusable stuff like 3 silver pieces in a giant rat nest, or a 25 gp crescent moon amulet “in the bottom of the muck in the chamber pot beside the nest”. It is hard to think of this stuff as “treasure” in any meaningful sense.
The encounters are an even mixture of the straightforward and the fantastic. The module is at its weakest when it goes into describing “cabinet contents” barracks rooms and storerooms in too much detail – there are worse offenders, but this is an area where the module could have been easily tightened up significantly. But there are also entries which show promise; the tower features multiple well-designed, creepy lycanthrope-based traps (although also a few poison needle traps too many – don’t bring Black Leaf on this expedition), innovative curses, and some fine custom magic effects. This is where the module clearly shines, and even the treasure gets slightly better.
There are some severe organisational problems in the module text. The room entries are written in a haphazard order where trivial details are followed by way more important stuff. Right in room 2, we learn about a lot of clutter and junk in the room before learning that there is, also, a cockatrice behind a barrel. In some places, the text actually jumps back and forth, in addition to hiding the room’s most important and utterly obvious features after an in-depth description of historical books on a dusty shelf (22B). Fixing these mistakes would have been a question of basic editing.
Altogether, Tower of the Moon is a mixed bag. The beginnings of a good module are there in the text, and I think the author’s next project could be quite good if he focused on the things he does well (good high fantasy adventure, interesting magical things to mess with), and fixed some of the mistakes. There is nothing fundamentally broken in the module, and a sequel could easily focus on its present strengths without doing something significantly different.
This publication credits its playtesters fairly.
Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #06 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 10:18

Echoes From Fomalhaut #06I am pleased to announce the publication of the sixth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 44-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Stefan Poag and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and the Dead Victorians.
This issue holds a special significance for me, containing materials I have been hoping to publish for many years. The City of Vultures, a sinful, crumbling metropolis ruled by bizarre customs and malevolent conspiracies, has been the setting for three campaigns and multiple one-off games I have refereed. So far, precious little of these adventures have seen publication: by the time they were ready for release, both flagship old-school fanzines had folded, and I was left without a publication venue – clearly, it was simultaneously too big and too fragmentary to fit a single module. You could say I needed my own fanzine to make it happen – and here we are. Welcome to the City of Vultures!
The current issue offers a primer on the city, introducing its cruel gods, weird customs and labyrinthine secret societies. This article is reprinted from Knockspell, but updated and expanded to reflect the multiple years of play that has taken place since, and accompanied by a dual city/wilderness map with player-level detail. Some notes are also offered on the lands surrounding the City – these wilderness modules (there are two maps’ worth of them) are also forthcoming in later issues. The main focus of Echoes #06, however, is The Gallery of Rising Tombs, describing one of the four major Underworld complexes beneath the Beggars’ District. This is not a single dungeon; rather, an interconnected maze of entrance levels (three of them), sub-levels and side-complexes, for a total of 81 keyed areas. This scenario is suitable for characters of quite different power (but mostly in the 4-6 range). From a disreputable caravanserai to the under-temple of the rat-god and the domain of a damned warrior yearning for his lost love, mysterious discoveries and horrible death await in equal measure in… The Gallery of Rising Tombs!
Gaming dice not includedFrom the Isle of Erillion, this issue brings you an enchanted forest. The Wandering Glade is of no place and every place, appearing at different points of the land. For some, the glade is a place to seek lost treasures and hidden knowledge. For some, it is a site for nighttime revels and human sacrifice. And for some, it is a trap with no easy way out. Yet there is something about the place which no living being has discovered… yet! This wilderness adventure for 4thto 6th level characters (but suitable for repeat incursions at different character levels) describes the twisting trails and hidden clearings of this arboreal realm, as well as a hidden mini-dungeon for those who would seek its ultimate secrets (26 + 13 keyed areas). And, finally, if you need to kill things properly, there is The Armoury, a storehouse of 30 magical weapons. Confound your foes with The Sword of Barriers, master the treacherous Axe of Many Runes, or take up the choice of champions, mighty Frogbringer!
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.
IMPORTANT SHIPPING NOTE: Due to project meetings and conference season, orders between September 28 and October 11 may ship with some delay. I will try to do my best, but I will spend most of this time out of town.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 19:35

Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2 (2019)by Ben LaurenceSelf-PublishedLow-level
Glgbghhhbghhh *flrp* glggThis is the second issue of a fanzine dedicated to presenting materials from the author’s long-running campaign (that, as I understand, mostly took place on Google Plus with a rotating cast of characters). The first issue served as an introduction to the setting of “Zyan Below”, a set of dungeons below the floating dreamland city of Zyan, and the Inquisitors’ Theatre, a sub-level built by one of Zyan’s eccentric guilds, and now taken over by a carnival’s worth of bizarre rival factions.
The second instalment follows the structure of the premiere issue. Two introductory articles offer a primer on the setting’s lost souls, and guidelines for adventuring in Slumberland (combining genre authenticity with practical solutions for what happens when someone gets randomly disconnected from an online game). However, most of the text is dedicated to a self-contained dungeon along the Great Sewer River, apparently the main connecting thoroughfare in Zyan Below. Catacombs of the Fleischguild is the holy place and burial ground for Zyan’s butchers, who have taken their art to macabre heights. Unlike the Inquisitors’ Theatre, the catacombs are still in active use, making for a different play dynamic. While the location key is based on static locales of interest and an encounter table, the level’s defences are more systematic, strife among the inhabitants is harder to identify and exploit (although it is not impossible), and repeated incursions invite increasingly strong defensive measures. The interesting strategic choice here is found in the degree and means of engagement: the intruders can move relatively freely while they are sightseeing (this is almost a museum of sorts), but things become increasingly dangerous as they start messing with things.
A trick that already impressed me in the first issue – and which is repeated here – is using a straight 1d6 roll for random encounters, but dedicating one pip to a “sign”, a hint at the creature’s presence somewhere around you, which is logical, a source of good tension, and a hint for the players to get ready! I believe that good D&D is built on small quality-of-life innovations like this: simple, elegant, adds to the play experience.
The dungeon is more “thick” than expansive. It has a small footprint with only 31 locations (and no empty rooms), but each of the keyed parts have a great deal of both descriptive detail and interactive elements. There is a specific style to this campaign that’s best described as decadent. Everything is ornamented, everything has archaeological context, and it is all opulent and slightly rotten. It is a strong flavour and it is easy to find it too rich for your palate. For example, one room has “a head wearing a porcelain hawk mask (150 gp)… a head wearing a crystal ape mask (200 gp)… a bronze amulet with underwater scene of clustered fish set with cabochon sapphire bubbles (375 gp)… a jadite mantis mask (150 gp)… a golden armband of serpent with two heads that meet at the clasp, their eyes agates (200 gp)”. There is a great amount of creativity on display, and the treasures are not just lying around randomly (a weakness of many old-school modules), but as the room entries listed their procession of weird treasures, I found myself thinking there was some advantage to the “16*100 gp gems and 8 pieces of jewellery at 1000 gp each” approach.
The dungeon is themed to the limit. The Fleischguild’s master butchers have built themselves a wondrous and very disturbing abbatoir/sanctum where marbles resemble choice meats and fatty tissue; you can sacrifice to meat-loving deities (one altar is piled with “delicious cooked sausages of rare flavour” and a stack of “candied meats”, “dusted in powdered sugar like Turkish delights”); and you can encounter fat spirits, giant flies prowling for rotted meat, as well as a demon who is a disturbing, man-shaped mass of ambulatory veins. It even finds a use for M.A.R. Barker’s outrageous invention, the eye-spoon (you can find multiple ones among the treasures) – indeed, you could place this dungeon right under Jakallá, and nobody would bat an eye. This is a very specific and peculiar kind of fantasy, but it works – and it makes for an excellent dungeon crawl.
Through Ultan’s Door’s strength is not limited to its exotic backdrop setting; rather, it lies in combining setting details with D&D’s exploration-oriented gameplay. The fit is not 100% seamless, since the dazzling amount of detail does make the rooms slightly hard to “read”, which does have an effect on the action therein (“You forgot about the ceramic bowls on top of the pillars! Now you shall die!”). But this is a quibble, since in general, the writing is clear and effective. This mini-dungeon rewards careful exploration, inventive problem-solving and shrewd negotiation; its traps and challenges are inventive and require out-of-the-box thinking to best; and it is heavy on well-integrated, interesting secrets (more than a third of the level, and most of its interesting treasures are hidden from the casual observer). It is good D&D in an exotic setting the same way Empire of the Petal Throne is good D&D in an exotic setting. It is not “too weird to live.”
Through Ultan’s Door comes with a detachable cardboard cover, showing Russ Nicholson’s grotesque depiction of the catacombs’ entrance on the front cover, and Gus L’s dungeon map on the inside. This is a good map, combining visual appeal with practicality. I think there is also a “monster card” displaying the encounter table (a boon for table use), but I must have misplaced it – or was it all a dream?
No playtesters are credited in this publication. [Correction: The zine credits the playtesters right on its first page.]
Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Goddess of the Crypt

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 14:37

Goddess of the Crypt (2019)by VagabundorkSelf-publishedLow-level
Goddess of the CryptInto the Odd is one of the worthwhile old-school D&D spinoffs of the last decade: it has a strong vision, simple but well thought out mechanics, an interesting implied setting, and a well-structured game framework which encourages going out on hazardous but lucrative adventures. It is kind of like OD&D for a rusty and very weird Victorian England; a place where you might encounter morlocks, Martian war-machines, occult mysteries and temporal/spatial anomalies, and where your beginning characters are largely disadvantaged nobodies hoping to make it big by hook or by crook. Like OD&D’s beginning murderhobos, there are bizarre and dangerous dungeons to plunder and occult treasures to unearth. Like OD&D’s name-level characters, the endgame involves retiring as wealthy and powerful eccentrics, and there is a pre-built career path to reach that destination.
What Into the Odd is missing is the same thing niche games tend to miss: a steady support of interesting, well-thought out adventures (Silent Titans, which uses the game system, and even includes its core rules, is the major exception as a full-length campaign). This is a shame, because, ItO is precisely the kind of game that’s fairly easy to develop scenarios for, and a good fit for smaller, pamphlet-sized projects. So here we are: Goddess of the Crypt is a published ItO mdule – and a fairly well hidden one.
The adventure takes the characters, working on behalf of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, into a temple populated with serpent-men and super-science. A previous expedition has been lost down there, and it may also be swell to uncover some of the precious artefacts they have been looking for. This is a dungeon with 11 main keyed areas, which is not much, although most of the rooms have a neat multi-layered complexity with multiple things going on. This complexity is both a boon and a hindrance, as the module is structured in a nested bullet point structure
  • that theoretically makes information well structured and easy to find,
    • unless there are several levels of the bullet points and the information is scattered among them
      • in a labyrinthine way
        • no kidding, it really looks like this
          • sometimes there are five levels.

Obviously, this is a wee bit too much of a good thing, and ironically makes the text harder to decipher than just sticking with boring old paragraphs.
What makes Goddess of the Crypt worth checking out is the dungeon itself. It has the spirit of OD&D’s “mythic underworld” concept, working more along the lines of loose association than strict logic. As a temple/crypt, the dungeon has somehow established connections with laboratories and extra-dimensional pockets. It mixes meso-American feeling snake temples with early 20th century weird (pseudo-)science-as-magic devices. It has superb ideas like a bas-relief of one-eyed men serving as an opening mechanism for a secret door (opened with a freshly plucked eye), or an enchanted key that fits every door, but turns them into an entrance to a specific extra-dimensional place. There is a roster of monsters representing various stages of serpentile evolution and cross-breeding, and bizarre monsters from dimension X. It is an interactive dungeon with imaginative things to mess with.
However, it is still more a first step in a great direction than a fully formed dungeon that hits all notes. The map’s frequent use of one-way doors introduces some interesting choices, but also results in inevitable backtracking, and turns a seemingly non-linear dungeon level into a significantly more restricted one. At least if I interpret the map correctly: some of the door symbols are deceptively similar, and for something done with a mapping programme, it is surprisingly hard to read. I also believe the contents could have been spread out a little more with the good use of empty rooms (and less pointlessly winding corridors, unless that is part of the snake theme). The issues with structuring information have already been covered. I would be interested to see further releases from Vagabundork, with a slightly less fragmented structure – the potential is there, if the presentation can be improved somewhat.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] Saving Throw: A Fundraiser Fanzine to Help James D. Kramer

Mon, 09/16/2019 - 21:40
Saving Throw
While Echoes #06 is undergoing some essential fine-tuning before release, I would like to draw your attention to a recently published fanzine. Saving Throw has been assembled and released for the benefit of James D. Kramer. You may know James from his illustrative work, which is found in various adventure modules and game supplements. You may have handled his editing work if you have browsed through a copy of Knockspell or OSRIC. You may know him as a publisher and author of fine adventures through his Usherwood Publishingimprint (which also sells an A5 version of the OSRIC rules). You may know him as a family man, too.
As you may also have heard, James has been fighting a malignant brain tumour for a while, and has had to undergo multiple surgeries in the process. Saving Throw – sold for the auspicious price of $13.00 – is a fanzine whose proceeds will go to Jim and his family in this trying time – and it is also intended as a thank-you note and as a gift to cheer him up. In 64 pages, Saving Throw contains a wealth of articles written by members of the old-school community. Therein, you will find six complete mini-adventures (I wrote one of them); random inspiration tables to generate fantastic islands; variant rules; maps to great treasures; new monsters and NPC parties; and more.
Saving Throw is currently available in PDF from DriveThruRPG, and a print version is also forthcoming (sold at discount to those who purchase the PDF). Buy yours today!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] More Adventures in Morthimion & The Sideways Level

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 11:43

[Spoiler-free, player-safe section]
One of the fun things about The Ryth Chronicle – perhaps the single most useful document of early OD&D play, and more useful than some actual OD&D supplements – is seeing the campaign take shape through the actions of multiple different adventurer groups. Ryth had an enormous player roster involving guests and regulars, apparently even going as far as to lease out some characters on expeditions where the players could not be present. The earliest listing from March 1975 counts 26 players and 17 characters (not counting the recently dead), the highest-level being Pontius, a 5th level Cleric, and Felsord, a 5thlevel Dwarf. The last one, from October 1976, counts 50 players and characters… three 9th level Magic-Users (Fazzlefart, Sondin and Kodiak), two 8thlevel Fighters (Ragnar Lodbrok and Grobard BenGon), and two 8thlevel Clerics (Benelux V and good old Pontifus).
You get a good idea about how things went when you read the earliest expedition reports – brief snippets along the lines of 
  • “Morbundus, 2ndlevel. John Van De Graaf led 15 players, losing 3, in a search for passages to lower depths. They defeated a wyvern, gnolls, toads, zombies, bandits, giant snakes, giant rats, and giant ants. They found a magic toad statue of unknown properties, and cleaned out the remainder of the Troll Room treasure.”
  • Or: “Weir, 2nd level. Paul Michaud led 14, five died, and two high-level characters (a hero and a curate) were at death’s doorstep. They defeated 3 giant snakes, but met their match with 2 manticores and left without treasure.”

One of the fun things about Castle Morthimion is seeing a similar thing play out, even if on a much smaller scale. Morthimion operates as an occasional campaign – there is no planned schedule; it goes on the menu when we can’t organise one of our regular sessions, or on special occasions.  As such, expedition parties are organised on an ad-hoc basis – whoever is present can bring a previous PC or roll up a character (one 2nd level or two 1st level PCs). More than that, Morthimion’s guest players are a prestigious lot: as of the last post, we had Zulgyan visiting us from Argentina; the next session, Lord Metal Demon came by from the frozen lands of Canada. What is even better, I am hearing both are now entertaining the idea of running an OD&D dungeon of our own – hope we will hear about them in due course! I don’t usually do open table games (my attempt to do so with Helvéczia back in 2012 triggered an immediate player revolt), but this comes reasonably close.
As it always goes with OD&D projects, there is a trick to all this. As envisioned, OD&D is a game without boundaries. It is meant to expand; not just through the continuous vertical and horizontal expansion of the dungeons, or in the incorporation of new “stuff”, but often in the scope of play as well – from dungeoneering to wilderness exploration, castle building, airborne and maritime combat, and “more”. Meanwhile, recreating an LBB-only game today is inherently laser-focused and based on setting limits – a specific mindset and specific rules (fortunately, it does not require LARPing 1970s hipsters) But the game will, inevitably, be something different. We can’t remake Ryth with today’s tools. But we can learn from it and adapt it to our current needs.
Our third July game was again conducted in English, with Lord Metal Demon dropping by for an afternoon.
  • L.M.D. brought Balta the Axe, a 2nd level Fighting Man (the character’s name would translate as Axe the Balta). He was joined by Tumak the Shaman, 2nd level Cleric of Chaos; Brother Tivold, 3rd level Cleric of Law; Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 1 of Law) and Weirlord (1st level Magic-User) returned from the first expedition, and Ravenheart (who runs Vorpal Mace) brought Grimly the Poor, a 2nd level Dwarf who rolled particularly badly for starting money. They brought two light footmen (Rudolf and Ragnarr), a bowman (Robin), a porter (Ale) and a torchbearer (Chort); as well as a cart for all the treasure!
  • This time, we could actually start in the wilderness, as I had a player map and some basic notes ready. Starting from King Donald’s Wall, the company immediately went off track and scouted a collection of burial mounds from the time of the Faerie Princes, encountering a host of elves exploring the valley.
  • They also found a hidden way into a valley ruled by the castle of Lord Moltgaard, who, seeing they could neither just nor pay a toll, had them run off with the threat of siccing the dogs on them!
  • …as well as a second valley with a pool of comely naked ladies close to a grove of trees. Balta was charmed after a botched altercation, and had to be physically dragged off before he would join them beneath the water surface.
  • …and a small lake with an island, a troll bridge, and a gazebo where they avoided a trap, learned of an imprisoned princess, and found some treasure.
Domains of the Faerie Princes
  • Arriving in Morthimion, the company descended to the dungeons and continued exploring the southern passages of the first level. This did not go very well: Brother Tivold was paralysed by a ghoul and taken out for most of the action, and disturbing a nest of centipedes, Grimly and Balta were both bitten with only 2d6 turns to live! After a mad dash for the exit, they sought an audience with the Wizard Wörramos for help. Balta was saved in due time with a potion, but poor Grimly died a horrible death. In exchange for saving Balta’s life, and the second vial of poison cure, Wörramos bade them via geas to find the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, and find therein a small brass statuette.
  • For the second expedition, Grimly was replaced with Joe Average, hobbit Fighting Man of no remarkable stats. Right near the entrance, they encountered yet another fellow, a handsome man wearing plate and a mace. Introducing himself as Milius, he joined the company despite suspicions of being up to no good, and managed to stay in the back without doing anything useful.
  • This time, they went to explore the northeast. They found a passage that turned into a 90-degree horizontal pit trap. Descending with the aid of a rope, Balta found himself in a new level with deep pits and shafts, but they collectively decided this place was located too deep for the Chantry, their primary objective.
  • They encountered a Stone Hero who challenged them to single combat to let them pass, and Balta completed the challenge! These passages brought them to an area of stone doors (which they decided were fake), pit traps, and mysterious chambers with brass bowls on pedestals. Robin and Ragnar fell into the pits and died. Three black gemstones retrieved from one of the bowls proved useful in conjuring a spirit of the Underworld, who agreed to transport them to the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, which was located right below their feet on the second dungeon level!
  • Now in unknown territory and only a vague direction of where their exit may lie, they set to explore the nearby area. The entrance to the chantry was easy to find, but before, they decided to prod a nearby stone door, releasing a gelatinous cube from an overhead chute! The chute, in turn, lead to the hidden Diamond Laser Room, containing a fabulous 5000 gp diamond suspended in the air between several laser beams and a system of mirror walls. Choosing the brute force approach, Balta chucked a stone against the gem and knocked it out of place, triggering the lasers which cut poor Joe Average into ribbons. Since the hour was late and L.M.D. would have his flight back the next day, we called it a day with the company stuck down in the dungeons, and went for a few beers in a nearby pub.

Level 1 Player MapOur next game, in August, included three players, of whom only Premier had previous experience with the dungeons (or OD&D). Since the previous crew were stuck down there, we generated a new set of characters (two per player, all 1st level), who had bought the previous party’s map off of a weaselly character who had somehow “acquired” it.
  • Premier brought Axbjard Bjardax, a Dwarf; and Hijo de Emirikul, a Chaotic Magic-User. My PhD student (whom I had known much longer as a gamer before our paths would cross professionally) brought Bandar, a Cleric of Chaos; and Tomrik, a Chaotic Fighting Man who did not speak a single word during the game. His wife (also a veteran gamer, as well as PhD in regional studies) brought the elven sisters Erien (operating as a Fighting Woman) and Glerien(operating as a Magic-User), who lead most of the expedition. They hired two spearmen, Sam and Jack (who was extraordinarily capable), and the porters El  Mulo and Owl.
  • This expedition also started in the wilderness, but the company did not go off track and struck right for the dungeon, only stopping at a seedy roadside tavern in the woods, where they learned of the previous group’s disappearance in Morthimion about a week earlier. They decided that a rescue operation could net them new, generous allies.
  • In Morthimion, they headed straight for the second level stairs, found by the earliest expeditions but never taken. Erien and Glerien’s elven senses, along with Axbjard’s knowledge of construction, came quite handy; and they found first a hidden stairway leading upwards from the first level, and then a second set of stairs going down north from the second level landing, but choked with generous fungal matter. These would be left for later expeditions (“Castle Morthimion, Department of Construction” sign / inaccessible).
  • Here, the expedition almost ended with annihilation. Exploring a sequence of abandoned barrack rooms marked with the sign of a yellow beak, the company was cornered in a room by an enormous number of orcs. Only Hijo de Emirikul’s sleep spell allowed them retreat from the ambush, but their escape was cut off again by a group of orcs and an ogre who had blocked their path through another route. Soon to be caught by mustering forces from both before and behind them, a desperate fight was won with the aid of flaming oil, which they spilled in great quantities behind them to give the pursuing orcs a fiery surprise. So they escaped with their lives, but no loot at all.
Level 2 Player Map

  • For the second expedition, they planned more carefully, investing their funds into generous quantities of flaming oil. Back on the 2nd level, they explored a series of dank storerooms with fungi and peaceful giant lizards, and found a place called “The Shrine of Doors”, where a sinister man named Thassaro the Theurgist was guarded by a group of squat halberd-wearing humanoids (tromes). Tassaro agreed to reveal the mysteries of the Underworld for 200 gp.
  • Further exploration helped them avoid a deahtrap, brought them to an underground garden of dragon statues and a faerie pool they did not dare to mess with, a group of neutral bandits guarding an elevator down to the deepest level (blocked with a “Castle Morthimion, Department of Construction” sign), and a slimy section of pipes, downwards stairs, and a pool with a mysterious statue. Beyond careful tactics, the characters were aided by no random encounters, and lucky reaction rolls; however, Sam died when he fell into a pit.
  • Eventually, they found an enormous hall where a feast had recently taken place, and extinguishing their lanterns, saw a group of short-statured cooks clean up the long table. Not wanting to tackle a kitchen full of these strange beings, they went the other way, northeast into a section of side rooms identified as “The Vaults of Rabad the Fearless”. They were pursued by loud footsteps, and they soon learned by their own experience that turning to see who was behind them would bring invisible swordstrikes. Although a room of spiders brought some loot, they chose to retreat from this dangerous-looking place.
  • With their loot, they sought out Tassaro the Theurgist in the Shrine of Doors, and learned that “They would have to overcome their fear” if they wanted to find the lost explorers. At first, Erien was furious Tassaro had cheated them with this non-advice, but they soon concluded it was a hint, and they’d have to return to the Vaults of Rabad, who was indeed Fearless.
  • The vaults revealed yet another room of several gemstones labelled “The Gems of Pain”, which they carefully avoided. But here, their luck almost ran out as they faced to see two Thaumaturgists, powerful magic-users from the deeper dungeons! Most of the party fell to a sleep spell, only Bandar, Glerien and the torchbearers remaining standing. Bandar’s wits saved the way. “Behind you!” he shouted, and the Thaumaturgists reflexively turned back, immediately struck by the invisible swords, one of which cut off the first M-U’s head. Glerien threw a dagger but rolled a natural 1 and almost ended up killing poor Erien by friendly fire. The only character still to act, Owl, bereft of weapons, desperately rushed the second M-U and dashed his head against the stone until he was dead (critical hit; a natural 20 doing the full 6 damage – M-Us are squishy!) The dead had some personal treasure, and a lucky roll yielded a single piece of jewellery rated at the highest value category – an amulet worth a princely 7000 gp!
  • From here, they quickly found the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, and the previous party, still stuck in the Diamond Laser Room and suffering from paralysis. Glerien pocketed the 5000 gp diamond, and the characters hauled the hapless adventurers out of the room. They could be returned to their senses, but were weak and basically useless – they were somehow paralysed by the treacherous Milius, who had left them along with their treasure to die as motionless statues.
  • The last thing to tackle was the Chantry, which turned out fairly small. The idol was easy to retrieve, but the company was surprised by centipedes from down the corridor. In the melee, El Mulo went down under giant centipede bites, not even needing to save vs. poison. Worse, stealing the idol seemed to trigger a skittering sound from all around, and the characters decided to beat it – to their good fortune, finding the way out without further random encounters.
  • This was a very successful trip: two major treasures were retrieved (Bandar decided they’d keep the diamond as a “rescuers’ fee”) along with miscellaneous loot. With monster experience (using LBB rules, these are fairly good at low levels), there was enough XP to advance everyone to 2nd level, and Bandar the Cleric to 3rd level (I disregarded the “only one level per session” rule). Furthermore, Jack and Owl, who had distinguished themselves during the expeditions and showed sufficient individual heroism, were each given 250 gp, the amount I require to turn them into regular player characters.

[Here ends the spoiler-free section]

[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]
And now for the current expansion. In the updated download, I am adding The Sideways Level, a vertical level crossing the horizontal ones. So far, only Balta has been down there, but the level has been discovered, and awaits enterprising groups to plumb its depths. Bring your ropes and spikes, because there will be climbing galore!
The Sideways LevelBeyond the unusual perspective and the navigation / combat challenges coming with it, the encounter chart also strays from the elegant although occasionally murderous LBB baseline. I quickly had to abandon the idea of filling the table from the “Flyers” lineup from M&T, since the selection is both meagre and focused on high-powered monsters. My design rule for Morthimion is to stay with the LBBs where possible, and come up with my own stuff where necessary instead of incorporating supplement material (like every rule, it has a few exceptions). Thus, say hello to avians, flitters, floaters, and their friends (gas bags were distantly inspired by Booty and the Beast’s silly gas bag neck people).
This is a “Level 2” equivalent place (OD&D’s dungeon level progression is a steep difficulty curve – by level 3, you will regularly be meeting hordes of wraiths, ogres, giant scorpions and 6th/7thlevel NPCs, with good chance for much worse), although with some tough lairs (I am quite fond of Hoddaful Hakabus and his brigand gang, who emerged from a series of random rolls, and the Pits of Cil, named after the venerable Chimaera postal dungeon. You can also roll boulders down shafts and drain enormous water reservoirs to flood the lower parts of the level.
I have also completed Level 3, The Crypts, progressed with the wilderness section, and written brief encounter ideas for some of the sub-levels the characters have discovered in the last two games. These will be explored in the next post, after we have a few more sessions under our belt! Until then… Fight On!
Download: Castle Morthimion - Levels 1-2-S (5MB PDF)
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Third Year’s the Charm: The End of the OSR

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 16:09

The first post on this blog went up 5 August 2016, so this is the time of the year I do my usual stock-taking and retrospecting (as all Internet blowhards are wont to do). What has happened last year, and what is yet to come? Well:
The State of the Blog
You know the way blogs work. They start high and they kinda taper off into gruff “I am still here… anyone? anyone???” kind of updates. Beyond Fomalhaut’s first year had 55 posts, the second had 42 posts, and this last one had 37 posts. That puts me in the “still mostly alive” zone. (How does David McGrogan do it? It honestly beats me.) This year, I had a lot of unwritten posts – the kind of elegant, well thought out arguments you put together in your head, hone carefully while taking a walk or doing your shopping, and never actually end up writing. There were a lot of these, and they were great. Next year, there will be more of them.
I continued reviewing old-school products – there were 16 in the first year, 23 in the second year, and 18 this year (about half my posts). The average rating has climbed slightly, from 3.1 and 3.0 to 3.3. For some reason, I came across more good materials than last year, while deftly avoiding the bad ones. Most bad adventures share fairly similar problems – bad scope, overdeveloped front with little actual meat, excessive linearity and low interaction potential – and after a while, you mostly filter them out. The gems, on the other hand, are mostly unexpected and highly individual. Not necessarily “special”: high-concept can easily obscure shoddy execution. Great adventures simply go beyond expectations.
This year’s ratings break down this way:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.This rating was not awarded this year. (Note: this is a lack of effort on my part. I do know something that deserves this rating, but I never sat down to write a proper review that could do it justice.)
  • 5 went to one new product, Sision Tower. This is an obscure gem of an adventure with a haunted atmosphere and great exploration-oriented gameplay in a unique environment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • 4 went to six products. Some of them are highly polished (Anthony Huso’s Mortuary Temple of Esma and Keith Sloan’s Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords are both honest-to-goodness high-level AD&D), and some are oddball things that deserve your attention (The Sea of Vipers is a terse, modern Wilderlands-like setting which would make for a great hex-crawling campaign).
  • 3 went to eight adventures. “3” ratings are for the decent stuff, or for things which are highly creative but flawed in execution. My picks from this category are Into the Jungle, a Nam-meets-D&D thought experiment, and The Black Maw by “Craig Pike”, back when he had not yet been revealed as “Bryce Lynch” trying his hand at adventure design.
  • 2 went to three adventures. A lot more bullets have been dodged based on vague hunches and sheer laziness.
  • 1 was not awarded this year. If I came across one, it would have happened – these things tend to be annoying enough to merit writing about them – but this year has been fairly quiet, for reasons I will soon go into.

A Year LaterThe State of the Fanzine
This has been a good year! In the latest annual round-up, I could mention two issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut and one module, The Barbarian King. This year, I had a bit of trouble including all the printed stuff in a single picture. EMDT’s print catalogue has grown to thirteen titles, even if this involves some sleight of hand (since some releases have technically seen publication twice). I could not have done this without help. Help from my co-authors who have written three of the adventures, published stand-alone or as zine articles; my illustrators (particularly the heroic Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, as well as Peter Mullen, Matthew Ray and Andrew Walter – a lot of dead Victorians have also contributed), my printer (who also plays Orestes, a retired legionary in our Kassadia campaign), regular or occasional playtesters, and all the people who have bought an issue in print or PDF. Thanks!
Echoes is now in its fifth issue, and the sixth is slowly taking shape. As the zine has settled into its place, I have found that it is best served by medium-length articles. This is a natural outcome of the campaigns we play: individual adventures take between one to three sessions to play, and re-usable background materials are usually of a similar scope. There are exceptions – typically campaign-defining “tentpole” locations, or utility products like The Nocturnal Table – and these will be better off as separate releases.
The fanzine’s focus through its first five issues has mostly been on our Isle of Erillion campaign. Together, these materials represent an almost complete mini-sandbox, consisting of modular pieces you can use as a linked whole, or take apart and use in different contexts. This year will hopefully see the completion of Baklin, the isle’s capital city – a neutral port town of merchants, sailors and the occasional thief. Since Baklin is too large for a single zine issue, it will be published separately. There are more materials I would like to publish from this campaign, but they will be even more general, with only hints of setting-specific information.The City of VulturesThe next year will have a slightly different focus. One of my big plans for the zine (and one of the main reasons for launching it in the first place) has been the release of materials set in The City of Vultures, a sinful fantasy metropolis known for shady conspiracies, glittering palaces gone to rot, and great multi-level dungeon complexes hidden beneath the street surface. The city, which has served as the backdrop for three of our campaigns (one now ongoing), would have been impossible to tackle as a single supplement – it was always too sprawling, too forbidding to even begin. An introduction was published in Knockspell, issue #3, but of the adventures, only Terror on Tridentfish Island has seen release. To be exact, it needed a fanzine. Starting with Echoes #06, I am planning to publish my materials for this grand metropolis – focusing, most of all, on its dungeons and secret societies. See you in… The Gallery of Rising Tombs!
We have also started a new campaign with a new group, set in the lands of Kassadia. Kassadia, located south of the Isle of Erillion, is based on the premise that the local equivalent of the Roman Empire never fell, only decayed to the point of disintegration. It is now a land of early Renaissance city states, fallen grand projects, surviving imperial traditions, pastoral hinterlands and strange old villas in cedar groves. The campaign moves relatively slowly (scheduling, jobs and travel are constant issues), but we have been having a lot of fun with this one. Two modules are already written (the first one by my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernad), playtested and basically complete in the Hungarian – they will be translated for release late this year, or more likely early 2020. Some of these materials will also appear in Echoes.
When I started Echoes, I had a fairly limited understanding of the business end of publishing, and it would be arrogant to claim I understand it now beyond a basic hobbyist level. But on that level, things have worked out fine. No niche fanzine is ever going to be a moneymaker, but mine sells well enough to pay for the art and printing, and generate some extra I can invest into larger and more expensive projects (Castle Xyntillan has been this year’s main money and time sink). My big excel file tells me I have shipped 759 packages (including larger wholesale orders, but not convention and personal sales), which never fails to impress me.Kassadia RisesBusinesswise, most EMDT releases are done in print runs of 240 copies (Hungarian ones are in 80, but even that’s only because I am building a catalogue for the re-release ofSword&Magic). It is 240 copies because the coloured paper for the cover comes in packs of 250, and we have to submit 6 printed copies to the archives of the National Library. It turns out that’s a good, sensible number for an old-school fanzine, too. Echoes #01 to #03 have sold out their first print run (Echoes #01 has also sold through a 120-copy reissue, and is in a 60-copy third printing). The Barbarian King is nearing the end of the first batch, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I would like to keep the zines in print and available, even if subsequent print runs will invariably be smaller (I don’t want to convert my home into a warehouse, so the number of cardboard boxes I am willing to put up with is naturally limited.)
Would I recommend zine publishing to others? If you believe you have something to say, hell yes! Publishing a zine has been one of the most rewarding forms of hobby participation I have been involved in (nothing, of course, beats sitting down to game with friends). It is a creative outlet which produces tangible results, and while time-consuming, it handily beats computer games and television (both activities I have mostly dropped or reduced to a light level). Do you have time for a fanzine? You probably do if you convert your junk time into quality time.
Castle Grounds (art by Denis McCarthy)The State of My Other Projects
Recall all those empty promises I have made on the blog about Castle Xyntillan? Yeah right! In fact, it is actually happening, and hopefully happening before Christmas! This will be a large funhouse dungeon for Swords&Wizardry (but compatible with most other old-school systems). Xyntillan is intended as a beer-and-pretzels experience with a versatile application: you can run it as a one-off, a convention game, or as a complex dungeon-crawling campaign that takes characters from first to about 6th or 7th level. It can be played as a mostly hack-and-slash affair, but there is enough background complexity to add plenty of interaction and intrigue to the mix, and let the players devise complex schemes in the context of a fantastic, not entirely serious dungeon.
Most of the layout for Xyntillan is done. Illustrations are coming in (the one above is by Denis McCarthy), and Rob Conley has completed a set of poster maps which are really the bee’s knees (or the cat’s meow). The book will have four map sheets on the usual heavy-duty paper, two for the GM and two for the players (one each will be double-sided). The physical book will be an A4 (letter-) sized hardcover, about the size of the idol cover PHB. We are shooting for a durable, accessible, good-looking book that can withstand a lot of play.
After Xyntillan is out, I would like to dedicate my attention to the unjustly neglected Helvéczia RPG. Yes, the translated rulebook has been languishing mostly untouched since 2016, along with the first supplement. This is the curse of large projects: I have learned by personal experience (and not a few Kickstarters I have lost money on) that a big release is not equivalent to five or six small ones of equivalent length. No – the complexity of tasks increases along what seems like an exponential curve, while the chances for failure and delay multiply. Fortunately for all of us, I did not take any Kickstarter money for Helvéczia. I think it can come out in 2020, probably as a hardcover / hardcover-in-a-boxed set dual edition. Quasi-historical RPGs have been kind of a minority taste, but I believe I have something worth saying with this one – it is, probably, the closest to where my heart actually lies.
The State of the Old School
No USo it actually happened. The old-school community split this year, and its surviving pieces have gone their separate ways. It is gone. There has been surprisingly little talk about it, and most still speak in terms of a general scene, but in my eyes, the divorce has clearly taken place. The fault lines had been present for a few years, and the conflicts were visible for all to see. Google+’s shuttering by its corporate overlords provided a good opportunity for things to come apart, but it has also obscured the OSR’s disintegration. I never liked the term, not when it was coined, and mostly avoided using it except as a shorthand or in mockery. It sounded pretentious, and too much like an astro-turfing attempt to create a brand. It was hubris. But I was proven wrong after all. There was undoubtedly something there for a few years, and now there isn’t.
Is it a tragedy? No, although it is a loss of creative potential – for now. It was for the better. Late 2018 was the absolute nadir of the community as it became clear that people could not coexist in a single space. Every creative community has its in-fighting, contentious issues and scenester posturing (this is probably crucial to their creative well-being, even if it stinks). Splinter groups drift off and new people come in with their new ideas.
Trying to go after people for ideological missteps of failing to demonstrate appropriate piety is something else. That’s really at the core of it. If people can’t put their differences aside and get along without being at each others’ throats, no creative dividends are worth it. Ironically, the last and most prominent target of these sorry fights was no one else but Zaximillian Wokespierre, one of the principal drivers of the OSR’s ideological witch-hunts. Here is a man who has had his reputation destroyed more thoroughly and permanently than the people he had set his sights on. I think there is a lesson there; maybe more than one.
But enough of the dead. What exist now are separated communities which have increasingly little in common, and do less and less communication as time progresses. There will always be individual connections, and some people will doubtless remain involved in both spheres. Things are never tidy and clear-cut. But there is no big tent “old school community” in the way there was one on Dragonsfoot ca. 2004-2008, the blogs ca. 2007-2012, or G+ for a few years afterwards. These will be smaller groups with more focused interests.
On one side, there seems to be yet another round of re-examining what made D&D in the first place. These discussions always involve a slightly different bunch of people, and always come to slightly different conclusions. Increasingly, the people who ask the questions and provide answers have no direct connection to (A)D&D as it had actually existed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but nevertheless see something in it that modern editions do not offer. That’s a clear testament to the game’s staying power. However, the split has definitely brought a lull to both discourse and published material. There are notably fewer people around, and I suppose every missing contributor represents eight or ten missing lurkers.
On the other side (which I am not really familiar with), there seems to be a drift away from D&D’s baked-in assumptions towards a general use of its lightweight systems, and a convergence of old-school and indie sensibilities. To be honest, its first big effort, “Sword*Dream” sounds like a deliberate straw man caricature of online progressivism, and the first DreamJam’s output kinda lives up to the stereotype (GOONS is probably more my style). If your answer to “So what do you do, I mean apart from the Class Struggle” is “Urm, but everything is Class Struggle”, that might be a problem there. But what do I know, I did not shell out $7 for the dragon fucking game, so I might have missed something. I actually like some of the stuff that has been retroactively “sworddreamed”, so perhaps there will be more of those down the line.
In the end, I will be controversial and say it was worth it. For one thing, the OSR as it had existed had clearly outlived its usefulness, and the community around it started to get acrimonious. Second, the separation has removed a lot of conflict from the community. MeWe has been pleasantly light on drama, and the blogs and forums I am part of have just kept on discussing old games and their modern applications. I assume the other community feels that way, too. Who says divorces have to be acrimonious?

In the Grim Darkness of the Post-OSR, There is Only * * * SWORDDREAM * * *
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] OSR Module O4: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 18:16

A long time ago, when I was a beginning PhD student, I noticed that a professor from a rival faculty had taken my first published journal article, and released it pretty much word by word under his name as course material. Shaken, I sought advice from my department head, a chain-smoking old grump who had been well known for his strictness and foul mouth, and somewhat less so for his golden heart. He listened to my woes, and gave me three pieces of advice:
  1. This is not Western Europe. You can't fight them and win.
  2. You should be proud you have something worth stealing.
  3. Always stay two steps ahead of the fuckers.

He was right, and I have lived by that wisdom ever since. But that doesn’t mean I don’t notice.
The question of imitation can be tricky in something like old-school gaming. The systems and supplements we use are often homages, and ideas get around, as they do in creative communities. It is not surprising to discover a module based on Keep on the Borderlands (although there have been surprisingly few genuinely good ones) or The Tomb of Horrors (although it is a module whose lessons are far less universal than people think). People can also take ideas and build something interesting upon them, or develop the subject of a forum conversation into something more substantial. Or run an adventure and decide they can do it even better. Fine and good – this is how a lot of refinement and incremental innovation happens. But it is only right in this situation to give credit for the original idea, and if possible, notify the idea’s originator. It is not a matter of life and death – but it is a matter of basic courtesy. And the opposite seems to be happening ­ with surprising regularity these days.
I am not talking about the time some psycho from Hungary stole a very early (2003) prototypeof The Barbarian King, and published a shoddy 5e conversion on the DM’s Guild under his own name. That guy is just cuckoo insane. Nor am I talking about the people just republishing free material for a few bucks (as I hear, this has happened to Kellri’s netbooks on several occasions), and I am sure as hell not talking about outright dirtbags like James L. Shipman. Those are clear cases of theft. No, I am talking about small things I have been noticing. Thus…
 Exhibit 1: The Great Wheel Gets Even Greater
Make Wheels Great AgainRight: Echoes From Fomalhaut #03, p. 2. (2018)Left: Winning entry from the 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest (2019)
Well, one wheel is 50' and the other one is 500', so it is clearly different. Moar giant wheels = Moar fun. No harm no foul.
Exhibit 2: Disco Inferno

Left: April's Fool post from Beyond Fomalhaut (2018)
Right: New hotness from J. Halk Games (2019).

Stoked!Actually, this one doesn't stop here, because it turns out Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor has already been the subject of a heated IP battle, with the module's author trashing a larcenous upstart. No kidding.

You tell 'em, Joe!

Now that he is informed, it is no longer a coincidence. Well, well, WELL! The things you learn on the Internet.
AWKWARD!There is also this thing:
UH-OHLanguage gap aside, you will note that Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor's first convention appearance was 24 November 2018. Except it was a different convention, a different Disco Emperor module (obviously), and a different designer - my good friend Premier, the only one who had, in fact, asked me if he could run with the idea. (Of course he could.) All testers and con players had agreed it was a great adventure. I have even been reminding Mr. Premier that he might want to publish it, and there might even be an interested publisher (presumably not J. Halk Games).
So here our story ends. 
But wait! This just in! Turns out Luke Gygax himself also wants in on the Disco Emperor dollars!

I am honoured to, ah, inspire none else but Melf the Elf. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what I call "an OSR Thief class"!

So that's how things work in the murkier corners of our cottage industry. What am I going to do about it? Well... Largely nothing. I will surely be flattered a bit. Inspiring people is reassuring you are doing something right.

But I will also sure as hell try to stay two steps ahead.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[MODULE] The Nocturnal Table (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 16:28
The Nocturnal Table
I am happy to announce the publication of The Nocturnal Table, a 60-page game aid dedicated to city-based adventures, lavishly illustrated by Matthew Ray (cover), Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. Originally conceived in 2010 as an article for Knockspell Magazine (but only published in the Hungarian), the supplement has since gone through a lot of active play over multiple campaigns, and been expanded with additional material to offer a handy guide to design and run adventure scenarios in a large, sinful city filled with action and intrigue. This is a game aid designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible. Whether your pick is Lankhmar, the City State, the City of Vultures or Imperial Rome, this supplement will help generate much of the texture of the streets – from illicit warehouses to the monsters and madmen who prowl the night! Citing the back cover…
“The City is a maze. A labyrinth of alleyways, plazas, shortcuts and hidden thoroughfares, it isn’t any less treacherous to navigate than a dungeon. At least during the day, the worst one can expect is a greedy patrol of guards eager for a shakedown, or a thief in the crowd, ready to make a grab and run for it. At night, the sensible and the timid hurry home and bolt their doors. Ecstatic revellers, madmen, assassins, religious fanatics, thrill-seekers, enigmatic apparitions and tiger-headed opium nightmares prowl the streets. And the guards are still not helping. 
The Nocturnal Table is a supplement intended to bring you this city by way of an encounter system, random inspiration tables, NPC and monster statistics, as well as a giant nighttime random encounter table, whose three hundred entries can serve as interludes as well as springboards for complicated investigative scenarios and fantastic conspiracies.”
At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. From a patrol of guards carrying a slain comrade, to a sinister beggar-catcher soliciting the aid of dishonest adventurers, or a skeleton covered in grey ooze, its eyes glittering gemstones shambling towards the party, all the wonder and menace of a city-crawl are at hand. But that is not all. With The Nocturnal Table, you can…
  • …create general encounters with the aid of a comprehensive encounter system. A caravan in Hightown threatening the party? Six jackalweres offering secret information near the port at night? Or a magic-user accusing a PC in the bazaars? That could be the beginning of a story (or the end of one).
  • …generate merchants selling strange and fantastic goods (as seen in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 – that table would have been a crime not to reprint here). Is that jovial guard selling weapons as a form of bait? Are that credible horseman’s sugared fruits really from a foreign dimension?
  • …find out what’s in their pockets. The guard came up with a pouch of 12 gold and a folded hood, but that horseman? His 50 silver, 5 electrum and 10 gp was also accompanied by a weird diagram.
  • …generate local colour on the fly. Ominous, gurgling pipes overhead? A drunk who insists he has just seen a party member go the same way “just a while ago”?
  • stock warehouses with exotic goods to plunder! Leave those odd, primitive swords and the rustic carpets collecting dust in the corner, and find out how much those ceremonial globes may be worth.
  • …and set up secret meetings and investigation sites. The meeting will place behind the old, crumbling mosaic – but don’t touch the drink. And the trail leads on, by the sign near the mortuary… just take care: the children are spies!
Guidelines are also offered to re-use the encounters and chart contents for the construction of bizarre plotlines and sinister conspiracies which rule from the shadows… while the City sleeps (these guidelines have been previewedon this blog). All that, and more are at your disposal in… The Nocturnal Table!
The print version of the supplement is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.
Do note that a flat shipping fee is in effect: you will pay the same whether you order one, two, or more items (larger orders may be split into multiple packages and shipped individually – this does not affect the shipping fee).
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Noise or Signal? Further Thoughts on Creativity and Randomness

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 20:51
Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Creativity aid, not creativity replacement? We have been there before, and it is a slogan uniquely suited to describe a family of products designed to help GMs develop their own adventures. Random generators have been used to jog our imagination and come up with interesting new combinations ever since Ready Ref Sheets and the Dungeon Master’s Guide appendices; while random tables fell out of fashion between the mid-80s and the early 2000s, they have experienced a revival and they are going as strong as ever. Procedural generation is heavily featured outside tabletop RPGs, permeating the worlds of computer games from Elite to Minecraft(not to mention the deep, dark well of roguelikes).
Randomness, of course, produces no innate meaning, and leaves us to project our own onto it. A dungeon room with a “fire throne”, an “ogre taskmaster” and a “magic warhammer” is a hodgepodge of disparate elements; it takes human imagination to connect the dots and turn the random gibberish into something meaningful. (Perhaps the fire throne is a torture implement, the ogre is a jailer, and he has stolen an imprisoned dwarf’s weapon? Or we are in the hall of the fire giant king, the ogre is his underling, and he is guarding the king’s symbol of power?) Just like modules are a framework to run an actual adventure, random tables serve as the framework for the GM’s imagination. And just like modules, the eventual results should bear the personal mark of the GM, and, ultimately, the whole game group. This is how we co-create, and this is how the whole can be more than the sum of disparate parts.
If it is all so subjective and variable, can you actually review a collection of random tables? Can you actuallytell a good table from a bad one? I have used a lot of random tables over the years, and have found that some have proven consistently useful, while others are barely ever touched. There are qualities which make certain tables more suitable to provoke the imagination. It has to do with the entries’ imaginative power – their capability to evoke images which can be spun into fantasy adventures.
To work their magic, we have to trust the tables enough to follow them somewhere. But they must take us someplace special – imaginary places of wonder and menace. A table that does not push us out of our current frame of mind is not a good creativity aid, because we are already there. D&D has a common language – of oak doors, dark corridors, pit traps, wizards and goblins and maybe beholders – which is intimately familiar even to people who do not play D&D. They are “tropes” (a horrid word embodied in that most horrid product of internerd autism, TVTropes). Good tables take us beyond the basics – it is still the same language, but a richer, deeper, more varied layer of it.
Art by Edward Coley Burne-JonesSome of the imaginative power of random tables lies in the strength of individual idea kernels, but just as much hinges on the combination and juxtaposition of elements which fit together in ways which are not altogether comfortable. Creative tension – the shock of unexpected combinations and the images they create – is what takes the mind beyond the limits of routine thought patterns. Yet there is a limit to oddity, where it ceases to be meaningful. Square birds in purple sauce? These elements don’t fit into a coherent hole. There has to be a “bridging” moment where the pieces shift together, and create something new. “Serpents” and “gates” are both powerful images in their own right, laden with symbolic significance – but a serpent-gate? That is surely something more. A “serpent gate mirror”? Now we are getting there. However, we are also getting more specific, which may limit our options, and reduce us to obvious paths where potent images are diluted back to cliché.  Results open to interpretation are better than static and immutable ones. This lies at the heart of the “oracular” power of tables – they tell the truth, but the truth they tell is different from perspective to perspective. This is a tricky balance to achieve – specific enough to be powerful, general enough to fit many different situations – and just vague enough. Dreams are the classic go-to example (and indeed, the Surrealists had already discovered this, including the use of random generation to combine dream-images). The best tables can be reused again and again, because their results have a universal character. This does not mean generic. The “Ruins & Relics” table from Ready Ref Sheets, the random wilderness encounter charts in the Dungeon Masters Guide, or the very first “Locations (Overview)” table in the Tome of Adventure Design all have a strong personality them that influences their results. Indeed, “Ruins & Relics” is as core to the identity of the Wilderlands as the DMG charts to “the AD&D campaign”, and the ToAD table to Mythmere’s vision of “weird fantasy” as the key to the rediscovery of old-school gaming. These tables are foundational.
And finally, there is randomness. A totally random generator is just the noise of a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. It may produce something good – but it won’t. A random generator whose results can be predicted, or which does not produce novelty, is superfluous: everyone possesses the ideas it produces by default. And there is a third, subtle distinction: while a kaleidoscope always produces something different, it always produces the same thing – a kaleidoscopic image. It is a powerful tool, but limited.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05 released in PDF

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 12:47
New PDF releases
I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF versions of The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05, now available from DriveThruRPG. The Lost Valley offers a 6th to 8th level wilderness adventure, a journey to a lost world inhabited by prehistoric beasts and other, even stranger beings. This module was written by Gabor Csomos, and won first place at a 2018 adventure design contest. Second place went to The Enchantment of Vashundara, an excellent adventure in its own right. This module, written by Zsolt Varga, is featured in Echoes #05. The zine also introduces two towns: Tirwas is a community once governed by egalitarian customs, and now divided between a group of powerful Landlords, while Sleepy Haven is a seemingly idyllic coastal settlement… or is it? A second adventure, set in a network of abandoned storehouses and caverns beneath Tirwas, is also featured.
Both PDF publications are provided free to those who have ordered them in print – and print copies are still available at However, if you wish to place a print order, it may be a good idea to wait a week for the next EMDT release, which is…
LurkingThe Nocturnal Table! (And no, that will not be the final cover on the left – it is being finalised by Matthew Ray.) This supplement is a “city adventure game aid”, originally written in 2010 as an article for Knockspell magazine, and later expanded for standalone publication (which did not happen at that time). A Hungarian edition was released somewhat later, and was used extensively in our city adventures and campaigns. The present English edition, a hefty 60 pages with lavish illustrations by Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy, features further expansions and additions based on those adventures.
At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. However, this is just one part of the deal – further random charts and guidelines are provided for running city scenarios featuring thievery, fantastic conspiracies, and weird locations. Want to generate a random warehouse’s worth of valuables to plunder? Create a shady locale to meet with a contact? See what was being carried by that patrician you have just pickpocketed? All that, and more are at your disposal in the supplement. This is a supplement designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible.
Hopefully going on sale next weekend!

In other news, what am I working on? My focus as of late has been mainly on Castle Xyntillan, a large funhouse megadungeon for Swords&Wizardry. This work is in the first proofreading stage (and a short appendix or two are still to be finalised), and the first art orders are starting to roll in. I have also received the first versions of the poster maps (note plural) by Rob Conley, and I must say they are beautiful examples of gaming cartography. These will be maps to both use at the table and marvel at! (And I hope you will agree on this point when you see them.) The current plan for Xyntillan is a 112-page full-sized hardcover, roughly the size of the 1stedition Monster Manual, with four separate map sheets on durable paper. I am shooting for Christmas, and we will see if we get there on time. With a project that has been in progress in one form or another since 2006, you start to accept small delays in the hope the end result will make up for it.
And speaking of delays, Echoes #06 is obviously going to be late. It looks like a mid-September release (which is still fairly realistic), and I hope it will be worth the wait, too. Issue #06 will feature some of the materials which have provided the zine’s raison d'être, the stuff I really wanted to see in print. We will be visiting the City of Vultures!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[STUFF] Further Adventures in Morthimion – LEVEL 2

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 20:14
Around the corner, you see...
[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]
From the beginning, Castle Morthimion has been intended as a “filler” dungeon we could turn to when I was too busy to prepare for our regular games, or when we didn’t have a sufficient player turnout for campaign play. The great thing about OD&D is that you can play it on and off in gaps of time – for example, on a train.
Which reminds me, last weekend I was happy to welcome Santiago Oría (known on various forums as Zulgyan) in Hungary, and in between showing him the sights, and arranging a larger game in the City of Vulture with the gang, we had a three-hour train ride which we spent playing OD&D. You can play a pretty functional pickup game of OD&D in that fixed time period, and there was even time for a second expedition.
Santiago's Map
  • Santiago rolled up Sondor, a second level Cleric, hired a torchbearer named Falco, and two henchmen named Gary and Dave, and went adventuring in the dungeons of Morthimion.
  • Sondor, Adept of Law, was doing fairly well exploring the first level and avoiding attracting too much attention (mainly by avoiding stuck doors – battering those down could get noisy). OD&D’s pursuit rules, which take into account corners, doors and secret doors to break line of sight, were put to good use.
  • This stretch of good fortune lasted until he snuck into the treasury of a bandit group through an unguarded secret door, and got promptly killed by trying to pick up a Chaotic sword (there is a less known OD&D rule to this effect).
  • Gary and Dave, now left without a leader, quickly and silently collected the rest of the treasure, and left quietly. On the way out, they met a group of scary magic-users from the deeper dungeons, who threathened them to hand over most of their treasure or suffer the consequences. They did, and the M-Us did not press further, leaving them with some money and two potions (animal control, gaseous form). With this, they returned to the surface.
  • Dave, who was the strongest of the group (with six whopping hit points!), used up 250 gp to promote himself from a henchman into a classed Fighting Man (+1 Hp), and assumed command. He hired two more stable boys (Bob and Targo), and a henchman named Alex. Thus outfitted, they returned to Morthimion.
  • The company explored most of the central area, mostly avoiding fights with larger groups, and using the potion of gasesous form for reconnaissance 8which proved a smart move).
  • They eventually found a room with spiders. Here, Falco and Targo were bitten by spiders with slow-acting deadly poison. This was also when we were getting close to the end of the ride, so the company had to roll on The Table of Terror, and the entire expedition was lost in the Underworld! So ended Santiago’s expedition to the dungeons of Morthimion. (I must say he is a careful and shrewd player – he did very well on the solo expeditions, and would have likely emerged victorious if our time had not been up.)

Two days later, we played another session with the regular group (and a new player). This was also a two-expedition game, but with a larger adventuring party, and thus more battle.
  • The expedition consisted of Tumak the Shaman, 2nd level Cleric of Chaos; Brother Tivold, 3rdlevel Cleric of Law (who had levelled up after our first game); Xingar the 2ndlevel Fighting Man; and Fatalgor the Last Thief, 2nd level Thief (since we conclusively switched to LBB-only OD&D, no thieves exist in the world now except Fatalgor). The characters also brought one torchbearer/porter (Tiho) and five henchmen (Sanislo , Max, Mario the Peg-Legged, Miriam and Mao’nica the Barbarian).
  • Miriam was killed by a servant zombie, and Mao’nica fell into a pit and died when trying to open a false door. The callous treatment of the companions almost triggered a small rebellion, but eventually, the matter was settled with promises of a fat bonus.
  • In this game, the two rival Clerics – who were trying to convert each other – proved very useful, since they could speak to differently aligned dungeon inhabitants. Negotiating with the denizens – orcs, goblins, and rival adventuring parties – avoided multiple dangerous fights.
  • Do not speak of the yeti! Fatalgor did, and I immediately rolled a yeti (“white apes”) encounter on the random encounter tables. These are dangerous critters from the lower levels, but they could be placated with a bunch of food found in a previous storeroom.
  • They actually found the spider room where Santiago’s expedition ended! This time, they slammed the door on the spiders within before they could come out, and used an old drill found lying around in a storeroom to drill a hole in the door, which they then filled with oil to burn out the room. (…destroying a pair of elven boots in the process…)
  • After returning to the surface, they visited Lodobar’s Tavern, a disreputable establishment in the nearby woods. Lodobar had a few special items for sale, including a portable hole costing a whopping 6000 gp. However, all they had now was a 500 gp silver rose. They used the proceeds to rest for a week, and recruit new henchmen, because Tiho and Max chose to retire with their share.
  • In the second expedition, the henchmen were Sanislo, Mario the Peg-Legged, Richard the Rider, Rudolf (who had already been “down there”, and knew a thing or two about the dungeons), Renato and Roxana.
  • This was a less lucky venture, although they found a few interesting places which will come handy later. They chose to break off the nose of a warrior-shaped column, which turned into a 3rdlevel Fighting Man along with two companions. These higher-level opponents made short work of poor Richard and Roxana.
  • However, the company did find a collection of valuable masks, killed off a pool of electric eels with food treated with Tumak the Shaman’s foul food and water spell (a reversed spell he could use as an anti-cleric). This resulted in a good haul stolen from a group of orcs absorbed by playing a board game. They also learned about a group of cooks dwelling on the second level, and found a long, dark passage closed off with a barred gate and a mysterious “Castle Morthimion, Department of Construction” sign. 

Updated SidecutThe first playtest in April gave Morthimion a more precise shape and focus. While some concessions were made to modernity during the first game (“Greyhawk” additions like differentiated HD, higher ability score bonuses, and the Thief class), I have since turned the game into a purist LBB-only endeavour. The 1d6 Hp hit die against the 1d6 Hp damage your weapons are doing is an interesting and neat balance, and the game has worked eminently well in this form. Indeed, LBB-only OD&D is proving a robust game of exploration, negotiation and careful risk management. I still do employ some house rules, adopted from Dungeons & Companions, a Hungarian S&W clone. 

  • Ability scores of 15 or higher come with a +1 bonus (yeah, I could not fully abandon this).
  • Helmets stop one killing blow for player characters (but not companions).
  • A natural 20 deals maximum (6) damage.
  • Roll-under 2d6 morale is in effect for companions. Initial morale is based on PC charisma and a random factor. Morale tests permanently reduce ML by one point, which is mostly not possible to restore, so companions will eventually leave the company to retire or pursue their own interests. I find this morale system the most elegant I know of (and have published it in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01). I am also using a “companion quirks” table that will be released with Castle Xyntillan.

This is, however, it. The dungeons themselves also follow a LBB-only philosophy. If it is in the Original D&D set, I am using it without reservations. If there is a gap that needs to be filled (e.g. animal statistics, or a collection of flying monsters for The Sideways Level), I fill that gap with my own ideas. No Greyhawk material needs apply! I find that this special creative focus keeps me grounded, and anchors this particular creative project. It is very inspiring.
Level 2And now the goods! The dungeons have not been my primary focus these months, but I do have the second level ready, and am making progress on two more dungeon levels and “Domains of the Faerie Princes”, the wilderness section (which is a small hex-crawl instead of the forest maze I had originally planned).
The current download will include the first two levels. The first one was already available; the second adds The Servants’ Quarters. This is a larger and more “dense” dungeon section with more sub-areas per keyed location, about twice the length of the Dungeons (other levels will usually be smaller). The power level is also the equivalent of a first-level OD&D dungeon, but things are just a bit more risky, and the rewards just a bit better. There is a dragon-guarded treasury, a kitchen I am particularly fond of, and you can even meet the Faerie Princes… if you are sufficiently reckless or unlucky.
Additionally, things have been reformatted a little, including switching to the OD&D-specific Futura font, there is a new sidecut to reflect the dungeon’s evolution, and I added monster stats which were not found in the original download (these follow the pre-Greyhawk conventions). Fight On!
Download: Castle Morthimion - Levels 1-2 (3 MB PDF)
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] The Sinister Secret of THAC0

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 19:06

It is called ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons, meme lady!Of all things AD&D, THAC0 may have the most undeserved bad reputation. You will find people going to war for the honour of the weapon vs. AC table, weapon speed factors (I personally like them), level limits (damn right!) and grappling, but THAC0’s treatment is at best apologetic. Neither the TRV old-schoolers nor the new kids like it much, while both sides find it a convenient target to point and laugh at. Convoluted, counter-intuitive, a chore, “high math” – it has all been said before. 
In fact, THAC0 is significantly easier and more elegant than it looks. This post, then, is written in the interest of public information – clearing the record and venturing a guess why THAC0’s status has suffered undeservedly. (Similar points have been made in the past, but sometimes, repeating something can be useful. Surely, people are still stubbornly wrong about THAC0’s merits!)
The simple elegance of the THAC0 mechanic is easy to grasp. Here is how THAC0-based combat works:
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Roll 1d20 for your attack and subtract it from your THAC0.
  3. The resulting value is the AC you hit.

That’s it. Now you can do THAC0!
For example, your THAC0 is 20. You roll 10. 20-10=10. You hit AC 10.Or your THAC0 is 14. You roll 17. 14-17=-3. You hit AC -3.In the most complicated case you may face, your THAC0 is 14 but the GM grants you a 2 to hit bonus for attacking from higher ground. You roll 12 and apply the modifier, making 14. 14-14=0. You hit AC 0.
THAC0 in the Nobody Cares
About Rath EditionHardly rocket science. But if it is so simple, what has made THAC0 the red-headed stepchild of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® mechanics? The answer is depressingly simple: the THAC0 I described is not the THAC0 AD&D has actually tried to sell us. Here is the rule from the 2e Player’s Handbook (full text in image to the right):
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Subtract the target’s AC value.
  3. Roll 1d20 and beat the resulting value.

To make THAC0 work with this method, you need to know your opponent’s AC – an information which is kept by the GM, and (often rightfully) hidden from the players until combat develops. In comparison, the first method keeps GM information in the GM’s hands, and preserves some of the “fog of war” of the game (of course, the players will eventually figure out how well their opponents are fighting, which is a fine learning process).
The second approach, while it uses the same number, removes both some of the speed and some of the convenience of the mechanic. It does not grant a clear benefit over combat matrices (we will not go into esoterica like “repeating 20s” this time). However, it is clearly inferior to the first take, which is a smooth subtraction-based mechanic, and it is easy to cite 3rd edition’s Base Attack Bonus + 1d20 vs. AC method as an improvement. What makes the case of THAC0 more curious is how many of the explanations start from the second variety, and how few people seem to even know of the first. It is not entirely obscure – you can find it in these posts Mixed Signals and THAC0 Dragon (but then someone with that handle would probably know his THAC0) – but it is not the common knowledge it should be.
Patient ZeroThe ultimate reason may be simple inertia. You can learn about THAC0’s history from this post by Jon Peterson (including valuable comments by Lawrence Schick, who had proposed, but failed to get an ascending AC system implemented), and he posts the rule as it had first appeared in a 1978 copy of Alarums & Excursions. The implementation is clearly the same as the 2e version; however, here the GM is supposed to calculate and keep a record of character THAC0s. This makes much more sense by separating player and GM knowledge, but it does offload extra work on the GM. Interestingly, a 2017 post on Hexcellencyoutlines a card-based method that seems to reinvent this practice! In any case, you can draw a straight line right from the A&E piece to the 2e rulebooks – THAC0 had remained remarkably stable despite the (theoretical) existence of a more efficient algorithm for its use.
Monster cards
So that is the sad tale of THAC0, which had never lived up to its real potential, and has mostly been replaced either by ascending AC systems or a return to combat tables. It is one method of combat among many – just make sure to stick with the first version if you are actually using it.
Now it makes complete sense

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Bitterroot Briar

Sun, 06/30/2019 - 21:37

Bitterroot Briar (2013)by Lang WatersPublished by Expeditious Retreat Press2nd to 4th level
Bitterroot BriarEnchanted forests may be the number one staple of fantasy literature (probably going back to our caveman ancestors’ fireside tales), yet good forest adventures are hard to come by – which is why I tend to seek them out with particular interest. Bitterroot Briar is one of these modules: it revolves around an elusive enchanted grove surrounded by a ring of impenetrable briars, and hiding a series of lost mysteries.
Unfortunately, this scenario feels bloated at only 10 pages (not counting the cover and the OGL). It spends a paragraph where a good sentence would suffice. An overwrought backstory is followed by the description of an uninteresting village community. There is an area map which has no function whatsoever: the wilderness it depicts is represented by a random encounter chart, while the main adventure location’s position is entirely subjective. No other areas are described, or even located on this map. It is a mystery. Getting to the briar has no rhyme or reason to it. It is not at a specific location, so you can’t look for it; and there is no transparent means of getting there. It is mostly built on a random encounter chart and GM fiat.
Some things probably wouldn’t work so well at the table either. There is a one-column “Lore” section in the appendix with a childrens’s song containing important clues for the inside of the grove, but I know no GM who would break into a song during a game session, and thanks God for that. No, we didn’t sing those Dragonlance love poems either. This is not the best means of giving the characters a hint.
Map to NowhereThe grove itself is an interesting concept: an anomaly of time and space, where visitors are shrunk to minimal size, and time passes out of synch with the normal world. As a neat touch, some of the grove’s inhabitants are transformed humans who were trapped here a time ago, and are now living as insects and other small animals while still acting according to their original personalities. The former good guys are bees and the former bad guys are ants, while the main antagonist is, of course, a snake. The seeds of an interesting adventure are there. Sadly, the actual location key does not actually do much with this material. Some entries are, again, a complete mystery:“B. DEAD TREE: This tree has already been looted.”“5. ORDINARY TREE: There is nothing of interest about this tree.”“9–11. ORDINARY TREES: These trees have nothing unusual about them.”Eight of the 26 keyed areas have nothing of interest to them. Eight more are lazily placed treasure drops: “F. DEAD TREE: An empty iron flask lies in the tangled roots of this dead tree, about a foot below the surface.” (Note unobtainable treasure.)“G. DEAD TREE: A sword +1 dangles from some wines in the mid-branchs [sic] of this suicide.” (???)
You get the idea. There is, simply, a lot of padding, and because of the padding, even things which would be otherwise okay feel like more padding. The module has four different random encounter charts (one for the surrounding woodlands, one for the grove, one for the pools and one for a mini-dungeon found in a fallen oak). You would never notice, or even consider it a feature if the module had an abundance of useful content. But this is a module which takes its sweet time on these side issues, and leaves us hanging when it comes to the actual worthwhile content.
There is some potential there: conflict between the miniature denizens of the grove, the return of old history, treachery in the village that is linked to the grove, some interesting faerie animal characters – all of these could be incorporated into a fun, whimsical module, and it wouldn’t have to be longer than the present work. However, it never becomes a cohesive whole. Worse, once you strip out the chaff, not much of a location that could be used on its own. Some encounters are actually rather imaginative or at least moody, but this is a module where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Bitterroot Briar is frustrating because you see flashes of unrealised potential, but no easy way to set things right. Unfortunately, something elusive seems to have been lost in the writing here.
No playtesters are credited in this adventure.
Rating: ** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs