Beyond Fomalhaut

Subscribe to Beyond Fomalhaut feed
Updated: 2 days 20 hours ago

[REVIEW] Alchymystyk Hoosegow

Thu, 09/21/2023 - 19:44

Alchymystyk HoosegowAlchymystyk Hoosegow (2023)

by Alex Zisch


Level 7 “with some fatalities”

Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

High funhouse (as in “this guy must be high”) is kind of a lost art in adventure design. Puzzle-oriented, gameplay-heavy adventures with a strong emphasis on player skill and anachronistic comedic settings were the bread and butter of early D&D, but are rarely encountered in modern old-school, although they still exist in the forbidden pamphlets of the Scribes of Sparn, Unbalanced Dice Games, and sometimes Buddyscott Entertainment, Incorporated. Alchymystyk Hoosegow throws down the gauntlet and delivers high funhouse like no other.

What we get is a complex adventure site: an abandoned penitentiary converted into the workshop of an imprisoned alchemist, and left to the elements and various monsters. The first thing that strikes the reader is the dense, oddball writing: “The plateau backs up to the mountains where the talus contains an inky orifice. The mine opening has wagon-sized piles of clay soil spread nearby. A belching beehive-shaped smoke stack emerges from the ridge. (…) A species of Brobdignag proportions swarm the countryside. Mega-insects dart around chasing easy prey. They especially strike single file hikers, rock climbers and sleeping campers.” Or: “Clad in jade cloaks, two elves and two jackalweres (in human form) keep watch behind a parapet with a box of 500 arrows and 30 spears. A brass bell and cymbal can be gonged to raise the alarm. The jackalweres and foxwoman communicate in their alignment tongue with percussive signals. A trap door connects to the stair down”  The verbiage is strange and laden with four-dollar words (adjusted for inflation), but it is essential: you get a strong idea of places, personalities and situations. This allows the author to cram an enormous amount of content into the contest page count, even allowing for homemade art and permanent marker cartography that will win no beauty contest, but… well, it will win no beauty contest, and let’s leave it at that.

While the focus is on the alchemist’s two-level “science bunker”, the surface area and three entry levels connected to the main deal are also described in broad strokes. The oddball energy is quickly unleashed. Giant cranes trudge through contaminated water, hunting for fish. A foxwoman rules a gaggle of charmed elven simps from her tower. Orc miners, generally peaceful, make deliveries for their mining operation. Margoyles collect rocks. There is just enough to kick the GM’s mind in a good direction, and let things develop. The entry levels are simplistic, sketched, but conceptually strong, each with a different dynamic. The foxwoman and her elves control the surface, and may offer a bargain to plunder the alchemist’s bunker. The orcs are working class guys just out to make a buck. A prison level is haunted by its jailers and inmates, and a furnace level is operated by salamanders creating expensive and bizarre ceramics in a fiery workshop inimical to human life. Each of these levels have their own logic and “game rules”, which the players must discover and exploit.

Periodic table-shaped rooms

The main deal, though, is the alchemist lair, a 36+12-room puzzle dungeon that serves as a storehouse for crazy alchemy-themed puzzle rooms. Lab equipment, transformation and potion miscibility experiments are offered in dazzling variety, from the relatively simple to the supremely complex. They are not really interconnected for the most part except by theme; they are isolated setpiece rooms to be messed with and exploited for profit. There is a lot of raw, playful creativity exploiting magic items and monsters, involving a strong theme of trickery. Tiny gnomic creatures stored in the vats of a bio-lab grow into giant spriggans to ambush their rescuers, while a bonsai is a disguised hangman tree patiently waiting for its prey. The puzzles are multi-layered. For example, a giant “pool table” has mastodon ivory balls worth 25 gp each, and the holes contain various liquids from port wine to cyanide and a living mustard jelly… the real treasure being the pool stick (a quarterstaff +1 with a chalky tip).

High artTreasure is hidden carefully – potions disguised as paint pots, opening a secret door to even better treasures if sorted into the colours of the rainbow; a “floating” dunce cap that’s just sitting on top of an invisible iron flask, and so on. There is generous mundane and magical loot scattered around, if you can recognise and obtain it, but the best stuff tends to be behind the really fiendish puzzles. The traps are also hilariously deadly: consider an invisible inkwell on a writing desk, whose contents develops into a cloudkill spell if carelessly knocked over (with enough clues to give a hint to clever players and goad the foolhardy into making a deadly mistake). Of course, it is all very silly, veering into doggerel verses, groanworthy puns (“Meat the Beetles”, a book by Beer Brewbeck), and bizarre monster-NPCs. The greatest treasures are locked away on the lowest level, the alchemist’s treasury and vault – from pillars of pure gold to purple “Crown Royal” bags doubling as bags of holding, filled with 15,000 gp worth of golden dice. The difficulty curve also increases here, and both monsters and puzzles become formidable for the level range.

Alchymystyk Hoosegow is a very peculiar module occupying a very specific niche. Players will love it if you enjoy puzzle-solving and foiling the GM’s clever tricks in a place governed by cartoon/adventure game logic, and probably have a bad time if they prefer their games serious and more-or-less plausible. It is pure gamergaming, and does that very well. Hoosegow, by the way, means a jailhouse. No, I have never heard this one either. Were drugs involved in the creation of this adventure? Well…

This module credits its playtesters properly.

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan – Spanish edition Kickstarter // Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games

Tue, 09/19/2023 - 20:15

Castillo Xyntillan!I am pleased to draw your attention to the ongoing Kickstarter campaign for Castle Xyntillan, or, as we should say, Castillo Xyntillan! The module has been translated into the Spanish by Outremer Ediciones, and statted for Aventuras en La Marca del Este, a Spanish old-school game whose name translates as Adventures in the Eastern Marches. To quote the campaign,

Xyntillan Castle is a megadungeon for old-school gaming, but not one like any other. Throughout its pages you will discover a strange, terrifying and absurd world, governed by dream logic and the unusual fantasies of the Malévols, the degenerate and decadent family dynasty that runs it.
In its more than 300 rooms you will find all kinds of curious inhabitants and dangerous challenges: talking paintings, murderous furniture, servants more loyal than death, maniacal vampires, forgetful ghosts, masked murderers, torturers in love, ancient curses, dead soldiers, glitter clouds , terrifying beasts and even the most dangerous trap ever devised, the masterpiece of death. However, most of these challenges do not have to be overcome by force of arms: many will be content with a few good words, some politeness, and asking for a favor from time to time.”
The campaign has already met its goal, so it is safe to say it will happen – the manuscript has been translated, laid out and proofread, and Outremer Ediciones has a proven track record delivering other games, including a very nice-looking translation of the Helvéczia boxed set. The physical qualities were great for Helvéczia, and should be the same here. If the campaign hits €8.000, patrons of the physical version will receive the d20 of Victory, and with that name, I am fairly sure you need one of them. Back early and back often! Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games

In other news, I would also like to draw your interest to a new book series, Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games. Launched by Charybdis Press, this is a series that

“…explores the literature that influenced the modern genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and the roleplaying games they continue to inspire. The series is dedicated to all the hardworking game masters the world round and hopes these books provide more inspiration for their games. But while this series orients itself towards genre fiction and roleplaying games, it is also for general readers desiring quality copies of public domain works.”

These are, in essence, nicely edited, affordable paperback printings of works in the public domain. The titles chosen for the imprint are a bit further afield from the pulp classics; they come from the corpus of adventure stories which indirectly inspired the pulps, but are fairly obscure to the modern reader. As such, they are a great source of reading material that would, paradoxically, feel both familiar and new. The titles now available mostly include works from the picaresque tradition:

  • Three Northern Love Stories, and Other Tales: A collection of mediaeval Icelandic stories, from The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald to The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Smitten.
  • The Life and Adventures of Guzman d’Alfarache: One of the classic Spanish picaresque novels from 1599, featuring the misadventures of a low-class anti-hero in a world of thieves and reprobates. As usual in the genre, it is nominally written as a condemnation of sin, while vicariously revelling in it.
  • The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane: The classic 1715 French picaresque story (although one set in Spain), following another young fortune-seeker and social climber. Gil Blas is one of my favourite books; it is fast-paced (the events of the first twenty or thirty pages would make for a full novel in lesser hands), funny, and filled with wisdom.
  • Told by the Death’s Head: A 19th-century neo-picaresque by Hungarian novelist Mór Jókai, this is also a personal fave. Originally titled An Infamous Adventurer from the 17th Century, it is the unlikely tale of Hugo, a gunner put on trial for twenty-two crimes (“including bigamy, regicide, uxoricide, sorcery, piracy, Satanism, and cannibalism”), each worthy of execution, but each with a story behind it that makes Hugo the hero of the story. As always, Jókai is a master of the romantic adventure; he is smart (and a bit of a smartass), incisive, and fundamentally good-natured about human foibles. A paragon of patriotic liberalism, and always a man with a story to brighten your day.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination

Sun, 09/17/2023 - 15:50

Into the Caves of the
Pestilent AbominationInto the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination (2023)

by Marcelo P. Augusto

Published by Giallo Games

Levels 1–2

The idyllic rural community beset by a monstrous menace is one of the main plots in fantasy games, and the premise of a myriad low-level adventures, so much so that it probably beats “undead-haunted crypt of a local notability” and “Keep on the Borderlands” to the top spot. The majority of them are low-complexity affairs, with a straightforward setup and a mini-dungeon at the end. Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is a typical representative of the genre, and suffers from its typical issues, including a misunderstanding of what makes an adventure.

Where the rural idyll is concerned, the module lays it on thick: “The small community of Woodsmen Village lived in tranquility, without anything or anyone bothering its peaceful residents. Days come and go while the gardens sprout succulent and showy greens. Shepherds quietly follow their flocks of sheep to the nearby hills, and poultry farmers happily inspect the beautiful eggs their fat hens daily laid. (sic)” Woodsmen Village, mainly noted for the Fussy Lark tavern and the magical throwing axe of a dwarf hero who has once helped the place, is troubled by a problem. A traveling priest who has settled near the village has gradually grown wild and transformed into a stinking, decrepit abomination, scaring the local folk and eventually moving on to killing the livestock. All this is told through an overly long backstory, which is then followed by a disproportionately simplistic adventure. The paragraph you have just read would have sufficed for an introduction conveying the same ideas the module spends four pages elaborating.

Ceci n'est pas une d'une
exploration hexadécimale.The adventure proper has a wilderness segment in this idyllic little land, which serves no purpose whatsoever. There is a hex map with nine keyed areas, but these are not functional encounters of interest to the adventurers. Rather, the locations mentioned in the backstory are put on the map, from the dwarf hero’s serene lakeside tomb (a nice touch: flowers and tobacco are deposited near the grave as a local tradition), to the location where a local kid once saw the Pestilent Abomination, the place where the torn off sheep’s head was found, and the other place where the mule carcass was discovered. These places are not encounters per se, since nothing really happens at them, nor do they offer useful information to finding the Abomination’s lair. As the module helpfully tells us, “It’s possible that the adventurers try to investigate the area, but they won’t find any clues about the recent incidents at the village.” The only function of the wilderness is to bump into random encounters, except they are mostly not functional encounters either, being local wildlife like deer, a snake, an eagle, shepherds and sheep, a mountain goat, 1d4 wolves, and travelling dwarves. This is mainly just set dressing before the adventure – but there is no adventure in these outdoors.

The actual adventure begins on page 12, where the module starts to describe the nearby swamp. Some of the encounters here are actual monsters and hazards (like a depth change), although this is basically just mucking around until you arbitrarily find a trail to the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination. The best part of the adventure is found here; an encounter with “the Swamp Predator”, “a bizarre cross between a crab and a spider”, which attacks from beneath the murky water of the lake before the cave entrance. This is simple but well done; an interesting monster with an effective setup.

The caves feature seven keyed areas (13 if we generously count sub-areas), and follows a linear path with three side-branches. There are the beginnings of interesting locales here. A half-flooded cave glittering with rough citrines and populated by giant salamanders (the adventure’s only treasures of note, worth a total of about 180 gp) is pretty cool. A completely flooded cave with a submerged quicksand pool is a good challenge of problem-solving and equipment use. The descriptions are sometimes effective, let down by parts of the key describing things which are evident from the map. In the final room, the adventure ends up as a bait-and-switch: you do not actually get to encounter the original Pestilent Abomination, as he has died a while ago and been replaced by a troll which has taken his place. This development is probably realistic, but disappointing. The shepherds and farmers of Woodsmen Village would probably see the troll as a fearsome monster of whispered legend. For the actual people playing this adventure, it is just a troll. It also nullifies the priest plotline the module had spent so much ink setting up. There is no treasure except a cursed necklace which transforms you into the Pestilent Abomination, and has an overlong backstory of its own.

Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is just an example of a general trend that has beset old-school adventure design, and it is perhaps not fair to single it out for criticism. It is one of many, and its sins are of the age which had birthed it. There are ways out, but they must be shown so people can walk them. Good adventure design is not that hard, and old-school gaming has much to offer in this respect. But regrettably, this is still really bad. The lesson is thus: sometimes, horrors are hidden around idyllic communities, and we must put them to the sword for the sake of peace and quiet.

This module credits its playtesters properly.

Rating: * / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Caves of Respite

Wed, 09/06/2023 - 17:02

Caves of RespiteCaves of Respite (2023)

by Jeff Heinen

Published by Hrafn Forge

Level 1 (Shadowdark)

Games which make a large splash tend to be inundated with ill-conceived crap from incompetents and shovelware artists. Mrög Brög, OSE, Troika, and now Shadowdark are just continuing a trend proudly set by OSRIC (Phil Reed showing up is a telltale sign). After a while, when the game’s reputation has been soundly thrashed by the talentless and opportunistic, the horde moves on to drag down the next hot thing. It is thus not easy to find the good stuff for these systems among the rubbish. This adventure is not rubbish: a sense of wonder, good presentation, and decent encounter design show signs of emerging competence.

The first thing that stands out is the sense of wonder. The caves are an old refuge of nobility; a place of beauty and history. The module is willing to be fantastic by digging into the foundations of D&D fantasy: places like a gallery, a magnificent feasting hall with a grand chandelier, and subterranean cave realms combine strong imagery with functional gameplay. The text helps establish a place with a good appeal to multiple senses. Let’s consider the setup for the first area: “Stench of stale sweat and damp earth. The light of your torches flickers off damp, roughly hewn cave walls. Four individuals, clearly not of noble birth, clad in mismatched leather armor, have set up a crude watchpost here. They bear the marks of hard lives, their faces hidden under layers of grime and rough stubble. A sense of alertness emanates from them, their hands never straying too far from their belted weapons. A pair of smoking braziers gives off an acrid smoke that burns the eyes and lungs, providing a meager light source.” It has a few remnants of boxed text – some entries imply player action a bit too much – but you can see good descriptions taking shape. It is not overlong, and it concentrates on visceral detail. Stale sweet and damp earth. Mismatched leather armour. Grime and rough stubble. Acrid smoke. You get a solid mental image out of them.

(My annotations)
Beginner modules are not an easy genre to write for: balancing limited character power with the need to design something that does not feel nerfed and limited is a challenge many fail at. Caves of Respite does a decent job at giving you a first-level dungeon in 24 keyed areas. That’s sort of the threshold of viability; under 20 is usually too small, although around 30-40 would be better. This cave system is large enough to accommodate player choices and offer alternate paths – the structure follows a larger loop crossed by two strings of rooms; not elaborate, but again, it does its job. If you added about 50% empty space to extend it a little, and introduced a few dead ends and side-branches, it would be spot on. What works particularly well, though, is the sense of progression. The entrance section is a bandit lair, barricaded off from the deeper caves. This is followed by natural caverns ranging from a mushroom garden to a chasm spanned by a rickety rope bridge. You eventually get to the lost noble sanctum with its set-piece rooms, and that’s a great sense of discovery, even in such a small dungeon. It transcends simple “cabinet contents” room design by exploring slightly out-of-place elements with a sense of the odd and fantastic, like an underground music room or a grand library. A definite high water mark.

The encounters run the gamut from combat to hazards and navigation challenges. Monster encounters include basic tactics – ettercaps try to ensnare the party, while kobolds and goblins are a cowardly lot who might be more likely to bargain for a surrender. Monster numbers could be increased a little; meeting 16 kobolds is just more exciting than a combined group of five kobolds and three goblins. Two ghouls in a room is just sad, balance be damned. There are opportunities for parlaying and making deals with the denizens.

There is decent signposting – three skeletons impaled by fallen stalactites followed by, well, falling stalactites. It is perhaps on the simple side, but this is a beginner affair. Occasional bad practices are still present: for example, the bandits’ belongings can potentially yield healing potions, lockpicks, and small amounts of gold. Well, do they yield them or not? Do they only yield them if it is convenient for the GM? This is a point where an adventure designer should put down his feet, at least by establishing some odds. There are a few “hidden niche contains some  loot” secrets too many – more variety here would be to the adventure’s benefit. The loot amounts are based on Shadowdark standards, so it is more “I am happy with this 50 gp” and less “you find 1000 gp, a meagre haul so far”.

The module follows a fairly effective presentation: keyworded player-side descriptions are followed by GM info in bullet points. The absence of monster stats is puzzling. Is this a Shadowdark thing or a module-specific thing? In either case, stats should be included, no ifs and no buts. The Achilles heel of the presentation is the map. Features noted in the text are often missing from the map – not on the level of furniture, but things like a grand stairway, a secret door, or a chasm and a rope bridge are the most notable cases. Sure, you can draw them in based on a read-through of the text, but then the author could have done the same. I wonder if this was originally a repurposed map or some sort of template.

All things considered, this is not bad at all, sort of like a good Basic D&D adventure. It is not yet at the point where decent becomes very good, but perhaps where good things starts to emerge – a good start. The author is someone who clearly has talent, and is getting more skilful. It would be good to see more.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul

Sun, 08/27/2023 - 21:47

The Arcane Font
of Hranadd-Zuul
[REVIEW] The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul (2023)

by Daedalus


Levels 2–4 “plus henchmen”

Hello, and welcome to part SIX of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

A shrine known for a font that can grant magical powers for a price has become the focus of multiple competing groups. A magic-user, looking for the font’s energies, has been captivated by an evil plant monster, and serves it loyally. A band of grimlocks want to destroy the plant to worship the font as a manifestation of their god. A drow swordswoman has escaped here with a macguffin, and is pursued by a humanoid band who want her dead and the macguffin for themselves. The plant monster wants to enthrall and feed on more victims. This adventure uses a Dyson Logos map for a small dungeon adventure with 25 keyed areas, and lets loose the PCs among the factions.

Designed to be
messed withThe result is a sort of compendium of dungeon design good practices – a good mixture of encounter types, dungeon factions, non-linearity, monster tactics and a sense of wonder are all present. The locale is effective as a derelict place of mystery, with the statues of mysterious goddesses, scavengers which have moved in, and enigmatic puzzles you can mess with. This element of exploration and interaction is the adventure’s strongest point; whether it is messing with two magical mirrors that allow remote observation of key locales, stealing votive coins from the shrine of a death goddess, or exploring a laboratory setpiece, fun possibilities are presented and explored. It is not just single-function stuff – there are deeper layers of interaction and multiple possibilities to explore. There are enough environmental clues to help you along, but experimentation is tempting. You find a dead body, followed by a killer trap, and if you fall for it, it is richly deserved. The combat encounters offer good variety – there is a battle on a bridge spanning a larger cavern with a swarm of spiders dropping down from the ceiling that should warm every GM’s heart, a large grimlock gathering you can crash, or moving NPCs who are all different in their approach and threat type.

The faction conflict is central to the adventure, and it is impressively developed. There are opposing forces active in the area, they are on the move, and some of them also have bases to fall back to. This is quite outstanding, although as it tends to be, the dungeon is too small for this scope of intrigue. It is a grand play on a small stage – to work properly, it would need a place that would be three or more times as large, with generous empty space between the keyed areas.

Discovering the Ruined e-Thot RoomUser-friendly presentation is just as prominent in The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul, and every trick from the book is on display. Room entries use multiple-level bullet-point formatting, underlining, cross-referencing, the works. NPC motivations are explained, terrain features described exactly, there is a table breaking down XP and treasure, and even a “what happens after the adventure” page. Paradoxically, this becomes the module’s largest flaw and the main obstacle to actually using it. Things are over-explained in the text – describing the presence of mundane doors where the map would suffice, or dwelling on insignificant dungeon clutter, or the motivations of a mimic and a carrion crawler (it is what you expect). Underlined keywords are too frequent, and don’t draw our eyes to the relevant bits. The effect of presenting the entire text in two-level bullet pontese is more disorienting than helpful – a lot of it would have worked better as plain text, with the bullet points reserved for relevant material. The point is not that these layout practices aren’t useful, but that their role should be supportive, not overwhelming. Here, it is overwhelming.

All things considered, this is a decent adventure, but it would be a better one if it had a larger sscope, and especially if it wasn’t trying to be so helpful. There are strong elements in the factions, the exploration, and the generally well-written text, but in the end, we return to the eternal wisdom: less is sometimes more. Would I use the adventure as it is? No. Would I be interested in a new one that fixed its issues but kept its good points? Definitely.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Ship of Fate

Wed, 08/16/2023 - 08:20

Trippy.Ship of Fate (2023)

by Jonathan Becker


Levels 10–14 “plus assorted henchmen”

Hello, and welcome to part FIVE of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Michael Moorcock’s psychedelic fantasies are the essential fodder for high-level D&D: cosmic struggles, godlike villains, heroes wielding magic beyond comprehension, and completely out-there set-pieces where the conventions of your usual fantasy world no longer apply. People have been adapting Moorcock’s stories ever since the beginning (Blackrazor is just one of the examples), and Ship of Fate follows in the footsteps of this tradition. The call of adventure reaches the greatest heroes of the realm to sail to another world and stop a pair of sorcerers messing with the very fabric of the multiverse. Are they up for the challenge? Find out in this high-level, tournament-style adventure.

Contrary to what you might expect from the premise, the titular Ship of Fate is not the focus; it is the vehicle that takes you there – sort of an extended briefing, although one with charismatic NPCs and a really swanky cosmic ship that can get you from anywhere to anywhere. Perhaps a longer, non-contest module could have something for the journey (a few encounters and locations on the otherworldly Dunkle Zee, no doubt populated by the perfidious windmill-men by the sound of it?), but here, you are brought right to the shores of the island where the actual target, a bizarre structure combining mechanical and living parts, serves as the site of a dungeon with 36 key locations. It is a clear Agak and Gagak homage from The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, while also drawing on the AD&D classics: the hub-and-spokes setup of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and the funfair ride aspects of White Plume Mountain.

This is definitely high-stakes, high-skill AD&D which throws formidable challenges at a pack of powerful PCs and their henchmen (three per each character). Encountering 96 stirges, 3 ropers or 7 shadow demons, or finding a chamber whose walls are just studded with gemstones (total value 62,500 gp) is just the beginning. It is not just a room with a mirror of opposition; it is a hallway with several dozen mirrors with ten mirrors of opposition, for the ultimate mirror maze battle (very Elric). The wealth of magic items is staggering, probably exceeding the total bounty of your usual modern “OSR” campaign. But this is a sort of cosmic piggy bank – you are contending with the forces of the multiverse, and you are sharing in the goods (all beyond the modest baseline reward of 50,000 gp per character). These are the standard encounters before things are ratcheted up for the finale. As a nice touch, the module lets you use your stuff. There are restrictions on spell recovery and a loosely set time limit, but no bullshit “magical detection and passwall will not work here for reasons” nerfing. The contest of powers is not rigged.

The dungeon wears the heavy Tsojcanth / White Plume Mountain influences on its sleeve. It follows a structure where multiple entrances lead through gauntlet-like sequences of setpiece rooms into the central area. The simple trick of sloping corridors crossing above or below each other jazzes up the otherwise simple layout. It is peak funhouse; there is little connection between individual encounter setups, and you are sort of moving from clever bubble to clever bubble. The encounters are often “monster in a room” style, almost Monty Haul in the original sense. The effect is disjointed, which is not inappropriate for a weird extraplanar funhouse.

However, the true skill lies in the way these encounters are constructed (once again, the strong points of S2 and S4). No two encounters are alike, and the variety of challenges you face is very pleasing. In fact, there are no two rooms with the same monsters in them, and the combat situations are highly different, supplied with strong, straightforward tactical notes which put them to very good use. There are strong elements of deception: something that looks like a particular monster if you don’t pay good attention, cursed items mixed in with the treasure, valuable but unreliable allies. The encounters often require quick thinking and the judicious use of those high-level capabilities (there are no recovery options, so resource conservation is also a concern). And it is plain wahoo fun: a planar gateway nexus can take you anywhere from John Carter’s Mars to Kyrinn Eis’s World of Urutsk, or you can overload the control matrix by inputting more high-value gems than it can bear, and trigger an explosion for 3d6*10 Hp. You can’t do that in a copper piece-standard rat dungeon.

Unlike the surrounding dungeon texture, the central hub, the lair of the two otherworldy sorcerers (Giz-Kala and Giz-Aga), is interconnected, and that will be the players’ problem: two powerful antagonists with high control over their environment, and the ability to draw in reinforcements hitting characters’ sensitive spots from multiple directions (going from single monster type encounters to a multi-monster combined arms affair) is going to be a brutal test of skill and luck. They also have the best of the best in magic – a staff of power, high-level spells used for both defence, crowd control and destruction, and a selection of defensive items to round out the collection. Even more than the rest of the adventure, this will require strong GMing skills to run right.

There are some presentation issues with the module. The text is clearly and effectively written – this is how it should be done. However, for such a complex thing drawing on a myriad monsters from several disparate sources, the lack of a stat roster, and (if we may be impertinent, pretty please) a Hp sheet is a major omission. With the amount of mnstrs, and particularly the final battle, you need to keep track of this because your attention will be otherwise occupied. There is an appendix dedicated to lovingly detailed tournament characters (Sunstarr, King of Coins; Alejandro the dwarf, Lucius “Lucky” Drago, King of Wands; Bladehawk, Queen of Swords, and so on), but this is not supplied? The Scribes of Sparn – another fine purveyor of high-enery funhouse modules – did this well. How hard would it be if you wrote the thing and presumably already did the work? Some of the combat notes towards the end are also scattered a little, which could be improved on. Nothing major, but you can see it.

To sum up, Ship of Fate is a worthy tribute to its source material. It is very specific in what it does, and what it doesn’t do. For example, it doesn’t do connectedness very well – it is a grab-bag of wild stuff thrown together willy-nilly. It is also not a particularly non-linear module; for all the alternate entrances, it is mostly a beeline through various setpieces to a climactic finale. The fascinating planar ship setup is not explored at all. But as a funhouse ride, it is really good. If you are something like thirteen (which I think was the case with the playtesters, who seem to be the author’s kids and perhaps a few more guests), this will be the coolest module you have played. In the often dour, misery-addicted, dirt-filtered “OSR” scene, it sure stands out, and does what it sets out with enthusiasm, imagination, and skill.

This module credits its playtesters, too.

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

Agak sucks, but this module does not.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Lair of the Brain Eaters

Mon, 07/10/2023 - 16:59

Based on a True StoryThe Lair of the Brain Eaters (2023)

by D.M. Ritzlin


Levels 1–3

Hello, and welcome to part FOUR of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

If you liked the book, you may also enjoy the adventure. This is the case with The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short dungeon module by D.M. Ritzlin based on The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short story by D.M. Ritzlin, published in Necromancy in Nilztiria by DMR Books, the best current publisher of sword&sorcery tales (the meaning of the acronym is left to the reader). The short story was a fun blend of Clark Ashton Smith and RPG fantasy; with a likeable if very horny protagonist, grotesque situations, and a plot resolution based on an AD&D random table. The adventure follows the same outlines, describing a network of caves beneath an ancient necropolis, populated by a band of mutated humans called the Yoinog, and a magic-user involved in bizarre, brain-related experiments. Add a set of colourful rumours, a random encounter chart, and an entrance trap that starts the action with a bang, it wastes no time getting to the point.

The scenario encompasses a total of 29 keyed areas over one larger level and two smallish sub-levels. It does not deal with the above-ground necropolis (kind of a missed opportunity), and focuses on the dungeon proper. The main level is nicely non-linear, with twisting cave passages put to good use. In addition to the brutish Yoinog, one might encounter typical “catacomb” monsters, spiced up with a few curveballs, like a captive girl doing the Yoinogs’ errands, and an amorous ghoul lusting after her. There is a decent mixture of encounters, and options to bypass or negotiate with the (barely) intelligent denizens. The central idea is grotesquerie, providing a peek into the debased living habits of the degenerate Yoinogs, and their preoccupation with cannibalism and brain-eating. This is played for dark comedy, although not as successfully as the short story itself – some of the sharp wit of the original is missing here.

The level is rounded out with traps, tricks, and a few hidden rooms. There is suitable treasure for its level range (some of it hidden cleverly but logically), and is right at a level of difficulty that should be deadly for low-level PCs, but not outstandingly so. Weirdness lurks around the edges, and it is used particularly well – not enough to overwhelm the adventure, but enough to give it a distinct style – a brain-plant, a cosmic gateway to explore at the characters’ peril, or a gauntlet of puzzle rooms leading to an alternate exit. The Yoinogs’ master, the bizarre magic-user Obb Nyreb, is worthy of the pen of Erol Otus (or the typewriter of Frank Herbert): a morbidly obese freak with an oddly shaped head and purple-spotted skin, floating through his chambers wearing only a loincloth and a girdle of levitation. His laboratory of magical brains procured from bizarre monsters (doubling as potions if you choose to consume them) is a high point. While many of the encounters are on the simple side, they often have an odd touch or peculiarity that makes them resonate – a collection of occult tomes doubling as treasure, a nest of escaped lab rats with special powers (these would be extremely deadly for first-levellers), or “1d4 stuporous Yoinogs (…) strewn about the room, recovering from drunken debauchery”.

All in all, Lair of the Brain Eaters is a decent, functional dungeon crawl if you enjoy the theme, and a place you could easily place in a necropolis near any major city. It captures the spirit of the weird tales upon which it was ultimately based, and has a good element of macabre comedy. The main criticism I could level at it concerns the module’s scope and ambitions. The 29 keyed areas are nothing to scoff at, and the content is good. But it really feels like there should have been more to it – if there were more strange tombs to pass through, more ways to access the dungeon (as is, the alternate entrance is nigh impossible to find unless following a particular rumour), and just slightly more depth to the encounters, it would be outstanding, and it doesn’t reach that level. Of course, if that’s the worst complaint you have, you don’t have much. I would use this, even along with my own (so far unpublished) necropolis adventure – which is part The Tale of Satampra Zeiros homage, but partly inspired by none other than D.M. Ritzlin’s excellent Lair of the Brain Eaters.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #11 and The Well of Frogs (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Fri, 06/30/2023 - 17:06
Echoes From Fomalhaut #11

On Windswept ShoresI am pleased to announce the publication of the eleventh issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 64-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Vincentas Saladis, and illustrations by Cameron Hawkey, and Graphite Prime.

This particular issue took a year to materialise, and it is therefore on the thicker side. It is also an issue dedicated to the harsh northern lands of the Twelve Kingdoms, following from the setting primer published in issue #09. This time, the zine presents hex-level descriptions from the areas where our campaign has taken place, From Brahalt to Hlute. This area encompasses a larger and a smaller island, ranging from densely populated domains to hinterlands where only gloomy remnants of once-prosperous kingdoms remain standing. As always, this is a setting for your own purposes, and a place where a band of determined aventures can accomplish much.

In addition to the hex-level writeup, the zine provides a description of the Monsters of the Isles, eight creatures commonly encountered in the Twelve Kingdoms, and in any other mist-shrouded land of your choice. Avoid the allure of the comely frost-maidens, contend with the strange thorn warriors, and strike bargains with the cunning tromes, master smiths of evil disposition (or loot their stores of enchanted weapons and armour). Even more generally, tables are provided to generate Curious Local Customs to provide basic ideas for eccentric communities living by strange codes of behaviour, and ruled by eccentric sovereigns. This is something that has seen use in multiple very different campaigns, from exotic sword & sorcery to more standard adventure fantasy.
The issue comes with two scenarios. Elven Grave (levels 5–7, 19 keyed areas) is a small tomb-robbing adventure in a ruined place of beauty, where an elven lord and his hosts were laid to rest. This is an adventure you could put on a treasure map, or just drop anywhere in an ongoing campaign.
Eimir: The Abbey’s Secret (levels 3–6, 18+31 locations) takes us to a coastal abbey where diligent but fanatical monks have built an outpost of Law, dedicated to spreading the light of civilisation to the surrounding lands. The scenario describes the abbey and the unruly community that has grown up around it, as well as a set of underground tunnels where the monks keep treasure and jealously guarded secrets. Whether the characters’ aim is infiltration, theft, rescue or just causing trouble, this is the place. Will they burn the abbey’s great library? One out of three test parties did not, so the odds are present!
The Vigil Guards Eimir's Peace
The Well of Frogs
Go down the Well.
You know you want to.I am also pleased to announce the publication of The Well of Frogs, a 32-page city and dungeon adventure for 1st to 2nd level characters by Istvan Boldog-Bernad, with cover art by Dorottya Fulop, and illustrations by Ferenc Fabian, Vincentas Saladis, Graphite Prime, the Original Masters, and the Robot Overlords. The module describes a neighbourhood of the crumbling city of Cassidum, its teeming alleyways the haunts of thieves and lowlives. But below the surface lie worse things still, left over from the days of the old empire or repurposed by dangerous eccentrics. Visiting the underground could not be easier: the Well of Frogs, in the middle of the infamous Piazza Dei Rospi, lies in plain sight, and nobody will prevent the brave and very foolish from descending into its maw. This is a module which has killed a respectable amount of player characters in playtest, more at its debut at North Texas RPG Con, and is ready to kill again. It can be used as a one-off, or as a nexus point for an extended campaign.
“Down below, beneath Cassidum’s stinking alleys and crumbling palaces, lie twisting passages and musty chambers with the secrets of the old days, and the subterranean dens of lowlife scum. But now, sordid disappearances haunt the Piazza dei Rospi, while the Literators’ Guild and Barbers’ Guild wage a bloody turf war for the surrounding streets. The key to these mysteries is a richly carved marble well decorated with the carvings of four ugly bullfrogs, whose depths hide things worse still. Some who descend shall win riches and battle-glory, while others will only find horrid death… down in The Well of Frogs!”
* * *
The print versions of the fanzine and the module are 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.
The forgs are waiting

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King

Mon, 06/26/2023 - 21:10

Twice the Heads,
Twice the Fun!Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King (2023)

by Hawk


Levels 8–10

Hello, and welcome to part THREE of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King takes you into the resting place of a murderous warlord who put his own servants and family to death to guard him in his unlife, which is definitely the thing to do if you live on a metal album cover. The scenario looks deceptively small at a first glance, but it turns out to be a lot larger than it seems. The scenario’s main value lies in how it is built into a carefully honed killing field where interlocking encounters present a deadly gauntlet over 31 keyed areas. A spirit of good competitive fun permeates the work – this is high-skill, high-stakes funhouse AD&D from an author who has mastered this particular game style, and developed the skills to present it effectively in written form.

The level range is getting respectable: this is clearly an adventure designed for capable parties with commensurate resources and solid player experience. Not every encounter has a clear solution, but the module trusts your players to use their capabilities to circumvent them on their own terms.  The module excels particularly at the baited trap encounter. The entrance is guarded by two bronze statues wielding massive hammers, which prove stubbornly inanimate right until the moment when all hell is let loose in the tomb, upon which they begin demolishing the bridge leading to the entrance, and set up a guard for escaping PCs. 10 mummies in another room do not react for 4 rounds, just enough to put the players’ mind at ease before springing into action. The titular crowns are out in the open in the tomb’s main hall, just within reach... you know you want to grab it, just to see what happens if you do. This is a nasty mousetrap of a module, where getting in is a lot easier than getting out. It is also a piggy bank of the really good stuff that makes it very tempting.

The skilful design extends to combat setups – both standard and souped-up monsters (e.g. a vampire with a nine lives stealer sword) are used to great effect. While tombs are mostly static locations, this one does a reasonably good job keeping things lively by presenting effective defences and throwing curveballs at the players (such as one group of hill giant skeletons trying to push PCs into a pit filled with ghasts under the cover of continual darkness, and another bunch throwing giant-sized pots of flaming oil from ledges above a rope bridge). Some of the higher-end guardians hunt intruders effectively until they can strike for maximum effect. These tactical setups and defensive schemes make for effective and deadly combinations – but at this level, you should have enough resources to crack them. Traps are likewise clever, like a statue with gemstone eyes that shoots disintegrating beams, and whose eyes explode if removed; or a room of stepping stones leading through a pit of slime that turns its victims into ghasts or wights – with some stepping stones rigged to just give way and sink if stepped on. These are killer encounters, but they are also killer encounters of the “I should have known!” variety. After a while, good play gives you an instinct for these things – a tingling sense in the back of your head. Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King rewards the use of this sense.

Finally, it is the small things that spice it up further. Minor descriptive detail is used to add a little extra even to the basics – random wights approach “screeching and screaming madly (no surprise)”, while ghasts “whisper words of death as they prowl”. A room of sarcophagi has a bunch of fun “sarcophagus contents” results like “Male and female skeletons embracing”, “Putrid tomb air is released: save vs. poison or contract random disease”, or “Mass of maggots eating corpse, underneath is M-U scroll”. This is decent extra mileage for what are mostly one- or two-line additions.

The presentation is rock solid. Everything is there on six pages, except one of those pages is dedicated to Hawk’s expressive rendition of the Twice-Crowned King, and ¾ of another is occupied by the map, so all that text occupies 4.25 pages of real estate. No space or word is wasted, but you do not feel short-charged in the end. It is all there and all effectively conveyed, from strategically placed stat boxes to room entries which are as long as they need to be, and not a line longer. While dense with text, this is, in fact, an example of what good layout should aspire to – a compact, play-friendly, effective presentation that puts all you need at your fingertips, but gets out of the way once that is accomplished. It is simple, elegant, and polished to perfection.

Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King rises high above the average, competent tomb-robbing scenario with its tight design and touches of individuality: it is a great example of doing great things with vanilla AD&D. It has charisma, an infectious sense of wild fun, and a strong understanding of what makes high-level, module-oriented play tick. Like a finely honed blade of the purest Japanese steel, it cuts through tanks and bad players alike, and brings a smile to your face when you hold it in your hands. High energy.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs


Tue, 06/13/2023 - 19:21

DNGN #1DNGN #1 (2022)

by Vasili Kaliman

Published by Singing Flame

Levels 1 and up

The Terminator is a marvel of design and engineering, a sleek technological terror moving with superhuman precision. Its body is surgical steel, its eyes penetrating optical cameras, its blood high-grade machine oil. It hunts and kills according to the precise programming with which the machine overlords had imbued it. The Terminator is very efficient, but is it good for us? The jury is still out on that one.

Anyway, DNGN #1 is a weird science-fantasy megadungeon published as a risographed zine; the whole thing is printed in pleasing red and blue ink, with 10 really neat full-page illustrations that could be used as an illustration booklet, and even a comic strip! The initial issue covers ten levels and a bonus side-adventure (same author using a skullfungus map). This is a zine which follows all the layout and writing trends championed over the last few years, and used particularly in various Old School Essentials releases. The text is terse, using bullet points to convey information exactly and briefly. Monster names are not only bolded, but highlighted in red. Dungeon maps are annotated with extra room information on floor type and illumination, simple dungeon dressing tables, and so on. Each of the ten levels in this issue uses a page for the maps, and the facing page for the room descriptions.

Here lies the problem, though. As a result of this ruthless and sleek efficiency, what we get is not necessarily what we were looking for in an adventure. How can ten levels of a megadungeon  fit into a 40-page zine (that is, 20 pages of that 40-page zine, since the art and the comic take up the rest)? Well, we have to adjust our expectations for a megadungeon. These dungeon levels have around 8-10 keyed rooms on the average. It is also not like they are 8-10 keyed rooms in a network of corridors and empty rooms (which would be the Castle Greyhawk model). It is really all there is to it.

Puny meatlings! This is, in fact, my final form!

The maps are on the simplistic side, mostly a few basic geometric shapes strung together. Levels connect to one another through one or two stairways, but they follow in succession, without side-levels or the possibility of choosing between a risky deeper delve or a safer expedition close to the surface. Secret rooms are found, but the discovery of cleverly concealed hidden sections, larger room complexes, themed sections, staging areas, and the stuff that makes megadungeon campaigns exciting are all missing. Pit traps, slopes, stairs within levels, water, collapsed terrain, level-spanning rooms – not present either (although there are two cavern levels). It is notable how much of a difference a good map makes. If the whole zine was dedicated to mapping out a single, sprawling dungeon level with decent map design and all sorts of interesting exploration choices, it would solve a lot of the scope/content issues. Here, you just cannot explore too much, since there is so little to explore, and your ability to make meaningful choices is likewise limited by the constrained environment. This is, simply put, not a megadungeon in any shape or form that meets the commonly accepted criteria. Even as a dungeon dungeon, it is smallish and very linear. It all fits on neatly arranged page pairs. It is geometrically perfect, no exceptions. Is that really a feature here? Does it help create a dungeon that is fascinating to a group of players, drawing them back again and again to go further and see more?

The room keys are a step better. A technological/cosmic weirdness theme connects the dungeon, from star god altars worshipped by duergars to vampires slumbering in a glass tank to magnetic statues wearing cybernetic armour and animating if the weapons captured by their magnetic powers are removed. Here, you can see good ideas and well-designed encounters, even if they are mostly simple. You can assemble a good dungeon from a handful of simple, good ideas. However, the strict double-page format serves as a barrier to what can be done. If there is a dungeon room that actually does something interesting an complex (like the magnetic statue room), there are inevitably a few more that amount to “empty”, “here is a bizarre item”, or “they are here and they attack”, because that’s what you have layout budget for (“7F > EMPTY ROOM. Completely empty.”). Does that make the adventure better? Are we better off following this super-efficient and scientifically perfected formatting? Is it to our benefit? Some designers – and this takes a keen skill and sharpened practice – can produce terse, enigmatic room entries which stimulate the imagination in just a few lines, and help the GM imagine the rest. There is an almost oracular quality to these entries, seen in Bob Bledsaw’s Tegel Manor or Michael Curtis’s Stonehell, since they tell much more than they actually speak, and can be interpreted very differently by different GMs. In these cases, minimalism works. But it does not work for everyone (for example, Gary Gygax developed a different style with different strengths), and it does not work reliably here. Sometimes the author gets it right, but he clearly has not mastered the format. Which is no surprise, since it is actually hard to get minimalism right.

Mechanical Skelebro
Offers a Helpful HintThe room mixture is a mishmash. Instead of concentrated mini-themes emerging from dungeon areas, it is just all random – a room inhabited by an illusionist berating 1d6+2 zombie servants lies next to a room of tapestries, which lies next to a room with three sarcophagi containing mummies, which lies next to a room with bandits, which lies next to a room of stalactites you can lick for 1 Hp of healing. The room-by-room entries can be good, but the big picture is incoherent – not by the standards of conventional realism, but even by the standards of a dungeon with a funhouse slant. The monster count is really low in both the room entries and the random encounter chart. You could see it is 1d6+2 zombies or 4 bandits or 3 mummies. You don’t really see OD&D’s hordes of lower-level opponents that come at you in an onslaught, to overwhelm the weak or get chopped into pieces by the strong. On the plus side, you can meet some really tough stuff that would require the characters to think before engaging, and run if they meet something they can’t handle. There is a purple worm right on level 2, hiding within a mass of tangled vines in a side room. That’s quite fun, although I suspect this module would have a high TPK potential if actually run.

And that’s the deal with DNGN #1. It shows strengths in some room entries, but it is a dungeon where the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. More than that, it shows, very clearly, how meme layout and graphic design fetishism have misled old-school designers. This zine uses a format which actively works against delivering a substantial, interesting adventure, and is particularly ill-suited for presenting a megadungeon. Old-school gaming’s efficiency movement has produced a perfected end product which does not work. And here is where we return to the Terminator analogy. It turns out we defeated the Terminator and kicked its shiny metal ass. We survived its initial attack, we outwitted its mechanical perfection, we learned its programmed tricks, and we crushed it under a hydraulic press. If it comes back, we will do it again. And that is because we are human. That is because we have something more than the machines have. We will prevail.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: ** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Carcass of Hope (2023)

Fri, 06/02/2023 - 10:29

The Carcass of HopeThe Carcass of Hope (2023)

by Zherbus


Levels 3–4

Hello, and welcome to part TWO of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Over the last decade, old-school publications have increasingly focused on non-standard settings and off-the-wall ideas. Getting away from the bland sort of high fantasy was a motivation, “Weird fantasy”, once a distinguishing characteristic, is now just the baseline. When non-standard is the standard, the old standard becomes non-standard again. This is what we see in this adventure: an AD&D scenario that exemplifies how post-Gygaxian AD&D looked like for most of its existence. The crypt of a noble family, a feudalism-light setting, an evil artefact, and a slightly gothic “monster movie” feel that would not feel out of place in Ravenloft set the tone. Encounter design, monsters and magic are drawn from the AD&D palette. It is familiar, even comfortable. However, the real distinction lies not between strange and familiar, but well-made and poorly made. In fact, a lot of high-concept releases are really bad. Also, a lot of vanilla releases are really bad. We must look elsewhere.

The Carcass of Hope offers a local mini-environment arranged around a central mystery – not quite mini-sandbox, but more than a simple, straightforward “beginning to end” module. The downfall of a local noble family, a ruined village, and the large family crypt are supplemented with two mini-dungeons, and a sketched-out description of a village home base (although it feels more like a small town). There is a lot to the module: the central dungeon offers 46 keyed areas, and with the supplemental material, its potential grows further. It is also a scenario which can accommodate different plot hooks and player approaches – although the curse of the Mirthmane family and the enchanted mirror serving as the module’s centrepiece shall focus this somewhat.

The main adventure site, the crypt is arranged around two looping, symmetrical corridors branching off into crypt areas, secret rooms, and cave sections where nature and invading monsters (both scavengers and more organised types) have started to claim the undead-dominated crypts. There is a layer of bog-standard crypt exploration here, with sarcophagus/coffin stocking charts that are too much on the mundane side – “a dagger, bejewelled with rubies worth 250 gp”, “silver earrings worth 30 gp”, a magic sroll, that sort of thing. It is nothing to get excited about, but it does get more varied and flavourful. There is a consistent theme of the Mirthmanes’ lavish spending on the resting places of their hunting dogs, a touch nicely establishing the theme of rich feudal assholes. There are signs of family tragedies. The crypts of the notable family members have individual touches as well, never completely unexpected, but playing well with gothic clichés – a screaming ghost, a pressure plate trap, or a flooding room. These are not the most complicated setpiece encounters, but they should make the players to stop and think a little before proceeding with their course of action. Details of environmental degradation are woven into both descriptions and game challenges.

Muh Loops

The encounter types offer good variety as well, with a particular emphasis on magical and mundane traps. This is a common way to spice up crypts, and here, they are generally well executed. The adventure makes good use of AD&D mainstays like continual darkness, magical alarms that can be disabled, and other ways of controlling or blocking access. Trap/puzzle combinations are good as well; for example, a statue holding a spear that turns out to be a detachable magic item, but one protected by a trap spewing poison gas from the statue’s mouth is good, classic AD&D that rewards the resourceful and observant, but punishes the foolhardy. Together with the combat encounters, the adventure is fairly tough for the intended level range, and more so if the family vampire gets unleashed.

Some of the puzzles are a bit too obscure. For example, a specific vault opens on presenting one of two specific signet rings (this is all right since it is a jackpot), and the main magical trap/alarm systems are operated with a family brooch (and sometimes a password), which are not really easily discovered unless via trial and error. Brute-forcing these protective systems is a way to do it, and perhaps more logical than finding easy clues that help the players figure it out, but there should have been a few more nudges in this area – even in a form of subtle environmental storytelling. Non-static encounters are not common, mostly owing to the crypt theme, but an undead NPC, creepy Old Uncle Arnaut, a bored crypt thing who is only a threat to grave robbers, is a real standout. The large centrepiece, the Cursed Penumbra mirror, more than lives up to its name, and it is a nasty piece of magic both to use and destroy – utterly deadly if mishandled, and an impressive conclusion if this is the target of the adventure.

The supplemental content is smaller-scale. Mausoleums in Mirthmane Cemetery are handled with random tables – this is fairly simple stuff. The Tower of Vuul is a monster hotel with a gibbering mouther as its central attraction. About as much as you would expect from a tower adventure, with a few better encounters. We also have our local Totally Not Chaotic Evil, We Swear cult and its underground lair. They sew their mouths shut, how could they be evil? This is a lot better, with good, imaginative and slightly sinister specials: “a fountain, its basin red-stained, and topped with a statue of a hooded figure. Its face is a gaping black hole.” If you figured out this is a portable hole, you deserve both this, and the scarab of insanity and bracers of defence AC 6 “made out of human flesh” you will find inside. Then we have a lizardman lair with a freaking ziggurat! Okay, it is very small, but it is a “whoa” moment in this very vanilla “monster movie” setting. The treasures the lizardmen are guarding, a golden catfish idol and a shield +1 they revere as a holy object, are distinctive and stick in the mind despite being throwaway lines. A few more touches – a non-standard vampire, humanoid bands, and a gang of harpies dwelling in the cemetery sinkhole add further minor touches, individually small, but a good source of complexity when added together.

The presentation is generally good, although it suffers from a weak introductory section, and some slapdash writing here and there that was probably the result of contest time constraints. It is not easy to understand what’s going on after a first read, and although things are made fairly clear after reading the main text carefully, this could be a lot stronger. However, the writing is good where it matters most: the actual encounter descriptions are effective, using bullet points where it makes sense, but not going overboard with them. The writing often manages to grab just the right phrase to set the stage for gameplay without becoming overwrought. It is not yet there, but a little more practice shall produce excellent results.

In summary, The Carcass of Hope is a slightly low-key, vanilla adventure whose strength lies in the effective use of standard AD&D elements. It is, however, at its best when it departs slightly from the tried and true, and offers some variation on the theme, and at its least impressive when it goes back to random coffin contents. Beyond the level of well-crafted individual encounters lie structure, and an understanding of constructing complex adventuring environments. This is how AD&D was being played in its heyday – no, it is how AD&D was being played well. There is room for improvement, but there is a clear path forward, too.

This publication credits its playtesters.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs