Sunday, 17 March 2019

[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers


Cover to the David Perry edition
[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers (2018)
by Kyle Marquis
Self-published (kinda)

The foremost duties of game materials are to be inspiring and useful. Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Judges Guild’s setting is both: it is dynamite for the imagination, while remaining laser-focused on inspiring you to run a game. It does not always live up to its promise (its citadels and castles are a list of numbers; sometimes the randomisation shows through; not all parts of it are of the same quality as the core regions), but the idea is pure, and it continues to be inspiring after more than 40 years after its publication.

The Sea of Vipers, available for free online, is a modern-day campaign setting which captures some of the magic of the Wilderlands as seen in its original, cryptic and sketchy incarnation. It has a gimmick: it was originally published as a series of Twitter posts. That does not inspire much confidence. Twitter, generally speaking, is worse than useless – it actively makes our lives and world worse – but in this rare case, it serves a good purpose: it imposes a limit and structure on the setting information. The same way Judges Guild was struggling with primitive publishing technologies in its day, the author of The Sea of Vipers had to conform to an externally imposed, arbitrary character limit. In both cases, the creative tension has resulted in something intriguing, and perfectly structured for the needs of a game. (Note, there is a cool gazetteer-style online document here, made by David Perry – it is mostly excellent, except for using a different version of the map where all hex entries are off by one row).

Like its JG predecessor, this is a ground-level hex-crawl setting, with the barest minimum of overview information. A one-paragraph introduction, a list of three different pantheons, and some notes on power structures serve as a general framework (two pages of text with a very breezy layout, with room left to spare), followed by a hex-by hex description of the overland areas found on a 64x33 map sheet. These hex descriptions are one-liners; they consist of a hex code, a letter code for terrain type, and the hex description itself. Together, they describe a fantastic archipelago spread over two larger, two smaller, and maybe two dozen tiny islands.

The Sea of Vipers
The strength of the material lies partly in this structure, but the reason it has a zing is due to the author’s command of the written word. Consider the intro:
“The Sea of Vipers lies south of Gandavor. Since the rise of the Technogogic Implementer, who promulgated new theories of magic, the fractious, traditionalist Rootborn magicians have opposed his unification schemes. After years of low-key hostilities, the islands’ magicians agreed to a Conclave Arcane, but the Implementer betrayed them and spoke the Word of Serpents, which killed hundreds of Rootborn, devastated the Island of Tamera, and triggered the Word-of-Serpents war. The Rootborn fought back, but they had already lost, and now the Technogogic Implementer’s five satraps, the Enthroned, rule the islands.”
It is obscure, and it does not go into the particulars, but reading this much should already give you everything you really need to plan and run a campaign. The same sure hand is in evidence in the hex entries. For instance,
  • 2902 H Quartz hills create a tree made of moonlight on the 1st day of the crescent moon with magical healing quinces that grant prophecies.
  • 2903 HD Temple of Kell. The Archifex seeks the intelligent sword KODMOS (2801), which can yank out a person's skeleton (fatal) and control it.
  • 5402 LF Well full of martyrs' heads. Its water is poison to all save the righteous, who gain great powers and then die within 333 days.
  • 0516 DH DEAD LEOPARD HILLS. Leopards destroyed by the Word-of-Serpents; all that remains are their spots, teeth, and hunger.
  • 0523 D Lair of VEIS, Serpent of the Unclean Dance. Causes mania, tremors, the vomiting of worms; treasure includes the MANUAL OF SWANS.
  • 0524 D A bolt of lightning frozen in the sly, glowing faintly. All who touch it die; scorched avians and flying machines litter the dunes.
  • 5305 LF Elf demagogues argue the cultural significance of ear-sharpening cream. The issue is obscure; opinions are mandatory.
  • 1401 LF GOLGAMMANNAH, CITY OF PAINTED HANDS, pop 800. Near-ruined port city. Created magically as a glory, melting with so few to admire it.
  • 1402 P Herd of 22 displaced Bigby's Hands thunder across the plains, stalked by a small pack of 4 Mordenkainen's Hounds.
  • 0722 D An aarakocra desert druid cultivates mellified raptors, drowning birds of prey in honey to create potions of healing.
A lot has been said about terse expressiveness, expressive terseness and tersive expressness (never mind the rest, it has become a meme), but this is how it is done. The contents are mysterious, irrational and dreamlike – dreamlike in the sense that disparate elements are connected in ways that defy rational explanation but make a sort of deeper sense, and also dreamlike in the way it all feels like the images of a kaleidoscope, filled with strange colours and shapes. This is not an easy effect to reach; and you can see the parts where it does not work out.

Island of Alu Pan
Sometimes randomness is just randomness for its own sake, or it becomes lame by trying too hard. This problem can also be seen in The Sea of Vipers. For example:
  • 0913 D Broken 50' jade hoop once served as the phylactery of a storm giant lich. Nomads fear the jade's "poison light."
  • 2623 LF URMISH, the THRONE OF ANTLERS AND IRON. Has a 50' WICKER BEAR stuffed with drugged bears and ready to rampage if anyone ignites it.
  • 3131 P Wereseacucumber sea elf has fled his sahuagin masters to study Thousand Gut Style martial arts under the intestines of Du Mu in 3028

Here, the hex entries are not dreamlike, just dumb. There is in fact a point where AWSUM becomes too much. A long time ago, in edition wars now far away, the excesses of 3e were sometimes illustrated with the example of Thri’Tard the grell Monk, and some of these examples feel like good old Thri’Tard with a new lease on life. This impression is strengthened when the stranger-then-strange hexes keep piling on. The setting is thus utterly weird, without a baseline of normality. The Wilderlands works so well because it is an internally consistent Dark Ages / Late Antiquity setting with fallen flying saucers and mermaid palaces – the basic texture is what makes the weirdness stand out. Here, plate-armored gorillas (3823) live right next to a now-bodiless flowering treant who controls a dracolich (3924), and a fox-headed hydra seeking the foxtail flywhisk of the Throne of Antlers and Iron (3723). And I picked this hex cluster entirely randomly. The Sea of Vipers does not really have any normal inhabitants. Its dial is always cranked up to at least 9, and often 10 or 11.

How could you use this supplement? I envision a game that’s purely focused on hex-crawling and discovering this strange setting. There is not much to the hex entries without investing a ton of work into them, so the best way not to exhaust them is to keep moving. So you’d have something out of Marco Polo’s travels, Seven Cities of Gold or Italio Calvino’s Invisible Cities – lots of travel, quick engagement with the contents of various hexes, and moving on to the next place to see new sights. You could be traders looking for exotic and precious goods, messengers, bureaucrats sent to create catalogues of the archipelago’s wonders for the Technogogic Implementer, or your usual band of roving conquistadors and murder hoboes. You could also thin out the hexes just a little to let it breathe a little – perhaps keep every fifth or sixth one, the ones you personally like the best.

With all the previous criticism in mind, I really like this setting. The good parts are full of imagination and wonder, and while randomness is the key principle, there is a cohesive vision (or at least aesthetic) behind it all. It is also supremely game-friendly, and a good take on the organising principles behind the Wilderlands. Well worth a look.

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

Friday, 8 March 2019

[BLOG] The Conspiracy

The Conspiracy is a simple, play-friendly method to describe interaction and conflict between city-based interest groups or conspiracies, reusing the entries of random encounter tables. Individually, random encounters represent local colour, complications in an ongoing scenario, or the beginnings of mini-adventures. By placing three or four next to each other – whether by design or chance – the result is often an adventure that can fill much of a session. Yet cities are even more complex, and they are filled with hidden social structures with dangerous agendas. 

In the Conspiracy, the nexus points of a pre-drawn, blank “connection network” are populated with random or semi-random encounters, and once finished, a coherent design is created around the existing network.

Sample Networks
The resulting network has multiple benefits. It shows who is associated with whom, and it also shows which way clues lead from one point to the next while the characters are investigating the network. The links can, furthermore, represent command structures, dependencies, and especially the conduit of information. They can be one-sided (marked with an arrow) or mutual. Stronger links may be marked with bold lines, and weak, tentative ones with dashed ones. Some connections can be dead ends, but important nodes – the „heart” of the conspiracy – should be located close to the centre, approachable from multiple directions. The deeper details of a network usually follow logically from the connected nexus points.

These networks are individually fairly simple, but they are often well hidden, and a large city has several of them. They are often connected, too – but how? Does it all form an enormous spider web, with a particularly clever conspirator pulling all the strings? A hierarchy, with a leader or group on top of the all-seeing pyramid? A matrix that seemingly leads nowhere? Or multiple networks vying for power and influence? All configurations have their potential in the game.

Example: The Gamemaster wishes to develop a conspiracy centred around Prince Alkoor, a double-dealing aristocrat. Selecting the second basic layout, he rolls up seven encounters [these are drawn from The Nocturnal Table, a forthcoming supplement for running city campaigns, and are abridged here for demonstration purposes]:

  • 137 Bricks fallen from a nearby wall are all stamped with the mark of a cat’s eye, reveal entrance to forgotten part of house sealed up long ago.
  • 151 City guards: 1d4*5 militias (Fighter 1) battering down tenement door, suspected tax-dodgers.
  • 212 Hermit, an animalistic, nameless wreck, digging in street garbage. Cursed priest.
  • 239 Mob: 2d4*10 men looting neighbourhood
  • 312 Robbers: Yusuf Muraad Khusi (Illusionist 4) and 2d6 robbers (Fighter 2); the hunchbacked Yusuf, hiding in a curtained hiding place, creates the illusion of several more companions surrounding locale.
  • 110 Alchemist Multiphage of Lam (Illusionist 6) selling 1d6+1 potions from beaker of potions (01-40 delusion); also provides horoscopes (all ambiguous)
  • 356 Thief Smardis (Thief 4, deep blue turban, 4*opium), smoking a hookah and offering empty tower apartment for sale at 140 gp.


Prince Alkoor's Conspiracy
With some more rolling and interpretation, the random entries yield a decent criminal enterprise. It appears that Alkoor’s game is to expropriate plebeians through aggressive tax-collection (151), as well as inciting looters in the slum areas (239). He buys up properties on the cheap, and sells them through one of his agents, a skilled thief named Smardis (356). Alkoor is mostly careful to work through intermediaries, a loyal robber gang (312), placing his orders in a secret meeting room in a sealed house (137). However, a more immediate connection can also be established via the City Guard – perhaps he has been stepping up the collection efforts and leaning on the officials. This is only part of his racket, though – and perhaps an entirely lawful one!

We have two more entries to consider. It seems Alkoor is related to a nameless pariah (212), who could be a victim or a secret associate – the GM elects to make him an effective spy most characters would not suspect. Finally, the alchemist and potion-seller (110) is tentatively connected to both of Alkoor’s main activities, without being linked to the robber gang. Perhaps he is not even a formal part of the network – just someone who had made a fateful connection, and can offer the important information that the two activities are somehow connected… or someone who’d had his own fingers in the pie, but is now in over his head.

And how does it all unfold? Does Alkoor end up losing his head, or does he have an offer the players can’t refuse? Are those connections with the robbers and the City Guard good enough to hound the company out of the city before they jeopardise a perfectly good get-richer scheme? Well… The conspiracy described above should serve as a sufficient framework to provide the right kind of pointers, and let the characters connect the dots on their own. The adventure can take the shape of a mission, or arise spontaneously from the logic of the campaign: in any event, minor puzzle pieces can form a pattern; and patterns, a grander design.

Cloak, Dagger, and a Few Magic Missiles


Saturday, 2 March 2019

[REVIEW] Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers
Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex)
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Level 5-8

Strong and compelling imagery is the foundation of good fantasy: start with a great image, and the rest will follow naturally. This is an image-based module. The bone toilers, stocky extraplanar Neanderthals, are excavating a series of jungle tar pits for the myriad fossilised bones trapped therein. Creaking primitive machinery, bone toilers dirty from the grime of their work and shouting incomprehensible gibberish at each other; sweltering tropical heat; and enormous piles of bones carted off for unknown purposes towards the bone toiler’s fortified camp. Hell yes there is a good potential for action in there! (As long as the players don’t start cracking non-stop Flintstones jokes, which is a credible threat.)

Images are not all. There is a good exploration-oriented adventure behind the core idea. A jungle canyon meanders through the landscape, opening into side areas forming their own mini-adventures. This is the hub-and-spokes structure so popular in CRPGs, and it works admirably well. It is satisfying to enter what amounts to an overland dungeon, and find it littered with smaller dungeons. There is a variety of places to explore, from ruined villages to interconnected cave systems. It is fairly combat-heavy, with large groups of powerful opponents almost everywhere.

The encounters are a good mixture of the naturalistic and fantastic: the module is well grounded in its jungle exploration themes, while offering wondrous magical enigmas on the side. There are also sufficient intelligent NPCs and monsters to interact with, from a camp of looters who are over their heads to the duskwalker, a company of mysterious beings opposed to the bone toilers’ plans. The central point of interest, the bone toiler’s bizarre mining operation, is an interesting challenge in the vein of the G series – the opposition is numerous and powerful, and a combination of action and stealth is needed to win the way. This place was perhaps a bit too heavy on the bone motif: when everything is made of skulls, they lose something in the bargain.

The module’s writing is an effective, tight mix of game information and catchy descriptive detail, but lacks the polish of The Red Prophet Rises. The maps are lacklustre. I got a printed copy from DriveThruRPG, but the print is blurry and the maps are hard to interpret (particularly the Canyon itself). The Canyon’s scale is off – a minor thing, but there is no way those squares are only 10’. Finally, while I am usually the last to complain about layout, the haphazard way in which (often barely related) stock art was dumped through the module is an eyesore. As a trade-off, the content is good, and there is a useful sheat sheet with monster statistics that fits on a single page.

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers is a good sword&sorcery module that stays true to the themes of the genre while translating them to the language of games. It is well worth owning.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

[REVIEW] Sailors on the Starless Sea

Happy to meet you on the Starless Sea

Sailors on the Starless Sea (2012)
by Harley Stroh
Published by Goodman Games
0th level funnel for 15-20 characters or so

The difficulty of writing good beginner adventurers is still underappreciated. A lot of people think they can do it, but don’t. The slightly wiser (including yours truly) know their limitations and don’t even try. For all their formative role, most published beginner scenarios lack an interesting kicker, intriguing variety, or the right level of challenge; while characters are fragile, resource-constrained, and often conceptually underdeveloped. Things pick up later, but on 1st level, dull goblin caverns and five-room towers proliferate. It is a rough ride.

The funnel is one solution to square the circle. Throw the lot of ‘em into the meat-grinder, and let the gods sort them out. You can turn on the heat more than you can in a “training wheels” scenario, and without the assumption of survival, success tastes sweet indeed. This is perhaps even a legitimate OD&D way, even though you don’t really need to go as low as zero-level to achieve the effect. However, DCC did, and a whole lot of DCC modules are funnels. This is apparently one of the most well-known of them.

Sailors on the Starless Sea is a bit like The Moathouse from The Village of Hommlet, but METAL!. You have a (thankfully undescribed) podunk village terrorised by beastmen from a cursed and mostly deserted ruin, from which the characters’ discoveries will eventually lead them underground into the hideout of a Chaotic Evil cult. Like DCC generally, it is turned up to 11, where a nice 8 or 9 would suffice: the imagery is saturated – chasms are bottomless, corpses are wrapped in thorny vines, Satanic imagery abound, and there are hundreds and thousands of skulls. This is a stylistic concern, and whether you like it or not will greatly influence the module’s utility. We also see the “actual old stuff” vs. “old-school” difference: where the Moathouse is relatively expansive even as a fairly linear, teensie mini-dungeon, the keep in Sailors is a non-linear opening followed by a straight-arrow progression of five or so rooms in toto (there is the odd shortcut, but they are outright deadly or hopelessly obscure). It is small, and firmly on rails.

And yet. This is not a hopeless module, and it is easy to recognise why so many people have enjoyed playing it. As a linear, limited funhouse ride, it is a damn good one. The encounters, even if there are few of them, are well designed from a gameplay perspective, with well-considered risks and rewards. At the beginning, you can choose from multiple approaches to the cursed ruin, all three of which offer distinct challenges and difficulties (and one, which is less innocuous than it appears, provides one of the module’s rare side-branches – this hidden place was the most delightful part of it). There are fewer direction choices later, but all the encounters have something going on which may be exploited by resourceful and lucky players, and turned into a hazard by foolhardy ones. There are choices and consequences, some of which come back at the end to give the characters and edge (or bite them in the ass). There are differences to make and horrid monsters to deal with. The treasures are good, and some come with interesting side-effects. Careful observation and snap judgement are rewarded; timidity is punished. The module cultivates good play, just not necessarily the dungeon-mapping-and-resource-management kind. (As a side-note, it is telling that the maps in this product, as well as other DCC offerings, are more illustrative than functional.)

While the ride is on rails, it is a well-coreographed one, and when (if) the characters survive the sheer butchery, they will have started the campaign with a bang. More than that, they will most likely come away from it with the best gifts a GM can give a party of adventurers, their own magical ship. Whether setting sail for underground realms, or the seas and rivers of the surface world, this setup screams “All aboard! Adventure awaits!” It is a good beginning, with all its flaws. It could have been better. If it were less overwritten, you could easily cram 150% the content into it, and all the nooks, side corridors, branches and dungeon navigation it really needs. It needed a little more room to breath, be less frantic between the ruined keep and the magical underground ship sailing through the Kraken towards a ziggurat human sacrifice beastman demigod inferno. It is almost very good – but even so, it is at least decent.

This publication credits its playtesters, and extensively so.

Rating: ***/*****

Monday, 4 February 2019

[ZINE] 2019 Shipping Cost Changes

TL;DR version: Due to recent changes in postal tariffs, my store has switched to a flat $6.50 shipping fee as of 4 February. Shipping for single items will increase by 50%, shipping for two items will stay identical, and shipping for 3-5 items will be reduced. Customers are kindly asked to batch their orders into no more than 5 items each. 


Longer version: The entrepreneur’s life is an exciting one. Changes in the tax code, shifting regulations, economic cycles, and acts of Government introduce new challenges to overcome, and in the end, good old “creative destruction” sorts it all out. Here is a new one, and a post on what it means for you. Less fun than a pack of owlbears digging up your cabbage patch. 

Today, as I was bringing a handful of zines to the post, I was surprised to find shipping rates had increased overnight by a whopping 50%. Ooops. Price increases are a fact of life, but I didn’t see this one coming. Here is what happened.
  • In a price reorganisation scheme, the Post has eliminated several weight categories to “create a more transparent and customer-friendly structure, which conforms to the modernisation process of mailing services” (their words).
  • This included the 50-100 g category, which just happens to be the one I have been using the most, since the materials I publish weigh between 88-95 g apiece. This is how I set up my enterprise – I consider one below-100 g product “one unit”. Everything has been carefully set up to fit into into this specification.
  • What we have instead is a new scheme where we have one category for everything between 50 and 499 g (see Fig 1., below).

Postal prices, January to February 2019

In the “under 100 g” category, the price increase is a whopping 50%, so Worldwide shipping has just increased from $4.00 to $6.50 (European shipping is slightly lower, but the same principle applies). This change is bad news for most of my customers, who tend to be regulars buying single items (typically right after publication), and also tend to be located in North America and Australia (about 70% of my orders). Selling to them is my business model – and it is also something more: return customers are also a matter of professional pride. They tell me I should keep doing this – and I should aim high. 


Now then. There is no doubt the change sucks, but if you bear with me, there is a way to reduce its impact. 

You may note that there is now a single weight category between 50 and 499 g. This means it does not matter to the Post if the package is 100 g, 200 g, or 490 g. It is all $6.50 (or $5.4 in Europe). Compared to my old shipping formula ($4.00 for the first item, and $2.50 for each additional item), this is what the flat fee means:
  • If you order a single item, you pay $6.50 ($2.50 over the old price).
  • If you order two items, you pay $6.50 (NO CHANGE).
  • If you order three to five items, you still pay $6.50 (and you save $2.50, $5.00 and $7.50, respectively).
  • If you order six items, you still pay $6.50, but I would have to absorb the loss, since shipping jumps from $6.50 to $23.40! Instead, I will batch your order into multiple packages, since until I exceed 12 units, I am better off sending you two smaller envelopes at $13.00 than a single big one at $23.40. I hope the inconvenience will be a minor one.


This is kind of crazy, but it is the doing of the Postal Gods (I really should have been more diligent with those sacrifices).


What is the best solution for both you and me? Simple. Order two to five items on a single occasion. If you want to save some cash, wait until the next zine issue. Or… if you like the zine, buy a module to go with it. There will be a few in this coming year, and I hope they will be worth your consideration. I will remain a print-oriented publisher as long as it remains viable, but PDFs are an option, too. And in the US, Exalted Funeral is stocking my releases as well.

In the general sense, this is a hobby enterprise, and my intention with it is to take the high road of good, honest game materials, sold at an affordable and fair price. My strategy is to make things which are worth buying. As long as I can carry out this mission, I will feel good, and keep doing it.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

[REVIEW] The Ruins of Quinstead


The Ruins of Quinstead (1994)
by Roland O' Connell (only credited as R.O.C.)
Published by Gamer’s Group Publications
Level 1-12 (but see below)

Depicted: the castle that's NOT
actually in the module
There is no mistake about the year. This is an authentic third party AD&D module from 1994, recently made available again as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. Of course, it is careful not to call itself AD&D and get sued by TSR, Inc. – it is the kind of thing where you might encounter, say, a Level 2 Zealot with 13 Dps, owning a Vial of Curing Potion and a Level 1 Cloak of Guarding. Nobody is fooling anyone. In a way, it is a direct challenge to the TSR Overlords: as the introduction states, “As an avid supporter of the fantasy role playing games, I became discouraged by the lack of quality in the modules I was purchasing. Several of my gaming counterparts also felt this same dissatisfaction. The modules published by Gamer’s Group Publication come from a group of experienced role players who enjoy creating and playing fantasy role playing scenarios. (…) The original the Ruins of Quinstead adventure was created in 1980 by a novice game-master for use with the fantasy role playing system distributed by TSR industries. [sic] As this novice game-master improved his skills and knowledge of fantasy role playing games, the adventure underwent several modifications in an attempt to create a truly enjoyable gaming experience. The result, is the product you have just purchased.

I wonder if this could be one of the first game scenarios to have bragging rights about taking a deliberately old-school stance. It is there if you look at it carefully:
1) It identifies the problem (that the craft of adventure writing has declined radically, and TSR was pushing worthless junk on gamers);
2) It draws on a better tradition (1980-style dungeoneering);
3) It adapts that tradition through experience into something combining old and new ideas.
4) It is produced and published independently of AD&D’s existing owner.
How’s that for an “Old School Renaissance”? Are there earlier third party modules with a consciously declared back-to-the-roots message? Here is a puzzle for the Acaeum sleuths!

This, however, is an adventure review, so let’s have at it.

The Ruins of Quinstead takes you into the dungeons beneath the cursed castle of Quinstead, once owned by an evil marauder who had in the end met a tragic fate. As it happens in Not-AD&D, the castle is once again showing signs of habitation, and adventurers are tasked to learn what’s happening. In 44 pages, the adventure presents a three-level, 76-room dungeon (the castle itself is left undescribed), from a humanoid-inhabited entrance complex to more varied fare down below.

There is a lot of content in the dungeon, and when comparing it to modern old-school offerings, it is immediately apparent how much larger dungeons used to be in the past. Quinstead’s two main levels are both substantial, with 31 and 36 keyed areas, respectively. It is not megadungeon-sized, but it is a proper labyrinth calling for exploration, discovery, and lots and lots of combat. Interestingly, there is a notable difficulty spike between the levels: the first one is suitable for a large beginning party, but as you go deeper, it becomes downright brutal with high-level undead, demons, and save-or-die traps. You either start higher than first level, level up those characters quickly, or you should expect a break in play before tackling the dangerous areas on the second and third levels.

This split is also apparent in the quality of the content. Unfortunately, for all the old-school credentials, the entrance level is largely one humanoid-infested barrack room after another, with hordes of low-level humanoids and lovingly described “cabinet contents”-style fare. Boxes with 10 neatly folded blankets and 60 candles, crates with 12 weeks’ worth of mouldy food, or an iron box with hams, a 5 lb. sack of flour, and a jar of pickles (but “hidden at the bottom of the box is 250 gc’s”). This is the kind of thing that grounds adventures in reality in small quantities, and turns them dull when there is too much of it. And there is definitely too much of it.

Another issue with the setup is that the module tries to tell a story in a way we now largely recognise as The Wrong Way To Do It. The adventure is liberally peppered with roadblocks preventing completion until the characters find the proper keys hidden somewhere else, decipher an obscure clue, or do things in a specific way. There is an unfolding tragic backstory which is very AD&D in its execution, but the drama is largely between NPCs, with the characters as helpers and perhaps just spectators. In the end, the adventure becomes much more linear than you would think from the map, because you have to turn every stone to find the next progression token, and do it in sequence. This in turn exacerbates the module’s weaknesses – you can’t skip them until you find the damn keys.

On the other hand, the second and third levels suddenly become more interesting. The encounters are more varied, with a better roster of monsters, a higher number of “specials”, and more interesting locations. There are distinctly themed subsections with their own mapping style and challenges. There is an underground arena, a vast chasm, a vampire named Jennifer, treasure vaults, upscale living quarters, and undead/troll caverns. Perhaps it was written later, or mid-to-high-level AD&D just fired up the author’s imagination better, but this part is a substantial improvement, if ­ a bit heavy on brutal traps (if your Thief doesn’t die here, he is good). Nothing earth-shattering, just good, solid dungeoneering.

So in the end, this might be a first. Unfortunately, it is not the best. You could improve it by opening it up so it is not as linear and scripted, but you will still be left with the radical jumps in encounter difficulty, and a lacklustre first level. It stacks up well when we compare it to early 90s TSR modules, but why would you compare something to Swamplight or Terrible Trouble at Tragidore?

(And a random observation: the first level is oriented differently than the other two, so check that compass before you give your players directions.)

No playtesters are credited in this publication (and the author is only credited by his initials so the TSR goons don't break his legs).

Rating: ** / *****

Thursday, 24 January 2019

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 (NOW AVAILABLE!)


Revenge of the Frogs
I am pleased to announce the publication of the fourth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Matthew Ray, and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, and others. 

Revenge of the Frogs is, of course, dedicated to the best monsters in gaming, and it ain’t dragons! The titular adventure module takes the characters to Silvash, a dying port town facing a batrachian menace, and beyond to a weird swampland inhabited by strange inhabitants, and teeming with… but let that be a surprise. 

Those who do not find frogs to their liking shall surely find solace in the fact that Echoes #04 also presents a small city state. Arfel: City State of the Charnel God is a small city ruled by the cult of a dead god, but administered by the living – and those who would come between them might find either riches or an unpleasant death! A fold-out player’s map of the city state forms this issue’s map supplement. 

This issue concludes the hex key of the Isle of Erillion. Feudal lords, tiny settlements lost in the wilderness, and enigmas of nature and magic await in deep forests, forbidding mountains, and on the high seas. As before, Erillion may be used as a sandbox of its own, or incorporated into the GM’s preferred setting. 

And if you like lasers, there are lasers! Previously published on this blog, The Technological Table is a repository of technological instruments, from futuristic weaponry to the sinister relics of an advanced age. 

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.