Tuesday, 17 April 2018

[REVIEW] The Red Prophet Rises


The Red Prophet Rises (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex) and Prince of Nothing
Published by The Merciless Merchants
3rd to 5th level

The Red Prophet Rises
There are probably more good sword&sorcery rulesets than there are good sword&sorcery adventure modules. You can try it yourself, and the list in the left column will be longer than the one in the right. After a lot of hullaballoo about D&D’s pulp fantasy roots, and the importance of reading the “Appendix N” books to truly understand where Gary and friends were coming from, we still get more lip service in this area than the actual good stuff. S&S-style modules either miss something essential from the genre ingredients (most of them are just regular ol’ D&D with a thin S&S veneer), or – almost as often – they work better as stories than complex, open-ended game scenarios. It is a sad state of affairs. This review is about an exception.

The big thing about The Red Prophet Rises is that it does three things very well. It taps into the earnest violence of the genre, it presents an interesting situation offering a variety of in-game approaches in a complex, dynamic environment, and it is written in a way that combines functionality with flavour (proving once and for all that the two can be reconciled). Here is why it is great.

This is a module that takes one of the things sword&sorcery is famous for – unflinching brutality in barren, hostile natural environments – and sticks to its theme with both talent and consistency. Now, this is not “all” S&S is about, but it is S&S at its most recognisable – Frazetta, Brom, Conan (the movie version), buff people in S&M gear with horned helmets, butchery and raw violence. The module is set in a series of canyons in the middle of a rocky wasteland, as well as a series of caverns off to the sides. This unpleasant place is currently inhabited by a crazed cult of plainsmen engaged in a frenzy of killing, feasting and drugged orgies, awaiting the opening of their new paradise foretold by Khazra, their new prophet. It is the good stuff, and where the D&Disms creep in, they are handled in a way that doesn’t diminish the vision of this bloody spectacle.

There is a visceral quality to the writing which creates a great sense of place. You can smell the fires and smoke, hear the nomads carousing as they gorge themselves on charred rabbit by their fire pits, hear the brutal overseers bellow with whips in their hands, and feel the chaos as livestock runs wild among the plainsmen. There is blood, dust, an arena of death with a great throne above it, something called The Pit of Despair (hell yes!), a temple of blood, and living quarters carved into the rocks.  There is something feverish about the bacchanalian festivities in this wasteland hellhole, part the drugged orgy of the snake-cult from Conan the Barbarian, part the raiders from Mad Max 2 (Khazra and his underlings are basically Lord Humungus and his psycho bikers). This kind of thing hasn’t really been done before in old-school D&D modules.

Best of all, The Red Prophet Rises is an actually well-designed adventure scenario. The canyons and the surrounding caverns serve as a complex, dynamic environment which operates under its own logic and rules. As a dungeon (it is a dungeon kind of the same way Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is a dungeon), it is a dangerous cul-de-sac where it is much easier to get in than to get out, not to mention it is packed to the gills with frenzied marauders out for blood, run by two distracted but fairly wily leaders. However, it is also a sufficiently chaotic and busy place that a party of adventurers can come up with any number of plans to infiltrate it and accomplish whatever they came for (by default, the module was written for a paladin to find his special mount). There are great opportunities for strategy, underpinned by a fairly simple, yet reasonably believable timetable to determine what the cultists are doing any specific time of the day, robust encounter tables to complicate things (lots of hidden agendas and odd personalities in this camp of misfits), and notes on tactics to determine the inhabitants’ reactions when the party inevitably mess up.

The care also shows in the encounter design. Most locations on the key have their own, small-scale encounter dynamic or conflict going on, which can impact the way the scenario unfolds in multiple ways. There are hard decisions, surprises that call for quick thinking and improvisation, and there are also opportunities to seize, allies to find and hidden enmities to exploit. Getting into parts of the canyon system through social engineering, stealth, disguise, or a (potentially suicidal, although surely awesome) frontal assault can be a challenge by itself. The design really rewards groups who can think on their feet and move with the flow – there may even be ways to keep the action moving if the party’s cover is blown and they find themselves surrounded by a small army of armed killers. There is also good exploration, which puts the focus on being observant and imaginative rather than repeating rote dungeon routines (this is also the case for finding the magic items, which are almost all interesting new items with non-standard capabilities).

There is a second level to the module, in the same way In Search of Unknown has a second level – of course it does, but you tend to gloss over it because while it is not bad, it is superfluous. It does not really add to the experience, and it might even distract from the brutal revelry of the barbarian camp one level higher. The infiltration of an unholy yet living place gives way to more straightforward dungeon fare in a mostly abandoned environment, one that is altogether more in the vein of high-level D&D than the grim chaos of the canyon encampment. There is less to do, there are fewer ways to do it, and it is fairly disconnected from the things going up above ground (even in the physical sense). Finally, this dungeon level ends up revealing some of the mysteries behind the canyon and its holy site, and as it so often happens, we are better off not knowing – something raw and powerful is lost once things are made too literal, and we have an explanation instead of a hunch. I would just cut the whole thing (including area 27 on level 1) and reuse it elsewhere – it would work as a standalone mini-dungeon with some fairly cool obsidian-centric monsters and traps.

The Red Prophet Rises features good, effective writing, the kind I would like to see more often in game products. It is economic, and written to help the GM, but it is not a dry, soulless technical text. It is expressive without wasting words, giving you just the right kind of impressions to get the idea. “A brute with arms covered in ritual scars whips and brutalizes a bleeding and injured man kneeling on the ground”, or “The walls of the cavern are decorated with a variety of weapons, shields, and tapestries depicting lurid scenes of sacrifice, murder and war. Red curtains frame a throne of carved stone (…)”. Location information is broken down into a bullet point list, giving you more specific details after establishing the general scene. Helpful tables and side bars contain additional information. The booklet is well-edited; the information you need is placed at your fingertips, or you receive helpful references to help running the game. This is the kind of polish you don’t tend to notice consciously, but it makes a difference at the table. There is a monster cheat sheet.

The Red Prophet Rises is one of the pleasant surprises of the year. It holds up well any way I look at it, and achieves such a high level of overall polish that it sets a good standard to look up to and learn from. Furthermore, it is one of the rare sword&sorcery modules which combines a great understanding of the genre with the considerations of a fantasy RPG. As I argued above, the module does not really need its second level, and I would recommend just omitting it in play. Sure, you’d miss nine pages of fairly good stuff (in the three or lower four star range), but you are left with about 20 or so pages of pitch-perfect material, and that’s the real treasure.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.

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

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

[REVIEW] City Backdrop: Languard


City Backdrop: Languard (2018)
by Creighton Broadhurst
Published by Raging Swan Press
City supplement

Yes, that's the cover
Languard is one in a long series of system-neutral supplements released by Raging Swan Press. The 24-page booklet contains no game statistics except NPC alignment and class and level designations, but the content is obviously meant for use with D&D and its various offshoots – the main audience seems to be 5th edition players.

Here is a coastal city with its aristocracy, merchants, gates and wharves; realistic in tone with many shades of grey. It is right there in the middle between idealised fantasy feudalism and the grim urban hellholes where you will get mugged going out for a beer, twice. The streets are muddy and the city’s enemies are displayed on the parapets of Traitor’s Gate, but it is not a bad place to visit. The feeling is distinctly North European (most everyone has a Finnish name), with maybe a little bit of London thrown in. It is fairly lawful and organised, except for the Shambles, the run-down part where the poor live; the Fishshambles, which is the same but on the waterfront, and the Wrecks, a maze of rotting boats moored along the river, which has its own pariah group, the slightly fishy Takolen.

The guidebook first describes the city in the general, then location by location. It is potentially useful information – you learn how to get into and out of the city, who are the main power groups and religions, and there are a lot of adventure hooks, rumours and minor event tables along the way. The important locations are summed up across the map on a one-page spread, and there are text boxes throughout the supplement to help you with useful references. There are two maps, one keyed for the GM and one unlabelled for the players.

Languard does not go too deep into the fantastic, although it has its thieves, assassins and evil cults. Depending on what you value in your games, this can make it appealing or uninteresting. It gives you an internally consistent place with its own power dynamics, and the feel of an up-and-coming mercantile city. But it is mostly about the regular things, the society with its power dynamics and stock characters, not the strange edge cases. That is, you can meet your favourite “nondescript men in cloaks” on the waterfront, get in trouble with the Duke’s men, and hear rumours about a haunted building, but it is the kind of fantasy you expect to be there, not the kind that makes you jump. It would be more surprising if there was no murderous cult and Low Market wasn’t a den of thievery. The Duke, he is not the Duke of New York. Likewise, sometimes it feels too much like window dressing and not like material for adventures. Some of the random events are things like the sounds of an argument, or a weary peasant in a crowd carrying a sack over his shoulder. Part of the city experience? Absolutely. Useful for creating adventures? Only if you imbue them with your own meaning.

There are no surprises here, although all the middle-of-the-road stuff is well executed. It is not overwritten, and it serves its purpose. It is perhaps too low-key for its own good. Could Languard be the most True Neutral RPG supplement?

No playtesters have been listed for this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 1 April 2018

[MODULE] New Module Announcement and Preview



Original Module Cover


At long last, under special arrangements from TSR, Inc. and rights owner Lorraine Williams, E.M.D.T., Inc. is proud to present the newest addition to our growing product family: the republication of a “lost” TSR, Inc. module! The legendary, rarely discussed and even more rarely seen Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ was produced under license for MoodCon 1980, but after the scandalous events at the venue, and increasingly hostile press coverage about what was going on in Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ tournament games, the module never saw general release. In fact, remaining copies were shortly withdrawn from the TSR, Inc. design room, and they were pulped shortly thereafter. Even collectors thought all copies had been lost forever. They thought wrong.

Lovingly scanned and remastered based on a weather-beaten and rather suspiciously stained copy which had seen much use, and been found in a garage among stacks of vintage “magazines”, Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ can be yours at a special introductory price on this very special day.

Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ is currently available in two editions:
  • A regular edition featuring a full reprint of the real deal, including the remaining parts of the illustration booklet (see Fig 2). $19.95 + S&H
  • A very special collector’s edition featuring the real deal, a reconstruction of the original centrefold featuring Pam Grier in all her glory, as well as a real ziplock baggie of the special stuff that had delighted gamers, and even “Big Ernesto G” in those halcyon days of yore, all lovingly wrapped in Original Shrinkwrap™ (Original Shrinkwrap™ also available separately at $49.95 a huff). $79.95 + S&H
Fig 2: The Disco Emperor (presumably)




Tuesday, 20 March 2018

[REVIEW] Halls of the Minotaur


DCC #35A: Halls of the Minotaur (2006)
by Harley Stroh
Published by Goodman Games
0-level funnel

Halls of the Minotaur
We knew we were royally fucked one minute into the game, in round one of our first encounter. Two PCs had just gone down in combat, and it was clear we were both outnumbered and outclassed by our enemies. We had miscalculated the odds, and were on a suicide mission right from the first step. One of my characters had a Strength of 3, and another was a hobbit haberdasher with a pair of sharp scissors; our opponents had real weapons, including crossbows, and they were dug in in an ambush among the bushes. Then it happened. In the face of certain death, you might as well give it your best shot, and go all out. We rushed them out of sheer desperation and hacked at them until they went down and we won. Then we won and won again while expecting the worst, usually at terrible costs, but we got better and won some more. And we killed the minotaur.

This combination of overwhelming odds and reckless heroism is the addictive idea Goodman Games had hit on with what would eventually become the DCC “funnel” concept, pitching a handful of zero-level nobodies into the meat grinder and seeing what comes out at the other end: ideally, a few battered heroes, and lots of bloody paste. The play style is one way to achieve an approximation of the low-level D&D experience under 3rd edition rules, and it has been canonised in the DCC RPG as an element of the character creation process. DCC’s power level is a kind of compromise between the 3e and old D&D approach – the characters are fragile, but there are mechanisms and extra abilities to compensate for that weakness, including a post-battle body recovery rule (essentially a saving throw against actually buying the farm). In this review, I am looking at one of the early examples of these “grinder” modules; it was originally made for 3.5, while we played it at a convention DCC game, with six players running three zero-level characters each. The review will also contrast how the module reads vs. how it was run by our GM.

As mentioned above, Halls of the Minotaur pits a bunch of hapless villagers against a marauding minotaur and its underlings. The action begins in a monster-infested forest, before it moves into a dungeon dug into a steep cliff, then a citadel on top of the cliff. Most of the keyed encounters begin as combat encounters – you move into a new area, fight a group of monsters (and if you are careless, deadly reinforcements), then you can check out the local details. Setpiece combats in cool locations – at a forest ambush site, before a demonic idol flanked by braziers, on a rope bridge, etc. – serve as the key attraction. The module has an element of infiltration/stealth that can make the combat situations (the preparedness and grouping of enemies) easier or harder, and the PCs will need all the advantages they can wrest from their environment. There is also an element of non-linearity that is almost real and feels real for about half of the adventure, but turns out to be largely illusory (there are a few branches and alternate routes early on, but the true way through most of the place is one way only, and the rest are blocked off by increasingly contrived ways).

As a typical feature of the early DCC modules, the room descriptions often give you the kind of wacky, imaginative room ideas you’d get in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – say, a dragon’s head rising out of an underground river, or a throne room concealing a deadly ambush, or fighting your way through the dungeon to emerge in a castle on top of the cliff – but they are somehow never actually as wild and out there when you interact with them. Likewise, the environment has layers of history and some really decent visuals, but again, it doesn’t amount to much, since it is a series of kobold battles in a fancier than average dungeon environment.

Or is it? This was an adventure that had gained a lot in the telling. Around the table – and remember, this was a casual convention pickup game – it felt real. Fairly standard areas took on a character they didn’t have in the text I read later. The desperation of the action – whose unfairness had turned us into crafty, vicious little opportunists – imbued the game with authenticity and a sense of working against time. Little touches to make the environment more mysterious – like turning some fairly standard kobolds into strange beastmen, or refining  standard encounters into indecipherable enigmas – gave it a touch of fantasy that had gone beyond the standard D&D playbook. That is to say, a good GM can do much with the material even with a fairly light touch; but also, this is a module with more untapped potential than it seems to have on first sight. It really did play better than it reads – had I come across it when I was still trying to find gems in DCC’s 3.5 module library in vain, I might not have seen the gem in the rough.

Which is not to say Halls of the Minotaur is a great module. It is a decentish one with typical design issues of its time and publisher. It always feels like the encounters are overwritten – much boxed text and followup writing are expended to say relatively little (developments in the old-school scene since 2006 have been massive in this respect). The 3.5 stat blocks are cumbersome, using mechanically complex methods to express interesting, but relatively simple ideas. I have already mentioned the other stuff. It is 12-16 decent pages lurking in a 32-page package (although with a Doug Kovacs cover and great illustrations by Stefan Poag). However, if you don’t mind giving it a thorough read and some thought to adapt it for yourself, the good stuff is more than enough to carry a fun, action-packed adventure.

The module credits its playtesters.

Rating: *** / *****

Saturday, 10 March 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Beware the Beekeeper!


I am proud to announce the publication of the first issue of Echoes From Fomalhaut, my old-school fanzine. After a long time on the drawing board, the print version is available from the Shop.

What?
Echoes From Fomalhaut is an old-school RPG zine focused on adventures and game-relevant, GM-friendly campaign materials. Each issue is planned to feature a larger adventure module, accompanied by shorter scenarios, city states, and other things useful and interesting in a campaign. Rules-related material will be limited to a few pieces of interest. A long time ago, Judges Guild’s campaign instalments established the general idea, and that’s the road I intend to follow. A small city-state? An interesting wilderness area? An island ruled by a society of assassins? Guidelines for magical pools? That kind of stuff.

The philosophy of the zine is to follow the “Creativity aid, not creativity replacement” motto, and to treat its materials as departure points – to inspire GMs without restraining them by spelling out every mystery and filling in every blank.

The content will feature both vanilla and weird fantasy, mostly drawn from our home games, with occasional contributions by guest authors from the Hungarian old-school scene. Most of the articles will follow AD&D (well, OSRIC) conventions, but remain compatible with most OSR systems – and there will be detours.

An average issue is expected to run 32-40 pages plus the cover. The print edition, produced in the A5 format, is set to ship with larger extras like fold-out maps or what have you; the PDF edition will include these as downloadables.

Why?

I have always wanted to publish homemade game materials, an idea that has grown on me ever since I fell in love with the rough charm of Judge Guild instalments. I released my first PDF adventure in 2001, and the first printed one in 2003 (through my E.M.D.T. – First Hungarian d20 Society label – the first issue of Echoes is E.M.D.T. 46). Over the years, I have mostly stuck to free PDF releases and community fanzines (with the occasional detour, like the HelvĂ©czia boxed set), but something has always been missing. This is an opportunity to fix that. Finally.

When?
The print edition is now available for order. A PDF/POD version will be published through RPGNow with a delay of a few months.

How much?
A print issue sells for $8.00 plus priority shipping ($3.5 to Europe, $4 to the US and worldwide). The price for the PDF edition is expected to be set around $5. POD is still TBD. All buyers of the print edition will receive a free copy of the PDF edition at the date of its publication.

This is slightly above the average in zine pricing (I did an Excel comparison of 39 OSR and indie zines, and they come out at $11.44 for print/worldwide), but gives you some 14,800 words worth of content per issue (not including the OGL and front/end matter), pays for the commissioned artwork, and Hungary’s prestigiously large tax wedge. I will also spend the proceeds on future publishing projects.

What else?

Since set up a sole proprietorship to make this thing work, I am planning to republish some of my older adventure modules with new artwork in a reader-friendly format. The first such module is planned to become available in May, to be followed by Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 in early Summer. In due time, once I have tested out how publishing works, I would also like to try my hands at a few larger projects. But first things first...


Assembling Installments

[ZINE] Shop


Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!


Beware the Beekeeper!
A 40-page fanzine featuring adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school RPG rules, with artwork by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and past masters. This issue contains...
Bazaar of the Bizarre: a 1d100 table to generate strange merchants, with caravan guidelines.
The Rules of the Game: sets out the conventions followed in the zine.
The Singing Caverns: a two-level cavern system with 49 keyed areas, inhabited by orcs, bandits, and the mysteries of a bygone age.
Philtres & Dusts: a sampler of magical potions and dusts.
Red Mound: a mysterious adventure location found in the wastelands.
Morale & Men: a simple, fun set of follower and morale rules, written by two guest-authors.
The Mysterious Manor: the dilapidated manor house of an extinct noble family, now with new occupants... or is there more to it? 23 keyed areas.
Also... an unkeyed city map! (extra fold-out supplement)

Yes, there is a downloadable sample!


You can buy this issue via PayPal:


For more than two copies and bulk orders, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com, and we will figure things out. Orders within Hungary are shipped free of charge - please mail me with a valid shipping address and I will send you a PayPal invoice.

Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.


How shipping works

I try to ship orders within a few days of receipt. I ship via the Hungarian Post, priority mail (there are no major price differences between priority and regular). The post uses the following weight ranges:
51 – 100 grams: Europe $3.5, Worldwide $4
101 – 250 grams:  Europe $5.8, Worldwide $6.6
251 – 500 grams: Europe $9.4, Worldwide $10.7
501 – 1000 grams: Europe $15.9, Worldwide $18.1

I package every zine in an envelope. For more than one items, I am packing the items in a larger, sturdier envelope that can safely fit around 8 zines. If you’d place a bulk order, we’ll probably need a cardboard box. Here is how the weights go:
1 zine: 86 g
2 zines: 172 g + 30 g envelope = 202 g
3 zines: 258 g + 30 g envelope = 288 g
4 zines: 344 g + 30 g envelope = 374 g
5 zines: 430 g + 30 g envelope = 460 g

Based on preliminary test mailings, priority mail takes a few days to reach European addresses, and approximately 9-12 days to arrive in the USA. If your package arrives damaged, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com with a photo of the damage.

Thank You For Your Purchase!

Shipping times are subject to tropical storms, piracy, death, thermonuclear war, and acts of God.


Thank you for your payment. Your transaction has been completed, and a receipt for your purchase has been emailed to you. You may log into your account at www.paypal.com to view details of this transaction.

I try to ship orders within a few days of receipt. Based on preliminary test mailings, priority mail takes a few days to reach European addresses, and 9-12 days to arrive in the USA. If your package arrives damaged, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com with a photo of the damage.

Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.


* * *


(If you have come here from some other direction, you suddenly feel a sharp pain and hear maniacal laughter before it all grows dark. Too late, you realise you have made a mistake trusting that link. Your lifeless body falls on the floor of the deathtrap dungeon.)