Sunday, 20 October 2019

[BLOG] Beyond Erillion



It was over. The five adventurers turned their backs on the twilight battlefield with its scattered boulders and the great standing stone over an ominous burial mound, walking back through the dark forests towards the slowly fading rainbow bridge which would lead them out of the enchanted valley among the silent mountains. The Inheritance which had eluded them all this time was safely contained, to be gradually forgotten again by living men – or was the Inheritance the secret they now held in their hands, as its new guardians?

A proper ending to a long-running campaign is not something you see every time. Most attempts at continuous games trail off, fall apart due to scheduling issues or a clash of interests, stop in their tracks as the participants run out of ideas or encounter an insurmountable roadblock, or are just replaced by newer and newer ideas. The “full-length AD&D experience” as envisioned in the rulebooks is often more ideal than practice. It is quite nice, then, that we could finish The Inheritance, our latest game series, on a suitably high note. It is done – and here are my reflections and findings about the experience.

Enchanted mountains
Campaign dynamics

Our campaign lasted the better part of three years, running from October 2016 to September 2019, covering exactly 100 in-game days over 35 sessions. Our sessions grew more scarce in the last year – scheduling issues, sure, but also the changing nature of the adventures as the game flowed towards its finale. This is a common pattern in campaigns I have been involved in: a relatively unfocused, exploratory first phase; consolidation towards sub-objectives; and finally a more straightforward resolution arc (with fewer, but individually longer game sessions). Character power also contributes here: low-level adventurers must be careful opportunists looking for openings where they may succeed, while mid- and high-level ones can increasingly dictate the pace and enforce their will on the game world. As it happens, the characters in our game were exactly name level when we wrapped it up, going from 3rd to 9th at a rate of approximately 4-5 sessions per level (with some setbacks due to dead characters). This is faster than the Gygaxian standard, but at the frequency we can meet and sit down to game, my relative generosity with XP made for a good pace of advancement.

This is Bait
This was also a campaign which had chewed up all of the starting characters. I started out with a common motivation for the party – a mysterious letter of inheritance they had all received, promising riches and power in a ruined manor house. My idea was to use this initial spark to establish a common party goal, create hooks for further adventures, while allowing for complete freedom in reaching the clues leading to the Inheritance proper. My original plan was derailed pretty much instantaneously as the players followed an ad-hoc adventure hook instead of the main course, then followed it up with a colossal blunder that got them sold into galley slavery. Furthermore, the initial sequence of adventures ended in disaster as all but one player character was unceremoniously killed by a fireball under the ruins of Perladon Manor, a place of no outstanding significance.

As a result, a lot of the middle arc of the campaign was spent reorienting and finding our way again. Ironically, this left the planned “rival NPC adventurer party” to pretty much act unimpeded, and gather the magical geegaws required to obtain the mysterious Inheritance for their own – essentially becoming the protagonists of their own campaign until they were successfully (although not at all easily) dispatched in the grand finale. This changed the campaign in ways I did not foresee: it made it much longer (I originally expected it to end when the character were around level 6 or 7), and refocused it fairly thoroughly. A “tentpole dungeon” I envisioned for multiple forays as the campaign would progress, the tombs beneath the Valley of Barzak Bragoth, never came into play, and was left as a vague outline (if you ever play a campaign on Erillion, you can use Barrowmaze or a similar dungeon in its place). Areas I thought would become important became footnotes, while others gained significance. In the end, Erillion became a more complex place for it – larger in scope and detail than I had envisioned, and with a layer of unsolved puzzles which, in my mind, help establish it as a “real” place. Some discoveries shall wait for a different group to solve!

As an important aside, the party mostly lacked something usually taken for granted in D&D: a cleric. The cleric characters who joined the group died or left, leaving a constant need for non-magical healing. I employed a mixture of low-yield healing options, from first aid rules to healing berries and natural rest, all treated a little more generously than the rules tend to do, but turning hit points into a more strategic resource. Likewise, the party never gained access to raise dead spells (although it was not out of the question), and dead characters were simply buried and replaced with new 3rd-level adventurers (6th-level ones in the last stage of the campaign). This is not an entirely new experience, as the concept had been germinating since our second Fomalhaut campaign and the historical fantasy of Helvéczia, but it worked out especially well. Modern D&D loses a lot from its long-term dimension due to the abundance of player resources, and sometimes, even old-school D&D feels overly generous when it comes to replacing spells and hit points. In this game, the players often had to consider the hard choice between timed tasks (events moving at their own pace if they didn’t act) and fully replenished resources, and were often forced to operate at sub-optimal efficiency, particularly on higher levels. This made the campaign more low-powered than the default, and kept it challenging and tense to the very end.

The Isle of Erillion
Adventures and the campaign setting

As vanilla fantasy does, Erillion was clearly inspired by the British Isles, a place I only know from secondary sources (my one brief visit to London was a trip to a strangely placeless global metropolis, and does not count). The mood of the island was influenced by the idea of successive civilisations each leaving their mark on territory before fading away, and leaving behind their ruins and half-remembered legends. This is perhaps best captured by The Ruin, an Old English poem wondering about what had once been, and which, along with the painting to the top of this post, gave me the initial spark for the setting.

Of course, the main texture of the adventures comes from 1st edition AD&D, particularly the DMG and The Secret of Bone Hill (through a Hungarian pulp fantasy series), and my aim was to capture that kind of experience, to return to that particular brand of adventurer fantasy I had always loved. I seeded my sandbox setting with adventures borrowed from the classics library: Huberic of Haghill became the main hub for the start of the campaign, Citadel of Fire was used for “The Mage Tower”, a place where magic-users and illusionists would go for their trials, and all three Giants modules were placed in remote mountain locations of the map (the characters never found G2, gave G1 a wide berth, and mistakenly entered the gates of G3, but fled once they realised they were in over their heads). A few more modules, old and new, were distributed in various locales. Bone Hill and Restenford could not be used directly – every old-school gamer in Hungary knows it too well through those novels to be of use – so I ended up paraphrasing them in The Mysterious Manor (Echoes #01) and the city of Baklin (hopefully published early 2020), places of my own creation.

I envisioned the campaign as a mixture between hex-crawl-based wilderness exploration and site-based dungeoneering and city adventuring. Somewhere along the way, I got infatuated with smaller pointcrawls, and ended up designing multiple forest adventures (and a large mountain expedition) in a “deep wilderness sandbox”. Enchanted forests are not too commonly seen among D&D adventures, and I liked the challenge of this unexplored domain. As it turns out, they are very rewarding to construct and run using a combination of trail maps and landmark-based navigation. In these adventures, the “dungeon walls” are permeable (although increasing random encounter frequency, the chance of being lost, and convenience tend to keep parties mostly on the road), and finding a high observation point gives away, if not the full map, at least some of its interesting features. Two examples of these adventures were published as The Swine Lord and The Wandering Glade (in Echoes #02 and #06, respectively); I can wholeheartedly recommend other people to try their hands at making one – just describe your forest or swamp as a regular dungeon, and go wild with it.

The Valley of Lost Graves
How do you keep a vanilla fantasy setting fantastic? My solution was to use a basic texture of (relative) realism for most of the milieu, but keep plenty of hidden or distant places as enchanted locales – sometimes what Moorcock described in Wizardry and Wild Romance as “the exotic landscape”. If you stay in the well-trod areas, you are in a world of scheming orcs, craven magic-users, feudal lords, Northman raiders and ambitious merchants, but go off track, and you enter an unexplored and mostly uncharted world of faerie enigmas, spatial anomalies, lost ruins and shadowy forest realms, where mundane logic gradually gives way to the working mechanisms of symbolism and uneasy dreams. One of the guiding concepts behind Erillion was that civilisation mostly stuck to the coastal areas and a small road network connecting mostly maritime cities, and civilisation could never really make great headway further inland. The deep woodlands and forbidding mountains of the island could contain entire pocket worlds far from human eyes. The key to the experience was keeping alive this contrast – and gradually, letting the players come close to the island’s deeper and more carefully guarded mysteries where all bets were off.

For its small size and self-contained nature (with about the land mass of Ireland), you can put a lot of stuff in a sandbox of this scope. One of the things that informed the campaign background was the variety of competing cultures and ideas, for whom Erillion would be both meeting point and place of conflict: barbaric Northmen raiders living in a combination of anarchy and petty tyrannies in an archipelago of island kingdoms; the disintegrating Twelve Kingdoms, locked in a perpetual civil war; the southern empire of Kassadia, the local equivalent of a Roman Empire that never fell to outside invasion but effectively dissolved into competing city states; and Erillion’s lost kingdoms, which had all left behind ideas and legacies, however vague. I did not really think through all of these details at the setting’s inception (the setting information was consciously almost all bottom-up and adventure-derived), but the details emerged over play, and made for a nice, cohesive whole, influencing internal divisions, and contributing to the different feel of different parts of the island.

So what’s next beyond Erillion? I still have two campaigns of variable frequency to run: Morthimion, an OD&D dungeon; and Kassadia, a game set in the aforementioned Roman/Italian setting. I also have plans outside D&D, for a Mini-Six (simplified D6 Adventure) campaign set in a setting inspired by the Cherubion trilogy, my favourite set of Hungarian science-fantasy novels (this is where the character of Melan comes from), and featuring the clash of primitive and advanced civilisations. As for Erillion, the paper folders now return to the bookshelf, although some materials are still to be published in Echoes or elsewhere – and we will see how it goes.

Drusus the Historian and Phil the Terror of Turkeys make a new friend
Characters (in order of appearance)

+Gadur Yir (Gabor Izapy): half-orc Fighter 5. The only survivor from the first party, Gadur Yir was resourceful, lucky, and sometimes even up to the ideals set by Haldor, god of heroism… until he was cornered and killed by Argul the Demented, an undead barbarian warlord buried beneath the city of Baklin.

+Jonlar Zilv (Kalman Farago): human Bard 4. He was petrified by a cockatrice among the ruins of Perladon Manor.

+Harmand the Reckless (Gabor Acs): half-orc Cleric 4 (of Zeltar, God of Fortune). An adventurer in the classic sense, he sought risk and reward in equal measure. He was eventually fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

+Einar Sigurdsson (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): Northman Fighter 4. Einar’s origins as a sea wolf came handy after the company orchestrated a slave uprising and took over the dragonship of Lady Geranith, a northern princess. He would have become an able sea captain, were he not also fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

+Sufulgor del’Akkad (Laszlo Feher): human Cleric 3 of Kurlakum of the Seven Misfortunes. A truly wretched follower of an evil deity with delusions of grandeur (“just call me the Master of the Night!”), his way towards more substantial villainy was cut short during the siege of a homestead ruled by a small clan of werewolves. Trying to save his skin, he offered his cut-off nose and a terrible oath as a sacrifice to his deity, but it was of no use, and he was torn apart by wolves.

+Elandil Hundertwasser (Laszlo Feher): elf Cleric 3 of Irlan the Merciful. Coming from “the forests of song and harp-music in the distant West”, he made an instant impression with his flower-embroidered green cloak, and sayings like “It is a great sorrow, that man may not become a flower”. He was fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

Drölhäf Haffnarskørung (Kalman Farago): Northman Fighter/Thief 9. Coming from a culture best known on Erillion for raiding and indiscriminate violence, Drolhaf (who earned his ümläüts over the span of the campaign) was a civilised barbarian who even had “soap” listed on his character sheet. Serving the interests of Gladuor, God of Aqueducts and human progress, he survived the campaign, and joined the Knights of Jolanthus Kar to keep peace on the island.

+Franz Who Wasn’t Even There (Laszlo Feher): human Illusionist 4. A talented “background player” who manipulated things from the back ranks with 6 Hp, he was, eventually, flattened into a paste by a boulder trap in the Singing Caverns.

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: hobbit Thief 9. Using several aliases (“Greg the Rat-catcher”, “Jan Quietstep”, “Uncle Philemon”, “Karl, the Guardian of the Flower”), this jovial and portly-looking hobbit grew into a frighteningly efficient killer by the end of the campaign, especially once he got his hands on the ring of gateways (which gave him the ability of using dimension door). He was also known for his love for mushrooms, which he knew very well.

+Dawn of the Southern Climes (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): elf Bard. His name a poor translation of the much more flavourful “Délszaki Hajna”, he was encountered in a valley known for an enchanted flower. On the way out through a sequence of cavern passages, he was caught and strangled by a ghost.

+Balthasar the Elf-bane (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): dwarf Cleric 3 of Haldor, God of Heroism. He was flattened into a paste by a boulder trap in the Singing Caverns.

(+) Buck (Laszlo Feher): half-orc Cleric 3 of Agak the orc-god. A walking disaster instantly hated by the rest of the party, he saw fit to retire after just one adventure. He was encountered much later as a much more powerful NPC cleric in the orc fortress of Tol Grannek, and was defeated during an epic battle at what would later be called Orc-Kill Pass, backstabbed by Phil the Terror of Turkeys with a dagger carrying rock spider venom. Petrified, the lifeless body of Buck was left as eternal reminder of the great slaughter.

Drolhaf Haffnarskorung, Silver Olaf Thorvaldson and Armand the Scumbag
encounter suspicious barbarians on the Plateau of Faces
Lafadriel Hundertwasser (Laszlo Feher): elf Fighter 9. An armoured knight and much less talented minstrel (with a Strength of 12 and a Charisma of 8!), Lafadriel came from “the distant West” to find and bury his dead brother, Elandil Hundertwasser. Of a gloomier disposition than Elandil, his poetic adventures were either wildly successful or complete flops, with no place in between. He survived the campaign, and true to his word, returned to his homeland with Elandil’s remains.

Armand the Scumbag (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): human Assassin 9. An ominous stranger from the distant and decadent, Italy-inspired lands of Kassadia, Armand, who had sometimes also called himself “Yil the Mysterious” (but was really called Arianus) was sent by his brotherhood to investigate the opportunities for expanding the business on the Isle of Erillion. Finding himself in the middle of a bid for power by the assassins of Gont, who had betrayed, and were slowly killing off the rival crime networks on the island, his cover soon compromised, he successfully turned the tables to his own advantage, and – when the campaign was finished – managed to take over the local crime business.

+Drusus the Historian (Gabor Izapy): human Magic-User 6. Coming from the southern lands, Drusus was tasked by his new mentor, the wizard Slarkeron, to bring him the brain of a mind scrambler to let him take the Test of Mastery. Ironically, Drusus met his end much later in the icy mountains, in the secluded tower of a mind scrambler, which had reduced him to a drooling vegetable and sucked out his brains.

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson (David Barsony): northman Cleric 3 of Edoran the Mysterious. A puzzling figure who would occasionally appear out of nowhere, join the company for an adventure or two, then disappear just as mysteriously. This is something the others had found creepy – was he following them? Was he a spy? A dimensional anomaly? He was not telling.

+Yaxur (Gabor Izapy): human Cleric 6 of Roxana, Goddess of Death. Yaxur joined the party after Drusus’ unfortunate demise, and lasted all of a half session. Coming to a great stone throne on a high mountain peak buffeted by icy winds, Yaxur was the first to encounter Kornax the Revenger, a powerful anti-paladin cursed to this place. Yaxur won the fight by ambushing Kornax with a hold person spell and killing him outright (thereby winning the powerful sword of chaos), but he did not count on Kornax coming back from the dead next night and massacring him without breaking a sweat.

Zartan (Gabor Izapy): Illusionist 7. He was the last to join the group, suddenly appearing among the mountains in his elegant clothes. Was he motivated by anything more insidious than a desire for loot and new spells? The world would never know.

Grey Ooze : Magic Spear 1:0
Notable quotes

Jonlar Zilv, musing about the party alignment: “If I sold you lot out to Lord Gramantik, my alignment would move a notch towards ‘good’.”

Gadur Yir: “Werewolf wounds! We must burn them out with fire.”
Jonlar Zilv: “I am already feeling better!”

Einar Sigurdsson: “I believe we should stop exploring hypothetical realms of fantasy, and go loot that manor house.”

Jonlar Zilv, stoned: “I call it ‘temporary invulnerability’.”
Harmand the Reckless: “I call you our ship’s new figurehead.”

Elandil’s player, after a near-TPK, where Elandil and the rest were torn into bits by a fireball: “But who will now make the world a better place?”
Someone else: “Not you.”
Someone else 2: “Was this a homemade module?”
Elandil’s player: “Do you really think anyone else could make up something like a shadow shooting a fireball?
Someone else 3: “The ecological footprint of Gygaxian Naturalism strikes again.”

Gadur Yir, about 500 gp worth of cave crystals: “The two of us mined it together, while the rest of you were cowardly homos. It is ours.”
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “In civilisation, everyone does his own share of work. We guarded the passage while you were exploring, and we have our due.”
Gadur Yir: “A Marxist barbarian!”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys, under attack by a giant stag beetle, to Drolhaf: “It is going for your horned helmet; it just wants to mate with you!”
(…)
Gadur Yir: “I wipe the bug juices from my rations.”
Franz Who Wasn’t Even There: “You wanted to play David Fucking Attenborough, wise guy.”

Franz Who Wasn’t Even There: “This must be a gender-conscious sphynx.”

“Favoured enemy: Doors.”
Franz: “I am not really in love with this fucking door.”

Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, after Buck sent his new followers to their certain doom: “…But you are the follower of Agak, NOT Ayn Rand.”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “I slide the poor widow a coin as my condolences, and as a form of carousing.”
GM: “It is worth no XP because there is self-interest involved.”
Phil: “I take back the coin.”

Lafadriel’s player: “The menu is… gelatinous cube in aspic. And then, black pudding.”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “This was no random ambush.”
Armand the Scumbag: “It couldn’t have been meant for me.”
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “Who could have done such a thing?” – I ask the cruel stars, but there is no answer.
Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “I know these things and it was definitely meant for you. Look, Armand, it might be time for you to assume a fake name.”
Armand the Scumbag: “I am not very creative with these…”
Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “You could be… Armand the Clod!”

Drusus the Historian, dripping with water: “The grand master of sailing found us a leaky boat.”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “My whole wealth amounts to 25 gold pieces, but at least the light of the stars is mine.”

Someone: “Have the mugs been cleaned [in this pub]?”
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “When the world was young...”

“My god is Erdogan... no, Edoran!”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “This is a low-budget valley.”

Drolhaf to Lafadriel (after Drusus tried on the expensive boots and the golden diadem): “Is your god also Robespierre?”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “Rest here? In the Forest of Death?”
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “This is where we will screw the pooch.”
Drusus the Historian: “Just two or three days?”
Someone: “You have already died twice in this campaign.”
Someone 2: “Yeah right, the Forest of Death is famous for providing a healing rest.”

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson joins the party.
“We could use a few strong hands.”
“That’s two of them, because that’s how many you’ve got.”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “The spiders are not evil… they are just different.

Armand the Scumbag, to a new party member: “Can you break curses?”
“Impotence is no curse!”

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson, looking at small figures in the distance: “Are these giants? …or dwarves?”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys, after encountering some giant goats guarding a gold vein: “We shouldn’t tell this tale in the pub… crapping our pants and chickening out when we saw a bunch of goats.”

“Why do you think you are the destined bearer of this sword?”
“The world has carried no greater scumbag than I.”

“What kind of moss isn’t suspicious?!”

“There is no more paper this way, let’s go in the other direction.”

Zartan has donned a helm of opposite alignment, turning from Chaotic Neutral to Lawful Neutral.
“Wait… he can’t steal from the party anyore!”
“Oh YEAH!”
“Yesssss!”
“It was worth it.”
“You are the reason we set guards at night.”



Saturday, 5 October 2019

[REVIEW] Tower of the Moon


Tower of the Moon (2019)
by David Pulver
Published by Night Owl Workshop
Levels 3-6

Towers adventures are hard to design. Limited by their shape, most are linear, small affairs that don’t really offer many exploration opportunities; the exceptions tend to experiment with fantastic architecture (The Ghost Tower of Inverness, Sision Tower), add extra areas below or near the tower (Citadel of Fire), or both (Dark Tower, which is cheating a bit). To its credit, Tower of the Moon makes good use of the simple tower format: it presents a complete, 23-area mini-dungeon in as many pages.

Tower of the Moon
This is a “fairy tale gothic” ghost tower, featuring a heavy werewolf theme. It describes what was the sacred place of a neutral/good-aligned goddess associated with wolves, love, dance and hunting. As the premise goes, the tower fell after Mordark, a magic-user whose very name must have evoked the denizens’ trust, betrayed the tower’s high priestess and destroyed the place with a powerful curse. Now, of course, the haunted ruin is active again, and a young local noblewoman has disappeared inside along with a company of adventurers. The tone of the adventure is more 2nd-edition era high fantasy than murderhobo stuff; at points, it is unabashed gothic romance, and it is built on assumptions which would be better fit for a heroic 2e campaign than something more mercenary. In that respect, it uses both the werewolf theme and the romance element skilfully.

Hewing closer to 2e (where gold is no longer the main source of XP), the module has little in the way of treasure: its monetary rewards are almost comically meagre, with loot like 20 lbs worth of cooking implements valued at 10 gp, two glass goblets worth 2 gp each, a well-aged bottle of white wine marked Hawkwood Estates (4 gp), or a 200 gp throne weighing 400 lbs. This is agreeable as long as you use either a gp or an XP multiplier – I would use at least ×10 here, and still drop some of the junk loot. Then there is inexcusable stuff like 3 silver pieces in a giant rat nest, or a 25 gp crescent moon amulet “in the bottom of the muck in the chamber pot beside the nest”. It is hard to think of this stuff as “treasure” in any meaningful sense.

The encounters are an even mixture of the straightforward and the fantastic. The module is at its weakest when it goes into describing “cabinet contents” barracks rooms and storerooms in too much detail – there are worse offenders, but this is an area where the module could have been easily tightened up significantly. But there are also entries which show promise; the tower features multiple well-designed, creepy lycanthrope-based traps (although also a few poison needle traps too many – don’t bring Black Leaf on this expedition), innovative curses, and some fine custom magic effects. This is where the module clearly shines, and even the treasure gets slightly better.

There are some severe organisational problems in the module text. The room entries are written in a haphazard order where trivial details are followed by way more important stuff. Right in room 2, we learn about a lot of clutter and junk in the room before learning that there is, also, a cockatrice behind a barrel. In some places, the text actually jumps back and forth, in addition to hiding the room’s most important and utterly obvious features after an in-depth description of historical books on a dusty shelf (22B). Fixing these mistakes would have been a question of basic editing.

Altogether, Tower of the Moon is a mixed bag. The beginnings of a good module are there in the text, and I think the author’s next project could be quite good if he focused on the things he does well (good high fantasy adventure, interesting magical things to mess with), and fixed some of the mistakes. There is nothing fundamentally broken in the module, and a sequel could easily focus on its present strengths without doing something significantly different.

This publication credits its playtesters fairly.

Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

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


Echoes From Fomalhaut #06
I am pleased to announce the publication of the sixth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 44-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Stefan Poag and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and the Dead Victorians.

This issue holds a special significance for me, containing materials I have been hoping to publish for many years. The City of Vultures, a sinful, crumbling metropolis ruled by bizarre customs and malevolent conspiracies, has been the setting for three campaigns and multiple one-off games I have refereed. So far, precious little of these adventures have seen publication: by the time they were ready for release, both flagship old-school fanzines had folded, and I was left without a publication venue – clearly, it was simultaneously too big and too fragmentary to fit a single module. You could say I needed my own fanzine to make it happen – and here we are. Welcome to the City of Vultures!

The current issue offers a primer on the city, introducing its cruel gods, weird customs and labyrinthine secret societies. This article is reprinted from Knockspell, but updated and expanded to reflect the multiple years of play that has taken place since, and accompanied by a dual city/wilderness map with player-level detail. Some notes are also offered on the lands surrounding the City – these wilderness modules (there are two maps’ worth of them) are also forthcoming in later issues. The main focus of Echoes #06, however, is The Gallery of Rising Tombs, describing one of the four major Underworld complexes beneath the Beggars’ District. This is not a single dungeon; rather, an interconnected maze of entrance levels (three of them), sub-levels and side-complexes, for a total of 81 keyed areas. This scenario is suitable for characters of quite different power (but mostly in the 4-6 range). From a disreputable caravanserai to the under-temple of the rat-god and the domain of a damned warrior yearning for his lost love, mysterious discoveries and horrible death await in equal measure in… The Gallery of Rising Tombs!

Gaming dice not included
From the Isle of Erillion, this issue brings you an enchanted forest. The Wandering Glade is of no place and every place, appearing at different points of the land. For some, the glade is a place to seek lost treasures and hidden knowledge. For some, it is a site for nighttime revels and human sacrifice. And for some, it is a trap with no easy way out. Yet there is something about the place which no living being has discovered… yet! This wilderness adventure for 4th to 6th level characters (but suitable for repeat incursions at different character levels) describes the twisting trails and hidden clearings of this arboreal realm, as well as a hidden mini-dungeon for those who would seek its ultimate secrets (26 + 13 keyed areas). And, finally, if you need to kill things properly, there is The Armoury, a storehouse of 30 magical weapons. Confound your foes with The Sword of Barriers, master the treacherous Axe of Many Runes, or take up the choice of champions, mighty Frogbringer!

The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through RPGNow with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

IMPORTANT SHIPPING NOTE: Due to project meetings and conference season, orders between September 28 and October 11 may ship with some delay. I will try to do my best, but I will spend most of this time out of town.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

[REVIEW] Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2


Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2 (2019)
by Ben Laurence
Self-Published
Low-level

Glgbghhhbghhh *flrp* glgg
This is the second issue of a fanzine dedicated to presenting materials from the author’s long-running campaign (that, as I understand, mostly took place on Google Plus with a rotating cast of characters). The first issue served as an introduction to the setting of “Zyan Below”, a set of dungeons below the floating dreamland city of Zyan, and the Inquisitors’ Theatre, a sub-level built by one of Zyan’s eccentric guilds, and now taken over by a carnival’s worth of bizarre rival factions.

The second instalment follows the structure of the premiere issue. Two introductory articles offer a primer on the setting’s lost souls, and guidelines for adventuring in Slumberland (combining genre authenticity with practical solutions for what happens when someone gets randomly disconnected from an online game). However, most of the text is dedicated to a self-contained dungeon along the Great Sewer River, apparently the main connecting thoroughfare in Zyan Below. Catacombs of the Fleischguild is the holy place and burial ground for Zyan’s butchers, who have taken their art to macabre heights. Unlike the Inquisitors’ Theatre, the catacombs are still in active use, making for a different play dynamic. While the location key is based on static locales of interest and an encounter table, the level’s defences are more systematic, strife among the inhabitants is harder to identify and exploit (although it is not impossible), and repeated incursions invite increasingly strong defensive measures. The interesting strategic choice here is found in the degree and means of engagement: the intruders can move relatively freely while they are sightseeing (this is almost a museum of sorts), but things become increasingly dangerous as they start messing with things.

A trick that already impressed me in the first issue – and which is repeated here – is using a straight 1d6 roll for random encounters, but dedicating one pip to a “sign”, a hint at the creature’s presence somewhere around you, which is logical, a source of good tension, and a hint for the players to get ready! I believe that good D&D is built on small quality-of-life innovations like this: simple, elegant, adds to the play experience.

The dungeon is more “thick” than expansive. It has a small footprint with only 31 locations (and no empty rooms), but each of the keyed parts have a great deal of both descriptive detail and interactive elements. There is a specific style to this campaign that’s best described as decadent. Everything is ornamented, everything has archaeological context, and it is all opulent and slightly rotten. It is a strong flavour and it is easy to find it too rich for your palate. For example, one room has “a head wearing a porcelain hawk mask (150 gp)… a head wearing a crystal ape mask (200 gp)… a bronze amulet with underwater scene of clustered fish set with cabochon sapphire bubbles (375 gp)… a jadite mantis mask (150 gp)… a golden armband of serpent with two heads that meet at the clasp, their eyes agates (200 gp)”. There is a great amount of creativity on display, and the treasures are not just lying around randomly (a weakness of many old-school modules), but as the room entries listed their procession of weird treasures, I found myself thinking there was some advantage to the “16*100 gp gems and 8 pieces of jewellery at 1000 gp each” approach.

The dungeon is themed to the limit. The Fleischguild’s master butchers have built themselves a wondrous and very disturbing abbatoir/sanctum where marbles resemble choice meats and fatty tissue; you can sacrifice to meat-loving deities (one altar is piled with “delicious cooked sausages of rare flavour” and a stack of “candied meats”, “dusted in powdered sugar like Turkish delights”); and you can encounter fat spirits, giant flies prowling for rotted meat, as well as a demon who is a disturbing, man-shaped mass of ambulatory veins. It even finds a use for M.A.R. Barker’s outrageous invention, the eye-spoon (you can find multiple ones among the treasures) – indeed, you could place this dungeon right under Jakallá, and nobody would bat an eye. This is a very specific and peculiar kind of fantasy, but it works – and it makes for an excellent dungeon crawl.

Through Ultan’s Door’s strength is not limited to its exotic backdrop setting; rather, it lies in combining setting details with D&D’s exploration-oriented gameplay. The fit is not 100% seamless, since the dazzling amount of detail does make the rooms slightly hard to “read”, which does have an effect on the action therein (“You forgot about the ceramic bowls on top of the pillars! Now you shall die!”). But this is a quibble, since in general, the writing is clear and effective. This mini-dungeon rewards careful exploration, inventive problem-solving and shrewd negotiation; its traps and challenges are inventive and require out-of-the-box thinking to best; and it is heavy on well-integrated, interesting secrets (more than a third of the level, and most of its interesting treasures are hidden from the casual observer). It is good D&D in an exotic setting the same way Empire of the Petal Throne is good D&D in an exotic setting. It is not “too weird to live.”

Through Ultan’s Door comes with a detachable cardboard cover, showing Russ Nicholson’s grotesque depiction of the catacombs’ entrance on the front cover, and Gus L’s dungeon map on the inside. This is a good map, combining visual appeal with practicality. I think there is also a “monster card” displaying the encounter table (a boon for table use), but I must have misplaced it – or was it all a dream?

No playtesters are credited in this publication. [Correction: The zine credits the playtesters right on its first page.]

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

[REVIEW] Goddess of the Crypt


Goddess of the Crypt (2019)
by Vagabundork
Self-published
Low-level

Goddess of the Crypt
Into the Odd is one of the worthwhile old-school D&D spinoffs of the last decade: it has a strong vision, simple but well thought out mechanics, an interesting implied setting, and a well-structured game framework which encourages going out on hazardous but lucrative adventures. It is kind of like OD&D for a rusty and very weird Victorian England; a place where you might encounter morlocks, Martian war-machines, occult mysteries and temporal/spatial anomalies, and where your beginning characters are largely disadvantaged nobodies hoping to make it big by hook or by crook. Like OD&D’s beginning murderhobos, there are bizarre and dangerous dungeons to plunder and occult treasures to unearth. Like OD&D’s name-level characters, the endgame involves retiring as wealthy and powerful eccentrics, and there is a pre-built career path to reach that destination.

What Into the Odd is missing is the same thing niche games tend to miss: a steady support of interesting, well-thought out adventures (Silent Titans, which uses the game system, and even includes its core rules, is the major exception as a full-length campaign). This is a shame, because, ItO is precisely the kind of game that’s fairly easy to develop scenarios for, and a good fit for smaller, pamphlet-sized projects. So here we are: Goddess of the Crypt is a published ItO mdule – and a fairly well hidden one.

The adventure takes the characters, working on behalf of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, into a temple populated with serpent-men and super-science. A previous expedition has been lost down there, and it may also be swell to uncover some of the precious artefacts they have been looking for. This is a dungeon with 11 main keyed areas, which is not much, although most of the rooms have a neat multi-layered complexity with multiple things going on. This complexity is both a boon and a hindrance, as the module is structured in a nested bullet point structure
  • that theoretically makes information well structured and easy to find,
    • unless there are several levels of the bullet points and the information is scattered among them
      • in a labyrinthine way
        • no kidding, it really looks like this
          • sometimes there are five levels.

Obviously, this is a wee bit too much of a good thing, and ironically makes the text harder to decipher than just sticking with boring old paragraphs.

What makes Goddess of the Crypt worth checking out is the dungeon itself. It has the spirit of OD&D’s “mythic underworld” concept, working more along the lines of loose association than strict logic. As a temple/crypt, the dungeon has somehow established connections with laboratories and extra-dimensional pockets. It mixes meso-American feeling snake temples with early 20th century weird (pseudo-)science-as-magic devices. It has superb ideas like a bas-relief of one-eyed men serving as an opening mechanism for a secret door (opened with a freshly plucked eye), or an enchanted key that fits every door, but turns them into an entrance to a specific extra-dimensional place. There is a roster of monsters representing various stages of serpentile evolution and cross-breeding, and bizarre monsters from dimension X. It is an interactive dungeon with imaginative things to mess with.

However, it is still more a first step in a great direction than a fully formed dungeon that hits all notes. The map’s frequent use of one-way doors introduces some interesting choices, but also results in inevitable backtracking, and turns a seemingly non-linear dungeon level into a significantly more restricted one. At least if I interpret the map correctly: some of the door symbols are deceptively similar, and for something done with a mapping programme, it is surprisingly hard to read. I also believe the contents could have been spread out a little more with the good use of empty rooms (and less pointlessly winding corridors, unless that is part of the snake theme). The issues with structuring information have already been covered. I would be interested to see further releases from Vagabundork, with a slightly less fragmented structure – the potential is there, if the presentation can be improved somewhat.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****


Monday, 16 September 2019

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

Saving Throw

While Echoes #06 is undergoing some essential fine-tuning before release, I would like to draw your attention to a recently published fanzine. Saving Throw has been assembled and released for the benefit of James D. Kramer. You may know James from his illustrative work, which is found in various adventure modules and game supplements. You may have handled his editing work if you have browsed through a copy of Knockspell or OSRIC. You may know him as a publisher and author of fine adventures through his Usherwood Publishing imprint (which also sells an A5 version of the OSRIC rules). You may know him as a family man, too.

As you may also have heard, James has been fighting a malignant brain tumour for a while, and has had to undergo multiple surgeries in the process. Saving Throw – sold for the auspicious price of $13.00 – is a fanzine whose proceeds will go to Jim and his family in this trying time – and it is also intended as a thank-you note and as a gift to cheer him up. In 64 pages, Saving Throw contains a wealth of articles written by members of the old-school community. Therein, you will find six complete mini-adventures (I wrote one of them); random inspiration tables to generate fantastic islands; variant rules; maps to great treasures; new monsters and NPC parties; and more.

Saving Throw is currently available in PDF from DriveThruRPG, and a print version is also forthcoming (sold at discount to those who purchase the PDF). Buy yours today!