Saturday, 18 August 2018

[REVIEW] The Museum of Living Arts

The Museum of Living Arts (2018)
by Miihkali Tuominen and Thaumiel Nerub
Published by D-OOM Products
Low levels

The Museum of Bad Xerox Machines
Murderous statues and sordid experiments are to fantasy museums as giant rats in the basement are to fantasy pubs: they come with the territory, and they are not at all unexpected. If I heard there was a museum in the fantasy city my character was visiting, I would immediately prepare for strange disappearances and bloody murders. And surprisingly…

This LotFP scenario does it well. It takes the predictable premise and does something entertaining and imaginative with it. If there is good vanilla, this is good fantasy horror, missing the juvenile edgelordism found in many official LotFP releases. It still features plentiful gore and grotesque murder, but, if it can be said, it is all done tastefully. There is just enough of the tragic and otherworldly lurking inside the museum hall to make the horror underneath the not-so-innocuous surface feel interesting.

Much of the module revolves around the individual exhibits, and the central mystery of the place and the surrounding disappearances. The museum is a physically compact space (24 keyed areas split between two levels), but sufficiently labyrinthine, and divided into visitor areas and more restricted “staff only” zones. It offers good possibilities for infiltration and even reconnaissance – this is a dungeon the characters can visit by day and buy a ticket to look around unmolested! The exhibits are largely tricks/traps and inventive dungeon puzzles; they demonstrate a good sense of the macabre, and should be fun to deal with. There are occasional places where we get into LotFP’s tendency for lolrandom tables, but by and large, it is a nice, thematic dungeon revolving around (fairly modern and fairly high-concept) art. Creepy details like an interactive exhibit of stuffed demi-humans, or a secret arena where the owner pits his captives against each other in ridiculous costumes lend the place its character.

Nine new monsters / NPCs are presented in a preliminary bestiary section, variations on familiar concepts which give them a sense of the uncanny. Silver-plated skeletons constructed from former victims which are both monster and treasure. Clay “limb studies” which choke you. Hairless sphinx cats which lurk on the perimeter of your vision, watching. These monsters are put to good use inside the module; they are integrated into the area descriptions fairly nicely.

The Museum of Living Arts looks and reads well. It has an underground DIY look mostly using overexposed stock art (that looks like metal zines run through a photocopier one time too many), and a breezy, light layout which would make it ideal for digest-sized printing. (The 40 pages could easily be condensed to 20 while remaining readable, but that’s a quibble.) The writing has a fairly good balance between style and functionality; I was happy with it. This is an amateur module in the best sense. It would make for a good Halloween one-shot, or it could come in handy if you need a creepy museum for a reasonably cosmopolitan city.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

[BLOG] Year Two, and Onwards

Things I made this year

Beyond Fomalhaut started two years ago, and while most people tend to do this in late December or early January, this is my regular time for stock-taking and reflecting (and ranting). I should actually have posted this a day or two earlier to make it exactly one year, but we were gaming. Gaming takes precedence. Sitting down by the table with my circle of friends and playing is the reason to participate in this hobby, and it is the wellspring from which everything else flows. I am making a point here, and I will return to it at the end of the post. But for now,

The State of the Blog

Last year, I had 55 posts; this year, I had 42, this one included. It is slightly less (although some of my 2016 posts were reposts), and there have been more reviews than discussion. I have always been more of an actual play guy than a theorist, and I just had less to say about general matters than I used to. (I also canned some posts I did not think were up to par.) Reviews, on the other hand, are not just easy and enjoyable to write, they sometimes involve discussion on practical game design. The 23 I posted average out at 3.0, about the same as in 2016-2017 (3.1). This year, there were more outliers and slightly less reviews in the middle. This is how the rating break down:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence (). This rating was not awarded this year.
  • 5 went to one new product, The Red Prophet Rises. This is a great sword&sorcery adventure module which I would recommend without reservations.
  • 4 went to eight products, ranging from the fairly high-profile (The Hyqueous Vaults and Deep Carbon Observatory) to the oddball little surprises you find in PDFs, zines, and even a blog post (Sanctum of the Snail, The Quarrymen and The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre). These are very good, too.
  • 3 went to seven adventures. Most of them were in the “decent but could have been better” league, with the only flawed gem being Crypt of the Lilac High Priest and I almost gave that one a four. I would recommend Lilac High Priest with some reworking, and Fever Swamp if you like a good helping of masochism in your gaming.
  • 2 went to four adventures. This mostly means there is an entire category of lacking modules I am successfully avoiding, or leafing through and not writing the review. To turn Tolstoy’s quote on its head, “every good adventure is good in its own way, while the poor ones are all alike”. There are patterns common to this rating which can become helpful warning signs for the reader, and a time-saver for the harried reviewer. I will post on this issue soonish.
  • 1 went to three adventures. One, The Wrath of Grapes, was classic shovelware, the kind you pick up out of curiosity and regret immediately afterwards. Then we come to Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb and The Exfiltrators, which both caught me off guard at the end of this year. Neither of these were newbie efforts; in fact, they were both written by people with fairly well-known names and industry awards. Something went wrong in both cases: one is a creative failure as an intro adventure, and the other is a return to bad writing and design practices which have been around in the hobby for a long while. I suppose both are instructive in the “don’t do this” sense.

My campaign journal, still going strong last year, died an ignoble death after its 13th instalment. I don’t think it had too many followers: the posts were too long, increasingly convoluted (a fairly natural progression for a campaign, but not easy to buy into as a reader), and I am no writer. It has also been more useful to share actual game materials, which brings us to...

The State of the Fanzine

From concept...
E.M.D.T. lives, again! After a lot of vacillation about the business end of things, I took the jump and launched my zine. This has been a tremendously enjoyable experience, and probably the best way to publish game materials these days. I have long been complaining that social media and blogs have the wrong kind of architecture to make things last – posts inevitably drop out of sight in the information churn, and hobby publications do not receive enough time to prove themselves and find their proper place in the popular imagination. Zines are small and inexpensive enough to be personal, but substantial enough to have staying power. These are not exactly the newsletter-style zines of the 70s to 90s: their information exchange role has been assumed by the Internet, so you don’t really get much of correspondence and commentaries-upon-commentaries that had once served to connect fandom. (This was still the case in Chaos Ultra, the late-90s diskmag where my first game-related writings appeared.) Instead, they are an excellent venue for self-expression and craftmanship. reality.
This aspect has always drawn me to zines and newsletters. For a long time, most of my output was in the form of PDFs, but I grew to miss the look and substance of a physical product. I knew Echoes From Fomalhaut would have to be a physical zine, and I had very specific ideas about the way it would look and feel (mainly influenced by the early Judges Guild instalments). There is something slower and more old-fashioned about a paper zine than an RPGNow PDF. I buy and enjoy a lot of those, too, but receiving an envelope in the mail and poring over someone’s handmade booklet is a feeling like no other. It also goes for publishing my own. Writing and disseminating a zine involves a lot of busywork from editing to packing envelopes and doing taxes, and now that I’m working out of the weekend house, it is kind of physical, too – the post is 40 minutes away on foot, and a round trip in the summer heat is a good daily walk. But it is tremendously enjoyable labour. So much of what we do these days is virtual or hard to put into concrete terms that the routine of processing orders feels like a task that produces clearly understandable value. Seeing the first working proofs after multiple homemade prototypes, or bringing three or four envelopes’ worth of zines to the post at a time is a reward onto itself.

The ideologues among us could be right to point out that Echoes, like most of its peers, kinda betrays the DIY principle. That’s correct: I did not actually make it all by myself. I have had help, and lots of it. The unsung hero behind the zine is Akos Barta, my printer: an old gamer friend from way back, he owns the printing company which had published my 2013 Helvéczia boxed set, and now prints and assembles my booklets. I have also been lucky to commission excellent illustrators who truly “get” the old-school style: Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Matthew Ray and Andrew Walter (so far). As Denis had once remarked in our personal correspondence, they draw on different old-school predecessors from Sutherland, Russ Nicholson, Trampier and a bit of Otus; I will add that they also have developed personal styles that are their own, and which fire my imagination. Last but not least, my players: obviously, but sometimes you have to restate the obvious. Thanks, guys!

Zine readers vs. zine publishers
So how’s the business going? The first two issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut, and The Barbarian King, which was kind of a test balloon to see if I could also do print modules, have sold sufficiently well to recoup my costs and generate a modest profit after social security and the taxman’s cut (you are welcome, guys). Echoes #01 is getting close to selling out its first print run at 194 of 220 copies sold (this does not count a 30-copy pre-release I distributed at a Hungarian game convention), and will be reprinted; TBK and Echoes #02 are at 121 and 115 copies out of 240. This means the zine project is financially self-sustainable, and generates a profit I can reinvest into subsequent issues, more modules, as well as larger projects down the line. That’s pretty good. The next issue of Echoes is scheduled for late September, and I would like to make it run on a quarterly schedule, with the odd module and supplement on the side. The next module will be in the Hungarian, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of my RPG (it will also be the 50th E.M.D.T. release). If time allows, I would also like to release something in English, a utility product based on something I had once worked on with Matt Finch, but never ended up releasing. This may or may not come out before Christmas.

I did not finish this

The State of My Other Projects

People who have been reading this blog might remember the promises. Well, burnout and a stronger focus on the zine has also meant that Castle Xyntillan, my Tegel Manor homage, has been very slow to progress, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. I was dissatisfied with some of my ideas for the dungeons, and rather than beat my head against the wall, I scrapped the problem areas and replaced them with something completely different. We are also in the final stages of our campaign, meaning we will wrap it up soon and if I can find the time, it will be reasonably easy to complete the manuscript and hand it out to people for comments and criticism while I redraw the maps (they will still be hand-drawn, just a bit prettier). Xyntillan is going to be a larger book, maybe a hardcover similar in size to the 1e PHB, with large foldout GM and player maps (either two or three of them each). It is also for OD&D/S&W.

Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG, has been lying untouched for almost two years now (the last major work I did on it was in August 2016). The rulebooks and the first two adventures are translated and mostly laid out, but as projects tend to go, I stalled at 90% readiness and haven’t been inspired to progress ever since. It will happen, although I don’t know if it will happen in 2019. Maybe the end of it. Helvéczia is a game I believe in, and want to see it done right no matter what it takes (apparently, years).

Other things I made this year
There is also something else I haven’t been talking much about on RPG forums. Thief: The Dark Project, my favourite computer game will have its 20th anniversary at the end of November, and there is a level design contest for an old-school thieving experience. Some ten years ago, I was one of the people trying to go for an old-school aesthetic in the Thief level design community, and I have since found a following of talented people (for some reason mainly French) who have taken things to the next level. In the last eight years, I have been focusing on The Dark Mod, the free Thief-inspired stealth game, but the anniversary and the contest were a one of a time opportunity to return to Thief level editing. It turns out Dromed, the hoary old level editor used to build Thief fan missions, is as quirky as ever, but it has gotten some improvements to make it easier to work with and remove some of its hard limitations.

"That stupid thing with all the lines"
Building Thief levels is an incredibly addictive hobby; using simple geometric shapes (cubes, wedges, cylinders, pyramids, corner-apex pyramids and dodecahedrons) to construct complex terrain and build rewarding gameplay is time-consuming and utterly absorbing. Where a simple house could be a cube with two wedges on the top, a sequence of interlocking shapes (which can be solid, “air” or water) can result in some pretty sophisticated stuff. Of course, by current computer game standards, Thief is incredibly low-fi: even on its release 20 years ago, it didn’t win any awards for graphics. But it is this low-fi aesthetic which makes it look timeless, and its other features (a revolutionary stealth system, the world’s best sound design, and the ability to build huge, labyrinthine levels have stood the test of time very well. If some of my RPG projects have been slow to appear, Thief and Dromed are partly to blame.

The State of the Old School

Old-school gaming is as stable these days as it gets. It may not be obvious to many, but with its roots in communities like Dragonsfoot, the OD&Dities fanzine, and the Necromancer Games forums, it has been around since 2000 and 2001. OSRIC was published in 2006, and Swords & Wizardry will turn ten this October. Contrary to a lot of doomsaying and wishful thinking on part of its detractors, it has not been proven a passing fad, or a few nostalgiacs clinging to their childhood. Instead, our niche interest (and a niche interest it will remain) has established itself as a legitimate approach to gaming. It is here to stay, although not necessarily at the level of its 2010-2012 peak. Being fan-based and decentralised without a dominant lead product, old-school gaming has weathered its boom years better than the d20 system.

The breadth of old-school gaming has necessarily brought divisions: with common roots in the classics, the communities around OSRIC, LotFP, Into the ODD and Dungeon Crawl Classics can easily remain in communication, but they are otherwise increasingly separated by taste, design interests, and the kind of people they attract. I personally think early 1st edition AD&D is the game with the strongest and most distinct creative legacy, and the common wellspring to which we can (and should) all return time and time again. There is, however, no denying that there is an equally strong interest in the Basic/Expert lineage, a segment of the OSR which has strongly overlapped with the indies, and ideas which have drifted off into far-flung corners of gaming. In some of these cases, the influence and mutations of old-school philosophies may yield surprising new result. It may also turn out we may not like some of them. So it goes; this is, fortunately, a corner of the hobby where the stakes are small, and everyone can create the kind of gaming they want. More or less, anyway.

The last time, I mentioned commercialisation and a loss of our focus (as bottom-up, actual play-focused DIY communities) as one of the threats which can seriously harm us in the future. I am not too happy to bring it up, but this time, it is politics. Make no mistake, I am not anti-political (to the contrary, I am a politics junkie), and if releasing a politically charged game is your poison, be my guest. But there is too much of a good thing, and the people who can’t shut up about their specific brand of radicalism are becoming a nuisance. Perhaps a lot of things are political, including my chair, my table, and especially the parasol I am sitting under (all bourgeois conceits when I could be building barricades), but the people who try to bring their crummy politics into everything are rapidly becoming “that guy”. And they never seem to notice themselves.

But there is more than nuisance, there is just plain shitty behaviour. When you see people clamouring to punish other gamers for imagined or real ideological transgressions, or for associating with the wrong kind of people, or as it happened, for interviewing someone on a podcast who had associated with the wrong kind of people, that is not a “nuisance”. These people will incessantly talk about toxicity and bad guys, while consistently making the Internet a worse place for everyone. They will try to ruin you, get you fired from your job and destroy your business and reputation for failing their self-made ideological tests. The thing to realise is that fuck no they aren’t fighting the good fight, and they are not acting out of good intentions, let alone “self-defence”. These ideological bullies want power, and they’ll be sure to start abusing it as soon as they get their hands on it. We ought to recognise it. We have known Pat Pulling and her ilk, and these new heirs of her are just the same, the same, the same. They don’t own gaming and they only speak for a small clique. The correct response to their jackassery is found in the classics: “Well, hello, Mister Fancypants. Well, I've got news for you, pal, you ain't leadin’ but two things right now: jack and shit... and Jack left town.”

What to do, then, if you perceive something political in gaming that annoys you? My plan is to game more, and that should be your plan, too. First of all, a commitment to gaming will weed out the people who are in “the community” to spread misery and generate outrage. They can fuck off back to wherever they came from. Second, in its own modest way, I think gaming is beneficial. Our hobby is built around friendship and hospitality, and if there is something our world needs more of, it is those two.  How many times do modern people invite friends over to sit around their dinner table for a few hours of conversation? More than that, enjoying gaming lets us realise the things we have in common. Shared creativity and friendship enriches us all. Is gaming a recipe for moral improvement? Do not ask too much of it. But do not undersell the small things either.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

[REVIEW] The Exfiltrators

The Exfiltrators (2018)
by Lance Hawvermale
5th to 7th level

The Exfiltrators
First things first, this module was produced by one of the best Kickstarter campaigns I have seen. The objectives were simple and clearly laid out. The product description stated the designer’s aims without cloudy obfuscation and deceptive language. There were no stretch goals to build false expectations and stretch out production into infinity, and the pitch was based on a written, edited manuscript. The Kickstarter did something which very few Kickstarters actually do: it was meant to bridge the gap between manuscript stage and delivery. Finally, the campaign was launched February 2018, and the completed books were delivered April 2018. Hardcore! This approach gets my official endorsement. If you want to crowdfund something, this is the way to do it. (Note also that it raised all of $1,613, which makes my wisdom highly dubious.)

In The Exfiltrators, you must enter Velgate Prison, the kingdom’s most notorious penitentiary for those criminals who have to be put away very securely. The place is staffed by professionals, the prisoners are under continuous surveillance, and escape is impossible. Time to prove the warden wrong – your characters either get to break out of the most secure prison in the land, or break into the prison to investigate who is targeting them and other adventurers with perfectly orchestrated ambushes.

A good prison break hinges on confronting an interesting, complex security system to find its gaps or contradictions, and exploit them for your purposes. This is how they work. Unfortunately, Velgate Prison itself is completely underwhelming, which is not a good thing as the module’s lynchpin location. You would expect “the kingdom’s most notorious jail” to be a sinister, imposing and labyrinthine place, with prisoners lost somewhere on the lower levels. Instead, you get a much more modern and much-much more modest outfit using the panopticon design. It is, in fact, mostly one big room with a central observation chamber surrounded by multiple stacked levels of cells with the inmates inside them. This one room carries much of the adventure. All the rest of the prison is made up of humdrum support rooms like the guard barracks, the weapons locker, the quartermaster, and personal domiciles for the senior staff. It is all firmly in the “fantastic realism” school, mostly stating the obvious.

Nipple rings and tattoos: clearly EVUL
There are altogether 12 guards in the whole prison, ten inmates, and (beyond individual jail cells, which are counted separately in the key) 15 keyed areas, including a sloping passage, a description of a door, etc. The prisoners are your motley crew of maniacs, murderers and bandits, given lots of personal details and some personal effects. One of the intended ways to play the module is to get caught in the panopticon and McGyver an escape plan from old combs, hairpins and what have you while under watch. There is a convenient deus ex machine / complication due to a haunting spirit if the plan doesn’t succeed. In a more interesting case, the characters enter as investigators, and must pick the falsely accused from the convicts who deserve to rot. This is a good deal better (it is left to the GM who is who).

I must admit writing this review was hard. I had to read and reread parts of the module to recall the details, which doesn’t usually happen. The material is slippery, lacking the memorable bits which stick in your mind. Outside the aforementioned panopticon and a weak extraplanar plot thread (including the laziest planar maze I have ever seen), the module seemed to lack a distinct character. It is more in the late AD&D style where the game abandoned conceptual simplicity for increasingly self-referential designs. In my mind, this is an important paradigm shift. Early AD&D starts out as an open framework which finds inspiration in outside sources it incorporates into its own logic (rules, procedures, content). It is straightforward, action-oriented, sometimes not very elaborate, but it is open to new infusions of pop culture. Comic books, horror movies, TV shows, pulp fantasy, mythology and all kinds of board and puzzle games the players enjoyed could find a way into their shared imagination. Late AD&D, in contrast, becomes a closed world which largely refers to its own legacy.* Reusing and combining pre-existing elements becomes the norm.

One feature of this period is the substitution of rules and canon knowledge in place of finding new outside stuff to mine. The stuff that turns up in Sage Advice, the worst column in gaming after the Ecology of… series. This module has both of that in spades; it relies on rule exploits to build some of its encounters, and the AD&D canon to build its background. This is more a personal taste than a design issue, but I don’t like it. I can appreciate someone who knows the AD&D rules deeply enough to use them creatively (this is a skill I never mastered), but here, we mostly find mechanical creativity instead of something out of the box – on the other hand, it is not the kind of vanilla I enjoy. If you like late 1e and 2e, this might be more to your taste.

The demiplane of randomly generated suckage
However, the cop-outs sting. The setup includes a thoroughly choreographed ambush where the orchestrator is “meant” to get away, and the adventure really stacks the deck in his favour. By the book? 100% by the book. Are magical commando tactics legitimate in AD&D? Logically, they would evolve in a magical setting, but again, this is a device which feels off. Multiple times, the GM is instructed to add or subtract opponents to scale the module. The prison has a secret deus ex machina NPC who is meant to even out the odds. If you need him to open the cell doors and let the PCs get away, he will give them the key, just like that. Or “a crowbar appears magically beside one of the PC’s cots”. Yes, that’s a quote. Or “using shape change, the Boy in the Box appears as a giant lizard or other monster, prompting the guards to flee the spire and regroup elsewhere”. Or if you need him to open a door leading to the extraplanar segment, he will be there for the characters. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Once Upon a Time in the West: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.

The writing is competent and obviously done by someone who knows how to write prose, but it is not a good adventure text. The sentences work but it is a dreadful reference where information gets lost and the information you get is often not the right kind of information. A high wall: “Optionally, the PCs can throw a grapple onto the wall’s upper edge, but quick-thinking players might believe such sounds have a chance of alerting one of the guards.” An observation post: “The windows have been darkened with a special alchemical process so as to permit the guard to see out while blocking attempts to see inside the spire from without. However, those with infravision can still clearly see the heat signature of the guard within.” A lot of clutter; a lot of important details left in obscure corners of the module, the works.

The Exfiltrators is not a cynical cash grab, and it is not designed carelessly. There are parts of it which are competent; the author is a writer who has been published professionally in fiction, poetry and RPGs. Some of his modules are fairly good. This scenario isn’t. It reminds me of the worse kind of Dungeon Magazine adventures (quoth Bryce: “Jesus H. Fucking Christ I hate reviewing Dungeon Magazine.”) Verdict: Skip this harder than Skip Williams.

No playtesters are listed for this publication.

Rating: * / *****
* Note: in recent decades, this trend has turned into an endless recycling of the D&D classics. These exercises have more to do with brand-building and IP management than actually learning from the things the same products were attempting to do.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

[REVIEW] Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)

Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)
by Kiel Chenier (and Paul Jaquays)
Published by ZeroBarrier Productions (and Paul Jaquays, reprinted by Judges Guild)
1st to 2nd level (5th edition D&D) vs. low-level (OD&D)

Orcs in Tarodun's Tomb
A sepulchral tomb. Magical tricks and traps. Brutish orcs guarding a vast underground treasure.” This is how Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb describes the “quintessential first-time D&D experience” it seeks to recapture in this beginner-oriented scenario. It rings a Pavlovian bell. Many of us have played this adventure in one way or another. In your case, it might have been Keep on the Borderlands. In my case, it was a mine, and my character was killed by the orcs in one of the early rooms, but close enough. I don’t think Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb is a good low-level orcs-in-a-hole module, and I will outline why below.

It may not sound fair, but I will compare it to the gold standard of low-level orcs-in-a-hole modules, Paul Jaquays’ Borshak’s Lair (it is found in The Dungeoneer’s Compendium, one of the more accessible and affordable of the forgotten classics). The two are fairly comparable:
  • they are both low-level affairs (although Borshak’s assumes the YUGE OD&D-style party of several PCs and flunkies);
  • they are both short: Borshak’s is 7 dense, typewritten pages, with an updated, cleaned-up version in 13; Tarodun’s is 16 with breezier layout and frequent illustrations); 
  • they share the same premise and aesthetics (vanilla fantasy, both rooted in their respective era).

And yet, Borshak’s makes for a hell of a beginner mini-dungeon, and Tarodun’s doesn’t. What makes for the difference?

I have said it before, but here it is again: like most of the modern mini-adventures, this one lacks scope. In its day, Borshak’s Lair would have been considered a mini-dungeon: nevertheless, it has 29 encounter areas, and it is brimming with creative encounters. Based on a circular layout, it is a small, complex environment divided between a humanoid-inhabited western, and a haunted eastern half; it is full of magical enigmas, tricks, and secrets, and there are oodles of vicious combat with hordes of enemies. In comparison, Tarodun’s Tomb is an eight-room lair: mostly a linear sequence of encounters with a mini-boss, a puzzle, and a final boss. Even considering changes in the style of play since the 1970s, and the more involved tactical combat of recent editions, this is a huge difference, and a shame. The width and complexity of Borshak’s opens up the playing field to enable strategic decision-making within a fairly compact space: there are many ways the scenario may play out, the players (or the orcs) may use the terrain to their advantage, and there are numerous exploration opportunities. You will never find everything in Borshak’s, but you will find a lot of stuff even if you don’t pay too much attention. Tarodun’s Tomb does not offer these possibilities: you can’t do much more than move through the dungeon and deal with the encounters as the GM dictates the pace. Even if you find everything, you will not come away with much. It is bite-sized, and linear.

The Map Problem
There are differences in the approaches you can take. Physical space does have an effect: where there are multiple routes through, you can find more or less direct approaches, try stealth or an ambush (essential against numerical superiority), and perhaps even avoid the denizens directly in your way. There are even voluminous drapes to hide behind and exploit. In a linear lair dungeon, these possibilities are not present. The same goes for a more social approach. In Borshak, only two of the orcs (their Hero leader, and a magic-user underling) have personalities, but the presence of different dungeon groups may be exploited as different factions (although it is not known if this was a common thing in the 70s, it features heavily in Jaquays’ later work). In Tarodun’s, although the orcs are suggested to be women, and they can be customised through an optional random table, the possibilities of out-of-the-box play are more restricted. Admittedly, there is a shortcut allowing the company to “hack” the adventure by either making off with the treasure with minimal confrontation, or letting two opposing forces in the mini-dungeon fight it out. This is very nice, and the best thing about the module, but there is too little of it.

The encounters have a different depth in the two modules. Tarodun’s doesn’t offer much beyond a little descriptive detail and some extra looting. The encounters are functional, but one-note. There is an inexplicable double-cross where an NPC saved from certain and painful death will decide to fight her saviours (who are bound to outnumber and outclass her) to the death. This is, no offence, dumb and a terrible lesson for beginners; the absolute nadir of the adventure. There is a central “keyhole puzzle” gating off an area which has one way through (two if we include the secret shortcut). This is not a good thing. You can’t do much with it. Borshak’s Lair is brimming with ideas. There is an intelligent magic amulet who can be an asset or a huge liability. The central area has a “bottomless pit” teleporting you into an insidious trap, an evil orc prank, and five ways forward through secret passages (some of which can also be used to hide baddies who can assault the PCs from all sides). In the next room, there is an animated statue who is really a cursed Hero compelled to fight the party. In the middle of the barracks area, there are four statues with special powers/functions. It is funhouse design, but you can fiddle with things, find secrets, and secrets-within-secrets-within secrets (there is a trap containing treasure, concealing another treasure hoard guarded by a dangerous monster).

Finally, let’s consider the module’s suitability for the “quintessential first-time D&D experience”. There is a philosophy which says first adventures should have training wheels, and should not be too overwhelming. I don’t think this is a good approach, particularly in the age of ubiquitous, affordable digital entertainment. Providing a focus for play is fine (“here be orcs and treasure, have at them!”), but I fully believe RPGs should be sold by highlighting their full creative potential. In a truncated scenario, you will find out the game’s limitations (slower pace, lack of visual stimulus), but never discover its versatility and freedom. Tarodun’s Tomb has the same limits as every eight-rooms-in-16-pages module on RPGNow. You don’t get Borshak’s compact-but-complex experience, and you don’t even get the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands (let alone the full, rich B2 experience with the Keep’s intrigue, the killer wilderness, and the digressions hinting at a wider world). You get one cave, and for all the ‘Bree Yark’ it can provide, the magic of interlocking mini-dungeons, the mystery of several cave mouths opening before you in the sides of a ravine, the hazards of picking the more dangerous areas are not present. Tarodun’s Tomb does not serve as a good gateway to gaming: it is a cat’s flap into a 10’ by 10’ supply closet, with orcs.

This adventure module is not badly written (in fact, the text is fairly terse and well-presented via bullet-point lists), and the information is structured efficiently. The map is pleasing to look at, with good cross-hatching. The stock illustrations are nice. I like the cover. But it is not a good scenario, for beginners or otherwise. Where recent old-school offerings are considered, get Tomb of the Serpent Kings, a far superior beginner scenario with all its structural issues (just in quantitative terms, 52 keyed areas in 22 pages) and forget this one. Or roll up a YUGE party of retainers and hangers-on, and go for broke in the Caves of Chaos or Borshak’s Lair.

No playtesters are listed in this publication.

Rating: * / ***** vs. ***** / *****

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

[REVIEW] Tyranny of the Black Tower

Tyranny of the Black Tower (2018)
by Extildepo
Published by Verisimilitude Society Press
3rd to 5th level

Do Not Judge a Book By Its Awesome Cover
Fell things are afoot in the village of Scarabad. Since the disappearance of a benevolent wizard, the locals have lived under the brutal rule of the evil lord Nim Sheog, who extorts and plunders his own people while letting the nearby goblins wreak further havoc. The Black Tower, the fortress built on the hilltop overlooking the village, sees everything. It is time for a brave band of adventurers to investigate what is amiss and set things right.

This adventure starts with a great illustration promising wahoo action, and offers an excellent initial impression with its skilfully drawn, interesting location maps, but ends up delivering an altogether different, disappointing experience. The bizarre monster the adventurers are fighting is just an afterthought to a much more mundane scenario describing a farming village ruled by an evil landlord, his castle, and the castle’s dungeons. It follows in the tradition of the “fantastic realism” you can find in The Village of Hommlet, but lacks the latter’s versatility and scope. There is a lot of “tell” (superfluous background information and lengthy explanations pointing out the obvious) and much less “show” (play-relevant details the characters may fruitfully interact with). You could cut the page count in half without losing anything interesting, and you would still have a wordy adventure in your hands.

This is a problem of presentation, but there are similar issues with the content as well. Fantastic realism succeeds when it presents interesting, believable conflicts and situations where setting logic and history matter, and can be applied in the course of complex problem-solving. It does not work here, because the situation is not very interesting: Nim Sheog is a clear baddy responsible for some evil stuff, the village denizens who receive a description are opposed to his reign, and the imprisoned wizard in his dungeon is basically benevolent. The decisions you can make in this environment are mostly obvious. On the other hand, the infiltration of the Black Tower and its dungeons, the defeat of Nim Sheog or the freeing of the wizard Bibotrop take place in an adventure site that’s not very interesting either. The tower is a succession of common rooms you’d find in a tower (guard posts, bedroom, a great hall, etc.), containing the obvious things you’d put there on the basis of their names. The dungeon rooms are fairly standard as well. There is also a kind of bet-hedging that leaves a bad aftertaste – a protective item that “only works against this particular [monster] and no other creature”, or treasure in the form of precious jewels (“quartz or diamond, Referee’s choice”).

The module should be playable, and you could get a decent gaming session or two out of it. However, the realism it brings to the table is the boring kind, and the overwriting does not help fix this impression. There is something seriously wrong with the idea density it offers – too much padding, too little meat. Without the sense of wonder or tactical complexity that defined the early TSR modules, what we are left with is a rather one-note village setting, a generic dungeon full of the obvious, and – ironically – a decent extra dungeon map that is left underdeveloped. I don’t think this module is worth bothering with. It is not really bad, but it is boring, and that’s probably worse.

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

Rating: ** / *****

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

[REVIEW] The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre

The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre (2018)
by Nate L.
Published as a blog post
1st level


Yes, that's the map
Creativity does not need production values. The essence of role-playing is DIY, and self-expression manages to do fine without worldly concessions like interior art, layout, or formatting. This review is about an adventure published as a blog post, with a map that’s a mobile photo of a notebook page, complete with the author’s thumb (the map itself is a collection of interlinked boxes, untidy scrawl, and hard to decipher numbers). It is the cat’s meow. As the author describes it, “I made this for my first level players, who stumbled into it while poking around the start town and avoiding the other dungeon I made. It's hidden under a statue in city hall, so they have to do a little sneaking or run a scam every time they want to go in. It's not too lethal, there's a moderate amount of treasure, and it's not too big.” It seems to be written for 5th edition (this is only an educated guess), but it converts easily and it is as old-school as it gets.

Lord Vyre, former ruler of Fishtown, had constructed a secret underground garden under city hall, first as a retreat for Franndis, his elemental lover, then as her prison when their love went sour. Now, a hundred years later, the place has gone both wild and strange, inhabited by unlikely creatures and enigmatic garden ornaments. It is a surreal underground garden setting with a strong sense of the fantastic: nothing is by the book, and everything is magical in a lush, dreamlike way. Dangerous topiary; temporal distortions; poisonous gemstone flowers; a dream tiger smoking cigarettes of scented herbs; the grave of an elf “who committed suicide by staring at a poisoned star for a year and a day”; a giant tree with three mould-covered corpses crawling among its roots. There is also a killer peacock that’s a lot like mine from The Garden of al-Astorion. Simple and powerful imagery that combines effortlessly with organic puzzle design: in their odd, otherworldly way, the encounters make sense and make for fair puzzles. The adventure follows its theme scrupulously, but also demonstrates the principles of good old-school dungeon design.

The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre is a reasonably open-ended scenario in its 37 keyed areas. The layout is mostly open, but the range of possibilities is mainly thanks to the range of NPCs you can befriend, avoid or fight. The NPCs, encountered randomly or in their lairs, are a colourful lot: a black cat who knows secret paths and doors, but “[o]nly the first thing he says in any conversation will be true.” A troupe of dancing, merry skeletons preceded by their songs as they get closer (they will kill you without mercy). Faceless men who are excellent chess players and who serve the garden’s more powerful beings. All (well, most) of them have both interesting ways to interact with them, and imaginative special abilities if it comes to a confrontation. This is all new stuff.

I am pleased with the writing. In a recent conversation with Patrick Stuart, we were discussing evocative vs. opaque writing. This is an adventure I’d bring up as a good example of how good writing can combine colour with descriptive clarity. It is more a collection of notes than flowing prose, but it does a proper job communicating the feeling, function, and purpose of the encounters. One NPC, the King of Flowers, is described as “(…) a blue-robed man, his hands are bright red, he wears a crown of roses. He can hear through any flower in the garden. In his footsteps bloom flowers.” The main antagonist “plays solitaire and knocks tunes on a painted and hinged turtle shell, which thumps in heartbeat”. It is not overdone, but it is neat.

Once again, this is not a published module in the traditional sense. What you get is somebody’s raw game notes with minimalist explanations, but it is fairly easy to understand after giving it a good read. It is advisable to spend some time with the map, whose numbering is rather counter-intuitive (with related things appearing out of logical order), and which is hard to read. I would just redraw it to commit the thing to memory.

All in all, it is great. It does something original while also being well-designed. Grab it, put it in a document, format it a bit and print it for your home game – or encourage the author to turn it into a published adventure. It deserves wider exposure.

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

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Gont, Nest of Spies
I am pleased to announce the publication of the second 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 illustrations by Denis McCarthy (who also did the cover), Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, Matthew J. Finch and more.

This issue was a hard fit even with its four extra pages, and required some juggling to make it happen. This means one of the shoggoths did not make it this time, and it will have to return in a future issue – sorry for the inconvenience! What Echoes #02 does have is an odd Dreamlands scenario by Laszlo Feher, which I hope will be the first of many, and which takes place in the city of Hlanith, on the coast of the Cerenarian Sea. On its heels comes a guide to the Isle of Erillion, a mini-campaign setting caught between declining kingdoms, and mostly covered by untamed wilderness. This issue features the players’ information, accompanied by a fold-out hex map; the full key, along with a more detailed and accurate GM’s map, will be published in the next two issues. More adventures set on Erillion – but presented in a way to make them suitable for use with other settings – will follow. Those of you who own the first issue of Echoes have already seen two examples; this issue provides two more.

The bulk of the fanzine is dedicated to the town of Gont: it is a self-contained town supplement in under 20 pages, complete with adventure hooks, schemes, schemers, and notes from the underground. As my players have found, Gont is a tough nut to crack: the deeper you dig beneath the respectable surface, the more dangerous it gets. A players’ map to Gont is featured on the other side of the fold-out map. All is also not as it seems in the issue’s final scenario, a short wilderness location. What is causing the disappearances in the Valley of the Witching Way? And what happened to the rich but foolhardy Gurnald Yex, who had retired there after a life of adventure? The answer might surprise you!

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.