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

[NOTE TO MY PLAYERS: STAY AWAY FROM THIS REVIEW!]

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.

Monday, 11 June 2018

[REVIEW] The Quarrymen


The Quarrymen (2016)
by Duncan McPhedran
Published by The Zorathan City State Press
3rd level, 6-10 characters

[NOTE TO MY PLAYERS: STAY AWAY FROM THIS REVIEW!]

The Quarrymen
Ninety percent of everything is crap. A clear majority of homebrew adventures up on RPGNow are crap, too, and disappointing in fairly predictable ways – low page count coupled with low idea density and a narrow scope; the proverbial “twelve encounters in 18 pages” dungeon headed by a padded intro. These modules don’t really make it to this blog, because it’d usually break my heart to savage an obvious labour of love that just happens to be lacklustre, and because they are so alike it’d be dull to read and write about them. But I buy them and read them because one day, somebody’s dodgy PDF with an uninspiring piece of public domain art for the cover will turn out to be cool and awesome and worth all the slog. The Quarrymen (for the DCC RPG) is one of those modules.

When I say this is a gem in the rough, I mean it. The production values are dire, and never mind the public domain cover art. The PDF was obviously cobbled together in Microsoft Word, badly. This is what happens when you leave the factory settings on, indent your titles, don’t give a hoot about structuring information, use no page numbers, and create your location key with the numbered list function. Accordingly, every keyed location is a single block of text instead of a series of paragraphs; and each one is broken up into read-aloud text (set in italics), monster statistics (set in bold), and underlined text for everything else in the room key. It all flows together without paragraph or line breaks, and the monster stats are embedded into the text just like that. Yes, it is just as terrible as it sounds, and while I am far from a layout snob, this took some time getting used to.

But then we get to the adventure, and it is so great. Basically, the town quarry’s sixty-six workers have disappeared through a tunnel among the rocks, and only the foreman has stumbled back to the surface, raving about “the Creature”, “jars, jars, jars, endless jars”, and “tentacles”. You go in to investigate. This is the first ray of hope, because all this background is two paragraphs long, followed by the Creature’s stats (basically a store-brand mind flayer), a few magic items, and then we jump straight to the dungeon key, which manages to pack a 37-area dungeon into 5.5 pages, with very generous margins. That’s respectable even if it is partly due to the limited layout. You could say some of the read-aloud text is superfluous, since it is a minimalistic thing mostly telling you what you’d read off of the map anyway, but it is not bad, because the rest is a ton of fun.

You get the idea part of the adventure was randomly generated because the ideas are all over the place and they are fairly straightforward, but they have that dastardly GM spirit and sense of fantasy which makes a dungeon fun to explore. Here is an alcove full of dead bodies who might animate if you come close (coincidentally, they may do that if you try to flee the dungeon and block your exit). Here are a bunch of jars filled with internal organs… and here is a detailed table for what happens if the characters decide to scarf them down (yes, really – this was the point where I knew I had hit gold). Here is a lake of oil and here is what happens when you fall into it with your torch. The author took a Dyson Logos map, and just stocked it to the gills with exuberant, madcap stuff that often makes no strict sense except as dungeon encounters. It is not exactly balanced to be level-appropriate; if you die, you die. There are stone golems who will attack trespassers, but you can fool them if you wear some fake tentacles. There are five very dodgy handouts drawn by the author, and I kid you not, one of them is Cthulhu in the style of Van Gogh (no, really), and one of them, a tapestry, is Leonardo’s Last Supper, but with a mindflayer and a bunch of headless corpses slumped over the table. What the hell. I love it.

Then the adventure goes from slightly random to “Aieeeee! Get it off me! Get it off me!” as we enter what could be best described as a high-tech Cthulhu outpost. It is bizarre, but not predictably bizarre – it is not, say, a Giger knockoff or a place with obvious parallels to our modern technology, but the kind of slightly unsettling place where the players will start asking each other if they really made the best decision coming down here. A lot of it is unpredictable, or just eerie. A row of vats with something indefinable floating inside them. A door whose “close inspection leaves you dizzy and vertiginous”. A dressing room where the mind flayer’s monsters put on strange coats and jackets to venture out into the city (I loved this one!). A mind flayer harem which is exactly as wrong as you’d expect. It feels like a proper mind flayer lair, certainly the best I have seen. Bad things can happen to characters here, and there is enough combat to turn it into an ugly slaughterfest; yet it also has a gleeful, grotesque sense of fun that fits DCC without copying its default heavy metal trappings.

I don’t really want more from a small adventure than what this one gives me. Solid, unpretentious, sometimes goofy fun is all right with me, and the imagination is outstanding. Well, it may be a little on the linear side, but actually, you can even get around that if you are observant, and it is a one-session affair where a little linearity is forgivable. I certainly want to see more. The first issue of the author’s zine, The Cities Zorathi, has been more of a setting primer, and it was not really this interesting, but the second issue is supposed to feature “the first level of the Great Maze”, and if it is similar in style and scope, sign me up.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication. It deserves to be played.

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

Saturday, 9 June 2018

[REVIEW] Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail


Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail (2018)
by Joshua L.H. Burnett
Self-published
0-level funnel

Crepuscular #01
Even though it is often considered generic fantasy, there is just something about D&D’s monster selection that’s not found in your typical fantasy game. You have floating balls full of eyes which can blast you into atoms; an aardvark that’s also a shark which burrows under the earth; a jello cube that eats people (but not their stuff)... a dolphin skeleton from another plane?! Uh… and also a psionic mole and giant mushrooms. It is profoundly silly, but it is also deadly serious and slightly disturbing: the screwed-up things you meet will eat you if you aren’t careful. This kind of weird dissonance is one of the great things about D&D, and the sensibility which has informed the first issue of this DCC fanzine. Crepuscular’s success comes from walking the fine line expertly. It is not afraid to be funny or silly (the cover might be an indication), but it is not afraid to kill your characters in gruesome yet hilarious ways either.

Much of Crepuscular’s first issue is dedicated to Sanctum of the Snail, a 26-page romp through a dungeon that’s built around a mollusc theme. The characters are shipwrecked on a forlorn island that’s a bit like R’Lyeh, and their only way out of the monster-haunted reef leads down under the sea to a wondrous cavern system dedicated to Blorgamorg the Cthonic Snail, mollusc deity of the Cosmic Balance. It is a classical funnel in the sense that you push in the PCs at one end, and what comes out at the other will either be adventurers, or ground meat. There are plenty of killer encounters even when we discount the fragility of zero-level characters, and most of these ways to die have a satisfying splat factor (you can fall to your doom if you miss a jump, get lost in outer space, be mashed into a pulp by a piston mechanism, or choose between fiery death and drowning in a pit trap filled with oily water). However, the smart and lucky also gain access to some neat goodies: this is as much a chance to stock up as a place to weed out the weak, and the rewards are both generous and unique.

The strength of the adventure lies in the well-designed encounters. The challenges involve navigation through dangerous terrain, uncovering ancient secrets (and dealing with what happens when you prod them), and combat with the Sanctum’s odd denizens. Plenty of magical and fantastic stuff. I think all, or almost all content here is new, from the oddball magic items to the creepy-crawlies you must fight. Crumbling stairs over a swirling sea divided between Law and Chaos; a gigantic dead turtle; the tomb of a hero and a summoning chamber. As you’d guess, there are a lot of slugs and slug-related squishy things, but there are also some neat elements related to the cosmic war between War and Chaos, as well as grotesque finds that are just there. This is imaginative, vivid stuff embodying D&D at its weirdest, put into the service of good gameplay (player creativity goes a long way here). The writing is good through the module; even the boxed text sticks to the essentials.

Sanctum is not without problems. It follows a mostly linear structure, and the action is more focused on dealing with various encounters sequentially than on exploration. Like many DCC modules, it also lacks “breathing room” – every place has something going on, things are too close to each other, and it can feel a little busy. This is a legitimate way to construct an adventure, but a few more rooms with limited descriptive detail, or some more navigation-related content would have felt more right... as it is, the Sanctum does not really feel as large as the writeup would suggest; many of the spaces after the first few are decidedly on the small side. I would personally unwrap it on a slightly larger map to make finding various rooms more of an accomplishment.

Moonblossom and Chance find a treasure map
Crepuscular also offers a handful of miscellaneous articles (a little less than half the issue): a hilarious two-page comic, Blorgamorg as a DCC patron, two more unique magic items, and a d30 table of miscreants you can pick up as hirelings in the city of Xöthma-Ghül (to be presented in more detail in subsequent issues). These are all good, with the hirelings being my favourite – they range from “Tiberius Plum, man-at-arms; pragmatic, obsessed with the colour purple” to Quvark, a platypus man with a venomous heel-spur.

Altogether, Crepuscular is an interesting, quirky take on DCC – consistently high-energy, somewhere in the middle between deadly and hilarious. The comedy ranges from the sly to the tremendously unsubtle, but somehow, it all works. The snail theme doesn’t overstay its welcome, with enough variations to keep it from feeling one-note, and I am actually interested in learning more about the game world behind the zine.

The module in the zine gives credit to its playtesters, and even an editor!

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

Sunday, 27 May 2018

[BLOG] Combat and Magic: A Look Back at The First Hungarian RPG

Combat and Magic
Spoiler: Mummies

Role-playing in Hungary does not have a particularly long history. It is telling that people who had started in the early 1990s are considered veterans of gaming, a generation which would barely count as neophytes in the US or the UK. More than that, we know little of that early gaming period. From the first groups in the mid-1980s to its first boom of popularity in 1990-1992, precious little material evidence has remained. By all accounts, people had fun playing (mostly) AD&D, and photocopied translations were circulated among fans (the best known version being The Ruby Codex), but the publication of homebrew materials was minimal, or at least extremely limited. It was a different time: photocopiers were hard to access, and home (or even workplace) printers were expensive equipment mainly found in research institutes and universities. Therefore, we cannot really speak of an age of fanzines, nor extensive home publishing. I know of (and own) one homemade module which was available at the time: The Great Pyramid, a mid-level dungeon whose themes and ideas should be hardly surprising.


Without external support, game groups had to make do with what they had: a few fantasy novels (Tolkien, a dash of Conan, and some disreputable but fun pulp literature), the occasional photocopied game supplement they could get from other groups, an increasing number of computer games, Fighting Fantasy, and their imagination. The results were varied, from the deadly dull to the quite imaginative (or at least somewhat original). One of these results is Combat and Magic [Harc és Varázslat], the first Hungarian RPG, whose brief appearance and fast downfall went mostly unnoticed at the time. But not by all: this was the first “real” RPG I ever played (after a systemless dungeoneering game at the Scouts I then believed to be an innovative sort of puzzle), and I still have good memories of the experience, even though in my first adventure, my nameless Fighter went down into some mines and got summarily killed by orcs in one of the first encounters. I barely knew what hit me, but I was hooked!

Thus, this post: part reminiscence, part a look at a game that’s both utterly predictable and compellingly oddball, a product of a naïve fascination with fantasy literature and an exciting new game form.

***

Combat and Magic was published in 1991 by the completely unknown company “SPORTORG Ltd.” Its authors, Tamás Galgóczi and Péter László were AD&D players (a decade later, I would buy Galgóczi’s lovingly bound and much used photocopies of the 1st edition AD&D rulebooks – these ancient bootlegs are as treasured parts of my collection as my OD&D set), and they had planned to spread their hobby through an introductory game, to be followed by more “advanced” supplements down the line. Combat and Magic comes in the form of two full-sized 56-page booklets, one for the players and one for the Gamemaster (called, according to local custom, the “Storyteller”). The second booklet also includes a folded map of the three-level intro dungeon (on which more later), and the whole package was originally sold with something called a “lucky die”, a ten-sider! (Considering the difficulties involving in obtaining a d10, people would apparently buy the game just for the die alone.)

Combat and Magic proudly wears its influence on its sleeve. The cover on the players’ booklet is graced by a notoriously bad rendition of Frazetta’s Conan the Destroyer fighting some lizard-things, while the Storyteller’s booklet depicts a scene right out of Tolkien, an adventurer menaced by something that looks like a ringwraith. The Conan-meets-LotR theme continues through the entire game in a strange manifestation of schizophrenia – sometimes the game has its semi-naked amazons, war galleys and buff fellows in leather gear holding various murder implements, and sometimes we are in Moria or Rivendell (and not a homage either: it is clearly Frodo and Co. investigating the tomb of Balin, facing the Balrog, or finding the mountain door).

An American Fantasy Game Similar to
Combat and Magic
As the introduction proclaims, “You have surely read J. R. R. Tolkien’s exciting book, The Lord of the Rings. This game leads you to a similar world, and you can live there, adventuring among the creatures of fantasy. You can meet goblins, elves, dwarves, dragons, and you only need a little imagination... If you like our offer, forward to adventure! You are awaited by the forbidding lands of the unknown world, its cities and peoples! Your imagination will wander the land of fantasy, the world of DRAGONFLAME...” In a charmingly earnest way, it goes further – the back cover of both rulebooks reproduces the cover of the Mentzer Set, the caption reading “The cover of one of the American fantasy games similar to Combat and Magic”. Similar indeed! Interestingly, just like Original D&D was billed as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns”, Combat and Magic is called a “Personality Game” (and on at least one occasion, a “Cooperative Personality Game”), and not an RPG – no common local term for RPGs having been accepted yet.

***

Vorg saves
an old Priest
As introductory games go, Combat and Magic is remarkably newbie-friendly. The future player is guided on his journey by “Vorg the Wolf”, an in-game character. Vorg, a 7th level Fighter, is somewhere between Conan and a wise Indian from a western (showing that the new concept of the barbarian had not yet taken solid shape in the local imagination, and the gaps were filled in by prior references). We first meet Vorg in a short story where he seeks out, confronts and kills Surat, the dark mage who had recently decimated a village, and now lives in a dungeon under a ruined castle built by the dwarves (“You have come to the right place if you seek Surat! He is I!” and “You wanted to kill me, warrior? You shall die instead!”). Vorg helps the player at all stages of character creation, introducing game concepts from an in-character stance that is at once weird, wrong, and completely charming. (“I, Vorg, the wolf, the highest level fighter among the long-haired ones, say to you that the most important attribute in the world is Strength.” Or: “You have surely read my adventure. The personality sheet for Surat the evil Mage would look like this: Intellect 88%. Number of languages 4, modifier +30 days. He knew four foreign languages before I killed him, which he had learned over half a year and +30 days. By my sword, I say it was a great accomplishment that I had destroyed him!”)

The game, not surprising considering its AD&D roots, uses seven attributes, but measures them on a percentile scale (Intellect, Strength, Agility, Speed, Endurance, Manual Dexterity and Physical Looks). Yes, they are rolled with entirely random 1d100 rolls, in order, no takebacks. Or as Vorg tells us: “Let us begin, and may the gods guide your hand!” These attributes provide modifiers for a whole lot of secondary values from combat ratings to poison resistance and the ability to read and write (Vorg, with a Manual Dexterity of 8%, is completely illiterate, and his 14% Physical Looks is fairly dire – but he has an impressive 92% Strength). Some people say chicks dig scars, but this is clearly incorrect on the world of DRAGONFLAME: when you receive face wounds in combat, your rating drops pretty substantially. On the other hand, chicks receive a 1.2 multiplier to their Physical Looks because “If your personality is a woman (…) you take better care of yourself and your beauty.” On the other hand, many other modifiers are fairly moderate, and much of the attribute range does nothing whatsoever or very little: there is, for example, no difference whatsoever between an Endurance of 26 and 70.

Haven't we seen this before?
 The three alignments (Good, Evil and Neutral) are followed by the character races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins (here mostly thieves and wizards) and Orcs, set apart by ability score modifiers and limits (e.g. Orcs have a maximum Intellect of 60, get +15 on their Endurance, but -15 on their Manual Dexterity) and the occasional modifier to specific weapon types. Furthermore, Elves can sense the presence of the freshly slain dead, and see wandering souls, Dwarves see in the darkness and can withstand extreme temperatures; Goblins are stealthy; and Orcs almost never get lost in the wilderness. Actually, “Goblins” are probably meant to be hobbits, since they live in covered pits close to the earth, and have a democratic worldwide government run by a hidden ten-goblin council.

Combat and Magic has a fairly weird Vitality system: every character starts with 100 Vitality, plus race-based dice (Elves have 1d10 more Vitality, Humans, Goblins and Orcs have 2d10 more, and Dwarves have 3d10 more). At 0 Vitality, you are dead. However, the system also has something called Damage Absorption Percentage (DA), which starts at 20% of your character’s full rating, and goes up 2% every level, up to 38% (Fighters also gain a one percent bonus per level, but none of the other classes do). Should you receive more damage than this percentage, you fall into a comatose state, where you bleed out at a rate of 1 Vitality per wound per round – only healing can bring recovery. In practice, your average longsword does 1d10 damage, a staff does 1d5, and a cavalry lance – the mightiest weapon – does 1d10+10, so a few successful hits can dispatch even a relatively hardy character. As an obvious AD&D legacy, saving throws (or their equivalent, “Chance Rolls”) also exist as three flat percentile ratings to escape the effects of poison, magic, and dragon breath, respectively (although dragon breath, an oddly specific choice, still causes half damage). The real rating which matters is your DA: it is not entirely clear why the ridiculously high total Vitality is used at all.

This looks oddly familiar
From classes (or, rather, “castes”, a really bad word choice which would then gain traction and crop up in almost every subsequent Hungarian RPG), the system offers four: Fighters, Trackers, Priests and Mages. These are somewhat less restrictive classes than D&D traditions would dictate: there is little difference between different classes when it comes to Attack and Defence %, Vitality or Chance Rolls; rather, each class gives a basically competent adventurer a set of bonuses and limitations. Accordingly,
  • Fighters learn to use multiple weapon types, and have slightly better combat values. Noble fighters (player’s choice to try for a 75+ percentile roll) get training with more kinds of weapons, but suffer a small Endurance penalty. Nobles also have to abide by a code of conduct: they may only attack a woman in self-defence, they must always attack from the front, and they may not use poison (“except evil nobles, because they are capable of it”). Even evil nobles, as we learn, “Follow etiquette, and only rarely have their captives tortured – and never by their own hands.” Their commoner counterparts start with a small penalty to either mounted or footman’s combat, which they “grow out of” by level 5.
  • Trackers are skilled hunters, who either work alone, or as guides to travelling companies. They can call an “animal companion”, with one attempt possible per level (if it is a failure, the beast attacks). A tracker must avenge and mourn two years for a companion if it is ever slain before calling another. They also have versatile wilderness skills: tracking, speaking with animals, hiding, and recognising traps.
  • Priests are spellcasters, who, unlike fighting classes, can only gain levels by returning to their churches, where they are also required to donate all their unneeded money. Priests are either Good or Evil, but never Neutral (this will become important a bit later). They are not limited by weapon type, but only know to use a few of them (up to 4, while a Fighter would start from 3-4 and proceed from there). Priests can contact the gods directly for advice and help. They also have a bunch of different abilities based on the specific god they worship, who are quite varied. The followers of Perlin, goddess of dreams and fairy tales (Neutral, Priests can be either Good or Evil) can perform divinations, but they must regularly interpret a dream as a form of sacrifice; meanwhile, the Priests of Dorl, god of earth (Neutral, Priests must be Good) have a special spell to hurl pebbles, can sense buried items under their feet, but they must bring home a clod of earth from every land they have visited, and can only use bludgeoning and cutting weapons.
  • Mages aren’t D&D’s physical wretches (having lower, but still passable combat abilities and Vitality), although they are limited to daggers and staves, and must not wear armour. They must return to their master to gain levels. Mages belong to one of two schools: Moonlight Mages are Good, and practice white magic; while Grey Mages are Evil, dealing in black magic (these orders also give their members assistance if they show the correct hand signs). Mages sense other spellcasters in a 10 metre circle.

After you determine your class, you must also roll for social status. This is another flat 1d100 roll,: you may start with 40 copper pieces as a “free homeless” (1-14), 1 gold piece as a servant (15-29), 75 gp as one of the “famed” (75-84), or 1000 gp as royalty (00). For reference, 10 gp is the price of a longsword, while for 1000 gp, you get a suit of plate mail.

Like true-blue old-school games, there are no skills in Combat and Magic. However, your character may have a profession, unless you are a noble fighter, because work is beneath nobles. Your choice of profession depends on your social status, your ability scores (with some racial bonuses and limitations), and your class. Here, Combat and Magic again delves into the oddly specific, letting you play a more conventional healer (restore up to 10 Vitality per week), sailor (you can navigate ships) and thief (you get the thief skill), or professions like a gravedigger (you recognise religious symbols and tolerate the stench of the grave), executioner (you can easily kill restrained victims) or miner (you don’t get lost underground). Your profession is, once again, rated at an utterly random percentile value, which never, ever improves. You might be the best weaponsmith out there with a 100%, or you can be a random fool who drops the hammer on his feet with a 3%.

Ironically, neither six- nor four-sided dice
are featured in Combat and Magic
Combat in the game is a fairly straightforward but ultimately quite fiddly you-swing-I-swing affair based on an Attack % and a Defence %. Both of these are modified by a whole range of tiny little things which are individually minor, but can add up if taken together
  • In each round, characters must decide to either attack their opponent or forego it and defend themselves.
  • Initiative is a simple d10 roll for your whole group.
  • Your Attack % is used to figure if you score a connecting hit.
  • Armour (if any) can stop a blow outright, based on a matrix cross-referencing five armour types (leather, studded, chain, scale and plate) and three weapon types (piercing, slashing and bludgeoning) that’s reminiscent of AD&D’s infamous weapon-vs-AC chart. For instance, chain is 25% vs. piercing, 50% vs. slashing, and 35% vs. bludgeoning.
  • If a hit is scored, but the subject has chosen to defend himself instead of attacking, he can still roll a successful Defence % to avoid getting hit. Many weapons grant a bonus to Defence %, from 10 (daggers and hammers) to 15-20% (most swords and maces) to 30% (polearms), and you also get some from shields (10% or 20%), but you must choose whether you’d like to defend with your weapon or your shield.
  • If neither form of defence succeeds, you get to roll damage, which, as previously noted, can be pretty dire.

This system comes with a fair whiff factor, although Defence % tends to be fairly low, and if you know enough weapons, you can use one which gives your opponent a lower Armour roll (it pays to stock up on different weapon types).

No, really
Spellcasting in Combat and Magic uses a spell point system: both Priests and Mages have 10 spell points per level, recovered through meditation (Clerics) or 1d10 hours of sleep (Mages). It is possible to cast spells over one’s point limit, at a risk to the character’s sanity (the chance of escaping unharmed is 70% the first time, 40% the second, and a mere 10% the third). The spell list goes up five levels, and beyond the Wizard/Priest split, each spell is also associated with an alignment. Characters can use spells of their own alignment, and neutral ones (remember, spellcasters can’t be neutral). The spells themselves are mostly D&D ripoffs (Hebron’s Smashing Fist, Call Monster I, Tiny Hut, Prayer...), but there are also some compelling oddities, such as…
  • Almos’ Blue Parasol: protection vs. falling rocks, hail, and rain spells
  • Hair Growth: uncontrollable hair growth entangles victim
  • The Quarrelsome Door: creates a talking door
  • Dream Voyage: the victim sleeps for 1d10 days, dreaming of a fantastic voyage that feels like the same number of years, and ages accordingly
  • The Dark Blue Berries of Pavlovich: creates 30 berries, eater sleeps one day for each, losing 2 Vitality per day

The lands of Rôhen
Although the Storyteller’s Booklet is dedicated specifically to running the game, and players are admonished to avoid reading it, it starts with a brief world guide that would probably be a better fit for the main rules. The world of DRAGONFLAME (no longer capitalised here) is a naïve fantasy mishmash, but it has its own creation myth, and a huge, active pantheon of gods with quite silly names (Kayar, Zomur, Serlafor, Zorikon, Xirfon etc.). The planet of Rôhen (note the Tolkienesque diacritic) has three continents, but the game is focused on one called, appropriately enough, Draco, and specifically its north-western corner called the Four Kingdoms. To keep with the tone from the LotR appendices (the definitive model for fantasy world-building in early 1990s Hungary), Draco’s history is punctuated by a lot of blood and thunder, like “the Second Metal War”, “the rise of Tarrakis, Lord of Darkness” (he had the Twelve Knights of Death on his side, but was eventually driven out of the known world), “the foundation of Divide” by King Farseer the First, “the imprisonment of Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap and eight demon by the Moon Mages”, and “the Second Dragon War”.

Three of the Four Kingdoms
(the Kingdom of the Dead Land is off to the east)
Draco’s geography is no less fancy, with a giant inner sea (divided into the Sea of Three Moons, the Sea of Two Moons, and the Cold Sea), and a bunch of doggerel toponyms like Faradas, Eld Virg, M’Bo, Búrnan and the Forest of Gerildor. However, the published game is focused on the so-called Four Kingdoms, to the north of Shadia, and east of the vast Orc Swamp. Actually, only three of the kingdoms are nice places to visit: the Kingdom of Black Land, the Kingdom of Lagos, and the Bonecrusher Kingdom, whose ruling dynasty has died out, and left behind a war of succession (the most likely successor, Ed Morrison, lives in the town of Helltop; the capital city is named Skull Hill, but the kingdom is actually a fairly normal place with a sheep-based economy). This is less true about the Kingdom of Dead Land, whose southern part is a confederation of independent mercantile towns, but the north has been taken over by bandit gangs lead by the evil wizard, Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap.

Pretty sure this is Éowyn or Galadriel
This mini-setting is quite charming in its own way; half Tolkien, half AD&D, but with the Northwest-European cultural references exchanged for a decidedly Hungarian perspective. This is quite intriguing, since the Hungarian fantasy genre, and Hungarian RPG fandom in specific has shied away from its own history and culture. It is still a European mishmash ranging from Finland and France equivalents to something feeling a bit like fantasy Ukraine (with NPCs named Pierre Vandel, Oleg Isakov, Stefan Schaller, Valdemar Kanagas, Commander Tony Elton, and Arnold Denman), but there is something almost indescribably Hungarian about the land’s large plains, agricultural towns and, above all, the slightly rustic tone of its place names. As strange as it sounds, this familiarity is the strangest thing about the whole Combat and Magic experience, because nobody has ever tried anything like this again – Hungarian fantasy has focused on discovering the fantastic in distant lands, to the neglect of our own.

The majority of the Storyteller’s Booklet is occupied by the obligatory monsters and treasures. Like the spells, much of this section consists of AD&D ripoffs and a mish-mash of mythology and the stuff you lift out of every fantasy book you have read and liked – that is, it is derivative but actually pretty good. Some of them come from the excellent Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, such as the Bao a Ku (a monster tied to a set of stairs, which becomes more and more real as someone goes up, and attacks on the top), and some are just strange in the way RPG bestiaries can be strange:
  • the Dorag is a huge blue snake with two feathered wings, which lives until you cut off its head… twice;
  • the Ilmex resembles a rug with a wavy edge, with three three-fingered hands on each side, and a bird’s head perched on a long, thin neck at the front – it is a subterranean predator;
  • Armoured Toads are... toads in black armour, with a hop attack;
  • Fuzzballs! They are big fuzzballs with... legs capable of long jumps up to three metres. And a large toothy mouth. “They are always on the move to attack any kind of mobile meat.”
  • The Vilotoner is a mixture between a huge eagle and a bat. It is very intelligent, able to converse in three languages, and cast Wizard spells. It is curious, vain, egoistic and easy to offend.


The Caverns of Singing Mountain, LVL I-III

There is some decent guidance on setting up and running a game (actually, more than many subsequent Hungarian games, which often wouldn’t think too deep about the question), and a bunch of Storyteller-specific rules, but the other big interesting thing about the booklet is the example scenario, The Dragon of Singing Mountain. Nothing less than a three-level dungeon, it is a tutorial for both the players and the Storyteller. You have to defeat a dragon and save a kidnapped princess – but before that, you have to get through the caverns of Singing Mountain. The caverns – really dungeons – are mostly linear, and the action largely features combat and basic exploration. You get to fight morlochs, dog-headed men, a wererat, skeletons, zombies, black dwarves, and an evil wizard. There is an underground smithy, an evil temple (the idol has gemstone eyes and a poison gas trap), a mirror room, a plant room (with life-draining plants), a library and a well, but disappointingly, it lacks the wahoo nature of some of the rulebooks..

What is interesting is how the adventure starts in a way that explains everything to the Storyteller, with a choose-your-own-adventure structure and readout text, and starts to hand over more and more responsibilities as it goes on. The first level is full of handholding, but halfway through the second, the room descriptions become sparse outlines to be filled out on your own. The third level, with a deep, dark underground lake, is only described in brief and left to your development: here lives Tungar the Dragon in an island tower, there is an old orc Priest who serves as the ferryman, and other mysteries are also in evidence.

***

Is Combat and Magic a good RPG? Not really. It is simultaneously awkward and simplistic, with fairly fiddly rules to realise simple concepts. The character generation is more complicated than in AD&D for less mileage, and the combat system has its awkward spots. There are puzzling ideas, like the Vitality/Damage Absorption concept. I don’t think many people had played by the book – I am pretty sure we didn’t, because the combat I remember was far deadlier than the baseline. I do not count the game’s high randomness as a design mistake (although many people in the 90s would, if they had even heard of it); it is endearing and almost feels fresh in our day. In practice, all those flat 1d100 rolls would tend to even themselves out, and your character would have a few areas where he would be better than the others (at least I don’t remember my PC being overshadowed, which definitely did happen in our attempt to play M.A.G.U.S.,the second Hungarian RPG.

Seen through modern eyes an incredible 27 years later (has it really been that long?), the areas where Combat and Magic feels fresh is the enthusiastic spirit of adventure, the way it embraces the fantastic, and the way it tries to make most of a very narrow set of influences. It owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings and it owes just as much to AD&D, but there are a few things there which are beyond imitation.

Why did Combat and Magic disappear from the public consciousness, so much so that most gamers have never even heard of it? In a way, it came too early, at a time when there were no established communication channels for roleplayers yet – no magazines (the first would come out late 1992), no fanzines, only two game stores in the entire country, and often little contact between the isolated gaming groups out there. Interestingly, the game was by no means unknown. I know multiple people who have started with it, usually for a few months before they would find their way to AD&D (either the bootleg translations or the real deal). It was also a mainstay at a few game clubs; apparently, fans in the city of Miskolc had come up with multiple typewritten fan supplements and their own shared setting (“Sword World”).

Combat and Magic had sold well enough to merit a follow-up, and its creators had ideas to bring it forward with new booklets. What happened to it was much more banal: the owners of the publisher, SPORTORG Ltd., had just disappeared with the money and let the company go bankrupt. It was not an uncommon way to make easy money those days – most of these cases would never be solved by a sluggish unprepared court system. It was an ominous sign of things yet to come – and as we will see from later parts of this series, far from the last case where legal issues would intrude upon the hobby.

“And now, stranger, the time of farewells has come. I have told you everything I know about the world of fantasy. I bid you farewell, for I am called by faraway lands, furious battles, and by glory… perhaps we will meet again somewhere. Only the gods know. Good luck!
--Vorg, the Wolf”

What price glory?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

[REVIEW] The Arwich Grinder


The Arwich Grinder (2014)
by Daniel J. Bishop
Published in Crawl! #9 by Straycouches Press
0-level funnel

Something has gone terribly wrong up in them hills where the Curwen family has lived in their homestead for several generations, and young Bessie Curwen’s bonnet has been found in the possession of an odd beast that lumbers into the village inn and drops dead before the assembled patrons. The reclusive and tight-knit Curwens had saved the village from starvation two winters ago, so it’s time to return the favour. A group of brave volunteers is assembled to venture up into the dark woods and see what’s up at the Curwens’ lucrative pig farm.

To everybody’s surprise, it wasn’t pig after all.


Warning: cover spoils module theme and final encounter


This funnel adventure – filling a full issue of Crawl! fanzine – is a gruesome one-shot combining Lovecraftian themes with a hilarious amount of gore. There are no surprises as far as the module’s themes are concerned – yup, the backwoods rustics are up to no good, and they are right in the middle of doing something really bad when the adventurers show up. However, as something you get into with full foreknowledge of walking into the jaws of a deadly trap, it is remarkably well made. Perhaps the horror does not lie in the familiar (and by now almost cozy) horror trappings, but in the vulnerability and disposability of 0-level characters. When you are at three hit points, the axe maniac coming at you suddenly takes on a more grave than usual significance.

This is something The Arwich Grinder shines at. Low-level D&D’s lethality makes it hard to design for, since an unlucky hit can kill a character, and a few unlucky hits can decimate a party and either stop their progress outright or trap them in hostile territory. However, if you softball it, you kind of lose the excitement of rolling that d20. This module is somewhere in that middle spot, even if a few of the encounters end up under-statted (including the bad guys right at the end).

Something else that works well here is the way the scenario builds towards its conclusion. It is not a railroad, and you can actually get around the Curwens’ place in multiple different ways, but any way you go, you will start from smaller hints of something being dreadfully wrong to very obvious signs of something, indeed, being gosh-darned wrong. There is a clear element of progression from the family homestead (exploration-oriented, few encounters, not terribly dangerous as long as you don’t disregard obvious hints) through the Curwens’ underground tunnels (a combination of exploration and action, multiple instances of combat and traps) to even deeper caverns (where things turn nasty). This is what makes the scenario nicely Lovecraftian. You know you are getting into something bad, and lo, you are getting into something bad. There are big, dark things lurking under the earth. Old families conceal terrible secrets. If you look too closely at things, you might find more than you’d bargained for. Never trust people of inferior racial stock. That’s Lovecraft. The rest is equally good, including one of the best GM takedowns of meta-gaming players, a few suitably dark magic items, and the Curwens, who are fun to take down, and have a few tricks up their sleeves.

The encounters are short and essential. The entire module is well-written, and fits the 27-area farmstead and 15-area dungeon into a 24-page booklet (set in a generous font size). It is right at the level where bits of descriptive detail carry the tone, without suffering from under- or overwriting. The illustrations are cool (and the cover is great great GREAT, one of the best I have seen in recent years). This is a good adventure.

The module credits its playtesters.

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