Tuesday, 21 July 2020

[REVIEW] Rakehell #01: The Rift of Mar-Milloir

Rakehell
Rakehell #01: The Rift of Mar-Milloir (2020)

by Brian Richmond

Self-Published

Low levels

Inspiration by way of random tables is a touchstone of old-school gaming, from supporting game prep to facilitating quick content generation during gameplay. Random tables and procedural design may as well be the principles to distinguish our design approach from the gaming mainstream – “here be random encounters”, “no fudging” and “roll with what the dice give you” are as old-school as it gets. It is a natural ambition after a while to extend the idea to presenting entire settings through random tables, to move random tables from support material to core material; Towers of Krshal and Yoon-Suin are probably the best modern examples where it is done well, and Rakehell is a product in the same vein.

This supplement is a product of the old-school-adjacent Knave community, presented as the first issue of a zine. As zines go, a 96-pager is fairly heavy, even if a lot of this is thanks to the breezy layout and abundance of white space. But to be fair: this is a whole lot of good, game-relevant and flavourful stuff in a single publication.

As the title suggests, Rakehell is focused on presenting the Rift of Mar-Milloir, “a perfidious wilderness setting”; that is, a lawless borderland wedged between two unnamed kingdoms (later referred to as “The Kingdom of Your Homeland” and “The Wretched Foreign Kingdom” in a tasteful Tom Gauld reference). Mar-Milloir is a poor, disorganised, and chaotic place that has been too inconsequential to conquer, but just important enough to use as a dumping ground for murder hobos, and plunder for whatever resources and wealth it may still possess. Accordingly, the milieu is a bit like a forgotten, particularly disreputable corner of rural France, filled with ruined villages and castles; an unmappable network of hills and valleys hiding uglier secrets; plus brigands, wild beasts and grotesque freaks of nature. Together with Knave itself, the supplement gives you tools to create characters for use in Mar-Milloir, and random inspiration to develop and run adventures therein.

The tone of Rakehell is closest to very early Warhammer Fantasy; not even post-Enemy Within WFRP, but the bizarre dark fantasy game you find in the original rulebook, and the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules (a slightly confused game which had a not very well known quasi-RPG section). It is a piece of John Blanche art brought to life – disposable freakshow characters sent into wretched locales and almost certain death by corrupt authorities; a deeply held suspicion of society and organised religion; an interest in all things corrupt, unwholesome, and moribund; and strong elements of social satire and low comedy. It is very much B-OSR in tone, and has the classic shitfarmer aesthetic down pat. Mar-Milloir’s barons are rapacious brigand lords, its villages decrepit hovels perched on scrub-covered hilltops, its bandits cruel brutes, and its famed bears ferocious man-eaters. It also possesses a rustic beauty: hearty food, herb-covered hillsides, abundant game, and the treasure of better times are in evidence.

The writing style in the zine is rich and expressive, making for great flavour, but less great reference: it is usually good, but sometimes just too much. At any rate, the entries on the random tables are excellent at conveying the genius loci – Mar-Milloir is a distinctive place, and there are no others like it. It is not always successful: if you read through the whole work, you might notice it is just a bit too one-note – as a lot of dark fantasy, it is all “nasty, brutish and short”, and the small spots of beauty don’t successfully add an alternative that would extend its appeal beyond a mini-campaign (even if it could be a great one-off).

***

Knave is an ultra-minimalist system with the barest degree of complexity, and not much in the way of character customisation beyond your starting equipment. Rakehell remedies this with a set of helpful tables to place your characters in the setting through brief backstory and motivation. For instance, our knave…

  • …might have been sent to the Rift after having been cast out by his mother;
  • …he might be working with his fellow miscreants because plundering is safer in a company;
  • …he might have heard of the Giants roaming the Rift from before the dominion of the Heliopapacy;
  • …he might be working as an agent of the Baron of Rendelvex, who desires the Rift for his own;
  • ….he might know a little to distinguish the different families of the Rift;
  • …and he might know of special, hard-to-find treasures found in the Rift’s village churches.

Such details are complex enough to develop a fairly motivated starting character; additionally, Rakehell adds some flavour to default equipment and weaponry as well (“snug doublet, overly padded and patterned with striped threads”, “griff-hilted arming sword with a basket guard and whalebone grip”).

The Barghestknecht

The best aspect of character generation – and a standout point of the supplement – is found in the section on ten factions whose representatives are found throughout Mar-Milloir, and whose agendas shall make them both potential allies and antagonists. In their brief writeups, they perfectly capture the grotesque spirit of their time and place.

  • For instance, The Academy of Gartentrush is a scholarly institution holding that “every book has a purpose, and the Academy believes most of those purposes involve fire”, and whose adherents, dressed in black frock coat and red chaperone hat, carry red notebooks listing the names of books they have burned (gaining XP for burning important books).
  • On the other hand, the Bargestknecht are a mercenary knighthood whose “dog-soldiers” “wear toothed helmets that extend off the face in a strange cackling smile. They love their banners, their sashes, and their badges. Many of them are goblins, or make bed with them.” As a member of their order, you get XP “when you conquer a locale, perform a military junta, or take a goblin as a spouse.”

Encompassing religions (the old and the reformist Heliopapacy,  and two more obscure orders), guilds, institutions and the two warring countries, these briefly described entities are a potent source of adventure hooks, character motivation and special rewards (mainly in the form of member-only items and magical powers). I would wholeheartedly suggest someone intending to develop factions in his campaign to study this section, for indeed, this is how it is done well.

Antévol

The majority of Rakehell deals with the setting of Mar-Milloir. The presentation is halfway between the generic and the specific, in a way that is inspiring, but not always perfectly useful. A hex map is provided for play, but it is left unkeyed except for a few tiny symbols which may represent anything you might imagine – this could be a hidden blessing if you really like to create it all. Antévol, a gateway village (“little more than occupied ruins”) serves as the springboard for later adventures. It is described through nine local NPCs affiliated with the various factions, as well as a set of funny, but not entirely practical black market guidelines (it is the kind of game of chance PCs soon learn not to play unless they absolutely must – and not even then). Later sections deal with travel rules, camping sites, village generation, and the like. We may get results like…

Gundelmount, a wattle-and-daub village built around an almshouse at the top of a hill, surrounded by orchards and well-tended woods; held together by secret sacrificial rites but afraid of the wicked men lurking in the surrounding woods; producing excellent timber; and serving good pickle tarts at the tavern.

Pamphlet dungeons:
latest fad gizmo
These tables are good, although they could be longer and more general: throughout this “GM section”, the random results are usually too specific and detailed to reuse, defeating the purpose of ordering them into tables (instead of a list of concrete entries). This is of particular concern in the case of random encounters, which should be more properly called mini-adventures – good in their own right, but lacking as a game development tool or a procedure. The author’s descriptive ability ironically serves as a stumbling block here – and continues to do so where he details Mar-Milloir’s main monster types (wyrms, giants, fiends, and ancient undead) in a little bit too much detail. Certainly, these are quibbles when it comes to a zine that presents an entire mini-setting, and is cheap to boot, but there you go.

The expanded, currently available version of Rakehell comes with two mini-adventures. These can be downloaded in the mini-pamphlet format that, as far as I am concerned, are an even worse way to publish an adventure than one-page dungeons, and like the random tables, they suffer from over-writing and limited scope. These are the less successful bits of an otherwise worthy supplement.

***

Altogether, I believe Rakehell is a fascinating setting book, although more as a semi-random grab-bag of inspiration than something successfully supported by integrated random procedures. Its ideas are more conductive to table use on the player’s side (which is impeccable in its own right), while the GM’s section has issues with the balance and presentation of content. Not everything has to be a random table; and if it is one, it’d better be a very good one. In Rakehell, some of the best parts are those sections which are not random tables – and by no accident. What makes it all worth reading, though, is its unique imagination and sense of place, which makes it a superb quasi-historical setting, and a wonderful source of inspiration. It is dirt cheap, well-written, and a lot of fun, and if you can spin it into a mini-campaign (in Knave or one of the more common old-school systems), you will be in for a treat.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

 

Monday, 6 July 2020

[MODULE] In the Shadow of the City-God & Trail of the Sea Demon (NOW AVAILABLE!)

In the Shadow of the City-God
& Trail of the Sea Demon


I am pleased to announce the publication of two new adventure modules, In the Shadow of the City-God and Trail of the Sea Demon. Both of them are delayed releases, which might have been ready for Spring, but then the Bat Plague happened, and the modules did not. However, they are now ready at last. 

Cloak and dagger...
Written by Istvan Boldog-Bernad, and illustrated by Denis McCarthy (whoso did the cover art) and Stefan Poag, In the Shadow of the City-God is a 32-page adventure module for 3rd to 4th level characters. The module is an effortless combination of urban intrigue, cloak-and-dagger action, and dungeon crawling in Mur, a city-state worshipped and forever constructed by its citizens as a living god. Inspired by Shakespeare and the bloody renaissance authors who had preceded him, Mur is one of the great charismatic locations in fantasy RPGs, and an excellent place to set your own adventures – after you have played this one. In fact, a further wilderness scenario is also included in the booklet (yes, it is positively packed). The module comes with a players’ map of the city.

“Mur’s fortunes have been built on tear salt, and merchants from distant lands travel to the city for this healing elixir. There are two tear salt springs in town, owned by two rival patrician families: the Falconi and the Capullo. Mur’s laws forbid open conflict, and like most crimes against citizens, the punishment for breaking the peace is severe: live entombment within the living city’s ever-growing walls! Nevertheless, cloak-and-dagger intrigue always claims new victims, and discord between the two families has now escalated into almost open warfare after the elderly Ercol Falconi’s young wife has disappeared. Time is ticking away, and only a bold company of outsiders can resolve the feuds and discover the masterminds behind it all… under the watchful eyes of the City-God!

***


...enigmas and dreams.
The second module, Trail of the Sea Demon, is a 32-page collection of three loosely connected weird fantasy scenarios for 3rd to 5th level characters. These mini-adventures revolve around a secretive mystery-religion, and the hidden paths which lead to it in a fantastic, labyrinthine city. They can be inserted into any sinful fantasy metropolis, and may be smoothly integrated into an ongoing campaign. Originally published in Fight On! magazine, the adventures have been revised and expanded based on further play, and presented in an accessible, user-friendly format in the current edition, with illustrations by Peter Mullen (whose cover is one for the ages), Graphite Prime, Jerry Boucher, and Stefan Poag.

“The Temple has stood in an abandoned plaza since time immemorial. It is part of the city, but no known street or alleyway leads to it. Only those who wait for the appointed time can embark on a pilgrimage of shadows and dreams to walk new ways through the silent and dark city. It is said that only a select few know the way except for the fanatical priests who worship the destructive powers of the sea. Those who have sought the Sea Demon’s advice seek it rarely; those who seek its riches have never returned to tell the tale. But now, the city’s past may grant a key to solve an occult mystery… Trail of the Sea Demon is a collection of three short adventures concerning the way to the Sea Demon’s sinister temple, the secrets and perils that await therein, and what may follow afterwards.”

The print versions of the modules are available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with three months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

[BEYONDE] In the Church of Marosszentimre



In the Church of Marosszentimre

Dust falls on our heads, venerable plaster
thus we sing our cherished Sion;
Mice scurry underneath the bench
and from their hollows, old owls beckon.
There are ten of us. This is the congregation,
the eleventh the preacher himself,
but we sing for the hundreds not with us,
that dust falls and plaster is cracked,
and in the attic the bats waken –
and a worm-eaten beam or two comes loose:
Our eleventh is the orphaned preacher,
our twelfth is naught else but the Lord.
So we sing, the few who remain
– the Lord punishes those he loves –
and they sing with us, from beneath the floor,
the whole time-uprooted host.

--Zoltán Jékely, 1936














Sunday, 31 May 2020

[REVIEW] Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag

Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag
Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag (2020)

by David Bezio
Published by David Bezio’s Grey Area Games
Levels 1–3

Nothing is harder to do well than simplicity. Gaming history is littered with the corpses of attempts which had tried and failed. The badly written Keep on the Borderlands clone (its own subgenre); the flat goblin hole module; the uninspiring cavern system with dungeoneering 101 monsters; the orc castle with endless guard rooms and footlockers containing 1d6 gold pieces and a rat on a string – we have all known several, and they never stop. It may be easy to declare the creative potential of this style has been exhausted, that there is truly nothing there… but then nothing would explain how Jeff Rients and David Bezio can do it. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is solid proof there is still untapped power in ultra-vanilla Moldvay/Cook-style beginner dungeons.

Gaehouse on Cormac’s Crag thrives in the same aspects where its competitors fail. It is very close to the platonic idea of a Basic D&D dungeon. That platonic idea is of course the Skull Dungeon sidecut, and this is one dungeon which gives you a dungeon just like that, including its own take on the fabulous Domed City – and more, precisely enough context to make it feel just a bit more than the central adventure location. There is a background section to discuss how the dungeon came to be as the end result of multiple unrelated dungeon building projects, and an overview on who controls its various areas now. A home base, The Village of Caoilainn, is provided over a two-page spread for adventure hooks, shopping, recruitment, and a rumour table. A small one-page wilderness section describes the various ways the party can travel to and around the dungeon through customised, simple encounter tables (with monsters, local colour, and even the odd friendly NPC). Nothing is superfluous – it is all simple, yet there is no feeling here that corners have been cut. D&D’s owners have long been selling crippleware in their beginner sets. This is not crippleware, but the kind of adventuring experience you should pack into an ideal beginner box.

All the way down
Most of the module is dedicated to the seven dungeon levels of the Gatehouse. That’s right – seven levels, with 134 keyed areas, in a 40-page booklet. These are not enormous dungeon levels, but they are big enough, and there is a pleasant progression through the adventure, as you go deeper into more dangerous, more lucrative, and more strange locales. You can follow a gradual path of engagement, or take an enormous risk and try your luck in the deep levels by descending down a shaft that goes all the way down (if it has not been completely clear this is indeed a love letter to the Skull Dungeon, it should be by now). But wait! There are two side levels hiding a dangerous secret, and there are clues leading you deeper underground on the trail of three lost girls, or an adventuring party who never came back. There is also enough combat, interaction and puzzle-solving to teach a new group the ways of proper dungeoneering. There are dungeon mushrooms, coded messages, treasure maps, green slime, and the rest of the good stuff.

Much of the joy of Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is found in the way these small links tie together different levels and different themes. You have a kobold outpost, a lair populated by ratlings, a larger level featuring two goblin tribes duking it out in an abandoned dwarven stronghold, the hideout and shrine of an evil priestess, a slave mine operated by ogres, and a lost level with the greatest “low level” archetype, a mysterious underground lake. These are quite different places, and might disintegrate in a badly made module, but they are connected by small stories weaving through multiple levels; leads which encourage adventurers to explore further; and secrets which can be resolved by visiting multiple levels. Nothing on its own is very deep – most room entries are simple encounter types described in a paragraph – but there is a dynamic which is very well realised, and establishes the dungeon as a complex environment for exploration and decision-making.

Would you buy a used
glaive-guisarme from this guy?
This is not a module for everyone. There is a good reason many of us prefer AD&D’s more complex encounter design, shadier aesthetics, and its promises of a broader world behind the adventure scenery. This is painted in stark black and white, like the excellent, Jeff Dee-flavoured illustrations – here is an evil cleric; he has a forked beard and he dresses in black; here are ogre slavers doing ogre slaver things (there is actually an evil shrine area that’s fairly dark, and which I think is going to be food for a lot of thought if run for a bunch of 10-years-olds). It is cartoonish, low-concept, good-vs-evil D&D. I have to accept it is not for me. But let’s say you want to run a substantial adventure for your kids or distant family, or you want to hand a module to someone just getting into the hobby. This might not be the perfect module for all times and people, but it could be the perfect module for that occasion. It excels at formal matters like presenting information efficiently and directing the GM’s hand (while also leaving enough open to encourage building from its base and establishing opportunities for further adventures), and it is also a hell of an underground journey which strings you along naturally as you go deeper and deeper into a fantastic underworld. If I were WotC, I would be taking copious notes about this one.

Let it be noted that there never was a Skull Mountain Dungeon, only the idea of one, and numerous fascinated gamers taking notes and trying to make it happen. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag did not just try, it succeeded admirably and making something that, if not a straight carbon copy, is damn close to what a good practical realisation would look like. It was a one-man job, too: writing, illustrations, cartography and editing – all of them good to excellent, with a sparse yet effective style – seem to have come from the mighty hand of David Bezio. And that is no small feat either.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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