Wednesday, 29 January 2020

[REVIEW] The Abandoned Tower

The (An) Abandoned Tower

The Abandoned Tower (2020)
by “Ed S”
Published by FEI Games Inc

Small, dodgy homebrew adventures are the realm of the pleasant surprise, the rough gem, the underappreciated talent, the enthusiastic beginner effort, the artsy amateur project. Then there are these things. They are small, dodgy, and... yeah, they are small and dodgy. I buy them and usually don’t bother to review them because what’s the point. This time, they have gone too far.

The Abandoned Tower (called An Abandoned Tower in its DTRPG listing) is an 8-page adventure written by “Ed S” (more on this later). It is a marvel of engineering. Two of the 8 pages are dedicated to the OPEN GAME LICENSE Version 1.0a. Some publishers try to shunt this off into a half-page section – not Ed S. He lets it stretch, comfortably, over ¼ of his adventure. One page is reserved for the Credits & Thanks section, where the author thanks, among others, E. Gary Gygax (spinning mightily), Wizards of the Coast for their OGL/SRD, Open Office Writer, Dungeon Painter Studio, PDF Architect, Microsoft Paint, GOOGLE Search Engine, YAHOO Search Engine, LuLu Printing, DriveThruRPG.com, and more. This page also includes the three maps for the (an?) abandoned tower. This has some fancy-pants objects placed here and there, but in a classic TSR blue map, it would be three circles with a spiral staircase symbol each, an exterior stair, and two doors.
Credits & Thanks
But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? I am glad you asked, for the next four pages are dedicated to the actual adventure (including a quarter-page illustration of a rose of all things). When I call an adventure’s margins “generous”, I mean it. This adventure has generous margins, and a font size to match. So then we get to the actual adventure, which begins with 1¼ pages of read-aloud text describes how the party is led to “a modest but well kept cottage” in the village of Blue Lake, and how the village elder, Shem Long, makes a long-winded speech to the party about investigating this “old abandoned tower” in the woods, and offers them a 30 gp merchant voucher (“can go up to 35 gp”, he notes, parenthetically). After the introduction, we get ½ page on the Lakeside Inn, where the party will be sleeping. “The bar, tables and chairs are all well worn but stable.” Unquote. There are rumours, and “The rest of the night goes by without any incidents…..” (it is not an ellipse, it is FIVE dots) This is followed by a section titled “Next Morning”. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck.

Next Morning
… Ahem. This is followed by a section titled “Next Morning”. The adventure informs us that Shem Long is now waiting for the party, sitting on the bench outside, and generously also adds that “If the party refuses the job offer, this adventure is over….” (four DOTS) Otherwise, Shem takes them shopping to the “General Store (25% of stocking anything common), a Simple Butcher & Cheese Shop, a Bakery, and a Blacksmith. The DM can build upon this if needed.” Am I IMAGINING this SHIT?! WHaT?! “As the party uses the merchant voucher the amount spent is written on it with ink.”

Then, no kidding, it has a wilderness section in a ¼ page paragraph called “Area Around The Abandoned Tower”. It is a world of limitless imagination, because the module tells you the area around the tower should be mostly encounter free, except for wildlife. But you can hunt or fish, find tracks, or outright make up things. “If anybody checks for tracks they will find the tracks of typical small wildlife, horses and ponies, and various sizes of human and humanoid footprints going in all directions. The DM should feel free to ass [sic] anything if so desired.”

Some of you vulgarians might be wondering “But where is the adventure? Aren’t we running out of pages?” Why, yes, this is where we get our tower adventure, on one (1) page. There are kobolds and an ogre, described with basic tactics – this is elementary but not entirely terrible, with watches, alarms, and sallies. Some of the text describes the tower, describing pretty much the same thing you could gleam from the map. “The tower appears to be 3 stories tall with 2 doors on the outside.” Appears to be? …appears to be but isn’t? …appears to be but secretly, one of the stories is divided horizontally? …appears to be but there are dungeons? No. Subverting all expectations, it is just a shit boring forest tower. “The structure of the tower is made of large stones mortared together. The roof is made of your typical clay tiles.” What am I reading here. Help. The horror. The HORROR.

The tower has no key. Everything about the description is a jumbled mess, describing the tower by describing the battle the characters will have there. It is a chaotic affair, for we never actually know how many kobolds there are. Are there 25 kobolds? Or is the ambush party of five kobolds counted separately? But wait, there are five more kobolds armed with bows… are they the same as the ambush party? Well, there are no stat blocks in the text. The ogre will escape during this final battle, and make away with the collected treasure, for the TRV and AVTHENTIC “Ye Olde Crapsacke Fantasye” feel. But only if the ogre rolls his rope climbing check – this is specifically mentioned, although how this check should be conducted, or what are the odds of its success, are left to A Wild World of Wondrous Imagination. The ogre can then become a recurring villain, or the party can track him to an old cabin, where he will “try to bargin [sic] his life for the sack of treasure. If this offer is refused then the Ogre will challenge the party to a one on one [sic] to the death duel between himself and one of the party members…..” FIVE dots. And so ends the expedition to the (an) Abandoned Tower.

But wait! There is another page with a monster section! This section, surrounded by more of those generous margins, describe the “kobold” and the “ogre”. Wow! The kobold is ½ HD, does 1-4 or weapon-1 damage, and is of the Chaotic alignment, while the ogre is 4+1 HD, does 1-10 damage, and is of the Chaotic alignment. Both of these monsters are illustrated by the artists credited in the Credits & Thanks section as “Unknown Artists”. You can find the ogre in the 1st edition WFRPG rulebook, page 224, under “Ogre”. Anyway, the module also comes with helpful DM advice, saying, “All treasure found within this adventure should be chosen by the DM, randomly rolled according to the treasure charts in the rule book, or a combination of both to ensure game balance in each individual game…” As you can see, this greatly aids customisation, as well as adaptation to different rulesets, in A Wild World of Wondrous Imagination.
Unknown Artists
No playtesters are credited in this publication. Actually, the author is not credited either, here or anywhere else. He knows this would be a bad idea. The only reason I know his name is from his response to a DTRPG comment complaining about this goddamn ripoff. To which “Ed S” responds, quote, “Did you expect a $10 module for a $2 8 page pdf?????? I will be happy to refund your money....” Well, yeah, fuck you, too, Ed, fuck you too. You win this round.

Rating: * / *****

Sunday, 29 December 2019

[REVIEW] Lowcountry Crawl

Lowcountry Crawl

Lowcountry Crawl (2019)
by John Gregory
Published by Technical Grimoire Games

The inaugural issue of a fanzine describing a “Southern Gothic” setting – something based on early 19th century coastal South Carolina by way of D&D-ish RPGs (it is barely statted, but would go well with the common B/X-based systems). As the intro states, this is a fairly underexplored setting idea, but once you look inside, you will see that it would fit very nicely into any pirate- or smuggler-themed RPG set around the Caribbean, or in colonial America. The “Barrier Islands” of the first issue are a chain of small islands, somewhere between sandbanks and habitable land. The coast is by and large modular and self-contained – you don’t need future issues of the zine to find this useful.

What you get is a decent mini-setting: basic guidelines to generate new islands, with a description of the environments you may find there; a sample island chain; random encounters; and a selection of setting-appropriate stuff. There is a good mixture of approaches from the naturalistic (the hazards and opportunities of wildlife, mud, and the tides) to the folkloric (pulled from local legends and folk tales) and the fantastic (wild stuff like giant eye islands and giant reed rafts supporting an entire village). It is not “in-depth”, remaining closer to the surface concept level than presenting a fully detailed adventure, but it is more than a zoomed-out overview. The four major islands present a place where you can venture from the safety of civilisation to the odder, more dangerous corners of the wilderness. The further you go, the tougher it gets. There are basic connections to link it together and give you a structure for improvisation. I find this approach useful; it is perhaps closest to what Wilderlands of High Fantasy gives you (but on a much smaller scale). There is a listing of local creatures and magic items, which are the high point of the zine, with a macabre sense of wonder. Here is a one-eyed dog monster bound to hidden treasure; a bloody skeleton in the marshes with hanging strips of skin called Tommy Rawbones; raccoon baculum (yes, really), or magical chewing tobacco (nasty stuff).

This is the first RPG product I have come across that lists a sensitivity reader (granted, I live under a rock). I surmise it is a very sensible idea to hire one if you randomly find yourself writing sentences like “Actually, slavery is pretty cool”, or “The lesbians at the tavern have damn fine tits.” Your sensitivity reader will just find these passages and recommend that you remove them, all at a modest price. It is a very useful invention that I see getting widely adopted. Beyond sensitivity, “Akelah” has contributed a strange merchant selling odd semi-magical gewgaws. It is not the high point of the publication, but it is fairly okay.

Altogether, Lowcountry Crawl is an “idea zine” with an interesting theme and an excellent sense of place. It is neither a fully described locale nor a toolbox, but a set of related ideas to provide a framework for adventures you will write or make up on the spot. In that respect, it is the potential beginning of something good – although not necessarily the thing itself.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. However, there is a sensitivity reader!

Rating: *** / *****

Chew on this!

Friday, 20 December 2019

[NEWS] Judgement of the Postal Gods & A Day in Xyntillan (Double Feature)

Oooops

About two weeks after mailing them, copies of Castle Xyntillan are now arriving at various US destinations. That’s part reassuring and part frustrating. Reassuring because, in spite of what my lizard brain tries to tell me, the postal services of the world are not dumping mailed packages right into a flaming ditch filled with ravenous crocodiles. Well, not wilfully, not while laughing, and not en masse, at least. But let me tell you, oh frustrated customer who is still waiting for your promised copy (you know who you are), that I made foolish time estimates on the basis of previously solid shipping times, and the only thing I forgot was to correctly factor in the effects Christmas season would have on postal traffic. “In the end, they may receive their books a day or two later,” I thought. Well, that was optimistic.

In other words, to all those who have not received Castle Xyntillan yet: I am sorry some of you have had to wait longer than promised – and I hope the book you will soon hold in your hands will make the wait worthwhile. May the Postal Gods be gracious, and may thy packages make their saving throws vs. crushing blow!

Also, if you have received your book, I appreciate a confirmation message – puts my mind at ease, and makes these final days of frantic office work before Christmas go smoother.

***

In other Xyntillan-related news, we held an official launch event for the book last Sunday. We organised a whole-day OD&D game in a small, private game club, and played two expeditions’ worth of Xyntillan in a group of seven players and one GM. Ironically, the players were friends who had not actually experienced the module before, at least beyond the odd convention one-shot (the original playtesters will get to play something entirely new and different, as is the way with RPGs).

The following report contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

[BEYONDE] Random Encounter in Ohio


Now that the first 75 or so copies of Castle Xyntillan are in transit (and some are already arriving at European destinations!), and I have an evening when I am not packing boxes and writing invoices, it is time to settle down and recount this unlikely encounter of three D&D reviewers. Like great minds tend to do, we met in Athens – not the original one, but at least a namesake.

As fortune would have it, my old university has a long-standing cooperation programme with Ohio University, Athens – now over 30, it extends to courses, student exchange, common research, and of course academic visits, which is where I came in. I arrived by plane in Columbus, and took a bus to Athens (I can’t drive, which I assure you is a better idea in Hungary than enormous countries like the US). The frostbitten prairies of Ohio receded to give way to forests; then Athens emerged with its red warehouse buildings, cranes and flocks of white birds which could not have been seagulls. There was a bitterness in the air; chimney smoke, acrid chemicals, and cold November air. The bus stopped at a mid-century red brick station, a massive cold structure of glass and steel windowpanes, filled with activity. I alighted, carrying my briefcases – one with an abundance of paperwork, and another with a spare shirt, toothbrush, personal effects, a laptop and a ham sandwich – to the nearest Uber, and my hotel.

View From the Uber
I spent most of these three days on campus, at the usual workshops and meetings, which are largely the same all over the world from Athens to Yekaterinburg – the name tags, brochures, conference materials, powerpoints (although some are using Prezi nowadays, a hipster thing from a Hungarian startup), even the sandwiches and coffee – Italian espresso machines (probably partly made in China) have pretty much conquered the globe. All in all, an American conference is like a conference everywhere else, but there are more genders, and the auditoriums are bigger.

Eager to finally see local colour, I eloped from the afternoon sessions on social engagement with an eye towards sustainable urban development to see some of the city. In Athens, do as the Athenians do: as usual, I followed the crowds for a while, but most people were eager to get inside to avoid the weather, and most of them either went to offices or to shopping centres. Athens is fairly chilly this time of the year, although I was told it can be even colder, -18 degrees and below; the winds did not help, and I forgot my cap in my hotel room. Following student tips, I tried some hipster cafés near my hotel, which were quite like the hipster cafés in my town, with approximately the same kind of people, except the artisan hamburger is better in its homeland, and they serve it with a sauce which is authentic to this corner of Ohio (I did miss the famous Ohio chili dog, unfortunately – maybe next time). I tried to look up a game store in the vain hope I would pick up a lonesome woodgrain box or something unique for a steal, but no luck. After trying Ohio’s original chili con carne, I retreated for the night, and had a drink on the hotel’s top floor, enjoying the view of the Athenian skyscrapers, and the industrial sites beyond the city perimeter.

City Lights (from Another Uber)

Hotel Bar, Rooftops
However, the gaming gods would be kind after all. Browsing a conference programme, I happened upon a name that sounded oddly familiar – had I shipped a zine to this person? It was not easy getting hold of him on campus, but I eventually caught up with Prince of Nothing, who was apparently there at some training programme involving tensile plastic filaments or project management (one of these two, he will have to correct me if I am wrong). Turns out he had been here a few weeks, and already discussed an evening meet with none else but Bryce Lynch – none of us three Athenians, but brought together by random circumstance!

Empowering the Arctic
I watched a few more presentations, but eventually skipped the plenary about empowering arctic communities and the workshop about using technology-based solutions to facilitate meaningful social change in peri-urban locations to join the two bloggers at a local diner. Bryce Lynch (not his real name) and Prince of Nothing (not his real name) had already drunk a few beers, and I joined for a few hours – I would be leaving for the airport the next morning, and needed a rest before my departure. Bryce had picked a place downtown which he assured us was authentic, which was immediately apparent by the flickering neon lights, aging waitresses and cold coffee. This was a piece of all-American history, like something out of a David Lynch movie! Encouraged by the environment, I made some coffee-related comments, but none of the staff understood the reference - it turned out they had not seen Twin Peaks (let alone Fire Walk With Me) at all, which left my cleverly devised punchline in a rather awkward position. However, I must say they knew their hamburgers – these were some of the best I have ever partaken during my travels. Which only shows the genius loci, that special something David Lynch and Jack Kérouac discovered in the American psyche, is still important in our placeless age.

Prince was either speaking Dutch, or speaking English with a cold, or either of these two while already slightly drunk. Bryce talked very fast and very excited, so I did not understand either of them perfectly, so we got along mighty fine. We did talk gaming for a while, although now that the OSR is dead, and no exciting new thing is taking its place, the general tenor was tinged with an amount of gloom (the diner’s green formica and aluminium tables, and the hypnotic neons must have contributed, although by that time we must have had a few whiskey sours on top of the beer – they had Coors, which as I understand is an authentic American experience).

All-American Diner!
We asked some frat guy to take a group photo, then I took another with the photographer standing in for my place – under the posts by Prince and Bryce, people have expressed some scepticism about the picture’s authenticity, but this is nonsense – the picture is authentic, and all people depicted on it are real. In any case, I think Bryce is trying to explore new venues with computer game reviews, which is where the real audience is at, although I extracted a vague promise about continuing his OD&D megadungeon. Prince, who somehow became more understandable after a few drinks, was mostly talking about the genuine American atmosphere the place was having, a matter on which we would all agree – Bryce had an eye for these places even though he had never been in Athens previously, despite having some distant kin in Ohio (apparently into organised crime? Bryce will have to correct this, I was out to take a leak in the diner's mosaic-bedecked toilet, which was perhaps even more reminiscent of the movies which capture the American experience). In any event, we spent some of the evening discussing various forum personalities and blog issues. Prince has grand plans to continue reviewing LotFP modules, which he called his “life’s work”, and I was mostly anxious whether Xyntillan would get published or some natural or man-made disaster would prevent its publication in the last possible moment. Bryce showed us his game dice, painstakingly explaining their origins and which of them killed which AD&D characters in his fondly remembered 2e days. I did not have any dice with me to show – they were in my briefcase in my hotel room, as always, so I could not show them my original self-inked Gamescience sets and the original OD&D-style GaryCon dice Lord Metal Demon gave me when he visited me this Summer. Unfortunately, our meeting was all too short – I had to return to my hotel to sleep off the drink and have time to pack my stuff (I did pocket Bryce’s pen by accident, which I promise to return to him if we ever meet again – although frankly, like most academics, it is some crappy thing he must have gotten for free in a conference bag).

A Cold Winter Morning
The next morning, I checked out from the hotel, and went for the airport. A local post-doc was kind enough to take me to Columbus, as he was heading in the same direction. We talked about academia, mainly, and how it was all going downhill from America to Yekaterinburg and presumably beyond that. It turns out he had also gamed in his 20s, although it was 3.5, and he thought the Pathfinder crowd was just too weird, so fortunately, we did not press the issue. He switched to football, which I mercifully know nothing about, but nodded sympathetically enough to convince him I was really into it. At the airport, I checked in my luggage, purchased some American memorabilia at the duty free store (including a fridge magnet, a plastic cactus and a small novelty bottle of tequila from Texas). The airport hamburgers were also done with a lot of skill – I did not dare to try the wilder maple syrup burger, although next time I should – although nothing beats the ones in Athens. With that, I drank a last bottle of Coca-Cola, and headed for the gates to catch my flight and take one of the reserved seats with extra leg room.

Monday, 2 December 2019

[MODULE] Castle Xyntillan (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Chocolate coins not included

“The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!” 

I am happy to announce the publication of Castle Xyntillan, a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game (and broadly compatible with other old-school systems). With cartography by Robert S. Conley, cover art by Peter Mullen, and interior illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen (again) and The Dead Victorians, Xyntillan is a 132-page hardcover describing the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). Four map sheets, featuring GM’s and player’s cartography of the labyrinthine complex, chart the passageways and hidden rooms, providing ample opportunities for exploration, confrontation, and subterfuge. Castle Xyntillan has been designed to be versatile, open-ended, complex, and accessible (more detailed thoughts are found in this post). It is above all, a fantastic place – built on surrealism and dream logic, yet a place which makes a certain amount of sense if you look at it sideways. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. Whether you would like a dungeon for one-off expeditions and convention play, or repeated forays and full campaigns, Castle Xyntillan should suit the demands and particulars of your campaign!

The hardcover set (book and four map sheets) sells for $40 plus shipping, and is available from my Bigcartel store. This is a larger and heavier product than the previous zines, and requires a sturdier cardboard envelope. Thus, it has a flat shipping rate of $18 (Europe) and $22 (Worldwide). As before, adding further items to your order does not increase shipping. Shipping times should be 3-7 days for most European destinations, 8-12 days for the US and Canada, and up to two weeks for Australia. (At the time of writing, all orders submitted this week should arrive before Christmas!)

A PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay (early or mid-April). As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive this PDF version free of charge.

Three free downloads are also available for this product:
  • A two-page sample describing a section of The Upper Quarters, and showcasing the approach taken in presenting these materials.
  • A GM’sWorksheet, used to track time and characters as the company explores the depths of Xyntillan. Adapted from Dungeons and Companies, a Hungarian retro-clone, this is a highly useful play aid for dungeon scenarios.
  • A set of blank player maps, ready for printing (if you need spares).



385 out of 500 copies



Friday, 29 November 2019

[REVIEW] Wormskin #01–#08

Wormskin #01–#08 (2015–2018)
by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk (with further contributions by Yves Geens, Matthew Schmeer, Andrew Walter and Brian Richmond)
Published by Necrotic Gnome Productions
Low-to-mid-level

Fanzines may be the ideal vehicle to publish offbeat, visionary RPG ideas. The format is suitably inexpensive to produce and buy, and the scope of a single issue just right for personal, creative takes on a game or setting. Zines can speak to niche audiences, and afford to be small enough to be unconcerned by the dictates of mass-market viability – if you have a zine you are selling to a circle of 30 happy friends and acquaintances, it may still be worth it just for the pleasure of creating something. That is the theory: in practice, zines are all over the place, from the deadly dull to the inspired, and from dodgy photocopies to lavishly produced physical artefacts. A lot of them will have no meaning outside a small scene – they are memorabilia, physical embodiments of collective memories and ephemeral personal networks. A lot of them are, also, hipster bullshit. Yet sometimes, zine creators strike solid gold, and produce a run that develops into something amazing, and sets standards for years to come. Welcome to Wormskin.

Wormskin #1-3
Wormskin is a zine with a precisely defined theme: it presents guidelines, background detail, and materials for Dolmenwood, a faerie-haunted woodland setting “somewhere” in a fantastic England. It is a setting with no link to a precise time and place, and if you look deeper, it is a mishmash of mediaeval superstitions and folk tales, Victorian fantasy (mostly Dunsany and Morris), and romanticised Georgian-era rural life – in roughly the same way vanilla D&D is a hodgepodge of disparate influences from the “Appendix N” novels to monster movies, fantasy wargaming, and comic books. And yet, this mixture has a strong internal consistency, with a characteristic rustic and earthy feel to it, conjuring images of muddy roads, mossy tree trunks, crumbling monasteries in the deeper forests, stone circles avoided by men, and rowdy taverns offering sweet and savoury delicacies with bitter ales and the warmth of the fireplace.

This imagery has a long presence in D&D, whose idyllic forests, wayside inns and sleepy rural communities are intristic parts of the assumed milieu, even if they often feel more like more early 1900s American farming settlements than historical English villages. Which is not a criticism: D&D, even at its most specific (and it can get very specific), deals with a wider range of influences from westerns to planetary romance, while Dolmenwood focuses on a much narrower range in an undiluted fashion. It is a setting with a strong and peculiar flavour, something that has been done before many times, and subsumed into the tired cliché of Merrie Olde Englande so that all its individuality has been lost in modern renfaire fantasy.  But Dolmenwood is not that setting: by returning to its imaginary roots, it highlights the fresh, fantastic and uncanny aspects of the English countryside.

Issue #02, back cover
One of the primary strengths of Dolmenwood come precisely from its synthesising and (particularly) transformative nature: it can accommodate and blend together ideas from very dissimilar sources, and make them work in a whole that becomes a new, original thing of its own. It takes folktales and ballads about forest-dwelling faeries and witches, and recreates them as the powerful antagonists of a role-playing game; or it tackles the legends of druids as the secretive order of the Drune, complete with machinations around ley lines and places of power. All of this has a veneer of familiarity, but the end result always comes with a clever twist or surprise – not deconstruction (a gotcha that’s more tired now than playing things straight), but a few steps towards reaffirming the unfamiliarity and oddness of the woodlands.

In particular, the zine is very skilful about repurposing Victorian kitsch: syrupy and domestic source material (bowdlerised fairy tales with red-cheeked garden gnomes and talking animals, idealised depictions of “the good country life” with its rotund monks and beer-loving farmers, and so on) becomes great game fodder in the creators’ hands; random public domain woodcuts are given new life in a newly imagined context. The village of Prigwort, renowned for its brewmasters, is accompanied by a random table of fantastic beverages (the minstrel’s cordial is a frothy orange with a taste of malty rye, and encourages the imbiber to engage in unexpected poetry), and gingerbread golems have been known to lurk in certain bakeries. The zines pay a lot of attention to the material comforts of the region – beers, common tavern fare, fashionable garments and places worth visiting all receive their due. This is a place painted with warm tones, yet without sentimentalism.

***

The articles in Wormskin range from setting background and hex descriptions to game procedures, the obligatory monsters/magic items, and random tables. Not unlike early Judges Guild, it offers a diverse selection of materials, which are useful enough on their own, but also come together to form a certain vision of running a campaign. There is a free introductory PDF to serve as an overview; but Dolmenwood is mostly described by way of example, through the tone and content of its more specific articles. Somehow, it works admirably well.


The Drugsssss of Dolmenwood
Some of the ideas are idiosyncratic, and open up new aspects of play. Moss dwarves (stunted gnomes from the deep forests) and grimalkin (a race of mischievous and creepy talking cats) are not simple character options, they are more or less new specialist character types, adding a specific spin to the way we play D&D. A set of guidelines on identifying, consuming, and buying/selling the fungi of Dolmenwood introduces a new possibility for wilderness expeditions, and comes with a d30 table featuring such entries as sludgenuts (smell like wet dog, nourishing but repulsively slimy), polkadot pig (a mild psychedelic causing creeping paranoia), or jack-in-the-green (found in fairy rings, random enchantment). This is a table I adapted for my own campaign, for the benefit of a hobbit character, whose expertise in mushrooms added flavour to both the character, and the fun of wilderness expeditions. A different issue features guidelines for camping out – these are way too detailed for my taste, with fiddly modifiers for fetching firewood and the effectiveness of sleep, but they can be scaled down, and there is, again, a table of random campsites which can lead to new adventures (a ring of identical trees haunted by strange sounds, or a verdant clearing with signs of ancient habitation). What these ideas have in common is encouraging actual play, and providing new ideas to expand the scope of running a game in an enchanted forest.

It bears mention that Dolmenwood is a complex and heavily interconnected mini-setting. You can run it by using the details (and you can also take it apart to use the bits and pieces), but there is a deeper layer to the setting where the pieces fit together, and even the footnotes refer to other footnotes. Locations, rival factions, setting-crossing elements like the ley lines and sun stones, and new guidelines make for a mighty tangle of moving parts. The resulting network of references is very rich, revealing the thought and careful planning behind the milieu; it is also too much for a casual game, and rather hard to keep in mind. It does not help that, owing to its piecemeal publication history and the variety of content on the pages of a zine, all of this material is disorganised, lacking any sort of index or reference. This level of the Wormskin materials is perhaps best used as an occasional spice, instead of the compulsion to use all of it all the time. In a way, “learning” your way around Dolmenwood is fairly close to learning a new D&D-based game system – and it is best done gradually.

Don't Lose Your Head
Occasionally, the wealth of detail also obscures the clarity and intent of the articles. This is not that apparent in the case of the hex descriptions, even if they are far more detailed than the usual hex-crawl fare. These issues do, however, haunt the faction descriptions and the adventure scenarios. The Ruined Abbey of St. Clewd, a major adventure location, is split between two issues – and while it is a good one, it is rather overdone for a place with 26 keyed areas. In another issue, the description of a three-room cottage (The Atacorn’s Retreat) spans seven pages, offering a loving detail of interesting clutter. It is a very good article, yet it is overpoweringly dense, and would be a logistical nightmare to run at the table. In these aspects, Wormskin feels like too much of a good thing.

And with these flaws in mind, it still comes across very clearly. Perhaps the best aspect of the articles is how the pieces reflect the whole, and vice versa. Even after eight issues, the materials on Dolmenwood are fragmentary – there are guidelines for magical waters, but no comprehensive encounter tables; we know the goat-headed lords of Lankshorn, but not the Court of the Nag-Lord or the lake of the Dark Mirror. A lot is missing, and a lot is too much to commit into memory. However, even after a single issue, the reader gets a sufficient idea about the setting and its workings that allows him to extrapolate from the details. The campaign materials are very helpful in setting the tone and encouraging you to go further on your own. And this is what great game supplements are made of.

***

With respect to production values, issues of Wormskin come in the form of handsome digest-sized booklets. It is printed in colour, and features colour maps and artwork. Once again, its use and repurposing of “found art” from the fin de siècle tradition is exemplary, and it is done with such a sure hand that it feels visionary rather than cheap. Tasteful layout and good accessibility are also a positive. It has a rich writing style which is a pleasure to read in comparison with the myriad stale game texts you can encounter out in the wild. This is a classy, elegant series. Perhaps it even feels “out of genre” for the wild and unruly zine scene – are zines allowed to look so good?

The Drune Issue
In summary, Wormskin is a visionary product with an intriguing setting. It uses its source material masterfully, turning the generica of Old England into a particular, cohesive experience. Once you get the central idea, it works like a charm. Dolmenwood wears the B/X D&D rules like a familiar and comfortable outfit, while altering them to fit its own tone and set of influences. It doesn’t simply present a few house rules, or small variations on the basic D&D framework, neither does it create something radically new; rather, it presents a new way of thinking about D&D’s core concepts and building blocks without compromising either. Campaigns set in Dolmenwood should be halfway between the familiar and the strange, with sufficiently fresh takes on a lot of D&D’s common elements to feel fresh and ripe for exploration. I do not believe much in the proliferation of old-school systems as long as they offer the same underlying experience (once you have one system based on OD&D, AD&D and B/X, you are set for life), but I would make the jump into a Dolmenwood campaign because the distance is just right to make that jump worthwhile.

All that is old is new again: like the best of the old school on offer, Wormskin provides a fresh take on concepts we had thought tired, and innovates while staying true to the game’s traditions. It is visionary, colourful, game-oriented and above all, just very well made. This is the reason why Wormskin ranks among the best of the best in old-school gaming, a position previously shared by The Tome of Adventure Design, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, and Yoon-Suin.

For the first time in the history of this blog, I hereby award Wormskin a rating of five stars with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.

Rating: ***** / *****


Wednesday, 6 November 2019

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan: Announcement and Preview

Castle Xyntillan (cover by Peter Mullen)


“The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!”

I am happy to announce the (now truly) forthcoming publication of Castle Xyntillan, a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game. Xyntillan will be a 132-page hardcover, describing the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). The module will ship with four map sheets with both GM’s and player’s cartography by Rob Conley, cover art by Peter Mullen (whose work, above, should speak for itself), and interior illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen (again), and The Dead Victorians. The hardcover set should sell for $40 plus shipping, and should be available at the end of November or very early December – allowing ample time for delivery before Christmas. And now, the details!

With Castle Xyntillan, my goal was to create a classic-style megadungeon based on the following design principles:
  • Versatility: The dungeon should be suitable for different game groups and play styles. It can make for fun one-off expeditions and convention games, it can be played as its own campaign, or ­it can become the tentpole dungeon of a broader campaign setting. It can be played with permanent groups, or a “West Marches”-style player and character pool. It is designed for levels 1 to 6, but otherwise, anything goes – from smaller parties relying on stealth and infiltration to more hack-and-slash affairs involving a small army of disposable flunkies, Xyntillan should offer a fun experience – at all levels of experience.
  • Open-ended exploration: The dungeon should accommodate many different approaches to exploration. Multiple entrances and an open structure built around interconnected sub-levels provide several possible paths through the Castle, including two- and three-dimensional exploration puzzles, hidden sections, and fabulous rewards secreted in secret places. Of course, openness also involves a healthy level of risk management: dangerous areas are not usually cordoned off from nosy characters, and the dungeon is not broken down into neat “levels” of difficulty; rather, it is the players’ responsibility to decide when to push their luck, and when to retreat to safety.
  • Open-ended gameplay: Groups (and players) with quite different interests should all find something to their liking. Whether they relish combat or prefer furtive exploration; confront Xyntillan’s denizens with sword and holy water in hand or play them off against each other; go for the choice treasures or seek the castle’s deeper mysteries, it should be possible. Likewise, GMs with different ideas should be able to customise it to their liking with little effort. Nothing is prescribed, but many things are possible – and Castle Xyntillan is a framework that enables and invites experimentation.
  • Complexity and interactivity: Rooms should offer many things to discover and mess with. While some are straightforward puzzles or traps, there are many which involve (or benefit from) a bit of lateral thinking and experimentation. They also have a depth that should not be overwhelming in play, but offer opportunities to come up with daring plans and unexpected combinations – especially when the players start leveraging multiple things in different rooms to their advantage.
  • Variety of challenges: While it does not pull punches, Xyntillan is not a hardcore killer dungeon – it is deadly, but resourceful groups who think on their feet should do well, and, if things go bad, have opportunities to cut their losses and run to fight another day. Not everyone and everything in Xyntillan is out to get you – or, at least, not immediately. However, those looking for trouble will soon find it.
  • Ease of use: The material should be easy to understand and use at the table, and the GM should never be lost in a sea of information. Accordingly, the room key uses a nested bullet point structure, starting from an overview of each room and proceeding towards the finer details and interaction possibilities (a two-page example is provided below). Bolded keywords are used to help navigate the text, which is also carefully cross-referenced for easy navigation. Map slices are placed close to their point of use to reduce page flipping. The map is extensively labelled for ease of use. Finally, the physical book and the accompanying maps are planned to be sturdy and user-friendly. It is printed and bound locally where me and my printer can oversee the production process at every step.
  • Surrealism: Xyntillan is founded on dream logic and loose association instead of strict realism or full narrative consistency. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. As a funhouse dungeon, it is full of the improbable – but there is a method to the madness. Likewise, it is not a serious affair, but it is not a “joke module” either – it is intended to be a storehouse of the macabre and whimsical, where the jokes write themselves – there is no background laugh track.

Careful... careful.....
In summary, the goal was not to make the biggest dungeon (a goal I have, frankly, always considered stupid), but one that’s just the right size, comfortable to use, good to handle, and built to last. Castle Xyntillan also has a (perhaps unfair) advantage: in one way or another, I have been working on these materials since 2006, from my sections of a never-published Tegel Manor manuscript to the finalised module, and there has been abundant time to contemplate, revise, add to, remove from, and playtest the adventure. It has been tried in many different contexts, and with many different groups. It has taken a long time, probably more than it is rational to develop a dungeon. It is, in one word, polished. It is, also, that thing I have been rambling about all these years. And I hope you will also find it to your liking.

For now, here is a two-page example from one of the easier-to-find sublevels: Castle Xyntillan Sample (4 MB PDF).

Q&A (Additions)

"Sounds good but I see nothing about factions. I want factions!"
"Xyntillan has no formally spelled out "factions", but it does have the remnants of the eccentric and corrupt Malévol family, who have their own agenda (represented by a global escalation mechanic) and internal disagreements. There are also (very loosely described) outside parties with their own interests in Xyntillan.

It is up to the GM and the players to decide what to do with this, but the emergent potential is there, and some suggestions are offered in the Introduction. During our playtest, reaction rolls and morale played a significant role, and negotiation with the dungeon denizens became an important source of information, shady bargains, and allies of convenience."

"How large is the dungeon?"
"WRT the size of the dungeon, it is large enough to sustain its own campaign, and to feel like you are exploring something substantial. It is large enough to result in emergent complexity, which is a major appeal of megadungeons. But it is limited in the sense that it should not take over your gaming life (something that has frustrated me about other megadungeons), and it is basically built around three large, loosely "levels" (a sprawling ground floor, various upper floors, and a dungeon level - all with more or less hidden sub-sections and plenty of interconnections). I had a second dungeon level under development but scrapped it because it felt too much."