Thursday, 13 October 2016

[REVIEW] Dispatches from Raven Crowking, Vol. 1-2

Dispatches from Raven Crowking, Vol. 1-2 (2015, 2016)
by Daniel J. Bishop
Published by Purple Duck Games

Very few people in gaming publish standalone GM advice: you typically find that sort of content in rulebooks and blogs. These two booklets come from the latter, and for all intents and purposes contain polished-up blog posts. In this case, this is a good thing – writing good GM advice is not trivial, and the Dispatches contain some pieces which deserve to be read and spread as widely as possible. While nominally for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, the content is largely universal: its roots in DCC/classic D&D serve as examples for a general argument that could be easily applied to other systems and genres.

Dispatches, vol. 1.
The Dispatches are written in a conversational tone which maintains clarity while having its own voice. The author has a good eye for practical advice that goes to the heart of matters. For the beginners, the included essays offer a useful starting point; for the more likely readers who have been running games forever, they offer an enjoyable reminder – and are still bound to contain things to relearn or learn anew.

The cornerstone of the Dispatches is Choices, Context, and Consequences. This essay is a particularly well-written introduction to running good sandbox games, and a persuasive­ general argument for old-school gaming. Its argument about the essential qualities of old-school RPGs – the freedom to make informed choices that in turn result in interesting and impactful consequences – is simple, but there is a lot of added value in both the arguments and suggestions which accompany it. From its basic concept, the essay expands into an in-depth discussion of how these principles can help games succeed, but also the typical problems that may crop up along the way. Several years of arguments have left sandboxes somewhat esoteric in the minds of many: Choices, Context and Consequences is straightforward enough to strip things down to the essentials, yet also goes into enough detail to highlight their potential complexity.

The case for meaningful choices and consequences is supported by further pieces of writing between vol. 1 and 2. Fudging: Just a Style Difference? examines how several minor cases of fudging can end up with a substantial impact on the game, and how it may eventually rob the players of their agency, and the adventures of their potential impact. Basic Adventure Design and Advanced Adventure Design go into the deeper details of non-linear adventure design, dealing with the finer points of how to reconcile the openness of sandbox gaming with dramatic devices, or how to help players make decisions via managing the flow of information. Altogether, these essays round out the more fundamental issues of Choices, Context and Consequences.

The main gist of the booklet is rounded out with a more diverse set of smaller essays: on running DCC patrons and setting up zero-level “funnel adventures” (these are perhaps the most specific parts of the Dispatches), on setting up the stage for epic, campaign-ending stuff, and some random but interesting bits (killer ammonites! the city of Shanthopal! very obscure “Appendix N” books!).

If Dispatches from Raven Crowking has flaws, they lie in its scattershot nature, which comes with the terrain of printing out a bunch of blog posts. Choices, etc. is the true gem of the collection – and it really does rank up there with the greats – while the rest is more hit and miss. All in all, this is not a recipe book: there is no step-by-step advice or “one weird trick” to follow, but there are eloquent, interesting arguments examining what makes games succeed or fail, and which can help GMs improve their own games by looking at their own way of doing things. This two-volume collection is something I would be happy to hand out as a gift to both beginners and seasoned pros. It has something for both, and for those in between.

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


  1. Thanks for the review, I will add it to my reading list. While I hold the completely open hex crawl as an ideal, my personality requires me to prep for a variety of alternative courses the party may take. I find it enjoyable work though, and at the very least I create a lot of useable content that I can bank for the future. For some reason I feel I would be more flexible and random if we played face to face. Currently we play via roll20 for 3 hour blocks, and I feel pressure to keep things moving (self imposed).
    As an aside having completed Strabonus, we are about to hex crawl the Isle of Negy Torz in search of the Temple of Pazuzu. You created some really inspiring stuff in that module! I also wanted to add that Strabonus was extremely well received, we had a lot of fun. Now I am working out the mechanics of a minor possession of a pc by the taint of Strabonus (I fiddled with the puzzle and sacrifice to Strabonus a bit, resulting in the possession).