Monday, 12 November 2018

[REVIEW] The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma (2018)
by Anthony Huso
Self-published
5th to 7th level (or slightly higher)

This is a long overdue review of a module that deserves more attention. I had planned to review it as soon as I read it in the Spring – but misplaced my copy, which only turned up again at my weekend house as I was readying it for Winter. So here it is, a bit belatedly: a great AD&D module based on the author’s personal notes from the 1980s, given a new polish and some expansion and rewriting. It is both a good document of the way high-level AD&D was often played (I remember fairly similar, although less good dungeons from a very different time and place), and something that has excellent playing value today. It should be no surprise the module is good. I have known Anthony’s work since the early 2000s, when he created some of the best Thief fan missions of that time, with a signature design style featuring expansive, sinister cities, labyrinthine plots, high drama, purple prose, and brooding sluts. He had later worked as a level designer on various computer games including the Dishonored computer games – again, a standout series – and he has recently published a range of AD&D supplements, with the same imagination and attention to quality.

As acknowledged in the Foreword, The Mortuary Temple of Esma was inspired by the eerie and strange Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the “White Album” of Gygaxian fantasy scenarios. Tharizdun is the most Lovecraftian AD&D module in a line which had always drawn generously from Lovecraft, but this time without being imitative: it conjures the same ideas of wrongness and blasphemy while constructing its own disturbing imagery. It is also a tough meatgrinder of a module, with deadly battles to test a hardened adventuring group; not to mention how much of the content is hidden in fair but progressively more obscure ways. Finally, it has art completely outside the established AD&D style, so much so that it feels like a weird third-party bootleg to a mainstream family game. I bring this up because, beyond the acknowledgement, Mortuary Temple is to Tharizdun what Tharizdun is to Lovecraft: a homage, but an original one which carries forward the general idea while following its own path. The design features I noted for Tharizdun all apply to the Mortuary Temple – in their own natural context.

What the module offers is a three-level dungeon underneath the mausoleum of an elf lord (for four total levels). It is somewhat a mixture between a monument to love similar to the Taj Mahal, a testing ground, and a place to bury unpleasant cosmic secrets. It has its own strong style, featuring a clash between lost beauty and unwholesome corruption – not only in the place’s trappings, but the content of the encounters. Accessing the mortuary temple’s secrets involves not just careful discovery, but making sacrifices and wagering one’s life and belongings. It certainly has strong choices and consequences – and the rewards are artifact-level magical treasures both iconic and powerful. This is a module for a large party of characters who have grown into their stature and earned their experience levels and magic items (it is not a low-magic scenario either – it is ideal for groups who know how to exploit two wands of Orcus and three hands of Vecna). Whatever the outcome, it will be a memorable adventure.

Module interiors
It pays off that the author knows and respects the AD&D rules without becoming their creative servant. The module leverages this knowledge to build a deadly gauntlet of encounters with powerful and resourceful enemies who know and exploit their environment (without being omniscient about it). The top level alone is a brutal battleground, which will test a party’s mettle before they can descend to the dungeons. The encounters mix the familiar with the new – well-known AD&D monsters with original creations (or old mainstays given a new spin). The following levels are more focused on puzzles and smaller mysteries, while the final one is once again a brutal tactical slaughterfest (note, the module practically requires a battle mat or a table setup to run fairly). The encounters are puzzling mini-scenarios on their own, from forgotten tombs to a nightmarish underwater realm and a place of emtombment forgotten by the outside world, and beyond the scope of what one would expect from a sacred elven resting place.

There are two aspects of the module I find less good (and the reason why it did not receive the rare five-star rating despite being close to it). First, while the individual encounters are almost always excellent, the core puzzles to progress deeper into the module feel mechanical, a bit like CRPG quests instead of D&D’s creative problem solving (although the module predates most actual CRPGs). I think these are the artifacts of 1980s play which did not age so well, even if they are, in fact, authentic (here, Tarizdun has stood the test of time much better). The second reason is that the two final levels are somehow less inspired than the materials preceding them. This is no accident, since the original group of players never actually reached them, and the magic of playtesting – the transformative force which puts the GM’s materials into their final context – is not present.

The adventure is presented in a fairly easy to follow format, although I suspect table use would require a fair amount of underlining and a bit of cross-referencing due to the material’s interrelatedness and complexity. The prose, when it comes to the brief but heavy descriptions, is sort of a familiar trademark: “Shod in plated steel, gallant valves of white stone hang picturesque, but unsecured. The wind whimpers and, across the walls, curtains of unchecked clematis flutter and sway. No longer square, the doors pivot on huge pins, making ravenous sounds where stone brushes stone.” (Compare this with the introduction to Calendra’s Cistern, a Thief mission from the year 2000 – some things are reassuringly constant.) It is not long, but it is as purple as it comes – and yes, there is ancient elven love poetry, an almost disturbing amount of it. On the other hand, the information in the location key is broken down sensibly, the various forms of highlighting and side boxes are helpful, and the whole thing is well put together. I usually don’t review production values, but like Tharizdun, Mortuary Temple features a non-standard art style featuring the author’s pencils and crayons, mostly greyscale with rare dashes of colour – fitting the mood of an original module. It is pleasing to look at, as are the maps – which are original, with digital enhancements.

The Mortuary Temple of Esma is among the best releases of this year, and even its slight weaknesses should not detract from its power of imagination and skilful execution. It is as good as deadly mid-to-high (but more emphasis on “high”) level AD&D gets.

This publication credits its playtesters (or at least it seems so from the Special Thanks section).

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

Monday, 15 October 2018

[BEYONDE] Beyond Google Plus, and Fixing the Internet

Thou hast offended the algorithm!
Depart now and never return!

Right, everyone has heard the news: Google is shuttering its failed social network. Told you so? Right in my first post of substance! So which way forward? This is going to be a short post, but it will be more than an announcement.

First things first: G+ is not going away yet. Posting there has been on borrowed time the last few years anyway, and we can still keep doing it for a while. I plan to continue being active there, but I have mostly moved on to MeWe.com, the fittingly oddball social network where the old-school posters seem to be going. So far, it has been a good experience, so hopefully, it will work out – and if it doesn’t, there will be other options. This blog will also be around as long as Google does not decide to can Blogspot (like that would ever happen, right? Right?), and I plan to be updating it as I can. On MeWe, I have created a group for Echoes From Fomalhaut, where I will be posting regular updates. Join me if you would like.

So much for myself. Now for the main thing: what does it all mean for old-school gaming? How can we survive such a doubtless destructive event? I will go against the grain and suggest it is going to be a good thing, with implications beyond our hobby. Here is why.

***

The users will find a way. It has been my experience that platforms and communities come and go, but you can usually meet the same people over and over again. Old-school gaming is approaching twenty years, and it has spread out from forum threads to dedicated communities to blogs and social networks. There have been many stops and reversals along the way. Communities have split up in bitter feuds, parted on amicable terms, or as it often goes, ceased to have new things to say to each other. New sub-groups have sprung up and created their own niches, fads have come and gone, but the good games have endured. This is because our communities are not governed by a five-year marketing plan, but hobbyist interests: they will live in some form as long as we need them to; and if they won’t anymore, that will be no great loss. And most people will be along. I have seen the same circle of friends crop up again and again, sometimes after taking a few years off and coming back with new ideas (I have done that, too). The change is also not absolute: the other points of light of the old-school wilderness, blogs and forums will stay where they always were, and you can revisit them.

Occasional shake-ups are good reminders, and good for creativity. When old communities fade and new ones emerge, there is always new buzz and enthusiasm, new Terra Incognita to discover. On MeWe, one of the first threads in the OSR community is an obligatory “what’s your favourite old-school system?” thread. Before you scoff, I will say that these topics need to be restated every so often, not only to remind us of our creative origins (a must for any old-schooler), but also to see things in a new light. New combinations and new contexts is where innovation comes from. Like a kaleidoscope, a slightly different arrangement will produce a different image. Someone somewhere will discover the OD&D rulebooks or the Gygaxian DMG again, and have something new and worthwhile to say about them. It has happened every time before, and it shall happen again. With all my interest in weird fantasy, I also like going back to the AD&D standard (the real deal!) in different periods of my life, and seeing where it takes me.

***

Now for the more contentious part, which has a bit less to do with gaming. It was time for Google Plus to die, because its continued existence was bad for the Internet. The technological firms, which have enjoyed the benefits of immense network externalities, have been gradually taking the Internet in a destructive direction by subverting its core architecture. What does that mean? In the way it came to be, the Old Internet (my term) emerged as a decentralised network of networks. Communication was facilitated among its nodes on a global scale, requiring universal protocols, but it was a landscape of self-organised, self-governing communities. This is bottom-up architecture, based on the principle of subsidiarity. It is a great marketplace of ideas, resting on the simple principle that people have free movement, and no actor is powerful enough to restrict them. You might not like a forum like ENWorld, but you could find your place on Dragonsfoot, one of the zillion ezBoards, not to mention a myriad Geocities pages. This is an Internet in the service of its users, and (through its self-regulating nature) well adapted to different needs and communities.

In contrast, the New Internet of the tech monopolies follows hierarchical, top-down structures. Increasingly, more and more communication (including commercial activity) takes place on a shrinking number of platforms, which accrue immense advantages from their size. They are no longer market actors you can avoid or move away from, since there are increasingly fewer places to go. If you cut your ties with Paypal, you can’t switch to SpendFriend, because the vast majority of your potential customers will not do business with you. Your business will be ruined. The convenience of doing all our shopping on Amazon is a winning formula, but as the number of business rivals is diminished, we lose choices we never knew were important to have. Google Plus was a product that had been great for a niche like gamers – but it is going away because that niche is insufficiently profitable.

A social media expert from before it was cool
(note the hipster glasses)
The tech giants are also decidedly not acting in good faith. Our online life, which has a growing footprint in physical reality, is moulded to fit their needs, and put under intense scrutiny. Facebook, Google and their peers have access to profiling tools which we could not imagine ten or twenty-eight years ago. And neither would Erich Honecker. In the hands of those who are prone to abuses of power (that is, everyone), access to these instruments can do unimaginable harm. The “Don’t be evil” company, which had given you 1 GB of free space back in 2004 (when this seemed unimaginable generosity), is now developing tools of totalitarian thought control for China, and whose new internal “research document” is titled “The Good Censor”. Yes, it is just as bad as it sounds. It is ostensibly in the interests of “marginalised groups” (the new “think of the children!” trick), but it is very much about policing, silencing and punishing people. The right kind of people? The wrong kind of people? You next? Who has the right to decide?

I do not believe other companies are more virtuous. MeWe is probably not any more principled than Google. But its ability to do harm is limited due to its lesser market share and social reach. If, as some predict, its owner will suddenly pull off his wig and face mask to reveal Adolf Hitler or The Russkies, we can shrug and move to another platform. Facebook and Google, though? The costs of escaping their orbit are not yet insurmountable, but they are already steep. Like “losing contact with a lot of friends and family” steep or “he was applying for the job, but we couldn’t check him out so we just kinda dropped him into the reject pile” steep. Like the Ring, it comes with definite benefits, but like the Ring, the power to control a large share of the Internet through market share or government fiat must be destroyed, or at least diluted until a viable alternative emerges. Jaron Lanier has said some sensible things about where to go. Tim Berners-Lee is working on something mysterious to fix the Internet he had helped create.  And deep down, a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way things are going. The forces which had created the New Internet turned users from customers into commodities, and smushed them together to a degree that’s uncomfortable and liable to generate more and more conflict.

Social_Media.PNG
Was the Old Internet a place for kooks, oddballs, and fringe people? Yes, and it was much healthier for it. Was there disagreement and hate? Yes, human nature prevailed. And yet, curiously, there was less nastiness around, because not everyone was supposed to coexist in the same place. You could build your own communities and others could build theirs. There was as much distance between you and others as you wanted. It was a place for no-one, and accordingly, everyone. It was certainly great for gamers, a place for our kind. It was like the real “paradox of tolerance”. No, not the one by Karl Popper. That one is utter nonsense, concocted by people who hate freedom. Here is the real deal: it may hurt to allow people you intensely dislike to exist and speak for themselves, but ultimately, that’s the same principle defending you. Or, more succinctly: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” (If you imagined this quote with the image of a great white eagle flying before your mind’s eye, you are on the right track.)

Google and Facebook want to put everyone into the same little box, and if you don’t fit… well, bad news for you. If you are overcrowded in there, bad news for you. If they take a dislike to you in a place they can control, bad news for you. How come they are more important?

By a stroke of luck, we are no longer in the box. Good for us. It is not always going to be easy, but it is going to be glorious.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Blood, Death, and Tourism!
I am pleased to announce the publication of the third issue of 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 Stefan Poag (who did the cover for this issue), Denis McCarthy, and various long-dead Victorians. 

Blood, Death, and Tourism is centred around two longer articles. The first is an adventure module set on Tridentfish Island, an exotic island resort gone to rot, and currently being rediscovered by visitors from a sinful and decadent city state. Ancient mysteries and perplexing discoveries await! This article is the first published adventure from our City of Vultures campaign (the second on the world of Fomalhaut). Further issues will explore the city and the nearby lands in more detail.

The other large article describes the eastern half of the Isle of Erillion, with its ruins, castles, mysterious forests and inhabited settlements. From the city of Baklin to an archipelago of pirates and Northman raiders; and from gloomy highlands to magical forests, the hex entries provide half of a vanilla fantasy setting suitable for sandbox play. Erillion is easy to use on its own, or to place within the GM’s milieu of choice. The issue also includes a fold-out hex map of the island (the less accurate and less detailed player’s map was published in Issue #02).

Two smaller articles are also included: one adapts the beasts of Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant to Advanced old-school rules, while the other presents a mystery from the wastelands of Fomalhaut. What is the Great Wheel and who are the hosts who follow on its trail of devastation? The answer to at least one of these questions is revealed in Echoes #03!

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, 24 September 2018

[REVIEW] Cinderheim: The Land Under the Demon Sun

Cinderheim

[REVIEW] Cinderheim: The Land Under the Demon Sun (2018)
by Jack Shear
Published by Dolorous Exhumation Press
Level-independent

In the same years when the generic AD&D product line was filled with blah Renfaire pablum which surely wouldn’t upset your average soccer mom, Troy Denning, Timothy Brown and artist Gerald Brom struck gold, and designed a world of scorching deserts devastated by sorcery, brutal sorcerer kings lording over ancient city states, and super-powerful monsters roaming the remains of a dying world. Dark Sun remains the best campaign setting produced by early 1990s TSR, and easily stands its own against Tékumel, Glorantha and other original fantasy worlds. It is a miracle it happened, and no miracle it didn’t last, as later supplements and a terrible second edition brought it down. That initial fire, though, has burned brighter than any other: it is the one 2e product I would keep if I had to part with all the others. With that in mind, any product has huge shoes to fill when it tries to follow in Dark Sun’s mighty footsteps.

Cinderheim is not a full DS knockoff, but among its sources of inspiration (from Dying Earth stories to Weird West fiction), DS is the most prominent. The world guide is a system-neutral gazetteer; it was developed under 5th edition D&D, but contains almost no rules content beyond a few suggestions on running a campaign in one of the appendices. It is still a fairly slim booklet at 44 pages, particularly considering the generous font size and breezy layout.

Cinderheim is a blasted desert far from civilisation. The sun burns unnaturally strongly here, with an almost demonic intensity. The only major habitable areas are seven oases, each hosting a town ruled by an eccentric tyrant and his or her brutal band of warriors. In turn, each oasis is under the influence of a demon tied to the nature of the place, and usually the tyrant ruling over it. It is pretty much store-brand Dark Sun and its sorcerer kings on a smaller scale, but somehow, it never really starts to work.

Theoretically, you could take DS in different directions, but this specific one feels bowdlerised and lifeless. DS was a mishmash of cool stuff blended together, but in the end, it had a sense of cohesion, and it was united by the material’s intensity. Its oddities like mantis warrior characters, thieving elves, obsidian coins, psionics and cannibal halflings felt at home within the world, even if much was (very wisely) left as a mystery. Cinderheim does not have this intensity, even if it has its moments: Tenoch the Devourer, a mantis warrior ruler publicly feasting on the bodies his foes, living or dead, yet ever hungering, is a classical DS-style nightmare.

But some elements are missing. One of these is, indeed, size: Dark Sun was writ on a grandiose scale with massive ziggurats and armies of slaves; Cinderheim is of indeterminate scale (the map is particularly lazy, a few connected dots on a deserty background), but it never feels expansive. Perhaps there is simply a lack of information at play. You don’t get to learn too much from the world. The information in the booklet mainly consists of brief bullet point lists describing the basics about the oasis towns, the warlords ruling them, some of the local points of interests, and the seven demons. This approach makes things repetitive and just too “symmetrical” – all the towns, warlords, local temples and demon princes fit a specific pattern, without deviations and true variety. And again, it also feels small and fairly inconsequential, more like a containment zone for desert scum and exiles (like an elven war criminal, a half-orc revolutionary or a religious zealot) than a world literally devastated by sorcerous powers.

Perhaps it is just not crazy enough. Dark Sun went far with its ideas; it is a world with almost no metal; there are YUGE worms and insects used as beasts of burden; there are fountains of tar and burning plains of obsidian; and lots of casual brutality for its own sake. All outlandish, yet all fitting into the big picture. Those cannibal halflings were a shock, but they made a twisted sense. You don’t get that from this document. It is more tame, and it sorta just floats around without given context or connections. At its weakest, it almost comes across as a brutal multicultural utopia, where a diverse (but of course very brutal) menagerie of scorpionfolk, aasimar, catfolk, ogre magi and dragonborn live together in harmony and peace. I counted 28 different races living in the desert towns, and it may be a low estimate. I admit I laughed hysterically at the description of Daiyu, the favoured son of Niu Bo Wei (The Prince of Pleasure), who is a hobgoblin trans-weretiger “struggling to control his transformations”, but I am probably not a good person. The back cover promises “brutal scavengers [who] battle for survival against desperate raiders and monsters born of demonic corruption”, and “a blasted hellscape of barbarism, sandstorms, and unrelenting heat”, but that doesn’t really happen. The bits and pieces which directly support running a game in Cinderheim are decent but anaemic, amounting to a random adventure generator, a wilderness encounter table, a list of local names, a random chart for demonic corruption, and a table of random trinkets.

Needless to say, this did not do much for me. There is some good stuff scattered around the book (some of the warlords and demons have promise; you could get some value out of the tables), but it did not set my imagination on fire. It lacks the visionary appeal of a good setting pitch, and the direct usability of a solid utility product. Like most “I can’t believe it is not ___Famous Artist___” albums, Cinderheim does not scratch the itch it promises. Instead of carrying forward Dark Sun’s legacy and doing something interesting with it, it reads like an early, concept-stage pitch. And that’s it. The wastelands have no mercy. The weak should fear the strong, and in the blasted deserts of late 2018 gaming, Dark Sun is still as strong as ever, while Cinderheim stands no chance. Another lifeless body falls on the uncaring sands of the arena as the champion raises his arms and the crowds go wild at the sight of blood.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

Thursday, 13 September 2018

[REVIEW] Under the Temple Crypt


Under the Temple Crypt (2018)

by Extildepo
Published by Verisimilitude Society Press
4th to 7th level

Under the Temple Crypt
Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I avoided making this quip when I reviewed the author’s previous adventure, because it would have been crude in a negative review. And here I am again, fallen for a pretty cover hook, line and sinker. But what a cover it is! One of the best and most visually striking I have seen in old-school gaming – sure, a lot of artists are more technically adept, but when it comes to evoking an air of mystery and adventure, this rendition of a cavern framed by red limestone formations is perfect at what it sets out to do. It recalls Thracia without aping it, and it is bold in that same Judges Guild style.

Under the Temple Crypt is a short “micro module” for Swords&Wizardry, designed for utility and sold for all of a buck. As the cover states, “No underlying story-hook or rational [sic] for exploring the site is given here.” This was a good decision. Tyranny of the Black Tower was suffering from a surfeit of underwhelming background detail; Under the Temple Crypt scraps the explanations and focuses on the content, presenting a well-rounded, 23-area dungeon level in 5 pages. This is the threshold where mini-dungeons become interesting and transcend simple monster lairs.

The crypt in the title is only the starting point, leading into a mixture of ruins and caverns. The ruins are the remains of an ancient city drawing on Imperial Roman imagery; it is not a large one, but it captures D&D’s combined fascination with archaeology and tomb-robbing. As an interesting dynamic element, the random encounter chart treats it as a very unstable place which is currently in the process of collapsing upon itself, adding a sense of urgency to the company’s investigations. One of the module’s most fun traps (area L, exploiting the company’s greed and curiosity) also builds on this unstable quality. Most of the challenge comes from the cavern’s current monster inhabitants; the rooms are largely a mixture of descriptive detail and monster lairs. I could live with a few more tricks, traps and enigmas, but all in all, it is quite successful. Some of the treasure is cleverly hidden without resorting to pixel-hunting, there are combat encounters which are bound to be memorable due to their setup or location (the scene on the cover is just one of them), and the place has a good, organic feel with an air of mystery.

No cover saves a bad adventure, but Under the Temple Crypt does not need saving. It is a marked improvement over Tyranny of the Black Tower, exactly the kind of solid, meat-and-potatoes adventure I expected more of from old-school gaming. I would like to see more of this series.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

For comparison: The Caverns of Thracia (Paul Jaquays, 1979)


Friday, 7 September 2018

[REVIEW] The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort (2018)
by Nickolas Z Brown
Published by Five Cataclysms
1st to 4th level

Here is a module following the now mostly lost art of funhouse dungeon design. Where old-school gaming has rediscovered a lot of things about AD&D, Basic D&D and OD&D, there are things it mostly didn’t touch with a ten foot pole. One of these things is the art of creating enormous dungeons stocked to the gills with encounters which make no sense whatsoever except through the lens of game logic. There are exceptions, but not many, and this corner of vintage gaming lies gathering cobwebs and dust, even though it seemed to have dominated the late 1970s. Without writing a separate posts on these classic funhouse dungeons, here are a few features they seemed to have in common:
  • a complete disregard for historical or social accuracy, and little attempt to emulate genre fiction;
  • a fondness for anachronism (elevators, balrog janitors, ice cream parlours) and pop culture content;
  • Disneyland fantasy (modern people operating modern shops and behaving as modern Americans, but dressed up as fantastic characters);
  • the world outside the core dungeon can also be completely abstracted (as seen in early CRPGs: “the Shop”, “the Temple”, “the Inn”);
  • reliance on cartoon logic to design some puzzles (giant magnets and stuff), and out of game knowledge to solve them (the proverbial chess problem on a giant chessboard);
  • interaction with dungeon denizens is possible, but not explicitly encouraged as a “core” feature of dungeoneering;
  • the only true goal is to entertain and challenge the players and the Dungeon Master.

The roots go back to the earliest megadungeons, and for a while, the style’s influence was tremendously influential on computer games – not necessarily CRPGs (which never got the freewheeling fantasy and high-interaction environments right), but text and graphical adventure games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure, which ruled the gaming world until their extinction in the late 1990s. Tabletop itself had mostly moved beyond funhouse design by the AD&D period, although late attempts like Jim Grunst’s fanmade modules (The Olde Abbey Dungeon, House of the Hawk, The Tower of Pascal the Bio-Wizard) were still floating around the Internet in the late 90s.

The Sunken Fort seems to have come from a bizarro parallel dimension where OD&D still reigns and dungeons are not Serious Business. It starts on a promising note, with a good rooms per page ratio: there are 80 keyed rooms described in 27 pages. The map never goes off the grid, but that grid is absolutely filled with rooms, and each one has something going on (this is perhaps the main thing separating the dungeon from its trve OD&D peers). Encounters are written up in a sparse format starting with an initial “first glance” summary, and moving onto individual details one by one. It is a fairly minimalist and factual treatment without flourishes or digressions; the background and the “possible lead-in quest” are intriguing (someone or something has stolen a bunch of townspeople’s shadows, and retreated into this ancient subterranean fortress), but entirely optional.

This is where the bizarro OD&D aspects start. The Sunken Fort is not actually written for pre-supplements OD&D (or S&W White Box), but an offshoot that, after a little investigation, seems to be an unpublished homebrew variant. The framework is familiar (everything uses 1d6 for HD, GP=XP is in effect, etc.), but the rules have been tinkered with, and the menagerie, magic and mental framework are “off”. It is a bit like switching on the TV late at night, and happening on a foreign channel with an intriguing TV show you almost, but don’t quite understand. As a positive, this makes for a more authentic OD&D experience than playing something after decades of familiarity: the module’s fire-bats, tube-heads (the only description we get is “1d4 tubular headed creatures with far too many fangs”) and blue hunting bears (intelligent, bipedal, have blue fur and wear tam hats) are almost all new. They are not simple reskins, but – as good monsters do – many of them bring new functionality to the game.

Not Fucking Around
This kind of creativity extends to the encounters. All 80 rooms have a point of interest, sometimes more, and what they lack in window dressing (they often amount to “A ring of purple metal hangs from a string”, or “There are several small crates here”), they make up for in interaction. Beyond the combat encounters, tricks and traps abound: like a proper funhouse, there are always interesting, if crazy things to play with. “A skeleton rests beneath a glass panel in the floor. In its hands is clutched a scroll.” You know there is something to this room, and it is up to you to find out. Or: “The air smells of fire oil, and there are 20 pots on the floor. The floor is littered with the skeletons of mice.” Or: “A pair of legs walks about this room, bumping into various walls.” There are also classics like magic statues, rooms full of doors, rooms filled with black water, and so on. Most modern dungeons have four or five of these “specials” or set-piece encounters scattered around (if that); in The Sunken Fort, they are the main dungeon feature. It makes no literal sense, but in a roundabout way, it belongs there. Characters bit by a golden serpent will bleed gold pieces at a rate of 1 gp per Hp. A puzzle box is solved by tossing your players a Rubik’s cube [notably, a Hungarian invention]. If you start to pick up tiny magic mushrooms, you will be attacked by a swarm of tiny Conjurers (one might get ideas about how this module came to be). A room filled by a writhing mass of limbs and bodies makes for a nasty bottleneck where you can be dragged down and killed if you don’t find a way through. Quick thinking and dungeoneering skills will be put to the test several times.

Now, is this the world’s best puzzle dungeon? It has its flaws. The “special” rooms are mostly one-offs floating separately in the void, with little connecting tissue (the module introduction admits as much, although there are potential links and even mini-quests if you look at the dungeon sideways). And there is too many of them. It is very clever, and amazingly creative, but after so many puzzle rooms so close together, it sort of blurs together. This is a problem. A few such rooms drive the players to try crazy schemes and combinations; this emergent quality can get lost in a chaos when everything is a “special” (and thus, nothing is). The rooms themselves can be one-note, too. Sometimes, it is more fun to discover special features yourself, and here, they are mostly right out there before you. The “digging below the surface” aspect is there in a few places, but it is mostly missing.

Even with all these reservations, this is a good module to show your players what puzzle-oriented funhouse dungeons were made of, and it makes for a fairly authentic booklets-only OD&D experience (again, because it is so bizarre and unfamiliar).

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

[NEWS] Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 released in PDF

Echoes From Fomalhaut #02

I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF version of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02, now available from RPGNow. This issue of the zine features a complete town supplement, a guide to the Isle of Erillion mini-setting, and two adventure scenarios. People who have purchased the module in print are eligible for a free copy of this edition (these download links have just been sent out). Print copies are still available at emdt.bigcartel.com.

In other news… Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper is now getting close to sold out. I still have around 15 copies left, and a reprint is forthcoming, but if you’d like a copy of the first printing, this is the last call.

In yet other news, Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 is undergoing proofreading, and awaiting a few illustrations. If things go according to plan, it will be published in the second half of September. When I set out, I planned to maintain a more-or-less quarterly schedule with the zine; so far, so good!

Monday, 27 August 2018

[BLOG] The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box: On the Scope of Module Design


The inspiration for writing this post has been Pookie’s review of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02. Positive reviews make you feel good inside, while critical reviews make you rethink the things you are doing, and why you are doing them. Something Pookie has criticised (in a point he has also brought up WRT issue #01) was the apparent purposelessness of the adventures in the zine: that is, the lack of strong plot hooks and background information to get the player characters involved. This is a fair point, but it is something I do entirely on purpose (sorry!), because I believe it ultimately makes the adventures stronger, and more suitable for others’ home games. Our disagreement lies in our ideas about what should go into the module text (what should be its scope) – except we may not actually be disagreeing at all.

The purpose of adventure modules is to assist the GM in setting up and running a home game. This much is obvious, even if many people use them for loose inspiration for home games they are or aren’t running. At the end of the day, they are a combination of a reference document and inspiring material – a module communicates an idea about running a game, something which can’t be faithfully replicated, but which can be recaptured and created anew through our collective imagination. It is both “the” Keep on the Borderlands and your own Keep on the Borderlands. Adventures are personal and products of the moment, while modules are fixed in terms of both intent and time. Good modules recognise and accommodate this contradiction as an integral feature of role-playing games, something which separates them from literature and drama (I will not consider here the failed forms of adventure design which try to imitate either). They create the potential for action and adventure – we could say the module is the question, and the game around the dinner table is the answer. Much has been written about why some adventures work so well in creating memorable game experiences and some don’t; this post focuses on one aspect of published modules – the relationship between their scope and purpose

***

Against the Giants
In my mind, there are two main approaches setting the scope for published old-school modules: we could call one the tapestry and the other the mosaic box. There are no clear boundaries between them, and both encompass multiple different sub-types, but the basic distinction is present. The tapestry is what we would consider a mostly self-contained scenario. In this case, all the necessary information you might need to run a home game is presented in the text, in a more or less set way. TSR’s classic module line is a prime example of this design approach. These modules, many of them originating in tournaments, have a fixed premise (from “stop the giants” to “explore the Ghost Tower of Inverness”) and assumed boundaries of play, which suggest the scope of the described material. They also have set structures; the way the bits and pieces in the adventure connect together are decided in advance. The module is “complete” with its elements already in place – like a colourful tapestry, it has been woven together, and the threads are there to hold it together. This approach gives the adventure a focus which makes them straightforward to use and rewarding to play: the players are motivated, the action flows well, and the conclusions are memorable. 

You are not going to make friends with the giants. Theoretically, you could (it is a valid solution to convince them the drow are probable oath-breakers and using them as disposable cannon fodder against human kingdoms who will eventually hunt them down), but you probably won’t. The adventure works from this assumption, and sets out to describe what you need to run the adventure. There are possible courses of action and probable outcomes – dungeons, for instance, can be described as flowcharts, and flowcharts have more or less likely paths in them, as well as beginnings and end points. At the end of the day, either you or a lot of giants will be dead, you may or may not have discovered why they are raiding the human lands beyond the lulz and plunder, and you might have found a few bothersome details which present a greater mystery behind the giant clans. The module is over for most intents and purposes, and you may move on to the next one. 

These adventures are not closed systems. They are adaptable to different campaigns and circumstances; they are sometimes considered generic, but what campaign world doesn’t have a place for a bunch of evil slavers to kill, or bands of rampaging giants to stop? They also offer up interesting and worthwhile choices which can lead the participants to different (anticipated or entirely unplanned) conclusions. The boundaries which exist in presentation are permeable in play; the module’s scope is not rigid. You can expand, repurpose, and in a way, “break” these modules, from exploring the unwritten parts of Descent Into the Depths of the Earth to flipping Keep on the Borderlands on its head, and breaking the great piggy bank that is the keep itself. These choices exist as unwritten potential due to both the adventures’ focus (they describe what they need to describe) and flexibility (they leave open what they don’t need to describe). The possibility is there if you need it, although in most cases, the players won’t cross the module’s planned boundaries. Many will head into the ogre cave or the minotaur lair in the Caves of Chaos; fewer will choose to seek out the Cave of the Unknown on the edges of the wilderness map, and very few indeed will set up a deal with the denizens of the Caves to lead merchant caravans into their ambushes to split up the resulting loot (and, this being D&D, the easy XP!). You are not running the module wrong if only the first one happens, although it can be very cool if all three do. 

***

Verbosh
Let us move on to the other approach, the mosaic box. This is a much looser and more probabilistic way of giving you playable materials, and it should come with a standard warning: “Some assembly required!” Mosaic box modules are as notable for the content they choose to exclude as they are for the material they have. They come as loose frameworks of disparate components whose connections and place must be decided by the GM, or even spontaneously “discovered” with the group over the course of play. These frameworks are incomplete because they invite further input to make them work; they are also open to all sorts of use and abuse. This approach was pioneered by Judges Guild’s early products: not always ready-made adventures per se, but play aids which could range from “adventure construction kits” to “adventure components” (the original meaning of the word “module” – an interchangeable component you can insert into our own design!) It also crops up in TSR’s output, most clearly in The Secret of Bone Hill, a multi-purpose adventure kit if there ever was one, but also in The Lost City and other looser site-based adventures. 

These modules have a different take on information design, and a different scope. Some of the high-level information is not present on purpose. Many of these modules have no pre-determined goal or even a set way to engage with their content: there are easy guesses but no universal answers. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor never tells you how to approach it (not even in an out-of-game way like Gary’s classic “Realms of Man” intro to B2), even though it easily could. The owners of the titular fortress are bandits and other assholes who maintain a slave market on the premises; the dungeon is half their hideout and half the headquarters of an evil cult, separated by a level containing a cluster of super-deadly dragons. You could do a lot of things in and around this bizarro universe Keep on the Borderlands (or its one-page cousin, Huberic of Haghill), and the way your GM integrated it into his campaign would probably set the stage for the way you ought to approach it, but there is no firm premise like in the G series. Interestingly, even the lines between good and evil, friend or foe are less clearly drawn. 

Portals of Torsh
It goes further. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Tegel Manor or The Secret of Bone Hill present a fairly systematic, organised playground to explore and have fun with, but the outlines, relationships and boundaries can become even more blurred. Hex-crawls, city supplements and other sandbox settings (even those which don’t present physical settings but, for instance, social relationships and interpersonal conflict) are truly mosaic-like in that they are composed of several bits which may or may not be connected by a network of pre-set relations. The pieces can connect virtually any way, since there are so many of them and they are typically linked in a fairly loose manner. Perhaps there is a war going on between the island-kingdom of Croy and the city state of Warvik; perhaps the nearby islands are connected via a smuggling ring the characters might come into conflict with; and perhaps the assassins’ guild from Zarthstone is fanning the flames of conflict from the background. It could, however, also be that Croy and Warvik co-exist in an uneasy alliance against the smugglers, descended from a group of freedom fighters the characters may team up with; and that the assassins are minding their own business while doing stuff for the highest bidder. Which piece goes where and how is your responsibility, but they will prove useful either way. 

The eventual purpose of the material is created by the GM, or the GM and the players working together and surprising each other. This kind of module is a framework to insert your own adventure scenarios into, and a puzzle where the pieces might fit together in a dozen different ways. Some uncertainty is actually fairly helpful in this situation. Ideally, not spelling out the connections lets other GMs discover their own, and leaving some things mysterious evokes a sense of wonder which is conductive to personal imagination. We can actually see this well in tapestry-style adventures: the most intriguing and speculated-on parts of the G-D series involve the role of the Elder Elemental God and his abandoned temples, while the Caverns of Tsojcanth leaves open the mystery of Iggwilw. Leaving those doors open is essential for less deterministic scenarios! In the case of the mosaic, presenting a complete pattern (as opposed to a vague outline or a departure point which can lead in several possible directions) would defeat the purpose of handing you the box of pieces, just like LEGO has been reduced from its early universal sets to highly specific, expensive collectibles. 

City Encounters
There are multiple possible scales here as well. We could bring up JG’s less known Verbosh (a complete mini-setting complete with wilderness, dungeons and multiple towns, which are sufficiently described to serve as adventures), Portals of Torsh (a self-contained alternate world reached through magical gates, again containing multiple towns and adventure sites), or the more recent Vault of Larin Karr from Necromancer Games (a mini-setting describing a valley, its communities and dungeons, all connected in various ways). At the end of the line, we could have the likes of the now sadly OOP City Encounters, an excellent 600-entry city encounter table which is a full-on toolkit and has very little explicit structure. And yet, City Encounters does have rhyme and reason: through a myriad unrelated encounters which might take place, it presents a certain idea of a grand city, sinful and dangerous; generating conflict, adventure, and even links between the different entries through the table’s consistent application. You could run a city campaign with nothing more than this supplement, a good map, and perhaps one or two pages of background. 

The mosaic approach is fun but tricky. While we may correctly assume game materials made this way allow for a high degree of freedom, this freedom is not always easy to achieve, nor necessarily superior to a focused play experience. The absence of concrete hooks and boundaries can be immensely liberating, or it can halt a game right in its tracks. I enjoy the sandbox gaming they foster and accommodate, but also see a lot of online discussions describing dysfunctional or even “false” sandbox play: because the players are lost, because there is a communication problem between the GM and the players about how they should play in an open setting; or because there is subtle railroading going on (you can do “anything” but only the GM’s assumed adventure will be “real” or provide a fun play experience, etc.). This approach is neither universally applicable nor truly superior to the more focused tapestry approach. 

*** 

Finally, where does this leave me? I have employed both approaches to adventure design, and don’t consider them an either/or proposition. I gravitate slightly towards the second in running a campaign, but my published materials are often closer to the first. It is generally easier to write a focused module because it lends itself to a logical and structured presentation. The mosaic box approach works more on intuition, making connections and leaps of logic; therefore, its design is often more impressionistic and reliant on imagery and loose association. This is always harder to do, so it happens less often, even if it comes fairly easy to me by the table. 

The House of Rogat Demazien
However, I also think that even more structured and precisely adventures are fairly easy to place in someone’s game with some forethought and adaptation, and that they benefit from keeping them reasonably open and a bit mysterious. This is why the majority of the adventures and campaign materials I have published in Echoes From Fomalhaut (and before it, Fight On!, Knockspell, and various places all over the Internet) are “missing” bits and pieces, and aren’t coming with strong adventure hooks and specific setups. I find it interesting that multiple people have singled out The House of Rogat Demazien from among my stuff as something they have used and enjoyed in particular. For some time, this came as a complete surprise, since Rogat Demazien was never more than a minor project, an afterthought to the much more complex city-state of Zothay; it was also directionless without offering more of an adventure hook than “it is there and there may be treasure involved”. And yet, it has been reasonably popular with people. And that’s my guess now: while a bit aimless, it is on the right scale, it is adaptable, and it is open enough for multiple different purposes. This has been my guiding philosophy for the materials I am releasing for the Isle of Erillion mini-campaign, too: they will make sense as pieces of the whole, but they will also be useable on their own (future releases from our City of Vultures campaign will be a bit more tightly integrated, but they will also retain a basic modularity and open-endedness). 

Make no mistake, this is not a universal solution, but it is the way that, at least to me, makes personal sense.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

[REVIEW] The Museum of Living Arts


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

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

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

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

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

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

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

[BLOG] Year Two, and Onwards

Things I made this year

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

The State of the Blog

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

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

The State of the Fanzine

From concept...
E.M.D.T. lives, again! After a lot of vacillation about the business end of things, I took the jump and launched my zine. This has been a tremendously enjoyable experience, and probably the best way to publish game materials these days. I have long been complaining that social media and blogs have the wrong kind of architecture to make things last – posts inevitably drop out of sight in the information churn, and hobby publications do not receive enough time to prove themselves and find their proper place in the popular imagination. Zines are small and inexpensive enough to be personal, but substantial enough to have staying power. These are not exactly the newsletter-style zines of the 70s to 90s: their information exchange role has been assumed by the Internet, so you don’t really get much of correspondence and commentaries-upon-commentaries that had once served to connect fandom. (This was still the case in Chaos Ultra, the late-90s diskmag where my first game-related writings appeared.) Instead, they are an excellent venue for self-expression and craftmanship.

...to reality.
This aspect has always drawn me to zines and newsletters. For a long time, most of my output was in the form of PDFs, but I grew to miss the look and substance of a physical product. I knew Echoes From Fomalhaut would have to be a physical zine, and I had very specific ideas about the way it would look and feel (mainly influenced by the early Judges Guild instalments). There is something slower and more old-fashioned about a paper zine than an RPGNow PDF. I buy and enjoy a lot of those, too, but receiving an envelope in the mail and poring over someone’s handmade booklet is a feeling like no other. It also goes for publishing my own. Writing and disseminating a zine involves a lot of busywork from editing to packing envelopes and doing taxes, and now that I’m working out of the weekend house, it is kind of physical, too – the post is 40 minutes away on foot, and a round trip in the summer heat is a good daily walk. But it is tremendously enjoyable labour. So much of what we do these days is virtual or hard to put into concrete terms that the routine of processing orders feels like a task that produces clearly understandable value. Seeing the first working proofs after multiple homemade prototypes, or bringing three or four envelopes’ worth of zines to the post at a time is a reward onto itself.

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

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

I did not finish this

The State of My Other Projects


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

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

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

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

The State of the Old School

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

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

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

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

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