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 T├ękumel, 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!