Wednesday, 20 February 2019

[REVIEW] Sailors on the Starless Sea

Happy to meet you on the Starless Sea

Sailors on the Starless Sea (2012)
by Harley Stroh
Published by Goodman Games
0th level funnel for 15-20 characters or so

The difficulty of writing good beginner adventurers is still underappreciated. A lot of people think they can do it, but don’t. The slightly wiser (including yours truly) know their limitations and don’t even try. For all their formative role, most published beginner scenarios lack an interesting kicker, intriguing variety, or the right level of challenge; while characters are fragile, resource-constrained, and often conceptually underdeveloped. Things pick up later, but on 1st level, dull goblin caverns and five-room towers proliferate. It is a rough ride.

The funnel is one solution to square the circle. Throw the lot of ‘em into the meat-grinder, and let the gods sort them out. You can turn on the heat more than you can in a “training wheels” scenario, and without the assumption of survival, success tastes sweet indeed. This is perhaps even a legitimate OD&D way, even though you don’t really need to go as low as zero-level to achieve the effect. However, DCC did, and a whole lot of DCC modules are funnels. This is apparently one of the most well-known of them.

Sailors on the Starless Sea is a bit like The Moathouse from The Village of Hommlet, but METAL!. You have a (thankfully undescribed) podunk village terrorised by beastmen from a cursed and mostly deserted ruin, from which the characters’ discoveries will eventually lead them underground into the hideout of a Chaotic Evil cult. Like DCC generally, it is turned up to 11, where a nice 8 or 9 would suffice: the imagery is saturated – chasms are bottomless, corpses are wrapped in thorny vines, Satanic imagery abound, and there are hundreds and thousands of skulls. This is a stylistic concern, and whether you like it or not will greatly influence the module’s utility. We also see the “actual old stuff” vs. “old-school” difference: where the Moathouse is relatively expansive even as a fairly linear, teensie mini-dungeon, the keep in Sailors is a non-linear opening followed by a straight-arrow progression of five or so rooms in toto (there is the odd shortcut, but they are outright deadly or hopelessly obscure). It is small, and firmly on rails.

And yet. This is not a hopeless module, and it is easy to recognise why so many people have enjoyed playing it. As a linear, limited funhouse ride, it is a damn good one. The encounters, even if there are few of them, are well designed from a gameplay perspective, with well-considered risks and rewards. At the beginning, you can choose from multiple approaches to the cursed ruin, all three of which offer distinct challenges and difficulties (and one, which is less innocuous than it appears, provides one of the module’s rare side-branches – this hidden place was the most delightful part of it). There are fewer direction choices later, but all the encounters have something going on which may be exploited by resourceful and lucky players, and turned into a hazard by foolhardy ones. There are choices and consequences, some of which come back at the end to give the characters and edge (or bite them in the ass). There are differences to make and horrid monsters to deal with. The treasures are good, and some come with interesting side-effects. Careful observation and snap judgement are rewarded; timidity is punished. The module cultivates good play, just not necessarily the dungeon-mapping-and-resource-management kind. (As a side-note, it is telling that the maps in this product, as well as other DCC offerings, are more illustrative than functional.)

While the ride is on rails, it is a well-coreographed one, and when (if) the characters survive the sheer butchery, they will have started the campaign with a bang. More than that, they will most likely come away from it with the best gifts a GM can give a party of adventurers, their own magical ship. Whether setting sail for underground realms, or the seas and rivers of the surface world, this setup screams “All aboard! Adventure awaits!” It is a good beginning, with all its flaws. It could have been better. If it were less overwritten, you could easily cram 150% the content into it, and all the nooks, side corridors, branches and dungeon navigation it really needs. It needed a little more room to breath, be less frantic between the ruined keep and the magical underground ship sailing through the Kraken towards a ziggurat human sacrifice beastman demigod inferno. It is almost very good – but even so, it is at least decent.

This publication credits its playtesters, and extensively so.

Rating: ***/*****

Monday, 4 February 2019

[ZINE] 2019 Shipping Cost Changes

TL;DR version: Due to recent changes in postal tariffs, my store has switched to a flat $6.50 shipping fee as of 4 February. Shipping for single items will increase by 50%, shipping for two items will stay identical, and shipping for 3-5 items will be reduced. Customers are kindly asked to batch their orders into no more than 5 items each. 

Longer version: The entrepreneur’s life is an exciting one. Changes in the tax code, shifting regulations, economic cycles, and acts of Government introduce new challenges to overcome, and in the end, good old “creative destruction” sorts it all out. Here is a new one, and a post on what it means for you. Less fun than a pack of owlbears digging up your cabbage patch. 

Today, as I was bringing a handful of zines to the post, I was surprised to find shipping rates had increased overnight by a whopping 50%. Ooops. Price increases are a fact of life, but I didn’t see this one coming. Here is what happened.
  • In a price reorganisation scheme, the Post has eliminated several weight categories to “create a more transparent and customer-friendly structure, which conforms to the modernisation process of mailing services” (their words).
  • This included the 50-100 g category, which just happens to be the one I have been using the most, since the materials I publish weigh between 88-95 g apiece. This is how I set up my enterprise – I consider one below-100 g product “one unit”. Everything has been carefully set up to fit into into this specification.
  • What we have instead is a new scheme where we have one category for everything between 50 and 499 g (see Fig 1., below).

Postal prices, January to February 2019

In the “under 100 g” category, the price increase is a whopping 50%, so Worldwide shipping has just increased from $4.00 to $6.50 (European shipping is slightly lower, but the same principle applies). This change is bad news for most of my customers, who tend to be regulars buying single items (typically right after publication), and also tend to be located in North America and Australia (about 70% of my orders). Selling to them is my business model – and it is also something more: return customers are also a matter of professional pride. They tell me I should keep doing this – and I should aim high. 

Now then. There is no doubt the change sucks, but if you bear with me, there is a way to reduce its impact. 

You may note that there is now a single weight category between 50 and 499 g. This means it does not matter to the Post if the package is 100 g, 200 g, or 490 g. It is all $6.50 (or $5.4 in Europe). Compared to my old shipping formula ($4.00 for the first item, and $2.50 for each additional item), this is what the flat fee means:
  • If you order a single item, you pay $6.50 ($2.50 over the old price).
  • If you order two items, you pay $6.50 (NO CHANGE).
  • If you order three to five items, you still pay $6.50 (and you save $2.50, $5.00 and $7.50, respectively).
  • If you order six items, you still pay $6.50, but I would have to absorb the loss, since shipping jumps from $6.50 to $23.40! Instead, I will batch your order into multiple packages, since until I exceed 12 units, I am better off sending you two smaller envelopes at $13.00 than a single big one at $23.40. I hope the inconvenience will be a minor one.

This is kind of crazy, but it is the doing of the Postal Gods (I really should have been more diligent with those sacrifices).

What is the best solution for both you and me? Simple. Order two to five items on a single occasion. If you want to save some cash, wait until the next zine issue. Or… if you like the zine, buy a module to go with it. There will be a few in this coming year, and I hope they will be worth your consideration. I will remain a print-oriented publisher as long as it remains viable, but PDFs are an option, too. And in the US, Exalted Funeral is stocking my releases as well.

In the general sense, this is a hobby enterprise, and my intention with it is to take the high road of good, honest game materials, sold at an affordable and fair price. My strategy is to make things which are worth buying. As long as I can carry out this mission, I will feel good, and keep doing it.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

[REVIEW] The Ruins of Quinstead

The Ruins of Quinstead (1994)
by Roland O' Connell (only credited as R.O.C.)
Published by Gamer’s Group Publications
Level 1-12 (but see below)

Depicted: the castle that's NOT
actually in the module
There is no mistake about the year. This is an authentic third party AD&D module from 1994, recently made available again as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. Of course, it is careful not to call itself AD&D and get sued by TSR, Inc. – it is the kind of thing where you might encounter, say, a Level 2 Zealot with 13 Dps, owning a Vial of Curing Potion and a Level 1 Cloak of Guarding. Nobody is fooling anyone. In a way, it is a direct challenge to the TSR Overlords: as the introduction states, “As an avid supporter of the fantasy role playing games, I became discouraged by the lack of quality in the modules I was purchasing. Several of my gaming counterparts also felt this same dissatisfaction. The modules published by Gamer’s Group Publication come from a group of experienced role players who enjoy creating and playing fantasy role playing scenarios. (…) The original the Ruins of Quinstead adventure was created in 1980 by a novice game-master for use with the fantasy role playing system distributed by TSR industries. [sic] As this novice game-master improved his skills and knowledge of fantasy role playing games, the adventure underwent several modifications in an attempt to create a truly enjoyable gaming experience. The result, is the product you have just purchased.

I wonder if this could be one of the first game scenarios to have bragging rights about taking a deliberately old-school stance. It is there if you look at it carefully:
1) It identifies the problem (that the craft of adventure writing has declined radically, and TSR was pushing worthless junk on gamers);
2) It draws on a better tradition (1980-style dungeoneering);
3) It adapts that tradition through experience into something combining old and new ideas.
4) It is produced and published independently of AD&D’s existing owner.
How’s that for an “Old School Renaissance”? Are there earlier third party modules with a consciously declared back-to-the-roots message? Here is a puzzle for the Acaeum sleuths!

This, however, is an adventure review, so let’s have at it.

The Ruins of Quinstead takes you into the dungeons beneath the cursed castle of Quinstead, once owned by an evil marauder who had in the end met a tragic fate. As it happens in Not-AD&D, the castle is once again showing signs of habitation, and adventurers are tasked to learn what’s happening. In 44 pages, the adventure presents a three-level, 76-room dungeon (the castle itself is left undescribed), from a humanoid-inhabited entrance complex to more varied fare down below.

There is a lot of content in the dungeon, and when comparing it to modern old-school offerings, it is immediately apparent how much larger dungeons used to be in the past. Quinstead’s two main levels are both substantial, with 31 and 36 keyed areas, respectively. It is not megadungeon-sized, but it is a proper labyrinth calling for exploration, discovery, and lots and lots of combat. Interestingly, there is a notable difficulty spike between the levels: the first one is suitable for a large beginning party, but as you go deeper, it becomes downright brutal with high-level undead, demons, and save-or-die traps. You either start higher than first level, level up those characters quickly, or you should expect a break in play before tackling the dangerous areas on the second and third levels.

This split is also apparent in the quality of the content. Unfortunately, for all the old-school credentials, the entrance level is largely one humanoid-infested barrack room after another, with hordes of low-level humanoids and lovingly described “cabinet contents”-style fare. Boxes with 10 neatly folded blankets and 60 candles, crates with 12 weeks’ worth of mouldy food, or an iron box with hams, a 5 lb. sack of flour, and a jar of pickles (but “hidden at the bottom of the box is 250 gc’s”). This is the kind of thing that grounds adventures in reality in small quantities, and turns them dull when there is too much of it. And there is definitely too much of it.

Another issue with the setup is that the module tries to tell a story in a way we now largely recognise as The Wrong Way To Do It. The adventure is liberally peppered with roadblocks preventing completion until the characters find the proper keys hidden somewhere else, decipher an obscure clue, or do things in a specific way. There is an unfolding tragic backstory which is very AD&D in its execution, but the drama is largely between NPCs, with the characters as helpers and perhaps just spectators. In the end, the adventure becomes much more linear than you would think from the map, because you have to turn every stone to find the next progression token, and do it in sequence. This in turn exacerbates the module’s weaknesses – you can’t skip them until you find the damn keys.

On the other hand, the second and third levels suddenly become more interesting. The encounters are more varied, with a better roster of monsters, a higher number of “specials”, and more interesting locations. There are distinctly themed subsections with their own mapping style and challenges. There is an underground arena, a vast chasm, a vampire named Jennifer, treasure vaults, upscale living quarters, and undead/troll caverns. Perhaps it was written later, or mid-to-high-level AD&D just fired up the author’s imagination better, but this part is a substantial improvement, if ­ a bit heavy on brutal traps (if your Thief doesn’t die here, he is good). Nothing earth-shattering, just good, solid dungeoneering.

So in the end, this might be a first. Unfortunately, it is not the best. You could improve it by opening it up so it is not as linear and scripted, but you will still be left with the radical jumps in encounter difficulty, and a lacklustre first level. It stacks up well when we compare it to early 90s TSR modules, but why would you compare something to Swamplight or Terrible Trouble at Tragidore?

(And a random observation: the first level is oriented differently than the other two, so check that compass before you give your players directions.)

No playtesters are credited in this publication (and the author is only credited by his initials so the TSR goons don't break his legs).

Rating: ** / *****

Thursday, 24 January 2019

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Revenge of the Frogs
I am pleased to announce the publication of the fourth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Matthew Ray, and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, and others. 

Revenge of the Frogs is, of course, dedicated to the best monsters in gaming, and it ain’t dragons! The titular adventure module takes the characters to Silvash, a dying port town facing a batrachian menace, and beyond to a weird swampland inhabited by strange inhabitants, and teeming with… but let that be a surprise. 

Those who do not find frogs to their liking shall surely find solace in the fact that Echoes #04 also presents a small city state. Arfel: City State of the Charnel God is a small city ruled by the cult of a dead god, but administered by the living – and those who would come between them might find either riches or an unpleasant death! A fold-out player’s map of the city state forms this issue’s map supplement. 

This issue concludes the hex key of the Isle of Erillion. Feudal lords, tiny settlements lost in the wilderness, and enigmas of nature and magic await in deep forests, forbidding mountains, and on the high seas. As before, Erillion may be used as a sandbox of its own, or incorporated into the GM’s preferred setting. 

And if you like lasers, there are lasers! Previously published on this blog, The Technological Table is a repository of technological instruments, from futuristic weaponry to the sinister relics of an advanced age. 

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.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

[REVIEW] Woodfall


Woodfall (2018)
by Shane Walshe

Woodfall is a “dark fantasy mini setting” designed to be dropped into a desolate corner of a campaign world, and use as a locale for your adventures. It covers a village of sympathetic outlaws menaced by a tyrannical king and his goons, the surrounding swamplands, and various locations and groups based therein. This is a system-neutral product devoid of stats, but obviously meant for rules-light D&D derivatives and sandbox play – the assumed principles of the intended play style are presented clearly and unambiguously at the beginning. This is a general feature of the setting book: it never wastes words, it gets good use out of layout, tables, and illustrations to convey information, and it is very solidly put together. The whole thing is profusely and expertly illustrated by the author, lending it a consistent tone. Everything is in place to enter an enchanted realm of fantasy populated by witches, necromancers, socialism, and swamp monsters.

Wait, did I just say socialism?

Wew lads. This is Tumblr Politics, The Setting. Consensual necromancy only? Fairy safe spaces? “The Faerie Liberation Front is a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries. In Woodfall, the FLF’s base of operations is in the second biggest tree”? Intelligent undead living in Woodfall village because this is the one place in the kingdom where they are not persecuted? An intelligent undead whose main goal is to solve world hunger by cultivating mushrooms and “new super strains of edible plants”? A gender neutral troll tending to a small garden? (“They live alone, and have not been able to make friends with any of the other monsters or creatures in the swamp. Others tend to run and scream when they see them and this has encouraged the troll to become defensive and develop crippling social anxiety.”) A collectively run trading house where fenced goods are bought and sold, and the proceeds are reinvested into the village welfare system, and common causes? A Thieves Guild whose revenues are shared with a healing tent, the FLF, village welfare, donations to villages outside the swamp, and CAT (Crisis Action Team, an all-female association of witches running a women’s shelter)? Well, you get the idea. Woodfall is a setting book which is pretty thoroughly built on extolling the virtues of anarchism – I will not venture to guess which specific brand – and which infuses pretty much every aspect of the work.

No Kings, No GMs
Now, let us get this out of the way: fantasy is a great place for thought experiments (cue Swift, Heinlein and Lem), and thought experiments about placing weird ideologies in an anachronistic fantasy context and letting them run their course to their logical conclusions are excellent adventure fodder. Satirical or more straightforward, there are interesting dilemmas, what-ifs, and potential for conflict in placing a bunch of anarchists on the fringes of Furyondy. But then Woodfall, while written eminently well, reads a lot like a pamphlet. Woodfall Village is basically a squat (or protest camp) occupied by sympathetic oddballs fighting for justice and diversity, while the king’s soldiers watching them from outside and planning to put an end to their commune are basically Fuck The Cops, a monolithic evil regime whose main activities seem to involve oppression, witch-burning, wife-beating, and doing all kinds of bad things ever committed by The Man. There are other antagonists as well: the greens (a bunch of druids intending to destroy civilisation), goblin punks with a spiky fortress, and the Revolutionary Corpse Council, who are communist necromancers. Meanwhile, Woodfall Village consists of plucky rebels who operate co-ops, pay taxes on a voluntary basis (mainly for a collective welfare system), and live on a bunch of connected islands of equal size, each one an autonomous collective. Monsters are not-evil-just-misunderstood. NPCs are either allies or ideologically impure evildoers. Alex the leatherface monster is “very anxious, and worries endlessly about how they will survive outside their home” after they were evicted from their dungeon by the RCC. Meanwhile, Captain Blake, in charge of the soldier encampment, “totally obsessed with seeing Woodfall Village destroyed and all its residents put in dungeons or executed. He will stop at absolutely nothing, and is incredibly highstrung and prone to bursts of anger”. Dragonlance was more morally ambiguous.

Did I mention it is all a bait-and-switch, and none of this stuff got mentioned in either the Kickstarter pitch (“Explore a dark fairytale setting, wade through a misty swamp, get caught up in the fighting between warring monster clans, discover a strange town of witches and thieves, and search for forgotten treasure. Woodfall is a swamp belonging to a king where witches, thieves and outlaws are squatting. They have built a town on top of the swamp and have resisted several evictions. The town is a hub for black market activity and magical folk. The surrounding forest and swamp is a hexcrawl filled with various monster factions.”) or the present DriveThruRPG page? It would have been the polite thing to signpost this a little better. We can say everything is politics and Keep on the Borderlands is murder, but it does change things. For example, it is clear that Woodfall’s portability – illustrated with a helpful diagram, even – is vastly overstated. You could theoretically insert it into every campaign in the same way you could drop Darth Vader and a detachment of Tie-Fighters in the middle of the Wild Coast – sure, it is still Greyhawk, but it is probably going to be a different kind of campaign.

Typical RCC Meeting

But let’s put that aside, because it is what it is: you will either like the premise or not. How about the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Some of it is rather imaginative, even flavourful – the various shops, societies and inhabitants of Woodfall Village form a cohesive whole which is directly game-relevant while providing the GM with an idea of the bigger picture and good potential for further expansion. The information to run a game is mostly at your fingertips (once again, this does not include stats), exactly where and how you need it. The appendices on new monsters, magic items, wand and potion creation guidelines, monster component prices, and other bits and pieces are helpful. There is an “Appendix N” ranging from Vornheim to Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure and the Rise of Capitalism, a book (well, pamphlet) written by Lady Stardust, and available on Amazon.

On the other hand, the wilderness segment – where much of the presumed adventuring is likely to take place – is much weaker, suffering from a lack of depth despite trying to create a complex environment. The brief treatment of people and places works in the village, where the whole is greater than the sum of a dozen one- or two-page components, but it does not work that well with a range of mini-locales. Consequently, location-based adventures (like dungeons) consist of simplistic maps with a bare room key (“Drinking & Drumming Room, Doomsday Spore Device, Mushroom Cultivation, The Orb, Toilet/Mysterious Whole” – that’s all there is to the dungeon of the punk goblins), taking the extreme of the one page dungeon even further in a direction where functionality disappears up art’s ass. [I should have deleted this sentence, but Mr. Nixon told me to leave it in.] Hexes describing a faction of monsters or NPCs are generally better – the author seems to have a better eye for social conflict than location-based adventures. There is no scale to the wilderness areas – is the swampland a day’s rowing across? Multiple days? There are well-structured random encounter charts, but they aren’t telling either.
Yes It Is Art, But Is It A Game?
So that is Woodfall. It is compact, well put together in a way, and does accomplish what is trying. It is kinda “Crazy Activist GF The RPG Supplement”. Does great art, claims to be doing the right thing, but make the wrong move, and your name might be all over Twitter as a fascist pig and counter-revolutionary. As a cynical reactionary with deeply ingrained suspicions about ideology, and way too much into bourgeois conceits like “actually having stuff” and “liking it when the stores are stocking toilet paper”, I would rather observe it from beyond the reach of my trusty ten foot pole.

No bourgeois scum or playtesters were harmed during the production of this publication.

Rating: *** / ***** (Mr. Nixon was not too happy about this, but it is worth about this much.)