Monday, 10 June 2019

[REVIEW] The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords

Tombs Forgotten Grottoes
of the Sea Kings Lords

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (2019)
by Keith Sloan
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
6th to 8th level

It all began in 2006 with Advanced Adventures and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, at least if we define our beginning as “the first commercial module to exploit the Open Gaming License to publish an adventure for a classic D&D edition” (these things are fuzzy because Cairn of the Skeleton King was published around the same time, and solved the license problem by simply sidestepping it). Yet Pod-Caverns was not just the first one through the door, but also a solid demonstration of the old-school aesthetic and adventure design principles. The Advanced Adventures line has had its ups and downs in the 13 years since, and it has faded from the public eye a bit – at least I don’t see it mentioned with the same kind of excitement as the newest Kickstarter money sink. This is a mistake. There is still very good stuff there.

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (any relation to Tomb of the Sea Kings?) has a lot of the same timeless qualities which were found in Pod-Caverns. It fills a niche perfectly, and even helps define it. There are many tombs of this and tower of that, but Forgotten Grottoes is the natural choice if you would like to run an adventure in a series of sea caves (U2 and U3 are close, but a lot more specific). Like Pod-Caverns ran with D&D’s bizarre ooze and fungus monsters, this module mashes together all your favourite sea legends from pirates and sea monsters to fishy cults and buried treasures, and puts them in a big, open-ended dungeon. It is not stuck on a single note, but integrates a lot of them into a place that feels both cohesive and varied.

The Forgotten Grottoes are a large place, beyond the scope of a single expedition. 112 keyed areas are described over two dungeon levels, all in some 13 pages (the rest are supplementary material). Yet nowhere does it feel bare-bones or lacking in some aspect: the adventure has both complex set-piece encounters and small, hidden mysteries; bargaining and combat; puzzles and environmental hazards. Even lesser side-areas receive their due, or offer some odd opportunity for discovery and interaction. There are all kinds of small, clever touches that are hella atmospheric and make for neat mini-puzzles. The dungeon denizens have hung up a few dead seals near one of the entrances, which you can toss into the water to distract a hungry monster. Observing a pattern of repeating bas-reliefs lets you spot the odd outlier, and find a long-forgotten hidden room. Strange and powerful dungeon denizens like a weird bird-sage, a vampiress or a lich can become temporary allies, patrons or dupes (if the players play their cards well).

The number of things to mess with – not to mention the number of ways you can mess with these things – is staggering for a lean booklet. With six ways in and many more routes and level connections to get around, not to mention the strong inter-NPC dynamics, there will always remain an element of the unknown. In the finest traditions of old-school dungeon design, this is a place to explore and plunder, or a fine location to locate your favourite MacGuffin, but its scale and complexity prevent it from being fully explored and solved. You can’t go in and “clean it” – it is a place you organise expeditions into, then get out of before things get too hot. And that’s how it should be: there is always a corner of this dungeon that will make the players wonder – what did we miss there? Fabulous treasures or horrible death?

The balance of old and new material is right. There are well-known (or vaguely familiar) AD&D mainstays, but like the better TSR modules, there is sufficient novelty in terms of new monsters (including some truly horrid crustaceans) and non-standard magic items to keep the players off balance and guessing. Creative thinking will go far here, but there are just as many satisfying opportunities for good, honest hack-and-slash. It is a generous module that rewards the shrewd and the adventurous alike.

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords feels a lot like a lost TSR module in style and execution. It maintains a strong identity while remaining broadly usable – if you have seacoasts and pirates in your campaign, it will certainly have a place there. It is the precise kind of “generalist” module which fits most games without sacrificing its distinctive identity. Well worth owning.

Both playtesters and their characters are credited in this adventure.

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

Thursday, 9 May 2019

[REVIEW] The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti

The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti (2019)
by Jeremy Reaban
Levels 5-7

Mummies. Why did it have to be mummies?
Should you want to explain the concept of a dungeon crawl to a layman, looting pyramids and Egyptian royal tombs might be your best bet to get across the idea. D&D is often highly esoteric, but pyramids? Those are on TV. The first game session I ever played took place in a pyramid. If you have played AD&D reasonably long, you have probably been to one, too.

The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti is a short tomb robbing-adventure. Of its 17 pages, 8 are dedicated to a dungeon with 23 keyed areas, the rest describing new monsters, gods, and magic items. It is meat-and-potatoes in a good way. If you need an Egyptian tomb, here is one that can fill that spot. It is written and laid out in a straightforward way, and focuses on what matters around the table. It is not going to win any award, or draw hype, but it is the stuff that makes for a nice home game, packaged for reuse.

The rooms are good. Every one of the dungeon rooms has something worthwhile going on: interesting combat setups, magical tricks, interesting and well-hidden treasure, and even good NPC interaction. It does not concern itself too much with mundane elements like rotting linen or sand with bits of broken pottery – it is all about the fantastic side of dungeoneering. A lot of adventures have two or three good ideas hidden in them. This one has several, and much of it is even tied to the local mythology (may contain traces of Cthulhu; time plays another important role). Most importantly, it is all material which invites and rewards PC engagement and experimentation. Look and touch!

One aspect I am finding weaker is the way the rooms are connected. The tomb is laid out in a fairly boring way which looks like the rooms are mostly linked arbitrarily. Nothing of note takes place in the corridors (not even traps or random encounters), and it lacks the vertical elements of a good tomb-crawl. The real pyramids had stairs and air shafts and interior galleries! One or two rooms are positioned in a way that requires some thought to deal with or bypass, but you could mostly just march unimpeded to the final room, and leave the way you came. Not even a lousy pit trap in your path? This needs work!

But all in all, this is a solid, unpretentious scenario with a fake-TSR style cover I have a soft spot for. As I understand from the text, this is the first module of a trilogy, to be followed by The Fearful Fane of Bubastis, and Black Pyramid of the Faceless Pharaoh.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 21 April 2019

[REVIEW] Sision Tower

Sision Tower

[REVIEW] Sision Tower (2019)
by Graphite Prime
Published by Graphite Prime Studios
Levels 3-5


Good adventures often follow well-trod paths, and add their own creativity to a tried form. The best invariably carry a personal stamp – they try something new even while benefiting from decades of good practice. These are creative risks which do not always pay off, but when they do, the results are fruitful beyond playing it safe. This is one such adventure. That is: many adventures are basically good (my usual 3 ratings); and some adventures excel at one or two aspects (these tend to receive the 4s). Sision Tower excels at all of them. It breaks new ground, and handles all aspects of a play-ready adventure expertly.

Sision Tower is a 40-page dungeon crawl featuring a massive, otherworldly tower that seems to be constructed of rock slabs in the shape of stacked ice floes. The tower, travelling through space and time, had appeared out of nowhere in a desolate region, and drawn multiple groups of adventurers to its location with a mournful song that could be heard hundreds of miles away. The player characters are neither the only, nor the first explorers in this strange place: they will have to contend with rivals operating within the dungeon, as well as coming across the remains of less fortunate predecessors.

Where lots of poor adventures get stuck on background detail, and fine adventures often discard them to begin in medias res, Sision Tower starts with a straight-to-the-point introduction which wastes no words, but provides flavourful and practical background details which come in handy when running the scenario. Rumours are followed by an overland travel segment, and a description of the “grounds” around the tower proper. It handles small stuff like travel times, gathering information, and finding extra supplies for the expedition in a succinct manner. Later, navigating the tower’s vertical rooms, illumination, random encounters and the rest are all given thought – the necessary stuff is there at your fingertips. The adventure is comfortable to use, an impression which continues through the rest of the module.

Polished, skilful presentation is a major strength of the text: there is always enough to communicate mood and play-relevant information, but it never becomes indulgent, or engage in hand-holding. The module calls attention to important ideas at the right places (including GM tips on getting the most out of specific encounters), and is admirably “readable” without straying from a basic two-column layout. It mainly uses small tricks like bolding, boxes (although not boxed text), bullet point lists and random tables to guide the reader, but never as gimmicks. These devices always serve a useful purpose in making the material handy during play. The module is peppered with the author’s diagrams and vignette illustrations; dark and moody graphite pieces which emphasise the tower’s gloomy atmosphere.

Atmosphere is an outstanding feature of Sision Tower. It has an iconic look and feel which should stay in one’s memory over the years: just like every player who has been there will remember the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl or the Vault of the Drow, Sision Tower is a distinct place. Once a sanctuary of Law and a demesne of angels, it is now gloomy and abandoned. It is a vertical dungeon writ on a vast scale: pretty much a small mountain with a 550’ atrium in the middle, constructed of enormous, cyclopean stone blocks and its rooms connected by vertical shafts and sloping passages. The mournful sound of enormous chimes permeate the mostly empty structure.  Sadness and abandonment are moods which are hard to conjure in the context of an adventure game, and themes associated with angels are hard to use without reverting to cheap clich├ęs. Sision Tower succeeds where others have stumbled: its angels are distant and inscrutable seraphic beings, but the tower’s tragedies are readily apparent. This is not a happy place, and it feels properly haunted – not a locale to linger for an extended timespan (indeed, the scenario’s moral conflict lies between trying to resolve the tower’s tragedy while risking death and failure, and looting it in a mercenary fashion before finding a way out).

Encounters along the Z-axis
But it is not just about mood. It works as a proper exploration-oriented adventure, too! The tower is a great dungeon with good flow, well-designed encounters and a sense of wonder in every nook and cranny. Navigating the out of scale verticality is perhaps the most unusual aspect, one that has a substantial effect on random encounters. The tower’s treasures are cleverly but not arbitrarily hidden, requiring thought to find and claim. The main prizes are sixteen special magic items, whose precise location is randomised among multiple treasure rooms. They are original and interesting, such as an amulet which turns you into a shadow, but carries the risk of staying as one; or a velvet mask which allows you to charm birds.

The fixed encounters are excellent set-pieces, allowing the players to take risks, experiment with their own solutions to open-ended problems, and win or lose big depending on their luck and resourcefulness. How to open a trapped chest which has already claimed someone’s life with a poison gas trap? How to explore a submerged passage inhabited by an intelligent giant jellyfish? Is the cursed medusa an asset or a deadly risk? Almost all of the 34 rooms have something to tamper with, with good clues and multiple possible solutions. This tends to bring out the best in players, while offering a different experience for every group. The main challenge, in particular, is deadly, dangerous, and plain damn scary. It requires player bravery to tackle, and the price of failure is not mere death, but eternal suffering. Sision Tower’s rooms are rounded out by random encounters, ranging from nightmare monsters adapted to this environment (sssspiderrrrsssssss) to adventuring parties and magical enigmas. More than simple adversaries, some can provide useful information and equipment; and some represent a non-standard challenge (the Choir Doves whisk away engulfed PCs to a different part of the tower, the Fool’s Ghost is a font of riddles, Lythia’s Purse-Cutters can become enemies or allies, depending on how the encounter with them proceeeds).

Altogether, Sision Tower is one of the finest adventure modules I have read in recent years. It shines bright in every aspect, combining vivid imagination, competent writing and inventive encounter design. It is not simply an interesting module to read (although it has much to learn from even that way), but one to play or run. As a “wandering” extraplanar location, it can be located in a desolate corner of your preferred campaign setting, and it should prove a session (or two) to remember.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Even the obligatory "Weeping Angel Statue" encounter is great in this one!

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

[BLOG] Shallow and deep wilderness sandboxes

Difficulties concerning this area of play notwithstanding, most of us manage to create and run rewarding wilderness adventures. The OD&D and AD&D rulebooks offer workable procedures to run an outdoors expedition, and there are multiple approaches to build a wilderness sandbox, from fixed, linear journeys along roads and rivers, to more free-ranging pointcrawls and hexcrawls. Only three ingredients are required:
  1. An underlying approach to turn the imaginary world into a game space (hexes or squares, connecting lines, visible landmarks) that can be described by the GM and navigated by the players.
  2. Procedures for outdoors expeditions: movement, exploration, encounters, food and other resources, and so forth.
  3. Points of interest which give a reason for visiting the wilderness at all, and differentiate going one way from going another way.
All three of these points can be satisfied in very different ways, usually with a mix-and-match approach. With a little preparation – or prodigious bullshitting – it is not hard to assemble and run a miniature setting.

However, there is an often unaddressed issue which makes a strong difference in how actual wilderness-based campaigns pan out. This is the issue of depth. The concept of deep and shallow settings is familiar. As the idea goes, you can generally sketch out a wide campaign setting in broad strokes, or select a more narrow area, and give it an in-depth treatment where every little corner has something. Doing both is theoretically possible (Tolkien, Greg Stafford and M.A.R. Barker did it, and so did the rather less reputable Ed Greenwood), but the resulting setting may become inaccessible for players, and burdensome or at least very hard to manage for the GM. The question of depth also poses questions for campaigns with a strong wilderness component: this is the subject matter of this post, which highlights the differences between shallow and deep wildernesses.

A shallow wilderness: single-layered structure

A shallow wilderness stretches far and wide, and its points of interest tend to be individually small and often unassuming – proverbial “grains of sand”. The Lord of Crows maintains a castle in hex 1212; 1214 is the lair of 26 gnolls living in a hilltop encampment surrounded by a palisade; and 1313 is a mysterious obelisk where wise old crows read glyphs only known to their kind. These are mostly encounter-level descriptions; they may be free-standing (like the gnolls) or interrelated (what about the crow motif?), smaller and larger, but they are about as complex as your usual dungeon room. There is a single "layer" of adventuring: the wilderness itself. That does not mean there are no cities or villages - but they mostly exist on the encounter level, without going into deeper detail. Wilderlands of High Fantasy is of course the main model of this approach, while The Sea of Vipers – which has partly inspired this post – is a more recent one.

The implications for play point towards lots of travel across a large number of hexes. Travel-related procedures such as random wilderness monsters, getting lost, managing food, and so on become an important aspect of play. Some character resources are going to be less of a going concern (spells and hit points can be replenished through rest), while issues like movement rates and daily random encounter frequency can become a bigger deal. All in all, the wilderness is most of the adventure, at least for a number of sessions: our large 3.0 Wilderlands campaign was mostly one long trek from one dungeon (Necromancer’s Rappan Athuk) to another dungeon (JG’s Dark Tower, although sadly, the campaign ended right before we got there). There were diversions and stops along the way, but the game was largely about wandering through the coastal areas of two enormous campaign maps, and wrecking stuff.

A deep wilderness: multi-layered structure

A deep wilderness is perhaps better connected to the common D&D experience: here, the wilderness expedition part is the connecting tissue between other kinds of adventures, which are substantial on their own. The resulting games may perhaps be better thought of as multi-layered: there are layers of declining size and increasing complexity as you drill down from the “overland map” to the individual hex, and below. To borrow an example from an intermittent campaign I am running,
  1. You have a general setting map (the fallen Roman-inspired empire of Kassadia and its early Renaissance successor city states)…
  2. …but some areas, like “The Forest of Gornate” in the embedded picture, are described in more detail; in my case, as a pointcrawl…
  3. …and some points on this maps are themselves detailed locations (the town of Mur) or separate dungeons (the Great Cleft; the Villa of Lucretia Vinalli; the Hanging Gardens of Marabundus, etc.). In our case, the Great Cleft has Keep on the Borderlands-style mini-dungeons of its own!
Obviously, only selected areas of the broad setting are described in this detail, since it would be extremely time-consuming, not to mention wasteful to extend this treatment to the whole.

A deep wilderness setting places somewhat less emphasis on prolonged travel and its associated procedures. In fact, it tends to anchor players in a smaller area; by drawing them to local adventure areas and getting them involved in local conflicts. Once you start getting entangled in the affairs of local nobles, or drawn deeper into the mysteries of the forest, it makes less sense to just cut ties and travel to Frabotia, let alone Thrygia or the borderlands beyond the northern edge of the map. You could play an entire mini-campaign in a limited area – and we had done so in various corners of the Wilderlands (around Tegel village, on the Wormshead peninsula, in the wastelands and island realms around Zothay).

The game can develop a complexity which does not happen as much on a long itinerary (which tends to encourage episodic play), and the same locations can be reused to an extent where they become familiar, while they can still reveal new challenges and threats. Finding out that the hideout of the beast-cultist was in the Hills of Ligonia all along, or arriving back in Mur to uncover an insurrection plot involving former friends, is an experience. However, you lose the magic of long-range travel: there is something liberating about wide, shallow settings where you can truly head for the horizons to see what is there.

At this point, I don’t know if our campaign in Kassadia will evolve in either direction – this is going to be the result of its natural trajectory – but I see potential in both routes. I would like my players to see red-walled Viaskar and its places of pilgrimage, and go toe-to-toe with the savage Harepsi and their rolling fortresses. Yet I would also like to get them involved in complex local schemes and let them discover interconnections and hidden details. And here is the dilemma: time and the natural lifespan of a campaign will limit how much we can grasp; and depth will have a decisive effect on where our adventures will take us.

Friday, 5 April 2019

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #05 & The Lost Valley of Kishar (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Echoes From Fomalhaut #05 / The Lost Valley of Kishar

I am pleased to announce the publication of the fifth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a 40-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and the Dead Victorians.

In The Enchantment o Vashundara, I am happy to welcome Zsolt Varga, who has written the titular adventure, the runner up in a module writing competition I was judging last Autumn. Adventure and wonder await those who would venture into the palace of a god, and free him from his current predicament… or leave him to his fate and make off with his treasures? This 3rd to 4th level scenario shows that you don’t have to be a lord or patriarch to visit strange otherworlds, or have a hand in the fate of deities.

Echoes #05
Returning to the Isle of Erillion, two of its small towns are presented in a manner inviting adventure, conflict, and player engagement. The Divided Town of Tirwas is an overgrown village in the north, where old communal customs clash with the rule of the feudal Landlords who have seized power and divided the town among themselves. 18 keyed locations are described with adventure hooks and NPC notes, and just enough detail to get going. Further adventures await under Tirwas in Plunder of the Stone Sacks, a dungeon scenario for 3rd to 5th level (45 keyed locations). The Stone Sacks, a set of limestone caverns, were once used as a communal shelter from sea raiders, and are now used for storage, or lie abandoned. Yet strange things are afoot and there may be more to the place than meets the eye… Finally, in Sleepy Haven, everything is fine. Or is it? Visit the sleeping fishing community to find out (8 keyed locations).

While both towns were created for the Isle of Erillion (described in Echoes #02-04), they should also be easy enough to use in a modular fashion, placed in a campaign setting of your own. Player maps for Tirwas and Sleepy Haven are provided on the obverse and reverse of this issue’s map supplement, included with all purchases.

The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.


The Lost Valley of Kishar
But that is not all! In addition to Echoes #05, I am also pleased to announce the publication of The Lost Valley of Kishar, a 32-page adventure module for 6th to 8th level characters, and the winner of the 2018 adventure writing contest. Venture into a lost world of savage beasts and ancient sorceries – and discover an old mystery from beyond the stars! Whether you have come for the strange fruits of an enchanted tree, in pursuit of a great winged ape, the gold of a lost temple or a magic mirror, glory and death await in equal measure in… The Lost Valley of Kishar!

“Somewhere, only a few days’ travel from a busy trade route, there lies a valley surrounded by untamed wilderness. It is surrounded by cliffs forming the shape a ring, unnaturally steep and tall, as if they had been wrought by human hand. No one remembers who had originally erected the ruins standing within the valley, and who had nurtured the wondrous tree which had once drawn pilgrims from distant lands. Kishar’s priestesses have been long forgotten – but the tree’s blessed radiance persists. As if under an odd compulsion, all manner of beasts have been drawn to the valley, and in time, there emerged others. Those who came from far beyond human imagination, and were already here before the first priestesses…”


Shipping note: Do note that due to postage cost changes, a flat shipping fee is in effect: you will pay the same whether you order one, two, or more items (larger orders may be split into multiple packages and shipped individually – this does not affect the shipping fee).

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

[STUFF] The Dungeons of Morthimion

[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]

Work in Progress
Inspired by reading the recently published Black Maw dungeon levels, and playing in a friend's S&W-based game, I was once again bitten by the megadungeon bug. I started putting some thought into running a canonical OD&D dungeon exploration game – the proverbial huge ruined pile built by generations of wizards and insane geniuses. Nothing Castle Greyhawk-sized (thus, not something that would accommodate multiple parties playing 24/7), but hefty enough to feel expansive and mysterious, and true to the tone of the three booklets. To avoid overreach, and give myself some structure, I decided to stick to a brief keying style I experimented with in Zuard Castle, an older thought experiment (but with just a bit more detail). In fact, Zuard Castle became the base for the dungeons of Morthimion.

Monday, 25 March 2019

[REVIEW] The Black Maw

The Black Maw (2018-2019)
by Craig Pike
Level 1+

Easier said than done! Megadungeon projects tend to begin with lofty promises, and tend to die somewhere between mapping the first few levels and keying the first one. Know, oh readers, that I have been there, too, and failed like all the rest of you. This is no endeavour for the faint of heart! For good megadungeons live or die by the ingenuity and variety of their ideas, and evolve through continuous exploration. And those who fail this test are cast aside, down among the chittering of rats gnawing on a dusty pile of 2000 copper pieces… forever.

The Black Maw is a serial level-by-level megadungeon construction project on DriveThruRPG. It is an ongoing effort, with three published levels and a product split between two sublevels to date. This makes reviewing it kinda risky – how much do you need to form a reliable impression? Is the initial impression subject to change? (YES!) I didn’t know where to place the Black Maw after reading the first level, and didn’t come away non-plussed, but with a few more parts on hand, a better picture emerges. I was, honestly, also hedging my bets, waiting to see if the followup instalments appeared at all, and where they would take the dungeon. Turns out they took it in a good direction.

The Black Maw
This, after all, is a somewhat TRV OD&D-style megadungeon: a nonlinear maze with a bunch of level connections, undergoing continuous expansion, featuring a mix of whimsical and dangerous stuff, and varying its themes just enough to feel fresh while sticking to common elements which serve as a sort of glue to bind it together. The intro – one mid-length paragraph in all, again a sign of TRV good taste – itself establishes it as an anything goes place, “occupied time and again by civilisations both ancient and recent”. The dungeon’s common tissue is based on these different groups of (mostly) intelligent monsters coexisting in various forms of truce or conflict. “Dungeon factions” is fairly elementary these days, sometimes reduced to meme level to the extent that it comes across as suspicious – but it is fairly well realised here. Ordinary monster types are given a twist – dwarves are religious sectarians, goblins are kinda-Victorian gentlemen “in tattered waistcoats and tophats”, troglodytes are murderous alien reptilians, and ghouls are refined, somewhat bored aesthetes. Not my aesthetics, but credit where credit’s due: they work within the context of this personal dungeon, and they form the “rules of the game” the characters may choose to engage with, subvert, or ignore. What makes me happy are the “special” NPCs found on different levels. These are inventive vignettes, never overdone, with a lot of idiosyncratic colour.

BUT is it really a TRV megadungeon? The guardians of the Sacred Canon may register their complaints. It is too small “horizontally” to be all-encompassing, since the individual levels are more medium- than mega-sized. The first level in particular feels constrained and far from endless. It is, frankly, the weakest of the bunch, and makes for a fairly “meh” initial impression. The monster stock is sparse, and random encounters also deplete a finite, small pool of opponents, which is completely out of place. It feels empty and sort of generic, paint-by-the-numbers. Likewise, the dungeon levels are sometimes lacking in the empty space considered to be important for the care and feeding of megadungeons – no rooms are left unkeyed, and things are a bit squashed together. (Yes, gentle reader, Yours Truly stands guilty as charged on this point, too.) Monocled purists will come away with arched eyebrows from this one.

However, from Level 2 and on, the dungeon suddenly comes into its own. The writing becomes livelier (and has a characteristic wit that’s one signature of this dungeon). Monster-populated zones take on a distinct character, NPC lairs start cropping up in earnest, and there is a growing presence of imaginatively designed magical stuff – enigmas, simple puzzles, things to mess with for fun and profit. This is perhaps the best element of the dungeon – a continuous feeling of discovery and magical whimsy. Loot is interesting and well placed (although the author may be lowballing it if we go by the book… not as much as I do, but OD&D BTB is kinda ridiculous in this department). Magic items are varied, customised just enough to give them character. And again, the environments change, with each level after the generi-dungeon first one having its own style and challenges. There are steam tunnels to get lost in, just like in the old days! Monster-controlled zones where rushing in will bring down God’s fury on the hapless characters, but guile and negotiation may save the day. Underground pools and a tunnel system populated by ants (but you must shrink down to enter, making them into giant ants). An arena for ghouls and a troglodyte opera. Ways down to deeper level. The good stuff.

The Black Maw follows a minimalist presentation. Every instalment so far can be printed on one paper sheet via booklet printing for the text, plus a single sheet for the level map. The first page introduces the level with its common inhabitants and features. A key follows on two pages – 35-45 areas tend to be the norm, one paragraph each. The final page is a reference sheet containing a custom wandering monster chart and a helpful OD&D-style creature roster with all the stats you need in play. This packaging is user-friendly, and remains at a level of detail which does not sacrifice ideas and flavour on the altar of ill-conceived ideas about minimalism. The one-page dungeon was a mistake, but a five-page one? That’s workable. The maps are starting to get decent – the first one is a more polished one from Tim Hartin, but the next two, presumably by the author, are kinda rough. Level connections are still missing on the more recent ones.

The Black Maw is a worthwhile project to follow. As I have suggested above, it starts out unassuming, and gets better as it progresses. It is fairly true to the idea of the OD&D megadungeon, and even if you don’t play it, it is worth looking at for the ideas and structural look. (I would gladly hear of the concrete actual play experiences, too.) There is potential here, and it has the proper DIY spirit. Rating goes for a “so far” impression.

No playtesters are credited in these publications. Would appreciate a roster of playtest characters.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 17 March 2019

[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers

Cover to the David Perry edition
[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers (2018)
by Kyle Marquis
Self-published (kinda)

The foremost duties of game materials are to be inspiring and useful. Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Judges Guild’s setting is both: it is dynamite for the imagination, while remaining laser-focused on inspiring you to run a game. It does not always live up to its promise (its citadels and castles are a list of numbers; sometimes the randomisation shows through; not all parts of it are of the same quality as the core regions), but the idea is pure, and it continues to be inspiring after more than 40 years after its publication.

The Sea of Vipers, available for free online, is a modern-day campaign setting which captures some of the magic of the Wilderlands as seen in its original, cryptic and sketchy incarnation. It has a gimmick: it was originally published as a series of Twitter posts. That does not inspire much confidence. Twitter, generally speaking, is worse than useless – it actively makes our lives and world worse – but in this rare case, it serves a good purpose: it imposes a limit and structure on the setting information. The same way Judges Guild was struggling with primitive publishing technologies in its day, the author of The Sea of Vipers had to conform to an externally imposed, arbitrary character limit. In both cases, the creative tension has resulted in something intriguing, and perfectly structured for the needs of a game. (Note, there is a cool gazetteer-style online document here, made by David Perry – it is mostly excellent, except for using a different version of the map where all hex entries are off by one row).

Like its JG predecessor, this is a ground-level hex-crawl setting, with the barest minimum of overview information. A one-paragraph introduction, a list of three different pantheons, and some notes on power structures serve as a general framework (two pages of text with a very breezy layout, with room left to spare), followed by a hex-by hex description of the overland areas found on a 64x33 map sheet. These hex descriptions are one-liners; they consist of a hex code, a letter code for terrain type, and the hex description itself. Together, they describe a fantastic archipelago spread over two larger, two smaller, and maybe two dozen tiny islands.

The Sea of Vipers
The strength of the material lies partly in this structure, but the reason it has a zing is due to the author’s command of the written word. Consider the intro:
“The Sea of Vipers lies south of Gandavor. Since the rise of the Technogogic Implementer, who promulgated new theories of magic, the fractious, traditionalist Rootborn magicians have opposed his unification schemes. After years of low-key hostilities, the islands’ magicians agreed to a Conclave Arcane, but the Implementer betrayed them and spoke the Word of Serpents, which killed hundreds of Rootborn, devastated the Island of Tamera, and triggered the Word-of-Serpents war. The Rootborn fought back, but they had already lost, and now the Technogogic Implementer’s five satraps, the Enthroned, rule the islands.”
It is obscure, and it does not go into the particulars, but reading this much should already give you everything you really need to plan and run a campaign. The same sure hand is in evidence in the hex entries. For instance,
  • 2902 H Quartz hills create a tree made of moonlight on the 1st day of the crescent moon with magical healing quinces that grant prophecies.
  • 2903 HD Temple of Kell. The Archifex seeks the intelligent sword KODMOS (2801), which can yank out a person's skeleton (fatal) and control it.
  • 5402 LF Well full of martyrs' heads. Its water is poison to all save the righteous, who gain great powers and then die within 333 days.
  • 0516 DH DEAD LEOPARD HILLS. Leopards destroyed by the Word-of-Serpents; all that remains are their spots, teeth, and hunger.
  • 0523 D Lair of VEIS, Serpent of the Unclean Dance. Causes mania, tremors, the vomiting of worms; treasure includes the MANUAL OF SWANS.
  • 0524 D A bolt of lightning frozen in the sly, glowing faintly. All who touch it die; scorched avians and flying machines litter the dunes.
  • 5305 LF Elf demagogues argue the cultural significance of ear-sharpening cream. The issue is obscure; opinions are mandatory.
  • 1401 LF GOLGAMMANNAH, CITY OF PAINTED HANDS, pop 800. Near-ruined port city. Created magically as a glory, melting with so few to admire it.
  • 1402 P Herd of 22 displaced Bigby's Hands thunder across the plains, stalked by a small pack of 4 Mordenkainen's Hounds.
  • 0722 D An aarakocra desert druid cultivates mellified raptors, drowning birds of prey in honey to create potions of healing.
A lot has been said about terse expressiveness, expressive terseness and tersive expressness (never mind the rest, it has become a meme), but this is how it is done. The contents are mysterious, irrational and dreamlike – dreamlike in the sense that disparate elements are connected in ways that defy rational explanation but make a sort of deeper sense, and also dreamlike in the way it all feels like the images of a kaleidoscope, filled with strange colours and shapes. This is not an easy effect to reach; and you can see the parts where it does not work out.

Island of Alu Pan
Sometimes randomness is just randomness for its own sake, or it becomes lame by trying too hard. This problem can also be seen in The Sea of Vipers. For example:
  • 0913 D Broken 50' jade hoop once served as the phylactery of a storm giant lich. Nomads fear the jade's "poison light."
  • 2623 LF URMISH, the THRONE OF ANTLERS AND IRON. Has a 50' WICKER BEAR stuffed with drugged bears and ready to rampage if anyone ignites it.
  • 3131 P Wereseacucumber sea elf has fled his sahuagin masters to study Thousand Gut Style martial arts under the intestines of Du Mu in 3028

Here, the hex entries are not dreamlike, just dumb. There is in fact a point where AWSUM becomes too much. A long time ago, in edition wars now far away, the excesses of 3e were sometimes illustrated with the example of Thri’Tard the grell Monk, and some of these examples feel like good old Thri’Tard with a new lease on life. This impression is strengthened when the stranger-then-strange hexes keep piling on. The setting is thus utterly weird, without a baseline of normality. The Wilderlands works so well because it is an internally consistent Dark Ages / Late Antiquity setting with fallen flying saucers and mermaid palaces – the basic texture is what makes the weirdness stand out. Here, plate-armored gorillas (3823) live right next to a now-bodiless flowering treant who controls a dracolich (3924), and a fox-headed hydra seeking the foxtail flywhisk of the Throne of Antlers and Iron (3723). And I picked this hex cluster entirely randomly. The Sea of Vipers does not really have any normal inhabitants. Its dial is always cranked up to at least 9, and often 10 or 11.

How could you use this supplement? I envision a game that’s purely focused on hex-crawling and discovering this strange setting. There is not much to the hex entries without investing a ton of work into them, so the best way not to exhaust them is to keep moving. So you’d have something out of Marco Polo’s travels, Seven Cities of Gold or Italio Calvino’s Invisible Cities – lots of travel, quick engagement with the contents of various hexes, and moving on to the next place to see new sights. You could be traders looking for exotic and precious goods, messengers, bureaucrats sent to create catalogues of the archipelago’s wonders for the Technogogic Implementer, or your usual band of roving conquistadors and murder hoboes. You could also thin out the hexes just a little to let it breathe a little – perhaps keep every fifth or sixth one, the ones you personally like the best.

With all the previous criticism in mind, I really like this setting. The good parts are full of imagination and wonder, and while randomness is the key principle, there is a cohesive vision (or at least aesthetic) behind it all. It is also supremely game-friendly, and a good take on the organising principles behind the Wilderlands. Well worth a look.

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

Friday, 8 March 2019

[BLOG] The Conspiracy

The Conspiracy is a simple, play-friendly method to describe interaction and conflict between city-based interest groups or conspiracies, reusing the entries of random encounter tables. Individually, random encounters represent local colour, complications in an ongoing scenario, or the beginnings of mini-adventures. By placing three or four next to each other – whether by design or chance – the result is often an adventure that can fill much of a session. Yet cities are even more complex, and they are filled with hidden social structures with dangerous agendas. 

In the Conspiracy, the nexus points of a pre-drawn, blank “connection network” are populated with random or semi-random encounters, and once finished, a coherent design is created around the existing network.

Sample Networks
The resulting network has multiple benefits. It shows who is associated with whom, and it also shows which way clues lead from one point to the next while the characters are investigating the network. The links can, furthermore, represent command structures, dependencies, and especially the conduit of information. They can be one-sided (marked with an arrow) or mutual. Stronger links may be marked with bold lines, and weak, tentative ones with dashed ones. Some connections can be dead ends, but important nodes – the „heart” of the conspiracy – should be located close to the centre, approachable from multiple directions. The deeper details of a network usually follow logically from the connected nexus points.

These networks are individually fairly simple, but they are often well hidden, and a large city has several of them. They are often connected, too – but how? Does it all form an enormous spider web, with a particularly clever conspirator pulling all the strings? A hierarchy, with a leader or group on top of the all-seeing pyramid? A matrix that seemingly leads nowhere? Or multiple networks vying for power and influence? All configurations have their potential in the game.

Example: The Gamemaster wishes to develop a conspiracy centred around Prince Alkoor, a double-dealing aristocrat. Selecting the second basic layout, he rolls up seven encounters [these are drawn from The Nocturnal Table, a forthcoming supplement for running city campaigns, and are abridged here for demonstration purposes]:

  • 137 Bricks fallen from a nearby wall are all stamped with the mark of a cat’s eye, reveal entrance to forgotten part of house sealed up long ago.
  • 151 City guards: 1d4*5 militias (Fighter 1) battering down tenement door, suspected tax-dodgers.
  • 212 Hermit, an animalistic, nameless wreck, digging in street garbage. Cursed priest.
  • 239 Mob: 2d4*10 men looting neighbourhood
  • 312 Robbers: Yusuf Muraad Khusi (Illusionist 4) and 2d6 robbers (Fighter 2); the hunchbacked Yusuf, hiding in a curtained hiding place, creates the illusion of several more companions surrounding locale.
  • 110 Alchemist Multiphage of Lam (Illusionist 6) selling 1d6+1 potions from beaker of potions (01-40 delusion); also provides horoscopes (all ambiguous)
  • 356 Thief Smardis (Thief 4, deep blue turban, 4*opium), smoking a hookah and offering empty tower apartment for sale at 140 gp.

Prince Alkoor's Conspiracy
With some more rolling and interpretation, the random entries yield a decent criminal enterprise. It appears that Alkoor’s game is to expropriate plebeians through aggressive tax-collection (151), as well as inciting looters in the slum areas (239). He buys up properties on the cheap, and sells them through one of his agents, a skilled thief named Smardis (356). Alkoor is mostly careful to work through intermediaries, a loyal robber gang (312), placing his orders in a secret meeting room in a sealed house (137). However, a more immediate connection can also be established via the City Guard – perhaps he has been stepping up the collection efforts and leaning on the officials. This is only part of his racket, though – and perhaps an entirely lawful one!

We have two more entries to consider. It seems Alkoor is related to a nameless pariah (212), who could be a victim or a secret associate – the GM elects to make him an effective spy most characters would not suspect. Finally, the alchemist and potion-seller (110) is tentatively connected to both of Alkoor’s main activities, without being linked to the robber gang. Perhaps he is not even a formal part of the network – just someone who had made a fateful connection, and can offer the important information that the two activities are somehow connected… or someone who’d had his own fingers in the pie, but is now in over his head.

And how does it all unfold? Does Alkoor end up losing his head, or does he have an offer the players can’t refuse? Are those connections with the robbers and the City Guard good enough to hound the company out of the city before they jeopardise a perfectly good get-richer scheme? Well… The conspiracy described above should serve as a sufficient framework to provide the right kind of pointers, and let the characters connect the dots on their own. The adventure can take the shape of a mission, or arise spontaneously from the logic of the campaign: in any event, minor puzzle pieces can form a pattern; and patterns, a grander design.

Cloak, Dagger, and a Few Magic Missiles

Saturday, 2 March 2019

[REVIEW] Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers
Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex)
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Level 5-8

Strong and compelling imagery is the foundation of good fantasy: start with a great image, and the rest will follow naturally. This is an image-based module. The bone toilers, stocky extraplanar Neanderthals, are excavating a series of jungle tar pits for the myriad fossilised bones trapped therein. Creaking primitive machinery, bone toilers dirty from the grime of their work and shouting incomprehensible gibberish at each other; sweltering tropical heat; and enormous piles of bones carted off for unknown purposes towards the bone toiler’s fortified camp. Hell yes there is a good potential for action in there! (As long as the players don’t start cracking non-stop Flintstones jokes, which is a credible threat.)

Images are not all. There is a good exploration-oriented adventure behind the core idea. A jungle canyon meanders through the landscape, opening into side areas forming their own mini-adventures. This is the hub-and-spokes structure so popular in CRPGs, and it works admirably well. It is satisfying to enter what amounts to an overland dungeon, and find it littered with smaller dungeons. There is a variety of places to explore, from ruined villages to interconnected cave systems. It is fairly combat-heavy, with large groups of powerful opponents almost everywhere.

The encounters are a good mixture of the naturalistic and fantastic: the module is well grounded in its jungle exploration themes, while offering wondrous magical enigmas on the side. There are also sufficient intelligent NPCs and monsters to interact with, from a camp of looters who are over their heads to the duskwalker, a company of mysterious beings opposed to the bone toilers’ plans. The central point of interest, the bone toiler’s bizarre mining operation, is an interesting challenge in the vein of the G series – the opposition is numerous and powerful, and a combination of action and stealth is needed to win the way. This place was perhaps a bit too heavy on the bone motif: when everything is made of skulls, they lose something in the bargain.

The module’s writing is an effective, tight mix of game information and catchy descriptive detail, but lacks the polish of The Red Prophet Rises. The maps are lacklustre. I got a printed copy from DriveThruRPG, but the print is blurry and the maps are hard to interpret (particularly the Canyon itself). The Canyon’s scale is off – a minor thing, but there is no way those squares are only 10’. Finally, while I am usually the last to complain about layout, the haphazard way in which (often barely related) stock art was dumped through the module is an eyesore. As a trade-off, the content is good, and there is a useful sheat sheet with monster statistics that fits on a single page.

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers is a good sword&sorcery module that stays true to the themes of the genre while translating them to the language of games. It is well worth owning.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

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: ***/*****