Friday, 3 December 2021

[MODULE] Weird Fates, vol. 1 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Weird Fates vol. 1
I am pleased to announce the year’s last EMDT release, the publication of  Weird Fates, vol. 1, a 40-page anthology of four mini-modules by Laszlo Feher. With cover art by Peter Mullen, and illustrations by Graphite Prime, Cameron Hawkey, and Vincentas Saladis, this collection epitomises “weird fantasy” with its outlandish concepts, strange denizens, and grotesque situations. Meant for an evening or two of play each for 3rd to 6th level characters (more or less), the mini-adventures are open-ended outlines with a strong emphasis on player creativity and a non-linear structure. Short, sweet, and high on imagination (in multiple senses), this is a sure pick for GMs who enjoy a little improvisation.

“A cornucopia of four short, open-ended adventure outlines leading to lands of pure imagination, this collection should astound and entertain any company of players interested in exotic locales, strange individuals, and a generous helping of satire. Herein, you will journey to a tropical island to answer the eternal question, “What is Art?” (or die trying); confront a reclusive artist with a peculiar scheme to enlarge his audience; find the fabled graveyard of the elephants and partake of the fruits of the Tree of Forever Return; and judge a pie-baking contest in a rural backwater where nothing could possibly go wrong... or could it? Some assembly required!”

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

***

On the Rooftops of Xyntillan!

Cameron Hawkey, who has contributed art to this volume, has recently posted a full rooftop map for Castle Xyntillan! This is an excellent addition to the castle, and an elegant, seamless expansion of Rob Conley’s cartography. Everyone who enjoys rooftop-hopping will get a kick out of this one.

Giant Pigeons Not Included

***

Christmas Shipping

As previously, my store will be closed for the holidays from around 20-21 December to early January. Currently, shipping takes about one week for most European orders (maybe a few days more for the UK), and a little over two weeks for the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Christmas mail can experience some delays, however, so take that into account.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

[REVIEW] In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe

In the Shadow of
Tower Silveraxe
In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe (2021)

by Jacob Fleming

Published by Gelatinous Cubism Press

Low- to mid-level

In a sense, the mini-sandbox is one of the holy grails of old-school gaming. The idea of a home base, a wilderness with minor points of interest, and a dungeon or three to top it off is the clearest expression of a home campaign. From Hommlet to Herth, and from Bone Hill to The Forsaken Wilderness, the pattern has been unbroken, even if relatively few published modules give you the whole sandbox, toys included. (The Vault of Larin Karr, for mid-level PCs, is the best example in print that I know of.) This is one genre which is easier to build piecemeal at home by the game table than prepare in a publication-ready format.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe, a 60-page, zine-format module for Old-School Essentials, is a fully realised mini-setting describing the locales of the Gemthrone Wilderness, a mountainous territory arranged around a central valley occupied by a particularly dense and dangerous old-growth forest named The Labyrinth of Shadows. Dwarven settlements and ruins ring the central valley, connected by well-mapped trails; the Labyrinth is trackless and inhabited by the most dangerous monsters. In addition to wilderness exploration procedures, the module provides a description of five settlements (including the town of Karn Buldahr) and nine dungeons of various sizes (from 5-6-room lairs to a main feature with five levels and 33 areas total). The power curve goes from beginning-level to some fairly deadly stuff – maybe 4th to 5th level or so. Rumours, mysterious glyphs, treasure maps, the remains of an advanced ancient civilisation, and local politics complicate the picture, and create a layer of connections to bring it all together.

Hiking Trip, But With Hobgoblins
Tower Silveraxe follows the trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene. It is heavily focused on tight editing and effective presentation. Every page spread is laid out in a precise way that eliminates the need for page flipping: all the maps and key you need are there before you. The dungeon maps are precise and clean affairs, with local random encounter charts tucked into a corner. I was particularly impressed with the wilderness cartography, which takes the form of an elegant hiking map with contour lines, trail distances, and points of interest. This format has lots of potential, and I hope people will do more with it in the future. (Minor nitpick: my inner textbook editor is screaming in rage at sight of the page numbering, which puts odd numbers on the left and even on the right. How dare you.)

Here we come to the Achilles heel of the module. Following trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene, Tower Silveraxe has sacrificed interest for accessibility. It is well-rounded, impeccably made, nicely interconnected, but the content is just sort of mediocre. One could call it vanilla, but the term is misleading. For instance, the original TSR modules were often quite vanilla, but even so, they always had interesting twists like the orc/carrion crawler caverns/weird shrine under Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, or the pool room and the whole “retired adventurers’ home base” aspect of In Search of the Unknown. Unfortunately, this is the “generic, flavourless” sort of vanilla that works with standard tropes and does not really improve on them, or use them innovatively.

A lot of the module text is remarkably facile. Consider Karn Buldahr, the dwarven town. There are 14 keyed locations, very few of which actually add anything beyond the baseline. The Traveller’s Inn is “a modest inn, just outside the western gate, (…) welcoming to all travellers, even in the early hours of the night.” The Stables are “Owned and run by Kreel Coalbraid. Only mules and carts are available to purchase.” The guards are stout. The General Store & Outfitters sells adventuring gear. The Crafters Quarter is “where nearly all skilled crafters conduct their trade.” There is very little here that could not be improvised on the basis of “Dwarftown. Population: dwarves”. Karn Buldahr occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between minimalism, which does not give you much, but occupies little place, and an actual in-depth treatment which elaborates on the basic concepts until they transcend a generic quality. Here lies the trap of the format: it is all on a spread of two facing pages, which either stifled the author’s creativity, or made him stretch a thin concept beyond its sensible limits. In fact, Karn Buldahr does have things of interest which deserve notice: a theatre putting on modernist plays everyone goes to but nobody confesses to not understanding (the Quirk differentiating the place from other dwarven towns), the local tradition of The Airing of Grievances (the Detail which drives home the dwarven connection), and a magic-user looking for crystals (the Adventure Hook). There are four decent rumours. This is good stuff, surrounded by several paragraphs of eh and meh.

Similar problems affect the nine mini-dungeons. The size is all right for something you find in a wilderness (although Bone Hill would beg to differ), and the concepts – looted tomb, abandoned mine, haunted tower, cave shrine, etc. – are good, with decent variety. It is, again, the encounters which suffer. They are very rote, very standard dungeon encounters of the monster/treasure/trap variety, missing a sense of wonder or deeper challenge that would make people start to pay attention. The treasure is usually coins contained in chests and such, and generic +1 items. The monsters are usually small groups of standard critters. You don’t get the “oh crap, 45 goblins! How do we solve this one?” kind of encounter here.

The encounters end up remarkably shallow. Many details in the key add nothing to the information already found on the map:

“Large room with six huge stone pillars. 2 doors – one south and another goes east on the north end of the room.”

“There is a tunnel to the north and a door to on the south wall. The room is empty.”

Seemingly interesting details do not, in fact, add to the interaction potential of the module, and are left as undeveloped cyphers:

“This room contains many shelves of books. A library for the elf stewards.

>> Books: All journals and logs written by the elves throughout the centuries.

>> Treasure: 3 spell scrolls (shield, knock, and hold portal)

“The stairs descend to a large room with four large statues of figures with heads bowed. At the end of the room is a sturdy iron door.”

Touch the Eye.
Touch the Eeeeye!
If you read that last one, your spidey sense is probably telling you this is going to be a great “deeper level” setpiece with a portcullis trap, animated statues, poison gas, flooding, or monsters attacking from behind secret doors. But nothing really happens, and the imagery is left unexploited. Of course, not every such room needs to be a deathtrap. Red herrings play an important role in messing with the players and either deplete their resources or lull them into a false sense of security before the iron door mimic eats them for lunch. Too bad this is a pattern that repeats through Tower Silveraxe, and most similar opportunities are also missed. There are a few exceptions: good foreshadowing down in the main dungeon, which offers progressive hints of a large, dangerous monster’s presence; a cyclopean idol with an obviously telegraphed but still oh-so-fun poison gas trap; or mysteries which span multiple adventure sites. However, the majority of encounters in the adventure are very plain, and the payoff of finding something really unique and off the wall is not present. This is a shame, because the setup is virtually crying out for it.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe is, therefore, a module with excellent structure and relatively weak content. I would not want to savage it – there is obvious craft in how it is put together – but I cannot help but believe the “layout-correctness” has not helped this one, and that it does not live up to its own implicit promise. Your players would probably have a reasonably good time playing it; it does not make any egregious mistakes, and just letting the players loose in the sandbox often produces a spark that sets even middling material aflame. This is what it is: solid, functional, but falling way short of excellence. Potential for improvement? Yes. Room for improvement? Yes, and lots of it.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

[BLOG] Hex-crawls: A Simple Guide

A slice of the Wilderlands
Irony: no longer just a diet rich in ferrous metals. Old-school gaming is now officially old, having lasted way longer than the period of gaming it looks back on. The line loops back on itself again; we are not just old, we are double-old, and with age, accumulated wisdom is lost, formerly self-explanatory ideas become objects of mystery. This constant erosion is unsurprising. You can fight back, but never win. Still, at least we can go down swinging, and that’s better than nothing. Today, we shall endeavour to do so by restating the idea of a great, simple game structure that surprisingly many people fail to understand, or pretend to fail to understand: the hex-crawl.

If Bryce Lynch doesn’t get it, others might be utterly lost. Perhaps what many of us considered obvious, isn’t. Perhaps so much detail-oriented guidance has been published that the basic, simple idea is getting lost in the discussion. But the main issue I am seeing – something even people like Justin Alexander have fallen into – is that people present an idea of hex-crawls that’s much more convoluted and hard to follow than what most of us actually need for our table. There is scattered wisdom in those pieces, but the maximalist approach they are advocating is not practical for most, especially beginners. The basic hex-crawl, in comparison, is dirt simple to understand, design, and run. Hence, this post. A simple, concise guide can explain the essentials – and if you would like, you can later expand your own procedures in a modular fashion.

* * *

Why run a hex-crawl?

Hex-crawls are a great way to run games based on wilderness exploration. Their main strength lies in turning a wilderness map into something you can describe and play with ease. Hex-crawls offer a good value for the effort that goes into creating them. Even a relatively small wilderness area described as a hex-crawl can be used and re-used several times. You can easily expand them both outwards (describing more of the map using this method) and inwards (adding more features and deeper detail). Hex-crawls can be developed piecemeal, and they are easy to scale to the interests of your adventuring party.

* * *

The basic principle

You might remember a common way to describe RPGs to outsiders: “This game is all in your imagination, played without a game board.” Hex-crawling is a lot like that game, but with a game board added to it. This board shall consist of two map sheets with numbered hexes. One of the maps is for the Gamemaster, and like your usual dungeon map, it is marked with terrain features, and an encounter key. Unlike dungeons, the key is not numbered sequentially, but by hex coordinates: a certain number of hexes may have varied features in them, while some are “empty”, consisting only of terrain. The second map is the one the players actually see: while it conforms to the first in most respects, this one is much more sparse, usually showing coastal outlines, a few major geographic features, and maybe a section of the “known” lands. The rest is left blank for later discovery.

Over the course of play, moving around and exploring the wilderness map, filling in its blanks, and coming across the keyed encounters shall be the focus of the game. The exploration process may be complicated by random encounters, navigation hazards, the depletion of food and equipment, and other complications like bad weather, or events keyed to the passage of time. Like dungeon adventures, hex-crawls are a combination of keyed encounters, random events arising from game procedures, and emergent gameplay created by GM–player interaction. A good hex-crawl is a lot like a good dungeon – reasonably open-ended, challenging, accommodating of player decisions, yet not overwhelming at any single decision point, since every given hex allows only six directions of travel from it.

* * *

Constructing the GM map

The Central Marches
Many game world focus on the big picture, the world at large. In a hex-crawl setting, we will be doing the exact opposite, by describing the micro-world. Our main concern is not the extent and ancient history of empires or the cosmology of the gods, but the local lord acting as an agent of the distant imperial seat, or the secretive monastery hidden in the woodlands. It may be useful to have a very general framework for the sake of style and internal consistency, but what really MATTERS is local detail and variety. The scale of the maps itself should reflect this. We are not making continents, we are making provinces or baronies. Many hex-crawl games use the six-mile hex (which became the default for Judges Guild’s Wilderlands setting), which is really fine-grain, and lets characters move through a lot of hexes in a single game session. I usually go with twelve miles (or around 20 kilometres). Greyhawk’s 30 miles per hex, as seen on the classic Darlene Pekul maps, is generally too large for the details we want – Greyhawk is definitely a big-picture place.

Accordingly, map a small corner of the larger world. A starting campaign can easily exist on a stretch of land measuring 12×12 six-mile hexes. Instead of large expanses of homogenous terrain, I would suggest making things varied in terms of both topography and land cover. Starting out with a random-generated map and adjusting it a bit to make the geography slightly more realistic works surprisingly well – there is a random terrain filling method in the AD&D DMG (Appendix B), and Hexographer comes with a default random generator, which I used for the example map here. You will notice a few features which tend to be desirable:

  • a single terrain type tends to cover 8-10 hexes, and rarely more: this makes the land mass varied and distinct;
  • there is a balance of easily navigable, challenging, and generally impassable terrain: choosing where and how to travel becomes an important player choice;
  • water is used prominently, forming seas, a lake, and river basins;
  • prominent features – castles, dungeons, settlements and temples – are distributed logically, but sparsely: travel is a necessity in the setting;
  • roads might link the most important centres of civilisation, but adventure lies off-road: we have a proverbial “points of light setting”, with relatively safe areas along the roads, and dangerous wilderness beyond them.

Not every map has to follow a similar structure, but this combination should make for a good mini-sandbox. If you would like to construct a larger region, Volume 4 of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen (on which more in a later post) describes a semi-random Hexographer-based method that shall create an entire campaign’s worth of terrain.

 * * *

Stocking the GM map

This is the meat of the hex-crawl. Interesting locations, lairs, and the more complex sort of encounters can be seeded across the hex map, waiting for the players to come across them during their explorations. After placing a few important locations by hand, it is most useful to turn to a random generation method. Establish hex locations via this method:

  • roll 2d6 for each 12-mile hex (or 2d12 for each 6-mile hex) with two different-coloured dice for each hex (this can take some time);
  • a “1” on the dice indicates either a ruin (usually marked with an “x”) or a lair (usually marked with an “L” or “·”) – mark these on the map;
  • for hexes with mixed terrain (e.g. forests meeting mountains), check both terrain types;
  • you may want to re-check hexes which have a feature to see if they may have a double one.

The Central Marches, with
locales of interest
The exact content of the hexes is written into the hex key, where entries are identified by the four-number coordinates. This is similar to a dungeon key in scope and detail, focusing on the essential and leaving the rest to improvisation. Like with dungeons, random idea generation tables can be useful for stocking a wilderness, at least beyond a range of initial entries which establish the mood and challenges of the place. Once you have a general idea for the region, the details shall fall into their place. For example, using our previous map, we may begin our hex key like this (stats and most treasure values not included):

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

(and so on, see the end of the post for the starting area)

The hex-crawl, of course, is not the complete campaign, but a component of it. Add a starter dungeon (and start thinking about one or two more – they don’t have to be large affairs), a few rival power centres and organisations, and you have a full landscape of adventure (see this post for a general idea). A hex-crawl is a great place to stick adventures written by other people, too, and it is one of the frameworks where mini-dungeons, even the better one-page dungeons can find a good home.

 * * *

Managing the crawl

Once we have the hex map, the key, and a few places with more detail, the campaign is ready to play. To start the crawl, set the players down on their version of the map, which can be as sparse or as detailed as you wish (the less detailed it is, the stronger the sense of discovery, but the more time will be spent with mapping). At this point, it is important to establish some basic context – where they are, what they have known or heard of the surrounding territory (a rumour each player may be a good way to accomplish this), and approximately where have they heard of capital A Adventure. We can begin!

Much of the hex-crawls occurs through simple procedures. Here are the essentials:

Descriptions: describe what the party sees in the surrounding hexes in a brief way. This should include terrain, visible landmarks, and maybe a little detail. For example, using our sample map, and starting from the castle home base at 0608, the GM could begin thus: “Day one breaks as you ride out through the gates of Krakhal. It is still misty, but you can see the roads meeting here: the Winding Way crossing the river to the NW and going through farmlands towards the mountains where stands the tower of Breezehall  to a day’s journey; the other direction heading SE and disappearing in wooded hills. A more narrow cart road crosses the river to the W, then heads SW through grassland. In this direction lies Fell, a village where you have heard of troubles with raiding humanoids and brigands. To the N and NE stretch thick forests, and to the S, you see tall peaks.” From here on, the descriptions can be even shorter: “You cross the grasslands into 0509, along the river running SW. NW lie woods, SW and S are flat grasslands, and SE are the mountains. The road continues SW.”

Here be giants
Movement: let the players declare the directions they are moving, and calculate how much terrain they can cross at their movement rate. As a rule of thumb, 4 6-mile hexes of terrain (plains, wastelands, coast), 2 hex of medium terrain (forest, hills), and 1 hex of hard terrain (mountains, swamp) can be covered on foot, or 6/4/1 while mounted. For 12-mile hexes, just halve this rate. For mixed terrain (likely), it is sensible to divide the day into a morning and afternoon stretch and see how much distance the characters cover. There are movement systems which use “movement point costs” to enter a hex of a specific terrain type, which are more abstract, but a bit easier to calculate with.

(Getting lost): This is a probability used in various A/D&D editions to see if the party veers off course or becomes lost while moving in the wilderness. It is not a rule we are actively using, but it adds a layer of uncertainty to exploration, and unless the party is moving along the roads, it may lead them to unexpected places of interest!

Encounters: the characters shall come across the fixed encounters on the hex key. There is also a good reason to use random encounter charts to vary things a bit. Generally, roll random encounters once per two six-mile hexes travelled with a 1:6 probability, or twice per day and thrice per night if camping (this can be reduced if the characters have discovered or created a safe shelter). Not all encounters will be fights to the death: hunting animals may avoid the party, while intelligent denizens may want to trade, negotiate, ask for directions, or provide the same… if the reaction checks are good enough.

Supplies: assume one ration per day of travel, and separate water rations where needed. Hunting and foraging may be a way to find food on the way. For a simple system, roll 1d6, with a +1 for skilled outdoorsmen and +2 for rangers and druids, and -1 for frood-sparse regions like high mountains. Food will be found on rolls of 4+, with an extra ration per point over the threshold.

Weather: this is simple and fun for situational variety. Just roll 1d6 per day to establish the dominant weather, from 1 (sunny, clear) to 6 (heavy rains, strong winds, heavy fog), add a situational modifier or two if needed (e.g. by terrain or season). If daily rolls make the weather too “swingy”, assume that stretches of weather will last 1d3 days or even more, or that changes will be in increments of one point at a time.

This is (more or less) the simple system we are using at our table. It is not completely realistic, but it is in keeping with the complexity of dungeon procedures, and makes for a rewarding procedural package which does not slow down play, works out fine, and can be messed with from time to time to shake things up a bit.

* * *

Details which are a matter of taste (but here is my opinion anyway)

Should a terrain type fill a whole hex, or not?

My hex maps are usually more organic, and the hex grid is simply overlaid on a map. This is also the way Judges Guild did things. Hexographer (which I used to illustrate this post) fills every hex with a discrete terrain type. This is okay, too, and slightly easier to adjudicate.

Some people suggest the hex map should be the GM’s tool only, and this “layer” should be hidden from the players. Which one should I pick?

This is the approach advocated by Justin Alexander for reasons of deeper immersion. For ease of use reasons, I would personally recommend the exact opposite, the use of identical player/GM maps with a different level of detail, like in the original Wilderlands products. This translates wilderness navigation into a game board you navigate and gradually fill in with terrain and points of interest. It is a game, and there is no harm in revealing most of its rules, including the hex numbers. In our campaigns, I rationalise the latter with the assumption that hex numbers represent astronomical navigation schemes, or (in science-fantasy campaigns) data from orbital GPS systems.

Do I have to create an entire map’s worth of content before beginning a campaign?

This actually matters! There is absolutely no need to create a whole setting in one go. Create a kay for a relatively small area, then expand outwards as it becomes necessary. Everything you need to know beyond the initial area can be handled as a simple rumour. “North of the Mountains of Fum lies a ruined city inhabited by ghouls. The Crown of Power lies underneath!” or “Monkeys are a delicacy in Katang, but sacred in Pand; and the two towns are almost at war over this matter.” – this much would be sufficient.

How detailed should hex entries be?

For personal consumption, as detailed as your average dungeon room. Some, like major towns and power centres may deserve a little bit more, maybe a bullet-point list. But keeping things brief and versatile is usually the for the best.

What if I have a map, but they don’t start exploring?

A handful of rumours with promises of adventure and treasure can be enough to get the characters going. It is also advisable to place adventure sites in out-of-the way corners of the world, so discovering their exact location requires travel through strange lands. Various quests and missions can also take characters to these fa-flung corners of the milieu.

What if they never go off the road system?

Many such cases! That’s why there should only be few roads, and many places the company has to visit should lie beyond them. This is best caught in the planning phase.

Since hexes cover a lot of territory, shouldn’t adventurers have a chance to miss keyed features?

This has always struck me as bad advice, since the point of hex-crawling is to find cool, interesting stuff, not walk by it. It is in both the player’s and GM’s interest to bring these encounters into play while travelling through the wilderness. You could rationalise it with the understanding that a given hex probably has multiple interesting features, and your party will find the one being described in the key. But generally, unless a feature is deliberately hidden, it is best to let the characters find it. You can always add secondary and tertiary sites later, if needed, although it is also vital to expand horizontally, and encourage players to seek out new lands and sights.

What about three-hex/seven-hex/hex-flower wildernesses?

Nah.

* * *

The Central Marches: A sample starting area

This is the slice of the region you might describe before the first session. You will note that there are 19 locations being described, including a few hubs of civilisation (the "points of light", with simple adventure hooks), seven ruins, and 6 monster lairs. You can place a larger starting dungeon somewhere close to the centre (this could be beneath the strange garden at 0407, two hexes from KRAKHALL), and a smattering of smaller ones all around: perhaps beneath the well in FELL (0310),  the buried passage in the ancient shrine (0506), the secret treasure cave (0610), the eccentrics' tower basement (0707), the Pavilion of Engadrok (0710), and the emperor's undersea villa (0808). If this sounds too much, that's because it is: you do not need to do it all at once, and many of the possibilities may never enter play (they are well hidden, the entrance is buried or enchanted, etc.).

It is also likely that the campaign will move beyond the initial area in some direction. Perhaps the players will want to visit the city at 1108, follow up on the humanoid raids originating from the advance hobgoblin camp to the west (0109), or travel north beyond the mountains and see what lies in that direction. Do not waste too much work: it does not hurt to be a little lazy in a hex-crawl campaign. If something is particularly important for you, link it to the players with multiple rumours and adventure hooks, and they will likely find their way there.

Once you have the ideas for the hex-crawls, connect, leverage and reuse them: let the brigands at 0406 start harassing merchants along the road, or the hobgoblins send a shipment of captives to the orcs in Castle Gardak (0203). Perhaps the greedy merchants ruling the city want to depose the incompetent Lord Fumme in WOOLBERG (0810) by kidnapping his daughter. A trail of investigation leads to the lawless village of WYRHOLM (0611), and at that place, the characters hear of a treasure-hunting expedition across the mountains (0610). These links and leads make the setting alive and interconnected, and will soon serve as an organic substitute to the rumour table. The campaign will be, to an extent, self-sustaining within its geographic and thematic boundaries.

The Central Marches:
Initial Scope
0305 A few walls and a collapsed tower remain from a wizard’s mountain stronghold, now inhabited by 4 griffons. In their nest, they have collected 3000 sp, an efreet bottle, and Helmbrand, a Neutral sword +1.

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

0407 35 gnolls are picking through the ruins of an extravagant garden. Brass idols of various animals on top of standing columns have magical effects: bull – save vs. spell or berserk rage, serpent – offers healing fruit bearing strange curse, wolf – save vs. polymorph or contract lycanthropy, swan – gives feather to most beautiful character, touch heals 1d6 Hp, bear – save vs. spell or sleep 1d6 days, pelican – gives key in exchange for a fish. Buried under a large pile of rubble is the villa of a magic-user, now a repository of mirages. [Ideal for a mini-dungeon]

0409 Crude rock monuments of a preshistoric people stand painted by the grassland road. 18 prize horses (2d6*100 gp each) are grazing nearby, belonging to Bobend the Bastard (Fighter 7), who lives nearby in a filthy tent with 5 wives and 9 mean, unruly children.

0505 BREEZEHALL, tower of the Lord Yverr the Silent (Ftr 9), served by 90 men-at-arms patrolling the mountain road, and Dalco the Orphaned (M-U 5), the descendant of a forgotten king. Lord Yverr is obsessed with five stone thrones on a nearby mountaintop, each struck through with a sword that shall not budge. He is welcoming to guests demonstrating nobility, but has been known to capture and fleece the soft and squeamish.

0506 6 brown bears live in a cave near the mountain road, and have 1:3 to venture out to prey on travellers who do not outnumber them 2:1. The cave is decorated with ancient cave paintings, and ends at a buried passage between two crude statues of snarling bears.

0507 There are giant trees near the road with 8 hippogriffs lairing in the branches. They are only 1:12 to venture out for men (1d4+4 coming), but horseflesh has 1:6 to draw all eight. The giant nests are strewn with bones, and a dagger +1, 3 vs. orcs and goblins is entangled in the branches.

0511 2 fire-breathing giant lizards, particularly colourful in their resplendent hide (worth 800 and 3000 gp intact), enjoy the sun on flat rocks. Their lair, a crack between the enormous boulders, is the source of a spring, overgrown with healing herbs (2d6 doses, +1 to nighttime Hp recovery if prepared as a tea).

0608 KRAKHALL, castle of the Lord Sinds the Righteous (Ftr 9), 90 men-at-arms, and 3 champions (Ftr 7) who serve him enthusiastically. Lord Sinds is the mortal enemy of Lord Fumme the Unlucky (0810), and even his foe’s name can send him into an uncontrollable rage. The moat has been populated with killer frogs as a form of defence, but this plan has not been thought through, and the beasts have become pests in the countryside.

0609 18 zombies wearing the garments of pilgrims shamble in an endless circular procession on a road that terminates shortly afterwards.

0610 Tajah the She-Wolf (Thf 8), noted robber, has come here with a retinue of 30 fighting men and 10 labourers to seek a cavern outlined on a treasure map, found somewhere near the lake coast. Their camp is overrun by small monkeys which prey on the supplies and gradually strip away their equipment.

0611 WYRHOLM, village of 300 men who resent taxation and outside interference, and have become a nest of outlaws and bandits, including armsmen from Woolberg (0810), and good but unscrupulous forest guides. Stolliviss the Eternal (Clr 2) is trying to convert the people to the worship of demonism. The Hack Rack Tavern caters to loggers and fighting men, featuring a bear pit; proprietor Klaint the Incomprehensible is a Thieves Guild man who buys and sells valuables “no questions asked”.

0707 A tower, once the retreat of rich eccentrics for their debauchery, now lies in a decrepit state, inhabited by Klaro the Tall (Fighter 6) and 70 bandits. The weird things the former occupants were into are safely locked down in the basement, while Klaro has converted the top room into a personal weapon and armour collection.

0710 The Pavilion of Engadrok lies in the middle of Lake Oopag, where a magic door leads to a fantastic maze created by a djinn, and the prison of an enchanted princess.

0808 The terraces of a fancy, submerged villa complex can be see beneath the waves here, the former coastal estate of Emperor Nobendses. 200 mermen inhabit the structure, and guard an undersea dungeon with the emperor’s treasures.

0810 WOOLBERG, castle of the Lord Fumme the Unlucky (Ftr 9), 150 men-at-arms, and Father Hsitisolodie (Clr 5). Lord Fumme’s incompetence and bad luck have brought him low in the eyes of the court and his neighbours, and placed him near ruin. The garrison is ill kept, and the men are often away on private ventures involving brigandage in Wyrholm (0611). Father Hsitisolodie is eager to have Lord Fumme’s daughter, Abigh the Mad married off to a worthy suitor to preserve an important prophecy.

Monday, 11 October 2021

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #09 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Beyond the Gates of Sorrow
I am pleased to announce the publication of the ninth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 56-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Graphite Prime, and illustrations by Vincentas Saladis, Cameron Hawkey, Denis McCarthy, Stefan B. Poag, and the Dead Victorians.

This issue serves to introduce the Twelve Kingdoms, a divided northern region to the northwest of Erillion, cut off from the rest of human civilisation. Two hex map sheets describe the five larger, four medium-sized, and numerous smaller islands ruled by rival petty kingdoms, and ravaged by incessant warfare. Ruined castles, faerie-haunted forests, barren coasts and cold mountain ranges await those who adventure here; druids, reclusive eccentrics, jealous wizards’ orders and mysterious monasteries complicate the network of temporary alliances. This is a land fit for exploration, plunder... or will that be conquest? Let the players decide, and live with the consequences!

The titular adventure, Beyond the Gates of Sorrow, takes the company to a small archipelago on the borders of the Kingdoms. Uninhabited and barely sustainable to sustain life, there is nevertheless much danger here. Can a shipwrecked party find a means of escape from their predicament? Or can another find a person or item of special significance while racing against a rival group of explorers? 19 wilderness and 18 dungeon locations describe the archipelago’s dangers and occasional treasures in this scenario for levels 2-4.

Echoes #09 also includes a larger dungeon adventure, The Vaults of Volokarnos. Originally published as a stand-alone introductory module for the Casemates and Companies RPG, and now converted to the B/X lineage of old-school games, the Vaults are specifically designed for beginning characters, and potentially players who are new to old-school gaming in general. A fully stocked dungeon level awaits with 52 keyed reas, and more orcs than you can shake a stick at. Explore a dungeon complex that had once served as a catacomb system, thermal bath, touristic attraction... at the same time. Find out what the orcs are up to, what lies in burial vaults yet unconquered, and what the patricians of the nearby town do not want you to know... and where character sheets and followers are concerned, bring spares. It shall not hurt.

In addition to the Vaults, the issue also describes the isle republic of Arak Brannia. This two-page setting can serve as the background for the Vaults of Volokarnos, or a springboard for further adventures on the northern coastlands of the declining Kassadian Empire...

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.

Double hex map


Sunday, 19 September 2021

[STUFF] Morthimion: The Crypt Level

[Spoiler-free, player-safe section]

Morthimion
Two years have passed since the last update on Morthimion, a dungeon we have been exploring as a side-show to other, larger campaigns. For those who are not blog regulars, or do not want to read up on this stuff, Morthimion came about as an experiment to play Original D&D (reasonably) by the book, three booklets only. Most OD&D games use the followup supplements, or at least Greyhawk, which gives you a slightly rougher, lower-powered proto-AD&D. LBB-only OD&D is not yet that game. It lacks many of the monsters, spells, and classes we would associate with D&D; hit dice and weapon damage are universally 1d6; monster XP is much more generous than it would be later; and ability scores barely do anything. Level advancement can be very quick at the start, but gets quite slow later. Beyond the sheer oddity and archaic charm of it, OD&D hangs together surprisingly well if taken seriously and played by the book. It is not a fantasy novel simulation, it is a verbal tunnel exploration and puzzle-solving game that has simple but effective mechanics for looting labyrinthine subterranean complexes.

Here is where Morthimion stood in August 2019:

“I have also completed Level 3, The Crypts, progressed with the wilderness section, and written brief encounter ideas for some of the sub-levels the characters have discovered in the last two games. These will be explored in the next post, after we have a few more sessions under our belt! Until then… Fight On!”

Well, the games progressed decently until late 2019, when two things happened: the bat plague put our face-to-face games on hold, and after completing another sublevel (The Court), I felt burned out on the dungeons. The campaign was on hiatus, with only one session in 2020. After a long break, I feel like the creative block may be lifting, and Morthimion can return to rotation. Level 4, The Mines, has been drafted and the first draft of the key written; we also held another game yesterday with some quite interesting results.

This post shall summarise what has been going on in Morthimior (Ryth Chronicles-style), and allow me to clear my head by releasing two more levels of the dungeon – which will be found at the end of the post. To protect the innocent (my players surely are), this later section will be spoilered.

* * *

Domains of the Faerie Princes

Older Expeditions

Here are the main events of the Morthimion campaign:

On October 27, 2019, a wilderness expedition was conducted to the northern highlands of the Domains of the Faerie Princes. Not even far from King Donald’s Wall, the company already had to leave behind two horses to distract 5 griffins going for their company. A ruined village in the swamps yielded good bounty – old wine barrels with valuable vintage. Fatalgor the Footpad (the campaign’s only Thief – transferred from another game, and thus valid) was only saved from spider venom with an antidote. After selling off the barrels at Lodobar’s Tavern, a forest hangout of knaves and miscreants (where Szaniszlo, a light footman, snuck away to seek adventures elsewhere), the group headed for the highlands proper, and right into the nest of two green dragons. Surprised in the dense forest. Renato the horseman, Rudolf the light footman, Owl (Fighting Man 1), El Caballo the torchbearer, Zsazsa the bowman and Fero the heavy footman perished by dragon breath. Turning to flee in bind panic, the others rolled on the Table of Terror. Axbjard Bjardax (Dwarf 2), Hijo de Emirikul (Magic-User 2), Xingar (Fighting Man 2), and Fatalgor (Thief 2) all rolled hilariously badly, and were devoured by the dragons. Tumak the Shaman (Cleric 2) would be the sole survivor, but he would be missing for several weeks, out of the game.

A new company from experienced and newly recruited adventurers was established for a safer dungeon expedition. Premier brought Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 2 of Law) and Weirlord (Magic-User 1), as well as Chort the torchbearer, Ale the porter, and Montgomery the footman. Narmor took Önund the Mystical (Magic-User 2), joined by Ulf Jr., a footman. Bendoin took Derek (Fighting Man 1), followed by his domineering aunt Dahlia Derekovna (a porter), and his uncle, the bowman Derekov; as well as Alyssa (Elf 1). Gajzi took Bandar (Cleric 3 of Risus, God of Uncontrollable Growth).

Shortly after leaving Lodobar’s Tavern, Derekov was caught and eaten in the forest by a giant frog. Pressing on to Morthimion and descending to Level 1, the company was checking out a set of stairs leading upwards, but triggered a slide trap that dumped them down into Level 3! The way was sealed and the mission changed immediately: escape alive! This section of the level (The Juggernaut Tomb) consisted of looping passages, and rumbling noises soon turned out to be enormous rolling juggernauts, one of which caught Dahlia Derekovna under its wheels, squashing her flat. Passages to the west led to a corridor patrolled by a hydra (wisely avoided), while a northern passage revealed an exit from the juggernauts’ path. Passing by stairs down to Level 4 (not an attractive prospect), the explorers discovered the The Arena of Death, where a group of werewolves appeared out of thin air to fight the challenging PCs. Lacking effective magic, they had to flee back where they came – Montgomery was left dead in one of the rooms after he burned himself to death with his own flaming oil.

The horror, the horror...
Level 3 is discovered!

Back in the Juggernaut Tomb, secret doors in the middle lead to a strange talking enigma calling itself “the Sphere of Infinity”, which demanded a hefty sum for information about finding a way out of the level. Meanwhile, Ulf Jr., exploring a nearby room, was drained and killed by a spectre lurking in a stone statue. and eventually, the southern way opened into a less dangerous dungeon section. An old man demanding 200 gp per character “or suffer the Curse of the Third Depth” was paid by most PCs, except Alyssa and Bandar, who had neither the money nor the intention to pay. Following the words of the Sphere of Infinity, they passed through a network of ghoul-haunted catacombs, and finally found a staircase back to Level 1! To their horror, Alyssa and Bandar now learned the true meaning of the “Curse of the Third Depth”: they could not leave this dungeon level, no matter how they tried! These two adventurers disappeared down in the dungeon, and were never seen again – the others, earning meagre loot but at least keeping their lives, headed upstairs to return to the surface...

On November 30, 2019, a different company probed Morthimion’s depths. Returning to the party came Derek (Fighting Man 1) and his henchman Dolmio the bowman, with Dr. D. (Magic-User 1) and his henchman, Demon (heavy footman); Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 2 of Law) and Weirlord (now a Magic-User 2) with Ale (porter), Chort (torchbearer), and Rommel (heavy foot). They were joined by two Morthimion veterans, Brother Tivold, Cockroach of the Light (Cleric 3 of Chaos) with his henchman Mario the Peg-Leg, Xang (Fighting Man 2), and Xodak (Hobbit 1). Helmet Buddy (Dwarf 2) also joined the group.

This company opted for a wilderness expedition in the lower parts of the valley. They were soon attacked in the forest by giant frogs, and Mario the Peg-Leg was devoured. Meeting a Gypsy caravan shortly afterwards, they consulted with their leader, Offryn the Outlaw, for a crystal ball reading. This brought to their attention a mysterious stone arch they had already seen near a forest cemetery, somehow connected to “the Prince of Roses”. Unfortunately, seeking out the arch brought no enlightenment, and they instead plundered some of the crypts in the cemetery, recovering modest but not too difficult plunder to a total value of 5900 gp.


Level 2 explorations...

A second expedition led down to Level 2 of the dungeons. Exploring the eastern side of the level, Dr. D. fell into a wandering pit moving along a corridor, and died instantly. Crawlways inhabited by giant weasels were purged and a little treasure recovered. They avoided a mysterious fire temple, and found stairs up to Level 1. Finally, they came to a corridor with arrow slits and a metal door with a small peephole. A panel slid aside, and a pale, dishevelled creature (a morlock) asked about the party’s business. He finally acquiesced to letting them see their king after a bribe. However, instead of opening the door, a pit trap opened underfoot, dumping all in the corridor into a sub-level enclosure. Weirlord narrowly avoided getting killed, while Chort the torchbearer perished with a broken leg. Noises of angry, armed morlocks were approaching from behind a portcullis with long spears and flaming oil, and the only other way was a 20’ wide shaft down.’ Quickly rappelling down, they were again in the Level 3 catacombs. This was at least familiar territory. Backtracking to Level 1, resources were running low, and the company ended up bribing a group of randomly encountered bandits to serve as their escort to the surface. This expedition covered some ground on Level 2, but the pickings were very slim, a mere 305 gp.

On 29 November 2020 (almost exactly one year later!), we reconvened, this time virtually on Roll20. Önund the Mystical (Magic-User 2) and his heavy footmen Jörg and Tade were joined by Mime the Grumbler (Dwarf 1). Tycho the Ascetic (now a Cleric 3 of Law) came with Weirlord (Magic-User 2), who kept Rommel (heavy foot) and Ale the porter. Two new dungeoneers joined the gang: Seogarr (Fighting Man 1) and Astanir (Cleric 1 of Law), who brought the porter Willem and the bowman Marruk.

Travelling through a less trod path of the forest, the company came upon the statue of a bat holding a fist-sized crystal worth 4000 gp! Astanir instructed Willem to fetch the prize, but it soon turned out that the crystal, a cursed chunk of ice, would freeze its thief into an icy statue, and also melt into worthless water in turn.

A new section beyond the Torture Chamber...

Since the company was relatively weak, the expedition was conducted on Level 1. The company soon encountered a company of armoured adventurers, led by Ellominet the Benevolent. Parting on amicable terms, northern passages brought the party to a stone knight guarding an intersection, who demanded five rounds of single combat for passage. Mime the Grumbler rose to the challenge, and defeated the stone hero. To the north, a room complex with a teleporting chest puzzle yielded nice treasure, including a 5000 gp amulet! The company returned to the area close to the entrance. A crumbling wall in the Torture Chamber drew Mime’s attention, and this section proved to be of new construction! An entirely new part of the level was revealed, with meandering passages leading to dead end pits, and powerful quantum ogres that would appear if the party was backed into the corner. To his bad luck, the wounded Mime the Grumbler – this section’s discoverer – perished in one of the pit traps.

The ogres had decent gold, and the search also yielded an old bronze door leading to a mortuary with scattered treasure… but also 12 ghouls. Deciding to leave them be rather than risk a fight after a successful turn attempt, the door was instead spiked shut for a later expedition. The company now headed for the surface, where they soon made an unpleasant discovery: Jörg the heavy footman proved to be a thief looking for a good score, lifting a good deal of valuables from the resting company. Marruk the bowman also called it quits, retiring with his well-earned wages. And so the game stood for ten more months.

* * *

Jewels of the Gnoll King

On 17 September, 2021, we had a guest coming over from the States (Necromancer Games forums regular Kenmckinney, from way back in 2002!). After sightseeing and a lunch, we sat down for an impromptu game of OD&D with the gang.

The party descended into the dungeons of Morthimion, trying to lay siege to the ghoul mortuary. Ken got two second-level characters, Otto (Dwarf 2) and Wulfram (Cleric 2 of Fire, Lawful), with Sven the halberdier. Nubin (Dwarf 3) came all the way from a LBB-only Xyntillan game back in 2019, and he was accompanied by Brother Gaspard (Cleric 1 of Law), as well as a whole troop of four bowmen: Nock, Aim, Draw, and Shoot. Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 3 of Law) and Weirlord (now a Magic-User 3) returned with more recruits: the halberdiers Bill and Hook. Brother Tivold, Cockroach of the Light (Cleric 3 of Chaos) came alone, for he was so mighty.

The company quickly returned to the Torture Chamber, and set out to construct an elaborate ghoul trap using spikes, rope, and lots of oil. However, as they were hammering the spikes into the wall, the noise attracted a band of ten gnolls, who attacked the party from the rear (in OD&D, these are not yet the later hyena-men, but gnome/troll hybrids – the Morthimion document refers to them as “tromes”). A furious melee developed, and the gnolls (sturdy 2 HD critters) put up a darn good fight, making all their morale rolls and fighting to the last. Sven, the halberdier, went down fighting in the melee.

The canonical OD&D gnoll

Now the gnolls were just a random encounter far from their lair, but I gave a 30% probability of them carrying a level one treasure (that's 100% of 1d6×100 silver pieces, 50% of 1d6×10 gold pieces, 5% each of gemstones or jewellery, and 5% of one magic item – trash loot, basically, because in OD&D, 100 gp is chump change).

So the gnolls had 300 sp among them... 10 gold pieces... but then I rolled that 5% for the jewellery, and they were carrying four of them! Jewels are completely random, and they are the most valuable treasure type, much much much more valuable than anything else that’s not a magic item, and small enough to transport easily. I rolled everything in the open, and got a 5000 gp necklace, a 10,000 gp crown, a pair of 1300 gp boots, and a 8000 gp sceptre! The characters had found the guard escorting the crown jewels of the Gnoll King! They basically immediately turned around and left the dungeon, because they could just jump a level each after dividing their 24,300 gp haul, even though it was among seven characters. Two henchmen, Shoot and Bill decided to cash out their wages and retire.

The second expedition was with a more powerful band: Otto, Wulfram and Brother Gaspard were now level 3, Nubin was a Level 4 Hero, and Brother Tivold became an Anti-Vicar. To round out the lineup, Trident the halberdier joined Weirlord, while two more halberdiers, Walther and Siegfried joined Otto. Draco (Fighting Man 2 with a Charisma of 3, a regular Quasimodo!) joined the company slightly later.

The trap was finished: three ropes fastened at ankle height over pools of oil, characters feigning escape to lure in the ghouls, and ready torchmen to set the oil puddles ablaze at the first opportunity. The followers were left to hang back, since this was solely a trick for the hardier PCs. The ghouls were ready to fight (they had heard all the hammering outside their lair), and rushed out more suddenly than expected. They were worn down and burned by the oil-and-rope traps, although characters were severely wounded, and Otto, Nubin, Brother Tivold, as well as Draco were paralysed (in OD&D, there is no time limit: I ruled it would last until the end of the expedition). The ghoul band was finally destroyed by turning them into a blazing pool of oil behind them, a dirty trick which was so clever I didn’t even grant a save vs. dragon breath. The mortuary was looted… 1200 gp and a shield +1… no! Examining one of the rotting tapestries on the wall, it was discovered that the back was also embroidered with a treasure map showing a lake in the wilderness, demarcated by forests, a road, and mountains. This would be Silver Lake, a body of water in the Domains which they had passed by numerous times!

With four characters suffering from paralysis, they again headed outside (this short session went without much in the way of exploring new territory)… to run into six very angry gnolls, apparently searching for the jewel thieves! This time, the gnolls were taken out with a sleep spell, except a sole survivor who turned and fled into the darkness, even carrying off a magic arrow Draw had shot at it.

The session ended with a brief wilderness trip to recover the treasure. Riding on horses, the company entered the forests… to immediately run into ten more gnolls, preparing an ambush! This time, Weirlord was ready, and used phantasmal forces to create the illusion of several more horsemen thundering behind them, and the gnolls failed their morale check, disappearing in the woods. The way to Silver Lake was clear, but where was the treasure? Tycho the Ascetic’s speak with animals spell used on 11 friendly giant toads just minding their business among the reeds (the result of a high reaction roll) pinpointed the exact location of one half of a submerged boat, carrying in its hold some 40,000 silver pieces. Thus ended the expedition for The Jewels of the Gnoll King and The Treasure of Silver Lake.

[Here ends the spoiler-free section]