Sunday, 16 May 2021

[REVIEW] Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness

Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness (2021)

by Geoffrey McKinney


Levels 4 to 14 (really!)

Mike's World
Consider the following: between the Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos (or its “roll your own” cousin, the Cave of the Unknown) lies a peculiar environment, a land of excitement and adventure; a hallowed locale. The wilderness around the Caves of Chaos is the place where beginning adventurers go to die. Killed by the insane hermit and his mountain lion companion, slaughtered by lizardmen, or running into the raiders, they are slaughtered by the dozens. One of the times I ran B2, the party never even reached the caves. Somewhere on their way, they investigated an interesting collection of black pines, got into a fight with two black widow spiders, were bitten, and died to the last man. Why did they have to go in that direction? Hell if I remember; they picked up the idea at the Keep, and kept going until they were in over their heads. The pine trees were near the edge of the Keep’s surroundings, and if the adventures had lived, they could have just kept walking. Beyond the map’s edge lies Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness.

Like most Geoffrey projects, this is an audacious one. Mike’s World expands on B2’s wilderness section, giving you a frontier area of 15 maps in a 5x3 configuration. Centre west lies the Keep and the rest of B2 on the original map sheet; all beyond is howling wilderness with only the occasional permanent habitation. In every direction lies danger and adventure. As the ad copy says, “This is the world you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. There are no long-winded histories, complicated calendars, detailed weather charts, intricate genealogies, complex pantheons, or anything of the sort. This is a no-nonsense campaign setting for playing D&D.” Sometimes, there is truth in advertisement, and this 32-page pamphlet is true to its word. You get 14 extra map sheets described and stocked rather like B2’s wilderness, but scaled to the level of the Expert Set, and populated by “Mike”, an evil little killer DM. The Expert rules go from level 4 to level 14, and so do the encounters, getting progressively more dangerous the further one ventures from the Keep’s relative safety. (You can read about Geoffrey’s method in this forum post.) It can get bad, very-very bad; on the fringes, it is bad enough to make high-powered Lords and Wizards quake, and Patriarchs forsake their gods. Every map sheet but the final one gets exactly one facing page of text describing about 3 to 5 points of interest; the final sheet gets two pages.

The maps are meticulously and obsessively aligned with B2, not just in layout, but drawing style as well: Mike, the ostensible 12 years old prodigy went to considerable pains to use the same symbols and the same style of topography as the original cartographer. If you put together all the maps and do some colour corrections on the originals (which I did, and have gained Geoffrey’s blessings to publish them), they fit together so seamlessly it can be hard to tell at first glance which is old and which is new. The illusion, if not perfect, is at least convincing. And it is an enormous playing board, even if the overall area covered is only 11.35 miles by 8.85 miles (or 18.27 km by 14.24 km), or about two standard hexes. These are hiking distances, and that’s what forays into the wilderness will feel like: hilariously deadly hiking trips with the world’s most suicidal scout troop.

A Wilderland

When I mention “howling wilderness”, it is no figure of speech. The howling is loud and clear. Robert Conley’s Blackmarsh and Points of Light are lands of competing petty kingdoms and tiny communities fending off monsters and nurturing their agendas, grudges and alliances. The Forsaken Wilderness is what lies beyond the Borderlands: the Keep is the final, tiny point of light, and beyond is only darkness. The road ends on the western edge of the next sheet, and from then on, there are no others. The introduction – very in medias res, no bullshitting here – drives it home that this is inhospitable terrain; even “clear” land is wild, and the forests are dark, thick, and miasmatic. A long conflict called the Glimmerstone Wars devastated the lands, leaving behind scattered population groups typically numbering in the dozens (if that), and no organised civilisation of note. In a very Geoffrey-style twist, we learn that the wars had rent the land: snaking through the fourteen maps are strange fracture lines, faults and zones where strange things happen and even magic is unreliable in its effects. The pamphlet is entirely play-oriented, so the historical background is one brief paragraph, but the setting offers a number of interconnected themes and mysteries, from the origin and fate of the fabled Glimmerstones, to the surviving demi-human and monster populations of the war itself. It is the Wilderlands all right, but not necessarily “of High Fantasy” – it owes as much, or even more in style to Rhovanion, Tolkien’s wilderness setting, which Geoffrey had already tried to map and gamify once (then with less success). It is a land of dark, deep forests; raging great rivers; wet fens; and other grandiose wonders of untamed nature which can appear to us as if wrought by the hand of God.

This is very much a “man vs. nature” setting, and it possesses a peculiar beauty that accompanies dangerous and bizarre elements. This is where the illusion wears a bit thin – no 12 years old is so precocious as to weave in these strong themes of devastation, strangeness, and loss – but Mike’s World is better for it. The keyed encounters are among the best Geoffrey has written; not as minimal as some of his prior work (such as even Isle of the Unknown) and not as forbiddingly negative as Carcosa, the entries are colourful, fantastic, and have great imagery. It is a slightly palette-shifted take on The Hobbit; goblins ride dark green giant spiders and evil treants ferment strange brews to offer by force to travellers; giants inhabit fantastic castles and prehistoric or interstellar monsters stomp around in blighted lands. It is varied and sometimes oddly specific in a way that suggests high randomness (the interior of an ice dome is an even 78° Fahrenheit – neither more nor less? Purple worm teeth are worth exactly 54 to 108 gp, not 51 to 105?), but in every described encounter, the handicraft comes through. When it is standard D&D, it is given a strange twist (they are orcs… but cycloptic orcs! they are gnolls… who are overeating on strange, overripe fruits from the stars!); and when it is sheer oddity, it is given hooks to fold them into the setting (a fallen starship is perfect material to forge magical arms or armour; a wondrous mineral cavern is inhabited by carrion crawlers). It is an excellent, balanced blend of Geoffrey’s sensibilities (cosmic strangeness and Tolkienesque adventure). There are hidden ties and ideas connecting the setting to its fantasy roots (if you consider what colour are the Glimmerstones, you might get a very peculiar and morbidly funny idea where these fabled gemstones might have come from). There is also a sly sense of humour coming through, with passages like “If the DM has a spare afternoon in which to design, map, stat, and detail an entire planet, he can rule that adventurers touching the weapons will be teleported naked to Barsoom, a planet full of other naked people of crazy skin colors.” Easy peasy!

The difficulty curve is real and sometimes seems very steep despite the intended gradation. I think you, the hypothetical GM using this setting, may benefit from populating it with more encounters and a few notable dungeons. And some encounters are plain assholish death-traps worthy of a teenage munchkin DM with a grudge, even with some basic foreshadowing (wyvern pit and “The Endless Labyrinth”, I am looking at you!). You might want to reconsider these.

There are many ways to use this wondrous and untamed wilderness, and for all its unassuming appearance, it is laden with more potential and expressive power that shall only encourage GMs to use and enrich it. It is not an adventure yet – it needs a little extra to motivate the party and get them going, such as a few rumours and perhaps a scattering of more detailed dungeon sites – but it has the good kind of vagueness that invites tinkering and opens up the mind. It is in this respect that Geoffrey hit the bullseye; for in the balance between what is there and what isn’t, he got it exactly right: this is “creativity aid, not creativity replacement”. The maps, of course, are the cream of the crop, and with a little juggling, would make for a great virtual tabletop game. All in all: for a product that’s all rough edges from a product design standpoint, and barely cares enough to make itself presentable as a PDF, it is a triumph of both the imagination and utility, and a real [redacted]-coloured Glimmerstone in the rough. A great gameable setting with a vision, even if you get the odd feeling Mike’s dad might have helped with his homework.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Complete, downloadable B&W Map (12 MB, done with Geoffrey's approval)

Oh no! Oh noooooooo!

Saturday, 8 May 2021

[BLOG] The Scoundrel’s Progress (Helvéczia Character Generation)

First, news on Helvéczia’s progress! Production is well underway, and boxes on our checklist are ticked off one by one. It is a complicated list, but there is a point with a large “ENDE” sign, and that sign is approaching. Here is where we are:

  • The book interiors, covers and endpapers have been printed, and are at the binder for assembly.
  • The Ammertal and the Oberammsbund supplement (a 72-page A4 book with hex-level world description and a handful of adventures) is printing.
  • The boxes are being manufactured (these are hand-made by one of the last boxmaker ladies active in town).
  • The maps have been finalised, test prints have been examined, and adjustments have been made. They will begin printing soon.
  • This leaves the reference folder with the “other stuff”. This still needs to be finalised, but will be done in the next days – it is not complicated stuff.

With all things considered, it looks like the first boxes may be assembled in the second half of May. They will not go on sale immediately. The box would be available NOW if it was in my hands, but this kind of work does take time – the increase of product complexity is not linear, but geometric. As the plan goes, I will take a short holiday in late May and early June (during which time the store will be closed), after which Helvéczia will be available. If everything comes together, a small initial batch will be sent to NTRPGCon, and the game will make its international debut there – check the Black Blade Publishing stand!

For this post, let’s delve into the game’s character creation rules – I shall make a random character to demonstrate how the rules work, and how they are balanced between the familiar and the unknown.

Boxed set prototype with a hand of cards

Unless otherwise specified by some special circumstance, all Helvéczia player characters are randomly generated, and at the second level of experience. Since the game encompasses six experience levels, power differences are rarely bad enough to merit starting above second level. Enterprising NPCs can be promoted to adventurers during play (Little Juan, whose adventures we have recounted before, started his career as a servant, and rose to fame and fortune after his master, Don José Emilio de Gálvez y Rivera, had to depart with speed from the inquisitors who had wanted to burn him for practicing black magic).

For our character, we shall generate ability scores with the 4d6, drop lowest method. The scores are always in order, but the player can select between two sets – this results in generally competent characters, but often with a few interesting flaws. We roll the dice, and get...

  • Str 16, Dex 10, Con 15, Int 13, Wis 12, Cha 9
  • Str 15, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 15, Wis 15, Cha 8

Neither of these mostly similar sets make for flattering cads, but both are essentially qualified for any class in the game: there is no overwhelming reason not to run a strong Vagabond, or even Student (who are not as frail as D&D’s magic-users), and Father Taddeo Previti, the renowned inquisitor, had a Dexterity of 18, with an almost supernatural ability to silently appear behind someone’s back (“Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition… in Catalonia!”). For now, we will pick the second set, note down the ability score bonuses on the character sheet (more on this later), and create a fighting-oriented character.

Our character, Pascual de Perales (name generated with this very useful random generator) shall be a Spaniard – somewhere midway between safe bets like Frenchmen and Germans, and wildcards with like Poles and Hungarians (who come with higher benefits, but severe drawbacks). The Catalonia campaign introduced several varieties of smaller groups on the Iberian Peninsula, from Andalusians to Basques and Gallegos, but for now, we shall stick with the rulebook. Accordingly, we can note down the following special abilities:

  • They receive +2 to their Bravery and Temptation saving throws.
  • In all circumstances, they must spend a quarter of their money on elegant clothing and expensive jewellery befitting Hispanic fashion.

Helvéczia’s Fighter class is divided into six sub-classes, and – in keeping with the swashbuckling theme – we shall make Pascual, who seems like a bravo or troublemaker with his high abilities but below-average Charisma, a Duellist. This means the following:

  • They can transfer part or whole of their base attack bonus to AC to protect either themselves or others. This AC bonus can be granted to one person for every odd level. [Here, it is +2, and one person – either the character, or someone he is defending]
  • If it is higher than their Strength bonus, they can use their Dexterity bonus for melee attacks. [Not applicable here]
  • Finally, they receive a +2 to all combat checks. [Combat checks, or CCs, are a general action type for all kinds of “special moves” like disarming, tackling, forcing back an opponent, seizing a hostage, etc. They are played with contested attack rolls.]

We note down this information on the character sheet as well. Pascual currently has 2000 experience points (for 2nd level), and needs to hit 6000 for 3rd level.

As one of its points where it departs the furthest from common “OSR” systems, Helvéczia has a simple skill system. Pascual de Perales has three skills by default, and plus two for his Intelligence bonus. Since Fighters are more versatile than other classes, he will receive one more each on 3rd and 5th level. We pick the following skills, beneficial to a troublemaker:

  • Climb (Str)
  • Gambling (Dex)
  • Jump (Str)
  • Ride (Dex)
  • Science (Int)

All of these skills are rated at a value equal to the sum of the character’s level [2] and the relevant ability bonus [-3 to +3]. In his youth, Pascual must have had some formal education, as he has a science skill... which, for added fun, we shall roll randomly from a table with a d6 and d12 (there is a similar one for crafts): a 2 and 1, making Pascual trained in the useful art of Aesthetics! Note that Pascual shall not be restricted to the use of the selected skills: he can use any skill available to his class (which is “most of them”), he just does not get to add his level to those rolls. Helvéczia characters are jacks of all trades… granted, on low levels, they are also masters of none! Difficulty Classes (DCs) for most rolls are 12 (for Normal tasks) or 18 (for Hard ones).

After these steps, we can determine Pascual’s secondary values, various stats derived from class, ability scores, and a few other factors.

  • First things first, Pascual’s hit points shall be 10 (maximum on first level – this benefit is solely for player characters), plus 1d10, plus his Constitution modifier on each level. We get: 10+2+2=14. Pascual can talk the talk and get into trouble, but he has a glass jaw. (Like all other PCs, he will fall unconscious at 0 Hp, and die at -5 Hp. There is no bleeding rule in Helvéczia.)
  • His initiative shall be equal to his Dexterity bonus, a +1.
  • His Armour Class shall be left for after picking equipment.
  • His attack bonus as a Duellist is Level*1 (other classes are Level*2/3), to which he can add his Strength bonus (for mêlée) or Dexterity bonus (for ranged attacks). Thus, we get 2+2=4 and 2+1=3.
  • Helvéczia has three saving throw categories: Bravery, Deftness, and Temptation. As a Duellist, Pascual is good at Bravery, with a value of Level/2+2, and the others at Level/2. To these, he adds his relevant bonus values (Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom, respectively), as well as his special bonus as a Spaniard. Therefore, we get 1+2+1+2=+6 (this is a very good value in the system!), 1+0+1=+2, and 1+0+2+2=+5. We note down the scores.
  • There is one more thing to be done here: it comes later in the book, but we shall roll Pascual’s Virtue! Virtue functions as Helvéczia’s equivalent of an alignment system. The beginning score is rolled with a flat 3d6 roll, and positions the character on a 21-point scale that goes from 1 to 21. This score describes where the character stands in the struggle between Heaven and Hell, who both have a standing interest in the affairs of mortals. Pascual rolls 12, which is right in the middle, and comes with no remarkable effects – but every virtuous or sinful deed shall be recorded in the Catalogue of Sins, moving him towards one extreme or the other, with various consequences! (See the scale in the upper right for the simplest ones.)

We’ve got Pascual, now it is time to give him equipment. At the beginning, he has a set of inexpensive clothes, and 2d6 golden Thalers or equipment to the same value. As a Duellist, he is also entitled to one weapon of his choice. We roll 3+4=7! There are options to take out a starting loan at a sympathetic banking house like the Fuggers, Die Gebrüder Lehmann, Rotschild & Söhne, or Goldmann-Sachs, for those who enjoy paying compound interest on relatively short notice, but this will be enough to get by. We will convert our Thalers to 70 Pfennigs for ease of use, and start shopping.

  • For his free starting weapon, Pascual picks a spadroon, a good fencing weapon: it only causes 1d6 damage (plus the Strength bonus), but it has a good critical hit range (18–20/*2), and it grants +2 to Combat Checks, which will be Pascual’s forte!
  • From the 70 Pfennigs, Pascual also equips himself with a cloak and a main-gauche (parrying dagger): both of these function as armour, granting him +2 AC each. We can now count Pascual’s Armour Class: 10 plus Dex bonus plus armour type, making for 10+1+2+2=15. Later in his career, Pascuall shall try to get his hands on a cuirass, but so far, so good… These two items only cost 11 Pfg, while the cuirass would set him back 15 Th!
  • A gun would come in handy! Pascual can still afford one pistol (40 Pfg), with two pouches of powder and shot (20*, 6 Pfg). Firearms are “first-strike” weapons, requiring precious combat time to reload, but that initial shot can be decisive. Pistols do an impressive 1d10+ damage (meaning the 10 will add an extra damage dice), and have a critical of (20/*3). They take one round to reload.
  • Pascual only has 11 Pfg left. He passes on a handful of grenades (“Some day!”), thinks about taking that loan, then settles for minor personal effects: a feathered hat (5 Pfg) to look like a semblance of a gentleman, a deck of cards (2 Pfg, but they pay for themselves!), a haversack (1 Pfg), and a wineskin filled with wine (1 Pfg). Having only 2 Pfg left in this world, sufficient for four days of poor room and board at some low-class inn, Pascual now has sufficient motivation for embarking on his adventures, and getting more money... at gunpoint if n-eeded be!

The reader might note an “X” in the second column. This is for encumbrance values: characters can carry one object (or a logical combination of small ones) in one slot, and depending on Strength, some may be crossed off – Pascual can carry 15 items on his person, but Szymon Czarniecki, a much weaker Student with a Strength of 7 (-1) would only be able to carry 12.

All that remains are background details. In Helvéczia, it is recommended to give your character a brief and to the point backstory – perhaps a paragraph to establish the hero or heroine – and let the rest emerge over play. It never hurts to have that persona (Pascual is a violent and charmless bravo, but more smart than one might assume), along with a sampler of past sins or good deeds. Since Pascual’s Virtue is average, he might not have done anything bad, or he could have just been a person of extremes – which is what we will go with:

Would you buy a used
glaive-guisarme from this guy?
Character notes:

"There is no greater teacher than Life; and this was the wisdom Pascual de Perales followed when ending his studies and embarking on a life of swordfighting, highway robbery, and daring escapes from places where the previous two had proved unsuccessful. After a misadventure with the stagecoach of a great hidalgo named Don Alejandro Luís de Santillan, he thought it better to leave his native land, and head for the lands of Helvéczia, where the Law shall rarely follow."

The Catalogue of Sins: 

–1 point: Plundering the Inn of the Barbican
–2 points: attack on the stagecoach, and killing the bodyguard
+2 point: defending the peddler from the guards
–1 point: robbery at gunpoint

Pascual is now ready for his first adventure!

In my experience, explaining character generation for Helvéczia takes longer than actually doing it, especially after the first PC or two (initial character turnover can be rapid). Of course, the process above only applies to player characters. If he was a throwaway NPC, here is how the Gamemaster would stat him:

Pascual de Perales: Duellist 2+2; AC 15 (Dex, cloak, main-guache); Atk +4 spadroon 1d6+2 (18–20/*2, +2 CC) or +4 pistol 1d10+ (*3) [1 r]; Spec attack to AC [2], +2 CC; +5/+3/+5; V 12; 2 Pfg, powder&shot*20, wineskin, cards.

Hp       14

You will note that the translation is not entirely accurate – some things are simplified or omitted – but the Gamemaster, who has to move several characters in the game, shall surely appreciate the simplicity!

Pascual de Perales -- character sheet (0.1 MB PDF) 

Hex map test prints (GM/player)

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

[REVIEW] Crypt of the Lizard Wizard

Jeff Rients, Eat Your Heart Out!

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard (2021)

by Sawyer Young


Levels ?Low? 

The clash of different genres and the resulting gonzo aesthetic has been a basic pillar of D&D since its beginnings. The game’s early years are full of bizarre non-fantasy stuff cropping up in fantasy worlds, from fallen starships in Temple of the Frog and Wilderlands of High Fantasy to The Dungeoneer’s less fondly remembered tin foil monsters. Dave Hargrave, barely remembered in the modern OSR, was perhaps the king of this sort of thing, of balrogs versus battle tanks, mantis man and demonkin player characters, and star wizards battling kill kittens. RPG fantasy was yet undefined and without boundaries; and when the boundaries were fixed, something was definitely lost – even though that “something” was often just stupid, random, and ultimately dissatisfying. The tradition lived on here and there; in RIFTS, one of the great summits of traditional gaming; in Encounter Critical; and a few old-school modules here and there (perhaps best in Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which combines a wild imagination with craft).

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard is a module in this manner, and if you look at the ultra-cool cover, you will immediately see what kind of thing it aims to be. Hell yes! And it gets weirder: you are not buying just an adventure in the package, but a home-drawn illustration booklet and the module’s own soundtrack: not since Dragonstrike have such peaks been trod. However, the review is about the module: production values are appreciated, but they should not allow them to cloud our mind!

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard is a mini-dungeon amounting to approximately five loosely typed zine pages’ worth of text, a map (one page), and the illustration booklet. There are no stats, nor much in the way of treasure – but this is an odd module. There are eight keyed areas, which is not much, although all eight are actually descriptions of larger areas than your typical dungeon room, more like a small sublevel in scope. This is not a flaw by itself, but it does miss out on some development potential. In very broad strokes, the scenario outlines a swamp dungeon leading to the inscrutable relics of a fallen high-tech civilisation. It is a wild ride with decaying supercomputers, a step pyramid in a subterranean jungle with a radioactive altar (cool!), and man-eating plant life; mostly linear with the odd detour.

There is fine imagery throughout: “The ruins can be found several miles downriver, towards a morass where the river slowly sinks into the blood-sodden earth. Two heliotrope and crimson moons regularly drift above the primeval stone monument, but never set beyond the horizon.” Or: “Beyond the steel doors lies a temperature controlled walkway, leading to a great glass fixture, and a jungle biome beyond the arched panes.” That’s brief and essential; little more needs to be said to set a scene. The encounters effectively combine technological decay and bizarre bio-horrors. There are interesting interactive elements and environmental puzzles responding well to player curiosity and creativity throughout. Some are always present (e.g. the portable jungle biome always has amphibious leopards, man-eating tulips, and a water generator), and some are added with a room-by-room random content generator whose results can radically change the nature of a baseline location or encounter. For example, the first area where you approach the ruins may have something like “Souls of the swamp fields rise, looking for the enemy!” or something like “It is raining plagued frogs, again.” No two games in Crypt of the Lizard Wizard shall be identical!

It is, of course, too small and the scope is too narrow, like every release ever made. When we look at the random tables in the different areas, we see some good variety, but this setup actually describes six radically different situations, even though the players will probably only experience one. What if these tables were six actually different places scattered around a wider swamp map? What if it was all developed – not into essay-length entries, but a paragraph each, on a more expansive map? There are no stats, nor even a description of monster numbers. Too much is left ambiguous. Ambiguity is good in moderate doses, since it allows for customisation and a sort of co-creation process between the writer and the GM; here, it just hangs in the air. In many respects, Crypt of the Lizard Wizard feels more like an outline for an adventure yet to be developed than the final deal – the detailed concept document of something bigger. It is a cool grab-bag of ideas but not a good adventure. Much is forgiven if something is done well, but not everything can be.

There is the start of something in this module, and it could be quite good with some expansion and improvement (perhaps something like the Five Cataclysms modules). Imagine the same energy, given more structure and a larger framework. Dare we dream of a 20-40-area dungeon in the same vein? Still not megadungeon territory, but something we can actually bite into. This is the curse of, where genuine creativity is being wasted for lack of structures and ambition: and in this dark swamp, many talented writers shall be lost! This is one of the better releases on the platform. Even in its present form, Crypt of the Lizard Wizard has its homemade charm, and if I saw it on the Acaeum, it’d easily be classified as some dodgy OD&D-era relic which was still struggling with the ideas of presenting game materials to a brand new audience. It is, however, not the 1970s anymore.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. In fact, even the author is only credited in a small footnote on the last page. Weird flex but OK.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday, 15 April 2021

[NEWS] Helvéczia: Announcement and Preview

Helvéczia: cover art by Peter Mullen

“Venture into a rugged land of stamp-sized, steadfastly independent petty states, populated with robber bands, pious clergymen, wig-wearing philistines, adventurous countesses, and wily cheats: the cantons of Helvéczia, a territory of forbidding mountain ranges and endless forests betwixt rival empires. (…) A re-imagination of old-school fantasy role-playing in a late 17th century Switzerland that never was, Helvéczia is a fast-paced and colourful game of guns, dames, deviltry and steel, based on swashbuckling tales, penny dreadfuls, local legends, and the strange stories of the Brothers Grimm.”

I am happy to – finally! – announce the forthcoming release of Helvéczia (pronounced “Helvetia”), my pseudo-historical fantasy RPG set in a strange alternate-world Switzerland. This is going to be a self-contained game system published as a 204-page hardcover ($40, so fully packed that I could not even fit a product list into it), and what’s more, a very sturdy and handsome boxed set ($60, so fully packed that together with the packaging, it is just barely below the postal shipping limit), with a cover painting by Peter Mullen, and player map by Sean Stone. We are now in the production phase where things are being printed, bound, and assembled: not yet there, but there-ish, and perhaps ready for a May release. And now, for the details – for that’s where the Devil tends to lurk!

* * *


Helvéczia is built on a simple premise: what if old-school gaming was built ground-up on a different list of inspirations? What if their creators had watched the Three Musketeers and countless swashbuckling films about robbers, stagecoaches, and swordfighting scoundrels? What if, instead of the great American pulps, they read historical adventure, picaresque stories, and penny dreadfuls? What if the games’ mythical and folkloric inspiration came not from the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European tradition (with a bit of Greek myth via Harryhausen), but the Brothers Grimm, and the broader legendarium of Central Europe? What if Gary Gygax had set his campaigns in a fantastic Switzerland, the homeland of his ancestors, A.D. 1698? The game is an exploration of these questions.

To the death!
Like D&D is slightly different than a sum of its parts, Helvéczia brings the same transformative quality to its source materials: it does not strive for historical or mythical accuracy or a representation of any specific book, movie or legend that went into it; rather, it treats them as ingredients for a fantastic adventure game which freely mixes historical fact with historical fiction – and both of them with the modern imagination. You do not have to be a student of history or 17th century pulp literature to play and enjoy Helvéczia (although neither does it hurt if you happen to be one – as it happens, picaresque stories are often the precursors to modern adventure pulps, and immensely enjoyable). It is game first and foremost, and the Devil take the rest! Speaking of the Devil: you will certainly meet him at Helvéczia’s crossroads and seedy taverns, and the game shall teach you how to play cards with him – or how to thwart his plans with the Holy Bible.

The tone of Helvéczia is above all meant to be light-hearted and adventurous: from history, it mainly draws that which is action-packed, strange, and colourful, and does not dwell on its miseries. While life is certainly cheap in Helvéczia (just ask the young Giona Baruch, devoured by a pack of striga in his first adventure; or my own poor Brother Rodrigo Cordial, who perished in a failed first aid attempt – many such cases!), this is not a “grim and gritty” game, nor one about horror and atrocity. In the game setting, the Thirty Years War is a distant, dark memory, and the choice of the era is deliberate: it is a time of healing and reconstruction, although also a time which still has much of the past’s “gothic darkness” as well as its rustic, human charm. Helvéczia has room for darker tales and gothic horror (a sub-chapter discusses running doomed romances and similar fare), but its interest lie more in fast-paced adventure, tests of wit, social satire, and quick reversals of fortune.

Players' map by Sean Stone


Many old-school systems offer relatively simple hacks of the original games they are based on: their changes are mainly aesthetic, and do not go very far – they are broadly compatible with the (usually) B/X-based systems popular among old-schoolers. Helvéczia took a different path, more comparable to the likes of Stars Without Number or Wolves of God. This is a complete and in-depth reworking of the old-school game experience to serve its set of influences, while leaving intact the underlying structures of play. That is: everything is changed, but everything is in a familiar place.

The company prepares
for an adventure...
Classes, levels, hit points, spell memorisation, random encounter tables, dungeons and hex-crawling procedures are all present in the game, but all of them are altered to fit. Your character might be a Spanish Sharpshooter or a Polish Student, their weaponry might be a fine sabre and a brace of pistols, the Student in the group might know spells such as Dr. Mabuse’s Mesmeric Mirage or The Devil’s Astrology, and the Cleric might employ Judicious Lesson on a group of robbers or an advancing crowned serpent, but the end result should still fit like a comfortable set of clothes – although perhaps a different cut than you are used to.

Secondly, Helvéczia is a complete game. In the book, you shall find more than a collection of alternate rules: the game comes with a bunch of procedures, playing advice, context, and examples of play, 120 spells (most of them new), as well as a loosely described setting (the titular Helvéczia – although, as our more recent campaign in fantastic Catalonia proves, the basic concept translates well to other corners of late 17th century Europe). And that’s only the player’s half of the book: the Gamemaster’s Almanac contains plentiful gamemastering advice (both general and specific), adventure design methods, a bestiary’s worth of strange new monsters (foregoing the usual dwarves and giants we know all too much, it dips into the weird end of European folklore and the author’s imagination), comprehensive encounter tables, setting-appropriate magic items (many of them stemming from actual 16th and 17th century magical superstitions), and an appendix of random inspiration tables. That is: he core rules themselves are simple, while much of the book’s 204 pages is supporting material – designed to be helpful and fun, not overwhelming.

* * *


A diabolical plan is
set into motion...
Helvéczia employs a quick, vastly simplified, old-school variant of the time-tested d20 system. This bears some explanation, as d20 does not enjoy a stellar reputation in old-school circles: indeed, games with this foundation are often excluded from the “OSR” label altogether (whether this makes the author a “shitbrewer” or False OSR Enthusiast is up for debate). Nevertheless, this is the lineage Helvéczia’s rules come from – and the results only retain the basic framework of the system found in 3rd edition D&D. The rules have been drastically simplified to allow for quick character generation and smooth, fast-paced play, and where it matters, they have been altered to follow old-school ideas. Some parts of d20 have been cut altogether (feats, the abundance of oddly specific classes, or the emphasis on tactical combat), and other elements have been significantly toned down or revised (the pace of advancement, skills, stacking bonuses, combat complexity). This is, I believe, a simpler, cleaner system than the original. The rules have undergone a whole lot of polish over the years; in fact, this is the second edition of the game, improving and expanding on the Hungarian-only 2013 boxed set in all respects – first and foremost in presentation and ease of use.

One feature of special note is found in the game’s closed advancement scale. Following the “E6” variant (the smartest take on 3e-era D&D that I know of), Helvéczia is a six-level system. No more and no less: characters, NPCs and monsters are all restricted to the sixth level. Not even the King of Spain or the aristocracy of Hell are above this rule – although they, of course, have a few tricks up their sleeve to even the odds. From combat abilities to skills and spells, all fit this scheme. Player characters typically start on the second level, as slightly seasoned adventurers who are a cut above the rest. Practically, the E6 power scale establishes an implied setting where none are super-powerful, but a combination of luck, ambition, and wits can save the day even in the most dire circumstances.

Ammertal and the
To mention one outcome of these rules, adventures designed for Helvéczia do not have a level designation: any company can attempt them, but a group of second-level beginners will probably have to employ a more careful approach than a table’s worth of sixth-level veterans. Second: fortune plays a strong role in the game (it is fairly “swingy”), and rolling with the punches or seizing a good opportunity are important elements during play. As a picaresque game, Helvéczia is filled with sudden reversals and odd detours – once up, once down; easy come, easy go. Third: where much of modern role-playing is about “the adventuring day”, resource management in Helvéczia is usually more of a weekly affair. Characters can expect to do much of their adventuring while wounded, low on spells, poor (money is relatively scarce, and easily spent on gunpowder, fast horses, and fine lasses), inconvenienced, or otherwise depleted: and they shall triumph nevertheless! Fourth: Helvéczia has somewhat weaker niche protection than B/X or the AD&D lineage tends towards. Combatant characters can excel at a few scholarly pursuits, and Students can stand their own in a duel – although they will be no match for a master swordsman like Álvar Diaz Garcia Vega de Valencia y Vivar (who also carries the sword of his distant ancestor, El Cid!)

* * *

Release plan

Helvéczia will be released in two formats, followed by a PDF release a few months down the line. The hardcover ($40) will form the basic edition, with the following content:

  • the A4-sized hardcover book (204 p.);
  • a double-sided, hand-drawn foldout players’ map, labelled on one side and unlabelled on the other;  
  • and a deck of cards to play with the Devil (this is a 32-card Hungarian card deck depicting the main characters of the Wilhelm Tell legend – ironically, entirely unknown in Switzerland proper).

The first supplement, Ammertal and the Oberammsbund ($14), shall also be available. This A4-sized, 72-page supplement includes:

  • a hex-level description of the two eponymous mountain cantons, with a wealth of ruins, strange homesteads, brigands’ nests and adventure opportunities;
  • three adventure modules providing examples of dynamic wilderness scenarios, dungeon crawls, and both the mundane and odd side of Helvéczia;
  • a handful of mini-adventures, additional materials, NPC adventuring parties and local legends;
  • two foldout hex map sheets depicting one quarter of the lands of Helvéczia, one for the GM, and one (with much left blank) for the players.

Generous treasures
are found in a chest!
Last but not least, the boxed set ($60) shall also be available for purchase. The Helvéczia boxed set – a sturdy thing packed to the brim – contains the following:

  • the hardcover Helvéczia rulebook;
  • Ammertal and the Oberammsbund;
  • nine map sheets, including the players’ map and four hex maps each for the GM and the players, respectively;
  • a deck of cards;
  • a folder containing character sheets, an almanac for timekeeping, and reference charts.

Shipping for the hardcover and the box set will be $23 to Europe and $28 Worldwide, while Ammertal shall ship at the rate of zines, for $6.5 or $8, respectively. Do note that the boxed set is heavy, and we had to be careful not to exceed the 2 kg (4.4 pound) shipping limit with the packaging. Accordingly, every box will ship separately from other ordered items.

* * *


The following 21-page preview provides the introductory chapter of the game with an example of play, a basic introduction, design principles and an “Appendix N”; and a handful of pages showcasing the game’s spells, GMing guidelines, and bestiary.

Helvéczia Sample (24 MB PDF)

Saturday, 10 April 2021

[STUFF] The Nocturnal Table – Fantasy Grounds Integration

Now Even More Nocturnal
Guest Post by EOTB

I am pleased to announce the release of the Fantasy Grounds version of The Nocturnal Table. This version of the city adventure game aid was developed by EOTB for the virtual tabletop, and integrates the different features of the supplement into a complex system. You can use it to generate encounters and local colour, with all statistics and details at your fingertips.

I have to stress that this is a tremendous work that takes a loosely interrelated collection of “idea” tables, and not only connects them in a way that makes sense, but adds fine-grain detail on the level of individual statistics, and features like caravan generation (something that’s fun but rather busy work on paper). It should be a formidable toolset for FG users who like city adventures. Whether you prefer to use the general encounter system, the 300 more specific entries, or the “local colour” tables to generate inspiration for your games; individually, as a whole, or in unimagined combinations: these tools are here for you to use at your leisure! I am much indebted to EOTB for his conversion effort, and particularly with sharing the results with the gaming community. Much appreciated!

With that, I give the floor to EOTB!


* * *

This Fantasy Grounds module requires the Fantasy Grounds rule set for 2nd Edition AD&D for use. Three (free) community additions or modifications to that base rule set are highly recommended to fully use The Nocturnal Table's ability to generate content in addition to table results:

OSRICfor2Emod found at:

OSRIC Magic Items Mod found at:

AD&D Core 1e Extension (if you want to use the module in the most 1E-like environment possible; not really required if preferring to use OSRIC content in a 2E rules engine) found at:

The Nocturnal Table - Fantasy Grounds adaptation (39.8 MB)

* * *

Adapter's Notes

A good set of tables is gold to the harried DM. The 1E DMG is still used by referees of many varied systems just for its tables; other supplements have similar utility. But for urban encounters, The Nocturnal Table by Gabor Lux (Melan) is one of the best table supplements this adapter has ever encountered.

The book itself is not very large - 56 digest-sized pages. But like all excellent sets tables their impact to the game can't be counted.

In adapting these tables for Fantasy Grounds in my own campaign, I sought to leverage their utility by ensuring all the content they indicated was pregenerated. I wanted the tables to produce gameable results in Fantasy Grounds as opposed to mere direction or ideas. This necessitated creating all the various record types implicit to the tables, and linking them their output. The very useful OSRICfor2E mod by Sterno , and OSRIC Magic Items mod by AlterZwerg were drafted for contributions to the effort (many thanks to you both for you great work!), and their entries are prominent throughout this mod, but the unique flavor of Melan's implied setting demanded many new records of varying types.

Please note there are some table results which draw upon content in the above modules. The user should load them if desiring all of the entries to auto-populate . Otherwise such results will generate a error message. (The user may still manually generate details in these cases)

These mods are freely available at:
It is hoped that in addition to serving up results for immediate play, that the templates bundled into this mod ease and speed the creation of adventure modules and other content. While OSRIC monsters are well-represented in existing mods, this mod contains an NPC of every character class from levels 1 through 12, including new types from Melan's world such as Amazons, and the Kung-Fu Monk adapted from Kellri's Dangerous Dungeons. There are also types of fighters with appropriate equipment, such as Northmen, Pirates, Nomads, and more. All of these include such conveniences as XP formulas, with a maximum XP value pre-entered (to be modified according to the appropriate XP formula as the DM sees fit).

Use of Celestian's 1E Extension

This adapter uses Celestian's extension with the 2E ruleset, to get as close to the "OSRIC Experience" as possible in Fantasy Grounds. In using non-monster NPCs this requires a compensating effect for To-Hit rolls and Saving Throws in the combat tracker, as NPCs by default use the 1E monster to-hit table and fighter saves - and the monster to-hit table is particularly generous at low levels compared to most non-fighter class types.

These compensating effects, found in the "Effect Features" area of the main tab on NPC entries, may not be useful if using this module without that extension, or different ruleset. If so each DM should remove those entries.

Celestian's 1E Extension is freely available here:

Adaption Choices

Due to the layers of "pulls" required by the multiple levels of tables in The Nocturnal Table, the tiers of tables are set up and named alphanumerically; beginning with a number, lower numbers belonging to higher-order tables so as to make them appear first on the lists. Odd-numbered tables generally apply to encounters; even-numbered tables generally apply to "dressing" or "colour". The basic structure as follows:
  • Primary tables in the group "The Nocturnal Table - Encounters" are named starting with an "00", "01", or "02"; however, for the most part "00" tables don't pull playable content directly - I am not sure why, perhaps there is an upper limit to how deep in a table structure FG can pull into an encounter. The "00" tables are primarily to determine which of the largest "01" tables will be used, anyway, but when embedding the "01 tables into the "00" tables, no results returned. Unlike when using the "01" tables directly. So use the "00" tables as direction only, unless they return a "special" encounter - which they would pull directly.
  • "02" tables comprise most of the "urban dungeon dressing" type tables in the book.
  • "03" tables feed the "01" encounter tables; e.g., a table of fighters is an "03" table that feeds an "01" result that could be any of multiple character classes.
  • "04" tables feed the "02" tables; these are less numerous but many of the colour/dressing tables are implicitly two layers deep as they contain a null chance; so the first layer yes/no choice is a "02" table, while the "if yes" table with all the individual colour entries is an "04" table.
  • Late in development it was determined to add systems for pilgrim and caravan generation, as these are table results comparatively hard to wing (and rarely do DMs have a few caravans or pilgrimages just lying about). These also followed the two-tier system with the main tables taking "05" designations, and their sub-tables "07"
  • treasure results are "06" tables in their own group, feeding other tables as needed
  • A fully numeric system proved hard to search in related groups as the table list grew. So, while it is admittedly ugly, relevant abbreviations were used and tiered. This kept groups together and also allowed quick searches such as "npc" to pull up small lists of related tables, such as when generating pilgrimages.
  • It is hoped that by maintaining list proximity and search distinction, that users will be able to navigate the many tables should they need to find a feeder table quickly. But the main tables, always near the top of group lists, should be the only necessary references in normal play.
  • One item to be aware of: FG doesn't seem to perform multiple sets of die rolls into one encounter; e.g., an encounter with travellers will generate the leaders(s) into the encounter but not the second set of random number of common travellers. Some few table results direct you to manually ADD a random number of some NPC type to an encounter result generated.
Every adaption requires choices to make certain things work. A close comparison of the tables in the original work with the table structure in this module reveals some structural differences; e.g., in Melan's tables you generated a fighter and then rolled the fighter's level. In FG, to generate a working encounter record it is necessary to have a subtable of pregenerated fighters of the entire level range, that the master table draws upon. While the structure may vary slightly by necessity, every effort has been made to ensure the table function is maintained.

In some instances of low probability, this would have required even more tables than is included. An example is alignment. I was faced with a choice of generating multiple tables of alignments so that classes with restrictions wouldn't return incompatible results. It was chosen not to do this, as incompatible results are possible but not frequent; the DM should instead review and modify in such instances. But this and similar examples are few and far between.

Often the complexity of the table interactions raised questions as to which type of output (chat, story, encounter, etc.) was the most efficient selection for inserting results immediately into play while also recording/transmitting to the DM the most useful information provided by the tables (sometimes which output omitted the most useless data squibs the interacting tables generated, too).

In each case the DM should consider their own preferences vs what this adapter has set, and change as they see fit. Encounters, stories, and chat are the most frequently used for results other than treasures.


Most encounters have a random element to the number of NPCs appearing. When output to chat you will see this number; when output to an encounter this information is not provided. In testing, the fastest path from "encounter has occurred" to the combat tracker was to have the encounter box and type auto-generate and throw dice to adjust the number appearing in the box, rather than get the number appearing and manually create an encounter box. If the other method is more convenient, reset the output type to "chat" from "enc" in the top-level table.

Here a ghoul entry was rolled and a ghoul encounter box was created, but it only has "1" ghoul in it. Cross referencing the roll of 41 showing in chat with the table, we see there are 2d8 ghouls encountered. Those dice are thrown and the encounter box is updated to 12; I hope there's some elves in the party...

If the referee wishes a spread of hit points among large numbers appearing of the same type, drag-copy that NPC type in the encounter and assign; e.g., the referee wants to throw five militia with 2, 4, 6, 6, and 9 hp at the party. The one militia entry in the encounter box should be drag-copied three times so that there are 4 militia entries; each entry assigned one of the hit point results and the entry of militia assigned 6 hp set to two appearing. If one entry for the militia type is used in the encounter box and hit points are left blank, the number of hit points will be randomly rolled (once) on 1d10 but all militia will have that same random roll result of 1d10 hit points. If it doesn't bother you that all militia in the encounter have, perhaps, 4 hp, then none of the above is necessary of course.

The more detailed encounters numbered from 100-399 are listed in story entries and include embedded encounter and parcel entries. We've discussed adjusting the encounter boxes, but also review the parcels to ensure the appropriate amount of equipment loot remains after an encounter completes. Some number of each type of loot is already in a parcel, but this will rarely be accurate for common equipment to that encounter as-played.

Purely random encounters generated from the tables won't have parcels pre-made; the referee may manually generate one and add such treasures and items to it as are appropriate.

To reduce the size of the file, common armors were not added as discrete items to NPCs or parcels, but if taken by PCs as loot these can be added as necessary to parcels via drag and drop from The Nocturnal Table or OSRIC Items group(s). Likewise, experience points derived from an encounter likely require adjustment for number encountered, possibly hit points rolled, and the value of treasure taken.

Every effort was made when customizing a base template for a specific NPC to update associated stats; e.g., if different armor resulted in a different movement rate, or if morale was higher or lower than base template morale for this level. However, each time I review results I'll find another instance where some aspect was missed. If you notice any anomalies between the record entries and any story entries, presume the anomaly is an omission and correct it. The 3rd level fighter in standard plate mail shouldn't have a move rate of 90 or 120; the stray thief or assassin with a high dex but utterly standard thief ability scores should be adjusted, etc.

There are magic items, spells, and other odds and ends named in The Nocturnal Table as published in hard copy which aren't detailed; the detailing is left to the user. In Fantasy Grounds I have put some flesh on those bones in order to provide a useable game item for play, but that flesh is my best guess and not further direction from the author. In all cases you, the user, should modify such items at will.

Near the end of production this module was back-ported to FG Classic due to issues with the Author extension that creates the module from the entries, and also embeds the illustrations, not yet being compatible with FG Unlimited. This introduced some anomalies in that multiples of D4, D6, and D8s were dropped from items, spells, etc. (e.g., weapons doing 2d4 damage, etc.) and also some text were re-rendered with formatting artifacts. Every effort has been made to locate and correct these anomalies, but if some are missed you have the adapter's explanation, and they may be corrected by inputting the missing information.

Lastly, this adapter is still a novice at Fantasy Grounds, ignorant in coding and unable to work in the raw data files, scouring wiki pages and forum posts when unable to find a way to produce a result. It's entirely possible, and likely, that a FG pro would notice parts of these tables constructed inefficiently, or even clunkily, because I didn't know a better road to Rome. In these cases, I apologize in advance.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

[REVIEW] Fire in the Hole

Layout magic: No fucks given
Fire in the Hole (2021)

by Derek Jones


Levels 4–6

This adventure is one of a rare breed: a Castles & Crusades scenario. While much of the modern “OSR” owes its existence to an ancient flame war among C&C’s playtesters, the game itself does not seem often discussed, and the official adventures have not really ignited the public imagination. However, Fire in the Hole – an amateur module available for the cost of ONE Dollar Americain – is not only a recent publication, but an actually decent effort. It will not win awards for cover art by OSR luminaries (being a white page with a page number and Times New Roman text on it), nor layout (using mostly two-column Times New Roman), nor digital maps (the maps are perfectly legible scanned pencil work), but it is a fine modular scenario to fit into an ongoing campaign, and occupy perhaps one night of gaming.

Fire in the Hole has a strong “little people have big problem” premise: while extending the wine cellars of hobbit gentry Mr. Thistletine, the workers found a mysterious tunnel leading downwards. One worker lowered with a rope disappeared with a horrid scream, and was never seen again. Adventurers were called in to investigate. On the other side of the tunnel, we find a dungeon level populated by a band of gecko-men, who raid the outside world through maic portals. These not particularly formidable, but decently organised chaps are divided between their allegiance to a chief and a group of scheming priests, offering opportunities for sowing division and making short-term alliances with the dungeon inhabitants. Or just killing them all without going into deep contortions about their motivations (sorry, gecko guys). It is all small-scale, petty, and walks a fine balance between “raiding humanoid lair” and “strange underground place”: low-concept, just done well.

The area where the module shines is found in its basic construction. The dungeon level is a real pro effort of alternate routes, ambush points, reserve barracks and hidden passages. A loud and messy assault will end up with a bloody and desperate corridor battle against overwhelming odds (even for a strong party). Quick and decisive action and some improvisation helps lead to victory. The level’s relative openness allows the characters to execute a surprise strike (and the entrance hole is right in the heart of the gecko-man lair), but also to have them surrounded and cut off from escape.

The quality of the design shines through in the small details. The order of battle provides an outline of gecko-man defensive measures, while the random encounter chart features them engaged in random activity – “tormenting a cuddly little animal” and “plotting to harvest a little stink-juice from the troglodytes” are possible outcomes, providing not just colour, but information and a possibility for more complex interaction. There are “barrack rooms” treated correctly; in a few broad-strokes sentences or just as a room name instead of meticulous-obsessive detailing. Special rooms with a stronger spotlight receive more attention, as they should, and they showcase the adventure’s imagination and whimsy: a forge staffed by mechanical ogres who will cart off fallen combatants from a melee to forge them into enchanted bone weapons. A tiny pocket dimension accessed from a fire pit. A magical tapestry which follows the balance of power on the level through what it is depicting. A less powerful and less deadly cousin to the deck of many things, with fun draws like “enmity between you and Squishsquash, a water elemental” and “gain service of an ogre”.

Not everything is good. Fire in the Hole repeats C&C’s annoying “feature” of embedding whole stat blocks into the flowing room key, perhaps the least practical solution ever devised for presenting monster info. The tactical setup, while it represents one of the adventure’s main strengths, is a bit too tight in the beginning. There is a non-negligible possibility that the characters descending into the very first chamber make enough noise to bring the whole combat roster down on their necks. In this case, the adventure may take place in a single cellar room; and should the company be victorious, the rest will be a not very challenging mop-up operation in a dungeon largely emptied of its defenders. In this case, having the first areas be lax and even temptingly easy should deliver a more even play experience. There could be a bit more treasure.

In summary, Fire in the Hole is a labour of love, and a very fine effort if a beginner work. It has charm, good fundamentals, a very solid map and combat setup, and the right scope for a modular one-session adventure. It fulfils the original promise of Castles & Crusades. It is just one buck, too, making it much better value for the money than pretty much everything from

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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