Sunday, 12 September 2021

[REVIEW] Temple of 1000 Swords

Temple of 1000 Swords
Temple of 1000 Swords (2021)

by Brad Kerr

Self-published

3rd level

Temple of 1000 Swords is a 24-page dungeon adventure with 19 keyed locations, and a heavy sword theme. How heavy? More swords than you can stake a stick at, and that’s a sword-shaped stick with another hidden sword in it. The temple of Gladio, God of Swords, is overflowing with a myriad swords; they have been collected into enormous piles and mounts, swept to the sides of the corridors, flung into watery caverns, and just scattered here and there. Furthermore, as seen on the cover, parts of it are based on the tarot; and if that would not be enough, the temple dungeon is split between two rival factions, a band of mermenfolk and the platypus-based humanoid drukks fighting their age-old battle through the temple corridors. There is a strong weirdo energy to the module; it is absurd, but it is a working absurdity, just on the dividing line between the plausible and the ludicrous. It is wickedly funny.

Most everything is smooth and polished. Brad Kerr understands adventure writing. The booklet is finely balanced between the utilitarian and the flavourful. Information is placed at your fingertips; cross-references are impeccable, and there are helpful notes to help you understand and run the scenario. “Accessibility” is sometimes overdone (this seems to be a problem with official Old School Essential modules), but here, it is just right.

And the content is strong. Random encounters introduce interesting variations on the “it attacks” theme: a gelatinous cube full of swords, a “tumble-weed” of amassed swords rolling towards the party, or the aftermath of a bloody battle. There is a special magic sword broken into nine parts (appropriately called “The Nine of Swords”) to track down and reassemble. Above all, a 1d100 table of weird swords you can find if the party starts searching random sword piles for something interesting. Since Gladio can turn anything into a sword, this could be anything, including (taking five random rolls) a tin sword, a scissors sword, a star-shaped triple sword, a fishing rod sword, or a ceramic sword. This strange table is the sort of thing in a module that takes up relatively little real estate, but like Tegel Manor’s portrait gallery, adds an entire new layer to the exploration process.

The temple rooms are populated by two interesting factions of utter idiots. The drukks are bloody, short-tempered platypus-man brutes. The mermaid queen is an unhinged, vainglorious fool who offers to marry anyone who can bets her in combat. This is a great way to encourage player initiative: make the enemies dangerous, but with wide open flaws to be exploited and turned to your advantage. Elsewhere, there are ample opportunities for strange discoveries and interacting with dungeon denizens, including the dead, the damned, and a living god who is surely played by Brian Blessed, and whose “sole concern is that people kill each other with swords.” Gladio is a dick, and he is great.

Not quite the Temple of
1000 Corridors, is it.
The whole module is a riot, and a springboard for further adventures. All good. Except... Why does an otherwise excellent module I have only praised so far receive three stars instead of an upper four? There is a flaw running through the scenario, and this flaw is the map. Yes, it is a map with multiple branching routes, interesting secret passages, and water (an under-utilised feature). But it is too small for what it is trying to do; basically a central dungeon loop with minor appendages attached to it. There are consequences. The random encounters make little sense, because it is a small, compressed space which is all keyed and populated with encounters. There is insufficient room for the random critters to come from, to retreat to, or to ambush a surprised group. There are two factions who have supposedly been waging bloody war against each other for several years, but these are pipsqueak groups (4d6+3 mermen vs. some 3d4+6 drukks altogether), and they live right across each other with only a corridor to separate them. Some battleground! Imagine Red Nails playing out in a small college dorm, and you get the idea:

“’Aye, she went willingly enough. Tolkemec, to spite Xotalanc, aided Tecuhltli. Xotalanc demanded that she be given back to him, and the council of the tribe decided that the matter should be left to the woman. She chose to remain with Tecuhltli. In wrath Xotalanc sought to take her back by force, and the retainers of the brothers came to blows in the Great Hall. There was much bitterness. Blood was shed on both sides. The quarrel became a feud, the feud an open war. From the welter three factions emerged – Tecuhltli, Xotalanc, and Tolkemec. Already, in the days of peace, they had divided the city between them.’

‘And where might these men be found’, growled the Cimmerian with his mouth full.

‘See that door on the left, barbarian? That 30’ by 20’ chamber be Xotalanc territory. And that 10’ by 10’ storage closet yonder, there dwells Tolkemec, the Dark Shadow! Beware his coming!’”

It lacks a certain oomph, don’t you think?

What Temple of 1000 Swords needs is room to breathe, to have grandiose empty halls and convoluted corridors separating its 19 main encounter areas. It needs to be a real dungeon in the old-school sense. Consider the following: if you extended the map to about three or four times the size, made it much more maze-like, and inserted 30-40 empty rooms, meandering hallways, chokepoints, bypasses,  and secret passages, now you would have something. You could have drukk and merman factions with reserves of 50-70 warriors each, duking it out. You could have long stretches of space where random encounters can happen. You could have a general dungeon texture to be navigated and where discovering a “special” area is a meaningful find. Let the sword generation / random encounter table take care of the rest! And you could have room for a range of player decisions. Now that would be a kickass module (and if you redraw the map yourself, it will be).

Temple of 1000 Swords is an absurd idea taken to its logical conclusions, an inspired shitpost in module form. I find it genuinely funny, and mostly well done, but the map is a letdown. This problem is, of course, a malaise: 5e and other modern editions feature so small dungeons that vast underground spaces are a forgotten art even in old-school gaming. The use of empty spaces, especially, is under-utilised. (Yes, I am as guilty of overkeying my dungeons as other people.) Nevertheless, the point stands: the map matters, and here, Temple of 1000 Swords could use much, much improvement.

This module credits its playtesters, and has a nice special thanks section to boot. Classy!

Rating: *** / *****

Saturday, 28 August 2021

[BLOG] Year Five: Old School Refocus

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …It is not early August right now? No! That’s LIES, and how dare you?

The State of the Blog

Over five years, Beyond Fomalhaut has turned from a fledgling blog (lots of posts, 55 and 42 total in its first two years!) to an accomplished and mature one (much fewer posts: 37 in year three, 33 in year four, and 29 in year five). It did not drop off of the face of the Earth, but it has obviously turned from an essayistic blog into a review blog (17 posts were reviews, and some of the others were various news items, previews, and updates). However, it remains a blog with an active publishing arm, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I have always preferred the practical, meat-and-potatoes side of gaming, and even considering the limitations of the ongoing Covid-19 nonsense, this year has delivered on that promise.

The 17 reviews posted on the blog represents a slight increase from last year. The average score on the five-point scale ended up as 3.1 (the total average over five years is 3.06, which means at least my scoring is consistent). Last year, I moved towards a “swingier” scoring approach, and I have stuck to this principle ever since. Fewer average ratings, and a few more high- or low-scoring supplements.

Here is the year’s breakdown, with the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin maintain their lofty perch above the holloi-polloi.
  • 5 was awarded to three supplements, making it the “best” year for this rating since the blog has launched. One award went to Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City, a zine describing the last metropolis of a flooded world and its strange denizens: its flawless execution, wealth of adventure hooks, and creativity make it a natural winner. The Palace of Unquiet Repose, a merciless sword & sorcery adventure about a desert-swallowed tomb-city created by divine hubris, is noted for its mighty energies and a consistently approachable style. Last but not least, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness is an extension of Keep on the Borderlands’ wilderness section – into a devastated land of colourful and deadly imagination. This is Geoffrey’s best work since Carcosa, and has none of the latter’s ghastly elements.
  • 4 went to four products: Hideous Daylight, a creative wilderness adventure set in a magically warped, off-colour hunting preserve; Fire in the Hole, a well-realised humanoid lair; She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a grotesque marshland/dungeon adventure with a lot of individual flavour; and Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts, one of the few actually worthy Caves of Chaos homages. It is interesting to note that three of these ratings were awarded to rather modestly produced materials that did not attempt to bedazzle readers with glitzy artwork and acrobatic experiments in graphic design. They were plain, useful, and well made – the kind of honest, imaginative work we can always use more of.
  • 3 was awarded to four products as well. These were basically decent – from Hunters in Death (the kind of modular content you can just immediately add to a campaign – I did to mine) to the wild, unruly Crypt of the Lizard Wizard and its gonzo elements.
  • 2 went to three adventures, which were either flawed, or just did not offer much of interest. Of these, Bridgetown is the greatest waste: solid idea, but lacking execution.
  • 1 was awarded to three products. For your edification and amusement, these miscreants can be viewed at the pillory. I must single out our late contestant, The Pit, for its utter awfulness: if something can be done wrong, The Pit does it wrong; and this is all from a lavishly illustrated, slightly over-produced release!

There were multiple omissions and delays – including a few promises which have remained as such – and I will try to rectify some of them. It also happens that sometimes, you do not have much useful stuff to say. Sometimes, things are just good, and it is all in an obvious, straightforward way – to cite Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As for the junk… yes, there could have been more ones and twos. However, I do not set out to deliberately seek out these clunkers, and even when I meet them, some are bad in a way that is more depressing or boring than interesting enough to dissect. It also happens that you mistakenly buy something that’s a complete and obvious dud, but so insubstantial as to make a review a venture in uselessness. Yes, most Mörk Borg releases are written by people who have no idea about functional game writing. Yes, Troika supplements are mostly the same, but with an artsy veneer that draws oohs and aahs from the people whose life mission is to serve as a practical demonstration of the Veblen effect. No, it is not useful to review these products, and usually, there is nothing substantial to review anyway (see illustration).

Three Dollars Americain. You Motherfucker.
The State of the Fanzine

This year, EMDT’s release list grew by nine titles, although the numbers are slightly misleading, since they are component parts of a single, larger title (the two boxed sets account for five booklets). The remaining four include two Hungarian modules – The Forest of Gornate, a forest-based wilderness adventure with mini-dungeons that was inspired by (US) Steve Jackson’s seminal gamebook, Scorpion Swamp; and The Vaults of Volokarnos, a first-level introductory dungeon for Basic rules that eats through characters and henchmen like a busy little wood chipper. These two will see English release this year (Volokarnos will be in Echoes #09).

That leaves two more. Baklin, Jewel of the Seas is a city guide that got delayed and delayed, and ended up much larger than ever imagined. I knew I was trouble when I noticed I was nearly at my expected page count… before delving into the Undercity, which would end up adding roughly the same amount of material. So Baklin may count as two, perhaps even three supplements. It ended up big, and I think it ended up chock full of fun adventure hooks and play-relevant background material. The way I see it, Baklin is best used as an adventure hub: a place you can start out from and return to over the span of a campaign, and one that also holds its own in intrigue and action. You really do not have to use all of it all the time (obviously, not even we did), but anywhere you actually end up going in town, there will be something interesting waiting for you.

As for the zine zines, there was one of them, which is not much (even if it was a larger than average issue). This is a situation I would like to rectify in the future, and now that the larger game projects I was working on are completed, it will be time to return to smaller publications. The next Echoes issue will come out in late September or so, and I hope a third one can appear near the end of the year, or barring that, early 2022. On the other hand… yes, that’s two whole damn boxed sets in a single year! Boxed sets are a particular source of happiness; perhaps even more than Xyntillan (my first hardcover), they represent the kind of aspirations small-press RPG publishers have. In 2016, even the idea of releasing a fanzine seemed like a pipe dream, and a hardcover, let alone a boxed set, was clearly a fantasy. This year, it so happened that I first published a boxed set; then a hardcover in a boxed set with maps and extras combo. Damn right that makes me happy.

One of the boxes, written by two friends, is Casemates & Companies (Kazamaták és Kompániák, abbr. “KéK”), a Hungarian B/X-inspired system with a players’ and GM’s book, an intro adventure, ref sheets, character sheets, and dice. Hungary never had a proper B/X variant, and now we have one. This is a game that collects a handful of sensible house rules, rulings, and best practice that have emerged in community  discussion, and all that makes it a strong contender for my favourite B/X take. The feature that sells it (to me) is its heavy focus on the titular “Companies”: recruiting and managing henchmen is something that has fallen by the wayside in gaming, but which is a lot of fun at the table. Moreover, KéK’s henchmen help to recreate the enormous parties OD&D had assumed, and calibrated its rules and procedures around. Bring a bunch of guys into the dungeon, and see who comes out rich and kicking – that’s the way. 

The Helvéczia RPG, of course, is the other one. It took two years to go from the 2013 Hungarian boxed set to the first English draft, and six years from that point to the eventual release. While a lot of that was spent in procrastination due to burnout and other interests, the English release is a proper second edition that cleans up the game’s original inconsistencies and minor issues. I believe Helvéczia does something that other RPGs have not managed to pull off right – marrying European folklore and an old pulp tradition to more modern swashbuckling stories and the D&D game framework – and that the boxed set (pardon me, the hardcover in the boxed set, booyah!) looks good doing it. Helvéczia was meant to be played, and it will be supported with future adventures – some are simply waiting to be translated, while a second regional supplement exists in an early draft (this one may be in the Hungarian first). And of course, my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernard (who co-authored KéK, and wrote In the Shadow of the City-God) has made a promise about the Catalonia supplement, and as Helvéczia proves, these diabolical pacts are to be honoured!

The hall of mirrors gets deeper
The State of My Other Projects

When I came back to the online old-school community in 2016 after a few wilderness years, my mind was set on publishing two large projects: Castle Xyntillan, and Helvéczia. I did not know when that would happen, and I sure did not think they would be published by my own enterprise (with a lot of help from my printer, illustrators, and for Xyntillan, Rob Conley as my cartographer). In the end, it happened, and it has been a great journey. Long, too! Now that it is over and done with, it is time to set sights on new vistas.

As recounted last year, we spent the first lockdown period of the Bat Plague with a campaign called The Four Dooms of Thisium; an accursed city damned by the very gods to fourfold destruction… unless… Well, the Thisium campaign is something that would work well as a low-level, very open-ended Basic/Expert adventure series (we capped things at level 6, but a first level party may advance to levels 7-9, and that includes a whole lot of character deaths), or it can be taken apart and used as a mini-sandbox for the popular “Fucking Around Around Thisium” kind of game. Normally, Thisium would be well on the way, but I unexpectedly got a second group to playtest the campaign, which is still ongoing (probably 2/3 or 3/4 finished; they are a very different bunch from my trigger-happy, hyperviolent first testing team). Delays will naturally result from this. Thisium will be a very different beast from Xyntillan – less interwoven, broad instead of deep, a bit more unruly – but I think it will be fun to play and run, as a whole or in pieces.

Two projects are a bit more distant. First, I am working on the second edition of Sword and Magic, my fantasy game (on which I wrote more in 2018). Sword and Magic helped kick off widespread interest in old-school gaming in Hungary in 2008, and a second edition has been long overdue. This is a huge undertaking that will be published as two hardcovers, and need some supplemental material for launch (many of them were published in various Echoes issues) – and will take away some focus from English endeavours. It is not getting a translation, since there are so many general old-school systems out there that another one would just be noise, even if I have a favourable opinion about the virtues of my own. It is, also, not an OSR game in the way the term is increasingly understood; that is, it is not rooted in the B/X tradition (its style and scope is firmly connected to first edition AD&D, and Judges Guild’s philosophy), and its rules are based on a radically rewritten, streamlined version of the d20 System. Sword and Magic is one of the strange chimeras of the early, pre-label old-school movement, not concerned with exact duplication, but connected to old game styles in the way of, say, Encounter Critical or AS&SH.

Cold Climate Encounter Charts, Take Two

What I would like to bring to the international audience, though, is Gamemaster’s Guidelines, a comprehensive guidebook to running old-school campaigns. This is not really a rulebook (although there will be a few guidelines for simple domain management, mining, mass combat, and similar concerns), but a kind of reference work that shall help the novice old-school GM get his bearings, and it may also make old hands think. There will also be a bunch of random charts, a comprehensive encounter system, treasure tables, and so on. It is my attempt at doing something similar to the AD&D DMG (although not the same thing, since the DMG already exists). Obviously, it is a ways away, and the Hungarian version comes first, but once it is done, it will not be too hard to translate it.

The third project is something that would have been impossible before Helvéczia. I have long struggled with the idea of publishing a Fomalhaut supplement – the whole idea of presenting the weirdo sword&sorcery / sword&planet setting in a practical format was a problem without a practical solution. (At one time, it could have been a Swords & Wizardry supplement, but when the opportunity arose, I had to choose between writing the supplement and getting my PhD. Perhaps foolishly, I opted for the PhD.) Fomalhaut, a Wilderlands homage, does not make sense without a bunch of hex maps; and that’s hex maps with player and GM versions – lots and lots and lots of map sheets. This is something the modern OSR simply does not do, but a good printer can handle. And I have a good printer. So Helvéczia is a boxed set with nine map sheets… and I got the idea that Fomalhaut could be a boxed set with fifteen or nineteen (there are two map regions out of the nine total that are kinda-sorta blank slates), and a handful of zine type booklets, including a players’ primer, guidelines and stuff for the GM, then hex keys for maybe three regions (which is where all our adventuring was concentrated), and a starting module or two. Now, this is still vague, pie in the sky brainstorming, but it is something that could conceivably exist, and in the future, it just might. There are really no promises, and remember how long Xyntillan and Helvéczia took. But with small steps, one can cover a whole lot of distance.

Me and the OSR: A Love Story

The State of the Old School

In the last few years, the community calling itself the OSR has gone through a major upheaval. Something that was for a long time a nominally united thing has splintered into disparate groups with different aesthetics, design ethe, politics (hoo boy!), and communication platforms. It will not be put together again. People can pretend that the big tent is still there, but if you actually look, the canopy is gone, and the tentpole is missing too. Some of the zoo is still around (look ma! that lion is devouring a zebra!), but whatever show is on is more incidental than carefully planned.

But that is only one part of it. Some people have picked up their stuff and moved on, and may eventually come up with something good independent of old-school gaming. However, when we survey the remains of the great circus, we see more serious issues. During the big tent years, the OSR followed a “more the merrier” philosophy, and expanded into every conceivable niche. It became its own little gaming ecosystem where you could theoretically play “anything” and “any way” without leaving the tent. This did lead to a lot of really cool stuff, but it led to a loss of focus, too. A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge.

Nothing embodies this deplorable state of affairs more than the loss of common knowledge that originally defined the pre-OSR old-school community. Old-school gaming at its core is a movement about rediscovering historical playstyles and putting them to practical use. It does not always create 1:1 replicas (for instance, relatively few people attempt to reconstruct OD&D psionics), and its purposes are selective. The prehistory of gaming provides several approaches to play, not all useful for our interests. A great many people had played TRV OD&D in ways which prefigure 1990s principles, or had long-running campaigns which had drifted in that direction. Yet 1990s roleplaying, even 1990s AD&D (D&D being virtually extinct in that period), is not what we are after. (For more on these traps, see T. Foster’s thread from twelve years ago. We should have listened more carefully!)

By the late 2000s – when Trent posted his warning, and the “OSR” acronym was making its first rounds – old-school traditions had been fairly thoroughly discovered, analysed, and codified. (While versatile, the ideas behind old-school gaming are not particularly deep. It is a game, not a theory vehicle.) People who had shared this corner of the hobby had also shared a common wisdom about how things ought to work, and could also create house rules or far-flung game worlds while using this common wisdom as a point of reference. It was a period of enlightenment, of philosopher kings duking it out on meticulously mowed lawns, and mighty forces of creation writ large on the pages of Fight On! and Knockspell. (Also, pig-headed flame wars about trivial nonsense.)

Times Well Spent: Listening to a Future President...

With the rapid expansion of the scene, however, a lot of this knowledge and precision of thought was lost, while being taken for granted. To many people, the “OSR” had supplied rules, tools, and a sort of ideology about gaming (through the various primers), but not the complexity and scope of the original tradition. Without this background, the advantages of the old-school approach become muddled or lost. Function disappears and empty form remains. A lot of the late or post-OSR content I see retains features like procedural generation, random encounters, and maybe even meme-level “strict time records”  because they are “supposed to” be there, but they do not actually serve any useful purpose. These vestigial remnants are echoes of a structured playstyle that made sense in its original context. It is as if the "OSR" came and went, and the people left behind it picked up the pieces and tried putting them together, but it is now something else. In the worst cases, supposed old-school adventures recreate the worst practices of game design that the original old-school movement was reacting against: railroading and illusionism, lengthy exposition leading nowhere, or things which obviously make no sense at an actual game table.

Instead, a lot of time is wasted on trivial distractions. Much of the “OSR” became absolutely obsessed by form (how we ought to present information, what a “good layout” looks like, etc.), but uses these supposedly hyper-efficient presentation styles and layout magic for trivial stuff like dungeons with five rooms, lightweight content that restates the obvious, and “experimental” games which are not rooted in play, do not serve play, and would actually damage the quality of play if they were used at someone’s table (mercifully, they aren’t). A good thing they look fancy, eh. Slightly better, but still off course, we see attempts at creating orthodoxies through the strict worship of specific rulesets, or rather some of their central features (e.g. the “gameplay loop” of Basic D&D, or the “strict time records” of AD&D). These attempts come from good intentions, but paradoxically, they tend to simplify and thus, diminish the games they champion. As more of a "culture of play" guy, sometimes I can't help but smile when people start LARPing as the hardest of the hardcore.

Where then is excellence and incline? Surely not in this sour grapes bitching! That’s right. What I suggest as a practical solution is a return to the original mission of old-school gaming: a rediscovery of gaming’s roots and original traditions, and the application of thereof to contemporary games. A re-reading and newfound appreciation of Scripture, and a new exploration of the complex traditions of play that had developed at the dawn of the hobby. We can even call it “Old School Refocus” or “Old School Reaction” (sorry, that’s my own biases speaking). Do not just read and work from newly made “OSR” materials: go back to the source, become immersed and inspired, and see it in its complexity, even some of its contradictions. To cite a concrete example, none of the core OSR games I know give you a vision of the larger campaign the way Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide did, or the way Judges Guild’s materials show you through practical example. The TSR classics of the late 1970s and very early 1980s are still some of the finest adventures ever created (although they become a lot spottier down the line).

As I see it, the complex body of original texts still has the power to enlighten and inspire, and they are very easy to obtain these days. If you can’t afford the bonkers eBay prices, I can only recommend the various troves, which have done a lot for the benefit of gamers, and place even ultra-rare materials at your fingertips. Print them, use them, do not worry about “damaging an ultra-rare”. Read the Original Dungeons & Dragons booklets with open eyes to understand and appreciate how well the original game hangs together as a “game” game – and how much variety it can accommodate. Read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Gary’s TRV vision of campaign-based play. Read Bob Bledsaw’s idiosyncratic campaign materials and marvel at their off-the-wall creativity and giant ambitions. Use the Ready Ref Sheets in actual play, run a campaign in a corner of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, introduce your players to Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor or Portals of Torsh. Read Caverns of Thracia (of course), but read The Dungeoneer’s Compendium and Dark Tower, too. Take a good look at tuff like Arduin (which I admit I appreciate more than actually like) and the Gamelords Thieves Guild materials. The list goes on. There are classics… and there are forgotten gems off the beaten path too. Seek them out or die trying. There is no other way. Fight on!

Times Well Spent: Try the Veal!


Thursday, 19 August 2021

[REVIEW] Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts

Tetutuphor: The Elemental
Castle Environs:
Chapter Two B:
Norkers and Xvarts
Subtitle Goes Here
Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts (2021)

by Gene Weigel

Self-published

Levels 1–3 

Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet: two of the most recognisable, and most played introductory D&D/AD&D modules. Both have served as the blueprint for a myriad successors, clones, and “inspired by” adventures. This freely available, 14-page module (of which half is taken up by the actual dungeons, and half by the new monsters featured therein) is a fanmade side-show to Hommlet, but following the design of Keep’s Caves of Chaos. While deceptively simple, the Caves have rarely been successfully imitated, let alone equalled in adventure design. Anyone can plonk down a succession of monster caverns, but replicating the gotchas and dirty tricks of Gary’s original requires design chops. Norkers and Xvarts – “Chapter Two B” in “The Elemental Castle Environs” series – is one adventure that does it right.

The module is set in a narrow, meandering valley allowing access to twelve small dungeon-complexes through eleven entrance points. Like the Caves of Chaos, the higher up the sides of the valley you go, the more dangerous the caves become; from a brigand lair to elemental-themed shrines and of course lairs with a multitude of low-level monsters. That’s no small feat in seven pages: a lot of “OSR” adventures use as much space to describe a single 12-area lair. Gene crams in a complex 92-area dungeon environment (B2 was 64 areas in 10 pages), and while the key is terse, it does not feel lacklustre; you do not feel like you do with most one-page dungeons. It is effective, play-friendly writing like:

“D27) ENTRANCE TO EARTH CULT – A man in full scale armor with helmet is actually a spider zombie (See NEW MONSTERS). He says to intruders, “Welcome to the chapel of Earth!” then immediately attacks.”

or:

“D34) THE GIFTED ONE – This is the lair of a giant spider that is the guardian of the shrine to Lolth in the other cave. Livth the spider can look like a beautiful human woman as a gift from Lolth. She can also in spider form spray out a web like the web spell.”

or:

“E46) OLD SHRINE OF AIR – Another altar similar to the other Iuz altars lined with air-vesicled basalt. The walls of this columned cave shrine has various wicked and winged creatures (Gargoyles and harpies) dropping children from tremendous heights as a pair of sinister orange and purple swirled inhuman eyes look on. It reads underneath “Pneumo, King of Elemental Evil Air”. A giant bin of crudely nailed together boards seems to be for offerings as it has a sign reading “PAY UP YOU RUBES OR GET SQUISHED”” (etc.)

Descriptions are relatively simple and action-focused. There is a very good variety to the encounters. Many Caves of Chaos clones focus solely on the combat – Norkers and Xvarts has that in spades (all of Sir Mulfric the Smurfinator’s smurf-killing wishes will be fulfilled in the xvart caves alone), but it livens up the action with simple dirty tricks worthy of Gygax. There are monster tactics and alarms, character-killing traps for the unwary, mysterious elemental shrines to experiment with, and some light potential for interaction. The gotchas are funny, deadly, and ultimately fair (“I69) FRIENDLY SKELETON – A skeleton waves from the far end of this room as if very friendly. It is a false skeleton illusion and is a pit trap.”) There are great moments of adversarial GMing: in the previous trap, there is a 5% probability anyone falling into the pit will also fall on the antlers of a rotting deer carcass for an extra 1d4 Hp.

Snake Wolf
Above all, the caves offer good variety. Far from endless monster hotels, the individual mini-dungeons have interesting sub-themes. The A-C areas have abandoned areas with a strong horror component playing on fears of helplessness (a pool of stagnant water with zombies lurking underneath the surface; an illusionary floor plunging you into a bone pit with 5 ravenous larvae; a horrific mummy mermaid). D is a mysterious evil earth shrine with  weird, creepy aesthetic, where the action slows down and you have to watch your every move. G and J are a norker/xvart meat-grinders. K houses a mysterious frog-mage and his servants. There are constant hints throughout the complex of a wider world of evil intrigue; not in a didactic way, but as places where you may come across the machinations of evil elemental lords, Lolth, and old Iuz. It is all tied to what will presumably be Gene’s take on The Temple of Elemental Evil, although neither this future adventure nor Hommlet are necessary for the use of this module as a standalone. Variety is also seen in the monster roster, which uses the Fiend Folio, adding several new low-level creatures like the creepy spider zombies (corpses animated by arachnid parasites), the luphid (snake-wolf), or the shadrow (shadowy drider forms) – just to mention a few.

Some design choices are peculiar, at odds with accepted wisdom. Monetary treasure is absolutely minimal. In The Village of Hommlet, even random cobblers and leatherworkers may have a thousand gp or a priceless gemstone hidden in the rafters, and the Moathouse ruins have over 10,000 gp in key locations. Monster lairs in Norkers and Xvarts have pitiful copper pieces and handfuls of silver; the brigand leader (to cite an example) has about 54 gp in loose change; the norker treasury has 370 gp and 420 gp of gems, and their leader has a 50 gp gold chain plus a pewter tub filled with gold-washed lead coins (actual value 675 cp – mean!). These are some of the larger caches, too; magic items are not particularly generous either, although monster XP is relatively decent due to the abundance of combat. By AD&D’s levelling/training requirements, this is very little. The choice, according to Gene, is deliberate – I would nevertheless recommend adding some more loot at various locations, or even multiplying existing figures by 4-5, which should take care of this issue.

The module has a simple but generally effective presentation. Gone are Broken Castle’s generic-system stats (it is all nice, readable AD&D), and the layout is simple but functional. There is an excellent blue-tone map that might have come right out of B2. If you end up running this scenario, it may be useful to chart out the valley on a piece of paper with only the entrances and surface vegetation visible – the map, while great, overlays the two, and I had a slight difficulty reading the surface topography. One extra complaint is that locked doors are not marked – you will have to study the text beforehand and do the job yourself. A simple but useful trick in room numbering: it is all sequential, but in the text, entries are preceded by the caves’ letter codes (e.g. A6, E41, H68A), which makes things extra readable. The monster section is illustrated; this is not pro art, but it does have a lot of soul.

Norkers and Xvarts is a great example of a short-form module that nevertheless packs a mean punch. It is nothing fancy, but it knows what it is doing, and written with a lot of understated skill in building memorable encounters. It can serve as an add-on to The Village of Hommlet, or used as a dungeon in a different campaign, and in any case, it offers a lot of useful insight into building a good Gygaxian dungeon environment. It is, also, free. Highly recommended.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Monday, 9 August 2021

[REVIEW] The Pit

Dare You Enter
My Magic Realm?
The Pit (2021)

by Tony Garcia and Simon Barns

Published by Voxelhouse and Elevated Pachyderm Press

Levels 1–3 

Gentle readers, would you like me to tell you a tale, a rousing tale about a megadungeon in the grand style, a wondrous place of adventure and derring-do? An epic delve worthy of legend, where the very balance of the Cosmos hangs by a string the width of a single hair? A module that shall muse and astound great and small, boys and girls (and various fursonas and demi-kins)? Do I hear a ‘yes’? Jolly good! You only have to do a single little thing before that. You will have to listen to my epic backstory.

Hello, and welcome to my review of The Pit, “a prequel adventure for Xumoria megadungeon for characters level 1 to 3”! This 30-page booklet is supposed to give you a taste of a larger forthcoming adventure – a handful of materials, from a setting guide to an intro dungeon. The cover is a tantalising image of a spiralling pit, based on the famous “inverted tower” of Quinta da Regaleira, and it is an eye-catcher if there ever was one. What you get, then, is 18 pages of “Let me tell you about my campaign”, seven pages of bad railroading, and an OGL, which I must have been one of the few times I was relieved to finally see one; the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Welcome to Elfland. Population: Elves.

In classic bait and switch fashion, much of the booklet has little to do with Xumoria, the Pit, or that cover image. Indeed, it offers a big (very big) picture of the surrounding campaign world. Continents and grand histories are outlined on a breath-taking scale, where the destinies of four races are intertwined. This world reminds one of the much imitated, but never equalled goon project, The Zybourne Clock. Whether it belongs in the realm of the dreadful or the sublime, you must agree that it has ambition. Its continents are tastefully named “Human Empire”, “Orc Reigns”, “Cursed Lands”, “Alfir Reigns”, “Dvalin Lands”, and “Free Reigns”. (The great omissions, of course, being “Desert Continent” and “Commercial District”.) For the curious, Alfir are lean, mysterious, and in tune with nature; while the Dvalin are short, stocky, and “have the so-called Train of Doom, a huge set of steam vehicles, pulled by a ‘locomotive’ and followed by wagons loaded with heavy weapons”. The world of Artrusia is divided into two hemispheres, where the northern practices technology and science, while the southern practices religion, longswords and magic. There are wars over the powerful energy ore, aerolite, and between the various races, which otherwise seem to have little reason for warfare, because each one of them has its own continent separated by bigass seas. The Cursed Lands, where aerolite originates, is the Evil Continent with places like Plague Basin, Terror Mountains, Great Poisoned Desert, Human Mine I, Human Mine II, Port Palmer, Death Oaks, Despair Tower, Daffodil Pass, Orc Mine I, Orc Mine II, Dead Orc Coast, and Lizarbia. Just kidding. There is no Daffodil Pass in the Cursed Lands. Dead Orc Coast does seem like a fine, affordable vacation spot.

Evil Continent

However, none of that stuff actually matters, because the adventure is not set in the Cursed Lands, or the Orc Reigns, or Magitech Land, or anywhere close to them. It is set on what old JRPG hands would name “The Starting Continent”, which is a completely average castles-and-taverns kind of place with places called Portland, Gladia, Thunder Keep, and Boldforest. Boldforest is densely forested, while Farpoint is “a flat region, rich with agriculture”. It is at this point where we are finally introduced to Berdolock’s Keep, famed old home to the dread necromancer Berdolock, a.k.a. “Lord Not-Appearing-in-this-Module”. Aptly, Berdolock, or Berdolock Keep for that matter, do not appear in the module. Instead, we now turn our attention to Crimsonwater, a small Podunk town ruled by a character named Armand Valiant (in JRPGs, this would be “Home Village”). This is a serviceable starting location, as it has a main gate, a market square (“Heroes may have their gold stolen by pickpockets”), The Shady Orc Tavern, a Seer, and so on. To be entirely fair, Crimsonwater plays no meaningful role in the module either, except for accommodating the opening scene to the railroading exercise that is this adventure.

We are now on page 18 of The Pit, and all we have seen so far has been tangential to the actual Xumoria “prequel adventure”. No, the introduction is not over yet, for before we begin, we have to treat ourselves to the backstory. This is accomplished by lengthy read-alouds where your characters, as passive observes, are escorted here and brough there, being lectured at by NPCs. When it comes to the obvious question (“Do we accept the adventure hook?”), the adventure solves it in an elegant fashion: “You look at each other, and with a nod confirm your acceptance.” Some of your unruly players might wish to escape after the briefing video, but fortunately, there are helpful servants to escort them back to the tavern, just in case they were getting funny thoughts. “If the adventurers want to stock up with equipment in town, they will be allowed to leave the tavern. The guards insist they return for the night.” Wait, when did this turn into a hostage situation? Who are these fuckers? What do THEY want from us? There is a map of The Shady Orc Tavern where the opening cutscene is set, but it plays no role in the adventure.

Ceci n'est pas une hexcrawl

Well, after a page from an in-campaign newspaper that’s kinda just there, there is a wilderness expedition that is a straight-line railroad to Dead City, where The Pit is located. Thus, Crimsonwater joins the sequence of places which do not matter in this adventure, along with Berdolock Keep, which does not matter either (you can kinda see it from a distance midway through the wilderness trek if you crane your neck and look southwards). The module mentions that “A hexcrawl system is used, as shown on the map above.” Well EXCUSE MY FUCKING FRENCH THIS IS NOT A FUCKING HEXCRAWL! A HEXCRAWL IS DEFINED BY FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT, POINTS OF INTEREST AND WIDE TERRITORIAL COVERAGE YOU ABSOLUTE NUMPTIES! WHY I SHOULD

relax. relax. Relax. The module promises “This journey is sure to give you some surprising encounters.” NO IT FUCKING DOES NOT! 1D6 BEARS IS NOT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! NO ENCOUNTER IS NOT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! 1D6 SKELETONS IS NOT A FUCKING SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! THIS IS NOT WHAT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER IS! NO!!!

The Pit in The Pit


Erm, moving on. So NOW we finally get to The Pit. The titular big bad. The prelude dungeon. The Xumoria teaser. Sure it will… nah. It is just a four-page straight-line affair blocked by keycarded doors that, if it was not written in this bloated way, could be adequately published as a grand OSR innovation, the Half-Page Dungeon. How bad does it get? Welllll. It does get rather bad. Right from the start, it starts fucking with your agency. “As you move further into the room” – no, we don’t! We don’t FUCKING move one step further into the room before we look around a little bit. “You seem to recall seeing reports of similar images found on Old One Island. Perhaps this mosaic depicts Xumoria.” Yeah, that’s great too, not letting the players get away with making that connection on their own and experiencing the thrill of accomplishing something of consequence. Good job.

There is a monster selection that is basically “it is a fire skeleton, but otherwise, it is your regular 1 HD, 4 Hp skeleton with 1d4 extra damage”, “it is six oil beetles”, “it is a carrion crawler”, and “it is four more fire skeletons”. What would be mostly throwaway random encounters in a better module are elevated to set-piece encounters here. There is a trapped passage that is an obvious trap based on the readalout (“The wall has a set of holes evident, all in a horizontal line. Corpses lie on the floor. A quick count tells maybe half a dozen.”) Well GEE, IMAGINE MY SHOCK ADMIRAL ACKBAR! But then you actually need a Thief to detect the blatantly, utterly, transparently obvious trap (“This room is trapped. It can be detected and disarmed by a Thief (if there is one in the party).”)

Progression through the “dungeon” (for lack of a better term) is accomplished by finding themed keys and fitting them into themed keyholes. Moon key, star key, hand key. Not only is it all super-linear, it is rubbed in your face that this experience is a linear sequence of scares, one way only. The rooms are nothing to write home about. There is a room with one casket in it, and four fire skeletons hidden buried in the dirt of the ground (credit where it is due, this is the most imaginative encounter in the module). There is a pantry with smashed junk. A room that’s a small lab with a carrion crawler in it, that has the hand-shaped key hanging from one of its tentacles. A boss monster room. Here is the most disappointing thing: the actual adventure has nothing to do with the cover art, which is not used at all to its potential (which is why I bought the module). There is no spiralling strangeness. There is no descent into a weird underworld. There is only casket room, pantry of junk, and traps that are visible to the plain eye yet require a Thief to detect. It is Adventurer Hell.

After you are done, there is even a closing cutscene with more loss of agency – “you are surprised by”, “you give him the map” – before you are dutifully stripped of protagonist status: your mission taskmaster, Geralt, will be the leader of the expedition to the megadungeon of Xumoria, and you can join him as his faithful followers. But before that exciting day, they pay your tavern bill and you are returned to your room, perchance to dream of bold adventures, treacherous depths, and perhaps… freedom? Nah. Just kidding. You will just get fucked by some GMPC railroad hellplot.

* * *

To sum it up, The Pit most closely resembles a bad JRPG, notably someone’s a very dreadful RPGMaker project. The worldbuilding is a mishmash of bad tropes, the adventure content is negligible, the approach is a horrid railroad, and the action is not worth even a fraction of the hype. It is bad. It is appallingly and comically bad. Worse, it never seems to end, and we are grateful when it finally does. Sometimes the journey is the destination. Sometimes, there is nothing funnier than a shaggy dog story. This time, the journey is a dreadful slog, and the destination is some crappy, derelict shed out in the middle of the great nowhere. I wholeheartedly recommend buying this adventure at full price just to learn how bad it can get. It is a tutorial in how not to make an RPG module, and it will turn you into a better adventure designer and a better person. Read it, learn from it, and do the exact opposite of what it is doing. You will be thankful.

 

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

 

Rating: * / *****

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

[REVIEW] She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

She Who is a Fortress
in Dark Water
She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water (2021)

by Phillip Loe

Self-published on https://captainahabsleg.blogspot.com/

Levels 5–10

Free modules with homemade charm rarely get the respect anymore in old-school gaming. The scene has commercialised, attention has become fixated on production values, glitz, and Kickstarter extras. More’s the pity, because there are still things out there which are not just free, but as good as anything released for money. She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a free wilderness and dungeon scenario, has action, whimsy, and a unique imaginative touch that puts commercial projects to shame.

The tone of the module is grotesque fantasy set in a swampland. Mother Cordelia, a now exiled member of a local monastic order, created a human child through alchemy, to eventually use his deformed spine as a key to the lock of a massive magical codex. Although her schemes were thwarted, now a different evil cult has kidnapped young Ignacio for their own nefarious plan, and are keeping him in an abandoned temple inhabited by lizardmen. Well, at least until the spine can be extracted and their evil plan meets with success (the mission is timed, precise movement rates apply, and STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT). The setup, while bizarre, does not lead to a grimdark module. The tone is more eccentric, with grotesque beings and events, and strongly original while staying comfortably within the boundaries of D&D gameplay. The locale, Theero Marsh has its own little ecology of denizens, from the unctuous oiltoads (human-faced toads whose gaze compels their victims to scarf down the poisonous critter there and then) to a local band of lizardmen, and a handful of weirdo NPCs. It plays effectively on disgust and decay, with a sense of humour to lighten the mood.

The first segment of the adventure is a swamp described as a pointcrawl (9 keyed areas), with rules for getting off track and getting lost (this chart is perhaps too punitive for the time limit) and a random encounter chart with entries that go well beyond “meet X monsters of Y type”. NPCs with their agendas or personal misfortunes, navigation hazards, and even a local petty god can appear before the party. A woman who asks the adventurers for all their food in exchange for a gift of gold thread and answers to three (but no more than three!) questions. A questing paladin with his retainers. Sunbathing crocodiles blocking the path. These chance meetings can greatly affect the rest of the module, adding or altering the way things proceed; or offer obstacles that require a bit of creative thinking to get through.

Free Hugs
The keyed areas, likewise, are a good mixture of challenges, and each one has something that needs more than a standard fight/flight/loot reaction. There are hand-fruit trees, a giant crocodile called Cynthia, and the ghost of a saint. It is very visual stuff, with things that poke your brain and stay there. The final location, the temple, is a lizardman dungeon with 20 keyed areas. Once again, the random encounters offer good interaction/conflict potential – the giant rats are not just there, they are “rooting in the garbage”, and the four different lizardman encounters each have something specific going on (some guiding captives, some fomenting rebellion, and some just absorbed in an impromptu game of dice). The location key here is shorter, less setpiece-like, but the temple as a whole has superb flow, and there are many different ways things can go once the players get inside. Even throwaway places have details like the obligatory barracks room using once priceless tapestries as blankets, an organ room with “a curiously intelligent magpie”, or a barricaded room with a sign reading “BATS DO NOT ENTER” (with an invitation like that, who can resist?). It goes quite far with small, “inexpensive” details, and stays original throughout.

She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water is free, pedestrian in layout, and unapologetically homemade in its art and cartography. It is, I believe, just about right for a small one- or two-session adventure. In 16 pages total, you get a good background, adventure hooks, imaginative random encounter tables, new monsters, a wilderness and a dungeon. The writing is tight yet not underdeveloped; it is the sort of text that’s helpful and rich with flavour. Where appropriate, underlining calls attention to important room features. It is clean and effective. (As an anecdotal detail, you can also see the original sparse sketch/key it has developed from on the author’s blog, and make a comparison between raw notes and finished product.)

Overall, there is simply a good vibe and a sort of balance to this adventure. It is whimsical, fairy-taleish D&D with a strong element of grotesque. This is what module writing should be about. It could be an odd detour in a regular campaign, or a more permanent fixture in something like Dolmenwood. I can wholeheartedly recommend it, and hope there will be more in due time.

This publication does not credit its playtesters (it was apparently playtested at GaryCon).

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

Sunday, 18 July 2021

[REVIEW] Roman Silver, Saxon Greed

Authentic Staple Rust Not Included
(in the DTRPG version)
Roman Silver, Saxon Greed (2021)

by James & Robyn George

Olde House Rules

Low-level (Barons of Braunstein)

This adventure module is an odd beast: an attempt at a historically accurate dungeon crawl, presented as the sort of DIY product you might find distributed by Judges Guild, set in the most “points of light” setting you can imagine. This is fascinating, although it does not quite work.

The setting and context of the adventure place it in Saxon England, a few centuries after the Roman collapse. The empire has long fallen, and what we are left with is a grubby setting where what remains of the monetary system is copper-based, but people mostly use barter. Luxuries we take for granted (swords, ten foot poles, ubiquitous lantern oil, rope) are just that  valuable rarities. Communities are small, and the wilderness is howling. This setting (also explored in the great Wolves of God, which might be used to run this adventure if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool BoB player) is built for adventurers!

What Roman Silver, Saxon Greed gives you is a dungeon in the buried cellars of an old Roman villa, a treasure map, and the description of Stânweall, a nearby village. Much of the introductory material – the setup – is conceptually interesting, but lacks the density of great, off-the-wall ideas which make early RPG materials so interesting. A lot is restating the obvious: perhaps the treasure map is found on a fallen traveller, recovered from a slain enemy, won in a game of dice, or even “anything else the Judge can think of”. This is the kind of material that does not get you a single step closer to actually running a good adventure with the booklet’s materials. A map of England is provided, without apparent added value (full page). A wilderness map shows nothing that could not be stated in a sentence, or which isn’t resolved by the half-page random encounter section covering the journey to the villa proper. The rumours chart is functional but generic – it is not something you would not improvise without prompting when the players started asking around in Stânweall (“Wolves prowl in the woods, and have become bolder”).

Maps of Questionable Utility

The adventure site – built around an authentic villa floor plan – is a 24-room dungeon. The intended tone is to make it a grimy, low-powered murder hole, and it is certainly realistic as the authors intended. However, this precise quality is what makes it a lot less interesting than a dungeon crawl. The villa basement is a relatively compact, cramped space without much in the way of doors (only one single room is blocked by one), where light and sound can travel freely. The brigands who lair down there, meanwhile, are alert and organised. This would in most cases result in a short stealth attempt followed by a siege situation, with more and more brigands emerging to join a mass fray. This promises a deadly fracas, followed (if victorious) by largely uneventful picking through the remains, as the dungeon becomes emptied of the inhabitants who make the place useful.

There is a reason OD&D’s dungeon doors restrict sight, noise, and above all movement through the Underworld, and this is it: you can enjoy every hand-crafted encounter on its merits, instead of getting rushed by the equivalent of 20 goblins. Roman Silver, Saxon Greed is that goblin encounter area, occupying a series of small rooms. There are prisoners, potential hiding places, side-passages with prowling beasts and potential allies. Most of it will not come into play, or come into play way too late to matter. The brigands are given interesting personalities (one is a former monk; another is a big man called “OXA” [the Ox] with a dog called “HUNDR” [dog]), and interesting situations – which would be useful if this wasn’t a scenario where you either have to fight, or stay very, very quiet to avoid fighting. The “feel” of the villa cellars are adept, and the slightly fantastic elements blend in well with the archaeology and the grubby dog-eat-dog shitfarmer milieu.

Roman Silver, Saxon Greed is an obvious labour of love. You can see that the cover has been scanned in with staples through the paper visible. It looks and feels like a lost 1970s relic. But as an adventure, it is bare-bones where it should be substantial, and its attempts at realism come at the cost of missed opportunities in gameplay. Perhaps more could be done in this area.

This publication credits its playtesters – a pleasant note!

Rating: ** / *****

Saturday, 10 July 2021

[REVIEW] Bridgetown

Bridgetown
Bridgetown (2021)

by Jonathan Hicks and Greg Saunders

Fire Ruby Designs

Low-level (not D&D) 

Warlock! is one of the games that have taken inspiration from the old-school movement, but gone off in an alternate direction to do their own thing. It is in the “B-OSR” tradition, drawing “from the early days of British gaming”, and using Fighting Fantasy as well as early WFRP as the basis for its rules. I do not own Warlock!, and this review is not really concerned with system analysis – it looks like a nice, slightly grimy take on adventurer fantasy – rather, what one of the game’s flagship modules has to offer.

Bridgetown describes the titular settlement, before delving into an adventure set therein. Bridgetown, shown on a wonderfully drawn cover by Yuri Perkowski Domingos, is a charismatic location, and the best thing about the module. A former trading settlement built on a massive stone bridge spanning a mighty river, Bridgetown had flourished, and then gone to the dogs as it lost its former prominence and got overtaken by the dregs of humanity and monsterkind. It is presently a big free-for all lawless territory, with a somewhat organised shantytown on one end controlled by “Mayor” Felicity Grendel, the most vicious brigand leader in town. It is an ideal adventuring environment to get into trouble in a small, compact maze of derelict buildings, get knifed in the back, or become involved in shady enterprises.

Here we hit one of the book’s structural issues. How do you present a complex environment like a semi-abandoned town/dungeon? You can go ahead and key some or all of it, or you can abstract it down to procedures and abstract systems like encounter tables and location stocking charts. Bridgetown does neither of these sensible things. The map it offers is definitely more indicative than representative (mediaeval architecture does not work that way with free-standing houses, especially not prime real estate on the limited extent of a bridge!), and no main landmarks are given until the included module. But neither are there functional tables. What we get instead are random, scattered idea seeds we can spin into adventures. Notes on Felicity Grendel and her new taxation schemes. A strange madman offering rumours and quests. A Thieves’ Guild operative. A random events chart. This is not bad, but it does not help with actually running a crawl into the bridge environment. You can of course fudge it, which I suppose is the standard new school approach, but it still leaves you thinking there could have been more here.

38 pages of the 60-page supplement are taken by the adventure, The Trader’s Entreaty. This is clearly the core of the supplement, since the rest consists of four very cursory mini-encounters added as an afterthought (5 pages). The setup is a standard get-the-macguffin plot: retrieve a previous family heirloom for a merchant, who believes it to be lost somewhere in Bridgetown. It is made interesting by a spell scroll that lets you “trace” an object’s passage from owner to owner, and location to location: thus, you are strung along via leads until you finally recover it.

As you might assume, this is a fairly linear affair, arranged into six scenes, each centred on a situation to solve before moving on to the next plot point. Throughout the adventure, we see the standard problems of post-old-school module writing that have plagued gaming for decades. Excessive boxed text that includes lengthy read-aloud NPC exposition, and occasionally assumptions of player actions (or non-action, such as multiple cases where the party gets into an ambush even though the places they are walking into are fairly obvious traps). It is longer than it needs to be, and more restrictive than it needs to be. There is a series of “incidents” to spice up moving between the scenes, from environmental hazards to “monsters attack!”, although there is no proper framework to use them beyond the wishy-washy “Do this as often as seems fun – keep the player characters on their toes!” The setpiece encounters leading to the macguffin are decent, with elements of gang warfare (mostly described as straightforward combats instead of more interesting situational challenges) and a few showy, high-budget locations like climbing on top of a derelict belltower while avoiding missile fire from a bunch of goblins camping out on top of a nearby tower. This is the strong suit of the module, although the solutions are always implied to be one particular thing, and there are no provisions for getting off the beaten track (e.g. by missing or misinterpreting a clue), or getting back on it. Then there is an utterly predictable boss fight with an endless stream of lesser enemies until the characters neutralise the big bad with the knockout power kung fu code appropriate response, and the inevitable conclusion where your idiotic Mr. Johnson commits suicide by going for a frankly suicidal double-cross. These fuckers never learn. (Just in case, the macguffin is cursed, so you don’t actually win anything by holding on to it.)

It is easy to talk about old-school orthodoxy in module design, or the rigidity of Mr. Bryce’s best practices when he guts another hopeful module. It is true that orthodoxies can be detrimental or limiting. However, they are in place for the lack of better alternatives in scenario design. (These do exist, and there is a particular methodology for investigative scenarios, but they are not used here.) It seems that games based on old-school principles, and even the newer clones themselves, understand the rules of old-school games very well, but pay comparatively little attention to the surrounding procedures and practices of play which are equally important. When people could still be assumed to have access to, and familiarity with the original rulesets of the past, this common wisdom was widely available, only requiring rediscovery. Today, for an increasing number of people, it is no longer self-evident. Without structure, the games devolve back into the morass of bad ideas that characterises adventure writing outside the old-school sphere. This is the main issue with Bridgetown: it works with excellent ideas and images, and the aesthetics are tops, but it shows weaknesses in translating them into a successful scenario structure. The art is in place, but the craft needs more work.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****