Thursday, 21 September 2023

[REVIEW] Alchymystyk Hoosegow

Alchymystyk Hoosegow
Alchymystyk Hoosegow (2023)

by Alex Zisch


Level 7 “with some fatalities”

Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

High funhouse (as in “this guy must be high”) is kind of a lost art in adventure design. Puzzle-oriented, gameplay-heavy adventures with a strong emphasis on player skill and anachronistic comedic settings were the bread and butter of early D&D, but are rarely encountered in modern old-school, although they still exist in the forbidden pamphlets of the Scribes of Sparn, Unbalanced Dice Games, and sometimes Buddyscott Entertainment, Incorporated. Alchymystyk Hoosegow throws down the gauntlet and delivers high funhouse like no other.

What we get is a complex adventure site: an abandoned penitentiary converted into the workshop of an imprisoned alchemist, and left to the elements and various monsters. The first thing that strikes the reader is the dense, oddball writing: “The plateau backs up to the mountains where the talus contains an inky orifice. The mine opening has wagon-sized piles of clay soil spread nearby. A belching beehive-shaped smoke stack emerges from the ridge. (…) A species of Brobdignag proportions swarm the countryside. Mega-insects dart around chasing easy prey. They especially strike single file hikers, rock climbers and sleeping campers.” Or: “Clad in jade cloaks, two elves and two jackalweres (in human form) keep watch behind a parapet with a box of 500 arrows and 30 spears. A brass bell and cymbal can be gonged to raise the alarm. The jackalweres and foxwoman communicate in their alignment tongue with percussive signals. A trap door connects to the stair down”  The verbiage is strange and laden with four-dollar words (adjusted for inflation), but it is essential: you get a strong idea of places, personalities and situations. This allows the author to cram an enormous amount of content into the contest page count, even allowing for homemade art and permanent marker cartography that will win no beauty contest, but… well, it will win no beauty contest, and let’s leave it at that.

While the focus is on the alchemist’s two-level “science bunker”, the surface area and three entry levels connected to the main deal are also described in broad strokes. The oddball energy is quickly unleashed. Giant cranes trudge through contaminated water, hunting for fish. A foxwoman rules a gaggle of charmed elven simps from her tower. Orc miners, generally peaceful, make deliveries for their mining operation. Margoyles collect rocks. There is just enough to kick the GM’s mind in a good direction, and let things develop. The entry levels are simplistic, sketched, but conceptually strong, each with a different dynamic. The foxwoman and her elves control the surface, and may offer a bargain to plunder the alchemist’s bunker. The orcs are working class guys just out to make a buck. A prison level is haunted by its jailers and inmates, and a furnace level is operated by salamanders creating expensive and bizarre ceramics in a fiery workshop inimical to human life. Each of these levels have their own logic and “game rules”, which the players must discover and exploit.

Periodic table-shaped rooms

The main deal, though, is the alchemist lair, a 36+12-room puzzle dungeon that serves as a storehouse for crazy alchemy-themed puzzle rooms. Lab equipment, transformation and potion miscibility experiments are offered in dazzling variety, from the relatively simple to the supremely complex. They are not really interconnected for the most part except by theme; they are isolated setpiece rooms to be messed with and exploited for profit. There is a lot of raw, playful creativity exploiting magic items and monsters, involving a strong theme of trickery. Tiny gnomic creatures stored in the vats of a bio-lab grow into giant spriggans to ambush their rescuers, while a bonsai is a disguised hangman tree patiently waiting for its prey. The puzzles are multi-layered. For example, a giant “pool table” has mastodon ivory balls worth 25 gp each, and the holes contain various liquids from port wine to cyanide and a living mustard jelly… the real treasure being the pool stick (a quarterstaff +1 with a chalky tip).

High art
Treasure is hidden carefully – potions disguised as paint pots, opening a secret door to even better treasures if sorted into the colours of the rainbow; a “floating” dunce cap that’s just sitting on top of an invisible iron flask, and so on. There is generous mundane and magical loot scattered around, if you can recognise and obtain it, but the best stuff tends to be behind the really fiendish puzzles. The traps are also hilariously deadly: consider an invisible inkwell on a writing desk, whose contents develops into a cloudkill spell if carelessly knocked over (with enough clues to give a hint to clever players and goad the foolhardy into making a deadly mistake). Of course, it is all very silly, veering into doggerel verses, groanworthy puns (“Meat the Beetles”, a book by Beer Brewbeck), and bizarre monster-NPCs. The greatest treasures are locked away on the lowest level, the alchemist’s treasury and vault – from pillars of pure gold to purple “Crown Royal” bags doubling as bags of holding, filled with 15,000 gp worth of golden dice. The difficulty curve also increases here, and both monsters and puzzles become formidable for the level range.

Alchymystyk Hoosegow is a very peculiar module occupying a very specific niche. Players will love it if you enjoy puzzle-solving and foiling the GM’s clever tricks in a place governed by cartoon/adventure game logic, and probably have a bad time if they prefer their games serious and more-or-less plausible. It is pure gamergaming, and does that very well. Hoosegow, by the way, means a jailhouse. No, I have never heard this one either. Were drugs involved in the creation of this adventure? Well…

This module credits its playtesters properly.

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

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan – Spanish edition Kickstarter // Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games

Castillo Xyntillan!
I am pleased to draw your attention to the ongoing Kickstarter campaign for Castle Xyntillan, or, as we should say, Castillo Xyntillan! The module has been translated into the Spanish by Outremer Ediciones, and statted for Aventuras en La Marca del Este, a Spanish old-school game whose name translates as Adventures in the Eastern Marches. To quote the campaign,

Xyntillan Castle is a megadungeon for old-school gaming, but not one like any other. Throughout its pages you will discover a strange, terrifying and absurd world, governed by dream logic and the unusual fantasies of the Malévols, the degenerate and decadent family dynasty that runs it.

In its more than 300 rooms you will find all kinds of curious inhabitants and dangerous challenges: talking paintings, murderous furniture, servants more loyal than death, maniacal vampires, forgetful ghosts, masked murderers, torturers in love, ancient curses, dead soldiers, glitter clouds , terrifying beasts and even the most dangerous trap ever devised, the masterpiece of death. However, most of these challenges do not have to be overcome by force of arms: many will be content with a few good words, some politeness, and asking for a favor from time to time.”

The campaign has already met its goal, so it is safe to say it will happen – the manuscript has been translated, laid out and proofread, and Outremer Ediciones has a proven track record delivering other games, including a very nice-looking translation of the Helvéczia boxed set. The physical qualities were great for Helvéczia, and should be the same here. If the campaign hits €8.000, patrons of the physical version will receive the d20 of Victory, and with that name, I am fairly sure you need one of them. Back early and back often!
Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games

In other news, I would also like to draw your interest to a new book series, Foundations of Fantasy Roleplaying Games. Launched by Charybdis Press, this is a series that

“…explores the literature that influenced the modern genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and the roleplaying games they continue to inspire. The series is dedicated to all the hardworking game masters the world round and hopes these books provide more inspiration for their games. But while this series orients itself towards genre fiction and roleplaying games, it is also for general readers desiring quality copies of public domain works.”

These are, in essence, nicely edited, affordable paperback printings of works in the public domain. The titles chosen for the imprint are a bit further afield from the pulp classics; they come from the corpus of adventure stories which indirectly inspired the pulps, but are fairly obscure to the modern reader. As such, they are a great source of reading material that would, paradoxically, feel both familiar and new. The titles now available mostly include works from the picaresque tradition:

  • Three Northern Love Stories, and Other Tales: A collection of mediaeval Icelandic stories, from The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald to The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Smitten.
  • The Life and Adventures of Guzman d’Alfarache: One of the classic Spanish picaresque novels from 1599, featuring the misadventures of a low-class anti-hero in a world of thieves and reprobates. As usual in the genre, it is nominally written as a condemnation of sin, while vicariously revelling in it.
  • The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane: The classic 1715 French picaresque story (although one set in Spain), following another young fortune-seeker and social climber. Gil Blas is one of my favourite books; it is fast-paced (the events of the first twenty or thirty pages would make for a full novel in lesser hands), funny, and filled with wisdom.
  • Told by the Death’s Head: A 19th-century neo-picaresque by Hungarian novelist Mór Jókai, this is also a personal fave. Originally titled An Infamous Adventurer from the 17th Century, it is the unlikely tale of Hugo, a gunner put on trial for twenty-two crimes (“including bigamy, regicide, uxoricide, sorcery, piracy, Satanism, and cannibalism”), each worthy of execution, but each with a story behind it that makes Hugo the hero of the story. As always, Jókai is a master of the romantic adventure; he is smart (and a bit of a smartass), incisive, and fundamentally good-natured about human foibles. A paragon of patriotic liberalism, and always a man with a story to brighten your day.

Sunday, 17 September 2023

[REVIEW] Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination

Into the Caves of the
Pestilent Abomination
Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination (2023)

by Marcelo P. Augusto

Published by Giallo Games

Levels 1–2

The idyllic rural community beset by a monstrous menace is one of the main plots in fantasy games, and the premise of a myriad low-level adventures, so much so that it probably beats “undead-haunted crypt of a local notability” and “Keep on the Borderlands” to the top spot. The majority of them are low-complexity affairs, with a straightforward setup and a mini-dungeon at the end. Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is a typical representative of the genre, and suffers from its typical issues, including a misunderstanding of what makes an adventure.

Where the rural idyll is concerned, the module lays it on thick: “The small community of Woodsmen Village lived in tranquility, without anything or anyone bothering its peaceful residents. Days come and go while the gardens sprout succulent and showy greens. Shepherds quietly follow their flocks of sheep to the nearby hills, and poultry farmers happily inspect the beautiful eggs their fat hens daily laid. (sic)” Woodsmen Village, mainly noted for the Fussy Lark tavern and the magical throwing axe of a dwarf hero who has once helped the place, is troubled by a problem. A traveling priest who has settled near the village has gradually grown wild and transformed into a stinking, decrepit abomination, scaring the local folk and eventually moving on to killing the livestock. All this is told through an overly long backstory, which is then followed by a disproportionately simplistic adventure. The paragraph you have just read would have sufficed for an introduction conveying the same ideas the module spends four pages elaborating.

Ceci n'est pas une d'une
exploration hexadécimale.
The adventure proper has a wilderness segment in this idyllic little land, which serves no purpose whatsoever. There is a hex map with nine keyed areas, but these are not functional encounters of interest to the adventurers. Rather, the locations mentioned in the backstory are put on the map, from the dwarf hero’s serene lakeside tomb (a nice touch: flowers and tobacco are deposited near the grave as a local tradition), to the location where a local kid once saw the Pestilent Abomination, the place where the torn off sheep’s head was found, and the other place where the mule carcass was discovered. These places are not encounters per se, since nothing really happens at them, nor do they offer useful information to finding the Abomination’s lair. As the module helpfully tells us, “It’s possible that the adventurers try to investigate the area, but they won’t find any clues about the recent incidents at the village.” The only function of the wilderness is to bump into random encounters, except they are mostly not functional encounters either, being local wildlife like deer, a snake, an eagle, shepherds and sheep, a mountain goat, 1d4 wolves, and travelling dwarves. This is mainly just set dressing before the adventure – but there is no adventure in these outdoors.

The actual adventure begins on page 12, where the module starts to describe the nearby swamp. Some of the encounters here are actual monsters and hazards (like a depth change), although this is basically just mucking around until you arbitrarily find a trail to the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination. The best part of the adventure is found here; an encounter with “the Swamp Predator”, “a bizarre cross between a crab and a spider”, which attacks from beneath the murky water of the lake before the cave entrance. This is simple but well done; an interesting monster with an effective setup.

The caves feature seven keyed areas (13 if we generously count sub-areas), and follows a linear path with three side-branches. There are the beginnings of interesting locales here. A half-flooded cave glittering with rough citrines and populated by giant salamanders (the adventure’s only treasures of note, worth a total of about 180 gp) is pretty cool. A completely flooded cave with a submerged quicksand pool is a good challenge of problem-solving and equipment use. The descriptions are sometimes effective, let down by parts of the key describing things which are evident from the map. In the final room, the adventure ends up as a bait-and-switch: you do not actually get to encounter the original Pestilent Abomination, as he has died a while ago and been replaced by a troll which has taken his place. This development is probably realistic, but disappointing. The shepherds and farmers of Woodsmen Village would probably see the troll as a fearsome monster of whispered legend. For the actual people playing this adventure, it is just a troll. It also nullifies the priest plotline the module had spent so much ink setting up. There is no treasure except a cursed necklace which transforms you into the Pestilent Abomination, and has an overlong backstory of its own.

Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is just an example of a general trend that has beset old-school adventure design, and it is perhaps not fair to single it out for criticism. It is one of many, and its sins are of the age which had birthed it. There are ways out, but they must be shown so people can walk them. Good adventure design is not that hard, and old-school gaming has much to offer in this respect. But regrettably, this is still really bad. The lesson is thus: sometimes, horrors are hidden around idyllic communities, and we must put them to the sword for the sake of peace and quiet.

This module credits its playtesters properly.

Rating: * / *****

Wednesday, 6 September 2023

[REVIEW] Caves of Respite

Caves of Respite
Caves of Respite (2023)

by Jeff Heinen

Published by Hrafn Forge

Level 1 (Shadowdark)

Games which make a large splash tend to be inundated with ill-conceived crap from incompetents and shovelware artists. Mrög Brög, OSE, Troika, and now Shadowdark are just continuing a trend proudly set by OSRIC (Phil Reed showing up is a telltale sign). After a while, when the game’s reputation has been soundly thrashed by the talentless and opportunistic, the horde moves on to drag down the next hot thing. It is thus not easy to find the good stuff for these systems among the rubbish. This adventure is not rubbish: a sense of wonder, good presentation, and decent encounter design show signs of emerging competence.

The first thing that stands out is the sense of wonder. The caves are an old refuge of nobility; a place of beauty and history. The module is willing to be fantastic by digging into the foundations of D&D fantasy: places like a gallery, a magnificent feasting hall with a grand chandelier, and subterranean cave realms combine strong imagery with functional gameplay. The text helps establish a place with a good appeal to multiple senses. Let’s consider the setup for the first area: “Stench of stale sweat and damp earth. The light of your torches flickers off damp, roughly hewn cave walls. Four individuals, clearly not of noble birth, clad in mismatched leather armor, have set up a crude watchpost here. They bear the marks of hard lives, their faces hidden under layers of grime and rough stubble. A sense of alertness emanates from them, their hands never straying too far from their belted weapons. A pair of smoking braziers gives off an acrid smoke that burns the eyes and lungs, providing a meager light source.” It has a few remnants of boxed text – some entries imply player action a bit too much – but you can see good descriptions taking shape. It is not overlong, and it concentrates on visceral detail. Stale sweet and damp earth. Mismatched leather armour. Grime and rough stubble. Acrid smoke. You get a solid mental image out of them.

(My annotations)

Beginner modules are not an easy genre to write for: balancing limited character power with the need to design something that does not feel nerfed and limited is a challenge many fail at. Caves of Respite does a decent job at giving you a first-level dungeon in 24 keyed areas. That’s sort of the threshold of viability; under 20 is usually too small, although around 30-40 would be better. This cave system is large enough to accommodate player choices and offer alternate paths – the structure follows a larger loop crossed by two strings of rooms; not elaborate, but again, it does its job. If you added about 50% empty space to extend it a little, and introduced a few dead ends and side-branches, it would be spot on. What works particularly well, though, is the sense of progression. The entrance section is a bandit lair, barricaded off from the deeper caves. This is followed by natural caverns ranging from a mushroom garden to a chasm spanned by a rickety rope bridge. You eventually get to the lost noble sanctum with its set-piece rooms, and that’s a great sense of discovery, even in such a small dungeon. It transcends simple “cabinet contents” room design by exploring slightly out-of-place elements with a sense of the odd and fantastic, like an underground music room or a grand library. A definite high water mark.

The encounters run the gamut from combat to hazards and navigation challenges. Monster encounters include basic tactics – ettercaps try to ensnare the party, while kobolds and goblins are a cowardly lot who might be more likely to bargain for a surrender. Monster numbers could be increased a little; meeting 16 kobolds is just more exciting than a combined group of five kobolds and three goblins. Two ghouls in a room is just sad, balance be damned. There are opportunities for parlaying and making deals with the denizens.

There is decent signposting – three skeletons impaled by fallen stalactites followed by, well, falling stalactites. It is perhaps on the simple side, but this is a beginner affair. Occasional bad practices are still present: for example, the bandits’ belongings can potentially yield healing potions, lockpicks, and small amounts of gold. Well, do they yield them or not? Do they only yield them if it is convenient for the GM? This is a point where an adventure designer should put down his feet, at least by establishing some odds. There are a few “hidden niche contains some  loot” secrets too many – more variety here would be to the adventure’s benefit. The loot amounts are based on Shadowdark standards, so it is more “I am happy with this 50 gp” and less “you find 1000 gp, a meagre haul so far”.

The module follows a fairly effective presentation: keyworded player-side descriptions are followed by GM info in bullet points. The absence of monster stats is puzzling. Is this a Shadowdark thing or a module-specific thing? In either case, stats should be included, no ifs and no buts. The Achilles heel of the presentation is the map. Features noted in the text are often missing from the map – not on the level of furniture, but things like a grand stairway, a secret door, or a chasm and a rope bridge are the most notable cases. Sure, you can draw them in based on a read-through of the text, but then the author could have done the same. I wonder if this was originally a repurposed map or some sort of template.

All things considered, this is not bad at all, sort of like a good Basic D&D adventure. It is not yet at the point where decent becomes very good, but perhaps where good things starts to emerge – a good start. The author is someone who clearly has talent, and is getting more skilful. It would be good to see more.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 27 August 2023

[REVIEW] The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul

The Arcane Font
of Hranadd-Zuul

[REVIEW] The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul (2023)

by Daedalus


Levels 2–4 “plus henchmen”

Hello, and welcome to part SIX of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

A shrine known for a font that can grant magical powers for a price has become the focus of multiple competing groups. A magic-user, looking for the font’s energies, has been captivated by an evil plant monster, and serves it loyally. A band of grimlocks want to destroy the plant to worship the font as a manifestation of their god. A drow swordswoman has escaped here with a macguffin, and is pursued by a humanoid band who want her dead and the macguffin for themselves. The plant monster wants to enthrall and feed on more victims. This adventure uses a Dyson Logos map for a small dungeon adventure with 25 keyed areas, and lets loose the PCs among the factions.

Designed to be
messed with
The result is a sort of compendium of dungeon design good practices – a good mixture of encounter types, dungeon factions, non-linearity, monster tactics and a sense of wonder are all present. The locale is effective as a derelict place of mystery, with the statues of mysterious goddesses, scavengers which have moved in, and enigmatic puzzles you can mess with. This element of exploration and interaction is the adventure’s strongest point; whether it is messing with two magical mirrors that allow remote observation of key locales, stealing votive coins from the shrine of a death goddess, or exploring a laboratory setpiece, fun possibilities are presented and explored. It is not just single-function stuff – there are deeper layers of interaction and multiple possibilities to explore. There are enough environmental clues to help you along, but experimentation is tempting. You find a dead body, followed by a killer trap, and if you fall for it, it is richly deserved. The combat encounters offer good variety – there is a battle on a bridge spanning a larger cavern with a swarm of spiders dropping down from the ceiling that should warm every GM’s heart, a large grimlock gathering you can crash, or moving NPCs who are all different in their approach and threat type.

The faction conflict is central to the adventure, and it is impressively developed. There are opposing forces active in the area, they are on the move, and some of them also have bases to fall back to. This is quite outstanding, although as it tends to be, the dungeon is too small for this scope of intrigue. It is a grand play on a small stage – to work properly, it would need a place that would be three or more times as large, with generous empty space between the keyed areas.

Discovering the Ruined e-Thot Room
User-friendly presentation is just as prominent in The Arcane Font of Hranadd-Zul, and every trick from the book is on display. Room entries use multiple-level bullet-point formatting, underlining, cross-referencing, the works. NPC motivations are explained, terrain features described exactly, there is a table breaking down XP and treasure, and even a “what happens after the adventure” page. Paradoxically, this becomes the module’s largest flaw and the main obstacle to actually using it. Things are over-explained in the text – describing the presence of mundane doors where the map would suffice, or dwelling on insignificant dungeon clutter, or the motivations of a mimic and a carrion crawler (it is what you expect). Underlined keywords are too frequent, and don’t draw our eyes to the relevant bits. The effect of presenting the entire text in two-level bullet pontese is more disorienting than helpful – a lot of it would have worked better as plain text, with the bullet points reserved for relevant material. The point is not that these layout practices aren’t useful, but that their role should be supportive, not overwhelming. Here, it is overwhelming.

All things considered, this is a decent adventure, but it would be a better one if it had a larger sscope, and especially if it wasn’t trying to be so helpful. There are strong elements in the factions, the exploration, and the generally well-written text, but in the end, we return to the eternal wisdom: less is sometimes more. Would I use the adventure as it is? No. Would I be interested in a new one that fixed its issues but kept its good points? Definitely.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: *** / *****

Wednesday, 16 August 2023

[REVIEW] Ship of Fate

Ship of Fate (2023)

by Jonathan Becker


Levels 10–14 “plus assorted henchmen”

Hello, and welcome to part FIVE of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Michael Moorcock’s psychedelic fantasies are the essential fodder for high-level D&D: cosmic struggles, godlike villains, heroes wielding magic beyond comprehension, and completely out-there set-pieces where the conventions of your usual fantasy world no longer apply. People have been adapting Moorcock’s stories ever since the beginning (Blackrazor is just one of the examples), and Ship of Fate follows in the footsteps of this tradition. The call of adventure reaches the greatest heroes of the realm to sail to another world and stop a pair of sorcerers messing with the very fabric of the multiverse. Are they up for the challenge? Find out in this high-level, tournament-style adventure.

Contrary to what you might expect from the premise, the titular Ship of Fate is not the focus; it is the vehicle that takes you there – sort of an extended briefing, although one with charismatic NPCs and a really swanky cosmic ship that can get you from anywhere to anywhere. Perhaps a longer, non-contest module could have something for the journey (a few encounters and locations on the otherworldly Dunkle Zee, no doubt populated by the perfidious windmill-men by the sound of it?), but here, you are brought right to the shores of the island where the actual target, a bizarre structure combining mechanical and living parts, serves as the site of a dungeon with 36 key locations. It is a clear Agak and Gagak homage from The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, while also drawing on the AD&D classics: the hub-and-spokes setup of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and the funfair ride aspects of White Plume Mountain.

This is definitely high-stakes, high-skill AD&D which throws formidable challenges at a pack of powerful PCs and their henchmen (three per each character). Encountering 96 stirges, 3 ropers or 7 shadow demons, or finding a chamber whose walls are just studded with gemstones (total value 62,500 gp) is just the beginning. It is not just a room with a mirror of opposition; it is a hallway with several dozen mirrors with ten mirrors of opposition, for the ultimate mirror maze battle (very Elric). The wealth of magic items is staggering, probably exceeding the total bounty of your usual modern “OSR” campaign. But this is a sort of cosmic piggy bank – you are contending with the forces of the multiverse, and you are sharing in the goods (all beyond the modest baseline reward of 50,000 gp per character). These are the standard encounters before things are ratcheted up for the finale. As a nice touch, the module lets you use your stuff. There are restrictions on spell recovery and a loosely set time limit, but no bullshit “magical detection and passwall will not work here for reasons” nerfing. The contest of powers is not rigged.

The dungeon wears the heavy Tsojcanth / White Plume Mountain influences on its sleeve. It follows a structure where multiple entrances lead through gauntlet-like sequences of setpiece rooms into the central area. The simple trick of sloping corridors crossing above or below each other jazzes up the otherwise simple layout. It is peak funhouse; there is little connection between individual encounter setups, and you are sort of moving from clever bubble to clever bubble. The encounters are often “monster in a room” style, almost Monty Haul in the original sense. The effect is disjointed, which is not inappropriate for a weird extraplanar funhouse.

However, the true skill lies in the way these encounters are constructed (once again, the strong points of S2 and S4). No two encounters are alike, and the variety of challenges you face is very pleasing. In fact, there are no two rooms with the same monsters in them, and the combat situations are highly different, supplied with strong, straightforward tactical notes which put them to very good use. There are strong elements of deception: something that looks like a particular monster if you don’t pay good attention, cursed items mixed in with the treasure, valuable but unreliable allies. The encounters often require quick thinking and the judicious use of those high-level capabilities (there are no recovery options, so resource conservation is also a concern). And it is plain wahoo fun: a planar gateway nexus can take you anywhere from John Carter’s Mars to Kyrinn Eis’s World of Urutsk, or you can overload the control matrix by inputting more high-value gems than it can bear, and trigger an explosion for 3d6*10 Hp. You can’t do that in a copper piece-standard rat dungeon.

Unlike the surrounding dungeon texture, the central hub, the lair of the two otherworldy sorcerers (Giz-Kala and Giz-Aga), is interconnected, and that will be the players’ problem: two powerful antagonists with high control over their environment, and the ability to draw in reinforcements hitting characters’ sensitive spots from multiple directions (going from single monster type encounters to a multi-monster combined arms affair) is going to be a brutal test of skill and luck. They also have the best of the best in magic – a staff of power, high-level spells used for both defence, crowd control and destruction, and a selection of defensive items to round out the collection. Even more than the rest of the adventure, this will require strong GMing skills to run right.

There are some presentation issues with the module. The text is clearly and effectively written – this is how it should be done. However, for such a complex thing drawing on a myriad monsters from several disparate sources, the lack of a stat roster, and (if we may be impertinent, pretty please) a Hp sheet is a major omission. With the amount of mnstrs, and particularly the final battle, you need to keep track of this because your attention will be otherwise occupied. There is an appendix dedicated to lovingly detailed tournament characters (Sunstarr, King of Coins; Alejandro the dwarf, Lucius “Lucky” Drago, King of Wands; Bladehawk, Queen of Swords, and so on), but this is not supplied? The Scribes of Sparn – another fine purveyor of high-enery funhouse modules – did this well. How hard would it be if you wrote the thing and presumably already did the work? Some of the combat notes towards the end are also scattered a little, which could be improved on. Nothing major, but you can see it.

To sum up, Ship of Fate is a worthy tribute to its source material. It is very specific in what it does, and what it doesn’t do. For example, it doesn’t do connectedness very well – it is a grab-bag of wild stuff thrown together willy-nilly. It is also not a particularly non-linear module; for all the alternate entrances, it is mostly a beeline through various setpieces to a climactic finale. The fascinating planar ship setup is not explored at all. But as a funhouse ride, it is really good. If you are something like thirteen (which I think was the case with the playtesters, who seem to be the author’s kids and perhaps a few more guests), this will be the coolest module you have played. In the often dour, misery-addicted, dirt-filtered “OSR” scene, it sure stands out, and does what it sets out with enthusiasm, imagination, and skill.

This module credits its playtesters, too.

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

Agak sucks, but this module does not.

Monday, 10 July 2023

[REVIEW] The Lair of the Brain Eaters

Based on a True Story
The Lair of the Brain Eaters (2023)

by D.M. Ritzlin


Levels 1–3

Hello, and welcome to part FOUR of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

If you liked the book, you may also enjoy the adventure. This is the case with The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short dungeon module by D.M. Ritzlin based on The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short story by D.M. Ritzlin, published in Necromancy in Nilztiria by DMR Books, the best current publisher of sword&sorcery tales (the meaning of the acronym is left to the reader). The short story was a fun blend of Clark Ashton Smith and RPG fantasy; with a likeable if very horny protagonist, grotesque situations, and a plot resolution based on an AD&D random table. The adventure follows the same outlines, describing a network of caves beneath an ancient necropolis, populated by a band of mutated humans called the Yoinog, and a magic-user involved in bizarre, brain-related experiments. Add a set of colourful rumours, a random encounter chart, and an entrance trap that starts the action with a bang, it wastes no time getting to the point.

The scenario encompasses a total of 29 keyed areas over one larger level and two smallish sub-levels. It does not deal with the above-ground necropolis (kind of a missed opportunity), and focuses on the dungeon proper. The main level is nicely non-linear, with twisting cave passages put to good use. In addition to the brutish Yoinog, one might encounter typical “catacomb” monsters, spiced up with a few curveballs, like a captive girl doing the Yoinogs’ errands, and an amorous ghoul lusting after her. There is a decent mixture of encounters, and options to bypass or negotiate with the (barely) intelligent denizens. The central idea is grotesquerie, providing a peek into the debased living habits of the degenerate Yoinogs, and their preoccupation with cannibalism and brain-eating. This is played for dark comedy, although not as successfully as the short story itself – some of the sharp wit of the original is missing here.

The level is rounded out with traps, tricks, and a few hidden rooms. There is suitable treasure for its level range (some of it hidden cleverly but logically), and is right at a level of difficulty that should be deadly for low-level PCs, but not outstandingly so. Weirdness lurks around the edges, and it is used particularly well – not enough to overwhelm the adventure, but enough to give it a distinct style – a brain-plant, a cosmic gateway to explore at the characters’ peril, or a gauntlet of puzzle rooms leading to an alternate exit. The Yoinogs’ master, the bizarre magic-user Obb Nyreb, is worthy of the pen of Erol Otus (or the typewriter of Frank Herbert): a morbidly obese freak with an oddly shaped head and purple-spotted skin, floating through his chambers wearing only a loincloth and a girdle of levitation. His laboratory of magical brains procured from bizarre monsters (doubling as potions if you choose to consume them) is a high point. While many of the encounters are on the simple side, they often have an odd touch or peculiarity that makes them resonate – a collection of occult tomes doubling as treasure, a nest of escaped lab rats with special powers (these would be extremely deadly for first-levellers), or “1d4 stuporous Yoinogs (…) strewn about the room, recovering from drunken debauchery”.

All in all, Lair of the Brain Eaters is a decent, functional dungeon crawl if you enjoy the theme, and a place you could easily place in a necropolis near any major city. It captures the spirit of the weird tales upon which it was ultimately based, and has a good element of macabre comedy. The main criticism I could level at it concerns the module’s scope and ambitions. The 29 keyed areas are nothing to scoff at, and the content is good. But it really feels like there should have been more to it – if there were more strange tombs to pass through, more ways to access the dungeon (as is, the alternate entrance is nigh impossible to find unless following a particular rumour), and just slightly more depth to the encounters, it would be outstanding, and it doesn’t reach that level. Of course, if that’s the worst complaint you have, you don’t have much. I would use this, even along with my own (so far unpublished) necropolis adventure – which is part The Tale of Satampra Zeiros homage, but partly inspired by none other than D.M. Ritzlin’s excellent Lair of the Brain Eaters.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. Playtesters are, in fact, properly credited in this publication. Those responsible for this review oversight have been shot.

Rating: *** / *****