Saturday, 4 April 2020

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan in PDF & What Comes Next

Castle Xyntillan

I am pleased to announce the publication of the PDF version for Castle Xyntillan. A 136-page adventure module for 1st to 6th level characters, this is a a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game (and broadly compatible with other old-school systems). The module describes the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle inhabited by the remnants of a reclusive and eccentric family, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). Hidden rooms, secret passageways and long-forgotten sub-sections complete a collection of the dangerous and macabre from the gothic imagination – providing ample opportunities for exploration, confrontation, and subterfuge.

Castle Xyntillan has been designed to be versatile, open-ended, complex, and accessible. It is above all, a fantastic place – built on surrealism and dream logic, yet a place which makes a certain amount of sense if you look at it sideways. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. Whether you would like a dungeon for one-off expeditions and convention play, or repeated forays and full campaigns, Castle Xyntillan should suit the demands and particulars of your campaign!

This electronic edition includes the following:
  • The PDF version of the module, with cartography by Rob Conley, and illustrations by Peter Mullen, Denis McCarthy, and Stefan Poag.
  • GM and player maps of the module, as well as a set of virtual tabletop maps, with helpful setup instructions by cartographer Rob Conley for Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds.
  • A GM’s Worksheet, used to track time and characters as the company explores the depths of Xyntillan. Adapted from Dungeons and Companies, a Hungarian retro-clone, and designed by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Andras Szabo, this is a highly useful play aid for dungeon scenarios.


RELEASE NOTE: At this moment, the main document is still a plain PDF, the release expedited to let people under lockdown enjoy the module. An update with improved cross-refefences and functionality shall be released at a hopefully close date.

As always, this electronic edition is provided free of charge to people who have purchased the print issue. (Available again as soon as conditions normalise a little, and international shipping once again becomes feasible.)

* * *
Goings-on

It should come as no surprise that the Bat Plague has put a spoke in everyone’s wheel. Since I had doubts about the reliability of international shipping during global disruption, and did not want to make periodic visits to the post while a quarantine is on (for reasons part safety-based and part ethical), I also closed down my print store for a while. This is not an essential business, and we can wait.

Homage to Catalonia, 1697
This is a time for relaxation, self-reflection, gaming, and background work. We halted our face-to-face campaigns, and started two interim ones online over a combination of Google Hangouts and Roll20. I am a player in Quarantine in San Escobar, a historical fantasy campaign using the Helvéczia rules, and set in a fantastic Catalonia in the Spring of 1697. As it is the way with Helvéczia, there are a few creative liberties involved – historians do not recall the province to have been ruled by a “Prince Franco”, nor have records of the black plague visiting San Escobar, a city close to the Rio Negro (which you might not find on all maps). But surely, the foreboding Moorish dungeons hidden under the dilapidated mansion of the extinct Macabre family; the scandal around the diabolical theft of the staff of Saint John the Reverent (a relic liberated by a mad Basque, who was said to have worked for the Devil himself); the duel where the French bravo Antoine de Castelmorte received a fatal wound; the downfall of the libertine Society of Smoking Poets (whose tower hideout collapsed in a grenade-induced explosion); the machinations of the Italian Auditore Banking House and its sinister enforcer Signor Enzio Conti (whose clandestine activities left a trail of bodies in pursuit of a cache of stolen gemstones); or the altercations at the Golden Ass Tavern (where a Castilian witch was thwarted with the judicious application of Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell, and her lackeys driven away by a pack of shadowy hounds nobody had seen clearly), all of these are tales which would haunt the popular imagination. José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera is afoot, and he is now a 3rd level Student!

The City of Thisium
I have also started a B/X mini-sandbox campaign of my own: in The Four Dooms of Thisium, the Wise Owl, the oracle of the eponymous coastal city-state, has delivered a dire warning of the city’s impeding destruction by the angered gods; and four dooms: one from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the sea, and one from beneath the city. As the Owl would explain, the gods had also prohibited the citizens to try and prevent this fate, or hire or encourage outsiders with present or future rewards – only those who would come to help on their own free will could escape divine wrath, and avert the four dooms in the remaining 90 days. Alas, it would only be on day 45 that a suitable company of adventurers would arrive – and that’s where the players came in. So far, 10 player characters have ventured into and outside Thisium, of whom 5 have met their demise in various ways:
  • Solon, Cleric 3, active
  • +Snorri, Dwarf 1, dragged off by ghouls in a dark street
  • Giacomo, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Thyrsos, Elf 1, ambushed and murdered in the mausoleum of the Vercato family by giant shrews
  • +Ignatius, drained by shadows in the lower crypts
  • Hawk, Thief 1
  • Krandor, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Codilius the Sneaky, Magic-User 1; strangled to death by living roots while trying to clean a forest altar
  • +Alonso the Humble, Fighting Man 2; promoted from a lucky footman who had drunk from a font that gave him experience in exchange for increased age, he defeated the chosen champion of the Merchant Lord Mornalt Tamburello in single combat, bedded his daughter Hestia, and – sadly – ended his career in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso, where he was burnt to a crisp by the flaming breath of the idol of PORCULUS, an orcish beast-god.
  • Khamir the Enchanter, Magic-User 2

The list of followers is also growing, foreigners recruited from the Pickled Carp Tavern and elsewhere: of the 15 who had joined the party, 5 have died and one retired:
  • +Adalberto, light footman (Giacomo), burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • +Bonaventura, light foot (Codilius), killed by the rest of the party under an evil enchantment
  • +Sisyphus, servant (Solon), simpleminded but loyal, died to an orcish throwing axe in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso
  • Lorenzo, light footman (Giacomo), suspicious hacking cough but a good rear guard
  • +Socrates, light footman (Solon), suspicious hacking cough, burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • Septimus, crossbowman (Solon), a dandy
  • [Oriflan, heavy horseman] (Krandor), a capable ally, until he was charmed by a rival Elf, and left the party in disgust when they killed his “old friend”
  • Ario, crossbowman (Alonso)
  • Philippos, light footman (Hawk)
  • Theseus, light footman (Hawk), who had his own retainer…
  • +Alcino, servant (Theseus), a lock-picker with a set of false keys, he was drained by shadows on the second expedition to the lower crypts
  • Adriano Amico, Fighting Man 2, hired from a friendly adventuring party, and capable of holding his own
  • Malek, light footman (Khamir)
  • Khamid, light footman (Khamir)
  • Hector, heavy footman (Giacomo), a dandy & current rear guard

The Coastlands
The company has also made progress: they have stolen a golden harp from the Tomb of Badalamenti; explored the Sacred Grove where the Wise Owl holds council; extracted a great treasure (including a +2 war hammer) from beneath the ruined tower of the mage Harpang with nothing but a few food rations; defeated a rival adventuring company laired in the abandoned countryside villa of the Elerius family; thrown a grand fete where they hosted all of the city-state on a night-long celebration that ended in family tragedy; purchased the wine cellars of the wine merchant Fladevole, and established permanent access to the Thisium Underworld; gained entrance to the Summer Villa of Raniero Galasso (but had to retreat under heavy losses); and converted a band of brigands to the cause of Law, while also looting their considerable treasures. Tomorrow, the adventures continue – the discovery of an underground garden, and other leads offer great treasures and formidable dangers beneath the doomed city!

I hope to publish Thisium when it is finished – I have lately been thinking about the lack of good beginner-level sandbox modules, and how disappointing and limited these offerings tend to be. Thisium aims to be complex, broad, and a combination of dungeoneering, city intrigue, wilderness pointcrawls, and sea adventures – that is, a little bit of everything. It also does not pull punches, whether it comes to grave danger or fabulous treasures – glory and death await in equal measure in The Four Dooms of Thisium!

* * *

Publication Plans

With the ongoing quarantine, I have decided to go ahead and prepare for the post-Bat Plague period. While the consequences are still hard to fathom, and there will be obvious deep changes in the world economy and other areas – some quite long-lasting – I would like to believe gaming will continue to have a place there, and people will continue to have an interest in self-publishing, including my stuff. Accordingly, I have commissioned the reprint of Castle Xyntillan. I was running fairly low on stocks when shipping came to a halt, with 70 out of 500 copies remaining, and based on sale projections, a restock was in order. I decided on this in early February, and while I have closed things down for now, I am putting my money where my mouth is. The print and binding job will be business for my printer (a fellow gamer), a binder’s shop, and later the Post who will ship the printed copies – not their only business, but every little bit helps. I never did my printing in China to do it on the cheap, and I will never do it in China – as long as it is feasible, I will keep it close and friendly, and if it isn’t, I will consider POD options as a last resort. But that would, from my perspective, take away a lot of the magic that makes me love this thing.

In the Shadow of the City-God
(Hungarian edition)
So we will work ahead, and print things as they become ready, to prepare for a reopening. Echoes From Fomalhaut #07 will be the first release after Xyntillan. It is done, proofed (a good idea, as I was mortified to find that one of the adventures was somehow missing a handful of keyed areas), ready for launch except for the cover illustration. Echoes #07 will include a module set in a glacier setting I am really proud of; a two-page mini-scenario involving a forgotten tomb under a cellar; one of the main dungeons from the City of Vultures, which had seen a lot of play over the years; and the description of a secret society, including a smattering of adventure locales you can use in context, or on a piece-by-piece basis. I am also working on the translation of In the Shadow of the City-God, a sinister city adventure by Istvan Boldog-Bernad. This scenario amazed me when I first played it, with its effortless combination of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, bloody cloak-and-dagger stories from Renaissance short stories, and D&Desque dungeoneering; and when I read the manuscript, with its no-nonsense, effective writing style. This is going to be a lot of stuff in only 32 pages.

After these two, the order of things is still hazy. Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes will be my next large project (and as the main city of the Isle of Erillion, something that could not comfortably fit a single zine issue), but in the meantime, there are two manuscripts that are close to done, and in need of illustrations.

Fight On!

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

[BEYONDE] Further Pictures From Ohio


Those of you who remember the post about my visit to the beautiful all-American town of Athens, Ohio, and the chance meeting with two old-school reviewer luminaries – ludicrous as it seemed to meet both Prince and Bryce at the same time – will no doubt be happy to see my pictures again. They will perhaps be even more interested in this widened focus, including the minor original details omitted in the editing process. As Orson Welles had shown in one of his later movies, nothing is more educational than to look at things which appear banal and conventional – twice. So, without further ado, we return to Ohio, land of adventure, and the good people of Athens, in their natural habitat!

View from the car
City Lights, Stadium (from another car)
The World is Yours
Empowering the Arctic
A Cold Winter Morning
Visit Scenic Athens (Once the Bat Plague is Over)




Tuesday, 31 March 2020

[REVIEW] The Lost Crypt


The Lost Crypt
The Lost Crypt (2020)
by Bill Silvey
Published by Necromancer Games
Levels 7th to 8th

[Disclaimer: I have, on multiple previous occasions, done freelance work for Necromancer Games and their successor Frog God Games.]

The Lost Crypt comes from the remains of a lost manuscript: The Teeth of the Barkash-Nour, one of the Castle Greyhawk offshoot scenarios Gary Gygax had drafted, but never completed. In the mid-2000s, when hopes were high that Greyhawk (or “Castle Zagyg”) would see the light of day for the Castles and Crusades RPG, Gary had drafted Bill Silvey (a.k.a. “The Dungeon Delver”) to develop his notes into a full treatment. This work, while completed, never saw the light of day due to publication delays, and later Gary’s death in 2008. The current module, a much shorter affair, is constructed from the material Bill had added to the original, and now released as a standalone adventure. As such, this adventure bears a peculiar distinction: it is not a Gary Gygax module (all of Gary’s material had to be excised, and the remaining text repackaged), but it bears his blessings on an encounter-by-encounter basis, and indeed, hews close to his style and design approach. Despite the different theme and level designation, it felt most like the Moathouse dungeons from The Village of Hommlet (although without the charismatic villain).

The Lost Crypt in its current form is a relatively small scenario, with 23 keyed areas and a bugbear lair featuring nine more. It is an Egyptian-style dungeon set in an extraplanar setting (although this element plays no further role beyond the setup, and can be safely altered). It is best described as a gauntlet of archetypal dungeon challenges. It is structured in a very linear way, with encounter after encounter in a mostly straight line. You arrive, deal with whatever the location throws at you, and move on. Every keyed area has something to deal with – combat, and not puzzles per se, but the kind of dirty GM tricks which require a good combination of courage, caution and thinking on your feet to solve. The bugbear lair, continuing the adventure where the tomb ends, is a tough combat encounter with organised, intelligent humanoids helped by their high HD. There is a nagging sense something is missing – a more grand set-piece encounter, a find that makes you go “Whoa”, a dirty trick that leaves the players shaking their fists in mock anger. This is not there in the adventure, and it gives it an unfinished feeling. As is, it just sort of ends.

The writing is clear, no-nonsense stuff, about what you would find in an early AD&D module – there is some boxed text of the helpful sort, and some environmental detail, but nothing too bad. The phrase that comes to my mind concerning the whole adventure is “well crafted” – nothing jaw-dropping, but everything is in its proper place, and it is a fine test of dungeoneering skills. There could be more of it, or it could use a more interesting layout, or end with more of a bang, but for a side-adventure, it is about the right scope, and offers a versatile side-quest you can send your players on. It is a useful thing in a GM’s library.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. 

Rating: *** / *****

Saturday, 28 March 2020

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Metal Anniversary

Rooftop exploration in Feast of Pilgrims
Thief: the Dark Project, a unique and moody stealth game, was released late November 1998. It was instantly recognised as something new – a kind of game that has not been done before. The Dark Project was praised for its inventive darkness- and sound-based stealth mechanic, its commitment to what became recognised as “immersive simulation” (a term invented years later to describe a design movement Thief had spearheaded), its massive and complex levels, and the pervasive mood of mystery and menace that enveloped it. But Thief was also criticised: many had thought it had not yet perfected its own formula, or that it had included several supernatural-themed missions as a sop to action game fans. As these arguments went, Thief’s real strength lay in its human-centred levels, where its advantages could shine fully.

Casing a Victorian interior in Fierce Competition
Thief’s creators, Looking Glass Studios, took this feedback to their heart. The sequel, originally planned as a mission disk, would mostly leave behind the forgotten tombs and weird underworlds of the first game, to focus on social upheaval, human intrigue, and the rise of a fanatical sect of technologically inclined militants calling themselves the Mechanists (as the game’s anti-hero, Garrett would put it, “Every bit as fanatical as [their predecessors], and twice as industrious.”). Thief: The Metal Age would be Thief, but even more so. The game would prove to be Looking Glass’ last hurrah: they could barely get it out of the door in March 2000 before being sunk by old financial difficulties, which had haunted them for several years and finally caught up with them. Ironically, the game proved a massive critical and financial success (although not, as it is often suggested, as successful as the first instalment); had Looking Glass still been active, the sales could have provided it with a substantial cash injection, and an evergreen title that would continue to sell well over the years. Thief 2 was also embraced by the growing fan community as the definitive version – the game that finally delivered on Thief 1’s promises.

Keeping off the streets of an upscale market area in Into the Odd
In hindsight, The Metal Age is a troubled sequel. It was produced under a short development cycle, and rushed out to avoid getting mothballed as the studio was shut down. The poor texture work and the obviously unfinished levels show a lack of polish, but the problems reach deeper. The story is a baroque mess, sacrificing The Dark Project’s elegant noir plot of a talented but vain man’s downfall and his inability to see his fault in it, with a poorly paced and often nonsensical narrative which drags our hero this and that way, but is not meaningfully connected except by fairly flimsy railroading. The Metal Age is more a collection of individual levels than a coherent whole. Some of these levels are all-time classics – taking to the rooftops (“the thieves’ highway”) of a bustling metropolis and infiltrating a mediaeval art deco skyscraper in Life of the Party, looting a sprawling warehouse complex with dark and sometimes funny secrets in the underrated Shipping and Receiving, or breaking the interlocking security systems of First City Bank and Trust – but there is a lot that is filler, or fundamentally botched. More than that, the loss of supernatural elements and “otherworldly” levels had robbed the game of much of its mystery and menace. The critics wanted a “pure” thieving game, a “Victorian burglary simulator”, and they got what they wanted – to the game’s detriment. It is still very good (in a gaming subgenre not known for an abundance of titles), but it does not replicate the success of a much more focused, aesthetically superior predecessor.

Approaching an eccentric mansion in Where Unknown Lurks
Yet Thief 2 undeniably lives, and it does so through its fan community. It was the fans who had convinced Looking Glass Studios to release a level editor for Thief 1, but it was second game where this tight-knit design community really took off. There were 17 Thief 2 fan missions in 2000, 60 in 2001, and until 2008, the number had steadily remained in the 70s (more recently, the number has been around 20 annually). There is a lot of inevitable repetition among the 870-or-so titles, and of course many uninspired missions or beginner efforts. But the overall quality has always been good, and there is a staggering amount of outstanding levels, even some masterpieces of game design and interactive storytelling. In some sense, the basic game’s weaknesses may even be said to encourage creative experiments – wild departures from the look and feel of its default stock assets and sometimes iffy level design. Thief 1 is so distinct and strong in its look and feel that it stamps every mission made with it with its own identity; the second game can be pushed very far (even in very odd directions) and moulded into very individual projects.

Someone has met a gruesome fate in Ten Little Taffers
There has also been another factor in Thief 2’s success as a level design platform: the lack of good alternatives. The game offers one of the few genuinely accessible and powerful editing platforms to produce your own interactive stories. This element is missing from first person shooters, while games from other genres rarely offer accessible editing tools. The Thief scene has thus been populated by many aspiring writers and game designers – some of whom went on to successful professional careers in the field (readers of this blog should recognise the name of Anthony Huso, whose contributions to the Dishonored series, and excellent RPG work are also to be noted; the late Terry Pratchett was an enthusiastic fan mission player). The Thief community’s demographics have consequently been a bit “out of place” in gaming, with more women, and a larger share of older players (some now in their 60s and 70s). It is, for all intents and purposes, a very helpful and supportive bunch, a self-contained, if a bit insular creative movement. After all, there are no games like ours! Techraptor has recently published a piece on what makes the community tick, interviewing Huso, yours truly, and other figures involved in the level design scene.

A Metropolis-worthy vision of industrialisation
run amok in The Builder's Paradise
The occasion for this post, then, is to celebrate not just the game’s 20th anniversary, but also the surrounding community, which took it way beyond its intended scope and lifespan. Last year, a 20th Anniversary Contest was launched to commemorate the occasion. The results are now 11 new missions to download and play (and a few out-of-contest entries to come in the future). These missions are a great showcase of the community’s ability to deliver great gaming, and covers many of the popular styles and approaches to mission design. We have missions from enthusiastic beginners who wanted to make something for the occasion (and may later improve their craft further), and from old hands with several missions under their belt; smaller projects and grand affairs which took a full year of intense work to produce and polish for release; missions which are easy and comforting, and others which offer a formidable challenge even to the best. There is a mission which reproduces the exhilaration of exploring the rooftops and noble palaces of an upscale districts to infiltrate and rob a massive cathedral in the middle of a grand assembly of heavily armed fanatics; a warehouse job with more than meets the eye; a surreal and terrifying trip to weird underworld beneath a cramped and labyrinthine bazaar area (titled Into the Odd – no explicit relation to the OSR RPG, but some interesting thematic parallels); a journey into a grandiose and terrible mechanical hell that’s half high-tech factory and half expressionist movie set – and much more. 

At 20, The Metal Age is a Methuselah of computer gaming, but the longevity of the game, and the creative community around it, shows that it has transcended the constant churn of new titles, and become a classic – perhaps in a different way than The Dark Project, but certainly no less valuable. And then there are the contest missions - after all, what else should you be doing while the Bat Plague is out in full force?

Exploring an elegant office in pursuit of a rare vintage in My Favorite Year

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] Into the Jungle, and Back Again

“The Vietcong dug too deep.” This is the premise of Into the Jungle, an interesting Into the ODD hack I reviewed here last summer. Mixing Vietnam-era combat with fantasy monsters emerging from jungle dungeons, and making even more of a mess out of Nam by taking both sides completely off guard, it is a quick, deadly little game that holds together surprisingly well. Over the holidays, we got the chance to play two sessions of the game with Marvin (posting here as Volja, not his real name either) as the GM. What follow are some quick notes on how the game works, and what kind of adventures you can run with it. If you haven’t read the review first, much of this post will leave you baffled; if you have, there will be some duplication. You can’t win either way. Welcome to Vietnam!

...but with beholders and orcs
Character generation is one of Into the Jungle’s strongest sides. It is very simple and mostly random, but in a way which helps a lot to define your characters from the outset.
  • You roll randomly for three ability scores (2d6+3 for Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom), hit points (a brutal 1d6 per level, although 0 does not necessarily mean death), a “class skill” and two “weapon skills”. These characters are random losers drafted into the war, and while they would all be classified as “Fighters” (duh), the class skill acts as their basic military profile (e.g. medic, sapper, heavy weapon guy, tank crew, etc.), and their weapon training rounds out their approach to combat (you can use weapons unskilled, but you will have really crappy damage that way – you can lug around that M60, but can’t aim it properly).
  • The second layer of customisation comes from equipment, which contains some basics (e.g. jungle fatigues, an M1 helmet, your rucksack, a canteen, etc.), but also a handful of fun random items: 1d4 standard and 1 special.
  • Then there is a third, giving you miscellaneous details like a pre-war job, a basic trait, a motivation (and, optionally using the NPC tables, a name and nickname).
  • You can also generate a few disposable secondary squad members. These guys have the three stats, 1 Hp, and one weapon skill.

This takes about ten minutes, if you have to have the process explained to you.

So the three of us sat down and rolled up some basic PCs:
  • I got Stanley “Junior” Horowitz, a goldsmith from Brooklyn, with STR 6, DEX 11, and WIS 11, 5 Hp (sturdy!), demolitions, skills in pistols and infantry rifles, and a weird old book he got somewhere in Saigon. Junior was lazy, but he had an Ideal (The American Way), as well as a companion, Robert “Touchdown” Francisco, who was much needed because he had to carry low-STR Stanley’s equipment.
  • Premier got Henry “Doc” Cavinton, a combat medic and former cook, followed by Corky “The Swede” Henriksson.
  • …and Orastes got Arthur “Hollywood” Turner, a sniper who has somehow gotten his hand on his “own” jeep, and also controlled (?) Diego “Afterburner” Hendrix, a flame thrower guy suffering from acute stress and paranoia.

These nobodies were brought together in May 1968 in District 202, a military district nominally pacified after “the battle of Hamburger Hill” (not the real event), but still beset by Vietcong activity. Base 204, a small “keep on the borderland”, was a small microcosm to itself, with an enigmatic and frankly shady commander, and a burgeoning black market. In driving range along the river were three villages (Bao Loc, Dalat and Ban Bai) and three fire support bases, located in a jungle-covered mountain area. Summoned by Commander Ateman, deathly pale and wearing sunglasses, we were allowed to pick between four codenamed assignments, and chose…

District 202
Operation #1: PURPLE BEER

A partially pacified settlement, Ban Bai has been found abandoned. We were tasked to find out what happened during our patrol, and report back to Ateman. Using Hollywod’s jeep (super useful), we drove along the river. Transportation is a godsend in Into the Jungle: “Stress Points” are an important rating, which accumulate by doing stressful stuff, including combat, witnessing horrific things, or hunting/being hunted by hostiles, but also moving through mosquito-infested jungles, heavy rain, or the sweltering heat (so basically everything you actually do in Vietnam). R&R helps, but exposes the company to random encounters. As a neat touch, drugs also knock off stress, but come with a nasty addiction mechanic. Since this is still the “Reefer Madness” age, weed cigarettes are exactly the addictive devil drug portrayed by television!

Along the way, we stopped to gather intel in Bao Loc, a mostly friendly locale. Here we learned that the inhabitants of Ban Bai were “Dead but not dead”, and Mao Duc, the local VC leader was somehow involved. We also learned that Uncle Dung, a local elder, was kidnapped by the “dog-faces”, who were living next to the northern missile base. We continued to Ban Bai, which was indeed deserted, save for a hungry tiger, which we ambushed and killed.
  • There are no attack rolls in Into the Jungle unless you are using auto-fire (which, granted, you generally do); the attackers immediately roll damage. This makes setting ambushes and avoiding getting ambushed crucial to survival.
  • On the other hand, you need that auto-fire, because otherwise, multiple-HD monsters are impossible to take down reliably. This is a flaw in the otherwise elegant system.

A limestone pit hid no bodies, but seems to have had a trail of perhaps 100-150 footprints leading off to the south. Afterburner started getting really unhinged due to stress, and set the village on fire.

The trail led to a tall, lone tree next to abandoned rice paddies. Junior realised this is a tree he had seen on an illustration in his strange old book, next to drawings of bizarre purple flowers, and a picture of the flowers in a tree hole. To the south of the tree, we also discovered an encampment of a dozen horrid, pig-like creatures grilling human remains, equipped with discarded old firearms! We circled around them, and set up an attack with claymores and ambush positions. However, when commencing the attack, the pigmen called out not to shoot, and one of them came forward as an emissary. Calling himself Nguo Chan (~Pig Leg), he let us know that the purple flowers were in the lair of the dog-faces, and that their females were abducted by the people of Bao Loc. He offered to lead us through the jungle to the dog-face lair, which we accepted (although Stanley only reluctantly once it occurred to him this guy was made of pork).

Halfway through the jungle, we discovered a small village, and doing some reconnaissance, found that it was inhabited by loathsome snake-human hybrids! We retreated a little, and called in a strike from the nearby fire support base, watching the village get turned into flaming wreckage. Continuing, Nguo Chan took us to a hill overlooking an bunker entrance, the lair of the dog-faces. We parted from our companion, and decided to make camp for the night. In the morning, we left the unstable Afterburner to watch camp, while we called base and arranged a napalm strike set exactly 2 hours from now.

Snake-men?! What the...
Down at the entrance, we knocked on a heavy, rusted gate. The dog-faces – tall, shaggy, dog-headed monsters with firearms – emerged, and we somehow negotiated with them to fetch their boss, Alpha Mane. The boss and his second arrived on a roaring Harley Davidson, cutting a few circles in the field to impress us. We held up our offer: a jerry can of gasoline for the vehicles. Alpha Mane started to become more interested, and we asked him to release Uncle Dung. Alpha Mane barked about “Uncle Dung purple death!”, but agreed to the deal. Stanley started getting big ideas. “Yeah, this was just our first gift. There will be more gasoline, soon. Our guys will deliver it by airdrop, you should just bring out the rest of your guys to carry it.” Alpha Mane didn’t quite get this, but seemed positive, and we decided to pack it and get out with Uncle Dung’s unconscious body while the going was good – we were already back through the jungle when we heard the helicopters sweeping in from above the clouds.

On the way back, we made another detour to Bao Loc, where the wise Uncle Dung’s recovery was met with cheers and impromptu celebration. Stanley and Doc started interrogating the villagers about any “new pigs” they may have seen around. While initially resistant, a pack of cigarettes changed hands, and a local informer showed us to a disgusting pen filled with mud, and fat porcine shapes with a faint resemblance to… No, Stanley was not interested to find out. We sternly warned the locals that the “pigs” are to be released without further ado, no ifs and no buts. And so we headed back to base. Operation #2: Roentgen #78 ­– a scenario where we would have to escort a NYC newspaper reporter around the area, and show him just what the Army wanted him to see, and not to mind the Viet Cong massing on the borders, or a massive six-headed river monster emerging from the murky waters – would commence in a week. But until then, we were free to spend time in Saigon, and not worry about the future.

Not depicted: river hydra

[NEWS] Shipping Suspended

Oh no you don't
Worthy Customers & Valued Bots,

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Wednesday, 11 March 2020

[REVIEW] On Downtime and Demesnes

Downtime and Demesnes

On Downtime and Demesnes (2019)
by Courtney C. Campbell
Published by Hack & Slash Publishing

Old-school D&D has been fairly well supported by adventures over the last decade. Rules and character options, we have had more than we needed (we honestly didn’t need that many). This book targets a fairly neglected niche: campaign-level play. This is the stuff that happens between the characters go on adventures – when they spend their well-earned money, advance character and party goals, and gear up for the next expedition. In modern models of play, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside; the role-assumption-vs-adventuring dichotomy has taken hold too firmly in peoples’ minds. You are either supposed to be doing silly voices, or you are supposed to be heaving skulls (silly accents optional).

I suspect many old-school games also forgo this element, or simplify it to “okay you buy equipment, you go to the cleric, you ask the sage, what about you?” This is all right. However, OD&D, Ready Ref Sheets, and the Dungeon Masters Guide hint at a game that expands the scope of D&D into domain management, trade, diplomacy, hireling management, and similar activities… something D&D’s “complex wargaming” precursors like Blackmoor and Tony Bath’s Hyboria were already doing. It is a loss that most “OSR” rulesets – even the better ones – have largely stuck to copying the rules or inventing their own, while failing to cover the true scope of expanded play you can find in the AD&D rulebooks.

On Downtime and Demesnes is a supplement meant to introduce these elements to your game. (The default system is B/X, but the lessons apply just as well to all the other D&D variants out there.) Its approach is to create easy, straightforward procedures to turn downtime activities and strategic-level play into gameable content. This is undoubtedly the right way to do it. The guidelines the book offers are not as hard as ironclad rules (game mechanics), but they are also not vague like general guidance – they are somewhere in-between, a tool to navigate game situations in a fair and interesting way, a bit like dungeon crawls have procedures for random encounters, treasure allocation, or light sources. The end result should provide a challenge, have a meaningful stake, and produce a better game experience. As the book suggests, only significant or interesting forms of interaction are worth the attention (a wise principle regarding spending game time), and the subsequent guidelines tend to stick to this maxim.
Laying the Groundwork
Accordingly, the book covers all the varied situations that may come up during downtime. This is a comprehensive work, in that it offers either a procedure, a random idea generator, or at least basic advice for most things that could reasonably come up in a realistic game situation. Healing from sustained injuries – there are guidelines for that. Earning an income – here is a way to handle it. Amassing a library of exotic books for future benefit – yes. Hiring specialists or launching the career of a secondary character to step in the main PC’s footsteps – it is there. Investment in mercantile ventures? Mining? Clearing terrain? Building stuff? Breeding bizarre monstrosities to terrorise the land? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

These guidelines are of varied complexity. None of them would make play burdensome, and most tend to be something you can resolve with a few player decisions and random rolls. Earning extra XP by carousing is a 1d8*100 roll, deducted from gp and added to XP, followed by a saving throw to see if there have been complications. Sacrifices to dark gods can net you gold, XP, a magic item or the services of an evil creature, depending on the implied value of the sacrificed person/animal. Spending a week bragging about the party’s adventures nets 5% more experience (but you have to roll maintenance). Racketeering gains 100 gp per level per month on a successful Move Silently roll (but has a small, unspecified odd of attracting unwanted attention). A few guidelines are on the level of mini-games – designing your own fortress and clearing/developing the land around it is more involved, as it should be.

Making it Come Together
I believe some areas are underserved by this otherwise useful book. I was excited to read the guidelines on political influence, but it only outlines what influence entails, and how you can gain it – not how you might use it in concrete terms, what you may gain through influence (and how much), or what happens when two influence conflict or simply overlap. It seems to be the beginning of something, a thought experiment that was never properly finished. This is the case with a few more interesting guidelines – the author pitches an intriguing what-if, but doesn’t give a satisfying answer. There is an extensive set of tables to ideas and guidelines to build ships with various capabilities and unstandard quirks, but no system for sea battles or just sailing adventures to put these capabilities to the test. The end results are a bit fragmentary and scattershot, even if it is very strong on the idea level.

Where the general procedures are fairly universal, the “random ideas” are oddly specific. A list of 10 bizarre pet stores includes a shop selling attack chickens, an ant farm, and a balloon animal store. Do you really need one of those? If yes, how many times?

Then we come to a curious flaw that seems to permeate the whole work. All of this seems to take place on Horror World. I can’t put it otherwise: there is such a strain of pessimism and negativity about mankind running through the book that it seems deeply misanthropic. The philosophy, in turn, messes with the systematic outcomes. This is an implied setting where bad things happen, people are rapacious and evil, and you are screwed from day one. It first becomes visible in the random tables. An early one, “100 Obnoxious Peasants”, should have been rightfully amended “…who Will Ruin Your Life”. These village bumpkins are not annoying but funny louts – these are peasants who will flirt with your characters only to rile up their whole clan against them (94), offer them friendly handshakes while unwittingly infecting them with the plague (86), or buy them a beer while trying to provoke them to say something treasonous (99). Then there are “100 Noble Patrons”, more appropriately “100 Noble Patrons From HELL. Here, we have a lady who invites the party for dinner to pick their mind, only to beat them to the score with a self-sponsored party (03), another lady who hires adventurers to awaken her evil god under the guise of making trade deals (96), a baron who invites adventurers to his castle to use them for flesh golem parts (35), another lady pursued by killers who will try to befriend you (27), and a baroness who runs a charity for orphans, sacrifices 10% of them to devils, and “If killed she arises as a vampire due to a wish she got from hell.” (09) You would think I am cherry-picking, but these are just two sequences of random rolls – most (almost all) of these peasants and patrons are literal or social deathtraps if you interact with them. Or not interact with them, because many will become extremely vengeful and dangerous anyway if spurned, and will come after you if you give them a wide berth.

Random Goblins Destroy Your Life's Work
Certainly, nothing like a corrupt, dangerous fantasy world to generate adventure opportunities. Sometimes it is appropriate – sure, goblins are nasty little evildoers, so 12 horrid goblin pranks are sort of useful (although, being so specific, they have much less use than the procedural elements). But in a bunch of these mini-games, the only winning move is not to play, and that pushes the players towards disengagement, non-interaction, and a foul kind of cynicism. Would you play Russian roulette with one chamber? Yeah? How about five chambers? This is like the social equivalent of a “negadungeon”, those stupid things promising to wreck your campaigns and the player campaigns therein if you play them. Fortunately, this particular mean streak does not invalidate the book, and is much less present on the procedural level than the “idea generator” level. But there, you can run into nasty stuff in seemingly inconsequential situations. Perhaps you were happy to inherit something – but you are fucked, because it is a necklace of decapitation, or a peculiar curse. The odds are really bad, and that makes for dull gaming.

So here is an enjoyable book (handsomely illustrated by the multi-talented author) filled with a whole lot of highly useful guidance for running campaign-level sessions, either to expand on the existing action, or to enter new domains of play. The procedures it introduces are clear, elegant, low-maintenance, and appropriate. In this respect, Downtime and Demesnes is an excellent resource and a great idea mine. It also has aspects which are half-baked, or damaged by a very peculiar view of how your average D&D world was supposed to function. These elements, good and bad, are mixed together in a single volume. You will need to exercise judgement to decide what to use from it (or how to use the flawed content in a fruitful way – this is a distinct possibility). It should be fairly easy. But it should have happened in the writing phase.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****