Saturday, 27 February 2021

[NEWS] From Baklin to the Black Soup: News Roundup

I have been flying under the radar for a while now, and haven’t had a news in a long time – so here it goes: what has EMDT been up to?

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Baklin in PDF

Baklin: Jewel of the Seas
First things first:
Baklin: Jewel of the Seas is now published in PDF at DriveThruRPG. The proper thing to say on the se occasions is to note that the release was late, and that’s correct – Baklin took its time to emerge from campaign materials, session notes, and stuff that was just made up. How to translate a dynamic place like a city into a manageable, GM-friendly setting guide? Baklin’s answer is to focus on locations, personalities, and conflicts which can generate mini-adventures if the players choose to interact with them, and which are connected in a loose fashion: enough to get the sparks going, but not to entangle the poor GM and his players in a web of cross-references. And Baklin also has three dungeon levels; some of them explored, some never seen. Yes, cities with extensive dungeons beneath them are as sure to come up in my games as mysterious stone faces, eccentric mini-states, and giant frogs: they have continued to fascinate me through my life. This one is, I think, a locale that offers an interesting combination of the mundane and the fantastic – there is a bit of the criminal underworld down there, and a little bit of the proverbial mythical one (with a capital “U”).

Baklin also serves as the capstone of the Isle of Erillion mini-setting which has been serialised in various zine issues (mainly Echoes #02 to #05). That is not to say there are no more adventures from that campaign left (one is set for Echoes #08), but the main cornerstones of Erillion are all released: a primer, the wilderness hexes, and the main towns are all out there. From here, we will venture in different directions.
  • One will be the lands of Kassadia, a domain of colourful city states built on a Roman Empire that dwindled into irrelevance but never fell. Kassadia, once a label on the map of Erillion, was really co-created by Istvan Boldog-Bernad; first through Armand the Scumbag, his Assassin character, and then In the Shadow of the City-God, set in one of Kassadia’s ancient cities.
  • The other direction will go towards the northwest of Erillion, to the Twelve Kingdoms: a set of warring domains, neither twelve nor true kingdoms for the most part. This is a cold and unforgiving land, but also one of weird beauty and curious customs: it draws on sources like Lyonesse, The Lords of Midnight, Smith’s Hyperborea, and others.
  • And of course, the City of Vultures is not yet finished: its secret societies, its surroundings, and its strange Underworld realms shall be explored in due time.

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Castle Xyntillan back in print

Castle Xyntillan ran out of stock sooner than expected as sales suddenly spiked after the Questing Beast review, but the book is back in print in a third printing, and available from my store. The module’s first printing consisted of 500 copies; the second, 400 – as numbers go, I am happy with them.

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Das Froschgottkloster

Abenteuer #08
The third thing concerns a most prestigious development (monocled parrots optional). Abenteuer #08, the German adventure gaming magazine, is set to feature my module, Cloister of the Frog-God; and more than that, it is set to be printed and distributed by EMDT.  For those not in the know, Abenteuer is an occasional magazine for and by German hobbyists hewing close to the “traditional”, or “old-school” side of the RPG world. Not unlike Hungary, the German role-playing hobby is centred around games focusing on detailed, quasi-realistic settings with a lot of historical and cultural detail, and the people around Abenteuer, like EMDT, represent a sort of counter-current to that. The current issue of the magazine is a guest issue, featuring international contributions: from Jeff Rients comes Dundagel – could this be one of the main dungeons from his Wessex campaign – and something about potion machines? That sounds utterly Rientsian. Likewise, Asen, from Bulgaria, brings an article titled “Melee” (or so I think). And then, the Cloister (also featured on the cover by Kelly Coleman).

Cloister of the Frog God is kind of a patchwork module that came together from the bits and pieces of my unpublished 2006 Tegel Manor manuscript. Since Tegel was quite dead at the time, I started thinking about reusing my original contributions to the module for something new – maybe as articles for Knockspell or Fight On! magazine. At the same time, Bill Webb was starting on a new edition of Rappan Athuk, and asked me if I wanted to contribute something to it, perhaps using these materials. This was a start. I took the figurative scissors to my room key, and reversing my usual development process, drew a dungeon around the existing encounters. A once mighty, now partially ruined and semi-abandoned cloister complex came from two mini-dungeons once located in the wilderness around Tegel; the three-level catacomb complex underneath came from the manor’s dungeons (the original module treats these as very simple monster listings, so I had quite a lot of original stuff to work with).

Tumula the Marshman,
Proud (?) Father
The finished dungeon is a long ridge with two intact parts of the original cloister complex; one inhabited by a much diminished but still terribly dangerous group of frog-worshippers, and another one where a great evil has been set loose to cause terrible devastation. The ridge itself is crisscrossed with tunnels, forming what may be called an “inverse B2” – several alternative entrances leading inwards towards a set of core areas, making the dungeon generally accessible, but some sections still out of the way due to the multi-level maze of the rooms and passages. The dungeon provided a good opportunity to create a collection of strange tombs, each with different tricks, monsters, and furnishings. Memorably, the test party spent a lot of time climbing the outside walls and rooftops to “hack” the structure they were infiltrating without having to fight its guardians, and they eventually succeeded in triggering a localised Frogocalypse, which served as a good conclusion to wrap things up.

So Cloister shipped, got published as a chapter of the big 2012 Rappan Athuk book (where few people have found it among the mountains of other stuff), but this was not yet the end of the story. Something about the frog theme was still kicking around in my head, and in 2016, I ran the adventure in a form that was half Frogocalypse Now-style boat ride through the surrounding marshlands, and half dungeon crawl in the Cloister ruins, culminating in a deadly battle with a procession of frog-cultists, and the assassination of their leader, Abbot Grosso. Then, the wilderness section was reused again in 2018 as a standalone game for the original Cloister team (still following?), resulting in Against the Frog, the eccentric swamp crawling scenario finally published in Echoes #04. Rotar the Raftsman (a haf-orc) was reunited with his incredulous and ancient father, Tumula the Marshman (the same player’s old character from the earlier adventure), and a new plague of frogs was prevented from devastating the nearby lands.

The storied life of the module now enters another chapter: after Rappan Athuk (dungeons), the Hungarian edition (dungeons and wilderness), and Revenge of the Frogs (wilderness only, different scenario), Das Froschgottkloster is set for imminent release, featuring more frogs than you can shake a stick at. How many frogs? At least 666 frogs, but potentially even more. And that’s a lot of frogs.

The 2018 Hungarian edition

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Echoes From Fomalhaut #08

The Sullogh are Coming!
Yes, almost a year has passed since Echoes #07, and this is the kind of occasion when it is time to check if the body still has a pulse. It does! Other projects have demanded their due while this was sitting on a back burner, but it is now fairly safe to say Echoes #04 will be a mid-March release. This zine will feature Castle Sullogh, the penultimate adventure from our Erillion campaign, and one that tested the resourcefulness of a powerful group of 7th to 9th level characters. It is a place that may be accessible – and its treasures and secrets most attractive! – to less powerful PCs as well. You place the bait, and get to watch them reach for it. You will also get to meet the charming Sullogh and their masters, who will all be happy to have you for dinner.

Where some things end, some are set to begin: Yrrtwano’s Repose, the first adventure drawn from the cold lands of the Twelve Kindoms will be included here. And from the City of Vultures, the fantastic wilderlands around the sinful city-state – detailing the hex map whose player version was included in Echoes #06. The eighth issue will also be the first to feature two map sheets, and I hope that, seeing them, you will agree it should not be the last one.

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Helvéczia

Not the Helvéczia Boxed set
My picaresque fantasy RPG is proceeding towards a Spring release. The rulebook is complete and almost ready to print, with all indices, tables and illustrations in place, multiple rounds of proofreading (for which I am very grateful – it is the kind of work that is invisible if done well), and only waiting for the endpapers. The cover – and what a cover! – is in. The supplement still needs translation for one of the adventures. The hex maps are done; a players’ overview map is being worked on. The boxes for the boxed version have been designed, but not yet manufactured. It will come in a heavy-duty box that will stand up to prolonged use, and inflict 1d6 damage if used as a mêlée weapon. For Christmas, I released Casemates and Companies, a Hungarian B/X-based game, and we used this opportunity with my printer to do a smaller test run with boxes. It all worked out well, so we are going in.

This is a project with a lot of moving parts, but every so often, another part is locked in its place, and the working bench gets less cluttered. Now it is close to empty. April? Could be April. A more detailed preview will follow in March.

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Shipping increases

“Last comes the black soup.” This is a saying in Hungary, originally referring to coffee, and meaning “bad news last”. Last year, postage increased slightly, in a way I didn’t feel like annoying customers with. This year, the increase, while not radical, is a bit steeper, and comes with added paperwork on non-EU orders – or you can let the Post do it, and increase postage further. I decided to do the paperwork – electronic data entry stuff, not too bad – and go with a smaller shipping price increase. So here is how it is going to look from now:

  • Any quantity of zines, Europe (incl. UK): $6.00 to $6.50
  • Any quantity of zines, worldwide: $7.00 to $8.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, Europe (incl. UK): $20.00 to $23.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, worldwide: $25.00 to $28.00

Let There be Order
These are still flat rates, so ordering one zine will set you back as much as ordering ALL zines and pamphlet-sized modules (they may ship in multiple envelopes, but a large order deserves a discount). There will be one exception: the Helvéczia boxed set is going to ship alone, because it will weigh right below the 2 kg (4.4 pounds) postal weight limit after packaging, and if you add just one zine, shipping suddenly jumps from $28 to $60 or so.

In summary, I will go with a small price increase, you will start seeing custom form stickers on your envelopes, large and heavy supplements will be a bit pricier to order (but hopefully well worth the price). Death and taxes, ladies and gentlemen!

These changes will come into effect after the first week of March, so if you'd like to buy something with the lower shipping rates, there is still a week for that.

The Fruits of Endeavour


Friday, 12 February 2021

[REVIEW] Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn (2021)

by Mason Waaler

Self-published

Levels 1–2

If you have been playing D&D for a while, you approximately know what kind of adventure Barrow of Sorn will be – this is one of those common mini-adventure subgenres which make up a lot of the cheaper DrivethruRPG releases. So, barrows. Every campaign setting can use them, you can put them anywhere (the barrow-building people are long dead), and they contain traps, treasure, and undead warlords. Barrowmaze, the king of barrow adventures, contains an entire megadungeon, but it is kind of an outlier, and not discussed here. This is the smaller kind that’s all plug and play, and suitable for about one evening’s worth of play.

Barrow of Sorn, originally written for a D&D-like system that is practically D&D, is short and decently made. It is a 20-room dungeon in a 12-page pamphlet, written in a to-the-point style that is unornamented but GM-friendly, with strategically used bolding to draw attention to the important stuff, and meticulously applied cross-references. The map, created with the excellent and free Dungeon Scrawl, is crisp and readable (the dungeon layout itself, a collection of rectangular rooms, is not too interesting). The dungeon has all the usual stuff of barrow exploration – six adventure hooks, an entrance section leading to a false tomb, subsequent traps, magical enigmas, puzzles, and an undead monarch.

There are a few aspects where this particular barrow stands out. Unlike the static tomb scenarios, this has a decent dynamic element with its simple but fun random encounter table. It is not just “a giant spider” or “warrior apparitions”, but a giant spider dragging a frozen body, and warrior apparitions still fighting some long-gone battle. There you have it  in a single step, we have gone from basic to inspired! Encounters with undead include a few intelligent denizens bound to the place, adding an element of interaction. Finally, there is a fun final hook of turning this beginner-level adventure into an exercise in unintended consequences, something I heartily approve of. There are a few weaknesses to note. The puzzles feel slightly artificial (the “keycard” approach, where you have to collect three gewgaws to open the way forward), there is way too much magical treasure (it is mostly low-level stuff, cheapening the thrill of finding something really good), and sometimes, the “monsters appear when the runes are disturbed” way of generating extra combat wears thin. It is a module looking for a missing "WOW" factor, perhaps, unless we count that final idea.

For a single buck, you get a beginner dungeon with a decent variety of encounters. Could you make up something similar yourself? Yes, most likely. Would it make for a good game if you ran this particular barrow module? Also yes. Does it slot easily into your campaign? Yes, as long as it is a D&D-like game, this will fit.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Friday, 5 February 2021

[REVIEW] Beyond the Borderlands

Beyond the Borderlands (2020)

by Alex Damaceno

Published by Jacob Hurst & Swordfish Island LLC.

Level 1

Ah, Keep on the Borderlands! Beginner of a million campaigns, grave for a dumpster’s worth of character sheets, and template for a host of followers, imitators, and heartfelt homages! The most meat-and-potatoes D&D fare, so influential that the original template now seems nothing special! The Keep, however, bears an unholy curse: those who seek to recreate it, are cursed to frustration and failure. Such are the bewitchments of Gary Gygax. And it is so: all B2 homages invariably lack something from the original’s greatness. Perhaps their “Caves of Chaos” lack a convincing “Keep” to serve as a counterpoint to dungeon-delving, or they are missing B2’s killer wilderness encounters to drive home how this is a dangerous world.* Perhaps their Caves are not a panorama of immediately available, secretly interconnected lairs making for a surprisingly complex environment built from the most simple of micro-adventures. Perhaps the adventure locations are not given the context of the wild frontier, beset by the forces of Chaos. For such a straightforward scenario – I think it has been revealed that Gary penned it in just a few days – it has a mystery that has not been broken, a secret ingredient that has been left out in the imitators. The closest contender and B2’s meaner, weirder cousin, Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (“the Keep on the Borderland for assholes”), is the only legitimate rival, and it actually predates B2 by a year. The borderlands have some sort of terrible secret. And so we come to this module.

Beyond the Borderlands
(Image courtesy of Swordfish Islands LLC)

Beyond the Borderlands #1 is the first part of a three-part zine aiming to provide a reimagination of the original module. The first issue – the only one published so far – covers the keep and the wilderness, but not the Bloody Ravine, with the six dungeons of this take on the Caves of Chaos. This obviously limits the scope of this review, but with 20 pages of material to go by, it is about sufficient to form an impression, doubly so because the zine uses a hyper-condensed style to present information – even the most complex areas are covered by a few short sentences.

This is a Borderlands imagined in bold colours, the unnatural hues of some forgotten early 1990s JRPG-meets-LEGO-set. My reviews do not dwell much on artwork – they are an aspect of imagining something, but text is still the main course – yet here, the artwork is the centrepiece, and the text the afterthought. What you will get is two very colourful main maps, one for the keep and one for the 36 hexes of the surrounding wilderness. The wilderness map is also broken up so its “regions” form two-page spreads with the map and descriptions both at your fingertips. As quality of life features go, this is decent, but it will in fact be this module’s limitation, the source of downfall. Having to fit the text produces the same issue you see elsewhere in ultra-minimalist design, and limits both style and meaning to miniature snippets. You have to be a very good writer to convey meaning in short work – poetry works this way, and so does the terse, weird JG classic, Huberic of Haghill – and you have to be precise, essential. But the author is not at this stage of his craft.

Stronglaw Keep

The resulting Borderlands is one that has everything a good B2-inspired adventure should formally have, but none of it is consequential. You have Stronglaw Keep, a home base that’s a fairly close replica of the original (down to the nameless Castellan), but does not suggest ideas beyond a cursory reading of the location names. The stables have horses, and the warehouse is used to store heavy goods. The hidden skulduggery and intrigue of B2’s outpost, however elementary, are not in evidence. A noticeboard’s random proclamations are perhaps the best part, although even here, what we have is the elementary fetch quest (“Looking for fresh blue mushrooms. Bring them to the tavern!”), the rescue mission (“Merchant kidnapped by ravine monsters. Reward if returned alive.”), and the odd detail that’s kinda fun (“The scarlet night is coming. Be ready.”) Consider the cryptic rumours from gaming’s early master of terseness, Bob Bledsaw (from City State of the Invincible Overlord): “A Basilisk has wrecked havoc [sic] in Naughty Nannies, 400 GP offered.”; or “A knight of the Inner-Circle to be Yellow-Striped in the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures.”; or “Rumor of retaliation by Clan of the Venerate against the Clan of the Host on Caravan Street tonight.” Here are rumours – and they are just those, without context or detail – which sparkle, and pack a punch in a single line. “The ruins have buried treasure” is not much of a rumour. B2’s “Bree-Yark!” is simple but memorable with its in-game consequences – no wonder everyone remembers it (not to mention the one with the imprisoned fair maiden).

Similar concerns emerge in the Wicked Palovalley, the zine’s primary adventure location. This is a hex-crawl with every hex keyed, plus region-based random encounter/rumour rolls, simple travelling and weather rules, the works. Six regions of the valley, individually six hexes each, are described on the basis of the isometric illustrations. There are many mysterious sites deep in the Palovalley, and the rumours link this up in a decent fashion. It almost, almost works. But, once again, the text is inadequate to carry the vision. There is no other way of saying this. There are interesting kernels of ideas, like a mushroom grove with strange magical mushroom effects, a lost magic sword, and a few NPCs with potential, but they are mostly fairly underdeveloped, lacking a punch or clever twist. Some hidden beauty lurks in the art that depicts this improbably coloured piece of wilderness, and combining the text with the imagery may improve the module, somewhat. But the well does not run as deep as the art suggests.

Hexy.

Beyond the Borderlands #1 seems to be a perfect example of the art-above-writing trend that’s everywhere in the itch.io brand of old-school products. Its never-ever retrogame aesthetics may suggest something, a vague sense of strangeness that seems to be deeper than the zine’s reality, but the aesthetics are thin, and there is really very little underneath that is not blatantly obvious. The module comes with two cool frogman stickers. These are pretty neat.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

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* Fun note: when running B2 about 15 years ago for my then local group – none of them D&D vets – they headed out from the keep armed with backstories and elaborate “character goals” that had disappointingly little with killing goblinoids, and all of them were killed by the black widow spiders lurking in the forest. They never came near the Caves of Chaos.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

[REVIEW] The Palace of Unquiet Repose

The Palace of Unquiet Repose
The Palace of Unquiet Repose (2020)

by Prince of Nothing

Published by The Merciless Merchants

Levels 3-5 (HAH!)

Know, oh Prince, that good sword & sorcery adventures in old-school gaming are still hard to come by; and for all the talk of the mouldering tomes of Appendix N, few have struck the right balance between the imagery and spirit of S&S, and the playability of old-school D&D. Most old-school adventures do not reach deep into the pulp tradition, or fail to grasp what is in there; and most S&S adventures remain semi-interactive railroads, failing on the game level. Indeed, one of the most credible efforts in the last few years has been The Red Prophet Rises, by Malrex and Prince of Nothing; and furthermore, Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers by Malrex was pretty good too. So here is another adventure written by the Prince – and by the gods, he gets it right once again!

The Palace of Unquiet Repose, an expedition into a dead city serving as the tomb and prison of a haughty demi-god, is a monster of a module, a blood-and-guts nightmare in under 60 pages (a further ten or so are dedicated to The Screaming Caverns, an extra dungeon scenario). Those pages are not wasted. The substance – the information to help you run the module – is present, while padding is excluded. Everything serves a purpose, and the text is highly polished. No, it is not an exercise in layout-as-avantgarde-art. The maps are simple, plain-looking, highly readable affairs. The text is ultra-orthodox two-column century gothic, occasionally broken up by mini-maps showing the present area, and pieces of inky-looking art that do not really add much. Bullet points and bolding are used in appropriate places for structure and emphasis. Important details in the text are cross-referenced with the appendices and other parts of the module. It looks as adventurous as Swiss technical documentation, and it all works as unobtrusively and efficiently as Swiss technical documentation – in the background.

The writing is the heart of the monstrosity. It has power, menace, and gloomy pomp; expressive terseness. Opening it up at random points: “The double door is set in the naked rock, man-high, of tarnished, ancient bronze. Faded imagery can barely be made out on the surface.” Or: “These Sial-Atun have been led to the Palace by Captain Sarakhar with promises of infinite riches and godlike might. Instead they find only ennui and ancient horror while they wait for their comrades to return.” Or: “A great marble hall contains rows of carved sepulchers of worked obsidian, edges sharp like razors, gleaming from the light source. Alcoves on both sides of the room stretch off into darkness. Faint glimmers can be discerned within.” It earns its barbarian chops, although the appendices wander into purple prose. Where it matters most, though, the lean-and-mean writing succeeds on the technical level, as a mood-setter, and as a scenario rife with potential for conflict, exploration, and off-the-wall ideas. There are great names. Diorag the Breaker. Uyu-Yadmogh. The Children of the Tree. Gate of the Host Incarnadine. Chamber of Tribute by Conquest.

Leading to a land of dead empires, the Palace beckons. A hazardous wilderness trek is followed by two entrance levels, leading into a vast subterranean necropolis surrounded by a lake of liquid mercury, and then the titular Palace, a 26-area dungeon serving as the resting place of Uyu-Yadmogh, accursed sorcerer king, and his vast treasury. You are not alone: three factions, two coming from outside and one established inside, contend for the ultimate prize (whatever that may be). Death and horror will follow.

Mr. Thing, He Who Must Be
Fun at Parties
The genre is high-magic sword & sorcery turned up to 11. It is not for everyone. It is macabre, loud, album cover art S&S, set to metal riffs. (Or so I think, since this is a musical genre that goes right over my head, and feels pretty much like random environmental noise to my ears.) It is a lot more baroque and grandiose than even most S&S fare, a bit in the manner of Diablo and a bit in the manner of the Final Fantasy series, and I have to confess that it feels rather over the top. Grimdark easily becomes its own parody, and The Palace of Unquiet Repose is on the borderline, because it has no “normal” to fall back on, no section that is just a modest “/11”, and no counterpoints to its sensory assault. Here is a grand grimdark dungeon-palace “dotted with all manner of hideous gargoyles”, and haunted by tattooed, cannibalistic, insane, deformed, gem-studded things. That eat souls. The writhing souls of the eternally damned. Here are the grimmest motherfuckers of a rival NPC party, one “a beautiful golden, hairless child, one of its eyes (…) an orb of absolute blackness”, another one “a monstrous silhouette etched in absolute blackness”, and he is called “An Unbearable Thing, Drawn From The End of Time, Given Hatred and Substance (Wolf of Final Night)”. The leader of the other guys wears “the gilded skulls of lords and generals (500 gp total)” on his plate mail. The leader of the third faction has “a single wild green eye staring out of a skull-like face”. Sometimes, you can’t catch a break. After a while, “Fred the Fighter” starts to look like an appealing concept.

This is not a Palace of honour. Indeed, the wasteland hellhole is more containment zone for a grand sort of evil than convenient treasure-hole, and those who disturb it mostly go here to die. Yes, the cover indicates a 3–5th-level range, but it is the sort of 3–5th-level adventure which will kill off entire parties of characters, starting before the dungeon entrance. Everything here is dead, dangerous, insane, or cursed (sometimes all four). It does not quite become what the loud kids call a “negadungeon” (a punishing killer dungeon where you are much better off backing out and not adventuring), but it is a dungeon where you have to bet with dear stuff to start rolling, and the odds are stacked in favour of the house. It is also a fundamentally static setting even with the rival factions, and in this respect, it is less successful than the lively Red Prophet Rises. “Do you touch the horrible soul-devouring trap for its fabled treasures?” This is the central premise, and it shall determine whether you and your group will like the module. If you like poking bear traps (and the sleeping bears trapped therein), this module has a lot of exciting things to poke, and princely prices to extract. Break off chunks of a massive golden idol. Pry blasphemous death masks off of a mindless golem-thing. Rouse a reanimated demi-god chained with adamantium chains to “a monstrous throne of jagged glass” and find out what happens. You know you want to.

While a bit one-note in its themes, the Palace is very open-ended. This is a place to develop bold plans and win big or lose big. There are useful suggestions in the text to run the scenario and resolve some of the encounters, but there are so many ways you could exploit the Palace and its moving parts (not to mention the rival NPCs) to “break the bank” that it would be folly to list them all. You can sic the proverbial irresistible force against the proverbial immovable object. You can build yourself an invincible army, or a Rube Goldberg contraption to entrap soul-eating 15 HD monstrosities. You can become just a bit too powerful. The resourceful will thrive, and the weak shall be weeded out. Kill or be killed.

In summary, The Palace of Unquiet Repose is a grand module of a very specific sort – one maniacal and meticulously perfected note played very loudly by people who know exactly what they are doing. It is exemplary as a “GM-friendly” module, and it has splendid imagination. All of it, or most of it is brand new – aside from scorpions, the monsters, magic, and NPCs are original creations. And it goes up to 11. Yes, it is very good, if you like this kind of fringe thing.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Mouths. Why did it have to be mouths?


Saturday, 2 January 2021

[BEYONDE] Nox Archaist, the Hottest Apple ][ Game of 2020/2021

Nox Archaist
A little known but useful Internet fact: Ultima fans and their money are quickly separated. Yes, Gentle Reader, YOU too can make good money selling more Ultima to people who were once into Ultima (most likely back in the 1980s), and now want more Ultima (most likely in the style of the 1980s). That is: in its day, the Ultima CRPG series had elicited so many positive feelings, and built such a fanatically loyal audience that even today, thirty-something years after the heyday of the series, and more than twenty after the days the Ultima Dragons (an overactive fan group who seemed to run half the late 90s Internet), pitching an Ultima project to the Kickstarter audience is sure to start a stampede. The fans will pay, and they have deep pockets – so make sure to open up those “name a Pirate/Barkeep/Lord after yourself” reward tiers, and design a stretch goal where Lord British and Iolo will personally deliver your boxed copy, and sing Stones right in your living room.

Indeed, Yours Truly (although a Johnny-come-lately, and not an Ultima Dragon) has spent generously on various Ultima-inspired Kickstarters. There was Unknown Realm for the PC and Commodore-64, which, three years after its proposed date of delivery, increasingly looks like either a very unsuccessful game development project, or a very successful scam. There is Skald: Against the Black Priory, which has released multiple increasingly impressive demos, and seems to be late but firmly on track. There was Underworld Ascendant, a game… no, come to think of it, that one did not exist, and I did not foolishly waste $100 on a boxed copy that never even shipped in any form people were promised. Yes: too many failures can harden a man’s heart, and make him wary of funding Yet Another Ultima-Knockoff Kickstarter. Thus, I missed out on Nox Archaist, which promised all the usual things these projects tend to promise (a new Ultima homage game! an endorsement by Lord British! pixels! a game box! a thick manual on real PAPER! a CLOTH MAP! some useless renfaire gizmo related to the game story!), and then I forgot all about it. But Nox Archaist came out just as promised, game box and hand-sealed letter and all – and you can still buy a post-Kickstarter version, along with the T-shirt and the spiral-bound notepad. (Or you can buy an inexpensive digital version if you make your saving throw vs. Temptation. Go on, I will wait.)

The following review is the result of around 8-10 hours of play, encompassing the “first act” of a highly open-ended and obviously much larger game – certainly not the whole picture, but a reasonably wide one.

For a hundred dollars, you also get a dongle

If you are asking yourself, “Did he really write ‘Apple ][?’” or “Isn’t that something very old?”, the answer is “yes”. This game was developed for an early 1980s computer system, and although it was done with a lot of hindsight, and pushes the system’s capabilities beyond the limits possible in 1983-1985, it is not just a game with a vaguely chic retro aesthetic – it is a real approximation of a major, no-expenses-spared Apple ][ title. On your PC, it will run on an emulator (no special computer wizardry required), but if you are so inclined, you can make a disk image on a handful of Apple ][ floppy disks, and play it like it was really meant to be played.

Shipwrecked in CGAland
To say Nox Archaist has “crude” graphics, or that its speaker-based beeps and boops (lovingly emulated on your sound card, running in a high-end Windows 10 environment) is to miss the point. Nox Archaist has varied and fairly sophisticated graphics for 1984, with sprites to simulate your character swinging his (or her, or xir – yes, there is an “other” gender, and weirdly enough, that’s not woke posturing, but a loving homage to Ultima III: Exodus) sword, or sitting in a chair, or swimming in shallow water, or sinking into quicksand. This is the best simple tile-based graphics can offer with its weird colour artefacts and reliance on basic symbols to carry its meaning. Modern games depict; old games symbolise; and this lost art is new again in Nox Archaist. From simple props come surprisingly meaningful and distinct places – the crude hovels of a wayside village, the throne room of a castle, or the depths of the Mythical Underworld. In fact, the game even features bits of modulated speech, something which would only come to Ultima with Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992). This is, if anything, a game way before its time.

On the trail of the orcs
Behind the archaic façade runs a remarkably complex game. It has a rather intricate user interface with very Ultima-like quirks – you still e(X)it your horse to dismount, (I)gnite a torch to illuminate your surroundings, and execute a series of Tabs and number keys to bring up inventory and character sheets – but it is not really hard to learn, and quickly becomes second nature while allowing a fairly good level of environmental interaction. The charm of the early Ultimas often comes from layering a dozen small “tricks” on a simple basic system of movement, fighting, and conversing with NPCs, and using them to build a rich world and a complicated game. Nox Archaist has this stuff in spades – lockpicking, jumping over obstacles with horses, engaging in ship-to-ship combat with cannons or boarding action, day/night cycles for NPCs, line-of-sight vision (and the cover of nighttime/underground darkness) for your party, excavating rubble with a pickaxe, falling into quicksand, and all these individually tiny little things – make for a rich and fascinating game environment.

***

NAME! JOB! BYE! NAME! JOB! BYE!
At its core, Nox Archaist is a game of investigation. Sent by Queen Issa to investigate a mysterious cult that has taken foothold over a cluster of islands, captured by your enemies and imprisoned in a ship’s brig, but saved in a shipwreck, you will have to uncover a way to an unseen and powerful enemy while building a powerful and well-equipped adventuring party on the side. Your first clues will lead to a small town, then an increasingly open world crisscrossed by clues and leads. This is Ultima in its best sense: talking to NPCs, you hit on capitalised KEYWORDS, which lead to other places and people you will find in a different corner of the world.

There is a “quality-of-life” feature in the form of a simple quest journal, but to untangle the leads in Nox Archaist, you will have to take notes in a real notebook, and spend time poring over your player map (this is missing a whole lot of locations you will gradually discover, or get pointed to). Perhaps you will have to journey to Castle Suurtheld and consult Nox Yvviar on CULT activities. Or you will have to visit one of the Queen’s agents in Knaerwood and ask him for HELP. Perhaps you will also seek out one of the local trainers to improve your skills. Or the answer may lie in a book in some library (these are small, brief vignettes high on local flavour).

8 AM. Lord Hraakvar is still asleep
The essence is the sense of an interconnected milieu, one whose locations you will revisit again and again, getting deeper into a labyrinth of sub-quests, references, and mysterious finds. Like Ultima, the world opens up gradually. First sticking to the overland and the proximity of settlements, you eventually start exploring the wilderness and smaller dungeons; then find that these dungeons open into enormous multi-level affairs that feel like OD&D’s “Mythical Underworld” megadungeons (and they might all be connected on the bottom in a deep interconnected realm: at least this was the case in the greatest of Ultimas, Warriors of Destiny). You will acquire new ways of navigating the world: horses which let you easily ford rivers which were once hazardous; skiffs to sail shallow waters; and ships to brave the stormy seas and visit distant islands (these larger ships can store up to two skiffs to make landing convenient). The setting expands as you play – and there might even be a flying carpet at the end.

Buxom
The Isles of Wynmar is a high fantasy setting. In our ultra-modern age of ceaseless deconstruction, this vaguely positive Merrie Olde Englande hodge-podge of benevolent monarchs, wise-cracking peasants and chivalric nobles looks almost avant-garde. The isles have their troubles with corruption, mountain orcs emerging from their strongholds to raid human villages, and the scheming cult that’s spreading tentacles across the land, but it is a place where good and evil are distinct and well demarcated. It loses some shades of grey, but it gains playfulness and colour, something refreshing in a more cynical era where mediaeval worlds are usually presented through a ubiquitous mud-filter. Wynmar scales back some of Britannia’s “thee and thou” pretension, but it has its jocular bards, stout bowmen and saucy tavern wenches in the best traditions of the genre. Public order is maintained vigorously: I once attacked a cloud of buzzing insects near a rural outhouse, and was soon attacked and decimated by the local militia. Now that’s law and order!

***

Nox Archaist’s character building is nominally free-form – you can advance your characters in any direction from hand-to-hand combat to archery, assassination and magic – but the difficulty curve encourages strong specialisation. You are better off with three niche heroes than three generalists, as they will be able to wield better equipment (there are strong stat limits) and dish out better punishment, while a jack-of-all-trades group of PCs will find themselves in a serious difficulty trap.

The Goblin Shaman: Attempt 32
After the first few battles with hooligans and rabble-rousers, the level of challenge goes up. Your first dungeon foray will bring you against a group of wolves, and here, the need to toughen up will be made obvious after the first few utter defeats. The true test of your offensive and defensive abilities will be the mini-boss of the first serious dungeon, the Goblin Shaman. If you can beat him and his band, you have built your adventuring party correctly – if you can’t, you may want to earn some more experience, or reconsider your options. And it will get harder: just venture a bit beyond the shaman’s cave to find out.

With these considerations in mind, the stat/equipment accumulation game is simple but satisfying. You do not have Ultima’s fascinating reagent-based magic system, but there is an abundance of stuff to obtain, equip, and go to town with. Armour goes from cloth, leather and brigandine to chain, scale, and plate, and right up to frost, storm, drake and dragon (for the mightiest heroes). For the start, having the requisite Strength to equip a pair of chain gauntlets feels like a reward well earned.

***

A round for the local lads
As I have outlined above, Nox Archaist is a worthy successor to the Ultima tradition. Here, you will find a large and deep game comparable to Quest of the Avatar or Warriors of Destiny (although with the graphics of the older Exodus) with all the quirks of something out of the early 1980s. This is an important qualifier: the game is from a tradition that predates a lot of the games that established the way modern CRPGs are made, and while it makes numerous improvements to make the formula easy on gamers today, it comes with CGA-tier aesthetics, bizarro discoloured fonts, and antediluvian ideas about game design. That is to say, I can’t recommend it highly enough to fellow old-school gamers. If this is the particular experience you are looking for, Nox Archaist will deliver in spades; if you are too young to have experienced the old Ultimas in their time (this also describes Yours Truly), this is a good occasion to try.

Some well-deserved rest


Thursday, 19 November 2020

[REVIEW] Hideous Daylight

Not so hideous cover art
[REVIEW]

 by Brad Kerr

Published by Swordlords Publishing

Low-level

This 34-page module presents a small, self-contained adventure location, along with a situation which encourages non-linear investigation, and can lead to a range of different outcomes. Set  in a surreal place combining idyllic beauty, otherworldly strangeness, and lurking horror, it is almost as if it is meant to be getting a good score on this blog. Which it will.

In Hideous Daylight, the characters will investigate Hollyhock Gardens, a large, walled preserve used as the royal hunting grounds, and consisting of a variety of environments including forests, a lake, a hedge maze, hills, and other sites of interest. The garden has recently been beset by a magical catastrophe causing a very localised perpetual noon. The sun never sets within the walls, and slowly but surely, the place is going to hell as animals are driven mad, things fall apart, and weird creatures from another dimension start to emerge. Knights and adventurers who have tried to set things right have not come out.

Hideous Daylight plays as a small hex-crawl (19 hexes are described, most with one point of interest) with two mini-dungeons (a hedge maze and a subterranean locale). The action is largely non-linear exploration, where the characters can piece together what happened and what they should do from the environment, dead and hiding NPCs, and other clues. The locations combine the familiar with the uncanny, and the beauty of an orderly garden with a strong element of survival horror. There is a very good range of encounters here, from the straightforward to those which invite creative solutions (without specifying what they “need” to be, a common mistake of puzzle-oriented encounters), as well as meetings with the garden’s bizarre denizens. For an old-school module, it is very low on loot, although this could be remedied fairly easily.

Exploring the garden is complicated by a well-realised random encounter chart which contains multiple powerful opponents a low-level party has little chance of defeating, but may successfully evade until they figure out what to do with them. Another group of beings, found at both keyed locations and on the chart, are extra-dimensional entities with weird behaviour and inscrutable purposes. These freakish “anomalies” lend another layer of strangeness to the magical landscape. There are interesting choices and consequences: not only are there multiple ways to conclude the adventure, there are victory paths which will bring much more trouble than they solve (and it is entirely possible that overlooking or misinterpreting clues will lead to this point).

Hideous Daylight employs a simple format that is quite handy and well-structured without going into weird hipster layout. Information is easy to find and nicely cross-referenced, and the style is clear and helpful. This is the kind of functionality that is easy to take for granted, and later miss in other modules which do not measure up.

In conclusion, Hideous Daylight is an imaginative, well-written scenario that encourages and rewards open-ended exploration and creative thinking; presents a surreal place with uncanny encounters, and it is user-friendly too. It is a yardstick of a good adventure. If you are this good, you are good.

This module credits its playtesters, and has a special thanks section too!

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

Not so hideous interior art