Wednesday, 21 July 2021

[REVIEW] She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

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

by Phillip Loe

Self-published on

Levels 5–10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 July 2021

[REVIEW] Roman Silver, Saxon Greed

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

by James & Robyn George

Olde House Rules

Low-level (Barons of Braunstein)

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

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

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

Maps of Questionable Utility

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

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

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

This publication credits its playtesters – a pleasant note!

Rating: ** / *****

Saturday, 10 July 2021

[REVIEW] Bridgetown

Bridgetown (2021)

by Jonathan Hicks and Greg Saunders

Fire Ruby Designs

Low-level (not D&D) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

Tuesday, 8 June 2021



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

After its debut at the North Texas RPG Con, I am pleased to announce the publication of my pseudo-historical RPG, Helvéczia. Published as a 204-page hardcover and a lavish boxed set (which contains the hardcover book, a regional adventure supplement, nine map sheets, and more), this is a self-contained game system taking you to a strange alternate-world Switzerland where danger lurks in the deep forests, and even weirder things are afoot in the high mountain valleys. In Helvéczia, you can…

  • get surrounded by a band of brigands, shoot your way out, and make your getaway on one of their horses…
  • seduce an adventurous countess, and lose all your money to her in a game of cards (how did she do it?!)…
  • get devoured by giant frogs lurking in an abandoned well…
  • blow up the Devil’s stagecoach and live to tell the tale…
  • die in an unlucky first aid attempt (many such cases!)…
  • hunt wolves from horseback with grenades…
  • learn useless sciences like Hermeneutics and Vacuum Theory, then find them surprisingly useful…
  • get captured by the Inquisition, and escape from their clutches with the aid of a Holy Bible they gave you for your final night…
  • team up with the Inquisition against a blasphemous nest of fishmen…
  • dig up the fingerbones of a hanged man for the Skeleton Key spell, and procure a tanned dogskin for Emilio Sciarelli’s Spectacle…
  • play cards with the Devil for your immortal soul!

All of these, and more have happened in Helvéczia games (although some took place in the land of Catalonia, for you can play the game in other pseudo-historical milieus with a little effort).

Look, ma! Very Irate Geese!

As it should be evident, this is not a game concerned overmuch with historical accuracy or physical realism; rather, it aims to be a fast, swingy, colourful romp with high stakes and a lot of fantastic detail. It is not grim, and not particularly dark (although the past, indeed, is a foreign country – do not expect 21st century America or Europe). You do not have to be a student of history to appreciate Helvéczia (although an interest in it does not hurt): if you like Grimm’s strange and bloody stories, swashbuckler romances by Dumas and others, or swords-and-stagecoaches films, you will be right at home. Above all, this game is a love letter to the penny dreadfuls and cheap picaresque novels describing the lives and changing fortunes of scoundrels, bravos and never-do-wells – adventurers in the truest sense!

A Miraculous Escape!

Unlike many “OSR” systems, Helvéczia departs somewhat from the usual B/X lineage, and uses a simple, heavily streamlined and modified version of the d20 System (abandoning its more cumbersome aspects, and subjecting it to a lot of tinkering and polish). Players will no doubt be familiar with the game’s four classes, spell memorisation, the procedures of the combat system, or saving throws and experience points. Helvéczia employs this familiar framework, and puts its own spin on it. Everything is altered to fit the game’s subject matter, and it all fits into a closed, six-level advancement scale: even the mightiest heroes or the most ferocious monsters are found in this range. Yet, even low-level characters can accomplish much, and you do not have to be high-level to make a difference. There is no level scaling in the world, or in the published adventures: it is up to the players how to navigate Helvéczia’s pitfalls and dangers, and succeed or fail by their own decisions (and the fickle dice). This is, also, a complete game: everything you need is found in the rulebook, from rules, spells, monsters, magic items (mostly new) to GM advice, random tables, a starting adventure, and a brief setting guide. The rules are intended to be easy to learn, and the book can be picked up by beginners rather quickly.

Version Comparison Chart

Helvéczia is available in two versions: a more affordable hardcover, and a complete boxed set. The hardcover version ($40) includes:

  • Helvéczia, a 204-page hardcover rulebook, with a cover by Peter Mullen, and interior art by a host of period artists;
  • an A3 overview map of Helvéczia by Sean Stone, providing an overview of Helvéczia’s geography on one side, and its main cantons, towns and territories on the other;
  • a deck of 32 cards in case you want to play a hand with the devil – according to Hungarian card sharp traditions, the tried and true blue Piatnik card set, NO IMITATIONS ACCEPTED!

Hardcover edition

The boxed version ($60) includes everything above, and then some in a sturdy, hand-made box filled to capacity with goodies. Thus:

  • Helvéczia, a 204-page hardcover rulebook, with a cover by Peter Mullen, and interior art by a host of period artists;
  • Ammertal and the Oberammsbund, a 72-page regional supplement describing two cantons in Helvéczia in a hex-crawl format, and containing three larger and two shorter adventures, along with other miscellance (this supplement is also available separately);
  • an A3 overview map of Helvéczia by Sean Stone, providing an overview of Helvéczia’s geography on one side, and its main cantons, towns and territories on the other;
  • eight more A3-sized, double-sided map sheets offering player and GM hex maps for the entire extent of Helvéczia, and some of the surrounding territories (two of each map included to last multiple campaigns);
  • a deck of 32 cards in case you want to play a hand with the devil – according to Hungarian card sharp traditions, the tried and true blue Piatnik card set, NO IMITATIONS ACCEPTED!;
  • a folder with character sheets, sample characters, and a calendar booklet to keep strict time records with for a meaningful campaign (the folder doubles as a collection of reference sheets).

Boxed edition (four-volume, antique edition of Gil Blas not included)

Is it fun? We think so. Judge by the results of last Sunday’s expedition to the tunnels and chambers beneath the small town of ___(Redacted to protect the place’s good reputation)____, which lead right to the very depths of HELL!

  • Angelo Rossi, the Italian Vagabond, fell into a pit, where he was torn apart by headless walking corpses.
  • Brother Jean-Ambrose Lazard, a very sinful Franciscan, was captured by devils, and boiled in a fiery cauldron.
  • Tristan de la Croix, a French Soldier, was captured by the beautiful but wicked Gudrun von Oberhöllen, one of the aristocrats of Hell, and for disrupting her wedding night, imprisoned in a cage for the lady's perverted fancies. (Some might not find this so bad.)
  • Ivan the One-Eyed, Cossack Champion, fled in panic, and in madness did he emerge from the depths below!
  • Finally, Werner Lösung, German Sharpshooter, rescued Gudrun's handmaiden, the beautiful and innocent Elsie Schreck (who went to Hell for swearing, once!), but had to ask the Devil's assistance through cards to return to the surface of Helvéczia while hiding in a wardrobe (dragged through a painted cupola sky by diabolical giant owls). Since he had nothing else to pay the Devil with, Werner had to sign the contract (but at least he got to marry Elsie).

Want to die horribly in HELL and suffer ETERNAL DAMNATION? This is your game. Want to become a brigand leader? That, too, can be arranged. Reach sixth level, defend your doctorate in theology, and retire in style to your very own abbey? Not impossible. Win the hand of a fiery Gypsy girl after forgiving your mortal enemies? Certainly! Die in the last round of the last combat of a long-running campaign, and get decapitated by a vampire lord you had loosed on the world several sessions before? Could be, could be. Such fates, and more are in store for those who brave dust, gunfire, weird beasts, secret societies, and stand fast in the eternal struggle between Heaven and Hell!

IMPORTANT SHIPPING NOTE: As you might guess, the boxed set is large, and heavy. Accordingly, every boxed copy ships separately from other ordered items, and – unlike the smaller zines and modules – every boxed set incurs a separate shipping charge. Please note also that boxed sets have been found to ship slightly slower than regular mail, so expect some extra time or delivery.

Kämpft weiter!

Monday, 7 June 2021

[BEYONDE] Marcell Jankovics, Hungarian Animator

I came to praise Marcell Jankovics, not to bury him. After all, his visionary, psychedelic animation masterpiece, Fehérlófia [Son of the White Mare, 1981] is finally getting the US Blu-Ray treatment in a new, restored 4K edition, the sort of recognition it deserved many years ago. I already had part of this post written when I learned from the news that Jankovics was dead at the age of 79. The post, once a recommendation, had turned into an eulogy. We lose the greats, but at least this time, we have the work: the restoration (which Jankovics had closely overseen), the Blu-Ray, and – by incredible fortune – the finished version on Toldi, his final project, expected to debut in Hungary in late 2021, and worldwide somewhat later.

But first things first, Fehérlófia. If you are a fan of fantasy, myth, animation, or a combination of the three, this is a film you owe it to yourself to watch. Based on a Hungarian folk tale that exists in several variations, and is considered particularly archaic, this is a modern retelling of primordial myth, with bold visuals and heavy symbolism. It is a story of mythic heroes – archetypes – struggling with the forces of nature and an undefined evil. It is the story of Treeshaker, a great hero born of a white mare (who breastfeeds him for fourteen years, granting him sufficient strength to uproot trees); two mighty companions who are almost but not quite as strong (Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer); and their journey to the Mythical Underworld (really!) to defeat three dragons and rescue three princesses. It is a journey set against a backdrop of titanic forces of nature, archaic bestial horrors, and a world where simple human craft takes on the importance of religious ritual. The tale is universal: it is the tale of pre-historic, pre-modern man in his youth, finding his way in a dangerous and grand world. 

There are very few animations which look like Fehérlófia, and none that look exactly like it: Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen compares with its feverish visions and golden colours, and also with its modern yet deeply respectful treatment of its source material. Jankovics’ animation works with bold shapes and radiant colours. It is psychedelic, although without recourse to drug use: it aims to depict the unreal, and employs unreal visuals to this end. It is heavy with symbolism, from the spiritual to the psycho-sexual (of varying subtlety), and it is particularly rich in motifs taken from folk art: flowers and geometric patterns which shift, move and meld into each other; jagged shapes contrasted with flowing curves. There is a splendour to the film’s imagery, and it is a visual journey from start to finish. (Parenthetically, if you can’t obtain, or don’t want the Blu-Ray, there is a full, pre-restoration version with subtitles here: https://www.y – link deliberately broken to safeguard it.)

Like most products of its time, the cartoon is laden with hidden meaning as well. In repressive cultural environments, art is filled with secret messages you have to decode to interpret properly. Well-known stories are used as vehicles to speak about current issues that cannot be spoken about in the open. Fehérlófia is a retelling of myth with a heavy use of symbols, but it is also an outraged, powerless cry about the devastation and wilful destruction of a society. The story’s setup, the White Mare’s flight from a mechanised an all-seeing terror, is easy to see as a vision of totalitarianism; the draconic chimeras fought by Treeshaker are embodiments not just of human vices, but also the more hateful aspects of over-consumption, modern warfare, and the faceless dread of the digital age. There is a haunting, mourning tone to the work that treats the age of myth as a distant echo, as something that has passed and shall never return. When the opening dedication reads, “In the memory of the Scythian, Hunnic, Avar, and other plains people”, the careful viewer knows that “other plains people” means “and Hungarian people”, past tense included. When the tale ends, with the customary “And they lived happily ever after, until they died” of Hungarian folktales, the “until they died” part seems to take on a peculiar significance.

Why did Jankovics see the world in apocalyptic tones, especially in the relatively permissive 1980s? Arch-pessimism is certainly the default stance of his works: in the bittersweet “happy ending” of Johnny Corncob, in the abstract shorts Sisyphus and The Struggle, and in his quixotic 28-year (1983 to 2011) journey to adapt The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s grand 19th century play about the ultimate futility of history and human progress, to an animated movie. In Jankovics, personal experience met with the Hungarians’ baseline brooding nature. As a child of the 1940s, he was nine when his father, a member of the anti-nazi resistance, was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to lifelong forced labour on trumped-up charges; he was only released to go home to die. The point was not to punish a specific crime, but to humiliate and break what remained of the Christian middle class, and reallocate their belongings to regime loyalists: masses of families were deported with minimal belongings to the countryside for menial labour, and housed in chicken coops, pigsties and stables. Jankovics later studied at Pannonhalma, Hungary’s most ancient Benedictine school, the only one allowed to operate with heavy restrictions; in his class, the majority of pupils came from families where one or both parents were dead, in prison, or under police supervision. The students of this prestigious school could count on graduate to become outcasts from society. Jankovics’ applications for architect school were rejected year after year. It was clear he would never be allowed to obtain a higher degree. He worked various menial jobs to support himself, until Fortune, or perhaps Providence smiled on him: while he could not be an architect, he was hired as a phase animator for Pannonia Film, Hungary’s cartoon studio.

Of all inhabitants of an unhappy country that held the world record of per capita suicides and abortions, and whose inhabitants mostly died of preventable malaises much earlier than other, similarly developed states, children at least had it fairly good. The regime had exiled its undesirable authors, poets and playwrights into childrens’ literature; and the best artists of the time went on to produce amazing, literate works of art for the young generation. Pannonia was an isle of excellence in a system that pushed everyone into grey mediocrity; its director, while a party loyalist, was fairly reform-minded. Jankovics worked his way up through the ranks to direct shorts, and got his big break with Johnny Corncob (1973), a feature-length story of a young shepherd who becomes a hussar and a hero to win the hand of his love from an evil stepmother. Johnny Corncob was much influenced by George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (you can spot the blue meanies if you look enough), but also began Jankovics’ lifelong infatuation with folk art and symbolism. The cartoon was a success, even on the international level. It was picked up by Hanna-Barbera for US distribution, and to the author’s colossal disappointment, put in a box and never shown to local audiences – raising the question whether HB had made a mistake, or was just trying to cheaply block overseas competition from its US markets.


It would be fair to say that Jankovics was to Hungary as Miyazaki is to Japan. In my childhood, he was one of the two giants of animation. Attila Dargay made Disney-style stories about cute talking animals (and well made ones, too – in this scene, you can even spot Yours Truly lording over various forest critters), while Jankovics made weirder and – at least on the level of subtext – mode adult fare. Around them were the lesser peaks of a golden age of animated films – from Zsolt Richly’s proto-Powerpuff Girls work in The Rabbit With the Checkered Ears; through my generation’s non-anime anime cult classic, Cat City; Gyorgy Kovasznai’s long-forgotten but recently restored, avant-garde Bubble Bath (which, unlike Fehérlófia, very much does involve hallucinogenic drugs); the Oscar-nominated The Fly (it is about politics, and its director got into serious trouble for it); and whatever the HELL Sandor Reisenbüchler was doing. But these two were at the top of the game – both great and prolific.

Me when I see a Twitter

For people my age, Jankovics’ most recognisable work is undoubtedly Hungarian Folk Tales, the long-running TV animation series (nine seasons from 1977 to 2011, 100 episodes). These shorts were collaborations with various other artists (particularly with dramaturgist Agnes Balint, the uncrowned queen of Hungarian child’s literature), but the vision bears the mark of the originator: they are abstract, economic in their animation style (for both stylistic and cost-cutting reasons), and the episodes each draw on the motifs and style of a specific Hungarian ethnographic region. As it tends to go, the first few seasons directed hands-on by Jankovics are superior in vision; the later ones are fun, but more conventional. As a kid, I accepted them at face value; it was on later rewatching that I discovered their excellence and visual power. In a great gift to international animation, the studio has made the episodes freely available on Youtube, in a dubbed version no less. It is easy to dig in at a random point, but as a starter, I can highly recommend:

S01E05: The Pork Pudding (comedy horror, featuring a black pudding mimic!)

S02E02: The Giant Tree (the local version of the well-known Jack and the Beanstalk story, featuring my favourite one of Jankovics’ decidedly non-reptilian dragons)

S02E03: The Princess, Three Pigs, and Three Birthmarks (cartoon nudity!)

S02E13: The Jackdaw Girls (eerie weird fantasy)

S03E01: Abeles-Kobeles (introducing a bunch of devils which look suspiciously like the blue meanies)

If the first half of Jankovics’ career was about projects which allowed him to hone his skills and develop his craft, much of the second half was dedicated to a single task: animating The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s great 19th century “civilisation play”. “The Tragedy”, as it is often known, is a long, slightly ponderous, deeply philosophical and immensely quotable play spanning the history of human progress, from primitive man to modern capitalism, mankind’s future, and beyond. Featuring a striving Adam who wants to see mankind’s bold future, a mysterious Eve as an embodiment of femininity, and Lucifer in the role of the ultimate smartass cynic, it is very challenging to stage (there are relatively few players, but a tremendous amount of historical sets), but perfectly suited for the medium of animation with its grand visions and allegories.

Preliminary work on the Tragedy started in 1983, and actual animation began in 1988. The project would take almost thirty years to complete. Pannonia, once one of the world’s largest animation studios, crumbled and went to the dogs. The theft and plunder of public assets (mostly by former party insiders) would become more lucrative than creating capital-intensive cultural products; foreign investors and banks were disinterested in funding art. Animation was a profitable business, but the turnover was slow and initial investments were high. Everyone wanted to get rich overnight. Jankovics, who chafed under the restrictions of socialism, soon grew into a bitter critic of the new order. He wrote books on ethnography and solar myths, occupied himself with lesser projects, and filled positions in cultural policy (whose holders are always hated by the jealous beneficiaries), while trying to raise capital for newer and newer segements of his film. At one point, he worked on the early design stages of Disney’s Kingdom of the Sun, but the project was gutted and bowdlerised, and his work went unused. The Tragedy progressed. Corners were cut, which are more apparent in some scenes than others. In 2011, he was finally given a lump sum from the new conservative government to complete the film, on the condition that it be released without further delay.

An Old-School Revolution

The finished Tragedy of Man is a monumental 160-minute animation faithfully following the play’s 15 scenes, its philosophical poetry and its quips: what it adds is the visual dimension. This is a slower, statelier work than Fehérlófia, and it often animates ideas rather than things. Each scene in its historical journey uses a radically different animation style (some co-designed with colleagues). Egypt is seen as the two-dimensional flat world of tomb paintings (only the mighty Pharaoh is allowed to assume the third dimension), and Greece as figures on clay pottery. The Middle Ages follow the style of codex marginalia; the Modern age as engraved plates; and the carnivalesque Victorian scene in a Dickensian London as an ever-evolving tableaux of popular culture. By the play’s dystopian vision of a cold and rational future that destroys human endeavour in an age where mankind has exhausted its resources, we are in the realm of comic books. Against this are set the strivings of Adam, his longing to win the attentions of Eve, and his dialogue with Lucifer, “the ancient spirit of negation”. It is not as rawly inventive and powerful as Fehérlófia, and it starts rather slow – the first half-hour is the weakest section. It is the very definition of indulgent and pretentious. However, it has a grand sweep, and it is rich in a myriad small details, cultural citations, easter eggs, and subtle visual humour. It is not for everyone, but some will like it very much.

There is much of Jankovics’ legacy that points at unrealised plans: he published his ideas as picture books or turned them into book illustrations (Toldi, his yet-to-be-released swan song, is one that miraculously got made). At one point, he contemplated animating the Bible, a project that got to the stage of a painted animation screenplay, one finished episode, and a later art album in the style of Jodorowsky’s Dune. (A fairly crappy trailer is found here). Perhaps that was too much. It was certainly hubris. And yet, as the Lord tells an exhausted and dejected Adam at the end of the Tragedy: “I have told you, Man: strive on, and trust!”

* * *

Fehérlófia is now available for pre-order from Arbelos. Don’t miss it.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

[REVIEW] Valley of the Lost

Valley of the Lost (2021)

by Allen Farr

Winterblight’s Challenge

No level range given

Valley of the Lost
How do you review something’s absence? It can be obvious, like a missing map or a conflict that leads to an NPC who should logically be described, but isn’t. Perhaps it is an epic investigative scenario leading you to a circle of conspirators who are then left out altogether. Or a vampiresploitation setting, but Strahd is out for lunch and his castle is left as a footnote. Instead of help to run your games, you gain a millstone around the neck. Valley of the Lost is this kind of product – it is a mini-setting that’s all promise and no delivery.

The promises are interesting, and they were the reason I bought the PDF. There is a great-looking hex sheet that’s catnip to hex map fans, and there are promises of a mysterious lost world setting in an isolated valley. Wonderful! True to form, the concept is rather cool. The valley is the result of a magical disaster, where five worlds spilled over into ours to collide in a single point, and create a valley ringed with impassable mountains. Ancient pilgrimage routes, “the Ascent of Kings”, converge from four sides to meet in a place of enormous power and mystery in the middle. Dimensional nodes linked to the five otherworlds disgorge creatures and men at various points, to be rid of them through these dimensional gateways. Sabretooth-men ride saurian beasts. Ruins litter the valley floor, the thunder of a myriad hooves haunts a plain, and a forest is alive with malign intelligence. This is great and imaginative, and even decently written for what it is.

Except what you get is not the Valley, not even an introduction to the Valley, but the preface to the introduction. What you get is the absence of a potentially great mini-setting. Sadly, Valley of the Lost is a mishmash of a few glittering idea fragments, linked only in the most superficial manner. For basic ideas, these fragments are wordy; for anything else – table use, or even a campaign toolkit – they are woefully underdeveloped and vague. Tremendously unhelpful “GM notes” advise the reader to come up with ideas himself. Who knew we could do that! There are two adventure hooks (“Every setting needs some adventure hooks”, the text declares), one of which is blatantly obvious (fetch some sabretooth-man tusks), and one of which is intriguing but left entirely undeveloped, the equivalent of ending G1 after telling the GM of the ongoing giant raids. There are “obligatory” parts like random generation tables, but they are vestigial, while something like a random encounter or rumours table, however general, might have been much more useful.

A Mini-Setting That's Larger than France 
Let us discuss the map. On the surface, it is an intriguing hex map of a valley ringed on all sides by impassable mountains. This is an excellent fantasy concept, and doubly so for lost world milieus. Hex-crawls, of course, are a wonderful game structure to litter the map with interesting ruins, lairs, and landmarks to explore, and to turn the wilderness into a game board filled with adventure. Valley of the Lost does not do any of these things, though, and you will discover that the map is at a scale of 40 miles per hex – or 440 miles by 520 miles (708 by 836 kilometres). With 591 888 square kilometres, we are talking of a land somewhere between the size of France and Ukraine, and not much smaller than Texas or the Colorado River Basin, Denver to Yuma. Some “valley”! Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness, an excellent wilderness setting that does everything Valley of the Lost promises or implies, could fit into a single hex of this “valley” with its 260 square kilometres, and have generous room to spare. There are symbols of settlements on the map. What are they like? The supplement does not say. Who populate them? Hell if I know. What are their names? They have none. There are ruins… of what? How do they look like? Supplements like Wilderlands of High Fantasy or even Carcosa gave super-terse answers to these questions, but these answers were oracular and mysterious, usually enough to build on. In comparison, Valley of the Lost gives you nothing.

Once again, this is just an unfulfilled promise. “Let me tell you about my campaign” is a valid publication type, but there’d better be a campaign behind it, with more good stuff coming soon. Except… it is hard to believe that is the case here. The setting guide feels like the results of a brainstorming session. Places of power – yes – ancient pilgrimage paths built and trod by kings – sure – let’s add sabretooths – cool! – and so on. But, sparkly ideas and competent prose notwithstanding, it is not a game supplement, not even a gazetteer. It mixes and matches macro-scale description (the valley’s origin story) with non-functional game content (the badly scaled hex map and the all too specific tables). Lived-in settings are different. They may or may not be high-concept, but what they do have in common is depth: dots are connected, locales are developed beyond one-idea seeds, and they have a veneer of patina. There is substance, evidence of prolonged use (even if a campaign never covers every territory). This setting does not even have the factory smell. It is still raw, like buying a car to customise, and receiving a box of spark plugs, a wheel, and a transmission. Where is the rest? Hell if I know. Can you customise it? Well... you might, but at this rate, it is easier to just come up with something that’s all yours.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****

Sunday, 16 May 2021

[REVIEW] Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness

Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness (2021)

by Geoffrey McKinney


Levels 4 to 14 (really!)

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

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

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

A Wilderland

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

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

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

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

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

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

Oh no! Oh noooooooo!