Monday 29 August 2016

[REVIEW] Underworld Kingdom, Volumes #1-3

Underworld Kingdom, Volumes #1-3 (2013, 2015)
by Albert Rakowski

Three thin booklets at 20 to 36 pages, using the “supplemental grab-bag” model to present a homebrew setting. The Underworld Kingdom feels most like a published collection of blog posts, and doesn’t try to provide a coherent or systematic overview of its subject. This was done successfully in the older and even thinner Towers of Krshal, while the results are less impressive here. Perhaps this is so because the materials are so disparate (they come from a long period between 1997 and the publication date, and it shows), or because some kind of unifying element or hook is missing.

Underworld Kingdom, Vol. 3
There are three booklets, one dealing with character options, one with gods and spells, and a third with monsters and magic items. The content follows a general D&D-compatible format, which would be easy to adapt to any OSR system. There are character options (e.g. tech levels, social classes, rules for playing the “dead ones” or dimensional/planetary travellers). This is the collection’s weakest section; the ideas are general and the execution remains on the surface level, without adding a genuinely intriguing spin. Length is a factor here. Brevity is the soul of wit, but here, the lack of additional thought leads to a feeling of barrenness. The tech level rule determines the kind of tools and items your character can use, influences starting money, and there is an expanded equipment list classified by TL, but that is all the booklet does with the concept. These are the kind of optional rules and random tables which are very common on blogs (“see, I’ve got this idea about...”), and if it wasn’t for the subject matter (weird technological fantasy), they would be entirely forgettable. This is, for lack of a better term, “lazy weird”.

The series improves with the second and third volumes. The Underworld Kingdom’s thirteen main gods are a dark and forbidding lot, and their peculiarities are presented in a game-friendly format. We learn about their dogmas, the kind of blessings and rewards they confer on believers, the curses they lay on the unfaithful, and even the miraculous signs they provide. This is a list of grim and even more grim folks like the Cockroach King (who can give you the power to digest even the foulest nourishment, but infect you with parasites if you don’t watch out), or Ctuar, a keeper of gates and secrets whose followers must never go first in a passage and never leave an opened door behind them. These are good ideas, although sometimes, the thought that comes to your mind is “screw this repulsive and thoroughly reprehensible lot”. I like flawed and questionable deities like anyone else, but sometimes it is just a bit too much. These guys try too hard, especially when we add the Cthulhu mythos (who are also active here) or the several minor deities, who are from the same general mould. The recently reviewed Yngarr’s gods were perhaps more fanciful and diverse, with a hint of genuine strangeness to them – here it is all grim, grim and even more grim. Since the new monsters and magic items also fit the same Metal Album Cover mould, with rune-covered rusty evil soul-killing stuff smeared with blood and stuff, it can be tiresome when taken together.

The majority of the spells are not particularly good, many of them dealing with machinery in none-too-interesting ways (you can use a spell to recharge them, or control them, or kill them digitally), dealing in necromantic gruesomeness, or being simple elementary damage / environmental effects. There are a few neat exceptions, which are however very high-level, and out of the reach of most parties, or tied to specific gods (and consequently, super-grim, like Brain Rot or Maggot Armour).

The monsters and magic items are perhaps the best part of the collection. They come with interesting imagery, including deadly fungus, degenerate subterranean dwellers, robots and multiple spider variants. This imagery does not translate very well to distinct game mechanics, which would be the next tier on the “good monsters” scale, but if you wish to populate a dark underworld with vile monstrosities, they are here. The magic items are varied and imaginative, although this is a rather short and sparse section that ends all too soon. There are black swords that’d make Elric proud, a jar of smoke that either lets you extend mental control around you or makes your targets attack, and so on. This is good.

Underworld Kingdom does not belong to the group of the really useful utility products (such as the now almost classic Monsters of Myth), while its setting elements are too minor and scattershot to treat it as a good systematic treatment of its game world (like Towers of Krshal did). Contrary to popular thought, it is not easy to write either of these product types, and this is just one of the many attempts that didn’t succeed, or at least it doesn’t have enough of the things where it does (mostly the sections with a strong flavour of the Underworld Kingdom setting). They are a catalogue you can leaf through and where you can find decent ideas, and for that, they are not a bad bargain in PDF. But when it comes to the print version, you can spend your money more wisely.

Rating: ** / *****

Sunday 21 August 2016

[BLOG] The accessible dungeon

People on the net have written a lot of interesting things about making good dungeons, so what was once considered either a past embarrassment or a lost art is now a fairly well mapped field. It is hard to say anything new – and I won’t – but there is value in restatement and elaboration. Therefore, this post talks about dungeon entrances.

What could go wrong?
One of the cool things about Necromancer’s Rappan Athuk is how, right at encounter number one, you discover there are two ways you can enter the dungeon. There is an ominous mausoleum ringed with several green gargoyles, and right next to it is a well that disappears into the darkness. You recall one of the rumours you heard at the tavern, which told you to stay well away from that thing. Still, what could go wrong? You ready a coil of rope and start to hammer a spike into some rocks to aid your descent. More than anything, “Don’t go down the well” is the hook that defines the Rappan Athuk experience, and frames it right from the start as a place where you can push your luck and get brutally punished for it. There are other entrances to the dungeon you can find later, but none of them have the iconic, evil simplicity of that initial impression. This is “Don’t go down the well” land.

The idea of multiple access points to the dungeon go back to Castle Greyhawk, whose known entrances are well documented by Allan Grohe: the castle ruins, an old dry cistern, under a pool of quicksand, a simple hole in the ground, the Greyhawk city sewers (a pretty damn big dungeon level on its own), and so on, a fascinating list that only deepens the legend. A similar variety and richness seems to have characterised the yet unreleased Jakkalá Underworld. Some entrances would allow players to access several different areas of the dungeon complex, including one of the “main thoroughfares” which allow characters to access the deeper sections (see T. Foster’s description on Dragonsfoot, or “The Orcian Way” in Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign); others would perhaps be linked to more obscure and out of the way dungeon areas, and used much less often.

In contrast, Ruins of Undermountain has one notable entrance in the form of the Yawning Portal, opening right from the common room of the inn built on top of the thing (what could go wrong? I have a few stories about that, too...) There are others, but they barely register: you can somehow reach Skullport, the evil smugglers’ town on level 3, through an underground river, but has anyone done that? Similarly, the late Gygaxian Temple of Elemental Evil is not an accessible dungeon: in fact, for all the evil that goes on inside, it is ridiculously hard to actually get inside and start exploring. With the increasing linearity of dungeon design, and with the declining notion that dungeon space is reusable (and indeed, that it should be reused!), alternate entrances fell by the wayside, reducing the variety of play and removing one more tentpole that kept megadungeons a viable and entertaining adventure genre. And as it goes, you can always knock out a pole or two and leave the structure standing, but at one point, it is going to give, and you will be left wondering what had ever held up that old thing.

This is not to say all dungeons should have multiple prominent entrances. Lair dungeons – relatively small, fit for anything from a few hours of play to two or three expeditions – can easily get away with one entrance, and maybe a few exits discovered along the way. Similarly, sometimes the fiction of the dungeon dictates limited accessibility: if the discovery and unearthing of the entrance is part of the challenge, then it is appropriate to stay with one entrance only. But for large dungeon complexes with much traffic going on, different factions and multiple large levels, the one-entrance principle can become very limiting. This is one of the few criticisms I would level at the otherwise excellent Anomalous Subsurface Environment – that it only opens up as the player characters venture deeper inside it, instead of offering multiple accessways already in use by multiple parties, or to be found out in the wilderness.

There is a lot of unexploited potential in multiple entrances. This brings me to the final point, the accessible dungeon as a prominent dungeon structure (or layout type). There has been a lot of useful discussion on non-linear design counterbalanced by chokepoints, but what if the dungeon (or a section of it) is radically opened up? Part of the answer to that question is found in the Caves of Chaos, with its collection of monster lairs, connected in the back by clever tunnels and secret passages, and letting you get into lairs in complicated and unexpected ways. However, the caves do not really link to a common dungeon system, and mostly remain isolated cul-de-sacs.

Cloister of the Frog-God
A few years ago, I experimented with a dungeon that had many entrances, and yet also had an internal core area, which would allow for a highly non-linear and variable play experience. The result was Cloister of the Frog-God, stocked with the rooms I had originally developed for the lost Tegel Manor manuscript, and published by Frog God Games as part of their immense Rappan Athuk omnibus edition (where it kinda became lost in a whole heap of other stuff – I wonder if anyone at all has run or played it). Cloister of the Frog God is very far from a true megadungeon; in our home game, it took three sessions to come to a conclusion (with the characters fleeing in panic after poking where they shouldn’t have and unleashing the frogocalypse), although this was with a big chunk of the complex left undiscovered.

Yet Cloister also demonstrates a possibility of dungeon design that could be very useful for the entrance level of a true megadungeon complex. One purpose of entrance levels is to “distribute” traffic into various deeper sections, and lead to more clearly separated layers of the whole dungeon structure. Multiple entrances begin this sorting activity right on the surface, and also keep the dungeon open enough for the benefit of the several different interest groups who have a stake in it. This is not to say this entrance level needs to be a wide open area. One of the reasons Cloister was successful in play was that while the exterior was accessible (in a sense – the entrances were either guarded or relatively more challenging to find), the interior was more tricky to navigate, with strong chokepoints, obscure connections, and multi-level mapping puzzles. This move “inverts” the dungeon level, turning it inside out, and poses an interesting set of challenges for the exploring party.

Sunday 14 August 2016

[REVIEW] Shrine of the Keepers

Shrine of the Keepers
by Jay Murphy
Published by Vanishing Tower Press

There is a recurring issue with swords&sorcery adventures: many of them don’t function on the game level. They try to conjure up the blood-and-thunder imagery of Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, but all too often, the actual content is simplistic: one-room dungeons, lengthy exposition followed by three or four railroaded scenes, that sort of thing. It is as if all the effort was spent on the setting, and the gameplay was an afterthought. Shrine of the Keepers is an exception to this trend; a small S&S-themed temple dungeon that could easily double as the setting of a Conan story. In fact, Shrine of the Keepers seems to be a loving homage to the evil temple from Shadows of Zamboula with a few things shuffled around and the serial numbers filed off. This is not a bad thing.

Shrine of the Keepers
Shrine is a 15-page PDF, of which 6 are occupied by the titular adventure, including the half-page introduction and a full-page map. That’s not too much, but what we get is a compact and surprisingly useful mini-adventure which could be used with any common hook – got your purse stolen? The trail leads to the Shrine of the Keepers (this is the adventure’s default). Kidnapped dancing girl? The Shrine of the Keepers is to blame. A daring bet made by the tavern table? Let’s head to the Shrine of the Keepers.

Whatever brings you there, the two-level shrine complex is a nice mixture of colour, combat and exploration. There are enough traces of unsettling evildoing to make any adventurer want to bring down the cult. There are enough secret doors to let the shrine denizens ambush the party in grand S&S fashion. There is a lusty villainess “with the presence of a jungle cat” who introduces herself with “I am Thalis of Fhaddar. Are you mad, to come here?” There is an epic final confrontation.

Aside from the finale, most of the adventure could go many different ways, from stealthy infiltration to all-out assault. It accommodates different player approaches, and rewards quick thinking. It goes through the S&S playbook, and it will be kind of a “comfort food” to genre fans, but it does what it sets out to do. There could have been more of it, but it is good as it is. It could have been presented in a more user-friendly way (the Crypt Keeper – as he is called here – should familiarise himself with the text before running the module, and it is useful to mark up the map with enemy positions and such), but again, nothing wrong.

After the adventure, we get 6 more pages worth of extra rules and random tables for the USR (Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying) Sword&Sorcery system, none of them particularly noteworthy. Since the whole package costs a buck and a half, this is more of an observation than a complaint. There is a decent, functional adventure in Shrine of the Keepers, and if you need an evil shrine for a sinful fantasy metropolis, it is modular enough to slot into just about any S&S-themed campaign.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday 11 August 2016

[STUFF] The Technological Table

The Dark Eye
Since Blair and others have shown an interest, here is my technological instruments section from Swords & Magic: Monsters & Treasure. This list contains a description of futuristic weaponry, as well as a number of other devices. It is not a particularly broad selection, and I was never entirely satisfied with it, but the items try to aim for more than offering simple technological analogies to fireball wands and rings of protection, or – which I detest – elevating our modern Coca-Cola bottles and magnet fridges into post-apocalyptic junk. TSR’s vision of Gamma World has always felt banal and too easy with its mutant hamsters and abandoned McDonalds restaurants, an all too comfortable post-apocalypse (although I owe much to Geoffrey’s reinterpretation, where he has raised these concerns).

Futuristic items should be futuristic! They should carry an air of mystery, and an ambitious, unsettling vision of what humanity could be capable of. Many of the items here are positively sinister; the techno-Hellenic utopias of Fomalhaut have always been viewed through a distinctly 30s lens infused with a hint of Cold War paranoia; ideal societies built upon eugenics, the garden city concept, the theory of ruin value, tampering with human nature, and the construction of elaborate, massive doomsday devices. They are not Giger’s biomechanical creations, but a vision of civilisation hurtling towards self-destruction. On Fomalhaut, the downfall of starfaring super-civilisations has yielded not simply a descent into barbarism, but a world essentially governed by human concerns and ambitions – against the backdrop of a technologically superior past that is for all intents and purposes foreign, inscrutable, and somehow inhuman.

Saturday 6 August 2016

[REVIEW] Yngarr, Issue #1

Yngarr, Issue #1 (2016)
by Ben Djarum with Raj Chandraputra

The DIY is strong with this one. There are lots of personal projects in Zineland, and you will inevitably wade through a lot of them which are either not very good, or just plain not for you. That’s how it goes with deeply personal projects, and the hunt is all part of the journey. Then, in some obscure corner of the net, you find that zine, and it is just the way it was meant to be.

Yngarr #1: interior cover
Yngarr is a messy thing that’s actually a setting book – half planetary romance, half high fantasy (high as in “acid, maybe peyote”) and half outsider art, illustrated with jarring imagery ranging from psychedelic sketches to pieces from the classic pulps. As a world guide, Yngarr doesn’t really try to make you understand; it tries to give you an impression. There is nothing systematic about the contents: a page about ancient history and terrible space gods is followed by nine custom spells, followed by a description of the several bizarre moons orbiting Yngarr, followed by an adventure outline in a bottomless rift, and so on. Nevertheless, if you wanted to run a campaign on Yngarr, you could start right after finishing reading – there is enough in the 32 pages to get the idea.

This is an “idea” product that’s not too concerned with the actual mechanical implementation of your game. It is all fast and loose, but the flavour is right there. In the second article, you get nine spells from “a collection of plagioclase tablets that describe the magical workings of an ancient wizard”, six intact and three identified only by name. The Song of the Space Whale will help “summon one of the ancient space whales to the caller’s bidding”. With the Symbiocathartic Dream Weapon, “The magic user can kill or inflict by sending foul things into the dreams of another.” (sic) In the third article, we learn that Arix, The Warrior Moon is “A dark world of stone monoliths and the labyrinthine tombs of ancient dead warrior kings.

There is much more of this album cover-inspired stuff with its otherworldly elven kingdoms and ancient astronauts; and while there is actually not much text between the covers (Yngarr was originally sold in a digest-sized edition, with a fairly generous font size and a bunch of full-page art), it serves its purpose well and doesn’t waste words. This is perhaps most apparent in the adventure outline, which presents a very sparse summary in lieu of a fully realised room-by-room description. In the description of a planetary rift that’s a bit like the Mariana Trench with layers upon layers of ancient civilisations, entire lost cities or dungeons are summed up in two or three lines.

Like most good fanzines, Yngarr is a gem in the rough – very rough. This is the raw stuff of fantasy, seemingly random at first, but with a method to its madness. It doesn’t really tell you anything about how to implement its ideas within the context of your own system or game, and at best, it is a very vague jumping off point. But if you do jump off, it will be one hell of a leap. And this is the kind of thing fanzines were invented for.

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

[REVIEW] Anomalous Subsurface Environment #1

Anomalous Subsurface Environment #1 (2011)
by Patrick Wetmore

This 88 page sourcebook and module is the first in a series describing an eponymous science-fantasy megadungeon and the strange post-apocalyptic lands that surround it. Here, millennia after an undescribed cataclysm, the world is fragmented into self-sufficient city-states, ruled by malevolent wizards of great power. Far from being simply high-level Magic-Users, these feared beings were once human, most of them “mutated horribly in some way, whether as a result of super-science gone horribly awry, super-science gone horribly exactly as planned, or the metaphysical manifestation of their philosophies”. The wizards, masters of supernatural powers and ancient technology, rule the land as they please, or plunder it; much like the sorcerer-kings of Dark Sun, lording over an army of functionaries, slaves and soldiers.

Then there are the Orbital Gods: telecommunication arrays around the planet gained sentience, personality and divine power, masters of a hundred idiosyncratic philosophies (which, unlike the unstated assumptions of most D&D games, clerics are supposed to obey simultaneously, not exclusively). Ancient metals left over from the technological era; mad cults following the Orbital Gods, a bastardisation of the scientific method or even Nyarlathotep; firearms and war machines: this is a setting where magic and high technology exist side by side – and the synthesis works, producing something in between BXCM D&D, Flash Gordon serials, Thundarr the Barbarian, Carcosa and 1st edition Gamma World, yet with its own identity. This is very important: far from being an imitative grab-bag, ASE transforms its ingredients into something more than the sum of its parts. In short: it is legitimately fantastic in a way “just an orc” and “just a robot” aren’t.

Anomalous Subsurface Environment
 A large part of the book focuses on the World of Denethix: its history, the extent of its known lands, and the city of Denethix itself, where the local wizard and his servants are known to be a little more benevolent than elsewhere. The descriptions of the setting are economic and flavourful: factions, NPCs and locales are presented with an emphasis on play-relevant information, providing just enough facts to inspire a GM, but not too much to overwhelm. Things such as the Ceratopsian Plains, the Livid Fens, Commonweal Secure Holdings, the Street of Lesser Men and even farming villages such as Marston (a place for protoceratops herders) or Southdeep (a village located in a huge sinkhole) are granted enough exotic detail to make them adventuresome – and this is greatly helped by a generous number of random tables to generate unusual curios, haute couture, horrible secrets, NPCs of different social classes, even deities.

Then the Anomalous Subsurface Environment itself, a sprawling underground experimental site sealed off for untold years and now maintained by mysterious forces. Not since Necromancer Games’ Rappan Athuk and Tomb of Abysthor have I seen a published megadungeon designed with so much coherence and inner complexity. After an intro adventure (which provides a means, as well as motivation to investigate the place), we are treated to a “moathouse”-style entrance level, populated by slowly disintegrating machinery and robotic guardians locked into their own internal fight for survival, and then the sprawling first level inhabited by scavengers, mutually hostile humanoid tribes, and several challenging and entertaining dungeon puzzles.

In its general ideas as well as individual encounters, ASE keeps up the quality of the outside world: it is a good megadungeon by the usual standards (such as its convoluted but navigable map mainly centred around interconnected sub-complexes, or its briefly discussed yet fairly functional dungeon ecology), but in every element, it injects its own flavour – here are stirges who have gorged themselves on nuclear goo, disintegrating office complexes hinting at the long-lost technological age, weird new monsters, humanoid lairs and enigmas whose purpose may be revealed after visiting other, yet unpublished levels. Fantasy and internal consistency are not considered mutually exclusive, but complementary: one enhances the other. Helpful notes are provided on running the dungeon as a complex, dynamic environment, gradually introducing rival outsiders drawn to the action. This would be a great product for both advanced GMs and beginners.

If there is a weakness in Anomalous Subsurface Environment, it must lie in its presentation. By that, I do not mean the typical errors that come with self-published modules: such errors are few and far between, and the product has an air of unobtrusive professionalism. However, the levels of ASE are so close, so interlinked that to run it properly, you will need at least the second part (due by the end of 2011 at the time of writing this review) to have a good chunk of the entire nine-level megadungeon complex; ideally, you should have all of it. Similar to how things were with Rappan Athuk a decade ago, until this wait is over, the product remains incomplete. Naturally, in an exotic setting, some exposition is required, and the “gazetteer” part of the volume at least gives enough material to run surface adventures in the meantime.

In spite of this (temporary) problem, this is very much a product worth buying. It is not just a personal vision, handling its subject matter expertly, but also an example of a megadungeon product “done right” – which, as someone fascinated by the genre but also critical of its specimens, I greatly appreciated. In a sense, the growing realisation as I was reading through ASE1 was that I was finally holding the kind of product Yggsburgh and Castle Zagyg might have been and should have been: where the potential of the legendary 70s-style megadungeon was sadly wasted due to a range of reasons, the content and presentation of Anomalous Subsurface Environment, a much more modern successor, give us hope that this time, everything will be okay.

A great megadungeon has its own legends, histories and potential to develop even more as the characters start interacting with it. It is large not by virtue of its dimensions, but by its possibilities. Anomalous Subsurface Environment 1 is the beginnings of a great megadungeon. Go buy it.
Rating: ***** / ***** and the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.

(Originally published in Fight On! #12)

[REVIEW] Assault Against the Menace on the Mountain

Assault Against the Menace on the Mountain (2013)
by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.
Publisher: New Big Dragon Games Unlimited

Assault Against the Menace on the Mountain is a scenario which promises much, but delivers very little. Billed as “a Roman-themed module based on the story The Very Old Folk by the master of pulp horror H.P. Lovecraft”, it sets the player characters against sinister and ancient hillsmen about to perform an evil ritual and destroy a Roman town in the Pyrenees. The characters may be wandering mercenaries, Roman citizens out to protect themselves, or members of the Roman-friendly Vascone tribe, and they are in for a storehouse of horrors as they join a doomed cohort which sets out to prevent a terrible calamity.

Assault Against the Menace on the Mountain

This is an excellent setup for an adventure, whether it is a wilderness expedition or a dungeon crawl. The product uses public domain art to excellent effect, and it is very professionally laid out in the popular “Moldvay/Cook rulebooks” style: in fact, the author and his editorial assistant have exercised obvious care in making sure the material is approachable, with death trackers and the flowchart for getting lost in the wilderness (which is, on the other hand, very abstract and doesn’t sound too exciting to play), and these devices being explained to the GM very meticulously.

Unfortunately, the adventure is also a major railroad in three acts, and it begins right with one of those basic offences you might think old school publications of all things would have sworn off for good. You do not very often see boxed text written by H. P. Lovecraft, but boxed set it is, and it is used like a blunt, half-page instrument the GM is supposed to read out to his players. Subsequent events add several smaller instances of the same to the module text. This is followed by descriptions of major NPCs and groups of the expedition ranging from lictors to slaves – this part is fine, but then we get to the action, where none of this really matters anymore.

And here lies the problem. This module is about a linear sequence of events, which the player characters experience, but can’t meaningfully interact with or influence. There are curious devices like a complex chart with percentages to figure out if certain NPCs are willing to interact with the PCs, and even another chart to figure what they have to say; rules for time and movement; a chart for getting lost if the PCs wander away from the group – but this does not matter at all, and nor do the “clues” which can be gathered along the way. Non-interactive encounter follows non-interactive encounter as the cohort enters the mountains, and members will start to lose their minds and die in great numbers. There is a table called NPC Deaths per Turn, which, indeed, determines how many NPCs will die by NPC category. Fortunately, none of these deaths affect the PCs, and it is advised that the GM should engage in some illusionism by rolling “false” saving throws to “heighten the sense of dread and anticipation”. Unfortunately, having personally experienced these efforts at “tension-building” in other adventures, I am completely sceptical about their usefulness in heightening the sense of dread and anticipation – especially since they are not tied to PC actions in any meaningful way.

Not that there is room for PC actions. The cohort marches on, and if the PCs don’t want to go along with them, they are threatened with death or (if they are mercenaries) by not being paid, a fate surely worse than death. Later, the company sees skulking forms in the woods. There is boxed text that informs the players that they detect a skulking form. The forms skulk, but players who investigate them will find nothing and have a 7 in 10 probability of becoming lost. Later on, the horses scream. This encounter is also described via boxed text, and as the module helpfully notes, “there really is not much the PCs can do at this point but press on.” Later, when all these people start to die in droves, we are informed that “if the PCs attempt to assist any of the prone members of the cohort, they will find them to be unequivocally dead.” Slightly later, more people die. Then everyone is attacked by a strange madness represented by a random roll, then there is some more dying. There is no dignified way out. “If the PCs were attempting to leave the mountain, the DM may choose to have them arrive at the peak regardless, and describe the occurrence as ‘a strange sort of magic that confused your attempted descent, and brought you to the mountain’s peak.’”

Finally, everyone who is left arrives at the mountaintop ritual, where “they will be presented with an ethical dilemma.” This dilemma amounts to deciding whether they are willing to let a bunch of ancient tribesmen enacting a blasphemous demon-summoning ritual ( “by engaging in unspeakable acts, mostly of the blasphemous sexual nature”) summon the demon and destroy everything, or “stopping the very old folk from engaging in those acts”. This is bound to be a hard and complex issue indeed, although, honestly, killing all them blasphemous sodomites sounds like a workable plan. It is also way less dangerous than removing the glyphs representing the demonic influence from the cultists and having to kill them afterwards when it turns out they are still fanatically loyal to the demon, which shows us that pacifism is for limp-wristed quiche-eaters. Unfortunately, “the dark man from the altar”, who was leading the ritual, has disappeared (the module states, elegantly wiping away all remaining traces of protaginism) and he will find another tribe to convert to demon worship. The End.

I would not recommend this module.

Rating: */*****

(Originally published on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] The Maze of Nuromen

The Maze of Nuromen (2013)
by Justin Becker and Michael Thomas
Dreamscape Design

Introductory first-level adventures are a hard genre to work in, because the fragility of starting characters means every hazardous encounter may be a character’s last, while a PC death may only be the party’s first. Perhaps for this reason, most intro adventures tend to follow patterns which make them very predictable: small humanoid lairs, static ruins with lots of abandoned storerooms, save-the-village quests. I have seen few attempts to break with the formulas established in Keep on the BorderlandsIn Search of the Unknown, and The Village of Hommlet. The Maze of Nuromen happens to be based on the basic concept of In Search of the Unknown (with a hint of The Tower of Zenopus), the abandoned lair dungeon, which I suppose is logical considering it is written for BLUEHOLME™, a Holmes D&D clone.

There is a very promising outer charm to this (free) product: cartography, layout and the presentation of information all have a simple elegance which make the contents accessible, and the package attractive. Particularly notable are the wondrous public domain-sourced illustrations by Harry Clarke, whose decadent art nouveau pictures suggest a strange fairyland atmosphere, and which were the reason I downloaded and read this adventure.

The Maze of Nuromen

Unfortunately, The Maze of Nuromen does not rise above a competent but average B1-inspired starter dungeon, and Clarke’s influence is not in particular evidence. Although the backstory has a high fantasy element that sounds interesting, what we have in the room descriptions are the same old armouries with corroded weapons, kitchen with discarded pots and pans, and barrack rooms with beds and a bunch of skeletonised guys still sitting around a card table (a low level dungeon encounter if there ever was one) – content which is elementary, mostly mundane, and lacking in potential for varied interaction.

Of course, Nuromen is presented as a beginner’s adventure, so it should theoretically be all new and wondrous to new gamers. There are two issues I would take with this line of reasoning: first, the realities of gaming are, very few beginners will start with the BLUEHOLME™ rules. Second, there is no reason why a beginner’s module should not have more of the good stuff – stuff that is fantastic, strange and unexpected. These elements are few and far between in this module, and although there are some inventive undead encounters – like with a phantom of a drunkard, or a nasty surprise packed in an iron maiden – they scarcely detract from otherwise routine dungeoneering. What if there was more of the illustrations’ essence in the gameplay? What if those elementary ideas were twisted around a bit, or used in an extraordinarily interesting way? What if there was a dynamic element, perhaps related to the backstory (which is an adventure hook, but not a strong, active part of the action)?

In summary, my problem with The Maze of Nuromen is not with the product per se, since it is a functional, playable meat-and-potatoes dungeon for first level PCs, and even gives off that elusive Holmes atmosphere if this matters. Rather, it is missing its own voice: it is one Holmes-inspired low-level dungeon among many, reusing the same ideas in a different combination. Get this one, get another, or cut up your own copy of B1 and rearrange the pieces: they will all be very similar. Dare we ask for more? Maybe not. If there is a lesson here, it is that sometimes that fancy artwork does not constitute a promise to go in with a certain set of expectations: it is often just artwork that happens to be very, very good.

Rating: **/*****
(Originally posted on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] In the Prison of the Squid Sorceror

In the Prison of the Squid Sorceror (2013)
by Daniel J. Bishop, John Humphrey, Ken Jelinek, Jon Wilson and Paul Wolfe
Published by Mystic Bull Games

In the Prison of the Squid Sorceror
This collection of “twelve weird pulp encounters” for the DCC roleplaying game presents small adventure ideas which can be inserted into a larger campaign, taking it in new directions or serving as sideshows to the main course of action. They are neither full mini-adventures nor one-paragraph adventure seeds, but something in-between: typically a small location or situation, given enough detail over two or three pages to start playing, but leaving the larger developments to the GM.

While weird/pulp fantasy and minimalism are both popular old school trends, this does not make the writers’ task easy. These concepts are challenging to work with, and the consequences are also easy to see in the collection. The first issue is weird fantasy. Like Monty Python, this subgenre relies on the strange and unexpected, and like Monty Python, it turns stale when it is re-quoted too much and all the surprise is gone. A bog-standard adventure with squid guys is not any more creative than a bog-standard adventure with orcs. Sure enough, the encounters in this book stumble when they go for straight Mythos recycling; they are much better when the authors come up with their own original ideas – and since some of these ideas are actually very good, relying on second-hand Lovecraft comes across as even more disappointing when it happens.

Similarly, minimalist design has its own issues. As a reaction to impenetrable walls of text and read-aloud sections which kill interactivity and plain doesn’t work, it is a breath of fresh air; but when it becomes dogmatic, it just results in adventures which are malnourished instead of lean. You lose fat first, but after a while, you also lose flavour and complexity. Adventures don’t have an ideal length: some work better when they are longer, and half of the encounters here would have been much better with more development. None of the writing in this volume is terse and efficient enough to carry a complex adventure situation in two pages: for these specific authors, the module could have easily used 60 instead of 46 pages even after leaving out a few of the less interesting scenarios.

So Squid Sorceror is a mixed bag. Some of the encounters amount to “you travel across a swamp and swamp monsters attack” (Shadows of Malagok), “a big bug attacks your ship” (Sails Aflame!) or “you happen upon a three-way battle between two wizards and an escaped monster” (The Nazhghad’s Invocation). Even if some of the background detail is interesting (for no good reason since the players will probably learn very little about it) or the monsters are neat, including these mini-scenarios was a mistake since they don’t really offer anything beyond a slightly spiced up random encounter.

A second group of mini-scenarios are based on interesting ideas, but suffer from too much exposition and too little actual adventure. The titular In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer (called a sorceror on the cover) revolves around a cursed sea cave and its magically bound captive, as well as a group of opportunistic freebooters. As a dark pirate-themed module with Shakespearean overtones, it almost makes it, although dragging in poor Cthulhu flat out kills the mystery (reworking it on the basis of legends about cursed sailors would have been preferable), and with two pages spent on introduction, the rest is mostly a tricky battle in a one-room dungeon and little more. Slaves of the Visitants is a woodland adventure with a great and horrific start, but obvious and slightly disappointing conclusion: too much build-up, not enough actual adventure – just a battle. Cave of the Ice Mistress introduces an otherworldly sorceress – a successful monster on her own with a great origin story and creepy appearance/powers – but ends as soon as it begins with the characters killing her off along with all loose plot threads (which they have likely not even learned about yet). A lost opportunity. Finally, The Cult of the Flickering Sign is an interesting organisation based on worshipping an extra-dimensional nonhuman entity – perfect for a seedy city, except the cult’s mystery lasts only as long as the characters make one step from the initial encounter, where they immediately find and kill the cultists, as well as the entity’s emissary. See the pattern? It is too bad, because both the entity and the cult are perfect for a game of city intrigue, and could easily have become a memorable group of returning villains. These scenarios all fall short of delivering on their promises: if they are used the way they are presented in this book, they will fail to realise their real potential, and become one encounter among many. Reworking them is strongly recommended.

Finally, we have five encounters which work without reservations, and represent the really good part of this product. At their core, Swindled at the Laughing Harpy and Another Man’s Treasure are item-based scenarios, both featuring situations, magic and characters which would feel at home in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories (the first has a vivid villain; the second a simple writeup of a loanshark’s lair which is tremendously evocative). These are very short at two pages each but they offer a scope beyond their actual length – which is in contrast with the volume’s less successful encounters. The Long Sleep is a conventional mini-dungeon (abandoned mortuary with undertaker’s quarters and a small crypt), it is just very well written, oozing with unsettling imagery and monsters which will remain fresh in the players’ memories for a long time to come.

The last two encounters (really mini-adventures) are departures from conventional module design in the sense that they consist of encounters intended to be introduced over the course of a campaign, parallel with other plotlines: this way, they only form an adventure as the players gradually experience the strangeness in the background of the usual events. This idea is fascinating, imaginative and effective. In Mermaids from Yuggoth, a slow clash of timelines brings increasingly strange events to the PCs’ home base and heralds an invasion by… well, you have probably guessed it. They are the same fun gals we already know, and they have come for our brains. The actual invasion – suggested to be a horrible, overwhelming strike – only consists of six 5 HD monsters, which is probably an “appropriate challenge”, but slightly underwhelming. 

The other mini-adventure, Icon of the Blood Goddess, is the best part of the collection. Gradually introducing a menacing goddess and her cult into a sprawling city, it is a powerful combination of vivid imagery, gradually escalating challenges, and a basically free-flowing pot. Here the collection is at its most leiberesque, without resorting to simple imitation: it captures the spirit, not the letter of the Lankhmar stories. Although I am slightly sceptical any player group would let the events run their full course after seeing that something is afoot, there are unsettling events, weird encounters, and an epic conclusion in another dimension. Anyone running a campaign that features a sinful metropolis could get a good use out of the material here – it’s the stuff of swashbuckling weird adventure. This mini-adventure is the collection’s best, and at eight pages, also its longest. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

To conclude, like most adventure collections, this is a work of uneven quality, and in my eyes, it works best where the authors stray from the formula by letting themselves create a more complex adventure framework, and where they rely on their own talents instead of working from the Lovecraft playbook. Roughly half of the adventures are more interesting for mining ideas than for their full content, but the other half are solid and game-relevant. While the price of the PDF is higher than usual (which is unsurprising when we consider the high production values), it is these, and especially the final adventure which make this collection worth purchasing.

Rating: ***/*****
(originally posted on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] The Hungry Undead

The Hungry Undead (2007)
by Jolly R. Blackburn
Publisher: Kenzer & Co.

Released for the fourth edition of Hackmaster in 2007, this module departs from the parody of the early HM line, and presents a mini-dungeon full of undead that’s – sorry! sorry! – dead serious. The trade dress evokes mono era TSR, although the interior follows a style with more detailed stat blocks and Hp/AC boxes (armour damage is a feature of the game), as well as decent-looking cartography and illustrations.

The Hungry Undead
The premise of the adventure is interesting, outlining the history of a tribal vampire cult whose successive generations excavated the interior of a large stone outcropping named Sleeping Bear Rock. There is ample historical and geographical justification for what we are going to see, which pretty much sets up the tone of the following product: meticulously logical, slightly over-explained. After the obligatory adventure hook, we have the description of what is essentially a dungeon with 15 areas (although some of these have multiple sub-areas). As tomb adventures go, this fare is solid, playable, but far from outstanding. Most are what I would call obvious encounters – there is a tomb, an undead monster is slumbering inside, it animates when the burial place is disturbed, and it has some treasure or grave goods. Or the burial place is protected by a magical trap. Or it is “an unremarkable crypt that was never used” (there are too many of these).

For all the TSR flourishes, the whimsy is missing. The design is mostly too straightforward, too (eco-)logical. It is a David Attenborough vampire lair. Here is where they rest. Here is where they were unleashed by foolhardy adventurers. Here is the evil temple full of evil-looking statues where they worshipped. Great place, but it turns out it has been looted and the statues are just statues. There is a mass tomb filled with thousands of human skeletons and piles of skulls, which is just a mass tomb. A treasury holds a sword +1, silver arrowtips, some gold bars and lots of useless rotted weapons. “A weaponsmith can fit the spearhead to either a spear or great spear for 4 sp. A fletcher can fit the arrowheads to either flight or sheaf arrows for 3 cp each”, David Attenborough explains, very calmly. Why doesn’t something interesting happen at these places?

Then there are three or four scattered encounters which are somehow way better, and you wonder why the rest of the module isn’t like this – a creepy battle with a massive amount of slowly awakening undead, the body of a high priestess preserved at the height of her beauty which explodes into poisonous dust, etc. The area descriptions are vivid and interesting. The undead have cool names like Janir Kodajy, Ranjar the Great or Jarbyr Raji. There is environmental damage. Mud. Bas-reliefs. Cryptic inscriptions. A room “suffused with a crimson tint”. This is wonderful imagery that should be exploited to the fullest by a module worthy of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan or at least the crypts found in Judges Guild classics like The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor and Citadel of Fire; instead, you mostly get to fight a bunch of undead vampire things in a pretty place. Playable? Playable. Fun? It should be. Average? Yes. It is an average module that didn’t quite reach for the great potential it had in itself. And that’s a pity.

Rating: ** / *****

(Originally published on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] Sepulcher of the Mountain God

Sepulcher of the Mountain God (2012)
by Paul Wolfe
Published by Purple Duck Games

Sepulcher of the Mountain God
Sepulcher of the Mountain God is a first level Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure locale (although, as it is intended for 8-10 characters, a smaller party would be better off playing it when they are a bit more experienced). The mini-scenario describes a relatively small, linear dungeon consisting of temples to two rival evil deities, and the connecting cavern system. One of these, Ira, is a chthonic earth god type, and the other, Gelihedres, is related to underworld waters and icky crawly things. The player characters, exploring the tomb of a tribal chief, are drawn into their conflict which now revolves around a renegade priest and two stolen magical relics.

This module presents individually interesting encounters and adversaries, but has significant structural weaknesses. Taken one by one, there is some intriguing imagery of barbarous burials, pagan temples and cold, water-filled caverns (with some very neat illustrations). The adventure introduces craymites, a new subterranean race of humanoid crayfish who make pretty cool low-level opponents with a disconcerting ability they can use in combat. There are curses, relics and evil rituals which fit the themes properly. However, all of this is found in a dungeon which essentially consists of a straight line between beginning and end. This is not by itself a module-breaking issue, but there are others which add up to some rather serious problems.

There is a very high likelihood over the course of the adventure that the characters are going to be affected by a powerful geas, forcing them into the plot “or else”. Even without this contrivance, there are not many interesting, meaningful choices they can make during exploration. If everything is a prepared straight path, tactics lose meaning and exploration is nonexistent. The dungeon lacks the openness and complexity which would facilitate player planning, and which is in evidence in the first product in the same module series. This is, I think, a very “2nd edition” kind of mistake. The adventure’s linear structure is also littered with roadblocks. If the party doesn’t figure out a crucial puzzle in the beginning, they will not be able to enter most of the dungeon at all, since alternate routes don’t exist, and the adventure is also clear new ones cannot be created. Later, the way forward is hidden behind a secret underwater passage within an underwater passage, which is just the place some parties will never discover.

Finally, we have a combat-laden conclusion in an underground ritual site packed to the gills with human cultists, who apparently have no problem existing in a small complex whose only access point is the aforementioned secret underwater passage, yet somehow manages to contain a large campsite with beds and active fireplaces. This is a mystery that pervades the product – how does this linear under-realm function? The only ways in are a tomb and temple dedicated to a hostile god, and a flooded waterway descending even deeper into the earth. I don’t tend to pay much attention to realism, but to put it mildly, it is puzzling.

Altogether, this module is too brief and too plain for its own good: its potential for spelunking, underground exploration and approaching situations with varied tactics is limited, and what’s left is a fairly disappointing low-level scenario. Introductory modules have a special responsibility in that they should represent the best or close to the best a game can offer. This one is very far from that standard, and I cannot recommend it.

Rating: **/*****
(Originally posted on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror

Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror (2012)
by Daniel J. Bishop
Published by Purple Duck Games

This dungeon section is a module in the truest sense: designed to be placed “in the characters’ path if they travel down a corridor that you have not yet detailed”, it slots into megadungeons as easily as it could become a single one-night scenario. In 12 pages, it outlines a compact 25-entry encounter area built by an evil cult, and now inhabited by a cursed monster who had once been the cult’s implacable foe. Meant for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, it converts easily to your preferred D&D variant or edition, and has good production values.

Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror
There is a very lurid, in-your-face sense of the grotesque in the DCC role-playing game, and Bone Hoard follows this style very faithfully. Its rooms and passages are inhabited by the results of playing with bizarre magical forces, and the various creatures, objects and even magic items come across as strange and unwholesome. Where else but here could you find “a golden coloured bladder of some unknown substance, extracted from some creature from another plane of existence”, and let that be your reward for being an adventurer? Where else will you face the equivalent of giant rats – but boneless and equipped with leech-like mouths? Of course, there is a fine line to walk between horrid and laughable, but I believe this module walks it. The strangeness of the location and its various horrors is not just a set of descriptions that use Lovecraftian imagery, but also has in-game relevance; the set-pieces are interactive and allow interesting experimentation, even if the approach to the encounter area is mostly static.

Sometimes, the room descriptions and GM instructions overstate the obvious, or present vital information in so much detail that it becomes unwieldy (especially if it is dropped into a game without preparation, one of its intended uses). Occasionally, difficulty checks are given for trivially easy tasks, and treasure values are listed for non-valuables like “horn spoons worth 2 cp each”. This is more trouble than worth, although to the author’s credit, it is much more interesting to find horn spoons than yet another set of generic jewellery worth 300 gp. There are a few empty rooms filled with rubble too many. Some careful editing would have done this product good – it is a good 6 page scenario in twice as many pages.

Make no mistake: this is solid, playtested, utilitarian material, a module (component) with a lot of imagination. We need more adventures like this. Although designed for its specific assumptions, it remains easy to use outside the context of the DCC RPG, and its weirdness is perhaps even more enhanced.

Rating: ***/*****
(Originally posted on TheRPGSite)

[REVIEW] Towers of Krshal

Towers of Krshal: Disturbing Supplement About the Sinister City (2012)
by Albert Rakowski

Creativity aid, not creativity replacement.” This slogan was coined on the Knights&Knaves Alehouse a few years ago to articulate what might make a great product for OSRIC, and it is a summary describes this product very well. Towers of Krshal is a 32-page supplement of random tables, and an implied city setting described by the results of these random tables. On the first table, presenting rumours of the city, the first three entries read:
1. Krshal is ruled by sapient Differential Engines.
2. City was build [sic] on the ruins of the “grave temple” of immense size.
3. There is no other place than Krshal – the city covers the entire world.
Towers of Krshal

Krshal is built entirely from these odd bits of information; going from ”30 random towers” to “12 sinister sorcerers”, “Trash pit random finds” and even peculiarities like “20 magic keys”. From studying or rolling on these tables, we get a picture of the city. It is vast, ancient and very strange, mixing exotic fantasy with being the scrap yard of what seems to be a runaway pseudo-Victorian civilisation. What is it about those Differential Engines? What lurks in Hojen’s Mortuary? What’s the deal with Ral’ran, a chthonic god who “feeds on those who have died in collapsed buildings”? And how do these disparate things interrelate?

This method of conveying world information is familiar from settings like City State of the Invincible Overlord or Vornheim. Krshal is decidedly more odd than CSIO, and would stand its own against Vornheim in a weirdness contest, so the utility of the supplement limited for people preferring something nicely and unobtrusively pseudo-mediaeval. This supplement has a strong flavour of its own. But it is an intriguing grab bag of imaginative content that could serve as the loose master document to an entire campaign if the GM wanted to use it that way. We even receive a map that serves as a side cut of the city and the things beneath it.

I would like to hold up Towers of Krshal as a short but sweet utility product that fulfils the promises of old school gaming. Sure, the production values could not be more Spartan – it is a bunch of barely formatted lines of text, written in sometimes dodgy English and laid out in a way that could have been condensed into a lean, mean 16 pages – but that should not matter. This product is rooted in tradition, but uses it to create something exciting and new. It is about content, not presentation. It gives you information efficiently and flavourfully. It is full of wahoo enthusiasm. It is good for you. And it is very, very cheap at $3.50 for the PDF. Go out and buy your copy today.

Rating: **** / *****
(Originally posted on TheRPGSite)
(Note: thanks to Blair for bringing it to my attention on the Planet Algol blog)

Review Standards

Bryce has his [edit: and so does the weird other guy], I’ve got mine.

Basically, I buy RPG products (mainly adventures and mini-settings) either on the basis of gut feeling, or favourable comments made by trustworthy people and gut feeling. I have a weakness for things that are cheap, homemade and a bit dodgy, while the modern Big Shiny Book aesthetic leaves me cold. I like sword&sorcery-ish flavour, and materials which don’t overstay their welcome (although I am suspicious of the ultra-minimalist trend permeating old-school gaming). And of course, hype is a hell of a drug.

These are not always good principles to inform your buying habits, and this blog is partly here so you can at least learn from my mistakes. There are a lot of old-school supplements that imitate this or that classic trade dress with the doggedness of a mimic, but don’t deliver on their promises. There are many products with elaborate setups which boil down to “five rooms with monsters and stuff in them”. Sadly, this is a common flaw of modules based in otherwise interesting settings.

My ratings go from * (terrible, possible comedy value) to ***** (an outstanding work). Most of the stuff I am running into is worth three stars; very few are worth five, and I try to steer clear of anything below a comfortable ***. Fortunately, the majority of old-school products out there are functional, and their most common flaw is being inoffensively unremarkable. That is no crime; the real atrocities in this hobby tend to come from the people who don’t game, or who hold their peers in open contempt.

[Addendum, 23. 01. 2017]What do the ratings mean?

* Terrible, would damage a sane person's game. Possible comedy value.
** Poorly designed, boring, dysfunctional, insufficient, or a combination thereof. Might have some salvage value, but you are better off writing your own materials.
*** A good, functional product (or a flawed gem). Most old-school materials fall into this category.
**** Something that's either original and highly imaginative, or so solidly made that it should offer an outstanding gaming experience. Worth buying.
***** An outstanding, very well-designed work that sets the example for others, and puts something genuinely new on the table. Worth buying before you regret missing it.
***** and the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. One of the great achievements in gaming. At the moment, this category includes Anomalous Subsurface Environment 1, The Tome of Adventure Design, Yoon-Suin, and Wormskin. Naturally, you already own these.

Friday 5 August 2016

[BLOG] How do you do, fellow kids?

It is The Year of Our Lord 2016, and I hear OSR blogs are a really big thing nowadays, so here is mine. This one will be dedicated to reviews of things that catch my fancy (see my review standards), reflections on game-related issues, plans that go nowhere, and whatever else comes up. Who knows, perhaps I will even write a zine or something – I have been wanting to write one ever since I got introduced to Judges Guild products, and haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head ever since that post on Planet Algol.

Just so you know, I am entirely qualified to write a blog, because I have long held strong opinions on them.
  • First, they are harmful to online RPG communities because they fragment the discussion that had previously taken place on (mostly) unified forums into a myriad sub-communities.
  • Second, while forum threads can be updated as long as there is a common interest in the discussion, blog entries have a half-life of a day or two at best, after which they just sink like a stone, never to come up again.
  • Third, blogs are invisible, lacking a common index and all. There is discussion happening, but who is responding to whom, and where?
Why would someone who was never a big fan of blogs open one? If you like forums so much, why don’t you marry them? 

Blogs are what’s left, that’s why. Most general purpose forums have been taken over by ideologues, pedants and crazy people, while niche communities only focus on the few narrow issues that interest them. My two loves in fanzine-land, Fight On! and Knockspell, have deserted me and aren't coming back. Google+ is still a bit scary, because while it is already vintage technology waiting to be discarded in our brand new image-based surveillance culture, I am still not sure it isn’t going to steal my soul (but just so you know, I also opened an account there). I used to have a website that was technically a blog, but it feels a bit like a mortuary of things I have laid to rest.

Blogs are still an honest option.


And so...

Some things are easier said than done