Tuesday, 17 April 2018

[REVIEW] The Red Prophet Rises


The Red Prophet Rises (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex) and Prince of Nothing
Published by The Merciless Merchants
3rd to 5th level

The Red Prophet Rises
There are probably more good sword&sorcery rulesets than there are good sword&sorcery adventure modules. You can try it yourself, and the list in the left column will be longer than the one in the right. After a lot of hullaballoo about D&D’s pulp fantasy roots, and the importance of reading the “Appendix N” books to truly understand where Gary and friends were coming from, we still get more lip service in this area than the actual good stuff. S&S-style modules either miss something essential from the genre ingredients (most of them are just regular ol’ D&D with a thin S&S veneer), or – almost as often – they work better as stories than complex, open-ended game scenarios. It is a sad state of affairs. This review is about an exception.

The big thing about The Red Prophet Rises is that it does three things very well. It taps into the earnest violence of the genre, it presents an interesting situation offering a variety of in-game approaches in a complex, dynamic environment, and it is written in a way that combines functionality with flavour (proving once and for all that the two can be reconciled). Here is why it is great.

This is a module that takes one of the things sword&sorcery is famous for – unflinching brutality in barren, hostile natural environments – and sticks to its theme with both talent and consistency. Now, this is not “all” S&S is about, but it is S&S at its most recognisable – Frazetta, Brom, Conan (the movie version), buff people in S&M gear with horned helmets, butchery and raw violence. The module is set in a series of canyons in the middle of a rocky wasteland, as well as a series of caverns off to the sides. This unpleasant place is currently inhabited by a crazed cult of plainsmen engaged in a frenzy of killing, feasting and drugged orgies, awaiting the opening of their new paradise foretold by Khazra, their new prophet. It is the good stuff, and where the D&Disms creep in, they are handled in a way that doesn’t diminish the vision of this bloody spectacle.

There is a visceral quality to the writing which creates a great sense of place. You can smell the fires and smoke, hear the nomads carousing as they gorge themselves on charred rabbit by their fire pits, hear the brutal overseers bellow with whips in their hands, and feel the chaos as livestock runs wild among the plainsmen. There is blood, dust, an arena of death with a great throne above it, something called The Pit of Despair (hell yes!), a temple of blood, and living quarters carved into the rocks.  There is something feverish about the bacchanalian festivities in this wasteland hellhole, part the drugged orgy of the snake-cult from Conan the Barbarian, part the raiders from Mad Max 2 (Khazra and his underlings are basically Lord Humungus and his psycho bikers). This kind of thing hasn’t really been done before in old-school D&D modules.

Best of all, The Red Prophet Rises is an actually well-designed adventure scenario. The canyons and the surrounding caverns serve as a complex, dynamic environment which operates under its own logic and rules. As a dungeon (it is a dungeon kind of the same way Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is a dungeon), it is a dangerous cul-de-sac where it is much easier to get in than to get out, not to mention it is packed to the gills with frenzied marauders out for blood, run by two distracted but fairly wily leaders. However, it is also a sufficiently chaotic and busy place that a party of adventurers can come up with any number of plans to infiltrate it and accomplish whatever they came for (by default, the module was written for a paladin to find his special mount). There are great opportunities for strategy, underpinned by a fairly simple, yet reasonably believable timetable to determine what the cultists are doing any specific time of the day, robust encounter tables to complicate things (lots of hidden agendas and odd personalities in this camp of misfits), and notes on tactics to determine the inhabitants’ reactions when the party inevitably mess up.

The care also shows in the encounter design. Most locations on the key have their own, small-scale encounter dynamic or conflict going on, which can impact the way the scenario unfolds in multiple ways. There are hard decisions, surprises that call for quick thinking and improvisation, and there are also opportunities to seize, allies to find and hidden enmities to exploit. Getting into parts of the canyon system through social engineering, stealth, disguise, or a (potentially suicidal, although surely awesome) frontal assault can be a challenge by itself. The design really rewards groups who can think on their feet and move with the flow – there may even be ways to keep the action moving if the party’s cover is blown and they find themselves surrounded by a small army of armed killers. There is also good exploration, which puts the focus on being observant and imaginative rather than repeating rote dungeon routines (this is also the case for finding the magic items, which are almost all interesting new items with non-standard capabilities).

There is a second level to the module, in the same way In Search of Unknown has a second level – of course it does, but you tend to gloss over it because while it is not bad, it is superfluous. It does not really add to the experience, and it might even distract from the brutal revelry of the barbarian camp one level higher. The infiltration of an unholy yet living place gives way to more straightforward dungeon fare in a mostly abandoned environment, one that is altogether more in the vein of high-level D&D than the grim chaos of the canyon encampment. There is less to do, there are fewer ways to do it, and it is fairly disconnected from the things going up above ground (even in the physical sense). Finally, this dungeon level ends up revealing some of the mysteries behind the canyon and its holy site, and as it so often happens, we are better off not knowing – something raw and powerful is lost once things are made too literal, and we have an explanation instead of a hunch. I would just cut the whole thing (including area 27 on level 1) and reuse it elsewhere – it would work as a standalone mini-dungeon with some fairly cool obsidian-centric monsters and traps.

The Red Prophet Rises features good, effective writing, the kind I would like to see more often in game products. It is economic, and written to help the GM, but it is not a dry, soulless technical text. It is expressive without wasting words, giving you just the right kind of impressions to get the idea. “A brute with arms covered in ritual scars whips and brutalizes a bleeding and injured man kneeling on the ground”, or “The walls of the cavern are decorated with a variety of weapons, shields, and tapestries depicting lurid scenes of sacrifice, murder and war. Red curtains frame a throne of carved stone (…)”. Location information is broken down into a bullet point list, giving you more specific details after establishing the general scene. Helpful tables and side bars contain additional information. The booklet is well-edited; the information you need is placed at your fingertips, or you receive helpful references to help running the game. This is the kind of polish you don’t tend to notice consciously, but it makes a difference at the table. There is a monster cheat sheet.

The Red Prophet Rises is one of the pleasant surprises of the year. It holds up well any way I look at it, and achieves such a high level of overall polish that it sets a good standard to look up to and learn from. Furthermore, it is one of the rare sword&sorcery modules which combines a great understanding of the genre with the considerations of a fantasy RPG. As I argued above, the module does not really need its second level, and I would recommend just omitting it in play. Sure, you’d miss nine pages of fairly good stuff (in the three or lower four star range), but you are left with about 20 or so pages of pitch-perfect material, and that’s the real treasure.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.

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

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

[REVIEW] City Backdrop: Languard


City Backdrop: Languard (2018)
by Creighton Broadhurst
Published by Raging Swan Press
City supplement

Yes, that's the cover
Languard is one in a long series of system-neutral supplements released by Raging Swan Press. The 24-page booklet contains no game statistics except NPC alignment and class and level designations, but the content is obviously meant for use with D&D and its various offshoots – the main audience seems to be 5th edition players.

Here is a coastal city with its aristocracy, merchants, gates and wharves; realistic in tone with many shades of grey. It is right there in the middle between idealised fantasy feudalism and the grim urban hellholes where you will get mugged going out for a beer, twice. The streets are muddy and the city’s enemies are displayed on the parapets of Traitor’s Gate, but it is not a bad place to visit. The feeling is distinctly North European (most everyone has a Finnish name), with maybe a little bit of London thrown in. It is fairly lawful and organised, except for the Shambles, the run-down part where the poor live; the Fishshambles, which is the same but on the waterfront, and the Wrecks, a maze of rotting boats moored along the river, which has its own pariah group, the slightly fishy Takolen.

The guidebook first describes the city in the general, then location by location. It is potentially useful information – you learn how to get into and out of the city, who are the main power groups and religions, and there are a lot of adventure hooks, rumours and minor event tables along the way. The important locations are summed up across the map on a one-page spread, and there are text boxes throughout the supplement to help you with useful references. There are two maps, one keyed for the GM and one unlabelled for the players.

Languard does not go too deep into the fantastic, although it has its thieves, assassins and evil cults. Depending on what you value in your games, this can make it appealing or uninteresting. It gives you an internally consistent place with its own power dynamics, and the feel of an up-and-coming mercantile city. But it is mostly about the regular things, the society with its power dynamics and stock characters, not the strange edge cases. That is, you can meet your favourite “nondescript men in cloaks” on the waterfront, get in trouble with the Duke’s men, and hear rumours about a haunted building, but it is the kind of fantasy you expect to be there, not the kind that makes you jump. It would be more surprising if there was no murderous cult and Low Market wasn’t a den of thievery. The Duke, he is not the Duke of New York. Likewise, sometimes it feels too much like window dressing and not like material for adventures. Some of the random events are things like the sounds of an argument, or a weary peasant in a crowd carrying a sack over his shoulder. Part of the city experience? Absolutely. Useful for creating adventures? Only if you imbue them with your own meaning.

There are no surprises here, although all the middle-of-the-road stuff is well executed. It is not overwritten, and it serves its purpose. It is perhaps too low-key for its own good. Could Languard be the most True Neutral RPG supplement?

No playtesters have been listed for this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 1 April 2018

[MODULE] New Module Announcement and Preview



Original Module Cover


At long last, under special arrangements from TSR, Inc. and rights owner Lorraine Williams, E.M.D.T., Inc. is proud to present the newest addition to our growing product family: the republication of a “lost” TSR, Inc. module! The legendary, rarely discussed and even more rarely seen Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ was produced under license for MoodCon 1980, but after the scandalous events at the venue, and increasingly hostile press coverage about what was going on in Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ tournament games, the module never saw general release. In fact, remaining copies were shortly withdrawn from the TSR, Inc. design room, and they were pulped shortly thereafter. Even collectors thought all copies had been lost forever. They thought wrong.

Lovingly scanned and remastered based on a weather-beaten and rather suspiciously stained copy which had seen much use, and been found in a garage among stacks of vintage “magazines”, Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ can be yours at a special introductory price on this very special day.

Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor™ is currently available in two editions:
  • A regular edition featuring a full reprint of the real deal, including the remaining parts of the illustration booklet (see Fig 2). $19.95 + S&H
  • A very special collector’s edition featuring the real deal, a reconstruction of the original centrefold featuring Pam Grier in all her glory, as well as a real ziplock baggie of the special stuff that had delighted gamers, and even “Big Ernesto G” in those halcyon days of yore, all lovingly wrapped in Original Shrinkwrap™ (Original Shrinkwrap™ also available separately at $49.95 a huff). $79.95 + S&H
Fig 2: The Disco Emperor (presumably)




Tuesday, 20 March 2018

[REVIEW] Halls of the Minotaur


DCC #35A: Halls of the Minotaur (2006)
by Harley Stroh
Published by Goodman Games
0-level funnel

Halls of the Minotaur
We knew we were royally fucked one minute into the game, in round one of our first encounter. Two PCs had just gone down in combat, and it was clear we were both outnumbered and outclassed by our enemies. We had miscalculated the odds, and were on a suicide mission right from the first step. One of my characters had a Strength of 3, and another was a hobbit haberdasher with a pair of sharp scissors; our opponents had real weapons, including crossbows, and they were dug in in an ambush among the bushes. Then it happened. In the face of certain death, you might as well give it your best shot, and go all out. We rushed them out of sheer desperation and hacked at them until they went down and we won. Then we won and won again while expecting the worst, usually at terrible costs, but we got better and won some more. And we killed the minotaur.

This combination of overwhelming odds and reckless heroism is the addictive idea Goodman Games had hit on with what would eventually become the DCC “funnel” concept, pitching a handful of zero-level nobodies into the meat grinder and seeing what comes out at the other end: ideally, a few battered heroes, and lots of bloody paste. The play style is one way to achieve an approximation of the low-level D&D experience under 3rd edition rules, and it has been canonised in the DCC RPG as an element of the character creation process. DCC’s power level is a kind of compromise between the 3e and old D&D approach – the characters are fragile, but there are mechanisms and extra abilities to compensate for that weakness, including a post-battle body recovery rule (essentially a saving throw against actually buying the farm). In this review, I am looking at one of the early examples of these “grinder” modules; it was originally made for 3.5, while we played it at a convention DCC game, with six players running three zero-level characters each. The review will also contrast how the module reads vs. how it was run by our GM.

As mentioned above, Halls of the Minotaur pits a bunch of hapless villagers against a marauding minotaur and its underlings. The action begins in a monster-infested forest, before it moves into a dungeon dug into a steep cliff, then a citadel on top of the cliff. Most of the keyed encounters begin as combat encounters – you move into a new area, fight a group of monsters (and if you are careless, deadly reinforcements), then you can check out the local details. Setpiece combats in cool locations – at a forest ambush site, before a demonic idol flanked by braziers, on a rope bridge, etc. – serve as the key attraction. The module has an element of infiltration/stealth that can make the combat situations (the preparedness and grouping of enemies) easier or harder, and the PCs will need all the advantages they can wrest from their environment. There is also an element of non-linearity that is almost real and feels real for about half of the adventure, but turns out to be largely illusory (there are a few branches and alternate routes early on, but the true way through most of the place is one way only, and the rest are blocked off by increasingly contrived ways).

As a typical feature of the early DCC modules, the room descriptions often give you the kind of wacky, imaginative room ideas you’d get in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – say, a dragon’s head rising out of an underground river, or a throne room concealing a deadly ambush, or fighting your way through the dungeon to emerge in a castle on top of the cliff – but they are somehow never actually as wild and out there when you interact with them. Likewise, the environment has layers of history and some really decent visuals, but again, it doesn’t amount to much, since it is a series of kobold battles in a fancier than average dungeon environment.

Or is it? This was an adventure that had gained a lot in the telling. Around the table – and remember, this was a casual convention pickup game – it felt real. Fairly standard areas took on a character they didn’t have in the text I read later. The desperation of the action – whose unfairness had turned us into crafty, vicious little opportunists – imbued the game with authenticity and a sense of working against time. Little touches to make the environment more mysterious – like turning some fairly standard kobolds into strange beastmen, or refining  standard encounters into indecipherable enigmas – gave it a touch of fantasy that had gone beyond the standard D&D playbook. That is to say, a good GM can do much with the material even with a fairly light touch; but also, this is a module with more untapped potential than it seems to have on first sight. It really did play better than it reads – had I come across it when I was still trying to find gems in DCC’s 3.5 module library in vain, I might not have seen the gem in the rough.

Which is not to say Halls of the Minotaur is a great module. It is a decentish one with typical design issues of its time and publisher. It always feels like the encounters are overwritten – much boxed text and followup writing are expended to say relatively little (developments in the old-school scene since 2006 have been massive in this respect). The 3.5 stat blocks are cumbersome, using mechanically complex methods to express interesting, but relatively simple ideas. I have already mentioned the other stuff. It is 12-16 decent pages lurking in a 32-page package (although with a Doug Kovacs cover and great illustrations by Stefan Poag). However, if you don’t mind giving it a thorough read and some thought to adapt it for yourself, the good stuff is more than enough to carry a fun, action-packed adventure.

The module credits its playtesters.

Rating: *** / *****

Saturday, 10 March 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Beware the Beekeeper!


I am proud to announce the publication of the first issue of Echoes From Fomalhaut, my old-school fanzine. After a long time on the drawing board, the print version is available from the Shop.

What?
Echoes From Fomalhaut is an old-school RPG zine focused on adventures and game-relevant, GM-friendly campaign materials. Each issue is planned to feature a larger adventure module, accompanied by shorter scenarios, city states, and other things useful and interesting in a campaign. Rules-related material will be limited to a few pieces of interest. A long time ago, Judges Guild’s campaign instalments established the general idea, and that’s the road I intend to follow. A small city-state? An interesting wilderness area? An island ruled by a society of assassins? Guidelines for magical pools? That kind of stuff.

The philosophy of the zine is to follow the “Creativity aid, not creativity replacement” motto, and to treat its materials as departure points – to inspire GMs without restraining them by spelling out every mystery and filling in every blank.

The content will feature both vanilla and weird fantasy, mostly drawn from our home games, with occasional contributions by guest authors from the Hungarian old-school scene. Most of the articles will follow AD&D (well, OSRIC) conventions, but remain compatible with most OSR systems – and there will be detours.

An average issue is expected to run 32-40 pages plus the cover. The print edition, produced in the A5 format, is set to ship with larger extras like fold-out maps or what have you; the PDF edition will include these as downloadables.

Why?

I have always wanted to publish homemade game materials, an idea that has grown on me ever since I fell in love with the rough charm of Judge Guild instalments. I released my first PDF adventure in 2001, and the first printed one in 2003 (through my E.M.D.T. – First Hungarian d20 Society label – the first issue of Echoes is E.M.D.T. 46). Over the years, I have mostly stuck to free PDF releases and community fanzines (with the occasional detour, like the Helvéczia boxed set), but something has always been missing. This is an opportunity to fix that. Finally.

When?
The print edition is now available for order. A PDF/POD version will be published through RPGNow with a delay of a few months.

How much?
A print issue sells for $8.00 plus priority shipping ($3.5 to Europe, $4 to the US and worldwide). The price for the PDF edition is expected to be set around $5. POD is still TBD. All buyers of the print edition will receive a free copy of the PDF edition at the date of its publication.

This is slightly above the average in zine pricing (I did an Excel comparison of 39 OSR and indie zines, and they come out at $11.44 for print/worldwide), but gives you some 14,800 words worth of content per issue (not including the OGL and front/end matter), pays for the commissioned artwork, and Hungary’s prestigiously large tax wedge. I will also spend the proceeds on future publishing projects.

What else?

Since set up a sole proprietorship to make this thing work, I am planning to republish some of my older adventure modules with new artwork in a reader-friendly format. The first such module is planned to become available in May, to be followed by Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 in early Summer. In due time, once I have tested out how publishing works, I would also like to try my hands at a few larger projects. But first things first...


Assembling Installments

[ZINE] Shop


Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!


Beware the Beekeeper!
A 40-page fanzine featuring adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school RPG rules, with artwork by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and past masters. This issue contains...
Bazaar of the Bizarre: a 1d100 table to generate strange merchants, with caravan guidelines.
The Rules of the Game: sets out the conventions followed in the zine.
The Singing Caverns: a two-level cavern system with 49 keyed areas, inhabited by orcs, bandits, and the mysteries of a bygone age.
Philtres & Dusts: a sampler of magical potions and dusts.
Red Mound: a mysterious adventure location found in the wastelands.
Morale & Men: a simple, fun set of follower and morale rules, written by two guest-authors.
The Mysterious Manor: the dilapidated manor house of an extinct noble family, now with new occupants... or is there more to it? 23 keyed areas.
Also... an unkeyed city map! (extra fold-out supplement)

Yes, there is a downloadable sample!


You can buy this issue via PayPal:


For more than two copies and bulk orders, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com, and we will figure things out. Orders within Hungary are shipped free of charge - please mail me with a valid shipping address and I will send you a PayPal invoice.

Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.


How shipping works

I try to ship orders within a few days of receipt. I ship via the Hungarian Post, priority mail (there are no major price differences between priority and regular). The post uses the following weight ranges:
51 – 100 grams: Europe $3.5, Worldwide $4
101 – 250 grams:  Europe $5.8, Worldwide $6.6
251 – 500 grams: Europe $9.4, Worldwide $10.7
501 – 1000 grams: Europe $15.9, Worldwide $18.1

I package every zine in an envelope. For more than one items, I am packing the items in a larger, sturdier envelope that can safely fit around 8 zines. If you’d place a bulk order, we’ll probably need a cardboard box. Here is how the weights go:
1 zine: 86 g
2 zines: 172 g + 30 g envelope = 202 g
3 zines: 258 g + 30 g envelope = 288 g
4 zines: 344 g + 30 g envelope = 374 g
5 zines: 430 g + 30 g envelope = 460 g

Based on preliminary test mailings, priority mail takes a few days to reach European addresses, and approximately 9-12 days to arrive in the USA. If your package arrives damaged, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com with a photo of the damage.

Thank You For Your Purchase!

Shipping times are subject to tropical storms, piracy, death, thermonuclear war, and acts of God.


Thank you for your payment. Your transaction has been completed, and a receipt for your purchase has been emailed to you. You may log into your account at www.paypal.com to view details of this transaction.

I try to ship orders within a few days of receipt. Based on preliminary test mailings, priority mail takes a few days to reach European addresses, and 9-12 days to arrive in the USA. If your package arrives damaged, please contact me at beyond.fomalhaut@gmail.com with a photo of the damage.

Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.


* * *


(If you have come here from some other direction, you suddenly feel a sharp pain and hear maniacal laughter before it all grows dark. Too late, you realise you have made a mistake trusting that link. Your lifeless body falls on the floor of the deathtrap dungeon.)

Friday, 9 March 2018

[BLOG] Aid, Not Replacement


He trusted them
RPG books: what are they good for? The question has recently been raised multiple times; by Joseph Manola in a blog post, by noisms in a response to that blog post, and in several increasingly irate blog comments by Kent. Whether they were meant that way or not, all of these posts challenge a central notion of this blog – that role-playing publications should be rooted in actual play, and be designed very specifically with actual play in mind. My common challenge to the readers is “Do you even play?” (I am looking at you guys – this means YOU, Kent!), and I mean it – I have been beating this drum for more than a decade. Their challenge, on the other hand, is “Is your stuff even played?”, and whether it is a general or a specific ‘you’, they are right.

A lot of RPG books, play-oriented or not, are never used in play – at least not the way they are published. While I play regularly, I mostly run my own stuff, and use premade modules for one-offs and the occasional mini-campaign. I review modules with an emphasis on playability, but I sure don’t play most of them. I preach homebrewing and the DIY gospel, and yet I publish stuff for others (which they don’t play). Hoisted by my own petard! And right at the point when I’d venture out into the wild to publish a fanzine!

Nevertheless, while these fine people make good points (not just in describing the reality of the RPG scene, but also in describing how books are “mined” for inspiration, or used for vicarious entertainment), I do not believe I am in the wrong. Instead, I want to return to a slogan pioneered by T. Foster  Creativity aid, not creativity replacement” – and another one by Mythmere – “Imagine the hell out of it!” Of course, they were restating and refining a point originally made by Bob Bledsaw all the way back: “All within are merely inspiration for the active and pontifical judges of the guild. Please alter, illuminate, expand, modify, extrapolate, interpolate, shrink, and further manipulate all contained to suit the tenor of your campaign.”

These mottoes articulate something about the flexibility of good game materials. Every game table creates a distinct, individual experience, something completely contrary to the carefully designed and professionally produced, but homogenised mass entertainment of our age. Even if we are creating the same kind of tales, every group of us creates them slightly differently. This variety and human element can be a liability with bad players (which is why some games erroneously try to safeguard us from bad game experiences through limiting rules), but it is one of the big things about RPGs in good company. No professional design can replace the magical unpredictability of co-creation, even if awkward and imperfect. It cannot be reliably bottled and replicated. Worse, trying to accurately reconstruct a spontaneously unfolding campaign will result in a structure that is at once rigid (because it doesn’t admit group tampering) and fragile (because the wrong move can shatter it); one that lacks the temporal dimension of a gradually forming campaign, as well as its evolutionary quality. This is the reason early TSR didn’t believe in the idea of packaged modules (and renowned module author Rob Kuntz still doesn’t) until Wee Warriors and Judges Guild broke the ice.

And yet good RPG supplements undoubtedly exist. They are the ones which lead to memorable adventures, great campaigns, and the kind of war stories you remember even after the campaign has been over and the group has long dissolved. It is about the supplements which spur your creativity and engage with your imagination. The random hook that hijacks the campaign. Doing things differently from the written text is not a bug, it is a feature. Repurposing a supplement and doing an extensive reimagination is a sign of respect, not disrespect. Of course, good game books also have to be particular. They need to bring something interesting to the table that wouldn’t occur to the GM – a new frame of thinking, an aesthetic which was previously missing from the campaign, encounters slightly outside the group’s comfort zone. The best of them combine the two aspects: “Wow! I haven’t thought of that!” and then: “Now what if I added penguins?

Tomes of ancient wisdom or unwieldy junk?
Spurring creativity is tricky. It is a fine line to walk, somewhere between a complete blank slate that tells nothing and gives you nothing concrete (the proverbial pad of white paper you can scribble anything on), and a dense structure which provides all the details for you, but takes over and gives you a novel where you and your group are both reduced to passive observers. This is, precisely, where structure and form matter. There are many ways of being inspired – people are inspired by fluff books, written game reports and all kinds of odd things (I have mostly sworn off fantasy and get my ideas from a steady diet of nonfiction and the daily news) – but where actual table use is concerned, there is existing good practice and there is a whole lot of bad practice. For the latter, you only need to look at the output of the larger PF and 5e publishers – they may pass as interesting bog reading, but put them on the table, and they are a bloated, lumbering mess full of encounters which read well but play terribly. For the former, there are some well-tested standards (like the good old location key or the relationship map), and some promising experiments (like hypertexting or the layout thingamajigs a bunch of people are into), and while the rest can be fairly good for inspiration and ideas, they are not directly suitable for running a game. It is no accident old-schoolers running their own campaigns value good information design and an expressive terseness: this is an approach which works, and works very well.

And here is where the old-school scene (or movement, or whatever) comes in. Our primary mission is not to produce interesting bog reading – although it is a possible side-effect. Our mission is to cultivate a certain idea of playing and running games, to disseminate its practices, to inspire others and be inspired. It is a creative community built on the exchange of ideas; that is, it is centred on discussion. All the publishing that grew up around it is secondary, and if it fell into pieces today, we would still be here tomorrow. (This is also why I see clear dangers in the OSR’s move from a DIY-oriented landscape to a much more consumption-oriented one.) The blog posts, forum threads, shared practice and, yes, supplements are part of that conversation, even if they are not immediately put to use. The goal is to let us improve our own games (which can mean different things for different people), and share our ideas with others so they might improve their own. This is our call to arms.

When it comes to actually publishing something, play-relevant, properly playtested supplements are key, because they spread the ideas of good gaming, and they have stood the test of table use. It works in the reverse direction, too: bad RPG books encourage dull play, inhibit creativity, and reduce us to passive consumers. Publishers can get away with it and even thrive for a while, but it will create a moribund gameing scene which will stagnate and eventually wither away (case in point, much of the Hungarian gaming scene). It matters to those of us who play! We should have safeguards against that happening. First and foremost, we should play, because that’s where the core of the hobby is. Second, we should discuss play: this is where a lot of things from forums to blogs to G+ come in. Third, we should support play: and support it with useable, well-thought-out, accessible materials, which do not fill in all the blanks, but support others in running their campaigns or trying interesting one-shots. Fourth, there is no fourth point. That’s all we need.

Have old-school products served their purpose in reintroducing a certain idea of playing and designing RPGs, and exploring the directions they can be taken? In a sense, yes. There is not much to be gained from another Swords & Wizardry, and perhaps not much more from a new restatement of Keep on the Borderlands (unless it is done in a particularly insightful way by someone who really gets it!), even if they will continue to inspire newer and newer home games across generations and editions. But – as it is evident from the state of gaming discourse beyond our small thought bubble, and from the quality of even many ostensible old-school products – there is still much to be done in doing interesting new things with our ideas, and spreading them through well-written and useful products which help, not replace or obstruct.

Finally, another point: sometimes good ideas have to be reiterated to remind us and let us refocus on what matters to us, or for the sake of new people. And this brings us back to the raison d’être of – no, not game products this time – old-school gaming itself.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

[REVIEW] Wrath of Grapes / Treasures of Lutello


Wrath of Grapes
Wrath of Grapes (2017)
by Matthew E. Kline
Published by Creation’s Edge Games
5th to 7th level

As I have written before, writing mini-adventures is a tricky thing, and I have come to the opinion that many more people can write a decent medium-length scenario than a small one. The balance between rich content and terse prose needs both talent and practice to achieve; no surprise, then, that so many people who try end up failing.

Wrath of Grapes is a mini-adventure from Creation’s Edge Games, who now have 34 S&W-compatible scenarios up on RPGNow. I picked up two with an interesting premise to familiarise myself with their output. This adventure starts with a creative and original idea I’d be really proud of if I came up with it. Three retired adventurers mistakenly establishing an exclusive vineyard and stirring up forces which first result in superb wine with random magical effects, then take over their operations. A lost wine collector sought by his irate wife. That’s a great start if there ever was one.

What we get instead is an overwrought introduction that could be summed up in one column without missing out on anything important, followed by a 7-page hackfest in a humdrum winery occupied by a bunch of vine monsters. Nothing is actually done with the grove beyond having a bunch of new monsters to fight, and some (admittedly interesting) magical plonk. There is not even a wilderness segment, only the winery, with a few over-written encounters in 12 keyed areas. You know the sort: “The foot locker holds some clean clothes, bedsheets, and assorted personal items.” “The double doors in the west wall conceal a closet holding a variety of tools for doing minor repairs on wine barrels.” Not much to do except meet rampaging vinelings, or rescue the hapless owners and their guest. The map, made with some kind of tile-based mapping programme, is barely readable when printed in greyscale. The rewards for the expedition, some 6200 gold pieces, seems unearned.

This is one splendid idea spun into a fairly dull one-note affair. You could spin these ideas into a funny, magical, and maybe darkly grotesque adventure, with enchanted vineyards, haunted cellars and a winery/grove at the middle of it. The material should practically write itself, just go wild with your imagination. This obviously didn’t happen here. Keep the adventure seed, and write something better.

No playtesters have been listed for this module.

Rating: * / *****

Treasures of Lutello
Treasures of Lutello (2016)

by Matthew E. Kline
Published by Creation’s Edge Games
3rd to 5th level

Treasures of Lutello is a small tomb-robbing scenario, with a twist: the tomb was constructed by a jester to have a laugh at the expense of self-important adventures. The result is a short, linear mini-dungeon with 10 keyed areas, using a Dyson Logos map as a base.

Similar ideas were sometimes explored in 2nd edition AD&D (the poncy jester edition), most successfully in Deadly Treasure from Dungeon Magazine #41, where an archmage’s magic items were fashioned into elaborate dungeon traps in a great take on the Tomb of Horrors trap dungeon formula. This scenario is a lot more modest, and the traps are more annoying and random than deadly and systematic. It is mostly a series of carnival tricks: the more annoying sort reduces the players to passive observers while having a laugh at their expense, while the better ones are somewhere between oddball randomness and straightforward encounters with a wacky veneer. There is a talking hand puppet dragon, a colourful combat encounter with wooden puppets dressed as brigands, a magical lake you can dive into, but it is more bang than actual substance. At the end, there is some treasure you’d expect to find in a jester’s tomb (actually, a whole pile of 23 low-rent magic items dumped in the characters’ lap – ranging from the invisible whoopee cushion to a scabbard that turns blades into rusty junk). The best part is the very first encounter, a massive sneezing dust trap combined with a gang of irate bugbears, which should allow the players to kill themselves in entertaining ways.

Like Wrath of Grapes, Treasures of Lutello is built on an idea that’s not half bad, and it is easily the better of the two modules – more imaginative, more magical and more fun. But if it feels like something is missing, you’d be right: it is still very far from a well-rounded, imaginative scenario that’d make for a great evening’s worth of play. Trap- and trick-based dungeons should reward clever ideas and improvisation, and that element is missing here in the randomness. The scope is too small: it never feels like a properly expansive dungeon, while it lacks the punch of a nice, dense lair encounter. These two adventures feel too much like 2e filler from Dungeon Magazine’s Side Treks series.

No playtesters have been listed for this module either.

Rating: ** / *****


Saturday, 17 February 2018

[REVIEW] The Vault of the Whisperer


The Vault of the Whisperer (2017)
by James V. West, based on art, maps and names by Karl Stjernberg
Published in Black Pudding #2 by Random Order Creations
Mid-level

Glorp
Here is a mini-module that works. The Vault of the Whisperer (published in issue #2 of the art-centric Black Pudding zine) is a small, flexible scenario describing a 13-area underground section in 8 pages. It is a real “module” module you can insert into a wider campaign where you need it. You could find the entrance in the corner of a larger dungeon, at the end of a half-forgotten alleyway in an ancient metropolis, in a haunted gorge in the wastelands, or behind an undisturbed door in the cellar of your favourite inn. It is all in medias res, no backstory or sociological essay, but that’s fine. It is self-explanatory why things are there and what you should do with them, with much of the ideas inspired by a great set of illustrations by Karl Stjernberg.

The dungeon is the small shrine of a weird cult worshipping a subterranean monster appearing as a really huge, chasm-like maw on the dungeon floor. It whispers strange and evil things that warp the mind, and will soon become an ongoing concern for the adventurers, adding an element of time pressure and unpredictability. Its followers, a gang of deformed weirdoes, are something out of a bad dream, and they are accompanied by creepies and crawlies including slimes and flesh-eating trilobites (love those guys). Unlike many modern modules, which give you five or six baddies to fight, here you’ve got dozens of relatively low-powered opponents in a relatively small space. It is all set up for a glorious massacre, backstabbing, madness and general mayhem, with considerable environmental hazards. The GM’s job is made easier by providing Hp dots for every monster – a rare but useful quality-of-life feature. The vault is also chock full of secrets and hidden stuff, often opening up new ways of dealing with the encounters, and giving the players one of multiple unique magic items, all of them dangerous, squiggly things with multiple hidden functions and grotesquely funny drawbacks.

The imagination on display is top-of-the line through the module, and for such a small place – a few crisscrossing tunnels and rooms leading to a cataclysmic confrontation – Vault of the Whisperer packs an impressive amount of content. It is well suited for weird fantasy and sword&sorcery campaigns.

A group of playtesters is listed at the beginning of the fanzine.

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

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

[ZINE] Patient Zero

Welcome to Truglag's Tavern

Here is a proof of concept copy of Echoes From Fomalhaut I produced in my office today, featuring cover art by the inimitable Denis McCarthy. The final version will feature slightly different paper (the paper store was out of this specific hue, but they could sell me a lighter, kinda-champagne alternative), and I will need to mess around with the image until it is in the centre... but so far, so good!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut: Announcement and Preview


(Placeholder art)
It has been a long time in the making, but it is at last getting close: the first issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut is nearing release! The articles have been written, artwork is progressing, and the administrative needs are being arranged (yes, I even got myself a DO NOT BEND! stamp). Hence:

What?

Echoes From Fomalhaut is an old-school RPG zine focused on adventures and game-relevant campaign materials. Each issue is planned to feature a larger adventure module, accompanied by shorter scenarios, city states, and other things useful and interesting in a campaign. Rules-related material will be limited to a few pieces of interest. A long time ago, Judges Guild’s campaign instalments established the general idea, and that’s the road I intend to follow. A small city-state? An interesting wilderness area? An island ruled by a society of assassins? Guidelines for magical pools? All that kind of stuff.

The content will feature both vanilla and weird fantasy, mostly drawn from our home games, with occasional contributions by guest authors from the Hungarian old-school scene. Most of the articles will follow AD&D conventions, but remain compatible with most OSR systems – and there will be detours.

An average issue is expected to run 32-40 pages plus the cover. The print edition, produced in the A5 format, is set to ship with larger extras like fold-out maps or what have you; the PDF edition will include these as downloadables. For example, the initial issue (“Beware the Beekeeper!”) features the following articles:
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre (2.5 p): a 1d100 table to generate strange merchants, caravan guidelines.
  • The Rules of the Game (0.5 p): sets out the conventions followed in the zine.
  • The Singing Caverns (16 p): a two-level cavern system with 49 keyed areas, inhabited by orcs, bandits, and the mysteries of a bygone age.
  • Philtres & Dusts (3 p): a sampler of magical potions and dusts.
  • Red Mound (3 p): a mysterious adventure location found in the wastelands.
  • Morale & Men (1 p): a simple, fun set of follower and morale rules from a Hungarian retro-clone, written by two guest-authors.
  • The Mysterious Manor (9 p): the manor house of an extinct noble family, now with new occupants... or is there more to it? 23 keyed areas.
  • Unkeyed city map (extra)
Yes, there is a downloadable preview (see below)!

Why?

I have always wanted to publish homemade game materials, an idea that has grown on me ever since I fell in love with the rough charm of Judge Guild instalments. I released my first PDF adventure in 2001, and the first printed one in 2003 (through my E.M.D.T. – First Hungarian d20 Society label). Over the years, I have mostly stuck to free PDF releases and community fanzines (with the occasional detour, like the Helvéczia boxed set), but something has always been missing. This is an opportunity to fix that. Finally.

When?

The zine will debut with a pre-release version at Kalandorok Társasága VII (“Society of Adventurers VII”), a Hungarian game convention held on 24 February 2018. The print edition is expected shortly afterwards, in early March. A PDF/POD version will be published through RPGNow with a delay of a few months.

How much?

A print issue is expected to sell for $8.00 plus priority shipping ($3.5 to Europe, $4 to the US and worldwide). The price for the PDF edition is expected to be set around $5. POD is still TBD. All buyers of the print edition will receive a free copy of the PDF edition at the date of its publication.

This is slightly above the average in zine pricing (I did an Excel comparison of 39 OSR and indie zines, and they come out at $11.44 for print/worldwide), but gives you some 14,800 words worth of content per issue (not including the OGL and front/end matter), pays for the commissioned artwork, and Hungary’s prestigiously large tax wedge.

What else?

Since I had to set up a sole proprietorship to get this thing off of the ground, I am thinking about using the opportunity to republish some of my older adventure modules with new artwork in a reader-friendly format. Stay tuned!

Preview

Saturday, 10 February 2018

[REVIEW] The Tainted Forest Near Thorum


The Tainted Forest Near Thorum (2012)
by Yves Larochelle, with additional writing by Reverend Dak
Published in Crawl! #4 by Straycouches Press
5th level

The Tainted Forest Near Thorum
All is not it seems in the small, idyllic village of Thorum, and strange things are afoot in the surrounding woods, inhabited by a sinister evil. This may be one of the most recognisable adventure structures seen in modules: a home base threatened by an evil force and its local agents; a dangerous wilderness; one or more adventure sites leading to the lair of the secret evil. There is a fairly good chance something like this was your first adventure ever. It is popular because it works, but it has been covered so many times that it is hard to add a new spin on it. It is also the main problem with The Tainted Forest Near Thorum.

All three major areas of the module repeat the same mistake: they don’t add to a very basic, very overused formula. We have a village, which is like all small, peaceful villages beset by evil. It has a halfling-run inn that’s like every other halfling-run inn. The barmaid and the town drunk know dark secrets. There are two temples which are like every other village temple. The local authorities behave exactly like they tend to do in these adventures. NPCs are one-note stock characters. Corruption is afoot and some villagers are working for the enemy, before the characters unmask and kill them in one of multiple predictable plot twists.

The wilderness section, a forest bisected by a wide river, is a typical example of the way D&D wrestles with outdoors adventure design. Travel through the Tainted Forest is mainly represented by a one-page random encounter table with a few deformed beasts, but otherwise, the The Tainted Forest Near Thorum has very little forest adventuring in it, and not much of it seems to be tainted. (The exception, and the best part of the module, is a one-in-six random encounter with a local “legendary beast”, which is actually an interesting and rounded-out encounter. Here, the adventure briefly goes from boring to intriguing.) There are all of three wilderness areas to find, and it is understood that they will be visited in a linear sequence. One is a lair, one is a very minor “ruin”, and the third is the entrance to the main dungeon. You can kill the inhabitants or negotiate with them, and you find plot tokens which take you to the next place.

The final dungeon is a complete disappointment. The map is beautiful as an illustration, but it is essentially a completely linear sequence of encounter areas with all of two side branches. (This seems to be a common problem with the DCC RPG.) Not only is it a linear ride, the encounters amount to some mighty dull fare:
  • a few pieces of “this looks evil”-style descriptive detail;
  • some “they attack”-style combat encounters (although at least some monsters, like spine-shooting giant hedgehogs, a doorframe mimic, and living mounds of bubbling flesh which can rip limbs off of PCs, show imagination);
  • frequent reminders of “an uneasy feeling” overtaking the characters without actually giving the players something that’d make them feel something;and a completely deadly and unfair death trap.
What’s lacking here are interesting decisions, discoveries to be made via clever exploration, or even sights which would leave a memorable impression.

There is very little in The Tainted Forest Near Thorum that differentiates it from the same adventure you have played, run and read countless times (but now in DCC). Things are reskinned here and there to follow DCC’s heavy metal fantasy aesthetic, but that doesn’t really count as the kind of added value that’d make the module worth owning. Scott Ackerman’s art (exterior and interior cover, maps) is really nice, and Crawl! gets the fanzine aesthetic, but these things just end up overselling a functional but otherwise disappointing adventure.

Actually, there is something there that got stuck in my mind: this is the scenario which feels the closest to Diablo. You know? The village of Tristram, the Blacksmith, the Stay-awhile-and-listen guy, the church dungeon which its tale of corruption. Adventure fantasy stripped down to its bare essentials, the most “D&D” plot of them all, given some gloomy flourishes. However, Diablo did something with this formula with its interesting crowd control-based gameplay, character building and heavy randomisation. The Tainted Forest Near Thorum could not make it work.

The module credits both its playtesters and proofreaders, which is nice.

Rating: ** / *****