Monday 29 January 2018

[REVIEW] Fever Swamp

Fever Swamp (2017)
by Luke Gearing
Published by the Melsonian Arts Council

[NPC] will die in 4 days if not treated, as polyps in his appendix burst, showering all in a 5 foot radius with his disease.” Much of your reaction to this module will depend on how this piece of text will make you feel. If you find it absurdly funny, you are going to like Fever Swamp. If you find it puerile, disgusting, or plain doltish, this module will annoy you to no end. In either case, rest assured that the rest is not any worse or better.

Fever Swamp is a 28-page hex-crawl describing an accursed marshland where player characters may go to pursue one of the adventure hooks provided in this product, or by the GM. They are going to hate it. Fever Swamp is designed with a single-minded determination to make you hate it with every pore of your being. Vile diseases, wound infection, a bestiary of grotesque and lethal denizens, wretched tribes with disgusting customs, burrowing parasites, two apocalyptic forces and an evil cult make it a place you want to get out of as soon as humanely possible.

If you like imagery centred on disgust and decay, this module delivers. Everything is foul, dead, insane and wretched. Gruesome mutilations and bizarre deformities populate the marshland. Even roots are described as “grown fat on animal corpses”. There are sickening body horror elements, and the PCs can suffer fates worse than death. There is a disease chart where diarrhoea and weeping sores are a relatively happy outcome.  A bunch of original swamp monsters are provided, all macabre, some quite inspired (the stilt-walkers, thin and ragged figures of doom watching cursed locales from atop their swamp-walking stilts, are a classic; and dredgers, deformed giants dragging huge nets through the dirty water in search of victims, are like a bad dream).

The product is very brief and compact, with little wasted space (even the interior covers are put to use). Everything is laid out well and perfectly cross-referenced. Utility is very good. With all that, there is not much to the swamp, since the booklet is printed in a rather large font size, and many of the 14 locations are one-paragraph entries. It is dense and expressive, there just isn’t much of it. The entries are rounded out with guidelines and random tables to generate degenerate swamp tribes, and procedures to make the players regret ever having their characters set foot in this foul place.

Altogether, Fever Swamp is well-made, creative, and very-very one-note.

No playtesters have been listed for this module.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday 28 January 2018

[BLOG] The formless wilderness

So yesterday we had a great game session where the characters ventured out into the wilderness in the pursuit of various adventure hooks, some campaign-specific and some plainly mercenary. There were forgotten ruins, great stone heads vomiting poisonous snakes, a griffin attack on the party’s lone horse thwarted by a very fortunate gust of wind spell, mountain lakes with magical ice, a mud pit full of giant leeches a PC just walked into, and mysterious stone circles with runic messages. A good time was had by all. The evening before yesterday, I was panicking over a blank piece of paper and The Tome of Adventure Design, trying to make a few feeble sparks of creativity catch on fire while the clock was ticking away. That happens every time I write a wilderness adventure, and no matter the practice and the fact that I’m quite good at running them, it doesn’t get much better. Writing wilderness adventures is surprisingly hard if we don’t fall back on a few overused concepts (which I’ll discuss below).

There is a good reason so many D&D adventures take place in dungeons, and that’s not just because descending into a mysterious underworld full of danger and riches is such a compelling idea. Dungeons are one of the most successful game structures, balancing ease of use with a lot of potential for complexity and depth. And of course, a lot of the rules (including spell descriptions) apply to dungeons, or are formulated in the context of dungeons. Dungeons gave us the original language for location-based adventures, and this legacy shows up in most game materials, even those that don’t describe dungeons per se, but look and feel like them anyway. “Dungeon-likes” may be the most common form of RPG scenario next to mission-based ones.

Scorpion Swamp: the original pointcrawl
Sadly, the OD&D booklets never developed a comparably powerful engine for adventuring above ground. There are a lot of fascinating ideas scattered in the text of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures which outline some kind of implied setting, but I am not sure Gary & Co. ever used them that cohesively or comprehensively. Whatever its virtues, it didn’t catch the popular imagination and was pretty much forgotten until interest was rekindled in OD&D in the 2000s. Pretty much the same happened to Judges Guild’s simple and amazingly functional campaign hexagon system – there are a lot of hex maps in 1980s and 1990s game products, but they are vestigial, used only to measure distances, and not to structure and run game space. On the other side of the coin, the wilderness exploration guidelines in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide don’t form a complete system: they are disconnected ideas which relate to running a wilderness, but don’t present clear procedures you should follow in play. In the end, more space in the DMG is dedicated to aerial combat than designing a wilderness. The Fighting Fantasy gamebook series had the great Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson (the American one), which mapped a swamp on a square grid consisting of “clearings”, each with some kind of encounter in it. This was perhaps the best model for a non-linear wilderness game, but it didn’t really cross-pollinate tabletop games.

We know a lot about the megadungeon (“the mythic underworld”), but we don’t even have an approximately developed idea about the... megawilderness (Moorcock called it “the exotic landscape” in Wizardry and Wild Romance). The wilderness as a place of fantastic dangers, natural wonders, monstrous adversaries and lost history has even more precedents in fantasy literature than big dungeons, and wilderness maps are a very big thing in fantasy fandom, but it has not been distilled into a coherent package of rules, guidelines and building blocks. The closest is the hex-crawl, which gives you large-scale travel based on day-to-day movements on a hex map, features of interest to explore, and random encounter charts to complicate things. It is the best way I know to run grand expeditions. But even the mighty Judges Guild stumbled when it came to packaging a smaller piece of wilderness into an adventure. Hexes fail when they are applied to finer terrain (there is both too many and not enough of them), and that doesn’t even cover filling the wilderness with interesting encounters.


The consequences have been with us ever since. Where running a place consisting of connected rooms and passages has established standards and a lot of helpful techniques and idea generators, the same does not apply to running an open landscape. In the absence of translating the idea of traversing fantastic landscapes and discovering danger and riches therein into a gameable thing, we have a tendency to reach for crutches and substitutes.

Eriador, land of poor road planning
One of the big ones is roads. Roads connect big hubs of activity like cities and dungeons, and they can have interesting stops (inns, encounters, things to see and roadside lairs to explore), which makes for an exciting journey. Roads can be concrete or figurative (rivers, valleys, etc.). Roads are the easiest, but they are also lazy and they make players lazy. Like the overly linear dungeon, they cultivate bad habits and lack the true feeling of discovery. For all the care I invest in my wilderness maps, my players still have an annoying habit of staying on the roads, and missing out on several points of interest. I either have to point them directly at the vicinity, or yank the rug from underneath their feet to prod them into expedition mode. This is a big reason why my settings increasingly lack developed road networks, and occasional trails taper off after a few hexes. (Seas and large bodies of water also encourage a sort of open exploration approach.)

Another substitute for deep wilderness action is to populate the wilderness with dungeons instead of treating it as one. This is the classic case of falling back on familiar modes of play to avoid getting tangled up in a less defined one. Mini-dungeons are easy to develop on a tight time budget, and they give a good bang for the buck. But the moment you are entering a mini-dungeon is also the moment you are exiting the wilderness. You can even see it in Wilderlands of High Fantasy, whose wilderness is populated with “Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”. They are very much about non-wildernessy things you find in the wilderness.

The third substitute is to use monster encounters, and lots of them. This is largely logical – you stock a dungeon with dungeon monsters, and you stock a wilderness with wilderness monsters. The monsters have lairs and they can also be found roaming at random and maybe having conflicts and interactions with each other. But just like a dungeon filled with monster closets feels one-note, so does a wilderness filled with monster closets.

Perhaps we are still missing the forest for the trees?


So then what about true wilderness play? There is no big solution in this post, and some of it feels a bit obvious to restate – but here it goes. It should be something analogous to a developed dungeon, but use the fantastic game logic of the exotic landscape instead of the fantastic game logic of the mythic underworld. It should be intuitively understandable and easy to replicate in preparation and play. Here are just a few things which I think deserve thought and attention.

There should be a robust movement system to help players navigate. This can be a combination of the point-crawl (a system of lines connecting encounters in an interesting way, like a dungeon’s corridors and rooms), landmark-based navigation (approaching, avoiding, or leaving behind natural and man-made landmarks and distinct terrain features), and compass-based movement (move in any of the eight cardinal and ordinal directions). This system should be gamey, but flexible, with broad applicability. No need to figure movement points or cross-reference encumbrance with terrain types, but there should be a way to let both the GM and the players describe the party’s movement through the wilds in simple terms.

It is useful to have good, simple procedures for exploration. Dungeoneering procedures tell you how to get across a chasm, keep an expedition’s progress lit, batter down a door and so on. Likewise, wilderness procedures should tell us about foraging for food, keeping watch at night, navigating a treacherous mountain trail, taking care of pack animals, and spotting important landmarks from a distance. None of these should be more complicated than a few routine player decisions and a few dice rolls – after all, the emphasis is on dangerous and fantastic things, and the exploration procedures serve to ground them in a sense of reality.

Connected to the previous point, there is perhaps some need to reconsider game rules from the wilderness perspective. This is not a new thing, since things worked differently in OD&D’s dungeons and wilderness sections, but it has been only inadequately explored. If, say, spells were written with the dungeon in mind, how do they work in a forest? In the mountains? Can I lift a fallen tree from our path with an open doors check?

Mapping a wilderness
But above all, we should reconsider what makes a good wilderness encounter. Beyond monster encounters, dungeons have flavour (dungeon dressing), traps, tricks and enigmas. What are the equivalents out on a wilderness site? This is the main question. Of course, a lot of dungeon accoutrements have a place in the wilderness. Mysterious statues, glittering pools, or deep chasms with something interesting down on the bottom feel as much at home in an enchanted forest as in the underworld. Mechanical traps and secret doors are harder to find counterparts for. Treacherous ground? Malevolent vegetation? Something hidden in the roots of a massive tree? These should be encounters where the characters can observe, experiment, and come up with unorthodox ideas to cut Gordian knots. How do we get across a raging river? Do we take the slippery-looking and altogether too convenient bridge, or do we create our own rope bridge? How do we investigate a seemingly abandoned hut? These open questions make for memorable adventures full of improvisation and ‘Eureka!’ moments.

The greatest potential lies in putting ideas from adventure novels, movies, mythology and fantasy into the context of a magical, gamified landscape, and mashing them up until they are their own thing. These are the equivalents of the true dungeon trick/enigma, like the enchanted field, the tree laden with different kinds of magical fruits, the burial grove where the long dead rise to consult the living, and many such ideas. They are not about the literal translation of original concepts, but creating something new through the power of dream logic and loose association. It is somewhere in these foundations that we will find the true idea of the megawilderness, and give it a form we can bottle and distribute to other gamers.

Sunday 21 January 2018

[REVIEW] Spores of the Sad Shroom

We were somewhere on the edge of the
caverns when the drugs began to take hold
Spores of the Sad Shroom (2018)
by Karl Stjernberg
There are multiple reasons why campaigns trying to use D&D for heroic fantasy gaming go south, and shrooms are one of them. Namely, D&D’s oddball monsters – man-eating pudding, giant slugs, hyper-intelligent floating beachballs which are both magical and anti-magical, and plain old mould – do not exactly conjure images of valiant struggles and derring-do. They are horrible, funny, and often both. Dying because you cut open an exploding puffball mushroom and coughed up your lungs is not exactly the stuff of legends, but it is sure a memorable way to go. Shroom monsters are D&D to the core. Not surprisingly, fungus master Erol Otus is a legend in old-school circles, and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom is one of the best-known old-school modules (not to mention Demonspore and other trips into mushroom-rich environments).
Spores of the Sad Shroom is a 16-page mini-module featuring some of the most fungal ideas explored in old-school. It is one of the cases where the artwork, which takes up a great deal of the content, does a lot of heavy lifting. This rare time, it works, perhaps because it adds to the text in cool ways. By a rough estimate, 9 of those 16 pages are laden with squiggly line art, conveying a sense of grotesque whimsy (there are repetitions). This continues in the adventure text, which involves descending into a fungal realm beset by a strange problem. It is not a straightforward hackfest (although there is that, too), and all the encounters have some kind of odd twist to them. It has that hallucinogenic quality you’d expect of a mushroom-themed module, and it never becomes one-note. Last but not least, it is funny. There is a great what-the-hell-did-we-just-see feeling through the whole thing.
The adventure is just on the right side of minimalism. The writing is a good example of terse and expressive prose. It doesn’t waste words but it is not stripped down to the core. However, it is small. It is a small, small module, and efforts have been made to make it more complex and layered, but it is just small. The map is basically a few side-branches attached to a single loop (a blank extra level is provided for the GM). It is 11 good encounters and some depth through the random encounters and the extra layer of interacting with insane mushrooms, and the artwork is super-cool, but it feels hemmed in. This feels a bit unjust, because the module never pretends to be more than what it is, but the feeling is there. I guess it is good enough to make you crave more of it, but this is followed by the slight disappointment of that ‘more’ not being there?
This adventure has been playtested by “Christ Didonna & Gang”. A good start, but don’t the gang also merit a listing?

Rating: *** / *****