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

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:


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)!


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.


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!


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: ** / *****