Sunday 27 May 2018

[BLOG] Combat and Magic: A Look Back at The First Hungarian RPG

Combat and Magic
Spoiler: Mummies

Role-playing in Hungary does not have a particularly long history. It is telling that people who had started in the early 1990s are considered veterans of gaming, a generation which would barely count as neophytes in the US or the UK. More than that, we know little of that early gaming period. From the first groups in the mid-1980s to its first boom of popularity in 1990-1992, precious little material evidence has remained. By all accounts, people had fun playing (mostly) AD&D, and photocopied translations were circulated among fans (the best known version being The Ruby Codex), but the publication of homebrew materials was minimal, or at least extremely limited. It was a different time: photocopiers were hard to access, and home (or even workplace) printers were expensive equipment mainly found in research institutes and universities. Therefore, we cannot really speak of an age of fanzines, nor extensive home publishing. I know of (and own) one homemade module which was available at the time: The Great Pyramid, a mid-level dungeon whose themes and ideas should be hardly surprising.

Without external support, game groups had to make do with what they had: a few fantasy novels (Tolkien, a dash of Conan, and some disreputable but fun pulp literature), the occasional photocopied game supplement they could get from other groups, an increasing number of computer games, Fighting Fantasy, and their imagination. The results were varied, from the deadly dull to the quite imaginative (or at least somewhat original). One of these results is Combat and Magic [Harc és Varázslat], the first Hungarian RPG, whose brief appearance and fast downfall went mostly unnoticed at the time. But not by all: this was the first “real” RPG I ever played (after a systemless dungeoneering game at the Scouts I then believed to be an innovative sort of puzzle), and I still have good memories of the experience, even though in my first adventure, my nameless Fighter went down into some mines and got summarily killed by orcs in one of the first encounters. I barely knew what hit me, but I was hooked!

Thus, this post: part reminiscence, part a look at a game that’s both utterly predictable and compellingly oddball, a product of a naïve fascination with fantasy literature and an exciting new game form.


Combat and Magic was published in 1991 by the completely unknown company “SPORTORG Ltd.” Its authors, Tamás Galgóczi and Péter László were AD&D players (a decade later, I would buy Galgóczi’s lovingly bound and much used photocopies of the 1st edition AD&D rulebooks – these ancient bootlegs are as treasured parts of my collection as my OD&D set), and they had planned to spread their hobby through an introductory game, to be followed by more “advanced” supplements down the line. Combat and Magic comes in the form of two full-sized 56-page booklets, one for the players and one for the Gamemaster (called, according to local custom, the “Storyteller”). The second booklet also includes a folded map of the three-level intro dungeon (on which more later), and the whole package was originally sold with something called a “lucky die”, a ten-sider! (Considering the difficulties involving in obtaining a d10, people would apparently buy the game just for the die alone.)

Combat and Magic proudly wears its influence on its sleeve. The cover on the players’ booklet is graced by a notoriously bad rendition of Frazetta’s Conan the Destroyer fighting some lizard-things, while the Storyteller’s booklet depicts a scene right out of Tolkien, an adventurer menaced by something that looks like a ringwraith. The Conan-meets-LotR theme continues through the entire game in a strange manifestation of schizophrenia – sometimes the game has its semi-naked amazons, war galleys and buff fellows in leather gear holding various murder implements, and sometimes we are in Moria or Rivendell (and not a homage either: it is clearly Frodo and Co. investigating the tomb of Balin, facing the Balrog, or finding the mountain door).

An American Fantasy Game Similar to
Combat and Magic
As the introduction proclaims, “You have surely read J. R. R. Tolkien’s exciting book, The Lord of the Rings. This game leads you to a similar world, and you can live there, adventuring among the creatures of fantasy. You can meet goblins, elves, dwarves, dragons, and you only need a little imagination... If you like our offer, forward to adventure! You are awaited by the forbidding lands of the unknown world, its cities and peoples! Your imagination will wander the land of fantasy, the world of DRAGONFLAME...” In a charmingly earnest way, it goes further – the back cover of both rulebooks reproduces the cover of the Mentzer Set, the caption reading “The cover of one of the American fantasy games similar to Combat and Magic”. Similar indeed! Interestingly, just like Original D&D was billed as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns”, Combat and Magic is called a “Personality Game” (and on at least one occasion, a “Cooperative Personality Game”), and not an RPG – no common local term for RPGs having been accepted yet.


Vorg saves
an old Priest
As introductory games go, Combat and Magic is remarkably newbie-friendly. The future player is guided on his journey by “Vorg the Wolf”, an in-game character. Vorg, a 7th level Fighter, is somewhere between Conan and a wise Indian from a western (showing that the new concept of the barbarian had not yet taken solid shape in the local imagination, and the gaps were filled in by prior references). We first meet Vorg in a short story where he seeks out, confronts and kills Surat, the dark mage who had recently decimated a village, and now lives in a dungeon under a ruined castle built by the dwarves (“You have come to the right place if you seek Surat! He is I!” and “You wanted to kill me, warrior? You shall die instead!”). Vorg helps the player at all stages of character creation, introducing game concepts from an in-character stance that is at once weird, wrong, and completely charming. (“I, Vorg, the wolf, the highest level fighter among the long-haired ones, say to you that the most important attribute in the world is Strength.” Or: “You have surely read my adventure. The personality sheet for Surat the evil Mage would look like this: Intellect 88%. Number of languages 4, modifier +30 days. He knew four foreign languages before I killed him, which he had learned over half a year and +30 days. By my sword, I say it was a great accomplishment that I had destroyed him!”)

The game, not surprising considering its AD&D roots, uses seven attributes, but measures them on a percentile scale (Intellect, Strength, Agility, Speed, Endurance, Manual Dexterity and Physical Looks). Yes, they are rolled with entirely random 1d100 rolls, in order, no takebacks. Or as Vorg tells us: “Let us begin, and may the gods guide your hand!” These attributes provide modifiers for a whole lot of secondary values from combat ratings to poison resistance and the ability to read and write (Vorg, with a Manual Dexterity of 8%, is completely illiterate, and his 14% Physical Looks is fairly dire – but he has an impressive 92% Strength). Some people say chicks dig scars, but this is clearly incorrect on the world of DRAGONFLAME: when you receive face wounds in combat, your rating drops pretty substantially. On the other hand, chicks receive a 1.2 multiplier to their Physical Looks because “If your personality is a woman (…) you take better care of yourself and your beauty.” On the other hand, many other modifiers are fairly moderate, and much of the attribute range does nothing whatsoever or very little: there is, for example, no difference whatsoever between an Endurance of 26 and 70.

Haven't we seen this before?
 The three alignments (Good, Evil and Neutral) are followed by the character races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins (here mostly thieves and wizards) and Orcs, set apart by ability score modifiers and limits (e.g. Orcs have a maximum Intellect of 60, get +15 on their Endurance, but -15 on their Manual Dexterity) and the occasional modifier to specific weapon types. Furthermore, Elves can sense the presence of the freshly slain dead, and see wandering souls, Dwarves see in the darkness and can withstand extreme temperatures; Goblins are stealthy; and Orcs almost never get lost in the wilderness. Actually, “Goblins” are probably meant to be hobbits, since they live in covered pits close to the earth, and have a democratic worldwide government run by a hidden ten-goblin council.

Combat and Magic has a fairly weird Vitality system: every character starts with 100 Vitality, plus race-based dice (Elves have 1d10 more Vitality, Humans, Goblins and Orcs have 2d10 more, and Dwarves have 3d10 more). At 0 Vitality, you are dead. However, the system also has something called Damage Absorption Percentage (DA), which starts at 20% of your character’s full rating, and goes up 2% every level, up to 38% (Fighters also gain a one percent bonus per level, but none of the other classes do). Should you receive more damage than this percentage, you fall into a comatose state, where you bleed out at a rate of 1 Vitality per wound per round – only healing can bring recovery. In practice, your average longsword does 1d10 damage, a staff does 1d5, and a cavalry lance – the mightiest weapon – does 1d10+10, so a few successful hits can dispatch even a relatively hardy character. As an obvious AD&D legacy, saving throws (or their equivalent, “Chance Rolls”) also exist as three flat percentile ratings to escape the effects of poison, magic, and dragon breath, respectively (although dragon breath, an oddly specific choice, still causes half damage). The real rating which matters is your DA: it is not entirely clear why the ridiculously high total Vitality is used at all.

This looks oddly familiar
From classes (or, rather, “castes”, a really bad word choice which would then gain traction and crop up in almost every subsequent Hungarian RPG), the system offers four: Fighters, Trackers, Priests and Mages. These are somewhat less restrictive classes than D&D traditions would dictate: there is little difference between different classes when it comes to Attack and Defence %, Vitality or Chance Rolls; rather, each class gives a basically competent adventurer a set of bonuses and limitations. Accordingly,
  • Fighters learn to use multiple weapon types, and have slightly better combat values. Noble fighters (player’s choice to try for a 75+ percentile roll) get training with more kinds of weapons, but suffer a small Endurance penalty. Nobles also have to abide by a code of conduct: they may only attack a woman in self-defence, they must always attack from the front, and they may not use poison (“except evil nobles, because they are capable of it”). Even evil nobles, as we learn, “Follow etiquette, and only rarely have their captives tortured – and never by their own hands.” Their commoner counterparts start with a small penalty to either mounted or footman’s combat, which they “grow out of” by level 5.
  • Trackers are skilled hunters, who either work alone, or as guides to travelling companies. They can call an “animal companion”, with one attempt possible per level (if it is a failure, the beast attacks). A tracker must avenge and mourn two years for a companion if it is ever slain before calling another. They also have versatile wilderness skills: tracking, speaking with animals, hiding, and recognising traps.
  • Priests are spellcasters, who, unlike fighting classes, can only gain levels by returning to their churches, where they are also required to donate all their unneeded money. Priests are either Good or Evil, but never Neutral (this will become important a bit later). They are not limited by weapon type, but only know to use a few of them (up to 4, while a Fighter would start from 3-4 and proceed from there). Priests can contact the gods directly for advice and help. They also have a bunch of different abilities based on the specific god they worship, who are quite varied. The followers of Perlin, goddess of dreams and fairy tales (Neutral, Priests can be either Good or Evil) can perform divinations, but they must regularly interpret a dream as a form of sacrifice; meanwhile, the Priests of Dorl, god of earth (Neutral, Priests must be Good) have a special spell to hurl pebbles, can sense buried items under their feet, but they must bring home a clod of earth from every land they have visited, and can only use bludgeoning and cutting weapons.
  • Mages aren’t D&D’s physical wretches (having lower, but still passable combat abilities and Vitality), although they are limited to daggers and staves, and must not wear armour. They must return to their master to gain levels. Mages belong to one of two schools: Moonlight Mages are Good, and practice white magic; while Grey Mages are Evil, dealing in black magic (these orders also give their members assistance if they show the correct hand signs). Mages sense other spellcasters in a 10 metre circle.

After you determine your class, you must also roll for social status. This is another flat 1d100 roll,: you may start with 40 copper pieces as a “free homeless” (1-14), 1 gold piece as a servant (15-29), 75 gp as one of the “famed” (75-84), or 1000 gp as royalty (00). For reference, 10 gp is the price of a longsword, while for 1000 gp, you get a suit of plate mail.

Like true-blue old-school games, there are no skills in Combat and Magic. However, your character may have a profession, unless you are a noble fighter, because work is beneath nobles. Your choice of profession depends on your social status, your ability scores (with some racial bonuses and limitations), and your class. Here, Combat and Magic again delves into the oddly specific, letting you play a more conventional healer (restore up to 10 Vitality per week), sailor (you can navigate ships) and thief (you get the thief skill), or professions like a gravedigger (you recognise religious symbols and tolerate the stench of the grave), executioner (you can easily kill restrained victims) or miner (you don’t get lost underground). Your profession is, once again, rated at an utterly random percentile value, which never, ever improves. You might be the best weaponsmith out there with a 100%, or you can be a random fool who drops the hammer on his feet with a 3%.

Ironically, neither six- nor four-sided dice
are featured in Combat and Magic
Combat in the game is a fairly straightforward but ultimately quite fiddly you-swing-I-swing affair based on an Attack % and a Defence %. Both of these are modified by a whole range of tiny little things which are individually minor, but can add up if taken together
  • In each round, characters must decide to either attack their opponent or forego it and defend themselves.
  • Initiative is a simple d10 roll for your whole group.
  • Your Attack % is used to figure if you score a connecting hit.
  • Armour (if any) can stop a blow outright, based on a matrix cross-referencing five armour types (leather, studded, chain, scale and plate) and three weapon types (piercing, slashing and bludgeoning) that’s reminiscent of AD&D’s infamous weapon-vs-AC chart. For instance, chain is 25% vs. piercing, 50% vs. slashing, and 35% vs. bludgeoning.
  • If a hit is scored, but the subject has chosen to defend himself instead of attacking, he can still roll a successful Defence % to avoid getting hit. Many weapons grant a bonus to Defence %, from 10 (daggers and hammers) to 15-20% (most swords and maces) to 30% (polearms), and you also get some from shields (10% or 20%), but you must choose whether you’d like to defend with your weapon or your shield.
  • If neither form of defence succeeds, you get to roll damage, which, as previously noted, can be pretty dire.

This system comes with a fair whiff factor, although Defence % tends to be fairly low, and if you know enough weapons, you can use one which gives your opponent a lower Armour roll (it pays to stock up on different weapon types).

No, really
Spellcasting in Combat and Magic uses a spell point system: both Priests and Mages have 10 spell points per level, recovered through meditation (Clerics) or 1d10 hours of sleep (Mages). It is possible to cast spells over one’s point limit, at a risk to the character’s sanity (the chance of escaping unharmed is 70% the first time, 40% the second, and a mere 10% the third). The spell list goes up five levels, and beyond the Wizard/Priest split, each spell is also associated with an alignment. Characters can use spells of their own alignment, and neutral ones (remember, spellcasters can’t be neutral). The spells themselves are mostly D&D ripoffs (Hebron’s Smashing Fist, Call Monster I, Tiny Hut, Prayer...), but there are also some compelling oddities, such as…
  • Almos’ Blue Parasol: protection vs. falling rocks, hail, and rain spells
  • Hair Growth: uncontrollable hair growth entangles victim
  • The Quarrelsome Door: creates a talking door
  • Dream Voyage: the victim sleeps for 1d10 days, dreaming of a fantastic voyage that feels like the same number of years, and ages accordingly
  • The Dark Blue Berries of Pavlovich: creates 30 berries, eater sleeps one day for each, losing 2 Vitality per day

The lands of Rôhen
Although the Storyteller’s Booklet is dedicated specifically to running the game, and players are admonished to avoid reading it, it starts with a brief world guide that would probably be a better fit for the main rules. The world of DRAGONFLAME (no longer capitalised here) is a naïve fantasy mishmash, but it has its own creation myth, and a huge, active pantheon of gods with quite silly names (Kayar, Zomur, Serlafor, Zorikon, Xirfon etc.). The planet of Rôhen (note the Tolkienesque diacritic) has three continents, but the game is focused on one called, appropriately enough, Draco, and specifically its north-western corner called the Four Kingdoms. To keep with the tone from the LotR appendices (the definitive model for fantasy world-building in early 1990s Hungary), Draco’s history is punctuated by a lot of blood and thunder, like “the Second Metal War”, “the rise of Tarrakis, Lord of Darkness” (he had the Twelve Knights of Death on his side, but was eventually driven out of the known world), “the foundation of Divide” by King Farseer the First, “the imprisonment of Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap and eight demon by the Moon Mages”, and “the Second Dragon War”.

Three of the Four Kingdoms
(the Kingdom of the Dead Land is off to the east)
Draco’s geography is no less fancy, with a giant inner sea (divided into the Sea of Three Moons, the Sea of Two Moons, and the Cold Sea), and a bunch of doggerel toponyms like Faradas, Eld Virg, M’Bo, Búrnan and the Forest of Gerildor. However, the published game is focused on the so-called Four Kingdoms, to the north of Shadia, and east of the vast Orc Swamp. Actually, only three of the kingdoms are nice places to visit: the Kingdom of Black Land, the Kingdom of Lagos, and the Bonecrusher Kingdom, whose ruling dynasty has died out, and left behind a war of succession (the most likely successor, Ed Morrison, lives in the town of Helltop; the capital city is named Skull Hill, but the kingdom is actually a fairly normal place with a sheep-based economy). This is less true about the Kingdom of Dead Land, whose southern part is a confederation of independent mercantile towns, but the north has been taken over by bandit gangs lead by the evil wizard, Agay Khenmare of the Threadbare Cap.

Pretty sure this is Éowyn or Galadriel
This mini-setting is quite charming in its own way; half Tolkien, half AD&D, but with the Northwest-European cultural references exchanged for a decidedly Hungarian perspective. This is quite intriguing, since the Hungarian fantasy genre, and Hungarian RPG fandom in specific has shied away from its own history and culture. It is still a European mishmash ranging from Finland and France equivalents to something feeling a bit like fantasy Ukraine (with NPCs named Pierre Vandel, Oleg Isakov, Stefan Schaller, Valdemar Kanagas, Commander Tony Elton, and Arnold Denman), but there is something almost indescribably Hungarian about the land’s large plains, agricultural towns and, above all, the slightly rustic tone of its place names. As strange as it sounds, this familiarity is the strangest thing about the whole Combat and Magic experience, because nobody has ever tried anything like this again – Hungarian fantasy has focused on discovering the fantastic in distant lands, to the neglect of our own.

The majority of the Storyteller’s Booklet is occupied by the obligatory monsters and treasures. Like the spells, much of this section consists of AD&D ripoffs and a mish-mash of mythology and the stuff you lift out of every fantasy book you have read and liked – that is, it is derivative but actually pretty good. Some of them come from the excellent Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, such as the Bao a Ku (a monster tied to a set of stairs, which becomes more and more real as someone goes up, and attacks on the top), and some are just strange in the way RPG bestiaries can be strange:
  • the Dorag is a huge blue snake with two feathered wings, which lives until you cut off its head… twice;
  • the Ilmex resembles a rug with a wavy edge, with three three-fingered hands on each side, and a bird’s head perched on a long, thin neck at the front – it is a subterranean predator;
  • Armoured Toads are... toads in black armour, with a hop attack;
  • Fuzzballs! They are big fuzzballs with... legs capable of long jumps up to three metres. And a large toothy mouth. “They are always on the move to attack any kind of mobile meat.”
  • The Vilotoner is a mixture between a huge eagle and a bat. It is very intelligent, able to converse in three languages, and cast Wizard spells. It is curious, vain, egoistic and easy to offend.

The Caverns of Singing Mountain, LVL I-III

There is some decent guidance on setting up and running a game (actually, more than many subsequent Hungarian games, which often wouldn’t think too deep about the question), and a bunch of Storyteller-specific rules, but the other big interesting thing about the booklet is the example scenario, The Dragon of Singing Mountain. Nothing less than a three-level dungeon, it is a tutorial for both the players and the Storyteller. You have to defeat a dragon and save a kidnapped princess – but before that, you have to get through the caverns of Singing Mountain. The caverns – really dungeons – are mostly linear, and the action largely features combat and basic exploration. You get to fight morlochs, dog-headed men, a wererat, skeletons, zombies, black dwarves, and an evil wizard. There is an underground smithy, an evil temple (the idol has gemstone eyes and a poison gas trap), a mirror room, a plant room (with life-draining plants), a library and a well, but disappointingly, it lacks the wahoo nature of some of the rulebooks..

What is interesting is how the adventure starts in a way that explains everything to the Storyteller, with a choose-your-own-adventure structure and readout text, and starts to hand over more and more responsibilities as it goes on. The first level is full of handholding, but halfway through the second, the room descriptions become sparse outlines to be filled out on your own. The third level, with a deep, dark underground lake, is only described in brief and left to your development: here lives Tungar the Dragon in an island tower, there is an old orc Priest who serves as the ferryman, and other mysteries are also in evidence.


Is Combat and Magic a good RPG? Not really. It is simultaneously awkward and simplistic, with fairly fiddly rules to realise simple concepts. The character generation is more complicated than in AD&D for less mileage, and the combat system has its awkward spots. There are puzzling ideas, like the Vitality/Damage Absorption concept. I don’t think many people had played by the book – I am pretty sure we didn’t, because the combat I remember was far deadlier than the baseline. I do not count the game’s high randomness as a design mistake (although many people in the 90s would, if they had even heard of it); it is endearing and almost feels fresh in our day. In practice, all those flat 1d100 rolls would tend to even themselves out, and your character would have a few areas where he would be better than the others (at least I don’t remember my PC being overshadowed, which definitely did happen in our attempt to play M.A.G.U.S.,the second Hungarian RPG.

Seen through modern eyes an incredible 27 years later (has it really been that long?), the areas where Combat and Magic feels fresh is the enthusiastic spirit of adventure, the way it embraces the fantastic, and the way it tries to make most of a very narrow set of influences. It owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings and it owes just as much to AD&D, but there are a few things there which are beyond imitation.

Why did Combat and Magic disappear from the public consciousness, so much so that most gamers have never even heard of it? In a way, it came too early, at a time when there were no established communication channels for roleplayers yet – no magazines (the first would come out late 1992), no fanzines, only two game stores in the entire country, and often little contact between the isolated gaming groups out there. Interestingly, the game was by no means unknown. I know multiple people who have started with it, usually for a few months before they would find their way to AD&D (either the bootleg translations or the real deal). It was also a mainstay at a few game clubs; apparently, fans in the city of Miskolc had come up with multiple typewritten fan supplements and their own shared setting (“Sword World”).

Combat and Magic had sold well enough to merit a follow-up, and its creators had ideas to bring it forward with new booklets. What happened to it was much more banal: the owners of the publisher, SPORTORG Ltd., had just disappeared with the money and let the company go bankrupt. It was not an uncommon way to make easy money those days – most of these cases would never be solved by a sluggish unprepared court system. It was an ominous sign of things yet to come – and as we will see from later parts of this series, far from the last case where legal issues would intrude upon the hobby.

“And now, stranger, the time of farewells has come. I have told you everything I know about the world of fantasy. I bid you farewell, for I am called by faraway lands, furious battles, and by glory… perhaps we will meet again somewhere. Only the gods know. Good luck!
--Vorg, the Wolf”

What price glory?

Wednesday 16 May 2018

[REVIEW] The Arwich Grinder

The Arwich Grinder (2014)
by Daniel J. Bishop
Published in Crawl! #9 by Straycouches Press
0-level funnel

Something has gone terribly wrong up in them hills where the Curwen family has lived in their homestead for several generations, and young Bessie Curwen’s bonnet has been found in the possession of an odd beast that lumbers into the village inn and drops dead before the assembled patrons. The reclusive and tight-knit Curwens had saved the village from starvation two winters ago, so it’s time to return the favour. A group of brave volunteers is assembled to venture up into the dark woods and see what’s up at the Curwens’ lucrative pig farm.

To everybody’s surprise, it wasn’t pig after all.

Warning: cover spoils module theme and final encounter

This funnel adventure – filling a full issue of Crawl! fanzine – is a gruesome one-shot combining Lovecraftian themes with a hilarious amount of gore. There are no surprises as far as the module’s themes are concerned – yup, the backwoods rustics are up to no good, and they are right in the middle of doing something really bad when the adventurers show up. However, as something you get into with full foreknowledge of walking into the jaws of a deadly trap, it is remarkably well made. Perhaps the horror does not lie in the familiar (and by now almost cozy) horror trappings, but in the vulnerability and disposability of 0-level characters. When you are at three hit points, the axe maniac coming at you suddenly takes on a more grave than usual significance.

This is something The Arwich Grinder shines at. Low-level D&D’s lethality makes it hard to design for, since an unlucky hit can kill a character, and a few unlucky hits can decimate a party and either stop their progress outright or trap them in hostile territory. However, if you softball it, you kind of lose the excitement of rolling that d20. This module is somewhere in that middle spot, even if a few of the encounters end up under-statted (including the bad guys right at the end).

Something else that works well here is the way the scenario builds towards its conclusion. It is not a railroad, and you can actually get around the Curwens’ place in multiple different ways, but any way you go, you will start from smaller hints of something being dreadfully wrong to very obvious signs of something, indeed, being gosh-darned wrong. There is a clear element of progression from the family homestead (exploration-oriented, few encounters, not terribly dangerous as long as you don’t disregard obvious hints) through the Curwens’ underground tunnels (a combination of exploration and action, multiple instances of combat and traps) to even deeper caverns (where things turn nasty). This is what makes the scenario nicely Lovecraftian. You know you are getting into something bad, and lo, you are getting into something bad. There are big, dark things lurking under the earth. Old families conceal terrible secrets. If you look too closely at things, you might find more than you’d bargained for. Never trust people of inferior racial stock. That’s Lovecraft. The rest is equally good, including one of the best GM takedowns of meta-gaming players, a few suitably dark magic items, and the Curwens, who are fun to take down, and have a few tricks up their sleeves.

The encounters are short and essential. The entire module is well-written, and fits the 27-area farmstead and 15-area dungeon into a 24-page booklet (set in a generous font size). It is right at the level where bits of descriptive detail carry the tone, without suffering from under- or overwriting. The illustrations are cool (and the cover is great great GREAT, one of the best I have seen in recent years). This is a good adventure.

The module credits its playtesters.

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

Wednesday 9 May 2018

[MODULE] The Barbarian King

The Barbarian King

I am happy to announce the publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. As the introduction goes:

Beyond the border city of Velft where the legion of General José Antonio Balazán upholds the law, the great eastern trading route leaves civilisation. After the ploughed fields of the townlands and the small villages and guard towers of the valleys stand endless mountain ranges, cold and unforgiving.

These harsh wastelands were once the domain of the Barbarian King, whose men bowed before animalistic spirits and fought with weapons of brass. In their raids, they showed no mercy: not consent with pillaging, they took their victims as slaves or killed them when they could. So it was until the death of the king, after which men in mail came from the plains, and as their foes once, they had no pity for those they met.

Today, there is a fortress city named Castle Evening on the lands where the barbarians had roamed, and barges plow their once holy lake. The initial conquerors, the knighthoods of Alliria and Mitra, were eventually defeated by the fanatical inquisitor-priests of Talorn; shamefully exiled from the land of their hard-won victories. The abundant mines and rich pastures have since transformed the wilderness into something else, a place of order and watchful sentries. Yet beyond the lands of the settlers, the mountains are silent as they had always been. And it is said, in a valley haunted by the shades of the barbarian warriors, there stands yet the burial place of that last warlord: the Barbarian King.

First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). It has been disassembled, reassembled, bootlegged on the DM’s Guild (no kidding) and put back together again. This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy.

The Barbarian King is available from the new SHOP. (The reason for the switch was to allow people to buy more than one products at once, which is harder with Paypal buttons. Bigcartel has been used by other zine creators, and seems to be a good platform.)

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.


In other news: Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 is now available in PDF from RPGNow! This edition also includes a map pack for home printing.
Echoes #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading. With art orders and my day job taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!

Until then…

Fight On!

Tuesday 8 May 2018

[REVIEW] Masks of Lankhmar

Masks of Lankhmar (2015)
by Michael Curtis
Published by Goodman Games
1st level

Warning: Severe ending spoilers
Heists are hard to capture in the form of a D&D module. A party of adventurers is usually not well equipped with the skills to pull off a smooth, silent burglary; someone is inevitably too loud, too clumsy, or there are just too many people in the way. City-based heists also have many variables which can lead to unpredictable cascading events, or branch off in ways you can’t fully cover in the scenario without making it bloated and unmanageable. In play, this calls for a loose interpretation of the rules; and in writing, compromises between text and suggestion, written module and improvisation. When D&D thievery works, it is exhilarating, fun, and full of unlikely victories and dramatic reversals.

Masks of Lankhmar, introductory module to Goodman Games’ yet-unpublished Lankhmar supplement, errs on the side of being a sweet slice of nothing. There is a superb plot in the background that’d make for a hell of a Leiber story: it has intrigue, dark irony, urban gloom and a hokey ending that’s completely Leiberesque, but there is not much of an adventure inside it. It evokes something from what makes Lankhmar so fascinating, but it is limited as an RPG scenario.

A Map Illustrating
the Problem
Briefly, Masks follows the fate of a long-gone religious order who have left behind a bunch of valuable masks… and the characters stumble on their trail in a heist gone bad. Thus, the module is divided into an in medias res beginning (an interrupted burglary in the mansion of a rich magnate), an intermission for information gathering, the recovery of the masks in the order’s now crumbling (but hardly vacant) temple, and finally the denouement. It is mostly a railroad in the segments covered in detail. There are branches here and there in how the players can get through a problem (such as escaping the magnate’s manor), but the action usually takes place in small physical locales where you either can’t go anywhere but forward, or you can go places but only forward matters (since the scenario doesn’t cover the other places). There are no side areas, no alternate approaches, no unlikely discoveries, and the progression of events is mostly preordained. The beginning heist is a linear sequence of five encounters taking place in three small rooms, followed by an escape with three alternative paths through a not much larger location. The main adventure area is a complex place, but only one encounter (to get through all the complex scenery which barely plays a role), followed by seven sequential encounters on the Adventure Express.

Masks of Lankhmar, ironically, becomes the most interesting in the areas it does not try to cover. Following the trail of the initial clues can be fun and open-ended if the GM drags it out a little, and the multiple ending possibilities tie up the heist in ways that establish the characters’ standing with different city factions, and lead to interesting new adventures. There are proper consequences to the players’ actions! It also shows evidence of imagination in the rooms and situations it sets up. Golden masks glittering through the funereal shrouds of the dead. A posh party thrown by an upstart who wants to get into high society. The Thieves’ Guild trailing the characters. A slum tenement filled with the dregs of society. Lankhmar’s soot and filth, glamour and decadence are all on display, and some of the encounters are pretty good – although in a severely lacking structure which inhibits the players in properly interacting with them.

The module serves its purpose of getting the characters together (in Lankhmar RPG terms, this is called “the Meet”) and launching a campaign. On the other hand, it is small and very limited in scope, while simultaneously feeling overwritten, with the boxed text and background information overwhelming the action. I don’t usually review production values (life and experience have left me bitter and cynical in this regard), but this booklet’s layout bothered me. Nothing wrong with the two-column solution, but leaving in orphans and stat blocks which necessitate page flipping is lazy, especially for a pro publisher.

I vacillated on Masks of Lankhmar’s rating, and gave it three stars on the strength of its imagery, and its evocation of mood. However, taken on its own – pure gameplay – it is severely lacking. Decision-making is superficial, player agency is mostly illusory. Of course, not every module has to have the same level of player agency, but this felt unnecessarily stifling. The same general storyline could be reconstructed as a much more open adventure, and re-written as a more efficient yet equally expressive piece of writing. There is a philosophy which suggests intro adventures should be small and unassuming, while explaining everything to the GM in detail. Personally, I’d rather see the exact opposite: intro adventures which offer GM advice economically, and offer the full, complex game experience in a newbie-friendly package.

The adventure credits its playtesters, and it had been through play on three conventions.

Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday 1 May 2018

[NEWS] The Barbarian King (revised edition) / Echoes From Fomalhaut #02

Cover art by Matthew Ray
I am happy to announce the forthcoming publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. 

First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art seen to the left), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. It will be available in print in May, and in PDF with a few months’ delay, at a price of $6 plus shipping. 

Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading (you should see how many tiny errors I catch before releasing something still riddled with a whole lot of tiny errors). With art orders taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!

City State of the Invincible Typographical Error