Wednesday 20 June 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Gont, Nest of Spies
I am pleased to announce the publication of the second issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with illustrations by Denis McCarthy (who also did the cover), Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, Matthew J. Finch and more.

This issue was a hard fit even with its four extra pages, and required some juggling to make it happen. This means one of the shoggoths did not make it this time, and it will have to return in a future issue – sorry for the inconvenience! What Echoes #02 does have is an odd Dreamlands scenario by Laszlo Feher, which I hope will be the first of many, and which takes place in the city of Hlanith, on the coast of the Cerenarian Sea. On its heels comes a guide to the Isle of Erillion, a mini-campaign setting caught between declining kingdoms, and mostly covered by untamed wilderness. This issue features the players’ information, accompanied by a fold-out hex map; the full key, along with a more detailed and accurate GM’s map, will be published in the next two issues. More adventures set on Erillion – but presented in a way to make them suitable for use with other settings – will follow. Those of you who own the first issue of Echoes have already seen two examples; this issue provides two more.

The bulk of the fanzine is dedicated to the town of Gont: it is a self-contained town supplement in under 20 pages, complete with adventure hooks, schemes, schemers, and notes from the underground. As my players have found, Gont is a tough nut to crack: the deeper you dig beneath the respectable surface, the more dangerous it gets. A players’ map to Gont is featured on the other side of the fold-out map. All is also not as it seems in the issue’s final scenario, a short wilderness location. What is causing the disappearances in the Valley of the Witching Way? And what happened to the rich but foolhardy Gurnald Yex, who had retired there after a life of adventure? The answer might surprise you!

The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through RPGNow with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Monday 11 June 2018

[REVIEW] The Quarrymen

The Quarrymen (2016)
by Duncan McPhedran
Published by The Zorathan City State Press
3rd level, 6-10 characters


The Quarrymen
Ninety percent of everything is crap. A clear majority of homebrew adventures up on RPGNow are crap, too, and disappointing in fairly predictable ways – low page count coupled with low idea density and a narrow scope; the proverbial “twelve encounters in 18 pages” dungeon headed by a padded intro. These modules don’t really make it to this blog, because it’d usually break my heart to savage an obvious labour of love that just happens to be lacklustre, and because they are so alike it’d be dull to read and write about them. But I buy them and read them because one day, somebody’s dodgy PDF with an uninspiring piece of public domain art for the cover will turn out to be cool and awesome and worth all the slog. The Quarrymen (for the DCC RPG) is one of those modules.

When I say this is a gem in the rough, I mean it. The production values are dire, and never mind the public domain cover art. The PDF was obviously cobbled together in Microsoft Word, badly. This is what happens when you leave the factory settings on, indent your titles, don’t give a hoot about structuring information, use no page numbers, and create your location key with the numbered list function. Accordingly, every keyed location is a single block of text instead of a series of paragraphs; and each one is broken up into read-aloud text (set in italics), monster statistics (set in bold), and underlined text for everything else in the room key. It all flows together without paragraph or line breaks, and the monster stats are embedded into the text just like that. Yes, it is just as terrible as it sounds, and while I am far from a layout snob, this took some time getting used to.

But then we get to the adventure, and it is so great. Basically, the town quarry’s sixty-six workers have disappeared through a tunnel among the rocks, and only the foreman has stumbled back to the surface, raving about “the Creature”, “jars, jars, jars, endless jars”, and “tentacles”. You go in to investigate. This is the first ray of hope, because all this background is two paragraphs long, followed by the Creature’s stats (basically a store-brand mind flayer), a few magic items, and then we jump straight to the dungeon key, which manages to pack a 37-area dungeon into 5.5 pages, with very generous margins. That’s respectable even if it is partly due to the limited layout. You could say some of the read-aloud text is superfluous, since it is a minimalistic thing mostly telling you what you’d read off of the map anyway, but it is not bad, because the rest is a ton of fun.

You get the idea part of the adventure was randomly generated because the ideas are all over the place and they are fairly straightforward, but they have that dastardly GM spirit and sense of fantasy which makes a dungeon fun to explore. Here is an alcove full of dead bodies who might animate if you come close (coincidentally, they may do that if you try to flee the dungeon and block your exit). Here are a bunch of jars filled with internal organs… and here is a detailed table for what happens if the characters decide to scarf them down (yes, really – this was the point where I knew I had hit gold). Here is a lake of oil and here is what happens when you fall into it with your torch. The author took a Dyson Logos map, and just stocked it to the gills with exuberant, madcap stuff that often makes no strict sense except as dungeon encounters. It is not exactly balanced to be level-appropriate; if you die, you die. There are stone golems who will attack trespassers, but you can fool them if you wear some fake tentacles. There are five very dodgy handouts drawn by the author, and I kid you not, one of them is Cthulhu in the style of Van Gogh (no, really), and one of them, a tapestry, is Leonardo’s Last Supper, but with a mindflayer and a bunch of headless corpses slumped over the table. What the hell. I love it.

Then the adventure goes from slightly random to “Aieeeee! Get it off me! Get it off me!” as we enter what could be best described as a high-tech Cthulhu outpost. It is bizarre, but not predictably bizarre – it is not, say, a Giger knockoff or a place with obvious parallels to our modern technology, but the kind of slightly unsettling place where the players will start asking each other if they really made the best decision coming down here. A lot of it is unpredictable, or just eerie. A row of vats with something indefinable floating inside them. A door whose “close inspection leaves you dizzy and vertiginous”. A dressing room where the mind flayer’s monsters put on strange coats and jackets to venture out into the city (I loved this one!). A mind flayer harem which is exactly as wrong as you’d expect. It feels like a proper mind flayer lair, certainly the best I have seen. Bad things can happen to characters here, and there is enough combat to turn it into an ugly slaughterfest; yet it also has a gleeful, grotesque sense of fun that fits DCC without copying its default heavy metal trappings.

I don’t really want more from a small adventure than what this one gives me. Solid, unpretentious, sometimes goofy fun is all right with me, and the imagination is outstanding. Well, it may be a little on the linear side, but actually, you can even get around that if you are observant, and it is a one-session affair where a little linearity is forgivable. I certainly want to see more. The first issue of the author’s zine, The Cities Zorathi, has been more of a setting primer, and it was not really this interesting, but the second issue is supposed to feature “the first level of the Great Maze”, and if it is similar in style and scope, sign me up.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication. It deserves to be played.

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

Saturday 9 June 2018

[REVIEW] Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail

Crepuscular #01: Sanctum of the Snail (2018)
by Joshua L.H. Burnett
0-level funnel

Crepuscular #01
Even though it is often considered generic fantasy, there is just something about D&D’s monster selection that’s not found in your typical fantasy game. You have floating balls full of eyes which can blast you into atoms; an aardvark that’s also a shark which burrows under the earth; a jello cube that eats people (but not their stuff)... a dolphin skeleton from another plane?! Uh… and also a psionic mole and giant mushrooms. It is profoundly silly, but it is also deadly serious and slightly disturbing: the screwed-up things you meet will eat you if you aren’t careful. This kind of weird dissonance is one of the great things about D&D, and the sensibility which has informed the first issue of this DCC fanzine. Crepuscular’s success comes from walking the fine line expertly. It is not afraid to be funny or silly (the cover might be an indication), but it is not afraid to kill your characters in gruesome yet hilarious ways either.

Much of Crepuscular’s first issue is dedicated to Sanctum of the Snail, a 26-page romp through a dungeon that’s built around a mollusc theme. The characters are shipwrecked on a forlorn island that’s a bit like R’Lyeh, and their only way out of the monster-haunted reef leads down under the sea to a wondrous cavern system dedicated to Blorgamorg the Cthonic Snail, mollusc deity of the Cosmic Balance. It is a classical funnel in the sense that you push in the PCs at one end, and what comes out at the other will either be adventurers, or ground meat. There are plenty of killer encounters even when we discount the fragility of zero-level characters, and most of these ways to die have a satisfying splat factor (you can fall to your doom if you miss a jump, get lost in outer space, be mashed into a pulp by a piston mechanism, or choose between fiery death and drowning in a pit trap filled with oily water). However, the smart and lucky also gain access to some neat goodies: this is as much a chance to stock up as a place to weed out the weak, and the rewards are both generous and unique.

The strength of the adventure lies in the well-designed encounters. The challenges involve navigation through dangerous terrain, uncovering ancient secrets (and dealing with what happens when you prod them), and combat with the Sanctum’s odd denizens. Plenty of magical and fantastic stuff. I think all, or almost all content here is new, from the oddball magic items to the creepy-crawlies you must fight. Crumbling stairs over a swirling sea divided between Law and Chaos; a gigantic dead turtle; the tomb of a hero and a summoning chamber. As you’d guess, there are a lot of slugs and slug-related squishy things, but there are also some neat elements related to the cosmic war between War and Chaos, as well as grotesque finds that are just there. This is imaginative, vivid stuff embodying D&D at its weirdest, put into the service of good gameplay (player creativity goes a long way here). The writing is good through the module; even the boxed text sticks to the essentials.

Sanctum is not without problems. It follows a mostly linear structure, and the action is more focused on dealing with various encounters sequentially than on exploration. Like many DCC modules, it also lacks “breathing room” – every place has something going on, things are too close to each other, and it can feel a little busy. This is a legitimate way to construct an adventure, but a few more rooms with limited descriptive detail, or some more navigation-related content would have felt more right... as it is, the Sanctum does not really feel as large as the writeup would suggest; many of the spaces after the first few are decidedly on the small side. I would personally unwrap it on a slightly larger map to make finding various rooms more of an accomplishment.

Moonblossom and Chance find a treasure map
Crepuscular also offers a handful of miscellaneous articles (a little less than half the issue): a hilarious two-page comic, Blorgamorg as a DCC patron, two more unique magic items, and a d30 table of miscreants you can pick up as hirelings in the city of Xöthma-Ghül (to be presented in more detail in subsequent issues). These are all good, with the hirelings being my favourite – they range from “Tiberius Plum, man-at-arms; pragmatic, obsessed with the colour purple” to Quvark, a platypus man with a venomous heel-spur.

Altogether, Crepuscular is an interesting, quirky take on DCC – consistently high-energy, somewhere in the middle between deadly and hilarious. The comedy ranges from the sly to the tremendously unsubtle, but somehow, it all works. The snail theme doesn’t overstay its welcome, with enough variations to keep it from feeling one-note, and I am actually interested in learning more about the game world behind the zine.

The module in the zine gives credit to its playtesters, and even an editor!

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