Monday 27 August 2018

[BLOG] The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box: On the Scope of Module Design

The inspiration for writing this post has been Pookie’s review of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02. Positive reviews make you feel good inside, while critical reviews make you rethink the things you are doing, and why you are doing them. Something Pookie has criticised (in a point he has also brought up WRT issue #01) was the apparent purposelessness of the adventures in the zine: that is, the lack of strong plot hooks and background information to get the player characters involved. This is a fair point, but it is something I do entirely on purpose (sorry!), because I believe it ultimately makes the adventures stronger, and more suitable for others’ home games. Our disagreement lies in our ideas about what should go into the module text (what should be its scope) – except we may not actually be disagreeing at all.

The purpose of adventure modules is to assist the GM in setting up and running a home game. This much is obvious, even if many people use them for loose inspiration for home games they are or aren’t running. At the end of the day, they are a combination of a reference document and inspiring material – a module communicates an idea about running a game, something which can’t be faithfully replicated, but which can be recaptured and created anew through our collective imagination. It is both “the” Keep on the Borderlands and your own Keep on the Borderlands. Adventures are personal and products of the moment, while modules are fixed in terms of both intent and time. Good modules recognise and accommodate this contradiction as an integral feature of role-playing games, something which separates them from literature and drama (I will not consider here the failed forms of adventure design which try to imitate either). They create the potential for action and adventure – we could say the module is the question, and the game around the dinner table is the answer. Much has been written about why some adventures work so well in creating memorable game experiences and some don’t; this post focuses on one aspect of published modules – the relationship between their scope and purpose


Against the Giants
In my mind, there are two main approaches setting the scope for published old-school modules: we could call one the tapestry and the other the mosaic box. There are no clear boundaries between them, and both encompass multiple different sub-types, but the basic distinction is present. The tapestry is what we would consider a mostly self-contained scenario. In this case, all the necessary information you might need to run a home game is presented in the text, in a more or less set way. TSR’s classic module line is a prime example of this design approach. These modules, many of them originating in tournaments, have a fixed premise (from “stop the giants” to “explore the Ghost Tower of Inverness”) and assumed boundaries of play, which suggest the scope of the described material. They also have set structures; the way the bits and pieces in the adventure connect together are decided in advance. The module is “complete” with its elements already in place – like a colourful tapestry, it has been woven together, and the threads are there to hold it together. This approach gives the adventure a focus which makes them straightforward to use and rewarding to play: the players are motivated, the action flows well, and the conclusions are memorable. 

You are not going to make friends with the giants. Theoretically, you could (it is a valid solution to convince them the drow are probable oath-breakers and using them as disposable cannon fodder against human kingdoms who will eventually hunt them down), but you probably won’t. The adventure works from this assumption, and sets out to describe what you need to run the adventure. There are possible courses of action and probable outcomes – dungeons, for instance, can be described as flowcharts, and flowcharts have more or less likely paths in them, as well as beginnings and end points. At the end of the day, either you or a lot of giants will be dead, you may or may not have discovered why they are raiding the human lands beyond the lulz and plunder, and you might have found a few bothersome details which present a greater mystery behind the giant clans. The module is over for most intents and purposes, and you may move on to the next one. 

These adventures are not closed systems. They are adaptable to different campaigns and circumstances; they are sometimes considered generic, but what campaign world doesn’t have a place for a bunch of evil slavers to kill, or bands of rampaging giants to stop? They also offer up interesting and worthwhile choices which can lead the participants to different (anticipated or entirely unplanned) conclusions. The boundaries which exist in presentation are permeable in play; the module’s scope is not rigid. You can expand, repurpose, and in a way, “break” these modules, from exploring the unwritten parts of Descent Into the Depths of the Earth to flipping Keep on the Borderlands on its head, and breaking the great piggy bank that is the keep itself. These choices exist as unwritten potential due to both the adventures’ focus (they describe what they need to describe) and flexibility (they leave open what they don’t need to describe). The possibility is there if you need it, although in most cases, the players won’t cross the module’s planned boundaries. Many will head into the ogre cave or the minotaur lair in the Caves of Chaos; fewer will choose to seek out the Cave of the Unknown on the edges of the wilderness map, and very few indeed will set up a deal with the denizens of the Caves to lead merchant caravans into their ambushes to split up the resulting loot (and, this being D&D, the easy XP!). You are not running the module wrong if only the first one happens, although it can be very cool if all three do. 


Let us move on to the other approach, the mosaic box. This is a much looser and more probabilistic way of giving you playable materials, and it should come with a standard warning: “Some assembly required!” Mosaic box modules are as notable for the content they choose to exclude as they are for the material they have. They come as loose frameworks of disparate components whose connections and place must be decided by the GM, or even spontaneously “discovered” with the group over the course of play. These frameworks are incomplete because they invite further input to make them work; they are also open to all sorts of use and abuse. This approach was pioneered by Judges Guild’s early products: not always ready-made adventures per se, but play aids which could range from “adventure construction kits” to “adventure components” (the original meaning of the word “module” – an interchangeable component you can insert into our own design!) It also crops up in TSR’s output, most clearly in The Secret of Bone Hill, a multi-purpose adventure kit if there ever was one, but also in The Lost City and other looser site-based adventures. 

These modules have a different take on information design, and a different scope. Some of the high-level information is not present on purpose. Many of these modules have no pre-determined goal or even a set way to engage with their content: there are easy guesses but no universal answers. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor never tells you how to approach it (not even in an out-of-game way like Gary’s classic “Realms of Man” intro to B2), even though it easily could. The owners of the titular fortress are bandits and other assholes who maintain a slave market on the premises; the dungeon is half their hideout and half the headquarters of an evil cult, separated by a level containing a cluster of super-deadly dragons. You could do a lot of things in and around this bizarro universe Keep on the Borderlands (or its one-page cousin, Huberic of Haghill), and the way your GM integrated it into his campaign would probably set the stage for the way you ought to approach it, but there is no firm premise like in the G series. Interestingly, even the lines between good and evil, friend or foe are less clearly drawn. 

Portals of Torsh
It goes further. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Tegel Manor or The Secret of Bone Hill present a fairly systematic, organised playground to explore and have fun with, but the outlines, relationships and boundaries can become even more blurred. Hex-crawls, city supplements and other sandbox settings (even those which don’t present physical settings but, for instance, social relationships and interpersonal conflict) are truly mosaic-like in that they are composed of several bits which may or may not be connected by a network of pre-set relations. The pieces can connect virtually any way, since there are so many of them and they are typically linked in a fairly loose manner. Perhaps there is a war going on between the island-kingdom of Croy and the city state of Warvik; perhaps the nearby islands are connected via a smuggling ring the characters might come into conflict with; and perhaps the assassins’ guild from Zarthstone is fanning the flames of conflict from the background. It could, however, also be that Croy and Warvik co-exist in an uneasy alliance against the smugglers, descended from a group of freedom fighters the characters may team up with; and that the assassins are minding their own business while doing stuff for the highest bidder. Which piece goes where and how is your responsibility, but they will prove useful either way. 

The eventual purpose of the material is created by the GM, or the GM and the players working together and surprising each other. This kind of module is a framework to insert your own adventure scenarios into, and a puzzle where the pieces might fit together in a dozen different ways. Some uncertainty is actually fairly helpful in this situation. Ideally, not spelling out the connections lets other GMs discover their own, and leaving some things mysterious evokes a sense of wonder which is conductive to personal imagination. We can actually see this well in tapestry-style adventures: the most intriguing and speculated-on parts of the G-D series involve the role of the Elder Elemental God and his abandoned temples, while the Caverns of Tsojcanth leaves open the mystery of Iggwilw. Leaving those doors open is essential for less deterministic scenarios! In the case of the mosaic, presenting a complete pattern (as opposed to a vague outline or a departure point which can lead in several possible directions) would defeat the purpose of handing you the box of pieces, just like LEGO has been reduced from its early universal sets to highly specific, expensive collectibles. 

City Encounters
There are multiple possible scales here as well. We could bring up JG’s less known Verbosh (a complete mini-setting complete with wilderness, dungeons and multiple towns, which are sufficiently described to serve as adventures), Portals of Torsh (a self-contained alternate world reached through magical gates, again containing multiple towns and adventure sites), or the more recent Vault of Larin Karr from Necromancer Games (a mini-setting describing a valley, its communities and dungeons, all connected in various ways). At the end of the line, we could have the likes of the now sadly OOP City Encounters, an excellent 600-entry city encounter table which is a full-on toolkit and has very little explicit structure. And yet, City Encounters does have rhyme and reason: through a myriad unrelated encounters which might take place, it presents a certain idea of a grand city, sinful and dangerous; generating conflict, adventure, and even links between the different entries through the table’s consistent application. You could run a city campaign with nothing more than this supplement, a good map, and perhaps one or two pages of background. 

The mosaic approach is fun but tricky. While we may correctly assume game materials made this way allow for a high degree of freedom, this freedom is not always easy to achieve, nor necessarily superior to a focused play experience. The absence of concrete hooks and boundaries can be immensely liberating, or it can halt a game right in its tracks. I enjoy the sandbox gaming they foster and accommodate, but also see a lot of online discussions describing dysfunctional or even “false” sandbox play: because the players are lost, because there is a communication problem between the GM and the players about how they should play in an open setting; or because there is subtle railroading going on (you can do “anything” but only the GM’s assumed adventure will be “real” or provide a fun play experience, etc.). This approach is neither universally applicable nor truly superior to the more focused tapestry approach. 


Finally, where does this leave me? I have employed both approaches to adventure design, and don’t consider them an either/or proposition. I gravitate slightly towards the second in running a campaign, but my published materials are often closer to the first. It is generally easier to write a focused module because it lends itself to a logical and structured presentation. The mosaic box approach works more on intuition, making connections and leaps of logic; therefore, its design is often more impressionistic and reliant on imagery and loose association. This is always harder to do, so it happens less often, even if it comes fairly easy to me by the table. 

The House of Rogat Demazien
However, I also think that even more structured and precisely adventures are fairly easy to place in someone’s game with some forethought and adaptation, and that they benefit from keeping them reasonably open and a bit mysterious. This is why the majority of the adventures and campaign materials I have published in Echoes From Fomalhaut (and before it, Fight On!, Knockspell, and various places all over the Internet) are “missing” bits and pieces, and aren’t coming with strong adventure hooks and specific setups. I find it interesting that multiple people have singled out The House of Rogat Demazien from among my stuff as something they have used and enjoyed in particular. For some time, this came as a complete surprise, since Rogat Demazien was never more than a minor project, an afterthought to the much more complex city-state of Zothay; it was also directionless without offering more of an adventure hook than “it is there and there may be treasure involved”. And yet, it has been reasonably popular with people. And that’s my guess now: while a bit aimless, it is on the right scale, it is adaptable, and it is open enough for multiple different purposes. This has been my guiding philosophy for the materials I am releasing for the Isle of Erillion mini-campaign, too: they will make sense as pieces of the whole, but they will also be useable on their own (future releases from our City of Vultures campaign will be a bit more tightly integrated, but they will also retain a basic modularity and open-endedness). 

Make no mistake, this is not a universal solution, but it is the way that, at least to me, makes personal sense.

Saturday 18 August 2018

[REVIEW] The Museum of Living Arts

The Museum of Living Arts (2018)
by Miihkali Tuominen and Thaumiel Nerub
Published by D-OOM Products
Low levels

The Museum of Bad Xerox Machines
Murderous statues and sordid experiments are to fantasy museums as giant rats in the basement are to fantasy pubs: they come with the territory, and they are not at all unexpected. If I heard there was a museum in the fantasy city my character was visiting, I would immediately prepare for strange disappearances and bloody murders. And surprisingly…

This LotFP scenario does it well. It takes the predictable premise and does something entertaining and imaginative with it. If there is good vanilla, this is good fantasy horror, missing the juvenile edgelordism found in many official LotFP releases. It still features plentiful gore and grotesque murder, but, if it can be said, it is all done tastefully. There is just enough of the tragic and otherworldly lurking inside the museum hall to make the horror underneath the not-so-innocuous surface feel interesting.

Much of the module revolves around the individual exhibits, and the central mystery of the place and the surrounding disappearances. The museum is a physically compact space (24 keyed areas split between two levels), but sufficiently labyrinthine, and divided into visitor areas and more restricted “staff only” zones. It offers good possibilities for infiltration and even reconnaissance – this is a dungeon the characters can visit by day and buy a ticket to look around unmolested! The exhibits are largely tricks/traps and inventive dungeon puzzles; they demonstrate a good sense of the macabre, and should be fun to deal with. There are occasional places where we get into LotFP’s tendency for lolrandom tables, but by and large, it is a nice, thematic dungeon revolving around (fairly modern and fairly high-concept) art. Creepy details like an interactive exhibit of stuffed demi-humans, or a secret arena where the owner pits his captives against each other in ridiculous costumes lend the place its character.

Nine new monsters / NPCs are presented in a preliminary bestiary section, variations on familiar concepts which give them a sense of the uncanny. Silver-plated skeletons constructed from former victims which are both monster and treasure. Clay “limb studies” which choke you. Hairless sphinx cats which lurk on the perimeter of your vision, watching. These monsters are put to good use inside the module; they are integrated into the area descriptions fairly nicely.

The Museum of Living Arts looks and reads well. It has an underground DIY look mostly using overexposed stock art (that looks like metal zines run through a photocopier one time too many), and a breezy, light layout which would make it ideal for digest-sized printing. (The 40 pages could easily be condensed to 20 while remaining readable, but that’s a quibble.) The writing has a fairly good balance between style and functionality; I was happy with it. This is an amateur module in the best sense. It would make for a good Halloween one-shot, or it could come in handy if you need a creepy museum for a reasonably cosmopolitan city.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Tuesday 7 August 2018

[BLOG] Year Two, and Onwards

Things I made this year

Beyond Fomalhaut started two years ago, and while most people tend to do this in late December or early January, this is my regular time for stock-taking and reflecting (and ranting). I should actually have posted this a day or two earlier to make it exactly one year, but we were gaming. Gaming takes precedence. Sitting down by the table with my circle of friends and playing is the reason to participate in this hobby, and it is the wellspring from which everything else flows. I am making a point here, and I will return to it at the end of the post. But for now,

The State of the Blog

Last year, I had 55 posts; this year, I had 42, this one included. It is slightly less (although some of my 2016 posts were reposts), and there have been more reviews than discussion. I have always been more of an actual play guy than a theorist, and I just had less to say about general matters than I used to. (I also canned some posts I did not think were up to par.) Reviews, on the other hand, are not just easy and enjoyable to write, they sometimes involve discussion on practical game design. The 23 I posted average out at 3.0, about the same as in 2016-2017 (3.1). This year, there were more outliers and slightly less reviews in the middle. This is how the rating break down:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence (). This rating was not awarded this year.
  • 5 went to one new product, The Red Prophet Rises. This is a great sword&sorcery adventure module which I would recommend without reservations.
  • 4 went to eight products, ranging from the fairly high-profile (The Hyqueous Vaults and Deep Carbon Observatory) to the oddball little surprises you find in PDFs, zines, and even a blog post (Sanctum of the Snail, The Quarrymen and The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre). These are very good, too.
  • 3 went to seven adventures. Most of them were in the “decent but could have been better” league, with the only flawed gem being Crypt of the Lilac High Priest and I almost gave that one a four. I would recommend Lilac High Priest with some reworking, and Fever Swamp if you like a good helping of masochism in your gaming.
  • 2 went to four adventures. This mostly means there is an entire category of lacking modules I am successfully avoiding, or leafing through and not writing the review. To turn Tolstoy’s quote on its head, “every good adventure is good in its own way, while the poor ones are all alike”. There are patterns common to this rating which can become helpful warning signs for the reader, and a time-saver for the harried reviewer. I will post on this issue soonish.
  • 1 went to three adventures. One, The Wrath of Grapes, was classic shovelware, the kind you pick up out of curiosity and regret immediately afterwards. Then we come to Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb and The Exfiltrators, which both caught me off guard at the end of this year. Neither of these were newbie efforts; in fact, they were both written by people with fairly well-known names and industry awards. Something went wrong in both cases: one is a creative failure as an intro adventure, and the other is a return to bad writing and design practices which have been around in the hobby for a long while. I suppose both are instructive in the “don’t do this” sense.

My campaign journal, still going strong last year, died an ignoble death after its 13th instalment. I don’t think it had too many followers: the posts were too long, increasingly convoluted (a fairly natural progression for a campaign, but not easy to buy into as a reader), and I am no writer. It has also been more useful to share actual game materials, which brings us to...

The State of the Fanzine

From concept...
E.M.D.T. lives, again! After a lot of vacillation about the business end of things, I took the jump and launched my zine. This has been a tremendously enjoyable experience, and probably the best way to publish game materials these days. I have long been complaining that social media and blogs have the wrong kind of architecture to make things last – posts inevitably drop out of sight in the information churn, and hobby publications do not receive enough time to prove themselves and find their proper place in the popular imagination. Zines are small and inexpensive enough to be personal, but substantial enough to have staying power. These are not exactly the newsletter-style zines of the 70s to 90s: their information exchange role has been assumed by the Internet, so you don’t really get much of correspondence and commentaries-upon-commentaries that had once served to connect fandom. (This was still the case in Chaos Ultra, the late-90s diskmag where my first game-related writings appeared.) Instead, they are an excellent venue for self-expression and craftmanship. reality.
This aspect has always drawn me to zines and newsletters. For a long time, most of my output was in the form of PDFs, but I grew to miss the look and substance of a physical product. I knew Echoes From Fomalhaut would have to be a physical zine, and I had very specific ideas about the way it would look and feel (mainly influenced by the early Judges Guild instalments). There is something slower and more old-fashioned about a paper zine than an RPGNow PDF. I buy and enjoy a lot of those, too, but receiving an envelope in the mail and poring over someone’s handmade booklet is a feeling like no other. It also goes for publishing my own. Writing and disseminating a zine involves a lot of busywork from editing to packing envelopes and doing taxes, and now that I’m working out of the weekend house, it is kind of physical, too – the post is 40 minutes away on foot, and a round trip in the summer heat is a good daily walk. But it is tremendously enjoyable labour. So much of what we do these days is virtual or hard to put into concrete terms that the routine of processing orders feels like a task that produces clearly understandable value. Seeing the first working proofs after multiple homemade prototypes, or bringing three or four envelopes’ worth of zines to the post at a time is a reward onto itself.

The ideologues among us could be right to point out that Echoes, like most of its peers, kinda betrays the DIY principle. That’s correct: I did not actually make it all by myself. I have had help, and lots of it. The unsung hero behind the zine is Akos Barta, my printer: an old gamer friend from way back, he owns the printing company which had published my 2013 Helvéczia boxed set, and now prints and assembles my booklets. I have also been lucky to commission excellent illustrators who truly “get” the old-school style: Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Matthew Ray and Andrew Walter (so far). As Denis had once remarked in our personal correspondence, they draw on different old-school predecessors from Sutherland, Russ Nicholson, Trampier and a bit of Otus; I will add that they also have developed personal styles that are their own, and which fire my imagination. Last but not least, my players: obviously, but sometimes you have to restate the obvious. Thanks, guys!

Zine readers vs. zine publishers
So how’s the business going? The first two issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut, and The Barbarian King, which was kind of a test balloon to see if I could also do print modules, have sold sufficiently well to recoup my costs and generate a modest profit after social security and the taxman’s cut (you are welcome, guys). Echoes #01 is getting close to selling out its first print run at 194 of 220 copies sold (this does not count a 30-copy pre-release I distributed at a Hungarian game convention), and will be reprinted; TBK and Echoes #02 are at 121 and 115 copies out of 240. This means the zine project is financially self-sustainable, and generates a profit I can reinvest into subsequent issues, more modules, as well as larger projects down the line. That’s pretty good. The next issue of Echoes is scheduled for late September, and I would like to make it run on a quarterly schedule, with the odd module and supplement on the side. The next module will be in the Hungarian, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of my RPG (it will also be the 50th E.M.D.T. release). If time allows, I would also like to release something in English, a utility product based on something I had once worked on with Matt Finch, but never ended up releasing. This may or may not come out before Christmas.

I did not finish this

The State of My Other Projects

People who have been reading this blog might remember the promises. Well, burnout and a stronger focus on the zine has also meant that Castle Xyntillan, my Tegel Manor homage, has been very slow to progress, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. I was dissatisfied with some of my ideas for the dungeons, and rather than beat my head against the wall, I scrapped the problem areas and replaced them with something completely different. We are also in the final stages of our campaign, meaning we will wrap it up soon and if I can find the time, it will be reasonably easy to complete the manuscript and hand it out to people for comments and criticism while I redraw the maps (they will still be hand-drawn, just a bit prettier). Xyntillan is going to be a larger book, maybe a hardcover similar in size to the 1e PHB, with large foldout GM and player maps (either two or three of them each). It is also for OD&D/S&W.

Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG, has been lying untouched for almost two years now (the last major work I did on it was in August 2016). The rulebooks and the first two adventures are translated and mostly laid out, but as projects tend to go, I stalled at 90% readiness and haven’t been inspired to progress ever since. It will happen, although I don’t know if it will happen in 2019. Maybe the end of it. Helvéczia is a game I believe in, and want to see it done right no matter what it takes (apparently, years).

Other things I made this year
There is also something else I haven’t been talking much about on RPG forums. Thief: The Dark Project, my favourite computer game will have its 20th anniversary at the end of November, and there is a level design contest for an old-school thieving experience. Some ten years ago, I was one of the people trying to go for an old-school aesthetic in the Thief level design community, and I have since found a following of talented people (for some reason mainly French) who have taken things to the next level. In the last eight years, I have been focusing on The Dark Mod, the free Thief-inspired stealth game, but the anniversary and the contest were a one of a time opportunity to return to Thief level editing. It turns out Dromed, the hoary old level editor used to build Thief fan missions, is as quirky as ever, but it has gotten some improvements to make it easier to work with and remove some of its hard limitations.

"That stupid thing with all the lines"
Building Thief levels is an incredibly addictive hobby; using simple geometric shapes (cubes, wedges, cylinders, pyramids, corner-apex pyramids and dodecahedrons) to construct complex terrain and build rewarding gameplay is time-consuming and utterly absorbing. Where a simple house could be a cube with two wedges on the top, a sequence of interlocking shapes (which can be solid, “air” or water) can result in some pretty sophisticated stuff. Of course, by current computer game standards, Thief is incredibly low-fi: even on its release 20 years ago, it didn’t win any awards for graphics. But it is this low-fi aesthetic which makes it look timeless, and its other features (a revolutionary stealth system, the world’s best sound design, and the ability to build huge, labyrinthine levels have stood the test of time very well. If some of my RPG projects have been slow to appear, Thief and Dromed are partly to blame.

The State of the Old School

Old-school gaming is as stable these days as it gets. It may not be obvious to many, but with its roots in communities like Dragonsfoot, the OD&Dities fanzine, and the Necromancer Games forums, it has been around since 2000 and 2001. OSRIC was published in 2006, and Swords & Wizardry will turn ten this October. Contrary to a lot of doomsaying and wishful thinking on part of its detractors, it has not been proven a passing fad, or a few nostalgiacs clinging to their childhood. Instead, our niche interest (and a niche interest it will remain) has established itself as a legitimate approach to gaming. It is here to stay, although not necessarily at the level of its 2010-2012 peak. Being fan-based and decentralised without a dominant lead product, old-school gaming has weathered its boom years better than the d20 system.

The breadth of old-school gaming has necessarily brought divisions: with common roots in the classics, the communities around OSRIC, LotFP, Into the ODD and Dungeon Crawl Classics can easily remain in communication, but they are otherwise increasingly separated by taste, design interests, and the kind of people they attract. I personally think early 1st edition AD&D is the game with the strongest and most distinct creative legacy, and the common wellspring to which we can (and should) all return time and time again. There is, however, no denying that there is an equally strong interest in the Basic/Expert lineage, a segment of the OSR which has strongly overlapped with the indies, and ideas which have drifted off into far-flung corners of gaming. In some of these cases, the influence and mutations of old-school philosophies may yield surprising new result. It may also turn out we may not like some of them. So it goes; this is, fortunately, a corner of the hobby where the stakes are small, and everyone can create the kind of gaming they want. More or less, anyway.

The last time, I mentioned commercialisation and a loss of our focus (as bottom-up, actual play-focused DIY communities) as one of the threats which can seriously harm us in the future. I am not too happy to bring it up, but this time, it is politics. Make no mistake, I am not anti-political (to the contrary, I am a politics junkie), and if releasing a politically charged game is your poison, be my guest. But there is too much of a good thing, and the people who can’t shut up about their specific brand of radicalism are becoming a nuisance. Perhaps a lot of things are political, including my chair, my table, and especially the parasol I am sitting under (all bourgeois conceits when I could be building barricades), but the people who try to bring their crummy politics into everything are rapidly becoming “that guy”. And they never seem to notice themselves.

But there is more than nuisance, there is just plain shitty behaviour. When you see people clamouring to punish other gamers for imagined or real ideological transgressions, or for associating with the wrong kind of people, or as it happened, for interviewing someone on a podcast who had associated with the wrong kind of people, that is not a “nuisance”. These people will incessantly talk about toxicity and bad guys, while consistently making the Internet a worse place for everyone. They will try to ruin you, get you fired from your job and destroy your business and reputation for failing their self-made ideological tests. The thing to realise is that fuck no they aren’t fighting the good fight, and they are not acting out of good intentions, let alone “self-defence”. These ideological bullies want power, and they’ll be sure to start abusing it as soon as they get their hands on it. We ought to recognise it. We have known Pat Pulling and her ilk, and these new heirs of her are just the same, the same, the same. They don’t own gaming and they only speak for a small clique. The correct response to their jackassery is found in the classics: “Well, hello, Mister Fancypants. Well, I've got news for you, pal, you ain't leadin’ but two things right now: jack and shit... and Jack left town.”

What to do, then, if you perceive something political in gaming that annoys you? My plan is to game more, and that should be your plan, too. First of all, a commitment to gaming will weed out the people who are in “the community” to spread misery and generate outrage. They can fuck off back to wherever they came from. Second, in its own modest way, I think gaming is beneficial. Our hobby is built around friendship and hospitality, and if there is something our world needs more of, it is those two.  How many times do modern people invite friends over to sit around their dinner table for a few hours of conversation? More than that, enjoying gaming lets us realise the things we have in common. Shared creativity and friendship enriches us all. Is gaming a recipe for moral improvement? Do not ask too much of it. But do not undersell the small things either.

Thursday 2 August 2018

[REVIEW] The Exfiltrators

The Exfiltrators (2018)
by Lance Hawvermale
5th to 7th level

The Exfiltrators
First things first, this module was produced by one of the best Kickstarter campaigns I have seen. The objectives were simple and clearly laid out. The product description stated the designer’s aims without cloudy obfuscation and deceptive language. There were no stretch goals to build false expectations and stretch out production into infinity, and the pitch was based on a written, edited manuscript. The Kickstarter did something which very few Kickstarters actually do: it was meant to bridge the gap between manuscript stage and delivery. Finally, the campaign was launched February 2018, and the completed books were delivered April 2018. Hardcore! This approach gets my official endorsement. If you want to crowdfund something, this is the way to do it. (Note also that it raised all of $1,613, which makes my wisdom highly dubious.)

In The Exfiltrators, you must enter Velgate Prison, the kingdom’s most notorious penitentiary for those criminals who have to be put away very securely. The place is staffed by professionals, the prisoners are under continuous surveillance, and escape is impossible. Time to prove the warden wrong – your characters either get to break out of the most secure prison in the land, or break into the prison to investigate who is targeting them and other adventurers with perfectly orchestrated ambushes.

A good prison break hinges on confronting an interesting, complex security system to find its gaps or contradictions, and exploit them for your purposes. This is how they work. Unfortunately, Velgate Prison itself is completely underwhelming, which is not a good thing as the module’s lynchpin location. You would expect “the kingdom’s most notorious jail” to be a sinister, imposing and labyrinthine place, with prisoners lost somewhere on the lower levels. Instead, you get a much more modern and much-much more modest outfit using the panopticon design. It is, in fact, mostly one big room with a central observation chamber surrounded by multiple stacked levels of cells with the inmates inside them. This one room carries much of the adventure. All the rest of the prison is made up of humdrum support rooms like the guard barracks, the weapons locker, the quartermaster, and personal domiciles for the senior staff. It is all firmly in the “fantastic realism” school, mostly stating the obvious.

Nipple rings and tattoos: clearly EVUL
There are altogether 12 guards in the whole prison, ten inmates, and (beyond individual jail cells, which are counted separately in the key) 15 keyed areas, including a sloping passage, a description of a door, etc. The prisoners are your motley crew of maniacs, murderers and bandits, given lots of personal details and some personal effects. One of the intended ways to play the module is to get caught in the panopticon and McGyver an escape plan from old combs, hairpins and what have you while under watch. There is a convenient deus ex machine / complication due to a haunting spirit if the plan doesn’t succeed. In a more interesting case, the characters enter as investigators, and must pick the falsely accused from the convicts who deserve to rot. This is a good deal better (it is left to the GM who is who).

I must admit writing this review was hard. I had to read and reread parts of the module to recall the details, which doesn’t usually happen. The material is slippery, lacking the memorable bits which stick in your mind. Outside the aforementioned panopticon and a weak extraplanar plot thread (including the laziest planar maze I have ever seen), the module seemed to lack a distinct character. It is more in the late AD&D style where the game abandoned conceptual simplicity for increasingly self-referential designs. In my mind, this is an important paradigm shift. Early AD&D starts out as an open framework which finds inspiration in outside sources it incorporates into its own logic (rules, procedures, content). It is straightforward, action-oriented, sometimes not very elaborate, but it is open to new infusions of pop culture. Comic books, horror movies, TV shows, pulp fantasy, mythology and all kinds of board and puzzle games the players enjoyed could find a way into their shared imagination. Late AD&D, in contrast, becomes a closed world which largely refers to its own legacy.* Reusing and combining pre-existing elements becomes the norm.

One feature of this period is the substitution of rules and canon knowledge in place of finding new outside stuff to mine. The stuff that turns up in Sage Advice, the worst column in gaming after the Ecology of… series. This module has both of that in spades; it relies on rule exploits to build some of its encounters, and the AD&D canon to build its background. This is more a personal taste than a design issue, but I don’t like it. I can appreciate someone who knows the AD&D rules deeply enough to use them creatively (this is a skill I never mastered), but here, we mostly find mechanical creativity instead of something out of the box – on the other hand, it is not the kind of vanilla I enjoy. If you like late 1e and 2e, this might be more to your taste.

The demiplane of randomly generated suckage
However, the cop-outs sting. The setup includes a thoroughly choreographed ambush where the orchestrator is “meant” to get away, and the adventure really stacks the deck in his favour. By the book? 100% by the book. Are magical commando tactics legitimate in AD&D? Logically, they would evolve in a magical setting, but again, this is a device which feels off. Multiple times, the GM is instructed to add or subtract opponents to scale the module. The prison has a secret deus ex machina NPC who is meant to even out the odds. If you need him to open the cell doors and let the PCs get away, he will give them the key, just like that. Or “a crowbar appears magically beside one of the PC’s cots”. Yes, that’s a quote. Or “using shape change, the Boy in the Box appears as a giant lizard or other monster, prompting the guards to flee the spire and regroup elsewhere”. Or if you need him to open a door leading to the extraplanar segment, he will be there for the characters. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Once Upon a Time in the West: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.

The writing is competent and obviously done by someone who knows how to write prose, but it is not a good adventure text. The sentences work but it is a dreadful reference where information gets lost and the information you get is often not the right kind of information. A high wall: “Optionally, the PCs can throw a grapple onto the wall’s upper edge, but quick-thinking players might believe such sounds have a chance of alerting one of the guards.” An observation post: “The windows have been darkened with a special alchemical process so as to permit the guard to see out while blocking attempts to see inside the spire from without. However, those with infravision can still clearly see the heat signature of the guard within.” A lot of clutter; a lot of important details left in obscure corners of the module, the works.

The Exfiltrators is not a cynical cash grab, and it is not designed carelessly. There are parts of it which are competent; the author is a writer who has been published professionally in fiction, poetry and RPGs. Some of his modules are fairly good. This scenario isn’t. It reminds me of the worse kind of Dungeon Magazine adventures (quoth Bryce: “Jesus H. Fucking Christ I hate reviewing Dungeon Magazine.”) Verdict: Skip this harder than Skip Williams.

No playtesters are listed for this publication.

Rating: * / *****
* Note: in recent decades, this trend has turned into an endless recycling of the D&D classics. These exercises have more to do with brand-building and IP management than actually learning from the things the same products were attempting to do.