Monday 17 December 2018

[REVIEW] The Village and the Witch

The Village and the Witch (2018)
by Davide Pignedoli
Published by Daimon Games
low levels

The Village and the Witch
Underwater Basketweaving, you say? Not that specific, but kinda-sorta. The product on review here is a brief toolkit to randomly generate adventures concerning an Early Modern village, a witch with evil designs, and various details to connect the two and instigate a catastrophic conflict. Kindling table not included. Now, this is certainly a specific product. You need to be running LotFP (or Davide’s rather interesting variant of it, published in the Black Dogs zine), pre-derp WFRP, or something sharing their basic assumptions to find this useful. This is not going to fill in the details between B2 and X1. If you want to burn some witches, though, it is practically what your friendly plague doctor ordered.

The procedure works with die drop tables. You roll all your polyhedra, and while the die results determine the individual elements of the adventure (from village layout and buildings to the specifics and peculiarities of the case), their positioning determines how these elements are connected. This provides a simple, yet adaptable framework to run the adventure, in both the physical and non-physical sense. For instance, rolling 3 on the 1d10 table establishes that the witch is aided by a crippled veteran, and lives at the location where the d10 stops on your sheet of paper. A similar set of procedures lets you create the witch (since we live in modern, or at least Early Modern times, xir gender can be male, female, both or none). This take on witches makes them more of a monster than an NPC, since they plainly exist outside the regular rule framework, with some pretty snazzy evil powers. Their goals, sadly, are fairly simplistic, revolving around killing a lot of people and destroying their opposition. Mechanics are provided to “manage” the spreading influence of the witch, and the local attempts to put a stop to it, complete with false accusations and such. This replaces plot fiat (“on day 3, the witch will kill the local miller”) with a GM-facing minigame and more dice rolling. The other half of the supplement goes into details on general local NPCs who may get involved, random stories, and magic items and spells. There is a two-page discussion on hammering the square peg of D&Desque Lawful – Neutral – Chaotic alignment into the round hole of Early Modern Christianity, and it works exactly as well as you would suspect. Was Jesus Chaotic? The answer may surprise you.

How does it stack up? The results of the random generation system, while nothing out of the ordinary, are robust. The suggestions to make it work are sensible. It is not a packaged adventure, but it is a module (in the original sense). You can create the basics for a good witch-hunt with a little rolling, and connecting the dots. However, flaws are also apparent in the supplement’s construction. It is all about the outlines; the depth is missing, and it does not go beyond stereotype (unless we consider the interesting implication that going by the results, there is always a witch somewhere nearby). There are also limits to the variety of the content that can be generated. Good random generators have wide applicability; this one is good for perhaps three small scenarios before it starts repeating itself. Good enough? Not enough? It is somewhere on the boundary.

The Village and the Witch is a specific product for a specific kind of game. I personally prefer the reliable old Hexenhammer, but when you want to do some decent community witchburning, this one will certainly do a good job. In the general sense, it is a product that could open up the possibilities for similar, although hopefully more detailed supplements. The die drop mechanism has potential as a plot generator, if its simplifications can be corrected.

Burn, baby, burn!

Rating: *** / *****

Wholesome Family Entertainment

Sunday 9 December 2018

[NEWS] Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 released in PDF

Blood, Death, and Tourism!

I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF version of Echoes From Fomalhaut #03, now available from RPGNow. This issue of the zine features an adventure set on a tropical island paradise dotted with odd ruins, a GM’s guide to the Isle of Erillion mini-setting, monsters converted from the excellent Wizardry VII computer game, and the description of a destructive magical enigma, as well as the people who follow its path of devastation. People who have purchased the zine in print are eligible for a free copy of this edition (these download links have just been sent out). Print copies are still available at Looking at typical shipping times, a US order still has good odds of making it before Christmas.

In other news… Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper has been reprinted, and 38 out of 120 copies have already been sold of the new printing. In yet other news, Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 is going to be slightly delayed – I am looking at a January release. When I posted about the zine’s regular, quarterly schedule, a little voice in my head was trying to warn me not to jinx it. So much for listening to good advice!

However, the late few months have not been spent idle. I published a module for the 10th anniversary of my RPG, and judged a module writing contest. Two of the entries will also be released in English; one in Echoes, and one as a standalone scenario. And of course, there will be more to come.

Friday 7 December 2018

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Dark Anniversary

Rose Garden

It has been twenty years (and one week) since the publication of Looking Glass Studios’ unconventional masterpiece: Thief: The Dark Project was released 30 November, 1998. Thief would invert the formula of first-person shooter games: instead of shooting enemies, you would have to hide from them (or carefully sneak up on them and knock them out with a blackjack); instead of playing a badass space marine, the main character was a thief who could hardly fight a single guard; and instead of a rocket launcher, your ammo would consist of water arrows to extinguish torches, and moss arrows to coat loud surfaces with a sound-dampening moss. Thief had replaced non-stop action with carefuly scrutiny of the environment and the patrols around you, and quick, panicked bursts of action while trying to move from one safe, shadowed spot to another. Getting through a loud, tile-covered corridor segment before the patrol would return; nabbing a priceless gemstone from behind the back of a guard looking the other way; or breaking the lock on a well-illuminated door before bolting back into the shadows – these are the building blocks of the Thief experience. Thief had originally been planned as a swordfighting game (Dark Camelot was never realised, but the fencing system is still fairly robust), but something went fatefully wrong during development, when one of the lead designer tried to infiltrate a room while hiding behind an enemy. This kind of tension can prove addictive.

Shadow Play
Thief’s main attraction lies not just in its conceptual originality, but also its precise and narrow focus. Deus Ex (2000), often held up as the best game ever, is a mediocre shooter, a mediocre sneaking game and a mediocre CRPG, with some decent but hardly outstanding environmental simulation – but the individually flawed bits make for something much more than the sum of its parts. Thief does two things (sneaking and exploration), but does it impeccably. Its graphics were already dated on the date of its publication (contemporary reviews were surprisingly critical about it, even though its
“look” is iconic, and uses colours and shapes in a very clever way). However, its
audio – consisting of noises, odd echoes and monotonous tension loops – is one of a kind, and has rarely been approached in its atmosphere. The guards’ drunken rambling and lowbrow conversations are not just a matter of establishing a certain feel, but cues to help you locate and avoid them: they will signal whether they are preoccupied with their crappy night job (“I don't see why I should have to be the one down here in the cold and the dark and the damp....”), looking for you (“Is it just me or did something move?”), preparing to rush and kill
The Sound of a Burrick in a Room
you (“
All right, you're in for it now, thief!”), or summoning help (“Intruder! Help, help!”). The stealth system, based on shadow-light patterns and the loudness of footsteps on various surfaces (wood, earth, carpet, metal, stone, tile, etc.) requires a minimal user interface in the shape of a small “light gem”, while being fully immersive and providing excellent visual and aural feedback. Learning to move silently is a talent you have to learn, and then master to get ahead. Thief is, in many ways, a fully player skill kind of game.

Whistling of the Gears
Then there is the world: a clash of the middle ages and an industrial revolution, surrounded by the soot-covered walls of a claustrophobic, nameless city that has grown well beyond its natural limits. A place filled with inscrutable, ticking machinery; pipes and grates belching steam and smoke; arc lights and generators – and on the other side of the coin, guards in mail, snooty lords and dark magic. Progress in this world is represented by the Hammerites, a fanatical religious order maintaining much of the City’s technological infrastructure, slowly losing out to more commercially-minded lay smiths, while trying to root out the pagan heretics who would return the world to an irrational (and entirely wretched) bucolic past. Most of the citizens, however, are corrupt or simply uncaring guards, cruel crime bosses, indolent aristocrats and their snivelling servants. While
In and Out
Thief may seem steampunk, it is in truth outside the confines of genre: like its distant successor,
Dishonored, it is an original creation that has more to do with film noir (particularly The Third Man – when you steal from The Third Man, you are stealing from the best) and Dungeons & Dragons. The story is a highlight: the protagonist, the cynical and embittered thief Garrett, is an anti-hero in the truest sense: he is egoistic, arrogant, petty, and his own worst enemy – under the mask of professionalism, he is motivated by enormous vanity, and resentment against his former benefactors. By the time the story ends, he loses all he has gained, but learns nothing.

Darkness Walk With Us
Thief has never been continued in a truly worthy way. The story reaches its due conclusion at the end of the first game. The sequel, while often more refined, loses much from the energy and the aesthetic; the third and fourth games are increasingly fruitless efforts to sell the original formula to a mass-market audience. The results are at first questionable, then catastrophic: the 2014 reboot is a complete failure both as a Thief game and a corporate moneymaker. Underworld Ascendant, the new game by Looking Glass alumni, is a creative and financial black hole. The true successors are found in the Dishonored series (which remakes the original idea as an assassination game where you don’t actually have to kill anyone), and in the free, fan-made Dark Mod. However, the richest content lies among the community-made fan missions, still going strong after 20 years.

Lost Among the Forsaken
The Thief community has always been tight-knit and motivated, verging on the fanatical. It was their incessant lobbying at Looking Glass which had earned us the release of the editor, followed by a stream of fan missions from small, simple affairs to sprawling, campaign-length epics (some still under development). It would be too much to play all 1200 of them, and of course, they have an enormous range in style and quality. However, the best, including Gems of Provenance, The Seven Sisters, Endless Rain, the Rocksbourg Series or Calendra’s Cistern/Legacy, are worthy successors to the original game.

The Burning Bedlam
With a build time of a whole year, the recently completed 20th anniversary contest has seen the release of no less than 24 missions (and one out of competition). They are wildly different takes, from beginner efforts (proving that Dromed, the game’s quirky editor, is still inviting) to a surprising number of missions which should become modern classics (see this article’s illustrations). One of the missions, Rose Garden, is mine – I returned to Thief after a 10 year hiatus, and spent much of this year on constructing a giant, complex city map. Of course, you should play the basic game first if you haven’t. Make sure you do so without any texture or model “upgrades” (and if you have particularly good taste, stay with software rendering), and enjoy Thief the way it was meant to be played. It has aged well, and it is just as intriguing and mysterious as in its year of publication.

(A post on Thief's lessons for tabletop gaming will follow shortly.)

Rose Garden
Rose Garden