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

Sunday 25 November 2018

[BLOG] A Year of Anniversaries

By coincidence or unknown heavenly purpose, 2018 has been a year of gaming anniversaries: multiple games which have had an impact on me are celebrating something. The oldest of them is M.A.G.U.S., Hungary’s most popular role-playing game, now 25. M.A.G.U.S. is both an AD&D imitator and its own thing, and its effects on the local gaming scene has been tremendous, even though the original publisher is long defunct, and no popular edition has been released in a long while. I have had a conflicted relationship with it, and my tastes are often in opposition to the surrounding play culture, but I recognise its basic appeal. But more on that in a later post. The second game is Thief: The Dark Project. Thief is not an RPG, but it has captured my imagination like no other computer game (except maybe Wizardry VII). Thief is going to be 20 at the end of November, and I will, again, write about it a bit later (right now, I am working overtime to have my anniversary fan mission playtested). The third game is closer to this blog: it is none else but Swords & Wizardry. Matt Finch’s take on OD&D is 10; there have been several edition, a boatload of modules, and it has an enduring popularity as one of the simpler, easily moddable old-school rulesets. But this article is about a different game: mine. Accordingly, most of this is inevitably personal, and none of it is an objective, outsider’s view.

Cover designs for Sword and Magic modules
Sword and Magic (“Kard és Mágia”) shares its name with S&W, and by some unseemly miracle of timing, they share a release date: both were published on October 15, 2008. There is an abbreviated English-language version of the basic mechanics, but this is not really the full game, which is a complete RPG in three booklets with some 190 very densely typeset pages (and no illustrations whatsoever). The real game is in those details. Sword and Magic, which I would be ill advised to abbreviate, was published as an effort to introduce the idea of old-school gaming to the Hungarian gaming scene, in the form of a free ruleset, and a range of fan-made adventures and supplements. This is a plan I had had since at least 2003: at that time, I published a homemade d20 module (The Garden of al-Astorion), but never followed up on the initial effort. But the idea, inspired by Judges Guild, Necromancer Games, and their ilk, was always there: I envisioned people sharing and sometimes selling their own home-made content online and at conventions, and creating a creative community from which all could benefit.

The effort was in part borne of the enthusiasm to share an exciting discovery (the old-school playstyle, then newly rediscovered, and still in the process of taking shape in discussion and flame wars around the net). But it was also an effort to get away from the top-down content creation model dominating the Hungarian RPG scene, where amateur efforts had died off to yield to a supplement treadmill mainly consisting off – no offence – unplaytested, unplayable, and often actively play-hostile rubbish. I felt like an outsider in that world, but recognised there were a lot of other gamers who would appreciate something different. After all, I could sell my group on the idea – why not the others?

Sword and Magic was created around the same time as the first Castles&Crusades playtests. It arose from the same discussions, but ended up going in an entirely different direction. Ironically, so did OSRIC, the legal precedent for retroclones: our disagreements were wide, and often very acrimonious. Sword and Magic is mechanically closer to the idea of a “d20 light” system than a faithful retroclone like OSRIC, and makes much fewer compromises towards recreating a specific “AD&D feel” than C&C. It also has a simplified skill system, which neither of the other two games ended up adopting, and which dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers tend to scoff at. However, it guts the 3.0 rules without mercy, and cuts out much of the game’s subsystems (Feats, most classes) and mechanical complexity (almost all special cases, the byzantine rules to stat monsters and NPCs), and creates a game that is medium-powered, dirt simple, and sword&sorcery-flavoured (much more than any of the big old-school systems, but not in a purist way – people have used it to play on Titan, the Fighting Fantasy world, and there is a very elegant Middle Earth-focused variant). It is also a game you can hand to a new player, and have them playing in your game in about 15-20 minutes (real-life statistics).

Sword and Magic was mostly system complete by 2006, along with its Monsters & Treasures booklet, but took two more years to publish due to the third. I spent two years writing and polishing Gamemasters’ Guidelines, a comprehensive, bottom-up guidebook on gamemastering, from running a game to designing adventures, campaigns, and fantastic worlds (as well as a treatment on different playstyles, pulp fantasy genres, a brief domain management system, and a set of random tables). Nobody had really done this before in Hungary (actually, very few have done it in the US either – most games traditionally gloss over teaching you GMing in a structured, bottom-to-top way), and it took a while to get right. I think you could probably hand the resulting guidelines to any starting GM, and it would be useful – my hope was that it’d spread beyond the specific system, and prove itself as a general play aid (this did not work in the short run, but apparently, it has had some success over the years).

Tesco Value layout

The game was released on 15 October, 2008, with a range of four modules, and the odd techno-Hellenic world of Fomalhaut as its example setting. I consciously chose a minimal design style for the product line, sometimes expressed as a “Tesco Value” (i.e. “store brand”) RPG. There were no illustrations beyond the simple and op-art-inspired cover logos (I live in Victor Vasarely’s hometown, and quite like his geometric style); layout was two-column 9-point Arial; and it was, and to this day remains absolutely free in PDF. (There were no print edition at the time, although I broke the rule with my second RPG, the lavish Helvéczia boxed set, and the new 2018-2019 releases). It received no store distribution, and was entirely dependent on word-of-mouth – local game magazines had died out by the time. For all that, Sword and Magic found its place in the Hungarian gaming scene. Not without the usual acrimony and rejection – quite a lot of gamers had been deeply convinced by the makers of M.A.G.U.S. that “AD&D” was a primitive, worthless game, and it was only suitable (perhaps) for small children… despite having the oldest fanbase of any locally available RPGs. But in the end, you can’t win them all, and acrimony is publicity.

Most of the game’s fans came from the wider D&D community, an even mixture of veterans (who had fondly remembered the amateur roots of the local gaming scene) and newcomers (who had discovered it as a new thing). Its most successful years were between 2008 and 2013, when the surrounding forum community was the most active; since then, things have settled down a bit, but it is still surrounded by a fairly good community of active players. It did not take the hobby by storm, but it has established a foothold and legitimised a previously neglected playstyle.

It is also fairly well supported by the standards of a small non-English-speaking country. Someone looking at the back cover of the latest Echoes From Fomalhaut issue could note 33 supplements (the rest are either for Helvéczia, or in English), about a third of which are by guest authors. These are mostly short to medium-length; however, all are game-friendly and playtested, having withstood the test of actual play. (Having been burned by quite a lot of bad game materials, which ended up driving me away from the hobby in the 1990s, it has been my firm policy to publish playtested materials only, and insisting on giving playtester credit.)

Over the years, much of the community around the game have embraced new systems (5e has been a strong rival, although I am arrogant enough to claim my game does the same things better, and with less work), while keeping around some of the game’s ideas and house rules. It has inspired the creation of new rulesets – Kazamaták és Kompániák (Dungeons and Companies, a more OD&Dish game with robust follower rules, now gearing up for a second edition), and more recently, Kardok és Másodteremtés (Swords and the Second Creation, which is Middle-Earth-based). The community has also created its own series of mini-conventions, entirely focused on getting together and gaming for a day: Random Encounters had had 6 events (mostly focused on old-school systems and indie games), followed by The Society of Adventurers, which had its 8th event yesterday (this one also has a robust 5e presence, but this particular instalment was in celebration of our 10th anniversary). As much as anything else, this is what makes me the most happy: inspiring people to go forward and develop their own ideas (the “Fight On!” principle). And of course, keeping it play-oriented, bottom-up, and close to the actual fans. This is our game; perhaps not the largest in town, but it is ours.

Cloister of the Frog God: 10th anniversary module
What has the anniversary meant for English-speaking gamers?

Well, Echoes #04 is going to be slightly late, an early 2019 release. Beyond my day job, a lot of my time has been taken up by my Thief mission for the 20th anniversary contest (now in late playtesting stages, to be released in early December), and four adventure modules. One of these, Cloister of the Frog God, a 40-page wilderness-and-dungeon module, has already been published. This module has a complicated history. It comes from my old, never released Tegel Manor manuscript, which I largely cannibalised for this module, and later for my upcoming megadungeon, Castle Xyntillan. (Note, bits and pieces may turn up in Frog God Games’ recently kickstarted take on it – but that one is mostly going to be Bill Webb’s work, and I am interested in what that fiendish mind will come up with!) The Cloister dungeons were published in the Frog God edition of Rappan Athuk (it is one of the wilderness locales), and will also be part of the new, revised 5e volume. Accordingly, I am not going to publish it as a separate module. However, the wilderness section will become a standalone adventure, and the main feature for Echoes From Fomalhaut #04, with an excellent Matt Ray cover, and illustrations by Andrew Walter and Denis McCarthy. If you speak German, the whole module is going to be published in a special issue of the Abenteuer fanzine (Settembrini will be able to tell you when).

But there is more. As part of the anniversary, my friends in the community organised a Sword and Magic module writing contest, with me as the judge. The three submitted entries were all worthy of publication, with very different takes on the game and its concepts. They include Murderous Devices by Mátyás Nagy, a sinister murder mystery set in a French Caribbean town (not unlike the Freeport series, the module doubles as a city supplement); The Enchantment of Vashundara by Zsolt Varga, a surreal adventure taking place on the home plane of a god in trouble (with an original and well-realised perspective); and The Lost Valley of Kishar by Gábor Csomós, the best damn lost world adventure I have seen. These adventures will all see publication, in both print and PDF (and this time, with worthy illustrations), and the latter two will also receive an English translation, one in Echoes, and one as a standalone (Murderous Devices, while very cool, lies a bit outside the scope of EMDT’s thematic focus). I am confident people will love them when they see them.

Until then… Fight On!

Contest winners: Coming 2019 to your gaming table!

Monday 12 November 2018

[REVIEW] The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma (2018)
by Anthony Huso
5th to 7th level (or slightly higher)

This is a long overdue review of a module that deserves more attention. I had planned to review it as soon as I read it in the Spring – but misplaced my copy, which only turned up again at my weekend house as I was readying it for Winter. So here it is, a bit belatedly: a great AD&D module based on the author’s personal notes from the 1980s, given a new polish and some expansion and rewriting. It is both a good document of the way high-level AD&D was often played (I remember fairly similar, although less good dungeons from a very different time and place), and something that has excellent playing value today. It should be no surprise the module is good. I have known Anthony’s work since the early 2000s, when he created some of the best Thief fan missions of that time, with a signature design style featuring expansive, sinister cities, labyrinthine plots, high drama, purple prose, and brooding sluts. He had later worked as a level designer on various computer games including the Dishonored computer games – again, a standout series – and he has recently published a range of AD&D supplements, with the same imagination and attention to quality.

As acknowledged in the Foreword, The Mortuary Temple of Esma was inspired by the eerie and strange Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the “White Album” of Gygaxian fantasy scenarios. Tharizdun is the most Lovecraftian AD&D module in a line which had always drawn generously from Lovecraft, but this time without being imitative: it conjures the same ideas of wrongness and blasphemy while constructing its own disturbing imagery. It is also a tough meatgrinder of a module, with deadly battles to test a hardened adventuring group; not to mention how much of the content is hidden in fair but progressively more obscure ways. Finally, it has art completely outside the established AD&D style, so much so that it feels like a weird third-party bootleg to a mainstream family game. I bring this up because, beyond the acknowledgement, Mortuary Temple is to Tharizdun what Tharizdun is to Lovecraft: a homage, but an original one which carries forward the general idea while following its own path. The design features I noted for Tharizdun all apply to the Mortuary Temple – in their own natural context.

What the module offers is a three-level dungeon underneath the mausoleum of an elf lord (for four total levels). It is somewhat a mixture between a monument to love similar to the Taj Mahal, a testing ground, and a place to bury unpleasant cosmic secrets. It has its own strong style, featuring a clash between lost beauty and unwholesome corruption – not only in the place’s trappings, but the content of the encounters. Accessing the mortuary temple’s secrets involves not just careful discovery, but making sacrifices and wagering one’s life and belongings. It certainly has strong choices and consequences – and the rewards are artifact-level magical treasures both iconic and powerful. This is a module for a large party of characters who have grown into their stature and earned their experience levels and magic items (it is not a low-magic scenario either – it is ideal for groups who know how to exploit two wands of Orcus and three hands of Vecna). Whatever the outcome, it will be a memorable adventure.

Module interiors
It pays off that the author knows and respects the AD&D rules without becoming their creative servant. The module leverages this knowledge to build a deadly gauntlet of encounters with powerful and resourceful enemies who know and exploit their environment (without being omniscient about it). The top level alone is a brutal battleground, which will test a party’s mettle before they can descend to the dungeons. The encounters mix the familiar with the new – well-known AD&D monsters with original creations (or old mainstays given a new spin). The following levels are more focused on puzzles and smaller mysteries, while the final one is once again a brutal tactical slaughterfest (note, the module practically requires a battle mat or a table setup to run fairly). The encounters are puzzling mini-scenarios on their own, from forgotten tombs to a nightmarish underwater realm and a place of emtombment forgotten by the outside world, and beyond the scope of what one would expect from a sacred elven resting place.

There are two aspects of the module I find less good (and the reason why it did not receive the rare five-star rating despite being close to it). First, while the individual encounters are almost always excellent, the core puzzles to progress deeper into the module feel mechanical, a bit like CRPG quests instead of D&D’s creative problem solving (although the module predates most actual CRPGs). I think these are the artifacts of 1980s play which did not age so well, even if they are, in fact, authentic (here, Tarizdun has stood the test of time much better). The second reason is that the two final levels are somehow less inspired than the materials preceding them. This is no accident, since the original group of players never actually reached them, and the magic of playtesting – the transformative force which puts the GM’s materials into their final context – is not present.

The adventure is presented in a fairly easy to follow format, although I suspect table use would require a fair amount of underlining and a bit of cross-referencing due to the material’s interrelatedness and complexity. The prose, when it comes to the brief but heavy descriptions, is sort of a familiar trademark: “Shod in plated steel, gallant valves of white stone hang picturesque, but unsecured. The wind whimpers and, across the walls, curtains of unchecked clematis flutter and sway. No longer square, the doors pivot on huge pins, making ravenous sounds where stone brushes stone.” (Compare this with the introduction to Calendra’s Cistern, a Thief mission from the year 2000 – some things are reassuringly constant.) It is not long, but it is as purple as it comes – and yes, there is ancient elven love poetry, an almost disturbing amount of it. On the other hand, the information in the location key is broken down sensibly, the various forms of highlighting and side boxes are helpful, and the whole thing is well put together. I usually don’t review production values, but like Tharizdun, Mortuary Temple features a non-standard art style featuring the author’s pencils and crayons, mostly greyscale with rare dashes of colour – fitting the mood of an original module. It is pleasing to look at, as are the maps – which are original, with digital enhancements.

The Mortuary Temple of Esma is among the best releases of this year, and even its slight weaknesses should not detract from its power of imagination and skilful execution. It is as good as deadly mid-to-high (but more emphasis on “high”) level AD&D gets.

This publication credits its playtesters (or at least it seems so from the Special Thanks section).

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

Monday 15 October 2018

[BEYONDE] Beyond Google Plus, and Fixing the Internet

Thou hast offended the algorithm!
Depart now and never return!

Right, everyone has heard the news: Google is shuttering its failed social network. Told you so? Right in my first post of substance! So which way forward? This is going to be a short post, but it will be more than an announcement.

First things first: G+ is not going away yet. Posting there has been on borrowed time the last few years anyway, and we can still keep doing it for a while. I plan to continue being active there, but I have mostly moved on to, the fittingly oddball social network where the old-school posters seem to be going. So far, it has been a good experience, so hopefully, it will work out – and if it doesn’t, there will be other options. This blog will also be around as long as Google does not decide to can Blogspot (like that would ever happen, right? Right?), and I plan to be updating it as I can. On MeWe, I have created a group for Echoes From Fomalhaut, where I will be posting regular updates. Join me if you would like.

So much for myself. Now for the main thing: what does it all mean for old-school gaming? How can we survive such a doubtless destructive event? I will go against the grain and suggest it is going to be a good thing, with implications beyond our hobby. Here is why.


The users will find a way. It has been my experience that platforms and communities come and go, but you can usually meet the same people over and over again. Old-school gaming is approaching twenty years, and it has spread out from forum threads to dedicated communities to blogs and social networks. There have been many stops and reversals along the way. Communities have split up in bitter feuds, parted on amicable terms, or as it often goes, ceased to have new things to say to each other. New sub-groups have sprung up and created their own niches, fads have come and gone, but the good games have endured. This is because our communities are not governed by a five-year marketing plan, but hobbyist interests: they will live in some form as long as we need them to; and if they won’t anymore, that will be no great loss. And most people will be along. I have seen the same circle of friends crop up again and again, sometimes after taking a few years off and coming back with new ideas (I have done that, too). The change is also not absolute: the other points of light of the old-school wilderness, blogs and forums will stay where they always were, and you can revisit them.

Occasional shake-ups are good reminders, and good for creativity. When old communities fade and new ones emerge, there is always new buzz and enthusiasm, new Terra Incognita to discover. On MeWe, one of the first threads in the OSR community is an obligatory “what’s your favourite old-school system?” thread. Before you scoff, I will say that these topics need to be restated every so often, not only to remind us of our creative origins (a must for any old-schooler), but also to see things in a new light. New combinations and new contexts is where innovation comes from. Like a kaleidoscope, a slightly different arrangement will produce a different image. Someone somewhere will discover the OD&D rulebooks or the Gygaxian DMG again, and have something new and worthwhile to say about them. It has happened every time before, and it shall happen again. With all my interest in weird fantasy, I also like going back to the AD&D standard (the real deal!) in different periods of my life, and seeing where it takes me.


Now for the more contentious part, which has a bit less to do with gaming. It was time for Google Plus to die, because its continued existence was bad for the Internet. The technological firms, which have enjoyed the benefits of immense network externalities, have been gradually taking the Internet in a destructive direction by subverting its core architecture. What does that mean? In the way it came to be, the Old Internet (my term) emerged as a decentralised network of networks. Communication was facilitated among its nodes on a global scale, requiring universal protocols, but it was a landscape of self-organised, self-governing communities. This is bottom-up architecture, based on the principle of subsidiarity. It is a great marketplace of ideas, resting on the simple principle that people have free movement, and no actor is powerful enough to restrict them. You might not like a forum like ENWorld, but you could find your place on Dragonsfoot, one of the zillion ezBoards, not to mention a myriad Geocities pages. This is an Internet in the service of its users, and (through its self-regulating nature) well adapted to different needs and communities.

In contrast, the New Internet of the tech monopolies follows hierarchical, top-down structures. Increasingly, more and more communication (including commercial activity) takes place on a shrinking number of platforms, which accrue immense advantages from their size. They are no longer market actors you can avoid or move away from, since there are increasingly fewer places to go. If you cut your ties with Paypal, you can’t switch to SpendFriend, because the vast majority of your potential customers will not do business with you. Your business will be ruined. The convenience of doing all our shopping on Amazon is a winning formula, but as the number of business rivals is diminished, we lose choices we never knew were important to have. Google Plus was a product that had been great for a niche like gamers – but it is going away because that niche is insufficiently profitable.

A social media expert from before it was cool
(note the hipster glasses)
The tech giants are also decidedly not acting in good faith. Our online life, which has a growing footprint in physical reality, is moulded to fit their needs, and put under intense scrutiny. Facebook, Google and their peers have access to profiling tools which we could not imagine ten or twenty-eight years ago. And neither would Erich Honecker. In the hands of those who are prone to abuses of power (that is, everyone), access to these instruments can do unimaginable harm. The “Don’t be evil” company, which had given you 1 GB of free space back in 2004 (when this seemed unimaginable generosity), is now developing tools of totalitarian thought control for China, and whose new internal “research document” is titled “The Good Censor”. Yes, it is just as bad as it sounds. It is ostensibly in the interests of “marginalised groups” (the new “think of the children!” trick), but it is very much about policing, silencing and punishing people. The right kind of people? The wrong kind of people? You next? Who has the right to decide?

I do not believe other companies are more virtuous. MeWe is probably not any more principled than Google. But its ability to do harm is limited due to its lesser market share and social reach. If, as some predict, its owner will suddenly pull off his wig and face mask to reveal Adolf Hitler or The Russkies, we can shrug and move to another platform. Facebook and Google, though? The costs of escaping their orbit are not yet insurmountable, but they are already steep. Like “losing contact with a lot of friends and family” steep or “he was applying for the job, but we couldn’t check him out so we just kinda dropped him into the reject pile” steep. Like the Ring, it comes with definite benefits, but like the Ring, the power to control a large share of the Internet through market share or government fiat must be destroyed, or at least diluted until a viable alternative emerges. Jaron Lanier has said some sensible things about where to go. Tim Berners-Lee is working on something mysterious to fix the Internet he had helped create.  And deep down, a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way things are going. The forces which had created the New Internet turned users from customers into commodities, and smushed them together to a degree that’s uncomfortable and liable to generate more and more conflict.

Was the Old Internet a place for kooks, oddballs, and fringe people? Yes, and it was much healthier for it. Was there disagreement and hate? Yes, human nature prevailed. And yet, curiously, there was less nastiness around, because not everyone was supposed to coexist in the same place. You could build your own communities and others could build theirs. There was as much distance between you and others as you wanted. It was a place for no-one, and accordingly, everyone. It was certainly great for gamers, a place for our kind. It was like the real “paradox of tolerance”. No, not the one by Karl Popper. That one is utter nonsense, concocted by people who hate freedom. Here is the real deal: it may hurt to allow people you intensely dislike to exist and speak for themselves, but ultimately, that’s the same principle defending you. Or, more succinctly: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” (If you imagined this quote with the image of a great white eagle flying before your mind’s eye, you are on the right track.)

Google and Facebook want to put everyone into the same little box, and if you don’t fit… well, bad news for you. If you are overcrowded in there, bad news for you. If they take a dislike to you in a place they can control, bad news for you. How come they are more important?

By a stroke of luck, we are no longer in the box. Good for us. It is not always going to be easy, but it is going to be glorious.

Saturday 29 September 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Blood, Death, and Tourism!
I am pleased to announce the publication of the third issue of 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 Stefan Poag (who did the cover for this issue), Denis McCarthy, and various long-dead Victorians. 

Blood, Death, and Tourism is centred around two longer articles. The first is an adventure module set on Tridentfish Island, an exotic island resort gone to rot, and currently being rediscovered by visitors from a sinful and decadent city state. Ancient mysteries and perplexing discoveries await! This article is the first published adventure from our City of Vultures campaign (the second on the world of Fomalhaut). Further issues will explore the city and the nearby lands in more detail.

The other large article describes the eastern half of the Isle of Erillion, with its ruins, castles, mysterious forests and inhabited settlements. From the city of Baklin to an archipelago of pirates and Northman raiders; and from gloomy highlands to magical forests, the hex entries provide half of a vanilla fantasy setting suitable for sandbox play. Erillion is easy to use on its own, or to place within the GM’s milieu of choice. The issue also includes a fold-out hex map of the island (the less accurate and less detailed player’s map was published in Issue #02).

Two smaller articles are also included: one adapts the beasts of Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant to Advanced old-school rules, while the other presents a mystery from the wastelands of Fomalhaut. What is the Great Wheel and who are the hosts who follow on its trail of devastation? The answer to at least one of these questions is revealed in Echoes #03!

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 24 September 2018

[REVIEW] Cinderheim: The Land Under the Demon Sun


[REVIEW] Cinderheim: The Land Under the Demon Sun (2018)
by Jack Shear
Published by Dolorous Exhumation Press

In the same years when the generic AD&D product line was filled with blah Renfaire pablum which surely wouldn’t upset your average soccer mom, Troy Denning, Timothy Brown and artist Gerald Brom struck gold, and designed a world of scorching deserts devastated by sorcery, brutal sorcerer kings lording over ancient city states, and super-powerful monsters roaming the remains of a dying world. Dark Sun remains the best campaign setting produced by early 1990s TSR, and easily stands its own against Tékumel, Glorantha and other original fantasy worlds. It is a miracle it happened, and no miracle it didn’t last, as later supplements and a terrible second edition brought it down. That initial fire, though, has burned brighter than any other: it is the one 2e product I would keep if I had to part with all the others. With that in mind, any product has huge shoes to fill when it tries to follow in Dark Sun’s mighty footsteps.

Cinderheim is not a full DS knockoff, but among its sources of inspiration (from Dying Earth stories to Weird West fiction), DS is the most prominent. The world guide is a system-neutral gazetteer; it was developed under 5th edition D&D, but contains almost no rules content beyond a few suggestions on running a campaign in one of the appendices. It is still a fairly slim booklet at 44 pages, particularly considering the generous font size and breezy layout.

Cinderheim is a blasted desert far from civilisation. The sun burns unnaturally strongly here, with an almost demonic intensity. The only major habitable areas are seven oases, each hosting a town ruled by an eccentric tyrant and his or her brutal band of warriors. In turn, each oasis is under the influence of a demon tied to the nature of the place, and usually the tyrant ruling over it. It is pretty much store-brand Dark Sun and its sorcerer kings on a smaller scale, but somehow, it never really starts to work.

Theoretically, you could take DS in different directions, but this specific one feels bowdlerised and lifeless. DS was a mishmash of cool stuff blended together, but in the end, it had a sense of cohesion, and it was united by the material’s intensity. Its oddities like mantis warrior characters, thieving elves, obsidian coins, psionics and cannibal halflings felt at home within the world, even if much was (very wisely) left as a mystery. Cinderheim does not have this intensity, even if it has its moments: Tenoch the Devourer, a mantis warrior ruler publicly feasting on the bodies his foes, living or dead, yet ever hungering, is a classical DS-style nightmare.

But some elements are missing. One of these is, indeed, size: Dark Sun was writ on a grandiose scale with massive ziggurats and armies of slaves; Cinderheim is of indeterminate scale (the map is particularly lazy, a few connected dots on a deserty background), but it never feels expansive. Perhaps there is simply a lack of information at play. You don’t get to learn too much from the world. The information in the booklet mainly consists of brief bullet point lists describing the basics about the oasis towns, the warlords ruling them, some of the local points of interests, and the seven demons. This approach makes things repetitive and just too “symmetrical” – all the towns, warlords, local temples and demon princes fit a specific pattern, without deviations and true variety. And again, it also feels small and fairly inconsequential, more like a containment zone for desert scum and exiles (like an elven war criminal, a half-orc revolutionary or a religious zealot) than a world literally devastated by sorcerous powers.

Perhaps it is just not crazy enough. Dark Sun went far with its ideas; it is a world with almost no metal; there are YUGE worms and insects used as beasts of burden; there are fountains of tar and burning plains of obsidian; and lots of casual brutality for its own sake. All outlandish, yet all fitting into the big picture. Those cannibal halflings were a shock, but they made a twisted sense. You don’t get that from this document. It is more tame, and it sorta just floats around without given context or connections. At its weakest, it almost comes across as a brutal multicultural utopia, where a diverse (but of course very brutal) menagerie of scorpionfolk, aasimar, catfolk, ogre magi and dragonborn live together in harmony and peace. I counted 28 different races living in the desert towns, and it may be a low estimate. I admit I laughed hysterically at the description of Daiyu, the favoured son of Niu Bo Wei (The Prince of Pleasure), who is a hobgoblin trans-weretiger “struggling to control his transformations”, but I am probably not a good person. The back cover promises “brutal scavengers [who] battle for survival against desperate raiders and monsters born of demonic corruption”, and “a blasted hellscape of barbarism, sandstorms, and unrelenting heat”, but that doesn’t really happen. The bits and pieces which directly support running a game in Cinderheim are decent but anaemic, amounting to a random adventure generator, a wilderness encounter table, a list of local names, a random chart for demonic corruption, and a table of random trinkets.

Needless to say, this did not do much for me. There is some good stuff scattered around the book (some of the warlords and demons have promise; you could get some value out of the tables), but it did not set my imagination on fire. It lacks the visionary appeal of a good setting pitch, and the direct usability of a solid utility product. Like most “I can’t believe it is not ___Famous Artist___” albums, Cinderheim does not scratch the itch it promises. Instead of carrying forward Dark Sun’s legacy and doing something interesting with it, it reads like an early, concept-stage pitch. And that’s it. The wastelands have no mercy. The weak should fear the strong, and in the blasted deserts of late 2018 gaming, Dark Sun is still as strong as ever, while Cinderheim stands no chance. Another lifeless body falls on the uncaring sands of the arena as the champion raises his arms and the crowds go wild at the sight of blood.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

Thursday 13 September 2018

[REVIEW] Under the Temple Crypt

Under the Temple Crypt (2018)

by Extildepo
Published by Verisimilitude Society Press
4th to 7th level

Under the Temple Crypt
Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I avoided making this quip when I reviewed the author’s previous adventure, because it would have been crude in a negative review. And here I am again, fallen for a pretty cover hook, line and sinker. But what a cover it is! One of the best and most visually striking I have seen in old-school gaming – sure, a lot of artists are more technically adept, but when it comes to evoking an air of mystery and adventure, this rendition of a cavern framed by red limestone formations is perfect at what it sets out to do. It recalls Thracia without aping it, and it is bold in that same Judges Guild style.

Under the Temple Crypt is a short “micro module” for Swords&Wizardry, designed for utility and sold for all of a buck. As the cover states, “No underlying story-hook or rational [sic] for exploring the site is given here.” This was a good decision. Tyranny of the Black Tower was suffering from a surfeit of underwhelming background detail; Under the Temple Crypt scraps the explanations and focuses on the content, presenting a well-rounded, 23-area dungeon level in 5 pages. This is the threshold where mini-dungeons become interesting and transcend simple monster lairs.

The crypt in the title is only the starting point, leading into a mixture of ruins and caverns. The ruins are the remains of an ancient city drawing on Imperial Roman imagery; it is not a large one, but it captures D&D’s combined fascination with archaeology and tomb-robbing. As an interesting dynamic element, the random encounter chart treats it as a very unstable place which is currently in the process of collapsing upon itself, adding a sense of urgency to the company’s investigations. One of the module’s most fun traps (area L, exploiting the company’s greed and curiosity) also builds on this unstable quality. Most of the challenge comes from the cavern’s current monster inhabitants; the rooms are largely a mixture of descriptive detail and monster lairs. I could live with a few more tricks, traps and enigmas, but all in all, it is quite successful. Some of the treasure is cleverly hidden without resorting to pixel-hunting, there are combat encounters which are bound to be memorable due to their setup or location (the scene on the cover is just one of them), and the place has a good, organic feel with an air of mystery.

No cover saves a bad adventure, but Under the Temple Crypt does not need saving. It is a marked improvement over Tyranny of the Black Tower, exactly the kind of solid, meat-and-potatoes adventure I expected more of from old-school gaming. I would like to see more of this series.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

For comparison: The Caverns of Thracia (Paul Jaquays, 1979)

Friday 7 September 2018

[REVIEW] The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort (2018)
by Nickolas Z Brown
Published by Five Cataclysms
1st to 4th level

Here is a module following the now mostly lost art of funhouse dungeon design. Where old-school gaming has rediscovered a lot of things about AD&D, Basic D&D and OD&D, there are things it mostly didn’t touch with a ten foot pole. One of these things is the art of creating enormous dungeons stocked to the gills with encounters which make no sense whatsoever except through the lens of game logic. There are exceptions, but not many, and this corner of vintage gaming lies gathering cobwebs and dust, even though it seemed to have dominated the late 1970s. Without writing a separate posts on these classic funhouse dungeons, here are a few features they seemed to have in common:
  • a complete disregard for historical or social accuracy, and little attempt to emulate genre fiction;
  • a fondness for anachronism (elevators, balrog janitors, ice cream parlours) and pop culture content;
  • Disneyland fantasy (modern people operating modern shops and behaving as modern Americans, but dressed up as fantastic characters);
  • the world outside the core dungeon can also be completely abstracted (as seen in early CRPGs: “the Shop”, “the Temple”, “the Inn”);
  • reliance on cartoon logic to design some puzzles (giant magnets and stuff), and out of game knowledge to solve them (the proverbial chess problem on a giant chessboard);
  • interaction with dungeon denizens is possible, but not explicitly encouraged as a “core” feature of dungeoneering;
  • the only true goal is to entertain and challenge the players and the Dungeon Master.

The roots go back to the earliest megadungeons, and for a while, the style’s influence was tremendously influential on computer games – not necessarily CRPGs (which never got the freewheeling fantasy and high-interaction environments right), but text and graphical adventure games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure, which ruled the gaming world until their extinction in the late 1990s. Tabletop itself had mostly moved beyond funhouse design by the AD&D period, although late attempts like Jim Grunst’s fanmade modules (The Olde Abbey Dungeon, House of the Hawk, The Tower of Pascal the Bio-Wizard) were still floating around the Internet in the late 90s.

The Sunken Fort seems to have come from a bizarro parallel dimension where OD&D still reigns and dungeons are not Serious Business. It starts on a promising note, with a good rooms per page ratio: there are 80 keyed rooms described in 27 pages. The map never goes off the grid, but that grid is absolutely filled with rooms, and each one has something going on (this is perhaps the main thing separating the dungeon from its trve OD&D peers). Encounters are written up in a sparse format starting with an initial “first glance” summary, and moving onto individual details one by one. It is a fairly minimalist and factual treatment without flourishes or digressions; the background and the “possible lead-in quest” are intriguing (someone or something has stolen a bunch of townspeople’s shadows, and retreated into this ancient subterranean fortress), but entirely optional.

This is where the bizarro OD&D aspects start. The Sunken Fort is not actually written for pre-supplements OD&D (or S&W White Box), but an offshoot that, after a little investigation, seems to be an unpublished homebrew variant. The framework is familiar (everything uses 1d6 for HD, GP=XP is in effect, etc.), but the rules have been tinkered with, and the menagerie, magic and mental framework are “off”. It is a bit like switching on the TV late at night, and happening on a foreign channel with an intriguing TV show you almost, but don’t quite understand. As a positive, this makes for a more authentic OD&D experience than playing something after decades of familiarity: the module’s fire-bats, tube-heads (the only description we get is “1d4 tubular headed creatures with far too many fangs”) and blue hunting bears (intelligent, bipedal, have blue fur and wear tam hats) are almost all new. They are not simple reskins, but – as good monsters do – many of them bring new functionality to the game.

Not Fucking Around
This kind of creativity extends to the encounters. All 80 rooms have a point of interest, sometimes more, and what they lack in window dressing (they often amount to “A ring of purple metal hangs from a string”, or “There are several small crates here”), they make up for in interaction. Beyond the combat encounters, tricks and traps abound: like a proper funhouse, there are always interesting, if crazy things to play with. “A skeleton rests beneath a glass panel in the floor. In its hands is clutched a scroll.” You know there is something to this room, and it is up to you to find out. Or: “The air smells of fire oil, and there are 20 pots on the floor. The floor is littered with the skeletons of mice.” Or: “A pair of legs walks about this room, bumping into various walls.” There are also classics like magic statues, rooms full of doors, rooms filled with black water, and so on. Most modern dungeons have four or five of these “specials” or set-piece encounters scattered around (if that); in The Sunken Fort, they are the main dungeon feature. It makes no literal sense, but in a roundabout way, it belongs there. Characters bit by a golden serpent will bleed gold pieces at a rate of 1 gp per Hp. A puzzle box is solved by tossing your players a Rubik’s cube [notably, a Hungarian invention]. If you start to pick up tiny magic mushrooms, you will be attacked by a swarm of tiny Conjurers (one might get ideas about how this module came to be). A room filled by a writhing mass of limbs and bodies makes for a nasty bottleneck where you can be dragged down and killed if you don’t find a way through. Quick thinking and dungeoneering skills will be put to the test several times.

Now, is this the world’s best puzzle dungeon? It has its flaws. The “special” rooms are mostly one-offs floating separately in the void, with little connecting tissue (the module introduction admits as much, although there are potential links and even mini-quests if you look at the dungeon sideways). And there is too many of them. It is very clever, and amazingly creative, but after so many puzzle rooms so close together, it sort of blurs together. This is a problem. A few such rooms drive the players to try crazy schemes and combinations; this emergent quality can get lost in a chaos when everything is a “special” (and thus, nothing is). The rooms themselves can be one-note, too. Sometimes, it is more fun to discover special features yourself, and here, they are mostly right out there before you. The “digging below the surface” aspect is there in a few places, but it is mostly missing.

Even with all these reservations, this is a good module to show your players what puzzle-oriented funhouse dungeons were made of, and it makes for a fairly authentic booklets-only OD&D experience (again, because it is so bizarre and unfamiliar).

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****