Thursday 31 January 2019

[REVIEW] The Ruins of Quinstead

The Ruins of Quinstead (1994)
by Roland O' Connell (only credited as R.O.C.)
Published by Gamer’s Group Publications
Level 1-12 (but see below)

Depicted: the castle that's NOT
actually in the module
There is no mistake about the year. This is an authentic third party AD&D module from 1994, recently made available again as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. Of course, it is careful not to call itself AD&D and get sued by TSR, Inc. – it is the kind of thing where you might encounter, say, a Level 2 Zealot with 13 Dps, owning a Vial of Curing Potion and a Level 1 Cloak of Guarding. Nobody is fooling anyone. In a way, it is a direct challenge to the TSR Overlords: as the introduction states, “As an avid supporter of the fantasy role playing games, I became discouraged by the lack of quality in the modules I was purchasing. Several of my gaming counterparts also felt this same dissatisfaction. The modules published by Gamer’s Group Publication come from a group of experienced role players who enjoy creating and playing fantasy role playing scenarios. (…) The original the Ruins of Quinstead adventure was created in 1980 by a novice game-master for use with the fantasy role playing system distributed by TSR industries. [sic] As this novice game-master improved his skills and knowledge of fantasy role playing games, the adventure underwent several modifications in an attempt to create a truly enjoyable gaming experience. The result, is the product you have just purchased.

I wonder if this could be one of the first game scenarios to have bragging rights about taking a deliberately old-school stance. It is there if you look at it carefully:
1) It identifies the problem (that the craft of adventure writing has declined radically, and TSR was pushing worthless junk on gamers);
2) It draws on a better tradition (1980-style dungeoneering);
3) It adapts that tradition through experience into something combining old and new ideas.
4) It is produced and published independently of AD&D’s existing owner.
How’s that for an “Old School Renaissance”? Are there earlier third party modules with a consciously declared back-to-the-roots message? Here is a puzzle for the Acaeum sleuths!

This, however, is an adventure review, so let’s have at it.

The Ruins of Quinstead takes you into the dungeons beneath the cursed castle of Quinstead, once owned by an evil marauder who had in the end met a tragic fate. As it happens in Not-AD&D, the castle is once again showing signs of habitation, and adventurers are tasked to learn what’s happening. In 44 pages, the adventure presents a three-level, 76-room dungeon (the castle itself is left undescribed), from a humanoid-inhabited entrance complex to more varied fare down below.

There is a lot of content in the dungeon, and when comparing it to modern old-school offerings, it is immediately apparent how much larger dungeons used to be in the past. Quinstead’s two main levels are both substantial, with 31 and 36 keyed areas, respectively. It is not megadungeon-sized, but it is a proper labyrinth calling for exploration, discovery, and lots and lots of combat. Interestingly, there is a notable difficulty spike between the levels: the first one is suitable for a large beginning party, but as you go deeper, it becomes downright brutal with high-level undead, demons, and save-or-die traps. You either start higher than first level, level up those characters quickly, or you should expect a break in play before tackling the dangerous areas on the second and third levels.

This split is also apparent in the quality of the content. Unfortunately, for all the old-school credentials, the entrance level is largely one humanoid-infested barrack room after another, with hordes of low-level humanoids and lovingly described “cabinet contents”-style fare. Boxes with 10 neatly folded blankets and 60 candles, crates with 12 weeks’ worth of mouldy food, or an iron box with hams, a 5 lb. sack of flour, and a jar of pickles (but “hidden at the bottom of the box is 250 gc’s”). This is the kind of thing that grounds adventures in reality in small quantities, and turns them dull when there is too much of it. And there is definitely too much of it.

Another issue with the setup is that the module tries to tell a story in a way we now largely recognise as The Wrong Way To Do It. The adventure is liberally peppered with roadblocks preventing completion until the characters find the proper keys hidden somewhere else, decipher an obscure clue, or do things in a specific way. There is an unfolding tragic backstory which is very AD&D in its execution, but the drama is largely between NPCs, with the characters as helpers and perhaps just spectators. In the end, the adventure becomes much more linear than you would think from the map, because you have to turn every stone to find the next progression token, and do it in sequence. This in turn exacerbates the module’s weaknesses – you can’t skip them until you find the damn keys.

On the other hand, the second and third levels suddenly become more interesting. The encounters are more varied, with a better roster of monsters, a higher number of “specials”, and more interesting locations. There are distinctly themed subsections with their own mapping style and challenges. There is an underground arena, a vast chasm, a vampire named Jennifer, treasure vaults, upscale living quarters, and undead/troll caverns. Perhaps it was written later, or mid-to-high-level AD&D just fired up the author’s imagination better, but this part is a substantial improvement, if ­ a bit heavy on brutal traps (if your Thief doesn’t die here, he is good). Nothing earth-shattering, just good, solid dungeoneering.

So in the end, this might be a first. Unfortunately, it is not the best. You could improve it by opening it up so it is not as linear and scripted, but you will still be left with the radical jumps in encounter difficulty, and a lacklustre first level. It stacks up well when we compare it to early 90s TSR modules, but why would you compare something to Swamplight or Terrible Trouble at Tragidore?

(And a random observation: the first level is oriented differently than the other two, so check that compass before you give your players directions.)

No playtesters are credited in this publication (and the author is only credited by his initials so the TSR goons don't break his legs).

Rating: ** / *****

Thursday 24 January 2019

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Revenge of the Frogs
I am pleased to announce the publication of the fourth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. As before, this is a zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Matthew Ray, and illustrations by Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, Andrew Walter, and others. 

Revenge of the Frogs is, of course, dedicated to the best monsters in gaming, and it ain’t dragons! The titular adventure module takes the characters to Silvash, a dying port town facing a batrachian menace, and beyond to a weird swampland inhabited by strange inhabitants, and teeming with… but let that be a surprise. 

Those who do not find frogs to their liking shall surely find solace in the fact that Echoes #04 also presents a small city state. Arfel: City State of the Charnel God is a small city ruled by the cult of a dead god, but administered by the living – and those who would come between them might find either riches or an unpleasant death! A fold-out player’s map of the city state forms this issue’s map supplement. 

This issue concludes the hex key of the Isle of Erillion. Feudal lords, tiny settlements lost in the wilderness, and enigmas of nature and magic await in deep forests, forbidding mountains, and on the high seas. As before, Erillion may be used as a sandbox of its own, or incorporated into the GM’s preferred setting. 

And if you like lasers, there are lasers! Previously published on this blog, The Technological Table is a repository of technological instruments, from futuristic weaponry to the sinister relics of an advanced age. 

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.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

[REVIEW] Woodfall


Woodfall (2018)
by Shane Walshe

Woodfall is a “dark fantasy mini setting” designed to be dropped into a desolate corner of a campaign world, and use as a locale for your adventures. It covers a village of sympathetic outlaws menaced by a tyrannical king and his goons, the surrounding swamplands, and various locations and groups based therein. This is a system-neutral product devoid of stats, but obviously meant for rules-light D&D derivatives and sandbox play – the assumed principles of the intended play style are presented clearly and unambiguously at the beginning. This is a general feature of the setting book: it never wastes words, it gets good use out of layout, tables, and illustrations to convey information, and it is very solidly put together. The whole thing is profusely and expertly illustrated by the author, lending it a consistent tone. Everything is in place to enter an enchanted realm of fantasy populated by witches, necromancers, socialism, and swamp monsters.

Wait, did I just say socialism?

Wew lads. This is Tumblr Politics, The Setting. Consensual necromancy only? Fairy safe spaces? “The Faerie Liberation Front is a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries. In Woodfall, the FLF’s base of operations is in the second biggest tree”? Intelligent undead living in Woodfall village because this is the one place in the kingdom where they are not persecuted? An intelligent undead whose main goal is to solve world hunger by cultivating mushrooms and “new super strains of edible plants”? A gender neutral troll tending to a small garden? (“They live alone, and have not been able to make friends with any of the other monsters or creatures in the swamp. Others tend to run and scream when they see them and this has encouraged the troll to become defensive and develop crippling social anxiety.”) A collectively run trading house where fenced goods are bought and sold, and the proceeds are reinvested into the village welfare system, and common causes? A Thieves Guild whose revenues are shared with a healing tent, the FLF, village welfare, donations to villages outside the swamp, and CAT (Crisis Action Team, an all-female association of witches running a women’s shelter)? Well, you get the idea. Woodfall is a setting book which is pretty thoroughly built on extolling the virtues of anarchism – I will not venture to guess which specific brand – and which infuses pretty much every aspect of the work.

No Kings, No GMs
Now, let us get this out of the way: fantasy is a great place for thought experiments (cue Swift, Heinlein and Lem), and thought experiments about placing weird ideologies in an anachronistic fantasy context and letting them run their course to their logical conclusions are excellent adventure fodder. Satirical or more straightforward, there are interesting dilemmas, what-ifs, and potential for conflict in placing a bunch of anarchists on the fringes of Furyondy. But then Woodfall, while written eminently well, reads a lot like a pamphlet. Woodfall Village is basically a squat (or protest camp) occupied by sympathetic oddballs fighting for justice and diversity, while the king’s soldiers watching them from outside and planning to put an end to their commune are basically Fuck The Cops, a monolithic evil regime whose main activities seem to involve oppression, witch-burning, wife-beating, and doing all kinds of bad things ever committed by The Man. There are other antagonists as well: the greens (a bunch of druids intending to destroy civilisation), goblin punks with a spiky fortress, and the Revolutionary Corpse Council, who are communist necromancers. Meanwhile, Woodfall Village consists of plucky rebels who operate co-ops, pay taxes on a voluntary basis (mainly for a collective welfare system), and live on a bunch of connected islands of equal size, each one an autonomous collective. Monsters are not-evil-just-misunderstood. NPCs are either allies or ideologically impure evildoers. Alex the leatherface monster is “very anxious, and worries endlessly about how they will survive outside their home” after they were evicted from their dungeon by the RCC. Meanwhile, Captain Blake, in charge of the soldier encampment, “totally obsessed with seeing Woodfall Village destroyed and all its residents put in dungeons or executed. He will stop at absolutely nothing, and is incredibly highstrung and prone to bursts of anger”. Dragonlance was more morally ambiguous.

Did I mention it is all a bait-and-switch, and none of this stuff got mentioned in either the Kickstarter pitch (“Explore a dark fairytale setting, wade through a misty swamp, get caught up in the fighting between warring monster clans, discover a strange town of witches and thieves, and search for forgotten treasure. Woodfall is a swamp belonging to a king where witches, thieves and outlaws are squatting. They have built a town on top of the swamp and have resisted several evictions. The town is a hub for black market activity and magical folk. The surrounding forest and swamp is a hexcrawl filled with various monster factions.”) or the present DriveThruRPG page? It would have been the polite thing to signpost this a little better. We can say everything is politics and Keep on the Borderlands is murder, but it does change things. For example, it is clear that Woodfall’s portability – illustrated with a helpful diagram, even – is vastly overstated. You could theoretically insert it into every campaign in the same way you could drop Darth Vader and a detachment of Tie-Fighters in the middle of the Wild Coast – sure, it is still Greyhawk, but it is probably going to be a different kind of campaign.

Typical RCC Meeting

But let’s put that aside, because it is what it is: you will either like the premise or not. How about the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Some of it is rather imaginative, even flavourful – the various shops, societies and inhabitants of Woodfall Village form a cohesive whole which is directly game-relevant while providing the GM with an idea of the bigger picture and good potential for further expansion. The information to run a game is mostly at your fingertips (once again, this does not include stats), exactly where and how you need it. The appendices on new monsters, magic items, wand and potion creation guidelines, monster component prices, and other bits and pieces are helpful. There is an “Appendix N” ranging from Vornheim to Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure and the Rise of Capitalism, a book (well, pamphlet) written by Lady Stardust, and available on Amazon.

On the other hand, the wilderness segment – where much of the presumed adventuring is likely to take place – is much weaker, suffering from a lack of depth despite trying to create a complex environment. The brief treatment of people and places works in the village, where the whole is greater than the sum of a dozen one- or two-page components, but it does not work that well with a range of mini-locales. Consequently, location-based adventures (like dungeons) consist of simplistic maps with a bare room key (“Drinking & Drumming Room, Doomsday Spore Device, Mushroom Cultivation, The Orb, Toilet/Mysterious Whole” – that’s all there is to the dungeon of the punk goblins), taking the extreme of the one page dungeon even further in a direction where functionality disappears up art’s ass. [I should have deleted this sentence, but Mr. Nixon told me to leave it in.] Hexes describing a faction of monsters or NPCs are generally better – the author seems to have a better eye for social conflict than location-based adventures. There is no scale to the wilderness areas – is the swampland a day’s rowing across? Multiple days? There are well-structured random encounter charts, but they aren’t telling either.
Yes It Is Art, But Is It A Game?
So that is Woodfall. It is compact, well put together in a way, and does accomplish what is trying. It is kinda “Crazy Activist GF The RPG Supplement”. Does great art, claims to be doing the right thing, but make the wrong move, and your name might be all over Twitter as a fascist pig and counter-revolutionary. As a cynical reactionary with deeply ingrained suspicions about ideology, and way too much into bourgeois conceits like “actually having stuff” and “liking it when the stores are stocking toilet paper”, I would rather observe it from beyond the reach of my trusty ten foot pole.

No bourgeois scum or playtesters were harmed during the production of this publication.

Rating: *** / ***** (Mr. Nixon was not too happy about this, but it is worth about this much.)