Thursday 19 November 2020

[REVIEW] Hideous Daylight

Not so hideous cover art

 by Brad Kerr

Published by Swordlords Publishing


This 34-page module presents a small, self-contained adventure location, along with a situation which encourages non-linear investigation, and can lead to a range of different outcomes. Set  in a surreal place combining idyllic beauty, otherworldly strangeness, and lurking horror, it is almost as if it is meant to be getting a good score on this blog. Which it will.

In Hideous Daylight, the characters will investigate Hollyhock Gardens, a large, walled preserve used as the royal hunting grounds, and consisting of a variety of environments including forests, a lake, a hedge maze, hills, and other sites of interest. The garden has recently been beset by a magical catastrophe causing a very localised perpetual noon. The sun never sets within the walls, and slowly but surely, the place is going to hell as animals are driven mad, things fall apart, and weird creatures from another dimension start to emerge. Knights and adventurers who have tried to set things right have not come out.

Hideous Daylight plays as a small hex-crawl (19 hexes are described, most with one point of interest) with two mini-dungeons (a hedge maze and a subterranean locale). The action is largely non-linear exploration, where the characters can piece together what happened and what they should do from the environment, dead and hiding NPCs, and other clues. The locations combine the familiar with the uncanny, and the beauty of an orderly garden with a strong element of survival horror. There is a very good range of encounters here, from the straightforward to those which invite creative solutions (without specifying what they “need” to be, a common mistake of puzzle-oriented encounters), as well as meetings with the garden’s bizarre denizens. For an old-school module, it is very low on loot, although this could be remedied fairly easily.

Exploring the garden is complicated by a well-realised random encounter chart which contains multiple powerful opponents a low-level party has little chance of defeating, but may successfully evade until they figure out what to do with them. Another group of beings, found at both keyed locations and on the chart, are extra-dimensional entities with weird behaviour and inscrutable purposes. These freakish “anomalies” lend another layer of strangeness to the magical landscape. There are interesting choices and consequences: not only are there multiple ways to conclude the adventure, there are victory paths which will bring much more trouble than they solve (and it is entirely possible that overlooking or misinterpreting clues will lead to this point).

Hideous Daylight employs a simple format that is quite handy and well-structured without going into weird hipster layout. Information is easy to find and nicely cross-referenced, and the style is clear and helpful. This is the kind of functionality that is easy to take for granted, and later miss in other modules which do not measure up.

In conclusion, Hideous Daylight is an imaginative, well-written scenario that encourages and rewards open-ended exploration and creative thinking; presents a surreal place with uncanny encounters, and it is user-friendly too. It is a yardstick of a good adventure. If you are this good, you are good.

This module credits its playtesters, and has a special thanks section too!

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

Not so hideous interior art


Saturday 14 November 2020

[MODULE] Baklin: Jewel of the Seas (NOW AVAILABLE!)

UVG dice not included

I am pleased to announce the publication of
Baklin: Jewel of the Seas, a supplement describing the eponymous merchant city, including its rulers, criminal underworld, establishments, and three-level Undercity.

Illustrated by Denis McCarthy (who also did the cover art), Stefan Poag, Graphite Prime, and Jerry Boucher, Baklin is more than twice the size of the average module – 72 pages’ worth of adventure-ready material, a players’ map of the city (with a players’ map of Erillion on the back side), and a GM’s map including the labelled city map, and three dungeon maps describing the Undercity’s storerooms, forgotten shrines, and weirdo inhabitants. This is two identical-length modules in one: a city guide with 39 major locations and a dungeon setting with 112 keyed areas, connected and bound together via multiple secret entrances, plot threads, and NPC agendas.

Baklin is meant as both a campaign hub a party can depart from and return to (with numerous hooks for wilderness adventures), and as a complex adventure location of its own. It can be used along with the materials published for the Isle of Erillion mini-setting (Echoes #02–05), or it can double as almost any neutral-aligned port town in your own setting. In any case, Baklin is meant to be played: it is focused on city intrigue, exploration, and dungeon crawling. Go shopping for great deals in port or at the stores of the reclusive Masters’ Guild; be careful not to fall afoul of the Sea Laws or anger the Knights of Yolanthus Kar; discover what lurks in the Tower of Gulls; and brave the Shrine of Roxana and the Thrones of Judgement!

Baklin: Jewel of the Seas
"Oh Baklin, Jewel of the Seas, great gateway of Erillion! Minstrels sing of its wealth and marine power; and of the refinement and taste of its magnates and nobility. Minstrels of all kinds, of course, are prone to grandiloquence; and perhaps Baklin is neither as mighty nor as fair as the ballads claim. And yet, there is reason the minstrels sing so, for Baklin has wealthy patrons, its fleet is not inconsiderable – and are its streets not the loveliest within so many weeks of travel? Indeed, those who brave the high seas often believe so… and they will gladly pay for a song to remember their visit. This booklet presents a complete city supplements describing the streets, personalities, and conflicts of a bustling port town, from the heights of power to the deepest undercellars. In Baklin, all streets lead to adventure – and a single life would not be enough to complete all of them.”

The print version of the modules is now available from my Bigcartel store, while the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with three months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Saturday 31 October 2020

[REVIEW] Hunters in Death

Hunters in Death
Hunters in Death (2020)

by Tim Shorts

Published by GM Games

Beginner and low-level

Hello, and welcome to part five of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“A quiet space-faring rpg zine about being alone & not quite being alone.” and “A fluffy D&D Adventure featuring sock puppets, danger and imagination!” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


One the scale from “meat and potatoes” to “paint-huffing pretentious”, Hunters in Death is way, way closer to the first endpoint. Here are your monster-haunted woodlands, here are your roadside inns and foresters, your goblins and barrow mounds. It is the basic texture of D&D played by the book, and offers more comfort than surprises. It is done decently, both as a coherent whole, and in its individual parts.

The zine provides a small wilderness environment where you can seek adventures. The tiny hamlet of Hounds Head is just one corner of the vast Komor Forest (the author’s home campaign), but its position on the crossroads always attracts peculiar travellers. Hounds Head is small, the proverbial flicker in a points-of-light setting. It has everything an adventurer needs: inn, general store, a smithy staffed by Kovac (a guy whose very name means “Blacksmith”), a chapel, a magic-user’s eccentric residence, and a village leader. More importantly, any direction you head out will make you hit ADVENTURE before you are halfway through the day. There are suitably good adventure hooks to provide a direction if you don’t know which way to begin. Or was that nooses? Yes, someone has been placing nooses around the woods, and hanged bodies have been cropping up with growing frequency. Something is amiss around Hounds Head…

The core adventuring material of this zine consists of three main sections. First, we have a random encounter chart to use during forest expeditions. This starts things on a strong note – more than an afterthought listing a few generic forest critters, this chart includes both commonly encountered monsters and animals, and less frequent locale-specific entries. These meetings can easily develop into mini-adventures of their own, or provide personality and an element of continuity to the campaign. Some of the encounters have sub-varieties, so no two “giant centipedes” encounter will be identical; and monster entries come with a listing of “harvest”, noting the parts a hunter may find valuable to sell. Second is a random table system to seed the 14 barrow sites scattered in the nearby area, generating their environment, inhabitants, and treasures (the grave goods of an ancient people, including their special magic items). This, again, has sufficient variety and surprise to make exploring them an entertaining venture. perhaps you will find a royal treasury, just make sure not to stumble on a Crow temple. The third section describes three mini-adventure locations: a semi-ruined hunter’s cabin that hides a horrifying surprise (this one is a winner, and scared my players witless), a crypt dedicated to a coveted magic item (this is a bit meh), and the mystery of the “hunters” alluded to in the zine’s title.

Hunters in Death is not a zine that will make you go “I could never have thought of this”, but it can fit most D&D campaigns seamlessly. It uses simple concepts and elements, but uses them with skill and fun variety. It has a consistent theme that makes it hang together, with a few genuinely creepy moments. You could take the mini-sandbox and place it in a larger one boxes-within-boxes style, or take it apart and use it as a grab-bag of stuff. I am currently running Hoard of Delusion, a low-level AD&D wilderness/dungeon module as our second wave Covid-campaign, and I found this zine very useful in rounding out the wilderness areas with extra material. It is chicken stock for the tired GM – just add water, some extra ingredients, and heat up to serve.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Friday 23 October 2020

[REVIEW] A Visitor’s Guide to the Rainy City

A Visitor's Guide
to the Rainy City

A Visitor’s Guide to the Rainy City (2020)

by Rich Forest, with Andrew D. Devenney, Alisha Forest and Bill Spytma

Published by Superhero Necromancer Press


Hello, and welcome to part four of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“An absurdly punkrock role-playing game zine.” and “A Forged in the Dark TTRPG zine, where you play as a gang of animals stealing food and garbage from humans in a small town.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


How much can you ask from a zine? The publication type tends towards the short and ephemeral, the “I had an idea” thought experiment, or the burst of creativity. Buying zines is like buying bric-à-brac from an antiques store – eye-catching, strange, not too expensive, not too disappointing if it does not deliver on the pitch. However, some of them do, and more – here is one of them. A Visitor’s Guide to the Rainy City is a complete, gameable city in the shape of a 60-page zine. That’s a handful! Perhaps it does not properly belong to the zine genre, and is best thought of as a very compact supplement; something that would normally be 120 pages, but here, you just get the good stuff in half as much. Expressive terseness? I’ve got your expressive terseness right here! At any rate, A Visitor’s Guide is packed – and none of it is a waste.

Hey, the City looks almost
bearable from down here

The titular Rainy City may be the last large city in existence. It always rains – always always, with varying intensity. Much of the rest of the world has been flooded, and other than the occasional shipful of castaways swelling the local population, seems to be entirely under water. Nobody seems to be able to do anything about the situation – the gods are silent, and the great wizard college of the city has been destroyed in some kind of catastrophe. Fires barely light, and in the rainy season, it has to be replaced with expensive alchemical salts. The rotting buildings, under constant rainfall, are home to increasingly strange beings: puddings prowl the cracks and drains, gargoyles haunt the rooftops in a constant power struggle with intelligent gulls, and the creatures of the sea have come out to play. There are new intelligent races ashore – the achterfuss, intelligent octopus people; mermaids and “deepsies” (regular people slowly turning into fishlike beings); and there are others which have adapted to this new life – aristocratic ghouls, bog-dwelling halflings, and so on. Everything has been upended and become uncertain – the city has no unified government, maybe a third of it is gone, and its future is uncertain. Yet life goes on, and this partially submerged, partially ruined metropolis remains full of teeming crowds, business deals, power struggles, crime, and festivities. It is a rather cheerful apocalypse, as related by the upbeat text of the guide’s fictional narrator – here is a great place to have fun, and some exciting adventures. Is it London? Yes, a little bit. Is it Terry Pratchett? You can bet. It is a lot of things, but in the end, it is its own place, and there is none other like it in gaming.

Insufferable hipsters
duking it out in Vagabond Bay
The Visitor’s Guide gives you this city as a travel guide of sorts, first introducing you to general ideas and customs you may need to know, then proceeding with a more detailed breakdown of the Rainy City’s places and people. This is an excellent approach to worldbuilding, since it concentrates entirely on the substantial, without wasting time on things of little concern to the adventurer. Everything is to the point, and no text is wasteful – it all focuses on what makes the city interesting, dangerous, and worth delving into, just like a fine travel guide takes you to the good stuff. Information is either presented to provide adventure pitches – job opportunities, organisations you may want to join (or fight), and exciting locations are given a prominent treatment – or as concentrated flavour with asides on food and drinks, eccentric customs, the importance of hats, and other local colour.

Ms. Stacks, brigand leader
The Rainy City is divided into ten major districts, each receiving a mini-gazetteer spanning around four pages. Each have their own character, from the milling traffic of Old Town and the industrial monotony of Leeve Town through the eccentric aristocracy of Embassy Row or the mage towers of Tower Cliffs, to almost rural hinterlands like the eerie plateau of the Headlands and the marshy, bandit-populated Sump. In fact, they do not just have their own character, they have their own weather – sure, it is always raining everywhere, but the rains of Leeve Town are “Steady. Oppressive. Gray.”, while for posh Embassy Row, they are “Very fine (…) here [the rains] have a cleansing quality.” Beyond this small gimmick, these sections have a notated map, information on law enforcement and criminal enterprise, places you may visit, mysteries and conflicts you may get entangled in, and so on. From doing “roof duty” wrestling trolls, pudding and chimney goblins in Old Town, to smuggling in Vagabond Bay or joining a salvage crew on the Headlands, this guidebook is structured around adventure. There are interesting NPCs like Jenny “Ma” Weaver, a witch who can weave strands of fate, or Orbeg the Multipotent, a wizard “whose tower has a level for every lesser potence he has cast behind him on his path to betterment.” (“Some thirsty-six Orbegs, each less multipotent than the one above, abide in his tower, each assured in its assurity that it will one day be the ultipotent.”)

Cleverly repurposed
witchburning art
As presentation goes, the zine is understated, but just about perfect. There are no fancy layout tricks beyond making sure stuff that belongs together is on facing pages, the maps are placed where they are useful, and the illustrations break up the two-column layout exactly where they are needed. It is not obtrusive, just good at what it does: making the text flow well, and the booklet easy to navigate. I would be remiss not to mention both the excellent map – every quarter of the city having its own characteristic topography, street layout and features of interest – and Bill Spytma’s illustration work that defines the Rainy City just as well as the text does. Illustrations feature redrawn/altered 15th to 16th century woodcuts to great effect, and these are authentic, not to mention very funny if you know them from previous reading materials. In these reviews, I rarely consider production values as an aspect for evaluation: here, I will make an exception, because the art becomes an integral part of the zine.

There are no stats in the zine, nor any game-specific information, really. I am not fully convinced it was written for old-school games at all, but do not let that dissuade you. The setting is strong enough to work in an old-school urban sandbox game, in a 5th edition campaign, it would probably work with some of the indies, and it would make for a hell of a backdrop for the heist-oriented Blades in the Dark (much better than the official setting, which I honestly found disappointing). Hell, you could use it to inspire Thief fan missions, which is of course the highest honour there is. You would need to do some work to make it fit any system, but you would not need to do much to make it work well – the content and structure of the zine would do much of the heavy lifting.

This is sort of an intermediate product. It is a superb trove of ideas if you are a Gamemaster looking to run games in the Rainy City, but it is also a booklet you could hand to your players as a setting guide, and let them pitch you ideas. The information is exactly at the level of detail and specificity where it gives a strong idea of places, people, and conflicts, but does not rob anyone of the mystery of actually exploring and interacting with the milieu. And what a milieu it is! Original and with a strong flavour, yet eminently play-friendly and approachable; large-scale, yet having a good eye for human-level interests. It is enthusiastic and funny – admittedly, you can get a whiff of hipster from the usually wry humour, but let that be its greatest crime. This is just well-done, and modestly priced at that.

No playtesters are credited in this publication, but the Kickstarter pitch reassures us it has been in used in games for fifteen years, and I believe every word of it.

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

Yum yum yum

Thursday 3 September 2020

[REVIEW] Sunlands

Silvery finish not depicted
[REVIEW] Sunlands (2020)

by Chris Longhurst


Low to mid levels

Hello, and welcome to part three of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“Five experiences about communicating with yourself, nature, and others” and “Dreamrs, we are such stuff as dreams are *Powered* on, and our little life is rounded *by the Apocalypse*.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


Since the ancient days of gaming when Judges Guild walked the Earth, few have tried to cram an entire hex-crawl setting into a thin, zine-sized pamphlet (honourable mention goes to the infamous Carcosa and the dreamlike Sea of Vipers). Sunlands has tried, and without further ado, succeeded at giving you an entire, functional fantasy region in all of 32 pages.

This is a 17x21 hex area describing a mostly hilly area scarred in a divine confrontation, but now populated by a collection of oddball cultures. Beyond scattered human settlements and their usual fantasyland allies, the Pale Elves (a wood-dwelling elven subgroup with an affinity for riding giant insects) and the Vespix (a wasp-based civilisation based in the southern swamps) have carved out their domains. Much of the area, however, is unclaimed land, where adventurers may encounter strange loners, philosophical monstrosities, and weird ruins. That is, it is a fine borderland setting for exploration- and other travel-based fantasy campaigns.

Hex key

Preceded by a brief introduction and a series of encounter tables for the different terrain types (featuring both general and more specific encounters you might face, from wildlife and general monsters to expeditions, and even some of the major inhabitants of the specific sub-regions), the bulk of the book is dedicated to the hex entries. Unlike the Wilderlands and other hex-based wilderness modules following in its steps, Sunland has a feature of interest keyed to every one of the map hexes. Also unlike the common method, where you tend to encounter whatever the hex hides if you pass through it, it divides hex entries into OBVIOUS and SUBTLE places, and MANDATORY or OPTIONAL encounters. The former will be automatically found and engaged with (and are marked with helpful pictograms in the text – this is a really nice idea), while the others only come up on a thorough search, specific conditions, or random chance (a flat 1:10 roll). Thus, the Sunlands, while very densely keyed, may not actually appear so for every group playing in it; and every group, or even every expedition would find and interact with something else. This is a workable way to build a hex-crawl setting, even if it comes with a hidden effort the players might never appreciate. At least here, most of the basic work is already done for the group. As another bow to usability, hexes reference associated hexes. Want to know where this NPC’s arch-enemy is located? The reference is right there. Want to know where this lost item should be returned to? The zine will tell you. In some cases, these links build small scenarios which may become full adventures. The members of an infamous halfling crime family are hiding out in the Sunlands. Want to catch them? You have your campaign premise.

What kind of place do the hexes describe? The Sunlands is a place of pure gameplay – most locations prompt the characters to action, or have something interesting to interact with. This sort of active engagement is a positive feature of the design. Individually, the hexes offer small encounters, described in short paragraphs, like this (selected at random; 0512 and 1502 are examples of obvious/mandatory encounters):

0312 Someone's still, mid-distillation. There's half a demijon of moonshine to be had, and the owner's nowhere to be seen.

0512 π The small village of PYRE pays lip-service fealty to Sophia of Partisan (0712) but really their only lord and master is the evil fire god XITOCOX. Anyone captured by them will be tossed into the crater (0612) in a secret ceremony.

0915 The medusa stonemason KRISTINA lairs here, in a cave surrounded by statuary. Among the dozens of statues are a stone golem bound to Kristina's command, 2d6 gargoyles, and sometimes Kristina herself covered with grey body paint and practising her 'human statue' routine.

1210 A small dungeon hidden beneath a hill holds some minor threat, and a dust-covered mirror. When someone is reflected in the mirror, it assesses their feelings of guilt and suggests actions of restitution or redemption in curling, silvery script.

1502 β ERIN is lounging about, dressed in mismatched clothes. She claims to have come from a distant planet to experience life here, which may or may not be true. She IS one of the best healers in the Sunlands though.

1609 Situated here, far from anywhere else, CORDELIA owns and operates a breeding stable for horses. Due to a divine curse handed down generations back, Cordelia only exists at night, so while her steeds are fine they also have a tendency to be nocturnal.

This is obviously fine as a springboard for improvisation (which it requires), and also highlights the style of the zine setting. Sunlands is filled with monsters and NPCs demonstrating oddball personalities. Where the Wilderlands is a place of weird ruins and belligerent fiefdoms, and the Sea of Vipers is poetic, this place is filled with jokes, ironic reversals, and anachronisms (from the necromancer who got into the trade because he couldn’t persuade anyone to join his band, to a halfling–dwarf duo trying to invent and test-drive ‘automatic carriages’). Even most of the potential antagonists are more like funny weirdos than typical evil-doers, and if something can be played for a laugh, it is played for a laugh. The style is perhaps best described as now slightly creaky mid-2000s Internet comedy, which, I suspect, would be a stumbling block for some. Comedy settings (as opposed to regular ones generating funny situations) are an acquired taste, and hell, people had the exact same problem with Verbosh, Judges Guild’s excellent mini-sandbox. Much like Verbosh, Sunlands is eminently usable. It is also very silly, underscored by the interior art, sourced from slightly modified Victorian stuff.

Also the Queen of Comedy

Sunlands is a refreshingly no-nonsense product. Beyond the disappointing limitations of the skeletal one-page dungeon genre, but free of the bloat that plagues many professional game settings, this is a zine focused on supporting actual play by providing you with a densely stocked game board. Its presentation and format innovations are small but worth looking into. The jokes can get tiresome, but altogether, this is solidly made, and would serve as a good campaign base.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. 

Rating: *** / *****

Friday 28 August 2020

[STUFF] Gloomywood: One-Afternoon Micro-Setting

Fearful Pesunts Fantasy
How much of a micro-setting can you do under an afternoon and evening? About this much. After getting myself worked up about the remarkably vacuous Vallakia zine, I decided on an experiment to see if I could make a playable, coherent mini-setting in a minimum amount of time. Thus is born Gloomywood, land of Ruritanian monster movie clichés. In truth, it could be longer, if not for some procrastination – I could have thrown in a dungeon or two. It is not the best thing I could do, but not bad for a day’s creative work either. There are ideas, springboards for action, agendas and connections, a rumours chart (most of it to inspire both GM and players). It is sandboxy. And it begs the real question: why isn’t something like this the minimum barrier for publishing something? Consider it.

Gloomywood 1.1 – PDF (3.8 MB PDF)


Thursday 27 August 2020

[REVIEW] Vallakia

Vallakia (2020)

by William Cord

Published by Stronghold Press Games

Low levels

Hello, and welcome to part two of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“LARP for 2 players of Robot Girlfriends across the battlefield” and “An rpg zine about 3 sled dogs on a perilous trip home.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


Do you think “production values” are often a racket? Do you admire honest homespun values and the good old DIY spirit, even if it makes the best of public domain engravings and cheap layout done in Winword? I sure do, and I am all over these zines! I love them. Except... there is also an unspoken promise here that the content will be good, and it will somehow make up for the sparse exterior with unconstrained creativity and colourful ideas. Ho boy. Vallakia is not that zine.

Nooooo, don't make me go to Vallakia!
What the zine promises is interesting: a micro-setting describing “a small province, underpopulated by humans and overpopulated by monsters”, isolated from the rest of the world by an “impenetrable fog (…) stopping the people from coming or going.” Yes, that is basically Ravenloft, or every other “here be vampires” fantasyland, but even so, micro-settings are a sound idea. The campaign mentions support for a West Marches-style game, with descriptions of the major settlements, a small adventure, and stretch goals – two of which were funded, one for villages, and one for manors. The results make for three 8-page pamphlets set in princely Arial, and illustrated with cheapo public domain art. This is, indeed, my thing, so I backed the zine with enthusiasm. The following review will chronicle the disappointment that followed.

Vallakia is an empty zine. It has virtually nothing in it, at least nothing that would prove useful in helping run a good game. It describes its mini-setting in the most elementary stereotypes of Vampire Country. That alone is no crime. Nobody was realistically expecting something inspired by the real Wallachia (a fairly interesting place, one which would coincidentally make for a cool campaign setting), but perhaps something beyond ideas found in every vampire movie? No chance. We get the fog; we get the small villages huddling in fear; we get the rapacious nobles and the small, brave military force trying to hold back the encroaching horrors. Vallakia is isolated, dark, backwards, and primitive (in a bizarre take, they do not even know blacksmithing, something even shockingly primitive cultures could figure out). Very well, that’s a Hollywood horror movie all right. But there is nothing beyond that. Vallakia commits the most heinous sin of fantasy supplements: it is boring.

The zine describes three towns and a dungeon, none of which have anything truly interesting or original going on. Pinehall has a military garrison and a small church (the church has an aging priest who can heal people), and a tavern with three rooms. Long Farm is a farming town providing “the majority of food for all of Vallakia”. Don’t the other places grow their food? Very peculiar indeed. Anyway, Long Farm has an abandoned Town Council building now used as a garrison, and a brewery. The townsfolk are harassed by creatures of chaos. Finally, in another example of specialisation, Priby supplies lumber for palisades, and operates a lumber mill. Are they not interested in farming? Don’t the other villages cut trees? Not to be a stickler for fantasy realism, but this is so bizarre it almost looks like there is an explanation behind it. Of course, there isn’t. Priby’s woods are terrorised by a necromancer, and the villagers lock their doors all day and night. So we have Soldiertown, Farmtown and Lumbertown, and that’s all there is to know about them: banal, insignificant, clichéd information that does not show any interesting engagement even with the Hollywood-style Vampire Country idea.There is a rule about investments which feels a bit like Darkest Dungeon (upgrading local places of interest can result in various boons), a lazy random quest table with 20 uninteresting results (“OGRE!!!”, “Mayor consorts with demons”, “Troll toll”), and a one-page dungeon. That means a zine-sized page, an unnumbered map, and a key with one-liners like “1 – 3 Kobolds arguing about the best way to cook a human. Gate west is locked and barred.” and “2 – 2 Gnolls laying down. Will join fight in 1 if it lasts 3+ rounds.” This is negligible even by the new fold-out microdungeon standard.

Welcome to Stamati. Population: turnips
Vallakia has two supplements, essentially tripling the page count. Villages describes two podunk villages. To quote the pamphlet, “Stamati is quite the bog-standard village, and I will include it here to remind you that not all villages need a unique twist. In fact, most villages are boring farming settlements until the PCs secure them and invest in their improvement.” True to the author’s word, the village does not have a unique twist, and it is, indeed, a boring farming settlement. Its inhabitants are mostly farmers. The other village, Vasilache (a common surname, this is a bit like naming an American village ‘Smith’, or ‘Johnson’) is more interesting, in that it has a holy woman who has a mysterious connection to the gods. This is, indeed, the only good idea I could find in the zine and its two supplements. There are random tables to create bog-standard villages and generate their bog-standard inhabitants; and they are basically (deliberately?) uninteresting. The second supplement, Manors, is slightly better, in that Vallakia’s noble families are a corrupt, cruel lot, and that’s always better adventure material than dirt farming villages. And yet, it does not offer more than cliché either: Juracken Manor is home to the proverbial vampire viscount who likes peasant-huning, and Karlbad manor is inhabited by a god-fearing frontiersman family. Not even the random tables and the investment ideas help this one.

Vallakia is bad. Not maliciously so, but credit where credit’s due, it is plainly bad. For a semi-commercial project, it feels like bad filler, stretched out with illustrations. The zine and its two supplements are 8 pages each, but only about 14-15 of the 24 pages are text – and it is text set in a remarkably large font to boot. What the adventure lacks in quantity, it also lacks in quality. It is banal and completely useless in either offering, or helping create an intriguing West Marches-style micro-setting. You, random reader, could do much better in a single afternoon.[1] Don’t venture to Vallakia; ‘tis a silly place.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****


[1] I will hereby put this idea to the test. A post will follow later tonight.