Tuesday 21 April 2020

[REVIEW] The Mines of Wexcham

How Do You Intend to Proceed?

The Mines of Wexcham (2012)
by Gerald D. Seypura, PhD
Published by Southerwood Publishing
Low- to mid-level characters

Published for the OD&D-inspired Champions of ZED system, this module (also referred to as The Mines of Wexham) is a fairly odd combination of a short wilderness trek, a dungeon crawl at an abandoned mine site, and questionable attempts at writing fantasy fiction. It has a certain charm, if you care to look deeper into it. In the functional sense, it is a modular “orcs in a mine” scenario that makes more sense on its own than as a tournament exercise. This is a lot, so let us unpack the details.

It is generally a bad sign if an adventure module (a play aid meant for use in an interactive game) begins with an introduction written in the form of a piece of fiction. It is even less promising if a 19-page adventure module goes into a full-page treatment of the history of a fallen empire who can be summed up as “they were Romans”. (They are called… the Reman Empire.) It becomes positively ominous if it then starts to lovingly detail a home base which will, actually, have no role whatsoever in the actual adventure, then presents a list of pregen characters with backstories and all. The Mines of Wexcham does all of this and then some, lovingly detailing pieces of political and personal intrigue of barely any relevance; pseudo-historical trivia without a bearing on what goes on, and PCs/NPCs (more on this below) of no interest. Hitting all the wrong notes in story-centric adventure design and taking up a good 1/3 of the adventure while doing so is certainly an accomplishment of sorts. If I had not already printed my PDF, this is where I would stop – but it does get better.

There is something slightly off about the adventure that has a non-standard touch, similar to the occasional 1970s tournament weirdness Judges Guild would sometimes publish – pre-standardisation D&D, and a pre-standardisation way of presenting a packaged scenario. “How do you intend to proceed?” This enigmatic question is repeated dozens of times in the text. What is this cue for? It is hard to determine if it is a reminder for the GM to tell that much to the player, or something else that only made sense to the writer.

In The Mines of Wexcham, the characters are after the rumours of a lost mine with rich ore deposits. The ore is of strategic and political importance, and multiple interested parties have taken note. One of these parties are the player characters – as an innovative touch, if the PCs do not play them, the GM is instructed to make them the rivals, and the pregens as a party they must beat to the score. The rivalry is handed in a fairly ad hoc way, without turning it into a mini-game or player-vs-GM contest. There is, however, a wilderness trek with three main options, played as a mixture of random encounters, until at last the charactrs reach their target. There is not much to it, but it has a decent sense of discovery – finding an old, abandoned road in what now counts as untamed wilderness is a classic touch.

The main adventure site is the heart of the publication, taking 8.5 pages with three full-page maps: a ruined mining village, a small set of troll tunnels, and the mines proper. Unlike the introduction, it is simple, to the point, and iconic. There is nothing especially strange here (most keyed locations are flavour or monster encounters), but the mining village captures the feeling of an eerie, abandoned Roman-style mine site quite well, and this continues down in the mines. Here, we have a conflict between two sides, either of which pose mortal danger to a low-level party (including a 70-orc lair), but which can be evaded or leveraged against each other. There are signs of former habitation, and a few fantastic encounters that spice things up. There is also a sense of discovery that’s classic. It feels a bit like the first orc mine you cleared.

Altogether, this is a weird one – burdened by poor design decisions, and ultimately fairly lightweight, but offering an interesting location you could drop in a corner of your word and use without a second thought. It is also a sort of look into early OD&D, and how it might have felt back then, when it was all new. How do you intend to proceed?

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

Saturday 4 April 2020

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan in PDF & What Comes Next

Castle Xyntillan

I am pleased to announce the publication of the PDF version for Castle Xyntillan. A 136-page adventure module for 1st to 6th level characters, this is a a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game (and broadly compatible with other old-school systems). The module describes the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle inhabited by the remnants of a reclusive and eccentric family, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). Hidden rooms, secret passageways and long-forgotten sub-sections complete a collection of the dangerous and macabre from the gothic imagination – providing ample opportunities for exploration, confrontation, and subterfuge.

Castle Xyntillan has been designed to be versatile, open-ended, complex, and accessible. It is above all, a fantastic place – built on surrealism and dream logic, yet a place which makes a certain amount of sense if you look at it sideways. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. Whether you would like a dungeon for one-off expeditions and convention play, or repeated forays and full campaigns, Castle Xyntillan should suit the demands and particulars of your campaign!

This electronic edition includes the following:
  • The PDF version of the module, with cartography by Rob Conley, and illustrations by Peter Mullen, Denis McCarthy, and Stefan Poag.
  • GM and player maps of the module, as well as a set of virtual tabletop maps, with helpful setup instructions by cartographer Rob Conley for Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds.
  • A GM’s Worksheet, used to track time and characters as the company explores the depths of Xyntillan. Adapted from Dungeons and Companies, a Hungarian retro-clone, and designed by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Andras Szabo, this is a highly useful play aid for dungeon scenarios.

RELEASE NOTE: At this moment, the main document is still a plain PDF, the release expedited to let people under lockdown enjoy the module. An update with improved cross-refefences and functionality shall be released at a hopefully close date.

As always, this electronic edition is provided free of charge to people who have purchased the print issue. (Available again as soon as conditions normalise a little, and international shipping once again becomes feasible.)

* * *

It should come as no surprise that the Bat Plague has put a spoke in everyone’s wheel. Since I had doubts about the reliability of international shipping during global disruption, and did not want to make periodic visits to the post while a quarantine is on (for reasons part safety-based and part ethical), I also closed down my print store for a while. This is not an essential business, and we can wait.

Homage to Catalonia, 1697
This is a time for relaxation, self-reflection, gaming, and background work. We halted our face-to-face campaigns, and started two interim ones online over a combination of Google Hangouts and Roll20. I am a player in Quarantine in San Escobar, a historical fantasy campaign using the Helvéczia rules, and set in a fantastic Catalonia in the Spring of 1697. As it is the way with Helvéczia, there are a few creative liberties involved – historians do not recall the province to have been ruled by a “Prince Franco”, nor have records of the black plague visiting San Escobar, a city close to the Rio Negro (which you might not find on all maps). But surely, the foreboding Moorish dungeons hidden under the dilapidated mansion of the extinct Macabre family; the scandal around the diabolical theft of the staff of Saint John the Reverent (a relic liberated by a mad Basque, who was said to have worked for the Devil himself); the duel where the French bravo Antoine de Castelmorte received a fatal wound; the downfall of the libertine Society of Smoking Poets (whose tower hideout collapsed in a grenade-induced explosion); the machinations of the Italian Auditore Banking House and its sinister enforcer Signor Enzio Conti (whose clandestine activities left a trail of bodies in pursuit of a cache of stolen gemstones); or the altercations at the Golden Ass Tavern (where a Castilian witch was thwarted with the judicious application of Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell, and her lackeys driven away by a pack of shadowy hounds nobody had seen clearly), all of these are tales which would haunt the popular imagination. José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera is afoot, and he is now a 3rd level Student!

The City of Thisium
I have also started a B/X mini-sandbox campaign of my own: in The Four Dooms of Thisium, the Wise Owl, the oracle of the eponymous coastal city-state, has delivered a dire warning of the city’s impeding destruction by the angered gods; and four dooms: one from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the sea, and one from beneath the city. As the Owl would explain, the gods had also prohibited the citizens to try and prevent this fate, or hire or encourage outsiders with present or future rewards – only those who would come to help on their own free will could escape divine wrath, and avert the four dooms in the remaining 90 days. Alas, it would only be on day 45 that a suitable company of adventurers would arrive – and that’s where the players came in. So far, 10 player characters have ventured into and outside Thisium, of whom 5 have met their demise in various ways:
  • Solon, Cleric 3, active
  • +Snorri, Dwarf 1, dragged off by ghouls in a dark street
  • Giacomo, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Thyrsos, Elf 1, ambushed and murdered in the mausoleum of the Vercato family by giant shrews
  • +Ignatius, drained by shadows in the lower crypts
  • Hawk, Thief 1
  • Krandor, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Codilius the Sneaky, Magic-User 1; strangled to death by living roots while trying to clean a forest altar
  • +Alonso the Humble, Fighting Man 2; promoted from a lucky footman who had drunk from a font that gave him experience in exchange for increased age, he defeated the chosen champion of the Merchant Lord Mornalt Tamburello in single combat, bedded his daughter Hestia, and – sadly – ended his career in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso, where he was burnt to a crisp by the flaming breath of the idol of PORCULUS, an orcish beast-god.
  • Khamir the Enchanter, Magic-User 2

The list of followers is also growing, foreigners recruited from the Pickled Carp Tavern and elsewhere: of the 15 who had joined the party, 5 have died and one retired:
  • +Adalberto, light footman (Giacomo), burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • +Bonaventura, light foot (Codilius), killed by the rest of the party under an evil enchantment
  • +Sisyphus, servant (Solon), simpleminded but loyal, died to an orcish throwing axe in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso
  • Lorenzo, light footman (Giacomo), suspicious hacking cough but a good rear guard
  • +Socrates, light footman (Solon), suspicious hacking cough, burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • Septimus, crossbowman (Solon), a dandy
  • [Oriflan, heavy horseman] (Krandor), a capable ally, until he was charmed by a rival Elf, and left the party in disgust when they killed his “old friend”
  • Ario, crossbowman (Alonso)
  • Philippos, light footman (Hawk)
  • Theseus, light footman (Hawk), who had his own retainer…
  • +Alcino, servant (Theseus), a lock-picker with a set of false keys, he was drained by shadows on the second expedition to the lower crypts
  • Adriano Amico, Fighting Man 2, hired from a friendly adventuring party, and capable of holding his own
  • Malek, light footman (Khamir)
  • Khamid, light footman (Khamir)
  • Hector, heavy footman (Giacomo), a dandy & current rear guard

The Coastlands
The company has also made progress: they have stolen a golden harp from the Tomb of Badalamenti; explored the Sacred Grove where the Wise Owl holds council; extracted a great treasure (including a +2 war hammer) from beneath the ruined tower of the mage Harpang with nothing but a few food rations; defeated a rival adventuring company laired in the abandoned countryside villa of the Elerius family; thrown a grand fete where they hosted all of the city-state on a night-long celebration that ended in family tragedy; purchased the wine cellars of the wine merchant Fladevole, and established permanent access to the Thisium Underworld; gained entrance to the Summer Villa of Raniero Galasso (but had to retreat under heavy losses); and converted a band of brigands to the cause of Law, while also looting their considerable treasures. Tomorrow, the adventures continue – the discovery of an underground garden, and other leads offer great treasures and formidable dangers beneath the doomed city!

I hope to publish Thisium when it is finished – I have lately been thinking about the lack of good beginner-level sandbox modules, and how disappointing and limited these offerings tend to be. Thisium aims to be complex, broad, and a combination of dungeoneering, city intrigue, wilderness pointcrawls, and sea adventures – that is, a little bit of everything. It also does not pull punches, whether it comes to grave danger or fabulous treasures – glory and death await in equal measure in The Four Dooms of Thisium!

* * *

Publication Plans

With the ongoing quarantine, I have decided to go ahead and prepare for the post-Bat Plague period. While the consequences are still hard to fathom, and there will be obvious deep changes in the world economy and other areas – some quite long-lasting – I would like to believe gaming will continue to have a place there, and people will continue to have an interest in self-publishing, including my stuff. Accordingly, I have commissioned the reprint of Castle Xyntillan. I was running fairly low on stocks when shipping came to a halt, with 70 out of 500 copies remaining, and based on sale projections, a restock was in order. I decided on this in early February, and while I have closed things down for now, I am putting my money where my mouth is. The print and binding job will be business for my printer (a fellow gamer), a binder’s shop, and later the Post who will ship the printed copies – not their only business, but every little bit helps. I never did my printing in China to do it on the cheap, and I will never do it in China – as long as it is feasible, I will keep it close and friendly, and if it isn’t, I will consider POD options as a last resort. But that would, from my perspective, take away a lot of the magic that makes me love this thing.

In the Shadow of the City-God
(Hungarian edition)
So we will work ahead, and print things as they become ready, to prepare for a reopening. Echoes From Fomalhaut #07 will be the first release after Xyntillan. It is done, proofed (a good idea, as I was mortified to find that one of the adventures was somehow missing a handful of keyed areas), ready for launch except for the cover illustration. Echoes #07 will include a module set in a glacier setting I am really proud of; a two-page mini-scenario involving a forgotten tomb under a cellar; one of the main dungeons from the City of Vultures, which had seen a lot of play over the years; and the description of a secret society, including a smattering of adventure locales you can use in context, or on a piece-by-piece basis. I am also working on the translation of In the Shadow of the City-God, a sinister city adventure by Istvan Boldog-Bernad. This scenario amazed me when I first played it, with its effortless combination of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, bloody cloak-and-dagger stories from Renaissance short stories, and D&Desque dungeoneering; and when I read the manuscript, with its no-nonsense, effective writing style. This is going to be a lot of stuff in only 32 pages.

After these two, the order of things is still hazy. Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes will be my next large project (and as the main city of the Isle of Erillion, something that could not comfortably fit a single zine issue), but in the meantime, there are two manuscripts that are close to done, and in need of illustrations.

Fight On!

Wednesday 1 April 2020

[BEYONDE] Further Pictures From Ohio

Those of you who remember the post about my visit to the beautiful all-American town of Athens, Ohio, and the chance meeting with two old-school reviewer luminaries – ludicrous as it seemed to meet both Prince and Bryce at the same time – will no doubt be happy to see my pictures again. They will perhaps be even more interested in this widened focus, including the minor original details omitted in the editing process. As Orson Welles had shown in one of his later movies, nothing is more educational than to look at things which appear banal and conventional – twice. So, without further ado, we return to Ohio, land of adventure, and the good people of Athens, in their natural habitat!

View from the car
City Lights, Stadium (from another car)
The World is Yours
Empowering the Arctic
A Cold Winter Morning
Visit Scenic Athens (Once the Bat Plague is Over)