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.

Friday 21 August 2020

[BLOG] Year Four: Fighting On!

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making earl August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …You say it isn’t early August anymore? Yeah, that’s part of it. So:

The State of the Blog

In its first year, Beyond Fomalhaut had 55 published posts (but some of those were reposts); the second, 42; the third, 37; and this one a princely 33. You could say it is not much less than last year, but it is obviously less than two yeard ago. As it goes, at first you don’t notice a blog is posting less, then you don’t notice a blog is still around. Part of it is quality control: I don’t want to half-ass posts. Part of it is motivation: my heart was not into writing extensive updates. But the main reason is fairly prosaic: managing my shrinking free time, the blog had to take a backseat to actual gaming and publishing. This was the price of playing fairly regularly (indeed, more than any time since college), and completing, or moving forward with projects that had been on the drawing board for years. There are posts I miss not writing – as they tend to stay unwritten once the initial spark is gone – but that’s the way of it. And this paragraph will be the end of this year’s pity party – on with the better stuff!

The posts I wrote were mainly reviews, and there were a healthy 15, almost as many as the 18 least year. My average score was a nice, round 3.0, close to the total average of all published reviews (3.0625). However, this score now conceals more variance than last year; with more high- and low-scoring reviews. Truthfully, I did not review some averagish supplements I read, but there was also good cause for the outliers.

Here is how the scores break down:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. For the first time in the blog’s history, there was reason to award this rating, and it went to the Wormskin fanzine, a joint effort mainly by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk. This is not a rating awarded liberally, and I thought long about giving it out, but Dolmenwood, the setting introduced in Wormskin clearly deserves it for an original, flavourful, and highly playable take on D&D gaming. It is deserving of your attention, although I also hear a consolidated book is in the works. 
  • 5 was also awarded once, to the idiosynchratic Broken Castle, a mega-module and regional adventure supplement by Gene Weigel. Broken Castle is a mess of editing, and sometimes presentation, but it is full of heart, and the true AD&D spirit. Taken together, or as individual pieces, the adventures and setting therein perfectly capture what old-school gaming is about (even its warts).
  • 4 went to three products, all worthy materials: the exotic, dark wonder of Ben Laurence’s Through Ultan’s Door 2; Jeff Bezio’s excellent B/X vanilla module, Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag, and Brian Richmond’s Rakehell #01: The Rift of Mar-Milloir, a great “backwoods France” mini-setting.
  • 3 went to five products, mainly decent ones, and the sometimes inspired, but hellishly uneven and definitely assholish On Downtime and Demesnes (mainly by Courtney Campbell).
  • 2 went to only three adventures – it could have been awarded more often if I reviewed everything I bought from DriveThruRPG, but unlike Bryce, I have a low pain tolerance, and most of these things are bad in ways that is neither entertaining nor educational.
  • 1 was, however, awarded two times: to a cynical piece of shovelware art, and an adventure showing off a range of dreadful design trends. Head over to the pillory, and gawk!

We will be continuing from this point with a one-star review, so stay tuned! .)

Some swag

The State of the Fanzine

There is a feeling of accomplishment after releasing a publication, and the same goes for taking the picture of the year’s lineup for this post series. (My ultimate goal is to create a hell of a hall of mirrors effect with successive years’ pictures.) The EMDT series has grown by five titles (one of these in two languages), and the only reason you don’t see the whole back catalogue in the back row is due to me taking insufficient copies on my vacation. Here are two zine issues and two modules, and I am happy with all of them. As always, I owe my thanks to my printer, a good and steadfast friend, and my illustrators, who have given form to sketched ideas and given the zine its visual identity: Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen and Matthew Ray, Graphite Prime and Jerry Boucher. Thank you, gentlemen!

Zines and modules are selling rather well – my big Excel file says I have shipped 1568 packages so far. They are now seeing reprints (indeed, every issue up to #06 have been reprinted at least once), and despite the gap left by the Bat Plague, these sales are sufficiently good that I don’t have to worry about financing future projects, even if they are fancier stuff. I did have to put up the printing costs for Castle Xyntillan, but even though it was a hefty sum, it has made it back and then some. As of now, the 500 copies of the first printing are gone, and 90 more of the second have also been shipped. This is, I think, as successful as it gets for module sales in old-school gaming. This feels damn good. [Word now underlines “damn”, telling me “This language may be offensive to your reader.” This, on the other hand, feels fucking stupid.]

I could finally get to publishing the core materials of our City of Vultures campaign, which would be plain too much continuous work in a single supplement, but the piecemeal approach has proven successful. The campaign itself (the third in this locale) goes on, and as we revisit the materials, new ideas and possibilities emerge, and unforeseen combinations gain significance. Game materials are never a finished deal; they grow, shift, and surprise us with every reuse. The zine issues have now focused on these relatively exotic materials, although this balance is temporary – the next issues will be more vanilla fare, even if some of it will become independent modules due to size and scope. My main debt here is Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes, a supplement detailing Erillion’s ruling city, from its teeming ports to back alley intrigues and what lies beyond the surface. This will be my next project (one, a Hungarian wilderness module that will also see English publication, is already done and 95% ready to go.) Of course, as cities go, the year has been fairly good, but then EMDT is a city-heavy publisher: Trail of the Sea Demon as a collection of three loosely connected, city-based mini-adventures, the City of Vultures, and the excellent In the Shadow of the City-God, which, I believe, fulfils the unkept promise of David Cook’s Veiled Society.

My happiest accomplishment is, of course, Castle Xyntillan, which was finally completed and released after several years of on and off work. As Rob Conley had wisely noted back in 2012, “The work on a RPG Projects increases geometrically not linearly with the size of the locale being covered. Writing nine levels of a mega dungeon is not nine times the work of writing one but more.” I can once again confirm this post (and it turns out I already did last year): writing, editing, laying out and publishing a 130-page hardcover is in no way the same as three, or even four pamphlet-sized things of similar length. It is about the magical 90%: half the work happens after a project is 90% done. But done it is, and to my pleasant surprise, it has not just sold well and reviewed well, it has given rise to a number of active campaigns, and stood the test of actual play (this campaign journal is worth checking out).

Speaking of debts, I have not completed the upgraded PDF edition yet, and for that omission, I am genuinely sorry. The cause is burnout: as the newly minted deputy editor of a quarterly academic journal, and the editor of a new book that has gone to the publisher this year, I am thoroughly burned out on editing work, and burnout has lead to procrastination. The update will happen, and I hope it will happen relatively soon.

Helvéczia - books from the first edition

The State of My Other Projects

Here is the big one: I have finished editing and layout on the rulebook for Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Remember that Rob Conley quote? Yeah. Helvéczia was originally published in the Hungarian in 2013 (rulebooks depicted), and the English translation was quite ahead by 2016. Well, mostly – and it burned me out so bad I could not look at it for years. Now I am getting into it again, playing in one campaign and gearing up to run another. It will not be ready by late 2020… but I hope it will be ready by early 2021. In my defence, Helvéczia is bigger than Xyntillan: the rulebook runs 200 pages, and when all is said and done, the supplement that goes with it will also be a hefty thing. That is to say, it is more than a system framework or a hack: it is a game that has substantial support material in the form of (mostly) new spells, creatures and magic items, extensive GMing advice, and a range of adventures to showcase the system’s workings.

In the end, I think Helvéczia is something that has not been done yet. If you will, it is a D&D-style game building on most of the same game concepts old-school gaming does (from classes and levels – six of them – to spell memorisation and alignment, and from random encounters to hex-crawling), but viewed through the lens of a different “Appendix N”. D&D is built on pulp fantasy and North European influences; Helvéczia, on the other hand set in an alternate Switzerland ca. 1698 – on historical adventure movies, 17th and 18th century picaresque novels, the work of the Brothers Grimm (mostly their less known work on German legends), local folklore and historical oddities. That in turn influences everything.

If you are unfamiliar with the genre (and they are a lot of fun to read), picaresque stories are surprisingly close to modern “adventurer fantasy” – they tend to be about disreputable scoundrels and unfortunate everymen making a name for themselves in a corrupt and dangerous world, and about the vagaries of fortune along the way. If that sounds like RPG adventurers you have known, the feeling is not accidental: a Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber story is a picaresque tale, just set in a fantastic land instead of historical Europe (which is, also, a fantastic land of its own to our modern selves). Helvéczia is a game that captures that kind of freewheeling spirit, concerned more with colourful and fantastic tales than moralising, or historical and social accuracy. As a game, it should be familiar, and fit comfortably like a set of old clothes, but it should also be new and unfamiliar – every rule and concept has been examined an customised to fit the source material.

This is not going to be a game for everyone, but I think there will be an audience who will get a kick out of it. Want to play a French duellist, a German landsknecht, a student from Prague versed in the occult, an Italian preacher on a mission to punish the wicked (and sample some of the region’s choice temptations), or a crafty vagabond from Poland out for fame and fortune? Teach those louts at the next table about manners with Judicious Lesson or Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell? Hunt the dreaded threeyard cat or go toe-to-toe with a krampus (just don’t forget they come in groups of 1d3, and have 1:3 to carry 1d2 naughty children)? Gain devilish assistance in a tricky situation with a deck of cards, or heavenly aid with the Holy Bible? Go dungeon crawling in Hell and live to tell the tale, or wander into the faerie realms and strange uncharted locales of the Mittelmarch? Or just swing from a chandelier, intercept a stagecoach, woo the local lasses, win a noble title of questionable value at a game of dice, and find yourself pursued by very angry agents from the Gebrüder Lehmann banking house? All that in a single evening? If your answer to these questions is yes, welcome: this is very likely the game you are looking for.

We have not crunched the numbers with my printer yet, but I am foreseeing a one-book hardcover edition for around the same price as Xyntillan (to be followed by a PDF), and a more expensive, but fairly priced boxed set containing the rulebook, the first supplement, eight hex maps (four each for the GM and player), and a few odds and ends. In 2013, we made a very sturdy boxed set for the Hungarian edition (it is rated at 1d6 damage), and we hope we can do it again. The initial supplement, an A4-sized softcover, will serve as a hex-crawl-based regional supplement to the mountainous cantons of Ammertal, Zwillings, the Oberammsbund, Bundli and Oberwalden, and include a selection of adventure scenarios from larger affairs to minor “penny dreadfuls” (as the game refers to situation-based mini-adventures).

Adventures in Fantasy Catalonia...

Gaming Under the Bat Plague

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade; when life throws you a global pandemic… what else to do but start two campaigns set in doomed cities? Yeah, this thing knocked out our real-life games for a few months, and killed our slow-going Kassadia campaign. But necessity is the mother of attention. At the local university, an entire decade was spent hemming and hawing about digital lectures, but once the lockdown was on, the switch happened under the course of a week. In gaming, I was entirely uninterested in trying virtual tabletop, but with no other options, I joined a game, and soon decided to set up my own. It turns out this form of gaming, while not up to sitting down around a table and bullshitting around glasses of beer and various printouts, works just fine as a substitute, and even has a few useful functions which are harder to set up in real life (e.g. fog of war).

Having nowhere else to waste our time during quarantine, we played three times a week. One of the two campaigns, run by Istvan Boldog-Bernad (author of In the Shadow of the City-God) was a Helvéczia game series set in an alternate Catalonia, in and around the town of San Escobar during the time of the plague. Much could be written about the exploits of the diabolical Don José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera, who reached 4th level as a Student, before having to hastily depart the party after his companions tried to have him burned at the sake by the Spanish Inquisition (long story; Don José escaped with the aid of a Holy Bible he had borrowed from Father Giusto, the head inquisitor, and is currently at large), and about Little Juan, Don José’s erstwhile protégé, and later a scoundrel and self-made soldier. Little Juan almost reached 6th level (the highest in Helvéczia), and has accordingly retired to become a freedom fighter, to be replaced by his brother Rodrigo, 2nd level Cleric, and failed Franciscan who only joined the order as a family tradition (dreadful Wisdom score, although a splendid Intelligence and Charisma). But this is a story for another time.

...and around the doomed city of Thisium...

The other campaign, The Four Dooms of Thisium, was a classic “West Marches” campaign using a local B/X-inspired ruleset, set around the decadent, coastal city of Thisium. (A region inspired by the concept of capriccio, the artistic genre focused on painting imaginary ruins in an idyllic, ruined post-Classical setting.) As the Wise Owl, the city’s oracle and patron had announced, the gods had decided to condemn Thisium to four dooms due to an unspecified list of terrible sins: one would come from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the seas and one from beneath the city itself. As an added twist, the gods also forbade Thisium’s citizens to take action, or even offer aid, reward or compensation to any group attempting the same – only a band of outsiders acting on their own volition could undo this terrible fate. The gods had left Thisium 90 days before the end; the campaign started on day 45, after it had already turned out Thisium had far more enemies than anyone who actually gave a damn.

Thus began a campaign that ran 26 sessions in a relatively short time span, two times a week, with a roster of seven players and a bazillion PCs and followers (the game proved outrageously deadly, with an impressive list of casualties). Due to the scope of the campaign, which rapidly exceeded my initial plans, and the frequency of gaming, this was a situation with high creative pressure, which necessitated the rapid-fire development of substantial campaign materials. The four dooms involved the city of Thisium itself, two large dungeon complexes, a wilderness area, and an archipelago of islands populated with ideas out of peplum movies, the Odyssey, and similar works.

The base areas soon started expanding into additional mini-dungeons, islands, and other side-tracks – the proverbial feature creep. This is where you get at least some idea about the kind of challenges Gary might have been facing when he was running D&D 24/7 in the early 70s – it required every trick and shortcut to keep a few steps ahead of the players, and come up with fresh material for our Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. I ended up throwing everything from semi-geomorph-based map generation to various random tables at the problem, while trying to stay true to the campaign’s stylistic influences – and my players ended up enthusiastically wrecking the place, losing a small army’s worth of characters to the monsters and death-traps they would encounter, as the gods intended. At the end, Thisium was saved on exactly Day 90 – and by that time, the venerable city-state had seen things that would be enough for multiple lifetimes.

I am hoping to publish the campaign materials in some form (first in the Hungarian – a lot of the text already exists), probably as a two-module set that would let you play as a campaign, a regular sandbox module, or a collection of smaller adventures. This is not going to be as polished or in-depth as Xyntillan; as trying to do it that way would defeat the purpose, bloat the stuff, and rob it of its free-wheeling nature. I feel that the only way to do it justice is to keep the raw energy, and stick to the slightly vague, open-ended notes I was working from. It ill happen if the gods will it!

And now that the campaign's over, we have returned to our original "Plan A" - to continue adventuring in the Twelve Kingdoms, a region to the northwest of the Isle of Erillion (our next session is scheduled for Sunday).

...and in the Twelve Kingdoms

The State of the Old School

When making predictions about gaming, it is easy to go into doom and gloom. I am as guilty as anyone; I have written sceptical comments about the future survival of old-school gaming since before it became an acronym. To tell the truth, I was not entirely wrong about my worries, but I was proven too pessimistic about the ultimate conclusions. This game style and the community around it has survived, and proven remarkably successful and resilient. So here is something more positive.

Last year, I was writing about the end of the OSR as a cohesive movement, as a unified community. I still believe this is the case – we now see separate sub-movements, developing in different directions and losing the common ground which had once linked them. But all in all, this is not a tragedy, just the end of a phase of development. What we have (and by “we”, I count people who want to stick with old D&D and its derivatives) has lost its mainstream commercial appeal, but matured into a classic, and transcended the status of a simple retro movement. Revivals and retro tendencies come and go: old-school D&D has proven popular and appealing since at least the early 2000s. It offers more than simple nostalgia. There have been, and there will be ups and downs, but its future is as secure as tabletop gaming itself. Like chess and Risk, it is timeless, and here to stay.

This is our game now. It is, thankfully, not owned by anyone in specific, but it belongs to everyone who wants to play it, and puts in a small effort to familiarise himself with its general rules and traditions. That is excellent news: nobody owns most of the true classics either. In our time, this is an advantage and a key to survival. Large corporations, who see the world as brands and need constant revenue streams like a junkie needs his fix, would be a threat to the integrity of the game as we like to enjoy it. Political mobs would subvert it to their ideological perversions, exclude the people they don’t like from its enjoyment, or destroy it outright for not conforming to their brochures. But nobody can actually prevent people from enjoying a classic. Even if they are owned as an IP, the material is too widespread to truly be at risk.

Old-school D&D is open and inclusive in the best sense: neither money nor power controls access to it, and there are no terms and conditions (beyond the simple and open rules of the OGL), nor any means to restrict who gets to play and how. Therefore, we can play the game according to our wishes, publish materials for it without passing a corporate or political loyalty test. This makes us better off than the players of 5e, who are beholden to corporate interests, and now considerations which control the corporations. We also possess the creative freedom to enjoy and advance our game. That’s no small thing either – this freedom is valuable, it is appealing (and this appeal will only increase as people gradually realise how controlling and unpleasant the emerging, China-inspired brave new world is going to get), and there is much we can do with it.

Not this time, Lady. Not this time!

For now, old-school gaming is all right. Its creative output last year has been good, it shows signs of creative health, and many projects which had been in development for years have been completed and made available. Some of the more recent offerings are vanilla in the finest sense, a return to the creative origins which remain as timeless as ever: Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag, Broken Castle, and Hoard of Delusion (on which I will write more later) are good representatives of the continued power old-school D&D holds. Likewise, the stranger, more odd branches are also bearing creative fruit. Altogether, this is a fine place to be: prosperous, reasonably friendly, and above all things, free. That is a peculiar word, and we will yet learn how much that means.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

[REVIEW] So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well

So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well (2020)

by Madeleine Ember


Low levels (I guess)

Hello, and welcome to **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 tabletop role-playing game about the drama and excitement of skating in a roller derby bout” and “An accessible tabletop RPG in zine form, exploring the intersection of teen angst and crushing capitalism.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well
So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well promises a complete adventure, as well as a secondary zine with backgrounds for the Troika RPG. The printed zine uses a flipover format, with the adventure on one side, and the backgrounds on the other (28-28 pages). It is a gorgeous physical object with heavy-duty paper, and stylish art that borrows from the imagery and appearance of Greek vases (the module) and psychedelic art that looks like stuff produced on a risograph (the backgrounds). This blog does not review production values, but for the sake of fairness, it has to be mentioned that as an art project, it is a success.

As a scenario, So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well starts with the player characters being thrown down a well for various crimes (a random chart is included), and having to find their way out through a bizarre underworld. The module text is constructed in the style of choose your own adventure books, where situations or general locations are described on a page or two, and solving the local challenges, the characters can move forward to the next setpiece encounter. Obviously, this format results in the same major linearity issues gamebooks had, with the way leading forward and never really back. Since the players are supposed to try getting out, this is, by itself, is an acceptable compromise, but it does make the adventure very short. There are altogether 11 encounters, of which a party might experience as few as four, and as many as nine. Except for one branch, all detours are illusory, and lead back to the main plotline.

So You Have Been Depicted on a Flowchart

Meaningful player choice rarely enters the picture. The setpieces are fantastic and moody – caverns populated by fungus-infested underworld denizens, an underground city living by really strange traditions, a hive of intelligent insects – but the encounters themselves are mainly lead-in text followed by player prompts which branch off to different results (or, mostly don’t branch off at all). Like in gamebooks, player decisions are not really open. Once the characters arrive in the subterranean city, they are guests at a home, and may follow one of the residents to a secret meeting after holding polite conversation, or not. What happens if the players decide to investigate the city instead? What if they try to find a way out? What if they try to observe the citizens to determine whether they are treated as guests or captives? Here, the module is tremendously unhelpful. Not because a good game aid should spell out these discrete possibilities, but precisely because a good game aid accommodates unforeseen choices. So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well spends a lot of effort on constructing its encounters, but the whole neat structure falls apart once the players get off the plot train. And because the module is written as a gamebook, the writing itself does not function well as a reference – it is too long and too particular about trying to tell its own story to allow a GM and players to construct theirs. The climax of the subterranean city section – creepy and imaginative – is written as a video game cutscene with the players as passive observers, followed by a scene which negates their previous choice whether they went to the secret meeting or not, followed by a climactic fight where they can pick sides, but it does not matter because both choices lead to the same end result (the module does not consider what happen if they pick a side, and it loses).

So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is rounded out by six Troika backgrounds (character templates), and a random table of 36 items which are on the lolrandumb side (“A postcard: one side with the picture of a pickle on the back of an elephant; the other side saying ‘Wish I weren’t here!’”). The secondary zine, titled A Miscellany of Backgrounds, contains 12 more character templates, from Gourd Golem (intelligent, mobile compost heap) to The Capsician (a scientist studying horrendously strong spices). Some of these seem interesting to play, although putting them together in a single adventuring group is sure to destroy any sense of verisimilitude or thematic cohesion. But hey – they come with full-page art plates, and the art is indeed lovely; bold, colourful, with a strong 60s/70s pop art sensibility.

So You Like Weird Lines and Spirals?

So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is perhaps best described as a simulacrum product. It is a pretty, often imaginative art album that happens to be in the form of an RPG zine, Roy Lichtenstein-style. Its table utility is dubious, and it does not really play to the strengths of the adventure module format. It is fascinating, and probably inevitable that old-school gaming, a game approach founded on actual play and table functionality would eventually wrap around and become an aesthetic to exploit, and perhaps even put on a pedestal in a modern art gallery. However, I will note that Silent Titans, Patrick Stuart’s super-indulgent art-project-to-end-all-art-projects artpunk module is not just art, it is a playable scenario too. So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is surely art. But is it a game?

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****

Saturday 8 August 2020


[This play report describes a game session using the rules for Helvéczia, my forthcoming picaresque fantasy RPG. It is a short, simple illustration of the game’s tone and purpose – although without its spellcasting classes and fantastic elements. Unlike the default game, this campaign takes place in an alternate Catalonia, in the year 1697. The Catalonian Republic is now a distant memory, but ruins from the time of its suppression dot the countryside. Prince Franco’s forces, dispatched by the court in Madrid, rule the coastal cities with an iron hand, while the Saint Hernandad Society and the Inquisition scour the land looking for rebels and heretics. Off the main roads, however, the law is weak, and the grip of power very tenuous. Bandits, monsters, revolutionaries, hermits and much stranger beings prowl the forests and mountains, and only good steel and a brace of pistols can guarantee survival…]

The Fire in San Escobar

It was Holy Saturday in the town of San Escobar, and the great fire that had almost consumed the town’s northern quarters and the church of Saint Vincent had been put out. Our protagonists, Jean-Fado Garros de Béziers (5th level Vagabond, an Occitan, played by Alister) and Little Juan (3rd level Vagabond / 2nd level Soldier, Catalan, played by Yours Truly), had been instrumental in rallying the townspeople and stopping the spread of the flames, but they had cause to be very quiet about the reasons for its outbreak. The conflagration which had consumed the makeshift headquarters of the Holy Inquisition and many of the dead inquisitors (including their leader, the fanatical Father Silvestre) was set by their companion, Álvar Diaz Garcia Vega de Valencia y Vivar (5th level Weapon Mastr, Andalusian), during a successful breakout attempt involving thirteen innocents the inquisitors were planning to burn at a cheerful Good Friday auto-da-fé. Perhaps it would be a good thing to leave town and breath some clan air for a day or two, Little Juan suggested – mindful that while he was now an adventurer and town hero, his family still owned the Golden Ass, the city’s richest tavern; and it would be a bad idea if the events of the last days were traced back to him.

Thus, as their companions were still recovering (and their players were busy elsewhere), Little Juan and Jean-Fado decided to go hunting in the eastern forests. After an audience with the bishop, Diego Carrera, and trying to pin the blame on Father Silvestre’s single-mindedness, and the diabolical schemes of the sinister occultist Don José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera (my other character, who had no hand at all in the preceding events), they mounted their horses, and left San Escobar on the eastward road, trailed by Álvar Diaz (who would join later) and El Hombre, their companion and a reformed robber knight looking for repentance. Crossing the Río Negro and leaving behind the town calvary, they rode until they reached a path leading into the forests. They had previously seen the route by, but never explored it; it was time for a new adventure!

Adventures in Catalonia

Little Juan and Jean-Fado followed the road northwards in peace and quiet, finding no game. However, the old, dirt road was not undisturbed: the tracks of several horses and a cart were visible in the mud. At noon, they saw overgrown ploughland and a cluster of ruined buildings. The place had been a monastery, and judging by the age of the ruins, it had probably been destroyed in the wars surrounding the Catalonian Republic. Only a few walls and a tower stood among the rubble. Looking around, they noted a set of stairs leading down into the darkness, but also that an enormous, currently unoccupied nest sat on the decrepit spire. As the cart had gone east, and the nest’s inhabitants were not to be seen, they decided to follow the tracks and leave this ominous place.

Not an hour had passed when Jean-Fado heard noises ahead – the laughter of women! They noted eight brightly and very loosely dressed dames beckoning to them. The strange travellers were suspiciously flirty, and certainly had impure intentions; sensing a trick, the company broke into a gallop and soon left the indignant women in a cloud of dust.

It did not take much longer to find the end of the trail: the trees parted to reveal a meadow, and the ruins of a stately manor house; perhaps a noble retreat from before the wars. Music, merry singing and laughter could be heard from inside, and before it stood not a cart, but a splendid noble carriage with a dozing gunman sitting at the bridle. The horses were off to the side, in a stable. Juan and Jean-Fado withdrew and quickly conferred with Álvar Diaz and El Hombre. This was a large, armed company, and who knows what they were doing here: a confrontation would be inadvisable. They decided to split the group; Juan and Jan-Fado would advance and introduce themselves, while the other two would hide among the trees and help if there was trouble.

“Buenos Días!”, Jean-Fado greeted the coachman, who quickly sprang to life and pointed the muzzle of a blunderbuss at him. After convincing him that they were hunters who had meant no harm, but came to investigate the merriment, the man, whose name was Jésus, lowered his weapon. He told the adventurers that this was the estate of the Capuchin, who has come here to celebrate his wedding. Jean-Fado, well versed in local legends well, had heard of the man: he was one of the notorious brigands in Catalonia, although one who was better known far to the east, beyond Acuerona and even the provincial seat, Barcino. The Capuchin was rumoured to be a defrocked clergyman from Vaguada, but he was now better known as a killer and reprobate. After sizing up the newcomers, Jésus pointed to the manor house – the Capuchin would decide what to do with the unbidden guests!

Jean-Fado, followed by Little Juan, entered a large room, where about a dozen rough characters made merry in the company of as many immoral women. At the end of the table sat the Capuchin, a large, heavy-set man with greying hair, neatly dressed in blacks and noble purples. The brigand chief greeted the guests, and once they told their story (introducing themselves under the aliases Pedro and Sancho), jovially bade them to sit around the table. He snapped his fingers, and two harlots came to entertain them with their charms. Little Juan, who had lead a mostly virtuous life (and benefitting from the saving throw bonus from high Virtue) made his Temptation saving throw, while Jean-Fado failed his, and was completely enraptured by his feisty Juanita, soon sneaking off to find a quiet place for further introductions.

To the lovely Rosalinda!
“To the beautiful Rosa! Let us drink to the lovely Rosalinda!”, one of the scoundrels roared, joined by a hearty “Vivat!” As Little Juan learned, Rosalinda was not present, and was waiting in her chambers for the wedding night. The drunken evildoers explained further: the Capuchin had long grown weary of women of loose morals, and restricted himself to innocent and wealthy virgins, whom he kidnapped during his exploits. Rosalinda was just the newest of his many conquests, after they attacked her carriage and put her guard and chaperone to the sword. Little Juan, who had previously taken the strange fête lightly, pricked his ears. This was not to his liking! Considering his options carefully, and hatching an impromptu plan, he laughed and joined the feast in earnest. Deliberately losing his silvers at dice, he drank, using the tricks learned as an apprentice barkeeper to get the bandits sodden drunk. However, the Capuchin’s men were no fools – they drank and feasted, but in moderation.

Soon, the party grew even livelier with the arrival of the eight women the company had met on the road. The tramps were decidedly not happy when they saw Juan, and one of them called, “Where are your companions? There were four of you when we met!”

Not to be unmasked so simply, Little Juan laughed. “They had gone off after a stag and into the woods. Too bad, they will be missing out on the wedding.” The bandits seemed to be satisfied with the response, and returned to their revels.

Jean-Fado, bidding Juanita a temporary adieu, spoke a few words with Juan, and they decided to call for outside help. Jean-Fado, taking a wineskin, sauntered outside and approached Jésus, again dozing on the carriage. “Here, the Capuchin says you should not thirst. He sends some food, too – let’s share a bite.”

Thankful for food, drink and company, Jésus ate eagerly, and as Jean-Fado gave a signal to the bushes, he was at once ambushed by Álvar Diaz and El Hombre. Alas, the guard was quicker and more alert than expected, and fired his blunderbuss on the advancing gallants before he could be clubbed and subdued. Worse, through the song and music, the Capuchin at once heard the shot. “Quiet! Out there–“

Jean-Fado’s cheerful yell came from the direction of the carriage, “Ha! I bet I can hit that squirrel if you cannot! Watch!”

Unfortunately, the trick did not work this time. A bandit, looking outside through one of the empty windowframes, exclaimed, “That’s not Jésus on the carriage!”

Come out, come out, wherever you are!
At once, all Hell broke loose. Several of the bandits rushed outside to cut down Jean-Fado; one grabbed and held Little Juan, while the Capuchin still sat and stared dumbfounded. A furious mêlée developed between the never-do-wells, Jean-Fado, Álvar Diaz and El Hobre. Meanwhile, Little Juan slipped from the man’s grip, and using him as a human shield, fired one of his pistols at the Capuchin – and missed due to his heavy breastplate! Bellowing in rage, the massive man pointed his blunderbuss and fired. The bandit before Juan was riddled with shot, Juan was wounded in his shoulder, and the whores around the table fled screaming. The Capuchin pulled out his hand weapon, a Lucerne hammer, advancing ominously. Not too eager to confront him in hand-to-hand combat, Little Juan released the dead guard, and bolted by the brigand chief, rushing up the spiral stairs to Rosalinda’s locked door.

“I will get you!” the Capuchin climbed the stairs, livid with rage. Little Juan, hunched behind the stairs in a concealed spot, pulled his second pistol and fired, hitting him in a most sensitive spot for 15 Hp of damage due to the combination of a lucky damage roll and the ambush. Failing his morale, the Capuchin turned and fled, swearing a terrible revenge “You will pay for this, Sancho!”

“The name’s Little Juan! Remember me every time you take a piss!” the youth mocked him.

The man jumped out through a side window and fled through the woods, still cursing.

Meanwhile, Jean-Fado and his company had slain three quarters of the bandits, and the remaining four, seeing their situation as helpless, surrendered their weapons and belongings. Jean-Fado, who was skilled at opening locks (something Little Juan barely understood), sprang the door to Rosalinda’s quarters.

“Buenas noches, señorita! The wedding has been cancelled.” They found a beautiful girl, scared out of her mind, but at last she was calmed down with news of her freedom. Introducing herself as Rosalinda Vidal, she cried as she recalled her travails after the ambush. While she was a native of Migalloc, that city was too far for now – the company could only bring her home to San Escobar, where one of her father’s friends, the wealthy Don Diego Luna maintained an expensive residence.

The Capuchin’s quarters yielded a generous bounty (a “type VII treasure”). The adventurers collected 160 silver reals, supplemented by a further 55 from the slain and captured brigands. Furthermore, 15 golden escudos were discovered, a generous bounty – the price of a heavy war horse or a full cuirass. Some odds and ends were also present: a miraculous crystal globe with a tiny red heart suspended therein (unknown to the company, the component for the powerful Borbala No-Name’s Requiescent Afternoon spell), a fancy ostrich feather duster, the statuette of a Saracen, a bug collection, perfumes, and a book titled Pope Alexander’s Admonitions to his Son, Cardinal Cesare. The company also captured a noble carriage and its horses, but it was quickly agreed to return them to Don Diego Luna.

The next day, Little Juan untied and released the captured bandits, instructing them to steer clear of San Escobar. “I would not like to see fellows I have made merry with hanging from the gallows. Go where you will, and bother us no more.” There was also the question of the women, who were now afraid to stay in a potentially dangerous forest. While Little Juan had it in his mind to send them to the town of Monticulo (where the company had unpleasant memories), Jean-Fado’s advice prevailed – they would be brought back safely to San Escobar on top of the carriage, and there told to travel up the Rio Negro and go bother the people of El Paso, a desert town best known for its gambling and many vices. Jean-Fado also called aside Juanita, and instructed her to care for Rosalinda Vidal. She could mend her ways, and with his recommendations, become the girl’s chaperone and maid, a better life than harlotry.

Travelling back through the forest, the group left behind the Capuchin’s now deserted manor house, and returned to the monastery ruin. Great black shapes watched from the enormous nest on the tower, and sharp beaks the size of longswords could be seen. However, the giant ravens did not dare attack such a large and obviously well-defended company, and the adventurers, having to care for the women, were in no mind to pick a fight either. As the ruins disappeared from view, Jean-Fado spotted something glint in a massive beak.

“That will be worth investigating”, he noted as they rode back to the coastal road, and towards the gates of San Escobar, where all were now preparing for the celebration of Easter and Holy Mass.