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: ***** / *****

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