Saturday 27 February 2021

[NEWS] From Baklin to the Black Soup: News Roundup

I have been flying under the radar for a while now, and haven’t had a news in a long time – so here it goes: what has EMDT been up to?


Baklin in PDF

Baklin: Jewel of the Seas
First things first:
Baklin: Jewel of the Seas is now published in PDF at DriveThruRPG. The proper thing to say on the se occasions is to note that the release was late, and that’s correct – Baklin took its time to emerge from campaign materials, session notes, and stuff that was just made up. How to translate a dynamic place like a city into a manageable, GM-friendly setting guide? Baklin’s answer is to focus on locations, personalities, and conflicts which can generate mini-adventures if the players choose to interact with them, and which are connected in a loose fashion: enough to get the sparks going, but not to entangle the poor GM and his players in a web of cross-references. And Baklin also has three dungeon levels; some of them explored, some never seen. Yes, cities with extensive dungeons beneath them are as sure to come up in my games as mysterious stone faces, eccentric mini-states, and giant frogs: they have continued to fascinate me through my life. This one is, I think, a locale that offers an interesting combination of the mundane and the fantastic – there is a bit of the criminal underworld down there, and a little bit of the proverbial mythical one (with a capital “U”).

Baklin also serves as the capstone of the Isle of Erillion mini-setting which has been serialised in various zine issues (mainly Echoes #02 to #05). That is not to say there are no more adventures from that campaign left (one is set for Echoes #08), but the main cornerstones of Erillion are all released: a primer, the wilderness hexes, and the main towns are all out there. From here, we will venture in different directions.
  • One will be the lands of Kassadia, a domain of colourful city states built on a Roman Empire that dwindled into irrelevance but never fell. Kassadia, once a label on the map of Erillion, was really co-created by Istvan Boldog-Bernad; first through Armand the Scumbag, his Assassin character, and then In the Shadow of the City-God, set in one of Kassadia’s ancient cities.
  • The other direction will go towards the northwest of Erillion, to the Twelve Kingdoms: a set of warring domains, neither twelve nor true kingdoms for the most part. This is a cold and unforgiving land, but also one of weird beauty and curious customs: it draws on sources like Lyonesse, The Lords of Midnight, Smith’s Hyperborea, and others.
  • And of course, the City of Vultures is not yet finished: its secret societies, its surroundings, and its strange Underworld realms shall be explored in due time.


Castle Xyntillan back in print

Castle Xyntillan ran out of stock sooner than expected as sales suddenly spiked after the Questing Beast review, but the book is back in print in a third printing, and available from my store. The module’s first printing consisted of 500 copies; the second, 400 – as numbers go, I am happy with them.


Das Froschgottkloster

Abenteuer #08
The third thing concerns a most prestigious development (monocled parrots optional). Abenteuer #08, the German adventure gaming magazine, is set to feature my module, Cloister of the Frog-God; and more than that, it is set to be printed and distributed by EMDT.  For those not in the know, Abenteuer is an occasional magazine for and by German hobbyists hewing close to the “traditional”, or “old-school” side of the RPG world. Not unlike Hungary, the German role-playing hobby is centred around games focusing on detailed, quasi-realistic settings with a lot of historical and cultural detail, and the people around Abenteuer, like EMDT, represent a sort of counter-current to that. The current issue of the magazine is a guest issue, featuring international contributions: from Jeff Rients comes Dundagel – could this be one of the main dungeons from his Wessex campaign – and something about potion machines? That sounds utterly Rientsian. Likewise, Asen, from Bulgaria, brings an article titled “Melee” (or so I think). And then, the Cloister (also featured on the cover by Kelly Coleman).

Cloister of the Frog God is kind of a patchwork module that came together from the bits and pieces of my unpublished 2006 Tegel Manor manuscript. Since Tegel was quite dead at the time, I started thinking about reusing my original contributions to the module for something new – maybe as articles for Knockspell or Fight On! magazine. At the same time, Bill Webb was starting on a new edition of Rappan Athuk, and asked me if I wanted to contribute something to it, perhaps using these materials. This was a start. I took the figurative scissors to my room key, and reversing my usual development process, drew a dungeon around the existing encounters. A once mighty, now partially ruined and semi-abandoned cloister complex came from two mini-dungeons once located in the wilderness around Tegel; the three-level catacomb complex underneath came from the manor’s dungeons (the original module treats these as very simple monster listings, so I had quite a lot of original stuff to work with).

Tumula the Marshman,
Proud (?) Father
The finished dungeon is a long ridge with two intact parts of the original cloister complex; one inhabited by a much diminished but still terribly dangerous group of frog-worshippers, and another one where a great evil has been set loose to cause terrible devastation. The ridge itself is crisscrossed with tunnels, forming what may be called an “inverse B2” – several alternative entrances leading inwards towards a set of core areas, making the dungeon generally accessible, but some sections still out of the way due to the multi-level maze of the rooms and passages. The dungeon provided a good opportunity to create a collection of strange tombs, each with different tricks, monsters, and furnishings. Memorably, the test party spent a lot of time climbing the outside walls and rooftops to “hack” the structure they were infiltrating without having to fight its guardians, and they eventually succeeded in triggering a localised Frogocalypse, which served as a good conclusion to wrap things up.

So Cloister shipped, got published as a chapter of the big 2012 Rappan Athuk book (where few people have found it among the mountains of other stuff), but this was not yet the end of the story. Something about the frog theme was still kicking around in my head, and in 2016, I ran the adventure in a form that was half Frogocalypse Now-style boat ride through the surrounding marshlands, and half dungeon crawl in the Cloister ruins, culminating in a deadly battle with a procession of frog-cultists, and the assassination of their leader, Abbot Grosso. Then, the wilderness section was reused again in 2018 as a standalone game for the original Cloister team (still following?), resulting in Against the Frog, the eccentric swamp crawling scenario finally published in Echoes #04. Rotar the Raftsman (a haf-orc) was reunited with his incredulous and ancient father, Tumula the Marshman (the same player’s old character from the earlier adventure), and a new plague of frogs was prevented from devastating the nearby lands.

The storied life of the module now enters another chapter: after Rappan Athuk (dungeons), the Hungarian edition (dungeons and wilderness), and Revenge of the Frogs (wilderness only, different scenario), Das Froschgottkloster is set for imminent release, featuring more frogs than you can shake a stick at. How many frogs? At least 666 frogs, but potentially even more. And that’s a lot of frogs.

The 2018 Hungarian edition


Echoes From Fomalhaut #08

The Sullogh are Coming!
Yes, almost a year has passed since Echoes #07, and this is the kind of occasion when it is time to check if the body still has a pulse. It does! Other projects have demanded their due while this was sitting on a back burner, but it is now fairly safe to say Echoes #04 will be a mid-March release. This zine will feature Castle Sullogh, the penultimate adventure from our Erillion campaign, and one that tested the resourcefulness of a powerful group of 7th to 9th level characters. It is a place that may be accessible – and its treasures and secrets most attractive! – to less powerful PCs as well. You place the bait, and get to watch them reach for it. You will also get to meet the charming Sullogh and their masters, who will all be happy to have you for dinner.

Where some things end, some are set to begin: Yrrtwano’s Repose, the first adventure drawn from the cold lands of the Twelve Kindoms will be included here. And from the City of Vultures, the fantastic wilderlands around the sinful city-state – detailing the hex map whose player version was included in Echoes #06. The eighth issue will also be the first to feature two map sheets, and I hope that, seeing them, you will agree it should not be the last one.



Not the Helvéczia Boxed set
My picaresque fantasy RPG is proceeding towards a Spring release. The rulebook is complete and almost ready to print, with all indices, tables and illustrations in place, multiple rounds of proofreading (for which I am very grateful – it is the kind of work that is invisible if done well), and only waiting for the endpapers. The cover – and what a cover! – is in. The supplement still needs translation for one of the adventures. The hex maps are done; a players’ overview map is being worked on. The boxes for the boxed version have been designed, but not yet manufactured. It will come in a heavy-duty box that will stand up to prolonged use, and inflict 1d6 damage if used as a mêlée weapon. For Christmas, I released Casemates and Companies, a Hungarian B/X-based game, and we used this opportunity with my printer to do a smaller test run with boxes. It all worked out well, so we are going in.

This is a project with a lot of moving parts, but every so often, another part is locked in its place, and the working bench gets less cluttered. Now it is close to empty. April? Could be April. A more detailed preview will follow in March.


Shipping increases

“Last comes the black soup.” This is a saying in Hungary, originally referring to coffee, and meaning “bad news last”. Last year, postage increased slightly, in a way I didn’t feel like annoying customers with. This year, the increase, while not radical, is a bit steeper, and comes with added paperwork on non-EU orders – or you can let the Post do it, and increase postage further. I decided to do the paperwork – electronic data entry stuff, not too bad – and go with a smaller shipping price increase. So here is how it is going to look from now:

  • Any quantity of zines, Europe (incl. UK): $6.00 to $6.50
  • Any quantity of zines, worldwide: $7.00 to $8.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, Europe (incl. UK): $20.00 to $23.00
  • Hardcovers and boxed sets, worldwide: $25.00 to $28.00

Let There be Order
These are still flat rates, so ordering one zine will set you back as much as ordering ALL zines and pamphlet-sized modules (they may ship in multiple envelopes, but a large order deserves a discount). There will be one exception: the Helvéczia boxed set is going to ship alone, because it will weigh right below the 2 kg (4.4 pounds) postal weight limit after packaging, and if you add just one zine, shipping suddenly jumps from $28 to $60 or so.

In summary, I will go with a small price increase, you will start seeing custom form stickers on your envelopes, large and heavy supplements will be a bit pricier to order (but hopefully well worth the price). Death and taxes, ladies and gentlemen!

These changes will come into effect after the first week of March, so if you'd like to buy something with the lower shipping rates, there is still a week for that.

The Fruits of Endeavour

Friday 12 February 2021

[REVIEW] Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn (2021)

by Mason Waaler


Levels 1–2

If you have been playing D&D for a while, you approximately know what kind of adventure Barrow of Sorn will be – this is one of those common mini-adventure subgenres which make up a lot of the cheaper DrivethruRPG releases. So, barrows. Every campaign setting can use them, you can put them anywhere (the barrow-building people are long dead), and they contain traps, treasure, and undead warlords. Barrowmaze, the king of barrow adventures, contains an entire megadungeon, but it is kind of an outlier, and not discussed here. This is the smaller kind that’s all plug and play, and suitable for about one evening’s worth of play.

Barrow of Sorn, originally written for a D&D-like system that is practically D&D, is short and decently made. It is a 20-room dungeon in a 12-page pamphlet, written in a to-the-point style that is unornamented but GM-friendly, with strategically used bolding to draw attention to the important stuff, and meticulously applied cross-references. The map, created with the excellent and free Dungeon Scrawl, is crisp and readable (the dungeon layout itself, a collection of rectangular rooms, is not too interesting). The dungeon has all the usual stuff of barrow exploration – six adventure hooks, an entrance section leading to a false tomb, subsequent traps, magical enigmas, puzzles, and an undead monarch.

There are a few aspects where this particular barrow stands out. Unlike the static tomb scenarios, this has a decent dynamic element with its simple but fun random encounter table. It is not just “a giant spider” or “warrior apparitions”, but a giant spider dragging a frozen body, and warrior apparitions still fighting some long-gone battle. There you have it  in a single step, we have gone from basic to inspired! Encounters with undead include a few intelligent denizens bound to the place, adding an element of interaction. Finally, there is a fun final hook of turning this beginner-level adventure into an exercise in unintended consequences, something I heartily approve of. There are a few weaknesses to note. The puzzles feel slightly artificial (the “keycard” approach, where you have to collect three gewgaws to open the way forward), there is way too much magical treasure (it is mostly low-level stuff, cheapening the thrill of finding something really good), and sometimes, the “monsters appear when the runes are disturbed” way of generating extra combat wears thin. It is a module looking for a missing "WOW" factor, perhaps, unless we count that final idea.

For a single buck, you get a beginner dungeon with a decent variety of encounters. Could you make up something similar yourself? Yes, most likely. Would it make for a good game if you ran this particular barrow module? Also yes. Does it slot easily into your campaign? Yes, as long as it is a D&D-like game, this will fit.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Friday 5 February 2021

[REVIEW] Beyond the Borderlands

Beyond the Borderlands (2020)

by Alex Damaceno

Published by Jacob Hurst & Swordfish Island LLC.

Level 1

Ah, Keep on the Borderlands! Beginner of a million campaigns, grave for a dumpster’s worth of character sheets, and template for a host of followers, imitators, and heartfelt homages! The most meat-and-potatoes D&D fare, so influential that the original template now seems nothing special! The Keep, however, bears an unholy curse: those who seek to recreate it, are cursed to frustration and failure. Such are the bewitchments of Gary Gygax. And it is so: all B2 homages invariably lack something from the original’s greatness. Perhaps their “Caves of Chaos” lack a convincing “Keep” to serve as a counterpoint to dungeon-delving, or they are missing B2’s killer wilderness encounters to drive home how this is a dangerous world.* Perhaps their Caves are not a panorama of immediately available, secretly interconnected lairs making for a surprisingly complex environment built from the most simple of micro-adventures. Perhaps the adventure locations are not given the context of the wild frontier, beset by the forces of Chaos. For such a straightforward scenario – I think it has been revealed that Gary penned it in just a few days – it has a mystery that has not been broken, a secret ingredient that has been left out in the imitators. The closest contender and B2’s meaner, weirder cousin, Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (“the Keep on the Borderland for assholes”), is the only legitimate rival, and it actually predates B2 by a year. The borderlands have some sort of terrible secret. And so we come to this module.

Beyond the Borderlands
(Image courtesy of Swordfish Islands LLC)

Beyond the Borderlands #1 is the first part of a three-part zine aiming to provide a reimagination of the original module. The first issue – the only one published so far – covers the keep and the wilderness, but not the Bloody Ravine, with the six dungeons of this take on the Caves of Chaos. This obviously limits the scope of this review, but with 20 pages of material to go by, it is about sufficient to form an impression, doubly so because the zine uses a hyper-condensed style to present information – even the most complex areas are covered by a few short sentences.

This is a Borderlands imagined in bold colours, the unnatural hues of some forgotten early 1990s JRPG-meets-LEGO-set. My reviews do not dwell much on artwork – they are an aspect of imagining something, but text is still the main course – yet here, the artwork is the centrepiece, and the text the afterthought. What you will get is two very colourful main maps, one for the keep and one for the 36 hexes of the surrounding wilderness. The wilderness map is also broken up so its “regions” form two-page spreads with the map and descriptions both at your fingertips. As quality of life features go, this is decent, but it will in fact be this module’s limitation, the source of downfall. Having to fit the text produces the same issue you see elsewhere in ultra-minimalist design, and limits both style and meaning to miniature snippets. You have to be a very good writer to convey meaning in short work – poetry works this way, and so does the terse, weird JG classic, Huberic of Haghill – and you have to be precise, essential. But the author is not at this stage of his craft.

Stronglaw Keep

The resulting Borderlands is one that has everything a good B2-inspired adventure should formally have, but none of it is consequential. You have Stronglaw Keep, a home base that’s a fairly close replica of the original (down to the nameless Castellan), but does not suggest ideas beyond a cursory reading of the location names. The stables have horses, and the warehouse is used to store heavy goods. The hidden skulduggery and intrigue of B2’s outpost, however elementary, are not in evidence. A noticeboard’s random proclamations are perhaps the best part, although even here, what we have is the elementary fetch quest (“Looking for fresh blue mushrooms. Bring them to the tavern!”), the rescue mission (“Merchant kidnapped by ravine monsters. Reward if returned alive.”), and the odd detail that’s kinda fun (“The scarlet night is coming. Be ready.”) Consider the cryptic rumours from gaming’s early master of terseness, Bob Bledsaw (from City State of the Invincible Overlord): “A Basilisk has wrecked havoc [sic] in Naughty Nannies, 400 GP offered.”; or “A knight of the Inner-Circle to be Yellow-Striped in the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures.”; or “Rumor of retaliation by Clan of the Venerate against the Clan of the Host on Caravan Street tonight.” Here are rumours – and they are just those, without context or detail – which sparkle, and pack a punch in a single line. “The ruins have buried treasure” is not much of a rumour. B2’s “Bree-Yark!” is simple but memorable with its in-game consequences – no wonder everyone remembers it (not to mention the one with the imprisoned fair maiden).

Similar concerns emerge in the Wicked Palovalley, the zine’s primary adventure location. This is a hex-crawl with every hex keyed, plus region-based random encounter/rumour rolls, simple travelling and weather rules, the works. Six regions of the valley, individually six hexes each, are described on the basis of the isometric illustrations. There are many mysterious sites deep in the Palovalley, and the rumours link this up in a decent fashion. It almost, almost works. But, once again, the text is inadequate to carry the vision. There is no other way of saying this. There are interesting kernels of ideas, like a mushroom grove with strange magical mushroom effects, a lost magic sword, and a few NPCs with potential, but they are mostly fairly underdeveloped, lacking a punch or clever twist. Some hidden beauty lurks in the art that depicts this improbably coloured piece of wilderness, and combining the text with the imagery may improve the module, somewhat. But the well does not run as deep as the art suggests.


Beyond the Borderlands #1 seems to be a perfect example of the art-above-writing trend that’s everywhere in the brand of old-school products. Its never-ever retrogame aesthetics may suggest something, a vague sense of strangeness that seems to be deeper than the zine’s reality, but the aesthetics are thin, and there is really very little underneath that is not blatantly obvious. The module comes with two cool frogman stickers. These are pretty neat.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****


* Fun note: when running B2 about 15 years ago for my then local group – none of them D&D vets – they headed out from the keep armed with backstories and elaborate “character goals” that had disappointingly little with killing goblinoids, and all of them were killed by the black widow spiders lurking in the forest. They never came near the Caves of Chaos.