Sunday 16 May 2021

[REVIEW] Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness

Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness (2021)

by Geoffrey McKinney


Levels 4 to 14 (really!)

Mike's World
Consider the following: between the Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos (or its “roll your own” cousin, the Cave of the Unknown) lies a peculiar environment, a land of excitement and adventure; a hallowed locale. The wilderness around the Caves of Chaos is the place where beginning adventurers go to die. Killed by the insane hermit and his mountain lion companion, slaughtered by lizardmen, or running into the raiders, they are slaughtered by the dozens. One of the times I ran B2, the party never even reached the caves. Somewhere on their way, they investigated an interesting collection of black pines, got into a fight with two black widow spiders, were bitten, and died to the last man. Why did they have to go in that direction? Hell if I remember; they picked up the idea at the Keep, and kept going until they were in over their heads. The pine trees were near the edge of the Keep’s surroundings, and if the adventures had lived, they could have just kept walking. Beyond the map’s edge lies Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness.

Like most Geoffrey projects, this is an audacious one. Mike’s World expands on B2’s wilderness section, giving you a frontier area of 15 maps in a 5x3 configuration. Centre west lies the Keep and the rest of B2 on the original map sheet; all beyond is howling wilderness with only the occasional permanent habitation. In every direction lies danger and adventure. As the ad copy says, “This is the world you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. There are no long-winded histories, complicated calendars, detailed weather charts, intricate genealogies, complex pantheons, or anything of the sort. This is a no-nonsense campaign setting for playing D&D.” Sometimes, there is truth in advertisement, and this 32-page pamphlet is true to its word. You get 14 extra map sheets described and stocked rather like B2’s wilderness, but scaled to the level of the Expert Set, and populated by “Mike”, an evil little killer DM. The Expert rules go from level 4 to level 14, and so do the encounters, getting progressively more dangerous the further one ventures from the Keep’s relative safety. (You can read about Geoffrey’s method in this forum post.) It can get bad, very-very bad; on the fringes, it is bad enough to make high-powered Lords and Wizards quake, and Patriarchs forsake their gods. Every map sheet but the final one gets exactly one facing page of text describing about 3 to 5 points of interest; the final sheet gets two pages.

The maps are meticulously and obsessively aligned with B2, not just in layout, but drawing style as well: Mike, the ostensible 12 years old prodigy went to considerable pains to use the same symbols and the same style of topography as the original cartographer. If you put together all the maps and do some colour corrections on the originals (which I did, and have gained Geoffrey’s blessings to publish them), they fit together so seamlessly it can be hard to tell at first glance which is old and which is new. The illusion, if not perfect, is at least convincing. And it is an enormous playing board, even if the overall area covered is only 11.35 miles by 8.85 miles (or 18.27 km by 14.24 km), or about two standard hexes. These are hiking distances, and that’s what forays into the wilderness will feel like: hilariously deadly hiking trips with the world’s most suicidal scout troop.

A Wilderland

When I mention “howling wilderness”, it is no figure of speech. The howling is loud and clear. Robert Conley’s Blackmarsh and Points of Light are lands of competing petty kingdoms and tiny communities fending off monsters and nurturing their agendas, grudges and alliances. The Forsaken Wilderness is what lies beyond the Borderlands: the Keep is the final, tiny point of light, and beyond is only darkness. The road ends on the western edge of the next sheet, and from then on, there are no others. The introduction – very in medias res, no bullshitting here – drives it home that this is inhospitable terrain; even “clear” land is wild, and the forests are dark, thick, and miasmatic. A long conflict called the Glimmerstone Wars devastated the lands, leaving behind scattered population groups typically numbering in the dozens (if that), and no organised civilisation of note. In a very Geoffrey-style twist, we learn that the wars had rent the land: snaking through the fourteen maps are strange fracture lines, faults and zones where strange things happen and even magic is unreliable in its effects. The pamphlet is entirely play-oriented, so the historical background is one brief paragraph, but the setting offers a number of interconnected themes and mysteries, from the origin and fate of the fabled Glimmerstones, to the surviving demi-human and monster populations of the war itself. It is the Wilderlands all right, but not necessarily “of High Fantasy” – it owes as much, or even more in style to Rhovanion, Tolkien’s wilderness setting, which Geoffrey had already tried to map and gamify once (then with less success). It is a land of dark, deep forests; raging great rivers; wet fens; and other grandiose wonders of untamed nature which can appear to us as if wrought by the hand of God.

This is very much a “man vs. nature” setting, and it possesses a peculiar beauty that accompanies dangerous and bizarre elements. This is where the illusion wears a bit thin – no 12 years old is so precocious as to weave in these strong themes of devastation, strangeness, and loss – but Mike’s World is better for it. The keyed encounters are among the best Geoffrey has written; not as minimal as some of his prior work (such as even Isle of the Unknown) and not as forbiddingly negative as Carcosa, the entries are colourful, fantastic, and have great imagery. It is a slightly palette-shifted take on The Hobbit; goblins ride dark green giant spiders and evil treants ferment strange brews to offer by force to travellers; giants inhabit fantastic castles and prehistoric or interstellar monsters stomp around in blighted lands. It is varied and sometimes oddly specific in a way that suggests high randomness (the interior of an ice dome is an even 78° Fahrenheit – neither more nor less? Purple worm teeth are worth exactly 54 to 108 gp, not 51 to 105?), but in every described encounter, the handicraft comes through. When it is standard D&D, it is given a strange twist (they are orcs… but cycloptic orcs! they are gnolls… who are overeating on strange, overripe fruits from the stars!); and when it is sheer oddity, it is given hooks to fold them into the setting (a fallen starship is perfect material to forge magical arms or armour; a wondrous mineral cavern is inhabited by carrion crawlers). It is an excellent, balanced blend of Geoffrey’s sensibilities (cosmic strangeness and Tolkienesque adventure). There are hidden ties and ideas connecting the setting to its fantasy roots (if you consider what colour are the Glimmerstones, you might get a very peculiar and morbidly funny idea where these fabled gemstones might have come from). There is also a sly sense of humour coming through, with passages like “If the DM has a spare afternoon in which to design, map, stat, and detail an entire planet, he can rule that adventurers touching the weapons will be teleported naked to Barsoom, a planet full of other naked people of crazy skin colors.” Easy peasy!

The difficulty curve is real and sometimes seems very steep despite the intended gradation. I think you, the hypothetical GM using this setting, may benefit from populating it with more encounters and a few notable dungeons. And some encounters are plain assholish death-traps worthy of a teenage munchkin DM with a grudge, even with some basic foreshadowing (wyvern pit and “The Endless Labyrinth”, I am looking at you!). You might want to reconsider these.

There are many ways to use this wondrous and untamed wilderness, and for all its unassuming appearance, it is laden with more potential and expressive power that shall only encourage GMs to use and enrich it. It is not an adventure yet – it needs a little extra to motivate the party and get them going, such as a few rumours and perhaps a scattering of more detailed dungeon sites – but it has the good kind of vagueness that invites tinkering and opens up the mind. It is in this respect that Geoffrey hit the bullseye; for in the balance between what is there and what isn’t, he got it exactly right: this is “creativity aid, not creativity replacement”. The maps, of course, are the cream of the crop, and with a little juggling, would make for a great virtual tabletop game. All in all: for a product that’s all rough edges from a product design standpoint, and barely cares enough to make itself presentable as a PDF, it is a triumph of both the imagination and utility, and a real [redacted]-coloured Glimmerstone in the rough. A great gameable setting with a vision, even if you get the odd feeling Mike’s dad might have helped with his homework.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Complete, downloadable B&W Map (12 MB, done with Geoffrey's approval)

Oh no! Oh noooooooo!

Saturday 8 May 2021

[BLOG] The Scoundrel’s Progress (Helvéczia Character Generation)

First, news on Helvéczia’s progress! Production is well underway, and boxes on our checklist are ticked off one by one. It is a complicated list, but there is a point with a large “ENDE” sign, and that sign is approaching. Here is where we are:

  • The book interiors, covers and endpapers have been printed, and are at the binder for assembly.
  • The Ammertal and the Oberammsbund supplement (a 72-page A4 book with hex-level world description and a handful of adventures) is printing.
  • The boxes are being manufactured (these are hand-made by one of the last boxmaker ladies active in town).
  • The maps have been finalised, test prints have been examined, and adjustments have been made. They will begin printing soon.
  • This leaves the reference folder with the “other stuff”. This still needs to be finalised, but will be done in the next days – it is not complicated stuff.

With all things considered, it looks like the first boxes may be assembled in the second half of May. They will not go on sale immediately. The box would be available NOW if it was in my hands, but this kind of work does take time – the increase of product complexity is not linear, but geometric. As the plan goes, I will take a short holiday in late May and early June (during which time the store will be closed), after which Helvéczia will be available. If everything comes together, a small initial batch will be sent to NTRPGCon, and the game will make its international debut there – check the Black Blade Publishing stand!

For this post, let’s delve into the game’s character creation rules – I shall make a random character to demonstrate how the rules work, and how they are balanced between the familiar and the unknown.

Boxed set prototype with a hand of cards

Unless otherwise specified by some special circumstance, all Helvéczia player characters are randomly generated, and at the second level of experience. Since the game encompasses six experience levels, power differences are rarely bad enough to merit starting above second level. Enterprising NPCs can be promoted to adventurers during play (Little Juan, whose adventures we have recounted before, started his career as a servant, and rose to fame and fortune after his master, Don José Emilio de Gálvez y Rivera, had to depart with speed from the inquisitors who had wanted to burn him for practicing black magic).

For our character, we shall generate ability scores with the 4d6, drop lowest method. The scores are always in order, but the player can select between two sets – this results in generally competent characters, but often with a few interesting flaws. We roll the dice, and get...

  • Str 16, Dex 10, Con 15, Int 13, Wis 12, Cha 9
  • Str 15, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 15, Wis 15, Cha 8

Neither of these mostly similar sets make for flattering cads, but both are essentially qualified for any class in the game: there is no overwhelming reason not to run a strong Vagabond, or even Student (who are not as frail as D&D’s magic-users), and Father Taddeo Previti, the renowned inquisitor, had a Dexterity of 18, with an almost supernatural ability to silently appear behind someone’s back (“Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition… in Catalonia!”). For now, we will pick the second set, note down the ability score bonuses on the character sheet (more on this later), and create a fighting-oriented character.

Our character, Pascual de Perales (name generated with this very useful random generator) shall be a Spaniard – somewhere midway between safe bets like Frenchmen and Germans, and wildcards with like Poles and Hungarians (who come with higher benefits, but severe drawbacks). The Catalonia campaign introduced several varieties of smaller groups on the Iberian Peninsula, from Andalusians to Basques and Gallegos, but for now, we shall stick with the rulebook. Accordingly, we can note down the following special abilities:

  • They receive +2 to their Bravery and Temptation saving throws.
  • In all circumstances, they must spend a quarter of their money on elegant clothing and expensive jewellery befitting Hispanic fashion.

Helvéczia’s Fighter class is divided into six sub-classes, and – in keeping with the swashbuckling theme – we shall make Pascual, who seems like a bravo or troublemaker with his high abilities but below-average Charisma, a Duellist. This means the following:

  • They can transfer part or whole of their base attack bonus to AC to protect either themselves or others. This AC bonus can be granted to one person for every odd level. [Here, it is +2, and one person – either the character, or someone he is defending]
  • If it is higher than their Strength bonus, they can use their Dexterity bonus for melee attacks. [Not applicable here]
  • Finally, they receive a +2 to all combat checks. [Combat checks, or CCs, are a general action type for all kinds of “special moves” like disarming, tackling, forcing back an opponent, seizing a hostage, etc. They are played with contested attack rolls.]

We note down this information on the character sheet as well. Pascual currently has 2000 experience points (for 2nd level), and needs to hit 6000 for 3rd level.

As one of its points where it departs the furthest from common “OSR” systems, Helvéczia has a simple skill system. Pascual de Perales has three skills by default, and plus two for his Intelligence bonus. Since Fighters are more versatile than other classes, he will receive one more each on 3rd and 5th level. We pick the following skills, beneficial to a troublemaker:

  • Climb (Str)
  • Gambling (Dex)
  • Jump (Str)
  • Ride (Dex)
  • Science (Int)

All of these skills are rated at a value equal to the sum of the character’s level [2] and the relevant ability bonus [-3 to +3]. In his youth, Pascual must have had some formal education, as he has a science skill... which, for added fun, we shall roll randomly from a table with a d6 and d12 (there is a similar one for crafts): a 2 and 1, making Pascual trained in the useful art of Aesthetics! Note that Pascual shall not be restricted to the use of the selected skills: he can use any skill available to his class (which is “most of them”), he just does not get to add his level to those rolls. Helvéczia characters are jacks of all trades… granted, on low levels, they are also masters of none! Difficulty Classes (DCs) for most rolls are 12 (for Normal tasks) or 18 (for Hard ones).

After these steps, we can determine Pascual’s secondary values, various stats derived from class, ability scores, and a few other factors.

  • First things first, Pascual’s hit points shall be 10 (maximum on first level – this benefit is solely for player characters), plus 1d10, plus his Constitution modifier on each level. We get: 10+2+2=14. Pascual can talk the talk and get into trouble, but he has a glass jaw. (Like all other PCs, he will fall unconscious at 0 Hp, and die at -5 Hp. There is no bleeding rule in Helvéczia.)
  • His initiative shall be equal to his Dexterity bonus, a +1.
  • His Armour Class shall be left for after picking equipment.
  • His attack bonus as a Duellist is Level*1 (other classes are Level*2/3), to which he can add his Strength bonus (for mêlée) or Dexterity bonus (for ranged attacks). Thus, we get 2+2=4 and 2+1=3.
  • Helvéczia has three saving throw categories: Bravery, Deftness, and Temptation. As a Duellist, Pascual is good at Bravery, with a value of Level/2+2, and the others at Level/2. To these, he adds his relevant bonus values (Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom, respectively), as well as his special bonus as a Spaniard. Therefore, we get 1+2+1+2=+6 (this is a very good value in the system!), 1+0+1=+2, and 1+0+2+2=+5. We note down the scores.
  • There is one more thing to be done here: it comes later in the book, but we shall roll Pascual’s Virtue! Virtue functions as Helvéczia’s equivalent of an alignment system. The beginning score is rolled with a flat 3d6 roll, and positions the character on a 21-point scale that goes from 1 to 21. This score describes where the character stands in the struggle between Heaven and Hell, who both have a standing interest in the affairs of mortals. Pascual rolls 12, which is right in the middle, and comes with no remarkable effects – but every virtuous or sinful deed shall be recorded in the Catalogue of Sins, moving him towards one extreme or the other, with various consequences! (See the scale in the upper right for the simplest ones.)

We’ve got Pascual, now it is time to give him equipment. At the beginning, he has a set of inexpensive clothes, and 2d6 golden Thalers or equipment to the same value. As a Duellist, he is also entitled to one weapon of his choice. We roll 3+4=7! There are options to take out a starting loan at a sympathetic banking house like the Fuggers, Die Gebrüder Lehmann, Rotschild & Söhne, or Goldmann-Sachs, for those who enjoy paying compound interest on relatively short notice, but this will be enough to get by. We will convert our Thalers to 70 Pfennigs for ease of use, and start shopping.

  • For his free starting weapon, Pascual picks a spadroon, a good fencing weapon: it only causes 1d6 damage (plus the Strength bonus), but it has a good critical hit range (18–20/*2), and it grants +2 to Combat Checks, which will be Pascual’s forte!
  • From the 70 Pfennigs, Pascual also equips himself with a cloak and a main-gauche (parrying dagger): both of these function as armour, granting him +2 AC each. We can now count Pascual’s Armour Class: 10 plus Dex bonus plus armour type, making for 10+1+2+2=15. Later in his career, Pascuall shall try to get his hands on a cuirass, but so far, so good… These two items only cost 11 Pfg, while the cuirass would set him back 15 Th!
  • A gun would come in handy! Pascual can still afford one pistol (40 Pfg), with two pouches of powder and shot (20*, 6 Pfg). Firearms are “first-strike” weapons, requiring precious combat time to reload, but that initial shot can be decisive. Pistols do an impressive 1d10+ damage (meaning the 10 will add an extra damage dice), and have a critical of (20/*3). They take one round to reload.
  • Pascual only has 11 Pfg left. He passes on a handful of grenades (“Some day!”), thinks about taking that loan, then settles for minor personal effects: a feathered hat (5 Pfg) to look like a semblance of a gentleman, a deck of cards (2 Pfg, but they pay for themselves!), a haversack (1 Pfg), and a wineskin filled with wine (1 Pfg). Having only 2 Pfg left in this world, sufficient for four days of poor room and board at some low-class inn, Pascual now has sufficient motivation for embarking on his adventures, and getting more money... at gunpoint if n-eeded be!

The reader might note an “X” in the second column. This is for encumbrance values: characters can carry one object (or a logical combination of small ones) in one slot, and depending on Strength, some may be crossed off – Pascual can carry 15 items on his person, but Szymon Czarniecki, a much weaker Student with a Strength of 7 (-1) would only be able to carry 12.

All that remains are background details. In Helvéczia, it is recommended to give your character a brief and to the point backstory – perhaps a paragraph to establish the hero or heroine – and let the rest emerge over play. It never hurts to have that persona (Pascual is a violent and charmless bravo, but more smart than one might assume), along with a sampler of past sins or good deeds. Since Pascual’s Virtue is average, he might not have done anything bad, or he could have just been a person of extremes – which is what we will go with:

Would you buy a used
glaive-guisarme from this guy?
Character notes:

"There is no greater teacher than Life; and this was the wisdom Pascual de Perales followed when ending his studies and embarking on a life of swordfighting, highway robbery, and daring escapes from places where the previous two had proved unsuccessful. After a misadventure with the stagecoach of a great hidalgo named Don Alejandro Luís de Santillan, he thought it better to leave his native land, and head for the lands of Helvéczia, where the Law shall rarely follow."

The Catalogue of Sins: 

–1 point: Plundering the Inn of the Barbican
–2 points: attack on the stagecoach, and killing the bodyguard
+2 point: defending the peddler from the guards
–1 point: robbery at gunpoint

Pascual is now ready for his first adventure!

In my experience, explaining character generation for Helvéczia takes longer than actually doing it, especially after the first PC or two (initial character turnover can be rapid). Of course, the process above only applies to player characters. If he was a throwaway NPC, here is how the Gamemaster would stat him:

Pascual de Perales: Duellist 2+2; AC 15 (Dex, cloak, main-guache); Atk +4 spadroon 1d6+2 (18–20/*2, +2 CC) or +4 pistol 1d10+ (*3) [1 r]; Spec attack to AC [2], +2 CC; +5/+3/+5; V 12; 2 Pfg, powder&shot*20, wineskin, cards.

Hp       14

You will note that the translation is not entirely accurate – some things are simplified or omitted – but the Gamemaster, who has to move several characters in the game, shall surely appreciate the simplicity!

Pascual de Perales -- character sheet (0.1 MB PDF) 

Hex map test prints (GM/player)