Wednesday 21 July 2021

[REVIEW] She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

She Who is a Fortress
in Dark Water
She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water (2021)

by Phillip Loe

Self-published on

Levels 5–10

Free modules with homemade charm rarely get the respect anymore in old-school gaming. The scene has commercialised, attention has become fixated on production values, glitz, and Kickstarter extras. More’s the pity, because there are still things out there which are not just free, but as good as anything released for money. She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a free wilderness and dungeon scenario, has action, whimsy, and a unique imaginative touch that puts commercial projects to shame.

The tone of the module is grotesque fantasy set in a swampland. Mother Cordelia, a now exiled member of a local monastic order, created a human child through alchemy, to eventually use his deformed spine as a key to the lock of a massive magical codex. Although her schemes were thwarted, now a different evil cult has kidnapped young Ignacio for their own nefarious plan, and are keeping him in an abandoned temple inhabited by lizardmen. Well, at least until the spine can be extracted and their evil plan meets with success (the mission is timed, precise movement rates apply, and STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT). The setup, while bizarre, does not lead to a grimdark module. The tone is more eccentric, with grotesque beings and events, and strongly original while staying comfortably within the boundaries of D&D gameplay. The locale, Theero Marsh has its own little ecology of denizens, from the unctuous oiltoads (human-faced toads whose gaze compels their victims to scarf down the poisonous critter there and then) to a local band of lizardmen, and a handful of weirdo NPCs. It plays effectively on disgust and decay, with a sense of humour to lighten the mood.

The first segment of the adventure is a swamp described as a pointcrawl (9 keyed areas), with rules for getting off track and getting lost (this chart is perhaps too punitive for the time limit) and a random encounter chart with entries that go well beyond “meet X monsters of Y type”. NPCs with their agendas or personal misfortunes, navigation hazards, and even a local petty god can appear before the party. A woman who asks the adventurers for all their food in exchange for a gift of gold thread and answers to three (but no more than three!) questions. A questing paladin with his retainers. Sunbathing crocodiles blocking the path. These chance meetings can greatly affect the rest of the module, adding or altering the way things proceed; or offer obstacles that require a bit of creative thinking to get through.

Free Hugs
The keyed areas, likewise, are a good mixture of challenges, and each one has something that needs more than a standard fight/flight/loot reaction. There are hand-fruit trees, a giant crocodile called Cynthia, and the ghost of a saint. It is very visual stuff, with things that poke your brain and stay there. The final location, the temple, is a lizardman dungeon with 20 keyed areas. Once again, the random encounters offer good interaction/conflict potential – the giant rats are not just there, they are “rooting in the garbage”, and the four different lizardman encounters each have something specific going on (some guiding captives, some fomenting rebellion, and some just absorbed in an impromptu game of dice). The location key here is shorter, less setpiece-like, but the temple as a whole has superb flow, and there are many different ways things can go once the players get inside. Even throwaway places have details like the obligatory barracks room using once priceless tapestries as blankets, an organ room with “a curiously intelligent magpie”, or a barricaded room with a sign reading “BATS DO NOT ENTER” (with an invitation like that, who can resist?). It goes quite far with small, “inexpensive” details, and stays original throughout.

She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water is free, pedestrian in layout, and unapologetically homemade in its art and cartography. It is, I believe, just about right for a small one- or two-session adventure. In 16 pages total, you get a good background, adventure hooks, imaginative random encounter tables, new monsters, a wilderness and a dungeon. The writing is tight yet not underdeveloped; it is the sort of text that’s helpful and rich with flavour. Where appropriate, underlining calls attention to important room features. It is clean and effective. (As an anecdotal detail, you can also see the original sparse sketch/key it has developed from on the author’s blog, and make a comparison between raw notes and finished product.)

Overall, there is simply a good vibe and a sort of balance to this adventure. It is whimsical, fairy-taleish D&D with a strong element of grotesque. This is what module writing should be about. It could be an odd detour in a regular campaign, or a more permanent fixture in something like Dolmenwood. I can wholeheartedly recommend it, and hope there will be more in due time.

This publication does not credit its playtesters (it was apparently playtested at GaryCon).

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

Sunday 18 July 2021

[REVIEW] Roman Silver, Saxon Greed

Authentic Staple Rust Not Included
(in the DTRPG version)
Roman Silver, Saxon Greed (2021)

by James & Robyn George

Olde House Rules

Low-level (Barons of Braunstein)

This adventure module is an odd beast: an attempt at a historically accurate dungeon crawl, presented as the sort of DIY product you might find distributed by Judges Guild, set in the most “points of light” setting you can imagine. This is fascinating, although it does not quite work.

The setting and context of the adventure place it in Saxon England, a few centuries after the Roman collapse. The empire has long fallen, and what we are left with is a grubby setting where what remains of the monetary system is copper-based, but people mostly use barter. Luxuries we take for granted (swords, ten foot poles, ubiquitous lantern oil, rope) are just that  valuable rarities. Communities are small, and the wilderness is howling. This setting (also explored in the great Wolves of God, which might be used to run this adventure if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool BoB player) is built for adventurers!

What Roman Silver, Saxon Greed gives you is a dungeon in the buried cellars of an old Roman villa, a treasure map, and the description of Stânweall, a nearby village. Much of the introductory material – the setup – is conceptually interesting, but lacks the density of great, off-the-wall ideas which make early RPG materials so interesting. A lot is restating the obvious: perhaps the treasure map is found on a fallen traveller, recovered from a slain enemy, won in a game of dice, or even “anything else the Judge can think of”. This is the kind of material that does not get you a single step closer to actually running a good adventure with the booklet’s materials. A map of England is provided, without apparent added value (full page). A wilderness map shows nothing that could not be stated in a sentence, or which isn’t resolved by the half-page random encounter section covering the journey to the villa proper. The rumours chart is functional but generic – it is not something you would not improvise without prompting when the players started asking around in Stânweall (“Wolves prowl in the woods, and have become bolder”).

Maps of Questionable Utility

The adventure site – built around an authentic villa floor plan – is a 24-room dungeon. The intended tone is to make it a grimy, low-powered murder hole, and it is certainly realistic as the authors intended. However, this precise quality is what makes it a lot less interesting than a dungeon crawl. The villa basement is a relatively compact, cramped space without much in the way of doors (only one single room is blocked by one), where light and sound can travel freely. The brigands who lair down there, meanwhile, are alert and organised. This would in most cases result in a short stealth attempt followed by a siege situation, with more and more brigands emerging to join a mass fray. This promises a deadly fracas, followed (if victorious) by largely uneventful picking through the remains, as the dungeon becomes emptied of the inhabitants who make the place useful.

There is a reason OD&D’s dungeon doors restrict sight, noise, and above all movement through the Underworld, and this is it: you can enjoy every hand-crafted encounter on its merits, instead of getting rushed by the equivalent of 20 goblins. Roman Silver, Saxon Greed is that goblin encounter area, occupying a series of small rooms. There are prisoners, potential hiding places, side-passages with prowling beasts and potential allies. Most of it will not come into play, or come into play way too late to matter. The brigands are given interesting personalities (one is a former monk; another is a big man called “OXA” [the Ox] with a dog called “HUNDR” [dog]), and interesting situations – which would be useful if this wasn’t a scenario where you either have to fight, or stay very, very quiet to avoid fighting. The “feel” of the villa cellars are adept, and the slightly fantastic elements blend in well with the archaeology and the grubby dog-eat-dog shitfarmer milieu.

Roman Silver, Saxon Greed is an obvious labour of love. You can see that the cover has been scanned in with staples through the paper visible. It looks and feels like a lost 1970s relic. But as an adventure, it is bare-bones where it should be substantial, and its attempts at realism come at the cost of missed opportunities in gameplay. Perhaps more could be done in this area.

This publication credits its playtesters – a pleasant note!

Rating: ** / *****

Saturday 10 July 2021

[REVIEW] Bridgetown

Bridgetown (2021)

by Jonathan Hicks and Greg Saunders

Fire Ruby Designs

Low-level (not D&D) 

Warlock! is one of the games that have taken inspiration from the old-school movement, but gone off in an alternate direction to do their own thing. It is in the “B-OSR” tradition, drawing “from the early days of British gaming”, and using Fighting Fantasy as well as early WFRP as the basis for its rules. I do not own Warlock!, and this review is not really concerned with system analysis – it looks like a nice, slightly grimy take on adventurer fantasy – rather, what one of the game’s flagship modules has to offer.

Bridgetown describes the titular settlement, before delving into an adventure set therein. Bridgetown, shown on a wonderfully drawn cover by Yuri Perkowski Domingos, is a charismatic location, and the best thing about the module. A former trading settlement built on a massive stone bridge spanning a mighty river, Bridgetown had flourished, and then gone to the dogs as it lost its former prominence and got overtaken by the dregs of humanity and monsterkind. It is presently a big free-for all lawless territory, with a somewhat organised shantytown on one end controlled by “Mayor” Felicity Grendel, the most vicious brigand leader in town. It is an ideal adventuring environment to get into trouble in a small, compact maze of derelict buildings, get knifed in the back, or become involved in shady enterprises.

Here we hit one of the book’s structural issues. How do you present a complex environment like a semi-abandoned town/dungeon? You can go ahead and key some or all of it, or you can abstract it down to procedures and abstract systems like encounter tables and location stocking charts. Bridgetown does neither of these sensible things. The map it offers is definitely more indicative than representative (mediaeval architecture does not work that way with free-standing houses, especially not prime real estate on the limited extent of a bridge!), and no main landmarks are given until the included module. But neither are there functional tables. What we get instead are random, scattered idea seeds we can spin into adventures. Notes on Felicity Grendel and her new taxation schemes. A strange madman offering rumours and quests. A Thieves’ Guild operative. A random events chart. This is not bad, but it does not help with actually running a crawl into the bridge environment. You can of course fudge it, which I suppose is the standard new school approach, but it still leaves you thinking there could have been more here.

38 pages of the 60-page supplement are taken by the adventure, The Trader’s Entreaty. This is clearly the core of the supplement, since the rest consists of four very cursory mini-encounters added as an afterthought (5 pages). The setup is a standard get-the-macguffin plot: retrieve a previous family heirloom for a merchant, who believes it to be lost somewhere in Bridgetown. It is made interesting by a spell scroll that lets you “trace” an object’s passage from owner to owner, and location to location: thus, you are strung along via leads until you finally recover it.

As you might assume, this is a fairly linear affair, arranged into six scenes, each centred on a situation to solve before moving on to the next plot point. Throughout the adventure, we see the standard problems of post-old-school module writing that have plagued gaming for decades. Excessive boxed text that includes lengthy read-aloud NPC exposition, and occasionally assumptions of player actions (or non-action, such as multiple cases where the party gets into an ambush even though the places they are walking into are fairly obvious traps). It is longer than it needs to be, and more restrictive than it needs to be. There is a series of “incidents” to spice up moving between the scenes, from environmental hazards to “monsters attack!”, although there is no proper framework to use them beyond the wishy-washy “Do this as often as seems fun – keep the player characters on their toes!” The setpiece encounters leading to the macguffin are decent, with elements of gang warfare (mostly described as straightforward combats instead of more interesting situational challenges) and a few showy, high-budget locations like climbing on top of a derelict belltower while avoiding missile fire from a bunch of goblins camping out on top of a nearby tower. This is the strong suit of the module, although the solutions are always implied to be one particular thing, and there are no provisions for getting off the beaten track (e.g. by missing or misinterpreting a clue), or getting back on it. Then there is an utterly predictable boss fight with an endless stream of lesser enemies until the characters neutralise the big bad with the knockout power kung fu code appropriate response, and the inevitable conclusion where your idiotic Mr. Johnson commits suicide by going for a frankly suicidal double-cross. These fuckers never learn. (Just in case, the macguffin is cursed, so you don’t actually win anything by holding on to it.)

It is easy to talk about old-school orthodoxy in module design, or the rigidity of Mr. Bryce’s best practices when he guts another hopeful module. It is true that orthodoxies can be detrimental or limiting. However, they are in place for the lack of better alternatives in scenario design. (These do exist, and there is a particular methodology for investigative scenarios, but they are not used here.) It seems that games based on old-school principles, and even the newer clones themselves, understand the rules of old-school games very well, but pay comparatively little attention to the surrounding procedures and practices of play which are equally important. When people could still be assumed to have access to, and familiarity with the original rulesets of the past, this common wisdom was widely available, only requiring rediscovery. Today, for an increasing number of people, it is no longer self-evident. Without structure, the games devolve back into the morass of bad ideas that characterises adventure writing outside the old-school sphere. This is the main issue with Bridgetown: it works with excellent ideas and images, and the aesthetics are tops, but it shows weaknesses in translating them into a successful scenario structure. The art is in place, but the craft needs more work.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ** / *****