Saturday 28 August 2021

[BLOG] Year Five: Old School Refocus

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …It is not early August right now? No! That’s LIES, and how dare you?

The State of the Blog

Over five years, Beyond Fomalhaut has turned from a fledgling blog (lots of posts, 55 and 42 total in its first two years!) to an accomplished and mature one (much fewer posts: 37 in year three, 33 in year four, and 29 in year five). It did not drop off of the face of the Earth, but it has obviously turned from an essayistic blog into a review blog (17 posts were reviews, and some of the others were various news items, previews, and updates). However, it remains a blog with an active publishing arm, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I have always preferred the practical, meat-and-potatoes side of gaming, and even considering the limitations of the ongoing Covid-19 nonsense, this year has delivered on that promise.

The 17 reviews posted on the blog represents a slight increase from last year. The average score on the five-point scale ended up as 3.1 (the total average over five years is 3.06, which means at least my scoring is consistent). Last year, I moved towards a “swingier” scoring approach, and I have stuck to this principle ever since. Fewer average ratings, and a few more high- or low-scoring supplements.

Here is the year’s breakdown, with the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin maintain their lofty perch above the holloi-polloi.
  • 5 was awarded to three supplements, making it the “best” year for this rating since the blog has launched. One award went to Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City, a zine describing the last metropolis of a flooded world and its strange denizens: its flawless execution, wealth of adventure hooks, and creativity make it a natural winner. The Palace of Unquiet Repose, a merciless sword & sorcery adventure about a desert-swallowed tomb-city created by divine hubris, is noted for its mighty energies and a consistently approachable style. Last but not least, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness is an extension of Keep on the Borderlands’ wilderness section – into a devastated land of colourful and deadly imagination. This is Geoffrey’s best work since Carcosa, and has none of the latter’s ghastly elements.
  • 4 went to four products: Hideous Daylight, a creative wilderness adventure set in a magically warped, off-colour hunting preserve; Fire in the Hole, a well-realised humanoid lair; She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a grotesque marshland/dungeon adventure with a lot of individual flavour; and Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts, one of the few actually worthy Caves of Chaos homages. It is interesting to note that three of these ratings were awarded to rather modestly produced materials that did not attempt to bedazzle readers with glitzy artwork and acrobatic experiments in graphic design. They were plain, useful, and well made – the kind of honest, imaginative work we can always use more of.
  • 3 was awarded to four products as well. These were basically decent – from Hunters in Death (the kind of modular content you can just immediately add to a campaign – I did to mine) to the wild, unruly Crypt of the Lizard Wizard and its gonzo elements.
  • 2 went to three adventures, which were either flawed, or just did not offer much of interest. Of these, Bridgetown is the greatest waste: solid idea, but lacking execution.
  • 1 was awarded to three products. For your edification and amusement, these miscreants can be viewed at the pillory. I must single out our late contestant, The Pit, for its utter awfulness: if something can be done wrong, The Pit does it wrong; and this is all from a lavishly illustrated, slightly over-produced release!

There were multiple omissions and delays – including a few promises which have remained as such – and I will try to rectify some of them. It also happens that sometimes, you do not have much useful stuff to say. Sometimes, things are just good, and it is all in an obvious, straightforward way – to cite Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As for the junk… yes, there could have been more ones and twos. However, I do not set out to deliberately seek out these clunkers, and even when I meet them, some are bad in a way that is more depressing or boring than interesting enough to dissect. It also happens that you mistakenly buy something that’s a complete and obvious dud, but so insubstantial as to make a review a venture in uselessness. Yes, most Mörk Borg releases are written by people who have no idea about functional game writing. Yes, Troika supplements are mostly the same, but with an artsy veneer that draws oohs and aahs from the people whose life mission is to serve as a practical demonstration of the Veblen effect. No, it is not useful to review these products, and usually, there is nothing substantial to review anyway (see illustration).

Three Dollars Americain. You Motherfucker.
The State of the Fanzine

This year, EMDT’s release list grew by nine titles, although the numbers are slightly misleading, since they are component parts of a single, larger title (the two boxed sets account for five booklets). The remaining four include two Hungarian modules – The Forest of Gornate, a forest-based wilderness adventure with mini-dungeons that was inspired by (US) Steve Jackson’s seminal gamebook, Scorpion Swamp; and The Vaults of Volokarnos, a first-level introductory dungeon for Basic rules that eats through characters and henchmen like a busy little wood chipper. These two will see English release this year (Volokarnos will be in Echoes #09).

That leaves two more. Baklin, Jewel of the Seas is a city guide that got delayed and delayed, and ended up much larger than ever imagined. I knew I was trouble when I noticed I was nearly at my expected page count… before delving into the Undercity, which would end up adding roughly the same amount of material. So Baklin may count as two, perhaps even three supplements. It ended up big, and I think it ended up chock full of fun adventure hooks and play-relevant background material. The way I see it, Baklin is best used as an adventure hub: a place you can start out from and return to over the span of a campaign, and one that also holds its own in intrigue and action. You really do not have to use all of it all the time (obviously, not even we did), but anywhere you actually end up going in town, there will be something interesting waiting for you.

As for the zine zines, there was one of them, which is not much (even if it was a larger than average issue). This is a situation I would like to rectify in the future, and now that the larger game projects I was working on are completed, it will be time to return to smaller publications. The next Echoes issue will come out in late September or so, and I hope a third one can appear near the end of the year, or barring that, early 2022. On the other hand… yes, that’s two whole damn boxed sets in a single year! Boxed sets are a particular source of happiness; perhaps even more than Xyntillan (my first hardcover), they represent the kind of aspirations small-press RPG publishers have. In 2016, even the idea of releasing a fanzine seemed like a pipe dream, and a hardcover, let alone a boxed set, was clearly a fantasy. This year, it so happened that I first published a boxed set; then a hardcover in a boxed set with maps and extras combo. Damn right that makes me happy.

One of the boxes, written by two friends, is Casemates & Companies (Kazamaták és Kompániák, abbr. “KéK”), a Hungarian B/X-inspired system with a players’ and GM’s book, an intro adventure, ref sheets, character sheets, and dice. Hungary never had a proper B/X variant, and now we have one. This is a game that collects a handful of sensible house rules, rulings, and best practice that have emerged in community  discussion, and all that makes it a strong contender for my favourite B/X take. The feature that sells it (to me) is its heavy focus on the titular “Companies”: recruiting and managing henchmen is something that has fallen by the wayside in gaming, but which is a lot of fun at the table. Moreover, KéK’s henchmen help to recreate the enormous parties OD&D had assumed, and calibrated its rules and procedures around. Bring a bunch of guys into the dungeon, and see who comes out rich and kicking – that’s the way. 

The Helvéczia RPG, of course, is the other one. It took two years to go from the 2013 Hungarian boxed set to the first English draft, and six years from that point to the eventual release. While a lot of that was spent in procrastination due to burnout and other interests, the English release is a proper second edition that cleans up the game’s original inconsistencies and minor issues. I believe Helvéczia does something that other RPGs have not managed to pull off right – marrying European folklore and an old pulp tradition to more modern swashbuckling stories and the D&D game framework – and that the boxed set (pardon me, the hardcover in the boxed set, booyah!) looks good doing it. Helvéczia was meant to be played, and it will be supported with future adventures – some are simply waiting to be translated, while a second regional supplement exists in an early draft (this one may be in the Hungarian first). And of course, my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernard (who co-authored KéK, and wrote In the Shadow of the City-God) has made a promise about the Catalonia supplement, and as Helvéczia proves, these diabolical pacts are to be honoured!

The hall of mirrors gets deeper
The State of My Other Projects

When I came back to the online old-school community in 2016 after a few wilderness years, my mind was set on publishing two large projects: Castle Xyntillan, and Helvéczia. I did not know when that would happen, and I sure did not think they would be published by my own enterprise (with a lot of help from my printer, illustrators, and for Xyntillan, Rob Conley as my cartographer). In the end, it happened, and it has been a great journey. Long, too! Now that it is over and done with, it is time to set sights on new vistas.

As recounted last year, we spent the first lockdown period of the Bat Plague with a campaign called The Four Dooms of Thisium; an accursed city damned by the very gods to fourfold destruction… unless… Well, the Thisium campaign is something that would work well as a low-level, very open-ended Basic/Expert adventure series (we capped things at level 6, but a first level party may advance to levels 7-9, and that includes a whole lot of character deaths), or it can be taken apart and used as a mini-sandbox for the popular “Fucking Around Around Thisium” kind of game. Normally, Thisium would be well on the way, but I unexpectedly got a second group to playtest the campaign, which is still ongoing (probably 2/3 or 3/4 finished; they are a very different bunch from my trigger-happy, hyperviolent first testing team). Delays will naturally result from this. Thisium will be a very different beast from Xyntillan – less interwoven, broad instead of deep, a bit more unruly – but I think it will be fun to play and run, as a whole or in pieces.

Two projects are a bit more distant. First, I am working on the second edition of Sword and Magic, my fantasy game (on which I wrote more in 2018). Sword and Magic helped kick off widespread interest in old-school gaming in Hungary in 2008, and a second edition has been long overdue. This is a huge undertaking that will be published as two hardcovers, and need some supplemental material for launch (many of them were published in various Echoes issues) – and will take away some focus from English endeavours. It is not getting a translation, since there are so many general old-school systems out there that another one would just be noise, even if I have a favourable opinion about the virtues of my own. It is, also, not an OSR game in the way the term is increasingly understood; that is, it is not rooted in the B/X tradition (its style and scope is firmly connected to first edition AD&D, and Judges Guild’s philosophy), and its rules are based on a radically rewritten, streamlined version of the d20 System. Sword and Magic is one of the strange chimeras of the early, pre-label old-school movement, not concerned with exact duplication, but connected to old game styles in the way of, say, Encounter Critical or AS&SH.

Cold Climate Encounter Charts, Take Two

What I would like to bring to the international audience, though, is Gamemaster’s Guidelines, a comprehensive guidebook to running old-school campaigns. This is not really a rulebook (although there will be a few guidelines for simple domain management, mining, mass combat, and similar concerns), but a kind of reference work that shall help the novice old-school GM get his bearings, and it may also make old hands think. There will also be a bunch of random charts, a comprehensive encounter system, treasure tables, and so on. It is my attempt at doing something similar to the AD&D DMG (although not the same thing, since the DMG already exists). Obviously, it is a ways away, and the Hungarian version comes first, but once it is done, it will not be too hard to translate it.

The third project is something that would have been impossible before Helvéczia. I have long struggled with the idea of publishing a Fomalhaut supplement – the whole idea of presenting the weirdo sword&sorcery / sword&planet setting in a practical format was a problem without a practical solution. (At one time, it could have been a Swords & Wizardry supplement, but when the opportunity arose, I had to choose between writing the supplement and getting my PhD. Perhaps foolishly, I opted for the PhD.) Fomalhaut, a Wilderlands homage, does not make sense without a bunch of hex maps; and that’s hex maps with player and GM versions – lots and lots and lots of map sheets. This is something the modern OSR simply does not do, but a good printer can handle. And I have a good printer. So Helvéczia is a boxed set with nine map sheets… and I got the idea that Fomalhaut could be a boxed set with fifteen or nineteen (there are two map regions out of the nine total that are kinda-sorta blank slates), and a handful of zine type booklets, including a players’ primer, guidelines and stuff for the GM, then hex keys for maybe three regions (which is where all our adventuring was concentrated), and a starting module or two. Now, this is still vague, pie in the sky brainstorming, but it is something that could conceivably exist, and in the future, it just might. There are really no promises, and remember how long Xyntillan and Helvéczia took. But with small steps, one can cover a whole lot of distance.

Me and the OSR: A Love Story

The State of the Old School

In the last few years, the community calling itself the OSR has gone through a major upheaval. Something that was for a long time a nominally united thing has splintered into disparate groups with different aesthetics, design ethe, politics (hoo boy!), and communication platforms. It will not be put together again. People can pretend that the big tent is still there, but if you actually look, the canopy is gone, and the tentpole is missing too. Some of the zoo is still around (look ma! that lion is devouring a zebra!), but whatever show is on is more incidental than carefully planned.

But that is only one part of it. Some people have picked up their stuff and moved on, and may eventually come up with something good independent of old-school gaming. However, when we survey the remains of the great circus, we see more serious issues. During the big tent years, the OSR followed a “more the merrier” philosophy, and expanded into every conceivable niche. It became its own little gaming ecosystem where you could theoretically play “anything” and “any way” without leaving the tent. This did lead to a lot of really cool stuff, but it led to a loss of focus, too. A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge.

Nothing embodies this deplorable state of affairs more than the loss of common knowledge that originally defined the pre-OSR old-school community. Old-school gaming at its core is a movement about rediscovering historical playstyles and putting them to practical use. It does not always create 1:1 replicas (for instance, relatively few people attempt to reconstruct OD&D psionics), and its purposes are selective. The prehistory of gaming provides several approaches to play, not all useful for our interests. A great many people had played TRV OD&D in ways which prefigure 1990s principles, or had long-running campaigns which had drifted in that direction. Yet 1990s roleplaying, even 1990s AD&D (D&D being virtually extinct in that period), is not what we are after. (For more on these traps, see T. Foster’s thread from twelve years ago. We should have listened more carefully!)

By the late 2000s – when Trent posted his warning, and the “OSR” acronym was making its first rounds – old-school traditions had been fairly thoroughly discovered, analysed, and codified. (While versatile, the ideas behind old-school gaming are not particularly deep. It is a game, not a theory vehicle.) People who had shared this corner of the hobby had also shared a common wisdom about how things ought to work, and could also create house rules or far-flung game worlds while using this common wisdom as a point of reference. It was a period of enlightenment, of philosopher kings duking it out on meticulously mowed lawns, and mighty forces of creation writ large on the pages of Fight On! and Knockspell. (Also, pig-headed flame wars about trivial nonsense.)

Times Well Spent: Listening to a Future President...

With the rapid expansion of the scene, however, a lot of this knowledge and precision of thought was lost, while being taken for granted. To many people, the “OSR” had supplied rules, tools, and a sort of ideology about gaming (through the various primers), but not the complexity and scope of the original tradition. Without this background, the advantages of the old-school approach become muddled or lost. Function disappears and empty form remains. A lot of the late or post-OSR content I see retains features like procedural generation, random encounters, and maybe even meme-level “strict time records”  because they are “supposed to” be there, but they do not actually serve any useful purpose. These vestigial remnants are echoes of a structured playstyle that made sense in its original context. It is as if the "OSR" came and went, and the people left behind it picked up the pieces and tried putting them together, but it is now something else. In the worst cases, supposed old-school adventures recreate the worst practices of game design that the original old-school movement was reacting against: railroading and illusionism, lengthy exposition leading nowhere, or things which obviously make no sense at an actual game table.

Instead, a lot of time is wasted on trivial distractions. Much of the “OSR” became absolutely obsessed by form (how we ought to present information, what a “good layout” looks like, etc.), but uses these supposedly hyper-efficient presentation styles and layout magic for trivial stuff like dungeons with five rooms, lightweight content that restates the obvious, and “experimental” games which are not rooted in play, do not serve play, and would actually damage the quality of play if they were used at someone’s table (mercifully, they aren’t). A good thing they look fancy, eh. Slightly better, but still off course, we see attempts at creating orthodoxies through the strict worship of specific rulesets, or rather some of their central features (e.g. the “gameplay loop” of Basic D&D, or the “strict time records” of AD&D). These attempts come from good intentions, but paradoxically, they tend to simplify and thus, diminish the games they champion. As more of a "culture of play" guy, sometimes I can't help but smile when people start LARPing as the hardest of the hardcore.

Where then is excellence and incline? Surely not in this sour grapes bitching! That’s right. What I suggest as a practical solution is a return to the original mission of old-school gaming: a rediscovery of gaming’s roots and original traditions, and the application of thereof to contemporary games. A re-reading and newfound appreciation of Scripture, and a new exploration of the complex traditions of play that had developed at the dawn of the hobby. We can even call it “Old School Refocus” or “Old School Reaction” (sorry, that’s my own biases speaking). Do not just read and work from newly made “OSR” materials: go back to the source, become immersed and inspired, and see it in its complexity, even some of its contradictions. To cite a concrete example, none of the core OSR games I know give you a vision of the larger campaign the way Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide did, or the way Judges Guild’s materials show you through practical example. The TSR classics of the late 1970s and very early 1980s are still some of the finest adventures ever created (although they become a lot spottier down the line).

As I see it, the complex body of original texts still has the power to enlighten and inspire, and they are very easy to obtain these days. If you can’t afford the bonkers eBay prices, I can only recommend the various troves, which have done a lot for the benefit of gamers, and place even ultra-rare materials at your fingertips. Print them, use them, do not worry about “damaging an ultra-rare”. Read the Original Dungeons & Dragons booklets with open eyes to understand and appreciate how well the original game hangs together as a “game” game – and how much variety it can accommodate. Read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Gary’s TRV vision of campaign-based play. Read Bob Bledsaw’s idiosyncratic campaign materials and marvel at their off-the-wall creativity and giant ambitions. Use the Ready Ref Sheets in actual play, run a campaign in a corner of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, introduce your players to Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor or Portals of Torsh. Read Caverns of Thracia (of course), but read The Dungeoneer’s Compendium and Dark Tower, too. Take a good look at tuff like Arduin (which I admit I appreciate more than actually like) and the Gamelords Thieves Guild materials. The list goes on. There are classics… and there are forgotten gems off the beaten path too. Seek them out or die trying. There is no other way. Fight on!

Times Well Spent: Try the Veal!

Thursday 19 August 2021

[REVIEW] Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts

Tetutuphor: The Elemental
Castle Environs:
Chapter Two B:
Norkers and Xvarts
Subtitle Goes Here
Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts (2021)

by Gene Weigel


Levels 1–3 

Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet: two of the most recognisable, and most played introductory D&D/AD&D modules. Both have served as the blueprint for a myriad successors, clones, and “inspired by” adventures. This freely available, 14-page module (of which half is taken up by the actual dungeons, and half by the new monsters featured therein) is a fanmade side-show to Hommlet, but following the design of Keep’s Caves of Chaos. While deceptively simple, the Caves have rarely been successfully imitated, let alone equalled in adventure design. Anyone can plonk down a succession of monster caverns, but replicating the gotchas and dirty tricks of Gary’s original requires design chops. Norkers and Xvarts – “Chapter Two B” in “The Elemental Castle Environs” series – is one adventure that does it right.

The module is set in a narrow, meandering valley allowing access to twelve small dungeon-complexes through eleven entrance points. Like the Caves of Chaos, the higher up the sides of the valley you go, the more dangerous the caves become; from a brigand lair to elemental-themed shrines and of course lairs with a multitude of low-level monsters. That’s no small feat in seven pages: a lot of “OSR” adventures use as much space to describe a single 12-area lair. Gene crams in a complex 92-area dungeon environment (B2 was 64 areas in 10 pages), and while the key is terse, it does not feel lacklustre; you do not feel like you do with most one-page dungeons. It is effective, play-friendly writing like:

“D27) ENTRANCE TO EARTH CULT – A man in full scale armor with helmet is actually a spider zombie (See NEW MONSTERS). He says to intruders, “Welcome to the chapel of Earth!” then immediately attacks.”


“D34) THE GIFTED ONE – This is the lair of a giant spider that is the guardian of the shrine to Lolth in the other cave. Livth the spider can look like a beautiful human woman as a gift from Lolth. She can also in spider form spray out a web like the web spell.”


“E46) OLD SHRINE OF AIR – Another altar similar to the other Iuz altars lined with air-vesicled basalt. The walls of this columned cave shrine has various wicked and winged creatures (Gargoyles and harpies) dropping children from tremendous heights as a pair of sinister orange and purple swirled inhuman eyes look on. It reads underneath “Pneumo, King of Elemental Evil Air”. A giant bin of crudely nailed together boards seems to be for offerings as it has a sign reading “PAY UP YOU RUBES OR GET SQUISHED”” (etc.)

Descriptions are relatively simple and action-focused. There is a very good variety to the encounters. Many Caves of Chaos clones focus solely on the combat – Norkers and Xvarts has that in spades (all of Sir Mulfric the Smurfinator’s smurf-killing wishes will be fulfilled in the xvart caves alone), but it livens up the action with simple dirty tricks worthy of Gygax. There are monster tactics and alarms, character-killing traps for the unwary, mysterious elemental shrines to experiment with, and some light potential for interaction. The gotchas are funny, deadly, and ultimately fair (“I69) FRIENDLY SKELETON – A skeleton waves from the far end of this room as if very friendly. It is a false skeleton illusion and is a pit trap.”) There are great moments of adversarial GMing: in the previous trap, there is a 5% probability anyone falling into the pit will also fall on the antlers of a rotting deer carcass for an extra 1d4 Hp.

Snake Wolf
Above all, the caves offer good variety. Far from endless monster hotels, the individual mini-dungeons have interesting sub-themes. The A-C areas have abandoned areas with a strong horror component playing on fears of helplessness (a pool of stagnant water with zombies lurking underneath the surface; an illusionary floor plunging you into a bone pit with 5 ravenous larvae; a horrific mummy mermaid). D is a mysterious evil earth shrine with  weird, creepy aesthetic, where the action slows down and you have to watch your every move. G and J are a norker/xvart meat-grinders. K houses a mysterious frog-mage and his servants. There are constant hints throughout the complex of a wider world of evil intrigue; not in a didactic way, but as places where you may come across the machinations of evil elemental lords, Lolth, and old Iuz. It is all tied to what will presumably be Gene’s take on The Temple of Elemental Evil, although neither this future adventure nor Hommlet are necessary for the use of this module as a standalone. Variety is also seen in the monster roster, which uses the Fiend Folio, adding several new low-level creatures like the creepy spider zombies (corpses animated by arachnid parasites), the luphid (snake-wolf), or the shadrow (shadowy drider forms) – just to mention a few.

Some design choices are peculiar, at odds with accepted wisdom. Monetary treasure is absolutely minimal. In The Village of Hommlet, even random cobblers and leatherworkers may have a thousand gp or a priceless gemstone hidden in the rafters, and the Moathouse ruins have over 10,000 gp in key locations. Monster lairs in Norkers and Xvarts have pitiful copper pieces and handfuls of silver; the brigand leader (to cite an example) has about 54 gp in loose change; the norker treasury has 370 gp and 420 gp of gems, and their leader has a 50 gp gold chain plus a pewter tub filled with gold-washed lead coins (actual value 675 cp – mean!). These are some of the larger caches, too; magic items are not particularly generous either, although monster XP is relatively decent due to the abundance of combat. By AD&D’s levelling/training requirements, this is very little. The choice, according to Gene, is deliberate – I would nevertheless recommend adding some more loot at various locations, or even multiplying existing figures by 4-5, which should take care of this issue.

The module has a simple but generally effective presentation. Gone are Broken Castle’s generic-system stats (it is all nice, readable AD&D), and the layout is simple but functional. There is an excellent blue-tone map that might have come right out of B2. If you end up running this scenario, it may be useful to chart out the valley on a piece of paper with only the entrances and surface vegetation visible – the map, while great, overlays the two, and I had a slight difficulty reading the surface topography. One extra complaint is that locked doors are not marked – you will have to study the text beforehand and do the job yourself. A simple but useful trick in room numbering: it is all sequential, but in the text, entries are preceded by the caves’ letter codes (e.g. A6, E41, H68A), which makes things extra readable. The monster section is illustrated; this is not pro art, but it does have a lot of soul.

Norkers and Xvarts is a great example of a short-form module that nevertheless packs a mean punch. It is nothing fancy, but it knows what it is doing, and written with a lot of understated skill in building memorable encounters. It can serve as an add-on to The Village of Hommlet, or used as a dungeon in a different campaign, and in any case, it offers a lot of useful insight into building a good Gygaxian dungeon environment. It is, also, free. Highly recommended.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Monday 9 August 2021

[REVIEW] The Pit

Dare You Enter
My Magic Realm?
The Pit (2021)

by Tony Garcia and Simon Barns

Published by Voxelhouse and Elevated Pachyderm Press

Levels 1–3 

Gentle readers, would you like me to tell you a tale, a rousing tale about a megadungeon in the grand style, a wondrous place of adventure and derring-do? An epic delve worthy of legend, where the very balance of the Cosmos hangs by a string the width of a single hair? A module that shall muse and astound great and small, boys and girls (and various fursonas and demi-kins)? Do I hear a ‘yes’? Jolly good! You only have to do a single little thing before that. You will have to listen to my epic backstory.

Hello, and welcome to my review of The Pit, “a prequel adventure for Xumoria megadungeon for characters level 1 to 3”! This 30-page booklet is supposed to give you a taste of a larger forthcoming adventure – a handful of materials, from a setting guide to an intro dungeon. The cover is a tantalising image of a spiralling pit, based on the famous “inverted tower” of Quinta da Regaleira, and it is an eye-catcher if there ever was one. What you get, then, is 18 pages of “Let me tell you about my campaign”, seven pages of bad railroading, and an OGL, which I must have been one of the few times I was relieved to finally see one; the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Welcome to Elfland. Population: Elves.

In classic bait and switch fashion, much of the booklet has little to do with Xumoria, the Pit, or that cover image. Indeed, it offers a big (very big) picture of the surrounding campaign world. Continents and grand histories are outlined on a breath-taking scale, where the destinies of four races are intertwined. This world reminds one of the much imitated, but never equalled goon project, The Zybourne Clock. Whether it belongs in the realm of the dreadful or the sublime, you must agree that it has ambition. Its continents are tastefully named “Human Empire”, “Orc Reigns”, “Cursed Lands”, “Alfir Reigns”, “Dvalin Lands”, and “Free Reigns”. (The great omissions, of course, being “Desert Continent” and “Commercial District”.) For the curious, Alfir are lean, mysterious, and in tune with nature; while the Dvalin are short, stocky, and “have the so-called Train of Doom, a huge set of steam vehicles, pulled by a ‘locomotive’ and followed by wagons loaded with heavy weapons”. The world of Artrusia is divided into two hemispheres, where the northern practices technology and science, while the southern practices religion, longswords and magic. There are wars over the powerful energy ore, aerolite, and between the various races, which otherwise seem to have little reason for warfare, because each one of them has its own continent separated by bigass seas. The Cursed Lands, where aerolite originates, is the Evil Continent with places like Plague Basin, Terror Mountains, Great Poisoned Desert, Human Mine I, Human Mine II, Port Palmer, Death Oaks, Despair Tower, Daffodil Pass, Orc Mine I, Orc Mine II, Dead Orc Coast, and Lizarbia. Just kidding. There is no Daffodil Pass in the Cursed Lands. Dead Orc Coast does seem like a fine, affordable vacation spot.

Evil Continent

However, none of that stuff actually matters, because the adventure is not set in the Cursed Lands, or the Orc Reigns, or Magitech Land, or anywhere close to them. It is set on what old JRPG hands would name “The Starting Continent”, which is a completely average castles-and-taverns kind of place with places called Portland, Gladia, Thunder Keep, and Boldforest. Boldforest is densely forested, while Farpoint is “a flat region, rich with agriculture”. It is at this point where we are finally introduced to Berdolock’s Keep, famed old home to the dread necromancer Berdolock, a.k.a. “Lord Not-Appearing-in-this-Module”. Aptly, Berdolock, or Berdolock Keep for that matter, do not appear in the module. Instead, we now turn our attention to Crimsonwater, a small Podunk town ruled by a character named Armand Valiant (in JRPGs, this would be “Home Village”). This is a serviceable starting location, as it has a main gate, a market square (“Heroes may have their gold stolen by pickpockets”), The Shady Orc Tavern, a Seer, and so on. To be entirely fair, Crimsonwater plays no meaningful role in the module either, except for accommodating the opening scene to the railroading exercise that is this adventure.

We are now on page 18 of The Pit, and all we have seen so far has been tangential to the actual Xumoria “prequel adventure”. No, the introduction is not over yet, for before we begin, we have to treat ourselves to the backstory. This is accomplished by lengthy read-alouds where your characters, as passive observes, are escorted here and brough there, being lectured at by NPCs. When it comes to the obvious question (“Do we accept the adventure hook?”), the adventure solves it in an elegant fashion: “You look at each other, and with a nod confirm your acceptance.” Some of your unruly players might wish to escape after the briefing video, but fortunately, there are helpful servants to escort them back to the tavern, just in case they were getting funny thoughts. “If the adventurers want to stock up with equipment in town, they will be allowed to leave the tavern. The guards insist they return for the night.” Wait, when did this turn into a hostage situation? Who are these fuckers? What do THEY want from us? There is a map of The Shady Orc Tavern where the opening cutscene is set, but it plays no role in the adventure.

Ceci n'est pas une hexcrawl

Well, after a page from an in-campaign newspaper that’s kinda just there, there is a wilderness expedition that is a straight-line railroad to Dead City, where The Pit is located. Thus, Crimsonwater joins the sequence of places which do not matter in this adventure, along with Berdolock Keep, which does not matter either (you can kinda see it from a distance midway through the wilderness trek if you crane your neck and look southwards). The module mentions that “A hexcrawl system is used, as shown on the map above.” Well EXCUSE MY FUCKING FRENCH THIS IS NOT A FUCKING HEXCRAWL! A HEXCRAWL IS DEFINED BY FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT, POINTS OF INTEREST AND WIDE TERRITORIAL COVERAGE YOU ABSOLUTE NUMPTIES! WHY I SHOULD


The Pit in The Pit

Erm, moving on. So NOW we finally get to The Pit. The titular big bad. The prelude dungeon. The Xumoria teaser. Sure it will… nah. It is just a four-page straight-line affair blocked by keycarded doors that, if it was not written in this bloated way, could be adequately published as a grand OSR innovation, the Half-Page Dungeon. How bad does it get? Welllll. It does get rather bad. Right from the start, it starts fucking with your agency. “As you move further into the room” – no, we don’t! We don’t FUCKING move one step further into the room before we look around a little bit. “You seem to recall seeing reports of similar images found on Old One Island. Perhaps this mosaic depicts Xumoria.” Yeah, that’s great too, not letting the players get away with making that connection on their own and experiencing the thrill of accomplishing something of consequence. Good job.

There is a monster selection that is basically “it is a fire skeleton, but otherwise, it is your regular 1 HD, 4 Hp skeleton with 1d4 extra damage”, “it is six oil beetles”, “it is a carrion crawler”, and “it is four more fire skeletons”. What would be mostly throwaway random encounters in a better module are elevated to set-piece encounters here. There is a trapped passage that is an obvious trap based on the readalout (“The wall has a set of holes evident, all in a horizontal line. Corpses lie on the floor. A quick count tells maybe half a dozen.”) Well GEE, IMAGINE MY SHOCK ADMIRAL ACKBAR! But then you actually need a Thief to detect the blatantly, utterly, transparently obvious trap (“This room is trapped. It can be detected and disarmed by a Thief (if there is one in the party).”)

Progression through the “dungeon” (for lack of a better term) is accomplished by finding themed keys and fitting them into themed keyholes. Moon key, star key, hand key. Not only is it all super-linear, it is rubbed in your face that this experience is a linear sequence of scares, one way only. The rooms are nothing to write home about. There is a room with one casket in it, and four fire skeletons hidden buried in the dirt of the ground (credit where it is due, this is the most imaginative encounter in the module). There is a pantry with smashed junk. A room that’s a small lab with a carrion crawler in it, that has the hand-shaped key hanging from one of its tentacles. A boss monster room. Here is the most disappointing thing: the actual adventure has nothing to do with the cover art, which is not used at all to its potential (which is why I bought the module). There is no spiralling strangeness. There is no descent into a weird underworld. There is only casket room, pantry of junk, and traps that are visible to the plain eye yet require a Thief to detect. It is Adventurer Hell.

After you are done, there is even a closing cutscene with more loss of agency – “you are surprised by”, “you give him the map” – before you are dutifully stripped of protagonist status: your mission taskmaster, Geralt, will be the leader of the expedition to the megadungeon of Xumoria, and you can join him as his faithful followers. But before that exciting day, they pay your tavern bill and you are returned to your room, perchance to dream of bold adventures, treacherous depths, and perhaps… freedom? Nah. Just kidding. You will just get fucked by some GMPC railroad hellplot.

* * *

To sum it up, The Pit most closely resembles a bad JRPG, notably someone’s a very dreadful RPGMaker project. The worldbuilding is a mishmash of bad tropes, the adventure content is negligible, the approach is a horrid railroad, and the action is not worth even a fraction of the hype. It is bad. It is appallingly and comically bad. Worse, it never seems to end, and we are grateful when it finally does. Sometimes the journey is the destination. Sometimes, there is nothing funnier than a shaggy dog story. This time, the journey is a dreadful slog, and the destination is some crappy, derelict shed out in the middle of the great nowhere. I wholeheartedly recommend buying this adventure at full price just to learn how bad it can get. It is a tutorial in how not to make an RPG module, and it will turn you into a better adventure designer and a better person. Read it, learn from it, and do the exact opposite of what it is doing. You will be thankful.


No playtesters are credited in this publication.


Rating: * / *****