Wednesday 29 December 2021

[REVIEW] Swords & Sewercery

Swords & Sewercery
Swords & Sewercery (2021)

by Jeff Simpson

Published by Buddyscott Entertainment Group

Levels 2-5

Hello, and welcome to part THREE of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Sewer levels are the ugly runts of computer games; the retarded, poor, red-headed orphans everyone enjoys kicking while they are down. Accordingly, designing a sewer level people will not reflexively write off as crappy is a bit of a challenge. It is easy to see why sewers get a bad rap. Not only are they unpleasant environments, they tend to self-limit the kind of things you may meet in them: yeah, there are the rats… and wererats… and I guess cultists and thieves… yeah, maybe an ooze or an otyugh. Surprisingly few people do more with their sewer dungeons, and this will not do. It is time to make sewers great again!

Swords & Sewercery is a short and sweet module describing a city block and the sewer passages underneath. Short, in this case, means really short: each of the two environments gets a little more than one page, and individual keyed areas tend to be two or three lines in length. There is a further page with a comparatively lengthy background on the city of Salo and its factions, as well as an appendix with wandering monster charts, rumours, and new monsters/treasure (they bend the contest rules… slightly). This, is, clearly, a minimalist affair, usually the domain of disappointing sludge. And yet… it isn’t, and the reasons for that are the scope of the material and the imagination on display.

First things first, this is a comparatively large affair crammed with stuff. A lot of mini-modules tend to be 16-20 pages with a playable area of 8-12 locations (if that); Swords & Sewercery has 18+6 above ground, and some 31 in the sewers. That’s a handful! There is precious little empty space left on two excellent maps; furthermore, the encounters tend to have good conceptual density, high interaction potential, and a strong style. They embody Bryce Lynch’s favourite hobby horse, “expressive terseness”. The above-ground section is a teeming slum of questionable establishments and dirty backyards to get stabbed (or, as it happens, get dragged off by ettercaps or torn apart by a gargoyle – ouch!). The clients of illicit drug dens rub shoulders with bandits, members of Salo’s busy secret police, and Resistance operatives, all of whom operate deposits, safe-houses and shops in the area. There is a lot to this single city block, from a cockfighting ring to street food vendors and a holy brothel. It is the condensed essence of Lankhmar, Haven, City State of the Invincible Overlord, and similar sinful cities rolled into one.

I am Once Again Asking For Your Financial Support

It gets even better underground: this is, in fact, an exceptionally interesting sewer, populated by a criminal underworld of bizarre NPCs and strange encounters. There is an undermarket selling junk and scraps, a sewage conduit where lepers pan the effluvium of an upscale restaurant for gold crumbs, a crazy goop-bottling machine operated by an insane Magic-User (with magical drinks to sample), and the residence of an ogre mage who keeps a group of mongrelwoman concubines. Most of these encounters transcend standard investigate/fight/flight responses – things can get fairly complex and non-linear, as the inhabitants know of things they want and can offer knowledge or items in exchange. You can run errands, rat your allies out, meet monsters completely out of whack for the designated level range, and have a whale of a time. Even some of the comparatively minor encounters have good stuff like “There is an otyugh eating garbage here”, or a ceremonial fountain used by cultists, and inhabited by a water elemental. Things that don’t force you on a single course of action, but let you develop your own schemes. All of this is complicated by an encounter chart which has an honest-to-goodness grell on it. Way too good.

Far from perfect, something that should be obvious to anyone, the author included. The utter minimalism of the encounters is limiting, even if they are overflowing with cool basic ideas. There is a sort of depth, coming from play, layering and refinement, that is just missing. For example, the streets level and the sewer level are connected, but not interconnected; they do not form a single whole where you can decend a sewer hatch and emerge in the back room of that brothel-temple. The same is true of the various plot threads, which do not reference each other across the two parts. Ironically, the conceptual density is just too much at times. The material feels too busy, without sufficient empty connecting material to let it breathe and develop a sort of pacing. It is a non-stop sugar high. And of course, a lot of the monsters don’t have stats. (Is this trend going to be the defining feature of “No Artpunk”? I remain unconvinced!)

Swords & Sewercery is not a refined module. It feels like the result of a hell of a brainstorming session; more properly, the beginning of something rather than the ultimate product. A draft-version before the playtesting session where the pieces fall into their correct place? Something like that. However… there is something here that’s really good, the crazy leaps of imagination and enthusiasm from the OD&D era which is rare to see these days. High energy. It is easy to imagine the author fitting together a bunch of similar city blocks (perhaps leaving some space empty) into a massive CSIO-style map, and doing something similar with the sewer/undercity section. Not over-polished, not over-produced, just fixed up a little and expanded just slightly. THAT would easily be a formidable city supplement, with a clear path to a 5/5. Make it happen!

No playtesters are credited in this publication. Woe!

Rating: *** / *****

Monday 27 December 2021

[REVIEW] Tower of the Time-Master

Tower of the Time-Master
Tower of the Time-Master (2021)

by Ben Gibson

Published by The Merciless Merchants

Levels 1-3

Hello, and welcome to part TWO of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

An infiltration adventure focused on what it says on the cover, Tower of the Time-Master presents a three-dimensional dungeon environment inhabited by a powerful Magic-User and his retinue. The tower’s nameless, immortal (?) builder has mastered time itself through controlling a peculiar, enormous time crystal, reaching into past eras to draw his guardians. Since the player characters are low-level, the guardians are relatively formidable, and the Time-Master is really bad news if encountered, this adventure is an exercise in stealth – which can mean social subterfuge as easily as the old grappling hook on the parapets. There is no set purpose to the module – six good adventure hooks are provided for use, which can radically change the flow and objectives of the adventure you have inside the tower (ranging from an assassination mission to getting out from imprisonment to chance burglary after finding a lost invitation letter). This is really well done.

Tower-based dungeons have obvious design problems which are acknowledged by the author, and which he tries to address in this dungeon. Tall and narrow structures do not allow much in the way of interesting navigation and non-linear room connections, as already seen in Tower of the Elephant – Conan climbs up, then goes straight down the stairs encounter from encounter. This is, accordingly, a large tower with a respectable footprint and eight above-ground plus two below-ground levels. In the interests of modern layoutry (layoulatry?), level maps and keys are presented on a single page each to make for easy reference. Certainly, page-flipping is nicely kept to a minimum, and the whole text is more or less accessible. (Caveats later.)

Masterful Maps
As a mapping challenge, this is as good as towers get. There are multiple access points: front and back entrances, windows and parapets, all with their own risks and benefits. There are ways to gain entrance peacefully, and ways to land the company in enormous trouble if they miscalculate their odds. This is the beauty of thievery – plan a heist based on the information you have (there is a short but rather good rumours chart), look how much it sticks, and improvise when it falls apart. The tower allows for planning, which is a plus. It is also comfortably three-dimensional, with multi-level staircases, trapdoors, shafts, and hidden passages/rooms. This environment would work decently as a Thief mission, and this is meant as a compliment. Guard schedules, servants and apprentices use the tower day and night (their positions and patrols might have been annotated on the maps, but this can be done by the GM as well), and they have their own small-scale conflicts and hangups which attentive players may exploit.

The module key is less successful. It communicates its intent well, and it is not one of those crappy ten-room dungeons, but the overall scenario is missing something. With a title like The Tower of the Time-Master, it holds an implicit promise for a place where you could find some really crazy stuff from other timelines and realities – but the real surprise is how sober and safe it is. It has a strong sense of fantastic realism that hangs together well and provides rational explanations for how and why things in the tower work the way they do work, but it lacks a sufficient taste of the truly fantastic. So, say, there are a few relatively small dinosaurs, and a magic crystal that can offer youth at a dangerous price, and a display room with pre-historic flora and fauna, and a talking skull, but overall, 90% of the tower is guest bedrooms, servant’s quarters, even a buffet. A room called “Twisted Shrine” is only twisted because “this formally correct shrine to local saints shows neglect with the incense bowls long empty and most of the icons dusty”. One might expect a DINOSAUR ROOM where you walk into a different timeline with a T-Rex in pursuit and a TIME STASIS ROOM with time travellers in cryogenic storage (there is a Gallery of Statsis, but it is much less ambitious) and even a STOREROOM with discarded astronauts’ equipment and caveman stone tools. This sort of material is entirely lacking. The TIME-LOST UNDERWORLD (great name!) has an “Under-Pantry”, a “Wine Cellar”, a “Cold Stream” and a “Path Below”, plus an unkeyed second underground level where you may find dinosaurs and their eggs coming through a portal (which is a good start).

There are two issues with old-school design as well. One, the tower’s monetary treasures are not “modest” or “meagre”, the place is positively impoverished. One of the Time-Master’s main henchmen has a workshop filled with delicate self-made art that’s worth all of 150 gp, and the Time-master himself has a precious wind-up watch also worth 150 gp, plus a supposedly awesome throne carved out of a single, enormous bone piece (2500 gp, 416 XP each for six PCs, so your 3rd level fighter only needs to sell ten of these to gain a level). This can be addressed by adding more treasure and valuable artwork where sensible, and bumping up the gp values. The magic items are very nice for a low-level party, although it is unlikely the tower will ever be cleared out.

More seriously, the adventure has no monster and NPC stats. The GM is instructed to consult the rulebooks for general monsters, and just make up stats for NPCs. This is a terrible idea, especially when the action gets going in a reasonably compact, interconnected space, and you need stats pronto for a deinonychus, three guards, servants (one of them a classed NPC), and  one of the Time-Master’s confidants. It is not a case of missing Hp or equipment – they have no stats, from lowly scullery maids to the Time-Master himself (a high-level M-U with a large repertoire of memorised spells). Quick, where can you find deinonychus stats? (Hint: I looked it up, and it is not in the 1e Monster Manual or the Moldvay/Cook booklets). Quick, what magic items does the Time-Master carry? The answers are not there. Was it because it did not fit? Certainly not, since many of the levels have ample white space where this material could fit perfectly (and add to the “no page turning” principles). There is an NPC relationship chart that could have been replaced with NPC and monster stats. There is a one-page copy of the OGL that could have been replaced with NPC and monster stats. The omission is so enormous it is almost puzzling.

Therefore, Tower of the Time-Master offers you a decent, solid infiltration scenario, but not the content that would make the infiltration make you really go “Whoa!” once you are in. It did not have to be over the top gonzo like Ghost Tower of Inverness, or even RJK’s ambitious, flawed Tower Chaos, but there could have been more to it. In that respect, Tower of the Elephant still has it beat, shitty linear map and all. Needs more elephant-headed guys from Pluto and weird star gems, damnit.

This module credits its playtesters. Excellent!

Rating: *** / *****

Wednesday 22 December 2021

[NEWS] Helvéczia – Spanish Edition Crowdfunding Campaign, and Further Plans

Helvéczia: the Spanish edition

Some half a year after the publication of the Helvéczia RPG, it is time to announce some big news on the horizon – and to take stock of where the game is, and in which direction it is going. So far, 275 of the 500 copies have found a new home, which is quite nice for something a bit off the beaten path! Moreover, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive; and particularly so from people who have sat down and actually played the thing. Historical (okay, pseudo-historical games) games are a minority interest, making them a hard sell, so to learn that those who have tried it have liked it, and are running adventures or planning campaigns, is the best kind of news.

Which brings me to the big announcement: Helvéczia has been translated into the Spanish, and an initial print run is now up for a crowdfunding campaign. Outremer Ediciones is a new publisher (although one run by experienced gamers who have previously worked with other imprints), and their interests lie in “translating unusual, curious or personal games into Spanish that have never been seen in our language”, as well as original Spanish small print projects. Other games, namely Lands of Legends, Thousand Suns, and Thud & Blunder are also scheduled for later release. This is a noble mission, and I am particularly honoured that Helvéczia has been the first game to be selected for release – especially since Spain is the birthplace and common setting of picaresque stories, including our ongoing Catalonia campaign.

The initial package is
currently being crowdfunded on Verkami, a Spanish crowdfunding platform. There is a nice print version for a princely €40, which includes the rulebook, the regional and adventure supplement (Ammertal and the Oberammsbund), nine maps, a calendar for strict time records, and a deck of Hungarian cards – free shipping within Spain. The digital collection of the same is €15, which may be the most affordable way to obtain the game in Latin-America. (The publishers have informed me that they will gladly ship to Latin-American countries, and you should feel free to contact them to figure out potential shipping costs – these may be steep, but they are steep everywhere these days.)

A number of stretch goals are also in play. These are for a number of extra adventures (on which more below), and the box at €8,500, which will then be added to the physical orders. These will be nice, sturdy boxes like the original, strong enough to withstand even the dreaded International Shipping (I have only received reports of three damaged boxes, not bad from a sample of 275). As for the adventures, they are written, playtested, and only need translation into the English, from whence Mr. José Carlos Domínguez Agüera of Outremer Ediciones (who, I might add, sounds like a Helvéczia player character by such an excellent name) shall adapt it to the Spanish. What to do with the English manuscripts afterwards? Well… that much ought to be obvious!

I am once again asking for your financial support...

Here is where you can come in if you have an interest in a Spanish edition.
So far, about half of the €5,500 target has been met on Verkami, with 32 days left of the 40-day campaign. This is, as they say, “slow but steady”, i.e. it is not on fire, but it has been adding money consistently, a few more backers every day. If the current pace keeps up, it will be funded, but with a niche game from a relatively obscure corner of the hobby, I would assume it needs a little more attention. So, if you are either interested in getting the game in Spanish, or know someone who would like this sort of thing, now is the time to spread the word! It may make for a good present for your friends, or if you think the idea is terrible and/or the author is a jerk, a good way to annoy your enemies. I assure you, they would absolutely detest receiving a copy of Helvéczia in either print or PDF, and they would especially resent getting the three-game pack for a mere €110.

As it stands, the Helvéczia rulebook and Ammertal have been translated in its entirety, so the game can be released with a relatively painless editing/production effort once it funds. A
free 40-page demo version (24 MB) has already been made available with example characters, and the Seven Knaves introductory adventure (a really short tutorial to teach the basic rules and introduce new players to the setting). This booklet is more than sufficient to try the game for yourself, and as I understand it, it has been demoed successfully at various virtual conventions and online games (the Bat Plague is a harsh master, even in Spain!). Of course, it also means you can read the summary and make an informed decision. Outremer Ediciones and Yours Truly would both be delighted.

My personal pledge is thus: if the game funds, even on the basic level, I will ensure that all backers shall receive the adventures in some form – in Spanish or English. This much I can promise.

Now, how do they say “Fight On!” in Spanish?

* * *

What does the current crowdfunding campaign portend for the English version? Nothing directly, but it gives me a good excuse to work on translating the game’s supplemental materials into the English (which would also be the basis of a subsequent Spanish translation). In its first edition, Helvéczia had already collected a number of published adventures, and since they have already been written and laid out, all that remains is translation (my idea would be for an A4-sized compilation, about the size of Ammertal). The following modules are planned – these are mostly the length of the scenarios in Ammertal.
  • Countess Apollonia’s Beauty Treatment of Countess Apollonia: Visit a small, prosperous spa town, where a group of aristocrats have discovered a novel method of restoring youth and physical beauty. Everything goes like the Brandenburg hop, but then the story takes an unexpected turn… Open-ended city adventure with scoundrels, degenerate nobles, and a race against time!
  • Ill-Gotten Merchandise: A wilderness adventure where the company is hired by a petty local noble to recapture the estate he had lost to his brother in an unfortunate card game. Things go wrong at the worst possible moment. Can the players save the day? Will they want to?
  • Gudmundshof: A letter of invitation leads to the nest of the venerable von Ammertal family, where the nobility of seven lands has gathered to make merry and discuss the affairs of the world. Some, however, have infiltrated the party for the sake of personal enrichment, or to play mischief on their generous hosts... Social intrigue / dungeon crawl module set in a castle of noble eccentrics.
  • The Cloister's Secret (by Krisztian G. Laszlo): "Foul weather, a chariot stuck in the mud, and then an unexpected refuge of a monastery with clean beds, company, and plentiful dinner: all is well if it ends well. But it doesn't. What started as the end of a bad day will continue as a most peculiar night!
  • The Serpent Girl (by David Barsony): “Here, we shall learn why Berma Grünwald and Philbert Ostbruch missed their wedding; who and why gets in the way of lovers, and what kind of trials a person who would unravel the whole tangled history has to endure.” Short but sweet.

Wilkommen in Zwillings!
These were all materials developed and published in 2014-2015. The second edition playtest has produced a new corpus of material, some in rough manuscript form, some as handwritten notes. These will make for a second regional supplement, along with the attendant adventures. These shall take the company to Zwillings canton, a backwards and lightly populated corner of Helvéczia, where only a single town and a handful of smaller villages stand surrounded by deep forests. Yet Zwillings is also haunted by a long history of heretics and fallen kingdoms, weird saints and disreputable cloisters. Zwillings was the focus of the second arc of our original campaign, but at that time, I was too burned out to publish the resulting materials. These will now be collected for the game’s new Hungarian edition (since Ammertal is already well known here). A second canton will also be included, but I haven’t yet decided which. It might be Castelmarte, an Italian-speaking conquest under the yoke of a Helvéczian vogt, or the picturesque and rich small towns around the Graubundsee and its seat, the dark city of Heiligengrau.

Until then, enjoy the game, keep those cards handy, and always give the Devil his due (whether it is gold or gunpowder)! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday 15 December 2021

[REVIEW] The Well

Well, Well, Well!
The Well (2021)

by Jon Bertani

Published by The Merciless Merchants

Levels 1-4

Hello, and welcome to part one of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once again, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

With a title like that, The Well promises something like a dungeon with an evil well, or an evil well that is a dungeon. Surprisingly, the well part is a remarkably small slice of a mixed-profile adventure doubling as the beginnings of a mini-setting. The module gives you the golden combination: a home base in the form of a small frontier town; a mountainous wilderness area; and a dungeon to top it off. This is surprisingly generous from a module written to contest specifications (20 pages max), and broadens its scope to more than mere adventure site. There is a broader context, there are leads to the main attraction, and there are possible links to further adventures (although this latter part is weakly developed).

Let us start with the strong Hook: one of the party members inherits a farmstead. Obviously, this thing will be way more trouble than it is worth, but what player would not jump at the chance to be a Property Owner and important Local Player? It is a little sprinkling of magic. The farmstead, in turn, is found up in the mountains, on the frontier beyond a final town. This small setting is displayed on a good map; done in pencil, and immediately captivating with both its displayed features and blank spaces. What’s the deal with the druids? Do the other farmsteads experience trouble? What’s up that valley? There is instant adventure potential here. Once you are finished with this adventure, the farmstead, the town, and the extended wilderness should generate at least a few more sessions of play, perhaps an adventure arc before you move on to greener pastures. This is not in the module, but it is implied by the module, and that is no small thing: “creativity multiplier” is what a “module” in the original sense ought to aspire to.

The town, High River, is decently outlined in about three pages (including a rumour table). It is probably too much for this adventure, but very useful for the mini-campaign part. We are introduced to a frontier settlement that’s rough and currently down on its luck, ruled by a decrepit Lord Esserick and not quite able to control everything in the surrounding area. It is a nest of Law, but the mudcore kind, with frontier justice, a brothel as one of the main places to see, and brawl-happy violent assholes for residents. It is perhaps a little too heavy on the scene-setting and not sufficiently strong in actually being an adventure platform. In fact, one of the interesting conflicts to be had (what if the players get on the bad side of the mysterious, slightly sinister druids who seem to be at home here) is handwaved away with no druid stats provided, while the brothel’s madame and bouncer are gleefully statted. Still, it does establish a place; northern vanilla with plenty of hops, wood shavings, and a dash of mud.

Prestigious Map
While brief, the wilderness section is decent. Beyond High River lies a fertile bowl of farmland dotted with scattered farms. This is the “you are entering the Wilderness” transition area, and effective at that. It is really the end of human civilisation. The player’s own farm is lovingly mapped (this map will no doubt be the subject of later expansion and development plans as the company returns from their expedition), and serves to introduce the brigands, the module’s antagonists. This tactical combat encounter is a little scripted, and perhaps there may have been a better way of handling it, but to its credit, it does give a strong motivation to press on. The rest of the wilderness is an outline with random and keyed encounters stressing harsh natural beauty, lotsa animal encounters. There could be more of this, and there could have been more of the final dungeon with tighter editing, but it is heavy on mood, kind of a Scandinavia-meets-North-America place (but with mediaeval Europeans as the colonists).

And here we come to the dungeon, the module’s centrepiece, a flawed gem. It works on the level of presenting a place with a “presence”, and a place with decent options for combat and – in a limited fashion – even tense diplomacy. It works as an abandoned dwarf shrine befouled by the presence of brigands. There is strong imagery here, effectively presented in a direct, GM-friendly manner. “The water splashes and burbles over colourful rocks within the stream bed.” “An orchard of apple trees grow along the stream, having gone wild quite some time ago. The tree branches bend heavily, burdened with fruit.” “A triangular fire pit burns with low oddly coloured flames. The flickering flames reveal an arc of runes upon the wall (…).” You can feel it, touch it, smell it. Good. There is some exploration off the beaten path – a clear pool of water with a side encounter. There is a mystery – the shrine, with its insight into the dwarven psyche (“Be thee not of the Folk then let thee suffer in all that thee do.”) and a multi-layered puzzle to reach the sealed section with the true prizes (this is where the titular Well makes its appearance). And the confrontation with the brigands is a very nicely set up, multi-layered combat encounter with reinforcements, flanking, back attacks, and sufficient carnage to serve as a trial by fire for a beginning party, the crucible in which weakness is burned away and true steel is tempered. I shed a few manly tears just thinking about it. Verily! That was well done.

Nevertheless, it is still a modest monster lair at the end of a rather linear overland trek of telegraphed breadcrumbs. It is a cruelly good illusion, but it is an illusion nevertheless. On an individual room-by-room level, it is strong; but the structure is weak, and nowhere it is weaker than where it truly matters. Not because it does not have “muh loops”, but because it is a choreographed ride and not dungeon exploration, even if it is moody and knows how to make you scream during the plunge. Even the optional side areas are too small. This is the same problem seen in Temple of 1000 Swords; a module that would need more space to breathe. Perhaps a few sideshows, perhaps just more generous empty space, both inside and outside the main attraction. And it is definitely poor in treasure. It is even poor in treasure by the standards of treasure-light games (say, the better sort of 3e/5e campaign), and definitely by old-school terms, where GP is the spice that makes XP go up. I like it as an aesthetic, but it requires fixing from a gameplay perspective. It would not be too difficult, but it stands out.

Ultimately, the adventure is stronger in its implications, as a mini-setting you can expand on and turn into your own, than in the core element, what is sometimes actually there. (Although, again, what is present is definitely well done). There were contest limitations (length, for one), but one cannot help but immediately demand “MORE!” The writing could be one notch tighter, although we can’t complain: the text is clean and precise, packing a surprisingly decent amount of material into the page limit, while maintaining the gameplay/flavour balance. Still, the correct verdict can only be: “Nice. Very nice. This is quite good for a start. Now let us see the full adventure.”

This module credits its playtesters. Excellent!

Rating: *** / *****

Friday 3 December 2021

[MODULE] Weird Fates, vol. 1 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Weird Fates vol. 1
I am pleased to announce the year’s last EMDT release, the publication of  Weird Fates, vol. 1, a 40-page anthology of four mini-modules by Laszlo Feher. With cover art by Peter Mullen, and illustrations by Graphite Prime, Cameron Hawkey, and Vincentas Saladis, this collection epitomises “weird fantasy” with its outlandish concepts, strange denizens, and grotesque situations. Meant for an evening or two of play each for 3rd to 6th level characters (more or less), the mini-adventures are open-ended outlines with a strong emphasis on player creativity and a non-linear structure. Short, sweet, and high on imagination (in multiple senses), this is a sure pick for GMs who enjoy a little improvisation.

“A cornucopia of four short, open-ended adventure outlines leading to lands of pure imagination, this collection should astound and entertain any company of players interested in exotic locales, strange individuals, and a generous helping of satire. Herein, you will journey to a tropical island to answer the eternal question, “What is Art?” (or die trying); confront a reclusive artist with a peculiar scheme to enlarge his audience; find the fabled graveyard of the elephants and partake of the fruits of the Tree of Forever Return; and judge a pie-baking contest in a rural backwater where nothing could possibly go wrong... or could it? Some assembly required!”

The print version of the modules is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with three months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.


On the Rooftops of Xyntillan!

Cameron Hawkey, who has contributed art to this volume, has recently posted a full rooftop map for Castle Xyntillan! This is an excellent addition to the castle, and an elegant, seamless expansion of Rob Conley’s cartography. Everyone who enjoys rooftop-hopping will get a kick out of this one.

Giant Pigeons Not Included


Christmas Shipping

As previously, my store will be closed for the holidays from around 20-21 December to early January. Currently, shipping takes about one week for most European orders (maybe a few days more for the UK), and a little over two weeks for the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Christmas mail can experience some delays, however, so take that into account.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

[REVIEW] In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe

In the Shadow of
Tower Silveraxe
In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe (2021)

by Jacob Fleming

Published by Gelatinous Cubism Press

Low- to mid-level

In a sense, the mini-sandbox is one of the holy grails of old-school gaming. The idea of a home base, a wilderness with minor points of interest, and a dungeon or three to top it off is the clearest expression of a home campaign. From Hommlet to Herth, and from Bone Hill to The Forsaken Wilderness, the pattern has been unbroken, even if relatively few published modules give you the whole sandbox, toys included. (The Vault of Larin Karr, for mid-level PCs, is the best example in print that I know of.) This is one genre which is easier to build piecemeal at home by the game table than prepare in a publication-ready format.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe, a 60-page, zine-format module for Old-School Essentials, is a fully realised mini-setting describing the locales of the Gemthrone Wilderness, a mountainous territory arranged around a central valley occupied by a particularly dense and dangerous old-growth forest named The Labyrinth of Shadows. Dwarven settlements and ruins ring the central valley, connected by well-mapped trails; the Labyrinth is trackless and inhabited by the most dangerous monsters. In addition to wilderness exploration procedures, the module provides a description of five settlements (including the town of Karn Buldahr) and nine dungeons of various sizes (from 5-6-room lairs to a main feature with five levels and 33 areas total). The power curve goes from beginning-level to some fairly deadly stuff – maybe 4th to 5th level or so. Rumours, mysterious glyphs, treasure maps, the remains of an advanced ancient civilisation, and local politics complicate the picture, and create a layer of connections to bring it all together.

Hiking Trip, But With Hobgoblins
Tower Silveraxe follows the trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene. It is heavily focused on tight editing and effective presentation. Every page spread is laid out in a precise way that eliminates the need for page flipping: all the maps and key you need are there before you. The dungeon maps are precise and clean affairs, with local random encounter charts tucked into a corner. I was particularly impressed with the wilderness cartography, which takes the form of an elegant hiking map with contour lines, trail distances, and points of interest. This format has lots of potential, and I hope people will do more with it in the future. (Minor nitpick: my inner textbook editor is screaming in rage at sight of the page numbering, which puts odd numbers on the left and even on the right. How dare you.)

Here we come to the Achilles heel of the module. Following trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene, Tower Silveraxe has sacrificed interest for accessibility. It is well-rounded, impeccably made, nicely interconnected, but the content is just sort of mediocre. One could call it vanilla, but the term is misleading. For instance, the original TSR modules were often quite vanilla, but even so, they always had interesting twists like the orc/carrion crawler caverns/weird shrine under Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, or the pool room and the whole “retired adventurers’ home base” aspect of In Search of the Unknown. Unfortunately, this is the “generic, flavourless” sort of vanilla that works with standard tropes and does not really improve on them, or use them innovatively.

A lot of the module text is remarkably facile. Consider Karn Buldahr, the dwarven town. There are 14 keyed locations, very few of which actually add anything beyond the baseline. The Traveller’s Inn is “a modest inn, just outside the western gate, (…) welcoming to all travellers, even in the early hours of the night.” The Stables are “Owned and run by Kreel Coalbraid. Only mules and carts are available to purchase.” The guards are stout. The General Store & Outfitters sells adventuring gear. The Crafters Quarter is “where nearly all skilled crafters conduct their trade.” There is very little here that could not be improvised on the basis of “Dwarftown. Population: dwarves”. Karn Buldahr occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between minimalism, which does not give you much, but occupies little place, and an actual in-depth treatment which elaborates on the basic concepts until they transcend a generic quality. Here lies the trap of the format: it is all on a spread of two facing pages, which either stifled the author’s creativity, or made him stretch a thin concept beyond its sensible limits. In fact, Karn Buldahr does have things of interest which deserve notice: a theatre putting on modernist plays everyone goes to but nobody confesses to not understanding (the Quirk differentiating the place from other dwarven towns), the local tradition of The Airing of Grievances (the Detail which drives home the dwarven connection), and a magic-user looking for crystals (the Adventure Hook). There are four decent rumours. This is good stuff, surrounded by several paragraphs of eh and meh.

Similar problems affect the nine mini-dungeons. The size is all right for something you find in a wilderness (although Bone Hill would beg to differ), and the concepts – looted tomb, abandoned mine, haunted tower, cave shrine, etc. – are good, with decent variety. It is, again, the encounters which suffer. They are very rote, very standard dungeon encounters of the monster/treasure/trap variety, missing a sense of wonder or deeper challenge that would make people start to pay attention. The treasure is usually coins contained in chests and such, and generic +1 items. The monsters are usually small groups of standard critters. You don’t get the “oh crap, 45 goblins! How do we solve this one?” kind of encounter here.

The encounters end up remarkably shallow. Many details in the key add nothing to the information already found on the map:

“Large room with six huge stone pillars. 2 doors – one south and another goes east on the north end of the room.”

“There is a tunnel to the north and a door to on the south wall. The room is empty.”

Seemingly interesting details do not, in fact, add to the interaction potential of the module, and are left as undeveloped cyphers:

“This room contains many shelves of books. A library for the elf stewards.

>> Books: All journals and logs written by the elves throughout the centuries.

>> Treasure: 3 spell scrolls (shield, knock, and hold portal)

“The stairs descend to a large room with four large statues of figures with heads bowed. At the end of the room is a sturdy iron door.”

Touch the Eye.
Touch the Eeeeye!
If you read that last one, your spidey sense is probably telling you this is going to be a great “deeper level” setpiece with a portcullis trap, animated statues, poison gas, flooding, or monsters attacking from behind secret doors. But nothing really happens, and the imagery is left unexploited. Of course, not every such room needs to be a deathtrap. Red herrings play an important role in messing with the players and either deplete their resources or lull them into a false sense of security before the iron door mimic eats them for lunch. Too bad this is a pattern that repeats through Tower Silveraxe, and most similar opportunities are also missed. There are a few exceptions: good foreshadowing down in the main dungeon, which offers progressive hints of a large, dangerous monster’s presence; a cyclopean idol with an obviously telegraphed but still oh-so-fun poison gas trap; or mysteries which span multiple adventure sites. However, the majority of encounters in the adventure are very plain, and the payoff of finding something really unique and off the wall is not present. This is a shame, because the setup is virtually crying out for it.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe is, therefore, a module with excellent structure and relatively weak content. I would not want to savage it – there is obvious craft in how it is put together – but I cannot help but believe the “layout-correctness” has not helped this one, and that it does not live up to its own implicit promise. Your players would probably have a reasonably good time playing it; it does not make any egregious mistakes, and just letting the players loose in the sandbox often produces a spark that sets even middling material aflame. This is what it is: solid, functional, but falling way short of excellence. Potential for improvement? Yes. Room for improvement? Yes, and lots of it.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday 2 November 2021

[BLOG] Hex-crawls: A Simple Guide

A slice of the Wilderlands
Irony: no longer just a diet rich in ferrous metals. Old-school gaming is now officially old, having lasted way longer than the period of gaming it looks back on. The line loops back on itself again; we are not just old, we are double-old, and with age, accumulated wisdom is lost, formerly self-explanatory ideas become objects of mystery. This constant erosion is unsurprising. You can fight back, but never win. Still, at least we can go down swinging, and that’s better than nothing. Today, we shall endeavour to do so by restating the idea of a great, simple game structure that surprisingly many people fail to understand, or pretend to fail to understand: the hex-crawl.

If Bryce Lynch doesn’t get it, others might be utterly lost. Perhaps what many of us considered obvious, isn’t. Perhaps so much detail-oriented guidance has been published that the basic, simple idea is getting lost in the discussion. But the main issue I am seeing – something even people like Justin Alexander have fallen into – is that people present an idea of hex-crawls that’s much more convoluted and hard to follow than what most of us actually need for our table. There is scattered wisdom in those pieces, but the maximalist approach they are advocating is not practical for most, especially beginners. The basic hex-crawl, in comparison, is dirt simple to understand, design, and run. Hence, this post. A simple, concise guide can explain the essentials – and if you would like, you can later expand your own procedures in a modular fashion.

* * *

Why run a hex-crawl?

Hex-crawls are a great way to run games based on wilderness exploration. Their main strength lies in turning a wilderness map into something you can describe and play with ease. Hex-crawls offer a good value for the effort that goes into creating them. Even a relatively small wilderness area described as a hex-crawl can be used and re-used several times. You can easily expand them both outwards (describing more of the map using this method) and inwards (adding more features and deeper detail). Hex-crawls can be developed piecemeal, and they are easy to scale to the interests of your adventuring party.

* * *

The basic principle

You might remember a common way to describe RPGs to outsiders: “This game is all in your imagination, played without a game board.” Hex-crawling is a lot like that game, but with a game board added to it. This board shall consist of two map sheets with numbered hexes. One of the maps is for the Gamemaster, and like your usual dungeon map, it is marked with terrain features, and an encounter key. Unlike dungeons, the key is not numbered sequentially, but by hex coordinates: a certain number of hexes may have varied features in them, while some are “empty”, consisting only of terrain. The second map is the one the players actually see: while it conforms to the first in most respects, this one is much more sparse, usually showing coastal outlines, a few major geographic features, and maybe a section of the “known” lands. The rest is left blank for later discovery.

Over the course of play, moving around and exploring the wilderness map, filling in its blanks, and coming across the keyed encounters shall be the focus of the game. The exploration process may be complicated by random encounters, navigation hazards, the depletion of food and equipment, and other complications like bad weather, or events keyed to the passage of time. Like dungeon adventures, hex-crawls are a combination of keyed encounters, random events arising from game procedures, and emergent gameplay created by GM–player interaction. A good hex-crawl is a lot like a good dungeon – reasonably open-ended, challenging, accommodating of player decisions, yet not overwhelming at any single decision point, since every given hex allows only six directions of travel from it.

* * *

Constructing the GM map

The Central Marches
Many game world focus on the big picture, the world at large. In a hex-crawl setting, we will be doing the exact opposite, by describing the micro-world. Our main concern is not the extent and ancient history of empires or the cosmology of the gods, but the local lord acting as an agent of the distant imperial seat, or the secretive monastery hidden in the woodlands. It may be useful to have a very general framework for the sake of style and internal consistency, but what really MATTERS is local detail and variety. The scale of the maps itself should reflect this. We are not making continents, we are making provinces or baronies. Many hex-crawl games use the six-mile hex (which became the default for Judges Guild’s Wilderlands setting), which is really fine-grain, and lets characters move through a lot of hexes in a single game session. I usually go with twelve miles (or around 20 kilometres). Greyhawk’s 30 miles per hex, as seen on the classic Darlene Pekul maps, is generally too large for the details we want – Greyhawk is definitely a big-picture place.

Accordingly, map a small corner of the larger world. A starting campaign can easily exist on a stretch of land measuring 12×12 six-mile hexes. Instead of large expanses of homogenous terrain, I would suggest making things varied in terms of both topography and land cover. Starting out with a random-generated map and adjusting it a bit to make the geography slightly more realistic works surprisingly well – there is a random terrain filling method in the AD&D DMG (Appendix B), and Hexographer comes with a default random generator, which I used for the example map here. You will notice a few features which tend to be desirable:

  • a single terrain type tends to cover 8-10 hexes, and rarely more: this makes the land mass varied and distinct;
  • there is a balance of easily navigable, challenging, and generally impassable terrain: choosing where and how to travel becomes an important player choice;
  • water is used prominently, forming seas, a lake, and river basins;
  • prominent features – castles, dungeons, settlements and temples – are distributed logically, but sparsely: travel is a necessity in the setting;
  • roads might link the most important centres of civilisation, but adventure lies off-road: we have a proverbial “points of light setting”, with relatively safe areas along the roads, and dangerous wilderness beyond them.

Not every map has to follow a similar structure, but this combination should make for a good mini-sandbox. If you would like to construct a larger region, Volume 4 of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen (on which more in a later post) describes a semi-random Hexographer-based method that shall create an entire campaign’s worth of terrain.

 * * *

Stocking the GM map

This is the meat of the hex-crawl. Interesting locations, lairs, and the more complex sort of encounters can be seeded across the hex map, waiting for the players to come across them during their explorations. After placing a few important locations by hand, it is most useful to turn to a random generation method. Establish hex locations via this method:

  • roll 2d6 for each 12-mile hex (or 2d12 for each 6-mile hex) with two different-coloured dice for each hex (this can take some time);
  • a “1” on the dice indicates either a ruin (usually marked with an “x”) or a lair (usually marked with an “L” or “·”) – mark these on the map;
  • for hexes with mixed terrain (e.g. forests meeting mountains), check both terrain types;
  • you may want to re-check hexes which have a feature to see if they may have a double one.

The Central Marches, with
locales of interest
The exact content of the hexes is written into the hex key, where entries are identified by the four-number coordinates. This is similar to a dungeon key in scope and detail, focusing on the essential and leaving the rest to improvisation. Like with dungeons, random idea generation tables can be useful for stocking a wilderness, at least beyond a range of initial entries which establish the mood and challenges of the place. Once you have a general idea for the region, the details shall fall into their place. For example, using our previous map, we may begin our hex key like this (stats and most treasure values not included):

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

(and so on, see the end of the post for the starting area)

The hex-crawl, of course, is not the complete campaign, but a component of it. Add a starter dungeon (and start thinking about one or two more – they don’t have to be large affairs), a few rival power centres and organisations, and you have a full landscape of adventure (see this post for a general idea). A hex-crawl is a great place to stick adventures written by other people, too, and it is one of the frameworks where mini-dungeons, even the better one-page dungeons can find a good home.

 * * *

Managing the crawl

Once we have the hex map, the key, and a few places with more detail, the campaign is ready to play. To start the crawl, set the players down on their version of the map, which can be as sparse or as detailed as you wish (the less detailed it is, the stronger the sense of discovery, but the more time will be spent with mapping). At this point, it is important to establish some basic context – where they are, what they have known or heard of the surrounding territory (a rumour each player may be a good way to accomplish this), and approximately where have they heard of capital A Adventure. We can begin!

Much of the hex-crawls occurs through simple procedures. Here are the essentials:

Descriptions: describe what the party sees in the surrounding hexes in a brief way. This should include terrain, visible landmarks, and maybe a little detail. For example, using our sample map, and starting from the castle home base at 0608, the GM could begin thus: “Day one breaks as you ride out through the gates of Krakhal. It is still misty, but you can see the roads meeting here: the Winding Way crossing the river to the NW and going through farmlands towards the mountains where stands the tower of Breezehall  to a day’s journey; the other direction heading SE and disappearing in wooded hills. A more narrow cart road crosses the river to the W, then heads SW through grassland. In this direction lies Fell, a village where you have heard of troubles with raiding humanoids and brigands. To the N and NE stretch thick forests, and to the S, you see tall peaks.” From here on, the descriptions can be even shorter: “You cross the grasslands into 0509, along the river running SW. NW lie woods, SW and S are flat grasslands, and SE are the mountains. The road continues SW.”

Here be giants
Movement: let the players declare the directions they are moving, and calculate how much terrain they can cross at their movement rate. As a rule of thumb, 4 6-mile hexes of terrain (plains, wastelands, coast), 2 hex of medium terrain (forest, hills), and 1 hex of hard terrain (mountains, swamp) can be covered on foot, or 6/4/1 while mounted. For 12-mile hexes, just halve this rate. For mixed terrain (likely), it is sensible to divide the day into a morning and afternoon stretch and see how much distance the characters cover. There are movement systems which use “movement point costs” to enter a hex of a specific terrain type, which are more abstract, but a bit easier to calculate with.

(Getting lost): This is a probability used in various A/D&D editions to see if the party veers off course or becomes lost while moving in the wilderness. It is not a rule we are actively using, but it adds a layer of uncertainty to exploration, and unless the party is moving along the roads, it may lead them to unexpected places of interest!

Encounters: the characters shall come across the fixed encounters on the hex key. There is also a good reason to use random encounter charts to vary things a bit. Generally, roll random encounters once per two six-mile hexes travelled with a 1:6 probability, or twice per day and thrice per night if camping (this can be reduced if the characters have discovered or created a safe shelter). Not all encounters will be fights to the death: hunting animals may avoid the party, while intelligent denizens may want to trade, negotiate, ask for directions, or provide the same… if the reaction checks are good enough.

Supplies: assume one ration per day of travel, and separate water rations where needed. Hunting and foraging may be a way to find food on the way. For a simple system, roll 1d6, with a +1 for skilled outdoorsmen and +2 for rangers and druids, and -1 for frood-sparse regions like high mountains. Food will be found on rolls of 4+, with an extra ration per point over the threshold.

Weather: this is simple and fun for situational variety. Just roll 1d6 per day to establish the dominant weather, from 1 (sunny, clear) to 6 (heavy rains, strong winds, heavy fog), add a situational modifier or two if needed (e.g. by terrain or season). If daily rolls make the weather too “swingy”, assume that stretches of weather will last 1d3 days or even more, or that changes will be in increments of one point at a time.

This is (more or less) the simple system we are using at our table. It is not completely realistic, but it is in keeping with the complexity of dungeon procedures, and makes for a rewarding procedural package which does not slow down play, works out fine, and can be messed with from time to time to shake things up a bit.

* * *

Details which are a matter of taste (but here is my opinion anyway)

Should a terrain type fill a whole hex, or not?

My hex maps are usually more organic, and the hex grid is simply overlaid on a map. This is also the way Judges Guild did things. Hexographer (which I used to illustrate this post) fills every hex with a discrete terrain type. This is okay, too, and slightly easier to adjudicate.

Some people suggest the hex map should be the GM’s tool only, and this “layer” should be hidden from the players. Which one should I pick?

This is the approach advocated by Justin Alexander for reasons of deeper immersion. For ease of use reasons, I would personally recommend the exact opposite, the use of identical player/GM maps with a different level of detail, like in the original Wilderlands products. This translates wilderness navigation into a game board you navigate and gradually fill in with terrain and points of interest. It is a game, and there is no harm in revealing most of its rules, including the hex numbers. In our campaigns, I rationalise the latter with the assumption that hex numbers represent astronomical navigation schemes, or (in science-fantasy campaigns) data from orbital GPS systems.

Do I have to create an entire map’s worth of content before beginning a campaign?

This actually matters! There is absolutely no need to create a whole setting in one go. Create a kay for a relatively small area, then expand outwards as it becomes necessary. Everything you need to know beyond the initial area can be handled as a simple rumour. “North of the Mountains of Fum lies a ruined city inhabited by ghouls. The Crown of Power lies underneath!” or “Monkeys are a delicacy in Katang, but sacred in Pand; and the two towns are almost at war over this matter.” – this much would be sufficient.

How detailed should hex entries be?

For personal consumption, as detailed as your average dungeon room. Some, like major towns and power centres may deserve a little bit more, maybe a bullet-point list. But keeping things brief and versatile is usually the for the best.

What if I have a map, but they don’t start exploring?

A handful of rumours with promises of adventure and treasure can be enough to get the characters going. It is also advisable to place adventure sites in out-of-the way corners of the world, so discovering their exact location requires travel through strange lands. Various quests and missions can also take characters to these fa-flung corners of the milieu.

What if they never go off the road system?

Many such cases! That’s why there should only be few roads, and many places the company has to visit should lie beyond them. This is best caught in the planning phase.

Since hexes cover a lot of territory, shouldn’t adventurers have a chance to miss keyed features?

This has always struck me as bad advice, since the point of hex-crawling is to find cool, interesting stuff, not walk by it. It is in both the player’s and GM’s interest to bring these encounters into play while travelling through the wilderness. You could rationalise it with the understanding that a given hex probably has multiple interesting features, and your party will find the one being described in the key. But generally, unless a feature is deliberately hidden, it is best to let the characters find it. You can always add secondary and tertiary sites later, if needed, although it is also vital to expand horizontally, and encourage players to seek out new lands and sights.

What about three-hex/seven-hex/hex-flower wildernesses?


* * *

The Central Marches: A sample starting area

This is the slice of the region you might describe before the first session. You will note that there are 19 locations being described, including a few hubs of civilisation (the "points of light", with simple adventure hooks), seven ruins, and 6 monster lairs. You can place a larger starting dungeon somewhere close to the centre (this could be beneath the strange garden at 0407, two hexes from KRAKHALL), and a smattering of smaller ones all around: perhaps beneath the well in FELL (0310),  the buried passage in the ancient shrine (0506), the secret treasure cave (0610), the eccentrics' tower basement (0707), the Pavilion of Engadrok (0710), and the emperor's undersea villa (0808). If this sounds too much, that's because it is: you do not need to do it all at once, and many of the possibilities may never enter play (they are well hidden, the entrance is buried or enchanted, etc.).

It is also likely that the campaign will move beyond the initial area in some direction. Perhaps the players will want to visit the city at 1108, follow up on the humanoid raids originating from the advance hobgoblin camp to the west (0109), or travel north beyond the mountains and see what lies in that direction. Do not waste too much work: it does not hurt to be a little lazy in a hex-crawl campaign. If something is particularly important for you, link it to the players with multiple rumours and adventure hooks, and they will likely find their way there.

Once you have the ideas for the hex-crawls, connect, leverage and reuse them: let the brigands at 0406 start harassing merchants along the road, or the hobgoblins send a shipment of captives to the orcs in Castle Gardak (0203). Perhaps the greedy merchants ruling the city want to depose the incompetent Lord Fumme in WOOLBERG (0810) by kidnapping his daughter. A trail of investigation leads to the lawless village of WYRHOLM (0611), and at that place, the characters hear of a treasure-hunting expedition across the mountains (0610). These links and leads make the setting alive and interconnected, and will soon serve as an organic substitute to the rumour table. The campaign will be, to an extent, self-sustaining within its geographic and thematic boundaries.

The Central Marches:
Initial Scope
0305 A few walls and a collapsed tower remain from a wizard’s mountain stronghold, now inhabited by 4 griffons. In their nest, they have collected 3000 sp, an efreet bottle, and Helmbrand, a Neutral sword +1.

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

0407 35 gnolls are picking through the ruins of an extravagant garden. Brass idols of various animals on top of standing columns have magical effects: bull – save vs. spell or berserk rage, serpent – offers healing fruit bearing strange curse, wolf – save vs. polymorph or contract lycanthropy, swan – gives feather to most beautiful character, touch heals 1d6 Hp, bear – save vs. spell or sleep 1d6 days, pelican – gives key in exchange for a fish. Buried under a large pile of rubble is the villa of a magic-user, now a repository of mirages. [Ideal for a mini-dungeon]

0409 Crude rock monuments of a preshistoric people stand painted by the grassland road. 18 prize horses (2d6*100 gp each) are grazing nearby, belonging to Bobend the Bastard (Fighter 7), who lives nearby in a filthy tent with 5 wives and 9 mean, unruly children.

0505 BREEZEHALL, tower of the Lord Yverr the Silent (Ftr 9), served by 90 men-at-arms patrolling the mountain road, and Dalco the Orphaned (M-U 5), the descendant of a forgotten king. Lord Yverr is obsessed with five stone thrones on a nearby mountaintop, each struck through with a sword that shall not budge. He is welcoming to guests demonstrating nobility, but has been known to capture and fleece the soft and squeamish.

0506 6 brown bears live in a cave near the mountain road, and have 1:3 to venture out to prey on travellers who do not outnumber them 2:1. The cave is decorated with ancient cave paintings, and ends at a buried passage between two crude statues of snarling bears.

0507 There are giant trees near the road with 8 hippogriffs lairing in the branches. They are only 1:12 to venture out for men (1d4+4 coming), but horseflesh has 1:6 to draw all eight. The giant nests are strewn with bones, and a dagger +1, 3 vs. orcs and goblins is entangled in the branches.

0511 2 fire-breathing giant lizards, particularly colourful in their resplendent hide (worth 800 and 3000 gp intact), enjoy the sun on flat rocks. Their lair, a crack between the enormous boulders, is the source of a spring, overgrown with healing herbs (2d6 doses, +1 to nighttime Hp recovery if prepared as a tea).

0608 KRAKHALL, castle of the Lord Sinds the Righteous (Ftr 9), 90 men-at-arms, and 3 champions (Ftr 7) who serve him enthusiastically. Lord Sinds is the mortal enemy of Lord Fumme the Unlucky (0810), and even his foe’s name can send him into an uncontrollable rage. The moat has been populated with killer frogs as a form of defence, but this plan has not been thought through, and the beasts have become pests in the countryside.

0609 18 zombies wearing the garments of pilgrims shamble in an endless circular procession on a road that terminates shortly afterwards.

0610 Tajah the She-Wolf (Thf 8), noted robber, has come here with a retinue of 30 fighting men and 10 labourers to seek a cavern outlined on a treasure map, found somewhere near the lake coast. Their camp is overrun by small monkeys which prey on the supplies and gradually strip away their equipment.

0611 WYRHOLM, village of 300 men who resent taxation and outside interference, and have become a nest of outlaws and bandits, including armsmen from Woolberg (0810), and good but unscrupulous forest guides. Stolliviss the Eternal (Clr 2) is trying to convert the people to the worship of demonism. The Hack Rack Tavern caters to loggers and fighting men, featuring a bear pit; proprietor Klaint the Incomprehensible is a Thieves Guild man who buys and sells valuables “no questions asked”.

0707 A tower, once the retreat of rich eccentrics for their debauchery, now lies in a decrepit state, inhabited by Klaro the Tall (Fighter 6) and 70 bandits. The weird things the former occupants were into are safely locked down in the basement, while Klaro has converted the top room into a personal weapon and armour collection.

0710 The Pavilion of Engadrok lies in the middle of Lake Oopag, where a magic door leads to a fantastic maze created by a djinn, and the prison of an enchanted princess.

0808 The terraces of a fancy, submerged villa complex can be see beneath the waves here, the former coastal estate of Emperor Nobendses. 200 mermen inhabit the structure, and guard an undersea dungeon with the emperor’s treasures.

0810 WOOLBERG, castle of the Lord Fumme the Unlucky (Ftr 9), 150 men-at-arms, and Father Hsitisolodie (Clr 5). Lord Fumme’s incompetence and bad luck have brought him low in the eyes of the court and his neighbours, and placed him near ruin. The garrison is ill kept, and the men are often away on private ventures involving brigandage in Wyrholm (0611). Father Hsitisolodie is eager to have Lord Fumme’s daughter, Abigh the Mad married off to a worthy suitor to preserve an important prophecy.