Tuesday, 7 June 2022

[BEYONDE] Expedition to the Dungeons of Torda

Play report from the Dungeons of Torda, one of the more famous delves of Transylvania. Three levels, high verticality, questionable “non liner” elements. This will be picture heavy, so the rest beyond the intro will be hidden behind a <more> tag.

Torda (Romanian: Turda, German: Thorenburg) is a former salt mining town in the middle of Transylvania. Salt is wealth, salt is power; thus, the mines have been extremely important since the Romans, and became a significant source of wealth in mediaeval Hungary. The town was important enough to control all salt mining throughout Transylvania, becoming the seat of the Salt Chamber (later Salt Office), and hosting multiple national and regional diets. Here, in 1568, freedom of religion was declared for the first time in Europe, establishing the ground for the mostly peaceful co-existence of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anti-Trinitarian (Unitarian) faiths, whose effects would indirectly also apply to Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism. (The edict, while long-lasting, was neither perfect nor unlimited: Anabaptist refugees were welcomed with open arms, but the Székely Sabbatarians, who took religious innovation to the extent of converting to a form of Judaism, would face persecution, and remained an underground faith – their last remaining stronghold, Bözödújfalu, now lies in ruin beneath a water reservoir). But let's get back to the main adventure site.

Currently, the mines show a form representative of the late 19th and early 20th century, before extraction finally ceased in 1932. The main shaft, a few side-chambers, and two of the great conical mining chambers can be visited. This makes for a surprisingly easily delineated three-level structure: an Entrance Level (the Franz Joseph passage), a Mine Level (the Rudolf Mine), and a Subterranean Lake Level (the Therezia Mine). Two secret levels, "Anton" and "Joseph" are not open for ordinary explorers. There are not one, but two dungeon entrances, one from the village, and one from the hilltop above. The vertical dimension is enormous (the mines were worked from the top down), although the horizontal elements are sadly kind of an afterthought – properly jacquaysed it is not.

Let us begin our descent…

* * *

Thursday, 26 May 2022

[REVIEW] The Bone Place of Dreib

Muh Production Values
The Bone Place of Dreib (2022)

by Rob Alexander

Published by Medium Quality Products

Levels 3-4

Just the facts, ma’am! This here module does not do those superfluous things. You go in, you poke the things, you die horribly. Simple as.

The Bone Place of Dreib seems to offer more proof that most of the cheap, simple-looking modules on DriveThruRPG are doing it wrong. Most of these 12-20 page affairs offer a long and convoluted backstory, followed by a long and convoluted way to convey the characters to where the adventure is happening, followed by some disappointing 4-page dungeon, if that. Well, this adventure does the exact opposite, and wonder of wonders, it works admirably. Here is the Cheap Mini-Adventure That Does Not Suck.

What Bone Place gets right is that it does not intrude on the GM’s domain by trying to answer stupid questions like “Why are the characters there” and “What is the detailed history of the place”; it helps the GM by offering a lean, mean adventure location where characters may go for any number of reasons. All the intro text outlining the background is on the back cover, and no further lengthy backstory is offered: the rest is show, not tell. On the other hand, the introduction sets forth the adventure’s assumptions (such as the low amount of monetary treasure, easily addressed with a *10 multiplier) clearly enough that they can either be taken into account, or modified to suit the GM’s own game. Another page follows with three basic hooks, a rumour chart, and from here on, it is all solid adventure all the way.

The Bone Place of Dreib is the name of a rocky mesa, serving as an ancient burial site dating back to primordial times, but also used more recently. It is a cursed locale where things are off, and bad things happen to those who venture there. This is often the unrealised intent with various dungeons, but Bone Place delivers a horror scenario in the good sense with a deft combination of psychological tricks and the real eat-your-face stuff you run into when you let your guard down. Through dozens of small touches, it gives off a sense of wrongness and intruding on something best undisturbed. Deep Carbon Observatory and Sision Tower had similar vibes; Bone Place is smaller with 27 keyed locations, but effective in messing you up. It starts delivering hints that something is amiss, and this place is inimical to humans: horses will panic at night if trying to sleep, and characters will have oppressive nightmares offering no recovery. It never rains in the area, even if it rains all around. From subtle hints, we move towards an encounter chart, which at first only delivers creepy flavour like “small rocks falling in the middle distance”, or “a random PC feeling unusually weary, right down in their bones”, but starts to become more lively as the party starts unleashing the place’s denizens, and they occupy their respective places on the chart as things go to hell in a handbasket. Escalation mechanics are always fun when done right. This is done right.

The rest is two levels of stuff to explore, try to loot, and mess with. There is an admirable strangeness and sense of the weird to these encounters, which deal with symbols and ideas we all understand, but don’t over-explain things. There are hints of old rituals that had taken place below the earth. Human remains – not really standard undead, but horrid nightmares of skin and bone – animate to destroy the intruders. Lurking things spring forth to drag off a single careless PC to be murdered and devoured. Signs of religious piety conceal malformed abominations, and enacting blasphemous-feeling rituals leads on to further chambers. You can descend into really bad places and crawl into suspicious passageways which leave the character exposed and vulnerable. When bad things happen, they often come quick and with terrible consequences – better think on your feet! Hell yes, that is the good stuff! There is treasure, too, with a macabre flair – “a compressed pancake of 250 sp” retrieved from underneath a skeleton trapped under a heavy rock; two solid golden balls used to replace the eyes of an entombed nobleman; vestments offering the appearance of purity and health, but only until the clothes are removed; or a crown that brings pleasant relaxation, but slowly turns the wearer into an imbecile. (Obviously, a lot of things in here are horribly cursed in very imaginative ways) The tension is ratcheted up on the lower level, a set of prehistoric tunnels and crawlspaces that hint at immense antiquity. This place is mostly prowled by a single monster, but it will be bad enough – a thing of nightmares if there ever was one. You cannot kill it, although it may be driven back – for a while. The price is a peculiar thing that is perhaps best left undisturbed. But you want to try, don’t you.

All things considered, this adventure delivers in more ways than one. First, it is a simple, no-nonsense piece of writing that does not dwell on superfluous things, while avoiding the pitfalls of minimalism, or faddish formal exercises in trying to reinvent adventure design. It is just competence all the way through. Second, it is a creative, creepy, occasionally really nasty adventure site that demonstrates an abundance of imagination and skill with instilling terror in players’ hearts. You want a cursed and haunted place? This is a cursed and haunted place.

This publication credits its playtesters, and a proofreader/editor. This is to the module’s benefit.

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

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

[REVIEW] Crashmoon

Crashmoon (2022)

by David Kentaro Jackson

Published by Elk and Unicorn


Not actually a part of Zinemassacre 2021, but what the hell… if the glove fits, why not?

C  R      A                S                    H 





(glitchy font placement part of the $5 you pay for it) is dubbed “a psychedelic system agnostic weird fantasy archipelago crawl”, which is why I picked up at the asking price. I, too, love the Wilderlands, and derivatives like the excellent Sea of Vipers. Gaming needs more weird fantasy archipelago crawling, and what best to encourage such than a toolkit to help generate such campaigns. 

Crashmoon epitomises, in a severely overpriced 8-page PDF, why gentle, salt of the earth folk spit and reach for their gun when they see one of these glitch aesthetic ‘zines being peddled by some no-good zinester; it is why young mothers draw their crying infants closer so that they might not see what the bad man is selling. It is what Uncle Ted and the John Birch Society warned us about. It is why we cannot have good things. In these slim 8 pages, you have the cover; half a page of glitchy letters on a hideous cyan background, spelling out the title; one paragraph of introduction which sets up the tone by stating the blatantly obvious (“It is system neutral, so it is not designed for any specific tabletop role playing game system”), but admonishing you to use safety tools, followed by declaring that “Crashmoon is a #SwordDream.”; one and a half paragraphs describing the Crashmoon Archipelago, a zone of weirdness; and then 5 pages of tables.

Perhaps the cyan really needs a consent form

Let’s talk about the tables. Great tables establish procedures, help you develop ideas, or spice up play with unexpected extra ideas and challenges. When it comes to inspiration tables, the good ones poke your mind. The new edition of Tome of Adventure Design, PDF recently delivered, has gems like “obedience-ship”, “screaming vortex”, and “mummification-tower”, and that’s just three rolls from one table among a bazillion. Crashmoon takes a different approach. Its five d66 tables give you developed stuff. These results are often flat and banal, and even when they aren’t, they are specific stuff, lacking the subliminal quality of ToAD’s mashups, or the low-key surrealism of Judges Guild’s tables. You can roll for… location features (“evil twin villages”, “enormous vibro-hatchet embedded into a cosmic skull”, “tunnel with endlessly branching caverns”), objects (“a hover sled”, “a bundle of sleep incense”, “night vision goggles”), characters (“a bird person who has lost their wings”, “a giant talking goldfish in a giant tank”, “a rope golem”), causes (“sick grandmother needs a cure from a remote local”, “star-crossed lovers”, “village of cute trolls has lost their hearth flame”), and omens (“a great stag”, “a low mist”, “lightning sets tree on fire”). Sometimes it almost comes together into something… but mostly, it is just random noise. Max Ernst it ain’t. These are not good random tables, not even on an “I will use it this one time” basis.

Well worth that $0.625
For your five dollars, you also get a full-page recreation of the SWORD*DREAM manifesto, which none of the SWORD*DREAM guys seem to practice. Breaking down the zine price, this is what you pay for:

  • crappy cover: $0.625
  • pretentious glitch text plus intro: $0.625
  • five badly made lolrandom tables: $3.125
  • SWORD*DREAM manifesto, but in cyan: $0.625

On one hand, this will surely not be my ruin. On the second hand, it is also how much a nice cuppa doppio costs at the best café in my street, plus I contributed financially to the spread of SWORD*DREAM across the land. I should have picked the doppio.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. Perhaps there is a merciful God after all.

Rating: * / *****

Saturday, 23 April 2022

[BLOG] Wizards of the Coast Fucks Over Hungarian D&D Licensee and Treats D&D Fans Like Crap

For Realz Now
This is kind of a long and convoluted story, but this is a good time and place to share it. The video below (audio in the Hungarian, captions in English) provides a good summary of how Wizards of the Coast screwed the small publisher responsible for D&D 5e's Hungarian translation, and in turn our small but enthusiastic D&D fandom. 

In short, Tuan Publishing, a local publisher of fantasy novels and games, obtained a license to publish 5e in a local translation. As other overseas properties, the deal was made through Gale Force Nine, a large international game company. Tuan, much unlike previous license holders, did a jolly good job on their translation. They put out a well-received Starter Set, and completed a translation of the core books that was not only up to license standards, but assisted and advised by a body recruited from Hungarian D&D fans as well. But the books, despite being textually approved, pre-ordered by numerous fans, and ready to print, never came out.

See, WotC and Gale Force Nine had an argument over the profits from these overseas distribution deals, and basically blackmailed each other by holding the licenses hostage, and refusing to approve them for printing. Perhaps this sort of lawfare is chump change for major international players, but it is really not chump change for a small outfit like Tuan. Still, they kept a good faith approach, and waited, along with the enthusiastic fans. What happened, though, was treachery: GF9 and WotC reached a settlement, but from this point on, simply stonewalled all communications with Tuan Publishing. Wizards of the Coast assumed responsibility for publishing D&D in four major languages (German, Italian, Spanish, and French), while not even deigning to send an official communication to the Hungarian licensee. And so it continues, with everything left hanging. The translation, created with much care and effort, is hanging in legal limbo due to a petty legal squabble between warring publishing giants. You can get the details from the video below (yes, Kildar really does speak that fast; it is his secret superpower).

I do not usually comment on new D&D: it is a fine game I do not really care about, and I have made peace with this situation. This, however, is scummy because it harms honest dealers and enthusiastic RPG fans. Shame on Wizards of the Coast and shame on Gale Force Nine for this charade, and for mistreating a Hungarian game company and Hungarian gamers. For a company that bloviates all day every day about doing the right thing, they sure don’t mind fucking over the little guy when it is convenient for them. You know, when it is not a matter of virtue signalling about adventuring wheelchairs or hashtag politics, but following a business contract and serving a fan base, even if it is not your main bread and butter.

This is, naturally, par for course for the rainbow pony brigade. And obviously, them being a large company and Tuan being a small one in a small country, they can get away with it.

And still. Is this really a company you want to give your dollars to? Is this a publisher you can trust? Or, if by accident you are a small RPG publisher in another country reading this, who had thought of dealing with these guys: can you afford being next? Right.

Food for thought.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

[REVIEW] Wild Blue Yonder #01

Wild Blue Yonder
Wild Blue Yonder #01 (2021)

by Jon Davis

Published by Sivad’s Sanctum


Hello, and welcome to **ZINEMASSACRE*2021**! Last year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 3, their third zine writing promotion campaign. This venture seemed to be ill-starred, as not only did many of the projects suffer from delays and disappearing authors (a.k.a. “the old cut and run”), but this may actually be the last significant venture under the name for reasons which are both funny and disappointing. These reviews will focus on the zines I funded AND which actually got released – let’s see how it goes.

* * *

If you want to start a weird game experiment, start a zine. It might just find an audience, and in the worst case, you are not out of too much money. Of course, Kickstarter changes the equation a little (once you are funded, the risk is firmly on the buyers’ side), but the basic idea stands. Wild Blue Yonder (also the title of a Werner Herzog movie – relation to this project unknown) takes the framework of Old School Essentials, and takes it somewhere entirely else than originally intended: the Yonder Mountains, a backwoods area on the edges of modern civilisation. The time and place is distinctly late 19th century America, perhaps somewhere along the Appalachians. The Yonderfolk, the rural inhabitants of the Mountains, possess simple, homespun wisdom, and know much about this territory. In contrast, Flatfoots are outsiders bringing new ideas and fashions from industry to the labour movement.  Deep and old forests hide small agrarian villages living by old customs, while early mines dig up the mountains, small-scale factories are springing up, and loggers are slowly starting to clear away the dense old growth forests. This model of industrialisation preceded massive big-city industries, and is best remembered through campfire songs like Sixteen Tons (quoted on the back cover) and such fare – dirty, brutish, and more beneficial in the long than the short run.

Free Candy Not Depicted
The zine is dedicated to presenting this world of wise old tramps, tradition-bound townsmen, industrial barons and them crazy city folks with their new gizmo fads. The strength of the setting lies in the telling: it makes a convincing argument that this is a setting worth visiting, with its own folklore, customs, and deeper mysteries. There are human conflicts, from love and hatred to Tradition vs. Progress, folkloric beings based on strange old men, chapters on local fare (Yonderfolk have a notorious sweet tooth for rock candy, enjoy fried pumpkin rinds fried in lard, and wash it down with apple beer or a swig of strong hooch) or types of wood (metal is scarce in the Yonder Mountains, so household items are made of maple, log cabins of poplar, and magic items of white ash). The issue also presents the Woodsman class, who are basically Rangers with a deep spiritual connection to trees, a town, and four critters (giant groundhogs and wampus cats are two of them).

As a flavourful presentation of a lovely rural setting, Wild Blue Yonder is a success. The question with these settings is always “So what am I supposed to do with this?” The answer in the zine is not entirely convincing (see below), but to its credit, a large rumour table offers 36 potential hooks, from “The feud between the Walshes and the Marshes was started over a misplaced stew pot if memory serves” to “The Moon-eyed People see better at night than in the day, often times you’ll see their eyes shining from the dark hillsides.” You might also get the idea that the right answer is “what everyone else is doing”, so probably situation-oriented scenarios (thwart the dastardly plans of those industrialists!) and some light dungeon crawling. The Kickstarter comes with two pamphlet dungeons (a format that makes one-page dungeons look downright respectable), which also serve as a practical demonstration (but see below). Big Rock Candy Mountain is an entirely linear expedition to a lost gem mine with seven keyed locations and a 2d6 random encounter chart, while I Remember Uncle Elijah is an investigative module in the sleepy village of No Pine, where children are disappearing. The pattern of disappearances is entirely random, and there are no meaningful clues to really “investigate” or “solve” the mystery, at least within the adventure’s scope as written. I don’t know, man. Perhaps it is one of those deep things. Volja?

Then there is the editorialising, which I suppose is to be expected with these NuSR things. Not only does the setting have Correct Politics, but we will be surprised that NPCs who share the Correct Politics are sympathetic, wise, and ultimately good of heart; while those who do not share the Correct Politics are greedy, unsympathetic, and Up to No Good. For example, Old-Timers are wise in the ways of healing, good advice, and a bit of folksy magick, while the Sons of Cludd are intolerant religious fanatics who “have a reputation as ruthless inquisitors and torturers of those they deem as heretics and witches”. Well, there’s a hard decision. Likewise, the Paimon Coal Company is a gang of obvious evildoers to the last clerk, company store employee, and Sherrif (all ~ are bastards), while good folks in town host secret labour union meetings and work as child preachers paying off a family debt. When they have character flaws, they are sympathetic character flaws or charming tics, or something they are not at fault for. Even the famed Paimon Prowler (a now extinct OSR critter) would be impressed.

The above weirdness notwithstanding, this is a decent “idea” zine, and a compelling setting crafted with vivid strokes and obvious love. The writing is good, and the ingredients are there for a campaign. You probably will not run a game here (and see below), but wouldn’t you like to? This is a quaint, timeless, and out of fashion world that feels a bit like home. When you read that “Some folk from Chat’nuga are in town, and they got themselves an automobile!”, wouldn’t you want to play a few tricks on them until they go right back to Chat’nuga with their gizmo widgets? Darn straight, sonny.

The zine is released as “UNPLAYTESTED WITH PRIDE”. Weird flex but OK.

Rating: *** / *****

"They even gave a strange little jump as they
fucked right back to wherever they came from!"

Sunday, 10 April 2022

[REVIEW] City of the Red Pox

City of the Red Pox
City of the Red Pox (2021)

by Benjamin Wenham

Published by Dark Forest Press

TROIKA! level

Hello, and welcome to **ZINEMASSACRE*2021**! Last year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 3, their third zine writing promotion campaign. This venture seemed to be ill-starred, as not only did many of the projects suffer from delays and disappearing authors (a.k.a. “the old cut and run”), but this may actually be the last significant venture under the name for reasons which are both funny and disappointing. These reviews will focus on the zines I funded AND which actually got released – let’s see how it goes.


* * *

The City of the Red Pox is a 36-page zine for the Troika! system, presenting the beginnings of a city setting ravaged by a deadly disease, and under attack by horrors from another reality. It comes in a lavishly illustrated booklet on high-duty colour paper, and looks generally fancy. Following the logic of such things, the zine’s layout is breezy, with generous empty space, large fonts, ample spacing and all the various tricks of the trade. That is to say, it does not contain as many letters as you might expect; in truth, it contains surprisingly few. Since no further issues have been published, this first issue thus has to be the basis of the review.

Favoured enemy: Dense, two-column text

The Serene Republic of Antar is basically fantasy Venice, one of the great settings for baroque skullduggery. It is currently enmeshed in chaos as a consequence of the plague, the breakdown of order, and extra-dimensional threats which do not receive much attention in this volume. This may even remind you of the great Dishonored and the city of Dunwall, which would not be far off either. In lieu of a traditional gazetteer or world guide, we mainly get “background through flavoured game rules”. Six Troika! backgrounds (character builds) are offered, a macabre lot which I genuinely like. You can be a Charonite Guilder (a gondolier who transports the rich and the dead alike), a Widow of the Veil (a teller of ill fortunes), or my favourite, a Once Trusted Butcher (these pig-masked freaks are family confidantes in matters both gastronomic and criminal). Then, there are twelve enemies, from cops to the damned, plague doctors, river wasps, the mysterious Stone Watchers (sphinxes that whisper secrets, and work for the State), and “the King’s Boatmen” – clad in “tattered, pale yellow robes”, and a sign that the one seeing them is marked for death. A more mixed bag, and does not offer much, but the pick is decent and moody – these are usually minor antagonists.

The best thing in the zine, no kidding!

A third section provides an introduction to the city, as well as sample NPCs with a selection of adventure hooks. This is, unfortunately, already past the halfway mark, so the material is not just meagre due to deft but wasteful layout tricks eating up those 36 pages, it is just a very shallow catch. You see some shiny ideas which would be great to elaborate on, but they remain as these little decent sparks, like the “funeral trade” of transporting bodies to and from Antar, or an NPC looking for the perfect glass coffin for the preserved corpse of his beloved. But a lot of it is stating the obvious without making it interesting and useful in a hypothetical game. Finally, we get six spells, not bad for two pages.

Then you get six spells on two very empty pages

City of the Red Pox also features what I assume to be the author’s anarchist politics. Well, fiction is a way to convey your ideas and pillory your opponents, so a little editorialising does not hurt. Unfortunately, nothing useful is being done with this aspect, except to hammer it home through the equivalent of marginal notes that the State, verily, is Bad; unjust hierarchies are inherent in Capital, and that All Cops Are Bastards. This is in a sense authentically zine-like (in that it reminds you of the Deep Thoughts & Poetry section of the authentic punk zines you may find in the wild), but it is all Tell without Show, and on the level of gems like “Hey, fucko, if Antar’s oligarchy of protocapitalists is so progressive, why is it about to collapse into violent revolt?” (Solution: because the Author made it so.) It is all so tiresome.

Fuckos: rekt

One Zinequest earlier, Visitor’s Guide to the Rainy City demonstrated how much excellent content can fit into a modest little volume, and how to convey the feel of a teeming, decaying metropolis during what may be its final weeks. City of the Red Pox does no such thing, because it barely does anything before calling it a day. The few genuinely nice ideas do not come together to form something great. It has a great premise, but the execution is lacking, and the material is too thin to be genuinely engaging and useful.

No playtesters are credited in this publication

Rating: ** / *****

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

[REVIEW] City of Bats

So... This is the Lost City!
It's not lost no more...
City of Bats (2021)

by Dashwood


Levels 4–6

Hello, and welcome to part EIGHT 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!

* * *

Can you do proper homage to the greatest of all TSR modules: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan? Tamoachan’s dark shadow looms high over even the greats, and presents the perfect weird pulp adventure: Meso-American mythology synthesised into complex AD&D setpiece encounters, a diabolical timer in the form of slow-acting poison gas forcing players to think on their feet, a dilapidated environment where the passage of time has created puzzles and dangers equal to the magical enigmas resting in Tamoachan’s undisturbed tombs... and even whimsical stuff like a talking slug. The Hidden Shrine has it all, and its boots are hard to fill!

City of Bats draws ideas from the module as well as a mixture of Meso-American myths at their strangest. The result is a two-level dungeon presented on lovely homemade pencil maps: a slightly linearish set of caverns called “Cave of the Mists” (16 keyed areas), followed by the “City of Bats” proper, a more open lost city/caverns mixture with numerous side-branches (34 keyed areas). This is good size. It feels like a proper expedition to a distant place, where “getting there” is already an adventure. You do not even start in the Cave of the Mists, oh no! It first takes a treacherous ascent on an ancient, crumbling road that “zigzags its way up a barren white cliff face to the top of the escarpment”. Pack animals and mounts each have 1:20 of plunging to certain death. Then, chopping your way through “dense jungle infested with poisonous tropical reptiles”. Then, descending down into a “yawning rock fissure some 40’ long by 20’ wide, opening down into a vertical cavern” – a shaft that comes alive with a myriad bats each dusk. And then, you find yourself down there in a cavern, its floor marked with an enormous petroglyph of a bat, the sign of Camazotz! Hell yes! This is just an opening section, but it sets the scene: here you are, far from civilisation, the way back to recovery as costly as getting here, and the true dangers lurking ahead – as effective and iconic as anything. And then you still have to traverse a cavern level before you get to the subterranean city – by the time you get there, you will feel like you have earned it. Masterclass.

’Archeologist’ sounds so much
more dignified than ‘Thief'
And indeed, City of Bats continues to deliver. While the encounters are nowhere near Tamoachan’s baroque (and a bit weighty) complexity, it is still a superb “mini-Tamoachan” where everything is a bit simpler and smaller in scale, but the same guiding concepts are put to good use. Mythological concepts are translated to game encounters, as in the case of a dreaded “buzzing demon”, the city’s guardian, or the various servants and followers of Camazotz in the city below. These are named beings, some of whom may be interacted with, and some which are just weird and freaky in their appearance – the Guardian Mummy Vucubkai, stalking the ruins of the subterranean city with two spitting cobras who have burrowed into his decayed body; or the High Priest Zapatazap, who is merely a dreaming consciousness in the bottom of his tomb. Both encounters and treasures are organic; they feel like a part of the place. Treasure comes in the form of custom items like “Bronze sculpture of a bat. The head twists off to reveal that it is actually a bottle. The bottle is filled with an ochre liquid, a potion of speed.”, or “6 Jade Eggs worth 500 gp each”. Some of the valuables are also deftly concealed in the grave goods and other bric-a-brac strewn around the city. Almost all that you encounter is “stock”, but they are made memorable by the clever customisation.

Time to... raid some tombs!
This is an archaeologist’s adventure, with its puzzles and rewards alike focused on historical and mythical objects. For example, a storehouse of several bronze goblets resting on shelves, along with a large bronze punch bowl stained with ancient blood tells you of the former denizens’ evil customs (the rewards are two 250 gp gold goblets hidden among their bronze companions). It can be a stone step pyramid standing in the middle of the city’s necropolis, containing an upside-down chamber you can descend into by smashing or extracting a marble slab wedged into the pyramid top. Or it can be an island in a blood-red lake swarming with tiny amphibious scorpions, containing a pedestal holding a valuable statuette of Camazotz. How do you get through the lake or grab the loot without dying like a dog? There are several good, open-ended environmental puzzles like this for the explorers. And there are intelligent NPCs, from the primitive lizardmen tribe in the upper caverns to magical beings who have been trapped or slumbering down here all these years. Great modules encourage exploration, interaction, and conflict, without putting the straightjacket on the party. And this is what City of Bats delivers on – a great place to Do Stuff, from your best Indiana Jones impression to making the local NPCs do your fighting for you.

There are some flaws which, while not serious, detract a bit from the module’s greatness. The first dungeon level’s linearity verges on the railroading, and the same problem crops up in the city, where the side shows can feel a bit like fairground rides. The final location is behind a "three keycards" style puzzle, a bit of a shame. This problem, I feel, comes from the contest limits; otherwise, the dungeon could have been maybe 25% larger, with more ways to do thing, and some empty connecting space in the iddle. This touch is missing from the scenario. There are also presentation issues: anyone who reads this blog knows that I generally view the issue with tolerance, but, well, City of Bats is a rough text which could have used something like a two-column format, or at least bullet points since it kinda blends together.

But as it stands, it is quite inspiring! It is not Tamoachan, it is a deserving homage to it, with plenty of imagination and adventure. When it comes to Tamoachan, this much praise should be enough. Recommended!

This publication credits its playtesters. Neat!

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

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

[REVIEW] Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls

The Chair
Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls (2021)

by Trent Smith


Levels 5–8

Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN 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!

* * *

Consider, my brethren, the Parable of the Chair. How simple it looks! On four legs it rests, and a seat and a back it does possess. Naught more does a chair need – and it can sometimes do with even less. How come, then, that so few good chairs are being made, and that those dabblers who can not assemble a simple chair have set their eyes on fancier upholstery, obscuring the fact that the fruit of their work is scarcely fit for sitting on? Falsehood and clumsy workmanship lurk there. But these pretenders are easily unmasked, for their vile tricks melt away at once before the simple command: “Makest thou a good chair!”

Supreme skill is revealed in simplicity. High concept and fancy presentation can conceal faulty game writing just as much as too much spice can mask spoiled cooking ingredients. In a simple, straightforward design, everything is transparent. Can you work under the limitations of the general toolkit? Can you create “good vanilla”? This is a true test (note, not a “one true way”!) of design ability. Consider the deceptive simplicity of Keep on the Borderlands, the tutorial dungeon crawling of In Search of the Unknown, or the plain “orcs in a hole plus some tombs” premise of Borshak’s Lair. They are often dismissed as uninteresting and basic, their popularity only ascribed to nostalgic memories and a large print run (Borshak’s is an obvious exception – it has been virtually forgotten, even though the fanzine where it is found is relatively easy to obtain). Yet that cannot be the cause, as people who are introduced to them in our time, with no previous experience, love them just the same. Truthfully, they are not particularly deep or sophisticated experiences: they are elementary, even primal. Keep was allegedly written and playtested relatively hastily; there is nothing to suggest Borshak’s is anything but a zine article. On the contrary, many have tried to crack the “basic humanoid adventure” code, and failed. Very few remember TSR’s later efforts in this area, and few of the new old-school humanoid lairs have a reputation comparable to B1 or B2 (meanwhile, megadungeons have a modern canon). And this leaves the aforementioned as examples of pure, effortless craft.

The previous considerations serve to make the case for Melonath Falls, a humanoid lair adventure for mid-level characters. A multi-level complex of four, loosely connected caverns behind a mighty two-tiered waterfall, it is a low-key homage to Gygaxian adventure design which does nothing “special”, except do every “simple” thing expertly. A band of xvarts (why xvarts? and why do they crop up so often in great modules?) are operating from the caverns behind the falls, harassing the river and the rough lumber town downstream. The setting is quintessential North American frontier myth: grandiose natural wonders, outposts of civilisation populated by hard men not afraid of getting their hands dirty and ruled by charming individuals named along the lines of “Boss Bowlton” (indeed, the lumber town is scummy enough to present trouble for characters looking for a place to rest and store valuables without getting gutted), and a dangerous wilderness teeming with hostile tribal civilisations beyond the realm of men. Setting is not the main concern of the adventure, although the background it sketches up with a few broad strokes and later backwards references add a layer of intrigue to the baseline scenario.

The meat is the network of four caverns opening from the waterfall face. These entrances are connected by various treacherous routes, some obvious and extremely hazardous, and some only made available to players who can think about the environment and don’t fall prey to routines which will just channel them into danger. (While there are diagrams illustrating this all-important front sections, if there is one thing this module would need is a player handout giving the players exactly what they see – the written descriptions are exact, but long enough to miss details.) And here, we get the real core of the adventure: what on first sight looks like a vertical B2 homage in fact works like a WG4-style murder machine, where a gang of relatively weak monsters are operating from entrenched defensive positions to repel and harass much more powerful intruders. The xvarts of Melonath Falls are ready with rocks, harpoons and nets, deceptive and treacherous terrain segments, a freight elevator exposed to observation and missile fire, axes ready to cut ropes in a desperate situation, and a xvart Magic-User with a push spell, one of AD&D’s “never memorise” spells, used here for that “fractious mayhem”. Not quite Normandy, but it will take tactics and party discipline to clear the bottleneck – almost hopeless for a normal force, but then a mid-level party should have just enough extra juice to clear the obstacles with some trouble. Break out that Swiss army knife and get to work on the problem.

Just like the B2/WG4 reversal from fun smurf-killing excursion to deadly meatgrinder, the caverns do not connect quite the way you would expect them to based on knowing previous adventure classics. The two lowermost cave systems are inhabited by incidental monster groups unconnected to the xvart levels, and only connect to the main adventure core through obscure and hazardous connections – or, in the case of cave B, not at all. Adventurers who get it into their heads to just go in through an undefended rear entrance may either not find that back entrance at all, or waste a lot of resources doing so. There are climbing hazards, other environmental dangers, bizarre vignette encounters (a mushroom garden with a very strange gardener), and cleverly hidden treasure. The final cavern, on the top, is a strange enigma and easily missed.

Fractious Mayhem
The main caves are a more conventional environment (your usual combination of barracks rooms, a shrine, a prison, chief’s quarters, stolen good, the mostly unused caverns, etc. – all the common notes are being hit), where the remaining, lurking foes are supplemented with a landscape of finer-grain complexity which are an excellent test of player resourcefulness. Here, you can go deeper and mess around with stuff for fun and profit. Valuables will seem sparse on a surface scan, but some of the non-obvious stuff is rather neat, and it adds up. There are interesting choices to be made – how to get rich on stolen trade goods that are, technically, still owned by somebody, or what to do with loot pieces which are valuable but heavier than their gp weight, or connected to organised crime. The xvarts are allied to a company of shady wererats – mutual benefits, mutual distrust. The rat god may appear in person and give you the smackdown of your life if you mess with his temple (no stats, alas!) These minor touches contribute a lot to the “campaign-level” impact of the module, the stuff that happens afterwards. There are hostages, and a few NPCs to interact with. Unexpected possibilities like triggering a marble elephant figurine in enclosed spaces (ouch!) There is always a layer of very Gygaxian misleading and deception, which draws the players’ attention in one direction to hit them from another (or steer them away from the really good stuff). There are a few spots where it seems a bit “too clever” (a mild case of the “hidden depth” problem you find in RJK modules) – certainly, this is a module for highly skilled players. You have to see behind the façade and notice the odd detail or error in the pattern to get ahead. Some players who are not into this style of play would probably see the module as frustrating, while others would get a kick out of it.

The presentation is utilitarian – mostly clear two-column text, could use the occasional visual anchor because the information density can get very high in tight spots. Italics and boldface were invented for a reason, and were used in the TSR modules to good effect, so why not use them here? Likewise, another editing pass (or even map notations) to add cross-references to show how reinforcements and other forward/backward links work in the caverns would be useful, and even important to the flow – although all this can be added with a little effort. The content, however, is gold, without rushing forward to convince you of its originality – it is just there. It is also highly Gygaxian, but not in a tryhard way. The homage is obvious, but the personal take is clearly there too. Here we return to the chair analogy: if Melonath Falls was a chair, it would be the unassuming hand-me-down your eyes might skip over when appreciating the décor, but after a few hours of sitting, you would get up without any discomfort or back pain. How odd… A chair for sitting? Who has heard of such a thing?

This publication was not playtested (the author ran out of time due to the contest deadline), and it would no doubt be a little tighter if it was. Still, a mighty good effort.

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

Saturday, 19 March 2022

[REVIEW] Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm

Reckoning of the Gods /
Into the Shadow Realm
Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm (2019)

by C. Aaron Kreader

Published by Studio 9 Games

Level 3

Dungeon Crawl Classics is its own little world in old-school gaming with its own adventure design standards. Open-ended campaign play is the established ideal of old-school gaming; a polished tournament experience seems to be what DCC fans like most. These are inevitably generalisations, but they are true enough to form a pattern. DCC’ success is partly rooted in its heavy convention presence, and this is also this experience that the modules tend to champion. Just like TSR’s tourney modules had a profound effect on how AD&D was seen and played in the 1980s, so have tournaments tempered our image of DCC: a large emphasis on funnels and lethality, high-concept settings drawing from pulp fantasy turned up to eleven, a degree of linearity (where maps serve more as illustrations rather than a depiction of territory), and a focus on inventive set piece encounters instead of, say, exploration procedures. Many of these assumptions carry over to Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm, a double module released as a third-party product.

Reckoning of the Gods is a personal project, since it was not only written, but extensively and professionally illustrated by C. Aaron Kreader. These production values, while not the subject of this review, would be lavish even for an official Goodman Games release; and if you own the PDF version, you can easily use the illustrative materials to create a whole illustration booklet for your game. There are three illustration-maps, all of custom make. Impressive stuff.

Dare you enter my magic realm?
The module itself is split into two sections. In the first, the characters have been sent to brave the home of an insane and powerful magic-user who has offended the gods, and must therefore be righteously punished (the adventure hook involves a divine “or else” quest). The home of Moxicotl the Great is a trans-dimensional puzzle dungeon / gauntlet where physics, realism, and, indeed, the very laws of interior decoration are mere toys for a deranged sorcerer. We see the principles of DCC’s design in play: no effort is wasted on empty space, or even side tracks.  Every encounter is a meaningful “special” room (setpiece encounter), and everything is in the realm of high fantasy (both in the “powerful magic” and the “bong wizard” sense). It follows in the tradition of White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness by cranking up the heat and never relenting; quick, decisive action and puzzle-solving are required to get through successfully. The adventure starts with the characters getting dropped into a deadly field of poisonous flowers, followed by magical platforming, a hothouse with living plants, a reverse-gravity room with a floor pattern puzzle and an upside-down treasure chest, a waiting room with more than meets the eye, and a timed confrontation with a devil in a room that’s on FIRE while your characters are probably trapped in a hanging CAGE. All in a day’s work – and that’s just the first stage of a third-level adventure. High energy or high calories? Depends on how you like your poison – but it is strongly oriented towards concentrated action and high stakes.

The second adventure, Into the Shadow Realm, is the section where things become even more interesting. Having been transported to the volcanic peak known as Mount Karkaroc in pursuit of the dragon’s hoard Moxicotl was looking for, the characters must navigate two parallel dimensions to reach their destination. The Maker’s glove, a magic item obtained in the sorcerer’s workshop, allows the party to shift from plane to plane, between the active volcano and its dark simulacrum in the Shadow Realm. Where they find their progress blocked or hazardous in the real world, they can try their luck on the other side… if they can learn the other plane’s peculiar laws and hazards. This second adventure is still quite linear, and does not fully exploit the potential of the wondrous glove, but there is a good effort being made to make the ride interesting, and open up things a little. Here, the fiery realm of the active volcano is contrasted with a dead night-world; both sides containing the ruins of a dwarven outpost with the lair of their respective dragon – the fiery and treacherous Woetalon on one side, and his projection, Wurmshade, on the other. The encounter areas are written in duplicate with different challenges on both planes – a handful if we add it up, but making for a relatively small, although dense dungeon if plane-switching is kept limited. Fighting the dragons is a sucker’s bet, but there are good options for just making off with part of the hoard… with severe consequences for those who get caught.

That Guy, Again!
This double module embodies both the good and the bad of DCC. It dares to be fantastic and play with high magic. The encounters are well planned out, with room for puzzle-solving, environmental challenges, plus a whole lot of meticulously choreographed combat. The multiplanar expedition is inspired, especially once Into the Shadow Realm gets into the wild combinations and plane jump hijinks you can come up with. There is no point of the adventure where it really lags. The flaws are also typical for DCC. It is very linear, and while creative problem-solving is involved, there are strong rails keeping you on track. I hate to break it, but if your map works as an illustration, it is probably not a very large or complex map (that’s beyond “Wow Loops Non Liner!!!”). One comes away with the idea that the module is stronger on the individual encounter level than the structural level where the pieces come together. But that’s also a common DCC problem.

The premise itself is a railroad, and at the end of the adventure, your plane-hopping item is snatched away by the jealous gods before you can plan those sweet heists you just wanted to pull off, while even your memory is wiped of the preceding events. That’s disappointing. Perhaps a charged item would be less obtrusive than divine dickery? Finally, it is a bit too much at once. Fantasy and verisimilitude have a tricky balance, and while I usually advise people to err on the side on the side of the former, this is an adventure where a little less could have been more. This adventure is about excess, not restraint. If you like tournament-style gaming that’s heavy on the magical puzzles and energetic combat, it will definitely be “a polished tournament experience”. Altogether, decent and functional.

This publication credits several playtesters, as well as multiple GMs and editors. Indeed, the resulting text is polished, and the editing is conspicuous by the lack of obtrusive segments. This module should be easy to use at the table, without any weird layout wizardry.

Rating: *** / *****

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

[BEYONDE] The Book of Gaub (2021)

The Book of Gaub
The Book of Gaub (2021)

edited by Paolo Greco, with contributions by Charlie Ferguson-Avery, Evoro, The Furtive Goblin, Isaak Hill, John Gregory, Rowan A., Paolo Greco, and Jack Shear

Published by Lost Pages

This is not a review of a creepy spellbook-supplement-thing: I lack the familiarity with modern occult horror games, especially those which inhabit the more obscure corners of old-school gaming, to write a proper one. While The Book of Gaub uses “OSR” style statistics, it is for all intents and purposes outside the scope of D&D-inspired gaming as most of us understand it: therefore, the following post will be more recommendation than proper criticism. Essentially, The Book of Gaub is a grimoire of stuff for horror games set in the 20th century, accompanied by several “micro-fictions”, or small pieces of flavour text. The tone and content mainly recall the antiquarian horror stories of M. R. James (although with more blood and guts), the grotesques of Franz Kafka, and some of the more recent horror writers; it avoids associations with the Mythos, although you could use it as a basis for a good Call of Cthulhu campaign to replace tiresome Old Squidface.

Who is the mysterious Gaub? Not even this book tells us; we only get to know him by way of a creepy hand with seven spindly, crooked fingers (including one that “does not, will not, and has not existed. Ever”). These charmingly named fingers (“The Finger Under the Floorboards”, “The Finger Gnawed to the Bone”, etc.) are associated with 49 spells, a handful of creatures, occult items, and magical phenomena. Mr. Gaub has certainly been around, and you can find his handywork in many unwholesome events. The setting around the hand of Gaub is a modern world of gloom, of deformities and medical horrors, of abandoned houses and sickening, miasmatic urban environments, of sadistic authority figures and reclusive malformities.

No Pain, No Gain
Most spells in The Book of Gaub are specific enough and weird enough to carry the premise of a whole adventure; and since each is accompanied by a small vignette of a story, many of them come with a basic idea sufficient for an adventure hook or at least element. Herein, we find spells such as “Perdivagrant” (all of them have strange, fanciful names), a spell that leads a lost company back to a known starting point, while travelling through strange and unsettling landscapes; “Pamphagous”, which evokes an insatiable hunger in the target that will probably lead to horrible consequences; “Orgiophant”, which results in a terrible proliferation of extra limbs on the hapless victim; or “Lichoscope”, a reanimation spell that only preserves the animated corpse while the caster keeps looking at it (much to the horror of the intellect now once again inhabiting it). As seen above, the spells become useful in specific situations you often need to set up carefully beforehand (not unlike the magic of Helvéczia), and many of them are closer to plot devices than direct utility magic. But on their own, they are creepy and highly imaginative. (Props to the authors and the editor for the consistent tone and unity of vision.)

The book is more than a simple grimoire. Each of the different fingers have associated occult paraphernalia: “a doll made of hundreds of burnt matches bound together” (will snuff out fires, but requires the owner to start fires or it will go and make one of its own); “a dull stethoscope that does not work” (but it will scream if used on an injured or diseased area); or “a ring of 2d6 skeleton keys” which will cause doors locked with them to disappear and leave behind a barren wall. There is a table for 100 magical catastrophes (which might result in the stars taking an unpleasant interest in the caster, a being of luminous beauty visiting during his or her next rest, or a premonition of being followed by something).

I was particularly impressed by the imaginative selection of monsters: the Corner Beast (whose glimpse you might just catch out of the corner of your eye, and whose presence is not registered by careless bystanders even if it kills), the Squeak (an enormous conglomerate of dead rodents resembling a rat king, eager to devour everyone in a house and identified by “too many mouse holes”), or the Dear Reader (this book-shaped monster not only reads YOU, it trades secrets in exchange for other secrets and blood). The monsters come with minimal stats, but useful descriptions describing not only their abilities, but their wants, the omens that betray their presence, and their use in occult stuff (for example, the Squeak can be fashioned into a handkerchief which can imbue liquids it is dipped into with potent, deadly rat poison). Finally, a collection of adventure hooks is also offered – maybe a bit hit or miss, but where they hit, they hit.

The Book of Gaub looks the part of an occult folio you might find in the seedier kind of bookstore, bound in sickening lilac cloth depicting The Hand as a creepy white impression, and supplemented with a bookmark. The paper is nice and the layout is quite elegant, a deliberate echo of the Arts & Crafts movement. Things are indexed and easy to reference. There are numerous illustrations of sickly and scurrying things, many of them reminiscent of Scrap Princess’ better work (although without the nightmarish intensity). Not only is the book pleasant to carry and read, but you can also use it as a prop of… itself. If I am allowed a parting shot: handy!

A Shrieking, Skittering Little Bundle of Love