Friday, 2 September 2022

[REVIEW] Cha’alt

Cha'alt
Cha’alt (2019)

by Venger Satanis

Published by Kort’thalis Publishing

Low to mid levels

* * *

Knee-Deep in the Zoth 

Gonzo science fantasy has a high pedigree in old-school gaming. Wild genre-mixing has been with us since the campaigns of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the publications of Bob Bledsaw and David Hargrave, and has more recently produced such gems as Encounter Critical (2004, predating the earliest retro-clones) and the great, unfinished Anomalous Subsurface Environment. For something affectionately referred to as “retro stupid” (Jeff Rients), this odd platypus-like mutt of gaming history has produced some remarkably excellent materials, and the expectations have thus been set rather high. So we come to Cha’alt. The book has often been dismissed as a vulgar display of bad taste, the product of some fringe weirdo with bad opinions, or juvenile fetish material not worth playing attention to. It has a small but dedicated cult following who swear it has merit. More often than one might think, these small cultish groups are right, and everyone else is dead wrong. Sometimes, they are just deluded. And thus, we are here.

Cha’alt is a lavishly produced, colourful, 216-page hardcover printed on heavy-duty, slick paper, with gold leaf embossing on the cover, and a psychedelic dust jacket depicting something from a 1970s album cover. There is a generous amount of colour illustrations and photos from Deviantart, most of them in tremendously bad taste, from “photorealistic” fetish art to generic and soulless colour pieces. As far as I am concerned, the art budget is wasted, but production values do not really concern this blog, so we shall move on.

While layout is not packed (white space and squiggly “magical glyphs” are abundant), there is a surprising amount of material in the book. Where a significant portion of old-school gaming has succumbed to the idea of minimalism, this is a rich, extensive campaign book mostly focused on directly playable material. This is a pleasant surprise: say what you will about the subject matter and the execution, the book has its heart in the right place. It is not an exercise in creating avant-garde literature, but giving you a rich grab-bag of stuff you can run out of the book. More than that, it is actual, honest functional writing that balances the setting’s peculiar flavour with the idea that information should be accessible, easily understood, and of help to the tired GM. It does not go into the weirdo formal experiments of presentation which have become fashionable in recent years, but while the text will not win any writing awards, it is competently edited, and does its job efficiently and unobtrusively. There is even a functional, well-built appenix! In the realm of ease of use, Cha’alt scores above much of the gaming field.

* * *

The Shores of Cha’alt

Retro stupid rides again
Cha’alt’s setting is a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland following a war between the awakened Old Ones, and the planet’s highly advanced civilisation. Various city-states and barbaric outposts inhabit the remaining land mass, while interstellar opportunists have arrived to cart off the valuables, especially the remaining pockets of zoth, the literal lifeblood of the defeated Old Ones, and a main component of the super-valuable spice mela’anj. Of the great dungeon-complexes that have risen over Cha’alt, none are as formidable as the fabled Black Pyramid, a massive structure that has risen anew from beneath the sands. This is a high-energy setting with a crazy and enthusiastic anything-goes approach, from sandworms to space sluts, and from shameless Cthulhu flogging to monster cults. Gonzo games live or die by the way they cobble together their seemingly incompatible influences; the internal tension is part of the appeal, and being a little crazy never hurts.

The supplement’s first section is taken up by setting background and setting-specific miscellany – a grab-bag of stuff for your Cha’alt campaigns. If you want a random, goofy mutation chart, you will find it in the desert survival rules, while the description of the Domed City has a cyberware table to juice up your characters. This is a fun integration of rules and setting, and the section where the supplement is at its closest to the fabled Wilderlands of High Fantasy – a high point of creative, haphazard, play-friendly content. Factions with their typical representatives, and desert critters are described, although there are no random encounter charts (which would be one of the most important things to have in a sandbox setting), and the monster roster is rather limited with only seven new critters (there are several more scattered over the subsequent chapters). The same is the case for some of the supplemental material or random charts and rules, which are found hidden later in the book – a table of simple psionic abilities, an NPC motivation chart, random ability score arrays... bits and pieces that come up during play.

Here kitty kitty
The core of Cha’alt is centred around four adventure sites: two smaller dungeons (Beneath Kra’adumek, 17 keyed areas; Inside the Frozen Violet Demon Worm, 23 keyed areas), a “home base” style location (Gamma Incel Cantina, 69 keyed NPCs), and a large, three-level “tentpole” dungeon (The Black Pyramid, 111 keyed locations). Unfortunately, it is the short intro scenario, Beneath Kra’adumek, that is the really good stuff, and the rest have a growing number of problems. But Beneath Kra’adumek is good, partly because it is designed as a real dungeon. There is a decent, meaningful layout combining caverns and passages; there are guarded sections to avoid or eliminate, prisoners to free, mysterious stuff to mess with, weird monsters (the centrepiece being the demon cat-snake) and duplicitous NPCs to kill, fool or befriend; and it has a sequence of simple, memorable setpiece encounters. Ways to poke at other dimensions and screw things up (including making 1/6 of Cha’alt’s population disappear forever). Fanatical demon-worm cultists absorbed in their evil activities. Cryogenic pods to awaken ancient pre-catastrophe sleepers. Individualised treasure. It is a dynamic scenario that could go a lot of ways due to the variety of NPC/monster/device interactions, and even feels like a goofy sort of Star Wars locale – great for an action-packed intrusion into the fortress-dungeon of an evil space cult, three “princesses” (well, big-boobed space sluts) included. This is top-notch, and unfortunately, as good as it gets.

Inside the Frozen Violet Demon Worm is a great concept – exploring the intestines of, well, you get the idea – but Cha’alt’s deeper flaws start to emerge. First is the degeneration of the maps. An arbitrary dungeon (Beneath Kra’adumek) offers good exploration potential, while the demon-worm’s interior is an enormous fleshy tunnel with a bunch off side-chambers in its folds. You approach the locations, you do the encounter. This is the Monty Haul dungeon in its original sense – a series of “doors” along a corridor to open for random stuff ranging from a young woman chained to a stone column crying out for help (concealed Ktha’alu spawn with some really god magical loot), a group of insectoids battling a flesh-sac detached from the slowly thawing worm, or an enormous stone head worshipped by savage brutalitarians (lazy Zardoz reference), a lost pirate ship, or a bunch of skeevy guys playing high-stakes poker around a scrap metal table. Why? Rule of cool, that’s why.

Retro, retro
stupid, retro utterly
freaking dumb
This is super-arbitrary, and unlike the cultist lair, has no good sense of place. Why don’t these encounters wander off a little? Why don’t they interact if they are right next to each other? What happens if the party runs deep into the worm, triggering them one by one (and how could the GM handle the logistical chaos of juggling 8-12 setpiece encounters)? It is a mess, with little to connect the random bits and pieces. It feels like a “ghost train” type deal from an amusement park, with dioramas of animatronic monsters leering at you from the sides. The structure is horrible, and whatever dynamism is present in the encounters is probably going to be wasted. They are still rather good on the individual level – the author’s skill for punchy, self-contained situations and setpieces lifts up the material. If these were spaced less tightly, and placed within a more interesting, better designed dungeon environment, this would be another good one.

Gamma Incel Cantina is the Mos Eisley cantina from Tatooine, but on Cha’alt. If you have an interest in gambling, whoring, illicit deals, information or odd jobs, this is a good place to visit if you know how to get in (it is behind a cloaking field). The presentation is questionable, but the content is good enough. Basically, you get a map, a brief description of the cantina’s main areas (from loos to gambling tables to its VIP lounge), then 69 (tee hee) NPCs keyed on the map in colour-coded groups to make things a little more accessible. This is, obviously, completely useless for anything other than hitting up 1d6 randos and interacting with them, and treating everyone else as a homogenous crowd. On the other hand, the paragraph-long NPC descriptions offer brief, fun profiles so hitting up those 1d6 randos is going to get you something. The list, appropriately enough for the author’s interests, starts with P’nis Queeg (“Pilot; just parked his starship; yellow skinned banana / penis headed alien with swollen ganglia. He’s holding a brand new plumbus.”), and includes people like Treena (“THOT, human; blonde hair, blue eyed space Muslim; smoking long, thin hookah; likes humiliation and spanking”), Halvern (“Sentient chartreuse vapor inside environmental suit; fake mustache painted on helmet visor; uncontrollable giggling – that’s why they call him “laughing gas.””) or Bolo (“Droid; bounty hunter; camouflage and rust-colored; spritzing WD-40 on plate of myna’ak wings; head of engineering on nearby space station.”) You get the idea. The sleazy truck stop/titty bar vibe is spot on, and it works decently as Cha’alt’s Keep to Cha’alt’s Borderlands.

The Very Naughty Tetrahedron

We now come to the main attraction: The Black Pyramid rises from the wastelands, descending into an underworld most mythical, or at least moderately horny. This is obviously the campaign lynchpin not just from the size, but all the side materials. We get a rumours chart, and random encounters complete with specific monsters (from the dreaded night clowns to hunter-killer droids, fruit folk, pizza delivery and bat-winged eyeballs) and unique NPC groups (lost Romans, alien looters, suspicious hooded guys of all sorts). A “what happened while you were away” chart! A “leaving the pyramid” chart (travel 1d30 years into the past/future and wipe most of the campaign – woo-hoo)! Six new gods! A “you dumbass slept in the pyramid” chart! And so on. So far so good.

"Have we reached rock bottom yet, guys?"
"Not yet! Everybody, dance!"
"My anus is bleeding!"
But then... yes, the problems of the book come back in force, and are multiplied fourfold. The maps are chaotic gibberish. Any semblance of structure or order (or even inspired chaos) goes out the window, and what we get is a bunch of randomly shaped and sized rooms connected by short, randomly patterned corridors (these seem to have no distinct function, or the reference just fails me) between random clusters of colour-coded rooms accessible with special crystal keys. This childish mess does not look like a pyramid – even a severely corrupted one – lacks meaningful height differences or even connecting stairs (what you think are three dungeon levels are actually a single flat plain), has no spatial order to accommodate orienteering or exploration, does not feature actual dungeon navigation challenges (even less so than the frozen demon-worm), and it is overall very repetitive in its formal structures. The room descriptions have no relation whatsoever to the room shapes and sizes. To make it short, the map is really, really terrible, lacking any redeeming qualities.

There is something about the encounters that was grating. Maybe my patience was wearing thin, or maybe it is truly repetitive, but one of the reasons this review is overdue by several months is that I just could not press on with it. It is just one pop culture reference setpiece after the other pop culture reference setpiece. Now... this can work if there is some other kind of connecting material to add variety (say, an interesting dungeon map to navigate, or challenging combat/exploration situations and a few clever traps), but it is missing them altogether. The lazy content also shows its limits. Sometimes, recognition still elicits the Sensible Chuckle, but that well soon runs dry, and you start to scrutinise these encounters with a more critical eye. And many of them do not cut it – they are often static, convoluted for the sake of telling a lame joke, or don’t offer much interesting interaction. And those lame jokes, they are getting lamer and more one-note. Here is a room housing anthropomorphic fruit (#13). Here is a stereotypical podcast guy doing an interview (#14). Here is the Carousel room from Logan’s Run (#15) – all right, this is OK. Here is a room with a clone of Rob Schneider trying to convince a young woman to pay him for sex (#16). Here is a room with a statue of Gonzo, of Sesame Street fame (#17). “Inspecting Gonzo's nose reveals a tiny catch underneath, at the base. Manipulating it opens a compartment located in his crotch. Inside is a battered trumpet. Playing Gonzo's trumpet summons a Buddhist monk (appearing in 1d4 rounds) who walks into the room and sets himself on fire, providing enough light and warmth for several minutes before it goes out and what's left of the monk is carried away like sand in the wind.” There was an opportunity with the Black Pyramid to present some kind of otherworldly, metal-inspired, high-energy dungeon. If you’ve got a black pyramid in your game, you kinda owe something to your readers. Well, Cha’alt’s Black Pyramid is not otherworldly; it sells out all its potential at one tired joke a pop. It is all so tiresome.

Here is another one for free

Zothferno

Your dungeon is offensive!
As the post may suggest, Cha’alt is not an easy thing to review. It is a giant collection of the good and the bad, mixed in with the happy medium of “questionable”, and it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. At its best, it is high-energy gaming with a lot of personality, and a very specific flavour (space/Cthulhu sleaze). It would be a mistake to write it off on the basis of this content – like it or not, this is what it intends to do, and what it intends to be. Those who call it skeevy or sexist are only doing the author a favour, since this is what he wanted to do. To cite the late, great József Torgyán, head of Hungary’s Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party, “A lawyer with litigation, and a fine lady with a hard instrument, cannot be threatened.” But does Cha’alt succeed on its own terms?

As far as I am concerned, one of the supplement’s main draws is something that some may identify as a flaw – it is not a thoroughly polished product, but something that shows its origins as a bundle of the author’s home campaign notes. It preserves the enthusiasm, and does not reduce the material to a dry treatise. It invites questions and engagement. There is a definite sense of a dog-eared folder of faded printouts, scratch paper, and session notes behind the book. It is charming, and ironically, more conductive to actual use than many books that look more smooth, but are not presented with table use in mind. It is as accessible as a slightly cleaned up collection of GM notes, and a fun glimpse into a madman’s mind.

There is also something to be said about the modules’ ambitions. They are deeply flawed in multiple ways (as detailed above), but they are not gated by level and do not pull punches. You can easily meet enemies who are way more powerful than you are. You can also beat them up and take their high-tier loot or obtain powers beyond your meagre abilities. You can find yourself bargaining with major demons, inadvertently unleashing planetary devastation, or pull off major campaign-altering victories. Some of this is lolrandom stuff that depends too much on die rolls or (un)lucky encounters instead of player skill or meaningful choices that lead to logical consequences, but it is there nevertheless, and it can be glorious even in this flawed form. It is writ on a large scale, and allows the players to win big or lose big.

Third, it shows variety and imagination on the encounter level. Things on Cha’alt are unpredictable (to say the least), but they are always colourful, and feature fun interactivity – NPCs and plotlines sketched up willy-nilly with a few broad strokes, there are knobs to mess with (some of them blow up half the world, but that’s OK), and a lot of the material is hand-crafted, specific – although the magical treasure is also too plentiful; you can barely take a few steps without finding a javelin +1 or a freeze-ray. Many of the pop cultural references are lazy, but at least many of them make for a compelling set-piece.

Here is the problem, though. Cha’alt is cursed by a curious sort of laziness that’s apparent even if you consider this is a 200+ page hardback crammed with gameable content. It falls apart on the levels above the encounters, and has little discernible structure to it. Things are sometimes connected a little (albeit haphazardly), but mostly, it is just throwing things at a canvas to see if it sticks. Is there a pattern behind the random ideas, or is it just you? It is probably just you. The trick works in the comparatively small and tightly designed starter dungeon, but it increasingly becomes apparent Mr. Satanic is bluffing. The lack of structure and the utter scattershot randomness of the material makes it hard to apply player skill to the modules, to treat them as challenging, complex problems or even real places. This is where the diorama/animatronic monster issue comes back to take its revenge. The environment cannot be known and mastered because there is no environment, only an illusion of one. The amount of interaction obscures this problem, but never fully resolves it.

Your Dungeon is a Cancerous
Growth of Intertextuality and
Postmodernism. REPENT!
And it also suffers due to the sheer excess of pop culture citations. Any conceivable part of cult/geek media is digested and reconstructed in Cha’alt to form the majority of its encounters. While surely one of the greatest collections of genre and pop culture references, Cha’alt does little to integrate its disparate influences into a greater whole, or at least give them its own spin. The approach it takes is disappointingly literal, and often falls flat. When Anomalous Subsurface Environment draws from He-Man, it adapts the material to its setting, the Land of a Thousand Towers, and the result is always a great fit which transforms the spoofed material just enough to stay recognisable, yet add a new angle or a clever gameplay twist. Say, “Monsator, Lord of the Stalks” is obviously an homage to Evil Megacorporation Monsanto, but he is also a fully developed, compelling villain of a wizard who is interesting beyond the quirky reference. Monsator is also one idea among many, most of them original.

When Cha’alt does something similar, it mostly just plops down its direct references randomly, and tries to skirt by on the strength of star recognition. Sure, Mr. Satanic betrays an encyclopaedic knowledge of late 20th century cult stuff and esoterica, but a Videodrome reference next to a Logan’s Run reference next to a tiki bar next to a movie theatre showing Escape From New York does not start living together without some effort to make a coherent whole out of them. The city of “A’agrybah” is plainly Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin, “just on Cha’alt” with some surface details like a spaceport and a human sacrifice tradition. Sure, there is supposed to be chaos and wild leaps of imagination, but that is just part of the work. Here, the other part is very often missing, and it is all just a post-modern mish-mash of citations upon citations. Is this because the author knows no better? Far from the truth! When he makes an effort to tie things together, as with the setting background, he succeeds fairly well. It just doesn’t happen often enough, or I guess well enough to bring out the sort of transformative quality which makes for a truly great gonzo setting.

Ultimately, these two central flaws are what makes Cha’alt only “good enough” and not actually “good” or “great” – they are omnipresent through the book, and cannot be easily fixed. There is something really good in the setting, and with better structure, the basic concept could excel. Where Cha’alt is good – the starter dungeon, many of the individual encounters, the no-nonsense campaign-friendly presentation – it is deservedly good. As it is, though, it is a deeply flawed book, although never without charm, or generously endowed space doxies, bless ‘em.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. It has apparently been very thoroughly tested, although often in a fairly peculiar manner, as text chat-based random pickup games over several of Mr. Satanis’ lunch breaks.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday, 18 August 2022

[REVIEW] Colour of the Void

Colour of the Void
Colour of the Void (2022)

by Gizmo_the_Bugbear

Self-Published

“for use with any level adventurer because they’re all doomed anyway”

It is not fair. Mörk Borg modules are not noted for their high quality. Most barely rise above the level of crummy, and being “style over substance” is the least of their problems. I do not generally review them. Is it fair then to drag a random specimen into the limelight and savage it? No. I suppose not. But then random encounters are not fair. I bought Colour of the Void because it looked a cut above the norm – 24 pages seemed more substantial than usual, and something about the front cover looked promising. In fact, it is a lot like all the other Mörk Borg modules I have seen, with the same problems, so a general case can be made.

RUN

Let us start with the layout. Following the convention established in the rulebook, the module is a riot of colour splashes, arbitrary font selection, and scratchy artwork (some homemade, some publicly sourced). Yes, this is part of the design style. No, it does not make for good reading or reference, it is a massive waste of printer ink, and it is a way to skimp on the actual content while inflating the page count. Colour of the Void is not as bad here as other Mörk Borg offerings, but it is pretty bad all right. Some of it is meant to convey horror with its disintegrating texts, but, let’s be honest, this has been done a myriad times, it is a waste of space, and it does not in fact make the adventure better.

Where are your loops
now, MORTAL?!
The adventure itself follows a fairly standard structure in modern module design. The kidnapping of a village girl leads to a cave, which in turn leads to a larger tomb dungeon holding the body of a lost king and the girl, then stuff happens and there is a big final battle – scene-based rollercoaster design hammered into the location-based hole. If only there was a design philosophy that could do good location-based adventures… we might call it a design school, a fairly old one at that, but… nope. There are no decision points of note. It is as linear as it can get, and things are either decided for you, they don’t matter, or they offer a false dilemma (e.g. you could just not go on the mission; or you could go either way in a cavern, but only one of these paths leads forward). This is not a good recipe for an interactive game; it is the telling of a clichéd and tired story.

On the individual encounter level, things generally happen to the players. In a dark tunnel, “[t]he PC’s all lost one possession at random whilst stumbling through the tunnel [sic].” There are no stakes here. It is made clear that it happens whether the party has torches or not. Elsewhere, things happen based on die rolls – you can literally slip and die, as “The walls are thick with shards of sheer rock, vengeful in their nature.”, and that requires a DR12 agility check to avoiding 1d4 damage, ignoring armour. Player input is not really considered, or required in any of the encounters – they are passive observers who sometimes roll dice in combat or to see if they are harmed by a specific trap or effect.

This, my darling, is
the Zybourne Clock
There are occasional good bits. In the beginning, a random chart for the villagers giving you something to help with the mission – mostly useless things like “1d4 hours of water”, “bread”, or “a concerned handshake and thanks”. This is good colour, showing how badly outclassed these losers are. Sometimes, it is grimdark absurdity, which kind of fits Mörk Borg’s black metal sources. “Fingernails are embedded in the wall and b l o o d  d r i p s out of the room.” Shadowy corridors stretch on forever, and when you turn, you find you have not moved (or you are suddenly elsewhere). There is a pretty cool treasure room trap, where every single piece of loot taken out of the place suddenly becomes super-heavy. Not that you would be stupid enough to believe there are real treasure rooms in a game like Mörk Borg. And not that it is stated in the text that you cannot put down those pieces of treasure to just shrug and continue. This is what good technical writing would do, but we have long ago abandoned those pretences. But the core idea, there is something there.

What else? There is of course a boss battle set up with a cutscene, and followed by a fight sequence (the undead king has an “obliteration beam” that sounds rather neat, although it basically only does 1d6+2 points. There is a neat illustration, and another cutscene: “Upon his demise, the King’s atoms are absorbed into the ether forever. His tomb begins to collapse. The void stone is weakened and vulnerable.” Of course, the rollercoaster ride doesn’t end here - ghouls are awakened, you escape the collapsing tomb, but the town is attacked by an UNDEAD VOID PLAGUED ARMY (I can’t reproduce the blood-dripping font on this blog, sorry), led by the girl they wanted to save. Here, there is a decent doom clock mechanic, where every action to rally the townsfolk, ask for more information, and so on, advances the clock as the horde of undead draws closer, and you can conduct your second boss battle.

Artpink
And that is Mörk Borg’s module design problem. This coffee table book, lauded for its particular aesthetic and awarded every medal on Earth (perhaps almost as many as that apex of our age, Thirsty Sword Lesbians), somehow continues to encourage the production of these absolute duds, and this can no longer be handwaved away. There is certainly abundant chaff in the general old-school scene, but there is also abundant wheat – where are the great Mörk Borg offerings? Where is the bedrock of those which are at least halfway competent? What is there beyond the superficial draw of the yellow-black covers? There is nothing there because there is no strong design ethic behind Mörk Borg, and no craft in its GM guidance. Repeated attempts do not produce excellence, just more chaff. I bet they don't even keep strict time records. Divorced from the tried (although surely not universal) principles of old-school gaming, the game is an untethered edifice of straw, gone with the first strong wind. Colour of the Void is just a sad manifestation of its fundamental weakness.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****

Friday, 5 August 2022

[REVIEW] Into the Great Rift

Into the Great Rift
[BEYONDE] Into the Great Rift (2022)

by Joseph Bloch

Published by BRW Games

Levels 5-7

Into the Great Rift is a compact, 18-page wilderness and dungeon adventure on the vanilla/utilitarian end of the scale, designed for AD&D (this of course means “Adventures Dark and Deep”, also by BRW Games), and presenting the first part of what promises to be an entire module series set in the Great Rift. This enormous, Grand Canyon-style depression is an untamed land of dust, shifting rubble and towering mesas, populated by monsters and bandit gangs, and overlooked by a silver mining town called Cleftwall – one imagines a little bit of Wild West in the middle of the setting. You could easily place the Great Rift in your own campaign world; and if that world were the World of Greyhawk, the map of the rift would neatly conform to the shape and size of the Rift Canyon in the Bandit Kingdoms, Cleftwall slotting into the place of Rift Crag. What an interesting coincidence!

The adventure site is more “place to visit” than “plot to follow”, always a refreshing thing. Quakes have opened up previously hidden cave entrances in the Rift, with promises of riches and mystery. Following a rumours chart with compelling entries and a very brief description of Cleftwall, the module is divided into two sections. The wilderness of the Great Rift is represented by a decent random encounter chart from prospectors and bandits to leucrota trying to lure in the foolhardy (some from the MM2, like margoyles and galeb-duhr), and a brief encounter key to 21 wilderness sites. This is a bit on the dry side, and more overview than detailed look – entries are often to the tune of “There are a number of worked-out mines at the base of the tor that are now home to various monsters”, or “The ruins of an ancient Phlen city built into the very walls of the canyon”, where something more specific and interesting could have been added. It is a promising base for your own imagination, but obviously requires some assembly – and in this case, as the Wilderlands shows us, a bit more specificity is what can set the imagination on fire.

The module’s main attraction lies in the New Caverns. The earthquake-opened cave system is a gridlike, three-level network of long corridors and generally small halls; not very impressive on a first look, but nicely spiced up with multiple entrances, level connections, and the odd multi-level cavern. It is an initially simple structure with more complexity than meets the eye. There is scarcely any empty space, however, which is a bit of a shame. The inhabitants consist of two intelligent factions; a derro outpost maintaining a slave mine and the depot for a flying ship (a nice touch of weirdness in what is a fairly standard “monster hotel” setup), and a gnoll tribe who have moved in to claim part of the tunnels as their own. Additionally, there are a few monsters drifting up from the underworld to fill up the space, including a spider lair, and a pair of ogre magi slavers intending to recapture “stolen” property from the derro.

This 49-room dungeon is kind of a mixed bag. It is at its worst when entries simply describe terrain instead of interaction potential. “The passage curves away lightly to the right, making it impossible to see into the cave more than 20 feet or so from the outside” this is mostly evident from the map. There are occasions of background colour which will never be discovered by the players, and deliberately so. The derro leader (savant) “wears a signet ring with the symbol of the Red College, but no one outside the Derro would know the significance; it otherwise appears as an ordinary ruby ring worth 1,000 g.p.” Everything about this ring, its significance, or the Red College will be hidden from the players’ prying eyes, so the detail might as well be omitted.

The humanoid lairs are better – they are guarded appropriately, there are multiple access points (although almost all are narrow corridors), and the opponents have access to special forces with interesting capabilities, like the derros’ enslaved hill giant, or the gnoll chief’s hunting hyenadons. This is fairly standard AD&D fare, but well executed. I can’t help but think the best parts are the oddities, especially in the further, more out of the way corners of the caverns – a colony of cave-dwelling land coral, a mysterious iron head who will speak enigmas, or a cavern of living crystals. These underworld mysteries are outstanding, and we can only hope there will be more of them in further parts of this series.

Into the Great Rift is a decent modular scenario. Straight, to the point, modular – a bit lacking in the oomph that makes something truly great, but it squeezes a lot of stuff into 18 pages (the entire dungeon takes only six), and much of that stuff is decent. If you are looking for utilitarian campaign materials, or something to expand on, this is nice. You could even place The Bone Place of Drelb into the Great Rift. Why not?

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday, 30 June 2022

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #10 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Guests of the Beggar King
I am pleased to announce the publication of the tenth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 52-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Cameron Hawkey, and illustrations by Vincentas Saladis, Graphite Prime, and Sean Stone.

Whew! This is the 10th anniversary issue, and it is still hard to believe this project has gotten this far – you gain a newfound appreciation for Lee Gold and people like her, who have been at it since the dawn of time. How do they do it? In any case, two pages of this issue are dedicated to tooting my horn with a catalogue of the zine’s articles (you can download this below).

From the declining empire of Kassadia, the zine presents The Temple of Polyphema, a dungeon adventure for levels 2–4. The shrine of the cyclopean goddess has been defiled by a band of marauding gnolls, while her followers, the pitiful goat-heads, are in deep trouble due to an old curse, and the gnolls’ ravenous appetite. This adventure, with 25 keyed areas, was originally written for an adventure collection that never happened (and the same one which had produced From Beneath the Glacier), and is presented here for your enjoyment.

In the Twelve Kingdoms, we enter the tiny kingdom of Caer Iselond, ruled by Thrisp Urlum, the Beggar King. Fallen on hard times and past his prime, the king nevertheless keeps a large court with a merry knightly order recruited from rogues and never-do-wells… Now, external dangers and intrigue within his halls cast a shadow on Caer Iselond... and only the Guests of the Beggar King can set things right! This article describes the castle, its people, and the mysterious passages that lie sealed beneath the bustling halls (24 keyed areas).

Near Caer Iselond lies the druid-haunted Vexwood, where these followers of nature have been known to burn sacrificial victims in an enormous wicker raven. Even here, one recluse stands out with his menacing eccentricity – and his domain is the Gorge of the Unmortal Hermit! 13 keyed areas are described in this wilderness scenario. Can the Hermit be defeated if he is truly unmortal? And what about the crystal eyes he is reputedly collecting? Only one way to find out (levels 2–5).

From the City of Vultures, two organisations are described with their peculiarities, leadership, goals, and noted locations. Oom the Many is the name of a great sorcerer who is legion – and death does not seem to have touched him. What lies beyond the grey-robed visage, and what is to be found in the House of Oom (14 keyed areas, level-independent)?

Unlike the secretive Oom, all know the name of Jeng, and most shudder when it is spoken: the harsh and secretive religion rules over the City of Vultures with its extensive spy network and army of fanatical nomads. Yet Jeng’s clergy hides many secrets, and both treasures and valuable knowledge are to be found in… The Temple of Jeng! (38 keyed areas, this one if for levels 5–9, and can be nasty even that way). This issue’s fold-out map displays the temple, Oom’s house, and more sites with The Tomb of Ali Shulwar (Echoes #07). Is everything connected? It seems so.

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

The Illustrious Index of Incline - Catalogue of Zine Articles (PDF)

Beneath the Temple of Jeng


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

Cashmoon
Crashmoon (2022)

by David Kentaro Jackson

Published by Elk and Unicorn

Low-level

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

C  R      A                S                    H 

M                              

                             O

                                                    O

                                                            N


(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

Low-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.

* * *

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!"