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