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: **** / *****