Thursday 26 May 2022

[REVIEW] The Bone Place of Dreib

Muh Production Values
The Bone Place of Dreib (2022)

by Rob Alexander

Published by Medium Quality Products

Levels 3-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 18 May 2022

[REVIEW] Crashmoon

Crashmoon (2022)

by David Kentaro Jackson

Published by Elk and Unicorn


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

C  R      A                S                    H 





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

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

Perhaps the cyan really needs a consent form

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * / *****