Thursday 17 November 2022

[MODULE] The Forest of Gornate (NOW AVAILABLE!)

The Forest of Gornate
I am pleased to announce the publication of
The Forest of Gornate. With cover and interior art by Denis McCarthy, and illustrations by Stefan Poag and Jerry Boucher, this is a 32-page module for characters level 3rd to 5th, describing an expansive forest in the pointcrawl format, as well as the mini-dungeons therein. Located next to the city of Mur (described In the Shadow of the City-God, a module that connects to, but is not essential for enjoying this one), the Forest of Gornate is a place of fallen civilisations, strange denizens, and natural wonders. Seek the treasures of a mysterious villa, the secrets of a reclusive bandit leader, win the patronage of the ancient and sinister Guild of Judges, or strike out on your own to seek fame and fortune in the forests, and the lands beyond. This is a scenario with 42+39 keyed areas, adventure hooks, rumours, and random encounters offering numerous possibilities for open-ended exploration and player-driven adventure inspired by Scorpion Swamp, the Fighting Fantasy classic.

“South of the dark walls of Mur, an overgrown forest lies between two mountain ranges. Its namesake, the immortal beast Gornate, noted for his thirty-six eyes and a peculiar taste for collecting human spinal columns, has made no sign of his presence in many years. Even so, the woodlands hide numerous dangers. Robber bands, man-eating beasts, abandoned manor houses and mysterious ruins dot a land divided by rivers and mountain ridges. The people of the city rarely venture into the forest, but recently, three notabilities have expressed an interest in sponsoring a hazardous, but lucrative expedition. While serving three masters may be too much for a single adventure, a resourceful and lucky company could return rich from… the Forest of Gornate!

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.

Gornate is watching!

Sunday 6 November 2022

[BEYONDE] A Few Thoughts on Why the Twitter Deal is Significant

That's terror.
[This is obviously not gaming related.]

With one of the larger swamps drained and the political commissars dismissed, the grift ecosystem will become more competitive and overcrowded, while gaps in the enforcement system emerge. If more companies and institutions did something similar, it would overwhelm and implode the control system. Since it could not feed its army of woke enforcers, it would not not be able to successfully harness its own distributed network as an effective weapon against single, isolated targets. In the last decade, the managerial elites have, in effect, successfully centralised the distributed systems of the Internet, and gained dictatorial power over the individual, and even the individual organisation. Whether this is a coordinated effort by the managerial elites or an end result of impersonal social forces (or more likely, the former exploiting and leveraging the latter – large-scale social "hacking"), this is where we have been heading.

An uncontrolled Twitter alone does not win the war for a free Internet, but it allows people to actually fight battles, which they currently can't without swift and brutal counter-action. There is a good reason platform ownership is so important to the managerial class. A reformed, reasonably open Twitter would be a constant hole in their control scheme, from which further cracks could spread outwards, and which would allow their opponents to speak up and organise.

The totalitarian Chinese-style information management model they desire cannot exist in a free society, because then their leverage, the ability to snuff you out for non-compliance is gone. Individuals could just walk away from them or say "nah" to their unhinged demands. Imagine campus radicals in an environment that is even halfway like the 1990s. It just would not work, because their views are weird and repugnant to normie. It would be hilarious if they couldn’t just terminate you for even laughing at them. If Twitter is indeed opened up, other companies may also get the idea that the whole ESG/Blackrock/woke control model is harmful to their interests (a lot of them obviously think so privately, if only because it restricts their own power). It is not the beginning of the end, but at least it is in the end of the beginning.

Yes, JC. In fact, I do.
This is why the Twitter deal is so significant, and why it will be good even if Based Freeze Peach Man is not going to deliver on every hope people have pinned on him. (It is itself an abnormality that so much hinges on the whims of one super-rich guy, but there you have it.) At least he gave us a battleground and a fighting chance.

If you read this in the Deus Ex Liberty Island Guy voice, you are not off the mark. We all live in the world of Deus Ex now – but that is for another post.

[Note, as an exception to the normal way things are done on this blog, this post is not open to comments. You can notice the irony. In a free world, such decisions and disclaimers would not be, and perhaps once will not be necessary.]

Thursday 3 November 2022

[REVIEW] The Crypt of Terror

The Crypt of Terror
The Crypt of Terror (2022)

by Jeff Simpson with Kim Kuffner

Published by Buddyscott Entertainment Group

Levels 8-9

Since Swords & Sewercery, Buddyscott Entertainment has established itself as a publisher of short PDF adventures. These releases are simple, matter-of-fact booklets around 12 pages each, featuring stickman art, homemade maps, and a surprising amount of good content. This post is a review of the most recent one, but the others are mostly similar in scope, style and quality.


Wednesday 26 October 2022

[BLOG] OSR Module O5: 2e is Still Not Old-School

“The point is the culture that drove 2E. It wasn't a

Zeb Cook anomaly, he was just a prominent

individual steeped in the overall boring-as-hell

“hail m'lady” culture, overdosed on sage,

nag champa, and witchy bush.” – EOTB

“Why so mean?” , asks the man inviting the whole world into the big tent until the noise within swells to an unpleasant cacophony, rubbish accumulates, the venue gets thrashed, tentpoles are removed from their place by loud people who don’t believe tents need them, and the whole edifice collapses on the ugly spectacle. Many such cases. After the Artpunk Foe, let us now turn our attention to the sinister menace of second edition.

* * *

When something takes off and becomes successful, you will invariably get a lot of interest, and a lot of people who will want to get involved. Success is infectious. The people who got involved invite other people who are also interested, and they in turn also invite yet more people who are vaguely into the thing, maybe, but they are a lot more into being part of a big crowd. However, the defining boundaries of what made that specific thing so interesting in the first place also become blurry. Definitions are drawn up and debated, edge cases are tested, and you get a sort of fuzzy boundary between “this is the thing” and “this is not the thing”. It is helpful not to overdefine. If you try to make an airtight case, you will miss out on a lot of good fringe stuff that’s not exactly the thing, but it is actually very good. Purity policing is blind. It will not see Encounter Critical as an inspiring text of the old-school, even though EC preceded OSRIC, and inspired many of the ideas that define the modern old-school movement way more than a lot of second-rate TSR modules did.

You also get cognitive blind spots where your definition shall lead you astray. For example, parts of the old-school crowd are so wedded to B/X purism and its procedure-based gameplay (“the gameplay loop”) that that they end up ignoring AD&D, and with it the actual defining tradition of the classical era; as well as neglecting OD&D, the wild primordial soup of runaway creativity that gave us the strange thought experiments that are now worth examining and reconstructing. In comparison, Moldvay/Cook is good but you will eventually run into its limitations if you don’t use AD&D’s case law to interpret it; and BECMI is a bland game that hacks away the rough edges so successfully that nothing interesting is left. BECMI is the SKUB of D&D. And then there is 2e.

In recent years, you can see a common approach to define “OSR” by viewing it as a single continuum which was broken when Wizards of the Coast overhauled the D&D system, and released the 3e books. As long as you are on the “TSR” side of the divide, you are OSR. There are persuasive arguments which support this position, at least on the surface level. There is mechanical compatibility. People can get tribal over OSE vs. B/X vs. S&W vs. LL (they are the same darn thing), but once you take a deep breath, you can convert materials on the fly among these systems with minimal effort. Even in a worst case scenario, the gaps will never be insurmountable. Game concepts are recognisable across the board. The vocabulary is common. There is personal continuity through the TSR years (although the endpoints have barely any connection at all – David Sutherland, Skip Williams and Jim Ward were the main people who were there from the beginning to the end). There is also a web of references that form the D&D “lore” (this is a magical Renfaire glitter pony of a term I am using only to express my utter disdain for it), exemplified by things like the drow, beholders, the planar system, or the hand of Vecna.

The Worst Encounter Ever
However, this is precisely the point where we lose the clarity of our vision, and with it the ability to distinguish ourselves and argue for the things we actually hold dear. Even though there are a myriad links between old-school D&D and 2nd edition, these links exist to be severed, and the test of the TRV OSR Taliban is a sure hand and keen eye while bringing down the blade. Justly so! Old-school gaming came not to praise 2e but to bury it; it quite clearly got established by guys who hated 2e’s guts as much or even more than they did 3e’s. More than this antipathy, old-school gaming is a deliberate rejection of the 2e legacy, a style and school of thought which set itself up as its polar opposite in aesthetics, focus, design principles, and GMing style. Its advocates saw 2e as a corrupted, bland, corporate husk of the original D&D spirit, and thought it was like a swig of clear spring water when they could finally get back to what they saw as the buried genius of those creative origins. This is why it is named old-school after all: from the vantage point of 2022, all TSR D&D might seem old, but for those in the early and mid-2000s, the 2e era was still kind of a fresh wound, and in no way was it considered worth preserving.

Now this probably does sound a bit extreme. “The OSR Taliban” was not a term of endearment. Some of the debates surrounding the emergence of old-school gaming were ugly, bitter, and acrimonious. But clarity is often like that. You don’t challenge common wisdom without creative conflict. You can’t play “right” without also identifying “wrong”. In the end, old-school gaming has thrived on this wedge issue. It shone light on a neglected approach to play, it established its distinctive identity, and gained bountiful creative energies in the process. These energies still drive it, although much of the momentum has naturally become exhausted over time, or become unfocused.

Let us now make a brief attempt to explain where the points of disagreement lie. There are a lot of details which are incidental, or which have little significance on their own, but work their way through small, subtle shifts that add up. Instead, let us try to look into the heart of the thing: two visions of (A)D&D which look very close from a distance, but are very far apart on a more careful look. These are not detailed comparisons; rather, they try to capture the respective essence of the two, and why these are not interchangeable.

* * *

For all their continuity and rough compatibility, AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition are far enough from each other to be different games. They rest on different literary traditions, their rules serve different purposes, they place emphasis on different sorts of adventures, and they play fairly differently. You can easily see this by their online communities, which generally do not mix or even communicate much.

1st edition AD&D is a single man's vision about a broad, campaign-level implementation of D&D. Its stylistic quirks and idiosyncrasies make it a personal work, even if he did, in fact, get help from a tight, handpicked design team who had helped him refine his ideas. Gary Gygax had peculiar tastes in fantasy, even in his generation: he had little interest in Tolkien and other sorts of epic fantasy, and instead liked violent sword & sorcery pulps and books on historical warfare. His main sources of inspiration were Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, and Fritz Leiber, although he had even more eclectic tastes, and an uncanny ability to adapt ideas into the game, from 50s SF blob monsters and flying saucers to Japanese plastic toys.

Wenches n' Renfaire Dorks
The resulting game assumes a grittier sort of world with tough, often shady heroes, corrupt civilisation, and rugged frontiers where laws are stern and might makes right; underground empires inhabited by ancient and malevolent civilisations, and supernatural powers – demon lords, devil princes, gods and goddesses – playing chess with their mortal pawns (in a very Ffahrd & Mouser way!) There is a lot of strangeness around the edges, too. The rules integrate these assumptions into their fabric, from character types with dubious morality (assassins, a focused illusionist class), or an ethical code focused on the swift dispensation of frontier justice (giant-killing rangers, monks, paladins). The game's most important rule declares that advancement is mostly found in loot and plunder, gained by hook or crook. Characters then have to train to advance in levels, seeking out various masters, or competing in class-centric hierarchies (you will only become Top Druid if you first defeat one of the previous top Druids). There are lots of quirks and edge cases. Some of this is not “codified law” D&D but “case law” D&D where commentaries and edge cases are used to help you understand the finer design, not to be memorised and employed in all their detail (that way lies ADDICT).

The mechanics are often baroque in their totality, but they can be scaled well (this feature is one that is shared by 2nd edition). The game comes with a badly edited and rambling but supremely useful Dungeon Masters Guide which offers solid and wise advice on constructing adventures, and setting up a complex, interconnected campaign that's more than the sum of its parts. In its first years, it was also served by a very solid collection of adventures, which were very thoroughly playtested, and still serve as the most consistently good collection of scenarios for any RPG (early Warhammer Fantasy and CoC come close in their own niches). These modules are slightly different from the campaign-oriented vision of the core books: they are good, but they are often convention scenarios with standalone premises and higher deadliness for competitive scoring.

A Paladin in Art Hell

The ideal of the 1st edition campaign is not as tightly structured as some interpretations of B/X, but it does have an implied arc. From frontier localities threatened by dark forces, characters grow in stature to embark on lengthier and more complex adventures, until they can establish domains, embark on extraplanar journeys, or descend into the depths of the earth. There are adventure hooks and modules along the way, but the main drive comes from the players, and the endeavours they choose to undertake. This picture is perhaps too optimistic (there was always plenty of bad practice around), but this is the campaign format advocated by the rulebooks. It is the main way the game was meant to be played, even if many people didn’t. If you follow the instructions on the tin, you will get a good game.

* * *

2nd edition AD&D is a different beast, an attempt to create a new, accessible set of rulebooks in place of a game that became overburdened with unwieldy and dubious optional rules and character options. It was created by a committee, although, to its credit, a committee of experienced game designers who were all old AD&D hands. 2nd edition plays safe while trying to reconcile mutually contradictory demands: to consolidate a decade's worth of new materials and popular house rules; to deflect parental and religious criticism from the game and establish it as a family-friendly brand; and to serve as a springboard for several new novel and product lines. It is the kind of compromise that people can accept, but generates little enthusiasm.

2nd edition AD&D's literary roots lie in heroic high fantasy, the popular trilogies, quadrilogies, pentalogies, etc. of the 1970s and 1980s, without the seedier pulps. Best-selling AD&D-branded novels set in Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms were as much a part of this background as things like The Belgariad, Shannara, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and so on. This sort of fantasy tends to draw clearer lines between light and darkness, focuses on heroic destinies, doing the good thing, heroic protagonists and comic relief side characters, typically united against some gathering dark force through a long quest that integrates a bunch of adventures. Its implied world is a fundamentally calm, green kingdom of RenFaire aesthetics, and fundamentally good, or at most mischiveous people, beset by the forces of Evil. This is the baseline mode of 2nd edition, with significant later departures, but dominant throughout the edition cycle. The rulebooks also make references to historical or mythical heroic figures from Robin Hood to Charlemagne, but this line doesn’t really go anywhere, and the authors don’t do anything interesting with it.

2nd edition is a "cleaned up" edition, on three levels. First, it whitewashes the moral ambiguity, earnest violence, and weirdness of the earlier game, to focus on more straightforwardly heroic character types. It is squeakier, cleaner, and yes, a little milquetoast. Assassins and half-orcs are right out in the core books (yes, they are brought back in those crappy expansion books that came later, and which only Complete Weenies used). It also reduces the specificity of the game rules: the Illusionist and Druid classes, which had had their distinct rules and spell lists, are folded into the general Wizard/Cleric character type, where they no longer stand out. The Ranger and Bard also lose a lot of their flavour. This is not to the game's benefit. The third aspect of cleanup, on the other hand, is beneficial: 2nd edition is easier to grok, has more coherent mechanics, a rudimentary but functional skill system, and a combat system that moves from attack tables to THAC0, a badly explained but ultimately quite easy formula. Crucially, though, the Main Rule is muddled: the bulk of experience is now awarded for “story awards” (or whatever they are called), with some for monsters (this has continuity with 1st edition) and some for class-specific stuff. Much less laser-like precision.

A M'lady
2nd edition has cleaner rules, but, at the same time, somewhat less interesting ones. The weakest part of the core game, however, is the Dungeon Master's Guide (now with an apostrophe). This book, simply put, does not teach the beginning Dungeon Master anything particularly useful. You don't really get concrete advice about developing your adventures, campaign worlds, or even much about running the game. The first edition's massive and packed appendices are not present, nor is its storehouse of good advice. At the table, the DMG's role was mostly as a magic item reference. It is not a good guidebook to run the game, develop adventures, or manage grand campaigns, and its advice is unhelpful for the beginner. (I am speaking from painful experience here: I learned more about adventure/setting design from Fighting Fantasy and Titan than the DMG.)

Bad Stuff
This is really quite unfortunate, because while the DMG is lacking, the adventures for the general AD&D product line – the ones you would presumably buy after getting into the game – are not very good either, so they do not establish a solid practical example. At this time, TSR did not do much, if any in-house testing, and outsourced much of its adventure design to wannabe novelists (fruity people angling for their TSR novel deal who created linear, story-heavy junk without substantial player agency), the RPGA's organised play sections (mainly rules lawyers and turboautists who could rattle off Official TSR Rulings with a bookkeeper’s consummate skill, but tended to lack even basic creativity and imagination), and Dungeon Magazine (fan content, the best of the lot but still mediocre). Accordingly, it doesn't have much of a module legacy. Who plays classic 2nd edition adventures anymore? What are these classics even? Hell if I know.

And that is the main difference: the playing culture surrounding 2nd edition is not simply a diluted version of 1st edition’s, but a hotbed of bad practice which will harm your games. Massively overwritten encounters, dungeons reduced to flat and boring hack and slash and “cabinet contents” design, blatant railroading, contrived attempts at forcing AD&D into game styles it can’t support well, combined with an unhealthy proliferation of character snowflakery: it is all there. You can run good games with the 2nd edition rules (we did), but you cannot become deeply immersed in 2nd edition fandom without coming away with bad playing or GMing habits (we did).

To its credit, 2nd edition, while it suffered from a horrible bloat of barely (if at all) playtested of filler supplements in its day, does have two strands of creative legacy that are worth noting. First is a sequence of campaign worlds, which, while not free from the sins of the age (bloat, sanitisation), are obviously labours of love in a way the core game really wasn't. People who remember the likes of Al-Quadim, Ravenloft, or (the best of them all) Dark Sun remember 2nd edition much more fondly than those who wanted to play “just AD&D, thanks”. The support material sucked just as much, but some of those worlds are pretty gud. (Planescape is not even AD&D, but some weirdo thing for weirdos. The less we speak about it the better.) Second, the second edition era produced a whole bunch of really good AD&D-based computer games. This success story begun with 1st edition-based games (the Gold Box series), but continued well into the 1990s, and included a whole lotta classics that still stand up today. Not all of them were great (Dungeon Hack and that one stronghold building game were godawful, and Baldur's Gate 1 is a colossal MEH), but the likes of Eye of the Beholder and Shattered Lands have stood the test of time very well.

The Quintessential 2e Experience

So that's the REALLY TL;DR take. In the end, it would be quite easy to run a good game with the 2nd edition rules (I have been in many), but if you have access to 1st edition, it just makes more sense to go with that one, and maybe adapt THAC0 and a handful of rules that you like.

Sure, call 2e “OSR”, what do I care. But it is not, and will never be part of actual old-school D&D. It is therefore * * O F F I C I A L L Y * * cast out into the outer darkness; and in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 


Dr. Melan, Ordo Praedicatorum & Congr. Romanae & Universalis Inquisitionis.

What the hell?!

Postscript: The New 2e and What to Do About It

Is there a purpose to this “guy between thirty and death rants about old stuff” post other than grouching and historical reminiscence? Perhaps. Actually, yes there is. There very much is. It looks like 2e is coming back, and it is now even run by another fat, woke upper-class lady like the last time.

It increasingly looks like D&D One will be shaped by very similar driving forces to 2nd edition: to consolidate a decade's worth of new materials and popular house rules; to deflect increasingly shrill political criticism from the game and establish it as a neutered corporate brand for safe and easy consoomption; and to serve as a springboard for broader monetisation as a “geek culture” property. You might easily think “surely, this will be as bad as 2nd edition”, and you would be wrong. By my inquisitorial authority, I hereby predict that it will be worse than 2nd edition in every aspect. perhaps three times as bad?

In our time, the real enemy is not so much Artpunk, which has spun off old-school gaming and really become something else. This statement should not be taken as automatic disparagement. What is called Artpunk can be done well, if done by talented and resourceful people. Even if it doesn’t create something good, at least it has a soul. However, nothing can fix the game equivalent of Corporate Memphis. Sixth edition, or what is called “One D&D”, will be a commercial juggernaut and a creative disaster. It will be the rebirth of that specific, 2e-style of corrupt blandness that outraged the OSR Taliban so much, and got them so annoyed they ended up getting off their behinds and actually doing something worthwhile.

Here is a threat that is also an opportunity. There is creative energy in butthurt, and setting up TRV old-school gaming as a bottom-up alternative to corporate D&D is a rare gift whose potential should not be neglected. This section of the hobby should of course be open to dissatisfied players who find their way here, but it should distinguish itself as a clear alternative. The best way to do so is by making a compelling argument for the old-school way, and cultivating excellence in game materials, sensible playing advice, and of course through lots of actual practice. Then, and only then, that which had once lived, and now slumbers with the occasional grunt and growl, shall live once more and rampage anew across the land.

Friday 14 October 2022

[REVIEW] Wyvern Songs

Wyvern Songs
Wyvern Songs (2022)

by Brad Kerr

Published by Swordlords Publishing

Lowish levels (1, 2-4, 3-5, 5-6)

Following in the footsteps of the surreal, deadly garden of Hideous Daylight and the aptly named (slightly cramped) Temple of 1000 Swords, this is an anthology of four mini-modules which can also be linked and placed in a loosely outlined mini-setting. The book – a very tidy, elegant publication in its hardcover edition – combines a whimsical imagination with strong accessibility. Many OSE modules don’t quite hit the mark, mainly due to their authors’ lack of experience or the adventures’ overly small scope, but Wyvern Songs uses the format to its fullest without getting hamstrung by its limitations. Here, it all works. 

The tone recalls things like Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Jeff Rients’ stuff, and psychedelic childrens’ cartoons (for some reason, Jamie and the Magic Torch comes to my mind), and this is very clearly telegraphed by the art. It is the polar opposite of Appendix N, featuring none of the doom and gloom that has characterised most of modern old-school gaming, nor the “mediaeval quasi-realism” of earlier eras. This is fullbright whimsy filled with quirky characters and highly fantastic, often anachronistic ideas, and leans on these themes more strongly than Hideous Daylight did. It feels modern, not old – a little twitterish and cutesy, just a little high on the sugar, but not disturbingly so. Of course, theme is not all. What is important is function: and these adventures deliver places and situations with a high interaction potential, where interesting choices may be made and interesting consequences may result. These are true funhouses where you can push your luck, come up with creative schemes, leverage NPCs for your gain, or mess with one of the many “levers” (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) to see what happens.

Of the scenarios, The Sinister Secret of Peacock Point (level 1) is a short, 25-area dungeon set in a thieves’ guild beneath an old lighthouse, overrun by the Skitterlord, a critter right out of a horror movie. This is the most conventional dungeon delve in the book, and a fitting setting to hone your dungeon-fu (appropriately enough, it also features in-game practice ranges used by the former inhabitants). The balance between the prowling horror and the sense of discovery drives the action and creates the main source of tension. There are loose ends and opportunities for expansion – what happens when you try to pawn off the stolen valuables? Or when some of the thieves who didn’t perish in their lair come back? It all segues into new adventures. **** seems right for this one.

Not depicted: Oompa-Loompas

Fabien’s Atelier (levels 2-4) is a puzzle-centric “wizard’s home” locale that was first mentioned in Hideous Daylight, and may be smoothly combined with it to create a more complex double feature. It is also the most anachronistic; the style of the floating dwelling is a lot more swanky 1960s lava lamp hangout/Jetsons flying saucer than, say, a grim basalt tower with gargoyles and stained glass windows. The central idea is puzzle-solving and exploration on a ticking clock, as the place is going haywire and shall crash into the ground below unless something is done. This also makes it a tougher challenge – with no time to retreat and recuperate, it will be difficult for weaker parties. The puzzles are fairly organic, although sometimes off the wall (the main solution to enter a specific room is to take a key-shaped door off its hinges and shrink it to fit a keycard slot; another requires catching a talking toucan with a key-shaped beak). Fortunately, there are workarounds, a sufficiently robust set of stuff to make mischief with (and come up with a truly original combination), and a few handy tips on nudging the characters forward if they are stalled. A ***, but a highish one.

The volume’s unquestionable highlight is The Singing Stones, a 23-location pointcrawl adventure set in an arid valley of musical rocks. Taken alone, this is close to five-star material. A central mystery is presented (the rescue of a lost prince who has gone wyvern-hunting, a task which requires solving two very significant challenges), but the real deal is found in the open-ended environment where truly complex adventures with side-plots and player-driven action can freely emerge without becoming an incoherent mess. The valley is populated with oddball characters, strange natural wonders, and has multiple things going on that may unfold and develop as the action proceeds. Most places have a surface idea and opportunities to go deeper if the characters care. Bullet points are being put to good use. The physical place as outlined is perhaps too large for the suggested six-mile hex (I would stretch it out to about four), but it is just the right size for a rich wilderness adventure. Add inventive random encounters and a rival adventuring party, and The Singing Stones is a definite winner, so we will call it a *****.

Lesbian gnome merchants!

The final adventure, The Dreaming Caldera, is a showdown with the followers of a newly emerging chaos god in a volcano lair where the god is being physically assembled by all sorts of chaotic creatures drawn here by their dreams. I honestly did not feel this one. It is not so much wildly imaginative Brad Kerr, and more Brad Kerr acting as a cover band of himself. The same kind of basic building blocks, just without the fireworks. There are still good features – a massive underground chicken farm in the middle of the dungeon with dire chickens; incompetent monsters being idiots while reconstructing their god; a rival and envious chaos god making the party an offer – but as a whole, it is somehow less free-flowing, and not as clearly outstanding as the anhology’s high points. This is a decent ***.

Wyvern Songs’ writing is smooth, effective stuff. It uses bolding and bullet points effectively (and, curiously, in a different way in each individual mini-module), and gets its point across without becoming too dry or too sparse. There are numerous quality of life features in the book – mini-maps on almost every spread (this does take up slightly more real state than ideal), short ideas on how to handle the consequences of likely PC actions, or how to expand and build on the adventures once things are wrapped up. There are even small touches like colour-coding the four adventures (neatly separating them for easier referencing), and listing their potential play times with an eye for one-shot suitability. Some of the monster stats refer back to the OSE books and are not listed in the publiction. This is a puzzling omission; not because you can’t just look them up, but for what happens when you have to manage multiple monster types working in concert or against each other. A few extra pages wouldn’t have hurt, and since the anthology packs a lot of material between its covers, it would have still been a modest-sized volume.

Charms U
The elegant presentation and the scope of the modules in Wyvern Songs would make them a good choice for novice gamemasters and players. No system mastery required, but creativity is rewarded and the experience is not bowdlerised – there are plenty of opportunities to die in entertaining and instructive ways, and there are other interesting failure conditions. Most of all, this is an adventure where you can try interesting things that lead to interesting consequences, and in various ways, they are all open-ended. There are certain limitations due to the scope of the individual adventures (again, The Singing Stones excepted) but taken as its own thing, this is the good stuff. If you like engaging with plots of pure whimsy in open-ended environments, messing with eccentric NPCs (who essentially tend to behave like modern Internet people), and coming up with non-standard solutions to non-standard problems, this is a sure bet.

This module credits its playtesters, as well as a bunch of other people who have helped with the project, surely the gold standard of giving credit as it is due.

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

Saturday 8 October 2022

[BLOG] Year Six: Old School Reconquista

An Autumn Landscape

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. Unfortunately, duties at my day job have haunted most of the year (and continue to usurp valuable time I could spend blogging), so here we are. Autumn is the best season anyway.

The State of the Blog

Beyond Fomalhaut’s activity this year was as much as in the last: 29 posts, of which 19 were reviews. Obviously, I am being left in the dust here by Messrs. Lynch and Nothing, but a good many of these reviews were long-form discussions of really complex, good stuff, which took time to think over and grasp properly. These also reflect changes in old-school publication patterns, where activity has decreased, but size and complexity has gone up (more on this later).

The average score for the 19 reviews ended up at 3.3, above the six-year total average of 3.09. It was a fine catch, and there are multiple reasons why this is so. First, selection bias. The No Artpunk contest has raised the average: this was a bumper crop of adventures by people who either knew what they were doing, or were making a jolly good effort to Git Gud. Two of the top scores came from this contest, and three more were in the “very good” category. Even the mid-ranking ones were clearly ambitious and showed signs of promise. The second reason is that the market has become cleaner; a lot of the grifters and shovelware artists polluting DriveThruRPG have departed for other lands, and pattern recognition makes it ever easier to avoid the releases which will inevitably be disappointing. These are still reviews of things I hoped to be good. The third reason is related to the second. Zinequest is winding down after the absolute winners who were making a lot of money on it cancelled the guy who was running the programme at Kickstarter (here, I refer the readers to the immortal Snake Poem), and the alternative game jams have not created much of interest to old-school gamers.

So here are the results and the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin dispassionately survey the field beneath like the great stone faces of Mount Rushmore. Shall a new face be carved upon the unfeeling rocks? The next year will tell. Git Gud! 

  • 5 was awarded to three releases, similar to last year’s pick of the crop. One of these went to Oakes Spalding’s Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, a reimagination of LBB-only Original D&D. Seven Voyages combines smart, simple mechanical innovations that fit flawlessly into the OD&D framework with a slightly different implied setting where these rules changes are a natural fit. It has been the first old-school system in a while to make me pay careful attention. The Temple of Hypnos by Olle Skogren deserves praise for an adventure that balances high imagination with a solid basis on the nuts and bolts level. And of course, Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls by Trent Smith, with its effortless skill and unfolding complexity: this is how AD&D is done.
  • 4 went to four releases: Vault of the Warlord, turning a clever tomb-robbing adventure into a developed village-wilderness-and-dungeon scenario; Dust and Stars, a high-level dungeon presenting a tough but fair challenge for powerful characters with advanced capabilities; City of Bats, a Mesoamerican dungeon paying homage to the great Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan; and The Bone Place of Dreib, a dungeon adventure that takes you to a place of primordial wrongness. These releases were, notably, all low-fi efforts. None of them came with fancy art, a hard cover, or Kickstarter extras, and they relied solely on solid content to earn their deserved place.
  • 3 was awarded to nine products. This is a wide circle, from decent material you could easily use in your campaign (e.g. Temple of 1000 Swords or the promising Swords & Sewercery) to projects which showed grand ambition, but did not live up to their goals (Cha’alt being the prime example).
  • 2 was awarded to one release this time, City of the Red Pox. This was a case of an excellent idea (corrupt fantasy Venice) that was not realised as well as you would expect.
  • 1 was awarded to two products, conveniently displayed at the pillory (rotten tomatoes and bad eggs available at 2 copper pieces a throw). These, regrettably, come from the Artpunk / Mörk Borg community, and make a good case for why the stereotypes are true. Of the two, Colour of the Void looks like an honest effort by someone who sadly knew no better (to quote the Tragedy, “her sin is of the age which had birthed her”), while Crashmoon does not have that excuse – it is the contemptible result of artsy flourishes masking an artless core.

As in previous years, man proposes, God disposes: there were a few books I promised to review but didn’t. I will try to get to these reasonably soon. And again: sometimes, the reviewer reads something and has nothing to say that has not already been said. Some of the high-profile, oft-discussed projects have therefore not received their due – they were good or they were middling, but other people already explained why.

Old-School Gatekeepers

The State of the Fanzine

Last year, EMDT released six full titles (and three more which were a part of larger releases), including two boxed sets; this year was invariably more modest with four. One of these was a Hungarian Helvéczia module, Isle in the Mist, a fairy-haunted locale. Mr. Volja also completed his first adventure compilation, Weird Fates, vol. 1, which collects four one- or two-session scenarios. These are a different style of old-school than what I tend to do; more whimsical and improvisation-oriented, but a lot of fun at the table. Volume 2 has now been drafted and awaits editing, and a third volume is at the concept stage. So on my side, two issues of Echoes were published. These are both heftier volumes, and I have been happy about the range of materials therein. Unfortunately, no new issues are expected this year, but #11 is in its early stages.

Other people have been more diligent. I am really pleased about the release of Helvéczia’s Spanish edition, a mighty effort by Outremer Ediciones. Tackling the hardcover/boxed set combo is a project with many moving parts, bottlenecks and unexpected challenges (I can attest to it), but they did it, and the final result is a beauty, so I must thank them for their hard work. As I understand, people have already started to develop their own ideas and materials for the game while Outremer was demoing it, and a domain management system, as well as a regional supplement are in the works. If you create a game, you really cannot ask for more. Since Spain is the original homeland of picaresque novels, it will be fascinating to see where these ideas will go – hopefully, we will also get to see them in English some day.

It is also great to see that The Vaults of Volokarnos has received a Czech edition, where it is being sold along with the Old School Essentials boxed set. This is doubly pleasing not just because you get to see your work receiving a release in another Central European country, but also because this adventure was specifically written as an introductory dungeon for novice players and gamemasters – all the while trying to introduce not just standard dungeoneering tricks, but the scope, difficulty and complexity of old-school dungeons. Volokarnovy katakomby – as the title goes in Czech – is labelled with the “K.O.S. 1” letter and number designation. I sincerely hope there will be more from Czech designers, in one way or another, for the same reasons mentioned with Helvéczia: it is bound to create something new, interesting, and hopefully good.

The Spanish Boxed Set (image courtesy of @websterfreeman_)

The State of My Other Projects

Last year was the time when large projects that took years to complete were realised. This year was a time for more sowin’ than reapin’, and sometimes, progress can be slower than you would like. Accordingly, a lot of my efforts have gone into the Hungarian edition of Helvéczia, where I have set myself a firm deadline for this December. This involved a lot of editing, some translation, and the logistics of production. Thankfully, my printers are a real help, even if the owner’s Helvéczia character was swallowed by Hell along with his horse in the mountain pass of Hohenwart after failing to settle a debt with the Devil. Of potential interest to English gamers is that the Hungarian edition will feature a different regional supplement than Ammertal and the Oberammsbund (which was already included in the original 2013 boxed set), along with a new set of adventures. All of these will be translated in time. Likewise, I have a partially translated adventure collection, and this will also be coming in 2023.

Khosura Rises...

My other big plan for the year which did not come to fruition has been Khosura, King of the Wastelands. This is a regional supplement for levels 3 to 7 (or so, it really depends on how the players approach things, from careful infiltration to all-out action), describing the eponymous city state, its vast and interconnected Undercity, the surrounding wastelands, and multiple smaller adventures set therein. So, a sword & sorcery sandbox with lots of sand, both literally and figuratively. About 75% of this stuff appeared in various Fight On! magazine, while the rest comes from old campaign materials. Khosura is fairly far along, with a splendid cover and some really nice art pieces already coming in, and cartography and writing in progress. If it were not for real life-inflicted delays, it would be an Autumn release as a hardcover with a map envelope; as it goes, it is planned for Q1 2023. Escape from the Pits of Lamentation, delve into the Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M’Kursa, plunder the Tower of Birds and navigate the ancient customs and rigid laws of the City State of the Four Mysteries – as barbarian conqueror or decadent thief, priest in a city of jealous gods or shadowy illusionist in a land of mirages!

I have one more English release planned for 2022 – and again, it is a firm one, with a self-imposed deadline for early December – and that is The Forest of Gornate. This is a large wilderness pointcrawl set around the same city as Shadow of the City-God, and one I am particularly proud of (particularly as I used to have doubts about the pointcrawl format, and I think this one is actually good). It fell through the cracks last year, but now, it is going to be done. The Four Dooms of Thisium still lies in a distance. We will get there, eventually.

I also had the opportunity to have my picture taken with Dr. Peterson and perhaps a zine, but while this idea had some attraction, it also felt vaguely ominous, plus it would have also cost me more money than realistically worth. So that didn’t happen, but we did hold a Zine Summit with Messrs. Ignatius Umlaut and the Settembrini clan in Café Erdős, a decent place in Budapest, after hosting Ignatius for the opening game of our new Seven Voyages of Zylarthen campaign. I think this was a better idea.

Me and the boys meeting the Artpunkman foe. Deus Vult!

The State of the Old School: Reconquista

It happened subtly, and you can miss it if you don’t look in the right places, but there has been marked improvement in old-school gaming over the last year. Simply put, there is less stuff, but more of it is good, mainly thanks to a bunch of relative newcomers putting an honest effort into understanding the craft of classic games. For a few years, what used to be called “the OSR” became so broad and unfocused that it had also become diluted. Success brings its own problems, and having to become a vehicle for every idea under the sun, only linked by a vague aesthetic (and since the dreadful, twee Corporate Memphis nightmares have taken root in some corners, not even that), led to a loss of the core identity of the old school. To quote someone I often agree with, “A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge”.

The OSR, 2022
Important ideas were forgotten because the people who first explored old-school games were all experienced fellows operating from assumed tacit knowledge. There was a lot they practiced, discussed fleetingly, but never bothered to put down on paper in a coherent way (for example, nobody produced a new DMG because they just thought everyone would already own Gary’s). Then, some of the field started to feel uncomfortably like neo-storygames (what the hell is a “lyric game”?  where is the earnest violence?), and you started to get the idea our corner of the hobby was beset, well, not really by tourists, but cynical guys who didn’t have any affection for our old games, only the surrounding ecosystem that let them sell more than a dozen copies of their junk. But that’s old news.

The actual news is that if you look carefully, you can see the first products of a reinvigorated, smaller but more youthful old-school scene. People who often had zero contact with pre-d20 D&D have been discovering the classics, and getting acquainted with the actual design principles and aesthetic behind them. This interest, fortunately, goes beyond simply using a generified B/X, and extends to understanding the finer points of the advanced game, the underlying logic of old-school adventure design, good campaign structures that transcend the level of adventures (West Marches-style games are an example), and the practical issues of gameplay. Actual play-based communities in turn produce not just a common knowledge base, but better supplements that serve actual play as well. The big picture starts to re-emerge.

Some of the commercial ground has been ceded. Hobbyist DIY efforts are not always glamorous in their presentation, even if they are very solid in their content. This does not make tons of Kickstarter money, but then neither did OSRIC. Even greats like the Heroic Legendarium (which I solemnly swear to review next year) can arrive in the simplest of packaging. There is no harm in books looking good, cartography looking clean, and layout being functional (although Good Layout has become first a fetish, and then a vehicle to sell overpriced coffee table books). But they are no substitute for good writing, and that means both Idea and Craft. Those who master one are standing on a strong foundation, and those who master both can produce the best of the best. Gilded framing does not a great painting make, even if it can enhance its beauty. You can do a great job with the modern equivalent of Judges Guild’s production values, and much of this year’s best has been just that.

The fruits of the Reconquista have already been good this year. The No Artpunk Contest, organised and judged by Prince of Nothing, and attended by 19 contestants, has been a mustering ground for people both learned and learning. The entries were uniformly a cut above the norm, and some delivered outstanding adventures that will be remembered for years to come. It was a contest that invited as much discussion and reflection as it had entries, and it will improve us. This year’s field looks even leaner and meaner, promising a Herculean task to make a final judgement about the best. Some of that effort, in turn, will find broader recognition and produce a new bounty of the Good Stuff. These are promising signs. The uncomfortable question remains (this is something you also ask yourself reading Bryce’s reviews): if the principles of good design can be learned with a little effort, why didn’t so many people publishing “old-school” adventures get even the basics correctly? That’s right. They were too lazy to.

Don’t be those guys. Aim high, practice your D&D-fu, maintain your castles and together, we can topple Sturgeon’s Law and burn it to the fucking ground.

Greetings, Warlord!

Friday 2 September 2022

[REVIEW] 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


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: *** / *****