Wednesday, 22 March 2023

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inverted Tower of Hyél Singh

I bring you news of glory and death from the City of Vultures!

Four adventurers, sworn to take revenge for the destruction of the fair city of Avendar, have conspired to track down and assassinate their penultimate target, “He Who Is Not Known”, who has so far drawn many veils of secrecy around him. By now, dead was Isomarg, Maker of Images, identified at a ball of the rich and influential, and hunted down in his own residence. Dead was Ardaviraf, He Who Slumbers Deep Beneath, roused from his drugged torpor to which he had consigned himself, and confronted and killed as he emerged to a higher level of the Underworld. And dead was Vifranavaz, He Who Walks Beyond, followed to the Crystal Palace, an orbital pleasure resort, and found already dead in the dark vacuum of space among the stars he had sought with such obsession. But the price had been high: many of Avendar’s finest agents were also killed in action, with new operatives taking their place. The sole survivor of the second team (after the ill-fated first was unmasked and neutralised) was Farzan, Savant of the Seven Mysteries (Magic-User 9, recently reaching name level), and he was joined by Bron the Elder (Fighter 8, who could calculate the exact value of any object with mathematical precision due to a strange device implanted in his skull deep in the Underworld), Tigran Zard (Cleric 7, a servant of the baleful Sea Demon), and finally Farsi the Younger (Thief 6, Farzan’s created simulacrum).

Two more foes remained: Mehersimin, the Faithful Companion, who had chosen to abandon high society and marry the dreadful Kwárü Khan, a subterranean horror whose very name was only spoken in whispers; and “He Who Is Not Known”, who had practiced complete anonymity. A few fractions of information were known: that “He Who Is Not Known” was a high-ranking priest of the Temple of Jeng; and that he had once infiltrated Avendar’s avengers under the name “Jamal”, and feigned his death when he had presumably learned what he wanted – the latter fact revealed in the mirror of the vampire-mage Riamos in his sealed tower. Divine prophecy could not find “He Who Is Not Known”, only that he was hidden even from the eye of the gods. It was eventually theorised that “He Who Is Not Known” might be using an amulet of proof vs. detection and location, and the company’s objective was thus focused on tracing the route of these items through the City’s trade networks.

In the previous episode, Bron the Elder and Tigran Zard had masked themselves as desert nomads, and visited one Lady An-Raydn, an aristocratic socialite running the most exclusive trading house on Uugen’s Market. Here they learned that these items were indeed for sale, but in such high demand that there would be a long waiting list. Bron and Tigran Zard nodded, and took a good look at the document where the lady’s scribe had recorded their aliases. The same night, a quick heist was conducted to enter the trading house, procure the document, and make a copy – and leave quietly. The names had, indeed, revealed a clue: an amulet was purchased by one Hothog Mirza, as an intermediary for the Temple of Jeng. The infiltrators were left pondering in a dark street about their next move…

Thursday, 16 February 2023

[REVIEW] The Hollow Tomb

Curently Smoking:
Imperial Beetroot Blend
The Hollow Tomb (2022)

by Harry Menear

Published by Noisms Games

Levels 2–4

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

A small tomb lair integrating a plotline involving a family tragedy. The real tragedy that tends to happen in adventure design is doing precisely this thing, but like classic tragedies, people just cannot be deterred from making obvious bad decisions, then suffer the predictable consequences. For all that, The Hollow Tomb does some things fairly well.

The tomb itself, a two-level affair with 19 keyed areas, is the site of a noble family’s downfall. Lady Ingmar Urquost-Blut (of a decidedly male name) was drowned by her profligate husband, Gregor Blut, who was in turn finally found out and slain by his grieving father-in-law, Lord Vodcheck Urquost. Now all three haunt the place as special undead, obsessed with their respective fates. Meanwhile, a bandit gang of “political dissidents, doomed romantics, graverobbers, or footpads and cutpurses” have occupied and plundered much of the upper level, increasingly aware there may be more to the place than what they have found so far.

Upper Level (tiny)
Where The Hollow Tomb thrives is in its attention to tone and incidental, vivid detail. It is set in some vaguely Ruritanian land of scheming boyars and wheat fields; the bandits are not just robbers but lads reading romantic poetry and cheaply printed political literature; and the tomb’s encounters are competent at selling it as Lord Vodcheck’s crumbling monument to his grief. Half-flooded passages, a watery oubliette with Gregor Blut’s chained skeleton on the bottom, and the decay of a family tomb are the high notes. There are limits to all this. In this brief scenario, the broader setting – which sounds intriguing in the few broad strokes it receives – does not play a functional part. The personalities of the bandits will probably not play one either, as the encounter with them is heavily tilted towards an armed confrontation. The family tragedy which forms the central puzzle is reasonably well integrated into play, but involves a major info dump in the form of a diary with Mucho Texto (probably much better if given to players as a handout than as boxed text).

The encounters are competently done. Monster placement is quite fine. There are environmental hazards and man-made traps, decent magical puzzles, and an exploration element that is tightly integrated into the environment. A secret room can be accessed with the help of musical notation, or excavated physically. Thigh-high water conceals nasty traps. You can mess with the architecture to get into places. There are limitations posed by the module’s scope – you can only do so much in 19 keyed areas over only 5.5 pages, one of which is occupied by the maps. The writing is a mixed bag. It is at its strongest when the author just describes things naturally – this is expressive and even vivid, with a strong sense of identity. It is much weaker when it is hammered into modern fads of supposedly superior “technical writing”. The end result is neither elegant nor any more usable than the traditional model. Consider this room summary:

Sarcophagi (smashed open). Valuables (gathered up treasure from the coffins and piled in a corner. 800 gp in jewelry and coins). Marble frieze (dominates the East wall, depicts Ingmar playing the harp…”  (etc.)

This description offers no advantages over simple descriptive prose, even though the text fragments, in fact, use good wording and strong imagery. This is a case of questionable “good practice” stifling actual writing talent. Sentences were developed for a reason, and this is one thing that separates modern man from the guttural shrieking and grunting of gibbering subhumans. I highly recommend trying them.

In summary, The Hollow Tomb is a flawed mini-module, but it is playable, and offers glimpses of good stuff. This is something that could be the beginning of something developed further and designed on a larger scale. For all its issues: definitely not bad. There is promise here.

No playtesters are credited in this mini-module.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday, 9 February 2023

[REVIEW] Winter in Bugtown

Currently Smoking:
Pill Bug Pipeweed
Winter in Bugtown (2022)

by J. Colussy-Estes

Published by Noisms Games

Low levels

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

Winter in Bugtown is a scenario describing an underground city of whimsical bug people, half Derinkuyu and half ant farm. Under the surface world of a podunk fantasy setting lie tunnel systems of jaded insect aristocrats, giant pill bug racing, a hive of brain bees, and a dormant swarm of undead locusts kept at bay – so far, most of the time – by the machinations of mothman necromancers. This is as high-concept as it gets, and the question that comes up with these things is always “Creative idea, but does it work?” As it tends to be with these projects, it doesn’t. That’s the summary.

However, to defeat the bug, we must first understand the bug. What makes modules like this stumble? Being an undisciplined thought experiment with little concern for functionality is the main reason. The scenario is not a working adventure: it is a very broad-strokes, high-level overview of one with a few random tables to recreate the underground city of Ghir Oom. This worked fairly well in The Cerulean Valley, where similar elements were used in the construction of a small sandbox setting, with a very good understanding of how to help run a mini-campaign in it. Winter in Bugtown is neither proper setting nor proper module, but a hybrid which does not play to the strengths of either, while being too much of both.

Six-Zone Dungeon

Ghir Oom lies below a dungeon below a ruined temple, which receives a four-line overview and a table of hints that lead further below, but the dungeon is otherwise left undescribed – as are the nearby Duskfire Woods, for which the scenario offers a table of eight adventure hooks without useful resolution. The bug city proper consists of six loosely sketched zones, all of which are surrounded by tunnels and sub-complexes of things that don’t receive useful attention either. Some of this is mitigated by semi-useful random tables: there is one for weird finds which run the gamut from spider dolls to a maggot mask that does 2d6 Hp damage as it affixes itself to the face. The “What Can I do With This Dead Bug?” has tasting notes for texture and flavour (if you really wish to eat the bugs), salvageable bits, and valuable body parts (if you really wish to get rich selling bug ovaries/testes).

There are ideas which play well on disgust and the natural human loathing for bugs, such as a maggot nursery of docile surface creatures serving as a host to a new generation of giant wasp maggots, or a gross hive of brain bees. The mothman necromancers are properly creepy and mysterious, with a “dungeon under the dungeon under the dungeon” trick that always works well. This is well done. However, you can’t paper over the fact that this is a slightly souped-up six-zone dungeon, where you can’t actually do much. The conflicts being described are sufficiently specific to strike a spark, but it turns out the bug people, for all their oddball whimsy, don’t actually have interesting conflicts going on. Plipple, a mantis shepherd child, is bored, and likes to spend time in the mantis nursery. Fellefe, a mothwoman necromancer, is compensated for maintaining the warm light of the bug marketplace, but tires of the responsibility. Narqua, another mothwoman necromancer, is fed rotting fruits by a zombie goblin, and keeps a zombie raven she calls “Baby” and strokes mindlessly while speaking. It turns out the bug city is just modern Seattle, which makes this more of a horror scenario than you might first think.

The aesthetics are way past the shark-jumping point. In the 2000s dungeonpunk era, it would be a half-fiend wereshark wielding a spiked chain – no, TWO spiked chains! Here, it is encounters like “A palanquin carrying a group of four mothmen passes by, carried on the backs of four zombie bears. Fine spidersilks hide the faces of those inside.”, and “Bing Fifty-One – Mitefolk locust trainer who smokes a pipe and is missing a middle arm.” When you already have a basic premise with a bug city and mothman necromancers, you need to be careful not to push it from highly weird into the ridiculous, lest it become a circus freakshow. Well, that did not work out so well here. Worse, it is a banal circus freakshow. The whimsy becomes grating, and ends up twee and powerless, a safe and pastel-coloured fantasy.

The problems mount as you go into the details. Not only does the general framework not work, many of the individual bits and pieces don’t work either. You can see this in random encounters with a “captured adventuring party, stripped and caged, starving”, who inexplicably and suicidally “take the first opportunity to attack and steal their rescuers’ belongings” if freed. Why would they ever do this, considering the encounter is assigned to an area far underground, where there are hordes of bug people between these rescued fools and the safety of the surface world? The adventurers are not described beyond the superficial idea kernel. We don’t know their capabilities, numbers, or any other distinguishing characteristic which may help us run the encounter, as stupid as it is. On another occasion, an encounter which can occur in any region of Ghir Oom (1:6 probability) sprays the party with pheromones which makes all encountered insects and insectoids attack violently on sight, completely upending the social/interaction element of the scenario in one swoop that the players may never even realise the reasons for. We also get stuff like a “mothman necromancer seen in the near distance”, who raises an arm, points and vanishes, placing a curse on a random party member which can only be lifted by killing this specific mothman. That is not how D&D, and specifically old-school D&D works: we have combat rules and PC abilities to determine whether the event can actually happen this way, and remove curse spells that can counteract similar afflictions. This is a nitpick, but it reveals the underlying problem: this is not adventure gaming, but attempts at crafting “story” at the expense of player agency. The encounters are a mess. The zone descriptions are a mess. The aesthetics are a mess. It is all a mess.

Winter in Bugtown is a perfect example of a module where the ideas are all it can offer, and the execution is a disappointment. The wild stuff – the parts that are imaginative in their own way – is not really so remarkable when there is an entire design movement doing the same kind of stuff, and the novelty wears off. You start to lose interest in the eccentric flourishes and the quirky oddball bugmen, and come away disappointed because there is no solid structure underneath. More than that, the deeper you look into the module, the sloppier it gets and the more practical issues emerge. If this was an orcs-in-a-hole dungeon, its deficiencies would be plain to see. As is, the veneer of colourful paint serves as a temporary distraction. However, the substance remains weak: this is just a mishmash of underdeveloped high-fructose ideas in a confused structure that’s neither setting nor module, and does not work as either.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: * / *****

You will be eaten by the bugs,
and you will be happy.

Friday, 20 January 2023

[BLOG] CAR GIFT CONTRACT (draft version)

We have very good news! You have just won a CAR!!!* The CAR* will be made available to you completely FREE of charge for the next two weeks, after which the General Terms and Conditions will come into effect. You are free to use the CAR* either on routes we recognise, or on routes that do not conflict with the provisions of current or later versions of the General Terms and Conditions. We REALLY want you to enjoy the freedom of DRIVING WITH US! ™ Unfortunately, many people abuse the freedom of DRIVING WITH US!™, so we are forced to reserve the right to terminate the CAR GIFT CONTRACT of those who would abuse it. This is for your benefit.** By signing the CAR GIFT CONTRACT, you agree not to pursue any legal action or other claims against the issuers of the CAR GIFT CONTRACT. We reserve the right to alter the CAR GIFT CONTRACT and the General Terms and Conditions at our will.

With the CAR GIFT CONTRACT entering into force, your previously purchased passenger vehicle will expire, and its ownership*** will revert to our company.

* As stipulated in our draft contract, the definition of “CAR” is “two rear-view mirrors and a carburetor.”

** The relevant criteria are contained in the current and later versions of the General Terms and Conditions, as defined and interpreted by our current and future employees.

*** According to the provisions of the General Terms and Conditions, “ownership” rights belong to the party issuing the CAR GIFT CONTRACT.

C'mon, buddy. Just sign the contract.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

[REVIEW] The Cerulean Valley

Currently Smoking:
Wind Dragon Weed
The Cerulean Valley (2022)

by George Seibold

Published by Noisms Games

Low levels

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

In 26 pages (so not quite brief here), The Cerulean Valley gives us a surprisingly thorough sandbox mini-setting describing a valley, its central conflicts, and points of interest. It is a good presentation of an interconnected milieu described in game-friendly terms, somewhere midway between a gazetteer and concrete adventure material. The specifics of the setting are mostly contained in the likes of encounter tables, rumours, an overview description of 15 keyed hexes, and finally a short section discussing dynamic goings-on in the valley. And there are a lot of things going on. Lord Hargrave, an evil lord, who has recently conquered a small kingdom and deposed its rightful rulers, is now scouring the land with his smog knights, looking for the survivors of his coup, as well as a secret that would allow him to consolidate his power. River pirates have started harassing shipping near the main port city, and it looks like they have larger plans than simply making off with a few boatloads of the good stuff. A forgotten prehistoric civilisation is stirring to reclaim its ancient lands. Smaller adventure hooks are integrated into the larger conflicts. There are multiple scales to the action.

The setting’s influences are fairly clearly drawn from Miyazaki and classic JRPGs. You can easily see the signs: a wind tower, themes of environmentalism vs. flamethrower-wielding industrial knights, a dwarf gadgeteer living in an eccentric cottage, a flamboyant headhunter, and a rebel movement called The Retrievers. Yup, those are tells. It comes as a surprise giant magic crystals didn’t make an appearance. This is an interesting combination. While nominally set in western feudal settings, and based on some reading of D&D, a lot of JRPGs are very far from old-school gaming – the aesthetics and preoccupations are different even if the formal elements are present. While enjoyable, JRPGs also tend to be highly linear affairs with massive lore dumps, elaborate custcenes, and very limited player choice. (Some, like Final Fantasy VI, transcend these limitations.) They also have a twee element that is not quite Frazetta. Here, though, the fusion works: the material works as an old-school sandbox setting while it also works as something built on Japanese fantasy. The setting has a compelling character, from weird forest ruins where elves practice some sort of elaborate calisthenics next to humans they barely interact with, to oddly specific details like harpies’ irresistible fondness for hard liquor.

Much is conveyed through the rumours chart and the encounter tables. Both are sufficiently integrated into the setting to serve as links leading the players deeper into interacting with interesting places and conflicts. There is just enough difference to the monsters to have local colour – the smog knights use flame-tipped lances, rock baboons are “disconcertingly sapient” and live in mockeries of human settlements. These elements introduce a local ecosystem of sorts, where the smog knights hunt for rebels, the rebels try to regain a sufficient foothold to overthrow the smog knights, and the saurian-led lizardmen grab captives to advance their rituals to awaken their god. There is a lot of small detail integrated here without feeling awkward or irrelevant – a good example of show, don’t tell.


The hexes are a sort of zoomed-out overview of a place. It is not room-by-room (for instance, monetary treasure is not noted, and there are multiple instances of “there is a two-level dungeon here” type things scattered around the place), nor a brief general summary, but a form that maximises adventure hooks via NPC, locale, and conflict descriptions. For example, the Wind Sage lives on a mountaintop, commanding numerous unseen servants and invisible stalkers, can help the party travel to far-flung corners of the valley via a “Zephyr Sling”, and can lead the party towards the brewing conflicts of the valley. The Smog Knights are cutting down and burning the surrounding forests, but their common servitors are growing demoralised, and the boss, Lasher Sledge (the names are also very JRPG), is too set on his course to change his failing strategy.

This is, in its own way, a well-constructed sandbox: a complex network of one thing leading to another, and being connected to a third thing which then leads to a fourth which somehow is related to the first again. There are some limitations to this approach. This is a sandbox with a built-in purpose: to place you in the middle of the Cerulean Valley’s brewing conflicts and play this to the hilt as things collide and blow up. There is plenty of player agency, but it is the core conceit. It is not the sandbox setting to go to if you want a more loosely defined milieu to develop adventures in. If you do not want to tie the whole thing to the plucky rebels-vs-oppressive empire theme (which seems to define Japanese fantasy conflicts), a lot of it suddenly becomes less valuable; and when the events run their course, there is really not much left to do (which seems to be another feature of classic JRPGs, come to think of it). This is a closed system with reduced reusability, a finely honed katana made of the best Japanese steel single-purpose tool – and specifically made that way. The value lies in its inwards focus.

Thus, The Cerulean Valley is an authentic expression of a certain kind of fantasy, which it turns successfully into an open-ended sandbox (thus eliminating the main flaw of the source materials). The appeal is not universal; in fact, it is the specificity that sells it, if you are in the market for it. However, it is also quite good as a practical example of how to do a small, self-contained mini-setting. It could be used as a launching board for developing your own adventures, or as is if you are a fan of improvisation.

No playtesters are credited in this mini-setting.

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

Sunday, 15 January 2023

[REVIEW] The Black Pyramid

Currently Smoking:
Orcus Original
[REVIEW] The Black Pyramid (2022)

by Terrible Sorcery

Published by Noisms Games

Levels 2-3

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

The Black Pyramid was built as a peculiar mortuary: not to give the dead a proper burial, but to feed them to a great primordial worm so it does not emerge and destroy the surrounding lands. Its priesthood dispersed and gone, its overgrown ruin has now drawn the interest of the Cloven Prince’s cultists – as well as a band of adventurers. This is a module where interesting comparisons can be made with the previously reviewed Offspring of the Siphoned Demon. The dungeon is also a containment facility for a powerful monster; it is also a relatively smaller affair (21 keyed areas on a single level), and it is also arranged in a seemingly simple pattern jazzed up with internal connections. It just goes further and does more with the basic idea – a sword & sorcery mini-module done right.

The setup offers an interesting combination: a static location designed to keep things in, and a group of active antagonists intending to breach it for their own purposes. The second element is mostly added through random encounters, and remnants of previous breaching attempts found within the pyramid proper. Orcus cultists – basically fantasy satanists – are the most “1e” kind of opponents you can use, and a sadly neglected part of old-school gaming these days. Their hideous masks also form some of the loot you can pick up during the adventure. The Great Worm also makes its presence felt, through a clever mechanic: the percentage chance of it appearing on a random encounter is 2x the nearest room number – the deeper and closer you are to the worm’s lair, the more likely it is to make an appearance.

And you will go deep: the level is arranged around a single descending spiral that terminates on the bottom of the complex where the worm’s pit is located, depicted on a single map sheet with depth notations. Shafts, secret doors, and cross-cutting elements break up the pattern, while magical traps hinder progress along the straight line. This is rather good, although I wonder if more could not have been wringed out of the concept with a more extensive map. Alas, these are the scope limitations in effect.

The room design stands out as well-written and punchy (“Three dry-rotted and partially mummified corpses wrapped in rags in the back corner, piled up against a well-preserved cupboard containing two clay jars of sweet reddish honey that function as potions of healing.”) There is a sense of blasphemy to the complex – it lives up to the idea of dark rites being conducted in cavernous halls by a secretive and ominous priesthood. Signs of decay and abandonment are integrated into gameplay in a show, don’t tell fashion. The mangled and acid-scarred bodies of dead cultists serve as clues and a source of loot (if the players stop to think about it a little). Some encounters offer opportunities to negotiate with treacherous Chaotic Evil cultists intent on doing heinous evil deeds. Observation and keeping an eye out for “off” signs are properly rewarded (“a 3’ hole to [room] is concealed by plaster-covered wooden boards and a layer of dust”) while carelessness also gains its own prize. The magic items are a bit too tryhard in that early 2000s edgy way, from the Bloodbow to the Rotting Spike and the Cannibal Crown. The grand prize loot is the skeleton of an Undigested Saint, inlaid with silver, mother-of-pearl, and rose quartz. That is more like the right kind of macabre.

Altogether, this is a module where the concept works, the tone is consistent and strong, and the challenges are varied and conductive to player skill. Accomplished and recommended. Now go make a proper full-length one.

This adventure credits its playtesters.

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

[REVIEW] Offspring of the Siphoned Demon

Magic Realm: Entered
Offspring of the Siphoned Demon (2022)

by Ben Gibson

Published by Noisms Games

Levels 3-5 (or thereabouts)

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

Offspring of the Siphoned Demon describes a small, two-level dungeon (22 keyed areas) overrun by horrifying medical experiments. The genre is surgical horror as seen through the lens of low-level Basic D&D. A demon’s containment facility has been taken over by a bandit gang, who, when discovering the regenerative properties of the demon’s blood, set out to “perfect their forms” by injecting its blood into themselves, but ended up being transformed into misshapen horrors instead. Why people would end up doing this is kind of a mystery. Now the pitiful brutes, calling themselves the Offspring, are terrorising the countryside, while their surgeon creator continues with his mad experiments.

The Prison of Ananukaim is more of a compact lair than a larger dungeon – barracks, storerooms, medical horror rooms along the perimeter corridors, and the demon’s prison in the middle. Multiple access points and level connections add to the exploration aspect, although the scope remains limited. Variety is introduced through effective “show, don’t tell” touches like Offspring left chained in a room for disobedience and licking condensation off of the walls to sate their thirst; plotting vengeance on their leader for the horror of their new existence; or being sent to guard the demon while being scared out of their wits are three examples. There are monster NPCs with motivations (although the adventure is perhaps too small and too combat-oriented to really exploit this). The treasure scattered around the place is often hidden well – that old shield used to scrape the crap from a pigsty/chicken coop? It may just have a few valuable gems embedded in it.

There are bits that work less well. Chaos penguins feel like a shark is being jumped. These are random monster mobs without much rime (sorry! sorry!) or reason. “Hospital horror” clichés like a room where the Offspring have decorated the walls with childlike drawings of their formerly happy families are just clichés with mediaeval fantasy paint slapped on them. This is the general state of the module: it is in that specific spot where something is competently designed but still feels off for not rising beyond that level. Playable? Yes. Does it satisfy the “good old-school adventure design” checklist? Also yes. Creative? It colours within the lines.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: *** / *****

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

[BEYONDE] Arthurian Legends

Art thou a loser? Do you rob the poor and feed the rich? Kill baby once and future King Arthur? Let Evil triumph? Surely not! It is time to show those Saxon bastards who is the best fighting-man in the land.

Arthurian Legends is a first-person retro-pixel hack and slash game set in a pre-Arthurian England beset by Saxon hordes, fell beasts, and dark forces which have set their sights on the fair island. Dense, enchanted forests, miasmatic swamps, icy wastes, and the ruins of older ages await, along with a plethora of monsters, weapons, magical spells, and carefully hidden secrets. It is neither a historical game nor high fantasy, but a sort of mishmash of Arthuriana from post-Roman stuff to mediaeval romances and a bit of Army of Darkness and boomer shooters (more in the attitude than the weaponry). It is a whole lot of fun.

Have at thee!

Few computer games capture the spirit of playing a no-nonsense fighting man. They always add backstory or complications which end up diluting the idea. However, less is more. Die by the Sword, now as ancient as Arthurian Legends tries to appear with its pixelated look, is one of the few which compare. These games get it right by talking less, keeping it simple, and focusing on attitude and action. The FPS genre doesn’t usually go well with melee combat due to the lack of body awareness, but Arthurian Games pulls it off. It is viscerally fun to go into battle. Mobility is important and you have to exploit both terrain and movement skills to survive. Blocking with shields is an important element, and these shields get cracked and worn down as they sustain repeated attacks – as do most weapons. The feedback is great. There is a satifying “crunch” to the hack-and-slash, helped by the graphics and sound effects. Turns out decapitating Saxons with throwing axes is one of the most fun thing you can do on the PC (as a Saxon, I make this confession slightly grudgingly, but give credit where credit’s due).

Toil and Trouble
The arsenal provides a variety of well-balanced weapons. Your basic melee weapon, a trusty axe, is your primary tool for slaying enemies, and never breaks. Unlike a lot of default melee weapons in shooters, it never becomes useless, especially in axe-and-board action. This is not Quake’s piddly axe, but a serious weapon for a serious man. A much quicker, but less durable gladius can be found in secret locations, and in place of the shield, a parrying dagger or (later) a mini-crossbow may be substituted. The spiked cudgel is more powerful than the axe, and drives back enemies before they can hit you, but breaks quickly. Throwing axes are the best close-range ranged weapons in gaming, bar none, and go well with the shield. Why nobody has done it properly before is a mystery, but Arthurian Legends just aces it on the first try. The heavy hitter in melee is the two-handed sword, which limits blocking ability, but has the reach and power to slice up knights and serious beasts. The bow is comparatively weak, with low damage and a slow rate of fire – this is not primarily a game about shooting, but getting up close and personal – but it does its job where you can’t do that easily. An explosive and incendiary grenade, more Army of Darkness here than Le Morte d’Arthur, are both useful against incoming enemy groups, particularly spider nests. The prestigious holy hand grenade makes a much welcome appearance. Poison daggers which continue slowly damaging enemies are included, along with powerful wands which I have only used against the mightiest of monsters. Appropriately, most healing is done by quaffing down mead and gorging yourself on food from your enemies’ campfires and tables. You will also find equipment ranging from wolf traps, caltrops and healing potions to spell runes, which are very useful but come in limited quantities.

Ancient Celtic Secret
The weapons combine well with the opponents, which range from aggressive melee combatants to skirmisher type enemies who hurl axes, spit poison, or otherwise inconvenience you. From Saxon raiders and wolves, you start to meet knights, archers, and various fantastic beasts from two-headed wolves to giant spiders and flying imps. Eventually, dark wizards start to make an appearance. All these types require different responses and approaches, and often require using terrain to your advantage to best them. The AI is not really sophisticated (it is not aggressive in seeking you out around obstacles), but opponents can scale terrain well, and positioning is done skilfully. Most of the encounter design is top notch. This is a challenging game on higher difficulties, pushing you to git gud and use your weapons and items to their fullest potential. While Arthurian Legends is demanding, it is also rewarding: by being pushed, you will improve, and become a skilled warrior who can laugh in the face of enemies who had been a serious problem early on.

However, it is the level design which deserves the highest praise. A lot of work has obviously gone into this element; while things can be hard, they are never unfair – success is based on confident skill and practice, not dumb luck or pixel-perfect jumps. It is never a pushover either. It is all carefully balanced. The levels are varied, large, and there are lots of them over three full episodes. A lot of modern level design is flat, dumb, and completely railroaded, and while Arthurian Legends has a general gated/keycard-based design, the individual map sections present reasonably open-ended challenges. There is a lot of uneven terrain, height differences, choke points, vantage points for bowmen, cover to take shelter behind, and often alternate routes to get the drop on the Saxon foe.


Not only do the levels offer a series of excellent combat scenarios to get through, they also have a strong element of exploration. While route-finding is never an issue, good observation is rewarded. Several secrets, including secret armouries, hidden equipment, magic items, and proper secret levels are found through the missions. These are good secrets, rewarding not pixel-bitching or wall-hugging, but noticing a hidden crevice, a weakened part of wall, or a ledge you can climb down to with a series of careful jumps. The levels also look good in their chunky, pixelated way. There are sunken swamp ruins, dark ice caves, the remains of massive Roman walls blasted by magical snowstorms, crude villages and castles occupied by the invaders or their dark masters. It has visual imagination and, despite the haphazard sources of inspiration, a cohesive feel that’s all fighting-man, not poncy bard.

There are a few flaws in the game, too. The last episode, set in a realm of tombs, dungeons and the undead, is still good but less captivating. Two bugs are also worth noting. The game runs badly on a specific sort of hardware due to engine-related issues that cannot be fixed – so try the demo before buying to see if you are affected. My playthrough was also cut short right at the penultimate level by a nasty bug, which is a bummer, but something I can live with. The rest is all quite good.

Arthurian Legends is the best “guy in a chainmail” game in a long while, and well worth the money and time investment.