Wednesday 27 December 2023

[REVIEW] Shrine of the Demon Goddess

There Goes the Neighbourhood

Shrine of the Demon Goddess (2023)

by Jonathan Becker


Levels 7–9

Bored with weird ingredients and stamp-sized portions? Jaded with molecular gastronomy? The nightingale tongue pâté and the jellyfish confit no longer do anything? Is it all fated to be filled with ennui? If so, you might try wholesome home cooking. It may not be fancy, but it is based on the tried and true, and the wisdom of generations. Shrine of Demon Goddess is that sort of module. The final stage in the three-part Storming the Forbidden City series run on Cauldron Con (which would probably give it the C3 module code), it is now freely available on the author’s blog as a free download. Let’s be clear: this is the PDF conversion of a very simple Word file, the first two parts of which (the first two tournament rounds) do not even have a map. The text is a simple series of bullet point entries without art or any further layout. The text is not even justified. We did not come for the production values.

Without a map for the first two scenarios, To Rescue a Prince and The House of Horan (which are also more bare-bones), we will only focus on the third. Shrine of Demon Goddess is an add-on to TSR’s Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Much of the ruined city was never detailed in the module, so Jonathan Becker took one of the random city blocks, and turned it into a scenario. The scope of the adventure is about one or two sessions of play (if the players decide to explore the whole of it), featuring a three-level dungeon with a total of 27 keyed areas. Each level follows Dwellers’ Meso-American theme, but each is subtly different: the surface area has a weirdly shaped five-sided pyramid temple; the first underground level is catacomb exploration and tomb-robbing; and the third is a cave system with setpiece encounters in the titular shrine. The levels are interconnected, making for about an expedition each – we mostly focused on the second, while a different playtest group hit the third.

We now come back to the home cooking analogy. There is nothing here that causes a complete surprise, or tries to dazzle you with wild ideas (Ship of Fate has you covered there), it is just solid, competent material, the sort of thing a skilled DM creates in a few evenings for a weekend game session. It all hangs together, and there is a pleasing smoothness to it all. The encounters are built on D&D standards, employed and combined skilfully, and adapted to the module theme. You infiltrate a compound that seems deserted, but suspiciously so. You explore a gridlike catacomb system, trying to find the “special” rooms. A subterranean chamber has four statues depicting three-headed eagles, three in a sad state, one pristine (if you immediately go “I chuck a stone at the mimic”, you are a better player than us). A hard-to-access room is “dominated by an ancient well, intricately carved with eagles and serpents” (observe the emerging theme, as well as the Mexican flag homage), inhabited by a pack of water weirds, and blocking a passage with treasures. It is all familiar concepts, but constructed well. The Forbidden City theme is heavily exploited; elements of decaying and dangerous architecture, Meso-American weirdness, and the feel of National Geographic-approved funerary complexes are gamified.

On Grid

The skill of the design also crops up in the structure and smaller details. The treasure distribution is built on the “large, well-defended treasure caches” idea instead of a more even trickle with the occasional spike (which tends to be closer to my approach). You are moving through the environment to hit one of the scores, and there is not much small-scale stuff. When you win, it is a big one, like 10,000 platinum with extra gems/jewelry and a few high-quality magic items. Likewise, the monster encounters are not just random assignments plopped down in rooms, they are placed in situations where they represent a challenge. A yuan-ti jailer is weak on his own in single combat, but has the ability to sneak up on the party and cause mayhem. The water weirds are blocking treasure, and are vulnerable to the Cleric’s spell… unless he is the first to get dragged underwater (as it happened with us). A cavern filled with 92 snakes in all sizes and varieties and blocking your path presents a conundrum – do we go around silently and risk an attack? Nuke them and waste a fireball, or even alert the rest of the complex? Do something else? This is a module filled with interesting choices and strong opponents, even for a level 7–9 party.

Shrine of Demon Goddess looks unassuming on a first look, but then establishes a strong, functional baseline, which it sticks to. It is well made. One reason you aren’t paying good money for modules like this is that they are not for sale, and what you get instead is fare that invariably tends to be higher concept but lower quality (often considerably so). A bunch of releases you see in the wild have the production values and wahoo ideas, and all they lack is skill. This module is just skill. You will find it useful if you ever need something Meso-American – if only standard stuff was exactly as good. The rating is a high ***; the award-winning GMing added the extra * in play.

This module does not credit its playtesters, but I hereby witness having played and survived it. We took losses and carried away fabulous treasures, as is proper.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday 21 December 2023

[REVIEW] Skalbak Sneer: The Stronghold of Snow

Skalbak Sneer
[REVIEW] Skalbak Sneer: The Stronghold of Snow (2023)

by J. Blasso-Gieseke

Published by 21st Centaury Games.

Levels 5–7

Hello, and welcome to part EIGHT of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Tomb of Horrors is one of those modules which, before it was inevitably reduced to a safe geek in-joke, had its black legend, a reputation for pitiless cruelty and character destruction. Skalbak Sneer is Tomb of Horrors for combat-centric scenarios, billed “a tactical deathtrap dungeon”, and living up to every letter of that promise. This is an adventure that, if run correctly, will make a bitter almost-TPK feel like well-earned victory, and could be properly titled Death Frost Doom if that was not already taken by the LotFP classic.

Skalbak Sneer is what you get when a clan of snow dwarves, given centuries of time and work, has dedicated its efforts to building the perfect, unassailable fortress on a frosty mountain peak, with multiple lines of defences to draw in, then grind down and destroy potential invaders. They have been at it for a long time, they have developed battle plans and contingencies, and they expect visitors. If they can stick to their plans, the invaders will die, or be driven off with heavy losses. If the invaders can find ways to break the pattern, they might win (the dwarves’ limited reconnaissance abilities may be an edge, and leveraging pre-adventure information gathering another). The dwarves are limited in numbers with 24 defenders including some named NPCs, but they have resources, trained monsters, and an environment designed to their advantages. It uses psychological tricks to lead besiegers into a doom loop which allows them to be whittled down and dealt a killing blow without actually breaching the fortresses’ vulnerable interior. If the players follow this subtle railroad, it will lead them into an ignominious end. Similar designs have been attempted previously. The 2e supermodule Dragon Mountain did it with kobolds, although it relied on gimmicks and unfair rulings to make it work. Skalbak Sneer plays fair, it just plays to win, and does so effectively.

Welcome to My Death Machine!
The module is basically a very tough tactical assault scenario set in a hostile environment, with dug-in opposition and formidable defences, Operation Overdwarf-style. Even the approach, a great winding stairway spiralling around the snowstorm-buffeted mountain peak, is a hostile place of natural hazards, and it gets worse from there. It is a hard scenario on both sides of the table. It will be tough for any party attempting it, but it also places heavy demands on the GM, who must understand how the snow dwarves’ deathtrap operates on multiple layers, then keep it in motion during play while adapting to the dynamics of play. You have fortifications, defenders, trained monsters, traps and other moving parts on top of each other, connected like a well-greased death machine. There is a lot of depth here on a complex map, which requires careful study. The presentation is very helpful – multiple colour-coded maps and alternate battle plans for alerted/surprised defenders are provided along with effective prose – but it is a lot. I don’t think it could be run practically on anything except a VTT.

In addition to the tactical play, the module has its strong, effective aesthetic. Much of the writing is very functional, with OSE-style barks like Switchback: Designed to force the party past the barred doors and vicious claws of the tundra troll, yeti, and polar bear.” or Spear-bolt holes: Allows Lieutenant Snull and the three Defenders in Attack Position 1 13 to attack through the walls.” Interspersed with this are bits of effective prose which give you an idea of a formidable, hostile place born of dwarven paranoia and madness, feeling more like a prepared grave for a death-obsessed clan than a place filled with life. It is cool, in multiple ways. “An arch of white icicles hang down like the fangs of some abominable hibernal beast. Beyond them, a yawning black gullet of Cimmerian darkness.” Or: “On each of the six sections of wall, a headless body, human, elf, orc, bugbear, hobgoblin and gnoll, hangs from chains in the shape of a Y. Between upraised arms, red stumps gape with frozen gore.” Or even: “A warm pipe running around the mountainside melts the surrounding snow. The musical sound of dripping water fills the air.” It is strong with expressive detail, Nibelungen-style tragic grandeur, and invocations of dwarven doom.

The rewards, if you gain them, are kingly. It is not sparse change, but enormous silver statues of stern dwarven warlords worth 10,000 gp each (and weighing 2,500 lbs too). The armoury of captured weapons, visible through arrow slits just beyond the entrance, is not just a few weapon racks: it is a room filled with a 3’ deep layer of war bounty from every conceivable destroyed invader, a grim warning to break the spirit of the attackers. The cooks and brewmasters, as much the masters of their craft as the garrison, shall die defending their precious trade secrets with their last breath. There is no quarter asked or given, only wintery death.

Skalbak Sneer is obviously not for everyone. It is not for players who aren’t heavily into tactical combat, formidable challenges, and being tested to the limits of their ability. The gulf between this module and the OSE fare you typically find on DrivethruRPG could not be wider. It is also focused on one particular thing, so if you don’t have an interest in it, it will feel fairly obsessive and one-note. That said, in its own genre, it is unmatched and perfect: a Masterpiece of Death.

This module does not credit its playtesters. This is a shame, because it would have been particularly interesting here to learn how they had fared during their assault.

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

Thursday 30 November 2023

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Black Parade [NOW AVAILABLE]


The Black Parade

“In THE BLACK PARADE you play the character of Hume, a hardened

criminal who was sent into exile as a punishment for his crimes.

The year is 833. You are now back in The City, a sprawling metro-

polis of soot-caked brick, greasy fumes and noisy machinery, with

many a sinister conspiracy whispered behind closed doors. Lost and

without a penny to your name, you are back to your life of thievery

and must find your old associate Dahlquist. Shadows and silence are

your allies. Light is your enemy. Stealth and cunning are your tools.

... And the riches of others are yours for the taking.”

 Regular readers of the blog may know I am a Thief: The Dark Project fan – indeed, it is my favourite computer game of all time, and one I have made a handful of fan missions for. Thief, today 25 years old, is a rich, complex and challenging stealth game that combines tight gameplay with excellent level design and top-notch mood. It is also a game which holds a lot of interest for old-school gaming: its roots lie in trying to simulate an AD&D-style thief on the computer, and there is much you can learn about dungeon design, open-ended scenarios, and even city adventures by playing it. A small but active level design community exists around the game (AD&D adventure designer Anthony Huso was one of the early greats in the scene), and there has been a steady flow of user-made fan missions over the years, from very simple thieving scenarios to full mission packs. However, not since T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age (2005) has a campaign approaching the scope and quality of the original Dark Project been attempted, let alone completed. (Your truly had tried and failed with The Crucible of Omens, a never-ever for The Dark Mod, a Doom3-based Thief spinoff.)

Until now.

Dark Mysteries

The Black Parade is a new, full, ten-mission campaign that has been released for the game’s 25th anniversary, built over seven years by some of the best level designers in the scene, and made freely available for download. Set slightly before the events of The Dark Project, TBP focuses on the adventures of Hume, a former convict, as he becomes entangled in a dark plot concocted by forces beyond his control, and must use stealth and guile to survive and come out alive from the ordeal. The dark depths of Thief’s nameless City, a corrupt industrial metropolis, serve as the story’s locations: dimly lit streets, crumbling mansions inhabited by the idle rich, haunted crypts and thieves’ dens populated by the dregs of society. I had the privilege of beta-testing the pack (there were several rounds of testing by both old hands and new players), and I can report it is very much worth the trip.

Skullduggery and Deceit
The Black Parade spares no expense in constructing this world: the ten missions you will play through are sprawling, complex, and rich with detail. These are all open-ended, exploration-heavy missions offering multiple ways of achieving your objectives, built by a team who get Thief’s gameplay loop, but also know how to make missions that, while difficult, are never unfair or needlessly obscure. (They are a step up from TDP, but that is to be expected.) They are rich in navigation-oriented challenges (verticality, waterways, obscure entrances and hidden byways), tense stealth situations (from dodging patrols and sometimes security systems to shadowing a lone figure through the City’s streets), and careful decision-making between stealth and exposure. The missions, although connected by a joint plot and a dedication to superb quality, are very varied in theme and approach: the hands of multiple authors with different design styles are visible, but so is the refinement that comes from teamwork. These are all interesting, high-quality missions, and there are two in the lineup I rank among the very best ever made.

Corrupted Splendour

But the excellence of The Black Parade goes beyond level design (although that is the most important element). The campaign comes with well-animated cutscenes between missions; numerous new voice lines, textures and objects; new AI types (including some once considered impossible) and game mechanics. Many previous fan missions have done one or a few of these; but very rarely all, and never at this level of quality. In all cases, the updates to The Dark Project extend the original game while remaining entirely faithful to its mood and style: at no point does something stick out like a sore thumb. Thief has always been heavy on the mood, and this campaign pack returns to that level of quality, while taking advantage of the technical advances which allow a 1999 game to transcend the limits of its antediluvian engine and quirky level editor (as the quote from one of the original devs, goes, “Once upon a time, not only would DromEd crash, but it would go out and kill your family afterwards”). In its consciously low-poly architecture and grainy textures – no ill-advised attempt has been to make this look like a mid-2000s experience – The Black Parade builds scenes of labyrinthine complexity and deep SOVL.

A Labyrinthine Plot

This is also one of those rare mods that takes writing seriously: the main story was meticulously plotted before the levels entered the building phase, and the levels were then filled with fragments of readable texts, environmental storytelling, AI conversations and the evolving objectives Hume will face during the course of the missions. Although the writing quality tends to be high in the Thief level design community, this is a standout even by those standards. While the cutscenes convey the main plot, much in gameplay is information you need to piece together on your own – from clues that will help you reach your objectives, avoid deadly hazards or find carefully hidden loot; to pieces which reveal more about the surrounding world in an unobtrusive way.

Strange Perspectives

There is much more that could be written about The Black Parade, and I suspect it will be widely discussed in the following weeks and months. For now, though, this introduction should suffice. You can download the campaign here. A trailer, and a handful of screenshots by yours truly, follow.

Lost in the Catacombs

Back in a Smoke-Shrouded City

Venturing to Locales Long Forgotten

Pursued by Merciless Enemies

Sunday 5 November 2023

[BLOG] The Sinister Secret of Schloß Hohenroda

The Cauldron Crew

It was already 19:30, a mere thirty minutes before I was supposed to GM my first session, and we were not yet in Hohenroda. We had come far and we had come fast on Hungarian State Railways, the Austrian Federal Railways, and finally Germany’s Autobahns, racking up a speeding ticket in the process while rain was beginning to fall in earnest, but we were just not there yet. The staff at the car rental agency were out for lunch at the checkout time, and would not show up for a nerve-wracking forty minutes, nor be accessible by phone. On our way North, we were caught in the congested traffic of München’s ring roads, and later rural Bavaria’s labyrinth of third-class roads. Stuck among barns and church steeples, we pressed on to the great Autobahns, heavy with traffic, and mired in cars due to a massive automobile accident. From a rest stop, we proceeded along an agricultural road, hoping the BMW’s state-of-the-art nav software would not lead us into an ambush by Bavaria’s backwoods cannibals (these, we would later learn, are organised and numerous beyond the Autobahn system). In the end, though, in Stygian darkness and incessant rain, the timber-framed houses of Hohenroda appeared in view, and, on a side-road, the central bulk and side-wings of an ominous structure: Schloß Hohenroda.

World's Least Surly Hungarians
We travelled to the uttermost fringes of civilisation to participate in the events of Cauldron Con 2023, organised by the secretive German game club only referred to as “the Nexus”. Indeed, many brethren had gathered at the venue from the far-flung corners of Germany, the mercantile lands of the Dutch, the sinking island of Hibernia (at the time of the convention, just barely above the waterline), the icy wastes of Finland, and the barbarous wilderness of Skåne. From across the sea came Jonathan Becker, a slayer of men. All these, and the Hungarian delegation of five, would spend the next two days gaming, drinking excellent beers, feasting on suckling pig roast and the Settembrini clan’s bio-apples, and meeting people we had mostly only interacted with virtually.

It is often easy to overlook the work behind good organisation when everything goes smoothly. But things were so tight that it became noticeable: all the background effort translated into an experience where everything went without a hitch, and we could focus on the actual gaming. For being a first-time event, people organising mini-conventions could do well to learn from Cauldron. A lot of the larger gaming events are flabby affairs with plenty of idling, questionable seminars, and filler content. This con was all killer, no filler, with sitting down and playing at its forefront. A concentrated dose of dice-rolling over two days with local signup and a focus on the action. In the end, not only was the time spent well, there was still enough slack in the system to sit down for discussion by dinner, a bottle beer, or the miniatures table.

I ended up running three sessions and playing in two more with old friends and recent acquaintances. Only brief descriptions are provided here:

The Mysterious Estate

I GMed Urmalk the Boundless, an expedition to the Pentastadion Necropolis to recover the abundant treasures of a decadent magnate. A series of surface mausoleums were plundered, including one of the most dangerous ones (another was wisely avoided once the risks were calculated). While the adventurers did not make it down into the underground catacombs, nor find a way into Urmalk’s tomb, they made off with decent treasure, and avoided a costly confrontation with a bandit gang by bribing them with a valuable piece of loot coated with contact poison. Devin, 4th-level Cleric (Caelin), died in an assassination attempt after the session, failing to secure a valuable shield he was tasked to recover from one of the tombs to settle a debt. (I mix things up a little by letting players draw from a deck of random items, missions and curses before session if they so please.)

The Convention's Winner Claims
the Cup of Demise Best Player Award
I also GMed Catacombs of the Pariahs, one of the dungeon complexes from the City of Vultures. Transported to the depth of the catacombs by the sorcerer Padog Miir, the adventurers had four hours to emerge alive from the labyrinth. An undead lord and his entourage of concubines were defeated, the tomb of a powerful magic-user looted, cultists fought, an enigmatic device of the ancients messed with (successful saving throws helped out here), and a band of pariahs press-ganged into the party’s service. The players made it back up to the upper level reasonably quickly, avoiding the dangerous depths visited in a much earlier playtest. Morrill, 4th-level Magic-User (Patrick) was strangled by an invisible apparition who snuck up on the party. The company emerged from the depths with moderate but adequate treasure, and a magic sword.

Dr. Becker Racks Up the Kills
I played in Storming the Forbidden City III, run by Jonathan Becker. This was a series of three self-contained adventures developing sites in the classic TSR module. Having suffered heavy casualties in the previous round in a humanoid lair assault, the Hungarian team was augmented with new reinforcements to seek the treasures of the yuan-ti in their most ancient pyramid-temple. The adventure started with careful reconnaissance (probably overly cautious for truly effective play, but the second round made the veterans cautious), and followed with dungeon-crawling beneath the pyramid. We saw one of the adventure’s three levels, and found one of the major treasure-caches, where got embroiled in a fight against a well of water weirds. The half-orc Cleric who could immediately dispatch them with purify food and water was the first to be dragged under, and while he could survive effectively with his helm of underwater action, this made the battle into a much more perilous affair. The adventure thus produced Cauldron Con’s signature casualty for Marcella, 7th-level Ranger (Max), who was drowned, revived, and subsequently fireballed by Chomy’s careless use of a wand of wonder. Another character, Thomas Peacock, a Thief-Bard, drowned ingloriously. Grabbing the bounty of the chamber and fending off the enormous giant spider that tagged along in the catacombs on the way back to ambush us from the rear, we emerged rich and victorious.

The Slyth Never Saw It Coming

I also played in Slyth Hive II, a high-level deathfest of a module by Prince of Nothing (now available on DriveThruRPG). This is kind of a scenario where you bring your best to fight the worst: the finest champions of multiple dimensions were called to face a world-ending menace. When your convention pregen is named Oberon, the Old Man of the Mountain, Jacques de Molay, Sir Giselher, Solomon the Magician, Brandoch Daha, or The Master of Summer, you’d better start paying attention (the most mighty of them all, the elusive “Kent”, was too powerful to handle by our group). Since this was a night session, we unfortunately had limited time to explore what is an enormous multi-level module, but we tore through two high-end setpiece battles, one with a horde of howling caveman in a cyclopean cavern passage, and a second with several hundred insectile slyth and their psionic overseers in a cavern littered with prehistoric bones. This is a tier of play where high and versatile player capabilities can be used individually or in combination, giving rise to unexpected hacks to regular AD&D procedures. We were somewhat constrained without a steady supply of mass killing powers that’d turn these confrontations into simple massacres, but ended up steamrolling the foe nevertheless with crowd control and targeted action. The session also featured gaming history’s laziest Djinn, whose expertise in avoiding having to do useful work impressed even this team of hardened adventurers.
An Expedition to Hohenwart
Finally, I ran The Saint in Hohenwart, a Helvéczia scenario, where the group was tasked with saving their friend, the young mercenary captain Konrad Göttlinger, from the influence of a strange and ominous saint in the high valley of Hohenwart. Travelling through a mountain wilderness, a grotesque recluse engaging in deviltry was captured, tried and lawfully executed by James Raggi; a duel was fought between two Italian clerics who turned out to be life-long mortal enemies (the affair was settled in a tense card game, eventually won with the devil’s assistance); and Konrad rescued from his predicament. Willem, 2nd-level Dutch Vagabond (David), an agent of the Dutch East Indies Company not at all modelled on Prince of Nothing, was dashed on the rocks of a waterfall after trying to climb a slippery rock surface with a rope, and assuring everyone he had abundant practice in these matters on the high seas.

The Battle for Safeton Rages On

It cannot be emphasised enough how well things can go if players are focused on getting things done, and having a common interest. There was a lot of creative play demonstrated over the sessions, from clever spell use to bold and smart decision-making, and sometimes just pure on-the-spot improvisation. It helped that Cauldron Con was deliberately targeted at a specific kind of experience, and set up to deliver on that promise. But there was also the energy brought by the players, who all gave their best over two days. It was good to see that the con spoke not only to the grognards among us, but also a younger cohort; some recently acquainted with old-school gaming, and some entirely new to it, who came to Hohenroda to check out what this all meant. It was all focused, with a good fighting spirit and high cheer, and that’s the best thing.

The Revievers' Conclave Meets... Again!
Beyond the games, the convention also hosted a surprise star guest in the person of Mr. Bryce Lynch, reviewer extraordinaire. It has been a long four years since our first meeting in Athens, Ohio, so when we heard Bryce was in the general area, steps were taken to arrange what was, truly, a random encounter. Unfortunately, Bryce was on a tight schedule – he was travelling “to take care of family business”, and the way he stressed the phrase, we decided not to probe further – so most people at the con missed him due to ongoing sessions, but it was an excellent opportunity to catch up on things and shoot the breeze for half an hour or so. It may be too early to reveal details about Bryce’s new OSRIC module line, but we can all be sure it will be a “No Regerts”. Tentative plans of a Crusade to get rid of the sub-par creators littering the “OSR” with irrelevant junk were outlined, and we can promise with some confidence that the response to this particular “problem” will be highly effective, even if it has to rely on Mr. Lynch’s “business associates”. Unfortunately, Bryce had to leave early in his black BMW, so the fine details are still to be elaborated.

Extra-Fabulous Collectibles

Finally, Cauldron Con featured an auction of riches from the community: treasures from 1980s German comic books to uncommon old-school publications went to lucky buyers, some after an energetic bidding war. Settembrini proved a skilled auctioneer at introducing the titles and their context, and generous lucre was gained by the sellers, as well as various charity organisations. On the final day, an award ceremony was also held: hand-engraved copper cauldrons went to the convention’s best player, most effective looter, the player who died most (“the Cup of Demise”), and the best GM – the mighty Jonathan Becker, who will no doubt fill it with the skulls of his enemies back in the U.S. of A. And that was Cauldron Con 2023. With the pace and energy, it felt a day short, although that may be asking for too much from the hard-working hosts. There was just a lot crammed into it, and there were things you’d inevitably miss – an ongoing multi-day Chainmail battle to determine the fate of empires in the German old-school scene’s shared Greyhawk campaign, an OD&D hex-crawl, the classily named Don’t Fuck the Priest, The Smorgasbord of Adventure, and many more. As always, you can’t come away with everything, but it felt like coming away with a lot. We also saw a pizza vending machine, which proves, once and for all, that greatness is still within mankind’s reach. 2024 sounds like a nice number. Appetites were whetted. Spielen wir AD&D!

An Assortment of Excellence
Until then, stay tuned for part II of the convention report, where we will present the Handshake Firmness Evaluation Chart. Strict records have been kept!

Vorsprung Durch Technik:
The Pizza Vending Machine

Sunday 8 October 2023

[BLOG] Year Seven: Old School Rebuilding

The Hall of Mirrors shifts...

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. Adjusted for inflation, this means early October. This will be a slightly laconic report: most of the things I have to say are fairly close to last year, and I don’t wish to repeat myself too much.

The State of the Blog

This year, Beyond Fomalhaut’s activity amounted to 28 posts, which seems to be the constant (the last two had 29). 18 of these were reviews, and that’s not including the stuff I read but didn’t review. Pattern recognition has helped a lot in weeding out much of the dreadful stuff, but from the clunkers that have snuck through, there would have been no joy in eviscerating most of them. I also failed to review some genuinely good material, including titles recommended by their authors. For that, I apologise: sometimes, the stars are just not right, or I didn’t have much that was worth saying.

On the average, the 19 reviews scored at 3.3, slightly above the seven-year total average of 3.11. Some of this year’s best have come from edited collections. The No Artpunk Contest has produced a high-quality lineup this year, and I haven’t even finished reviewing these adventures. One time can be luck, but two times is skill, and skill can be improved and honed through the spirit of competition and self-improvement. In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard was more of a mixed bag, from really strong stuff to one of this year’s worst efforts, but I can see it becoming another collection worth watching. Among the other titles, we can see the continuing trend where the shovelware people have largely moved on from the core of old-school gaming towards more distant systems, so a lot of the crap has just disappeared.

Here are the year’s results and special 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 loom high above the lower peaks, and have not been equalled.
  • 5 was awarded to two releases. Vault of the Mad Baron, by Christian Toft Madsen, took one: a rich, complex sandbox adventure set in a corrupt city beset by a mysterious plague, combining faction intrigue with dungeon-crawling in an accessible format. Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King by Hawk came from the No Artpunk Contest, capturing high-powered AD&D at its best: from standard building blocks, it constructs a tomb-robbing adventure with tightly-constructed gameplay and a strong personality. Among other things, these two modules show that great content and effective presentation can be reconciled, and the latter lies in practiced skill, not gimmicks.
  • 4 was awarded to seven releases: Wyvern Songs, a collection of weirdo mini-adventures filled with creative exuberance; The Crypt of Terror, for excellence in stickman art living up to its title with its dirtbag combat challenges and imaginative dungeon tricks; The Black Pyramid, a temple-delve with active competition; The Cerulean Valley, a JRPG-style mini-sandbox; Shrine of the Small God, a dungeon that builds expertly on Meso-American mythology; The Ship of Fate, which brings Moorcock’s high-level cosmic adventures to your game table; and the weird puzzle module Alchymystyk Hoosegow.
  • 3 was awarded to six products. This year, five of these have been slightly flawed, but generally strong entries, with Caves of Respite as a good beginner effort worthy of encouragement.
  • 2 was awarded to Expedition to Darkfell Keep, a shoddily-made dungeon crawl; and DNGN, an overproduced dungeon-in-a-zine that took common wisdom about presentation and layout so seriously it ended up killing whatever attraction might have had. These entries have been conveniently placed in the pillory. Speaking of…
  • 1 was awarded to two products, both outright terrible. In the case of Winter in Bugtown, this is entirely deserved: the high-concept premise masks a twee Starbucks fantasy setting and a complete mess of execution which would work decently as a parody of badly done artpunk – but sadly, it is completely earnest. The recently reviewed Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is more of an accidental hit on an inept low-level OSE module (it being OSE is also accidental; top dog systems always attract this sort) – but I picked it up because it looked interesting, and it turned out to be a showcase of bad adventure design practices. Unfairly singled out? Probably. Honoured with one star? Deservedly.

All in all, this was a good year for well-made adventures, and the variety of styles is good to see. It would be decent, though, to see the same quality in wilderness and city adventures, or even good situation-based scenarios. This is underexplored territory, on which more later.

Sword & Magic Covers by Peter Mullen and Cameron Hawkey

The State of the Fanzine & Other Projects

This year, EMDT released eight titles, with two more to follow next weekend. Some of these are major Hungarian publications: the Hungarian Helvéczia boxed set with two regional supplements last December, plus the soon-to-be-published Sword & Magic are the key titles. This sort of took the wind out of my sails elsewhere, so the zines have been more modest. I published one issue of Echoes (although a fairly thick one), the second issue of Mr. Volja’s Weird Fates, and two modules: The Forest of Gornate and Istvan Boldog-Bernad’s excellent low-level death-fest, The Well of Frogs. Gornate has received a Czech edition, and Outremer Ediciones has recently concluded a successful Kickstarter for the Spanish release of Castillo Xyntillan.

The largest undertaking of 2023 has been the second edition of Sword & Magic, a slow-burn project finally reaching fruition. The original edition of the game was published on 15 October 2008 (a few days after the similarly imaginatively titled Swords & Wizardry), and the release of the new one is planned for 15 October 2023, exactly 15 years later. Writing and producing two thick hardcovers (168 and 268 pages, respectively) and a 80-page regional supplement is no laughing matter even if it is a revised edition, a lot of groundwork has already been laid, and I had the Riders of Doom on my side to give advice, do thorough proofreading, and help shape the rules from the broadest to the most obscure. It was exhausting, endless, and it feels really good to see it done. What remains now is to receive the bound books and start shipping.

Potion of Extra-Barbarism
This game shall not be translated – there are enough old-school systems to pick from, and translating, producing and supporting Sword & Magic in a second language would be beyond my means. However, that does not mean there will be no dividends for the English-speaking reader. The second volume is planned to see release as an OSRIC supplement under the title Gamemaster’s Guidelines Beyond Fomalhaut. This will be a comprehensive guidebook to creating and running old-school adventures and campaigns, ranging from basic and advanced GMing techniques, optional rules, to an in-depth coverage of adventure design, campaign management, fantastic worlds, and even a simple mass combat / domain management system (it is not ACKS, but it is mine). The guideline section is supplemented with several monsters including extensive random encounter tables; treasures of all sorts, and several random inspiration tables from adventure concepts to fantastic civilisations, curses, islands and that sort of thing. The idea is something offering practical help for novice GMs getting into old-school games, and further advice and a smorgasbord of stuff for experienced people. The book’s Hungarian version is written, illustrated and laid out, so there is a completed manuscript there that “only” needs to be translated and slightly revised for the international audience. Now that is 268 pages of “only”, which is an obstacle. I cannot promise a fast-tracked release with my day job and other projects, but as they say, “I’m on it”.

In the “wanted to do but didn’t” category, we have Khosura: King of the Wastelands, the much-delayed city and wilderness sandbox module. This is another case of “only”, where a lot of the work has already been done, but the plans for Q1 2023 proved fabulously optimistic. Perhaps a year later would be workable?

Final Proofs With Small But Obvious Error

The State of the Old School: Rebuilding

This year seems to be continuing previous trends, which are not as exciting as grand upheavals and radically new stuff, but sometimes, this sort of quiet rebuilding is for the better. It does make for a shorter closing section, too, but them’s the breaks. For years, old-school gaming was drifting apart and losing focus, slowly diminishing its value. That process is probably complete. On one hand, this produces games which offer a lighter form of old-school gaming, tempered with the aesthetics and design concerns of games like 5e. The success of projects like Shadowdark and OSE / Dolmenwood demonstrates the demand for these middle-of-the-road solutions. These are probably ideal for disgruntled 5e players who are looking for something simpler and more free-flowing, but they will somehow have to find a way to preserve the virtues of old-school play from the influx of dysfunctional playing practices and the deluge of shovelware that success brings.

To an extent, you can also see some old hands returning to the scene: a new edition of Swords & Wizardry has been published (and don’t overlook the AELF License it comes with – this is the quiet background work you would only notice if it was not there); Labyrinth Lord and Dragonslayer seem to be focusing on B/X in their own way, and there are rumblings around OSRIC as well, with a new edition targeted as new players instead of publishers, and solid VTT support in Foundry. Adventurer, Conqueror, King is getting a second edition, and Sword & Magic also fits into the trend. It remains to be seen how much creative energy these projects can muster. The specific challenge they will have to navigate (and this is one I am acutely aware of) is that successful Kickstarters catering to a base of collectors is not quite the same as relaunching living games which produce healthy creative communities and good offshoots. Shiny new games have a starting advantage here, while second editions, reprints, and expanded editions have to play to slightly different strengths to succeed in the long run.

A Voyage to Thellas With Seven Voyages of Zylarthen

As a third group, creative communities with a renewed focus on the core of the old-school experience are also thriving, in smaller size and a less commercial form. This is no longer the same as the OG old-school community found on Dragonsfoot, Knights and Knaves, or the OD&D Discussion forums – all of which have largely fallen quiet over the years – although it shares some people and objectives with these places, and it resembles them in their heyday. Their members were often people discovering old-school ideas as a fresh thing, and they have moved from this rediscovery to self-improvement and continuous refinement. Things like the No Artpunk Contest or the Classic Adventure Gaming podcast (which now has a promising discord) are two examples of creative efforts coming from these places, but there is more. These are not large endeavours, but many of the guys involved have a high batting average, and this makes their materials trustworthy – you can expect something good when you come across their adventures, even if the production values are homemade and there are occasional weird spots. Even some of the best adventures from In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard come from these quarters.

There are still places which are not explored sufficiently well by this latter group. They have gotten great at dungeon design, but much fewer have tackled wilderness scenarios, and only the mighty Buddyscott Entertainment, Inc., has delved into cities (as far as I can tell). Nobody has really made a properly old-school situation-based adventure that does not suck. The NAP-II collection was overall very solid, but it was all dungeons. In this sense, Fight On! and Knockspell magazines had more to offer, and Dolmenwood promises yet more. I would love to see a wilderness pointcrawl, a complex sandbox area, a strong open-ended city adventure (in the vein of Istvan Boldog-Bernad’s Shadows of the City-God and Well of Frogs – OK, I published them, but I published them because Istvan is the absolute master of this sort of thing), or a setting gazetteer. The NAP-III collection’s focus on high-level adventuring should deliver good content in an underserved area (hopefully some extraplanar material as well), but perhaps there should be room for a “Not a Dungeon” contest, too.

So that’s where it stands now, I think. Work in progress, some of it looks like a pile of stones and timber, but it is getting better where it matters.

Get to work, dogs!

Motivation Will Be Provided

Thursday 21 September 2023

[REVIEW] Alchymystyk Hoosegow

Alchymystyk Hoosegow
Alchymystyk Hoosegow (2023)

by Alex Zisch


Level 7 “with some fatalities”

Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

High funhouse (as in “this guy must be high”) is kind of a lost art in adventure design. Puzzle-oriented, gameplay-heavy adventures with a strong emphasis on player skill and anachronistic comedic settings were the bread and butter of early D&D, but are rarely encountered in modern old-school, although they still exist in the forbidden pamphlets of the Scribes of Sparn, Unbalanced Dice Games, and sometimes Buddyscott Entertainment, Incorporated. Alchymystyk Hoosegow throws down the gauntlet and delivers high funhouse like no other.

What we get is a complex adventure site: an abandoned penitentiary converted into the workshop of an imprisoned alchemist, and left to the elements and various monsters. The first thing that strikes the reader is the dense, oddball writing: “The plateau backs up to the mountains where the talus contains an inky orifice. The mine opening has wagon-sized piles of clay soil spread nearby. A belching beehive-shaped smoke stack emerges from the ridge. (…) A species of Brobdignag proportions swarm the countryside. Mega-insects dart around chasing easy prey. They especially strike single file hikers, rock climbers and sleeping campers.” Or: “Clad in jade cloaks, two elves and two jackalweres (in human form) keep watch behind a parapet with a box of 500 arrows and 30 spears. A brass bell and cymbal can be gonged to raise the alarm. The jackalweres and foxwoman communicate in their alignment tongue with percussive signals. A trap door connects to the stair down”  The verbiage is strange and laden with four-dollar words (adjusted for inflation), but it is essential: you get a strong idea of places, personalities and situations. This allows the author to cram an enormous amount of content into the contest page count, even allowing for homemade art and permanent marker cartography that will win no beauty contest, but… well, it will win no beauty contest, and let’s leave it at that.

While the focus is on the alchemist’s two-level “science bunker”, the surface area and three entry levels connected to the main deal are also described in broad strokes. The oddball energy is quickly unleashed. Giant cranes trudge through contaminated water, hunting for fish. A foxwoman rules a gaggle of charmed elven simps from her tower. Orc miners, generally peaceful, make deliveries for their mining operation. Margoyles collect rocks. There is just enough to kick the GM’s mind in a good direction, and let things develop. The entry levels are simplistic, sketched, but conceptually strong, each with a different dynamic. The foxwoman and her elves control the surface, and may offer a bargain to plunder the alchemist’s bunker. The orcs are working class guys just out to make a buck. A prison level is haunted by its jailers and inmates, and a furnace level is operated by salamanders creating expensive and bizarre ceramics in a fiery workshop inimical to human life. Each of these levels have their own logic and “game rules”, which the players must discover and exploit.

Periodic table-shaped rooms

The main deal, though, is the alchemist lair, a 36+12-room puzzle dungeon that serves as a storehouse for crazy alchemy-themed puzzle rooms. Lab equipment, transformation and potion miscibility experiments are offered in dazzling variety, from the relatively simple to the supremely complex. They are not really interconnected for the most part except by theme; they are isolated setpiece rooms to be messed with and exploited for profit. There is a lot of raw, playful creativity exploiting magic items and monsters, involving a strong theme of trickery. Tiny gnomic creatures stored in the vats of a bio-lab grow into giant spriggans to ambush their rescuers, while a bonsai is a disguised hangman tree patiently waiting for its prey. The puzzles are multi-layered. For example, a giant “pool table” has mastodon ivory balls worth 25 gp each, and the holes contain various liquids from port wine to cyanide and a living mustard jelly… the real treasure being the pool stick (a quarterstaff +1 with a chalky tip).

High art
Treasure is hidden carefully – potions disguised as paint pots, opening a secret door to even better treasures if sorted into the colours of the rainbow; a “floating” dunce cap that’s just sitting on top of an invisible iron flask, and so on. There is generous mundane and magical loot scattered around, if you can recognise and obtain it, but the best stuff tends to be behind the really fiendish puzzles. The traps are also hilariously deadly: consider an invisible inkwell on a writing desk, whose contents develops into a cloudkill spell if carelessly knocked over (with enough clues to give a hint to clever players and goad the foolhardy into making a deadly mistake). Of course, it is all very silly, veering into doggerel verses, groanworthy puns (“Meat the Beetles”, a book by Beer Brewbeck), and bizarre monster-NPCs. The greatest treasures are locked away on the lowest level, the alchemist’s treasury and vault – from pillars of pure gold to purple “Crown Royal” bags doubling as bags of holding, filled with 15,000 gp worth of golden dice. The difficulty curve also increases here, and both monsters and puzzles become formidable for the level range.

Alchymystyk Hoosegow is a very peculiar module occupying a very specific niche. Players will love it if you enjoy puzzle-solving and foiling the GM’s clever tricks in a place governed by cartoon/adventure game logic, and probably have a bad time if they prefer their games serious and more-or-less plausible. It is pure gamergaming, and does that very well. Hoosegow, by the way, means a jailhouse. No, I have never heard this one either. Were drugs involved in the creation of this adventure? Well…

This module credits its playtesters properly.

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