Friday, 30 June 2023

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #11 and The Well of Frogs (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Echoes From Fomalhaut #11

On Windswept Shores
I am pleased to announce the publication of the eleventh issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 64-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Vincentas Saladis, and illustrations by Cameron Hawkey, and Graphite Prime.

This particular issue took a year to materialise, and it is therefore on the thicker side. It is also an issue dedicated to the harsh northern lands of the Twelve Kingdoms, following from the setting primer published in issue #09. This time, the zine presents hex-level descriptions from the areas where our campaign has taken place, From Brahalt to Hlute. This area encompasses a larger and a smaller island, ranging from densely populated domains to hinterlands where only gloomy remnants of once-prosperous kingdoms remain standing. As always, this is a setting for your own purposes, and a place where a band of determined aventures can accomplish much.

In addition to the hex-level writeup, the zine provides a description of the Monsters of the Isles, eight creatures commonly encountered in the Twelve Kingdoms, and in any other mist-shrouded land of your choice. Avoid the allure of the comely frost-maidens, contend with the strange thorn warriors, and strike bargains with the cunning tromes, master smiths of evil disposition (or loot their stores of enchanted weapons and armour). Even more generally, tables are provided to generate Curious Local Customs to provide basic ideas for eccentric communities living by strange codes of behaviour, and ruled by eccentric sovereigns. This is something that has seen use in multiple very different campaigns, from exotic sword & sorcery to more standard adventure fantasy.

The issue comes with two scenarios. Elven Grave (levels 5–7, 19 keyed areas) is a small tomb-robbing adventure in a ruined place of beauty, where an elven lord and his hosts were laid to rest. This is an adventure you could put on a treasure map, or just drop anywhere in an ongoing campaign.

Eimir: The Abbey’s Secret (levels 3–6, 18+31 locations) takes us to a coastal abbey where diligent but fanatical monks have built an outpost of Law, dedicated to spreading the light of civilisation to the surrounding lands. The scenario describes the abbey and the unruly community that has grown up around it, as well as a set of underground tunnels where the monks keep treasure and jealously guarded secrets. Whether the characters’ aim is infiltration, theft, rescue or just causing trouble, this is the place. Will they burn the abbey’s great library? One out of three test parties did not, so the odds are present!

The Vigil Guards Eimir's Peace

The Well of Frogs

Go down the Well.
You know you want to.
I am also pleased to announce the publication of The Well of Frogs, a 32-page city and dungeon adventure for 1st to 2nd level characters by Istvan Boldog-Bernad, with cover art by Dorottya Fulop, and illustrations by Ferenc Fabian, Vincentas Saladis, Graphite Prime, the Original Masters, and the Robot Overlords. The module describes a neighbourhood of the crumbling city of Cassidum, its teeming alleyways the haunts of thieves and lowlives. But below the surface lie worse things still, left over from the days of the old empire or repurposed by dangerous eccentrics. Visiting the underground could not be easier: the Well of Frogs, in the middle of the infamous Piazza Dei Rospi, lies in plain sight, and nobody will prevent the brave and very foolish from descending into its maw. This is a module which has killed a respectable amount of player characters in playtest, more at its debut at North Texas RPG Con, and is ready to kill again. It can be used as a one-off, or as a nexus point for an extended campaign.

“Down below, beneath Cassidum’s stinking alleys and crumbling palaces, lie twisting passages and musty chambers with the secrets of the old days, and the subterranean dens of lowlife scum. But now, sordid disappearances haunt the Piazza dei Rospi, while the Literators’ Guild and Barbers’ Guild wage a bloody turf war for the surrounding streets. The key to these mysteries is a richly carved marble well decorated with the carvings of four ugly bullfrogs, whose depths hide things worse still. Some who descend shall win riches and battle-glory, while others will only find horrid death… down in The Well of Frogs!”

* * *

The print versions of the fanzine and the module are 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.

The forgs are waiting

Monday, 26 June 2023

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King

Twice the Heads,
Twice the Fun!
Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King (2023)

by Hawk


Levels 8–10

Hello, and welcome to part THREE 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 the Twice-Crowned King takes you into the resting place of a murderous warlord who put his own servants and family to death to guard him in his unlife, which is definitely the thing to do if you live on a metal album cover. The scenario looks deceptively small at a first glance, but it turns out to be a lot larger than it seems. The scenario’s main value lies in how it is built into a carefully honed killing field where interlocking encounters present a deadly gauntlet over 31 keyed areas. A spirit of good competitive fun permeates the work – this is high-skill, high-stakes funhouse AD&D from an author who has mastered this particular game style, and developed the skills to present it effectively in written form.

The level range is getting respectable: this is clearly an adventure designed for capable parties with commensurate resources and solid player experience. Not every encounter has a clear solution, but the module trusts your players to use their capabilities to circumvent them on their own terms.  The module excels particularly at the baited trap encounter. The entrance is guarded by two bronze statues wielding massive hammers, which prove stubbornly inanimate right until the moment when all hell is let loose in the tomb, upon which they begin demolishing the bridge leading to the entrance, and set up a guard for escaping PCs. 10 mummies in another room do not react for 4 rounds, just enough to put the players’ mind at ease before springing into action. The titular crowns are out in the open in the tomb’s main hall, just within reach... you know you want to grab it, just to see what happens if you do. This is a nasty mousetrap of a module, where getting in is a lot easier than getting out. It is also a piggy bank of the really good stuff that makes it very tempting.

The skilful design extends to combat setups – both standard and souped-up monsters (e.g. a vampire with a nine lives stealer sword) are used to great effect. While tombs are mostly static locations, this one does a reasonably good job keeping things lively by presenting effective defences and throwing curveballs at the players (such as one group of hill giant skeletons trying to push PCs into a pit filled with ghasts under the cover of continual darkness, and another bunch throwing giant-sized pots of flaming oil from ledges above a rope bridge). Some of the higher-end guardians hunt intruders effectively until they can strike for maximum effect. These tactical setups and defensive schemes make for effective and deadly combinations – but at this level, you should have enough resources to crack them. Traps are likewise clever, like a statue with gemstone eyes that shoots disintegrating beams, and whose eyes explode if removed; or a room of stepping stones leading through a pit of slime that turns its victims into ghasts or wights – with some stepping stones rigged to just give way and sink if stepped on. These are killer encounters, but they are also killer encounters of the “I should have known!” variety. After a while, good play gives you an instinct for these things – a tingling sense in the back of your head. Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King rewards the use of this sense.

Finally, it is the small things that spice it up further. Minor descriptive detail is used to add a little extra even to the basics – random wights approach “screeching and screaming madly (no surprise)”, while ghasts “whisper words of death as they prowl”. A room of sarcophagi has a bunch of fun “sarcophagus contents” results like “Male and female skeletons embracing”, “Putrid tomb air is released: save vs. poison or contract random disease”, or “Mass of maggots eating corpse, underneath is M-U scroll”. This is decent extra mileage for what are mostly one- or two-line additions.

The presentation is rock solid. Everything is there on six pages, except one of those pages is dedicated to Hawk’s expressive rendition of the Twice-Crowned King, and ¾ of another is occupied by the map, so all that text occupies 4.25 pages of real estate. No space or word is wasted, but you do not feel short-charged in the end. It is all there and all effectively conveyed, from strategically placed stat boxes to room entries which are as long as they need to be, and not a line longer. While dense with text, this is, in fact, an example of what good layout should aspire to – a compact, play-friendly, effective presentation that puts all you need at your fingertips, but gets out of the way once that is accomplished. It is simple, elegant, and polished to perfection.

Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King rises high above the average, competent tomb-robbing scenario with its tight design and touches of individuality: it is a great example of doing great things with vanilla AD&D. It has charisma, an infectious sense of wild fun, and a strong understanding of what makes high-level, module-oriented play tick. Like a finely honed blade of the purest Japanese steel, it cuts through tanks and bad players alike, and brings a smile to your face when you hold it in your hands. High energy.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Tuesday, 13 June 2023


DNGN #1 (2022)

by Vasili Kaliman

Published by Singing Flame

Levels 1 and up

The Terminator is a marvel of design and engineering, a sleek technological terror moving with superhuman precision. Its body is surgical steel, its eyes penetrating optical cameras, its blood high-grade machine oil. It hunts and kills according to the precise programming with which the machine overlords had imbued it. The Terminator is very efficient, but is it good for us? The jury is still out on that one.

Anyway, DNGN #1 is a weird science-fantasy megadungeon published as a risographed zine; the whole thing is printed in pleasing red and blue ink, with 10 really neat full-page illustrations that could be used as an illustration booklet, and even a comic strip! The initial issue covers ten levels and a bonus side-adventure (same author using a skullfungus map). This is a zine which follows all the layout and writing trends championed over the last few years, and used particularly in various Old School Essentials releases. The text is terse, using bullet points to convey information exactly and briefly. Monster names are not only bolded, but highlighted in red. Dungeon maps are annotated with extra room information on floor type and illumination, simple dungeon dressing tables, and so on. Each of the ten levels in this issue uses a page for the maps, and the facing page for the room descriptions.

Here lies the problem, though. As a result of this ruthless and sleek efficiency, what we get is not necessarily what we were looking for in an adventure. How can ten levels of a megadungeon  fit into a 40-page zine (that is, 20 pages of that 40-page zine, since the art and the comic take up the rest)? Well, we have to adjust our expectations for a megadungeon. These dungeon levels have around 8-10 keyed rooms on the average. It is also not like they are 8-10 keyed rooms in a network of corridors and empty rooms (which would be the Castle Greyhawk model). It is really all there is to it.

Puny meatlings! This is, in fact, my final form!

The maps are on the simplistic side, mostly a few basic geometric shapes strung together. Levels connect to one another through one or two stairways, but they follow in succession, without side-levels or the possibility of choosing between a risky deeper delve or a safer expedition close to the surface. Secret rooms are found, but the discovery of cleverly concealed hidden sections, larger room complexes, themed sections, staging areas, and the stuff that makes megadungeon campaigns exciting are all missing. Pit traps, slopes, stairs within levels, water, collapsed terrain, level-spanning rooms – not present either (although there are two cavern levels). It is notable how much of a difference a good map makes. If the whole zine was dedicated to mapping out a single, sprawling dungeon level with decent map design and all sorts of interesting exploration choices, it would solve a lot of the scope/content issues. Here, you just cannot explore too much, since there is so little to explore, and your ability to make meaningful choices is likewise limited by the constrained environment. This is, simply put, not a megadungeon in any shape or form that meets the commonly accepted criteria. Even as a dungeon dungeon, it is smallish and very linear. It all fits on neatly arranged page pairs. It is geometrically perfect, no exceptions. Is that really a feature here? Does it help create a dungeon that is fascinating to a group of players, drawing them back again and again to go further and see more?

The room keys are a step better. A technological/cosmic weirdness theme connects the dungeon, from star god altars worshipped by duergars to vampires slumbering in a glass tank to magnetic statues wearing cybernetic armour and animating if the weapons captured by their magnetic powers are removed. Here, you can see good ideas and well-designed encounters, even if they are mostly simple. You can assemble a good dungeon from a handful of simple, good ideas. However, the strict double-page format serves as a barrier to what can be done. If there is a dungeon room that actually does something interesting an complex (like the magnetic statue room), there are inevitably a few more that amount to “empty”, “here is a bizarre item”, or “they are here and they attack”, because that’s what you have layout budget for (“7F > EMPTY ROOM. Completely empty.”). Does that make the adventure better? Are we better off following this super-efficient and scientifically perfected formatting? Is it to our benefit? Some designers – and this takes a keen skill and sharpened practice – can produce terse, enigmatic room entries which stimulate the imagination in just a few lines, and help the GM imagine the rest. There is an almost oracular quality to these entries, seen in Bob Bledsaw’s Tegel Manor or Michael Curtis’s Stonehell, since they tell much more than they actually speak, and can be interpreted very differently by different GMs. In these cases, minimalism works. But it does not work for everyone (for example, Gary Gygax developed a different style with different strengths), and it does not work reliably here. Sometimes the author gets it right, but he clearly has not mastered the format. Which is no surprise, since it is actually hard to get minimalism right.

Mechanical Skelebro
Offers a Helpful Hint
The room mixture is a mishmash. Instead of concentrated mini-themes emerging from dungeon areas, it is just all random – a room inhabited by an illusionist berating 1d6+2 zombie servants lies next to a room of tapestries, which lies next to a room with three sarcophagi containing mummies, which lies next to a room with bandits, which lies next to a room of stalactites you can lick for 1 Hp of healing. The room-by-room entries can be good, but the big picture is incoherent – not by the standards of conventional realism, but even by the standards of a dungeon with a funhouse slant. The monster count is really low in both the room entries and the random encounter chart. You could see it is 1d6+2 zombies or 4 bandits or 3 mummies. You don’t really see OD&D’s hordes of lower-level opponents that come at you in an onslaught, to overwhelm the weak or get chopped into pieces by the strong. On the plus side, you can meet some really tough stuff that would require the characters to think before engaging, and run if they meet something they can’t handle. There is a purple worm right on level 2, hiding within a mass of tangled vines in a side room. That’s quite fun, although I suspect this module would have a high TPK potential if actually run.

And that’s the deal with DNGN #1. It shows strengths in some room entries, but it is a dungeon where the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. More than that, it shows, very clearly, how meme layout and graphic design fetishism have misled old-school designers. This zine uses a format which actively works against delivering a substantial, interesting adventure, and is particularly ill-suited for presenting a megadungeon. Old-school gaming’s efficiency movement has produced a perfected end product which does not work. And here is where we return to the Terminator analogy. It turns out we defeated the Terminator and kicked its shiny metal ass. We survived its initial attack, we outwitted its mechanical perfection, we learned its programmed tricks, and we crushed it under a hydraulic press. If it comes back, we will do it again. And that is because we are human. That is because we have something more than the machines have. We will prevail.

No playtesters are credited in this module.

Rating: ** / *****

Friday, 2 June 2023

[REVIEW] The Carcass of Hope (2023)

The Carcass of Hope
The Carcass of Hope (2023)

by Zherbus


Levels 3–4

Hello, and welcome to part TWO 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!

* * *

Over the last decade, old-school publications have increasingly focused on non-standard settings and off-the-wall ideas. Getting away from the bland sort of high fantasy was a motivation, “Weird fantasy”, once a distinguishing characteristic, is now just the baseline. When non-standard is the standard, the old standard becomes non-standard again. This is what we see in this adventure: an AD&D scenario that exemplifies how post-Gygaxian AD&D looked like for most of its existence. The crypt of a noble family, a feudalism-light setting, an evil artefact, and a slightly gothic “monster movie” feel that would not feel out of place in Ravenloft set the tone. Encounter design, monsters and magic are drawn from the AD&D palette. It is familiar, even comfortable. However, the real distinction lies not between strange and familiar, but well-made and poorly made. In fact, a lot of high-concept releases are really bad. Also, a lot of vanilla releases are really bad. We must look elsewhere.

The Carcass of Hope offers a local mini-environment arranged around a central mystery – not quite mini-sandbox, but more than a simple, straightforward “beginning to end” module. The downfall of a local noble family, a ruined village, and the large family crypt are supplemented with two mini-dungeons, and a sketched-out description of a village home base (although it feels more like a small town). There is a lot to the module: the central dungeon offers 46 keyed areas, and with the supplemental material, its potential grows further. It is also a scenario which can accommodate different plot hooks and player approaches – although the curse of the Mirthmane family and the enchanted mirror serving as the module’s centrepiece shall focus this somewhat.

The main adventure site, the crypt is arranged around two looping, symmetrical corridors branching off into crypt areas, secret rooms, and cave sections where nature and invading monsters (both scavengers and more organised types) have started to claim the undead-dominated crypts. There is a layer of bog-standard crypt exploration here, with sarcophagus/coffin stocking charts that are too much on the mundane side – “a dagger, bejewelled with rubies worth 250 gp”, “silver earrings worth 30 gp”, a magic sroll, that sort of thing. It is nothing to get excited about, but it does get more varied and flavourful. There is a consistent theme of the Mirthmanes’ lavish spending on the resting places of their hunting dogs, a touch nicely establishing the theme of rich feudal assholes. There are signs of family tragedies. The crypts of the notable family members have individual touches as well, never completely unexpected, but playing well with gothic clichés – a screaming ghost, a pressure plate trap, or a flooding room. These are not the most complicated setpiece encounters, but they should make the players to stop and think a little before proceeding with their course of action. Details of environmental degradation are woven into both descriptions and game challenges.

Muh Loops

The encounter types offer good variety as well, with a particular emphasis on magical and mundane traps. This is a common way to spice up crypts, and here, they are generally well executed. The adventure makes good use of AD&D mainstays like continual darkness, magical alarms that can be disabled, and other ways of controlling or blocking access. Trap/puzzle combinations are good as well; for example, a statue holding a spear that turns out to be a detachable magic item, but one protected by a trap spewing poison gas from the statue’s mouth is good, classic AD&D that rewards the resourceful and observant, but punishes the foolhardy. Together with the combat encounters, the adventure is fairly tough for the intended level range, and more so if the family vampire gets unleashed.

Some of the puzzles are a bit too obscure. For example, a specific vault opens on presenting one of two specific signet rings (this is all right since it is a jackpot), and the main magical trap/alarm systems are operated with a family brooch (and sometimes a password), which are not really easily discovered unless via trial and error. Brute-forcing these protective systems is a way to do it, and perhaps more logical than finding easy clues that help the players figure it out, but there should have been a few more nudges in this area – even in a form of subtle environmental storytelling. Non-static encounters are not common, mostly owing to the crypt theme, but an undead NPC, creepy Old Uncle Arnaut, a bored crypt thing who is only a threat to grave robbers, is a real standout. The large centrepiece, the Cursed Penumbra mirror, more than lives up to its name, and it is a nasty piece of magic both to use and destroy – utterly deadly if mishandled, and an impressive conclusion if this is the target of the adventure.

The supplemental content is smaller-scale. Mausoleums in Mirthmane Cemetery are handled with random tables – this is fairly simple stuff. The Tower of Vuul is a monster hotel with a gibbering mouther as its central attraction. About as much as you would expect from a tower adventure, with a few better encounters. We also have our local Totally Not Chaotic Evil, We Swear cult and its underground lair. They sew their mouths shut, how could they be evil? This is a lot better, with good, imaginative and slightly sinister specials: “a fountain, its basin red-stained, and topped with a statue of a hooded figure. Its face is a gaping black hole.” If you figured out this is a portable hole, you deserve both this, and the scarab of insanity and bracers of defence AC 6 “made out of human flesh” you will find inside. Then we have a lizardman lair with a freaking ziggurat! Okay, it is very small, but it is a “whoa” moment in this very vanilla “monster movie” setting. The treasures the lizardmen are guarding, a golden catfish idol and a shield +1 they revere as a holy object, are distinctive and stick in the mind despite being throwaway lines. A few more touches – a non-standard vampire, humanoid bands, and a gang of harpies dwelling in the cemetery sinkhole add further minor touches, individually small, but a good source of complexity when added together.

The presentation is generally good, although it suffers from a weak introductory section, and some slapdash writing here and there that was probably the result of contest time constraints. It is not easy to understand what’s going on after a first read, and although things are made fairly clear after reading the main text carefully, this could be a lot stronger. However, the writing is good where it matters most: the actual encounter descriptions are effective, using bullet points where it makes sense, but not going overboard with them. The writing often manages to grab just the right phrase to set the stage for gameplay without becoming overwrought. It is not yet there, but a little more practice shall produce excellent results.

In summary, The Carcass of Hope is a slightly low-key, vanilla adventure whose strength lies in the effective use of standard AD&D elements. It is, however, at its best when it departs slightly from the tried and true, and offers some variation on the theme, and at its least impressive when it goes back to random coffin contents. Beyond the level of well-crafted individual encounters lie structure, and an understanding of constructing complex adventuring environments. This is how AD&D was being played in its heyday – no, it is how AD&D was being played well. There is room for improvement, but there is a clear path forward, too.

This publication credits its playtesters.

Rating: *** / *****