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