Saturday, 17 February 2018

[REVIEW] The Vault of the Whisperer


The Vault of the Whisperer (2017)
by James V. West, based on art, maps and names by Karl Stjernberg
Published in Black Pudding #2 by Random Order Creations
Mid-level

Glorp
Here is a mini-module that works. The Vault of the Whisperer (published in issue #2 of the art-centric Black Pudding zine) is a small, flexible scenario describing a 13-area underground section in 8 pages. It is a real “module” module you can insert into a wider campaign where you need it. You could find the entrance in the corner of a larger dungeon, at the end of a half-forgotten alleyway in an ancient metropolis, in a haunted gorge in the wastelands, or behind an undisturbed door in the cellar of your favourite inn. It is all in medias res, no backstory or sociological essay, but that’s fine. It is self-explanatory why things are there and what you should do with them, with much of the ideas inspired by a great set of illustrations by Karl Stjernberg.

The dungeon is the small shrine of a weird cult worshipping a subterranean monster appearing as a really huge, chasm-like maw on the dungeon floor. It whispers strange and evil things that warp the mind, and will soon become an ongoing concern for the adventurers, adding an element of time pressure and unpredictability. Its followers, a gang of deformed weirdoes, are something out of a bad dream, and they are accompanied by creepies and crawlies including slimes and flesh-eating trilobites (love those guys). Unlike many modern modules, which give you five or six baddies to fight, here you’ve got dozens of relatively low-powered opponents in a relatively small space. It is all set up for a glorious massacre, backstabbing, madness and general mayhem, with considerable environmental hazards. The GM’s job is made easier by providing Hp dots for every monster – a rare but useful quality-of-life feature. The vault is also chock full of secrets and hidden stuff, often opening up new ways of dealing with the encounters, and giving the players one of multiple unique magic items, all of them dangerous, squiggly things with multiple hidden functions and grotesquely funny drawbacks.

The imagination on display is top-of-the line through the module, and for such a small place – a few crisscrossing tunnels and rooms leading to a cataclysmic confrontation – Vault of the Whisperer packs an impressive amount of content. It is well suited for weird fantasy and sword&sorcery campaigns.

A group of playtesters is listed at the beginning of the fanzine.

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

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

[ZINE] Patient Zero

Welcome to Truglag's Tavern

Here is a proof of concept copy of Echoes From Fomalhaut I produced in my office today, featuring cover art by the inimitable Denis McCarthy. The final version will feature slightly different paper (the paper store was out of this specific hue, but they could sell me a lighter, kinda-champagne alternative), and I will need to mess around with the image until it is in the centre... but so far, so good!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut: Announcement and Preview


(Placeholder art)
It has been a long time in the making, but it is at last getting close: the first issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut is nearing release! The articles have been written, artwork is progressing, and the administrative needs are being arranged (yes, I even got myself a DO NOT BEND! stamp). Hence:

What?

Echoes From Fomalhaut is an old-school RPG zine focused on adventures and game-relevant campaign materials. Each issue is planned to feature a larger adventure module, accompanied by shorter scenarios, city states, and other things useful and interesting in a campaign. Rules-related material will be limited to a few pieces of interest. A long time ago, Judges Guild’s campaign instalments established the general idea, and that’s the road I intend to follow. A small city-state? An interesting wilderness area? An island ruled by a society of assassins? Guidelines for magical pools? All that kind of stuff.

The content will feature both vanilla and weird fantasy, mostly drawn from our home games, with occasional contributions by guest authors from the Hungarian old-school scene. Most of the articles will follow AD&D conventions, but remain compatible with most OSR systems – and there will be detours.

An average issue is expected to run 32-40 pages plus the cover. The print edition, produced in the A5 format, is set to ship with larger extras like fold-out maps or what have you; the PDF edition will include these as downloadables. For example, the initial issue (“Beware the Beekeeper!”) features the following articles:
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre (2.5 p): a 1d100 table to generate strange merchants, caravan guidelines.
  • The Rules of the Game (0.5 p): sets out the conventions followed in the zine.
  • The Singing Caverns (16 p): a two-level cavern system with 49 keyed areas, inhabited by orcs, bandits, and the mysteries of a bygone age.
  • Philtres & Dusts (3 p): a sampler of magical potions and dusts.
  • Red Mound (3 p): a mysterious adventure location found in the wastelands.
  • Morale & Men (1 p): a simple, fun set of follower and morale rules from a Hungarian retro-clone, written by two guest-authors.
  • The Mysterious Manor (9 p): the manor house of an extinct noble family, now with new occupants... or is there more to it? 23 keyed areas.
  • Unkeyed city map (extra)
Yes, there is a downloadable preview (see below)!

Why?

I have always wanted to publish homemade game materials, an idea that has grown on me ever since I fell in love with the rough charm of Judge Guild instalments. I released my first PDF adventure in 2001, and the first printed one in 2003 (through my E.M.D.T. – First Hungarian d20 Society label). Over the years, I have mostly stuck to free PDF releases and community fanzines (with the occasional detour, like the Helvéczia boxed set), but something has always been missing. This is an opportunity to fix that. Finally.

When?

The zine will debut with a pre-release version at Kalandorok Társasága VII (“Society of Adventurers VII”), a Hungarian game convention held on 24 February 2018. The print edition is expected shortly afterwards, in early March. A PDF/POD version will be published through RPGNow with a delay of a few months.

How much?

A print issue is expected to sell for $8.00 plus priority shipping ($3.5 to Europe, $4 to the US and worldwide). The price for the PDF edition is expected to be set around $5. POD is still TBD. All buyers of the print edition will receive a free copy of the PDF edition at the date of its publication.

This is slightly above the average in zine pricing (I did an Excel comparison of 39 OSR and indie zines, and they come out at $11.44 for print/worldwide), but gives you some 14,800 words worth of content per issue (not including the OGL and front/end matter), pays for the commissioned artwork, and Hungary’s prestigiously large tax wedge.

What else?

Since I had to set up a sole proprietorship to get this thing off of the ground, I am thinking about using the opportunity to republish some of my older adventure modules with new artwork in a reader-friendly format. Stay tuned!

Preview

Saturday, 10 February 2018

[REVIEW] The Tainted Forest Near Thorum


The Tainted Forest Near Thorum (2012)
by Yves Larochelle, with additional writing by Reverend Dak
Published in Crawl! #4 by Straycouches Press
5th level

The Tainted Forest Near Thorum
All is not it seems in the small, idyllic village of Thorum, and strange things are afoot in the surrounding woods, inhabited by a sinister evil. This may be one of the most recognisable adventure structures seen in modules: a home base threatened by an evil force and its local agents; a dangerous wilderness; one or more adventure sites leading to the lair of the secret evil. There is a fairly good chance something like this was your first adventure ever. It is popular because it works, but it has been covered so many times that it is hard to add a new spin on it. It is also the main problem with The Tainted Forest Near Thorum.

All three major areas of the module repeat the same mistake: they don’t add to a very basic, very overused formula. We have a village, which is like all small, peaceful villages beset by evil. It has a halfling-run inn that’s like every other halfling-run inn. The barmaid and the town drunk know dark secrets. There are two temples which are like every other village temple. The local authorities behave exactly like they tend to do in these adventures. NPCs are one-note stock characters. Corruption is afoot and some villagers are working for the enemy, before the characters unmask and kill them in one of multiple predictable plot twists.

The wilderness section, a forest bisected by a wide river, is a typical example of the way D&D wrestles with outdoors adventure design. Travel through the Tainted Forest is mainly represented by a one-page random encounter table with a few deformed beasts, but otherwise, the The Tainted Forest Near Thorum has very little forest adventuring in it, and not much of it seems to be tainted. (The exception, and the best part of the module, is a one-in-six random encounter with a local “legendary beast”, which is actually an interesting and rounded-out encounter. Here, the adventure briefly goes from boring to intriguing.) There are all of three wilderness areas to find, and it is understood that they will be visited in a linear sequence. One is a lair, one is a very minor “ruin”, and the third is the entrance to the main dungeon. You can kill the inhabitants or negotiate with them, and you find plot tokens which take you to the next place.

The final dungeon is a complete disappointment. The map is beautiful as an illustration, but it is essentially a completely linear sequence of encounter areas with all of two side branches. (This seems to be a common problem with the DCC RPG.) Not only is it a linear ride, the encounters amount to some mighty dull fare:
  • a few pieces of “this looks evil”-style descriptive detail;
  • some “they attack”-style combat encounters (although at least some monsters, like spine-shooting giant hedgehogs, a doorframe mimic, and living mounds of bubbling flesh which can rip limbs off of PCs, show imagination);
  • frequent reminders of “an uneasy feeling” overtaking the characters without actually giving the players something that’d make them feel something;and a completely deadly and unfair death trap.
What’s lacking here are interesting decisions, discoveries to be made via clever exploration, or even sights which would leave a memorable impression.

There is very little in The Tainted Forest Near Thorum that differentiates it from the same adventure you have played, run and read countless times (but now in DCC). Things are reskinned here and there to follow DCC’s heavy metal fantasy aesthetic, but that doesn’t really count as the kind of added value that’d make the module worth owning. Scott Ackerman’s art (exterior and interior cover, maps) is really nice, and Crawl! gets the fanzine aesthetic, but these things just end up overselling a functional but otherwise disappointing adventure.

Actually, there is something there that got stuck in my mind: this is the scenario which feels the closest to Diablo. You know? The village of Tristram, the Blacksmith, the Stay-awhile-and-listen guy, the church dungeon which its tale of corruption. Adventure fantasy stripped down to its bare essentials, the most “D&D” plot of them all, given some gloomy flourishes. However, Diablo did something with this formula with its interesting crowd control-based gameplay, character building and heavy randomisation. The Tainted Forest Near Thorum could not make it work.

The module credits both its playtesters and proofreaders, which is nice.

Rating: ** / *****

Monday, 29 January 2018

[REVIEW] Fever Swamp

Yuck
Fever Swamp (2017)
by Luke Gearing
Published by the Melsonian Arts Council
Mid-level

[NPC] will die in 4 days if not treated, as polyps in his appendix burst, showering all in a 5 foot radius with his disease.” Much of your reaction to this module will depend on how this piece of text will make you feel. If you find it absurdly funny, you are going to like Fever Swamp. If you find it puerile, disgusting, or plain doltish, this module will annoy you to no end. In either case, rest assured that the rest is not any worse or better.

Fever Swamp is a 28-page hex-crawl describing an accursed marshland where player characters may go to pursue one of the adventure hooks provided in this product, or by the GM. They are going to hate it. Fever Swamp is designed with a single-minded determination to make you hate it with every pore of your being. Vile diseases, wound infection, a bestiary of grotesque and lethal denizens, wretched tribes with disgusting customs, burrowing parasites, two apocalyptic forces and an evil cult make it a place you want to get out of as soon as humanely possible.

If you like imagery centred on disgust and decay, this module delivers. Everything is foul, dead, insane and wretched. Gruesome mutilations and bizarre deformities populate the marshland. Even roots are described as “grown fat on animal corpses”. There are sickening body horror elements, and the PCs can suffer fates worse than death. There is a disease chart where diarrhoea and weeping sores are a relatively happy outcome.  A bunch of original swamp monsters are provided, all macabre, some quite inspired (the stilt-walkers, thin and ragged figures of doom watching cursed locales from atop their swamp-walking stilts, are a classic; and dredgers, deformed giants dragging huge nets through the dirty water in search of victims, are like a bad dream).

The product is very brief and compact, with little wasted space (even the interior covers are put to use). Everything is laid out well and perfectly cross-referenced. Utility is very good. With all that, there is not much to the swamp, since the booklet is printed in a rather large font size, and many of the 14 locations are one-paragraph entries. It is dense and expressive, there just isn’t much of it. The entries are rounded out with guidelines and random tables to generate degenerate swamp tribes, and procedures to make the players regret ever having their characters set foot in this foul place.

Altogether, Fever Swamp is well-made, creative, and very-very one-note.

No playtesters have been listed for this module.


Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 28 January 2018

[BLOG] The formless wilderness

So yesterday we had a great game session where the characters ventured out into the wilderness in the pursuit of various adventure hooks, some campaign-specific and some plainly mercenary. There were forgotten ruins, great stone heads vomiting poisonous snakes, a griffin attack on the party’s lone horse thwarted by a very fortunate gust of wind spell, mountain lakes with magical ice, a mud pit full of giant leeches a PC just walked into, and mysterious stone circles with runic messages. A good time was had by all. The evening before yesterday, I was panicking over a blank piece of paper and The Tome of Adventure Design, trying to make a few feeble sparks of creativity catch on fire while the clock was ticking away. That happens every time I write a wilderness adventure, and no matter the practice and the fact that I’m quite good at running them, it doesn’t get much better. Writing wilderness adventures is surprisingly hard if we don’t fall back on a few overused concepts (which I’ll discuss below).

There is a good reason so many D&D adventures take place in dungeons, and that’s not just because descending into a mysterious underworld full of danger and riches is such a compelling idea. Dungeons are one of the most successful game structures, balancing ease of use with a lot of potential for complexity and depth. And of course, a lot of the rules (including spell descriptions) apply to dungeons, or are formulated in the context of dungeons. Dungeons gave us the original language for location-based adventures, and this legacy shows up in most game materials, even those that don’t describe dungeons per se, but look and feel like them anyway. “Dungeon-likes” may be the most common form of RPG scenario next to mission-based ones.

Scorpion Swamp: the original pointcrawl
Sadly, the OD&D booklets never developed a comparably powerful engine for adventuring above ground. There are a lot of fascinating ideas scattered in the text of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures which outline some kind of implied setting, but I am not sure Gary & Co. ever used them that cohesively or comprehensively. Whatever its virtues, it didn’t catch the popular imagination and was pretty much forgotten until interest was rekindled in OD&D in the 2000s. Pretty much the same happened to Judges Guild’s simple and amazingly functional campaign hexagon system – there are a lot of hex maps in 1980s and 1990s game products, but they are vestigial, used only to measure distances, and not to structure and run game space. On the other side of the coin, the wilderness exploration guidelines in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide don’t form a complete system: they are disconnected ideas which relate to running a wilderness, but don’t present clear procedures you should follow in play. In the end, more space in the DMG is dedicated to aerial combat than designing a wilderness. The Fighting Fantasy gamebook series had the great Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson (the American one), which mapped a swamp on a square grid consisting of “clearings”, each with some kind of encounter in it. This was perhaps the best model for a non-linear wilderness game, but it didn’t really cross-pollinate tabletop games.

We know a lot about the megadungeon (“the mythic underworld”), but we don’t even have an approximately developed idea about the... megawilderness (Moorcock called it “the exotic landscape” in Wizardry and Wild Romance). The wilderness as a place of fantastic dangers, natural wonders, monstrous adversaries and lost history has even more precedents in fantasy literature than big dungeons, and wilderness maps are a very big thing in fantasy fandom, but it has not been distilled into a coherent package of rules, guidelines and building blocks. The closest is the hex-crawl, which gives you large-scale travel based on day-to-day movements on a hex map, features of interest to explore, and random encounter charts to complicate things. It is the best way I know to run grand expeditions. But even the mighty Judges Guild stumbled when it came to packaging a smaller piece of wilderness into an adventure. Hexes fail when they are applied to finer terrain (there is both too many and not enough of them), and that doesn’t even cover filling the wilderness with interesting encounters.

***

The consequences have been with us ever since. Where running a place consisting of connected rooms and passages has established standards and a lot of helpful techniques and idea generators, the same does not apply to running an open landscape. In the absence of translating the idea of traversing fantastic landscapes and discovering danger and riches therein into a gameable thing, we have a tendency to reach for crutches and substitutes.

Eriador, land of poor road planning
One of the big ones is roads. Roads connect big hubs of activity like cities and dungeons, and they can have interesting stops (inns, encounters, things to see and roadside lairs to explore), which makes for an exciting journey. Roads can be concrete or figurative (rivers, valleys, etc.). Roads are the easiest, but they are also lazy and they make players lazy. Like the overly linear dungeon, they cultivate bad habits and lack the true feeling of discovery. For all the care I invest in my wilderness maps, my players still have an annoying habit of staying on the roads, and missing out on several points of interest. I either have to point them directly at the vicinity, or yank the rug from underneath their feet to prod them into expedition mode. This is a big reason why my settings increasingly lack developed road networks, and occasional trails taper off after a few hexes. (Seas and large bodies of water also encourage a sort of open exploration approach.)

Another substitute for deep wilderness action is to populate the wilderness with dungeons instead of treating it as one. This is the classic case of falling back on familiar modes of play to avoid getting tangled up in a less defined one. Mini-dungeons are easy to develop on a tight time budget, and they give a good bang for the buck. But the moment you are entering a mini-dungeon is also the moment you are exiting the wilderness. You can even see it in Wilderlands of High Fantasy, whose wilderness is populated with “Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”. They are very much about non-wildernessy things you find in the wilderness.

The third substitute is to use monster encounters, and lots of them. This is largely logical – you stock a dungeon with dungeon monsters, and you stock a wilderness with wilderness monsters. The monsters have lairs and they can also be found roaming at random and maybe having conflicts and interactions with each other. But just like a dungeon filled with monster closets feels one-note, so does a wilderness filled with monster closets.

Perhaps we are still missing the forest for the trees?

***

So then what about true wilderness play? There is no big solution in this post, and some of it feels a bit obvious to restate – but here it goes. It should be something analogous to a developed dungeon, but use the fantastic game logic of the exotic landscape instead of the fantastic game logic of the mythic underworld. It should be intuitively understandable and easy to replicate in preparation and play. Here are just a few things which I think deserve thought and attention.

There should be a robust movement system to help players navigate. This can be a combination of the point-crawl (a system of lines connecting encounters in an interesting way, like a dungeon’s corridors and rooms), landmark-based navigation (approaching, avoiding, or leaving behind natural and man-made landmarks and distinct terrain features), and compass-based movement (move in any of the eight cardinal and ordinal directions). This system should be gamey, but flexible, with broad applicability. No need to figure movement points or cross-reference encumbrance with terrain types, but there should be a way to let both the GM and the players describe the party’s movement through the wilds in simple terms.

It is useful to have good, simple procedures for exploration. Dungeoneering procedures tell you how to get across a chasm, keep an expedition’s progress lit, batter down a door and so on. Likewise, wilderness procedures should tell us about foraging for food, keeping watch at night, navigating a treacherous mountain trail, taking care of pack animals, and spotting important landmarks from a distance. None of these should be more complicated than a few routine player decisions and a few dice rolls – after all, the emphasis is on dangerous and fantastic things, and the exploration procedures serve to ground them in a sense of reality.

Connected to the previous point, there is perhaps some need to reconsider game rules from the wilderness perspective. This is not a new thing, since things worked differently in OD&D’s dungeons and wilderness sections, but it has been only inadequately explored. If, say, spells were written with the dungeon in mind, how do they work in a forest? In the mountains? Can I lift a fallen tree from our path with an open doors check?

Mapping a wilderness
But above all, we should reconsider what makes a good wilderness encounter. Beyond monster encounters, dungeons have flavour (dungeon dressing), traps, tricks and enigmas. What are the equivalents out on a wilderness site? This is the main question. Of course, a lot of dungeon accoutrements have a place in the wilderness. Mysterious statues, glittering pools, or deep chasms with something interesting down on the bottom feel as much at home in an enchanted forest as in the underworld. Mechanical traps and secret doors are harder to find counterparts for. Treacherous ground? Malevolent vegetation? Something hidden in the roots of a massive tree? These should be encounters where the characters can observe, experiment, and come up with unorthodox ideas to cut Gordian knots. How do we get across a raging river? Do we take the slippery-looking and altogether too convenient bridge, or do we create our own rope bridge? How do we investigate a seemingly abandoned hut? These open questions make for memorable adventures full of improvisation and ‘Eureka!’ moments.


The greatest potential lies in putting ideas from adventure novels, movies, mythology and fantasy into the context of a magical, gamified landscape, and mashing them up until they are their own thing. These are the equivalents of the true dungeon trick/enigma, like the enchanted field, the tree laden with different kinds of magical fruits, the burial grove where the long dead rise to consult the living, and many such ideas. They are not about the literal translation of original concepts, but creating something new through the power of dream logic and loose association. It is somewhere in these foundations that we will find the true idea of the megawilderness, and give it a form we can bottle and distribute to other gamers.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

[REVIEW] Spores of the Sad Shroom

We were somewhere on the edge of the
caverns when the drugs began to take hold
Spores of the Sad Shroom (2018)
by Karl Stjernberg
Self-published
There are multiple reasons why campaigns trying to use D&D for heroic fantasy gaming go south, and shrooms are one of them. Namely, D&D’s oddball monsters – man-eating pudding, giant slugs, hyper-intelligent floating beachballs which are both magical and anti-magical, and plain old mould – do not exactly conjure images of valiant struggles and derring-do. They are horrible, funny, and often both. Dying because you cut open an exploding puffball mushroom and coughed up your lungs is not exactly the stuff of legends, but it is sure a memorable way to go. Shroom monsters are D&D to the core. Not surprisingly, fungus master Erol Otus is a legend in old-school circles, and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom is one of the best-known old-school modules (not to mention Demonspore and other trips into mushroom-rich environments).
Spores of the Sad Shroom is a 16-page mini-module featuring some of the most fungal ideas explored in old-school. It is one of the cases where the artwork, which takes up a great deal of the content, does a lot of heavy lifting. This rare time, it works, perhaps because it adds to the text in cool ways. By a rough estimate, 9 of those 16 pages are laden with squiggly line art, conveying a sense of grotesque whimsy (there are repetitions). This continues in the adventure text, which involves descending into a fungal realm beset by a strange problem. It is not a straightforward hackfest (although there is that, too), and all the encounters have some kind of odd twist to them. It has that hallucinogenic quality you’d expect of a mushroom-themed module, and it never becomes one-note. Last but not least, it is funny. There is a great what-the-hell-did-we-just-see feeling through the whole thing.
The adventure is just on the right side of minimalism. The writing is a good example of terse and expressive prose. It doesn’t waste words but it is not stripped down to the core. However, it is small. It is a small, small module, and efforts have been made to make it more complex and layered, but it is just small. The map is basically a few side-branches attached to a single loop (a blank extra level is provided for the GM). It is 11 good encounters and some depth through the random encounters and the extra layer of interacting with insane mushrooms, and the artwork is super-cool, but it feels hemmed in. This feels a bit unjust, because the module never pretends to be more than what it is, but the feeling is there. I guess it is good enough to make you crave more of it, but this is followed by the slight disappointment of that ‘more’ not being there?
This adventure has been playtested by “Christ Didonna & Gang”. A good start, but don’t the gang also merit a listing?


Rating: *** / *****