Sunday, 17 February 2019

[Review] Wee Warriors Reprints, Part I: Palace of the Vampire Queen

The palace on the cover doesn't have much
in common with the maps.
Wee Warriors was a publisher in the late seventies who released all kinds of supplements and accessories for Dungeons & Dragons, which were distributed by TSR itself despite being unofficial. Wee Warriors sold character sheets, cardboard tiles, even a boardgame, but in the old-school community they are remembered first and foremost for publishing the first ever stand alone adventure module (or as they called it, Dungeon Master Kit), Palace of the Vampire Queen. They released two other adventures before vanishing from the market: the dungeon module Dwarven Glory, and the hex crawl The Misty Isles.

Needless to say the original Dungeon Master Kits are nowadays exorbiantly priced collector items. Fortunately, you can enjoy them without selling your kidney: Bill Barsh of Pacesetter Games & Simulations (not to be confused with Pacesetter Ltd) has secured the rights to the Wee Warriors Dungeon Master Kits a few years ago, and revamped them with the intent to support the North Texas RPG Con from the income. The following review is the first part of a series that is meant to give you some idea about what to expect from the PG&S releases of these classics. While there were expansions released for them, I'm not familiar with any of them, thus I will avoid that topic until the status quo changes (i.e. I buy and read them).

V2 Palace of the Vampire Queen is 36 pages long, has a cool front cover about the castle, and an even better back cover with the titular buxom vampire queen enjoying the company of some shady figures and hanging corpses. The book offers two versions of the adventure: both an exact reproduction of the original, and an AD&D conversion done by Bill Barsh. It has the original maps and texts, some sweet new black & white illustrations by Matthew Costanzo, and new text using a solid two column layout with lots of white space, which actually came handy for taking notes.

The adventure takes place on the dwarven island of Baylor. The palace is actually a tomb, raised by grieving shipwrecked humans to bury their beloved queen. Or at least that was the plan, but for unknown reasons the site turned into a nest of evil, and since then vampires and other children of the night have been preying on the locals. One of the latest victims was the dwarf king's daughter. The king promises fabulous riches and land holdings with titles to the rescuers. It is a damn fine offer if you ask me, I have seen adventurers risk their lives for far less.

Despite being the first of its kind, the original module does a great job at setting the tone and telling the backstory in a single page. It also has some sweet old-school maps full of loops, branches, secrets, and even cool illustrated borders - not as busy as in DCC RPG modules, but they are still aesthetic in their simplicity. So far so good! The room descriptions on the other hand are very bare bones. After each map you get a chart with columns for room number, creatures encountered, max damage (i.e. their hit points), and contents of room. And I thought the original Tegel Manor's descriptions were spartan!

The two guys on the sides love hanging out
with the queen.
At least the rooms are colorful, show plenty of creativity behind them, and lack any semblance of game balance, reminding me of Tegel Manor once again. The five levels of the dungeon have a great variety of creatures, traps, treasures, even if they are usually mundane - trolls, skeletons, spiders, slugs, etc. There are some potentially memorable encounters, like a madman with a bunch of cats, an owl that alerts bandits a few rooms aways, a chest that once opened starts spawning wights until closed, the kitchen where ogres are slaughtering dwarven children for blood pudding, and a random balrog guarding a mace of disruption because fuck the player characters. It's a huge horror funhouse, and as such it doesn't have to make sense, but boy isn't it fun to come up with explanations for all its weirdnesses!

The latter is exactly what Bill's version tries to accomplish: expanding the original entries into something more useful and reasonable. Unfortunately while converting PotVQ into an AD&D module, the author took plenty of liberties with the source material, and made the adventure more balanced, and less wacky. Some of the gonzo elements were thrown out, often replaced with yet another boring empty room. The madman with the cats is gone, just like the chest of infinite wights, and the balrog is changed into a lame Type I demon. He also downtoned the disturbing and gory elements, so instead of a room full of dwarven children drained dry we end up with one where dwarven children are hiding from ghouls, and instead of butchering them the ogres are just preparing the children for the cooking. It's not all bad what he does of course. His terse descriptions give some much needed character and purpose to the NPCs and rooms, and sometimes he even turns otherwise boring rooms into interesting ones. E.g. in the original level 4 room 17 has just four mummies hanging around, while in the revision there is a locked sarcophagus with one of the Vampire Queen's minions placed inside as punishment. I think it's obvious whether I would choose a filler encounter, or an NPC that can be turned against the main villain as a DM. Still, I feel too much of the fun stuff was thrown out. Their lack makes the conversion's approach feels workmanlike, unambitious, and while the end result is fine, it feels less exciting than the original.

Which version should you choose if you want to run the adventure? Both. Last November I ran PotVQ on Kalandorok Társasága for four players, using OD&D and some house rules. I printed the pdf, took my pencil, and started taking notes to create a hybrid from the two renderings of the adventure, while also adding my own content and ideas to the mix. It is a Dungeon Master's Kit after all, and it works even better as such with the two variants. The session was a lot of fun by the way, full of careful exploration, parleying with monsters, abusing random magic items, surprising deaths, and shocking near-deaths. In the end the party left some valuable treasure with the Vampire Queen, in exchange for the dwarf princess, and decided to leave the island once they are paid, because they don't want the kind of neighbourhood Baylor has to offer. All in all, I recommend getting PotVQ not only as a historical curiosity, but also as a module worth running.

Part II: Dwarven Glory coming soon!

Tl;dr: You get the wicked cool but overly terse original version, and a tamer but more useable revision of one of the original funhouse dungeons for the price of one. Shake it well before serving.

Where to find it: You can find the module in print and pdf in the Pacesetter Games & Simulations webshop. Some of their modules are alse available on DriveThruRPG in pdf, so I wouldn't be surprised if the above three would surface there in the near future.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

[Review] Quack Keep

Villain or victim? You can find out by reading
 the adventure (or this review)!
Let's start the new year with a review I've been sitting on since September! Quack Keep is a system neutral campaign setting with a heavy emphasis on fowl folk. Yes, bird people - ducks, geese, crows, and so on. Yeah, I know, it sounds silly, but so do dragonborn, tortles, gnomes, hit points. Ducks have been part of the hobby since the very first edition of RuneQuest realesed in 1978, which showed a fine example about how to present seemingly comical ideas with a serious face.

Quack Keep was written by RuneQuest and Judges Guild veteran Jennell Jaquays (an expert of both duck-centric adventures and sandbox settings), and Darcy Perry (the excellent sculptor running Star Hat Miniatures). Like The Dragon's Secret re-release, Quack Keep was part of the Dungeons of Doom IV kickstarter campaign. Unlike The Dragon's Secret, this was an entirely new product.

The 54 pages long book's cover is a stunning piece by Jaquays, depicting some of the locals facing the fiersome ducdrackon. I'm not sure if it's the colors, or the stern expressions of the ducks, but the goofy premise doesn't detract from the serious tone and tenseness of the scene. It's a damn fine cover, one I would gladly put on my wall. The interior feels like a black & white book that got colored later: the text is black & white except for the red titles, the header and some pictures are greyscale, while others are full color. While this dissonance irks me a bite, the top notch quality of the artwork more than compensates for it. The character illustrations done by Darcy Perry are particularly praiseworthy, they are both beautiful and full of personality.

Quack Keep begins with an introduction and a guide about how to use the book. The setting uses the Story Scale System, which is a universal system to describe the stats of anything - characters, magic items, you name it. The scale uses both numbers and descriptors. It goes from 0 (Calamitous) to 100 (Mythical), with a value of 2 being average, 5 superior, 40 legendary. I had a hard time wrapping my head around it and gave up on using it for conversion. Going with either an exact numerical system (preferably one close to D&D, which most buyers use anyway), or a purely descriptive scale with fewer tiers would have had been a better choice. If there are plans to use the SSS for future products, I recommend creating a conversion guide at least, for at the moment preparing to run the module in any system needs a tremendous effort from the GM.

The book introduces the setting's backstory in a single page. Reedy Bend is an unremarkable section of the river Cygnus, which happens to be a Nexus Point - a place where planes intersect. The region was settled by ducks after the god Oduck's ship, Squidquacknir crashlanded here. They built a prosperous civilization, that had to be rebuilt after the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypyros wrought havoc upon the area. Nowadays the ducks thrive again, despite the gargantuan monster's presence. The summary is great for several reasons: it's short, it puts the reader in picture about the region, and it leaves several questions unanswered. Anticipation to find out more is a good way to keep the reader motivated in getting involved with the setting.

You can find creepy stalkers, pet rocks, and good mead in Banquak Pond.
Reedy Bend is divided into twelve locations, which include settlements, wildernesses, and dungeons - the three cornerstones of a balanced campaign. Each has its own features, which can be a monster's lair as well as an eccentric shop, or just a historical site. Some of these might seem boring, but they are still useful in rounding out the locale's character. The towns and the Night Market have "Ten Things One Can Acquire" lists, which sum up in (surprise!) ten points what you can run into while hanging out there. As an example, in New Marshton Pond you can get into the best bar brawls, while in the Night Market you can buy stolen body parts. It's a short, fun, and effective way of setting the tone. I hoped to see more of these, but the only other list we get is the Random Encounter table for the Sunken Caverns, which is also delivered in a terse and entertaining way.

Unusually among sandboxes, Reedy Bend isn't overwhelmed by wilderness. Settlements cover a large section of the map, and even the depths of the marshes hold a hint of civilization, like a ferry ran by bandits, the above mentioned Night Market where people meet to arrange their shady dealings, and the camp of hillbilly swamp dwarves who hunt ducks (yes, the fowl folk ducks). It doesn't mean these areas are friendly of course. Reedy Bend is still full of places to explore and mysteries to solve! Where did the Squidquacknir crashland and what happened to it? What's up with the legendary ducdrackon that devastated civilization a century ago? What lies beneath the crypts of Bluebill temple?

My absolute favorite enigmas are the Marsh Lords. These stone idols fell out when the Squidquacknir crashlanded. Their upper parts are ducks, their lower parts are unknown, they are all over the region, they all look towards the same point, and some people claim they communicate with each other. The truth about them is utterly horrifying lovecraftian revelation. Brilliant. Speaking of exploration and mysteries, I must mention the Sunken Caverns, the defining dungeon of the region. It only has sixteen rooms, but it's delightfully non-linear, barely has any straight lines, and is connected to several other locations. Within the adventurers can find ancient crypts, living rocks banished by the first ducks, a fowlbear lair, an evil demon, the bottom of a Marsh Lord, and the ducdrackon's hideout.

The amount of detail each place gets is a erratic: some are lavishly detailed, while others only get a few paragraphs. Some sections even have "BYO Maps" (Bring Your Own Maps) notes, which means all the GM gets are a handful of ideas about what to put there, but everything else is up to him. I wouldn't have any issues with this, if the most intriguing adventure site didn't get this treatment: the Whispering Tower. It is basically Moorcock's Vanishing Tower - an everchenging, plane shifting dungeon. A missed opportunity, although it's understandable, since such a concept deserves an entire module of its own. Fingers crossed that's what Jennell is working on! Another disappointment is the titular Quack Keep. The ancient castle ruins are truly all that they seems to be. There are two entrances for BYO dungeons, but other than that the location feels more of a tourist attraction than an adventure site.

So far what we have is pretty solid overall. A bit uneven, but good. But good is the minimum one should expect from a module,  and if you buy something with Jennell's name on it, you are probably looking for more. Well, fasten your seatbelts, because we reached the part where Jaquays really shines this time: the denizes.

The fate of the dol-men is one of the darkest secrets
of fowl folk history.
Fifteen pages are devoted to the various inhabitants of Reed Bend Marshes. Heroes, scoundrels, shopkeepers, monsters, they are all here. Yes, even the monsters. If you hate puns and pop culture references, this is the where you will put the book down, because the authors now turn it up to eleven. You will meet people like Quackie Chan, Ducktor Whio, Biggus Duckus, Thulsa Duck, Ducky Perry, and so on. Howard the Human doesn't seem that outrageous until you realize he is both H. P. Lovecraft, and a Howard the Duck reference at once. The fowl gimmick becomes tiresome after a while, but if you endure and manage to dig deeper you will find pure gold. Behind the silly surface lie complex and well written characters. Their whimsical nature is balanced by layers of darkness that hide under the comical mascara. They have problems, tragedies, traumas, secrets, and complicated relationships with each others.

For many sandboxes the environment is the most defining feature. Quack Keep is all about its inhabitants. They feel like real people, and as you learn more and more about them you realize that why Reedy Bend is different from your average D&D setting: violence doesn't feel right. It doesn't solve most problems the people have here, and murder would just take away from the colorfulness of this unremarkable river section. Okay, the trolls and swamp dwarves are total bastards, they are the exception... But even the supposed main villain, the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypus is sympathetic in some. She was a human assassion, who took the wrong job, made a bad decision, and paid the ultimate price. Now all she wants is returning to her normal life with her girlfriend, but alas she can only become human during full moons, when she visits the Night Market to socialize a bit before turning back into the hideous monster on the cover. Transformation, and how it can change someone is a returning topic by the way.

Remember the Whispering Tower? If you read Moorcock you probably expect an Eternal Champion to turn up. Well  there are three of them in Reedy Bend, and the are other epic scale figures in the neighbourhood, like the Ducktor with his time traveling inn, the feebleminded Oduck who lost his memories with his ravens, the 16 feet tall otherworldy arch fey owl Lunos, and some more. The region has creatures and NPCs for every level, from wimps to godly entities.

Besides being fun the NPCs are also well written. There is enough information to work from in their descriptions, and to make the GM's life easier, their frequent places and related NPCs are included in tags. It could have been even better is if they were linked in the pdf, and the page numbers were included. It boggles my mind why such tags weren't included for the locations about the NPCs frequenting them. Some more help would be welcome, because the information is sometimes all over the place, the story of the ducrackon being one of the best examples.

Following the denizens are the Reedy Bend Tales, a collection of adventure ideas. There are more than seventy seeds here of various quality and magnitude: they range from simple fetch quests to world shaking events, and are usually one or two paragraphs long. There are plenty of pop culture references again, including Batman, John Wick, Big Trouble in Little China. Like the NPCs, these entries have helpful tags too.

There are two pages for encounters and curios (they are back from The Dragon's Secret), though a half page is eaten up by an image of trolls. I have no clue what they are doing, but they look damn fine. The tables are just as good. Here are a few examples:

If Coduck runs from it, you too should be concerned.
Coduck appears, waddling at full speed. He charges through the party ranks shouting “Crom!” A thunderous roar splits the air and the earth shakes. He is being chased by a hungry web-footed carnosaurus!

An odd wheeled boat-like craft has been found half-sub-merged in the marsh, it’s an amphibious combat vehicle from another realm called a “duck.”

A Marsh Lord, still damp and newly risen from the marsh. It resembles a member of the party.

A colorfully painted door and frame… but no wall.

Again, expanding them is up to the GM, but that shouldn't be a problem considering how evocative some of them are.

Two pages are devoted to the appendices. They introduce the various kinds of fowl folk living in the marsh (which is basically the same list as the one in The Dragon's Secret), and tell a bit more about quack magic, standing stones, before ending with a random chart of Artifacts from Squidquacknir. Would you like some sci-fi in your fantasy? Well of course! Three spoonful. Heck, make it four... The list has such mouth-watering objects as chainsaws, jet packs, electric tooth brushes, and some weirder stuff, eg.:

Jamie’s Magic Torch - This device is a blue cylindrical object with yellow ends and the name “Jamie” etched into it’s base. Activate the switch and a light shines forth. When shone at a flat surface, a portal appears; a hole with a helter skelta slide that takes the rider to Cuckoo Land.

Good stuff, again.

The book ends with gorgeous full color maps of Reedy Bend that cover pretty much everything. I have no idea how, but there are two maps for the Sunken Caverns in my pdf, but the section doesn't seem to be missing anything. Kudos to Jennell for including both metric and imperial units on the map! It takes such a minimal effort to do it, yet barely anyone bothers with it.

The layout is solid, editing in is much better than in The Dragon's Secret, and it is an entertaining read. I have a hunch though that most folk won't run it ever, because it needs some serious effort from the GM. There are places to be finished, stat blocks to be designed from scratch, duck minis to be painted (optinally, of course), and people to be convinced to play in a World of Fowlcraft.

Is it a must have product? No, but you should buy it. Not only to prove me wrong by running it (for example with Ryuutama - seriously, it's a match made in heaven), but also because it's a beautiful product, full of heart. It's the Alfred J. Kwak of OSR products: on the surface it's a fun tale with about ducks, but if you pull the curtain back you will see unexpected maturity and seriousness.

Tl;dr: An unusual sandbox where the fowl puns and silly quackracter ideas hide deep and engaging personalities.

Where to find it: You can find it in print in the Star Hat Miniatures webshop along with a bunch of amazing miniatures, and you can buy it on DriveThruRPG  in both pdf and print on demand format.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

WFRP4e First Impressions

I have never been scared shitless
by a basilisk - until now...
We finished our first Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition session today, and it was a blast! I might be a bit more biased than usual though, since it was one of those very rare cases when I wasn't GMing: a friend of mine offered in September to start a campaign, and needless to say I couldn't say no. It took some time to get it going, but here we are! The following is by no way a review, just some hastily witten notes after our first session. For those unfamiliar with WFRP some of it might even sound gibberish.

We played If Looks Could Kill, Cubicle 7's first (free) adventure for the system. Our party of three consisted of a human hexer, a human thief-taker, and a high elf apprentice wizard, who were tasked with escorting materials to a mill's construction site, and digging up some rocks the strygani workers weren't willing to. There was no time wasted on preludes: after a short introduction we were shipwrecked, trying to save an old strigany hag from a giant carp, deciphering ogham stones, digging up an ancient fimir sarcophagi, investigating a murder mystery, searching for a lost suspect, and hunting for the fearsome monster of the nearby swamp. And all of these somehow managed to fit into a four hour session. I'm not allowed to read the module yet, but as a player I liked it a lot: it seemed to be an open-ended mini-sandbox with lot of flexibility and some unexpected twists. The module also deserves a huge thumbs up for not having any beastmen, cultists, or skaven in it.

"Are there any pictograms on the bottom of the monolith?"
"He found thousand years old Dharfield comic strips."
I expected the first session to be rough, but except for a few hiccups everything went smooth. We had lots skill tests, a few short battles, two casters throwing spells, and even a chase scene. Having better starting skill values and more forgiving difficulty bonuses meant the beginner characters felt more competent than in WFRP1e or WFRP2e, but not by too much.

Combat felt more tense than in WFRP1e or WFRP2e. While there are no longer exploding damage dice the average +4 damage boost each weapon received, and the chance to land a critical on every strike more than compensates for that. My character's first wound was kind of shocking: half my wounds were gone, and it wasn't even a good roll! I felt a constant pressure after that to be more tactical.

The most welcome change in combat though is turning attacks and parries into contested rolls. You compare the success levels of both rolls (the skill value's tens minus your roll's tens), and whoever has the highest wins. If it's the attacker, the difference becomes the base of the damage. This is an elegant solution that abolishes both the whiff factor of earlier editions, and the need for rolling a damage dice. No matter how bad the contesting combatants roll, someone always wins the test, and earns advantage. 

"If ye call me a witch again I'm gonna fucken curse ye!"
Advantage was one of the most controversial innovations of fourth edition, and honestly, we didn't have any issue with it. For those yet unfamiliar with the game: each successive roll in combat earns you one advantage, which grants you a cumulative +10% on your next roll, but in certain combat situations, or whenever you fail, you lose it all. Managing your foe's or your own advantage is important, and  adds a new layer of depth to WFRP combat.

Magic at first glance felt lackluster, but in practice the petty magic spells so far were damn fine. Both of our casters had some defining moments with their petty spells that saved the day. I have still doubts about the potency of divine magic, channeling eating multiple rounds, and the seemingly low severity of miscasts. I hope my fears will be proven wrong soon.

Overall I'm satisfied with Cubicle 7's new WFRP so far. I was excited for this new edition, but I did have my doubts - many of which ceased after the first session. We've only got our feet wet though! Once I have more experience expect a comprehensive review. Until then, I will have to find a miniature for my bounty hunter, Heinrich Adolph Lundgren. We already have one for the witch, at least.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Looking for Oldhammer Miniatures?

One of the first minis I was satisfied with. Would order it again
so I can do it with a better paintjob.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who uses miniatures for his Warhammer RPG campaigns. I'm also pretty sure many Oldhammer fans are familiar with Tim Prow's name. I only started painting miniatures last summer, and after I was fed up with the quality of the early Reaper Bones miniatures I had I ordered a bunch of metals from Ral Partha Europe. Among them was a Heartbreaker Ratman Leader sculpted by Tim Prow, which not only looked stunning, but was a joy to work with.

In the last few years Tim Prow has been sculpting both fantasy and sci-fi Oldhammer miniatures that could be bought through Kickstarter campaigns or private messages - until now. Today his new webshop has opened its gates, and has some fine old-school slanns, undead, familiars, chaos minions, space dwarves, et al. Time to reduce my painting backlog, so I can get some Eru-Kin Mag Gun Unit I've been eyeing with since August.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

[Review] Obscene Serpent Religion

You are not trve kvlt if you can't decipher
the author's name.
Reading Obscene Serpent Religion 2 got me in the mood of checking out Obscene Serpent Religion. Unlike OSR2, OSR1 is not an adventure module, but a supplement devoted to generating serpent cults. That should be enough to justify its existence. Who doesn't have evil snake-worshippers in his fantasy campaigns after all? They are as crucial tropes of a healthy swords & sorcery setting, as evil frog-worshipping cults, or evil spider-worshipping cults.

The book is made of 32 weird 7.5 x 7.5 inch sized square pages. The cover looks like that of a death or black metal album's, and the black & white interior follows the gimmick too. Needless to say, those faint of heart should avoid the product, for there is plenty of gore and nudity within. Most illustrations are exceptionally well done and detailed, save for the last one which looks like something made with Microsoft Paint.

The first half of the supplement is about generating the features of the cult. You can find out what are they ways of the church, who the goddess is, what her teachings are, what missions do the leaders send the members on, et cetera. We aren't talking about tables here in the traditional sense. Each element has six possible results, each explained in a few paragraphs. While six doesn't seem too much, there is plenty of rolling to do until you get the end result, thus it's unlikely you will end up with a similar outcome after multiple usage.

The entries show a rampant imagination behind them. They can add a lot of depth and character to the sect, and can fire up the GM's creativity about how to further expand them - especially the bizarre, seemingly contradictory combinations. The author also proves that serpent faiths don't necessarily mean cloaked dudes worshipping ophidians - they can also be fertility cults, art idolizers, fortune seekers.

My favorite results are those with an ancient, mythic feel. For example:

"She gave birth to the moon, which was the first egg, and when it hatches, all will be devoured. She immolated her husband, who became the sun. His name is forgotten, for he is of no consequence. The Goddess is life, the Goddess is all."

That's evocative, and if you roll with it as truth it can bring some unique flavor to your campaign world. The moon is way too often underused in fantasy campaigns anyway, surprising your players with turning it to a literal snake egg sounds way too cool to not use it once in your life.

Unfortunately the book is not devoid of the edginess of typical LotFP products. Case in point, here is a quest for advancement within the cult:

"In a public place, you must force a serpent into the body of a powerful foe with many allies. The result must be fatal, regardless of whether the serpent is shoved into the victim’s mouth, or into a wound, or in some other part of the body."

I like the irony how the hole everyone first will think of is not mentioned among the examples. Still, the above was one of the tame options. There are others with more mutilation and sadism. Around the Tenets of Faith and Quests for the Hexagram was where I noticed the major difference between OSR2 and OSR1: the former pits the PCs against a cult, while the latter assumes they are the members of one. While I have no issue with having a serpent-worshipper or two in the party, I would avoid most of the tenets and quests presented, because they are just wanton torture porn.

After generating the faith's details come the appendices. The first is for generating random NPCs, and has plenty of names, epithets, situations. The only place where its lacking is the random items they are carrying. The second is encounters in the wilderness. It requires three rolls too to find out who the party meeets, what they are doing, and what they are carrying. Solid chart, well worth injecting into your campaign if the serpent cult becomes a prominent feature  of it. Third and fourth are two magic items. Sable Nectar is created from Sweet Nectar and the blood of a half-serpent creature. The juice grants random bonuses for 1d6 hours, at a cost - like blindness, or losing abiltiy score. Scarlet Nectar is made of Sweet Nectar and the blood of a snake. Its effects depend on what kind of snake's blood was used. Predictability has its cost too, though: drinking Scarlet Nectar is considered blasphemy by snake cults. The book ends with stats for Skin Vessels, which follows the good old (but not overused) cliché of a body filled with wriggling and writhing creatures - this time with snakes, of course.

Obscene Serpent Religion is a mixed bag. It's an evocative book, but some of the ideas you can end up with don't live up to their full potential. I understand it was meant to be an LotFP product. It's just a pity that if it wasn't one, it could have ended up with being something so much more. Its usefulness can also be limited depending on how prominent role are you planning to give the serpent cult(s) in your campaign. Still, it's a relatively cheap sourcebook with some excellent ideas. Having it on your shelf won't hurt.

Tl;dr: Obscene Serpent Religion is an imaginative supplement that limits its potential to fit the grimdark edgy weird fantasy of LotFP. You can buy the pdf on DriveThruRPG, and the paperback on Lulu.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Christmas in October

Last year I celebrated the arrival of my ZWEIHÄNDER rulebook with a post called Christmas in September. Little did I know back then, that next year I will cherish the arrival of another similar release: Cubicle 7's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition. Like its cousin, it's a sight to behold, but that's the least one should expect that from the publishers of The One Ring RPG. Embossed cover, beautiful full color interior, overwhelming book smell... Browsing through the tome felt like opening the WFRP2e rulebook years ago, which was the first English rpg I bought. If it managed to achieve something, it's whetting my appetite for more, and convincing me to pre-order the Starter Set too.

That cover looks awfully familiar...

This doesn't mean the end of my ZWEIHÄNDER campaign of course. My party just reached second tier, and I got the MAIN GAUCHE supplement's early access, which is full of juicy content we can't wait to try. Neither will I start a parallel campaign. My hands are already full with running ZWEIHÄNDER and HackMaster. For the first time in many years I am going to be a player. I can't wait to jump into the Old World and try the new edition! There are rules I'm excited about, there are rules I'm skeptical about, and there are rules I'm curious about. Once I got my feet wet expect a review about the game.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

[Review] The City That Dripped Blood

The cover promised me a huge ass dinosaur,
but all I got was a 3 HD giant lizard.
The City That Dripped Blood is the result of a crowdfunding campaign started by Frog God Games this August. You would think there is nothing new under the sun, but that's far from true: this time the campaign wasn't on Kickstarter, but on indiegogo, and it wasn't gathering funds to release another massive tome, but to publish a short module - the first product of a four part series. Badass title, a premise reminiscent of R. E. Howard's Red Nails, and an initiative worth supporting - needless to say I threw some money at them without thinking. Things started to look even brighter as the updates came in: not only did Frog God Games get the talented Michael Syrigos to do the cover, but they also managed to finish the book early: instead of January the pdf arrived early October. The review will be about the Swords & Wizardry edition.

The City That Dripped Blood is a 23 pages long adventure. The cover is a sight to behold, an astonishing piece that effectively evokes the classic howardian sword & sorcery feel using a style similar to Frank Frazetta's. The interior is full color, with solid illustrations, an abstract city map, and a page of uninspired dungeon maps. Layout follows the usual two-column Frog God Games template. At first glance everything appeared nice and dandy, but once I started reading the book thoroughly, issues began to surface.

I was startled for a second when the back cover told me that this is a 5e adventure for 4th-level characters. I had to double check if I got the correct edition. Such mistakes are not surprising from Frog God Games - just ask someone with the S&W version of Stoneheart Valley about the Pathfinder logo under the sticker. Nevermind, I don't make a big fuss about honest mistakes. On the other hand, my pulse swiftly rised when I reached pages 2 and 3. The City That Dripped Blood became the first book that pissed me off with its Table of Contents. Not only it is a waste of valuable space that could have been used for content, but it is so useless and uninformative, we wouldn't have lost anything if it was left out. Thank you very much Frog God Games, but I can figure out by myself that the adventure begins at the beginning of the book, and the Legal Appendix nobody reads is in the back. At least the digital version is properly bookmarked.

Why even bother?
The adventure was written for a group of 4-6 characters of levels 4-5. Extraplanar vulture-men called skelzis became vampiric thanks to the magical blood orchid, and with the help of their weredactyl servants rule over the forgotten desert city of Temelpa. The population consists of humans, who wear masks to show their place in the rigid caste system, and halfling slaves, who worship a helpful aranea. Instead of burial or funerary pyres the residents practice a ritualized form of cannibalism. Hiding in the city live a small number of outcasts, who no longer believe the skelzi propaganda. The outcats want to topple their oppressors, but are unprepared and unequipped to do so.

While the backdrop is amazing, and full of potential, the adventure begins with a hook as tired as possible: an army of gnolls attacks a caravan, and chases the party into the ruins of Temelpa. If you don't like it, you get three other options, but they aren't much better either (fetch quest, delivery quest, original hook expanded). No matter which one you choose, the gnolls will appear, and surround the city to keep the adventurers within. Needless to say the monsters stay out of the range of missile weapons and spells, and conveniently stay until the DM wants them to stay. Blockade is a cheap and ineffective way to keep the PCs from leaving the area. If the players can kill something you can rest assured they will try to do it. It's an army of gnolls? Don't worry, the players will have a plan, and waste an entire session on executing it. Second, why would an army of gnolls besiege a whole city for 4-6 escapees? Even a magical sandstorm that lasts for days would have had been a better choice, especially if you connect it in some way to the skelzis.

After the hook the module introduces the factions and important NPCs, giving the reader a good overview about what's going on in the city. The events are next, beginning with garbage exhaustion rules and an NPC meant to railroad the PCs if needed, then moving unto the mildly interesting funeral procession, and finally explaining in great length the interaction with the guards and skelzis. Short summary of the latter: no matter what the PCs do or who they are, the rulers are absolute bastards, and will do everything to enslave them, or throw them into the arena, or eat them. These are explained in long paragraphs, without any kind of highlighting or bullet points that would make it easier to scan the text and find at first glance what you are looking for. Among the walls of text there is a detail I found amusing: the Crimson Guards are totally incompetent in handling unusual situations. Meeting people without masks, or getting the wrong answer to a ritual question can lead to confusion and guards running to their superiors for advice.

Those threes and fours are all feeding and
sleeping chambers. So exciting!
Next are the district descriptions, a crucial part of any location-based adventure. Unfortunately they get around half page. No, not per district, all in all. The book presents only the two dungeons, the Crimson Ziggurat and the Ziggurat of the Dead in details, the remaining locations get a few paragraphs of trivia each. As for the ziggurats, they are as bland as their maps. Together they have 26 keyed areas, and more than half of them are generic rooms with nothing interesting going on in them. The rest isn't that exciting either. There are barely any meaningful encounters, and the dungeons lack traps, objects to interact with, puzzles. Even the treasure is abysmal! Almost all the loot is sitting in a single chamber in form of a decanter of endless water, a +1 spear, a scroll of protection from evil, a gem worth 625gp, three items of jewelry worth 115gp, 160gp, and 380gp, 2600gp, 1560sp, and 1080cp. I had to check again if I bought the 5e version by accident... In old-school D&D you get most of your XP for the treasure you retrieve. The module was written for a party of 4-6 level 4-5 adventurers. The swag above is maybe enough for a thief to get from level 4 to 5, and they advance super fast compared to other classes. The magic items are as boring and useless as it can get. In the city of vampire vultures is a +1 spear really the best magic weapon the author could come up with? Also, a rule of thumb: if you want to run a desert adventure, don't hand out a decanter of endless water to the party, otherwise it will turn into a trivial trip.

Beside the above treasure hunters can loot 50-200gp more by following the good old cliché of prying out the gemstone eyes of an idol. There is a 4 in 6 chance for the barbed devil living inside to manifest. I wonder why not 6 in 6. Don't rob the players from their actions having consequences. The idol's description is a short, but good example of my issues with the writing: fillers.

"The idol is similar to those venerated by any of the many gluttony cults: a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. The necklaces and crown adorning it are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones from humans and halflings. The whole thing is about 4ft tall."

No need to pad the text with generalization about other gluttony cults, because it's irrelevant concerning this statue, and it might not be true. What if a gluttony cult follows a bulimiac god who teaches to visit the vomitorium after every meal so you can keep eating? I'm also surprised when authors use weak words like "thing" casually in a published book. The idol's description can be easily shortened into the following, without losing any flavor:

"The 4ft tall idol depicts a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. Its crown and necklaces are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones."

Weredactyls? Always two there are; no more, no less.
Probably the result of the D&D5e CR calculations.
The module ends with appendices. Appendix 1 contains random encounter tables. They are just dull lists of monsters and quantity - 8 centipedes, 2 skelzis and 2 weredactyls, 2d4 halflings, and so on. Expanding the entries into a whole sentence would have livened them up and could help a lot in turning Temelpa into a living, breathing environment. 8 centipedes are crawling on the corpse of a halfling outcast who is holding a scroll in his hand. 2 skelzis are trying to capture 2 weredactyls that went feral after being in pterodactyl form for too long. 2d4 halflings are climbing down into the cellar hastily while the shouts of the Crimson Guard echo through the alley. Such details can be inspiring and expand the adventure.

Appendix 2 has the three new monsters entries: Fuulagh the Blood Orchid Savant, skelzi, and weredactyl. All three of them are imaginative creatures with an interesting symbiotic relationship between them. The skeksis... err, I mean skelzis are conquerors from another plane, and were turned vampiric (but nut undead) by the blood orchid. The weredactyls are their stupid servants, who the skelzis have to keep an eye on, for if they spend too much time in pterodactyl form they go feral and have to be retrained from scractch. The latter is a detail I would love to see abused by players, and turned against the skelzis!

The book ends with a legal appendix, and an empty page.

The City That Dripped Blood is not the kickass mix of city and dungeon crawl I expected. While the background and factions have enough detail to work from, the environment is seriously lacking, either because the information is close to zero (districts), or because of the content's weakness (ziggurats). Cutting the filler text, better organization, more interesting dungeon rooms, more exciting loot, and spending the two empty pages on giving the districts some character would turn The City That Dripped Blood from another shovelware adventure into an excellent one. Unfortunately that work is left to the buyer. But hey, at least the cover is nice!

Tl;dr: Beautiful cover, kickass premise, lackluster implementation. You can buy it on the official Frog God Games website.