Monday, 26 April 2021

[Homebrew] Getting Shitfaced

Advanced Taverns & Tankards
While browsing through my Google Drive folders, I found a bunch of house rules from the past - some for campaigns we actually played, some for campaigns that never launched. One of the recurring unused homebrews was a bunch of rules for drinking yourself under the table, which were originally written for Delving Deeper1, then revamped for Swords & Wizardry, before finally getting lost for years. Now the time has come to convert it to Old-School Essentials so we can finally give it a proper shot on Sunday's session.

The character's Drink Threshold is equal to 1 + CON modifier (minimum 0). It shows how many servings of alcohol the character can drink within an hour before its effects start to kick in. One serving equals a mug of ale, or a glass of wine, or a shot of spirits. After reaching the threshold the character must make a Save vs Poison for every further drink, with no penalty for the first one, but a cumulative -2 for each drink after that.

After the first failure the character becomes tipsy, receiving a small penalty (-1 on d20 rolls, -5% on percentile rolls) for every action. After 1-2 hours of rest he becomes sober again.

After the second failure the character becomes slightly drunk, receiving a medium penalty (-2 on d20 rolls, -10% on percentile rolls) for every action. He is also braver and more tolerant to pain, resulting in +1 hit point for every hit dice. After 1-2 hours of rest he becomes tipsy again.

After the third failure the character becomes drunk. He is incapable to do anything effectively (-4 on d20 rolls, -20% on percentile rolls), but is always eager to prove the opposite. He is fearless and shrugs of pain easily, resulting in +2 hit points for every hit dice. After 1-2 hours of rest he becomes slighty drunk again.

After the fourth failure the character passes out, usually after saying good bye to his lunch. He is incapacitated and totally unaware of  his surroundings. He will sleep for 4-8 hours before becoming sober again and he must make a System Shock roll to avoid losing one point of a random characteristic permanently.

If the character reaches at least the slighty drunk stage, he will have a hangover the next day. The length of the hangover depends on how drunk he was. For slightly drunk it lasts for an hour, for drunk it lasts for a  day, for passed out it may last for 1-3 days. During hangover the character is fatigued and sick, acting as if he had lost half his levels. Druids and alchemists might know cures that can shorten the length of hangover. The Remove Disease spell cures hangover, while Remove Poison nullifies the effects of alcohol.

We'll see how they work out in practice. They seem a bit lenient, but this is for an age of hardy people and less refined alcoholic drinks. Cheers!

1 I have absolutely no clue if it was written from scratch, or was based on already existing rules. The levels do remind me of HackMaster 5e, but it's been a while since I've read those and my books weren't available when writing this post. If anyone finds any similarity to other drinking rules, please let me know.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

[Review] Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set

A photo I did this morning because I couldn't
find a proper picture on the internet.
Originally I wanted to end March with something d100 related, like an OpenQuest 3e review or  musings about Hecatomb1, but then I ran into Paul Smith's Random Dungeon Encounters! Kickstarter campaign and got in the mood for some old-school dungeon crawling goodness. So let me tell you about my favourite OD&D retroclone ever: the Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set!

My first retroclone was Swords & Wizardry. I have fond memories of running sandboxes using Core and Complete, but as I got familiar with OD&D I realized that S&W altered its ancestor in way too many ways I didn't fancy.2 I yearned for something closer to the original, and eventually my prayers were answered. It was probably the ODD74 forums where I first read about Delving Deeper, an OD&D retroclone written by Simon Bull, Cameron DuBeers, and David Macauley. The promise of a more faithful adaptation of the LBBs, awesome Mark Allen art, and kickass boxed set by Brave Halfling Publishing whet my appetite immediately. The pdf version was released in October 2012, the boxed set in December 2012, but it was only in July 2013 when I finally got my hands on it.

Brave Halfling Publishing was ran by John Adams, who mostly published unremarkable OSR supplements, adventures, and an occassional retroclone until his business collapsed thanks to the dumpster fire Appendix N Adventures Kickstarter3. Despite all his faults John does deserve some praise for two things: he loved boxes and had an eye for quality. The Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set is a proof of both. The game came in a thick cardboard boxed set with a glorious black & white Mark Allen cover. Mark Allen is my all-time favourite black & white OSR illustrator. His thick outlines combined with thin cross hatching and dot shading not only look great, but also evoke the feel of medieval engravings in the same way as Dave Trampier's art does.

While the pdf version of the rules are presented in three booklets, the boxed set split them in six sturdy saddle-stitched digest booklets. Forging A Hero introduces the rules players should know on 28 pages. Codex of the Divine and the Arcane contains the rules for spell casting, spell lists, and even some spare spell worksheets on 36 pages. Index of the Fiendish and the Malign has all your beloved classic monsters on 44 pages. Vault of Treasures covers treasure on 24 pages. Delving Deeper and Blazing New Trails has all the advice, tables, rules the referee needs to run the game on 38 pages. All five of them are pleasing to look at thanks to the lavishly illustrated interior and the tight design. Delving Deeper doesn't overdo highlighting and layout, it keeps it minimalistic, but effective.

That alone would have been enough to make me happy, but the box has a few more surprises! First, it has Rob Conley's Blackmarsh setting as a neat saddle-stitched digest booklet accompanied by a neatly folded hexmap. Second, it also has a pad of 25 digest landscape character sheets. It has everything you need to kickstart a sandbox campaign, except for a few dungeons, dice, and pencil. Ironically, dice and pencil are mentioned on the back of the box, and I remember John Adams promising to ship them in a second wave, but I never got those. If anyone has ever received dice and pencil from Brave Halfling Publishing, please let me know!

"Don't worry, according to the rules
trolls don't rend in this edition!" - said
the brave halfling to comfort his friend.

Of course as it is a product that was put together in a garage by some dude and his family, it has a few faults. Some of the art is blurred or slightly pixelated. The character sheets were printed with a tiny bold font that takes some effort to decipher. The Blackmarsh booklet was printed on a thinner papper than the rest, and while the folded map is neat, it's far from the indestructible accessory that comes with old Judges Guild products or the issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut.

The actual rules themselves are exactly what was promised: it's OD&D cleaned up. While the authors didn't cut anything out of the original game, they did take some liberties with the source material, and made small changes like adding the strength damage bonus from Gygax's house rules, tinkering with the attack matrix, filling in holes in the spell list from supplements, introducing an optional thief class which uses the x in 6 method used for dungeon exploration activities for thief skills, and throwing in some monsters that were mentioned but not statted in OD&D (eg. thouls, robots). The writing is functional: it doesn't have a strong author's voice, but it does a good job at explaining the rules and best practices. I can safely hand the rulebooks out to my players without worrying about if they will understand it. Overall the Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set hits a sweetspot where I have enough stuff to start a campaign, but I still want to house rule the shit out of the game.4

Alas the boxed set is no longer available, so if you want a piece of this your best options are the digital editions on the Immersive Ink forums and DriveThruRPG, and the print-on-demand book on Lulu. Despite being a retroclone Delving Deeper went through a surprising amount of changes since the boxed set was released. The game is currently at V4, with a V5 seemingly stuck in development hell. Later versions began moving closer to the source material by introducing more Chainmalisms, and dropping some of the added content. If you find all the versions confusing, just pick V4.

In the last decade OSR production values leveled up to epic tiers. Fancy boxed sets, chunky leather bound tomes, coffee table books are not uncommon nowadays. I'm a sucker for them too - my faux leather HackMaster rulebooks are some of my most treasured posssessions, and whenever I visit a friend I take a minute to stand in awe of his silver foil DCC RPG rulebook while thinking about how can I get away with murder. But just as I find low to mid level adventuring the best in old-school D&D, so do I prefer simple, elegant, sturdy rulebooks at my table. The Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set nailed it with its design perfectly, and if it came earlier than Swords & Wizadry it would be defining OD&D retroclone and not just a sidenote in the history of OSR. Even if the majestic boxed set is no longer available, it's a solid rules reference for original edition roleplaying.


Rules system: Delving Deeper
Publisher: Immersive Ink,
    Brave Halfling Publishing
Publication date: 2012

Format: boxed set
Contents:
 six digest size rulebooks
 a folded letter size hex map
 a pad of 25 digest size character sheets

Available from:
 out of print, see review for other versions
85%
The closest  a retroclone
ever got to OD&D.

1 Since the name Hecatomb stuck with everyone involved I decided to drop the Project prefix.

2 Some examples off the top of my head: morale, reaction, treasure tables, random encounters with NPCs in the wilderness, et cetera...

3 One of the reasons I rebooted my blog and started writing reviews was that I was pissed off by the Appendix N Adventures products.

4 While gathering my thoughts for this review I found some of my old homebrews for Delving Deeper. There is nothing earth shattering among them, but they might worth a post or two.

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Sunday, 28 February 2021

[Review] The Palace of Unquiet Repose (DCC RPG)

A Domain of Decay.
A few years ago Prince of Nothing and Malrex released The Red Prophet Rises, an OSR adventure that did a stellar job at capturing the essence of sword & sorcery with its ultraviolent barbarian cult, dreary canyons, and antediluvian ruins. I can't recall when the Prince of the Lowlands started teasing his next project, The Palace of Unquiet Repose, but I was hyped from that very moment, and it seemed like an eternity until the Kickstarter campaign launched. The campaign was successful enough to spawn three conversions of the module: one for Labyrinth Lord, one for Old-School Essentials, and one for DCC RPG. Poor For Gold & Glory got the short end of the stick this time - it's a shamefully underrated retroclone that deserves more attention. But I digress... I have all three versions at my disposal1, but for this review I went with with the best game the OSR has ever seen: DCC RPG.

The DCC RPG version of The Palace of Unquiet Repose is a 75 pages long book accompanied by a 14 page bonus adventure called The Screaming Caverns. The almost monochrome still-life of the cover stands in stark contrast with the violent ritual seen on The Red Prophet Rises, and the eerie black and white interior further reinforces that the days of high adventure and barbaric splendour are over - welcome to the Age of Dusk, a bleak era still suffering from past calamities!

While art is great at giving first impressions and setting the tone, it's purpose is to supplement the writing2. Prince nails it effortlessly. He focuses on the important set pieces of each scene, highlighting their defining features in a terse but pompous prose. Ominous features are left for the last, making them linger on. That's smart pacing, that's how you do effective foreshadowing. Once you absorbed the feel each of the bolded keywords gets its spotlight in a bullet point list. The art and the writing together create a powerful atmosphere unlike any other. The Palace feels like an oppressing, melancholic, and haunting relic of bygone, alien times. It is grandiose dark fantasy reminding me of the depressing world of Berserk, the melancholic journey of Dark Souls, the disturbing art of Giger, the droning songs of Celtic Frost3.

"The Glass Wastes were once the site of an empire, so horrible none dare remember it."

The Palace of Unquiet Repose doesn't waste much time with introduction and summary: it starts throwing useful stuff at you right away, including some damn good hooks (like horrific visions of antropophagy driving a character to the wasteland), juicy rumours (some of them are needless to say utter bullshit), and some random NPCs (most of them aren't right in the head). Besides being useful in kickstarting the adventure these also give a good picture about the status quo. Deep in the desert an earthquake revealed a ruin built by the race of Tzyan - an ancient people who not only hated the gods, but built weapons to kill them. A squad of Sial-Atun mercenaries deserters, a cult of Tzyan called the Nine, and various ne'er-do-wells are looking for the place.

The Palace is a week's travel on foot from the city, during which Dusk Stalkers will harrass the party. They are the cooler cousins of the owlbear - they have a paralyzing scream, they use smart tactics to stalk their prey, they wrap themselves in the skin of their victims, and are actually the descendants of degenerate humans. Their behaviour is smart and believable, and will force the players to think through how they camp if they want to both rest and survive.

"Eroded by the ages, the malevolent visage of some ancient prince gazes down imperiously from a monstrous body of ancient stone."

Once the party reaches the basin they can enter the mythic underworld either through a basalt sphinx [sic] or a fissure. The sphinx leads to a collection of chambers full of ancient traps, eerie murals hinting about the place's forgotten history, and some unusual treasure in form of gilded skeletons. The fissure is shorter, safer, but much more foreboding. Infiltrators are greeted by a camp of mutilated corpses and a Dusk Stalker impaled on a spear among a row of statues, whose mate will attack the moment someone starts tampering with a nearby treasure. 

"Rising from a lake of shimmering quicksilver and misty vapors, back-lit by eerie witch-light, the Palace of Unquiet Repose stands monstrous vigil over a city of the dead."

The two entrances offer different kinds of horrors, but ultimately both lead to the Black Shore. A lake of mercury with a colossal statue of the sorcerer Uyu-Yadmogh emerging from it, wall full of miniature carvings depicting torture and perversion, an evil shrine where one can be baptized to protect himself from the upcoming horrors at a cost, a forest of petrified trees stalked by a glass concubine, the dispirited rearguard of the Sial-Atun mercenaries... The disheartening landscape already offers memorable encounters, and it's still just a prelude to the Palace, which awaits patiently in the background, behind the lake of mercury.

"Nothing can be heard in the city but silence."

Even the walls have mouths.
The haunted ruins of the Necropolis is where the shit hits the fan. The Sial-Atun mercenaries have a base here. They were lead here by Captain Sarakar looking for untold riches, but are stuck here and tired of this place. Among the terracotta and obsidian plants of the Gardens stands the Crystal Tree, which prevents any kind of violence within its sight. It's worshipped by the Children of the Tree, a bunch of hippies living on the fungi growing on the tree. Their leader is the Father, who went crazy and can change from Mother Teresa to Hitler without warning4. He also has an Infinite Dart, a branch of the esoteric tree, the only weapon that can be used in its presence and can damage even the gods. Finally, among the ruins lurk the Nine. They are cultists of Tzyan with unique special abilities and pretentious names - they are not unlike JoJo villains. The Thousand Faced Prince can shapeshift without magic, The Walker in Dreams can leave his body and enter people's dreams, The Shaper of Things to Come can shape clay and stone into weapons, et cetera... Their leader is the hauntingly beautiful Khabareth Who Comes Before, who bound a Wolf of the Final Night into her bidding, a nightmarish shadow creature from the End of Time even she can't fully control.

If the potential faction play wasn't enough, the Necropolis still has some tricks in its sleeves. Nomen est omen, the place is full of corpses, and is haunted by the Azarog, a nigh invincible and invisible creature that is limited in movement but can reanimate the dead to its heart's desire. The scenery also has some memorable objects to play with, but my favorite is probably the Vae Victis, where the still-alive severed head of a lesser god is held on display. When the gigantic face is questioned he keeps repeating creepy prophecies. When the shard from his forehead is removed he answers a question truthfully before perishing. The shard is a deiphage, a dagger that can wound the gods, but can also grow into the wielder's hand and slowly turn him into one of the undead.

"A baroque monstrosity hewn from basalt, obsidian and crimson marble, every square inch covered in reliefs and figurines, super-imposed over one-another as if capturing all possible facets of their nature."

There are several ways to enter the Palace. There is a hallway covered by gaping mouths, that drain your soul unless you have one of the pebbles from the Black Shore, or you threw enough people at it to deplete the trap. If the players manage to bypass the traps the Sial-Atun and the Nine will follow. There is a secret entrance in the Necropolis through an optical illusion revealed by meditating. And finally one can enter through the roof, but it's a difficult climb made harder by the tiles turning into gargoylesque guardians.

How blood sausage is made.
The Palace is baroque, grotesque, and rich beyond imagination: walls are made of gold, treasure stands in piles - literally. There are even rules for vandalizing the place for treasure, which I found amusing. While it might be tempting, it's not necessarily a wise idea. Like the Necropolis, the Palace has its watchdog too. Diorag the Breaker is the re-animated corpse of a demigod chained to the throneroom with 1000 feets of adamantium. Once he learns there are intruders he will follow them and even pop up as random encounter. If the characters can avoid or trick him, they can still be eaten by salivating walls, seduced by glass concubines, impaled in the heart by an immovable nail, splashed with cursed gore by the half-idiotic Master of Cerenomies, or betrayed by a chaotic artifact.

Intrepid players can also descend to the second level, where Uyu-Yadmogh, the Tzyanese prince who built this Palace can be found. He is more of an abominable object than a monster, a colossal fusion of the sorcerer and his minions. He is surprisingly firendly, willing to show his visitors what Judgement awaits them, and offers the secret of avoiding it for the head of the Sial-Atun and the Nine. If his offer is refused or someone tries to take The Tome of Iron and Glass from him he will go mad and start animating corpses and draining souls until he is destroyed - though only two objects can kill him permanently...

The module ends with almost as many appendices as the AD&D1e DMG. I will highlight four because they cover topics I want to dwell a bit more on.

Appendix A sums up the factions, a defining element of the Necropolis area. All three of them has character, iconic NPCs, and a goal which they actively seek to achieve. They are equally willing to ally themselves with the players or murder them to get what they want. Even the hippies when the Father gets in paranoid mood on his random table. Fuck, he is willing to destroy his own, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for him... Though they have less important roles in earlier and later parts of the adventure, the factions make the Palace and its environs come alive and provide memorable friends and foes.

Appendix B lists a bunch of magnificent magic items. One of my favourites is the Cask of Unknowing, which makes people forget about the bearer, but too much use will reduce the bearer's personality and turn him into a non-being. The Many-Angled Instrument of Ethereal Imprisonment is basically the trap from Ghostbusters. The Tome of Iron and Glass contains Nth level spells which require an hour of chanting and a DC 20 spellcasting check to mess up an entire area - except for the imperfect Transcending the Fetters of Mortality, which destroys the ritualist and blinds those around him. The book also contains two adventure hooks (or sneaky advertisement), foreshadowing what modules to expect from the Merciless Merchants in the future. While not as exciting as the magic items, even the mundane treasure is kept interesting, often by the sheer amount of it and the challenge its recovery poses.

I loved you in Dark Souls!
Appendix C collects some of the new monsters. Horrifying beasts are just as important for creating a dark fantasy atmosphere as the eldritch environment. An evocative description is only half the battle though, the creatures must have abilities that put the fear in the metagamer's heart too. The Palace of Unquiet Repose satisfied me both visually and mechanically. Some encounters feel like something right out of Dark Souls. I'm particularly fond of the invincible boss monsters that requires cunning or the serious waste of resources to get through - straight up fighting them usually means quick death. Then there is shit that's just plain weird, like the glass concubines. The idea of autonomous realdolls isn't that weird by default, but making them from glass and electrum, and making one with the lower body of a dragon? I wouldn't touch Prince's browsing history with a ten foot pole...

Appendix F is a topic near and dear to all DCC RPG fans: patrons! The Palace of Unquiet Repose introduces two of them with unique Invoke Patron results, patron taints, spellburns, and spells. The Tesseract Tree worshipped by the Necropolis hoboes is older than the gods. It can not only cease violence, but awaken animals to sentience, hand out Infinite Darts, and even alter reality. To form a pact one has to crucify himself on its branches. The Tree is only willing to have one pact at a time, so before nailing yourself to a tree you have to kill the Father. Uyu-Yadmogh on the other hand is not so picky, though his spells aren't as exciting either: they can sow discord, age creatures, and petrify. Invoke Patron can summon Azarog though, which is nice.

The Screaming Caverns is the cherry on the cake. This exclusive adventure is about slaying a Sial-Atramentar, a maimed servant of the fallen gods that can be only harmed in one specific way. The players will have to figure out that condition through rumours, oracles, or random luck. There is an unpleasant twist though once they enter the monster's lair: he has a friend too. One of them can resurrect the dead but with malfunctions and a hatred against all things they loved in life, the other can shape stone and entomb living creatures in it. The Screaming Caverns is a fun monster hunt that requires a lot of preparations and is very easy to fuck up because of false rumours or lack of information.

I left the layout for the last. While mostly it's clean and uses highlighting, bullet points, cross referencing effectively, it's far from perfect. The way NPCs are presented is confusing. There is an italic description first, followed by stat blocks, equipment, and details. The problem is there is no heading or title telling you that a new section begins, and whom it's about. Even a cheap trick, like putting the stat block first would have helped in differentiating the sections. My other issue is with charts. They are chunky and often flow into other pages. This is a frequent problem for charts with large chunks of texts, like random encounter tables containing stat blocks. They are also ineffective: the cells are full of unused whitespace, making me cringe. I recommend formatting tables so they fit in a single page, and rethinking how columns and rows are used to minimize wasted space.

The Palace of Unquiet Repose exceeded my expectations. It walks on the razor's edge, finely balancing between Negadungeons and Monty Haul. It's a horrible place that can destroy your precious characters, but it isn't unfair and offers unimaginable rewards for the risks you take. It is dark fantasy done right - there is no self-irony, no random bullshit for the sake of weirdness, just foreboding atmosphere delivered with unparalleled craftsmanship. Well done!


Rules system: DCC RPG, Labyrinth Lord,
    Old-School Essentials
Publisher: The Merciless Merchants
Publication date: 2021

Format: softcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 75 + 14

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf, print on demand)
92%
An atmospheric
dark fantasy masterpiece.

1 I originally backed the DCC RPG version only and gave some feedback after reading the beta version. Not sure if it's because that or to honour some silly old agreement in the Age of Dusk blog's comment section, but my pledge level was upgraded to have all three versions.

2 I wanted to write a review about Xanadu last autumn, but scrapped it because my judgement was clouded by how I didn't get what I expected based on the pixelated old-school crpg art.

3 The book even starts with some Celtic Frost lyrics on the second page. Another band it reminds me of is Melechesh because of the Middle Eastern influences and occult topics.

4 He also has a 10% chance to die during a seizure. Good times!


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Thursday, 31 December 2020

[Homebrew] Project Hecatomb

Can you have a d100 game without ducks?
When fate realized the bat plague alone wasn't enough to keep me from GMing it threw deadlines and the usual holiday chaos at me. Their combined pressure was enough to make me falter and realize, it's time to ease my burden by letting some things go. The plan was to wrap up my short-lived X-Plorers and D&D5e Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor campaigns, and merge the two groups. I told my players early what options I have in mind, and after a poll and a roll of a dice to break a tie here I am hacking together something from Basic Role-Playing for a sword & sorcery sandbox...

Why would I do that when there are already a couple of games based on the Chaosium percentile system out there? For the same reason you see an endless stream of D&D retroclones: they don't hit my sweet spot. The various editions of RuneQuest and Mythras are too complicated. OpenQuest's skill list isn't what I'm looking for and it threw away skill improvement by usage (an issue I also have with Mythras). The closest to my ideal would be the early editions of Drakar och Demoner, a game I know and love thanks to a swedophile friend, but being only available in swedish makes it hard to use it at the table on the fly.1 Thus I decided to follow the original DoD's example: take an early edition of Basic Role-Playing and the Magic World booklet from the Worlds of Wonder boxed set as the foundation, and start building from there.

Unlike the thick Gold Book currently sold by Chaosium, classic versions of Basic Role-Playing are 16 pages long pamphlets containing only the core mechanics of the game and meticulous gameplay examples that feel like entries from a Fighting Fantasy book. Magic World2 is a 20 pages long supplement that adds some basic rules for the fantasy genre, including professions, more skills, encumbrance, damage bonus, major wounds, monsters, magic items, and a spell system that handles each spell as a separate skill. That's a solid core to build upon, but it's nothing more than that. Here is what I'm doing with it:

1) Expand the skill list. The base BRP+MW skill list is pretty good, but lacks some skills that frequently come up in my campaigns - including craftsmanship, playing instruments, and social skills. Communication checks are originally handled by the Persuasion/Charisma roll (which is based on the Charisma/Appearance characteristic), but I find having a single value for that too simple, and I dislike how they only change when the base characteristic does. Enter Oratory and Fast Talk from RuneQuest...

2) Throw out Idea, Luck, Dodge, and Persuasion roll. I find the percentile characteristic rolls redundant when you have a solid skill list and the resistance matrix already. I specifically hate the idea of the awkward Idea roll. It's a bullshit saving throw vs player knowledge and creativity. "Oh, you had a good idea? Well let's roll to see if your character can come up with it..."

3) Change how professions work. In MW the four professions (warrior, rogue, sage, wizard) have a list of skills that are raised to a certain value based on characteristics. Instead of that I'm borrowing some ideas from Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest 3e: a profession tells what skills are available, how many skill points can be initially distributed between them, and what starting equipment the character gets.

4) Expand the profession list. I want some more archetypes, but I want them to be flexible. The last is achieved by leaving two skills on the profession list open to the player - thus wizard can cover shaman, priest, necromancer, alchemist, whatever, depending on what skills the player chooses. And like CoC's dilettante, I have an adventurer profession for those who want a piecemeal approach.

5) Write up a proper equipment list. MW only has weapons and armour. My players usually buy everything but those. Pets, slaves, ships, property, prostitutes, you name it, they probably bought it - but weapons and armour are 99% of the time looted. While SIZ limits for armour and weapon breakage will likely change this habit this time, that won't keep my players from buying all kinds of other "goods". RQ2e, RQ3e, Mythras, ...And a Ten Foot Pole3 were very helpful in expanding the list and coming up with some rules of thumb for economy, currency, and prices.

6) Ceremonial magic! According to MW "Wizardry (binding demons), Necromancy (raising and otherwise controlling the undead), Enchantment (making magical items), and Alchemy (making magical substances)" belong here, but other than some simple and solid rules for creating potions and magic items the topic isn't covered. I want to do ceremonial magic justice by making it a desirable long-term goals for spellcasters, and expanding it with conjuring elementals, resurrection, and maybe some other options.

7) More GM-ing tools. Getting lost, encounter frequency, random encounters, random treasure, random ruins, etc. These are musthaves for me when running a sandbox campaign.

That's Hecatomb, my new year project in a nutshell. Of course there are other minor changes too and nothing is set in stone at the moment. I don't even know what are my long time plans with it... Should I leave it for private use, or share it with the community when it's done? We'll see. I intended to write this post earlier, but now that I think about it, as a new year resolution it's a fitting way to end this accursed year.

Have a wonderful New Year!

1 Yeah, I know, there are some variants available in English. I know and loathe both of them. Trudvang Chronicles is a needlessly complicated mess, while RuinMasters is awfully designed pile of utter disappointment. Seriously RiotMinds, get your shit together, and release the iconic swedish rpg that matters...

2 Not to be confused with Magic World, the setting neutral clone of Elric!, which fails to live up to the predecessor's awesomeness, is kind of a mess, but at least is available in print dirt cheap.

3 Yup, that's a RoleMaster supplement. A pretty damn good one, which is a high praise for a book that's basically a collection of price lists.

Monday, 26 October 2020

[Review] Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise

Mandy meets Venger.
Sponsored content.

I thought I was done with Cha'alt after the exhausting three-part review I wrote earlier this year. I thought I can finally leave its mad vistas behind, come clean, return to normalcy, and recuperate. Then I heard a siren call from beyond the depths of the Void. The message was in za'akier, yet I understood it loud and clear. I knew immediately who was summoning me. "Hey kid, wanna buy some zoth? You know what, forget it. Here is some fuchsia malaise. It's new. It's free. You're welcome." It found me in a moment of weakness. I couldn't reject the offer. And here I am now, writing again about Cha'alt, when not staring at the fuchsia skies with a drop of drool hanging from the corner of my mouth...

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise is a supplement for Cha'alt, the magnum opus of the Venger Satanis - madman, troll, za'akier, priest of Cthulhu, loving father, and old-school D&D enthusiast. Like its predecessor, CFM was also crowdfunded by a Kickstarter campaign - one that I missed. Fortunately when I was about to put the pdf in my DriveThruRPG cart the author asked me if I'm interested in a complimentary copy. Kudos for that hoss, and sorry for sitting so long on the review. It seems fate always tries its best to hinder me when I'm writing about Cha'alt.

If you are unfamiliar with the first book and too lazy to read my review (which I can completely understand), Cha'alt is a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy gonzo setting probably written on drugs, with one tentacle in pants. Besides being absolutely bonkers it also has a huge ass mega-dungeon called The Black Pyramid, which defies all logic and dungeon writing advice. What CFM offers is basically more of the same, but with a bigger emphasis on the world and its happenings.

The first chapter, Essentials, start swith summarizing the current status quo. CFM picks up 18 months after the events described in Cha'alt. There is a new sheriff in town, the alien company called Elysium, who are now in control of the entire zoth1 industry. They banned spice fracking in favour of slave labour, and use a drug called Fuchsia Malaise to keep their workers in a lethargic state until the next shift begins. They are also siphoning the planet's moisture, which turned it drier and even more hostile than before. The Chartreuse Sea dried up, the freed Kra'adumek's future is still uncertain, violet and purple priests wage an open war, while the evergrowing city of A'agrybah became the center of civilization. That's a great point to start a campaign, but the prelude barely scratches the surface. There is a lot more going on that's not covered here, but the information is all over the place, so it's up to you to pull all the bits and pieces together as you are plowing through the book.

These new times brought new races to Cha'alt. Blue velvet elves are amazing at everything and suave as fuck, but if something bad happens to a party-member they suffer the same effects, and they are also hunted for their pelts. Grogs are soulless sand-constructs capable of disassembling and reconstructing their bodies. Vores are reptilian bird-men without mouths, who can communicate telepathically and can digest anyone by wrapping their wings around them. V'symm are seven-eyed infernal creatures hiding their faces behind bronze masks, which are quite uncomfortable for long desert trips. I have a soft spot for the weirdo new races - they flavourful and unique. Are they balanced? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. This is still Cha'alt, the world of overpowered monstrosities and random deaths.

The rest of the chapter is mostly Cha'alt specific charts and miscellanea covering a surprisingly wide range of topics. The party got some important item? Here is a chart for who is following them and why. The party asks some random schmuck on the street? Here is a chart for traits, usefulness, beliefs. The party summoned some demon? Here is a chart for demonic offerings and favours. The party has a sorcerer? Here is a chart that will make their life hell. What I really appreciate about these tables is that most of them are meant to be used on the fly. They also do a damn fine job about capturing the setting's essence with weirdness, pop culture references, psychedellic sights, and of course some vengerian sleaze. Just take a look at this lovely random example from The Fuchsia Shadow (spell mishap) table:

I don't recall seeing stats for the
protoss, but it looks like they are
here too.
"Head Falls Off – The sorcerer’s head falls off immediately after the spell is cast – up from the neck hole sprouts all manner of tentacles dripping a jaundiced yellow and purple slime. Soon after, the tentacles devour the sorcerer’s corpse and give birth to an egg. Then, the egg hatches. A miniature-sized version of the sorcerer climbs out as he slowly enlarges to normal size. The whole metamorphosis takes about an hour."

You don't see shit like this in the dull D&D5e wild magic tables. It might be ridiculously over the top or juvenile sometimes, but it's also damn cool. Using the charts on the fly is hindered though by the the lack of organization. There is no rhyme or reason why things are in the order they are, unless they follow some extraterrestrial alphabetical order. If you want to use the book get familiar with the index, because this won't get any better in the following parts either.

The second chapter is about The City of A'agrybah. Like your adventures in the city, the section begins at the gates, where exiles hang around telling juicy rumours about what's going on behind the walls. The book then moves on to explaining how taxes work (and can be evaded), who are the ra'as and how can one become one of them (it involves 10,000 gold pieces and a pact with a devil), which are the noteworthy noble houses, and what is the water ritual.

A'agrybah has a few points of interest, including a colourful marketplace, the King's and Queen's palace, a temple where they resurrect people for 1,000 gp, a barely used spaceport, and various taverns. These get terse descriptions, which are a mixed bag. Check out The Chartreuse Dragon:

"The interior of this tavern is lit with zoth lanterns, giving the place an eerie yellow-green glow. An assortment of instruments hang upon the wall, all of them painted fuchsia. Various dirty and disheveled humanoids sit, drinking and eating."

Short and evocative, it sets the tone in three sentences and tells you enough to know what kind of place this facility is. Well done! Now compare it to The Burnished Soul:

"Another tavern filled with disreputable scoundrels."

That's generic and useless. It baffles me why is a damn good example of effective writing followed by something so bland and uninspired. If it was longer at least I could say it's a filler - I despise them, but at least they have a purpose. This has no reason to exist, but at least it manages to piss me off, because it would have taken zero effort from someone with such madcap imagination to barf up something that makes the place at least mildly interesting. There are a few more similar swings in writing quality throughout the book, but I wouldn't say it's plagued with them.

At least the hooks are good. Each place gets three to five of them, ranging from random encounters to adventure seeds. A merchant selling a three-eyed emerald snake, a bounty hunter looking for the bastard who sold him a junk starship, an apprentice begging for money so he can resurrect his master who was killed right after he discovered the meaning of life, universe, and everything... If these weren't enough, there is also a short table four tour guides who will gladly show you around the city, and a lengthy table for random unlikely events.

I'm torn about this chapter. On one hand A'agrybah itself is characterful and has a lot going on. On the other hand only a very small number of places are detailed, and some of those are done in a lackluster way. There is potential, but the execution needs improvement. Also, a map would be welcome. I don't expect anyone to go full City State of the Invincible Overlord, I don't even need the exact positions of buildings and precise ranges - just a vague sketch about what's where.

No clue who he is, but I have a hunch
he came here for the prostitutes.
The third chapter is Encounters, containing is a mishmash of places, scenes, monsters, charts, and important NPCs in no particular order. Two of them will get some more mention later. The Fuchsia Putrescence is a mile long floating entity randomly grabbing up people from the ground. Because its fallen slimy bits have healing properties, people began to worship the thing. Tha'anos is a scrotum-chinned warlord looking for the Rainbow Gemstones of Ultimate Power, which are hidden on Cha'aalt. Once he has all of them in his codpiece, he will create a cube outside time and space, where he can finally finish painting his miniatures while time stand stills. He is totally relatable villain, at least for me.

While it won't have any significant role later, I would also like to mention my favorite creature from the book: the clown-worm. It is a mix of sand-worms and demon-worms bread by the murderous night clown of The Black Pyramid. It's far from the most powerful entity on Cha'alt, but it can turn people with its sight into its clown thralls, and has all kinds of crap in its belly, including a magical weapon with a bonus against gods. The worm's full-page illustration is a thing to behold.

Onward to chapter four: Scenarios!

Fuchsia Flesh-pit is a genetic experiment of the wizard Vromka'ad, who was recently killed by his jealous bride La'ala. The girl came to this flesh pit looking for the other half of the glove she stole from the wizard, but she had to realize that it's dangerous to go alone: there are tentacles, mutant clams, evil cultists, a whispering cronenbergian monstrosity, and other weird shit within the organic hellpit. She tries to persuade the party into coming down and helping her out, after which she would try to betray them and leave with the treasure. It's a simply laid out, short dungeon, where the players are just as likely to release an Old One upon the world as finding a secret entrance to a synthwave lounge bar. Overall it's a decent module for a one-shot.

Tower of Vromka'ad takes place in the above mentioned wizard's tower. Since Vromka'ad's death the servants have taken over, and are now busy bickering among themselves. There are twelve colour coded rooms which could be reached by touching the corresponding orb in the entrance. Each has an interesting set-piece, but otherwise they rarely have anything else to offer. The servants are few, mostly very weak, and not worth bothering with. There isn't much loot except for the room with the three warriors and some magic items (those are pretty nice though). It ties neatly into Fuchsia Flesh-pit by wrapping up some of its mysteries, but overall Tower of Vromka'ad didn't leave much of an impression.

Tomb of Va'an Zayne is a more traditional dungeon than the previous two, with a proper layout and twenty rooms. Va'an Zayne was a sorcerer and writer, whose tomb is so frequently mentioned among the earlier rumours that it's nigh impossible the party won't hear about it. The sepulcher offers a good deal of interactivity combined with a selection of intriguing NPCs. There is a writers circle right at the entrance, a trapped clone of Elysium's head honcho, asshole energy beings taunting cultists, a play-doh statue that can summon demon, a post-modernists and anti-modernists arguing about bullshit, a gate to The Islands of Purple-Hanted Putrescene, and so on. Every room has something noteworthy and fun going on. If this wasn't enough, the tomb is tied to Cha'alt's greater metaplot in several ways. The place was raided not so long ago by Tha'anos, there is a Key to Time in Va'an Zayne's tomb that can erase time, and there are revelations about the true nature of the Old Ones and the planet's future. These open a can of worms and foreshadow a bleak future, which I hope Venger will explore in Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows.

A hive of scum and villainy.
Elysium
 is the biggest of the bunch, and probably my favorite. The module starts with introducing the alien races, factions, personnel, security systems within the facility, then without further ado moves unto describing its 56 rooms. Elysium feels like a living, fully functional complex. It is the most grounded from all the Cha'alt stuff so far, yet it still remains gonzo enough to not become just another boring futuristic base. The fantasy and weird fiction elements here are diminished in favour of science-fiction parody. The humour and the art feels like a distant cousin of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that replaced the british smartness with animated american sitcom vibe. Besides zany characters chasing their own (often shady) agendas there is all kinds of dangerous science to play with - the characters can try to stop a black hole generator, fiddle with THE INTERNET, destroy Elysium's reactor, et cetera. Furthermore, like the Tomb of Va'an Zayne, Elysium also has some mindfuckworthy lore drops and stuff related to the various ongoing events. It is by no means as large and exciting as the the Black Pyramid, but it's still a damn fine module and the zenith of this book.

S'kbah Pilgrimage is kind of a character funnel, thus it should have been the first in order, but I don't mind it being at the end of the book. The party is thrown out from the village to stop a plague of blood-sucking locusts, and aren't even allowed back until they succeed. I don't even know if returning is covered at all though, because I kept zoning out while reading it... The entire adventure is a chaotic railroad where the GM yanks the PCs from one cool scene to another. They are mostly well-written and do a fine job at establishing what's the setting is about, but the pilgrimage tries to do too much too fast - from desert travel, through subtrerranean Ka'ali worshippers, to fixing the generator of scheming dark elves... It's hard to follow its jumps between all the goodies it wants to show you and ends up being a confusing mess.

CFM ends with an appendix that contains three free products from earlier: the Crimson Dragon Slayer ultralight O5R ruleset, its Cha'alt Ascended supplement, and Old School Renaissance Like a Fucking Boss. There is also an index, yay!

Following Cha'alt's footsteps the art is stunning once again. Like the world itself it's a vivid mix of sword & sorcery, science fiction, body horror, and cosplay photos. The layout is simple, mostly gets shit done, but has a few issues. There is way too much whitespace that serves no purpose and highlighting seems to be an afterthought - while there are times when Venger plays with bolding and using colour to accent certain elements in the text, it happens rarely and doesn't help much.

CFM is chock full of content. Half of it is great, the other half not so much. Even those falling in the latter category aren't awful, but they could have been much better with minimum effort. The lack of organization and effective highlighting also diminishes the usability of the book. As a standalone product it pales in comparison to its progenitor. As a supplement it does a good job at expanding its possibilities and turning things up to twelve. If you liked the original, then by all means go grab it. If you don't have it, then get that first instead, and after absorbing it you will be able make up your mind if you want more of that stuff or not. Fingers crossed the third part will be a tighter, more focused product that manages to tie up all the loose ends.


Rules system: OSR/O5R
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Publication date: 2020

Format: hardcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 230

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf)
69%
A flawed gem.
I want more of it.

1 Zoth is the spice of the setting, "the bilious-green liquified remains of dead gods… monstrous, extradimensional titans who once ruled Cha'alt and various other planets". It's refined into mela'anj, which can power high tech devices, grant godlike powers, and generally fuck things up.

2 Print copies aren't out yet. Keep an eye on Venger's blog if you want one of them.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

[Review] T&T Adventures Japan

Couldn't they find a better place
 to hang out?
Tunnels & Trolls is the second oldest role-playing game on the market: its first edition was released in 1975 as a more accessible alternative to Dungeons & Dragons. Like "the world's most famous fantasy roleplaying game", it had a renaissance lately culminating in the massive, Kickstarter-funded Tunnels & Trolls Deluxe edition in 2015.

T&T Adventures Japan was released in 2018, along with the similarly themed Free RPG Day ruleset, which has the very same mini-rules along with a single solo adventure. If you thought this is an oriental sourcebook, you couldn't have been more wrong: T&TAJ is a tribute to the Japanese fandom, collecting art, manga, and adventures from their TtT Magazine.

While only 64 pages long, T&TAJ is packed with goodies. It starts with a manga about four adventurers on a dungeon crawl. The way it delivers rule explanations is a bit cringy, but nevertheless it's an amusing piece. You'll see more of them on the following pages.

The cartoon is followed by a mini T&T ruleset which explains character creation for four races (humans, elves, dwarves, fairies) and three classes (warriors, wizards, rogues), combat, saving rolls, advancement, and magic up to level 5 before it ends with random treasure generator and a bunch of character sheets - including pregens for the protagonists of the introductory manga. The actual rules take no more than 10 pages, and they do a fine job at explaining T&T's core mechanics. For those unfamiliar with it, combat usually boils down both sides rolling a bunch of d6s and adding their bonuses, then the loser takes the difference as damage. There are some cases of individual effects, like the Take That You Fiend! spell.1 Though the mini-rules might lack long-time appeal, they are enough to get your feet wet and run the adventures that follow!

The first module is Kitten-Napped, a GM adventure2 that throws players right into the whimsy! The party is hired to rescue a merchant's daughter, who was turned into cat, and kidnapped by a troll. To achieve their goal the adventurers have to infiltrate the troll hideout shrunken to tiny size, and face such dangers as spinning fans, giant-sized small animals, goblin cooks, a troll herding cats, and mundane heights that become deadly in the PCs' current condition. The author covers several ways the players can pass the challenges, and gives plenty of old-school advice for running the adventure - including punishing the players with Luck and Charisma penalties if they don't take the mission, rewarding only those who contribute to a solution, and generally allowing the players to move on if they came up with a good solution instead of asking for unnecessary saving rolls. While I don't agree with all of these, I appreciate the message. Woe to those who think XP is a participation trophy, woe to the fans of milestone leveling! Kitten-Napped is a 1-2 hours long adventure with 9 rooms illustrated on a flowchart instead of a traditional map. It's a delightful piece that captures T&T's lighthearted tone and simple gameplay.

The Guru Sylvia is well equipped
to brainwash people.
The second module, The Secret Order of the Eye, is even more comical than Kitten-Napped. It is a solo adventure where your character infiltrates a newly risen cult to assassinate its leader, a scantily clad dark elf sorceress. This is a bit more comical in tone than the previous adventure, and has a surprisingly large roster of NPCs who can be befriended or murdered. I feel kinda bad for killing brainwashed imbeciles who will gladly accept you among their ranks and trust you with all kinds of tasks, but if you get too attached and helpful your PC will have a harder time fighting the cult leader. and can even end up brainwashed. In latter case the character sheet is added to the guards as a possible foe for your next PC! That's a harsh reminder of your earlier failure... Solo adventures aren't my cup of tea, but The Secret Order of the Eye was a pleasant surprise with its interactivity, and its need for fine balance between murderhoboing and charity for success.

The last module is Journey to the Black Wall, another GM adventure. The party has to escort a weird sorceress and her servant through the wilderness, while two of her nemeses will try to thwart her journey. The whole fuss is about some teleporting shoes the sorceress wants to deliver to her disabled sister. This is a linear escort mission, with long and campy dialogues between NPCs, typical anime boss monologue by an NPC, over the top battle scene between NPCs, and almost total lack of character agency. It's like if someone gathered the worst adventure design advice and mixed it with the worst clichés of mangas and jrpgs. While Journey to the Black Wall has some intriguing elements, like the slight Wizard of Oz vibe, the sorceress and her daughter being skeleton men3, and unusual magic items, these aren't enough for redemption. It is a series of cutscenes broken up by some rolling, not an adventure.

The book ends with a manga starring the pregens once again, a short overview of what can one expect from dT&T, and some more T&T ads. Did you know there are free T&T adventures for iOS and Android? Seems like a good way to waste time on the way to the office...

T&TAJ does nothing extraordinary. The writing is forgettable, and sometimes the translation feels awkward. The layout gets shit done, but doesn't go the extra mile to help you find important details qucikly. There are small issues that bothered me probably more than they should, like references to spells and items not included in the book. The only thing I can't complain about is the art: both the cover art and the black & white interior are well done - I dare to say some of the latter are downirght stunning. Despite its faults I enjoyed the book immensely thanks to its amusing ideas, quirky humor, and amateurish charm. T&TAJ dares to be fun, which put me in the mood of giving it a shot.

Rules system: Tunnels & Trolls
Publisher: Flying Buffalo
Publication date: 2018

Format: magazine
Size: letter-size
Pages: 64

Available from:
Noble Knight Games (print)
 DriveThruRPG (pdf)
75%
A charming and entertaining
basic set for T&T.

1 I won't go into details about game mechanics. For those curious, there is a free rulebook on DriveThruRPG that has the rules, a solo adventure, and a GM adventure.
2 T&T differentiates two kinds of modules: GM adventures are your usual GM-ran modules, while solo adventures are akin to Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
3 Skeleton men are like Nehwon ghouls: cannibal humanoids with transparent flesh. The two sisters in the module use bodypaint, mask, clothes to hide their true nature.

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Saturday, 22 August 2020

[Musings] Reviews & Ratings

One night during my vacation in Rijeka I had a vivid dream of finding new issues of PC-Guru and 576 KByte at a newsstand. These two were the defining gaming magazines of my childhood. I was an avid reader of them from 1997 till 2003. After that I stopped caring about gaming magazines, because the editors I adored were mostly gone, the magazines got ridiculously expensive, and internet access became available for me in high school. When I saw that both of them had the old layout and editorial staff I started digging for my wallet, then woke up.

PC-Guru rating StarCraft

Besides the utter disappointment that it was all just a dream one thing kept bugging me: their info boxes. Both magazines had them, usually at the end of their reviews. These summarized basic stuff about the game (developer, publisher, requirements, etc.) and the editor's opinion presented in the form of a single mighty percentile value. 576 KByte even had a short tl;dr section above the final grade, and rated each of the game's four major attributes: visuals, playability, length/replayability, and sound.

576 Kbyte rating
Might & Magic VI

I really loved the percentile ratings, especially how counterintuitive they were. For many readers these numbers didn't serve as the closure of a review, but as the beginning. While I usually read the magazines cover to cover, I too prioritized reviews about games that got excellent or horrible rating over the others. I also found amusing how people interpreted the ratings. One would think that on a scale of 1 to 100 a game with 50% rating is mediocre. Even the editors told us so! Yet the general rule of thumb among readers was that games with less than 75% were not worth bothering with. Make it 80% if you are picky.

This got me thinking about improving my reviews a bit. A terse information box will not only help the reader find basic stuff about the product quickly, but also allow me to throw out trivialities from the text - like page count and format. I will also use percentile ratings from now on, because they are awesome. I have three reviews in the pipeline: Tunnels & Trolls Japan Adventures, Monsters! Monsters! 2nd edition, and Fuchsia Mayonnaise... Maladies... or something like that. They will be perfect to experiment with the new format. Stay tuned for more!

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