Friday, 14 September 2018

Zweihänder Character Sheets, Part Deux

Of course the jolly wound man stays.
Since my ZWEIHÄNDER character sheets have been released last May I received a lot of positive feedback and requests from the community. Kudos for that! My players have been using these sheets for more than a year now, and naturally they had their own ideas too about how to improve upon the original design. So did I, as there were some painfully obvious problems I wanted to fix - typos, redundancy, lack of space, and so on. Daniel's character sheet competition gave me the final push I needed to dust off my files, and revamp the design - which you will hear more about very soon. I'm proud to announce that the new version is complete, and is available now on the various OneBookShelf sites. You can find it under the following link:

ZWEIHÄNDER - Vorpal Mace Character Sheet v2.0

Form fillable version is coming soon. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

[Review] Obscene Serpent Religion 2

One of those babies can be your character,
if the dice says so. No save against it.
Public Service Announcement. The following review cointains the OSR acronym multiple times, but with different meanings. For the sake of clarity, OSR refers to Old-School Revival (or Renaissance), while OSR1 and OSR2 refers to the corresponding Obscene Serpent Religion product.

OSR2 is one of the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess products debuting on this year's Gen Con. Since I didn't even know there was an OSR1, I did some research to figure out what's going on. OSR1 is a LotFP supplement about generating serpent cults, written by Rafael Chandler, published by Neoplastic Press. OSR2 is a LotFP module about a small serpent-infested hamlet, written by Jeff Rients, released by LotFP Publishing. Other than spending 32 pages on serpents and cultists they don't have much in common. Jeff Rients, besides being an excellent blogger, is also the author of Broodmother Skyfortress, which I consider one of the best OSR adventures. That should mean sky-high expectations, but because OSR2 is a different kind of animal, I tried my best to avoid unfair comparisons with BMSF.

OSR2 is a 32 pages long digest booklet. The color cover is a sight to behold, beautiful and slightly disturbing at once. The black and white interior illustrations are good, though not outstanding. The art is surprisingly tame, so if you are expecting gore and naughty bits you will be disappointed. The layout is a clear and breezy two-columns affair with a faint grey scaly background, which fortunately does not harm readability.

The first half of OSR2 introduces the bucolic hamlet of Nonsbeck, along with its notable features, personalities, hooks. Good writing and intriguing details make the small community come alive: the settlement feels like a real place, with real people, who have real problems. The realistic nature of Nonsbeck is further emphasized by the lack of supernatural elements: there are no fantastic beasts, weird horrors, haunted places, or anything unusual to speak of. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the events depicted in the second half will feel more effective because of this. On the other hand, the DM is tasked with making the players care about an unremarkable little rural village enough to return there several times. You can make it a recurring feature of your campaign, but I find it a cheap solution. I prefer my players visiting something because it caught their attention for some reason, and you don't need big spectacular things to achieve it. The chapter ends with some useful random encounter and random local name generator tables.

The second half of OSR2 is about how the appearance of a snake demoness fucks up Nonsbeck while the PCs are away. Where she comes from is up to the DM - the book offers three different options. What's more important is her ability that turns the place upside down: she can travel time through one's genetic material, and alter past events. What I loved about the changes is they aren't immediately evident, but revealed slowly as the players begin looking around. Even if they go right to the inn ignoring everything else they will have a chance to feel that something is amiss. The blacksmith's apprentice turned into a mute roadside beggar who doesn't want to return home. The church is barred, the blacksmith is closed. People are gone, the stories about their departures are out of character. There are new graves in the cemetery, while others are missing. The serving girl in the inn was replaced by two boys with the same name as the innkeeper's stillborn sons. If the players stay or investigate, they will soon learn that the village turned into the nest of serpent worshipping human-snake hybrid cultists, hellbent on sacrificing them. I enjoyed Nonsbeck's shift from simple boring hamlet into a horror movie village a lot, especially the details that can help building tension.

Too bad there is no real climax to the adventure. "Remember that village? Now it's corrupted, FIN." The lack of third act makes the events of OSR2 feels more like a lengthy side-encounter, than an actual adventure. The second half ends with a few ideas about the possible fate of some NPCs, a few paragraphs about the LotFP way, and the stats of the demoness herself, in case the PCs want to take revenge. There is nothing about her whereabouts or plans, not even seeds like about how she surfaced. At least the monster's abilities are unique and interesting, and in true LotFP fashion many fall into the "your character is fucked up, no save" category. The creature can murder the PC's father which can totally change or even erase him, help his parents in a time of need and turn them into snake cultists, implant viper eggs into the victim's stomach that hatch in the present, and so on. Use it only if you are not afraid to wreck your campaign.

Overall OSR2 is an uneven adventure. It requires a long setup to be effective, delivers a short and powerful confrontation, then leaves you hanging without meaningful resolution. While I like terse adventure kits and love using them as framework I can build upon (heck, I filled the Sunstone Caverns once), in case of OSR2 I can't help feeling that it's missing something. It's only a few pages away from being an amazing product. Still, it was an entertaining ride, and it whetted my appetite for more gaming material about ophidians. Time to get OSR1!

Tl;dr: OSR2 does a great job at building up, then corrupting a mundane rural village, but would benefit greatly from some more content. You can buy it HERE.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

[Review] The Dragon's Secret

This is the ideal drakon body. You might not like it, but
this is what peak performance looks like.
The Dragon's Secret is a Swords & Wizardry Complete adventure for a party of 6-8 5th to 7th level adventurers. It's one of the biggest surprises of the year, for it is the first module released by industry veteran Jennel Jaquays in three decades. She worked as a game designer and artist of tabletop role-playing games and video games - including  names like Dark Tower, Caverns of Thracia, Griffin Mountain, Age of Empires, Quake III. She wrote some of the finest dungeons the hobby has ever seen. What made them so great? Complex non-linear maps, vertical level design, interesting factions, and an attention to details, among others. The Alexandrian blog has a series of articles about the nuts and bolts of jaquayian dungeon design, which I consider a must read for every aspiring Dungeon Master.

The Dragon's Secret is not an entirely new product. It's based on salvaged dungeon maps from the seventies, and an abridged version was already published last year as part of the North Texas RPG Con fundraiser (Legends of Adventure, by Pacesetter Games & Simulations). The revamped version was originally part of the Dungeons of Doom IV Kickstarter campaign by Star Hat Miniatures, along with its sister product Quack Keep. After all the limited editions it's no wonder I got giddy with excitement when I saw it finally being released on DriveThruRPG. I was also a bit worried though. Does Jennel still has her edge after three decades?

The Dragon's Secret is a 52 pages long book. The cover is the most drool-inducing I saw recently. I have a soft spot for ugly dragons, dragons with beaks, dragons with ears, dragons with hair, and Jennel's artwork hits the mark in every way. If the art wasn't enough in selling the module, there are still blurbs, taglines, summaries to help you make up your mind. They have all the right words that make my D&D-senses tingling: dungeon, doom, dragon, mystery, hoard, treasure! I usually don't linger much on covers, but this is so well laid out, written, and illustrated, that I had to stay and praise it a bit more than I planned. Time to move on! The interior has a nice two-column layout, and great black and white art done by Jaquays, Darcy Perry, Rick Hershey. My favorites are the medieval etchings, and the cartography, which is easily on Dyson Logos level.

After the foreword we get a half page long backstory about how the Cathedral of the Golden Dragon has risen, and fallen. The whole institute started out as a scam: the gold dragon Aulde Dawne in reality was the sorceress Dawne Rozyfingers, polymorphed by her partner in crime Steed Bramble, who convinved the locals that keeping a gold dragon nearby at the cost of some golds and jewels would be beneficial. Fast forward an unknown amount of time, and you have a whole cathedral with acolytes worshipping the dragon. Bramble thought this would be the right time to get out, but died before he could finish the preparations. When Aulde Dawne learned the man who can polymorph her back to human form died she lost her marbles and devastated the countryside. Some heroes eventually hunted her down, but found little treasure in her lair.

The next four pages are about using the adventure. I found most of it unnecessary, especially the explanation of how room and NPC descriptions are divided, because it felt self-explanatory: each segment starts with a keyword, so even the long-winded texts are easy to browse. The section ends with hooks, that for some unknown reason are split, and continued at the end of the book. That irks me probably more than it should. Fortunately it's worth flipping a bit back and forth, because the hooks are great! They are many and varied, which already shows that there is a lot to do! Highlighting the involved locations and NPCs at the end of each hook is a nice touch. The only way I think it could have been better is including page numbers, or links in the pdf.

The adventure itself is divided into four major areas containing 34 rooms in all. It starts small with the The Cathedral of the Dragon and Connections, then once the players got their feet wet they characters reach Circular Illogic, which is bigger and more complex than the other three areas together. The final part, The Dragon's Horde, is just one large room - I'm sure you all know what that means... Reachig The Dragon's Horde will require a good deal of exploration. Opening the door requires finding the puzzle, its solution, and the two objects needed for it (optionally,ignoring the red herring). This won't be a linear romp from beginning to end. There are loops, branches, secret doors, illusion walls, and multiple connections between the levels - some of which can be discovered later. Vertical design isn't only used to connect the levels: several rooms are three dimensional, and get cross sections to make their layout clear.

Speaking of rooms, there are some fantastic ones among them! Even the mundane entries get something to spice them up, be it some obstacle, an interesting detail, or a hidden treasure. Then there are those which your players will talk about years later. A spherical room with gravity on its surfaces and a gem at the top, that when removed can disable the elevator to the surface, probably also angering the 39 kobolds with paralyzing sticks living nearby. A huge hangar containing a 30 feet tall clockwork automaton, operated from a hidden control room occupied by two wanted mages. A well guarded false treasury jam-packed with fake objects and massive zombie spiders. A deathtrap with illusion chests, phantasmal floor, and crushing phantasmal walls at its bottom.

A good dungeon needs memorable inhabitants too, and this is where Jennel kicks the ball out of the park. There are several factions and NPCs around the cathedral that can serve as valuable help, or annoying nuisance. Two apprentices who murdered their master are hiding down below. The senior was actually a member of the cult long ago, and hired two werewolf families to keep the place safe while he is away. A gurgle of gargoyles was cursed to guard Aulde Dawn's most valuable treasure. A group of fowl folk adventurers (mostly ducks) and a jerk aardvark are also looking for the dragon's riches, and aren't too fond of each other.

The most prominent NPCs have a whole page devoted to them with illustration, background, rumors, and personality. They have fun quirks and traits, which is what turns them from stat block with some background info into fantastic personalities. For example the werewolf leader Elder Worgg doesn't want to transform because it will ruin his clothes. Glyphic Three-Horn the gargoyle leader who wants to throw off the curse of her kin thinks she was a human before becoming a gargoyle. That sounds like an adventure hook right there! It's also noteworthy that the dungeon's denizens aren't just standing idly stuck in a room, frozen in time, but are on the move. They are parts of the random encounter tables, there are guides how they react to various crises, and the gargoyles even have specific routes that helps them navigate through the dungeon easier.

The book ends with supplemental content. There is a random curio table, which you can roll on whenever the room description says there is one. The table is filled with colorful items, and their value is a random roll on another table, so the results can be interesting, even downrigh ridiculous. The players might find a worthless jade flute, or an extremely valuable magical graffiti on the wall - it will be a joy to see how they will tansport that to the surface! We also get Swords & Wizardry stats for two new races: the fowl folk (ducks, geese, swans, and crows) and aardvarks. They get their own monster entries too, along with zombie spiders, living statues, and the horrible drakghuls, who are the children of Aulde Dawn and some other dragon (maybe?), that were born undead and are calling ghouls to the area with their song. Yes, surprisingly The Dragon's Horde was not a typo.

Surprisingly... The book captures the old-school Judges Guild feel in its editing too. It's full of typos, missing whitespaces, double or missing articles, gibberish sentences, and even Aulde Dawne is refered to as a brass dragon instead of gold somewhere. The room entries have some redundant information too. Another readthrough by someone, or hiring an editor would have helped a lot. Looking past these annoyances I found the writing style amusing, with a good amount of humor and wordplay thrown in.

In the end, it seems my fears were irrational. While The Dragon's Secret has some warts, it is a splendid adventure. It's fun, it's colorful, it's dynamic. It's not Dark Tower or Caverns of Thracia, but it is on par with a good module right out of Dungeoneer magazine. Jennel said this is but a fragment of her Thousand Worlds campaign setting, and more is coming soon. Well color me interested, I definitely want more of this! In the meantime, I will bang my head into my desk, because I didn't buy Quack Keep before it was taken down from DriveThruRPG for revision.

Tl;dr: Even with the bad editing The Dragon's Secret is a fun read, and a good example of how to design a complex and living dungeon. You can buy it HERE.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The True Danger of Tabletop Gaming

A monster that makes you quack with fear.
Those christian parents who are afraid that their little angels will turn to Satanism because of Dungeons & Dragons are adorably naive. The real danger of tabletop gaming is not spiritual defilement or moral corruption, but monetary bankruptcy. There are villainous authors and publishers out there, waiting for the right moment to snatch your hard earned cash with a surprise attack. They are quick and efficient: most victims end up confused about where their money went, and when did their DriveThruRPG library grow so big. This summer already had some exorbitant swindles, like the release of Cubicle-7's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e preview and R. Talsorian Publishing's The Witcher Pen & Paper RPG. If you thought this will be all of it for the season, well I have some bad news for you...

Frog God Games storms Indiegogo with their The City that Dripped Blood campaign, which isn't a brick-sized tome you can beat players to death with (if character death wasn't satisfying enough), but an approximately 24 pages long adventure. I like small modules and the premise reminds me of R. E. Howard's Red Nails (one of my all-time favorite sword & sorcery stories), so I ended up supporting the Cult of Tsathoggua with $6.

Jennel Jaquays hasn't released any rpg-related products in the last thirty years, until now. It seems she gathered enough strength to return with not one, but two adventures - and there are more coming! The Dragon's Secret and Quack Keep were all parts of various Star Hat Miniatures kickstarters, and are now available on DriveThruRPG. I'm almost done with The Dragon's Secret, so expect a review coming soon. As for Quack Keep, my Wisdom checks were successful so far, but rest assured I'm going to fail next month.

While I'm struggling with my last ZWEIHÄNDER session reports and getting the next session going (it's summer after all), the game is growing strong and is about to reach new heights with its MAIN GAUCHE supplement. The content is ridiculously tempting, but I have to moderate my expenses and be satisfied with the pdf version, for now. Daniel, if you're reading this: please call the next supplement BOHEMIAN EARSPOON. I know there are people out there who want to see that title on the shelf.

Oh, and before I forget: Echoes of Fomalhaut #2 is out too.

I should have chosen drugs when I was a teen...

EDIT: Quack Keep is down at the moment. It turns out the PoD didn't pass the quality check, so Jennel turned it private until she fixes the layout and adds some errata.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Updates in July

Christmas in July is here again, and it was both exciting and disappointing for me this year so far. I was enthusiastic when I started wading through the list of books on sale, but later I had to realize that whatever I would buy is either not on sale, not available in the store yet, or it's already in my library. The only thing I'm probably going to buy isn't even a module or a rulebook, but a collection of sword & sorcery stories called Tales From the Magician's Skull #1 from Goodman Games - an initiative worth supporting.

I did spend some money elsewhere though: this week I bought the revamped Palace of the Vampire Queen and Dwarven Glory from Pacesetter Games & Simulations, and I'm eagerly waiting for Bill Barsh to upload the missing The Misty Isles pdf. What makes these new versions interesting is they have the original version included too, which makes them perfect to make comparisons. Once I'm done reading all of them I will write a review about these gems.

I'm also about to fix my Zweihänder character sheet to answer Daniel's call. This means my session reports (two for Zweihänder, two for HackMaster) will be delayed a bit more, but I think most of you can live with that after a few months of hiatus.

Friday, 29 June 2018

HackMaster Character Records

High crunch, high production values old-school gaming.
HackMaster is one of my all-time favorite role playing games. I already loved what HM4e was doing, but HM5e is where my heart is, because it managed to advance AD&D to the next level: it offers far more realistic game mechanics, while also manages to keep the old school spirit I love. It is a crunchy system full of optional advanced rules that make it seem more threatening than it is, but in practice it flows really well once someone wraps his head around it.

The problem is I haven't run it for years, mostly due to the lack of time. The game also felt abandoned in the last few years by the publisher Kenzer & Company. These are all about to change soon though: with the end of my D&D5e Wilderlands campaign I'm finally able to fulfill my old dream of starting a HackMaster sandbox centered around Frandor's Keep, and after last year's successful Aces & Eights Reloaded Kickstarter campaign the guys at Kenzer & Co. seem to be picking up pace again. What a time to be alive!

My biggest issue with official HackMaster resources is the lack of good character sheets - the official ones are barely enough for HackMaster Basic. Fans were fortunately quick to fix this issue. I too have created a landscape sheet earlier that got a lot of positive feedback (despite being overcrowded), and earlier this year I took my time to put together a portrait sheet that is more breezy and (hopefully) has place for everything. I hope they will get as much use as my ZWEIHÄNDER character sheets. Happy hacking!

Old A4 landscape character record for HackMaster

New A4 portrait character record for HackMaster
New A4 portrait cleric spell record for HackMaster
New A4 portrait mage spell record for HackMaster
New A4 portrait humanoid follower record for HackMaster
New A4 portrait monstrous follower record for HackMaster

Saturday, 23 June 2018

[Review] The Red Prophet Rises

AKA Bloody-Handed Buff Dudes Partying Hard.
The Red Prophet Rises is an adventure by Malrex and Prince of Nothing written for the For Gold & Glory retroclone (which means you can run it with AD&D as written). Truth to be told I have never heard of the former gentleman, but the latter is one of those reviewers who has a good grasp of why adventure modules suck, so if he gives his name to a product my expectations skyrocket. Criticising something is much easier than puttig your ideals into practice after all, so The Red Prophet Rises is a proving ground for the dutch reviewer.

The module's physical manifestation is 38 pages long saddle-stitched booklet churned out by the DriveThruRPG print on demand service. The front and back covers look kickass, and they foreshadow what you can expect within: sacrifice, murder, and lots of blood. The interior is black and white. The illustrations range from okay to good - nothing outstanding, but at least the book is devoid of half-assed artsy sketches that look like something done by a five year old with a crayon. There are two maps within, one showing a canyon, the other what's beneath. They are simple, functional, and a joy to look at with all the loops, branches, and large open areas on them. There are 43 keyed areas, so there is plenty to explore. Layout and writing is just as important as a well-made map though, and The Red Prophet Rises does a fine job in this regard. Every keyed area gets a short description with the most important details first, and then lists the rest with bullet points, also highlighting further items of importance with italic or bold fonts. There is no bullshit, no fillers, only the useful or fun information you need in a terse style. A+ in usability. I do have a gripe: the module does not credit its playtesters.

The first few pages are spent on notes, background, and some basic information about the adventure. The premise is short and straightforward. The barbaric People of the Bull have a new chieftain called Khazra, who lead them to an ancient obsidian slab that drinks blood, where he promises to open the Gateway to the Crimson Paradise. To accomplish their goal the People of the Bull begin "an unending rite of sacrifice, bloodsport and druginduced orgiastic revelry", which will slowly awaken the ancient evil slumbering under their feet, within the ruins of an ancient wizard's tower.

The module was originally built as an opportunity for paladins to find their special mount. We aren't talking about a mere stallion here: said mount is no other than Aeryon, Grandson to the King of Horses! Yeah, it's just fluff and fancy name, but it sounds cool and gives enough character to the mount with three words to make it more than the paladin's pokémon. The People of the Bull captured him, and use him as a beast of burden at the moment. If the party has no paladin all is not lost: there are raiders to slay, slaves to free, ruins to check out.

Besides rumors the DM also gets an introduction about the People of the Bull, a few rules about their hallucinogenic Crimson Tear, a guide about their tactics if the shit hits the fan, and a timetable. I don't like timetables much because they add more bookkeeping to my already huge amount of DMing tasks, but fortunately the one provided here isn't complicated, and offers some savage barbaric daily routines the players can either get involved in, or leave as cool spectacle that makes the place feel alive.

The first part of the adventure is Khazra's canyon, where the People of the Bull took camp. The place evokes a barbaric sword & sorcery theme effectively: it's a barren environment with violent savages, which can be summed up as Frazetta's Conan the Barbarian meeting the warriors of Khorne from Warhammer. Until their Gateway to the Crimson Paradise opens (at least that's what they believe) they spend their time having raids, bull runs among slaves, duels in the arena, ritual sacrifices, drunk revelries. Being thus occupied provides a good opportunity for the adventurers to get into the camp, but that doesn't mean there is no chance of getting caught. Besides the barbarians there are jaded slaves, a wereboar looking for his wife, a curious doppleganger, a bugbear archer, and the three champions: the treacherous gnoll Gorelaugh, the blinded basilisk Drak, and the mighty centaur Velan. My favorite though is the head-shaman Luvag, who conspires against Khazra. Even if the players ignore him he has a chance to get Khazra assassinated, or start a civil war that ends with him dueling with the chieftain on the large obsidian slab in the middle of the camp. All in all the camp not only offers an excellent sword & sorcery feel, but it's full of moving parts that turn it into a dynamic, living setting.

The second part is the Tower Basement, a surprising departure from the original premise. It is a dungeon crawl within the ruins of an ancient tower, where things went south and is now haunted by the ghosts of the past. It is by no way boring or unimaginative though! There is an imprisoned demon who offers the party to burn down a settlement of their choice when freed, the ghosts of the guests who didn't realize they are dead, the ghost of a scribe who keeps copying scrolls until someone tells him to rest, skeleton janitors that can be controlled with the proper commands, a huge ass obsidian serpent searching food, and so on. The most interesting encounter for me is the Keeper of Names, an entity that looks like a protoss archon and slowly gains control over player characters by revealing their true names. Those who didn't say "fuck this shit, I'm out" after all of these can find the obsidian cavern with blood-drinking obelisk, and the hammer Starfall that can destroy it. The obelisk of course won't let himself get smashed to pieces easily: it sends visions of the void, obsidian skeletons, and finally the obsidian lord on the offenders to stop them. A well written dungeon after all, but it's past the zenith of the adventure, and feels more like a bonus sidetrek than a climax.

All that's left are the appendices. The first one is about new spells - mostly related to blood. Cool stuff, but the quickening was a bit disappointing, because it didn't involve decapitating people and draining their power with lightning zigzagging all over the place. The second details the new monsters the module offers. The third offers more than a dozen magic items, some of which you should totally steal for campaign even if you don't run the adventure. Who doesn't want a chameleon statue that tastes potions and tells its properties by changing his colors, or a gauntlet that reveals the name and dark secrets of the people you point at with it? The fourth details the rest of the NPCs and monsters of the module, and the fifth is a cheat sheet for their stat blocks grouped by areas.

The Red Prophet Rises is an exemplary product that should have a place on your shelves. It's a brilliant example of when the authors understand the topic they are working it. Instead of delivering a pretentious gory spectacle they managed to capture the essence of Howardian hard fantasy and do it justice. This adventure begs to be used. Interestingly if I will ever run this piece it's going to be under ZWEIHÄNDER or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - because Blood for the Blood God!

Tl;dr: The Red Prophet Rises is a brutally good sword & sorcery adventure, and should be the gold standard in presentation that all OSR modules should follow. You can buy it HERE.