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.

Friday, 11 May 2018

HackMaster in Bundle of Holding

The pdfs might be not as gorgeous as the hardcover,
but at least they have the errata included.
HackMaster 5e is my all-time favorite fantasy heartbreaker. The pinnacle of old-school game design, it mixes the classic D&D gameplay with detailed character creation and a more realistic combat system. It sounds like something right from the late eighties, right?

It's a game I love, but didn't run or play for years now. Fortunately this is going to change soon: during the summer I'm going to start a campaign using Frandor's Keep, In the Realm of the Elm King, and probably a conversion of Quest for the Unknown. Fingers crossed my players will like both the borderlands, and the crunchy combat.

Meanwhile Bundle of Holding has launched two Kenzer & Co bundles:.one for the Knights of the Dinner Table comics where the game originates from, and another for some HackMaster rulebooks and supplements of the current edition. The latter contains not only the core books, but the above mentioned Frandor's Keep, the two Elm King adventures, and the first two Zealot's Guides. If you want to get involved with the game, now is the time!

[Review] Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Hyperborea, the land of idiotic guardian owls
and buxom blonde sextuplets!
How should I begin a review about a game that has been twenty years in the making? I could write about how it turned into a vaporware, until it resurfaced five years ago in an Indiegogo campaign, only to be delayed again and again until "Next Friday". I could write about the eccentric neanderthal behind the game, Cleveland Blakemore, his epic threads at RPGCodex, his exeggarated promises, and his ludicrous stories - including tales about his time spent in the development team of the never-released Wizardry 8: Stones of Arnhem, which ironically turned out to be true to some degree. That would deserve an article of its own though, one that I don't intend to write, thus researching the game's absurd history is left to the gentle reader. The dark pits of RPGCodex are a good place to start.

Grimoire promises to be a David W. Bradely-era Wizardry game on steroids: a classic first-person party-based rpg (or a blobber in short) that's bigger and better than it's predecessor. I have barely finished Wizardry 6 last July when the game appeared on Steam, and it was a huge dilemma whether I should continue playing through the Dark Savant trilogy, or give it a rest and start playing Grimoire instead. I chose the latter in the end, and after eight months and 170 hours of playtime I feel qualified enough to tell you how successful Cleve's attempt at dethroning the king of old-school blobbers was.

Grimoire takes us to the mythical land of Hyperborea, which is guarded by the White Owl (the titular Winged Exemplar). He kept peace through the mysterious cosmic artifact, a clock called the Metronome Mysterium, which is about to unwind soon. Its whereabouts are written on nine tablets, but the imbecile White Owl forgot about their locations, so it's up to a group of adventurers to find them, fix the clock, and prevent the apocalypse. On their journey they will meet the inhabitants of this weirdly messed up kitchen sink world, including vamphyrs related to a lovecraftian creature, drow raiding their own people, holy knights whose order is built on a lie, ratlings controlling their population by mass sacrifice, the local BBEG Lord Ahriman (whom I managed to murder mid-game for being jerk), and many more!

Our motley crew can have up to eight members, who can be both player characters or recruited non-player characters. There are fifteen races, including the usual fantasy clichés with a twist, various manimal races, and some downright weird choices like vamphyrs who are weakened in sunlight, and the aeorbs who are psychic eye-things from another plane. They can be members of fourteen different professions, but not all of them are available during character creation: a few elite professions have such high requirements that it's nigh (or totally) impossible to start as one.

It was a no-brainer to have an eyeball in my party.
Character creation is very old-school: you roll the number of bonus points you can spend either on attributes, skills, or hit points. Each race has its minimum scores, further modified by gender, each class has minimum requirements, and each race has a multiplier for your bonus points for each class, making it easier or harder to create certain race-class combos. In my case this lead to three or four hours of jolly re-rolling until I got the party I wanted. Needless to say leveling up includes a lot of randomness too: health, stamina, magic, attribute points, skill points are all awarded randomly, which can lead to a rage inducing cycle of reloading until you end up with a tolerable result, no longer care, or get used to the thought of rotting in hell forever for using a save editor.

If you think planning wasn't hard enough already, then I have some good news: Cleve hasn't released the manual yet. All you have are some short in-game descriptions and hints, but they are neither exact, nor complete. Did you know that drow have shitty spell regeneration? Well I didn't, and neither did the game tell me about it, so I created a drow wizard who felt pretty gimped for a while compared to the other casters in the group. While it has a certain charm to see the community work together in discovering and sharing the details it alienated a lot of people from an already controversial game.

Once your party is done it's time to chose your difficulty, the starting location, and jump into the game. Yes, there are several different starting locations, which can't be reached later if you didn't begin there. Completionists will find this frustrating, but I found it a cool touch, plus it's not a choice in the middle of the game that can alter the rest of your gameplay in unexpected ways.

Wizardry's influence on the game is obvious at first glance: you get a small hand-drawn pseudo-3D game environment framed by a huge ass user interface. There is a lot of information and shoved in your face, and you haven't seen the character sheet, inventory, map, journal yet! Heck, I haven't figured out all the symbols on the spell descriptions, or the item inspections... To make things worse Grimoire also borrows the unwieldy shared inventory from Lands of Lore, which is a headache to browse.

That's a nice collection of wands! It would be a shame
if someone stole them...
If this retroshock hasn't scared you away, then get ready for an awesome experience of raw old-school gameplay. Right after your starting zone you are thrown into the Avian Mountains and given total freedom to explore the area, with zero handholding. You have a vague goal, but its up to you to figure out how to advance through exploring the areas, communicating with the NPCs, solving puzzles, reading vague hints, solving puzzles. Once you feel on track and your first major objective is complete the game turns it up to eleven by opening the rest of the world for you. It's freaking huge - and dangerous. While traversing the wilderness you will have to climb mountains and set sail to reach your goals. The dungeons are mostly multi-level and non-linear complexes, with secrets, puzzles, traps, hazards, and of course boss fights. There are only a few settlements in the traditional sense, and even those are far from safe havens. You have to travel a lot, but thankfully the game has an auto-path feature, and later allows you a limited form of teleportation.

Most areas have their own NPCs, some of them wandering, some of them staying in a fixed position. Their dialoge is usually well written, and often humorous, or even absurd. Talking is done by typing in keywords, or using one of the several social options. Their reactions may change based on your deeds, but even if it gets worse (usually for killing someone, saying no to a request, or stealing from them) some money, magic, and diplomacy might help getting them in a better mood. A surprisingly large number of NPCs are recruitable, which can lead to optional quests, dialoges, or even loot. There are even NPCs that start their careers as items - like a corpse waiting to be resurrected, an enchanted that has to be invoked, or an egg that has to be hatched.

The situation might look dire, but it's under control!
All they need is some freezing and a few criticals.
Being aware of your sorroundings and inventory is important in Grimoire. You can easily get stuck if you don't recall having an object from earlier, or because you missed a secret door, an illusionary wall, or a clue. Also, always identify your items properly. They might be cursed or have unexpected effects both malevolent and beneficial. Ignoring spells like Identify, Detect Secret, Locate Item, Wizard Eye, or hanging around with low Inspection, Lockpicking, Scout skills can make journey excruciating. Sometimes though they won't help either. Sometimes you need to persistently interact with your environment in different ways (eg. using seemingly insignifican items or sleeping at the right place) to find obscure sidequests.

Time to get to the most exciting part of rpgs: combat! The battles are turn-based and follow the classic Wizardry suit: you select your commands, press BATTLE, and wait until the turn is resolved. Since combatants act in order of their speed their position on the initiative ladder is usually fixed, the only thing messing up this order being magic, which seems to come after item use and attacks. Combat is far from exciting, not only for the minimal visual feedback, but because the game prefers draining your resources slowly: your party usually encounters a small number of enemies, but often (unless you switched off random encounters). While initially even a fire beetle can pose a challenge, later almost every creature becomes trivial. The exceptions though will make you sweat blood. These are the creatures that fight dirty - those with great speed, huge number of attacks, irritating conditions, and instant kills. If half your party is dead or afflicted by a crappy condition after the first turn you are facing one of them. To prevail you need to buff the party with everything you've got, or find a way to cheese them. By the endgame the arms race seems to turn in the player's favour though. With Lethal Blow, Music skills, Freeze, Time Stop spells, and a bit of luck nothing will stood in my party's way. I played on Novice difficulty though, so I have no idea how different harder options are.

This doesn't mean that combat is mindless. Trying to use the same cheese without thinking lead to the death of my characters several times, thanks to ignoring some specific details - many of them being common sense. Don't cast fire spells on fire elementals - it heals them. Don't cast frost and lightning spells while fighting on water - it reflects them back in your face. Do cast sonic spells against bats - it blinds them. And the disease condition? Remove it asap, without healing it gets worse and starts causing other conditions. Small details like these can spice up combat more than you would except.

The most disgusting creature of all Hyperborea
in every possible way.
Partly due to the genre's nature the game can get repetitive, and even tedious in late sections. Around level 9 advancement becomes painfully slow, so if you want some sense of achievement I recommend changing professions. Some of the puzzles, boss fights, and mini-games (lockpicking and disarming) are downright frustrating too, and it's also disappointing to see that some systems (like food and crafting) are still unfinished. Despite these issues, I enjoyed the game greatly. The gonzo setting, the unique lore, the unfolding story, and the involved system kept me interested in Hyperborea. I think I should also mention its catchy MIDI tunes, which I found adorable. While I wouldn't replay it again (life is too short to replay 100+ hours long games), I will sure as hell load my last save state and play a couple more hours if Cleve releases additional content. Grimoire does everything that made me love Wizardry games of the Bradley era. It mixes the depth of 80s tabletop rpgs like RoleMaster, the mercilessly challenging gameplay of a classic AD&D campaigns, and the rampant imagination of a teenage Dungeon Master. It is a beautiful loveletter to a forgotten genre - with lots of strikethroughs and corrections.

It's also kinda expensive...

Tl;dr: An old-school experience in every sense, Grimoire is a rough gem that probably only fans of the genre might enjoy. You can buy it HERE.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Sophisticated Barbarian Rises!

Pretty accurate representation.
I met Chomy seven years ago during the afterparty of the first Random Encounters rpg convention, where we realized that we have at least two things in common: we both liked beer, and considered Therion the best band ever. That was enough for me to put him on my "cool guys" list, but of course that's not all what makes him noteworthy. He is a veteran by Hungarian standars: he started playing in the nineties with AD&D2e, ran almost every edition, helped organizing several conventions, and still referees multiple campaigns. Lately he started lamenting about all the stuff gathering dust in his drawers - both unused notes, and homebrews he has already run before. Well, it seems the stars are right, for last weekend he got his shit together, and started revamping and translating them. The first one is already available on his brand new blog: The Sophisticated Barbarian. Fingers crossed his enthusiasm won't dwindle!

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

[Review] Echoes From Fomalhaut Issue #01: Beware the Beekeeper!

Let's start with a confession! I'm biased with the work of Gábor Lux (aka. Melan). His reviews in the long forgotten hungarian diskmag Chaos Ultra, his posts and articles about adventure design, his released modules, and the few session I played at his table influenced my taste in gaming to a great deal. Without him I probably wouldn't know about the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, HackMaster, or Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar. Thus it was a no-brainer for me to buy the first issue of his fanzine once it's out. Well, that didn't go exactly as I planned. A month ago I was one of the lucky bastards who won the first issue on a small hungarian rpg convention.

The issue came in a brown envelope. Within were a 40 pages long saddle-stitched digest booklet, and a folded unkeyed city map printed on sturdy paper. The black and white illustrations are a mix of professional art by Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, maps and some amateurish drawings by Gábor Lux, and a few public domain pieces. As usual, Gábor ignores the time-old convention of grids, a stylistic choice that will probably drive some people crazy.

The first article is Bazaar of the Bizarre, a d100 chart for generating the nature, persona, wares, and the latter's complications for a mechant. It's full of evocative ideas, and baroque vancian language - the latter meaning you might have to look up some results in the vocabulary. But rolling speaks more than talking about what's on the table, so let's generate some traders!

  • An arrogant, dreamy drunk is selling glass panes, at reduced price, as a form of penitence.
  • A flamboyant, gaunt maid is selling noble titles, on brink of insolvency.
  • An oleaginous aesthete is selling jewelry, with certification, everything must go.
  • A hypnotised crusader is selling souls, to fulfil a prophecy.
  • A deranged dervish is selling secrets, from a demon dimension.

Okay, this is pure gold. I can see myself using this table in the future.

Next page is a small chart and a few sentences about generating caravans and caravan goods. Short and useful. Under them are a few paragraphs about the system used and how the fanzine's assumptions are different. Moving on!

The Singing Caverns is an adventure for levels 2 to 4. This a relic from Gábor's Wilderlands campaign, with serials filed off - the titular caverns were originally a cave system under Haghill. In 15 digest pages you get a two level dungeon with 49 rooms, two maps, and some illustrations. That's no small feat, and it's mostly thanks to Gábor's style. There is no bullshit, no fillers: you get straightforward, but evocative descriptions, with the most important parts even highlightet by bolding.

The dungeon itself has plenty of interesting sections to explore, including a tavern, a bandit hideot, a wizard's lair, ancient baths, mushroom caverns, an underground glade, the lair of mossmen, and the den of the Beekeeper. There is a lot of opportunity for roleplaying thanks to the large cast of interesting NPCs who aren't necessarily hostile. One notable exception is the Beekeeper, who is an insane druid turned into a Jason-like indestructible serial killer that's followed by swarms of bees. He either ignores others, or murders them, takes them back to his den, then conserves their corpses in wax. The dungeon isn't heavy on fighting though, the focus is more on exploration and interaction, for which it provides plenty of weird places, graffitis, and objects to tinker with (which is all fun and games, until someone dies).

Philtres & Dusts is three pages of alchemical substances - dusts, potions, bombs, oils, prices included. Included are a dust that makes the dead talk (and has a 1 in 6 chance to resurrect them as vengeful wraiths), various colorful essences that have different effects and can be mixed to turn into another kind of essence, and a potion that torments the liars. Good stuff, it's well worth adding them to your loot tables.

Red Mound is a small adventure site: the burial cavern and altar protected by the Red Men, who won't go further than the lowest sacrifical chamber. This place focuses on exploration and interaction too: all the PCs can encounter here are giant scorpions and giant fire beetles. The real danger here is a glasslike two-handed sword +3 held by a giant's skeleton, and the altar on the top. The former is a cursed item that punishes weakness, cowardice, and losing it, but can shoot heat rays from its blade once the curses are broken. The latter can cause insanity, but those of strong will get a visit later by Mnoyór of the Colour Eye Cannot Behold, an alien god that grants cool powers, including the ability to summon invisible primaeval slime at the low price of sacrificing 44 victims to it fortnight.

Morale & Men is a short ruleset for finding retainers and handling morale. It's short and solid, and the mention of "Bledsawian level demographics" made me chuckle.

The Mysterious Manor is an adventure for levels 2 to 4. Knowing Gábor's obsession with manors I wasn't surprised seeing one pop up in the fanzine. Much shorter than the Singing Caverns, this adventure introduces a three level dungeon with 23 rooms on 9 pages. The house originally belonged to a now extinct family, but currently it is guarded by goblins, orcs, ogres, hell hounds, all in service of the pirate captain Saydir the Kassadian (a level 8 fighter you don't want to mess with). While there are only a few encounters here again, two of them is huge and best avoided, especially at the recommended levels. Hidden treasures, inscriptions, and devious traps await the adventurers, particularly those who descend to the haunted tombs.

The booklet ends with two pages of more unkeyed maps, and an advertisment of Helvéczia.

Don't let the small size fool you: this baby is jam-packed with actually useful articles. The Singing Caverns alone are worth the price and provide more adventure in raw hours than most OSR products or DMs Guild shovelware out there! Echoes From Fomalhaut does not try to distract you with pretentious art, juvenile crap, boring rants about days long gone by, or any other kind of useless nonsense. It wants you to play, and gives you some sweet tools to do that.

The modules credit their playtesters.

Tl;dr: The first issue of Echos From Fomalhaut delivers a good amount of GM-friendly content, and does that efficiently. You can buy it HERE.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #4: Rats in the Walls

The fourth session took place on the 27th of January, 2018, with the following player participants:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya, quick to help those in trouble.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, a sucker for disease, wound infection, and critical hits.
  • Päther von Sternwart, a human astrologer, proud of himself for defeating a foe all alone.
With Blitzkrieg's injuries healed and Päther's spell arsenal expanded the party was ready to descend into the sewers under the Labyrinth, one of Nuln's poorest quarters. Blitzkrieg and Agonia bought some rat poison and a few wheels of cheese with themselves, hoping they can use them as bait.  They broke into the sewerjack's entrance, Agonia and Päther stole their boat, and with Blitzkrieg guiding them on the sewerside, followed the path the cultist told them about during the interrogation. There were swarms of rats everywhere. When they ran away scared there was a bell tinkling in the distance, but the adventurers couldn't figure out what it was.

When they reached the breach in the wall they were looking for the boat bumped into something. A skaven with rebreather jumped out of the water, and attacked the boatman. After getting an axe into his face and realizing the numbers are not in his favor he threw a smoke bomb and tried to escape, but Päther pushed the boat forward and blew the ratmen's head off with magick missile. The adventurers looted the various poisons, and warpstone dust from the corpse.

At the end of the short tunnel behind the breach stood a crappy door improvised from trash. After listening and hearing nothing Blitzkrieg took the poisoned cheese, smeared warpstone dust on it to make it extra desirable, put it in front of the door, knocked, and ran away. A minute later the door slowly opened, and not without hesitation, but someone grabbed the cheese and closed it. The party took its time, then they entered the room. Inside they fizbd hammocks, crates, simple tables, two huge wooden barrels, and two doors. In the center of the room someone sat on a chair. It was the cultist from last time, with a Colombian necktie. This time the adventurers also noticed the a houselike symbol and the letters ADA painted on his wrist.

When you have so much poison on your blades even
their vapor is deadly.
Faint groaning was coming from one of the barrels. The skaven that ate the cheese was lying there tortured by stomach pains, until his head was cut off. Blitzkrieg tore up the other barrel to see another skaven who was probably planning an ambush. This one held his ground against the dwarf until his comrades arrived and joined the fray - including the Gutter Runner Snikt Snikt, master of oriental martial arts, who is also known as Totenkopf for the many skulls decorating his armor and cloak. By the end of the battle Agonia was losing her sight because of poisoning, Blitzkrieg's right arm was useless. The slayer just shrugged, said something about ambidexterity, and continued fighting with his left handed axe. By some miracle Päther stood face to face against Snikt Snikt and managed to damage him badly with a magick missile. After a smoke bomb the leader fled. Päther tried to stop him with a spell but failed and collapsed with the wind knocked out of his lungs. Blitzkrieg chased down the last skaven, and after he finished him he returned to Agonia and gave her  his antidote.

The rest of the base was empty. The skaven expected an attack and only left a few assassins behind. They took their prisoners and equipment with themselves, although a prisoner left a diary written in blood behind a brick frequently mentioning the name Ludwig Müller. There was also a closed door with a lock. After opening it black gas bursted out, but it didn't effect anyone - it was probably meant to keep skaven away from the room, which based on the notes and diagrams within belonged to Whitespore. Päther took the plans of a rocket, while Agonia took a plush rat - after removing the warpstone from it. Several letters about human trade pointed to a man named Ludwig Müller, again.

Our adventurers returned to the street shivering from sewer fever. After some discussion they agreed that the fever can wait, they should continue their investigation and find out who this Ludwig is. Information from Don Cornetto led to a homeless shelter on the edge of Nuln, lead by an old nun called Theresa Anjürük. The lady knew very well who the party was talking about. She said Ludwig used to transport the mentally ill to the mental health institute Asyl der Angst (ADA in short), but it probably had a bad effect on his mind because he was closed in there too a week or two ago.

The asylum was on the edge of the city, a cold grey building hidden by trees, eyes flashing behind barred windows, and the sound of violin coming from within. Blitzkrieg sent a poisoned cheese with a thank you message to the institute, which the others agreed to be a stupid plan. Päther went to the university to find Shultz Brenner. He gave him the plans he found in the sewers, told him they are going to the ADA, and asked him to report their plans to Heinz von Tomatenhaus if they don't return in 24 hours.

The good professor.
The party discarded the option of sneaking in, and chose to enter the asylum through the front door. They introduced themselves as relatives of Ludwig. After a couple of minutes they were greeted by prof. Philippe Neugirig. They had a short discussion about the patient's health, and how madmen can be reintegrated into the society. Philippe allowed the PCs to visit Ludwig. He sent Igor, a hunchbacked halfling with a wounded right hand with them. They descended through the stairs to the farthest wing's deepest level.

Ludwig sat in his cell, mumbling to his visitors about how the patients are used for skaven experiments, what kind of horrific images the doctors use to brainwash them into Yellow Fang cultists, and how he ended here thanks to an unsuccessful blackmail attempt against prof. Neugirig. The adventurers soon realized that they are trapped here: the massive door on the next level is closed, and the inane Igor had no key to open it. A psychopath called Grinning Walter told them Igor was wounded because he bit his hand not so long ago, and got the door's key without Igor noticing it. He is willing to tell where it is if they torture Igor in front of him. The adventurers didn't want to do that. Päther convinced him that he is a palmist, and asked Walter to show him his hands so he can tell him the future. Päther noticed there was rust on Walter's hands. They went on to explore the level, passing through a cell with a crying ogre that kept complaining about the things inside him.

Leaving the cells they found the medical room (which they looted for medicine and tools), a store room with various tools (didn't bother with this one), the rubber rooms (someone broke his nose here), the spartan bathrooms (didn't bother with this one yet either), and finally a big room with chairs and some strange devious device with a lens, and a canvas in front of it. They realized this was the projector Ludwig mentioned earlier, that shows them nightmarish pictures. While they were curious about the images in the end they all agreed their sanity is more important. Then something started ringing in the next room.

There was a large booth with a conch-like tool inside - another devious device of the vile ratmen! Päther was brave enough to pick up the conch. Someone started talking from it. They were called by Qiree, aka. "Palemaster", a skaven of utmost importance, who wanted to have a word with them. He knew they were in the asylum thanks to prof. Neugirig. He was angry for the adventurers foiling his plans several times. They stole the red ring, and now Oldenhaller is out of town who knows where. They killed a rat ogre, and his most brilliant inventor, Eesk, aka "Whitespore". While he managed to get his head back, the brain damage was irreversible, so Eesk's engineering knowledge is useless now. Qiree did salvage what he could though, and his punisher is on its way to the asylum. Our heroes have one hour left.

A thing you don't want to see in your toilet.
The party started searching for ways to exit. They found a rusty drainage in the bathroom, with the key under it. Unfortunately it didn't open the door - Walter was lying, and just wanted them to torture Igor. Agonia got bored of the ogre's cries and checked him out. The ogre was sure that ratmen have violated his private parts, and that there rats inside him. Päther made the ogre fall asleep with his spell, Agonia pulled a glove, and checked the ogre's behind - then screamened when she pulled out an ugly wriggling rat from him. Believing the ogre's tales now they woke him up, asked him if he's okay, and asked him where did the skaven do this to him.

Following the ogre they returned to the bathroom, taking the scared Igor and Ludwig with them. Meanwhile they could hear the door above opening, and the thumping of mighty footsteps approaching. Blitzkrieg checked out what's coming, and saw an abomination that shouldn't be alive: the skaven put Whitespore's head on the body of his beheaded rat ogre! It also had a flame thrower on his right hand, and a big barrel in place of his belly. Blitzkrieg took out his last weel of poisoned and warpstoned cheese, rolled it into the corridor, and ran back to the room hoping the bait will work.

The bathroom was loud from the adventurers trying to break through the freshly found one-way secret panel. Suddenly the ogre got sick and collapsed, then a swarmo of mutant rats bursted out of his chest. There was a  huge bump on the corridor too, which shook the whole level. Päther and Blitzkrieg looked out and saw the abomination lying on the ground in agony: the bait worked! Blitzkrieg wanted to go there and behead him, but the creature with its last breath pushed a button and green flames bursted out of his weapon and barrel immolating everything in their path. It was a miracle Blitzkrieg and Päther could jump back into the bathroom in time!

The survivors didn't waste more time, they entered the hole in the wall, and spent hours wading through the sewers until they could surface. Päther reported Heinz von Tomatenhaus about what was going on in the asylum, while the others returned to the Reaver's Return with their new companions.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #3: Feuer Frei!

It seemed impossible to organize a single session of anything in November due to people being busy or ill, so we didn't have the third ZWEIHÄNDER session until the 25th of November. This time I didn't run any classics, but something entirely of my own. The group was made of the following ne'er-do-wells:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya who is a magnet for flammable ammo.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, sworn enemy of everything rodent.
  • Päther von Sternwart, a human astrologer who just found a proper master.
In their downtime Agonia helped the Shallyans in a local hospital, Blitzkrieg got drunk and well known in the Reaver's Return for his incredible tales about the vile skaven, and Päther found himself an arabyan Celestial wizard for teacher called Abdul al Sahir.

"Sir, a half-naked dwarf with orange mohawk
wants to have a word with you."
After listening some rumors about missing sewerjacks and the mysterious hulking monster in the sewers Blitzkrieg found out that the tilean crime lord Don Cornetto has a bounty on Emilio Valentina's head. He went to the Blind Pig tavern to meet him. Agonia followed him, but remained outside of the dirty establishment, not suspecting at all that the slayer won't return for hours. Blitzkrieg not only earned the gratitude of the mob, he was also invited for a lunch, and got a new task fitting his taste: the Cornettos are looking for information about the Yellow Fang cult's hideout, who are becoming stronger day by day.

Back in the Reaver's Return they met a young man was looking for them. Schultz Brenner was a student of the University of Nuln. He was working with the Imperial Gunnery School on a new invention with some of the most talented smiths and physicists of the empire: they were building a self-propelled flying missile (aka rocket)! One day during the late hours he was still in the Imperial Gunnery School, and noticed some shady figures tinkering with the huge missile. He checked out what's going on, which ended with a chase, and the storage burning down with green fire. Schultz was sure he saw ratlike humanoids, but naturally no one believed his story, and was fired. Rumors about their last adventure led him to the party. The rocket will be tested in public tomorrow, and he is afraid the vile ratmen will sabotage it in some way tonight. He wants to check if everything is okay, and if they manage to meet his nemeses, then so much the better: he can finally clear his name!

A place of learning and bang bang.
Of course the best way to get into the school was through the sewers. Thanks to the rumors the mood was already a bit tense, then panic erupted when waves started rising in the sewage and the tunnels started shaking. A huge but skinny rat ogre appeared, still following his last order tirelessly from last adventure. Schultz failed his resolve test and leaked into his pants while climbing on a nearby ladder. The rat ogre attacked Blitzkrieg who dodged the blow, then Päther cast Sleep with success, and the slayer finished the beast by hacking off its head (which he naturally kept as a trophy). 

In the university Schultz realized he lost his key, so Blitzkrieg had to bust down the door. The party ended up in a large hall. Schultz was scared when he saw the rocket was gone. Then something moved under the sheets covering some device. Blitzkrieg tore the sheets down and found a naked and scared couple. The boy turned out to be Schultz's classmate Otto, who was having a rendezvous here. While Blitzkrieg kept terrorizing the girl with his creepy behavior, Hans told the adventurers that the rocket was already moved to Aver Isle, and they were hiding because earlier some creepy cloaked figures were searching here for something too.

On the way back they saw a dark cloaked figure shadowing them. Päther tried to hit him with the crossbow and Blitzkrieg charged, but they couldn't hit the running figure until (to everyone's surprise) Schultz took out a pistol from under his coat and shot. The spy stopped with hands in the air, so Blitzkrieg could finally wrestle him on the cobblestone. It was a member of the Yellow Fang, who was not only scared shitless, but was also a coward, so told a lot to his enemies. Our heroes learned that a squad of skaven is already on their way to attack Aver Isle. They weren't planning to sabotage the rocket: they wanted to steal and study it, so they can build one, fly to the Morrslieb, and have an endless supply of warpstone. There was a force of skaven and Yellow Fangs moving towards the island via boats, the barracks were rigged, and Whitespore (whose skull Agonia bashed on her last adventure) is alive and well. He even told where the hideout is, although the adventurers were skeptical about his realiability.

After the interrogation our heroes discussed what to do. Blitzkrieg hurried to Don Cornetto and told him about the coming Yellow Fang attack, plus left the cultist there as a gift. The Don gave a dozen of mercenaries to help the group. Päther gave a karl to a boy on the Marktplatz to send a message to the Aver Isle guards about the bombs. After regrouping they hurried to the island. When the company reached the end of the bridge the barracks blew up with green flames, but fortunately there were no casualties: the city guards were already outside mounting an attack against the invaders.

Maybe next time they will bring out the big guns.
Crater to crater, bunker to bunker the party advanced through the firing range until they reached the rocket. Blitzkrieg attacked the cultists and skavens loitering around the stands that kept the rocket upright. From the stands Whitespore looked down to check who is disturbing his work. His head injury was covered by a metal plate, and when he saw Agonia he lost his mind and started firing at her while screaming, which set the dwarf's clothes on warpfire. She quickly undressed and continued the battle in her undergarments. Thanks to the soldiers and the mercenaries the skaven were outnumbered and started retreating. Schultz shot Whitespore, whom Blitzkrieg beheaded to make sure he's gone for good. At the end the guard captain Heinz von Tomantenhaus thanked the group for their help. The guards started cleaning up, the surviving mercs returned to their boss, and the tired heroes went back to the Reaver's Return.

Schultz's name was cleared, thus he could resume his work at the University and the Imperial Gunnery School. Blitzkrieg proved his stories to his drinking buddies by presenting Whitespore's head, which later was stolen from his room somehow. When the trio met again they were planning an attack on the Yellow Fang hideout the cultist spoke about earlier.

All in all it was a fun and smooth session. I was satisfied how well the players used their resources to save the guards and gain advantage in the forthcoming battle, and it was good to see that they want to put an end to the Yellow Fang menace because "it's personal now". There are still many other questions they want answered though. Who stole Whitespore's head? Who framed the party when they arrived to Nuln? What's with Oldenhaller's promised info? What were the halfling and the squire doing in the meantime?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

[Review] Sky ov Crimson Flame

Which metal album is this?
Let's start the new year with a review instead of bullshit resolutions! Owl Knight Publishing's Sky ov Crimson Flame popped up on my radar in 2016's September when its Kickstarter campaign launched. The premise was interesting, the adventure seemed mostly complete, and the author only asked for five bucks. After short hesitation thanks to flashbacks from a past disappointment I backed the project. The planned release was October, but as usual the stretch goals resulted in a serious feature creep which pushed it back to last Spring.

Sky ov Crimson Flame is 64 pages long, with color cover, black & white interior. The layout flawlessly mimics the official DCC line, but once you look at the illustrations you realize you are dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing: instead of the gonzo sword & sorcery of DCC RPG you are staring at some weird fucked up horror fitting of a Lamentations of the Flame Princess product. There might be no dongs and vaginas, but get ready for some flayed men, intestines, and creepy freaks. The art was done by Jordyn Boci, Nicolò Maioli, and Stefan Poag.

The first half of the module covers the titular adventure, a character funnel for 16-20 level 0 characters. The village sweetheart Balena goes missing, people start disappearing, and the Horned Moon rises on the night sky, which is a bad omen. Folk tales point toward the nearby abandoned castle of the long lost necromancer Balrothhariid as the source of every woe. To make players even more motivated, one of their PCs finds a love letter from the girl. Does one need more reason to storm a hellish dungeon?

Probably my favorite creature from the module.
Within the crumbling castle are twenty-something rooms awaiting for the foolhardy visitors. The ruin offers a good mix of combat, exploration, interactive elements, and loot alike. Our heroes will face flying heads, a huge butcher who loves flaying his victims, a mass of baby heads and limbs, and even the animated flesh Balrothhariid flayed off from himself. Monsters aren't the only threat though: there are plenty of opportunities to fall to death, and activating the soul chamber can desintegrate careless people. The castle is also the resting place of the legendary King Roulreed, and his magical sword Silvallum. That's not the only interesting loot though: the library holds some fun random magic items, like a potion that hulks out the user for a few round, or a lamp fueled by a farting imp that might escape. The most memorable for me weren't these though, but the history of the castle, and the all the foreshadowing that slowly reveals what's going on, and sets the mood for the final encounter.

The final confrontation takes place at the top of the highest tower, where the survivors will find the now flayed Balesa in company of some impaled corpses and a pool of blood. The girl was corrupted by the dagger forged from Balrothhariid's soul, and is about to finish a ritual to become the necromancer's next incarnation. The PCs have six rounds to stop her, and the author offers several ways to do that. No matter how they succeed, the ending will be bleak. On the other hand, if they fail, the ending will be still dark, but they will also have a kickass psychedelic planar battle full of random effects against Balrothhariid. It is a tough battle, but it's a million times more exciting than the normal conclusion.

The adventure ends with the new Splinter Soul spell (with effects ranging from Personality loss to total domination), the Nexus Disturbance Table needed for the post-ultimate battle, a bunch of handouts, a character sheet, and of course maps. The dungeon map is isometric, and much simpler than those in the official DCC RPG product. It might be not as jaw-dropping, but at least it isn't too crammed either.

The second half is the Blight ov the Eastern Forest mini-campaign, a small sandbox region with a hex map, and several adventure sites. Unfortunately it has a few glaring issues. First, while the village of Reed is on the map it lacks any kind of detail. Good sandboxes need a central hub where the party can recuperate, gather information, interact with locals, and spend its hard earned money. Omitting information on the hub is a huge mistake, even if it's just a small village. A few pages would have been enough to help the Judge, but now it's extra work he has to do. Second, the village is in the southeast corner of the map. It's better to have the hub at the center, so no matter where the PCs go you have something, and can expand later as they advance further. Now you will either do some more work in advance to cover some of the southern and eastern areas, or put there some walls like mountains, or do the cheapest lamest thing by asking your players not to venture there.

The points of interest include lairs and small dungeons alike. They aren't all independent pockets within the wilderness: some of them are connected to each other or Sky ov Crimson Flame through history, the sword, or the dagger.

Lair of the Yss'sak hides a wounded monster who tries to trick the party into getting him the silver medallion that restores him to full power. He is afraid of the Silvallum, which can destroy his medallion, but will also lose its power when doing so. Overall this is a cool encounter with a memorable villain, although nerfing the sword after destroying the medallion is a dick move.
A deal with the devil.

Hellspring Hollow is an area corrupted by the blood pouring from a Chaos Lord's still beating heart. The adventurers will have to wade through a forest of flesh-eating trees, a river of blood, and a whirlpool until they find the ribcage holding the heart, and its octopid guardians. It's theme makes the mini-dungeon a bit dull (blood, blood, and more blood), and it also lacks any kind of reward.

Domain of the Coo'ng is a monster lair, and as linear as a tower can be. While the creature has an intriguing origin it's unlikely the players will learn of it or it will have any importance, unless the Judge introduces a way to reveal it.

Jhumbii-Beyr Glen is an area corrupted by a sweet alien slime that turns creatures into gelatinous freaks - most of them are bears who can bounce around. If someone didn't get the reference, it's basically the Gummi Bears meets Giger. It's fun mini-dungeon, though there are too many things that can mess up the PCs permanently.

Sanctuary of the Sightless Sisters was founded by the Margaret, King Roulreed's blind sister, who was exiled to stop gossips about their incestuous relationship. The sanctuary was known for its blinded sisters who took care of the sick and wounded, until it was attacked by the Three Warlock Brothers (who defeated King Roulreed too). This is a small dungeon, but it packs a lot of punch for its size, for it has cool encounters, traps, secrets, and even meaningful treasure. What's better, the characters can make a great sacrifice by ritually gouging out their own eyes to redeem the place, which in turn rewards them with great power!

The Wrook's Hut is home to a strange creature that takes tolls from tresspassers, or their souls if they can't pay. Furthermore, he can controls crows which will try to murder intruders. What really makes this lair interesting is that the Wrook is a random encounter in the forest, and if he has taken any treasure or souls from the party they can be recovered here.

Even the fairies are horrible in the Eastern Forest.
The book ends with the random encounter table and the monster stats. Besides the above mentioned fiends this chapter offers corrupted revenant knights who seek the Silvallum's bearer, undead rabbits shooting strands of hair, baby-headed spider freaks shooting their bowels from their asses, and diseased pig fairies flying with gossamer wings, et al. If you didn't think the adventure was messed up enough already, well here you are!

Sky ov Crimson Flame is a product I find hard to judge. The first half is an excellent funnel that reminds me of Sailors on the Starless Sea in many ways. I can wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you don't want to use it as a funnel. The second half is a half-done sandbox. It's a mixed bag of some really good, and mediocre content. The Judge will have to do put some effort into it to make it work, especially if he wants to make those locations that only offer risk, but no reward of note less frustrating for the players. I can also understand if someone won't pick it up because its outrageous parts, which are sometimes clever and creative, but often feel fucked up just for the sake of fuckedupness. Still, there is a strong imagination at work here, accompanied by solid writing, and good product quality.

Tl;dr: A great character funnel accompanied by an incomplete sandbox, written for DCC RPG, but with heavy LotFP vibe. You can buy it HERE.