Saturday, 13 April 2019

[Review] Wee Warriors Reprints, Part II: Dwarven Glory

The cool original cover...
Not to be mistaken with the unfortonately named Judges Guild classic Glory Hole Dwarven Mines, Dwarven Glory is the second Wee Warriors Dungeon Master Kit originally released in 1977. The module got a facelift when Pacesetter Games reprinted it in 2013 with an additional AD&D rewrite included.

V3 Dwarven Glory is 44 pages long, with color covers, and black and white interior. Visually the book is quite a disappointment. My biggest gripe is the cover - I have absolutely no idea why the excellent original illustration was replaced with something that looks like a cheap caricature of it. It's not only a downgrade aesthetically, but also feels disrespectful. The obvious answer would be for legal reasons, but as far as I know Pacesetter did reprint the book with the original cover before. My other issue is the obsession with the Vampire Queen. She is on the back cover of the book, on the first page, and she is glaring at me with her smug face from every page header. I know Palace of the Vampire Queen was a huge milestone and the first kit in the series, but she has absolutely nothing to do with Dwarven Glory - it's only good to mislead customers and hurt the module's identity. Let's give her a rest, shall we? Otherwise there are barely any illustrations within other than the maps, and those few pieces range between okay and meh.

The adventure takes us into the semmi-abandoned dwarven caverns within the mountain chain on the island of Baylor. The background  is summed up in less than a half page: the once thriving dwarven community was besieged and conquered by Mortoc and his 10 Orc Tribes, but there are still rooms they didn't penetrate, and survivors they didn't slaughter. It's a great setup, not only because it goes against the usual cliché of dwarves digging too deep, but because it also promises opposing factions - one of the cornerstones of turning your dungeon into a dynamic environment.

The caverns have 7 sections and 64 keyed rooms. Their presentation is unusal: the maps use hexes instead of squares, they are marked by letters ranging from B to G instead of numbers (curiously, there is no A), and there is no set order to them, although the introduction offers a sequence for beginners, and another for medium strength parties. The maps can be connected through their north and south ends, resulting in a long tunnel of thematic segments instead of the classic vertically aligned set of levels. Each section has branches and loops of their own, but due to their small size they don't make a meaningful difference in the exploration's overall flow.

The room descriptions in Dwarven Glory are a huge step forward compared to PotVQ. Each section has a theme outlined in one or two sentences, followed by terse summaries of the room entries which deliver more information than the predecessor's tables ever managed to. Of course the new approach is far from perfect: the entries often turn into a laundry lists of trivial objects, some of the details are unnecessary, and there is zero highlighting. Still, it's an improvement!

...and the crappy remake.
While it had a minimilastic presentation, PotVQ packed quite a punch with its varied and imaginative entries. The caverns of Dwarven Glory follow suite as its parts get introduced from the once busy cities entrance, through its monster-infested mines, to a desecrated temple of heretic stunties. The environment is the least interesting part of the module though: it's the NPCs where Dwarven Glory really shines. They have interesting relationships with each other, they have their own goals, and are mostly shameless opportunists who will try to take advantage of the adventurers. Some highlights include the thieves in the first tavern who want to poison and loot the party, pixies who blatantly lie about the magical properties of the clothes they sell, an ogre chess player who is a sour loser, heretics who summoned the Elenoin (see a Gods, Demi-gods, and Heroes or Deities & Demigods with the melnibonéan pantheon in it) to assassinate their own high priest, and so on.

My absolute favorite is the mess in Section F. There is a minotaur who will put a geas on the party to recover his son, two ogres in the neighbourhood who hate him, the minotaur's lost son with a gem of insanity around his neck on his way to kill the ogres, twenty ghouls working for the minotaur, ten lizardmen on friendly terms with the minotaur and a cave troll (to whom they will try to lure the party the bastards they are), and a lich who will put a geas on the visitors to recover the young minotaur's head. It's fucking brilliant. Shit like this is what make a dungeon come alive. When the players arrive the whole level is in the middle of a chain of events that unless stopped will make the place explode in a wave of violence. There is so much opportunity to roleplay and get slaughtered it's amazing. It makes me even forgive the relative small size and simple design of the level.

The loot is nothing extraordinary, but at least it's varied. The upper levels offer mostly gold and mundane valuables, but as further one ventures gems, magic items, and magic gems become more common. The module rewards exploration with some ludicrously precious hidden treasure, while other times it punishes with traps and cursed items. Needless to say, the descriptions of traps and new magic items is vague. A chest has a 6-hex chlorine gas trap on it. What does it do? No clue. Probably save or die, but at least you get a book that tells you the value of gems, which is nice.

Dwarven Glory's tone feels more lighthearted than PotVQ's, mostly because it lacks gory and disturbing scenes - no children drained dry or grinded into blood pudding this time. It has plenty of old-school quirkiness and humor, even some juvenile, like the former night club with posters of dwarven go-go-dancers, or the two bookcases of X-rated materials in the dwarven high priest's chambers. That wasn't meant to be criticism - I leave a healthy amount of naughty magazines and kinky statues in my adventures too for the sake of immersion and verisimilitude.

The AD&D version pisses me off even more than PotVQ's. Dozens of rooms were replaced with empty holes, encounters were watered down, the eccentric elements were mostly thrown out the window. The conversion strips down the charm of the original module and sacrifices cool roleplaying opportunities in favor of run-of-the-mill encounters. The only good idea is the extra detail the heretics receive: they are deviants who want to live in forests with elves, which is actually an idea fitting to the spirit of the original.

This time it's a no-brainer which version to choose if you want to run the adventure. The conversion is just deadweight to the original edition - it adds nothing of value while increasing the page count. Dwarven Glory is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a good module and an interesting historical curiosity, with some qualities many modern adventures should envy and take note of.

Part III: The Misty Isles coming soon (hopefully in less than two months).

Tl;dr: A solid old-school dungeon crawl with exceptionally well done NPCs and factions, accompanied by a weak conversion.

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

Other parts of the series:
Part I: Palace of the Vampire Queen

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

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Grim and Perilous Goodies

The post office must have sensed I was considering kicking
down the door on them when they delivered all of these.
A few weeks ago the Dunkeldorf Kickstarter (which I interviewed Nicki about) has launched, and was funded within the blink of an eye. The original goal was surpassed ten times, new stretch goals are revealed at a steady pace, and the campaign is still far from over - so in case you were hesitating to jump on the bandwagon or not, it's still not too late to make up your mind.

As classy as they are, King Games sent me a promotional package, which arrived on the 27th of February. Thank you very much again! Also kudos for the Hungarian post office for delivering my stuff only a few days later than expected - the Lulu order I also received that day was around two weeks late. The little black box contained the early casts for Herman the burgomeister, Gunther the barber surgeon, Berta the ratcatcher, plus some stickers and leaflets.

A crap photo of the triumvirate. NSFW because of Herman.
I gave away Herman and Gunther to friends, and had plans to paint Bertha, but as usual, life found a way to hinder me in doing anything fun with my free time, so all I can give you are some shitty photos. I love them. The sculpts are great, they are full of character without being overly detailed. Herman is probably the best in this regard, with his obese body, double chin, smug face, and bulging codpiece. My favorites though are the small rats hanging from Helga's man-catcher (or rat-catcher?) and belt - painting them will be challenging, but I'm persistent in doing such small details, probably to compensate for my lack of skill. Despite being from a test run the minis were light on seamlines and had no flash.

Dejan's art delivers as usual.
ZWEIHÄNDER is on a roll too. The MAIN GUACHE pdf has been updated with art. Like the core book its a thing to behold, and full of content - mostly of the crunchy kind: professions, equipment, vehicle rules, alchemy, spells, mutations, etc. There is a lot about daemons too, but interestingly no new monsters. Expect an in-depth review in the near-future (hopefully I can do it in a single post this time). Grim & Perilous Studios also announced that the ZWEIHÄNDER family expands with yet another game besides Tetsubo in the future: Colonial Gothic. While neither of them is my cup of tea, I welcome this trend - covering more ground and styles is exactly what I would like to see from Cubicle-7 too.

Speaking of Cubicle-7... While my ZWEIHÄNDER campaign is crawling, the WFRP4e campaign I'm playing in seems to be pickig up pace as our party of three (the elf wizard, the bounty hunter, and the flagellant) are trying to make a living in Übersreik. It's a well balanced company: the elf has some cool spells, my bounty hunter is good at fighting, while the flagellant is an excellent cannon fodder - in the least two adventures he was pulled from the sewers back to the shallyans while leaving a red trail of blood on the cobble stones after being backstabbed by a goblin, was almost torn apart by undead wolves during his berserker rage, and lost a toe too. Thank Sigmar the worst I had was a wound infection! Time to tie up some loose ends and leave for Marienburg.

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

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

[Interview] Nicki Irmark talks about Dunkeldorf Miniatures

A blood moon rises upon Dunkeldorf heralding
the doom which comes to my wallet.
The Oldhammer movement is basically old-school Warhammer's equivalent of the OSR: its goal is to revive interest in classic Warhammer games and keep their spirit alive. Old miniatures can be hard to come buy and are expensive, so to fulfill the needs of the community dozens of manufacturers jumped the bandwagon and flooded the market with excellent figurines following the classic style. There are orks, goblins, daemons, goblins, chaos dwarves, and goblins galore! I'm not a wargamer though. I'm a roleplayer, who runs a Zweihänder campaign, and plays in a WFRP4e campaign. I don't need dozens of goblins, but on the other hand I need minis for rat catchers, stumbling drunkards, filthy whores, dirty peasants. Of course I can buy generic renaissance and medieval commoners, but most of them are nowhere as characterful as Citadel's 1987 Villagers, 1987 Travelling Players, or Mordheim frenzied mob.

Enter Dunkeldorf Miniatures, a Denmark-based initiative that was meant to satisfy the hunger for Oldhammer townsfolk. The team consists of Nicki Irmark and Nana Kronmark of King Games, the illustrator Mustafa Bekir of Spevna Studio, and the sculptor Sonny Bundgaard from Imitation of Life Miniatures. Their first Kickstarter campaign will begin on the 5th of March and plans to bring the inhabitants of Dunkeldorf to life in form of 28mm white metal miniatures.

The project was near and dear to me from the first time I heard about it. Last week I took the opportunity to ask some questions from Nicki about Dunkeldorf and the people behind it.

When and how did you get involved in tabletop gaming?

I believe I was 10 years old, and my parents, my sister and a friend of mine were attending a yearly event in my hometown, it was basically just all the businesses being open until midnight, along with a lot of street events. So my friend and me were perusing the different stores and got into a store that sold hobby supplies. In the middle of the room they had set up a table with Warhammer Fantasy Battles. It was the 5th Edition, Bretonnia vs. Lizardmen. I get so nostalgic when looking at the box art!. Both me and my friend were immediately hooked, we both bought the box along with a paint set. We spent all the money we had saved up for the evening, and just wanted to go back home to look at it! Later that same evening I painted my first miniature, a Chaos Warrior that was included in the paint set. It looked horrible, but I thought it looked pretty good back then! ;) I've been into miniatures (Primarily fantasy) ever since!

What games besides WHFB5e had a big impact on you? What do you play nowadays?

When thinking back, I believe HeroQuest had the biggest impact on me. I played it a lot with a friend who owned it, but I never actually got it myself. I loved all the dungeons accessories and of course the miniatures. I believe that has carried over for me when playing RPGs, I can't imagine playing without terrain, dungeon accessories and miniatures.

I haven't really had that same "wow" feeling with a board game, until recently when Nana, my wife and me received Gloomhaven. What a thrill it was to open that box and play the game! Nana and I play a bunch of co-op board games. But we mostly enjoy playing RPGs. We've been playing WFRP, Pathfinder, and D&D.

WFRP has always been our favourite, we love the setting and for the last couple of years we've been playing with our own homemade ruleset. We're gearing up to play 4th edition now though – We haven't started our campaign yet as we're finishing up a D&D campaign and also spending a lot of time working on Dunkeldorf!

Five of the twelve Dunkeldorf miniatures posing for a group shot.

Seeing the Dunkeldorf minis the influence of WFRP is obvious. But where does the idea of Dunkeldorf come from? Was it a place you used before in rpgs, or was it created from scratch for your miniature line?

We're definitely influenced by WFRP. Nana and I have talked a lot about having our own line of miniatures, for several years actually. And we have always talked about the lack of "modern" WFRP townsfolk. There's a lot of Oldhammer/Citadel townsfolk, some really awesome miniatures that we also have in our collection. Unfortunately they're extremely expensive to buy nowadays, as they're no longer in production, many of them are recasts and finally, they're pretty small compared to newer miniatures. So, we decided if we ever do move forward with our own line, we wanted to create townsfolk/rpg miniatures that could be used in WFRP and of course other fantasy settings as well.

We have never had an actual town in our campaign called Dunkeldorf. But most of the characters, the Dunkeldorf background story and the character stories – All of that is straight out of our own campaign! (And it all takes a pretty grim turn all of a sudden, something we'll hopefully get to explore and share in future Kickstarters!)

Bertha the Rat Catcher and
 her large but grumpy cat. 
You mention having your own line of minis was a long time dream of yours. You had to gather your party before venturing forth, though! How did you meet and get Sonny Bundgaard and Mustafa Bekir on board?

Nana and I knew Sonny through the work with our shop, King Games. We knew that Sonny had some sculpting experience and knew a bit about the casting process as well. When we talked to Sonny about our upcoming project, it was mainly to pick his brain, ask his advice and such. But as we talked more and more, it became clear that Sonny was pretty hooked on the project and we started talking about him doing the sculpting work. And now I can't imagine not having him on board, he has really captured the essence of what we imagined, and we're continually impressed by his work.

After we had Sonny on the team, we needed sketches for him to work from. Nana and I had already envisioned that Dunkeldorf should be more than just a line of miniatures. We wanted the stories and we wanted proper artwork, not just quick sketches. We felt that we needed to find a person that had the same kind of passion for these sort of characters as us. So the obvious choice was an Oldhammer guy. Lo and behold, Mustafa's artwork popped up in my Facebook feed from The Oldhammer Artwork FB group. I contacted Mustafa, and he was crazy about the project. And not only did we get some awesome artwork from Mustafa, we also got a very nice, helpful and talented person to be a part of the project. He has been a large driving force behind the project with a ton of ideas and input.

We're really excited to have both of these talented guys on the team, and we hope to continue working with them on Dunkeldorf in the future. :)

What would you like to do after the inhabitants? Monsters? Adventurers? Something else?

Well, we have a lot of ideas. But things can still change. So… The thing that makes Dunkeldorf special, is that a sort of supernatural event happens every year, a moon eclipse (a Blood Moon) and it can only be seen in Dunkeldorf and the surrounding area. This event attracts a lot of visitors and astronomers and such. The town has a yearly festival celebrating the event. The Dunkeldorf stories (and the RPG Source Book we plan on making in the future) take place during this festival. Did I mention that we're big fans of Shadows over Bogenhafen? Everything seems to be going just dandy, until the Blood Moon continues to linger in the sky, night after night. Weird things start happening in Dunkeldorf, many of the townsfolk start acting different.

So, as we see it, the first Kickstarter is how things are when the festival begins. Our plan for the second Kickstarter (Hopefully the first is a success so the second one is possible!) is with a focus on the actual festival. Entertainers and such, still with a focus on townsfolk, but with the introduction of some of the weird stuff that's starting to happen in Dunkeldorf. There's several villains and villain-like characters in our story of course, and many of these are easily corrupted by the Blood Moon. So, some of these characters could possibly show up as mutants or cultists. While some of the "heroes" could show up in combat poses. Erika for example, a former soldier stuck in a smithy, day-dreaming about swinging her Zweihander again. And! Then we have the surrounding area. Lots of stuff happening just outside of Dunkeldorf as well. So yea, we have a lot of ideas for the future. But, one step at a time. Our first priority is to make our first Kickstarter a success! :)

Regarding monsters, they're not a high priority for us, as we feel like there's a lot of those to choose from on the market. We love the minis from Knightmare Miniatures for example, they would fit right in with our miniatures. There's also The OS Miniatures Company and their Circus of Corruption. And of course many others!

A finely sculpted halfling, alas
without sausage in his hands.
What kind of sourcebook can you imagine about Dunkeldorf?

The sourcebook would be a book that any GM/DM in a fantasy group could pick up and have a ready-made town along with the area surrounding it. It would contain lots of adventure hooks, maps, artwork, rumours, minor encounters/jobs and an adventure/campaign. All the characters will of course be featured in the book, so those that play with miniatures can pull out the real Dunkeldorf townsfolk/NPCs/characters and use them for their sessions if they wish.

We obviously have a lot of love for WFRP, but we want to make sure that Dunkeldorf fits into most fantasy settings. So we decided early on not to include blackpowder weapons for example. But we'll make a lot of things open, so it's easy for the GM to add his own stuff, but not so open that you necessarily need a ton of planning.

That sounds like something right up in my alley! How is the gaming community in Denmark by the way? What games are popular?

Glad to hear that! I have to admit that I'm not an expert on what is the most popular any longer. But we have a bunch of great hobby/gaming stores in Denmark where players can meet up and play. Games Workshop is still very popular here and I think that GW games take the crown as to what is played the most. I feel like there's many RPG'ers in Denmark as well though, but they tend to be a bit more "secretive/not noticeable" as they're mostly playing at home and not in a club/store (some are of course!).


How big is the interest in Dunkeldorf there?

There's definitely interest! We've gotten really good feedback so far and it's so great to know that other gamers are into the project we're working on! We have also talked to a few Danes who don't even have a particular and immediate use for the miniatures, but they plan on backing the Kickstarter anyway just to support us and a Danish line of miniatures. That's such an awesome feeling to know that. :)

I think this will be kind of a "Sophie's choice" for you... Which is your favorite Dunkeldorf miniature so far and why?


I love Old Tully! The character is based on a crazy beggar from our own WFRP campaign. And I really wanted to do an homage to Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull (if you can call it that, taking the end result into consideration!). So he's this sort of creepy guy, lurking around the streets (in dark alleyways and such) just waiting for his chance to jump out and scare unsuspecting townsfolk, he'll then almost stalk them, playing his flute loudly right next to them until they give him a coin or two.


I've also grown very fond of Haelga, the town watch captain, who originates from the far north (viking type) and has a hard time letting her past go. I think the sculpt by Sonny has turned out so great. And the end result is a very unique miniature.

Okay, final question! What would you do if one morning you woke up in Dunkeldorf?

If I woke up in Dunkeldorf, I'd probably try to get on the Burgomeister's good side. With him in power I'd never feel safe if I wasn't! But then again, even if you're on his good side you may not be totally safe. Might be best to actually just get the hell out of there! ;)

Thank you for taking your time to answer my questions, and good luck with the Kickstarter!

If you want to know more about the project visit dunkeldorf.eu or the official Dunkeldorf Miniatures facebook page.

Update: The Kickstarter campaign has started, and is already funded!


You can't have proper Oldhammer feel without pop culture references.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other parts of the series:
Part II: Dwarven Glory

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

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

[Review] Quack Keep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A colorfully painted door and frame… but no wall.

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

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

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

Good stuff, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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