Friday, 9 July 2021

[Musings] Opening OpenQuest

The new eiditon of Ducks & Dragons.
OpenQuest is belongs to the huge family of games based on Chaosium's percentile system. It promises a similar gameplay and experience as RuneQuest or Mythras, but in a more streamlined fashion. It is crunchier than early editions of Call of Cthulhu, but not as complicated as RuneQuest - it strikes a solid middle ground with its mechanics like Stormbringer and Elric! did. It is by no means my sweet spot when it comes to percentile games (otherwise I wouldn't be hacking my own), yet it is still a game I adore and keep recommending to people who are fed up with D&D, leveling, hit dice, and stuff like that. But this post isn't a going to be a review. Maybe next time. This is just plain gushing about production values.

OSR games are all over the place when it comes to quality. You can find utterly amateurish stuff like The Meat Grinder, deluxe books like the Hacklopedia of Beasts, cool boxed sets like Old-School Essentials, artpunk experiments like Mjölk Bork alike among them. While each style has its charm, my heart belongs to simple, sturdy, black & white books. Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG has been the gold standard for me in this regard: a massive tome lavishly illustrated with characterful black & white art that often blends into the layout. Zweihänder is also worth mentioning. OpenQuest 3rd edition is the latest that made me smile. When OpenQuest 3rd edition's Kickstarter campaign started Newt wanted a print on demand print run. Eventually the Signed & Sent tier was introduced, with a more expensive, proper printing, and some neat extras. 

That's how a rulebook should look like.

While OpenQuest 3e Signed & Sent might not be the absolute fucking unit my first printing DCC RPG rulebook is, it still ticks all the right boxes and kicks a lot of ass. Both versions will get you a cool Jon Hodgson cover and a cleanly laid out, neatly illustrated black & white interior, but the sown binding, sturdy paper, red bookmark, endpapers, and colour plates of the Signed & Sent tier elevate the product to a next level. Introducing that tier was the right decision on Newt's part. Coughing up the extra cash for it was the right decision on my part. It is a rulebook that looks damn good while also feeling like a rules reference instead of a coffee table book. It also oddly feels like a mix between the RuneQuest Classic reprints and the Games Workshop RuneQuest 3e rulebooks. Well done.

Did I mention it has colour plates?


Wednesday, 7 July 2021

[Homebrew] A Quick Primer for Terminus

As promised, I dug up the players' primer for my Terminus DCC RPG. The document was last edited in 2013, and even then it was unfinished: we started the campaign quickly, and I didn't have the time to include elite promotions, descriptions for other towns, or a fucking map. Truth to be told, the campaign had a pretty swift pace compared to what I was used to at that time, and despite planning it to be a sandbox it ended up becoming an almost entirely urban campaign, with a detour to a carnival in Hell, a wintry island ruled by two vampire lords, an ancient moon base, and the body of the space-faring Hungerer.

I still have the folder of dead characters in my desk, with notes on them like "decapitated by giant beetle while vomiting from poisoned mushroom", "torn apart when a small troll crawled out of her stomach", or the twice-resurrected zombie amazon priestess of Cthulhu whose sheet says "stabbed in the chest by a ratling ninja, crushed by a rollercoaster cart, torn to pieces by zombies on the ghost train". The living weren't much better either: the party's leader was a goblin thief, whose drug addiction made his Stamina drop to 4 over time, and grew a brain tumour after eating the corpse of the slime god to gain psionic powers. He was also the worshipper of the orc barbarian from the previous Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign. Good times!

It's probably the "bad" influence of video games that I like
my campaigns with tons of races.

The influence of Arduin and The Wilderlands of High Fantasy is obvious, among many other sources. I kept returning to the same kitchen sink approach with all my DCC RPG games - and also with the current Eremus campaign. In fact, plenty of the homebrew content and rules I used here were later adapted and converted to other games, and I have even revised them from the ground up for DCC RPG too for a campaign that never got going. A pity, because the revisions were much better than the originals.

While dusting off I did fix a few errors, improved the layout a bit, and cut out placeholders for content that never got into the booklet. That's all I changed though, so expect a good deal of shitty writing, swarms of typos, and clichés. Have fun!

A Quick Primer for Terminus

Bonus: stat blocks for Thieves Guild NPCs and ratling ninjas

There is a lot more, but alas mostly in Hungarian. Still, I'll dig up some more in the near-future (like the elite classes).

Sunday, 27 June 2021

[Musings] Back in Black

Welcome to a different, darker shade of the Simple Blogger theme. It's probably the most overused theme, but I guarantee it will be better for your eyes when you open up the Vorpal Mace blog from your phone in the middle of the night.

Summer is on the loose, and it got pretty serious here this year. I already got a T-shirt tan just from walking to work, and the temperature within the flat goes easily above 30 °C if we aren't careful. Summers is also expensive. Even if we don't travel anywhere with the kid arriving in two weeks, there are some Kickstarters and new releases to drain your funds.

A few familiars from the first Rise of the Minons Kickstarter.
Don't hang out with wizards who have friends like these.

Even if I had to put my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay preparations on hold, I can't say no to the next Dunkeldorf Kickstarter campaign: The Kingpin of Dunkeldorf. I'm not here for the thugs though (except for Lenny, he is a musthave), but for the witch hunters and mutants. While there are some great witch hunter and mutant minis available from other Oldhammer manufacturers, their numbers are still dwarfed compared to the variety in greenskin and dwarves.

Paul Smith of Creative Sculpt Studio has barely finished his Random Dungeon Encounters! campaign, he is already pushing another project forward, called Rise of the Minions 2! I have the entire lineup from the first batch, and they are some absolutely characterful little buggers that are a joy to paint. This is also a good opportunity to get some of his earlier sculpts. I was thinking about sitting this one out, because Paul said he has plans for champions of Order (a true niche among Oldhammer manufacturers), but that modron, mini-Cthulhu, and demon fish are hard to resist. Also, another Moonfaced Horror! You can't have enough Moonfaced Horrors!

Goodman Games also started their long-awaited DCC Dying Earth Kickstarter campaign. While I absolutely adore Vance's work and have high hopes that Goodman Games will do justice to the source material (just look at the contents of The Primer of Practical Magic: curses, manse-building, magical associations!), $50 with shipping will be a bit much for now. I'll be the first in line when it comes out next September, though.

And as usual, Venger is back again, with Cha'alt After Dark, going full R-rated with the sleazy stuff. What's more interesting for me though is that he got his hands on Encounter Critical, the best garage-made science-fiction fantasy rpg from 1979 (published in 2006). Cha'alt conversion with cheap black & white illustrations and typewriter text when?

The most important OSR news (probably of the year) has absolutely nothing to do with Kickstarters though. In fact, one of the best thing about it is that you don't have to risk your money on a Kickstarter campaign, and wait months or years to get the final product. Helvéczia - Melan's picaresque fantasy RPG - is available, right now. You can get it as a hefty boxed set, or a single rulebook. 

That's all for now. Some unknown guy called Unknown asked for some DCC RPG resources in the comment section of my last post, which were lost when I rebooted the blog in 2016. Expect some of those soonish.

Monday, 31 May 2021

[Musings] Excuses and Expectations

Unintendedly the cycoyles ended
up looking like the Ahrimans
of the Final Fantasy series.
May went by so fast I didn't even notice there was one. Yesterday I sat down to write a review, but after an hour or two I scrapped it entirely, because it felt like doing homework. Hobbies should be fun, and if something feels like a chore, you should give it a rest. Thus instead of a review, house rules, or whatever, I will give a little status update about what I actually did in the last month, and what I'm going to do in the near future.

Hecatomb is crawling forward nicely. I'm at 24 breezy pages that cover character creation, game system, spells, equipment, basically everything players would need, though spells are currently undergoing major revision. While my original intent was a homage to the original Basic Role-Playing and Magic World, my manuscript inevitably began to divert more and more from its roots. As the rules began to take shape, so did a sword & sorcery setting, which over time began to affect the rules it has grown out of. I will write a more detailed retrospective around the 6th month milestone.

Despite dropping or pausing some campaigns during the quarantine I still have two of them running. One is my old D&D5 Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign's B party, which will end soon - though I've been telling this my players for a year or two by now. The party finally found what they have been looking for at the bottom of Fortress Badabaskor, just destroyed Blackrazor using Whelm, and are now enjoying an otherworldly landscape on a demonic plane. Will they defeat the demon that inhabited the sword on home ground? Will they return to the Wilderlands and take over Fortress Badabaskor? Will the half-orc barbarian who was turned into an antagonist by the sword survive and recover his player character status? We'll see on Thursday. 

The other is the usual OSE Eremus campaign. After murdering some sirens and scalping them to get new strings for a dark elf vampire's lyre the party did a hexcrawl back to the ruined baths hiding the entrance to the Underworld. Their journey was mostly uneventful until they ran into a ruined tower infested with cycoyles, who they awakened and almost died fighting. Now they are back in the Underworld, trying to commit genocide against a spider-worshipping kobold tribe. That will be Wednesday's entertainment. "That's all nice and dandy, but what the hell is a cycoyle?" I'm glad you asked! It's just a slightly reskinned gargoyle, but it was altered enough that my players had no clue what they were fighting. Still, here is your stat block:

Cycoyles look like stone eggs with bow legs, gangly arms, small wings, and a crooked horn. From the middle of their rotund body a huge red eye is glaring evilly. They disguise themselves as grotesque statues near ruins and prey on weary wanderers who take a rest among the rubble.

AC 5 [14], HD 4 (18hp), Att 2 × claw (1d3), 1 × bite (1d6), 1 × horn (1d4) or cursing eye beam, THAC0 16 [+3], MV 90’ (30’) / 150’ (50’) flying, SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12 (8), ML 11, AL Chaotic, XP 125, NA 1d6 (2d4), TT C

Ambushers: They wait for the prey to fall asleep.
▶ Blend in with stone: May be overlooked or mistaken for inanimate statues.
▶ Eggs: 50% chance for a pair to have a rocky egg worth 100 gp.
▶ Mundane damage immunity: Can only be harmed by magical attacks.
▶ Spell immunity: Unaffected by sleep or charm spells.
▶ Cursing eye beam: Can place a curse on a character once a week with a shimmering red eye beam. Save versus spells or be afflicted by a curse of the referee’s choosing. (Maximum possible effects: –2 penalty to saves, –4 penalty to hit, an ability score reduced by 50%.)

Probably the last goblins I painted for a while.
After some pause I did a surprising amount of miniature painting, preparing for a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e campaign that I ended up putting on hold. Now all those primed beastmen, greenskin, skaven, and renaissance townspeople were pushed to the bottom of my backlog, and instead of them I started working on some ancient miniatures, hoping I can use them for Hecatomb. I just received a package from Lucid Eye Publications today, containing some amazing miniatures from their Ziggurat line, a bunch of Death Dealers for a friend, and a Conann of the Fianna figure from their Jim Fitzpatrick line for my better half, which is both surprisingly big and amazingly detailed.

Speaking of other halves, our first child is expected to arrive early July. It's a wonderful new adventure into the unknown, one that's both exciting like nothing else before, and because of that, also slightly terrifying. Fingers crossed my experience with "winging it" and "herding cats" will come handy on our journey. This also means I will probably have even less free time, so don't be surprised if I'm gone for a month or two without posting anything.

Before that would happen I have two things I would like to cross out on my bucket list. One morning while it was still dark I opened my blog on my phone and was blinded by the light. Thus I will move to a dark theme, though that will require some minimal tinkering with the CSS for the info boxes. The other is a review. Emperors Choice's storefront unexpectedly resurfaced a few weeks ago on DriveThruRPG, which is the perfect occasion to finally write a review about their Arduin Grimoire Trilogy. It won't be an easy task though, for I will have to find a fine balance between being grateful and pissed off.

That's all for now. Fight On!

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Monday, 26 April 2021

[Homebrew] Getting Shitfaced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

[Review] Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, 28 February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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