Saturday 31 December 2016

The End is Nigh!

Well, at least for 2016 in my time zone... It has been an interesting and eventful year for me, but I'm not going to waste anyone's time with retrospects and boring lists. Since the reboot the blog's page views were steadily growing with each post, which was a very uplifting experience. I want to say a huge thank you for all Vorpal Mace readers. I promise I'll keep delivering reviews in 2017, and since I'm going to start a few new campaigns next year that will mostly use stuff of my own creation, be prepared for some gaming material you can actually use. Happy New Year!

Thursday 22 December 2016

Review: Broodmother Skyfortress

Holy fucking shit! I have totally forgotten about this! Broodmother Skyfortress was one of the many concurrent indiegogo campaigns Raggi ran as an experiment more than four years ago. From around two dozen campaigns only four got funded. Many considered this  whole affair a failure and forgot about it - including me. No wonder I was surprised when a few weeks ago the release of BMSF was announced.

Broodmother was written by Jeff Rients, who is one of my all-time favorite OSR bloggers. While others were busy rambling about how thieves ruined D&D, admiring obscure rules from the DMG no one ever used, or having dick measuring contest about who is the grognardest of all, Rients let his imagination run wild in fun and evocative articles. I'm not saying he didn't have some tedious posts about things I couldn't care less about, but I've found him to be far more entertaining and helpful than others. Thus my expectations were high.

Those who supported the indiegogo campaign didn't exactly get what they were initially promised, and I'm sure none of them will complain about that. Instead of a 32 page digest-sized module LotFP published a 170 page booklet that's full of DM advice and Jeff's best posts besides the adventure. That's what I call overdelivering!

Before delving into the contents I have to halt for a bit to praise Ian MacLean's brilliant art. Just take a look at the cover! It's a huge ass elephant-shark hybrid bursting through a door to slaughter soldiers with an anchor. It looks wicked cool. It makes me want to read it. It makes me want to run it even before reading a single word. The interior art is just as good as the cover. It's full of energetic comic style illustrations about these ugly bastards ruining iconic stuff, adventurers getting the short end, and the author doing all kinds of silly things. My favorite is the homage to a classic Exalted cover, which will make your eyes bleed. The adventure is accompanied by two maps, which besides showing the cartography have the random encounter charts on them. It's as useful as it sounds: incredibly.

The book is anything but boring. Jeff's conversational voice will grab your attention right from the first sentence, and take you on a journey where he introduces every aspect of DM-ing. The titular adventure about big weird monsters isn't your usual dungeon with keyed rooms, it's an example Jeff uses to show you how to write a kickass adventure. He will analyse every aspect of his work, reveal the reasons behind his decisions, and then give excellent advice about running and customizing it.

Jeff starts this by showing you how to incorporate BMSF it to your campaign, come to terms with it wrecking your setting, get your players motivated to visit the godforsaken place, and start a new campaign if you don't have one already. By the time reach the cast of antagonists you will be already pumped to run this!

If it wasn't clear from the covers, the monstrosities of BMSF aren't your usual D&D giants. They are wicked barbaric beasts that spend their time with operating the sky fortress, raiding settlements, leaving their eggs behind, and doing all kinds of disgusting things. They are godlike, and to illustrate it, Jeff uses a cool mechanic that will surely piss of some grognards: they don't have any AC value, because they are so big you can't miss them, but they have 5 points of damage resistance. With their shitton of hit points it's obvious that battling them is suicide.

There are seven giants, each of them with its own personality, agenda, and disgusting habits. Their rendition is straightforward about what's important, and vague about the small details. What are the tits of the Broodmother like? How are the Terrible Twins conjoined? Who are these giants? Who built the floating castle? Who are the wretches living underneath? You don't get exact answers. Instead, you get options that you can choose from, or completely ignore. Inspiration over instructions. I love it. Thanks to these holes the adventure will need some work before running it, but not too much, and gives you enough help to get it done quickly.

The dungeon has 28 keyed sites, and can be divided into three major sections. The sky fortress is where the giants live their lives and keep the fortress afloat. The surrounding clouds are full of ruins left behind by the original builders. The tunnels below are the home of primitive humans stuck here generations ago. The players can also meet spider swarms, hatchlings, spectral malevolences conjured from an angry dead god's brain, but they will probably have more problems with the enviroment than its inhabitants. There are plenty of objects to interact with, but being careless will have dire consequences. Foolhardy players can quickly turn the exploration into a crazy escape mission in several ways - including tampering with the skydrive, turning off the golden obelisk that serves as lightning conductor, and reviving the dead god that kills 1d6 creatures every turn. Such extraordinary place has extraordinary loot too, but their value is not always apparent.

The second half of the book is a collection of Jeff's best articles, including classics like Carousing, The Living Dungeon, EXPloration, How To Awesome-Up Your Players. Some had minor updates, but they are basically the same articles you can find on his blog. At the end there is an appendix with monster and magic item stats for 3e/Pathfinder fans. It's a nice touch, although whoever converted the monsters forgot to take into account the higher damage values 3e/Pathfinder characters. To achieve the same shock and horror that the giants can have in LotFP I recommend at least doubling the DR values.

BMSF is a module that was worth waiting for. For your money you get a kickass adventure, and some of the best advice the OSR ever provided. This is the magnum opus of Jeff Rients. While I can't imagine he could ever produce anything better than this, I sure hope this isn't the last time we've seen his work published.

Tl;dr: Instant classic. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG and in the LotFP store.

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.

Monday 28 November 2016

Review: Underport: Abyssal Descent

Reading Crimhthan The Great's OD&D Blog reminded me I've bought a module called Underport: Abyssal Descent many months ago. Released by Direbane Publishing this adventure promises to be a vintage mega dungeon from the halcyon days of the hobby. It focuses on action, and does not give a shit about encounter balance. Sounds good! The dungeon was written for the Knights of the All Mind ruleset, which seems like an unholy mix of 3e and OD&D. It's unlikely anyone ever used this system other than its author. Thankfully it's easy to convert the stats to any editions of D&D.

Opening the book will immediately invoke the inimitable old-school feel thanks to a layout so bad, it makes even the LBBs look good. Single paragraph, shitty fonts, ugly stat blocks... I'm not sure if it's intentional, but well done! The foreword confirms that the adventure will be a huge mess, with changing styles and a wide variety of influences including Judges Guild, Arduin, and puberty (unless you've forgot about those years, the latter means violence, sex, drugs). We also learn important information like the average heights of tunnels, chambers, caverns, and why didn't the author include wandering monster charts: if the PCs make noise just pull the monsters from the nearest room, or throw them a gelatinous cube. That's a simple and elegant solution I was thinking about using too.

The adventure is 88 pages long, with a seperate 18 pages long file for the maps. The dungeon has more than a dozen levels, big and small ones alike. They are scans of old drawings that were never cleaned, full of stains and smudges. Until you get familiar with them it can take some effort to find out what's going on, and where the different labels are. Once you can see through the Chaos you will find a real gold mine! The maps are full of exciting names, like Tita Luigi Bomba's Castle Hold, Battle Caves, Prime Material Gate To Abyss. Names like these are a perfect way to pique my curiosity in no time. They sound interesting! I want to check them out! I want to know what's going on there! To make things even more olde school, there is a cross section of the levels too.

Not only there are many levels, but they are varied too. The module starts in an underground pirate hideout, then continues to the depths through a mining complex, a crossdresser overlord's castle, the battle caves, a monk's hold in a mushroom forest, a "multi-dimensional demiplane Hellscape prison", and other weird places until the aforementioned gate is reached at the bottom of the Eternal Pit.

The encounters are just as colorful as the environment. The adventurers can meet both classic and unique monsters during their delve. What I really love about them is that these creatures aren't just put in a room to be slaughtered: the book is full of scenes where something is actually happening! A bar with drinking skeletons! Drunken pirates causing fire! Hobgoblins planning a rebellion against their king! Fire giants having sex! An insectoid creature disguised as a crying little girl trying to lure victims to their doom! I could go on all day about all the amazing happenings of this dungeon.

The writing is short, rough, and goddamn evocative in the beggining. The descriptions could've been even more effective with more powerful choice of words, but they are still miles better than your average dungeon room read aloud text that gets bogged down by unnecessary details. It's a pity the style changes dramatically midway. The encounters become more static, the descriptions longer, the levels less interesting. Sometimes I felt the author being tired, maybe even a bit burnt out. This doesn't mean of course that the lower levels are rubbish, but they aren't as good as the upper ones.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this product to anyone interested in megadungeons and early homebrew adventures. It's my favorite historical artifact besides the Rythlondar chronicles. I wonder if the Necropolis of Chaos, a sequel promised at the end of the book will be released too one day.

Tl;dr: Underport is an authentic old-school megadungeon with exemplary upper levels, and a bit weaker lower levels. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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 12 November 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures Toolkit Add-Ons

The end of the road is here! Since I have already finished the adventures only the add-ons are left to review. These include mini adventures, magic items, monsters, even a religion! They were meant to compensate for all the delay and the adventures Brave Halfling Publishing never delivered.  There are seven add-ons and three extras, so let's start the reviews instead of wasting characters on more empty blather.

Since some people were confused, I think I should nention that I haven't received these in print either, with the sole exception of The Shigish, which is on the back of a paper I've got when the Ruins of Ramat were sent to me the second time.

Pages are digest size, except Add-On #7 and Extra #3, which are Letter size.

Add-On #1: The Green Orb

A six pages long adventure (with one empty, one for the OGL, and one for an illustration). Rule of
thumb: whenever they say adventure in the extras they really mean "one-shot" or "encounter". The background tells the story of an old wizard, who travelled through the planes to learn how to control the Green Orb, an artifact which can animate plants as malign creatures. Then he got murdered in a small cave by thieves. That's an epic failure for a planeswalking wizard if you ask me. The rest of the booklet tells in lengthy details how the plants, roots, fungi of the cavern will animate and harass the players who take shelter there. There are some ideas about expanding the adventure, and making it harder. The latter includes such marvelous ideas like throwing in more monsters, but my favorite is making the whole place only 5' tall so the PCs can't use their weapons. A good challenge is exciting, it tests the player's abilities, who will feel satisfied once they have earned victory. Taking away the (often hard earned) abilities of the PCs isn't a challenge, it's just a cheap punishment. Also, who the hell takes shelter in a cave where it's impossible to stand up?

Add-On #2: Gifts of the Only

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). This is an encounter with a pool that during the night changes how magic works. On moonless nights the pool becomes a gate to the an alien plane, thus making it possible for the Only to enter our world. Combat against him is futile, but he will grant a wish for a sacrifice. There is a neat chart with bizarre ideas how those wishes may manifest, and a small detail that makes this weird faceless creature even more interesting: the sacrificed creature recovers on the other side of the pool, because the Only (nomen est omen) only wants some company, since he is the sole creature on his plane. Thus a sacrificed player might return later. Confrontation with a former comrade you sacrificed sounds fun! I was pleasantly surprised by how unusually imaginative this little encounter was compared to most of the line.

Add-On #3: The Perplexing Disappearances in Brambury

A six pages long adventure (with one empty, one for the OGL, and one for an illustration). The title is much cooler than the adventure itself. Cultists of Cthulhu lost an intelligent cave octopus. He grew up in the nearby lake and started hunting villagers during the night. The players will have to face him to stop the disappearances. The first half feels more like an outline for an adventure. The second part is about handling knee-deep-in-rwater combat, and increasing the difficulty by adding smaller octopi, hungry gars, or introducing cultists who returned for their property. If all of these were collected and worked out this could become a decent adventure, but as it is it's worth as much as scrap papers with hastily written ideas at the bottom of an average Judge's drawer. The cave octopus stats and description were fully copy-pasted from the DCC RPG rulebook, which is the epitome of laziness.

Add-On #4: The Untimely End of Scaviolus Hitherhill

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). Another pompous title. Did I mention I like pompous titles? This is a decent encounter in dense reeds with the ghost of a former soldier. I like his background, but unfortunately it's unlikely the players will learn the details of his demise. I also like that he can't be beaten: unless his wedding band is returned to his widow he will return evey day to haunt the area. There is some advice at the end again about making the adventure tougher. You won't believe it, but it tells you to add more monsters to the battle. Creative.

Add-On #5: Vance's Merry Men

A four pages long adventure (with less then one for the OGL). There is nothing vancian here, the title is just a trick to grab your attention. This module describes an inn and a band of robbers. The longwinded explanation of their scam was needless, especially the part about how they behave if the adventurers let themselves get robbed. Have you ever seen a D&D party that surrendered to mundane robbers? Me neither.

Add-On #6: Room and Boarded

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). It describes an encounter with dimensional pirates who travel on flying ships. Imagine the following situation: you are sleeping deep in your inn room after a tiring day of adventure, then suddenly the roof explodes and goddamn blueskinned pirates slide down from above and attack. They even have a wizard who can silence spellcasters or enlarge the leader. I like this one! It's an idea with a lot of potential, and also some really good non-monetary loot: the possibility of capturing a spelljammer drakker, and a cool magic amulet.

Add-On #7: Grimic

A four pages long description of a religion (with one for the OGL). Grimic is the most overused gimmick of old-school D&D's history: the red flat sob from the cover of the AD&D1e PHB. This time he is a god of humanoids and savages. There are battle rites described, a simple encounter with worshippers, and of course some rules about tampering with the idol. There are no new spells or even abilities that could replace the turn unholy his clerics lack, there isn't even a spell list. Strangely there are no lizard-men mentioned in the document. This left me cold, mostly because I'm bored of all the reuses of the idol. I think the community should give Trampier finally some rest instead of making him roll in his grave with more weak homages to his iconic image. The only good one I can recall was Kenzer & Co's monster entry in one of the Hacklopedias.

Add-On Extra #1: A Lesson From Turtles

A one and a half pages long description of a weird lake. The player characters can learn arcane knowledge from intelligent turtles, find the leaking facility of the Old Ones, and get murdered by giant clawed mushrooms. It reminds me of Carcosa and some of the better Wilderlands hexes. Short but cool idea for sandboxes.

Add-On Extra #2: The Sigish

A one page long description of tubular otherworldly monsters that grow from 1/2 HD to 3 HD by eating everything they can. Once there is nothing left to devour they break down into small larvae. Their description ends with ideas about using them as random encounter, spell mishap, or trap. An interesting monster I might use in the future with some changes - eg. not limiting their growth to 3 HD. My only gripe with this is the lack of illustrations.

Add-On Extra #3: Laro Chelle the Ring Bearer

Two pages long, with one for OGL. Another third page is wasted on title and header. The rest is about an immortal and ancient halfling who bears a magical ring: the Gift of Death. If the ring is removed from his finger the dead will reanimate in it's one mile radius, and they will be drawn toward it. Furthermore, day by day the radius doubles. This is the kind of NPC-item combo that will be either ignored, or will mess up the setting.

That's all folks! A bunch of unambitious notes, with some rough gems among them. Like the adventures of the Appendix N Adventures Toolkit line most of these are unaware too of what Appendix N or being written for DCC RPG means. These add-ons should've been released as articles in a fanzine, or as a series of blogposts.

Tl;dr: The Add-Ons are a mix of some good, and a lot of mediocre ideas, barly worked out more than the notes you take during a dump. You can buy some of them on DriveThruRPG.

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 8 November 2016

Back in Black

I have moved into a new flat, found a new job, which means I'll have enough free time again for my beloved hobbies. The final chapter of the Appendix N Adventures Toolkit reviews is coming this week, then I will move on to hopefully more delightful subjects. My backlog is full of promising items, and I was lucky enough to play a few weeks ago in Melan's Castle Xyntillan, so there is a lot I can write about.

Sunday 16 October 2016

Interview with the Referee

I'm in the middle of moving to Budapest and looking for a new job. I've lost count of the job interviews I've had in the last two weeks, and probably as many are still to be done. Once this gauntlet is over (around the beginning of November) I will return and continue with my reviews. Stay tuned!

Monday 5 September 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #4: The Witch of Wydfield

The Witch of Wydfield is the fourth, and so far final part of Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventures Toolkit line. It was meant to be a Kickstarter exclusive bonus never to be released anywhere else. It's $1.95 on DriveThruRPG at the moment. Just as The Crumbling Tower, and Danger in the Sulyndri Forest were replaced by The Vile Worm, and The Treacherous Cobtraps, so did The Witch of Wydfield take the place of The Revenge of Abudakar in the line. No idea if we'll ever seee any of these lost adventures, or what's going on with remaining rewards, like the Appendix N Adventvetures Game Box, Perplexing Disappearances in Brambury, the Old Isle campaign setting, the pantheon, or the character classes.

The Witch of Wydfield is a short character funnel. No idea for how many PCs it was written, as it's never mentioned anywhere. The module has the usual Mark Allen map, an ugly cover unrelated to the actual contents within, and a few nice illustrations inside. According the highlights after investigating a local tragedy the PCs will go to the forest to face a witch and her minions. This is followed by a detailed description of how the hag was murdered by the village cleric, how she possessed a local girl's body, and took revenge.

The investigation is bullshit. There is a lame clue written by the cleric on the wall with her own blood, but the villagers have already figured its meaning out during the introduction. Thank god for well educated peasants! They will even tell where the witch is hiding, so the players won't have to waste their time on learning trivia they wouldn't know about. This leads us to the other issue with the complex background.  The module assumes the party knows what's going on in the village, and who is who. Guess what: this is the first session with an in medias res opening. Unless the Judge spent some time introducing the place, the players won't have a clue about the local history, who the murdered cleric was, and why should they care more about the possessed girl than any other faceless NPC. With a proper prelude the events could have served as a strong and motivating hook, but as written it just falls flat.

There are three areas to explore. Outside the ivy-clad house the PCs will be harassed by a hexed hunter. The text says he will fire at spell casters first, which is a pointless piece of information, since level zero characters don't cast spells yet. Is this a conversion, or is the author unfamiliar with DCC RPG? Closer to the house the animated ivy will attack too. Once inside the characters will face the primeval slime bubbling in the cauldron, and can loot some money, a demon statuette, and a few potions. They can advance further through a trapdoor which can be noticed by a DC 5 Int check. Seriously, why did anyone even bother to come up with a DC to this? In the cellar there is an alarm spell and a floor that will hinder the characters for 7-10 rounds. It's a meaningless trap, because the hindrance won't have any consequences: the stage is already set for the finale, there is no timer to battle against. At the end our brave villagers will meet the possessed girl and a soul draining demon. There are three possible outcomes, all of which lack any kind of impact for reasons already mentioned above. For surviving this mess the players will be rewarded with a magic broom, and an either unconscious, or dead girl.

My usual complaints about bland writing and easy battles for ANAT modules stands true for The Witch of Wydfield too. The lack of atmosphere becomes even more apparent after reading They All Burn Down Here, which is also a funnel about witch hunting, but manages to pack a solid punch with less page count. Is there anything worth salvaging here at all? Yes, there are some cool ideas that need better presentation - like the animated ivy, the cauldron-dwelling slime, or the final battle with the soul draining demon. Make these encounters more challenging, add a grim horroristic tone the adventure, and start messing with the PCs. If you don't have any ideas, then watch some horror movies, like The Blair Witch Project. Still, adventure modules are supposed to inspire and make preparation easier. This one fails in both regards, so you're better off creating a new one from scratch than buying this.

Tl;dr: The Witch of Wydfield proves that you can write a bland adventure about witch hunting in a deep dark forest. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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 16 August 2016

Review: They All Burn Down Here

After the last two Appendix N Adventures Toolkit reviews it might seem that I don't like short adventures. Quite the contrary! I have written plenty of them too for my campaigns - they are ideal for short sessions and filling the empty spots in a sandbox. What I'm against are lengthy descriptions without meaningful content. An adventure's text should be straightforward, evocative, useful. A mini-adventure with three rooms ideally shouldn't take more than one to three pages - map included. They All Burn Down Here by Kevin Anderson is an exemplar of doing it right.

This module is a short funnel for 8-12 level 0 characters, that shouldn't take more than two hours to finish. It is only two pages long. The first page is a groovy illustrated map, following the current DCC trend. The second page is the adventure itself, with background, descriptions, monster stats, and even a table for totem effects. There is a small handout linked in the adventure, but I won't count that toward the page count. Kevin didn't waste the space, but he didn't cheat either: the text is of readable size and the whitespaces aren't too small either.

The hook is simple: children are having nightmares about a strange lady, and the villagers suffer some property damage by fire, so they organize a party to track down the smoldering trails leading to the bogs. At the end of their journey they find to a mound where a troll witch was burned and sealed a year ago. Naturally, the entrance is wide open now.

The background already sets a grim folkloric vibe for the adventure. Kevin does a great job with invoking a strong imagery of the scorched mound too, thanks to his effective use of adjectives. I'm not sure why, but reading the module reminded me of The 13th Warrior.

There are four areas in the adventure, although the root tunnels are broken up into three sections. Immediately after the entrance the PCs will find themselves in a creepy chamber, where the fenghor is lurking in a dark pool. It's an undead crocodile who will release giant mosquitoes from its ribcage once taken enough damage. In the tunnels the players can find exploding gas pockets that can wipe out a careless party, and shelves full of totems with various baleful or beneficent effects. If the characters survived all these atrocities they will finally meet the lair of the hag. It's one hell of an encounter in the middle of an oil pool, against a witch who can ignite anything with her touch, and throw players into the burning oil without effort. Stop, drop, and roll won't help here! After surviving all the horrors of the mound pursuing the man responsible for this mess will feel relaxing.

Before the adventure was published I was asked by the author to review the playtest. My feedback wasn't much different than the current review: while I did point out a few small issues, the adventure was already a well written and polished piece. I hope we'll see more from Kevin soon, he has a good chance to earn a seat in the Valhalla of the best DCC writers. He is a good writer and illustrator. Oh, and before I forget: this module is free.

Tl;dr: Strong atmosphere and deadly challenges make this short adventure worthy of your attention. You can download it HERE.

Thursday 28 July 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #3: The Treacherous Cobtraps

The Treacherous Cobtraps is the third part of Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventure Toolkit series. While the Ruins of Ramat and The Vile Worm were conversions of earlier OD&D and Pathfinder modules, this doesn't seem to have a precursor. I didn't acquire this in print so far, thus I can only talk about the pdf, which comes with letter sized, tablet, and system neutral versions, and a map.

The digest size module is 12 pages long, but only 7 pages contain actual content, the rest is for license, covers, handout. The illustrations are decent as usual, the cover is a bit meh, the handout would be alright if it wasn't drawn for the most uninteresting dead end in the whole adventure. While the map is charming, it confirms at first glimpse that similar to The Vile Worm this is a short sidetrek too, with little to explore. But hey, who knows, maybe those locations are interesting this time!

The Treacherous Cobtraps is a 2nd level adventure for a party of 8-12 adventurers. According to the background a bunch of weird spiders moved in to the nearby woods, and since the small game is becoming scarce they carried off some sheep and a shepherd from the nearby village. The locals appear to be unusually rich: contrary to what's written in the DCC RPG rulebook about medieval economy their leaders can cough up 100 gold pieces for cleansing the forest. Can reward get any more uninspiring than 100gp? Even some cattle and a cart of cabbages would've been more exciting.

The aforementioned arachnids get a one and quarter pages long description. These stygian orb weavers are big ass black widows with green glowing marks and magical abilities. The queen has 4HD, some dirty spells, and a blinding poison. The males are your usual dull giant spiders with 2HD. At least they have a cool name.

The lair has three areas. The first is a web with a stygian orb weaver runt, who will call in a another within 1d3 rounds. The second is a harmless pit trap with a dead spider, a dead elf, and some loot at the bottom. The third is a bog with two spiders, a forest path with extremely flammable web, and the lair of the spider queen. At the end the players will find four capturive dwarves (although only three of them are named), the halfling shepherd, and some treausre. The areas are described in a lengthy technical style which bores the reader with dimensions and distances. Guess what: nobody cares! If we need that info we'll take a look at the map! Oh wait, the map lacks scale...

Let's talk a bit about the pros! The place is more atmospheric than the previous two adventures, and the treasure is quite nice. There is a Dwarven Shoemaker's Tools which can construct a set of quality footwear in 3d6 turns. It's a seemingly useless magic items my players would love! Morclaiv is a +1 goblin slayer longsword, which can shed golden light and urges its wielder to return to the dead prince's realm and restore balance. While its abilities are generic, they are useful, and its task can be a good hook later.

Now it's time to light the torches and burn down the webs... Let's check what I've written above about the the stygian orb weavers, and then count how many of them are encountered. Yep, that's four 2 HD spiders and one 4 HD spider queen. For 8-12 adventurers of 2nd level. Are you kidding me?! Even if the spiders attacked in a single group the PCs would murder them within a few rounds. And no, their special powers won't compensate for their low hit dice, because guess what, those murderhobos will throw devastating spells, kick ass with mighty deeds, burn luck to cause ridiculous damage, and heal themselves. Unless something goes unlikely wrong there is zero challenge in the adventure. Even the traps are just hindrances without meaningful threat.

The real problem again is the author not understanding what makes DCC RPG tick. The game's main goal was emulating the imaginative and often weird classic fantasy literature. This requires rules and modules that evoke the genre's feel. Let's take a look at a random level 2 DCC adventure from Goodman Games! In The Emerald Enchanter the party can face a mosaic golem, emerald eidolons, flying skulls, rescue a drained moon-fiend, get killed by a giant skull statue shooting lasers from its eyes, try to communicate with an amoeba, and battle a mad wizard who turns people into emerald for shits and giggles. Wicked! And that's far from beig their craziest product. Meanwhile, Brave Halfling Publishing wants you to go to the forest and kill some spiders, and they even ask money for it... This should be a one page adventure.

Tl;dr: The Treacherous Cobtraps is about killing five spiders for some mildly interesting loot. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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 27 July 2016

Kickstarter: ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG

Two of my all-time favorite rpgs are the first two editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - the first edition for the setting, the second for the rules. I remember how excited I was when Fantasy Flight Games announced the third edition. Unfortunately my enthusiasm didn't last long... Instead of a percentile based low fantasy game FFG released a boardless boardgame with needless chits, unique dice, shitton of cards, vivid illustrations, and an even more watered down version of the Old World than the one seen in WFRP2e. I wouldn't have any issues with the game if it was called Warhammer Collectible Adventures, or Warhammer Quest on Steroids, but calling it Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was a heresy punishable by burning. Strangely FFG haven't felt any need to fuck up the WH40K RPG branch which still used the good old percentile system.

While the WH40KRPGs thrived and saw a shitton of releases, WFRP3e was slowly killed, and WFRP1e/2e endured thanks to the community, whose strongest bastion were probably the Strike-to-Stun forums. Here, Daniel Fox (aka Moniker) started to gather his house rules under the Corehammer title, but his game slowly started to evolve, and transformed into something different. Thus Zweihänder was born. Despite all the differences it still had something FFG's fantasy rpg lacked: the heart and core of WFRP. I've found the playtest docs interesting, and admired the effort, but as time passed I considered it a vaporware and forgot about it.

This spring I had to realise I was wrong. After five years and 240 sessions Zweihänder, the true heir to WFRP is virtually finished. The authors started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing, which was funded in five hours. If you live in US, CA, or EU, the gloriously gorgeous black & white hardcover book will cost you $50 with shipping and nice little extras. That's a steal! If you were looking for a dark fantasy rpg then go and pledge! It's even system neutral, so you can use it for your Witcher, Game of Thrones, Dark Souls, or edgy homebrew campaign.

Friday 22 July 2016

Christmas in July

I just realized there is a Christmas in July sale on OneBookShelf until the 29th of July. This seemed like a good opportunity to grab some adventures from my wishlist. Beyond the Silver Scream promises to be a fun and unusual funnel, one I might use for my next DCC campaign if I find it worthy. The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad is a sandbox for DCC RPG, which reminds me of an old Swords & Wizardry campaign I've had years ago. I have also bought Crimson Dragon Slayer for no reason. Hopefully I won't regret any of them. $9.88 might not be too much, but I could've bought a few beers with that money, or some crappy used pulp fantasy novel - these can be just as inspiring as a well-written adventure.

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 19 July 2016

Review: The Wizardarium of Calabraxis

A DCC RPG adventure by Claytonian JP! I recognise his name from various DCC-related corners of the internet, but I haven't seen anything from him before. I'm not even sure if The Wizardarium of Calabraxis is his first publication or not. It did get enough praise on the forums to pique my interest and make me buy it, but life intervened, and it took me a few months util I could finally sit down, and read it cover to cover. After a few pages I've felt an immediate regret for not doing this earlier, because the Wizardarium is one hell of an adventure!

Wizardarium is 18 pages long with front and back covers. The illustrations are light hearted and well done, often with funny captions that tell memorable events from the playtests. Flipping through its pages without reading anything the adventure already screams fun! The maps follow the DCC tradition, although they are less crowded. They lack scale, so the sizes are up to the Judge. I don't understand why the Judge's map had to be repeated a page later. It's unnecessary, its space could have been used for another illustration instead.

You will find no read-aloud textboxes and lengthy dull walls of text here. This is what you get when the author is not paid per word: zero bullshit, all useful information. Every room is described in a brief and straightforward manner, so it's up to the Judge how he presents them. The adventure is for all levels, which usually means the writer was either lazy to balance encounters, or the module isn't really about combat. In case of Wizardarium I dare to say it's both. Not giving a shit about balance shows that Calytonian knows DCC RPG very well. No need to sweat with maths, because the chaotic nature of the system will fuck it up anyhow.

The backstory appears lengthy at first glance, but in this case it's a venial sin, because the wizardarium is big and has a lot going on! The hook uses kidnapped children to lure the PCs to the ancient cave complex which belonged to the insane mage Calabraxis. The place already has a bad reputation, and the local peasants haven't even got a clue about what's really going on there!

The environment is non-linear and refreshingly interactive. The cave entrance is populated by apemen, who were psychically enhanced by a vibrating monolith. The monolith is the mining device of the ancient vorbian race who are awakening from their long slumber. It's also a nice tool to fuck up player characters or grant them psionic powers. And this is only the entry! Delving deeper the players will find all the crazy stuff left behind by the mad mage. Similar to the monolith most items can be tinkered with for various beneficent or harmful effects. There is a room with a projector that can turn people into hybrids if you make animal figures from plastic triangles and cast their shadow upon them. There are animatronic sage statues that can drop some hints, unless they go berserk when activated. There is a vault guardian who would love to get bound to another place because he's bored of his current task. I could go on about all the funky stuff the wizardarium has to offer, but if you require further examples about why this is a fascinating dungeon there's something wrong with you. There are some mundane traps too, like slides, narrow ledges, falling ceilings. The dungeon has 24 rooms, exits, tunnels described in one and a half pages. Remember what I've said about zero bullshit?

But what's a dungeon worth without memorable inhabitants? There are few predetermined encounters, most of them will be random. The PCs can meet their own time traveling shadows, visions of the time-shifted wizard, head-swapper bats, mongrelocks with random body parts and psychic powers, defrosted vorbians with hi-tech equipment that turns the user slowly into a vorbian, their mutant descendants, and of course the aforementioned advanced apes. Like the surroundings, they aren't all there to kill the players - some of them are downright friendly or indifferent! My favorites are the head-swapper bats, who decapitate people to get heads they can use to think and talk. They really like chit-chat and if they find someone clever they will try to get his head to replace the old one. Isn't that adorable?

Such extraordinary place must have extraordinary loot too! The players can get their dirty hands on a fob-watch which allows timetravel as observers. It's a cool way to explore the history of the wizardarium (which has its own section at the end of the addendum), but it's far from safe. Traveling to the future is dangerous: a fumble may revive defeated villains, age the travelers, or attract time hounds (of Tindalos), and eight-legged time lizards. It's also possible to obtain Baxter the Jolly Book-ax. He is a chatty book-axe hybrid who can use scrolls and spellbook pages to cast spells. He hates vermin and loves reading. He is also pretty senile. That's one magic item I would love to roleplay the hell out of!

The rest of the addendum has experimental psionics rules, some ideas about the vorbian monolith, the vault guardian, the vorbian agenda, delightful playtest memories, the writer's own appendix N for the adventure, and a list of 1d12 random mongrelocks that made me chuckle.

I love this adventure. It's full of juicy ideas I can't wait to use. It's also dirt cheap. Heck, even if you won't run Wizardarium you should still buy it for the wicked creatures and magic items within! I hope Claytonian releases a print version in the future, because I need this framed on my wall with a caption that says THE BEST THIRD PARTY DCC RPG ADVENTURE.

Tl;dr: The Wizardarium of Calabraxis offers a good amount of colorful and imaginative content for a ridiculously low price. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Prelude to an Exhausting Vacation

I'll be on a vacation next week. Once I have returned I'll continue my stream of reviews, but not with the The Treacherous Cobwebs. After the last two reviews I feel like a sour old fart, so I'll write about something more delightful before I continue my series of ANAT critiques. Stay tuned!

Monday 4 July 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #2: The Vile Worm

The Vile Worm is the second adventure in Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventures line. The first module was pretty disappointing and required some serious overhaul to make it interesting. Is this any better?

I'm one of those few souls who own a print version of this module too. It's a neat little saddle-stitched booklet. The illustrations are a bit weaker this time, and the cover is downright ugly. The map looks great, but it will ruin your hopes if you thought this will be a good one shot for Saturday night, because this dungeon has a very small number of rooms. The Vile Worm is not a fully fledged adventure. It is more of a sidetrek, a filler to put in an empty sandbox hex.

The highlights claim this is a dungeon crawl for 8 to 12 1st level characters. That's quite a lot for such a small place. The highlights also note this is a linear rescue mission. That's a very poor start, for two reasons. First, I hate linear adventures. Second, rescue missions need NPCs the PCs find worth rescuing - either because of the NPC itself, or the reward. The worst you can have is assuming the party is made of Goody Two-shoeses who can't wait to rescue random villagers never met before. You will later see this is exactly what we get.

The background is only half page long, and far cooler than The Ruins of Ramat's. It's a good setup for a gritty medieval lovecraftian tale: after finding the sacrifical tree for a worm god a crazed berserker becomes its priest and starts kidnapping people to sacrifice. Wicked! The next page introduces said hermit and his lynx and wolf companions. He's an adorable dark twist on druids, I like it a lot. With some build up he could turn into a memorable villain!

The next section is about how to begin the adventure. I thought The Ruins of Ramat was bad with the hook, but The Vile Worm surpasses even that! The writer basically tells you to invent your own hook, like that party getting lost in the forest, or maybe looking for a chaotic outpost. That's all. That's lazy. Come on, I paid for your creativity, to do the dirty work instead of me, to inspire me. Is this really the best you can do?

Okay, the party is in the forest, deal with it. They meet the hermit who will manipulate them to follow him to his oak. If they follow he will lead them to an ambush. What if the adventurers don't follow? The Judge shouldn't force the party, says the writer, he should just let them wander a bit until they run into the oak and the ambush. The irony is strong with this one. Also, good job at throwing away an interesting villain right at the start of the adventure!

The oak is the ancient hollow tree where the hermit lives and sacrifices folks. There is some boring treasure hidden around it, plus an obvious secret door to the prisons. Despite their two-three sentence long descriptions most of the cells are empty, except for the one where two peasants are kept, and the secret room with the bell that calls the worm. No mention of the 65 feet deep hole that leads down to the caverns. One of the prisoners will ask the party to recover their fater who was dragged away by a many tentacled monster. Down below careless adventurers can fall int a shaft with paralyzing mucus, find bodies impregnated with worm eggs, face worm hatchlings, loot a treasure hoard, and of course battle the worm itself. The encounters are passable: there are new hatchlings continuously bursting out from corpses, paralyzing goo all over the place, and while the Vile Worm is just a glorified carrion crawler, it is presented as a sneaky bastard who likes hanging out on the ceiling.

The adventure doesn't end after saving the shephard. The oak will try to murder the party, which isn't as scary as it seems, especially with 8-12 level 1 characters. While he can deal a decent amount of damage and can charm party members, his hp is ridiculously low for a 20x25 feet large tree. Within a round the party will make firewood from poor monster. Once its chopped down the peasants will give shelter, food to the adventurers. Hopefully they didn't forget to heal the shepherd, otherwise they will witness the chestburster sceen from Alien, which sounds an amusingly anticlimactic way to ruin the dinner. There are two more paragraphs with further ideas about what's under the worm caves, but they are weak and uninspiring.

The loot is boring as hell. Coins, jewelry, gems... There is no meaningful reward, there aren't even consumable magic items. Since magic item shops don't fit into DCC RPG's mentality, you likely can't even buy potions on your money. The whole adventure is just a waste of resources.

The Vile Worm is a lot like those modules hastily threwn together on the day before the session because you forgot to prepare during the rest of the week. There's no shame in that, I do that quite often, but at least I make it sure they aren't railroady, have at least one exciting encounter, reward the players with some juicy loot, last longer than two hours, and I don't publish them either. This module reminds me of a Dire Straits song.

Tl;dr: The Vile Worm is a waste of a cool idea on a short and linear sidetrek that lacks challenge and originality. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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.

Thursday 30 June 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #1: The Ruins of Ramat

Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventures Toolkit was among the first 3pp product lines announced for DCC RPG. It's probably the most infamous too: after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 it still didn't deliver everything that was promised. I'm not sure whether John Adams is just an unlucky guy who bit more than he could chew, or some scam artist who desired to earn some quick buck on DCC RPG's succes. He did deliver me a Delving Deeper boxed set and the first shipment of ANAT modules (heck, I actually got it twice with a year difference!), he did help quickly whenever I asked him for something, but there is still a lot of stuff I paid for missing. This won't hold me back from reviewing what I've already received, and neither will it influence my opinion on the products. In this series I will review the adventures one by one, and the add-ons in a single post in the end.

The Ruins of Ramat is a character funnel for DCC RPG. The print version is a digest sized booklet, which comes with a detachable cover, cardstock handouts, and an alternative level 3 version of the adventure. These are all parts of the pdf version too. The quality of the print product is top notch. The booklets seem sturdy and they look beatiful. Doug Kovacs made a fine cover, while Mark Allen did some cool handouts, and amazing map that imitates the style of the current DCC adventure maps. The print version has a bit more art (one by Steve Zieser, the rest by Mark Allen), but it lacks the end of the player introduction in both copies I own.

The module starts with two pages of background about how a cleric from a different sect compromised and destroyed a militant order of Ramat  from within. That's two pages wasted because the players won't learn anything about it, and likely won't care either. There is a section that highlights the features of the adventure, which is unnecessary for such a short module. Next is the player introduction, with one of the lamest hooks I've ever seen. A bunch of villagers learn from a crying girl that her dog was pulled down to some dark hole by a giant clawed monster. Risking your life to return a probably dead animal to a nameless NPC is everything but a tempting reason to go on an adventure. If you want a good hook for character funnel take a look at The Meat Grinder or Sailors on the Starless Sea! The former throws the PCs right in the middle of a massacre and makes the players thirst for vengeance, while the latter operates with kidnapped beloved ones and some rumors of great treasure. Much better!

The dungeon starts great! There are slippery stairs and a hungry spider right at the entrance. It doesn't matter if someone dies by breaking his neck, or being snatched away by the spider, it will be hilarious anyway. Once down the players can go three ways. This will be a random choice since they don't know anything about the place. The problem is that only one of those choices will result in a meaningful adventure. Going right they can explore most of the dungeon, have some battles, and get all the loot the place has to offer. Going forward they will run into some meaningless encounters with giant bats and meet a dead end. Going left their adventure will end early - either because they die in the trap, or because they find the dog and decide to end their quest.

Do you love all the crazy and weird stuff of DCC RPG? If your answer is yes, then you will be disappointed, because the rest of the adventure is unimaginative. There are 17 rooms in total, but most of these are far from memorable. There is nothing "Appendix N" about the adventure. What truly saddens me is that an extra sentence or two would have had been enough to make it raise above mediocricity!

For example, there is a cell with lawful aura where the chaotic PCs feel uneasy, the rest heal better, get a bonus to saving throws, and have a vision of Marpu, a former cleric. The healing bonus is useless for funnel characters, unless the Judge allows the bonus to natural healing too. Even then it's only marginally useful because level zeroes usually die by a hit. The saving throw bonus is useless because it's only available in the 10 x 10 feet cell. They can't even take a battle there! The vision is useless too, it only refers to an optional adventure. It doesn't even give a hint about what happened here. Did I mention there is no description about the room at all? You get a single sentece about the door being okay. Well thank you very much, it's a huge relief that I don't have to waste my imagination to describe a plain wooden door! The text is full of one sentence long descriptions without any substantial information.

This is where I started making notes on the margin. The room got some nice furniture (rather unusual and striking in a moldy dungeon), and a large tub of odorous hot water. Looking into the water long enough made Marpu's vision appear on its surface. He would answer a few questions before disappearing. I think there was a pallet too that could resurrect a single character laid on it. There were seven more empty cells on the corridor. I made one of them the spider's nest with the remains of earlier victims, and put a pile of coins in another that would turn into a golem when harassed. I could go on what I changed on the armory, library, chapel, dining room to make them a bit more interesting.

The monsters are generic too. There is a giant spider, some bats, some skeletons, an undead cleric, and a black tentacle demon that can't leave the sanctuary. At least the demon is powerful: it has an instant death attack and requires a unique way to defeat it. The level 3 version is much better in this regard: it adds flying demons, an engulfing psychic ooze, a few skeleton acolytes witch charm spell to the mix, and a bit more of everything else. Putting these into the funnel (in smaller numbers of course) would improve the adventure a lot.

Surprise! The treasure isn't that attracting either... There is a ring that works as a lantern for an hour, a few healing potions, a light golden chainmail, some junk weapons, and a chest of gold near the end. There is a cursed shield that's simply there to mess with players: it turns to dust on touch and gives a -1d on attack rolls. No foreboding, not a single sign of danger, it isn't too good to be true either. It's just a simple bronze shield that will mess with you. There is also a minor artifact among the loot, the Spear of Ramat! There are murals depicting it slaughtering demons with its holy light. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Well gues what, it's just a McGuffin. It has no stats, because its special abilities only function for a cleric of Ramat. Once taken it will force its will upon the PC and make him dispatch the demon mentioned above, essentially finishing the adventure. Once a demon is gone an angelic being appears and takes the spear. Well, at least you can keep the 500 gold... Did I mention that the loot in the level 3 version is exactly the same as in the original module? The only difference I discovered in loot is the lack of the cursed shield.

The adventure ends with an appendix that proposes two optional adventure ideas in a few sentences: one is a trip to the underworld realm of psionic lizardmen, and the other is a quest for becoming a cleric of Ramat. These are actually cool sounding adventure opportunities, which aren't planned to be released. Shame.

While there are hints of egyptian theme (just look at the cover), it's unfortunately not emphasized in the scenery. No typical egyptian elements like ankhs, scarabs, hieroglyphs. They could've helped in giving the adventure some character, which it painfully lacks. Instead of a black tentacle demon how about one with crocodile head that spits deadly slime globs? Instead of a generic ten feet deep pit how about one with scorpions? The point of adventure modules is reducing preparation time and inspiring the Judge. Unfortunately The Ruins of Ramat doesn't help much. The module looks gorgeous, the map is amazing, it also has some potential, but it's up to the Judge to create something good from the bare bones he paid for. If you are willing to finish someone else's job you can start it by adding a giant clawed monster mentioned in the hook, because the writer fucking forgot about it.

Tl;dr: The Ruins of Ramat has stunning illustrations, forgettable content, and lazy writing. You can buy it on DriveThruRPG.

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 15 June 2016

Doomed Free Time

Wow, I haven't posted anything in a month. Sorry for the hiatus, but in my free time I was busy playing Doom. It's been a while since I was so captivated with a video game - and it's not even an rpg! Years ago I have given up on first person shooters because I didn't like the gameplay and level design of modern shooters. While there were some old-school games like Rise of the Triad, Shadow Warrior, I still had more fun with returning to Quake here and there to check out a few mods. Playing Doom was amazing, especially after I felt how my long regressed shooting skills were improving again.

Since I have finished the game it's time to start taking care of other duties and hobbies again. Stay tuned for more!

Friday 6 May 2016

Review: The Meat Grinder Too

Well, that was quick! But is it a good idea to release a sequel so soon for such a masterpiece as The Meat Grinder? We haven't even digested the first one, we haven't finished appreciating it. It was so good that the expectations are higher than Mount Everest. Will The Meat Grinder Too deliver too?

The art follows the same cheap retro style as the previous adventure. You'll get the ugliest demon woman and old man you've ever seen, and lots of fish men. The dungeon map is just as neat and useful too as before.

The story follows the events of The Meat Grinder. The party arrives in Porttown to rest and level up. Porttown is a dirty shithole razed to the ground. The town's description is very short: you get the name and picture of the twelve places you can visit. While it pains me that there's nothing about the Keep of the Unseen Lord or the Wizard's Tower, the info given is more than enough for the Judge to start the new adventure. Onward, to the River Rat tavern!

The locals honor their heroes with a huge celebration in the tavern. There is massive party with more than fifty people and lots of scantily clad maidens, just as it should be in a kickass sword & sorcery adventure! Then the demon bitch shows up with the heads of the murdered children on a plate, throws it in the mass, and everything gets bloody depressing grimdark. That's what I loved about the first one: no dicking around with pretentious hooks, the party is thrown into the adventure in the blink of an eye and once they realized what's happening there is no turning back! The demon woman encounter is freaking amazing by the way, her abilities reminded me a of Evil Dead II's granny on steroids.

It's a pity that the wicked introduction is followed by a sluggish part where the brooding NPCs tell the backstory and are arguing with each other. It's not long at all, the dialoge is entertaining, but it suddenly halts the momentum the beginning had. Also, playing arguing NPCs as a Judge feels weird. It's like arguing with myself.

Fortunately the dungeon and its environment compensates for the break. The coastal area around the dungeon is already disconcerting, with stormy weather, screeching black birds, shipwrecks. Then the party stumbles upon the entrance which has rusty faces on it that will laugh for days after their monologues. Sweet!

The lair is inhabited by fish men who like torturing, sacrificing, and impregnating shipwreck survivors. Like the beast men from the earlier adventure, they are abominations the players will hate. They aren't the only foes here though. The Fish King is a small dragon that breathes sleeping gas and can teleport. He likes keeping his hybrid wenches around. There is a demon with unpronouncable name that looks like a whirl of duest, eyes, mouth, and teeth. Its bite will make worms burrow into the victim's flesh. How awesome is that? The White Lady resides here too, who is a creepy undead that drains strength - a sure deathtrap for juvenile players whose characters are just as horny as their creators and try to fuck every female NPC.

The rooms aren't boring either. You get torture chambers, a sacrificial temple with prisons, room full of pits, statues shooting death rays, another meat grinder, and of course treasures! Besides the usual coins (which are given exact amounts again, a nice old-school touch) there are two magic items, which have unique backgrounds that don't mean much but do sound so cool that the players will surely keep them even if they find better items over time. Heck, they sound so cool that after reading about the trivilium wars and Hargemel the Demon Wizard I feel an urge to learn more about them!

You probably won't relive the wonder of the first one, since it's still a fresh experience, but the that won't make the sequel any less an inspiring. The more time I spend reading it, the more I want to run it. Eldrad Wolfsbane understands what makes ugly retro fanzines tick. Unlike most contemporary trash this adventure has a heart - a deviously evil, black one. You can download it HERE.

Update: The original link has been unavailable for a while. Fortunately Michael Markey has shared his 6x9 version of it HERE. Thank you!

Update #2: Thanks to the generosity of Eldrad Wolfsbane the original links are public again.

Thursday 28 April 2016

Dark Souls and the Spirit of Old-School D&D

It seems my girlfriend is twice the man I am: a few weeks ago she finished Dark Souls. In case you were living under a rock and never heard about it, Dark Souls is a cruel japanese dark fantasy rpg where you will die a lot, usually because you suck at combat or you are careless. It's a game I adore, but never started playing seriously because it needs a lot of time, patience, and endurance. I usually lack all three of them nowadays.

Character sheet full of juicy details, and you haven't
seen the inventory screen yet!
But why is Dark Souls so interesting for a Dungeons & Dragons fan? Because the game cannot deny the influence of old-school D&D. Dark Souls is full of spells, items, monsters, game mechanics, and design principles a grognard will be familiar with  - even if some of them are hard to recognise thanks to weird twists and changes to the well known formula. Let's take a look at some of the most interesting and less obvious ones I've found so far. I'll leave out trivialities like "you can be a wizard Harry!", "OMG it has fireballz!", and "you can slay giant rats!" Those are pretty common fantasy clichés no one will be surprised to see in a crpg.

Experience for Gold: In D&D gold and experience are the two main resources needed for advancement. Interestingly in classic D&D most of the experience is awarded for the treasure the player character brings up from below, which makes XP seem a bit redundant. Dark Souls merges GP and XP into a single currency: souls, which are used both for payment and advancement. You can earn souls for defeating enemies, or you can find then as item, which esentially replaces the gemstones and jewelry of D&D. In Dark Souls your character and most NPCs are undead and demons, so it's fitting they use souls to trade and gain power. This is an amazing example about how you can make some weird game mechanic make sense in your setting.

Death Penalty: Every death means losing some progress in old-school D&D. While in Dark Souls you won't lose levels on death, you will lose all your unused souls and respawn at a bonfire. You can recover your dropped souls, but you have to be careful, because if you die again your previously lost souls will disappear. I've seen people lose souls enough for multiple level ups thanks to stupid mistakes.

Importance of Player Skill: Classic D&D puts a huge emphasis on player knowledge and skill. So does Dark Souls. Death is a harsh lesson. If you want to advance you have to learn from your errors. While good luck, improved stats, and quick reflexes are helpful, knowing the attack patterns of monsters, the signs of traps, or the small difference between normal chests and mimics is what will make the real difference between a successful and a bad player.

Familiar Monsters: Even if you ignore classic fantasy tropes like giant rats, giant spiders, dragons, undead, chimeras, hydras, hellhounds, snakemen, etc, you'll still find enemies that feel like gigerian reimaginations of Monster Manual entries. Mimics, myconids, slimes are no-brainers. Pisacas remind me of gricks. Phalanxes are lemures with spears and shields. Chaos Eaters are the nightmarish children of xorns and rust monsters. Chaos Witch Queelag is Lolth. The predecessor Demon's Souls had mind flayers. And there are probably more I didn't notice, yet.

Historical Arms: Unlike most crpgs nowadays Dark Souls has polearms, and they are downright awesome! Speaking of polearms, I've always found it strange how specific Gygax was with their names in AD&D while using only generic terms for the most iconic weapons of fantasy fiction: swords. Thankfully the developers of Dark Souls weren't so ignorant! Besides the generic swords you'll find Estocs, Claymores, Flamberges, Zweihanders, Iaitos, Uchigatanas on your adventures.

Weapons vs Armor: Do you remember AD&D 1st edition's unwieldy Armor Class Adjustement section of the weapon table? The game has something similar with different armor offering different amounts of protection versus each damage type. If you know what you're going to face it might be a good idea to dress and arm yourself for the occasion - unless you are one of those who like dodging around naked or attacking from distance.

Enchanted Equipment: Dark Souls uses the good old traditional plus symbol to mark weapon and armor upgrades, but also introduces different upgrade paths to make the system more complicated. These enchantments need special materials and expert blacksmith.

Looks like a good place to die.
Megadungeon: I've left the most important to the end. Dark Souls' Lordran is a colorful and
immense dungeon with multiple levels. The protagonist's journey goes through monumental castles, moldy catacombs, sparkling crystal caverns, fiery hellpits, gloomy forests, and even abstract places like a city in the past, or a world inside an ancient painting. These areas are not only huge, but they are full of secrets, loops, branches. They are also interconnected, thus the game is everything but linear. To make things even more complicated there are covenants you can join for different benefits and a few memorable NPCs who are far from static shopkeepers and questgivers: they have their own stories, they have goals, and your deeds will influence how they behave with you and even each other, which makes Dark Souls' environment feel alive.

A few years ago I thought Dark Souls was just a grim hack & slash for masochists, but after trying it myself and seeing the adventures of the Chosen Undead I had to realize how close it is to old-school dungeon crawls and roguelikes. It is a game worthy of sinking a good hundred hours into it. Unfortunately before I can do that I'll have to finish like a dozen other games. But who knows, maybe once I'm retired I'll be able to start my journey through the land of the Ancient Lords!

Thursday 21 April 2016

Review: The Meat Grinder

When I started the hobby I was a broke kid. I was glad when I could spare some money to buy a rulebook, so I didn't understand who the hell buys modules which were usually short and expensive. During my first ten years as a Game Master I've only bought a single adventure collection, which was written for a hungarian rpg best forgotten. I've found it on the shelves of an antiquary. It was dirt cheap, and I've had an urge to buy something. Those adventures were so shitty I couldn't even finish reading any of them, and I had absolutely no idea how to run them. All these lead to me ignoring modules for many years.

Of course as I grew up this attitude changed. With more money and less free time I learned to appreciate modules. I prefer short, straightforward, imaginative adventures, but I'm usually happy if two of these conditions are met. My favorites are Judges Guilds classics and the current run of DCC modules. Still, I usually just steal ideas from them. It's very rare when I find a module I want to run as written.

The Meat Grinder is such an adventure.

I discovered this beauty while browsing the Goodman Games forums.

"A FREE Zine Module for DCC! 
In the 1970s ZINE Style! 
Completely unprofessional! 
A Level "0" Funnel that brings one to 1st level! 
Make many stacks of "0" Level characters! 
Various spots where prisoners are found to replace the dead!"

I love character funnels! Some of the most fun adventures I've ever run were funnels. Not only they are often crazier than your average dungeon crawl, but they also produce far more casualties, yet somehow the sessions are more light hearted than usual. I've yet to see a player who was mad because of character death during a funnel, or one that didn't have a satisfied grin on his face when at the end he could level up his survivors to first level. It feels like a great achievement, a proof of the player's cunning and luck - even if he lost three or more characters by the end.

The author wasn't lying about 1970s style. The art and the layout is so bad and childish that I fell in love with it at first sight. What this booklet lacks in skill, it makes up for in mood. It has illustrations of goatmen (cool!), goatmen murdering people (wicked!), the graet pig man beast (awesome!), and a demon I could hardly imagine without the illustration (crazy!). It also has a map in the middle which mimics the DCC style by filling the whitespace with art. It's amazing! You'll know at first glance which room is which even without turning the page to its description! Kewl stuff so far!

The writing is just as amateurish and unprofesionnal as the art, which makes it already miles better than what professional publishers produce. It's not bland and neutral, it has the excited voice and attitude of a teenager writing up his first adventure. It feels like listening to one of your nerd friends who can't shut the fuck up about how he has slain a demon lord with his level 100 infernal paladin/wizard/assassin last night or how he is going to kill all the PCs in his next adventure. But it's not annoying! It's goddamn evocative. It gets you in the mood of running this shit! After reading the hook you'll want to murder the goatmen for what they did. After reading the way to the dungeon you want to visit all those cool sounding places the text mentions. After reading a room's description you want to send your players there and see how they die. Heck, I would actually visit them myself to die!

Style isn't enough for glory of course. An adventure needs interesting places, encounters and treasures!

After the introductory massacre the rest of the adventure takes place in the disguisting demonic dungeon of the loathsome beastmen. It's a hostile environment with evil altars, piles of corpses, meat grinders, a rusty pit above pool of acid... Yeah, the pool is a quite obvious trap, and it's not the only one - the players can get killed by energy blasts and toxic gas too. The adventurers will be glad to leave this place behind once they finish their quest.

Mosts of the monsters are goatmen, who attack in large numbers and are wicked bastards that like cooking people alive or raising them as zombies. The players won't feel sorry for killing them. There are far more interesting inhabitants though! Their leader is the GREAT PIG MAN BEAST who will hack survivors to pieces with his cleaver. They have a summoner who sacrifices a small girl to summon a demon. There is a pig polymorphed into a dragon. I still smile when I think about the last one.

After all this awesomeness the treasures are surprisingly generic: mostly gold and gems, The only interesting item is the magic sword of the zombie knight, which is a +1 sentient longsword that wants to punish murderers and can detect sloping passages. I almost wrote intelligent instead of sentient, but he's actually quite stupid (Int 3).

I will have to fix my earlier statement. I don't want to run this adventure. I want to get drunk to forget what I've read, then play this adventure, then finally run it for my party! I'm also in the mood to draw my dungeon on paper with pen again, to do shitty little illustrations around them, and use courier font for my notes. I also want to see Porttown and all the places mentioned in the module. These twelve pages made me happier and more excited than anything done by professional publishers this year. I don't know who wrote is (I do have a guess), but I'll buy him a beer one day.

You can download The Meat Grinder from HERE. It's free. Download it. If you are a Judge, print it out and hand it to your fellow Judges. If you are a player, don't fucking dare to read it, just print it out, hand it to your Judge, and tell him he's a pussy if he's not going to run it. At least by printing it you made it sure some trees didn't die in vain.

Time to die Goat Men!

Update: The original link has been unavailable for a while. Fortunately Michael Markey has shared his 6x9 version of it HERE. Thank you!

Update #2: Thanks to the generosity of Eldrad Wolfsbane the original links are public again.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Cleaning Up

To remove all the clutter (or I can say, ghosts of the past) I have exported the old posts and removed them from the blog. I find it unlikely anyone will miss them, but if I'm wrong just drop me a mail and I can send the exported xml file. But I think whoever reads the blog is more interested about what's coming, not how did I get rid of old campaign material.

Despite not having a DCC RPG campaign at the moment I still can't ignore this old-school masterpiece, and thus can't resist writing up pages of ideas for it in my exercise book while travelling. Some of my favorite topics are still classes, hybrid classes, and non-race-as-class races, so expect something about those in the near future.

I have a bunch of short adventures that I ran in my campaigns, and on conventions. Some of them are as small as an encounter in a shipwreck, others are as big as an abandoned city of frog people. It would be a pity to let these fade away - and some of them are literally fading away because I was stupid enough to use pencil when writing them down!

Me and my girlfriend are also working on a small project. It has something to do with D&D 5e, DM's Guild, and answering such important questions as what happens to the corpse of a slain dragon, what do the undead drink when they want to forget the past, and how can we make one of the most basic tropes of fantasy adventures more interesting... Stay tuned!

Wednesday 17 February 2016


The stars are right, the time has come to reboot the blog. Stay tuned for more, you'll soon get stuff like free homemade stuff from my current campaigns, info on a project we're working on with my girlfriend, and probably short reviews about tabletop and video games. The focus will be on D&D 5e, DCC RPG, and WFRP.

No session reports anymore, though. It's a burden that killed both this and my previous blog. I've left it to my players to write it for their own amusement.