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.

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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.