Saturday, 28 January 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #04: The Abandoned Nest

It was raining and heavy winds buffeted the walls of Knifetooth. Einar Sigurdsson shaked his head.
We consider it bad luck to set sail in weather like this. Let’s wait until it clears.
They spent another day in the little garrison town, and Jonlar Zilv spent most of it wasting his money at the Coughing Cur. He was so generous that he gained the trust of a traveller who had been spending his time here, an elf in a flower-patterned green cloak. He was Elandil Hundertwasser, far from the West, “from the blessed forests where the harps sing”. Elandil was here to heal to heal the world’s hurt, and wore the sign of Irlan the Merciful, who taught a doctrine of caring for the weak and the downtrodden out of sheer goodwill. After a short discussion, he joined the company, while Barzig the Nomad – whom neither the late Sufulgor del’Akkad’s player, nor anyone else really liked – returned to sulk among the NPCs and be a nuisance.

Itinerary, days 12 to 15
The next day – the twelfth since the fateful encounter in Haghill – the skies were clear and there was good wind. They set sail back to the northeast, and under Einar’s command, the increasingly well-trained crew worked as if they had always been on the seas. Although their destination was the mysterious ruin at the southern tip of the isle of the wolves, they would stop sooner. Barely half a day has passed when, sailing around the wooded island across Knifetooth, the lookout spotted a manmade structure among the trees – a dome looking like shining marble. Overcome by curiosity, they ran the dragonship ashore, and as the crew began to gather wood under Einar’s commands, Gadur Yir, Jonlar Zilv, Harmand the Reckless, Elandil Hundertwasser, Barzig the Back and ten men went off to explore the isle’s interior.

They followed a narrow and winding path, and at last came to a clearing at the foot of a hill. This seemed to be a nexus of multiple paths, converging on the domed edifice. A circle of columns stood on a half-sunken foundation overgrown with grass, and a broken white marble dome rose over the columns. Approaching the structure, Jonlar Zilv noticed something shimmering between the columns, surrounding the interior – a slight distortion or refraction, barely visible. Inside, something seemed to stir, but it was just a hint of movement – or perhaps another trick of the light. Singing the tunes of “Oh Lucky Day”, he felt the structure was magical. Prodding between the columns with a branch, then a dagger ascertained the way was blocked by something like a firm but invisible wall, and climbing the dome with a rope, it was discovered that the crack in the marble was likewise blocked by the same influence. At least Gadur Yir, who was acting as the lookout, saw something interesting: among the few hills rising from the island’s forests, smoke or steam seemed to issue a short way from here – probably worth investigating. They spent a little more time, fashioning a heavy tree trunk into a makeshift battering ram, but even with their ten followers, the invisible wall did not yield.

Now investigating the trail leading in the direction of the vapours, they discovered its source was a crevasse in the hillside. Flanked by enormous ferns, steep rock ledges descended into a dark sinkhole, and they felt the mixed smell of hot steam, salt and charnel rot.
Men! You shall wait here until the evening as we investigate this place. If we do not come out, you shall return to the ship and alert the others,” instructed Harmand as they lit their lights and prepared to descend.
The crevasse twisted and turned, and the damp heat increased. From below came the foetid smell, and the sound of a chanting choir exclaiming ominous gibberish. Jonlar signalled the others to wait, and – shielding his lantern to stay undiscovered – tiptoed down below towards a number of dim lights in a larger cavern. He happened upon a hideous scene out of some stygian hell: pools bubbled with sulphurous and salty waters exhaling a fiery heat, and a ring of four dark shapes danced around a black cauldron bubbling with brew. The hooded forms writhed and stalked, croaking vile curses and incantations; behind them stood several motionless figures, man-shaped, wrapped in sackcloth and tied together with chains and ropes. He crept closer to see one of the hooded dancers, and froze – as one of the robed forms faced him, he spotted a hideous, bloated female visage, as if she had been dead for weeks. The black eyes shone like sticky pearls, and the tongue was like a slug in the hag’s abominable mouth. The sight, combined with the smell of putrefying flesh and seaweed, was too much for Jonlar, and he vomited out his lunch. Feeling weak and feverish, he stumbled upwards to the company to report.

Of course we should attack them!” Gadur Yir was resolute, and the others nodded. They prepared to ambush the hags while they were busy with their dance, but as they descended, words of magic echoed in the crevasse and all went black. Under the veil of darkness, they heard shuffling, smelled rotten meat and salty water, and knew that the corpses in sackcloth were upon them. A light spell pushed the darkness back a little, creating a small bubble of illumination where they could fight the faceless horrors, which withstood the heaviest blows and tore terrible wounds with their bare hands. Ripping the cloth revealed dead eyes and decomposing faces, eaten by salt and disfigured by appalling wounds. The dead were massively powerful and very hard to destroy. Nevertheless, Gadur Yir could push through them to attack the hags directly – rushing and felling one of the crones with his sword just as she was reaching for a shelf laden with bottles of strange liquids. Just as he turned, he came face to face with another, whose eyes bore into his. He felt the shadow of death as his throat and lungs began to fill with seawater, but, coughing, he rushed forward to strike – but she was quicker, and as she spoke magical words, he saw a cone of radiant lights hit him, and lost consciousness.

Above, the battle was still raging, and while Harmand the Reckless felled the sackclothed dead, the others were helping him as well as they could. But while the numbers of the dead thinned, they heard a disturbing cackle from below:
Shell him and cook him, little sister! We will sup on his bones tonight!
Foul hags! The light of goodness shall burn you! Come up and face your death!” called Elandil.
Come on down yourself, pretty!” came the mocking cry.
Finally, the way down was clear, and they rushed to Gadur Yir’s aid. The hags were ready, but this time, so were Harmand and Elandil. Two hold person spells caught the foul women – one of whom was trying to submerge an undressed Gadur Yir into the steaming cauldron – and after a fateful moment while unseen forces were debating whether they were indeed persons or not – two froze before they could work their magic again. A melee developed in the cavern with the remaining undead and one hag. Struggling with a brine-eaten corpse, Jonlar Zilv slipped on the wet rocks, and fell headfirst into one of the boiling salt water pools along with his opponent, but survived, and the opponents were all downed, the hags executed with extreme prejudice. Gadur Yir, finally freed from the spell he was under, quickly donned his armour again.

This bubbling red potion looks like something that should heal you,” mused the half-orc. “The hag was trying to reach for it just as I cut her down.
The potion was accompanied by a flask cut from smoky glass, emblazoned with a death’s head, and a bag of dust, also magical.
The black one is very powerful. What could it be used for? Did they use it to transform into these monsters? Something to do with these undead?” Nobody answered Jonlar’s questions.
We’ve also got 550 gold and 350 electrum here” counted Harmand the Reckless. “That should give us enough to pay the men for a while.
They returned to the expedition, then ordering the men to carry the makeshift battering ram to the ship, headed back towards the seacoast, casting another glance at the domed building. At night, playing music as they feasted on their supplies, Jonlar Zilv tried to remember if he had heard of the enigmatic building. “In its glittering prison, hoar, to rest returned” came the words of an old song. “Maybe early in the morning, when it is coldest,” he thought.

At the same time, Gadur Yir built another fire out of sight from the company. Holding up the head of a defeated hag, he offered his deeds to Haldor the Heroic, along with a sacrifice of two hundredweights of gold. There was a rolling sound in the distance, and he heard words that spoke to him and urged him to reach for greatness through mighty deeds. He felt stronger, more in tune with his god, now one of Haldor’s divine champions.


The next day, the winds were good, and after checking the pavilion in vain again, they set sail towards the white ruins on the southern tip of the isle of the wolves. An entire day was spent on the sea, and in the afternoon, they were getting close to the mountainous isle when the lookout called to the crew:
Ships! Half a dozen, small ones!
Einar ordered the dragonship to sail towards the vessels, which tried to escape but were overtaken.
We are poor fishermen and have no valuables!” pleaded someone on one of the boats.
Do you know of any ruined structure around here? A manor house?
Nothing at all! We only come this way because the catch is so abundant – please leave us be.
These people are useless” Harmand grumbled.

Another night passed as they slowly navigated around the island’s southern tip, avoiding the treacherous rocks. The outlines of the ruins they had spotted previously were visible on a densely wooded mountainside, but Einar decided to wait until the morning. At dawn, a small skiff set out towards the bay at the base of the mountain, with ten hand-picked men and the landing party.
That’s a pier... looks rotten and abandoned… and… what is that?
The thing they’d spotted was a small sailing boat hidden under the crown of some trees, with fishing nets and a pair of oars.
This could belong to the werewolves. Maybe we should sink it?” came Elandir’s suggestion.
Fool! Whoever is here, we don’t want to start off with hostilities. Remember… we need to learn about the mansion of the Feranolts.

The company slowly climbed the narrow trail to the ruined white buildings. On a mountainside plateau, they found the stone foundations of burned and ruined houses, a collapsed longhouse, saplings already growing in the wreckage.
I wonder… There it is!” Jonlar Zilv pointed at a small, slate-roofed building. Smoke curled from a low chimney, the door was open, and nets were hanging on the porch.
Ho! Is someone there?
From the house came a sound, and a great wolf jumped out to bar the entrance, growling and baring its teeth. Jonlar gestured to the men to stay their weapons. Behind the wolf, an old man appeared. He was bearded and fair-haired, wearing a simple garb and an axe on his belt.
My name is Ballodric. Who might you be to disturb this place?
Allow me to introduce ourselves, oh Ballodric. I am Jonlar Zilv, and our company comes with peace. We seek a ruined mansion or manor house, but it looks like we lost our way.”
You shall not find what you seek here. There are only ruins, and I the only inhabitant. I fish, and Sark here hunts.
How is it that you live in this place?
I was born here. Then, hearing the call of adventure, I set sail and saw three empires, but by the time I returned with my tales, there was no one else to tell them. Whoever had lived here was killed or carried into slavery – by Skarlog Thane, or someone else. It does not matter any longer. So I stay, the last to remember the village of Hjaelle.
You must have many stories from your travels. We would happily hear your tales.
I am not in the singing mood, and I’d rather be alone.
We shall respect your wishes. Do you by chance know of an island with a small fort or manor belonging to the Feranolt family?
You have come to the wrong place indeed, if you are looking for it – why, I remember when I was just a youth, me and my family sailed to Gont to sell a few things. Now, it was the morning before we sailed into the town that my father pointed at a lonesome rock in the sea, and told me that was the Feranolts’ place – and that it was well fortified.
You have been very helpful,” Jonlar Zilv bowed.
What about the Gwydions? Do you know them?” blurted Gadur Yir.
They are my kin also, although distant. They live across the mountains, on the other part of the island. You’d rather not visit them – they don’t like strangers.
The others looked at each other, then back.
We have seen them. They had strange customs,” responded Gadur Yir.
Strange to some. Well, you must be quite tough, if you met them and you’re still here.
We should be leaving,” Jonlar Zilv was eager to end the conversation.


The ship sped towards Gont as the good winds carried it. It was already late in the afternoon when they spotted the barren little isle, and dusk by the time they got close to it. Tall rocks rose into rugged outcroppings, and a narrow road wound from a small, abandoned stone pier to a two-story house. There was a bell next to the pier. Large clouds gathered, and the rain began to fall. Once more, they disembarked and climbed the serpentine road.

The Dwelling
The house was not much of a mansion, but it was secure on top of a bare and uninhabited island, buffeted by strong winds and surrounded by sheer precipices. Window shutters rattled on their hinges, and the gates were slightly ajar. Above, a relief depicted the slender form of a wyvern, flanked by two stars.
Feranolt! This is the place” Jonlar exclaimed.
Carefully, they entered the dark building. It was cold inside, and there was a damp smell all around. The chamber, a large sitting room, was a mess. Chairs were thrown here and there, broken bits of wood and smashed items littered the floor. Wind was wailing in a cold fireplace filled with ashes, where books had been burned in a haste. A body was lying in a pool of blood, a grievous wound almost cutting him in half – a lightly armoured guard.
Looks recent” remarked Elandir “And there is a muddy footprint here.
The track looked inhuman with three claws, belonging to something that must have been very heavy. They were all around and there was no definite direction except outside and up the stairs. They searched more of the lower floor, finding servants’ quarters, a guest room, and a kitchen with smashed objects and a large, hanging piece of brawn that looked like it had been bitten into two pieces with a single bite.
But we did not see a boat... if it happened so recently, where did they go?” asked Harmand the Reckless. “Perhaps flying creatures...?

Climbing the stairs revealed another, smaller sitting room with another body, a mostly intact dining room with three sets of dishes prepared for a meal, a terrace overlooking a sheer drop into the dark seas, and finally a drawing room. More papers had been destroyed here, and furniture made of fine wood used to light a fire. A bureau had had its drawers pulled out and the contents smashed and scattered.
The Feranolts' map
This looks interesting,” Jonlar Zilv pointed to a framed piece of parchment on the wall, still intact. The diagram was a map of the surrounding seacoast, marked with different signs, but mostly unlabelled. “It doesn’t look too old – should not be more than a few years at most.
Are these triangles connected to the Feranolts’ holdings? Their smuggling or spy network? Alliances?
That triangle on the small isle in the sea represents this place.
We will have to see at least one before we know.
Let’s look at it later when we have more time. Remove it from the frame, then roll it up. Anything else?
I will check that bureau, just in case...
The efforts paid off, as Jonlar found a secret drawer that had been left unmolested. Withdrawing a package, he found coin rolls packaged in paper – 150 gold in total – and a letter stamped with the seal of a wyvern between two stars.
Could the two stars refer to the head of the family? Or is it an older form of the standard insignia?” asked Harmand.
We have no way of knowing... but let’s look at the letter. Here it is: “Shekou -- in case there is a need, seek the Grave-Wight. -- Feranolt” I’ll be damned! So our guy is involved after all!
After a short pause while they instructed the men to carry off the remaining books, bring the dead to the ship, and stay put, Jonlar had another idea. He found an intact piece of paper, ink and quill, and wrote a short message, trying to imitate Feranolt’s letters: “Shekou -- Grave-Wight has a new problem. Avoid Gont, and lay low in Haghill. -- Feranolt”
It is a pity we can’t reproduce that seal. Still.” He threw the crumpled piece of paper on the floor in clear sight, then the pieces of the sealing wax on it. “If we return to Haghill, and ask around for newcomers, we could have our bird. Who knows?” He stamped on the remains to make them dirtier.
Now let’s get out of here. Whatever happened, happened, and we don’t need to be here to watch it return.


Down in the ship’s cabin, anchored in a small bay some way off from the pier so Shekou – or the monsters, or anyone else – wouldn’t find them, they studied the large map sheet.
Jonlar Zilv pointed at a larger triangle marked “Castle Sullogh”. “This one looks like a more interesting place because it has a death’s head next to it.
Look – there is another triangle up in those south-western mountains… and something to the north?” countered Harmand.
Must be a church, with that cross on the top.
And to the north-west, we have Haghill, where we came from... well, not you, Elandir.
I think the circles are villages and the triangles are fortifications,” remarked Jonlar.
Or hiding places!” said Gadur Yir.

There was no disturbance during the night, and soon, they were sailing again, deciding to avoid Gont for the time, and check out the triangle to their north. Hours passed again as they sailed, until they spotted another group of fishing boats, which fled as soon as they spotted the larger ship.
What do you know... could this have anything to do with the fact that Northman ships may enjoy a bad reputation?” asked Harmand the Reckless.
No way!” smirked Jonlar.

They sailed on, and the white cliffs of the northern shore rose above the sea. Above a harbour, a small fortress stood on the rocks, green and blue pennants flying in the wind. The lookout could make out the sign of two acorns and a star. Weighing their options, they sailed into the harbour, preparing to disembark.

(Session date 14 January 2017).


Notable quotes:
Harmand the Reckless: “Gadur Yir is shopping again? I swear! A potion of blondness for the mall orc!
Jonlar Zilv: “Did you check if it was a brand-name backpack?”

Elandil Hundertwasser: “And I am from the distant West, far beyond the seas, from the distant blessed forests where the harps sing. Namely…
GM: “Namely so far the GM doesn’t even give a fuck about the name of that place.


Referee’s notes: Somehow, back on track after a large but fruitful detour. The brutal battle with the hags and their sea zombies was one of those confrontations which could have ended very badly, but was won by perseverance, large numbers, a bit of luck... and a bit in the rules I didn’t prepare for. When adapting the hold person spell for my own rules, I did not specify it would only affect human and mostly human opponents – what’s worse (from the GM’s perspective), it is simply translated as “hold”, without the extra meaning of the English original. This way, two targeted hold spells caught two hags, which just happened to turn the tide of the battle.

Then, a step towards the Feranolts. The isle dwelling attacked and looted, the map and the message are all that’s left for now. The emerging consensus in the group is to take revenge on Grave-Wight, who seems to enjoy a close connection to the old Feranolt family. It is a good question whether the Feranolts are still influential, or even extinct – Gadur Yir’s player suspects this is all a misdirection, while Jonlar Zilv’s player believes they have some kind of smuggling or spy network in the area.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

[REVIEW] Tukram’s Tomb

[REVIEW] Tukram’s Tomb
by Davide Pignedoli
Published by Daimon Games

Tukram's Tomb
A brief first-level adventure featuring the tomb of a barbarian warlord; one of several, better than some, but falling short of its potential. It wastes no time on an introduction, not that it needs any – there is a tomb in the wilderness, and there are adventures and treasures to be had. Two villages and a wilderness section round out the action; all of them treated in an abstract, cursory fashion – a nameless home base with rumours, a ruined wilderness site, and a random encounter table you can roll on twice. This is basic, not very interesting despite the beginnings of a style that could set the mood and encourage some pre-dungeon action.

The tomb itself, while very small at 17 keyed areas, is more interesting. It has a sense of place and history, with a real barbarian feel. Etruscans? Celts repurposing a Roman ruin? Somewhere in that vicinity. It is not mentioned, but the map has the impression of being based on a real structure. It feels timeworn, and the encounters bear this out – some of the traps don’t work, some of the puzzles have changed due to the passage of time. It feels like proper tomb-robbing archaeology. Unfortunately, the writing is all too verbose and the content is all too brief. You don’t really get to do much before it ends (or does it?). There are two possible climactic encounters; both neat in their subversion of adventurer expectations, but neither of them too challenging. Nothing really delivers on the implicit promise that you are entering a deadly and odd place. It is too first-level. The right first-level adventure is a third-level one, or one that feels like it, that drives home the vulnerability of beginning adventurers.

There are things here which feel right – the ravages of time, beasts and vegetation; grave goods and some interesting magic. Map sections are repeated through the text so you don’t have to flip back and forth. It is clear the author can write. But this is really a 5-page scenario (map included) in a 22-page package, it has some structural weaknesses, and it ends before it could really get interesting. It is listed as a beta, and may see improvement. As it is, we go back to the first sentence.

Rating: ** / *****

Monday, 23 January 2017

[REVIEW] El Raja Key Archive

El Raja Key Archive
by Robert J. Kuntz
Published by TLB Games

El Raja Key Archive
Much has been said about old-school games in the last fifteen years, and sometimes it may look like the gaming landscape of the late 1970s and early 1980s has been explored to exhaustion. This notion is a comforting illusion, as this exploration only covers a handful of well-known works that enjoyed relatively wide distribution. Meanwhile, a lot of material suffered from the limitations of small press publishing, and we know even less about game texts from personal campaigns – meant for table use, and never written up for publication. What we do know (through efforts like Plagmada) focuses more on the 1980s, when D&D was becoming a household name. Beyond bits and pieces of the Greyhawk campaign, our main sources for the 1970s are the early Judges Guild materials, The First Fantasy Campaign, The Dungeoneer (a repository of materials by Paul Jaquays’ circle), and a few odd extras like the great Ryth Chronicle. These – particularly the FFC, a published archive of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor notes – are always a fascinating read, with a lot of off-the-wall ideas developed before D&D became standardised. Beyond a historical interest, it is this exploration of D&D’s untapped potential which makes them so interesting to today’s gamers. In addition to an interest in old adventures, it is mostly this curiosity which informed my review of the El Raja Key Archive.

The archive, available in three different editions of increasing price and exclusivity, is a minor-league collector item in its own right, and it is priced and presented as such. You can get the crippleware Basic edition, or you can fork over $160 for the signed and numbered Collector’s edition, with an ultra-special version of Sunken City that has an extra adventure area and blue instead of green cover. In between are two more options. In the end, though, all editions above Basic contain the same core content: high-resolution scans of campaign materials with accompanying designer notes, launched from a simple HTML-based shell programme. The materials are structured around campaigns (pre-D&D, Blackmoor, the original Greyhawk campaign, Rob’s own World of Kalibruhn, Tékumel, and some miscellena), all of them meticulously cross-indexed. The bulk of documents come from Greyhawk and Kalibruhn, although there are three unreleased adventure fragments from the 1980s, as well as two Tékumel maps and a few small documents from the transition period between Chainmail and D&D. The scans are detailed, although they were often taken at high brightness levels, and benefit from corrections with some image manipulation programme (all images in this review have had their brightness adjusted for legibility).

The explanatory notes that come with the scanned materials are much less exhaustive than one might suspect, and to me, they represent a major missed opportunity. It turns out the notes are taken (mostly?) verbatim from the eBay auctions where these materials were originally sold off in 2006, and are essentially sales pitches. We get a lot of oohs, ahs and wows about Rob’s peculiar genius, or which Original Gamers™ adventured in them (meticulously cross-indexed!), but when it comes to actually shedding light on what was in these partially recovered treasures, our information often amounts to a short paragraph or so. It is something, and at least the adventures are put into the context of their campaigns and (Rob being Rob) extensive publication histories that could have been, but you still come away with the feeling you have just paid for ad copy. What’s more, if you followed those 2006 auctions, you have already read most of it. As a small compensation, Rob’s Up on a Soapbox articles from Dragon Magazine are also tucked away in a dusty corner of the archive, several levels deep.

Megadungeon mapping!
The Greyhawk and Kalibruhn documents that take up most of the advertised “over 1000 images” vary enormously in scope and quality. There are a lot of them, but most are very far from complete (as in presenting complete and play-ready information). A lot of them survive only as unkeyed maps, or very sparse and minimal notes. This is the case of Castle El Raja Key and the expanded Greyhawk Castle, the two largely overlapping megadungeons which represent the archive’s most obvious selling point. The 13 levels and sublevels of El Raja Key, and the 17 of Greyhawk offer interesting exercises of mapmaking, showing a growth from rectangular room mazes to more formally interesting dungeon levels. Regrettably, much of the content which have made these levels interesting has been lost. This is partially a physical loss, since only ERK1, ERK2, ERK3, GH2 and GH2 Special (Bottle City) have surviving keys, a mere fraction of the full dungeon materials (most of which is held by Gail Gygax, who seems to have no interest in publishing them). But things are also lost because the keys say so little. Both Rob and Gary tended to keep things in their head, only bothering to keep the most simple notes. For the most part, the room keys are monster lairs, with the occasional tactical note and trick – these are rather clever, and I wish there was more of them. You can piece together the “themes” of specific levels from the map, the accompanying notes and of course off-disk references like Gary’s recollections in Dragon Magazine, Grodog's Greyhawk pages, or the evocative 1975 play report about The Black Reservoir. But those anecdotes about The Great Stone Face, of balrog janitors and men made of gold, those are not in evidence, many of them probably made up on the spot and either never recorded or recorded but lost. “So close, yet so far” is the thought that comes to mind. The most complete level is Bottle City, with a map and a 7-page key (an expanded version of this level was published 2007 by Pied Piper Publishing); there are also interesting parallels with later TSR modules such as The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth (the tournament original).

Creepy bird-thing
These issues also apply to many of the archive’s smaller adventure scenarios. There is evidence of imagination and craft, particularly when it comes to mapping, but they usually remain tantalising hints. The City of Greyhawk Catacombs & Sewers map is one of the greatest dungeon maps I have seen – Undermountain without the generic feeling – but all we genuinely learn about is this snippet: “This hand drawn map represents a culmination of his efforts, showing the vast, labyrinthine, sometimes cavernous, tunnels, cellars, sewers, and catacombs beneath the city proper. The map links smugglers, cultists, wizards931, lords, thieves, city officials, and all manner of critters and traps to the upper world.” Some other fascinating titles, too – Temple of the Latter Day Old Ones (again, terrific maps, no key), Ruins of Seer (terrific maps, fragments of text), Huhm Jungle (fragmentary intro, overview map), Dungeon of the Mad Wizard Krazor (map sheet, with “Ramshorn Castle Level XV” and “Krazor’s Level Beneath the Outdoor” scribbled on the back), Pirates of the Isle of Ivory (map, two-sheet NPC roster), and so on. Often, you get something that seems to be a mnemonic aid for improvised adventures, or outlines for later expansion. Some documents are the beginnings of products made for publication, and consist of notes which don’t always make much sense, along with a sprinkling of custom monsters/magic/illustrations: The City of Brass, Vale of the Titans, The Lost City of the Elders, or the ultra-high level Pit of Geburah, featuring pregens such as Lemminkainen, Ffahrd and Elric, and inroduced – no kidding! – as “Wow! This is an unfinished tournament module conceived by Rob Kuntz”.

A third group of adventures in the archive exist in more or less complete form. These scenarios are not only complete, they also benefit from the most extensive explanatory notes. We have an early form of Dark Druids (which, as T. Foster notes, seems to be completely different from the later published module – it looks like a whole lot of fun, where you can battle the gods and catch a leprechaun). There is The Temple of Reh-Pog, a full 1975 scenario in an ancient earth-god’s underground temple. An early, one-map and two-page-key version of The Stalk, an adventure on giant plants (or with shrunken adventurers). There are others, and they would form the meat and bones of the product if there were more of them – sadly, I’d say these complete documents are in the minority.

Then we have an unpublished OD&D supplement: Supplement V: Kalibruhn. This document exists here as a very rough 20-page document, more outline than draft. Much of its materials concern Magic-Users, with things like spell success tables, what looks like a spell point system, alternate spell and magic item tables, and so on. Further traces of a preoccupation with custom magic are scattered in the better hidden corners of the archive – these are minor bits and pieces, but usually worth investigating. Sometimes – as we have seen in some of Rob’s recent modules – things are more complicated than they should be – e.g. Zydilec's Inversion, a ritual spell described over five pages of notes, which seems to do a dozen different things at once.

The Wild Coast, mapped and lovingly coloured
While the El Raja Key Archive is mostly interesting for its adventures, there is also a large amount of world information inside it. I admit to have studied this part very little, although there seems to be an unrealised Kalibruhn world guide in here in multiple pieces – roughly in the style of AD&D-era Greyhawk, with a lot of attention to noble families, creation myths and some country descriptions. Materials for Greyhawk fans include some very early material for the never-published City of Greyhawk (including NPCs, location sketches, or that beautiful sewer map), as well as a few much more recent and great-looking maps for Rob’s never-published Wild Coast (later: Barbarous Coast) project.

What does the El Raja Key Archive add to our understanding of D&D? It does not provide us with a key to vast treasures, but it gives us some interesting puzzle pieces. While The First Fantasy Campaign, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Arduin et al. are interesting for their departures from standard D&D, the archive is interesting because its author was so close to the fire. This is something from the early history of TSR’s D&D, Gary’s D&D, and Rob’s D&D too. It is easy to see why it didn’t remain his D&D for too long, although it would have been interesting to see that – there are slightly different sensibilities to these materials,  with a different understanding of magic (a heavier emphasis on elemental realms, rituals and focus items), and different influences with a slight exotic touch. Sources like the 1001 Nights, Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft crop up more often, while there seems to be a little less of Vance and Leiber. And of course, just as some of the adventures in the archive have influenced TSR products, there are many more that have never been published, but could have easily became part of the TSR classics. As Sunken City, Bottle City and The Stalk show, there is much that could benefit from a full publication.

While the archive is one of a kind, its limitations are also obvious. It would be a winner with expanded document descriptions (less PR, more content), but in its current shape, it tells frustratingly little about itself, and some of the most interesting documents remain incomplete or opaque. The archive will be invaluable to game historians who are ready to go deep and look for the really obscure pieces of inspiration, but for most gamers, it will probably remain a curiosity.

Rating: *** / *****

Friday, 13 January 2017

[REVIEW] The Phoenix Barony

The Phoenix Barony
by David Bezio

The Phoenix Barony
Setting books come in all shapes and sizes. Some are grandiose treatises shooting for that “big old tome sitting on a forgotten bookshelf” feel, while on the other side of the scale, we have humble, pamphlet-sized gazetteers like The Phoenix Barony. It is, to quote the introduction of the recently released 2nd edition, “hopelessly traditional vanilla favoured fantasy” that “takes a more lighthearted view”, and “draws its inspiration from cartoons, comic books, some fantasy literature, and the early RPGs that inspired [the author’s] style of play”. This is a worthwhile challenge. Over the years, vanilla fantasy has gained a bad name, bad enough that the introduction includes this apologia at all. Too often, it has been done disingenuously or on the cheap, with an intent to cash in on a sudden market demand (TSR was Suspect #1 in the racket), and the aftertaste lingers. But Phoenix Barony doesn’t need to be apologised for.

Taking a top-down approach and focusing on the macro-level details, the 26-page booklet describes a little 80 by 80 miles corner of the world, ruled by fundamentally well-meaning folks but beset by evil forces on the sides, with some internal conflicts making things difficult. It is a situation where most have the best intentions, but don’t always manage to get along or do the best thing. Compared to your usual game world of avarice, murder and double-dealing, it feels quaint, but also interesting: here are some challenges worthy of a band of adventurers, but in a place where you just can't kill your problems. Of course, it is also a great place for venturing out into the wilds to fight evil and discover precious artefacts – through the booklet, there is a sidebar describing scenes from one such adventure with a typical band of do-gooders. This piece of detail is neat; it lends Phoenix Barony a voice that’s comfy and well-meaning, and it provides a ready illustration and commentary for the gazetteer’s different sections. An understated piece of graphic design in the service of a supplement, and it works like a charm, just like the illustrations peppered throughout – for lack of a better word, these are mostly cute in a good sense.

Pretty pretty!
The different sections give you the background pieces you need to get acquainted with this little piece of land. It has a history of heroism and lingering evil, a dualistic mythology between good god Irnoch and bad god Vulcoo, its politics run by a bunch of high-level characters, and basic organisations like Irnoch’s Templars, the wizard’s guild (the Order of Sunderia), or the Totally Not Thieves. It is an adventurer-centric worldview, what with everything being neatly organised along class divisions (the D&D kind). It mostly works, but sometimes, it goes a bit too far – the six major towns are basically Rangertown, Elftown, Halflingtown, Dwarftown, Human City and Merchant Town (with Totally Not Thieves), and that grates a bit. And yet there are also cool details like the Ale Shepherds of Aleton (halflings who ride ale barrels down the river to Goblin Head Lake, personal friendship between various rulers, a succession problem or two, and of course Geltrod the Vermin Lord, ruler of Geltsberg with its “200 foot tall iron walls covered with bolts, spikes, the webs of giant spiders, and the skeletal remains of victims chained to the exterior” (because that’s just how Geltrod rolls). Then there is a description for Thathor, “a good base town” (the one with the Totally Not Thieves), and a bunch of legends to get you started. That’s really all you need – The Phoenix Barony doesn’t strive to be exhaustive, and has enough space and gaps to fill things out with your own ideas.

To conclude, The Phoenix Barony does a fine job with what it sets out to do. It is earnest and has a genuine old-school charm. I like the names – it is chock full of excellent, expressive yet iconic-feeling names like Frunder’s Rest, Lady Gloral of Deledon, Archbishop Horace, and Goblin Head Lake. If you want a mini-setting with a positive outlook and an “adventurer fantasy” aesthetic, interesting conflicts and just enough detail to provide a framework for your adventures, this is a good bet.

Rating: *** / *****

Geltrod. That guy.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

[BLOG] OSR Module O1: Against the Ultra-Minimalism

Don’t write one-page adventures and super-light rulesets.

Would you be satisfied with that for a blog post? Not likely. And yet, just as new-school games are suffering under the jackboots of The Tyranny of Fun, old-school gaming is facing another crisis of treachery, the sinister menace of Ultra-Minimalism! It is all true, and here is why you should do something about it.

One of the great realisations of old-school discussion was that a lot of the accumulated dross in mainstream RPG products was superfluous, or downright bad for your games. We all know the stories about designers paid by the word (and a pittance at that), of failed novelists and bloated game texts released without playtesting. A sizeable segment of RPG publishing is by non-players, for non-players. They are gamers, except not really. You could say that by now this has turned into its own hobby, until you get the creeping realisation that you and a few friends of yours might be the only ones remaining who are not pod-people. Yet.

Know your enemy
[Map by the excellent Dyson Logos
used for illustrative purposes only]
In those dark hours, the classics showed another way: of terse simplicity, expressive but functional language, play-oriented presentation. Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl was only eight pages plus the detachable colour! Tegel Manor fit into a 24-page booklet and a map! Keep on the Borderlands did not spend several pages on backstory! You could neatly fit a multiple-session adventure into a package you could read, unpack and use in a reasonable amount of time – sometimes without any prep, beginning right on the spot.

Now, these are not perfect examples. Many classic adventures, even greats like Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, have a low page count because they are presented as slabs of unorganised (and sometimes downright chaotic) text. Those Giants modules are so slim because they don’t give you the monster stat blocks, and there isn’t space for marginal notes. The Village of Hommlet draws the portrait of an idyllic rural community by spending much of its time talking about random details that don’t really matter in an adventure. And Tegel Manor can have too little going on in places. Still, old-school gaming offered a way out of the morass of bad prose and non-functional game texts that dominated much of gaming, and did so because it rejected game industry standards and circumvented the game industry’s business practices (“quantity means quality; the more, the better”). But this crusade for simplicity lost its way.

When people lose sight of their purpose, routines can take over. We keep doing something because it used to deliver good results, not because we have actually considered the consequences. However, our assumptions may be misleading us. We may not need to be doing something anymore. In old-school gaming, Ultra-Minimalism is stripping games of their flavour, depth and inner complexity, and one-page dungeons are a good exhibit of why this is bad for us.

There is nothing originally sinister about one-page dungeons. They started as a refreshing gimmick, drawing attention to how little you needed to have a good night’s fun, and how good presentation could condense vital information (text, maps and stats) into an efficient package. It is like that old-school thing, except even more so! The problem comes when this structure – this way of doing things – becomes a kind of standard, and consciously or not, starts to be applied in places where it doesn’t belong, or doesn’t offer the best possible solution. I suspect those big annual contests played a role, and common wisdom in online discussions played another. One-page dungeons, *.hacks, super-lites (simplifications of already very light systems) permeated our thinking. We started to fit our concepts into too small, too simple frameworks, and we are limiting our imagination by overdoing it. Some ideas don’t fit on an index card. And the resulting adventures are lacking in creative drive and falling short of the classics they often try to channel.

The Keep on the Borderlands without The Keep on the Borderlands
Some of the error doesn’t even lie in imitation, but championing a bare-bones understanding of design. It doesn’t just matter what gets told, it also matters how it gets told. Gaming is not just technology. Layout wizardry and graphical design can make GMing flow better, and vastly improve accessibility, but it doesn’t replace style. Zak Smith’s one-page Caves of Chaos is only the Caves of Chaos because we so intimately know the full module behind it; on its own, it is more or less just a 3e-style battlemat. Saved perhaps from its stone-age two-column layout, this version of The Keep on the Borderlands stands as a poor lobotomised husk of an adventure. From this perspective, it looks badly made and feature-poor, but it is we who have made it that way.

Here are some basic notes, just apply the rules and add your style” is a stone soup. Style, like a lot of the added value in our gaming, is an ingredient we apply subconsciously, from influences we have absorbed. Most of us can get by with very few notes, turning even very simple text into fine adventures (although having a background to fall back on and plunder is not a bad thing). But when we try to convey some of that context to others, we need more; a little piece of ourselves. Gygaxian prose, Bob Bledsaw’s quirky humour, or the grotesque sensibility and laconic dry wit in M.A.R. Barker’s work offer different visions of fantasy worlds, even if they had shared a lot of common ideas. These things, even if technically “superfluous” for specific, individual encounters, give game materials a voice that speaks to us and sticks in our imagination.

Golden memories of 1607 Cas FTR 5 LE 120
Of course, some of it is very much a question of what. A lot of old-school materials offer too little, stripping out detail which matters, or limiting their scope to a point where they have nothing to say or can’t realise their own potential. Here, we can find ample precedent in the classics, perfectly suited to let us draw false conclusions. Indeed, the inhabitants in Keep on the Borderlands didn’t have names, and it has sort of helped make the module more adaptable, but this design feature is not the reason Keep is remembered: beyond stylistic elements, that has to do with its publication as “the” module in the basic set, with its iconic home base – wilderness transition – dungeon structure, and with the peculiar way the Caves of Chaos is constructed as pockets of concentrated danger that’s just the right kind of challenge for a beginning party. Indeed, Wilderlands of High Fantasy had lists of utterly uninteresting, featureless citadel and castle stats, but the reason people like the Wilderlands lies in the “points of light” concept, the hexcrawl as an underlying mini-game, and for the fantastic and wild juxtapositions that go on in the more flavourful encounters (“Here is a downed MIG plane next to a patch of giant fungi.” “This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents.”). There is a reason Huberic of Haghill is worth remembering, and those endless, nameless citadels aren’t. Palace of the Vampire Queen, the first D&D adventure ever, has a room key that’s mostly “empty, empty, 16 bats, hunchbacked servant, empty, 8 zombies, empty” repeated over two or three sheets, and nobody remembers it anymore because there is nothing else to it.

By applying these lessons too selectively, we lose sight of the iconic status or less spoken of added value within these supplements. Multiple old-school megadungeon projects suffered because they wanted to recreate the pure Castle Greyhawk experience, and produced one too many giant rat rooms with dust, scattered bones and 3000 cp. It is not simply the talentless and bland of imagination who have fallen into this trap: this conscious suppression of one’s own creativity is one of the things that damaged Isle of the Unknown, a setting book with a lot of potential (the other being an over-reliance on randomness). There are a lot of adventures out there which show flashes of imagination, but fail to be interesting because they don’t try hard enough. So it is with so many of the two- or three-dollar “humanoid lair” or “small tomb” modules on RPGNow – ten or fifteen basic rooms with inhabitants and a little debris here and there, a trap, maybe a magical enigma, and that is that. There is little use discussing most of these products, because while functional, they stay with very small ideas and don’t grow from there.

Third, it is also a matter of rules. Sure, the monstrous character sheets and column-sized stat blocks of much of modern D&D are mechanics for their own sake, and putting player skill above character skill is one of the great points made by the old-school approach. There are lots of ways where clear, simple and concise rules can make for a rewarding game experience. Beyond a certain point, however, games also start to lose interesting ways of engaging with the fantasy world, and you lose some of the payoff of the creative friction among rules, participants and setting. By pushing everything into the realm of subjectivity, there are no sure points left to anchor a character. Can I hope to climb a steep rock? Is there a way to wrestle that guy to the ground? Can I bash down the door? (Here is one major point of disagreement between myself and the vast majority of modern old-school gamers: I actually like skill systems as long as they don’t overstay their welcome – skills offer a very good “interface” to navigate an imagined reality.) Some super-lite systems like The Black Hack try to provide a sensible answer, but there is still something lacking in them. If you have seen one, you have seen all of them. I’d venture regular OD&D and its derivatives are minimalistic enough for most of us. White box Swords & Wizardry is already pushing it. Swords & Wizardry Light? Give me a break.

To end on a positive note, I will say there are ways out of this trap. Ultra-minimalism does not have to be the standard; actually, it would not be too hard to move on towards something better. With a little more ambition – say, a “four-page dungeon” or a “ten-page dungeon” – we would have a tier of products which can offer a good compromise between brevity and complexity. This is the realm of the traditional mini-adventure, or something up to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and Shrine of the Kuo-Toa. You can put a fair quantity of interesting stuff in that; a background that twists around the adventure; a wilderness section that surrounds the dungeon; an extra dungeon level for a rewarding sense of accomplishment. And this can also apply to the individual encounters, which do not have to go back to enormous, just add a little extra. A “discarded old boot in a pile of refuse” is not a dungeon encounter. “A discarded old boot, stamping on a human face – forever”, though... now we are talking business. We can start something there and make it rich and memorable.

I am not saying we should go back to 1990s TSR standards or the era of the splats. We should just look at function again, focus on the things that make for rewarding play – and draw reasonable conclusions.

Friday, 6 January 2017

[REVIEW] Sunken City

Sunken City
by Robert J. Kuntz
Published by TLB Games

Along with the recent release of the El Raja Key Archive, a collection of Rob Kuntz’s scanned gaming materials, comes Sunken City, the first D&D tournament module ever (originally run in 1975 at Gen Con VIII). While the two are linked, it makes sense to discuss them separately, since they are rather different products: one an exhibit presenting historical documents; the other reconstructing and expanding one of the documents for use. This is an important point, because the original scenario, most of which was improvised, only survives in the form of the map and a reference chart, with the GM’s notes being lost. Consequently, what we get today is neither a 100% original game artefact nor something modern, but a combination of the two.

As available, the module comes in the form of a small booklet, roughly the size to fit inside a DVD case. The cover is detachable, a decision which makes little sense since the map is not reprinted on the interior – a missed opportunity even at the cover’s small size. Instead, the reader is referred to either the archive, or a free download from the TLB Games site which contains the high-resolution scans.

Sunken City
With that out of the way, Sunken City manages to be both authentic and refreshingly original. While the cover illustration and the limited description suggest an underwater adventure, this is not entirely correct: the city of Kalibruhn, devastated by a tidal wave and flooding, is only half-submerged, with the lower buildings sunk below the surface, but the taller ones still standing high above the waterline. The core feature of the module is the colour-coded map, which ingeniously incorporates these building height variations into a single sheet. This “compression” of information requires careful study at first, but presents an adventure in a varied and three-dimensional environment which requires a continuous adaptation of player strategies. It is a fascinating map whose whole is much more than its seemingly “primitive” building blocks (certainly, the map looks like no real city ever), remaining fresh more than 40 years after its debut.

The initial part of the module provides a discussion of how environmental issues can impact play. There are unsound structures, sinkholes, randomly assigned encounters which try to “control” their surrounding territory and may become permanent fixtures, and other hazards the characters must contend with. If the characters use rafts to get around, they must use nearby terrain to pole around, or entrust themselves to the currents (which may just put them in terrible danger). It is nice to see a scenario where these concerns are being considered while also letting high-level characters use their resilience and respectable arsenal of spells and magic items to traverse and exploit the complex terrain. Moving around the city is part of the experience! It seems a bit overwhelming in places (tracking character weight is an element to look out for), and demands forethought to pull off, but the resulting challenge should make the exploration all the more memorable.

The 23 keyed areas present what you would find in a lost city adventure: temples, the residences of the former inhabitants, administrative structures, and so on. Mapping out individual buildings is an exercise left to the GM, but the contents are sufficient to run the adventure (one location is missing stats for a bunch of higher-level thieves, but this can be remedied). There is a variety here that’s not entirely random (since it is all thematically fitting), but doesn’t get stuck in repetition and offers a decent number of non-obvious fantastic elements and a few surprises. It is not a huge place, about the size of TSR’s smaller modules, but there are some neat opportunities for diving and spelunking and fighting interesting opponents without getting tangled within a forced plot. It is mostly the right kind of classic design; recognisable but original at the same time.

This is not to say Sunken City is without flaws. First comes a common problem with high-level modules: it compensates for excessive character power with excessively powerful opponents. Make no mistake, “special” monsters posing a harder challenge have place in the game, but in Sunken City, just about everything is an upgraded, advanced or special version of some monster or another. Indeed, there is even an evil necromancer who is so special that he finds regular magic-user spells beneath himself, and uses his special “ancient spells” (one of them a good old sword&sorcery classic) and special magic items to deal with the intruders. This is more inflation than ingenuity.

Second, while less common than in some of Rob’s other modules, “­hidden depth” remains a problem. This is the kind of ultra-obscure content or puzzle which you have to flip backwards thrice through flaming hoops to find or solve. There is a major mystery in the module whose key lies in things like finding a specific object within a pile of extremely common-looking objects, combining one obscure item with another obscure item, and/or deciphering a completely opaque clue that was probably only ever clear to the author. Then there is a rather important object which shows up in a randomly assigned minor treasure cache – not that random plot item assignment is a bad idea (the card reading in Ravenloft remains the yardstick to measure any similar device), but here, the concept is stretched to the point of obscurantism.

Finally, at a few places, the straightforward, to the point design is replaced by some rather baroque solutions or counter-intuitive descriptions. This applies to some encounters (and especially that necromancer), but also extends to the mechanics. The module makes a big deal out of things like how certain buildings collapse, or how character weight figures into all this. While this is in the interests of fairness, it seems more trouble than it is worth. Similarly, some arcane rolls to avoid certain effects could be easily resolved with... how do you call those things... saving throws?

These are the high points and flaws of Sunken City, and if it wasn’t clear so far, the former outweigh the latter. Indeed, at its best, Sunken City combines conceptual simplicity with inventive execution, and like TSR’s early releases, it offers something new (in this case an interesting 3d environment with varied hazards). It is one of those modules which could have easily been a TSR release in the pastel series, minus the few muddled parts. After wrapping one’s head around it (which takes some time before it clicks), and simplifying a few rough corners, it will be a worthy addition to a module repertoire.

Rating: **** / *****