Wednesday, 22 March 2017

[BLOG] Don’t Kick the Bucket: Zine Insights into Early D&D

The quest for old game documents, particularly homemade adventure scenarios can be a frustrating search, and yield few results. We know little about how people really played, and what kind of games they did play. Things are more clear in the US – after all, many people publishing in APA zines went on to publish their stuff professionally or at least semi-professionally – while fewer things are known about the British gaming scene. One of the more famous dungeons from the age was Don Turnbull’s Greenlands, and a snippet, The Hall of Mystery, was published in The Dragon #21, showing a very tough sub-level (another, Lair of the Demon Queen, apparently appeared in White Dwarf #7). Sadly, Greenlands appears to be lost in spite of Chris Turnbull’s efforts to recover it.

However, other traces of early D&D survive in the online repository of the UK Diplomacy Zine Archive. I discovered these artefacts while following the links from Zhu Bajiee’s post on The Realm of Zhu, which lead me to the early issues of Chimaera, a zine dedicated to Diplomacy and other postal games. Chimaera was edited by Clive F. Booth, and published a respectable 102 issues between June 1975 and July 1983. This was a time, before computer games or ubiquitous television programming, when postal games were at their peak. Chimaera is mostly a relic of this hobby, of which I know very little, but it also reveals a small treasure cache of old D&D content from the dawn of the hobby.

This Crazy New Game
The first mention of D&D appears in Chimaera #5 (September 1975), as a request for information and reviews. This seems to be the earliest period of gaming in the UK, as people are regularly referred to three sources to obtain a copy of D&D (one of them the early Games Workshop, another based in Basel, Switzerland!) An introduction to Empire of the Petal Throne and the world of Tékumel is published in Issue #11 (January 1976), followed by a long series of adventure reports about the original migrant worker RPG (there is some quality dungeoneering there, rather less dodgy than the D&D content). EPT, in a quite naïve way, is even described as “surely the most detailed fantasy game that will ever be produced” (p. 12). Also included from Issue #19 are some play-by-mail En Garde reports with character names along the lines of Fabian Titanique, André D’Avidson (played by... yes, one Andy Davidson), Noah Speke De Inglisch, Charles Hercule de Thingy, The Scarlet Pimp, and Robert de Paté de Fois Gras – and, silliness aside, it proved very popular, becoming a regular feature through the zine’s run. However, our concern is not EPT or En Garde, but the utterly charming and fully authentic early D&D content starting with Issue #18.


Sample Level
Dungeons and Dragons: An Introduction by Paul Cook is just a two-page contribution, but a key one. It contains a surprisingly succinct and interesting description of the game, character generation, and best of all, a sample dungeon level! It is not made clear whether it comes from Hope Castle, Paul’s main dungeon (“situated on the borders of the great empire of the Conans”, and “built thousands of years ago by the gold dragons”), but it is a fascinating document in its own right. The dungeon level, roughly the size of the sample dungeon from the OD&D booklets, is a collection of a few rooms and passages, supplemented with a minimal typewritten key of 17 rooms (only three of which are over one line of length). Nevertheless, we have a lot of cool features to note:
  • The level serves as a distribution nexus to reach the lower levels. There are no less than six connections in a relatively small place: two stairways to level 2, a slanting passage and a sliding door to level 3, a “space room” (whatever that means) dropping to level 5, and a trap door with a drop to level 7! That’s some serious connectivity – if you can survive the fall to those deep levels.
  • Four monster lairs offering very different challenge levels: a smaller and larger goblin lair, a minotaur, and an orc outpost. The treasures are generous (there is a ring of three wishes), but assuming a large first-level company, several adventurers will have to die to obtain them.
  • There are some quite magical and imaginative traps and tricks: the shrinking room, the acid fountain, an endless corridor, and a wizard masquerading as an old man, teaching the players to be wary of first appearances.
  • Then there is the bucket encounter (#10, forgotten from the map), which is perhaps the funniest part, and best classified as an enigma.
That’s a handful – and it is all on a single typewritten page. There is a pleasing complexity to it despite the limited space: it looks like a dungeon with a decent variety of content, and a promising layout.

The Empire
Paul’s introduction continues in Issue #19 with an examination of wilderness play – a particularly rare thing in a dungeon-oriented period. This is one and a half pages including two maps, but presents an appealing and adventure-friendly mini-setting. It is a fantasy mishmash where elves live in the forests, dragons live in the mountains and hill giants live in the hills, yet it has its own peculiar feel. The area surrounding Hope Castle is ruled by a disintegrating Empire ruled by the insane and childless Emperor Orweelia VI, and managed by a cadre of incompetent bureaucrats and a host of greedy local nobles. There are decent bits like “[on] the road through the vampire caves to Red Castle, there are two huge statues blocking the roads. It is said that anyone passing under them rather than around them, will be cursed with bad luck and die or else become incredibly rich – all within a year”, or a quarantined city with raging bubonic plague. Issue #25 offers further detail on the empire’s most important nobles, from the ancient wizard to the knight who turns men into mutants and sets them loose in his dungeons... and Grimy of Groin, a PC dwarf who obtained a castle by poisoning its former inhabitant (kind of a pattern in Paul’s games).

In Issue #21, we learn that the main characters in Paul Cook’s Isle of Wight group are imaginatively named, and quite the murder-hobos:
  • Merlin: often adventures alone or in a company of orcs, “was once friendly with a Balrog, but did nothing to prevent the Evil High Priest from charming the arse of it”, GM finally got rid of him with a potion of poison.
  • Aragorn:Don’t be duped by the name, Aragorn, [...] is again chaotic”, another guy with orc henchmen who kills elves on sight, has a pet chimaera he uses to extort people. “Takes pleasure in seeing orcs pick up lawful swords and dying.
  • Sinbad, Son of Popeye, Son of Trufo: Takes great masochistic pleasure in getting killed, to the point where he attempted to wipe out 16 werewolves on his own!” He was backstabbed and killed by Merlin and Aragorn.
  • John of Redtown: a rare lawful cleric, fond of using flaming oil-based tactics, and reliant on friends to keep him alive. Was once turned into a swine by a beautiful witch.
  • Lefalia the Elf: flaming sword guy.

The Temple of Set
A new dungeon, The Temples of Set and Seker, is found in Issue #23. This is another contribution by Paul Cook, and represents partial write-ups of two rival temples “situated somewhere in the dungeons of Hope Castle”. The odd thing about the twin temples, erected by the gods themselves in the struggle between Chaos and Law, is that their backstory pretty much mirrors Dark Tower, the infamous high-level AD&D deathfest by Paul Jacquays, but preceding them by three years (1976 vs. 1979). It would be interesting to know if this was a case of loose inspiration or parallel evolution, although it is probably the latter: there does not seem to be any further connection, and both draw on the D&Dised mythology of Gods, Demigods and Heroes (as does Temple of Ra Accursed by Set, a fairly uninteresting Judges Guild module from 1979). The temples, with 14 and 11 keyed areas respectively, are quite different from the entrance level provided in Issue #18, and are best thought of as themed sub-levels. Some apparent features stand out:
  • The map is a branching structure with a prominent use of secret doors. The players could miss much of the place if they were careless. There are no connections to other levels (what appear to be stairs are just a trick), probably meaning these complexes were located on the boundaries of a regular level.
  • The key is a mixture of general and themed encounters. They have a sinister bent, like a girl being sacrificed in an evil ritual, men dying of the bubonic plague, food being poisonous or turning into spiders, or exploding glass. They also appear dangerous, potentially deadly for an unwary group.
  • There is a room where there is a 5% chance you will meet Set; otherwise, you meet 100 of his minions (10th level Lords).
  • Seker’s temple is of course much less interesting than Set's, but it could potentially serve as a base of operations for Lawful groups (although considering Merlin and Aragorn, they would just loot it and put the inhabitants to the sword). There is a room of 3 wishes, and another where there is a 1% chance of an encounter with Seker (as the key informs us, lawful gods are more busy than chaotics).


Paul Cook’s campaign was not the only one to receive attention in Chimaera. Dave Tant, whose articles start from Issue #19, focused on higher-level play, and organised a zine-spanning play-by-mail campaign called The Pits of Cil. After organisational matters and rules interpretations, the campaign is introduced for good in Issue #22. It is a post-apocalyptic setting of a future Earth descended into barbarism and populated by strange new creatures, giving a grounding for the dungeon, “an ancient ruined palace”, “built on the site of earlier palaces and subterranean workings” (in fact, the name comes from Eyes of the Overworld, although it does not seem to have provided more than some superficial influence).

The Pits of Cil: Intro
Tant’s game involved eleven parallel groups delving into the ruins, from The Hill Booth Boys to Leviathan’s Angels. All of them were assembled from a generous XP budget, allowing for a mixture of high (7th-8th) and low-level characters plus retainers. Issue #23 introduces a further opportunity for coop play in the form of Inter-Zine Dungeons, allowing the transfer of characters from one zine’s campaign to another – “forcible (i.e. involuntary) transfer by means of a transporter room”, “voluntary transfer by means of a trek across a moderately hostile landscape”, or transfer via a wish. It is raised that this presents issues of rules compatibility and referee interpretations (concerns which influenced the design goals and tenor of AD&D), as well as different paces of publication between the zines. The idea of a multiverse of games – whose US parallels are recounted in a classic 2005 thread by Calithena, and which has been revived via the much more recent Constantcon and the FLAILSNAILS conventions – seemed to hover between something that was at once very desirable, yet laden with conflicts and trouble that made implementation mostly impractical.

Dungeon Escalators
The postal format itself posed problems: later issues reveal players regularly missed turns, or did not respond accurately to prodding, resulting in outcomes like “Still nothing heard from Les Kennedy, so his character dies, and his party turns chaotic. Sorry to see you go Les.” (As it turns out, these followers turned into roving, autonomous mobs of chaotic rabble who posed a danger to the active players.) Exploration seemed to proceed at a very slow pace, although the PVP infighting – a popular and exhilarating hobby on MUDs and later online games – must have made up for it. The early write-ups don’t reveal too much about the Pits of Cil beyond the creative chaos taking place, but some play reports do exist. In Issue #34, Tant gives a DM’s perspective of a convention session, which may have taken place in The Pits or (more likely) could have been entirely self-standing. The quest for The Bowl of Midas has ideas like a rack of electrified swords (ouch), and “the Stone Giant, heavily disguised as a Giant Beatle with a Magic Guitar.” From Issue #35, regular and more detailed play reports start appearing (this was around the time the first character reached the 5th dungeon level).

The Pits of Cil continued for four years, spanning over 850 letters before it wrapped up in Issue #69 (October 1980). Dave Tant already drew some conclusions in Issue #62. The dungeon was starting to get clogged with “abandoned parties”, and the remaining players – down to ten after the campaign’s heyday of thirty or forty, this final number including Don Turnbull – had to spend most of their time repulsing their attacks. Runaway PVP also hindered dungeon exploration, and the faster correspondents could gain an advantage above their peers. The campaign ended with a bang, with an earthquake destroying the dungeon and the remaining characters using their wish spells to escape (one particular player from his wedding to a fairy princess). Tant planned a followup AD&D campaign set on an island, but details of this game are scant.

Chimaera itself lasted until July 1983, ending its run with Issue #102 after eight years, something that’d make many commercial hobby publications proud. As editor Clive Booth noted, the drive was no longer there, nor were many of the friends he had started the journey with. There were, of course, changes in the world as well: later issues talk increasingly about microcomputers, while D&D had gone from its roots to something rather different. It was, without doubt, the end of an era.

Monday, 13 March 2017

[REVIEW] Beyond the Ice-Fall

[REVIEW] Beyond the Ice-Fall
by Joseph D. Salvador
Published by Raven God Games

Winter has been hard on the small Viking villages of the Skallafjord, wolf attacks have been on the rise and a supply ship has gone missing. The player characters – either locals or visiting travellers – are asked to investigate. This is the premise of a beginning (level 1-3) adventure module based on two pulp stories, Algernon Blackwood’s The Glamour of the Snow, and Robert E. Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Like almost all modules which try to turn pulp stories into RPG scenarios, it is heavy on the mood and light on the actual game content. The whole package consists of 28 pages, but while what we get is generally good, it is very little. Some of this is due to thanks to the airy layout (with rather good-looking interior illustrations, some by the author), but the real issue is the adventure’s limited scope.

Attack of the Ice Bint
What we get is a hook (missing ship), a broader mystery (the heavy winter the Vikings have been enduring), and a bunch of rumours that are ripe with further adventure potential. Of these, only the first is explored in this module. Which is a shame, because the author almost starts detailing a small wilderness setting that could have a lot of potential to realise these promises, but stops in his tracks right after the beginning. We get the descriptions of two villages, presented in fairly broad strokes – they have their interesting NPCs, local adventure hooks, and just the right amount of well-presented information to make them feel distinct and engaging – but little is actually done with them. This is followed up by a wilderness trek that inevitably leads to the adventure site, bolstered by a small but well-done random encounter chart (the entries are given descriptions which elevate them above “2+1d6 wolves”) and all of two wilderness locations (one of which is the entrance to the dungeon). They are cool (the first site is really powerful), but this isn’t really exploration, because there is nowhere else interesting to go.

Then we get an eight-location mini-dungeon beyond the ice-fall, and it almost becomes interesting again. There are some challenges related to navigation and movement in the hazardous icy environment, and there is some damn fine imagery representing the best of the pulps. Icy passages, cursed slave warriors enthralled by the main antagonist, a guy frozen in a block of ice along with two interesting magic items, a spectacular ice tree, and the crown jewel, an underground cavern with an iceberg floating above a bottomless rainbow abyss that’s actually a dimensional gateway. Damn spiffy! Unfortunately, imagery it remains: things mostly remain on the decorative/treasure/fight/trap level, and you can’t interact much with these wonders (although, again, that iceberg... that’s something). The good classic adventures tend to have a depth of interaction with their magical enigmas, and that is missing. There are the obligatory new monsters, which over-explain things a bit, two cool magic items, and three spells everyone already knows from AD&D. Also, a random table for Viking names.

There is almost something here, and there are the beginnings of an interesting Nordic-themed mini-setting in the text. The individualised monster encounters are a major feature of the adventure, and some of the wild imagery – even if not really exploited – is to die for. There is an undeniable style to it all that could sustain more than the product really offers. If this wasn’t just a glorified lair dungeon, but a collection of three or four mini-scenarios and a dozen smaller wilderness sites centred on the Skallafjord area, and was a bit more tightly packed, it would be going places. As it is, it is almost worth three stars thanks to the execution and attention to detail – but that’s just another almost.

Rating: ** / *****

Sunday, 12 March 2017

[REVIEW] Secrets of the Wyrwoode

Secrets of the Wyrwoode
by Luigi Castellani
Published by Artikid Arts

Although D&D draws heavily on the historical and mythical legacy of the British Isles, the exploration of this rich corpus has often been very superficial. Subsumed into the “generic fantasy” of Greyhawk, Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, the magic of the British countryside has been diluted and bowdlerised until it doesn’t seem distinct or exciting at all. Fortunately, the real legends and folklore were always there to rediscover – and Secrets of the Wyrwoode re-adapts them to a mid-level AD&D adventure which does both them and the game justice. Either way you look at it – mythical adaptation and something characteristically AD&D – it works without compromising on its ideas. In handling the historical details of a land reminiscent of mediaeval Britain and folk stories about the faerie, Luigi Castellani has written an imaginative, structurally sound and pleasantly non-linear module.

Secrets of the Wyrwoode
There are many ways to begin this adventure, and many ways to play and finish it. Its contents can be reconfigured to accommodate very different plotlines – a quest to return the victim of a faerie kidnapping, the recovery of a mcagical ingredient, or the chase for someone who has disappeared on the other side. The Wyrwoode – an ancient woodland haunted by various iconic elements of British legends – is a flexible framework to let things happen and complications develop. It is a small area straddling two worlds, the two sides loosely connected here and there at odd sites. Whereas the mortal world is inhabited by bandits, druidic remains, and the lairs of inhabitants who have been to “the other side” and somehow came back, the land of the elves is a dark and treacherous otherworld, filled with magic. The elves are not Tolkien’s noble folk, but the amoral, capricious and cruel (but always fun-loving) guys and girls of the old legends. Their interactions with our world mean trouble, while their own is haunted by repressed tragedies and lingering deceit which could come to the forefront in the adventure.

This adventure doesn’t really deal in a plotline, even an implied one (in the way most old-school modules do – e.g. nobody tells you what to do with In Search of the Unknown, but you kinda get the idea what you are supposed to). It is truly and effectively non-linear while retaining a sense of cohesion. What it deals with are NPCs, situations and conflicts which may develop as the characters start to interact with them – particularly when they cross dimensions and long-building conflicts spill from one world to the other and vice versa. In the fairly cool way the adventure is set up, the same characters will be allies in one way the scenario could develop, and implacable enemies in another. They have simple but solid motivations and systems of behaviour which can connect in many different ways, and are set up to generate conflict.

There is also a nice sense of wonder and spirit of discovery in the module. This goes for the Wyrwoode’s two sides (which are linked in more and less obvious ways), but also the motivations and hidden stories the characters may end up uncovering. It can play as comedy or tragedy, and it has some really inspiring backdrops – a castle built of thorns, a bottomless nixie pool, the domicile of a hermit haunted by his memories on the other side, etc. These encounters usually also work seamlessly with the AD&D rules, making sense in the game’s context.

This adventure module is one of the genuinely impressive things to come from the old-school scene, and while it may ironically be too particular, “too British” for some campaigns (even generic fantasy ones), it is excellent in all respects.

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

Saturday, 11 March 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #06: Beyond the Glittering Wall

[CAUTION for Hungarian Readers: I will be running this adventure on the KaTa VI mini-convention in April. If you want to avoid spoilers, STOP NOW.]

Somewhere on the edge of the Forest of Woe, a small company gathered around a carefully hidden campfire. They were:
  • Franz Who Wasn’t Even There: a sour-faced, feeble young man in a grey cloak (Illusionist 3);
  • Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: a surprisingly well-groomed Northman, and a follower of Gladuor, god of aqueducts and urban civilisation (Barbarian 2/Thief 1; has soap on his equipment list);
  • and Greg the Rat-Catcher (alternatively Greg the Jack-of-all-Trades): a young, short, childlike little fellow. So unassuming even his class is listed as a blank ____________ on his character sheet.

The three of them had already been through a few adventures, losing two of their companions along the way from Baklin, the ducal seat and Erillion’s only major city. The reason for their journey was a generous offer: Lady Callodric, a wealthy noblewoman from the Twelve Kingdoms, was looking for a rare magical flower, and was willing to pay 600 pieces of gold to anyone who’d get it. As recited by Tomurgen the Bard, the flower only bloomed in a tiny valley among the island’s mountains, and it could only be found at night by its faint light. Furthermore, it would have to be harvested by blade, and must not be torn – as an ominous couplet warned, “He who reaps it shall take its blood / But he who pulls shall with his anoint”.

Reaching the valley would be no mean feat. Its location was known to Tomurgen, but the pass leading there was beset by man-eating giants who lived up in the mountains in a great wooden Steading under the rule of their chief; and they had keen eyes and eager wolfhounds to find all but the most careful travellers. However, there was perhaps another way. A silver mine had once flourished at the foot of the mountains, and while it had been abandoned in some kind of calamity, the tunnels might offer a way through the range without alerting the Steading. And so, the three adventurers set their minds to seeking out the mine and finding passage to the other side. But at this moment, their attention was drawn by the sudden approach of heavy footsteps, and as Greg quickly melted into the undergrowth, they sized up the approaching figure...


Having lost his companions under the ruined mansion of the Perladon family, Gadur Yir the half-orc gathered his valuables before a great fire. Then, as he prayed to Haldor, he cast them one by one into the flames: the magical wolf idol, the red potion from the sea hags, and finally a hundredweight of gold.
Oh great Haldor, I beseech thee, return the life to Jonlar Zilv! Although I could not rescue the rest of my companions, I ask for his return, as he was a believer in good, a man of great knowledge, and one who would never leave his companions in a bind!
The items were consumed and disappeared into thin air, and at last, the half-orc heard a booming voice from the sky: “Beyond and among the mountains, where others’ feet will bring you, Othellind the Ancient, knower of songs, knows it not he knows how to help.
This was all the sign Gadur Yir would receive, and after a night’s rest, he headed for the forests.

The journey through the Forest of Woe had started inauspicious enough. Somehow, navigating even by map proved harder than he had expected, and (lacking the Wilderness Lore skill) he soon realised he was lost. Instead of the low hills he was expecting to head towards, he found himself before a great, rough stone throne that could seat a giant; then, he descended into a shallow valley towards a lake he didn’t find marked on the chart. At night, fires beckoned in a great ruined structure on the lakeside, but the inhabitants of the castle had also noticed him. A pursuit began through wood and bush, and by the time the half-orc had shaken off those following his trail, he had noticed he’d lost his javelins and his trusty lantern. Finally, four days later, navigating at first by instinct and then by sight of the northern mountains, he emerged torn, dirty and tired into a clearing, heading straight for the campfire  he had spotted through the trees.


…and I am Franz, but that doesn’t matter matter.” With the introductions and questions about one another’s purpose taken care of – they shared the gist of their quest, and Gadur Yir summed up his misadventures in Gont and later on the high seas – they finally agreed to travel together for a while for mutual protection and the promise of riches. The next day, they left the Forest of Woe and set off towards the mountains that looked more and more massive as they approached.

The Mountains of Erillion
Travelling through the thickets of an abandoned land, they found themselves at the edge of a large depression lined with clay walls. An enormous potter’s wheel stood at the centre, surrounded by broken pottery and misshapen lumps of clay that formed fantastic forms. Was it magical? Franz’s spell said yes. Considering the clay shards he held in his hands, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung spat into his palms, retrieved a lump of clay from the pit’s side, held up the amulet of Gladuor, and went to work on a piece shaped like the top arches of an aqueduct. His work went adequately, but something was missing – something essential and vital. As he looked upon his half-hearted work, there was a tremendous crack and he was struck by a lightning bolt out of the clear sky! Somehow, he stood up, discarding his ruined creation. He was followed by Greg, who thought he could do better, and started working on a sleek dagger, only to bring down another lightning bolt that almost fried him. Stubbornly, Gadur Yir stepped up to the wheel, and praying to Haldor, started to work on a clay shield. He was entirely absorbed by his work, and felt inspired, one with the tools at his disposal. [A 20!] He retrieved a perfectly shaped metal shield from the wheel, and affixed it to his arm (a +1 shield). Emboldened by the half-orc’s success, Greg tried again, shaping a small ring and deftly dodging the incoming lightning bolt that seared his side but didn’t incinerate him. Finally, Drolhaf – turning to Gladuor again – formed a helmet with his hands, and his efforts were rewarded [another 20!] as he created a helm that would protect him against one fatal blow.

A few hours’ walk from the wheel, Gadur Yir found an overgrown road, leading towards the mountains. It had not been used in several years, and vegetation, even small saplings had grown up among the stones, and here and there it had been completely buried under earth and sediment. But it lead on, and at last in the afternoon they arrived at their goal. Next to a dammed artificial lake fed by a mountain river emerging from a gap in the mountainside, stood the remains of a makeshift settlement. Its palisade had collapsed and the wooden shacks were in various stages of decay; only a tiny toolshed stood the test of time. Above this former camp, two sets of metal tracks disappeared into timbered entrances. Pit heaps below the tracks identified the place as former mine sites.

There wasn’t much to be found in the settlement, although the shed held a collection of pickaxes and miners’ helmets, and was large enough to house four people at night. Although multiple characters were wounded from the lightning bolts, they decided to do some initial reconnaissance at the mine mouths to make sure they would not be ambushed at night.
Who brought the canary?” asked Greg, but nobody answered.
Wind was blowing from the left entrance. Franz lit a lantern, and they took a few steps into the cool, wet tunnel. Steady winds were blowing from forward, through the passages under the mountains. They bypassed an abandoned entrance post and a side tunnel which had been mined and abandoned. They reached an intersection where the rails parted into two branches, and they could hear the sound of running water to the northwest.
That must be the stream that emerges into the lake” guessed Greg.
We should press forward a bit” so Gadur Yir.
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung was sceptical: “No! We mustn’t be careless! We have ample time, and we are wounded. This way, we could get attacked from behind any time. Let’s head out and check the other entrance.
They tried the right entrance, but soon reached an intersection again, with multiple further intersections in close proximity. Greg’s ears picked up the sounds of water to the north and something that sounded like a faint chittering chorus.
Bats? Could be bats.
Deciding not to risk it, they turned back again, and reaching the outside, finally examined the river entrance. Iron bars blocked this low, wide opening, holding back a few pieces of wood. Anyone who wanted to enter this way would wade deeply against the current here – and Greg would be surely overwhelmed. Satisfied nothing would attack their camp from this direction, they returned to camp, although Drolhaf stayed behind to catch a few fat fish in the lake, which they ate along with Greg’s bouillon prepared with the finest herbs.


The night was uneasy, and they had once heard horse hooves and human voices from beyond the palisade, but whoever they were, the small company did not linger: they considered this an accursed and dangerous place, and were worried the giants would catch them. Huddled in the shed, the company tried their best not to make a noise, and rested until the morning.

Continuing the exploration of the mine, they now chose the entrance to the right, and proceeded to the T-intersection, then crept north along a set of tracks. They could again hear the rushing water and chittering sounds, and emerged into a large, multi-level cavern with colourful stalactites. A small waterfall fed an underground pool, and fat bats were flitting in the air, around what seemed like enormous, furry packages suspended from the ceiling. Across a bridge, a long metal ladder disappeared upwards in the darkness.
Giant bats! Let’s not awaken them… turn back” Drolhaf whispered, and nobody wanted to force a confrontation. “We should return at night, when they are hunting outside. We have more than enough time” he added when they were out of hearing distance.

The Abandoned Mines: Lower Level
They proceeded to the east, where the tracks divided into several passages. A set of southern caverns, part enlarged natural caverns and part timber-reinforced mines, held a crack in the wall where something black-grey glittered. Silver ore! Using a chisel and a pickaxe, two characters spent an hour at work while the others stood watch; and were richer by 100 gp worth of medium-grade silver ore. One tunnel to the north, the tracks soon ended, but the low-ceilinged passage continued after a tricky bend, slowly sloping downwards. Gadur Yir gestured backwards, and hunched down to investigate this direction. He only took a few steps before something soft and wet landed on him. To his companions’ horror, his head and torso were covered in a vivid green jelly. Greg jumped and quickly took a torch to the slime, burning it off along with some of the half-orc’s hair. Green slime! The deadly mass was everywhere along this tunnel, hidden in treacherous nooks and crevices, and it also seems to have eaten away some of the timbers.
Too risky” Gadur Yir turned, and the rest followed.

From another passage came a heavy wind, and stepping forward, they found a badly reinforced ventilation shaft leading upwards and outside.
This is where the bats leave?” Gadur Yir hazarded a guess, but despite the presence of some guano, the shaft was too tight for the larger specimens.
Further to the north, a bridge crossed an underground stream, which disappeared through a crack to the west, but cut a more tall, navigable passage to the east. The current was steady but not overwhelming. Greg and Franz decided to stay behind while Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Gadur Yir went off to investigate. The tunnel was twisty, and the stream was fed by several little rivulets. They heard a harmonic, resonant sound from the east, which grew stronger as they approached. Stepping into a small grotto, the duo beheld glittering walls, colourful crystals embedded into the limestone like the interior of a geode. This was the source of the weird music they had encountered.
It is nice as it rings and tolls, but a real master should polish it to perfection after Civilisation lays claim to it” – the barbarian was already at the natural wonder with his pick. They extracted a backpack’s worth of crystals (some 500 gp value) while Franz and Greg waited impatiently outside.

Another side passage opened, this time to the northwest. A smell of wet rot and mildew wafted from it. The adventurers soon found themselves in a round cavern filled with wet earth, and thick colonies of mushrooms, some thick and lumpy, some tube-shaped, some with improbable shapes. Carefully prodding the mushrooms, Gadur Yir stepped in to explore, but was almost instantly ambushed by a horde of long, thick centipedes the size of a man’s arm. One almost bit through his throat [narrowly avoiding an instant kill roll], and cornering the rest of the party, but Franz cast an illusion spell to conjure the vision of a large, fat guinea pig, which divided the monsters’ attention until they were cut up or crushed to a pulp. There wasn’t much else in the room: disturbing a mushroom patch, Gadur Yir was splattered with a greenish goo that was reminiscent of the common stinkhorn’s cap, but the sticky substance proved more harmless than the green slime.

The mine tracks continued into another cavern, where they lead to a tall structure constructed of thick beams, heavy chains hanging from a dark hole above. An abandoned mine cart was still standing on the platform of this elevator.
It doesn’t look safe, and the cold wind is coming from the north passage” Drolhaf Haffnarskørung was already on his way. The passage soon turned to the east, but Drolhaf and Gadur Yir stopped to stare at something before them. In a niche in the passage bend, a skeleton was sitting chained to a rough stone throne. The cadaver was wearing a horned helm and rusty chainmail, and it held a heavy two-handed axe in its bony fingers. A decorative silver horn was suspended on a leather belt around its neck.
I am not touching it” Gadur Yir growled, and keeping a respectable distance, turned to follow the passage…
…the skeletal horror lunged at him with amazing speed, and struck. Blood flew and Gadur Yir fell unconscious on the ground. Horrified, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung rushed to his aid, barely able to damage the undead warrior while dodging its mighty blows. Franz turned himself invisible and quietly dragged Gadur Yir to safety. After a desperate battle, the barbarian and Greg somehow defeated the skeleton while Franz bound the half-orc’s wounds until he could stand.
The horn is worth some 160 gold, but we don’t know if it is magical” Greg the Rat-Catcher called.
I could try blowing it” said Drolhaf, to everyone’s panic. “…once we are outside. Well then. Onwards! Let’s find that exit; it can’t be far away now.
The others followed him down the cold passage, icy winds buffeting them. Shortly, they saw their lights reflected from a glittering surface filling much of a large cavern whose ceiling disappeared into the darkness. The ice lake stretching before them was like a single clear gemstone, and beneath the surface, they saw the entangled bones of several skeletons, frozen picks and shovels, broken beams and bent pieces of rail. Faint whispering seemed to sound from the corners of the icy mass grave. Drolhaf surveyed the scene for a long moment, then silently turned back, and the others followed.


They spent three days and three nights in the mining camp to let their wounds heal. Drolhaf caught fish in the lake and Greg – who loved this lazy life – cooked, while they collectively got one of the houses in good enough shape to move from the cramped shed. On the second day, Drolhaf tried the horn, whose booming sound seemed to bounce from cliff to cliff, but produced no effect.
Now everyone knows we are here” Gadur Yir grumbled.
But at least we know it isn’t magical” countered the barbarian.


Let’s try the other branch now. It should be less dangerous” Drolhaf Haffnarskørung mused as they got ready to continue the expedition. Entering through the left mine entrance and turning left, they first bypassed an upturned mine cart, and soon reached a bridge across a raging underground river. A bit afterward, the track split, one side ending in a large multi-level cavern before multiple timber-reinforced shafts, and the other, with three carts standing on it, entering another mine elevator. On the side of the cavern, steep stairs climbed up to the next level. Gadur Yir took the lead, and, since he was looking carefully, soon saw a small clump of transparent slime clinging to one of the steps. He burned the underdeveloped blob off with an evil grin. “Not this time!

The upper cavern was a departure point for two tracks disappearing into dark passages. In a side chamber closed off by a barred gate, they found a decaying turning wheel and the gnawed bones of several animals that may have been mules. Slime glittered in empty skulls, and Gadur Yir suggested to leave. Instead, they struck west, proceeding along the mine tracks. Small side-passages opened one after the other before the tracks terminated. The first held a neatly arranged row of skulls still in the mining helmets, and a trace of silver ore they excavated – 60 gp. The second was a dangerous-looking air vent. The third, however, ended in unfinished construction: the timberwork was incomplete, and the passage was choked with debris, as if someone had broken through into another cavern, and left the site abandoned. Gadur Yir, then Drolhaf Haffnarskørung squeezed through into this new place...

The Abandoned Mines: Upper Level
The cavern was roughly worked stone, but its length was bisected by a row of five columns. Across the room, they could see a corroded, heavy iron door with the face of a snarling beast. At the base of the columns, old carved letters read:
We must be very careful” the Northman warned. “I have a hunch this was the source of the evil which had destroyed the mining operation, and produced that ice lake.
Greg already had an idea. “I think we must pass the columns in specific order. The lone sinister misstep means starting at the left, since there is only one column there.
He stepped by the column, and as he did, he seemed to step back through the gap to the right without reaching the other half of the chamber. He grinned, and continued from column to column until he was at the other side.
What now?” asked Franz.
Just watch!” Greg turned, this time passing the columns from the other side. At the end of the row, he was in the other side of the room, and already at the iron door. “It is unlocked! Come!

A short, twisting passage decorated with fading frescoes led to an irregularly shaped room with several nooks, and three bearded statues on stone pedestals. A set of stairs descended to the lower level.
I am the empty hope!” Franz read the letters below the first statue.
I AM THE FALSE PROMISE!” the other one was just as mysterious.
I AM THE BROKEN WORD!” read the letters below the third.
Let’s just avoid them” recommended Gadur Yir, and they went for the stairs instead.

The hall below stretched into the darkness. Frescoes of dark shadowy warriors, wearing horned helmets and holding torches loomed above the characters.
The same as the skeleton!” Greg exclaimed.
The hall continued to a set of bars with an iron door in the middle that filled Gadur Yir with a horrible sense of déjà vu. He thought back to Perladon manor, but shook his head. Peering through the bars, he saw a decorative well, a doorway covered with heavy purple drapes, and even more frescoes in what looked like a sanctum. Instead of going for the centre of this evil place, they investigated the southern room complex. To the west, four skull-tipped spears were linked by pieces of rope in the shape of a rectangle, and in an alcove, there was a throne of carved wood with a small, gold-tipped baton resting on a cushion.
An arena of some kind?
More importantly, how do we remove that baton? Rope?
That’s easy. We don’t. Let’s check that archway to the south.

Beyond the purple drapes to the south, the passageway made a slight turn before descending downwards. Gadur Yir beckoned, and the others followed quietly. The stairs ended in a long hallway with more frescoes of the dark warriors. To the side, small rectangular chambers opened one after the other, each with three sarcophagi bearing heavy lids carved with the images of fierce armoured knights. On each lid rested a golden chalice.
This whole area reeks of menace, as if it was demon-haunted. We shouldn’t touch anything. ... That means you! Hey!” Drolhaf Haffnarskørung snapped as he looked at Greg’s greedy eyes. Greg withdrew, licked his lips and turned away with a sigh.
In the middle of the hall, they found a circular inscription with red letters: “THE HALL OF THE WEAK. LET THEIR FATE BE AN ETERNAL WARNING.” Beyond lie an empty chamber with unfinished resting palces, the sarcophagi still missing.
See? They are weak.
They were weak to resist temptation, Greg.” Drolhaf sounded at the end of his wits.
Bah... they were weak because they didn’t have enough Hp.
I bet it’s not even real gold... just some horrible fake to tempt the unwary.

The hall ended with a door to the left, then another set of stairs winding downwards.
Ha! This way!” Gadur Yir strode forward, but jumped aside with a curse almost immediately as a heavy pendulum swung at him. “...This way, but more carefully.” A few steps down, Greg found a collection of small holes to the sides, identifying an arrow trap. They bypassed the step, Gadur Yir probing the rest of the way with his swordtip. Yet he was almost in for a third surprise as a third step sunk down and a heavy stone block swung down on a pair of chains, almost knocking the helmet off of his head.

At last, they were beyond the thrice-traped stairs, in what looked like a low caverns. A soft wind blew from the north, and old benches lined the walls. Letters carved in the floor read: “THE PILGRIMS’ REST. THOSE WHOSE BRAVERY HAS COOLED MAY GO YET. GO AND DRINK OF THE CHALICE OF BITTERNESS!
This must have been the beginning of the pilgrimage” explained Franz Who Wasn’t Even There.
At Drolhaf Haffnarskørung’s suggestion, they searched the small cavern to the south, but it only contained a discarded pile of mouldering old robes. Turning their attention to the northern passage, they carefully proceeded down the gentle slope. The winds were getting warmer and warmer, and instead of the wet decay of the caves came fresher smells, then sunlight. At last they emerged in the mountainside above a small valley, surrounded on all sides by tall, snow-peaked mountains. Down below, the bottom was occupied by a forest and a small lake. Flowers bloomed in the meadows and there was birdsong in the air.
There is no such idyllic place in the world” came Greg’s ominous warning.

(Session date 4 March 2017).


Notable quotes:
Premier, on Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “Probably the only PC in any of [Melan’s] campaign ever to regularly use a soap.

Gadur Yir: “And as you can see, I have been wounded, lost much of my equipment, and had to flee through the woods to get here.
Greg’s player: “Just look at him. In the end, he will explain us how we were the lucky ones to have our characters croak.

Gadur Yir, after mining the chamber of crystals: “These are the fruits of our hard work. Those two were cowards to stay out of this place; they don’t deserve its bounty.”
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “In civilisation, everyone does the work they are allotted.
Gadur Yir [chuckling]: “A Marxist barbarian!


Referee’s notes: Dungeoneering with a group of misfit characters absolutely unsuited for dungeoneering always has its charm, but it has been a blast with this new character roster. When I finished writing the scenario, I could only shake my head and guess how many of them would get out alive. And yet, with one and a half combat-worthy characters (Drolhaf Haffnarskørung can stand his own, but is still less combat-oriented than Gadur Yir), and two who are best at not being seen in battle (Franz has a staggering six hit points at third level), they got through the mines in one piece. Sure, there were some lucky rolls (although ironically, it was the half-orc who was closest to death, twice), but much of the company’s success came from being careful but decisive, and choosing their battles wisely. I am still curious how far this specific character combination will get, since the lack of a cleric is already being felt, but so far, so good. And as for Gadur Yir, he has now deservedly learned the Wilderness Lore skill – if it was from trial and a lot of error, so be it.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

[BLOG] OSR Module O2: Credit’s Due

“Have you forgotten something?”

The great work is finished. You have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, filled out the copyright notice in the legal appendix, designated your open game content, delineated your product identity, approved the final layout. You have paid a few hundred bucks out of your pockets for artwork, including an eye-catching cover, which has your name plastered on it. Inside, you have credited your layout guy, your editor, two profferaders, a cartographer, the cover artist and multiple interior artists, and even added a special thanks section for the Kickstarter backers after the dedication. You have an ISBN, and you know you need a separate one for print and PDF. You may have trademarked something along the way just to make sure.

“Have you forgotten something?”

Daddy faces the music
If you are in the majority of old-school writers and publishers, you have forgotten something very important: you have not credited your playtesters. In fact, I have done a little investigation, and I have here in my hand a list of 90 products without giving credit that were made by well-known members of the Old School Renaissance, who nevertheless are still working and shaping discourse on the Internet. Of course, you can rest comfortably. While no one serious would forget to credit their cover artist, and only the most heinous would decide to remove author credit (TSR, our own little Evil Empire, tried to pull that trick in the 1990s with their fiction writers by using “house pseudonyms”, but even the low-grade suckers who worked for them rebelled against that), leaving playtesters uncredited has long and noble traditions in this hobby. Many of the classics never had them listed, and here’s the rub: they are still good stuff.

However. Returning to play-oriented and play-informed game supplements has been one of the major promises of old-school gaming, and that casts things in a different light. By the fans, for the fans, from gaming group to gaming group. Here, the role of playtesting and giving everyone due credit becomes more than a simple act of courtesy. I would like to argue that it is, or at least it should be part of our ethos, our mission statement. In a hobbyist subculture that embraces amateur effort and the DIY spirit, shared creativity should recognise its contributors. It is only proper to give credit to those who played a part in realising a game project.

There are important practical concerns, too. Playtesting an adventure is an essential step of the design process. Yes, this sounds stupid in a hobby about games. And yet, the trust of gamers has been abused again and again by designers who do not game regularly, if at all, resulting in adventures which don’t work as interactive entertainment, which have terrible structural or balance issues, or which have decent ideas but are so inaccessibly written that they are cumbersome to use at the table. Playtesting is a certificate of authenticity which tells us that someone somewhere has run the module and someone somewhere has played them, and presumably had fun with it. It tells us the module is functional. My submission policy for my RPG, Swords & Magic was based on two simple, hard criteria: the author should be willing to put his or her name on the cover ( “Do I take responsibility for this thing I have written?”), and it would have to come from actual play with full tester credits (players and their characters). No playtesting, no publication.

In theory, there are many experienced GMs who could design an adventure and go straight to the presses while bypassing the testing process, and still deliver something functional and fun. Why not? After all, if it is the same thing we would run for our home group with confidence, is there a difference? There is no clear answer. Sometimes playtesting doesn’t change an adventure all that much, it just confirms it works fine and it is ready for publication. However, the confirmation is still an important part of quality assurance. Without that step, we only have an educated guess about the adventure’s viability. Much more often, playtesting is tremendously useful in turning a raw adventure into a polished final version. Maybe it still doesn’t change things fundamentally. But it can help highlight encounters which don’t work as expected (or work, but in unexpected ways!), text which is hard to interpret in play, details which are insufficient or overdone, and so on. Adventures also have a tendency of growing in depth and complexity as they are played, as the players discover connections and pursue courses of action the GM had never thought of. Incorporating some of these emergent elements can make the difference between safe mediocrity and something truly excellent. And that contribution belongs to our players – our co-designers. Of course, in an ideal world, an adventure should also be tested with multiple gaming groups, and should be GMed by someone else than the original designer. In a well-functioning game industry, this is what I’d expect the pros to do. Sadly, most of us do not have that luxury (although it is one of the reasons I like going to conventions) – and one group is usually okay.


Why you should give credit
What about the List, then? What about the List? I will not publish the full thing – for reasons I will go into shortly – but I did my research and some of the results are pretty interesting. My research was based on my current collection of old-school adventure modules (excluding those I don’t have presently at home in either print or PDF). I only considered adventures which were released as “full”, standalone products, whether commercially or for free. Adventures published in fanzines weren’t counted. I counted hex-crawls (bottom-up setting material) and mini-settings which could be directly used at the table among the adventures, but not pure setting material or rules (although if anything, those two should see even more testing than adventures – it was with a sinking feeling that I realised a well-regarded old-school designer didn’t credit any playtesters in his RPGs). I also restricted my investigation to the modern old-school scene, starting from 2006 with the early OSRIC modules and Rob Kuntz’s Pied Piper Publishing, and finishing with early 2017 (one product). My sample is obviously skewed by including only products I actually had an interest in picking up, but otherwise includes a fair variety of stuff from random internet finds to some really professionally made adventures with relatively high circulation numbers.

This meant a sample of 131 adventures, of which 90 (69%) did not credit their playtesters, and only 41 (19% 31%) which did. Let’s face it: these numbers are not good. It costs nothing, it sure does not take up much space (if you can squeeze in that extra monster description, you can squeeze in your list of friends who had gone through your module), but for all the lack of good excuses, people still don’t do it. In truth, there are only two genuinely good reasons for leaving those names off: one, if someone doesn’t want to be associated with the module (oh boy!), or if they would prefer not to be listed out of concerns for their privacy or professional reputation. In this case, it is still common courtesy to thank those testers anonymously, or in a general sense (“thanks to all the people who have played this module on Convention X”).

Does this mean those OSR people don’t game, or does that mean they just don’t have a habit of crediting their playtesters? Fortunately, the situation is slightly better than the numbers would suggest. There is no reason to suggest we are facing an omission out of malice – I know some publishers who don’t usually credit playtesters (although tellingly, there are invariably exceptions to that rule in long product lines), but who are otherwise ethical and well-respected actors. They may never have thought it was important, or they may have missed it once and fallen into comfortable routines. Some people are simply inconsistent, listing testers in one product and missing them in another. Likewise, I am certain some adventures which don’t have playtester credits have in fact been tested, sometimes very thoroughly (there are also some which I have good reasons to suspect have never seen a single minute of actual play). But I believe without a doubt that those non-gaming gamers are also out there, silently plotting their nefarious, never-played adventure scenarios.

In the absence of naming the List’s great offenders (you know who you are) and the innocent bystanders who have meant no harm, I would rather try something different: I will mention a selection of people who have consistently and fairly given people playtesting 
  • Rob Kuntz, often in anecdotal form, and with detailed play information (too bad he has stiffed publishers and freelance artists alike).
  • Zak Smith (although not in Maze if the Blue Medusa)
  • Chris Kutalik
  • Daniel J. Bishop

The good examples are out there, and they should be easy to follow. It is a small issue, but there is tremendous room for improvement. Which is to say: let’s make that small act of courtesy into a natural one.