Sunday, 6 August 2017

[BLOG] One Year On

I started Beyond Fomalhaut one year ago, and slowly but surely, it has been lumbering on ever since. Most people seem to do their “this year in gaming”-style posts around Christmas or New Year’s Eve, but I will henceforth be doing them this time of the year, as long as the blog lasts.

Fair warning: since this post is inevitably personal, there will be a lot of “I”s in there.


The State of the Blog

Blogger tells me I have 55 published posts including this one (and eight reviews reposted from TheRPGSite), which is not bad. It could have been more, and I have a lot of respect for people who can keep up a steady stream of good posts month after month, year after year, but I am not one of those people. I also do my shitposting elsewhere on the Internet, which cuts down on the dross a little.

Among all those posts were 24 reviews, 8 old and 16 new. I did some counting in a spreadsheet, and it turns out I’m a fairly consistent reviewer, since both my old reviews (from 2012-2013) and the new have hovered around a 3.0-3.1 average. The ratings went out like this:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence () to Anomalous Subsurface Environment #1 (but that’s from 2011, and the review was a repost). So far, the only other products I’d put in this category have been The Tome of Adventure Design and Yoon-Suin.
  • 5 went to one new product, Secrets of the Wyrwoode. There is another one that looks like a candidate, but it’ll need more reading to decide.
  • 4 went to one old product and four new ones: Yngarr #1, Dispatches from Raven Crowking, Sunken City, and The Tomb of the Sea Kings. Along with the previous rank, these were the supplements to impress me this year.
  • 3 went to nine adventures, ranging from the evenly good (like The Phoenix Barony) to the uneven with good spots (like The Fall of Whitecliff). These are goodish, and you would be having a good time if you ran them at your table.
  • 2 went to seven adventures. I’ll be honest: this would include a lot more titles, but a lot of small adventures I picked up from RPGNow this year were bad in such uninteresting ways that I couldn’t be bothered (and mean enough) to tear them up in public. I feel there is a real problem with the “20 pages, overlong intro that doesn’t affect gameplay, dungeon with 10-20 rooms” adventure module.
  • 1 went to no new adventures, because I filtered out the real stinkers before I bought them this time.
Reviews have turned out to be fairly easy and fun to write, so I’ll be keeping up the habit, and I’ll keep focusing on the rough gems and dodgy homemade materials. There are only so many reviews the world needs about the high-profile releases, so unless I feel like I have something interesting to say about them, or they are really relevant to my interests, I’ll pass. Sometimes it feels like reviews are a cop-out from real blogging, and I’ll try to look into that.

Got this thing out
Through the year, I kept a campaign journal going, now at its 11th instalment. This has proven to be a tremendous amount of work, something I already learned with the City of Vultures campaign. It seems to get rather few readers, and ironically, they might come more from Hungary than the English blogosphere, but I have a soft spot for it. It is a way of sharing and documenting our collective memories of a fun game (with occasional missteps and frustrations), and I’d like to look back on it twenty years from now and say this is what we were doing. I will keep going while I can – so far, entries have been late, but never more than by one session, and that’s what I’m aiming for.

And I also had a bunch of discussion posts; fewer than I thought I would have as I was setting out. One reason I have always liked forums is that I prefer adding to existing conversations rather than coming up with a detailed OP – and half-assing it doesn’t feel right. That has carried over to my blogging, where you don’t really have a way to be reactive, so you just don’t say anything. There is another reason, too; I tend to feel I have mostly said what I had to say with regards to game theory, and would rather focus on the practical side.

One additional lesson that bears repeating here: flamebait sells, bigly.

The State of my Projects

One of the many reasons I dropped out of the old school gaming scene around 2013 was that I was starting to focus on gaming projects with a larger scope than it could be summed up properly in small chunks. It was also around this time that both of the big old school fanzines I was writing for, Fight On! and Knockspell ceased publication (and the two founding fathers of old school gaming who had been running them, Calithena and Mythmere both seem to have vanished). I didn’t have much to say in small form, and the places where I was saying it were gone. Therefore, I turned my attention elsewhere.

Got this thing out, too
One of the results has been Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Helvéczia is about looking at D&Dish gameplay and aesthetics through the lens of swashbuckling romances, 17th century novels about lowlifes and scoundrels, local legends and the works of the Brothers Grimm. It started as a slightly out there campaign idea and quickly decided to grow into its own system, a mixture of the strange and the familiar. We published a great-looking boxed set and a short range of adventures with a printer friend of mine (the game is in part a love letter to the typography and cheap pamphlets of the 16th and 17th centuries), and I’d like to bring it to a larger audience. I believe I have something worth saying with Helvéczia, a new look at historical fantasy gaming – even in context of the other stuff out there – and the updated, expanded English edition is the product of that. I have the rulebooks ready, and want to translate the adventures before I start thinking about moving it into publication. Not much progress through the year, but it is picking up again.

The second large project is Castle Xyntillan, which I have covered elsewhere. Xyntillan is the successor to my unplublished Tegel Manor manuscript; what started as an update of the legendary Judges Guild adventure has become a whimsical homage to it. Work here is still ongoing, but it is getting there.

In the meantime, I have published less via my blog than I meant to when setting out. Here is what I did: 
  • The Technological Table, a collection of vaguely sinister high-tech items.
  • The Smugglers of Cliff Point, a small lair dungeon from the remains of a never completed sandbox supplement.
  • The Ruined City, a transcript of my first dungeon module (very RJK of me).
  • In the Name of the Principle!, probably my favourite adventure I have ever written. Predictably, almost nobody gave a fuck.
  • And the manuscript for the German version of Cloister of the Frog God (including the grotesque and hilarious, never-seen-before wilderness segment), to be published in the fanzine Abenteuer.

I am mostly thinking a blog is not a good venue for publication. Stuff gets plussed on Google, a few comments come in, but posts sink like a stone and never resurface. This is one more reason to start a fanzine (homemade? POD? stone tablets?), which I am more and more eager to finally do, and will start thinking about seriously after at least one of the two big projects come close to completion – close enough to safely free up thinking capacity.

Still working on this one
Right, and then there are the two books whose covers I used to illustrate this article. This Spring, I published my long-delayed monograph, Reindustrialisation in Central Europe, a work surveying the regional transformation processes, outcomes and current challenges of industrial development in post-socialist Central Europe. This is something I have worked on for the better part of ten years; over successes, setbacks, reorganisations and personal losses. Sometimes writing it was a joy, and sometimes a burden I am happy (if a bit wary) to have finally put down. I put my heart and soul into it, and it simply feels right to hold it in my hands.

The second book, The Routledge Handbook to Regional Development in Central and Eastern Europe collects the results of a large research project on the various transformation processes of the macro-region, and where it all leads to. This one was a work of a large team, mostly from our research institute, and some abroad, and took a lot of fiddly work to coordinate and massage into a cohesive, unified whole. I took the first steps on this journey with my late mentor and boss, who died the same day I could tell him our book proposal got accepted; and the final ones with the help of my colleagues who had supported me along the way. The people at Routledge have done a tremendous job through the publication process (I was very much impressed by their professionalism and attention to fine detail), and I think the end result is solid, honest scholarship in a seriously good-looking, crisp package. I feel good about it, and that's how I hope it will go down with the readers. (As a matter of personal pride, I selected the cover images for both volumes, and think they came out very well.)

The State of the Old School

Slowly declining.

Roleplaying games are as strong as the creative networks around them, and you can see it in the various communities that there is less going on than it used to, either in discussion, publishing or actual play. It can be spun as “things have settled down to a normal level”, or “there is less but it is generally better”, but it is there. This is not a bad time to be – it is pretty good for those who are a part of the action – but look three years ahead, or five years ahead, and there are some mighty dark clouds on the horizon.

Very much a work-in-progress version
Sometimes I think there are a few prestige products too many in this corner of the hobby. Coffee table books, bookshelf books, don’t mark them up books, Kickstarter perks, gold foil special editions. It doesn’t beat the asinine hobby of collecting original shrinkwrap in its ridiculousness, but seriously, folks, you do remember why so many of us got away from the gaming mainstream, right? Right? Are we still on the same page? Actually, is there anyone still out there? Helloooo?

Ahem. Sorry.

You can’t eat production values, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind if you have good art, but there is form, and there is function, function and function. Game-relevant content. Things that come right from some guy’s game table and it is so hot it’ll burn your hands when you slap it down your game table. Certainly, I have been guilty of it – sitting too long on something, overthinking, missing opportunities to just do it and publish, all of it – and all I can promise is that I’ll try. That’s why I want to do that fanzine.

Something I am seeing reflected in the reviews (mine and others’) is how few good generic AD&D modules get released. Something is missing. Whatever’s out there mostly turns out disappointing or just lacking the spirit. For all the old school scene’s roots in rediscovering older editions, I really haven’t found anything decently AD&Dish outside The Tomb of the Sea Kings (from the crazy tournament dungeon tradition) and maybe Sunken City (from the “I was actually there” tradition). I will keep looking, including checking out some older titles I missed out on, but this lack of good material is worth examining more deeply. What makes them hard to do? Why can’t people do them well? (Or, as an alternative explanation, why aren’t the people who know their stuff putting their skills to good use?) Has the Gygaxian spirit departed from gaming, if it was ever there in the last years? It also feels like a challenge, and yes, I’ll try my hand at it.

As it is, the most significant old school accomplishment of the year comes from unlikely quarters, and right at the last possible moment: Next Friday has come, ITZ has happened, Hell has frozen over, a golden baby can fly, and

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is finally finished and available for purchase
(for one week only, there is a five-dollar discount that will not be offered ever again).

This blog will dedicate more detailed posts to the most highly anticipated Wizardry-like of 1997 (and 1998, 2001, 2004, 2013, Next Friday, and so on), but for now, let it suffice to say that it is authentic, enchanting, Gygaxian (by way of that other giant of the age, D.W. Bradley), a little crazy, and yes, sometimes rough around the edges. It is rough and idiosyncratic because it is the real deal. For all the setbacks and vexations, the time of tremendous Incline is at hand!


Friday, 4 August 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #11: The Stolen Shipment

On the other hand,” noted Phil the Terror of Turkeys, “someone who names his inn ‘The Inn’ must know what he is doing. Let’s skip The Golden Plate for now.
The Inn was a colourful, sprawling building next to the western gate, with red roofs and sagging balconies. In the common room, a few travellers were looking into their cups, and a group of guardsmen were just getting up to leave. As soon as they entered, a dwarf wearing a dirty apron hurried forward to greet them. Introducing himself as Redragon, he ushered them upstairs to suggest a room for six – a steal at 25 silver for a night.
We really like this place” Phil grinned. “It has the best name. It has a certain something. Simple, yet expressive.”
Redragon looked embarrassed and scratched his beard. “It hasn’t got a name yet. Me and me brother Grindragon couldn’t decide over a good one no matter how we tried. The ideas just aren’t coming.
I am sure they will. But for now, we’d rest a little, then see the dinner.
One more thing...Armand the Scumbag pulled the man aside. “Are there any prostitutes around here you would recommend?
Redragon looked taken aback. “This is not that kind of establishment, Sir. I am afraid you are on your own in this matter.

They feasted on roast while downing the Inn’s resin-flavoured beer, except Armand, who ordered an expensive bottle of Kassadian wine, sharing it with Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
Oh, the women we have in my homeland! Will I see them again?” he mused.
Kassadia is the land of opportunities!Drolhaf Haffnarskørung nodded. “I arrived there as a penniless barbarian, and left – as a penniless civilised man.”
As they continued drinking, a badly dressed, hunched over fellow with hanging black moustaches sauntered up to their table.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Harrgon Torsk, and I am at your disposal. I have heard you would like to meet some pretty girls?
Armand lit up. “Now we are talking! Speak, and you will be well rewarded.
The man grinned. “Let’s meet at midnight before the Golden Plate. I may have a mutually beneficial deal to discuss with you. You scratch my back, I scratch mine, I think we understand each other.

Are they trying to lure us into an ambush? And if yes, who are ‘they’?” mused Armand when their new friend left, but there was no answer. He continued. “We should hire someone to protect us – someone strong and loyal. I will ask the innkeeper.
There are other things we should consider,” interjected Drolhaf. “Let’s recall Lady Callodric’s lost items. Where did they go? I have asked some questions, and it seems all shipments in Baklin go through the Lockhouse and its warehouses where they are inventoried and tracked before they go out to their intended destination. The night is still young. Let’s take a look on the waterfront.


They approached the tall tower building, now silent and dark save for the lanterns of the guard patrols passing behind the barred windows and massive portcullises. Drolhaf hailed a beggar and threw him a coin.
Suppose someone wanted to steal something from the Lockhouse. How might a fellow like that go at his job?
The vagrant looked around before answering. “A honest fellow wouldn’t – and I have seen many times what happens to the others. Look at that...” he pointed towards the grim scaffold with the leather sacks and chained maces. “That’s the widow Vilnia, mourning her husband. He worked as a porter, and tried to steal some box from the Lockhouse. Sad story – now she is alone with their only child to care for.
Taking the man’s advice, they approached the grieving Vilnia, and reassured her they meant no harm.
The City of Baklin
I know my Hemlar was innocent, I just know!” the young woman sobbed. “Oh, he always needed the money, for the three of us, but he would never lift an apple! He wanted to sign up as a sailor and go on adventures, but he never stole!
I am sure we could help you clear up his name. If he didn’t commit the crime, he must have been executed without evidence.
Vilnia was distraught. “But there was... there was evidence!
Please hear me out! It was so strange… it happened at night that he was arrested, right in our little rented room... that’s when the Gamandors bashed down the door...”
The Gamandors?
Oh, I forget you are not locals. The Gamandors – Prince Lodovic’s elite guard. They are so fearsome... clad in black garbs, black gloves and black masks, always coming at night... they came for my poor Hemlar, and they went right for our wardrobe – they found a fox fur scarf on the shelf!
That’s starting to make sense.
Oh, it is horrible! Who would marry the widow of an executed rogue? What will become of myself and my little boy now?
Lafadriel tried to lift Vilnia’s spirits without much success: “It all depends on spiritual beautyand he looked, melancholic, towards the West.
Drolhaf decided to help her out with a staggering 10 gold pieces. “Help is the groundwork of civilisation. Go home now, and we will try to find out more. We may come visit you tomorrow.
Where we live, there is no help, only birdsong” remarked Lafadriel.


It was after nightfall, and flame stands were being lit all around the harbour. Following a tip from Haghill, Phil led his companions through winding, badly lit streets populated by the dregs of humanity. Finally, they halted before a squat little house in a back alley. Lights flickered behind the windows, and a sign above the door advertised the place as “The Blue Bottle”. The door had both a knocker and a bell, and after some vacillation, Lafadriel decided to knock.
I’m coming!” a shuffling sound came from behind the door, and a gnomic individual with mismatched, bulging eyes and hairy limbs appeared in the doorframe. “You should have been ringing! Don’t you know your manners?
We would like to sample your wares, wise Zaloxen. We received news of your store from Gelath the Spry of Haghill. We also have a few things which may interest you.

Zaloxen’s basement store was smelling of odd sour and musty smells coming from cluttered shelves and worn bags hanging from the ceiling. Phil sold the magical berries for 120 gp, and the antique helm of Kazzodoric, the barbarian chieftain, for another 20 – along with a sketch map of the Singing Caverns.
Consider also this silver sceptre, and these daggers found in the accursed stone circle of the Entity” suggested Lafadriel to the doubtful antique dealer, finally agreeing to a total of 100 gp for the lot. Zaloxen also told them a few interesting stories. He was particularly interested in opening up the sealed Maze of Gnidax, located in the mountains some way to the west, and now closed off by a magic word of power. He also mentioned the cruel fate of Ralkas Ral, an acquaintance he had sent to the town of Tirwas on an errand, and who got captured and imprisoned for some reason. Agrreing to investigate these issues, the parted their ways for the night.


By the time they returned to the waterfront, it was getting close to midnight. The time for the meeting at the Golden Plate was fast approaching. To make sure there was no foul play, Phil the Terror of Turkeys scouted ahead to see if anyone was looking for the company. The arcades below the Golden Plate were crowded with diners, while a colourful rabble drunk and made merry in the harbour. Phil immediately noticed Harrgon Torsk, waiting patiently in a dark doorway, but nobody else seemed to pose a major threat. Signalling to the others that the coast was clear, he ducked behind a row of barrels to provide backup if necessary… just in time to notice two half-orcs, clad in the liveries of the city watch, go straight for the group. He tried to throw a pebble to warn them, but missed.
Halt! This is an inspection!” bellowed the potbellied goon as the more practiced harbour scum quickly disappeared down the alleys. “I be here Kelpdick, and this is my good pal, Talltow.” Talltow was a good head taller than anyone present.
I am sure this is unlawful weapon display here, and what do I see here? That must be against the law, too.
Excuse us, we are peaceful…
...and I don’t want to meet you again. That will be two pieces of gold from each one of you.
They paid up, except for Armand, who had just melted back into the crowd while the half-orcs weren’t watching. Talltow guwaffed at some private joke, while Kelpdick collected the money.

Harrgon Tork was apologetic about the shakedown, but quickly changed the subject.
I can lead you to the place you were looking for now. Except…
If you don’t mind lending me a hand in a delicate affair, I may ask for your discrete assistance. You see, just this day, I was visiting Lorfin, a wineseller at the Old Fortress to pick up a good vintage, and I must have dropped my handkerchief somewhere in his shop. Imagine my surprise! It is embroidered with my initials, and I would very much like it back... and nobody needs to tell the wineseller. The night is still young... there would be plenty of time for fun afterwards.

Following the man, they walked along the quays until they arrived at the fish market, now empty and deserted in the moonlight. The place was surrounded by a decaying sea fortress, once constructed to guard the bay, but now decommissioned and converted into shops and slummy residences. There was not a soul in sight.
There is the wineseller. I will stay back... they’d better not see me here” whispered Harrgon Torsk as he melted back into the shadows. Armand snuck forward with the practice of an accomplished adulterer, and examined the lock, a poor contraption if there ever was one. The windows on the second floor were dim – Lorfin seemed to be asleep. Armand beckoned to the others, who made much more noise crossing the plaza.
You sodden pigs! Quiet down there!” a piercing sound came from above, but nobody really minded. Lafadriel stayed behind to watch for trouble.

At last, Armand sighed, and snapped the lock open. The way was clear to a vaulted room full of stacked barrels. A spiral staircase led upwards, and a barred door guarded some room in the back. Closing the door and lighting a lantern, they quickly examined a table of weights and measures where Lorfin was carrying out his trade, then the gaps between the barrels. Their efforts were rewarded with a small bundle, containing the handkerchief, a set of locksmith’s tools, and two keys. Drolhaf quickly pressed them into one of the blocks of soap he was carrying, then they beat a retreat to the fish market, where Lafadriel was absent-mindedly playing a sad tune on his harp.
We are not interested!” shrieked a voice from one of the windows.

Harrgon Torsk was very impressed with the returned goods, and said he’d raise the money to repay them by the next day. For now, he escorted them to a ramshackle establishment overlooking the western harbour. Wine and good spirits were in generous supply, but true to his word, he led them upstairs behind the counter to a cathouse decorated with red carpets and lush curtains.
Alas, for me, only the starlight holds interest” Lafadriel bid the company good night.
Armand also had more in mind than a pleasant evening. Leaving a generous 5 gp tip, he asked a few discreet but pointed questions about the local thieves. Bella, his companion didn’t seem to know much about them; after all, the punishments were harsh, and she didn’t mix with bad company.
To think I am no worse than the ladies up in the palace, but I am doing the same thing for much less money! I would go far in polite society, if only I had the chance.
Armand pressed her for more information, and Bella seemed to remember something: Sarbit the Gravedigger, an old scoundrel who frequented the lowest taverns of the east side, had a map tattooed on his back. She had once seen part of it under his shirt, but couldn’t make out the whole design, and didn’t want to push her luck.
Now then, darling, let’s talk about your reward…


The next day, Gadur Yir the half-orc left the bathhouse of Baklin, crawling on a pair of crutches. He was weak like a child, and his head swam, but the leeches and purges of the local bathhouse had done their job, and the poison of the wyverns was gone from his blood. He walked down from the hill, listening to the chatter of the lackeys and servants who had filled the streets of the noble quarter at this time. In time, he arrived at The Inn, finding his comrades around the breakfast table. After settling down and ordering the mother of all meals, the others immediately got to the subject.
It is time you told me where my brother lies” asked Lafadriel.
More than that, you have a secret you are supposed to tell us” added Drolhaf.
A secret? What is my secret?
We want to know why exactly you came to the isle of Erillion. We learned this on a secret meeting, and want to know the truth.
Well, that is a long story. Many of my companions have fallen along the way. It is about an inheritance of great value! And its key seems to be the lawyer we had met in Haghill, who was interested in that land dispute. We were making progress to learn its secret, too, but we ran into a trap and got sidetracked. Not to mention, we gained a powerful and influential enemy in Gont.
An enemy you say?
The half-orc nodded. “The Feranolt family! He is in cahoots with Grave-Wight, the head of a crime syndicate in town. Well, we followed the trail to a small fortress, but it had already been attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered. If only I could have Grave-Wight’s neck in my hands, I would snap his neck!
Oh? I may have some bad news for you.
Bad news?
If I’m not mistaken, our rented room is right below Feranolt Manor – look out the window and you will see their banners flying from their parapets.
They returned to their meal, in a worse mood.


On Drolhaf Haffnarskørung’s suggestion, they paid a visit to the noble quarter. They took a good look at the ominous garden entrance of Slarkeron the Wizard’s tower, noticing no bell or knocker, only a sign reading “Entry by invitation only”. Although there was no mailbox, Phil quickly penned an introduction suggesting they would be happy to share valuable information, and come any time Slarkeron would suggest. Then, they continued to their real goal, the house of Fantagor the Kassadian. Drolhaf was pleasantly surprised to see the front decorated with a statue of Gladuor, his patron god, pointing northeast towards the distant mountains. Large letters on the wall read: “Conquer the forests and mountains”. He beckoned to the guards by the entrance, and presenting his holy symbol, requested an audience with Fantagor.

The Kassadian merchant, one of the richest men in the city, received them in his spacious tower room lit by large glass panes, in a garden of beautifully kept flowers. An austere man with a short, cropped beard wearing a simple habit, he was enthusiastic to see a fellow follower of the god of aqueducts, particularly one lifted from the darkness of barbarism.
The sign of Gladuor points towards the north, and already, some heed his call! Maybe one day this whole island shall be conquered from the wild beasts and monsters which now despoil its northern lands; and we might see the reconstruction of the city of Silhanosh and other great works.
He told us of the dangerous wonders of untamed nature in the heart of the island: trees which grew downwards with upturned roots, lakes reflecting something else than reality, the memories of Queen Arxenia and her undead hosts. Drolhaf, with the others’ help, recounted the story of their travels; the werewolves, the opening of the Chamber of the Griffon, the attack on the Feranolts’ sea fort, and more.
And what of me? I would gladly assist in your great work here on this island, but I would request your guidance in where to start” asked Drolhaf.
Fantagor looked him up and down. “I will provide all assistance you need.
May I give a contribution to your chapel?
What use would that be? I am rich far beyond your means! No, your path leads elsewhere, into the island’s wild regions where I may not travel with all my duties.
I may have plans – there could be new mines and settlements in the wilderness, with settlers to populate them.
Indeed!” Fantagor was smiling. “And if the superstitious lot here are afraid to follow you there, we will set an example – with men and women of Kassadia, who will build and populate those colonies.


As the others were selling various pieces of treasure, Gadur Yir rented a cart, and rode out to a tall cliff on the scarp overlooking Baklin. He observed the bay, then, leaving his crutches behind, disembarked and painfully climbed up on the rocks. He could barely make it, and was close to dropping from exhaustion, but he continued. Gathering large rocks, he formed them into the symbol of an encircled sword, and performed a sacrifice to Haldor, god of heroism. He cast his 300 gp ring and 200 gp into the sacrificial pyre, and prayed for guidance and a quest. At last, his wish was granted.
IN THE PEAT-BOG OF UMLARK, YOU CAN FIND YOUR VENGEANCE!” came a booming voice from the sky. Or was it just his ears ringing from the exertion? He hoped it was really his god speaking.


They gathered at the Inn, Phil wearing his brand new wyvernskin armour, lightweight and resilient. Harrgon Torsk arrived, beaming. He placed a bag of money on the table, and ordered a round of drinks for everyone.
Suppose someone was looking for someone to break into the Lockhouse – could it be done?” mused Drolhaf.
The cloaked man’s eyes narrowed. “There wouldn’t be anyone in this town... you’d need a foreigner, or a fool.
And what of the Gamandors? Could they be bribed or infiltrated?
Not a chance! They are tightly organised and very distrustful. I am not even comfortable considering these questions.
I was just thinking about something. Never mind.

The widow Vilnia lived on the east side, in a tiny rented apartment. Her young boy, Grodik looked scared when he saw armed men enter, but was reassured when Vilnia told him these were the good people who had given them money to survive on. There was not much else to the place than a bed, some basic furniture, a spinning wheel where Vilnia was working, and a decrepit old wardrobe.
This is where the Gamandors found the fox fur scarf? Were you present through the day before your husband got arrested?
I was spinning at home after my poor Hemlar went to work in the morning. I left to buy some goods on the market around noon, but it was only for a short while.”
And you, Grodik? Were you home?
Grodik was reluctant to answer, but at her mother’s urging, finally looked up. “I didn’t want to tell, but I was sleeping. In my dream, I saw a man. He spoke to me but I don’t remember what. He smelled of mint...
A-ha!” exclaimed Armand. “This is an illusionist!
Vilnia broked down. “Oh, my poor, poor Hemlar! He wanted to be a sailor so bad. He wanted to go to far lands and bring home precious clothes and beautiful trinkets!
Please collect yourself. You say you were at the market. Could someone from around here have seen someone enter the apartment during this time?
Oh, it could be! We are a poor people, but there are many honest folks on this street. We always look out for each other.
Let’s see your neighbours, then.

The man in the workshop next door was a lard-churner. Even as they spoke, he worked on the wooden churn before his stool.
Have you seen anything suspicious from your window last noon?
Well, I am a humble lard churner who has churned his share of lard, Sir, so I didn’t pay it much mind. Besides, one doesn’t see much from this tiny barred window.
Did you smell mint at any time?
Only lard, Sir, and th’ grease. It was all a dirty kind, hard to work.
Never mind the mint. Did you see any stranger who might have entered Vilnia’s apartment?
Now that you say, Sir... there was someone I saw from the window, an old bearded man in a pointy hat. He looked like he has travelled a lot, what with the dusty and worn clothes. Maybe churning lard ain’s so bad after all.
We see. You have been very helpful.


That description only narrows it down to half the wizards in the world” grumbled Lafadriel, back at the inn table.
Maybe we ought to ask Redragon if he had stayed here or any of the other local places” recommended Phil. “We should also ask Lady Callodric what her trunks contained. It could help track them down better.
Excuse me, Sirs?” a voice came from next to the table. They saw a ragged, dirty vagrant clutching a large sack, just before Grindragon could drag him out of the common room.
The Mysterious Statuette
Pardon me for the interruption. Very sorry to call on you.
And what is your business?
Oh... I am Hector the Peddler. I pick up this and that, little things.
Innkeeper? Bring this man a drink. Sit down and tell us what you have.
Yes... you see, Sirs, I mostly pick up things in the garbage, but sometimes, you find something interesting. One of these days, I found this...
He produced a heavy, carved piece of stone from his patched sack. It was the statuette of a bird of prey, chipped and scratched, and of a rather primitive make. “I see you are refined folks who might be interested.
Gadur Yir considered the carving. It was a familiar design. Was it close to the small wolf idol he had picked up in the Gwyddions’ homestead? There was an uncanny similarity.
Drolhaf answered. “Very good, Hector. You have done well to come to us. How much are you asking for it?
I’d surmise it’s worth a good 15 gold pieces. But that’s my low price to you, Sirs.
Where did you find it?
I don’t want to burned you with all those details.
Let’s make it 18.
It’s a deal, then, and my humblest thanks. You see – my walks take me all over time, and I notice things. Now, as I was passing the houndmonger’s yard, across the Masters’ Guild, I noticed the curs fighting over some bones or such. They had dug them out of the ground, Sirs, and with it some rubbish. I waited until they went away and snuck in, to see they have dug a big pit in the middle, with broken stuff at the bottom, even a crawlway. I got me the statuette from there, and some broken pots... very old, but probably I can still have them mended.
That tale’s worth the money. There may be more for you later.
How so, Sirs?
We are interested in antique documents... maps, particularly. If you find any, we may be buying.
I will keep my eyes open.

Grindragon was sullen that he couldn’t throw Hector out with his dirty baggage, but he was pacified with a generous tip. Lafadriel and Drolhaf asked him about the old man in the pointy hat, and he seemed to recall something.
I have seen a man like that recently. I think Cassandra went with him when she passed through town. They must have left two or three days ago.
Who is Cassandra?
A very beautiful elven lass. She is, as they call it, an adventurer – she has been all over the island looking for things. She has stayed at this place before.
Thanks, Grindragon. Notify us if there is anything else.
There is, Sir. Your friend, Sir Armand was looking for a sellsword. A man looking for that kind of work has come to this place. He is a Northman, but...” he cast a glance at Drolhaf Haffnarskørung. “...I know he is loyal and reliable.

Gunnar the Beheader was sleeping late after a night of heavy drinking, but he was reasonably awake and sober when he came down from his room. Him and Armand spoke, and they drank to their future cooperation as Armand counted out his advance of one platinum coin.
Well, where now?
We could go to the Peat Bog of Umlark” recommended Gadur Yir. “I have something to accomplish there.
Or we could descend into the catacombs through that dirty burrow!” snapped Lafadriel sarcastically.
Gentlemen, gentlemen... we have to solve the case of that mage.
Yeah!” cried Phil. “He is a... he is a how do you call it, a brain scanner! It is said they will suck out your brain if you aren’t careful enough.
Those don’t exist, Phil! And get off the table.
How about the peat bog, Gunnar?” asked Armand.
Ha! I am up for anything, just give me the heads I should chop” responded the Northman.


After some deliberation, they paid a visit to Lady Callodric, and sat down in her garden to tell the news.
Who could mobilise forces like that?” pondered the lady. “It is mostly over personal effects, valuable but mostly of personal significance.
Was there anything else in that shipment, Lady Callodric? It would be important to know.
I don’t know. Well – yes. Maybe. There were two paintings on wooden panels, the remaining parts of a triptych. The Count Tullomarg – who has been gracious enough to lend me his residence here while I am here, and look after my holdings back home – had written he would send them to me.
Gadur Yir’s interest was piqued. “Did the Count mention anything about them? He should know what’s on them.
He wrote they would be very interesting for my investigation into this island’s mysteries, but nothing more.
Perhaps they will turn up on the market” guessed the half-orc. “Who would trade with antique paintings in Baklin?
No...” Drolhaf shook his head. “Whoever has the paintings will keep them. It is the other items which will turn up on the black market. We will have to look into it through our sources.
Lady Callodric collected her thoughts before bidding them farewell. “Meanwhile, I will look into your story about the mage smelling of mint. There can’t be too many accomplished magic-users in town, and they tend to move in high circles. And of course, I’ve got the enchanted flower. As Tomurgen the Bard had said, ‘the flower will provide the answer’. I will ask him as soon as he responds to my message.

(Session date 8 July 2017).


Notable quotes:

Phil, the Terror of Turkeys: “I squander my money by slipping her a coin.
GM: “It doesn’t count as squandering since you have an interest in helping her.
Phil: “No way! If that’s the way it is, she doesn’t get anything.

Lafadriel: “I’ll have the gelatinous cube jelly... and then, the black pudding.


Referee’s notes: Cities are the places where plot threads multiply, cross and eventually radiate out in new directions. Such was the case this time, as both the investigation into the Lady’s belongings and personal tangents have revealed new directions to follow. Next stop, this Sunday!

Sunday, 30 July 2017

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings
by Skerples

Tomb of the Actual Production Values Update
Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a freely distributed 15-page introductory adventure module found on the Coins and Scrolls blog, which manages to outclass just about all the 15-page introductory adventure modules I have bought on RPGNow with real money. It was apparently conceived as a tutorial to introduce players to old school gaming, and presents a three-level, 52-room dungeon filled with encounters that aim to teach lessons in good dungeoneering. On a first read, this idea can sound terrible (tutorial areas have a deservedly bad reputation), but it all works out pretty damn well – although not without problems. It is a simple product with sparse production values: two-column layout, a decentish map, and a few pieces of art by Scrap Princess in that characteristic scratchy-creepy style.

Why is it good? It is not easy writing introductory adventures, and I believe most modern examples are done badly. If generic sixteen-room lair dungeons in eighteen-page packages are the bane of old school publishing, this goes doubly for intro modules. They try to hold back and limit themselves so the players don’t get overwhelmed, and in that exchange, manage to kill off the “wow” factor which makes tabletop gaming pop. They show you the goblin lairs but not the humanoid-filled ravines where you will be massacred if you don’t learn caution and cunning. They give you the abandoned ruins and evil brigands without the crayfish in the moat that will neatly cut your first character in half, or the lurking shadow mage who will suck the life right out of you when you infiltrate his lair. But most of all, they don’t give you the grandeur, complexity and depth of the full tabletop experience. You can’t do much in them, accomplish much in them, and they end after a few measly encounters. The players get crippleware, and then they wonder if this is it before they go back to whatever they were doing. Not here. This is real.

Tomb of the Serpent Kings does that thing introductory dungeon crawls should do, but usually don’t: put the fear of God, the wonder of the unknown, and the feeling of well-earned accomplishment into the players’ hearts. It feels like descending into a dark and odd place where a lot of things will try to kill you if you are not careful, but you will be rich and powerful if you pull it off. And that is the real thing. There is a shortish entrance level that has a few stray traps and a little treasure, and then BAM!, a deathtrap that can kill a careless and unlucky character in one ugly *splat*. It is on! That’s when everyone at the table starts paying attention.

What follows is a tomb that becomes increasingly more open, more hazardous and more strange as you progress deeper into it. It deals in potent imagery. A chasm that falls away into untold depths; a pool of filthy waters with treasure and a terrible danger lurking at the bottom; a broken columned hall haunted by a chained and hungry basilisk. It goes deep, and it is large enough to feel mysterious. The text is to the point without losing its flavour. It is good minimalism. Brief boxed text explains the purpose of the various areas, and there is even a quick reference with the most important descriptive and functional features (more on this later). This is the right combination of colour and solid, functional game design, and the right mixture of exploration, confrontation and interaction.

While exploring the complex, the players get acquainted with typical dungeon features like traps, intuitive puzzles, open-ended problem solving, pattern recognition, recognising repeating elements, environmental hazards and the like. By the end of it, they will probably learn to act as a capable team of explorers. The loot is often hidden in places where you feel clever after discovering it (it is a fairly modest amount, and seems to use the silver standard – use a multiplier if you are playing straightforward D&D). There is varied combat with a roster of interesting enemies; from undead to dungeon fauna to intelligent opponents. There are two boss battles which feel fairly JRPG-inspired (with special signature moves too!), but are actually fairly nicely integrated into the old-school D&D experience.

Excuse me Sir, do you have time to talk
about our lord and saviour, béarnaise sauce?
Enemy design is one of the module’s main draws beyond exploration. You can study and exploit the behaviour of the dungeon’s inhabitants to your advantage. Even the unintelligent ones have interesting behavioural patterns, and the intelligent ones open up opportunities for interesting alliances and creepy bargains. The monsters are described very well; full of personality. They all have a “Wants” entry in their stat blocks which is a lot of fun: Skeleton Jellies want “to squish heads and make more skeleton jellies”, while Fungus Goblins – described as having a “texture like baked potato mixed with white glue” – want “a king, food, shiny objects, more food”. It is simple and neat, and always colourful.

However, this is not a flawless module, neither on its own nor as an introductory scenario. For all the good content, the meat-and-bones of the dungeon is presented in a really bad way. There has been a lot of bellyaching in recent years about breaking the confines of the “boring”, “limited”, “user-unfriendly” standard location key, and coming up with new ways of embracing the new possibilities of modern layout, computer screens or what have you, but there is a good reason the original format became a standard. The alternative seen here looks like a failed 70s experiment in trying to describe a dungeon. It is a mess.

The dungeon key is written in a stream of consciousness format that is less cleanly demarcated than the location key (e.g. “Rooms (12) through (16) are tomb chambers. … The passage to room (12) contains a pressure plate”). This could work, but instead, part of the information you need to use the module is found in the “quick reference” section at the end of the module, and it is not all duplicated in the main text. Then you get to the monsters, whose stats are counter-intuitively in neither of the two, but yet another part of the appendix. Don’t forget that you also have to handle the map. It is a logistical nightmare trying to pay attention to four things at once (this does not yet include the players), and I pity any beginning GM who tries to learn running games with this package. In practice, as I was reading the document, I was either constantly flipping through the pages or missing/forgetting important information in the quick ref section. It is plain uncomfortable. I have no idea what would have happened in a chaotic, high-pressure actual play situation where you must divide your attention among a table full of people.

As “user interface”, this experiment fails utterly. As something for newbies, it is inexcusable. You can alleviate some of it by separating the map/quick ref sheet from the main document (par for course in the age of printouts), but still – why? It creates a lot of problems without solving any. You could easily incorporate the quick ref information into the room entries, maybe even as a standard “at a glance” section, and you’d get a lean, functional package. And of course, the monster stats could also go there.

The lettering on the map is really bad, using an inexplicably hard to read font. The map itself looks good with solid, clean draftsmanship, but it could use much more in the way of cartographic symbols – columns, rubble, statues, the works. This is a minor issue compared to organisational matters, but it is there. A random encounter table is hidden in the back as an afterthought. It needs a little more signposting, because it is a good one.

The suggestion to reskin the adventure with a different theme if you don’t like serpent-men is puzzling, precisely because how serpentish the place feels. Why substitute something if you have achieved a specific mood so well? (Granted, I am a sucker for serpent-men, and have been ever since I ran The Sword of Rhiannon, which blew my mind after the much more laid-back Lord of the Rings.)

All in all, this is a gem in the rough. Very shiny, very rough in some spots. It is released as “version 2.0”, and it may receive future updates – I hope it does, because if it cleans up some of the user-unfriendly aspects, it has the potential to become a very solid adventure that also does a good job at what it sets out to do, all for free. It also proves you don’t have to run a Kickstarter and hire an art department to create something good. You can just go out and do it. And that’s the spirit.

Rating: *** / *****