Wednesday, 16 May 2018

[REVIEW] The Arwich Grinder


The Arwich Grinder (2014)
by Daniel J. Bishop
Published in Crawl! #9 by Straycouches Press
0-level funnel

Something has gone terribly wrong up in them hills where the Curwen family has lived in their homestead for several generations, and young Bessie Curwen’s bonnet has been found in the possession of an odd beast that lumbers into the village inn and drops dead before the assembled patrons. The reclusive and tight-knit Curwens had saved the village from starvation two winters ago, so it’s time to return the favour. A group of brave volunteers is assembled to venture up into the dark woods and see what’s up at the Curwens’ lucrative pig farm.

To everybody’s surprise, it wasn’t pig after all.


Warning: cover spoils module theme and final encounter


This funnel adventure – filling a full issue of Crawl! fanzine – is a gruesome one-shot combining Lovecraftian themes with a hilarious amount of gore. There are no surprises as far as the module’s themes are concerned – yup, the backwoods rustics are up to no good, and they are right in the middle of doing something really bad when the adventurers show up. However, as something you get into with full foreknowledge of walking into the jaws of a deadly trap, it is remarkably well made. Perhaps the horror does not lie in the familiar (and by now almost cozy) horror trappings, but in the vulnerability and disposability of 0-level characters. When you are at three hit points, the axe maniac coming at you suddenly takes on a more grave than usual significance.

This is something The Arwich Grinder shines at. Low-level D&D’s lethality makes it hard to design for, since an unlucky hit can kill a character, and a few unlucky hits can decimate a party and either stop their progress outright or trap them in hostile territory. However, if you softball it, you kind of lose the excitement of rolling that d20. This module is somewhere in that middle spot, even if a few of the encounters end up under-statted (including the bad guys right at the end).

Something else that works well here is the way the scenario builds towards its conclusion. It is not a railroad, and you can actually get around the Curwens’ place in multiple different ways, but any way you go, you will start from smaller hints of something being dreadfully wrong to very obvious signs of something, indeed, being gosh-darned wrong. There is a clear element of progression from the family homestead (exploration-oriented, few encounters, not terribly dangerous as long as you don’t disregard obvious hints) through the Curwens’ underground tunnels (a combination of exploration and action, multiple instances of combat and traps) to even deeper caverns (where things turn nasty). This is what makes the scenario nicely Lovecraftian. You know you are getting into something bad, and lo, you are getting into something bad. There are big, dark things lurking under the earth. Old families conceal terrible secrets. If you look too closely at things, you might find more than you’d bargained for. Never trust people of inferior racial stock. That’s Lovecraft. The rest is equally good, including one of the best GM takedowns of meta-gaming players, a few suitably dark magic items, and the Curwens, who are fun to take down, and have a few tricks up their sleeves.

The encounters are short and essential. The entire module is well-written, and fits the 27-area farmstead and 15-area dungeon into a 24-page booklet (set in a generous font size). It is right at the level where bits of descriptive detail carry the tone, without suffering from under- or overwriting. The illustrations are cool (and the cover is great great GREAT, one of the best I have seen in recent years). This is a good adventure.

The module credits its playtesters.

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

[MODULE] The Barbarian King

The Barbarian King

I am happy to announce the publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. As the introduction goes:

Beyond the border city of Velft where the legion of General José Antonio Balazán upholds the law, the great eastern trading route leaves civilisation. After the ploughed fields of the townlands and the small villages and guard towers of the valleys stand endless mountain ranges, cold and unforgiving.

These harsh wastelands were once the domain of the Barbarian King, whose men bowed before animalistic spirits and fought with weapons of brass. In their raids, they showed no mercy: not consent with pillaging, they took their victims as slaves or killed them when they could. So it was until the death of the king, after which men in mail came from the plains, and as their foes once, they had no pity for those they met.

Today, there is a fortress city named Castle Evening on the lands where the barbarians had roamed, and barges plow their once holy lake. The initial conquerors, the knighthoods of Alliria and Mitra, were eventually defeated by the fanatical inquisitor-priests of Talorn; shamefully exiled from the land of their hard-won victories. The abundant mines and rich pastures have since transformed the wilderness into something else, a place of order and watchful sentries. Yet beyond the lands of the settlers, the mountains are silent as they had always been. And it is said, in a valley haunted by the shades of the barbarian warriors, there stands yet the burial place of that last warlord: the Barbarian King.

First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). It has been disassembled, reassembled, bootlegged on the DM’s Guild (no kidding) and put back together again. This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy.

The Barbarian King is available from the new SHOP. (The reason for the switch was to allow people to buy more than one products at once, which is harder with Paypal buttons. Bigcartel has been used by other zine creators, and seems to be a good platform.)

Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for free PDF copies of your ordered items when they become available (should be a few months after the print edition). PDFs will be delivered via RPGNow to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.

***

In other news: Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 is now available in PDF from RPGNow! This edition also includes a map pack for home printing.
Echoes #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading. With art orders and my day job taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!

Until then…

Fight On!


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

[REVIEW] Masks of Lankhmar


Masks of Lankhmar (2015)
by Michael Curtis
Published by Goodman Games
1st level

Warning: Severe ending spoilers
Heists are hard to capture in the form of a D&D module. A party of adventurers is usually not well equipped with the skills to pull off a smooth, silent burglary; someone is inevitably too loud, too clumsy, or there are just too many people in the way. City-based heists also have many variables which can lead to unpredictable cascading events, or branch off in ways you can’t fully cover in the scenario without making it bloated and unmanageable. In play, this calls for a loose interpretation of the rules; and in writing, compromises between text and suggestion, written module and improvisation. When D&D thievery works, it is exhilarating, fun, and full of unlikely victories and dramatic reversals.

Masks of Lankhmar, introductory module to Goodman Games’ yet-unpublished Lankhmar supplement, errs on the side of being a sweet slice of nothing. There is a superb plot in the background that’d make for a hell of a Leiber story: it has intrigue, dark irony, urban gloom and a hokey ending that’s completely Leiberesque, but there is not much of an adventure inside it. It evokes something from what makes Lankhmar so fascinating, but it is limited as an RPG scenario.

A Map Illustrating
the Problem
Briefly, Masks follows the fate of a long-gone religious order who have left behind a bunch of valuable masks… and the characters stumble on their trail in a heist gone bad. Thus, the module is divided into an in medias res beginning (an interrupted burglary in the mansion of a rich magnate), an intermission for information gathering, the recovery of the masks in the order’s now crumbling (but hardly vacant) temple, and finally the denouement. It is mostly a railroad in the segments covered in detail. There are branches here and there in how the players can get through a problem (such as escaping the magnate’s manor), but the action usually takes place in small physical locales where you either can’t go anywhere but forward, or you can go places but only forward matters (since the scenario doesn’t cover the other places). There are no side areas, no alternate approaches, no unlikely discoveries, and the progression of events is mostly preordained. The beginning heist is a linear sequence of five encounters taking place in three small rooms, followed by an escape with three alternative paths through a not much larger location. The main adventure area is a complex place, but only one encounter (to get through all the complex scenery which barely plays a role), followed by seven sequential encounters on the Adventure Express.


Masks of Lankhmar, ironically, becomes the most interesting in the areas it does not try to cover. Following the trail of the initial clues can be fun and open-ended if the GM drags it out a little, and the multiple ending possibilities tie up the heist in ways that establish the characters’ standing with different city factions, and lead to interesting new adventures. There are proper consequences to the players’ actions! It also shows evidence of imagination in the rooms and situations it sets up. Golden masks glittering through the funereal shrouds of the dead. A posh party thrown by an upstart who wants to get into high society. The Thieves’ Guild trailing the characters. A slum tenement filled with the dregs of society. Lankhmar’s soot and filth, glamour and decadence are all on display, and some of the encounters are pretty good – although in a severely lacking structure which inhibits the players in properly interacting with them.

The module serves its purpose of getting the characters together (in Lankhmar RPG terms, this is called “the Meet”) and launching a campaign. On the other hand, it is small and very limited in scope, while simultaneously feeling overwritten, with the boxed text and background information overwhelming the action. I don’t usually review production values (life and experience have left me bitter and cynical in this regard), but this booklet’s layout bothered me. Nothing wrong with the two-column solution, but leaving in orphans and stat blocks which necessitate page flipping is lazy, especially for a pro publisher.

I vacillated on Masks of Lankhmar’s rating, and gave it three stars on the strength of its imagery, and its evocation of mood. However, taken on its own – pure gameplay – it is severely lacking. Decision-making is superficial, player agency is mostly illusory. Of course, not every module has to have the same level of player agency, but this felt unnecessarily stifling. The same general storyline could be reconstructed as a much more open adventure, and re-written as a more efficient yet equally expressive piece of writing. There is a philosophy which suggests intro adventures should be small and unassuming, while explaining everything to the GM in detail. Personally, I’d rather see the exact opposite: intro adventures which offer GM advice economically, and offer the full, complex game experience in a newbie-friendly package.

The adventure credits its playtesters, and it had been through play on three conventions.

Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

[NEWS] The Barbarian King (revised edition) / Echoes From Fomalhaut #02


Cover art by Matthew Ray
I am happy to announce the forthcoming publication of the revised edition of The Barbarian King. A 20-page adventure module for 4th to 6th level player characters, The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians... and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps. 


First published in 2002 as a standalone mini-module and in 2011 in an expanded version in Fight On! magazine, The Barbarian King has seen quite a lot of play in those sixteen years (and held up rather well at the table). This edition has been re-edited for easy use, and includes illustrations by Matthew Ray (who also did the cover art seen to the left), Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. It will be available in print in May, and in PDF with a few months’ delay, at a price of $6 plus shipping. 

Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 is now almost fully written, and undergoing proofreading (you should see how many tiny errors I catch before releasing something still riddled with a whole lot of tiny errors). With art orders taken into account, it has a good chance to come out mid-June. Remember the map from Issue #01? There will be a double-sided one in this one!

City State of the Invincible Typographical Error