Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Monday, October 18, 2021
Canal of Horrors (Review by WFS)
Canal of Horrors is an adventure for Electric Bastionland by Chris McDowall. Like most adventures in the Dissident Whispers anthology, Canal of Horrors is short and sweet, fitting on a two-page spread. It consists of a map of several boroughs of Bastion (“The only city that matters”), annotated with details about each borough and a simple adventure hook and things that get in the way. In short, it has everything needed to inspire an adventure.
McDowall is often praised for his terse style, both in his advice and his rules. He has a much-lauded ability to cut rules to the core. As Anne of DIY & Dragons said,
“I consider Into the Odd to be something like the Platonic ideal of simple Dungeons & Dragons. Both the rules and the writing have been distilled down to their very essence and presented in the tersest, most compact possible way, without sacrificing the elements that are most essential to play. I'm not saying that no one else can write something better than I2TO, but I am saying that you'd be hard pressed to write something shorter. Chris McDowell has seemingly cut out everything but the most necessary elements of D&D, and edited his own writing to be as terse as possible.”
What goes less-often commented on is that McDowall is one of the funniest writers in TTRPGs. While his description of the “Rich Future Bastard Versions of You” pursuing the player-characters cracked me up the most, almost every entry in Canal of Horrors matches the understated comedic tone. It isn’t trying to be funny; it just is. The worldbuilding hits the right mix of absurd and mundane, and the tone remains firmly tongue-in-cheek. Like the rest of the Electric Basionland canon, the droll writing makes Canal of Horrors a pleasant reading experience.
But how does it play? You are in luck. I ran this adventure as an intermezzo between a starting adventure in a Bastionland hospital and You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge (a play report, of sorts, is here). However, my problems with the adventure are best illustrated by the changes I made. In Canal of Horrors, the player characters begin at the docks. There is an abandoned luxury yacht. To get paid, the characters need to take the boat through the canals to the Buyer at the intersection of Mocktown and the Central Bog boroughs. The canal itself is forked like a trident, but it is a straight path to the Buyer. I always pay attention when designers break their own rules, and in Electric Bastionland, McDowall provides the following advice about mapping Bastion: “draw two or more circuits denoting different transport routes, ensuring they cross over each other.” There is no circuitry here, and players don’t really need to make any interesting navigational choices to get from the starting point to the end. Essentially, it is a railroad with five locks between start to end, with each lock having a 50% chance of triggering an encounter. So I flipped the adventure geographically (partially as a necessary way of shoehorning in the Garbage Barge), but also provided multiple routes through this section of the city. My players ended up crossing bridges on foot, taking cable cars, and swimming in the canals as they made their way from a privatized hospital north Mocktown to the Dock to the south. The worldbuilding and writing of the adventure drew me in, but the adventure structure itself is lacking (perhaps to be expected, based on the real estate the adventure covers [several city districts] versus its real estate in the book [two aesthetically pleasing pages]). Like many adventures, it takes some tailoring to make Canal of Horrors as flattering as it can be when you bring it to your gaming table.
Muto Station (Review by Dan D.)
The Incident at Muto Station is a Mothership adventure by Brian Hauffer, which I ran for three players who had no experience at all with the system to great success. It’s a rather simple setup - here is a creepy, if linear, abandoned space station, there is a horrible monster onboard it - but that's fine for a one-shot. It doesn’t have much in the way of reason to get involved, other than a brief mention of it being a place for poachers to drop off ill-gotten xenos for sale, so when I ran it, I framed it as a cleanup job, grabbing some data and scrubbing the rest under the auspices of a shady patron. Worked like a charm. The monster is big and gribbly and has a table of behaviors and tricks, plus a much-appreciated note that it will start cutting off escape attempts when the players try to leave (as there’s not much stopping them otherwise).
The players had fun, it was easy to run, and that’s fine enough for me.
Ghost Ship (Review by mv)
Ghost Ship is a module for Mothership by Matt and Charlie Umland. This 2 page spread promises a paranormal exploration of a long forgotten derelict. “Those who investigate it often never return” - we are warned right off the bat. OoOOooo. Rotate 90 degrees, we got the classic badly kept poster (terrifying), maybe a blueprint - clear yet grungy design by Jonah Nohr (known for Mörk Borg).
Ghost(s) / are the main / supernatural / part of this / Ship. Encounters with them are randomly generated, so it took some improvisation to make them fit into the various rooms of the ship. However it was super fun to be surprised by the creepy specters I’ve rolled up. One thing to watch out for are possessions. There are two random table entries that have the ghosts possess PCs and deal harm, and one ghost who possesses to speak. They are not in any way baked in the overall plot of the module, so you can decide with other players if you want to use these entries or not.
I ran the module using Ian Yusem’s funnel rules from The Drain. The players used their numbers to split off and explore various rooms simultaneously, which made the session feel like a true haunted house horror flick. Encounters with the ghosts were spooky and memorable, but the turret traps felt a bit out of place when there is such a cool paranormal premise. After the ship was cleared, the players were left with a lot of hooks to follow up on. What’s up with the weird sphere? What to do with the expensive equipment? Where to transport the survivors?
10/10 would get haunted by space ghosts again.
A few years ago, I was running a weird west Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign where I went searching for mine-themed adventures to reskin and convert to DCC. I used Melancholies & Mirth’s Abandoned Mines Above the Caverns procedural generator, reskinned Into the Odd’s Iron Coral as “The Irontown Corral,” and even started in on Goodberry Monthly’s Goldsoul Mines before my play group moved on to other things. If I had known about “Dust Remains” at that time, it definitely would have made my list to try, and might have beaten out one of the others.
Christian Kessler pushes the two-page format to probably its absolute limit, giving us a mini-setting on one page and SIX mini dungeons on the other. In the extra space, Christian finds room to give us a table of encounters, four new monsters, a list of ghosts, a random table of minor treasures, and 11 unique magic items and spells, all written up for Troika and other descendants of Fighting Fantasy.
The flavor of the various treasures and the activities of the ghosts (which show typical actions of the long-dead imperials) help to communicate the distant culture of the ancient empire. The dungeon keys consist mostly of traps and puzzles, plus a list of treasures behind the final door at the back of each vault. The variety Christian presents is impressive, although the referee will likely want to add a bit more to each dungeon to bring them to life and give them a true sense of exploration. The referee will also need to create NPCs to populate the groups described in the setting introduction. Given all that Christian manages to fit into the available space though, I think these limitations are understandable.
If I had a second quibble, it would be that the anticipated time frame of the “Events & Encounters” table isn’t specified and seems unclear. I would guess you’re meant to check daily, because that’s the only way certain results make sense, but others seem a better fit for checking on expedition time.
Lair of the Glassmakers (Review by Ava)
I ran Lair of the Glassmakers for a group of 4, mostly new players, using Into the Odd. I selected this particular adventure as I felt the rooms full of inventive, creative puzzles and the adventure themed around cute, mischievous glass kobolds (visually depicted in a pixel art style that reminds one of Pokemon by way of Moomin) would be a good intro for a group of queers who had never played D&D before and were used to the softer fantasy of the new She-Ra cartoon.
I was mistaken. Lair of the Glassmakers is, if run as written, an absolute meat grinder.
The rooms are, as previously mentioned, full of interactive elements and fun puzzles. There’s an alchemy mini-game, and reflections that are alive, and an Annoying Fucking Cat who is literally designed to create hijinks and chaos. This is all really great. If the dungeon was actually just what was keyed within the rooms and nothing else, no denizens, it would actually make for a really fun, if low-stakes, little puzzle-solving session.
The failure of this to all cohere comes in the way random encounters are implemented, and the denizens of this particular dungeon.
The dungeon is the workshop of a glassmaker and alchemist. It is full of treasure, which adventurers will want to ransack. Every room contains, as a random encounter, d6-1 glass kobolds (the entryway to the dungeon, not a keyed location on the map, also has 4 glass kobolds in it). These kobolds surprise on a 2 in 6 (3 in 6 first time they’re encountered) and if they surprise, they each nick an item from the players after which it ends up in the bedroom.
This setup strains credulity for me a little bit already. In the first case, it isn’t quite clear how the stolen items end up in the bedroom. The most logical reading of it is that the kobolds run off with the stolen items to the bedroom but: why? And how does one handle this running off? Do they do it at the beginning of the encounter, absconding in a Road Runner-esque fashion before the PCs have time to react? What if the PCs plan for this and try to catch the kobolds before they run off? And what becomes of these fleeing kobolds? Do they linger in the room next to the bedroom? Do they disappear into the ether? Am I supposed to roll for how many kobolds are in each room each time the players enter any room, or just the once? These might seem like petty questions that any GM worth their salt could make a ruling on, but this sort of nebulous quantum amount of kobolds that always end up teleporting stolen goods into a bedroom strained my credulity, and undermined my sense of this location as a coherent space.
But of course, that only occurs when the kobolds surprise the PCs. The other 67% of the time, what do they do? Well, they guard the place from intruders who want to mess up the workshop or steal from it, and guard its owner Elsa with their lives. No morale rating is given (which feels odd; the module is labelled system agnostic but gives AC values as Plate or Leather and Levels as Thieves or Magic User, so its clearly working with OSR systems in mind), so this seems to imply fanatical glass kobolds that will fight any adventurers to the death. With several of them in every room, confrontations are bloody and frequent. For the low level characters this module is recommended for, this would be a meatgrinder.
The space is small enough (8 rooms all jammed close to each other) that random encounters aren’t really necessary in order to provide a sense of risk to orienteering: it would have been better served with a definite amount of glass kobolds keyed to each room, preferably engaging in distinct but cute hijinks which provide PCs a method of interacting with the kobolds that isn’t wholesale slaughter.
The only other inhabitant of the dungeon, Elsa the glassblower/alchemist, isn’t much better. She hides as an imperceptible glass statue (undetectable without detect magic), and she will only act if she feels the players are messing with her space, in which case she attacks them (dealing 3x damage on a surprise, which she has a 4 in 6 chance of). So this character, potentially the most interesting person to interact with, certainly the only person to parlay with if you want to be friendly with the kobolds, has two states: 1) unable to be interacted with whatsoever or 2) murdering the party. Oh and also she’s in the very first room of the dungeon, so the players will almost certainly be immediately attacked, being drawn into an ambush against a 5HD creature and d6-1 kobolds at the very beginning of the adventure.
Really, with there basically being two types of inhabitants in this dungeon (mook and boss) that are all singularly aligned to common purpose, this can’t really be classified as a dungeon at all. It’s a faction lair, and should be treated as such. The only way to get through it for a party of players is directed assault which requires foreplanning, or placed in relation to other faction lairs so as to allow emergent social play from competing agendas and goals.
Dissident Whispers was produced by the Whisper Collective, in coordination with 90 individual collaborators. It is available in Print & PDF for $30 at Tuesday Knight Games (North America), in PDF for $20 at itch.io or DriveThruRPG. Physical copies outside of North America were previously being distributed by Melsonian Arts Council, but as of time of writing that option is no longer available.
Monday, October 11, 2021
The Valley of Karaccia (kuh-RACK-see-uh) is yet another book I found whilst exploring the "Newest" category on DTRPG. As of writing this critique I have read it, but not played it.
The book can be broken into three parts: setting introduction, followed by two loosely-connected starter adventures. The broad strokes of the setting are standard D&D fare sprinkled with some charming details. For example, I like that the local dwarfs can often be found working with humans, but rarely recreating with them. I had not seen the social dynamic described in quite those terms before, but it suggests an interesting relationship between the two peoples. Similarly with the halflings preferring to live near human communities, but not in human communities. I also like the enclosed play area à la Thunder Rift: a pleasant mountain basin surrounded on nearly all sides by granite cliffs. Tiny settings where players will need to interact with the same communities over and over again have an intimacy I find more compelling than continent-spanning campaigns.
The setting descriptions lean into unnecessary wordiness. It never rambles on too long about any given subject, but does take time to state obvious or irrelevant information. The value of tropey settings like this are that we can rely on shared cultural knowledge to fill out most of the details. The author doesn't need to explain what a dwarf is. They can just describe the interesting bits, and trust that the reader already knows that dwarfs are short, stocky, bearded people who like to dig. To this author's credit they do exactly that with reference to some topics, but not all. For example they make a point of spelling out that "Assault, murder, slander, tithe avoidance, and theft are all illegal." This on the same page where the dominant religion is described as believing that "abuse, assault, torture, murder, and the like [are sins]." I can't help but feel like the author's creativity and page allotment—as well as the reader's time—could have been put to better use than explaining that murder is frowned upon twice on one page.
Religion plays a major role here. The Church of Erm is adhered to by 99% of the valley's inhabitants according to the book. It gives off an eerie vibe which I don't believe was intentional. The simple fact that humans, elves, dwarfs, and halflings all share an identical faith is odd in itself. Two of the three major settlements in Karaccia are called ecclesiarchies, but the only one described in detail—the town of Brink—more closely resembles a theocratic dictatorship. In Brink's description there's a papering-over of conflicts with the church which was probably done to orient players firmly towards the dungeons, but comes off feeling very Stepford Wives. Everybody in town is perfectly happy to be governed by the high priest. There is an imminent transfer of power as the old clerical dictator prepares a young successor to take over, but everyone in town loves both of them, so there is no issue. The retiring cleric is 14th level and has access to powerful miracles, but only provides healing for profit. A sensible mechanic when one is trying to restrict magic healing to players, but the sort of thing that ought to irritate townsfolk who already need to pay this guy 10% of their earnings.
The teachings of Erm are also suspect. For example the church "believes that the evil races and creatures (beasts like kobolds and orcs, dragons and the like) […] should be snuffed out." That's such peculiar phrasing to me. It's not a fundamental truth of the world backed up by unquestionable divine revelation. It's simply a belief that demands utter brutality. There's also the strange situation of Erm's sister divinity, Sra'ha, around whom the second adventure pivots. We learn that this other goddess was worshiped alongside Erm until about 100 years ago. She's described as being a death god the locals used to invoked during funerary rites, but is never described as evil, merely as banned. The party will even discover some writings contemporary to the banning in which the authors are clearly apologetic towards Sra'ha. If the players do everything right their adventures will end with Sra'ha literally manifesting into the world to save an important NPC's life. She is depicted as a loving God who takes care of the dying, yet once she's gone there's no mention of thanking her. Sra'ha presumably remains banned. I am tempted to call this inconsistent world-building on the author's part, save for the fact that it is consistent in depicting the Church of Erm as suspect in its ethics, and unreliable in its teachings. The text otherwise prioritizes clarity, and at no point is Erm ever framed as anything but capital-G Good. Nonetheless, if later releases in the Regulations Codex series see the players taking up Sra'ha's cause against a spiteful Erm, I would be impressed by the subtlety of the craftsmanship.
The book's art deserves some attention here. It leans heavily on stock images, though I didn't track down every piece and can't say whether any is original. Split between six artists, the visual style of the book becomes a little inconsistent. None the less the art is all full-color and highly competent. It also fits the content of the book well enough that I didn't realize it was stock art until someone else pointed it out.
The art falls into roughly two schools. The centerpiece images are of a "photo-realism but with elves" sort of style. Very popular, very technically impressive, but for my money there is a sort of uncanny valley effect. When you take something silly like a dragon fountain and depict it with such seriousness, it becomes farcical. That said, the armored elf on the cover who is in the process of chopping off her own leg to get free of a gelatinous cube is gorgeous. Dean Spencer deserves recognition for that one. The other school is more my speed: simple line work and flat colors. Much of this art is incidental stuff (a gem, a scroll case), but there are a pair of kobolds that I absolutely love. I am a long-time advocate for reptile kobolds, but the adorable dog kobolds depicted here are so distinct, so full of character, that I must admit I can see the appeal.
Cartography is all done in software, with varied results. I'll talk about the dungeon layouts when I talk about the dungeons, but artistically they're fine. The hexographer maps used for the overworld look like hexographer maps and are likewise fine. I probably would have skipped making any statement about cartography if not for the Brink map, which is assembled from mismatched digital assets. It's a style much in vogue with books that have higher budgets than this one, so I don't mean to pick on The Valley of Karaccia. That said, it's a style that values fidelity over both form and function. There is no beauty in its ability to cram detail and color into a tiny space. Also, and this is a nitpick, but the dark black hex lines on the Brink map are much too bold. A light gray, or maybe a green that was off-color from the grasslands would have done the job without breaking up the field of view so jarringly. My own frustration aside, it is just one map which doesn't impact the overall quality of the product.
The first of the two adventures is a straightforward cave dungeon. There are Kobolds in the area, they need to be wiped out. Notably there is never any mention in the text of the Kobolds doing anything to provoke this violence. Their cave does have a room filled with heads on spikes, but given that two adventuring groups showed up to kill kobolds on the same day it seems completely believable that these heads were gathered purely in self defense. I'm taking it as further evidence that Erm is not so Good as she claims to be. The adventure has a cute introduction, with a braggadocios local rushing off to claim all the glory ahead of the party, only to be found dead in the very first room. He then rises as a zombie to illustrate the dungeon's core gimmick: mysterious red light radiating from glassy veins in the cave walls causes anyone who dies here to have a chance of rising as an undead. It's a solid gimmick: the party kills a group of monsters, only to get attacked from behind a few rounds later by those same monsters turned to zombies.
The layout of the caverns is simple. It's not linear, but no path ever meets up with another path. It has a sort of 'radial-linearity.' Players may come to a crossroads where they must pick a direction, but each choice leads to a linear series of rooms, or perhaps another branch. Eventually all exploration will reach a dead end, and the party will need to return to a previous branch in the path to pick a new one. There are some evocative details here, like a series of rooms the Kobolds don't enter because they don't like the smell of the mushrooms which grow there. There are also some confusing bits, like why the kobold chief lairs as far as he can possibly get from the rest of his people; and how the kobolds have been in this cave long enough to collect 100 heads, but not long enough to figure out how to open the chest in Area 10. Also, I can't help but feel that if a creature is killed by direct contact with the magic crystal which is the source of the dungeon's red light they really ought to come back as something tougher than a zombie, like a ghoul.
The first adventure is simple, serviceable, and packs a decent punch for a 2-pager. It's followed by a strange bestiary of creatures which might be encountered overland. There's not much of a theme to the encounters, almost none of which are described beyond names and combat stats. I would be able to get more use out of this bestiary if it had 1/6th as many creatures on it, and those creatures were given some detail and purpose.
The second adventure has a somewhat more interesting structure. The party are sent to a dungeon to get an item, but all they'll find is a clue that leads to another location. In that dungeon they'll find a key, and only then can they return to the first dungeon, open a secret path to its lower level, and find the object they need. It's a fun structure. The dungeon with the key in it is particularly nice. Players must enter it via a vertical shaft filled with living plants that'll strangle anyone who touches them. Three different levels can all be accessed via the shaft. It's a great example of using vertical space.
The main dungeon in which the second adventure begins and ends is less interesting to me. It has the same radial-linearity that the first dungeon did, but expanded to nearly 60 rooms. The lower floor is one big loop with linear segments branching from it, and the upper floor's only loop is hidden behind secret doors at both ends, neither of which have structural or textual clues to suggest their presence. Other secret doors are telegraphed better, which is good. However, behind one of them is the only clue that can lead the party to the second dungeon. Players ought to be able to fail, but it seems a shame to hinge more than half of the adventure on something as fragile as the players locating a single secret door. My preference would be to include 2 or 3 clues pointing towards the second dungeon, with perhaps the most revealing of these behind a secret door.
There are some interesting rooms and encounters in the second adventure, though these are outnumbered by the simple fights against zombies, skeletons, or ghouls. I want to note that there are statues of both Erm and Sra'ha here, but only the statue of Erm can animate to attack the players. (Coincidence?) There are a lot of untelegraphed traps in the second adventure, but also many opportunities for characters to heal. Neither are part of my preferred play style, but one can see how the two keep the party on their toes without just killing them off. There was one example I thought was a big wasted opportunity: a room illuminated by green light because the light is filtered through a green ooze waiting on the ceiling to drop on unsuspecting prey. A good trap! In a later room a gray ooze tries to get the party with the same ceiling-drop technique, and if it had also been filtering light this would have been a great opportunity for players to learn from earlier mistakes.
The second adventure culminates in a color-matching puzzle which is either very charming or very cheesy depending on your inclinations towards such things. Solving the puzzle unlocks a final combat encounter with a ghoul-priestess of Sra'ha who was interred alive when this place was sealed. (Given that it was sealed by clerics of Erm, this once again suggests to me that Erm is not the Good god she is depicted to be.) The fight seems like a fun one. The players actually encounter the object they're searching for before the fight, but can't access it because the priestess refuses to stop chanting prayers of warding. The fight with her includes some special powers and tactics, followed by the party needing to offer some deference to Sra'ha in order to access her relic safely. They can even offer a prayer to Sra'ha here in order to fully heal all their wounds. They don't even need to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the high priest of Erm!
There is a style of play which approaches tabletop RPGs like chess puzzles. The same familiar pieces, each with their familiar functions that can be learned and mastered. The challenge arises from shuffling those familiar elements into unfamiliar arrangements. That appears to be the school of thought which produced this adventure. It's not my preferred style of play, but neither is it the wrong way to play because there cannot be a wrong way to play.
The Valley of Karaccia was authored Matthew Evans, with editing by Jeffery Hines. Its illustrations were sourced from Dean Spencer, Donnie Maynard Christianson, Giulia Valentini, Jeshields, Rick Hershey, and William McAusland. It's available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG for $4.99. As of this writing the print edition is "coming soon."
Wednesday, October 6, 2021
The Words and Deeds of the Chain of Tlachic
I'd not heard of Chain of Tlachic before receiving it, and I haven't heard anyone mention it since. It opens with the following phrase:
"THIS BOOK IS VULNERABLE, DISPOSABLE, AND CURSED."
It's part of a longer exhortation to take a pen to the book and write over what is already in it, and what will come to be the defining feature of this adventure. We'll get to that in a bit.
Chain of Tlachic is a 55 page megadungeon. Or, rather, it is what I am here and now calling a micromega dungeon - an environment that gives the impression of grand scope and scale but is nice and compact in practice. A megadungeon that it is conceivable to read and use with busy adults in 2-3 hour bites.
(A personal aside: I adore these sorts of dungeons, when compared to their larger counterparts.)
Each of the 17 areas of the dungeon consists of a two-page spread, containing:
- Artwork of the area
- Single-paragraph description of the area
- The primary threat of the area, including the tactical difficulty and numbers
- Dynamic elements found in the area
- Potential developments / responses to player actions in the area
- Connections with other areas
The book hinges on those last three points. In lieu of providing any mechanics or traditional room keys, Chain of Tlachic puts its primary focus on the relationships between factions, monsters, places, and things, and how they effect one another. Nothing stays the same; actions taken here will have influence there. Returning to an area will reveal a place different from when you first came through. It's not a new concept, but it is very refreshing to have a book that sheds mostly anything that could get in the way.
The "mark up this book" notice from the beginning comes back here - practically, it's the
easiest way to keep track of what changes have been effected. In doing
so, each copy of the book will, over the course of play, become a unique
artifact. The book is the notes, and this is explicitly intentional.
The framework of a Chain of Tlachic campaign is that the players are dwarves - constructed servants of the god Tlachic - attempting to reclaim the depths beneath their fortress from the Red Lady. If a dwarf dies, they are reborn in the Stronghold at the top of the map. This is a simple set up, and sufficient for dealing both with why players are in the dungeon and the inevitable deaths and reshuffled schedules that come with any campaign. It would be possible, I suppose, to play through this module using normal, non-dwarf characters. I wouldn't recommend it - something feels like it would be lost.
The book-as-notes-as-artifact approach requires either a physical copy or a print-out the pdf. It would run fine enough without engaging with that element, or to mark up the pdf, but I feel that would miss something. Maybe that's just me wanting to be in line with the spirit of the thing.
On to the less novel and appealing - Spelling and grammar mistakes are common throughout, and the art can often get muddy and difficult to parse. Encouraging readers to mark up the book means these are solvable problems (they would have been solvable problems regardless, but it's nice to have authors who are vibing on the same wavelength), but that doesn't stop them from existing in the first place.
More pressingly, the four artifacts that have a major effect on the final conflict with the Red Lady are only brought up as such in that final segment of the book - not when the items actually appear in the dungeon. There are likely other such missing connections in the book, less important and less noticeable, but this is a pretty critical oversight for a dungeon so focused on those connections. Sure it's fixable, and would be whether or not I had direction to draw in the book, but I'd rather not have to fix something central to the adventure.
To wrap this up (since I feel like I have hit the point of going in circles should I keep going) what I like best about the Chain of Tlachic is that it is rough around the edges. It is the sort of awkward amateur work that is the lifeblood of a healthy artistic scene, and I'll recycle a quote from Noah Caldwell-Gervais:
"Most players are willing to forgive anything a game actually does if they’re enamored with what a game wants to do”
Sounds about right for this.
Monday, September 27, 2021
I will be reviewing two books written by Todd Leback, published by Third Kingdom Games, and written for the Old School Essentials system, but easily usable for any older edition of D&D or their retroclones. The first, which I'll talk about today, is Filling in the Blanks: A Guide to Populating Hexcrawls. In the next installment of Ludic Dreams I'll delve into Into the Wild: A High-Level Resource for OSR Games. The first presents a technique for randomly generating the keys for wilderness maps. The second presents rules for wilderness travel and exploration, a system of random weather generation, rules for establishing and ruling a domain, techniques for handling trade, and even a system for creating new B/X classes. Together they present a unified system for handling what happens outside a dungeon. Indeed, taken together they are impressive in scope, depth, and detail.
Filling in the Blanks is illustrated by Jen Drummond, who did the covers, and Adrian Barber, Chad Dickhaut, and Dan Smith who did the internal illustrations. The maps are made by Todd Leback and Aaron Schmidt using hexographer. Art and cartography is crucial in conveying a setting, giving flavor or visual details of adventure locales, and igniting the imagination so that a DM can inhabit the mental space of the adventure or world. It is much less important for a generic presentation of rules. The inoffensive B/X feeling art in Filling in the Blanks fits the generic character of the system, breaking up the page layout, without distracting from the rules presentation.
What is a hex? Historically speaking, hexes derive from hex and chit wargames, where troops represented on little cardboard squares (chits) moved across a board divided into hexagons representing a battlefield of different terrain types. In this sense, they represented abstract boardgame spaces that tracked troop movements in six directions (N, NW, SW, S SE, NE), while accounting for the effects of terrain on movement and battle.
Early ttrpg players, many of whom were wargamers, general employed graph paper maps for dungeon crawls and hex maps for wilderness travel and adventuring. Indeed, in Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, when the players moved from the graph paper squares of the dungeon into the wilderness, Gygax employed a hexmap borrowed directly from the boardgame Outdoor Survival. He used it for a phase of the campaign that came to be called domain play, where the game swayed towards its wargaming roots, as players were expected to “clear” a wilderness area of monsters and claim it as a domain, building military outpost (castles, monasteries, etc), “civilizing” and ruling it, while perhaps engaging in warfare and diplomacy.
In contemporary play, hexmaps are used in a variety of ways in classic or old school play. We might distinguish the following six functions of a hex—no doubt there are others we might think up.
- Smallest Map Unit: In this function, the hex is the smallest unit of the map. There is no map inside a hex, rather the map is composed of hexes.
- Measure of Movement: In this function, the hex is used as a measure of movement, which proceeds from one hex into another hex in one of the six directions of the hex facings. As pieces move across a certain number of spaces across a board, so too in hexes, PCs move a certain number of hexes in one of the six directions.
- Terrain Bearer: In this function, the hex is coded with a certain terrain type. This type comes with both mechanical and narrative effects, including affecting movement rates and encounters. We operate here at the level of a uniform type “hills”, “swamp”, “forest”, “jungle”, and so on.
- Keyed Unit: In this function, the hex is the unit of the map which is “keyed”. It thus plays the same role in wilderness maps that rooms play in dungeon maps. Hexes are “stocked” with notable features, including possibly adventure locales, natural formations, lairs, settlements and the like.
- Encounter Space: In this function, hexes are the spaces in wilderness exploration where random encounters happen. Different encounter tables may be tied to different hexes, regions, or terrain types.
- Political or Economic Unit: In this function, hexes bear a political status, showing them under the sway of certain factions with mechanical or narrative effects, or they function as an economic unit with the capacity to produce wealth or different goods.
As we’ll see, these functions can be separated from one another. One can use hexes without hexes playing all these roles. For example, this glorious illustrated hex by Tom Fitzgerald is not the smallest map unit (1), since it has a map drawn within it. It might otherwise function as a hex in the other senses.
Hexes and Subhexes
In Filling in the Blanks, Leback uses hexes to help organize the keying of subhexes. For reach hex, he has us roll for 1d6 features. For each feature we roll to see what category it belongs to. The categories include geological features, structures, resources, hazards, bodies of water, dungeons, settlements, magical effects, and so on. Once we have the category, we then turn to subtables that give us more details to work with.
We next roll 1d6 to see how many lairs are placed in the hex. For each of the lairs, we use some set of wilderness encounter tables, drawn perhaps from whatever your favorite other monster books are, to decide what monster’s lair it is. (These encounter tables set the baseline of how closely the hexmap will hew to vernacular fantasy tropes. For less vanilla settings, use weirder encounter tables.)
This is where things get interesting. We then use the map of the hex and the features we've rolled to place the monster lairs in locales that are interesting, using the random combination of these three things (map, features, lairs) as a spur to our imagination. For example, if there is an abandoned monastery or sinkhole, perhaps we place monster lairs in it—and what we place in it will also give us ideas for fleshing out the locale. The weaving together of random features and lairs in a hex presents opportunities to imaginatively inhabit and elaborate the space of the hex by focusing on the interrelation of different, randomly generated elements.
The Stocking System in Action
Hex 1I started with hex 1. Let's zoom in on the image:
- A 4-room dungeon of 3rd level
- A keep, worth 100,000 GP (!). It was built 20 years ago. It is inhabited by its original builders. It is in immaculate shape. (All these results came from rolling on subtables.)
- Resource: Parrots
- Giant Rats
- Crab Spider
The emergent possibilities here were fascinating. The burning question, looking at this set of results, is who the builders and current occupants are of this 100,000 GP keep. From this list, the only intelligent creature is the goblins. But with an immaculate keep worth 100,000 GP, this must be a wealthy and powerful faction in the jungle. This means these must be some remarkable goblins! I asked myself where all their wealth could come from. Since the hex also has the resource of parrots, I decided their wealth must come from the parrots. Brainstorming, I thought perhaps these goblins are merchants of trained parrots. Even better, I thought, perhaps they are traders of whispers and secrets, with parrot spies spread throughout the jungle! Now we’re cooking with gas!
Looking at the OSE entry on goblins, I see that Goblin Kings have 3 HD and their bodyguards have 2 HD. I liked the idea of a goblin king with a crown of gorgeous parrot feathers, surrounded by gilded bird cages in which his favorite birds are pampered after returning to him with news from far and wide. Stat-wise goblins seem awfully weak to hold a stronghold of that value, so I thought that they must be intelligence brokers among jungle factions, conveying crucial information to opposing groups, and perhaps blackmailing others. So there would likely some other higher HD beings on loan to the Goblin King from his customers. We'll have to wait to see how the rest of the map unfolds to decide who these borrowed guards might be.
Last we need to construct our encounter table for the hex from these materials. That’s easy enough to do. Here's a rough encounter table without stats:
Hex 1: Encounter table (1d6)
- Parrot Spy: Befriends the party only to deliver info to the goblin king about their actions and movements. Subsequent ambush or offer to trade, depending on information conveyed.
- Goblin Patrol on Jaguars
- Goblins going about business (1=gathering fruit, 2=trapping parrots, 3=harvesting timber, 4=hunting giant rats)
- Giant rats
- Crab Spiders
- Encounter from surrounding hexes (trading partners? To be filled in later)
Praise & Critique
I'm sure it would have gotten a bit faster as I got the hang of finding things in the book. But there's no two ways about it: it’s going to take a very long time to populate even a small hexmap like the one I made above using this book. My guess would be maybe 6-8 hours of prep? One frustrating thing is that it needn’t take so long. The text is its own worst enemy. Leback never bundles rolls, opting instead to send you to further subtables or even scurrying to a new section with its own host of tables, when it would be easy to combine them all into a single roll. Worse still, the paragraphs leading up to each subtable often have 3 or even 4 inconspicuous pre-rolls buried in the text. Meaning that you have to scan paragraphs to extract hidden rolls or crucial information before you even get to the tables. This is not great information design.
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