Wednesday, January 19, 2022

State of the Sepulcher

To ring in the new year, our skeleton crew has decided to take stock of the state of our nighted sepulcher. Our conversation ranges over what Bones of Contention has accomplished so far, and where we hope it might be going in the new year. 

Ben: Let me kick the conversation off with some history and dry facts. Bones of Contention grew out of our discussions about the current state of review culture in the classical/OSR/Post-OSR space. We were all dissatisfied with the limited review culture, which consisted mainly of boosting products, and a couple of long running single authored critical review blogs and youtube channels. Ava suggested that any real alternative would need to be a multi-authored collaborative review site perhaps modeled on video game review sites. We debated the practical complications of reviewing in a small scene where everybody knew everybody else, how to handle conflicts of interest, how to select products to review, whether to require playtesting for all products to be reviewed, and the tone we wanted to maintain (critical where merited but respectful). We had some ideas we set aside like making all reviews anonymous and doing video reviews. We hit eventually on our principles, outlined here

So Bones of Contention rose from the dead on June 14th of 2021. In our 29 weeks of ghastly toil before year’s end, we managed to publish 28 posts. 1 was our inaugural post. The remaining 27 were review posts. 20 of the reviews were by single authors in one of our established review series by regular contributors. 2 of the reviews were by guest authors in the Grave Trespass series. The remaining 6 reviews were multi-authored: 1 in the Rashomon series of multi-perspective reviews, 1 in the Folie a Deux series of dialogues, and 3 of them a series of shorter capsule reviews by multiple authors in the Cryptic Signals series. In our reviews, we covered 27 adventures, 6 games, and 4 supplements. There was a mix of old (10) and new (27) products. 

Our most viewed post, after our inaugural post, was Zedeck’s review of Kriegmesser in his (P)late Mail series, followed by Gus’s review of the Caverns of Thracia in his Spectral Interrogatories series, followed by our very first review, the Isle of the Plangent Mage in third place. This confirms, by the way, that there’s an appetite for reviews of both old and new products. It feels to me like we had a good ratio (nearly 3:1) of new to old, with an appropriate tilt towards newer products that may not have received as much attention yet. 

Our pace of publishing reviews was decent if not ideal. We began posting once a week. In a moment of early hubris we briefly increased to twice a week, only to discover that we needed to dial it back. We closed out the year posting every other week, which is our plan for the moment, until we build up a backlog sufficient to increase the pace once again to weekly reviews. To maintain our momentum, we have increased the number of contributors. Our skeleton crew started out with 7 regular contributors, each with their own review series, and grew to 10, including the most recent addition, Ty, who slipped into the graveyard with a review of Death in Space right before the year’s end. We are continuing our recruitment of guest reviewers, with first review of 2022 by Warren D and others in the works at the moment. 

This diversity of perspectives was part of the rationale for Bones of Contention. Given the fact that our skeleton crew is all volunteer, and many of us are already stretched to capacity as ttrpg authors, we have tried to make a virtue of necessity. Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, I guess I’ll start by asking the rest of the skeleton crew what they think is working well on the blog, and what they’d like to see us do more of or differently in the future. Let’s start with you Gus. 

Gus: Bones had a good ½ year, the reviews offer variety, and variation without paying a cost in quality. While each writer has brought their own style and concern to their Bones reviews, they all strike me as far more nuanced and thoughtful then many older blog based reviews by fans or foes of particular products and designers. While I suspect the economy and size of the RPG industry will mean that a healthy culture of critique is unlikely, it’s great to see efforts in that direction succeed. 

Personally I intend to continue looking at the history and development of dungeons and the dungeon crawl, though given the length and limited number of reviews, I suspect Spectral Interrogatories will focus on more well known projects, especially those that are emblematic of certain key ideas in classic adventure design. My goal though isn't to burnish or tarnish the reputations of already well known designers, but instead to offer perspective of and criticism on well known works so that other, lesser designers, including myself, can learn from them. Planned reviews include a look at the revised Deep Carbon Observatory, discussing both its status as an exemplar and model for mid-OSR design as well as the many experimental aspects of the adventure. After DCO I suspect I’ll need to look at the outer edges of dungeon design, works from the indie and/or story game communities that seek to provide dungeon adventures and see what lessons can be learned from play styles that entirely reject procedural exploration. 

For Bones I look forward to it’s continued expansion, with the addition of more reviewers from varied design backgrounds, both out of an interest in seeing how this cross-pollination of design ideas helps provide insight and inspiration for the contributors and readers own projects and because the tabletop RPG community is too small for contentious disputes over play style. 

Nick: Discoverability is always an issue for artists. It hurts to pour your heart into something, even as you know nobody will ever see it because you lack the flair for marketing yourself. It was edifying to pull books right off the freshly printed line and give them a fair shake. I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the coming year. 

WFS: I was an early latecomer to this project, but I was pretty happy with my first review in my Pedantic Wasteland series, which evaluated A Rasp of Sand in light of its stated roguelite goals. Not only was it an opportunity to shine a light on this neat adventure, but I got to address concepts like metagaming in a way that’s a bit more practical than a theory-post on my own blog. Due to constant juggling of other projects (for what am I if not a jester), my pace of solo reviews will probably be about two a year. One review I’ve had bouncing in my noggin has been the Red Hand of Doom adventure, which I think illustrates several interesting trends in big budget adventure design. However, where this blog really shines are the more collective reviews. It plays to our strength as a group of game thinkers and tinkers that solo blogs aren’t able to do. So I really look forward to more reviews in the Rashomon, Folie a Deux and Cryptic Signals series in 2022 and beyond. For the Cryptic Signals in particular, I hope these become more tightly focused around either genres of games, particular authors or adventure anthologies. 

Anne: There are a few things that really excite me about the multi-author format Bones has going right now. First, several of us have clear agendas in terms of our planned reviews. Gus is mostly looking at famous older adventures. Nick is mostly looking at new works that he picks because he knows nothing about the authors. I also like the distinctive visual style of the different posts. Each review looks like a page torn from the author’s home blog and pasted into our scrapbook - especially for those of us with a really distinctive formatting style, like Gus and WFS. And finally, of course, having multiple authors means that we can work together, and write more and better than we could individually. 

My agenda isn’t quite so straightforward, but I hope that pursuing it for another year will turn up more insights about how to write certain kinds of adventures well. My goals for my writing are to look closely at the important moving parts of the thing I’m reviewing, and to understand both what they’re trying to achieve and how well they actually accomplish it. I hope that whether you agree with me or think I’m wrong every time, that what I say is detailed enough and clear enough that you’ll know enough about the thing to form an opinion of your own. 

For next year, I’m going to try to write more Cryptic Signals entries. There are some interesting small projects out there that could be well-served by short reviews. I might also be able to do something Ben did early on, and pair a couple of related items in a single solo review. I’ve agreed to something like three Folie a Deux team-ups with some other skeleton crew members, and I want to get at least one or two of those out this year. It’s also my personal goal to recruit at least one guest blogger to write a Grave Trespass. I’ve asked a couple of people I know well who I think would do a good job, but so far I’ve yet to successfully bring someone in. Ava is the real champion on that front, since the people she invites end up becoming regular columnists. A final goal is to have at least one “book club” article where some of us read a book that might interest gamers, but that isn’t a game book specifically - something like The Elusive Shift or Finite and Infinite Games. This is probably my least likely goal since, as others have already noted, we’re all busy with other projects, so trying to put together an actual book club is kind of a big ask. 

* * *

Dan: The collaborative aspect of this whole endeavor has been my favorite part - both in the variety of voices and keeping things rolling without folks getting burned out. For the future I definitely want to run more (much easier to write a better review that way), and I hope we’re able to do more Rashomon reviews - it’s a fantastic way of using our format to our advantage. 

Ben: You know, I think I agree with you all that the real strength of Bones has been the collaborative energy that is most on display in the more conversational reviews in the Folie a Deux, Rashomon, and Cryptic Signals series. It’s important to learn about the perspective of individual reviewers in their own series, since this gives us a sense of their pre-occupations and critical orientation. But it’s even better to see those individual perspectives come together in dialogue. For me, the high-point of the blog came in the recent Folie a Deux review of Luka Rejec’s Holy Mountain Shaker. It was especially interesting because Luka was trying to do something new and interesting in adventure design. Gus’ perspective on the centrality of space to procedural dungeon crawls gave him a critical perspective on the attempt, which contrasted with WFS’ interest in procedural and improvisational play that led to entirely different evaluation. In a sense the disagreement was really about what a dungeon is in the relevant sense. I found it absolutely fascinating. In the future I’d guess I’d like to build on that strength by experimenting with more of these dialogue style reviews. I think a book club would be a great idea as one new format we could experiment with. I also hope that as our critical perspectives become more developed, there will be a lot of cross-pollination between individual reviews, in the spirit of Ava’s Wheel of Evil review that brought together so many different threads of OSR relevant theory, including by Bones authors. 

Ty: As the new kid on the block, I'm just happy I’m allowed to hang out with the cool kids and that I managed to sneak in under the wire at the end of 2021. In 10 years from now I can say "I've been with Bones since year 1, baby." 

I'm eager to write more for the site, trying to alternate between larger read-throughs of entire books and smaller, more condensed reviews that pack a punch. The next review I'm working on is the Distant Lights supplement for Stars Without Number. Anne and Ben, I really love the idea that the two of you started, which was actually using the procedural creation tools in books to create something instead of just talking theoretically about them. I can't wait to give that a spin. 

I'm also ready to bribe and beg all of you into doing a joint review, because I agree with what’s already been said: the collaborative reviews are a highlight of Bones and wonderful to read. 

/ /

mv: another new contributor here. I personally had lot’s of fun reviewing the short and sweet Mouth Brood, and now aiming to go after bigger books. My sights are set on Suldokar’s Wake, a monumental review that will be exploring both the setting and system of the core set. My goal now is to get a couple of sessions going because I’m much better at getting a feel for a game from play. 

Speaking of collaborations, I’d love to do a joint sci-fi module review with Ty, since our interests align in that area. Overall in 2022 I want to cover modern sci-fi and science fantasy game materials. Seeing how they explore the genre and push it into the (actual) future with new concepts and ideas. Stay tuned for some awesome Mundane Vacations. 

Glad to be part of such a wonderful team and looking forward to the reviews of all types. My favorite thing was discovering perspectives from different cultures of play that I would otherwise have ignored. 11/10 would bones of contention again.

Ava: I’m immensely proud of what Bones of Contention has become over the past half year and even more excited to see where it goes. When I floated the initial concept I really didn’t expect anything to come of it, but major credit goes to Ben for organizing and making it a reality, as well as serving as basically our de facto Editor in Chief and handling all the day to day work of running the blog. 

The inaugural review on this site emerged out of a four session playthrough of Isle of the Plangent Mage and by far my favourite aspect of Bones so far has been the opportunity to play and critically discuss different modules and systems with an absolutely dynamite crew of folks. I also love the evolution of the blog towards producing more critical analysis from its original conception of producing more product-oriented reviews; highlights of this style for me have been Gus’ Castle of Mirror’s review, Zedeck’s review of Kriegsmesser, and Marcia’s guest review of Pokemon Dungeon Crawler. I hope that this isn’t too lofty a comparison, but the energy on this blog reminds me of the early days of Kill Screen, which I remember reading at a time when no other places were consistently talking about videogames in a serious way. I think this evolution can even be seen in the two reviews I posted this year, with the first being much more concerned with the standard evaluation of usability and such while the second was a sort of analysis of the historical trends and styles contained within a particular module.

My hopes for the coming year ahead is, hopefully, to publish more than two reviews. I have a long backlog of adventures which I’ve actually played that I’d like to review, but more than that I had hoped for the focus of my series to be an investigation specifically into different systems and I’ve yet to review a single one. Of course, like everyone else has said I’m also really excited to do more collaborative reviews, as well as wrangling up as many guest writers I possibly can.


So concludes our review of the state of the sepulcher. We hope to see you around these unholy precincts as our skeleton crew marches with the tireless resolve of the undying into a new year. If you have a favorite review from 2021 or something you'd like to see us do in 2022, join the conversation in the comments below! 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Grave Tresspass - Hole in the Oak


By Necrotic Gnome
A Review by Warren D.

The end of the year and beginning of the next in RPG-land prompts thinking about how to get our non-RPG friends and family into the hobby. It is also a time when soon-to-be DM’s receive their first rulebooks and seek recommendations on what to run. The options are numerous and rapidly climbing to the top of many recommendation lists is The Hole in the Oak. In this review, I hope to outline why I think The Hole in the Oak deserves such a position by describing its opening, evaluating the content, and touching on how the adventure facilitates world building.

This review arises from 4 three-hour sessions of The Hole in the Oak which started after a TPK playing its sibling module Incandescent Grottoes. I used Old School Essentials/BX D&D as it is my preferred D&D flavor and the players randomly generated 2 clerics, 2 dwarves, 1 elf, 1 fighter, 1 magic-user, and 1 thief. I have no relationship with Necrotic Gnome or its products beyond being a fan.


The Hole in the Oak is billed as a low-level dungeon situated in any “magic forest” possibly constructed by wizards, definitely inhabited by creatures of a fay bent, and currently being used as a base of operations for an evil gnome cult. More specifically, it is a 60-room dungeon well “jaquaysed” by 5 large loops from west-to-east and boarded by a large cavern to the south and a fast river to the north. Monetary treasure guarded, buried, forgotten, or secreted away totals about 17,000 GP which will take a party of 8 from 1st level to about 2nd by the end (using the Fighter XP progression as an average). Total magic item count is 11 which includes magic scrolls, a spell book, potions, rings, a couple of pieces of armor, and weapons of note. The opposition to the PCs’ clandestine infiltration includes three cannibalistic and duplicitous fauns, a slumbering ogre, three troglodyte fishers, seven (!) hungry ghouls, twenty (!!) heretic gnomes that worship a demonic tree trunk and finally four giant lizards.

The map for Hole in the Oak

Interestingly, while the module as a whole has a “French vanilla D&D” feel- meaning it’s a well-done dungeon featuring many classics of fantasy adventure- it is a heterogeneous environment that doesn’t feel like patch-work. This is a skillful trick and it’s worth a moment to list the adventure’s thematic clusters. If you imagine the dungeon as a compass:

  • East “places of worship” cluster: alters involving a giant statue, defunct lizard-cult, & demon tree stump
  • Northeast cluster: “Hot house” gardens, giant lizards, and a lizard cult
  • Southeast cluster: Weird gnomes & weird caverns
  • West “areas of experimentation” cluster: trap rug, magic mirrors, & mysterious levers
  • Southwest cluster: Tricky fauns & a mutant ogre
  • Northwest cluster: Drowned ghouls and fishing troglodytes

Often in D&D modules of lesser quality the presentation of an equivalent amount of heterogeneity requires far more levels. With each of those levels being a very expected presentation of those environments. Or conversely, the same number of environments are presented in a more patchwork fashion making it feel as if it was assembled merely from die rolling on random tables. The Hole in the Oak employs its environments to unify seemingly disparate D&D classics. For instance, I would expect troglodytes in a cave environment and ghouls in a crypt environment. Here, the presence of the river allows both of them to be tied to the theme of water-ghouls posing as drowned corpses and trogs that have fishing spots (and even a “feed the fish” sign). This “classic but clever” presentation is exactly what I wanted for my two players who grew up with B/X D&D and is also exactly what I want as a DM at the table when giving new players their first taste of old-school play and D&D in general.

Let’s delve into the specifics of why I think Hole in the Oak is a present day classic…

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Eldritch Mousetrap - Death in Space

Hey! Welcome. This is my first review on Bones. I’m calling them my eldritch mousetraps, since my online moniker in all the places you can find me is @eldritchmouse. Thanks to Anne for the great name suggestion!

I’ll be reviewing Death in Space, so strap in, suit up, and get ready to blast off.

A photo of the cover art. A stylized background presents a void like hole in one part of the graphic, with lines leading towards it. A person in a space suit falls from above, tethered to something unseen. The title is "Death In Space. A science fiction roleplaying game."
The cover rules. Sink down into the void, my friend.


Death in Space is a science-fiction RPG with old-school sensibilities. It was created by Christian Plogfors and Carl Niblaeus and published by Free League Publishing.

I haven’t had the chance to actually run the game: this review is based on the PDF copy I received for backing the Kickstarter.

The real question here is simple—does it hold up to Mothership, the current big dog in the sci-fi RPG atmosphere?

The Review

We start off strong, with reference tables. The beginning of the book starts with equipment lists on the inside cover. I’ve always considered equipment lists to be neat little wishlists that the players love to look at and use to solve problems. Putting it in an easy to find place means there’s no digging through the book for it later. How does the equipment in DIS hold up? Well, you’ve got the good stuff like a fake grenade, pheromone spray, an animal replica with a simple AI, and magnetic boots.

You’ve also got a table of foodstuffs that is filled with things like “almost bread,” “toothpaste-type tubes with pureed food ready-to-eat,” and “vacuu-ice, cold flavored ice in plastic bags.” The fresh fruit and vegetables are the most expensive things on the list, apart from a box of spices. They’ve made a deliberate choice here, to use half a page just for food items, and I think it pays off—the choices presented imply a strong setting. You’re out in space, and every gram of weight is worth something. There’s no fancy luxuries.

We dive into the world of the game with eleven paragraphs of history, laying out the lore we’ll leverage in our campaigns. Tropes can be helpful in RPGs—a nice anchor to understand the world that is easy to grasp. DIS employs the standard tropes liberally. There’s a void out there in deep space, and it uses radio static to call out to you. After an all-out-war, resources have dried up, so there’s no new spaceships being built. The central powers are destroyed, leaving behind scattered warlords and their domains.

Players are hard-working laborers who take whatever jobs they can get—salvagers, escorts, prospectors, and everything that slots in between that space.

Even if we don’t leave the RPG medium, we’re seeing these tropes being used in other places already: in Traveller, in Coriolis, and in Starforged. The world is gritty, it’s falling apart, and you’re just in it to survive, job to job. It’s a good and usable setup for a game, but it’s definitely familiar.

The Iron Ring provides a sort of “starting village” mixed with a megadungeon to get your campaign rolling. It’s a bunch of old ships and stations stitched together in a ring around a moon. This is a very cool concept, as long as you don’t think too hard about just how many kilometers of derelicts you’d need to ring a moon.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Folie a Deux - Holy Mountain Shaker

Below is a shared review of a 2021 adventure released for Old School Essentials: Holy Mountain Shaker, written and illustrated by Luka Rejec. Our reviewers, Gus L. and W.F. Smith, both have positive associations with the author, but have very different thoughts about the adventure based on their very different approaches to RPG play and design. This review is an attempt to tease out how Holy Mountain Shaker appears from perspectives about design and play styles through a series of questions and dialogue.

The adventure itself is a fifty-six (56) page full color book and PDF released as one of the OSE Kickstarter adventures along with Halls of the Blood King, Isle of the Plangent Mage and Incandescent Grottos. In addition to Rejec’s work as writer, cartographer, and artist, Anna Urbanek provided layout with Gavin Norman, Fiona Maeve Geist and Jarrett Crader forming the editing team. Unlike the other OSE Kickstarter adventures, Holy Mountain Shaker appears to depart from the OSE house keying and design style, partially because it is not a traditionally keyed location based adventure, but also presumably because of the author’s larger influence.

The premise of Holy Mountain Shaker is that the earthquakes plaguing a minings town indicate that a cosmic fish has risen up with the local massif and is uneasily thrashing due to a dead adventurer lodged in its gills. The party has six days before the fish causes a catastrophic earthquake, calms down and returns to a vast subterranean ocean. To get to this Godfish, the adventurers will climb up and into the mountain, itself transformed by the fish's presence, to reveal layers of strange history from the ruins of reptilian fish temples to golem or automaton maintained automatic meat factories.

Spoiler warning: In discussing Holy Mountain Shaker we will reveal much of the content of Holy Mountain Shaker. You Are Warned!

* A very faithful modernization of the 1981 Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons system.


Gus: I’ve known Luka as a fellow hobbyist for years, since the G+ days, and would consider him an RPG friend. I adore his art and the aesthetic he brings to his works, having watched the UVG and its rainbow lands evolve over the years. My own “Yellow Lands” mentioned in Pretender’s Dread Machine were an early inspiration for Luka who was running the adventure when UVG first started to take shape. I’ve played in one of his games years ago (a dungeon crawl strangely - he writes a fine one), but mostly we just share sensibilities about setting design, and I generally enjoy his work.

I haven’t played Holy Mountain Shaker and am very unlikely to, as I tend to use my limited time to play my own adventures, but I’ve read the PDF thoroughly. Following my design interests and role as Bones of Contention’s resident grognard, I will largely be questioning Holy Mountain Shaker’s functionality and playability.

WFS: Just as Gus’ adventurers served as the initial spark that would grow until the raging bonfire that is Luka’s UVG, the UVG was not only what inspired me to start writing the Prismatic Wasteland (both the blog and the game), it was also my introduction to the OSR/Post-OSR scene. In my limited interactions with him, Luka has never been anything but incredibly kind and supportive. Like Gus, I am a fan of Luka’s work. To the extent my affection for Luka impacts my review, it might be best to take it with a small grain of salt because I admit I am approaching it as a fan.

I have not played Holy Mountain Shaker, but I would never say never. Now that I’ve read it so thoroughly, it probably means I’ll need to run it rather than play in it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Grave Trespass - Pokemon Dungeon Crawler

Grave Trespass is our series of guest reviews. This guest review is by Marcia. --Ben L.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe

and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

- James Joyce, “The Dead”, Dubliners

Often the Old School Renaissance is characterized as a return to a particular playstyle, which was not necessarily the norm in the early years of the hobby, but has since been upheld as an original style of play. With respect to playstyle, then, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler by John Battle [1] postures itself as an OSR-inspired rulebook. The player takes on the role of a Pokemon creature in a post-human world, “delving into the dungeons [human beings] left behind” (Battle 3). On the same page, Battle notes that his game plays “similarly to other dungeon crawlers” and that the rulebook uses the same language as other OSR-style texts, including hit dice and levels. This statement allows the text to locate itself not only in an existing literary tradition (as it were), but, being a rulebook, imports understandings of play common to the declared style without having to explicate them.

Reinventing the Wheel

Pokemon Dungeon Crawler is split between an implicit intended playstyle and an explicit set of rules which do not facilitate that playstyle. Having established that it uses OSR terminology as boilerplate, the rulebook instead focuses on distinguishing Pokemon characters by their abilities in combat. There are twenty playable Pokemon characters, and each one is defined by a number of special abilities that deal damage or inflict conditions in battle. The book maps each special ability to an element, and it explains that certain actions will have stronger or weaker effects against a particular target based on the target’s own element. Although this emphasis on combat makes most sense to adapt the Pokemon characters to paper and pencil, it does not lend itself to a playstyle where exploration guided by desire (often of gold) is the primary loop of play.

One useful point of comparison might be to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons published in 1974. It referred to itself not yet as [rules for] a role-playing game, but as “rules for fantastic medieval wargame campaigns”. The first volume which defines player characters does so mostly according to their combat abilities, although it also includes rules for levying taxes, recruiting monsters, and carrying equipment in that order. The third volume however gives procedures for underworld and wilderness exploration, by defining a ‘turn’ as the interval between random encounter checks (albeit at different scales of distance and time). Although the usage of the word ‘turn’ becomes confusing when reading the spell lists and trying to decide if a spell should last 1 minute, 10 minutes, or a whole day, the book is consistent in defining the ‘turn’ as the base loop of a play. The effect is that the original Dungeons & Dragons has a clear notion of what constitutes the game it prescribes by defining it in terms of its repetitive procedures.

On the other hand, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler offers rules for dungeon exploration, but they are scant and unintuitive in their presentation. They are given in a section entitled “Dungeon Rules”, but the first page of this section is concerned with handling encounters. First it defines initiative as the procedure to determine if it is your character’s turn to act or your enemy’s turn. Then it defines a turn as simply that: your character’s turn to perform an action. This definition does not mesh well with the explanation of dungeon exploration on the next page, where it says “You can take a turn to explore a room/area. This lasts about 10 minutes” (Battle 42-3). Here, dungeon crawling appears as an action a character can take rather than the core loop of the game itself.

The book offers more of a procedure for long-term travel, prescribing that every six hours of travel requires a ration and an encounter check. Still, that is the most detail it offers and so it gives more questions than it does answers (Does every traveler consume a ration? How much distance does a ‘6 hour chunk’ cover? How many time-chunks can one travel in a day?). Depending on how much travel is expected of the players, which is unclear, this rule might be too costly; however, if places of interest are only a trail away from each other as in the Pokemon video games, then perhaps the high cost of travel makes sense. In any case, for both overworld and dungeon exploration, the reference to literal timekeeping seems to be more of a vestige of stereotypical OSR rules than something with procedural function. This is not to say that the rulebook fails to meet my own tastes, but that it does not offer a full framework for the playstyle it prescribes. This must be supplied by the players.

To me, the text is indicative of a preference in the hobby culture for rulebooks (or ‘games’) over other materials produced for tables. The same material offered in Pokemon Dungeon Crawler would have been better suited for an adventure or a setting module, where hard rules could be supplied by a base rulebook and specific minutia handled by the Pokemon adaptation. I understand the motivation to make a rulebook to adapt specific Pokemon mechanics, but I don’t see this as necessary when the book prescribes that the Pokemon serve as player characters, and that these characters even adhere to the traditional D&D class schema of fighter, magic-user, and cleric. An adventure text would have suited Battle’s intent better, I think, to allow players to explore a world of Pokemon without human beings. Instead, as a rulebook, the text cannot fully commit to its vision of a fictional world nor does it explain fully the sort of play it prescribes.

Nostalgia in the OSR

Pokemon Dungeon Crawler also embodies the sort of nostalgic attitude that originally propelled the OSR as a cultural trend. Only a few hobbyists now grasp at an ideal of Gygaxian play that Gary himself did not strive for; most who have stuck around after the end of the OSR understand that old school play is not actually original, but a matter of personal preference [2]. Since then, there have been whispers of new school revolutions and sword dreams that would redeem the kernel of creativity from the corpse of the OSR. Yet these post-OSR works have not quite parted from the desire to return to a lost state, whether that state is the dubious origin of the role-playing game hobby or a memory of childhood trapped at the turn of the millennium (if not earlier).

John Battle’s works are preoccupied with the recapture of a time long past .dungeon is a tabletop adaptation of the experience of playing a massive multiplayer online role-playing game [2], taking cues from the 2000s anime franchise .hack and contemporary video games of the time like Runescape and World of Warcraft. The book yearns for the days of LAN parties and late night Skype calls, or whatever they used back then. Likewise, My Body is a Cage adapts the premise of the Persona series of video games (most recently Persona 5 in 2016), where characters explore psychological dungeons in their sleep to escape the confines of their living experience [3]. However, unlike Persona which envisions an escape from the dullness of teenage life, My Body is a Cage mourns the loss of the player characters’ dreams which have been unfulfilled in mature life. It’s a Persona-esque fantasy for people who wish they still had something to look forward to in adulthood.

Unlike Battle’s other works, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler does not contend with the failures of adult life to live up to childhood expectations. Instead, it asks readers to play the roles of Pokemon in a world without humans. The sample dungeon takes place in an abandoned power plant, implying that this is not merely a world without humans, but one where humankind is done with. Of course, the book also explicates this: “There were humans at one point and now there aren’t. Pokemon have inherited all that was left behind.” It is a Pokemon world robbed of the childlike innocence with which the video game and anime series, both intended for children, is infused. The effect of this near-apocalyptic background is a sort of melancholic eulogy for childhood, which injects the player with a desire to reconstruct their world and return to what has been lost. This situates the game’s premise in the ideological presuppositions of the OSR as a return-to-tradition, even as that rhetoric has been discarded in superficial form by the left-leaning factions of the post-OSR community.

The setting’s apocalypticism also echoes what Joseph Manola refers to as the OSR’s aesthetic of ruin [5], which is a sort of setting where the player characters explore a fallen world populated with “ruined bodies, ruined minds, [and] ruined societies.” This trend is not original to any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which has historically adhered to what Gus L. calls Gygaxian vernacular fantasy [6]. Whereas Gygaxian vernacular fantasy has the veneer of medieval fantasy on top of a nostalgia for Wild West tales, the aesthetic of ruin expresses open nostalgia for a society and time rotting before the player characters’ eyes. Manola argues that the aesthetic facilitates the libertarian sandbox play encouraged by the OSR: “Well-maintained social order is the enemy of free-wheeling adventure, and so the more ruined everything is, the more freedom PCs will have to run around inside it.” This is absolutely true and necessary for understanding.

However, I cannot help but notice the timing. The late twentieth century was an increasingly optimistic time period in the United States, and this might be reflected in Gygaxian aesthetic which appeals to a nostalgia for a fictionalized past (the expansion of law and order) but serves as the conduit through which to fantasize about that past. The aesthetic of ruin, on the other hand, reflects the political volatility of the twenty-first century, having emerged in the post-9/11 era for example. Now the fantasy of tabletop campaigns is not to celebrate a constant state of symbolic victory, but to mourn for an impotent symbolic realm that has fallen to its self-inflicted trauma. For Battle to imagine a Pokemon world without humans reflects the larger attitude of melancholy in the tabletop hobby community, the modern culture industry, and finally the capitalist state of things gazing into its own navel and finding ruin.

This is not to say that the nostalgic attitudes that permeate Pokemon Dungeon Crawler and other works by John Battle are morally problematic, even besides moralism being a flimsy basis for analysis. In fact, they are utterly normal from the Lacanian standpoint that lack grounds desire, and so we desire what we think we lack. Nostalgia, a perceived loss of a past (blissful) state of being, consistently emerges in cultures across history. Marx says in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.” Of course, the Romans always looked to the Greeks as a role model of political power, and the Greeks were obsessed with a mythological golden age they could not attain. Hence when we discuss nostalgia as a motive for contemporary art, it cannot be reduced to fascistic tendencies. As cultural analysts, we ought to better distinguish between structures of desire that fascism plugs into (e.g. nostalgia), versus content that is plainly fascistic (e.g. what does it have to say about nations or about class antagonisms?).

Nevertheless, as a younger person, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler strikes me as a relic past its own time that appeals to a different demographic than my own (perhaps people who think that Pokemon creatures are cool rather than cute). This speaks to the nostalgic tendencies of the OSR that run deeper than advocating for an anachronistic playstyle that was never really “old school”, but which are nevertheless situated in an identity shaped by the simultaneous guilt and pleasure of nostalgic consumerism. This is on one hand an admission that I am not the intended audience of this work, but it is also a call for authors in the post-OSR to not so readily rely upon nostalgia as a premise for play. As long as our fantasies indulge in the pleasures of memories past, we will not yet have exited the OSR as a yearning for things that never were to begin with.

[1] Battle, J. 2020. Unofficial Pokemon Dungeon Crawler.

[2] B., J. “Six Cultures of Play,” The Retired Adventurer. 2021.

[3] Battle, J. 2021. .dungeon.

[4] Battle, J. 2021. My Body is a Cage.

[5] Manola, J. 2016. “OSR aesthetics of ruin,” Against The Wicket City.

[6] L., G. 2021. “Classic Vs. The Aesthetic,” All Dead Generations.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - Root Quickstart & Pellenicky Glade

In fall 2019, Magpie Games ran a success Kickstarter for a roleplaying game based on the Root board game published by Leder Games. In support of the Kickstarter, Magpie released a free Quickstart version of the rpg. In 2020, on Free RPG Day, Magpie released a free quickstart adventure, Pellenicky Glade

This year in 2021, Magpie released another quickstart adventure for Free RPG Day, and plans to release the final versions of the full Root roleplaying game. At the time of writing, the second adventure is only available to people who picked up a copy in person, and the full game is only available as a pdf to Kickstarter backers.
First Impressions

There's a certain sleight of hand that Root pulls off, in both its board game and roleplaying game formats. It's a trick that draws you in with lovely digital art showing adorable woodland animals, and delivers a game of conquering factions engaged in a brutal war. 

The board game hands you cute little screen-printed, critter-shaped meeples, then sets up a conflict between a corrupt aristocracy, an invading imperialist, locals who are by turns apathetic and divided by ethnicity, a burgeoning multi-racial democracy, and opportunistic types who live outside the law and subsist on a mix of odd jobs, charity, and grift no matter who's currently in charge.

The roleplaying game casts you as the ne'er-do-wells, and drops you into a fantasy roleplaying game where all the fantasy is supplied by casting talking animals in all the speaking roles, where there is no magic at all. Your characters are weak and vulnerable, supplies are scarce and costly, the numbers are small and unforgiving, and unlike even the lowest of low-fantasy roleplaying games, you have nothing more fantastical than a well-forged sword to help keep you alive.

Want to play a game where Robin Hood faces off against the Sheriff of Nottingham, rather than one where Hawkeye and Green Arrow go after Doctor Doom and his army of Chthuloid monstrosities? Although the art shows you something that looks more like Disney's foxy Robin Hood than any dour, "realistic" live-action king of thieves, Root will get you closer to your goal than any version of D&D, or any other fantasy roleplaying game I've seen. None of that necessarily speaks to the quality of the game design, but I want to be clear about what you can expect from the setting.

Basic Mechanics

The mechanics are organized into "moves" that require rolling 2d6 and adding an ability bonus, with rolls of 7-9 representing partial success, and rolls of 10 or more representing a greater success, a system that should be intimately familiar to players of other PBTA rulesets. The basic moves involve persuading an NPC, tricking an NPC, asking the referee questions about an NPC or about a situation, recklessly breaking something, recklessly trusting to chance, attempting a "roguish feat" like lock-picking or trap-disarming, or attempting a "weapon feat" like disarming a weapon or cleaving through armor. There are also three different moves for attacking an enemy - either by grappling, attacking with a melee weapon, or attacking with a missile weapon.

I want to call out the weapon feats as being particularly interesting. To perform a weapon feat, you need to know that particular feat, and you need a weapon that is "tagged" as being able to perform it. This is loads more interesting that weapon proficiency in D&D, and something that people should seriously consider importing. Some older editions of D&D toyed with the idea of characters learning specific weapons, like axes or polearms or what have you, but since the only difference between weapons is how much damage they deal, and that's determined by size rather than type, there was kind of no point, and those rules have mostly fallen out of fashion, in favor of just learning "simple" or "martial" weapons that are mostly distinguished by damage amount. But the weapon feats seem great, because it actually matters which ones you know, and it actually gives you a reason to use one weapon type over another!

Resources are tracked in a few ways. Each character has an "exhaustion" track and a "wounds" track. Exhaustion is acquired pretty easily, and in fact many character abilities require you to take a point of exhaustion in order to use them. Exhaustion is also the easiest to recover, both by resting, and by taking actions especially related to your character's motivation. Wounds mostly come from combat. 

There's a third resource called "decay" here and "depletion" in the finished rules. Each major piece of equipment also has its own depletion track. You deplete your equipment by using it, although you can substitute your own personal depletion track for the equipment's instead of letting it run out or break. You can also draw on your personal depletion track to produce small items of generic adventuring equipment. "Decay" is a terrible name and "depletion" isn't much better. I would have gone with "use" personally, but I also recognize that the designers were a bit hemmed in by the choice to name each track for a deficiency - for "wounds" instead of health, for example. 

Each character has 3-4 points of each major resource to start off with, although you can increase them by "advancing," which is sort of a piecemeal leveling up. With so few of these intrinsic resources, and so many opportunities to lose them, I do kind of wonder how much adventuring, in practice, can actually be accomplished before the characters run out of steam. That's a question I can't answer without playing the game though, which I haven't had the chance to yet. I suspect there's a bit of a learning curve for new players and new referees alike to set an appropriate pace.

There are 6 character types included in the quickstart rules, plus 3 more in the full rules, and another 10 in the Travelers & Outsiders expansion. The ones included here are the Arbiter, a mercenary who follows a personal code of justice, the Ranger, the Scoundrel, who's maybe closer to the Joker than to Han Solo than the name would imply, the Thief, the Tinker, more of a blacksmith than a mad scientist, and the Vagrant, who is some sort of charming grifter. All these character types have some martial ability and some felicity with thieving skills, along with special abilities related to their archetype.
This is a PBTA game, with all that that implies, both good and bad. The good, from my perspective, which may tell you more about me and my preferences than about the quality of the game, has to do with the comprehensiveness of the rules. While I don't really care for heavy rulesets with fiddly bonuses and penalties and situational modifiers that only crop up under special circumstances, and I can't honestly claim that I like rules light either, with barely-there mechanics that provide so little guidance you wonder what the putative game designer's contribution was at all. Instead of rules light, I like rules simple, rules consistent, and rules clear. Flexible rules that can be easily applied to similar-but-not-identical situations, like 5e's table for Improvising Damage from the environment, I personally find far more useful than a rules heavy, somehow-still-incomplete list of hundreds of possible damage sources and their very minor variations, or a rules light exhortation that I'm the referee, and I should decide whatever damage is right for myself and apply it as I see fit.

So I like that Root includes rules and advise for the most obvious things that players might try to do, not just in combat, but also traveling, socially interacting with individuals, and crucially for a game set against a backdrop of war, for dealing with the major factions. Though minimal in the quickstart, little more than just a reputation tracker, the full rules have much clearer advise for the magnitude of favors players could request, or the retaliation they might provoke, by interacting with factions based on their current level of notoriety or prestige. The travel moves especially please me - there's one mechanic for traveling along a path, and a second for going off into the trackless woods.

The bad, in my view, comes from a legacy of trying to distinguish PBTA games from D&D by changing up the vocabulary. I generally like the idea that players describe what they want their characters to do, and then the referee either tells them the result or asks them to roll the dice to find out. But start throwing slogans like "fiction first" and "to do it, do it" and "moves are triggered" at me, and even though I agree with what you're saying, something about the passive voice and the implied relationship between the players and the referee really bothers me. I recognize this is a basically irrational complaint, but I feel it anew each time I read that text. I'm also not a big fan of special abilities that basically say "when you perform X move, add this ability bonus instead of that ability bonus like everyone else uses. " There appears to be at least one special ability like that per character type, but fortunately no more than one per type.

Playbooks I consider a bit of a mixed blessing. They're great for getting started quickly, and for having all your abilities already written out with no need to hand-copy anything. Just make a few decisions, check a few boxes, and you can begin the game. But there's hardly any room to write on these things, and as you go, your character should acquire equipment and abilities that aren't pre-printed on the original playbook. Having an actual character sheet as a backup, something you could fill out once you've advanced to the point of outgrowing your first playbook, would be a really great inclusion.
Worldbuilding and Adventuring Advice

Arguably the biggest selling point for the Root rpg, (okay, besides its connection to the board game ... okay okay, and also besides the cute art), is the campaign setting. Yes Dungeon World isn't as popular as it used to be, and yes the complete Freebooters on the Frontier is still forthcoming, leaving a bit of a hole in the fantasy offerings among PBTA games, but probably if you're looking at the free rules and adventure, it's because you're interested in what it's like to run a campaign in a forest that's at war all around you.

The quickstart rules are rounded out with advice for setting up a map with a dozen linked communities and for running a first adventure session. Your campaign map will be a large-scale point crawl with 12 "clearings," which represent villages and their immediate surroundings. Each clearing is controlled by a faction, either the invading Marquis de Cat, the moribund Eyrie Dynasties, or just the local Denizens. The denizens are a mix of rabbits, mice, foxes, and birds, although each village has a predominant species. Each clearing also has: two "landscape features," two "important inhabitants," two "important buildings," and two "problems," which strikes me as a pretty good starting point, not far off the setting creation tables you see in Stars Without Number and its sister games. 

There are only 6 landscape features, and 3 of them are water, so I imagine that gets old much too quickly. There are 36 entries on the other tables though, so you might find a clearing has "a farmer and a smith" and "a market and a bakehouse" and is troubled by "poisoned supplies and a strange mystery." As a writing prompt, that does provide a starting point, but it will still take a lot of work on the referee's part to turn that into something that's ready for players to interact with it.

The generator for creating a starting adventure is more detailed. You get a starting location, a goal, the person who hired you, objects related to your goal, threats and groups related to your goal, and possible complications. So you might start out en media res "in a forest between clearings," there to "destroy an item," sent by "Local Help, a leader of a neighboring clearing." The item you're there to destroy might be "a strange device or relic," you might be threatened by "an overzealous guard captain," while your goal might require the involvement of "a metalworker's guild" in some way, and the whole thing might be complicated by "a usurpation in progress" in that neighboring clearing. This would take more work to bring to the table too, but it strikes me as more interesting than the clearing generator results. There's the inherent dynamism of having a goal and things standing in the way of completing it of course, but I think the adjectives are doing some heavy lifting here too. If we didn't know that the relic was "strange" or the guard captain "overzealous," the prompt would probably seem flatter and duller.

There's a page of advice for creating NPCs, complete with a list of sample names, and (importantly!) a half dozen sample combat statistics for different types of opponents. This too reminds me of Stars Without Number - the different enemies your players' characters might fight will be distinguished by things like faction membership, role, and motivation, but not so much by mechanical differences. One thing I like here is the recommendations for treating mobs of civilians as single, powerful opponents, with three different size options based on the size of the crowd.

The final touch here is advice for having the war pass through clearings between player visits. In between one session and the next, you could find that an army had been through and ransacked the place. Obviously the war shouldn't intrude in that way in between every pair of sessions, but the possibility of one side slowly winning or losing in the background makes the war a source of change and instability within the campaign, which seems appropriate. And although the player characters are assumed to be outsiders with no particular stake in the local conflict, the fact that the war's not just a perpetual stalemate might also give them some incentive to get involved, and have an impact.

Pellenicky Glade

The glade is the first pre-made clearing that Magpie released in support of Root. As I mentioned, they also put out another free one this year, although I haven't seen it yet, and the complete rules include a book of four more clearings. I'm really glad to see that, because I find it frustrating to a new ruleset or campaign setting come out, but no supporting materials offering any clear idea of how to play it. 

I mean this in two ways. First, every ruleset is good at some things and bad at others - presumably things the designers want you to be able to do more of, and things they don't think you should bother with, respectively - but it's not always easy to tell all the cool things the designer thinks you're supposed to be able to do, or how to assemble those tasks into a coherent adventure. Second, every unique or interesting campaign setting seems like it should host adventures unlike those you could have anywhere else. But again, if the only set-ups you already know are from other settings, it can be challenging to develop something that's both a good fit for the setting, and good full-stop.

Rulebooks can and should offer advice for adventure writing, but to be frank, these almost always suffer from what we might call the "draw the rest of the fucking owl" problem. The gap between what the advice in the book says and what a good, complete adventure ought to look like might be almost insurmountable for novice referees, and even experienced refs might benefit from help writing adventures that are specific to the setting, not just whatever they're used to running, regardless of how well it works with the new game. And the best kind of help is probably a good example.

All of which is to say that I'm glad to see Pellenicky Glade and the other pre-written clearings. I haven't read the adventure writing advice in the complete rules, but the gap between the quickstart advice and what's actually in Pellenicky is absolutely a "draw the rest of the fucking owl" situation.

Pellenicky Glade is a clearing dominated by birds, but mice make up a numerical majority. They were formerly allies of the Eyrie, but are now functionally independent. There are four major conflicts ongoing at the time the player characters arrive, and a brief summary of how each conflict will resolve itself if the players decide not to get involved in it. I love the idea of this, because it provides a baseline for deciding what effect the players actions have, and it helps you create the feeling of a living world where at least some things happen without the players making them happen. 

The Eyrie is demanding that Pellenicky rejoin them; everyone in town has an opinion about whether to try to remain independent or submit to vassalage, and the Dynasties might invade regardless of what the townspeople decide. Also there's a mayoral election coming up with three main candidates, two mice and a young member of the Goshawk family. Also also someone has killed the patriarch of the Goshawks family, and three possible heirs are vying for succession. Also ALSO also, a notorious cat burglar is in the area, and no one knows what she might be trying to steal, or how to stop her.

There are about a dozen named and statted NPCs involved in all this drama and a half dozen locations are briefly described. In addition to recommended resolutions if the players don't get involved, there are also tips for escalating each situation in response if they do intervene. There are a 6 pre-generated characters to use, and tips for giving each of them ties to the community. What you have here is not so much an adventure as it is a sandbox with at least a half-dozen possible patrons who might want the player characters' help, and who might offer up various adventuring tasks as ways to provide that help.

The parallel problems of picking a leader for the town and for the richest family, and the tie-in to the setting-wide problem of aligning with the warring factions both strike me as good ways to introduce the players to the themes of the setting. The mysterious cat thief isn't directly tied to the Marquisate faction, but I guess she serves as a reminder that there are cats in this game too? I'm less certain about her inclusion, but it does make sense to have at least one problem that's not of the locals' own making, which is maybe not something I would have thought of if I were developing a clearing without an example to reference. Pellenicky is also ostensibly a prime place to resupply and repair equipment, which ties directly to the unique rules of this game, which again seems good, although this seems like almost an afterthought compared to the political maneuvering.

State of the Sepulcher

To ring in the new year, our skeleton crew has decided to take stock of the state of our nighted sepulcher. Our conversation ranges over wha...