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.

Introduction

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.

FORMALITIES AND DISCLAIMERS

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. https://johnbattle.itch.io/pokemon-dungeon-crawler

[2] B., J. “Six Cultures of Play,” The Retired Adventurer. 2021. https://retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2021/04/six-cultures-of-play.html

[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. http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2016/09/osr-aesthetics-of-ruin.html

[6] L., G. 2021. “Classic Vs. The Aesthetic,” All Dead Generations. https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/2021/07/classic-play-v-aesthetic.html


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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Brain Infestations - Wheel of Evil

Wheel of Evil is a module for use with Labyrinth Lord by Jeff "Bighara" Sparks and Joel Sparks, recommended for 4-6 characters of Levels 3-5. I ran this module as part of my ongoing home campaign, ran in Errant over the course of about 3 sessions, with 3-6 players ranging from levels 1 to 3.

The basic set-up of the adventure is that the party is hired to protect some generic town's prized cheeses from marauding kobolds. This familiar premise is soon up-ended as the party quickly discovers that there is something more sinister afoot. Soon they will stumble into a subterranean fungal hell ruled by a sentient mold with plans for world domination, and those lowly kobold the party was prepared to genocide are likely to become valuable comrades, their bottles of distilled urine a weapon to combat the mycelial menace.

A Blast From the Past

Remember when Labyrinth Lord was the system du jour for the burgeoning OSR? Go back through the archives of DTRPG far enough, and you'll see our current crop of made for OSE adventures give way to LotFP, and before that to Labyrinth Lord (or at least, that's what the historical trajectory of my DTRPG library looks like). And something you'll notice on those modules which you don't see as much nowadays in modules, or at least not featured as prominently, is the expected range of player characters and their levels that are suitable for playing the adventure. This little snippet of paratext is, I think, key for interpreting the contents of the module within.

Because within this module, dear reader, you will not find any Kempian lateral thinking challenges, McDowellian traps, Gustovian factions or orienteering, combat-as-war, or any of the other well-worn bon mots found in the Principia Apocrypha. The structure of the module is, essentially, an introductory prelude of exposition and light investigation followed by a linear progression of set-piece encounters with a succession of Morale 12 Hostile creatures (aka guaranteed fights to the death). The one section within the adventure in which there is some non-linearity hazarded, as the players find themselves lost in a sprawing complex of cave tunnels that they will need adequate light to navigate, is handled by a succession of ability checks, resembling nothing so much as a 4e skill challenge. Indeed, there is no chance of the players failing, even if they run out of light sources, so long as they manage to survive the two pre-determined encounters that occur within this section (and any wandering monsters). After 8 ability checks they are guaranteed to move onto the next part of the dungeon.

To me, this is indicative of a time when the R in OSR might be better understood as "revival" rather than "renaissance". While the OSR and its proponents often purport to be a return to the good old days of how the game used to be played, this is nothing more than a romantic creation myth; as John B. notes, the play culture of the OSR and its precepts is a latter day invention, a re-reading of the fundamental texts that revealed new avenues of play largely unexplored. The predominant culture of play "back in the day", which John B. dubs Classic, is the style of play we can see evinced textually in the TSR tournament modules of old, with a focus on the 

linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly".

And it is this play ethos that I see reflected in Wheel of Evil primarily. This makes sense to me historically; that early in the OSR's history when values, norms, goals, and expectations around design were still inchoate and yet to cohere into a more stable play culture, early efforts by revivalists would align more closely with early D&D design as they actually remembered playing it, rather than how the "OSR" design orthodoxy which later emerged would dictate they remember it.

Taken within this context, the design decisions of Wheel of Evil seem much clearer. Structurally its very similar to a tournament module; even the reward structure of the adventure, with characters paid in shares of sales from the cheese festival, the value of those shares determined by a number of key factors related to the party's performance within the adventure, functions explicitly as a sort of grading system akin to those employed by Referees at conventions. Within this framework, the linear adventure and the set-piece encounters function to provide a uniform rubric against which the player's performance can be evaluated.

Yet more textual evidence for Wheel of Evil falling more squarely within a classic mode of play rather than a normatively OSR lies in the adventure's adherence to the aesthetics of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy. Yet another norm of the OSR is the reskinning of monsters, describing them in odd ways, and refusing to name them; this is to undermine player's attempts at system mastery and force them to engage with novel and unexpected challenges beyond those for which they have an expected frame of reference. By contrast, many of the encounters in Wheel of Evil seem to rely on an assumption of system mastery, that your players will know what a shrieker is, or a yellow mold or gelatinous cube or black pudding. It deploys these familiar creatures in novel situations, using their presence to signal to savvy players to be on the look-out for danger and treachery. Successful players will parlay their knowledge of these monsters to navigate the new and novel situations they've been reconfigured into, while those who do not recognise the black masses being spat out by a minion in the boss battle as a black pudding or the immobile skeleton floating down a tunnel to be evidence of a gelatinous cube and not some malign undead are likely to have a very bad time.

Hamburger America

Almost all the regional hamburgers George Motz presents in his YouTube show are pretty much the exact same burger with one or two slight variations. And yet, within the constraints of this formula of bread and beef, these slight novel introductions manage to produce what feel like wildly different culinary experiences. Looking at Wheel of Evil, this is similar to what I find to be the joy of the vision of Classic design with which it presents us.

The scenario design in Wheel of Evil feels like a tone poem or a limited palette painting that asks, "how many ways can we combine all the classic oozes, slimes, and molds in D&D to create weird new encounters?" By working within a known and stable set of conventions, the slight novelties and variations it introduces strike me as being all the more surprising and delightful. The excitement and tension within the module derives not from the vast possibilities arising from a sandbox or a more open-ended adventure, but from the juxtaposition of discrete mechanical parts (e.g. monster statblocks or traps with very particular abilities represented mechanically) whose interactions present very narrow paths of success. The very first hostile encounter within the module sets the stage for this, with a large mushroom grove within which lurks an incredibly stealthy high HD monster with a paralyzing attack (and as the ability to swallow a paralyzed target) as well as a number of shriekers which will immediately alert said high HD monster. This is also illustrative of a trend within the encounter design where a familiar monster will be combined in an encounter with a new, bespoke creature, or else be presented in a novel environment (the chamber leading to the boss battle is a shallow pool studded with slippery stepping stones, within which lurks a gray ooze) or form (miniature starter cultures of yellow mold, or mini black puddings, for example). 

This mechanistic adventure design produces an almost point-n-click adventure game logic to the puzzles and challenges within the module. Preceding the dark, twisting caverns is a grove of bioluminescent fungus, which will glow for 1d6 hours; before the players descend into the fungal depths they have the opportunity to discover a large still of distilled alcohol, which the fungus monsters in the module are weak to (and later on they will encounter a cadre of potentially friendly kobolds who have similarly helpful flasks of distilled urine). In the spirit of presenting a tournament-esque level playing field, everything a group of clever players would need to bring to bear to be successful exists within the closed system field of the adventure itself.

The corollary to this is that there a number of very clever, rather devious "gotcha" moments in the adventure waiting to catch unwary players off guard. The first and most obvious of these is the mold valve in the starting section of the adventure: investigating too closely will lead to that character getting stuck in the valve and, if not rescued, being deposited to the lower levels of the dungeon in an unconscious state, where they will be carried by a bunch of goons to be devoured by the boss monster of the dungeon. Their party members have time to rescue their unfortunate comrade, but the most readily available way to damage the mold valve, fire, will also end up causing damage to the cheese that provides the bulk of the party's reward. Another trick that I particularly enjoy is that, right after the party emerges from the dark, winding tunnels that require light sources (e.g. torches) to navigate, their next encounter will be with a creature that is attracted to fire; a clever party who managed to navigate these tunnels by mushroom light quickly enough won't face this danger. 

My favourite, however, has to be the twin pit traps. When I ran this module, the party sprung the first pit trap, and then, being on the look-out, easily spotted the second pit trap further down the hallway. But, beyond that second pit trap, is an ochre jelly whose proportions just so happen to perfectly align with the size of the pit trap they avoided springing. Thinking themselves very clever, they goaded the slow jelly back down the hallway, avoiding a fight by making it fall into the pit trap. To their dismay, however, they then saw the translucent mass of the jelly that the bottom of that second pit trap contained some very attractive plate mail and a magical greatsword, which was rapidly being dissolved within the acidic mass of the jelly.

There is a great joy in seeing this kind of tight design, similar to the feeling one gets seeing a well-engineered Rube Goldberg contraption go off. While such design may not be en vogue in the old school scene anymore, I think there are many valuable lessons to be drawn from the examples set by Wheel of Evil.

Other Passing Remarks

The kobolds in this adventure all speak in peevish Bavarian accents. This is great. It seems the natural extension of WH40K's football hooligan Orks. I want to see every problematic fantasy humanoid recast as a farcical European caricature.

There are lots of nice little handouts in this adventure. My favourite is the one for the cheese shares the party gets. 






Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Mundane Vacations - Mouth Brood

BOC FIELD REPORT

LOCATION: WORLD WIDE WEB

SPECIMEN #: 001 

NAME: MOUTH BROOD

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: 36 PAGE ZINE, MONOCHROME (CYAN)

OBSERVED BEHAVIOUR: BEING A REALLY GOOD HEX CRAWL

PHOTO INCLUDED.


Welcome welcome to the first iteration of my Mundane Vacations series, where I will go through various weird OSR modules, crawl through all the hexes and return back to safety to give you this review.

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Today I'll be visiting Mouth Brood, written and illustrated by Amanda Lee Franck (You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge and Vampire Cruise), edited by Andre Novoa and laid out by lina & nando. It is system-agnostic with a couple of generic OSR stat blocks, investigative and horror sci-fi games are recommended.

Inspired by my all time favorite sci-fi stories, Annihilation and Roadside Picnic, Mouth Brood is a hex crawl set in a dense jungle in the harsh snow of the Yukon. How is that possible you ask? Well, with an alien artifact left behind millennia ago of course! Let's look inside shall we.

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Here we see that most of the zine is taken up by the extremely detailed bestiary. Each creature (or plant) fits its own unique niche in the self sustaining and self consuming ecosystem of the alien dome.

The zine itself is as self sufficient as the ecology it is depicting. It includes procedure for hex crawling, rolling encounters, and even character creation options.

As if the adventure runs itself. Players go to a hex, GM rolls encounter, reads encounter behavior, players react, GM rolls encounter, and so on. Best thing about running this was that I didn't have to make any choices about how to approach the creatures, and I never felt unfair to the PCs since I was just following the zine's descriptions.

But GMing Mouth Brood isn't a passive role. The task becomes to build connections between every part of the microcosm, figure out how the PCs actions will ripple through the food chain. For me this was incredibly fun. We even had a "there is always a bigger fish" moment in our game, when several creatures hunting one another managed to line up.

Ophimia Marginatus

Needless to say: the bestiary is the star of the show. Over half of Mouth Brood's pages are explanations of flora and fauna behaviors (each one illustrated as well!). Each has a d4 table of things they might be doing at the moment and an 'if observed' entry. Both help the players understand how this creature works and take appropriate measures to capture it, and help the GM to faithfully portray it.

On that note, the goal of this adventure is to capture 5 live specimens for the Astralem Biotech Corp. Each hex offers plenty of opportunities to encounter at least one organism that you can add to the field report. Our well equipped party of 2 (+4 mercenaries) has completed the task in about 2 hours of real time. I imagine a bigger group with less resources would take a bit longer.

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The hexes themselves are keyed in a way that builds paths and connections between them. Blinking lights lure adventurers towards them, and scratch marks on the trees warn away. The crawl doesn't rely on PCs reaching specific points, so the party may as well explore on their own. Still, the links provide connective tissue between all the weird and independent parts of the hex map.

Speaking of which, the removable cover/map was super convenient to detach and reference during play. I love every zine that does this.

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As per Manifestus Omnivorous rules, within the dome there hides ONE monster. More monstrous than any other thing we've encounter previously in the zine (and it's been a scary ride!). This creature is at the top of the food chain in the dome. It will hunt anything and everything. It is frighteningly efficient, it has evolved to be this way.

It has an almost magical ability to move through spaces without sound. Like a ghost in the form of a saber-toothed tiger. Can the PCs escape it's wrath? Maybe, but they will have to use everything they got to outwit the monster.

 

Wiwaxia Vivarum

When I was in middle school I had this nice thick green tome "Mythological Creatures". It was a collection of all kinds of beings, neatly arranged in alphabetical order (with the rare illustration). It was my favorite thing to read, despite that it was kinda dense and lacked an epic story. I was entertained just by imagining all the descriptions come to life.

This is what Mouth Brood feels like to me. A living and breathing mega-organism of funky beings.

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So even if you are not planning to run a hex crawl in the near future, I would grab this just for the bestiary. The creatures presented can fit into any weird horror setting and exist as a stand alone monster, or just a cool encounter for PCs to freak out about.

10/10 would visit an alien dome full of primordial carnivores again

 

A Pinch of Salt: The Drain

  The Drain Author: Ian Yusem Reviewer: Dan D. System: Mothership $4.99 pdf  Run as Referee   General Disclaimer: I share a couple discord s...