Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - In the Light of a Ghost Star & Earth Expedition One

In the Light of a Ghost Star is an ultralight ruleset that includes a mini campaign setting, sample hexcrawl, and sample dungeon. It's written and illustrated by Nate Treme of the Highland Paranormal Society.

I bought Ghost Star because I was drawn in by the cover art, and by its compelling opening description. I recently had a chance to play the sample hexcrawl, Earth Expedition One, and to give the entire ruleset a close reading. I played with Joshua LH BurnettLeighton Conner, and Peter Kisner, who served as the referee.
The Setting

The opening description, the one that drew me in, paints an evocative image of a dead Earth beneath a dark sky, tells of the last bastions of human civilization on Mars, and outlines both the structure of the campaign and the role of the player characters.
"Earth was abandoned ages ago during the red giant expansion. Now, dimly lit by the ghost light of a dead white dwarf, it lies layered with eons of forgotten civilizations. From the warmth of Martian reactor cities, scavengers hire illegal transportation to earth to delve into its depths, looking for ancient treasures. There they must deal with ghosts, machines, and the strange life that has evolved on humankind's abandoned home planet."

The economy of words is impressive. The imagery is strong, and I can easily imagine the world's being described. But the setting I imagine when I read this paragraph, and the setting described in the rest of Ghost Star are not the same place. I see an Earth like the ocean floor - filled with rusted wrecks, weird plants, alien life - inspired by William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and Chris Beckett's Dark Eden

Nate writes something different. We get a world of war apes, humanoid cockroaches, space slugs, and robots straight out of Looney Tunes, Futurama, and The Jetsons. For me, the dissonance between expectation and reality was almost jarring, but I don't know if others would experience the same gap.

As we'll see when we look at the sample adventure, the campaign is exactly as described. From the start, you know who you are, what you're doing, and why.

Aside from the introduction, Nate's setting emerges from lists of treasures and artifacts, the hexmap from the sample adventure, a handful of named NPCs, especially from the encounter tables. This is a world where an astro-lich assembles a library inside a perpetually levitating flying saucer, where war apes worship a giant slug amidst the ruins of an ancient city, where you are as like to discover Twinkies and crayons as you are functioning pre-Martian artifacts like a hologram generator or gravity reverser.

The elements fit together to create a rather gonzo mini-setting, one that's more Gamma World than I expected, but none the worse for it. The limited number of setting elements probably limit the replayability of the game unless you are prepared to either accept a great deal of repetition, or write your own setting for each subsequent expedition.
The Rules

Just as with the setting, the actual rules of the game are described in many places throughout Ghost Star. As an ultralight game, there are very few rules, and relatively little guidance on how and when to use them. I suspect there's an unspoken assumption that everyone involved will be playing D&D with modifications. There is only one paragraph devoted to "gameplay", and it isn't actually enough to play the game.

"The referee describes situations then the players get a turn to move up to 30 feet and perform an action. If an action’s success is uncertain then the player rolls the appropriate stat die. A 4 or higher succeeds. At referee’s discretion, special circumstances such as tactics or disadvantages give +1 or -1 to the roll."

There are three stats - Fighter, Explorer, and Scientist - and players initially assign d4, d6, and d8 dice among them. The phrase "if an action's success is uncertain" is doing a lot of work here. People who are basically playing D&D will likely have ideas about when to roll, although players from different traditions might make different assumptions, and Ghost Star offers little advice about how Nate would recommend resolving those disagreements.

From the equipment list, we learn that using weapons to attack requires a successful Fighter roll, and using the Cell Patcher device requires a successful Scientist roll. From that, I infer that using Ancient Alien Tech found on Earth also requires a Scientist roll, although that's an assumption on my part, since the text doesn't address the issue.

The "example of play" is an important source of rules advice here. This kind of text is notoriously difficult to write well, but in Ghost Star, it provides invaluable insight into how the designer thinks the game should be played. In the example, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll of the dice. My one critique of this text is that of the six rolls, only one fails, and the lone failure comes one of the two characters attacking the same monster, who is defeated by the single success. We get no idea, from this example, how Nate thinks the referee should handle failed dice rolls.

It's an important question, because the players are going to be rolling a lot of failures. With success coming from a 4 or higher on a d4, d6, or d8, each character has only a 25%, 50%, or 63% chance of success on any given task. 25% is miserable - even worse than the 33% so many old school designers insist on making the default in their rules, and that so many old school players complain about. A penalty of -1 to the roll, from hunger or disease for example, lowers the players' chances to 0%, 33%, and 50%. And as I said, in the example of play, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll.

In my playthrough, we were predictably, comically awful at all of our skills and failed at most things we tried. The characters are also quite fragile with only 3 hp. If you want to portray characters who are at all competent, I recommend raising the starting stats to d6, d8, and d10. Ghost Star's advancement system allows characters who survive the expedition and recover at least 5 valuable artifacts each to gain 1 additional hit point and increase a single stat by one dice-type, but I don't think there is enough game here to support campaigns of more than a handful of expeditions without doing a lot more writing for yourself.

I have also been spoiled by I2TO's automatic combat damage setting a standard for rules light gaming. Your preference may vary, but I would recommend using the Fighter dice to determine damage, rather than deciding whether an attack is successful. This would take a bit more modification, because you'd need to figure out some reason to wield weapons, and you might want to revisit those hit point totals.

All that said, I actually quite like the merging of stats and skills in Ghost Star. Each common task has a single stat associated with it, and each implies a broad enough array of expertise to make it easy to decide how to apply them to novel situations. They're like a combination the good advice on stats I read recently from Holothuroid and The Viking Hat GM.

Aside from the use of skill rolls, Ghost Star also has rules for inventory and travel. Characters start with 10 inventory slots, and can gain another each time they return to Mars with 5 artifacts. Presumably, items from the equipment list take up 1 slot each, although this isn't mentioned. Ancient Alien Tech is more cumbersome, and each one takes up 2 slots. 

Rations are a little odd - each ration feeds you for 2 days, meaning you really only need three rations per expedition. In my playthrough, this created a memory issue. I would recommend a modification here, either making each ration feed you for 1 day, or else using something like The Scones Alone's "expedition resources" so that each ration provides a single meal for the entire party.

"The transport ship lands in the dunes in the center hex. The pilot tells the scavengers she’ll pick them up at the same spot one week from now. Their job is to explore the area and find as many valuable artifacts as they can before it’s time to leave. Five hexes have named locations which are described below. When the scavengers enter a hex without a named location, roll on the encounter table (pg. 6) to see what they find. It takes a day to travel across a hex."

The rules for travel appear at the start of the key for the sample adventure. One key rules update between the 1.0 and 1.1 edition of the game was reducing movement from 2 hexes per day to 1 hex per day. The Retired Adventurer and Necropraxis have good explanations for why you might prefer single-hex travel, especially in a rules light game. I think Nate was wise to make that simplification.

The Adventure

Earth Expedition One covers a small region of 19 hexes with four obvious landmarks and a hidden dungeon that we never found in my playthrough. Peter added some of his own house-rules, but I believe we had substantially the expected player experience. 

We began by meeting the astral-lich and volunteering to find books for his library, a task we never accomplished. We scouted the city of the war apes and narrowly avoided being slain by them. We had several random encounters en route to the pylon and the lake. We were unable to make it back to the landing zone in time, but had fortunately found an artifact that allowed us to contact our pilot to set up a new pick-up site. We had enough treasure to pay our fare, but not to "level up" at the end.

With so few keyed hexes the experience of this adventure is largely governed by the random encounter table. I like that Nate put effort into facilitating the social element of the game. Each keyed hex offers a named NPC to talk to, someone who wants something or has something to offer you. The faction occupying each random location has a goal they're pursuing. Robot bandits would rather trade insults than get into gun-fights. Not everyone is friendly, but everyone has an agenda you can interact with. It's a nice touch that adds a surprising layer of complexity to an otherwise simple game.

The random encounter table is focused enough to create a specific setting, but reusing it would start to accumulate a lot of repetitions. I do have a concern about the robots on the encounter table. Both "rumors" and "ghostly apparitions" appear as sub-tables nested within the main encounter table. First you learn that there's a rumor, then you roll again to learn what it is. But each robot is on the top level of the encounter table. The robots are all well-thought out, humorous, and highly specific. They would be perfect for keyed encounters, or for a sub-table, but I think they're not quite right for the top layer of a random encounter table.

To see how random tables would function over the course of an entire region, I created my own 19 hex mini-setting using the hex stocking rules from Ghost Star. Since I'm generating this for review purposes, I used the exact results of each table, rather than creatively modifying anything as I might if I were prepping a session as a referee. If you were to run this adventure, you might want to replace some of the duplicates the birthday paradox gives us. This region seems to me to be the site of a robot carnival, perhaps set up to celebrate a rare sighting of the Legendary Space Whale.

Earth Expedition Two - click here to view

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Spectral Interrogatories - Stonehell Dungeon I: Down Night Haunted Halls


Stonehell Dungeon I: Down Night Haunted Halls is one of the first Old School Renaissance Megadungeons, published in 2009 when the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons in a classic style was shiny, exciting and novel. Written and published by Michael Curtis on Lulu, it is in every way a glimpse into another time, and that is not a bad thing. It might seem odd to inaugurate a new reviews project with a 12 year old adventure that’s been turned over, scrutinized, well loved, and copied, but Stonehell is a special adventure, a standard of what is frequently called the “OSR”, and still widely lauded ... so let’s tear it apart ... of course not. While I am not stinting from criticism, Stonehell is an excellent adventure and well worth study, emulation and play. It’s biggest flaws are the, likely unavoidable, result of its status as a megadungeon, its nostalgic intent, and age. At 134 pages, I won’t be able to do a page by page examination of Stonehell, but I have read the whole thing, and I think I’ve even played a game or two set in its halls back in the halcyon days of G+. As a megadungeon I expect certain features: minimalist keying, a strong appeal to D&D’s vernacular fantasy, large amounts of empty space, faction intrigue, unexplained mysteries that can tie into a referee created setting, and scale that requires repeated visits throughout a campaign. Some of these are not things I normally like in an adventure, but they are useful, likely necessary, in a project the size of Stonehell, and even more they’re to be expected in a clearly nostalgic work from 2009.

This is about the best art you'll get.

Stonehell is a particular kind of adventure, one that seeks to emulate not just the mechanics of early Dungeons & Dragons, but its implied and explicit setting. Stonehell is an effort to meet a popular design goal in the early days of the OSR, but still something that can succeed or fail on its own terms. Stonehell succeeds, because it avoids most of the pitfalls of nostalgia. It is referential while maintaining a distinct voice and willing to break with its sources to improve its own quality. Within self-imposed limits Stonehell is one of the best, its faction structure is robust, its existence and themes justified by its fiction, and its locations as innovative as can be for a willfully traditional and predictable setting. Still, for a reader that wants to move beyond the often stifling tropes of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy Stonehell is not a great adventure choice, its numerous humanoid tribes are still essentially evil monsters (though only the human berserkers seem truly monstrous), but they are presented in the classic manner as potential allies of convenience who have goals, rivals and plans. Descriptions are terse and Stonehell’s halls take hundreds of keyed locations to depart from the standard maze of gray stone corridors that define stereotypical dungeon adventure. Stonehell’s overall quality, long held status as one of the first and best OSR megadungeons, and layout innovations mean that even if one rejects playing Stonehell because of its aesthetic and thematic choices, it's still incredibly valuable to anyone seeking to design a megadungeon.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Rashomon - Isle of the Plangent Mage


Isle of the Plangent Mage is an adventure written by Donn Stroud. It is illustrated by David Hoskins, with cartography by Glenn Seal, editing by Fiona Maeve Geist and Jarrett Crader, and layout by Anna Urbanek. It is written for Old School Essentials (OSE), a retro-clone of B/X or "Moldvay" D&D. The adventure is published by Gavin Norman's Necrotic Gnome in their novel house-style as part of a Kickstarter for the most recent printing of Advanced OSE. 

Five of us playtested this module over four 2.5 hour sessions with a party of five 3-4 level Old School Essentials (classic edition) characters whom we created for this purpose. Our group was:

*Ben (DM)

Eric (Jonra the magic-user)

Dan (Par the monkey man thief )

Ava (Rabta Swango the dwarf)

Qpop (Rumble the cleric)

Zedeck (Ball Bearing the halfling)

*In keeping with our stated policy, we note at the outset that Ben L has published one free adventure with Gavin Norman, The Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper, which appeared in From the Vats. This adventure is referenced in Isle of the Plangent Mage once. From time to time, Ben L has discussed the possibility of further collaborations with Norman's Old School Essentials line.

What follows is a "Rashomon" style review. Each member of the group will give their perspective on our game. Although we did discuss the module briefly after the final session, these opinions are our own. Spoilers aplenty follow, so if you might play in this module, you should probably stop reading now. 


Overview of the Module:

The Isle of the Plangent Mage begins with a two page overview of the locations and events of the module. It also discusses one starting vignette: the beaching of a pod of whales. It also gives some possible adventure hooks for visiting the module's dungeon. 

It next presents a small coastal sandbox, consisting of the village of Imbrich and Darksand Isle. The village is covered in three terse pages that discuss the not-quite-Innsmouth vibes of the villagers, outline a few personalities and local establishments, and presents a table of rumors. Darksand Isle gets a terse writeup of 6-7 pages, with several locations, including a pair of lighthouses (one inhabited by the ghost of Cetus' wife, the source of Cetus' plangency), an eerie idol risen from the sea, feral mutated teenagers, and hidden pirate treasure.  

But the bulk of the module is taken up with a single 47 room dungeon, the Undertower of Cetus the eponymous plangent mage. It is very recently abandoned and only starting to come to pieces. (The villagers do not know Cetus is missing, although they are perhaps beginning to suspect that something may have happened to him.) It is a submerged wizard's tower filled with Cetus' personal effects, force fields, mutated creatures, and sound-themed arcane contraptions. It is deadly, with a rapid random encounter clock.

Play Experience:

The hook I gave the party was that they were very short on funds and came to the coast looking for Cetus to sell him a remarkable musical artifact, a xylophone that played notes that could only be heard in the astral and ethereal planes. In need of cash, they were hoping that he would pay them a huge sum for this highly specialized device. 

In play, we spent one session in the sandbox focused almost entirely on the beaching of a pod of whales on the outskirts of Imbrich and the moral dilemma it presented after Rumble cast speak with animals and conversed with the terrified whale children of the pod. Attempts to deter the villagers from butchering the whale children failed, until Jonra cast charm person on one of their leaders. Although they were not able to save a pink whale who pleaded with them to just let him die--in fact the polymorphed form of Cetus himself, they did rescue the whale children. The party then used the charmed villager to help them recruit a hireling, commissioned a boat again with the sway of their charmed villager, and proceeded directly to Cetus's Undertower. 

We spent the following three sessions in the Undertower, exploring a little less than half of the dungeon in total. The adventure ended in catastrophe when the party, overwhelmed by the horrors of the Undertower, descended to the lowest level with the intention to slay Cetus. Instead, there they confronted the Night Trawler, a spiritual horror. 

Clearly overmatched, the animal cleric Rumble, trying to redeem himself for inadvertently luring a great shark to its own death earlier in the dungeon, ran through the darkness playing a music box to draw off the Night Trawler. This allowed the party to escape, but not before Rumble ran face first into a force field that sheared him in half. Along the way, Ball Bearing lost his voice, only to find it later, and Rabta may or may not have killed her hireling's husband (promises were made).

What Worked

As a DM, the module was a breeze to run owing to its information design. The Necrotic Gnome house style involves incredibly terse and utilitarian presentation of information. Each dungeon area has its own map printed on the page, and all important information is bolded and then nested below the description. Like this:

Furthermore, the important information is bolded at the top of the room entry and explained at greater length in bullet point style below. As a result, the module couldn't have been easier to run straight from the book. I read it through once. I then spent an hour prepping the first session, which mainly consisted of imagining a bit more fully what was going on in the village, and what the beaching of the whales would be like. In subsequent sessions all I did was briefly remind myself what was around the players in the dungeon, and consult the text to answer a few lingering questions about the dungeon. While there is a cost for the Necrotic Gnome house-style in a loss of evocative writing that conveys mood and theme, the gains in usability at the table are big.

We also used the high quality VTT maps that come with the electronic version of the module on Roll20, and this made dungeon crawling easy with fog of war, since the entire Undertower could be put on a single page and revealed as the party progressed through it, including across different levels. 

As a DM and reader of the module, although it didn't see much play with our group, I found the mystery sandbox that surrounded the dungeon an interesting twist on what would otherwise be tired cliches about "sea folk" and a wizard driven to distraction by lost love. 

The Undertower, however, is where the module shines. Stroud richly imagines it as a mysterious location full of arcane oddities and wonders connected to sound, mutation, and the sea. There were many moments of wonder intermingled with horror in our sessions. There are numerous toys to play with, sound-themed puzzles and curses, and the like in the dungeon. The Undertower also contains an artifact, the Resounding Assembly, with the possibility to transform a campaign in really interesting ways that couldn't be explored in our short play through. 

As a DM, my experience of the module was dominated by what I liked about it, but there are some issues that came out in running it that suggest room for improvement.

What Could Have Worked Better

Among the most important information about any location-based adventure like a sandbox or dungeon is what is going on with the factions that inhabit the location. Interacting with factions is probably the most fun part of play. For this purpose you need to know how the factions are disposed to react to the players, how they relate to other factions, and what generally speaking they want. In short, factions provide a lot of what makes anarchic location-based exploration fun. They also shape everything about what's happening in the space the players are exploring. For these reasons, the factions for a location need to be pulled to the front of the description and highlighted. 

The module does this well in some places and not so well in other places. The village is described well, but Darksand Isle and the Undertower much less so. I entirely missed the fact at first that the Undertower is inhabited by caretakers, which you have to infer from details of room entries and the encounter table. Who are they? Are they from the village?  Do the people in the village know about them? How much do the caretakers know about the Undertower? What do they want from the PCs? Also there are pirates on the encounter table! What is going on with them? Similarly, part of the tower is dominated by a mutated shark and its spawn, whom he sends out to collect further subjects for mutation. Is the mutated shark intelligent? Can you converse with it? Is this a faction or a just a big dumb monster? I had to make a ruling at the table and went with the big dumb B-movie monster alternative, because it seemed to fit the awesome illustration of a screaming tentacled shark monster by David Hoskins. 

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of these factions only appear on the very large encounter table. So there's also a substantial chance that the main groups you can actually talk to in the tower won't be encountered at all, as was true in our play. In an adventure that's primarily about exploring a space, it's better to locate the factions at least partly in space, and include at least some factions you can converse with in numbered locations. 

Now, I suspect part of the problem here was that the module was part of a kickstarter and had a set page number of 58 pages to which all the adventures had to conform. This is a very ambitious module for that page count. Perhaps the faction element was what ended up on the cutting room floor. If so, maybe it would have been better to shorten the dungeon in other ways.

Another thing that could perhaps have been a touch better concerns the "motive" for exploring the lower levels of the dungeon. Strangely, in what's set up as a mystery sandbox, a journal that tells you everything you need to know is in the first room room that the players are likely to walk into on the first floor of the Undertower. The very next room over has Cetus' spell book, another big ticket item. And, in fact, some of the biggest treasure hauls are right down the stairs from there. 

If you're going to have a vertical dungeon with levels that get nastier as you go down, you should probably put the big ticket items at the bottom. As it's written, I think the main reason to explore the lower levels is to turn on all the different parts of the Resounding Assembly. Perhaps the module would work best if they players choose to come to the Undertower to activate the Resounding Assembly for reasons of their own. 


The module had a good theme and good opening--the party spent the whole first session interacting with the whale butchers. But I think a lot of that came from Ben more than the module. 

A central elevator is a cool secret if you find it AFTER exploring a bunch of the dungeon conventionally: it lets the party skip a bunch of encounter checks re-travesing explored space. But as the main method of getting between levels, there's a kind of excess of choice--you get analysis paralysis and "let's check the next room for easy loot."

Button-pushing puzzles really call for illustrations. The ability to easily imagine things from descriptions is not a talent everyone has. 


I felt like the dungeon was most characterized by choice paralysis. Near immediate access to all floors via the main elevator, a colored button puzzle that took up most of a session. Combined with the implicit threat found in an oldschool dungeon, I kept feeling that I shouldn't interact with things--too many options, all of them horribly dangerous. 


I say this with absolutely no shade to Ben's skills as a Referee, and he ran a fantastic game, but I don't think the hook he provided us for this adventure quite worked.

The Undertower dungeon portion of the adventure, which is where we were more or less driven to by our narrative justification of having to meet with Cetus, suffers a problem that a lot of old LotFP modules and their imitators suffered from: its a horrible fucking place with not much reason to be there. Divorced from the traditional structure of a dungeon as Mythic Underworld which exists as a site for repeated expeditions to extract treasure, I was left with the sense of wandering around a pretty terrible haunted house with no real reason for being there. The lack of any conversant inhabitants in the dungeon did not help this fact. There's a lot of great interactivity, tons of puzzles and machines and gizmos and gadgets with levers to pull and knobs to turn, but with such an overall sense of danger permeating the space and no real option to safely retreat and return to engage on our terms, it was hard to want to really play with all these toys we were given.

Much of these problems are remedied by all the areas surrounding the Undertower, which we didn't get to play with. These provide short adventure sites where one can gather information, treasure, and magic items; NPCs you can talk to, who have goals and quests to give you; and clues which help you piece together the mysterey of the Isle and provide guidance for interacting with the many strange machines of the Undertower. Plangent Mage feels like its designed to be utilized as a mini-sandbox over a mid-to-long term campaign, and thats where its strengths would reveal themselves. Alternately, one could run the Undertower by explicitly leaning more into its "Negadungeon" aspects, though thats a term and style thats come into disfavour: doing so would likely require retooling the hook and trapping the players in the Undertower till they can find a means of escape.



Impressions as the player of a cleric that talked to the beached whales and got really sad / determined to help them. We thought that the pink whale might have been the plangent mage but did not find out until Ben told us at the end. If there are clues in the dungeon that we didn’t find, that’s great! If it’s just a hidden surprise, not as good. Related, there were definitely a lot of interesting things to investigate, just felt like we may have missed a lot of clues. It seemed like a lot of the information we could get was supposed to come out of the journal but stopping to read it in the dungeon seemed like a bad idea, although in the end we did. Were there other clue avenues? Definitely felt like we were stumbling around a bit, would have helped to have someone to talk to in the Undertower. 

I usually am more comfortable running much smaller environments and so was pleasantly surprised by the size of the dungeon, which felt like we were wandering around in a massive, but coherent, space. The weird shark mutant, the lever room, and all the trappings were really engaging. Hitting one of the levers and having a giant squid (octopus?) come floating up was an awesome moment. Doing the same thing but then screwing up and having the giant shark come flying into the chamber was another! High marks for environment and atmosphere.

Last point, this adventure needs a really compelling hook. The town seems overall very friendly, but there is no one to talk to inside the Undertower. The party will need a compelling reason to go inside in the first place, let alone keep exploring, beyond "What happened to Cetus?" Our group was trying to find the wizard to sell a fancy sound-based magic item, but the ambiguity about whether he was there or not started us off not wanting to steal / loot / disturb too much. 


Caveat: These notes are based on what we saw of the adventure -- which wasn’t much, admittedly. Impressions:

1. I liked the theme. The sea is always good, in that regard.

2. I didn’t like how complex the Undertower was. A personal preference thing -- but, I generally don’t love big dungeons that are literal dungeons. Felt like the stuff in it could’ve been spread out across the island, in coherent packets: the Mage’s household, a separate place from his laboratory, a separate place from the Resounding Assembly, etc.

Would’ve helped with variety; and also with answering the question that nagged our party throughout: “Okay, this place is scary, why are we going deeper?” Multiple shallow dungeons would feel less risky, and therefore mean players take more risks, even though the entire island is functionally a dungeon (just obscured).

3. I didn’t like all the unlabelled buttons. There were some buttons with different colours, I think? But these didn’t correspond to each other, for the most part? So there was a lot of random button-pressing, which didn’t feel like we were making interesting choices.

More signposting of what things did would’ve been welcome! Things like research papers would’ve made sense in various spots, like the Summoning Ambiance area -- “I tried reasoning with the merfolk, but they rebuffed me. Calibrate green frequency to induce soporific effect?” in a notebook on the lectern, etc.

Ben, Again

Listening to the players, perhaps we could say in a practical vein that you should consider running this module for its great mood and theme, high levels of interactivity, and good supporting sandbox. It's imaginativeness captivated most of us in play and led to some memorable moments. With a little work it could be a strong addition to your ongoing campaign or serve as a memorable standalone. But if you run it as a standalone learn from my mistake and ditch the mystery frame, instead using a hard frame about looting the tower or turning on the resounding assembly. Whether used as a one-shot or for an ongoing campaign, as the DM you may want to do some work on the factions before the party gets to the Undertower, deciding on their motivations, and locating some of them in keyed areas to help it come alive as less of a static negadungeon, and more as a living location with colorful NPCs with whom to interact. Prepare yourself for the fact that your players may experience some problems with choice paralysis and fatigue about choosing to play with Cetus' toys.

On a more theoretical level, we could say that the problems with the Undertower arise from the fact that the classic dungeon crawling is about the open-ended exploration of a space inhabited by factions. This is why what Justin Alexander called "Jaquaying a dungeon" after the work of legendary designer Jennell Jaquays is important. To "Jaquay" a dungeon is to design it in such a way that there are interesting and meaningful choices for players to make about which way to enter and how to navigate the space. It involves designing the dungeon with loops so that the players can make tactical choices or just stumble on things from multiple directions. In a multi-level dungeon it also involves designing several vertical connections, and ideally some secret paths to discover. This design uses space to short-circuits railroading by destroying the possibility of a planned sequence, and treats the dungeon as an open-ended spatial puzzle to be explored and used in anarchic fashion. 

The problems with this module, as excellent as it otherwise is, all arise from the failure to leverage space as a principle of design. Stroud puts an elevator right at the beginning that takes you clear through the dungeon with an otherwise linear stacked form, with obvious stairs as an alternate route. This is not Jaquaying a dungeon. It's simply saying, "there will be no puzzle of space here, go where you please", without any indication what might lie in any given direction. In this way, the up and down elevator buttons mirror the unlabelled buttons in the summoning chamber that troubled Zedeck. The general form of the dungeon is less an open-ended spatial exploration and more, "Do you want to press this button?" The problem of choice paralysis is a symptom of this deeper problem. 

Similarly with the location of information and treasure. Placing a lot of it at the top, when the bottom is so dangerous, removes another orienting feature about space, namely that if the players are experiencing greater peril in some quadrant of space, this is a clue that greater reward might be found there. Finally, leaving all encounters with (unfleshed out) factions to a random encounter table makes the dungeon denizens float free from the spatial design of the dungeon. Since the dungeon crawling is an open-ended spatial puzzle, you should locate at least some of the factions in keyed areas. This is how the social dimension of dungeon is integrated with the spatial dimension of dungeoncrawling. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Step in to the Sepulchre

Welcome to Bones of Contention. 

We are dissatisfied with a lack of genuine review culture in the "retro-game" or "classic" scene. This absence stifles healthy criticism that might foster improvements in design. It also suppresses visibility for new material and authors. To the extent this has need has been met, it has been by a smattering of blogs, mainly boosting things the bloggers love. There have been a couple of more critical review sites operating for a long time now. But these sites have been single authored, and so promoted the point of view of single reviewers. Some are also written by, or host comment sections full of, trolls.

In this vaulted sepulcher of the blogosphere, our skeleton crew will do better. With our fleshless fingers, we will pen reviews of retro-game modules, settings, supplements, and rulesets. You can learn more about us from the obituaries below. We will each be launching a titled series of reviews on this site, but will also collaborate on collective or Rashomon-style reviews from time to time. 

We will deploy different standards and tastes, and bring different perspectives to the material we review. This is part of the point of our collaboration here. Over time, our numbers may grow. But our crew has collectively agreed to the following basic principles. 

  1. Conflicts of Interest: This is a small hobby scene, where many people actively involved are also creators. This is no less true of our skeleton crew. For this reason, it is unrealistic to expect that we will never review the products of people we know. But we commit to being transparent, stating clearly our relationship to the authors of the products we review. For similar reasons, at present we are not accepting review copies. Each author of a series will be responsible for selecting items to review.

Ludic Dreams III - My Body is a Cage

At long last, I turn my Ludic Dreams series to what I probably should have been doing all along: reviewing games and adventures about dreams...