Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Brain Infestations - The Waking of Willowby Hall


 

The Waking of Willowby Hall is an adventure by Ben Milton (aka Questing Beast) produced as part of Zinequest 2, with illustration from Sam Mameli (aka Skullboy) and edited and published by Jacob Hurst of Swordfish Islands. It’s designed to be used with any old-school system, but assumes a B/Xish base with 3rd level characters.

I ran this game as a one-shot live on stream with a group of 4 players, most of whom were relatively new to old-school style play. We ran it using my system, Errant, with 1st level characters (they were all first-time players of the system also). You can watch the session here.

The short version of this review is that this adventure is, as is likely well known by this point, absolutely excellent. It is a masterclass in usable design, and the flaws I find within are only minor nitpicks at best. The scenario provided within is dynamic and inventive, and the aesthetics of the product are absolutely dynamite and point towards, I think, a new sort of poetics for the old-school space moving forward.

USABILITY

This is probably my foremost concern when looking at any adventure, above and beyond the content. I am pretty confident in my ability to take even the blandest dungeons and ensure that it results in a pretty fun time at the table (though this is largely due to my common habit of integrating them into ongoing campaigns, which by their very nature add depth, complexity and interest; for one-shots, the content of the adventure needs to pack a little more punch). However, I’m not really great at coming up with completely off-the-cuff original scenarios (probably an atrophied skill due to how much I rely on published adventures), so really what I look for is just something I can pick up and parse with little effort to throw my players into. “Parse with little effort” is an incredibly load-bearing phrase here, because I am notoriously bad at reading maps and imagining architectural spaces, so I really need straightforward cartography and clear room-keying so as to not overtax my last two remaining brain cells.

I am happy then to report that Willowby Hall rates exceptionally well in this regard.

Maps

The map is rendered with clear, bold lines; the layout of the dungeon is a fairly straightforward manor, where each room enters into another one, without any hallways in between; each room is not numerically keyed in the normal fashion, but rather labelled with the page number where the room description can be found. There are also basically no symbols that require a legend: there’s doors, secret doors, stairs, and windows, all immediately intuitively legible at first glance.

The maps are presented in full size on the first 3 spreads of the book, utilizing the inner front cover for space, along with quick reference notes for the contents of each room. These maps are then replicated in a smaller size in the interior of the book with the room descriptions, with each spread having a map of the floor of the manor being detailed with the specific rooms highlighted. This is probably my favourite thing I can see in an adventure; it reduces page flipping immensely and helps keep the DM oriented to the player’s position relative to the layout of the space at all time. Funnily enough though, I find that this basically obviates the need for those first 3 full spread maps, except as an initial overview to familiarize oneself with the space in its entirety. The brief room notes on this map, clearly intended as quick reference during play, basically are obsoleted since I found no need to ever have anything but the spread of the rooms the player’s were in open at any given time.

The module also comes with maps ready for VTT play, which made the game incredibly easy to run. Honestly at this point I feel this should basically come standard with all adventures.

VTT Maps

Two minor quibbles with the maps. First, the VTT maps, which are playing facing, still have the secret doors on them marked. An easy fix, but also kind of a silly oversight. Second, the doors on all the maps are shown as open. I assume this was to indicate the direction doors open in, which can be relevant especially if considering how to hide behind them (a concern likely to come up in this adventure), and also I took it to mean that all the doors in the manor were unlocked, but there isn’t much indication of this anywhere in the descriptive text. A little note on that, and the inclusion of some stuck or locked door, I think would have been a welcome addition to the adventure: trying to pick the lock before the giant peers into the room, or having to bash a door down to progress, creating sound that draws the attention of Bonebreaker Tom, have the potential to be exciting and memorable moments. Pay attention to doors in your dungeon crawls!

Room Keying

The room descriptions utilize a minimal keying structure with bolded key words and tiered descriptions based on information level, similar to that found in OSE products. In each room are several sentences describing the salient features of the room which are immediately apparent; beneath each of these structures are indented bullet points with further information about each feature that are notable with further inspection. For example, the first room, the Great Hall, has at the sentence level “a wrought iron chandelier”. Below that are two indented bullet points describing what the players would see if they took a closer look at the chandelier: one socket has a black candle in it, and there are cracks in the ceiling where the chandelier is attached. Indented below that last point is a note that swinging on the chandelier has a 50% chance of causing it to crash to the ground. Information is tiered by salience, essentially following an “immediately apparent -> close look -> closer look” structure. This makes describing rooms a breeze, an almost programmatic “if-then” sequence for the DM to follow: when the player’s enter a room, describe all the stuff at the sentence level, and as they investigate features, just move down the levels of indentation. Writing is minimal without coming across as terse, with plenty of evocative description.

Layout & Other Matters of Note

The layout of the adventure is pretty consistently excellent, of the kind that’s executed so well as to seem unremarkable. As expected, pages are organized into neat, two-page spreads with everything relevant to that section of the adventure contained within.

The two spreads devoted to most of the NPCs in the adventure were ones I particularly enjoyed; 2 characters per page, with a column of text describing their stats and motivations below, cumulatively resulting in a Usual Suspects-esque identity parade. This is something I’ve seen in other adventures as well, probably first in The Cursed Chateau, but since then it’s cropped up elsewhere like in Dead Planet, Willow, and Darkness Moves. The fairly uniform nature of the NPC portraits was also really helpful for running this game online as I could screenshot them into pretty easy player handouts to show what the characters look like, without any awkward cropping to hide game relevant info.


The only quibble I have here is that the last spread of the book is a little awkward, with one room spilling onto the inner back cover, resulting in about half of that page space being empty. With the inner front cover put to such great use with a map and simplified key of the first floor, it makes this wasted space more pronounced. I think it could have been better served by adding an extra sheet to the zine, and using the last spread with the inner back cover to replicate the adventure’s encounter tables, which are buried a little awkwardly in the 11th page, to reduce page flipping.

Besides layout, there a few minor quibbles I had when running the game that I think could have been elaborated or clarified better within the adventure. First is the question of how exactly Bonebreaker Tom should be ran. The adventure provides a mechanic whereby on a roll of 2 on the encounter die, the GM rolls a d12 and has Tom move in that direction around the manor and swings his bell at the wall. But to me it was unclear whether or not I was supposed to have Tom roaming around the manor in between rolls of 2 (e.g. rolls of 2 simply trigger a “move and swing” action from Tom rather than his usual “roam” protocol), or if once Tom had moved to a location he remained there until the next roll of 2. The adventure states that Tom peers into windows “as he moves”, but doesn’t really fully answer the question of his movement. The adventure places a pretty big emphasis on having to hide from Tom to keep the tension of the adventure up, which is reinforced both by aesthetics (the cover illustration of the NPC party hiding from Tom) and design (the numerous hiding places detailed in each room). When I ran the game, I opted for the latter approach (Tom is stationary in between rolls of 2), but this resulted in that aspect of the adventure not being really relevant past the initial segment; however, I could see a case where a constantly roaming Tom might make it too onerous to achieve much within the dungeon. Still, I think the first approach of having Tom periodically roam around the manor in between rolls of 2 would provide a more engaging gameplay experience.

Second, there are two little “miniquests” within the manor that involve the moving of fairly large and heavy objects from one area to another, but doesn’t provide much guidance for making rulings regarding weight and encumbrance of these objects (one a heavy free-standing mirror, the other a harpsichord). One could argue it would be easy to make a ruling in the moment based on intuition, but I’ll note that after researching to find the likely weights of these objects (50-75 lbs for the mirror, 100-125 lbs for the harpsichord) I would have vastly overestimated the weight of the harpsichord in play (in my head it was more the weight of a grand piano) and underestimated the weight of the mirror (I assumed one person could have carried it kind of awkwardly). Something like the mechanic for moving the granite slab covering the tomb entrance in Winter’s Daughter (“Moving the slab: Requires a cumulative STR bonus of at least 4”) would have sufficed (my personal ruling would be that the mirror/harpsichord require cumulative STR 20/40 to lift).

The miniquest involving the harpsichord also struck me as being a little odd. For one thing, it’s given by the ghost of Lavinia, trapped within the harpsichord itself. Whereas every other NPC is given a “want” that defines basic motivations that while inform their actions, Lavinia’s takes the form of this one-time task, which seems like it undersketches her character. Second, for how difficult the task is (moving a heavy harpsichord from one floor of the house to the upper floor while avoiding dungeon hazards and an angry giant), there’s no reward at all for doing so, unlike the miniquest involving the mirror which rewards one with important information. The only thing relevant to the harpsichord in the guest bedroom, the place Lavinia asks it to be moved to, is sheet music which when played on the harpsichord…summons the ghost of Lavinia, the one who gave you this quest in the first place. Yeah.

Finally, and this is almost entirely a personal preference of mine, I find the “triggered” nature of the adventure’s events would make it hard for me to incorporate this module into campaign play. My method for using modules is to just place them somewhere on my campaign map for my players to run into; if I attempted that approach here, that would mean that as soon as the players stumbled onto where this adventure was keyed, no matter when they did it, then that would be the exact day that the sequence of events regarding Tom and the NPC adventurers had played out. This might not bother most of you but something about that approach strikes me as off-puttingly videogame-ish. The alternative I suppose would be to not only assign the adventure a place on the map but also a date on the calendar, but unless there’s heavy forecasting to let the players know something goes down on that date, that also feels a little unsatisfying. Though you could always play it a bit forward and have the party hear rumours that a giant’s golden-egg laying goose was stolen and have them deal with that aftermath, but that is significant adaptational work on the part of the GM. Though, it must be said that these qualities which make the adventure difficult to integrate into a campaign make it an excellent one-shot adventure, all but guaranteeing that your game will hit the ground running, which is especially important if you’re playing at a convention or somewhere else with a limited time slot.

AESTHETICS

I’ll conclude this review with a brief discussion of the aesthetics of the adventure, which can really only be described as pretty as fuck. Seriously, this adventure is so gorgeously illustrated that when I got this in the mail my partner wanted to flip through the book simply just to look at them. The cover piece in particular is gorgeous, with an incredibly striking and vibrant blue and yellow palette (my partner also decided to base my make-up for the stream in which I ran this on the cover). Having the whole book be illustrated by one artist also presents a unified aesthetic which really gives the adventure a characteristic feel and tone. Sam Mameli really knocked it out of the park with this one.

An odd thing about the cover illustration being so striking that I’ve noticed happen a few times though is that people approaching this module think that the NPC adventurers which are depicted on the cover are actually the PCs, as they’re the point of identification within that drawing. This is a point of confusion that seems somewhat common when even the hook of the module is being discussed, where people assume that the PCs are the one who stole Mildred the goose. In play also, especially for a one-shot where the players don’t know each other and the PCs are new and a little half-formed, I think there is a bit of a risk of the NPC adventurers, who are so well drawn (in both the literal and figurative sense), overshadowing the players.

The reason I choose to discuss the aesthetic of the adventure though is not solely because of the quality of the art, which as excellent, but the way the aesthetic serves to heighten the usability of the adventure. It does this through conveyance; when I first saw the image of Bonebreaker Tom, his eyes scrunched shut, his huge mouth open screaming within the tangled mess of his beard, I could immediately hear his voice and mannerisms (which for me was pretty much just Brian Blessed).


Mildred is much the same way; her dead eyed stare immediately painted the picture of how I would run her, as a combination of the horrible goose from Untitled Goose Game but with the warm mischief swapped out for the soulless cruelty of Damien from The Omen.

This usability extends not just to the GM but to the players to. Everything in Willowby Hall has a sort of cartoon fairytale logic to it that will be immediately recognizable to players, like something out of Fantasia. This clues players onto the expectations of the adventure (once they see a giant with a goose, they’ll almost immediately grok what’s going on), and provides a framework for assumptions which is important when trying to navigate potentially deadly puzzles and traps, ultimately resulting in an incredibly toyetic experience. It manages to achieve the strengths of vanilla fantasy, the quick communication of fundamental assumptions about the setting and its logic, while still being a little off-centre enough from that aesthetic to be surprising (animated taxidermied owlbear probably sums this up the best).

I feel like this fairytale/folklore/cartoon aesthetic is one we’re seeing more and more in old school play, with settings like Dolmenwood (being more on the folklore side of things) as well as the illustrations of folks like Evlyn Moreau and Nate Treme. I think that, counterintuitive as it may seem, this is actually an aesthetic I think works really well with the old school play, particularly the high lethality aspect of it. Whereas previously creators have opted for grimdark and miserycrawls to set the expectations for high lethality play, I think this cartoon-ish style works just as well for that purpose with the added benefit of being far more appealing and accessible to a wide variety of folks. There’s something about the vibe of this adventure that to me feels halfway in between something like Adventure Time and Happy Tree Friends; lighthearted, but still with the possibility for violence and disturbing features. I can pretty vividly imagine, when I read Bonebreaker Tom’s bell flail attack (dealing 6d6 damage), of some hapless adventurer being crushed against the floor with a “SPLAT!” sound effect. I think this achieves the effect of creating a bit of an ironic detachment from one’s player character, so that one can relish in the humour of your cute little dude meeting some tragic demise. While I still love my gross-out, shit and blood dark fantasy settings too (which, to be clear, I also find funny though in a pretty different way) I am glad to see a diversity of different aesthetics proliferating in this space after a period of one particular aesthetic reigning rather hegemonically.

CONCLUSION

This was a lot of words about an adventure that is honestly pretty much near-flawless. In summary, go play this one. Not only is it eminently runnable, it also is really unique in terms of play experience from most other modules out there; usually I’ve found that an adventure either pulls off the former or the latter. This is the rare one that pulls off both.

4 comments:

  1. thanks so much for the kind words! And TBH Brian Blessed was TOTALLY the inspiration for how Tom ended up looking. Can't tell you how much I love that maniac's giant maw.

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  2. This made my day! I think it's the first really in-depth review Willowby Hall has received.

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  3. Ironically, before I purchased the module I had a rumor that there was a golden egg on the top of a mountain. The rumor came as they are in a mountain region. Helped turn a "false" rumor into something that is "partially" true. Already have it setup in my sandbox adventure.

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