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


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...