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.


OPENING ARGUMENTS

Gus: On the surface I have a positive impression of Holy Mountain Shaker: it's a fairy-tale filled with witty anachronisms. It strays between the mythic grandeur of ancient gods and immortal animals to gonzo science fantasy. The latter dominates, but very much in the style of UVG. It's a science fantasy setting where fantasy modernity, crumbled futurism, and magical technology coexist in the jumbled ruins of a multi-layered ancient past. I enjoy this aesthetic, something that steps beyond the traditions of fantasy RPGs and pulls little from Tolkien. At its best and in the hands of a creative referee, this is an amazingly rich sort of setting, with modern references and puzzles adding more content for players to solve with their everyday knowledge and a feeling of timeless wonder.

At its worst gonzo becomes distracting, a series of bad jokes and goofy references that make it harder to ground play in anything. For me Holy Mountain Shaker's exuberant variety risks this failure, becoming an incoherent series of scenes and puzzles that don't link up to form a coherent whole. I can't decide if Holy Mountain Shaker falls to this threat — playing it would help of course, but even then so much will depend on the Referee.

This risk of disjointed narrative and jarring incongruity is made greater because of Holy Mountain Shaker’s scene or zone based point crawl structure, and by the disparity in the adventure's scope compared with its size. Its fifty-six (56) pages support seventeen (17) distinct and very different regions, some with sub-regions, as well as point crawling rules, new monster descriptions, and a town. Each complex region, always with novel description and often with events, faction intrigues and relationship to other regions gets little more than a page or a spread to flesh it out and facilitate adventure. Nor is the layout of Holy Mountain Shaker dense, making for an adventure that at times feels like a gazetteer — inspiration to expand a setting or spark adventure design, not tools for play.

I am left ambivalent, perhaps baffled. I enjoy Luka’s writing, creativity, and Holy Mountain Shaker’s overall plotting, but would never feel comfortable running it because of the amount of work I'd need to make it function. I also recognize that a Referee with greater love of improv or greater familiarity with scene based play might feel entirely differently. For me, I simply doubt that the amount of content in the adventure and the level of detail it provides would offer me sufficient usability. Holy Mountain Shaker’s design eliminates procedural dungeon exploration, and there’s a great loss in that, especially when it’s written for a system suited to the play style.

HMS Main Map
WFS: Observe the dungeons within dungeons within dungeons. Holy Mountain Shaker (henceforth, “HMS”) presents an adventure of potentially grand scope in a Matryoshka nesting doll structure. While the same content might have filled a hefty tome in the hands of a less economical writer, HMS offers just enough to guide a referee without shoehorning them.

Let’s look at this ostensible nesting doll structure by peeling back the layers. On the outermost level, you have the wide word of Luka’s “Lastlands” setting, a sort of a temporal world inspired by the history of central Europe and embodied in HMS as the town of Plish, a mining town rife with class conflict and nestled in the foothills of a holy mountain. I do not think the setting of HMS risks incoherence. but it does ask questions — locations like the Temple of Protein and the Buried City hint at a rich history and now-vanished scientific advances beneath the fairy-tale exterior. As a player, I love uncovering bits of mystery about the world through play. And HMS wastes no space trying to answer those questions, which is better left to the referees and the players anyway.

Just below the surface of the setting lies our first “crawl,” a point crawl through a sprawling dungeon (or set of dungeons) within the holy mountain. The adventure comes with its own procedure for running the point crawl, which is comprehensive while retaining the control panel layout used throughout the adventure (standard for OSE, which is always a first-class experience in information design). Exploring a dungeon via a point crawl is neither worse nor better than the more traditional dungeon crawl experience. It has its benefits, namely by zooming out the scale (not quite a hexcrawl, but neither are 5-foot squares needed), it speeds up the adventure. The drawback is a level of granularity and the reduced pleasure of navigating a space. But I could not imagine what a slog this adventure would be if it were a traditional dungeon crawl. Each of the seventeen (17) or so regions of the dungeon could be their own dungeons such that a HMS could be a hefty tome and an adventure that would take several years to run. If you are comfortable with a bit more montage-style exploration, you can get through what is effectively a sprawling megadungeon in a few sessions (I would guess six sessions, but have not yet run or played in HMS).

HMS is not just a point crawl. When the player-characters arrive at the beating heart of the adventure, the domain of the holy fish causing the tectonic disruptions, zoom in, or we open the next Matryoshka doll (pick your favorite metaphor). The Great Lake is more detailed than the other zones of the dungeon, and you may expect a greater level of granularity as the player-characters pick through the lakeside cabin or take a boat ride to the island in the center of the lake that turns out to be the Pharaoh Fish. Once you reach the fish, the heroes are met with the opportunity for a smaller adventure site: the inside of the fish. This mini-dungeon even has a complete map of the fish’s innards, though at only six (6) “rooms,” it would be a stretch to call it a dungeon (as opposing counsel points out).

My bottom line is that HMS may not be for everyone, but it is for anyone who likes a solid and inventive framework, but does not want so much detail that might stymie your own inventiveness at the game as a referee. As mentioned above, I am a big fan of Luka’s work, and part of the reason why is that I like adventures that feel like collaborators. HMS is here to give you ideas, to gently guide the adventure, but it is quick and easy to reference at the table.

CROSS EXAMINATION
(NOTE: THIS IS NOTHING LIKE ACTUAL COURT PROCEDURE IN ANY SYSTEM ANYONE HERE IS FAMILIAR WITH)

Original Concept
Cover


WFS:
What would you change about HMS, if anything, to improve the coherence of the adventure? Is there any way adventure-writers can detail this level of scope in such limited space without falling back on tired Gygaxian vernacular tropes?


Gus: Holy Mountain Shaker fits an enormous amount of potential content into a fairly slim volume, but my difficulty with it is precisely that it’s all “potential,” seemingly without sufficient complete content. I don’t think one can fit a location based adventure of this size into fifty (50) pages without reducing keys to one line minimalism, which as you note works best if one leans on implied setting. Holy Mountain Shaker’s problem is a bit different then overreach though, and something a bit more clever. The very structure of the design removes most of the turnkeeping and supply concerns that a system like OSE uses to goad players into exploration and risk taking. It increases the exploration scale to the 2 hour “watch”, used for small scale overland travel and linked to the 5 day race against the fish and earthquake. This is clever... but it largely breaks down and elides location based exploration, nor is it appropriate to several of the more compelling regions within the adventure.

While obviously mapping and keying an entire mountain layered with dead cities and other locations would stress even a thousand (1,000) room megadungeon, and doing so in a science fantasy phantasmagoria would be even less tenable — impossible in fifty (50) pages. Yet, there are spaces where the scale of Holy Mountain Shaker shrinks to the traditional location size, best measured in feet and turns, not miles and watches. The Ziggurat of Stairs is both a god creature’s exoskeleton and an abandoned extradimensional laboratory, the Buried City hosts several other potential locations, as does the Temple of Protein (more strange and grim then its name implies — a Harlan Ellison story in RPG form), and all are described only through evocative, but vague bullet points. Despite all these potential “dungeons,” Holy Mountain Shaker only offers one space (the Godfish itself) that might be considered a keyed dungeon, and then of only six (6) rooms.

If I’d been the editor of Holy Mountain Shaker, I would have pushed for a reduction in the overall number of locations and the expansion of several into small keyed dungeons, with distinct factional antagonists and goals related to the Godfish — nothing huge, under thirty (30) keys each and utilizing Luka’s ability to create succinct areas with a few evocative details. For larger connected areas like the Ziggurat or Buried City, a regional map with distances between keyed locations noted in turns would also help. Luka has a rare artistic talent for one page dungeons, and I’d love to have seen that on display to expand some areas.

A second possibility to include larger locations with a limited number of keys is to distribute keyed spaces on a map of many empty rooms. Much as in early dungeons, these empty rooms serve as buffers between encounters/puzzles, allow the spatial puzzles of navigation and route finding and efficiently provide scope. Most of the spaces inside the Holy Mountain are abandoned and empty, so there would be nothing incongruous about using this technique, though it requires the pressure of turnkeeping and supply limitation to make empty space a compelling part of play.

WFS: What is lost by using a point crawl instead of a traditional dungeon crawl? Is there any way that the point crawl structure could be improved upon, in the context of dungeons?
Excellent Interior Art

Gus:
As noted above, play is lost: exploration, navigation, puzzle/problem solving. Without the turnkeeping and supply there’s no pressure, without maps there’s no orienteering (perhaps a shadow of both still exists in the long distance map travel between points). The factions are too spread out to interact and not detailed enough to encourage intrigue. Like most scene based play, the obstacles and encounters (combat or roleplay) are discrete, unconnected ,and thus require (or maybe just encourage) solutions from within the scene: rooms/scenes don’t really allow for complex interaction. In something like 5E this is less of a problem because obstacles are largely skill tests with HP/spell reduction as penalties for bad rolls — they function as interludes between complex tactical combat — but this is Moldvay Basic D&D. Combat shouldn’t be (and isn’t written as) the primary source of player decision and place where play time is spent.

Improvement would come from reintroducing those aspects or some alternative to them, but as described above the issue of scope intrudes.

It’s not an easy problem — there’s a reason that Classic play has such a strong break between wilderness and dungeon, one can’t explore large areas a square (10’ x 10’) at a time, and even more one can’t write them out without producing some sort of unspeakably boring and massive work. So in some ways a point crawl between nodes is a wonderful way to create greater scale, but the nodes themselves need to support dungeon crawl style play to utilize the play-style system properly. Holy Mountain Shaker is ambitious and complex: sprawling scope, regional travel, and its own aesthetic, but in reaching for this level of sophistication it sets aside some fundamental aspects of the play style it’s system supports.

WFS: What is one area where Holy Mountain Shaker doesn’t seem to work, and why?

Gus: I’m afraid I’ll be repeating myself, so instead I will bookend my criticism with praise and a caution. First, the caution. I’m a designer and player of dungeon crawls. I want procedural exploration as the base for my game: navigation, supply, and risk management. Reading through Holy Mountain Shaker I can’t see how it can deliver that. It’s a scene based branching point crawl, which might work quite well if the points themselves were keyed locations in any meaningful way. They aren’t. This doesn’t mean that someone else can’t make Holy Mountain Shaker work by placing emphasis on other aspects of play. Still I’m left wondering what I’m getting here, and how I’d run it. Art, imagery, lost civilizations implied and described in tiny capsules of breezy description, for sure, but is there enough to really support a referee?

This is a shame for me because it’s precisely the sort of imaginative aesthetic I enjoy, and Holy Mountain Shaker’s overall structure is very compelling, a region challenge that asks the players to involve themselves in cosmic complexities and the petty problems of ancient unknowable (but not tritely Lovecraftian) gods. There’s so much fairytale in Holy Mountain Shaker, and many of the ideas make for strong inspiration. Plus and as always with Luka’s work, there’s an almost tactile level of strangeness that feels dreamlike: mythic yet approachable -- built on a grand scale, yet collaged from everyday consciousness, not fantasy vernacular.

Better, and so often lacking in adventures of regional or cosmic scope, there’s clearly an understanding that players don’t often follow heroic journeys to their ends in a straight line. Holy Mountain Shaker makes failure catastrophic enough (and risky — each area has information about being caught in it during collapse), but it shouldn’t disrupt a campaign unless the Referee chooses to build consequences from failure. There is no expectation of how the players will survive the mountain, of what mysteries they will investigate, and how the adventure will end. Likewise, the Godfish is wonderfully unsympathetic, alien, and god-like: expecting that the players will solve its discomfort and offering a suitable boon in exchange, but despite the stakes for the town at the base of the mountain, an uncaring deity. With this, Holy Mountain Shaker succeeds at including a potent “plot” into a Basic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, without even the hint of a railroad, and without moral judgments about possible player actions. There’s a reward of sorts for heroism, in that a local town will survive and the characters gain a blessing from the fish, but it’s not a necessary part of a story that will be mythic and strange regardless of the players goals, actions, or success and failure. This is not an easy task — to present more than simply a location to explore — and Holy Mountain Shaker should be applauded because it manages it well.


Dungeon Map of the Godfish

Gus: I’m not playing fair, there’s no judge to raise objections to… so I’ll start things with a forbidden compound and leading question: You acknowledge that Holy Mountain Shaker is not a dungeon, but call it instead a series of dolls, onionskins or layers. What exactly do these layers contain, and if they abandon the traditional appurtenances of dungeon crawling play (starting with maps and significant faction intrigue), how are they playable within the specific context of a system like OSE? To rephrase more aggressively, we both agree Holy Mountain Shaker has the scope of a megadungeon, but lacks the usual tools for procedural exploration. What sort of play might one expect from the scenario as written, or is the Referee expected to somehow improvise or prepare to fill in those vast empty spaces? <Shouting accusatorily in a manner that will only bring sanctions outside a bad Courtroom Drama> Mr. Wasteland as you like to call yourself! HOW IS THIS THING SUPPOSED TO WORK!

WFS: It isn’t that it’s not a dungeon: it is. It is just several layers of dungeon, each with different modes of interaction. But the primary mode of exploration is a point crawl, a mode of exploration developed by the Hill Cantons blog and is now a widely-used alternative to hexcrawls. This is not a new tactic by Luka; UVG famously consists of an epic point crawl through a weird wasteland. The difference between HMS and its relatives in the point crawl family is that it represents dungeon exploration rather than overland travel.

HMS provides robust tools for running this point crawl, even for referees unfamiliar with this method. It includes a procedure to follow each watch which is not too dissimilar from the basic procedure used in many (if not all) OSR and post-OSR games. A “watch” is a unit of time that is scaled up from the basic turn. Each watch represents two (2) hours within the fiction, or twelve (12) turns. Each watch, the player-characters might explore a new region or path, traverse along an explored path or region, or attempt to sneak past a region. There are rules for resting, random challenges, and getting lost. Time is a meaningful resource not only because the referee rolls on the challenge table each watch (similar to random encounters in a typical dungeon crawl) but also because the entire adventure is on a timer. A timeline is provided for what happens in the dungeon each day, as it begins to collapse around the player-characters. Staying in a region causes the rolls on the “Collapse Table” to escalate by adding more dice to the roll. The player characters are wise to avoid the effects of a slowly collapsing dungeon and make their way through the dungeon quickly.


Gus: You’ve praised the usability of Holy Mountain Shaker and perhaps the OSE house style. Yet Holy Mountain Shaker is very different then the other recent OSE offerings, in that it’s not similarly location based or discretely keyed. Is this break with the OSE house format necessary for Holy Mountain Shaker, and (calling for speculation) should OSE learn from this decision to allow Holy to depart from the dungeon crawl optimized OSE format found in Incandescent Grottoes, Hall of the Blood King (itself more a social web of adventure then dungeon crawl), and Isle of the Plangent Mage?

WFS: The referee does not need to fully improvise each region, but the keying is terse. Each region has a number of immediately noticeable features, listed in bold font for easy reference, and each feature contains additional information in parenthesis, if the player-characters decide to investigate further. There are also a few areas within each region, and spending more time investigating tends to reveal additional areas. Most referees will likely fill in some information (such as how each region is configured spatially) themselves, but it isn’t necessary depending on play style. For instance, I think I could run this module with relatively little prep (hopefully none at all, per usual), but I value flexibility more than most referees and am not a stodgy adherent to the typical square-by-square method of dungeon crawls.

One particularly praiseworthy aspect of this adventure that increases its usability tenfold is that the two-page spread for each region includes a segment of the larger point crawl map, with some details about the nearby regions and the paths thereto. This is a very orienting use of layout and, in hindsight, I think including something similar in the UVG would have been very helpful to potential referees. When I ran UVG, I had to constantly flip to the massive point crawl map to reorient myself as I ran the various regions or as my players planned their voyages. If the relevant segment had been right there, it would have prevented that flipping and allowed adding some notes to the zoomed-in snippet of map.

HMS is generally a very usable adventure, which is what I have come to expect from adventures for Old School Essentials. Another feature of the physical adventure that makes running HMS easier is that the tables the referee is likely to reference frequently, the tables for challenges and collapses, are in the back end pages.

Gus: Overall you’re far more enthused about Holy Mountain Shaker than I, but can you give me something that makes you uneasy about running it or something that you’d change if you were running it?

WFS: As I touched on above, each region has a few areas within it to explore. This is no problem itself, but I think the way these work procedurally are more linear than I prefer my games to be. Most regions have two zones, one that is discovered during the first watch of exploration and the other is then discovered during the second watch of exploration. While I like the idea that it requires multiple watches to explore everything a region has to offer (because of the trade-off of increasing the odds of collapse), I would prefer if these zones were treated more as a choice. The players can explore one or the other each watch, but not both. This would preserve the trade-off between time and further exploration but give players more choices on how they explore.

CLOSING REMARKS

Fishy..

Gus:
Opposing counsel and I disagree on a few things about Holy Mountain Shaker, but I know there are plenty of areas that we do agree. We both approve of the imagination, overall structure, art and sensibility of the adventure. Where we drift apart is largely a matter of presentation and design. Holy Mountain Shaker is part of a larger class of adventures that use point crawls instead of more traditional maps, and generally this works fairly well, but it’s also a question of scale. For journeys and adventures through wilderness or larger regions the point crawl is a useful innovation - no designer or referee can describe every moment of a three day journey, and I can’t conceive of a group of players who would want such tedium. Travel in RPGs is a disjointed series of scenes and images, usually built from random encounter tables and terse notes about the environment. Point crawls generally allow greater depth than hex crawls, as they don’t set out to describe the entirety of a landscape in 6 mile or smaller chunks, but they are traditionally don’t reach the level of detail that room keying does — again how could they hope to describe any area of any size in a way that’s both interesting and sufficient for moment by moment exploration? Point crawls are an imprecise mode of play compared to Classic dungeon crawling, but those that want to retain the exploration elements of Classic play work best when they replicate its procedures and mechanics on a different scale. For example, time remains important, even when measured in hours, miles or watches as in Holy Mountain Shaker. Yet, because time or turns in fantasy RPG is always an approximation of distance, the distances travelled using these expanded scales also go up.

The best point crawls solve this greater time and distance scale in two ways, expanding or segmenting off parts of the adventure. Expansion means expanding all distances in the adventure to tell the story of overland journeys past landmarks and obstacles, a journey through a mythic overworld in terms borrowed from dungeon design. Luka’s most well known work, Ultraviolet Grasslands is an excellent example of this, with caravan travel mechanics created for the adventure and a sprawling map to journey over turns measured by the week instead of in minutes. The second way to use the point crawl for exploration style play is the one pioneered, along with the form by Chris Kutalik’s Slumbering Ursine Dunes — to segment dungeons (often smaller locations of only a few keys each, mixed with scene like lairs) off from the point crawl itself. Yet Holy Mountain Shaker does neither of these things; it tries instead to abstract the minute by minute exploration of several dungeons (and very interesting ones) into the same watches it uses for overland travel. It’s a conceit that I think could work well for some of the huge empty ruins described, but to do so well I’d like to see it balanced with more human scaled locations, keyed in the Classic manner. Furthermore, the limitation of the watch system in Holy Mountain Shaker is that it abandons the already existing set of dungeon scale exploration mechanics found in OSE (or Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert) in favor of a quick adaption to larger scale travel mechanics. Yes, there are notes and even the skeleton of a procedure to reduce the time scale from watch to turn, but beyond the fish itself (shown only as a side map without distance markings) there is no content offered to operate at this scale: a concession to the difficulties of running a dungeon crawl on a 2 hour scale, but with no "dungeon" offered to do otherwise.

Luka is likely the best designer working in point crawl or zonal adventure design, so the concerns I've raised are less an issue with Holy Mountain Shaker itself, and more an issue with the design space. In past reviews (Castle of Mirrors), I've talked about the form as useful for non-exploration focused games, and perhaps it is, but for OSE and a dungeon crawl it's not something I can easily recommend. Using the point crawl form and scattered scenes to create a dungeon-like experience is a gamble, and one that pays off in unfamiliar coins. It certainly allows an adventure of greater scope, but at the cost of detail, complex encounters, puzzles and a faction structure. There is plenty to see and wonder at in Holy Mountain Shaker, but it strikes me that there may not be enough to do, and what there is risks becoming a dreamlike series of scenes, fragmentary impressions of the vast mountain and its cosmic fish rather than a fantastical space to be explored procedurally. By reducing the overall scope of Holy Mountain Shaker (or increasing its length) and including two (2) to four (4) small dungeons of around ten (10) to twenty (20) keys each, it would keep both its scale and grandeur while offering the smaller scale explorations of important areas that bring with them all the advantages of Classic dungeon crawling.

However, as critical as my reading of Holy Mountain Shaker is, it's a high quality adventure that tries to do several difficult things, succeeding more than it fails. Overall it, like much of the OSE adventure line, is a worthwhile purchase, even if it will need significant additions to run as a dungeon adventure.

Interior Art

WFS:
I began by arguing that HMS is a series of dungeons, each necessitating a different scale of play. My opposing counsel is under the mistaken impression that the adventure takes place entirely in the scale of two (2) hour watches, but neither the text nor my impression of Luka’s previous work supports such a conclusion. The overarching “plot” of the adventure, the stirring God Carp causing earthquakes and landslides for the nearby town and causing the dungeon to collapse on itself, happens in the scale of six (6) days. If the primary mode of exploration were in ten (10) minute increments, this would be fairly difficult to track. Perhaps some GMs would be content in keeping track of the eight-hundred sixty-four (864) turns it takes for the six (6) days to elapse. For me, keeping track of the seventy-two (72) watches is far more manageable and practical. But HMS explicitly provides that, when the adventurers are not navigating the dungeon on its grand scale, the referee is instructed to zoom-in to match the action. The following text is from the spread describing the point crawl procedure and illustrates exactly how the referee might handle zooming in and out as the scale of the adventure dictates:

Interacting with Features
When the party explores a feature, play defaults to the Dungeon Adventuring rules (e.g., searching takes 1 turn unless otherwise specified). The referee should keep in mind that 12 turns equal one watch.

The referee may tally turns spent using a d12, advancing the adventure clock by another watch whenever the tally reaches 12.

Imprecise Distances
The point crawl uses time to emphasize uncertain distances between locations.

Ranges and movement rates: When the party encounters a challenge or interacts with a feature, all scales are in feet.

Challenges
Every watch the referee should roll on the Challenges table to determine encounters. This may be a [super] natural obstacle, trap, or monster.

Time and location: The referee rolls a d12 to determine when the challenge is encountered. A 1 indicates the start of a watch (turn 1), a 12 the end (turn 12). The challenge’s precise position corresponds to the time spent traveling.”


HMS does not “abstract the minute by minute exploration” of dungeons at all. It simply operates in different scales of time depending on the action. I often use this approach when running adventures and I would describe the approach as “cinematic.” When you zoom out to the scale of watches or even days, the referee and the players may describe actions like a montage, a sequence of actions cut together to convey a larger plot point happening. But when things become tense, you may take it turn by turn, or even round by round for those fight scenes when each moment has its own stakes. For referees experienced in this technique, moving between scales can be seamless, but the advice HMS provides is helpful for those referees who are used to keeping their time scales separated like a child with brumotactillophobia, who simply cannot tolerate their different foods touching. (Though I don’t think it would be totally unfamiliar to even Classic referees – when you run overland exploration, often you zoom-in to a smaller time scale when a random encounter is rolled. Few suggest that overland encounters must be run on the same time scale as hiking through the overworld!) I suspect, although I have no proof, that this cinematic approach is how Luka runs his own games. In his latest adventure, Let Us In, a horror adventure that is also set in the Lastlands, there is an “Opening Scene” which is followed by each player rolling for flashbacks for what they saw before the opening scene. The adventure “proceeds at three speeds, depending on the action” and these speeds are ten (10) minute turns, moment-long turns for fights and flights and four (4) or six (6) hour watches when the adventurers wait around. The adventure even ends by rolling credits, a process where each player narrates a short scene from their character’s life after the adventure. It ends with “The referee can then tease a sequel. Whether it gets played depends on box office profits.” HMS is nowhere near this level of self-consciously cinematic, but its structure suggests that it might behoove the referee running it to think of themself as something of a director.

Much of the disagreement on HMS is not about the adventure itself so much as two reactions to the same work based on each reviewer’s preferences in play style. My opposing counsel, the self-described “resident grognard” of this review collective, prefers the Classic mode of play and I suspect finds the departures from the “house style” of Old School Essentials adventures to give him less to challenge his player’s senses of spatial orientation as they explore. But for me, the structure of HMS is not a bug, it is a feature. My own play style could be described as OSR but relies more on improvisation, collaboration and flexibility than is true for the typical OSR referee. I value an adventure that does not require prep, that does not require a lot of mental bandwidth to run. The typical dungeon with its minute and interlocking details typically requires reading the whole dungeon prior to play, and even restocking and rejiggering with the dungeon between sessions. While you could do both with HMS, I think each region could be run without foreknowledge or knowing what exactly is in the other regions. Its layout and format make it quick to reference at the table and its details are creative and evocative enough to inspire me to add my own details as I go. If you are looking to learn how to prepare less for dungeon crawls, learn to stop worrying and love improv, I would suggest you pick up HMS.


WHERE TO FIND HOLY MOUNTAIN SHAKER
One of Luka's
Avatars

Holy Mountain Shaker
is an adventure for Old School Essentials written and illustrated by Luka Rejec and published by Necrotic Gnome. The PDF can be obtained at DriveThruRPG for $7.50. You can get Holy Mountain Shaker in both print and PDF at Exalted Funeral for $15.


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