Monday, May 23, 2022

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, the dreamlands, and general phantasmagoria. It’s like coming home—if your home was Dylath-leen. I have a few more in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

This time I am reviewing My Body is a Cage, a game by John Battle, with editing by Jared Sinclair, and seven accompanying 2-page dungeons written for the system by Alex Damanceno, Ema Acosta, Jim Gies, Josh Domanski, Maria Mison, Nevyn Holmes, and Julie-Anne Muñoz (who also illustrated several of the other dungeons). You can buy it as a PDF here or here for $20. 

I play-tested My Body is a Cage over 3 short sessions (~2 hours each for a total of about 6 hours), running 3 players through “The Atkinson Hotel” by Ema Acosta, one of the 7 adventures included with the game. Two of my players, Nick Kuntz and Aleks Revzin, play in my long running dreamlands campaign. The third player was Bones’ own Anne, author of the Dungeon Dioramas series. Since this game is in some ways a crossover between indie and OSR sensibilities, it is worth saying that all three of my players had broadly OSR type expectations and preferred play styles. After the final session we spent a little while debriefing the game.

The Concept


John Battle says it best: 

"Awake: You’re broke or struggling. Life is hard. You go to school and work a job, just trying to make enough for rent. Maybe you wanna be a youtuber, or draw your web-comic. Perhaps you want to travel, or at least move out of your parents’ house. You gotta find a way to make money. In this game you play as a person, someone other than yourself, in a slice-of-life story. 

Dreaming: When you sleep you dream of a dungeon. It’s filled with treasure. If you steal it, you awaken richer. This is your chance to fight back against the struggle of life. But the dungeon holds dangers, and you are still just a person. So be careful. Good luck, don’t die."

Here at Ludic Dreams, I hope we can all agree: that's a great concept. 

Char Gen and Gameplay Loop


Character generation is genuinely interesting in this game. Players dice three times each on two d100 tables, one of positive sounding adjectives (e.g. lucky, cool, innocent), and one of negative sounding adjectives (e.g. overwhelmed, fraudulent, paranoid). The player then assigns these as their six stats, each with an ability modifier that ranges from +3 (the strongest stat) to -3 (the weakest stat). 


One neat thing about this use of stats is that it allows you to assign positive sounding adjectives to one of your penalty stats, and negative sounding adjectives to one of your bonus stats. For example, Anne played Stephanie, assigning the adjective “Cool” to the worst -3 stat position, deciding that Stephanie wanted so badly to look cool that it was a liability. Similarly, Nick assigned Fraudulent to the +3 stat for their PC Simone, on the rationale that Simone was a very compelling fraud.

The personality of the character takes shape from the assigning of stats and is further elaborated as you pick bonds that tie you to other PCs, select a flaw that your opponents can target, an ideal that you can voice once a game to your advantage, and two weirdly specific skills. You also roll once on a “genre” for your character, which can be a musical, cinematic, or literary genre that is somehow the theme of your character, which you can evoke one time per session to double your dice on some roll. Character generation caused us to laugh out loud several times. It created memorable PCs who were tied to one another in interesting ways. We all had a real sense of who the characters were before we started playing. I definitely recommend doing it together at your first session. I's fun to collectively watch the characters take shape and for people to play off one another.

The game employs a loop perhaps influenced by the Persona series of games. (So Nick tells me, I haven’t ever played the games.) There is a daytime period that is charted out over a calendar month, with a daytime action available whenever the character has a day off (at least I think this is how it works). This is randomly determined as you have a 1 in 8 chance each day in the month to have a day off (oof, life is tough for the PCs). While the daytime system is never spelled out, there is a sample map of a waking world city that shows how the GM might construct daytime activities for their players. 



These includes wilderness hiking to heal your character, researching topics in the library, apartment hunting with associated living expenses (and bonuses for living somewhere fancy!), selling your dream treasures at "the dream merchant", visiting the mall to have your fortune told, going to the movies to add dice to your dice pool for the next adventure, etc. The presupposition seems to be that the daytime portion will involve a mix of dice rolls and perhaps scene-based play, with some pressure coming from “big events” like rent being due or final exams or family events on set calendar dates.

After the daytime portion comes the nighttime portion set in the dream dungeon, which has an exploration turn based structure, familiar from old school games, and appropriate to a high peril environment. This phase is the more familiar “dungeon crawl”, although in a dreamy form. It is left open how these two phases relate. Perhaps the players decide how frequently they will enter the dream dungeons, allowing them to set their pace throughout the month under the pressure of making rent or tuition payments. Or perhaps the adventuring happens at set times, say every two weeks.

In our playtest, we used the waking world mainly to characterize the player’s relationships to one another and to an NPC who sent them into the dream dungeon. In other words, we focused mainly on the dream dungeon segment of play. This is too bad, because I think in an extended campaign the waking-dreaming loop would make for fun and dynamic play. The waking world portion would require probably the most investment from a GM, because Battle gives you a lot less to work with than in the dream dungeons. Battle does build some connections between the two phases by tying NPCs in the waking world to NPCs in the dream dungeon, with effects that can cross into the waking world in interesting ways. Were I running a campaign, I would probably develop more connections across the two cycles of play – including more ways to affect dreams by doing things in the waking world and vice versa. What would a rival adventuring party look like in a game like this?



The Atkinson Hotel and The Other Six Dungeons


The adventure we ran was "The Atkinson Hotel". It’s a very memorable location, a vaguely creepy turn of the (20th) century hotel, with an alarming staff and treasures from real world luminaries (e.g. Borges’ typerwriter, or a larger version of Duchamp’s painting The Bride) who used to frequent the hotel in their dreams, and may even have died there. I prepped for the dungeon for about 1 hour, mainly to flesh out the rooms and connections between a bit. Otherwise I was easily able to run the dungeon from the two-page spread. Two-page dungeons are hard to make work, but this dungeon is a masterclass in layout and design.

The three hotel staff NPCs are presented with brilliant lucidity: a tiny paragraph, three one line motivations or quirks, and a clever way to make a state block look interesting. They absolutely came alive in play with almost no effort. Check out the list of treasures at the bottom of the dungeon as well! I always love memorable treasures and the idea of using heirlooms from literary and artistic luminaries in the waking world is a gorgeous premise.

The dungeon itself is a pointcrawl between eight hotel rooms. The starting room is very dynamic with three different exits, one normal (hotel room door) and two surreal (at the back of the closet, under the bed). In our playthrough, the players reported the dreamlike quality of the dungeon came through strongly. There were some memorable moments that emerged in play, including the surreal experience of climbing out of a small and claustrophobic (indeed shrinking!) storage room into a huge storage room surrounding it. Another memorable moment involved Aleks’ character Alecs waking the perennially sleepy hag he carries on his back (random “equipment” he started with) with the tempting smell of soup, and setting her off into kitchen to taste all the soups to the hysterical consternation of the bustling chefs in the room. A final memorable moment came when Stephanie shot the infernal title to Borges’ typewriter out of the hands of the hotel manager with her bow, sticking it to the wall, right before the PCs made their getaway back to the waking world, Borges' typewriter in hand.

The players liked the dungeon on the whole, although they did feel limited by its linear pointcrawl nature. Although you can get on the crawl 3 different ways from the first room, each other room has one entrance and one exit, meaning that once you made your initial selection you are always on a linear path. Were I revising the dungeon I would Jaquays it by introducing maybe 4 extra rooms, looping paths, and multiple exits from most rooms. 

They had a deeper criticism which comes from what I think as the "dream aesthetic dilemma". In dreams, scenes are often disconnected, spatial logics break down, and "people" often function more as symbols than living beings with their own distinct agendas. Old school dungeons by contrast work on spatial logics. One explores the space, learns to navigate it, and works it to one's advantage. The people one encounters are not figments or parts of tableaus, but factions with their own agendas and desires, who occupy regions on the map or move through it in intelligible ways. This (fantastic) naturalism enables lateral thinking, problem solving, and open-ended negotiation. The dilemma is that the absurdist, disconnected, symbolist aesthetic of dreams pushes against this. (As you might imagine, I of all people have thoughts about ways to navigate this dilemma, but I'll save those for another time.)  

It's not surprising that my (OSR style) players remarked that there clearly was no map of an actual hotel, but only dream scenes snipped from a hotel and connected by pseudo spatial connectors. They had the sense that each was a static scene that would stay where it was when they closed the door. They noted that this limited their sense of agency, which depends on the logic of real world space, and made the dungeon less interactive than more “naturalistic” dungeons. For some of the NPCs, they also wondered how much "they were really people". 

Still, I think this is an excellent starting dungeon for this game. I would wholeheartedly recommend a less linear, properly Jaquaysed version of it as a near ideal introduction to My Body is a Cage.

Behold the Nyxosphere in all its glory!

The other dungeons included in the game are more variable in their quality. Two more of the seven are roughly of the caliber of “The Atkinson Hotel”. One is the gorgeous “Nyxosphere” by Alex Demanceno, a sort of open world demonic dreamscape with a more classical D&D in dream hell vibe. It especially leverages the mechanics of monsters in interesting ways. It also has a more naturalistic approach to (an absurd demonic) space, so it will probably run more like D&D than some of the other dungeons. The other is “Animalia” by Jim Gies, a text-heavy two-page adventure that pulls a trick on the players by having them appear in the dream dungeon in the form of animals. The dungeon is interesting and it would be a delightful second or third adventure to run. It certainly opens with a bang, with the players dicing to see what animals they are and replacing one of their stats with a suitable animal trait.

In a second tier we have two dungeons that have excellent material but need some work. The first is “The Desert”, a depth crawl by Josh Domanski. It’s evocative and interesting. It uses a nice mechanic of randomly generated locations + details + events, with modifiers for depth. But the different locations don’t give you quite enough information to make them interactive and playable, and there is no treasure even listed. The second is “Seasons Amiss” by Nevon Holmes, illustrated by Julie-Anne Muñoz. This “dungeon” has an amazing concept. It consists of a pointcrawl across a surreal map. At the starting place there is a lantern that can be turned to red or blue light, shifting the whole map into summer or winter phases. Certain things are revealed in each phase, given the map a wonderful interactivity and puzzle solving vibe. Excellently, the two lights also introduce countdown clocks to environmental hazards in the form of heat waves or blizzards that will punish the players and keep them moving. While I adore the concept of the dungeon, it contains no encounters, no monsters or NPCs, and no treasure. 

In the third tier, we have dungeons that work less well. "Stiff Bargains", another team-up by Nevyn Holmes and Julie-Anne Muñoz, consists of a punny series of fetch quests for absurd NPCs. The whole is alarming and absurd enough that it could be fun for a certain group. But the linked chain of fetch quests is not the best format for a dungeon crawl. The last adventure I hesitate even to speak about. It is called “The Seven Orifices of Omniscience”. It is not clear who wrote it or what it is. It reads like something from the Book of Revelations. It is in no way a dungeon. 

Core Mechanics


Let’s talk about the innovative mechanics of the game. The games core mechanic is that when your character does something, a GM or another player can ask you to roll. You choose one of your attributes to roll on and apply the modifier to a 2d6 roll. If the roll is unopposed you must roll a 10+ to succeed. If the roll is opposed then the GM or other player rolls 2d6 as well, perhaps adding a modifier. Whoever rolls higher gets to say how the thing turns to their advantage, and the loser can choose to up the stakes and try again if they want. Combat uses opposed rolls but works a little differently. I’ll talk about that below.

You can add extra dice to your rolls in a number of ways, including most importantly from a dice pool that functions as a kind of meta-currency. You are incentivized to employ negative attributes because whenever you roll an attribute with a penalty you add a die to the pool. You also add dice to your pool if you use all six attributes over the course of the adventure. Most importantly, you add dice to your pool by selecting a bingo card that corresponds to a class for each session (both daytime and dream dungeon). The bingo card incentivizes playing to the type of the relevant character class. You get a die each time you cross off something on the bingo card. You get a whopping 10 dice if you get bingo by completing a row, column, or diagonal. At the end of an adventure, unused dice in your pool can be converted to treasure or used to buy skills, bonds, or a chance to raise an attribute. This flexible use of the meta-currency is interesting.

The players in this game had mixed feelings about the meta-currency aspect of the game. On the one hand, they experienced the core mechanic as straightforward and intuitive. Since near certain failure (rolling to hit 10+ with an attribute penalty) is incentivized by the meta-currency, and since adding dice nearly always ensures success even on opposed roles, the players experienced themselves as often choosing between failure and success. They found this a little strange. But this is also a game where you play to win in high peril circumstances (dungeons). This meant that they were incentivized to choose strategically to fail in low stakes situations in the service of collecting rewards (dice saved as treasure or XP style rewards) or storing up meta-currency ammo to win in higher stakes circumstances. This “failing in order to win” dynamic felt unfamiliar to them and they didn't entirely love it.

There was also a lot to keep track of on the character sheet in terms of the meta-game currency, including attribute modifiers, dice pools, a few other ways of boosting dice (genre, bond, skill), and the massive bingo card. As OSR players used to assuming that “the answer is not on your character sheet”, they found the meta-currency worked against this expectation. Since the meta-game currency dominates the players strategic experience, the players reported feeling like the answer to pretty much everything really was on their character sheet. 

One of the players in particular wished that more of their attributes were relevant to the kinds of physical actions on performs in a dungeon, which is a very physical space. Sometimes that reported that it felt like a stretch to find an appropriate attribute, most of which refer to personality traits, to roll on for physical tasks.

None of this is to suggest that the meta-currency core mechanics don’t work. But the mechanics do perhaps push towards a different playstyle than old school play. If you are open to a fusion of indie and OSR styles, then I think you may like this. If you are more solidly OSR in your preferences, you may find some of the mechanics a stretch.

Combat


In combat, one uses opposed rolls with the winner scoring a hit against the loser. Damage is recorded by marking off inventory slots and sometime incurring conditions like burning or bleeding that also occupy inventory slots. The use of inventory slots as hit points is elegant. Having conditions occupy inventory slots--as Mausritter does--created an elegant unified mechanic. I especially enjoyed the robust role for conditions in the system, although we didn’t see this in our play test, which had little combat. For example, the condition of burning spreads to additional inventory slots until the fire is put out, and if you are stressed you lose 1 die from all your actions (!), but you can pass to other players, presumably by unloading it on them. 

The application of this system to monsters works elegantly too. Monster have inventory slots corresponding to their HD. These slots contain their various attacks or abilities, so you incapacitate your foe as you score hits against them. For example, if you can score enough hits against a giant lobster you might break its claw. 

My Body is a Cage also uses a lower-is-better initiative system that has you roll different sized dice depending on how time consuming or slow what you’re doing is. You can do up to 3 things in a single round, but you have to roll all 3 initiative dice if you do. So there's an economy between going first, or doing more things in each round. 

I found opposed rolls a strange fit with the otherwise innovative individual initiative system. Opposed rolls represent a struggle as a two-sided affair, combining the activity of both sides in a single dramatic face-off roll. But the individual initiative system seems more geared to representing attacks as one-directional affairs, where each participant gets their own separate actions that are resolved in sequence. If I’m understanding the system, then if someone is facing multiple foes, they get a very large number of attacks each round in the form of opposed rolls: each of their opponent’s attacks trigger an opposed roll (up to 3 attacks each), and on top of that, opposed rolls are also triggered by their own actions (again up to 3).

In play I stumbled over this system, only coming to the above understanding by the time I was done running it. I started out thinking that there was only 1 opposed roll per pair of combatants, but then realized that this didn’t work with the individualized initiative system and multiple actions a round. It was a little strange that I walked away from reading the brief rules about combat so unsure about how they were supposed to work. Maybe if Battle had said a little bit more, it would have been clearer to me from the start.

Graphic and Information Design


This brings us to questions of design. My Body is a Cage is laid out in landscape orientation. Each page or two-page spread is colorful and uniquely designed, focused on a single idea or rule. Sometimes there’s a paragraph of text, or a big table, and sometimes there’s just a few sentences.

If you love this kind of thing you’ll probably like this a lot, and if you hate it then you probably won’t like it here either. Personally I’m agnostic about this trend in graphic design. I did find that it worked in one specific way for me here. Many of the rules and ways of tracking things used in My Body is a Cage have a gimmicky toy-like feel. Each character has a bingo card that you print out and mark up in play. There is a word search you complete to get random starting equipment. You stack dice in a little circle on your character sheet to represent your dice pool. There’s a paper fortune teller that the GM cuts out and assembles to determine random treasure. The bright and splashy layout made it feel like the game was composed of activities drawn from a colorful children’s activity book—the kind you might have bought in a convenience store before getting on a long family trip or bus ride. While it won’t come across quite as clearly in online play as it would in person, with a little prep it and having players print out sheets in advance, I think you can capture a fair bit of this activity book vibe.



This is an ambitious design choice that was relatively well-realized. Some of these features could use a little fine-tuning. The character sheet presupposes you will record your dice pool by stacking dice, and the bingo card seems to presuppose you will use tokens, since there's no way to mark off a black square with a pen. We found this awkward for purposes of storage when an adventure was spread out over multiple session, as they often will be. (Skills are also missing from the character sheet, by the way.) But the basic thing I want to say is that it's impressive how well John Battle pulls off this tactile, festive, childlike feel in the design. The aesthetics of the graphic design have a real point that fuses with the rules for the game in interesting ways.

When it came to information presentation the design of the book does less well. The book wastes no words on explaining how the rules work in play or even fit together, often assuming you’ll sort of infer the logic of the game from the different terse but colorful rules spreads. I found this frustrating. I spent far more time trying to understand the game than I would have had there been more text to help me. Not all minimalism is sleek information design; sometimes less is actually less.

Exacerbating this problem, there are several things that seem to be implied by the rules but do not otherwise appear in the game. For example, the initiative system is geared around weapons of different size, but there are no mechanical effects for different sized weapons. Another thing is the selection of character class for each session. The only mechanic presented is the bingo sheet that incentivizes certain kinds of behavior for each class by adding to your dice pool when you check off the box. But the game includes a list of spells that you’re supposed to dice for. Do you get a spell if you took the magic bingo card? But do you also get something if you take the fighter or rogue bingo card? Maybe one of those weapons of different size? 






This raises an interesting design question. I’m all in favor of systems that enable hacking and presuppose that everyone who plays them will trick them out to play in their own special way. How do we distinguish that as a positive design goal from a game being unclear or half-baked? One test might be whether you have to spend energy just trying to figure out what the rules to the game are or how they work together. Although the rules for My Body is a Cage are neat, I found Battle’s strong preference for saying as little as humanly possible about his game left me guessing at times or having to piece it together. 

In Sum


My Body is a Cage is an interesting game that blends indie and old school playstyles to produce something new. It has a great premise. It suggests a promising gameloop structure, with a strong separation between slice of life downtime in the real world and adventuring in dream dungeons. Some of the mechanics might need revision (i.e. combat), but others are creative and well-suited to the game. The dungeons that it presents have a dreamy vibe at the cost of less open environments and lateral thinking. The aesthetics of the whole will contribute to your play, especially if the group can meet around a table and enjoys tactile activities. There’s an excellent game in there if you’re open to old school games that are played in an indie style. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Eldritch Mousetrap - Distant Lights

Let’s stick to space, shall we? Last time on eldritch mousetraps I reviewed Death in Space, and today I’m going to be shifting gears and looking at the latest Stars Without Number supplement: Distant Lights.

The cover page of the book. Text reads Distant Lights by Kevin Crawford. The sub-text reads "creating borderworld outposts for your campaign."
The cover of the book, in standard Sine Nomine fashion


Introduction

Distant Lights is a Stars Without Number supplement by Kevin Crawford. As most readers of this blog probably know, Crawford is renowned for his sandbox-oriented books, complete with hundreds of random tables and guidelines for game-prep. 

Distant Lights is dedicated to helping GMs (and players!) create borderworld outposts for your campaign. What does he have to say about it?

Distant Lights gives the busy GM the tools they need to fashion remote planetary outposts, secluded deep-space asteroid habitats, or brash colonial footholds on far-flung worlds. Tables and guides are provided for generating outposts adventure hooks, troubled NPCs, and restive native populations. Additional materials give players the prices and guides they need for establishing their own interstellar outposts on distant worlds.

While Distant Lights was written for the Stars Without Number role-playing game, the tools in this book are largely system-neutral, and usable with your own favorite gaming system or sci-fi setting of choice.

Big promises, Crawford. Can you fulfill them?

Rather than review the book page by page in great detail, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of a couple of my favorite reviews on Bones, Filling in the Blanks by Ben and In the Light of a Ghost Star by Anne. In that, they reviewed a book designed to help generate a hex map for play, and as part of the review ran the “procedural engine” to churn out some content. It really gives you a good sense of the results that you can get out if you shovel dice into the book’s furnace.

There are player-facing rules as well, that allow a group to manage an outpost of their own. We’ll dive those a bit at the end. 

So, let’s generate a border outpost, shall we?

The Generation of Outposts

Crawford provides GMs with expansive random tables that can spur creativity and ease the burden on prep. They never eliminate prep, but they can certainly help with burnout and creating new places to explore. I think the contents in the tables are great, but I don’t actually think that the entries themselves are the best thing about these books.

Rather, Crawford’s best gift is the ability to present us with vectors to leverage that we might not have thought of immediately. If someone kicked in my door right now and asked me “what things make up a border outpost?” I’d probably say “who the hell are you and how did you get in my house?” After some discussion, I could certainly come up with vectors on my own, but Crawford has given them all to us. Even if you don’t like the entries on the tables and want to make your own, it’s hard not to appreciate what the table provides overall—a skeleton to flesh out with your own prep.

In regards to “when you should use this book” Crawford gives us a north star: “planetary outposts are space villages.” This book is useful for creating smaller, more intimate places for characters to adventure when they leave the sprawling super-metropolis. 

And now, an important caveat before we begin: I’m going to roll on every table. This isn’t how I would normally use these kinds of tools, but I’m going to push the tables to their absolute maximum and see what happens. As such, some rolls might be discarded later on to make things fit, or if they’re not interesting.

The Outpost’s Mood

The mood is a good touchstone for the rest of the outpost—a place to fall back on when an entry maybe doesn’t make sense and you need to force the jigsaw piece. 

Where is the mood most obvious? The way the local workers and inhabitants behave when off duty.

What is the outpost’s overall mood? Bitter. They don’t want to be here and resent that they are stuck in this place.

The Outpost’s Context

These are tables that help flesh out why an outpost exists, and are separated into three sections: external relations, local relations, and historical outpost events.

External Relations

This section is built using my favorite of Crawford’s techniques: six tables, one of each dice size. You can pick up your entire set, roll it, and then check the results.

External relations refers to how the outpost deals with outsiders and connection to the wide world. There’s advice here that you should tie this into the tags of the planet itself, so we’ll create a planet first. 

(Using Stars Without Number revised edition to create a planet, we get a low-tech, cold world, locked in a holy war, and populated by warlords. There’s more details, but the bare skeleton will serve us nicely.)

How do they treat adventurers? They’re cheerfully willing to deal with them.

What patron founded it? A religious or philosophical sect.

What is the current main product? Useful manufactures built by the outpost. 

Is it serving its purpose? Yes, it’s managing to do what was intended.

Why was it founded? Mining or extracting a local resource.

What twist exists in its context? A new patron seized it from the founders.

Local Relations

This refers to the connections between the outpost and others living on the planet—specifically the closest group that could conceivably interact.

What outpost dwellers interact most? Low-level workers or native commoners.

What’s the worst the outpost’s done? Seized useful or religiously-important land.

What use is one group to the other? A specific tech or knowledge they have.

How frequent are the interactions? They almost never engage with the other.

What’s the current problem? Hate. A group is abhorrent to the other.

What’s happening right now? A new group is trying to get involved.

Historical Outpost Events

This is a single d12 table, but each entry on it is covered in more detail with a paragraph.

What event happened? An accident, one that almost wiped the outpost. Some unexpected failure of tech or judgment caused an accident that almost wiped out the outpost. Irreplaceable tech may have been lost, or the colony might have been left with a dangerous zone of rubble or radioactivity as a legacy. Local neighbors may have suffered as well.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious ground, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • A new patron is in control of the outpost after an accident in the past almost destroyed the outpost.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.
  • A third faction is trying to get involved.

The Outpost’s Government

This section helps us outline who’s in control of the outpost. Rather than focusing on broad strokes, we’re drilling down to what’s important—an NPC that the players can deal with.

Forms of Government

What’s the type of outpost government? Tyranny of brute force by a warlord. The outpost is run by the person with the most force at their disposal. They are not necessarily any crueler, more unjust, or more rapacious than any other administrator, but they obtained their power by virtue of violence, and are usually perfectly willing to keep it in the same way.

Who’s in Charge?

The spread showing the "who's in charge" tables.
All the tables required for the "Who's in Charge" section fit on a single page.

The popular attitude about them: No strong feelings; an adequate leader.

How were they chosen? Random chance pushed them into it.

What’s their strongest tool of rule? They have powerful off world backers.

How long have they ruled? So long that they’re getting complacent.

What do they want from the PCs? Deal with a troublesome rival.

Quirks of the leader? They excessively idealize the local natives.

Who’s Opposing them?

Who are their main supporters? Criminals, ruffians, and social outcasts.

Why are they supported? They have a very attractive ideology.

Why haven’t they taken over? They don’t trust their own subordinates.

How known is their opposition? They’re thought a loyal supporter.

What’s their latest action? Construction of a profitable enterprise.

Quirks of the rival? They need to be ruler or face a dire fate.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

Previous entries:

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious grounds, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.

New or revised entries:

  • After an accident almost destroyed the outpost, a new leader was installed—a hardened mercenary veteran who rules over the outpost with force and might. We’ll generate the most basic stuff for them: Elsa Catlow, she/her.
  • The second in command is an ex-pirate who controls a frigate. They’re preparing to betray Catlow, as they’ve promised their untrustworthy crew that they’ll get control of the outpost and its lucrative exports. Using the same generator, we get: Flint Kiani, he/him.
  • Flint Kiani has recently connected with the local warlord, and are secretly taking the hardened warriors up to space, where they set up connections to sell their services as mercenaries.

The Outpost’s Site

Now that we understand the politics and situation of the outpost, the next few tables help us decide on the physical characteristics of it.

Architectural and Layout Styles

Popular building shapes and outlines: Domes and geodesic structures

Color palettes: Sci-fi white and crystal motif.

General outpost layout: Long and narrow against a local feature.

How vertical is the architecture? Single floor or partly subterranean.

What’s a local infrastructure problem? A local danger tends to break in at times.

Quirk of the place: An abnormal number of security cameras.

An Average Outpost Citizen

Most common hair style: Close-cropped or aggressively short.

Common skin color ranges: Olive, light browns, tanned shades.

Common natural hair colors: Dark browns or mahoganies.

How big are most of them? Unusually tall, whether thin or bulky.

Common outpost casual wear? Snug-fitting jackets, shirts, and trousers.

Common local style, habit, or quirk? They use a lot of recreational drugs.

Services and Costs

This isn’t a list of tables, but rather a list of goods and services that the outpost might offer. Crawford encourages you to go down the list and mark down if the outpost offers it or not, so we’ll do that.

There are two tables provided, both what do they want and why can’t they offer the service that can be rolled on to provide sparks of inspiration.

Carousing: Yes, because of the heavy recreational drug use.

Crime: Kiani can offer a connection to criminal enterprises, being an ex-pirate, he still has ways to bring in contraband from off world and make other deals.

Gear: The outpost will sell the basics, especially cold-weather gear, but nothing military grade. Catlow is the mercenary in charge, and the only people allowed to open-carry are her troopers.

Information: Information about the world and the warlords nearby can be freely given.

Medical: They have an extensive suite of high-tech medical gear, brought in because of the fights they have with local warlords.

Recruits: Catlow doesn’t allow her troopers to take on side jobs, but if the characters are going off-world, Kiani can introduce them to some of the local fighters that are willing to sign up.

Refueling: They can provide starship fuel.

Ship repair: They can handle maintenance and light scuffs.

Transport: If the characters don’t have a ship of their own, Kiani can take them off world and arrange transport.

Weapons: Catlow won’t allow weapons to be sold. Kiani can be convinced, but will make sure they can’t be traced back to him.

Putting it Together

At this point, we’ve got a lot of solid foundation to put together the outpost. It’s taken me about an hour to roll on the tables and write this review, so I imagine that doing this in a less-formalized situation could have you done in twenty minutes or so. But that’s just the foundation, and it’s a bit jumbled up as either bullet points or simply the rolled entry from the table. Depending on your GMing style, this might be enough to roll with. I’d probably take another half hour or so and try to summarize this in a way that I could bring it to the table either tomorrow or six months from now.

The outpost is at the edge of a deep, frozen crevasse. There are multiple lifts that drop into the crevasse. Pockets of ice can be drilled away, revealing a sludgy, unrefined material the outpost calls havoc-serum or just havoc

Refining the havoc-serum into a consumable material is done on site. Once in its refined form, it can be injected. The high bestows heightened senses, aggression, and blocks pain receptors. The user doesn’t become a raging berserker, but an incredibly capable combatant.

Elsa Catlow is in charge. She’s been in charge for many years now, and has grown comfortable. She and her troopers have all the weapons, and she enforces the outpost as a tyrant. The workers here don’t mind though—she keeps them safe. She wants to test herself and her troopers against the local warlord, but hasn’t been given the okay by the outpost’s off-world patron.

Flint Kiani is Elsa’s second. He’s trying to betray her. He’s made connections with the local warlord, and his ex-pirate crew (whom he doesn’t trust) have been promised luxuries and riches once he overthrows Elsa. He has a frigate that is still operational, but stays docked at the outpost. Characters coming to him can utilize his criminal connections.

The local warlord hates the outpost. They too use havoc, refining it with their own methods. The outpost has been erected on a particularly rich vein of havoc-serum. They’ve made a deal with Kiani to help kill Elsa (though Kianai plans on betraying them.) Catlow’s superior firepower makes this difficult.

The outpost work crews partake in the havoc regularly. But they keep the doses small, using it for recreation instead of war. They’re all addicted.

I could keep going, here—I’ve been given a huge amount of structural support from the tables, and it’s not hard to create powderkeg situations.

Mechanical Toolset

Along with the outpost generator tables Crawford also includes a set of mechanics to build outposts—whether that be as a baseline for the GM or for the players to leverage in creating their own off-world base of operations.

This is pretty mechanically heavy—but it essentially breaks down into four categories: population, staff, power, and workspace. Population is how many people comfortably fit, staff is how many people are needed to run the place, power is self-explanatory, and workspace is how much room you have for industrial pursuits. 

This gets the job done neatly, in my opinion. Setting up an outpost as players can be a lot of fun, and groups that want to dig into the myriad of components will enjoy the variety and trying to carefully balance power, workforce, and space in order to maximize profits.

One of the strengths of this is that once you’ve set it up on the provided record sheet, the outpost is pretty static. You know what kind of profit you’re making (or losing) and the associated costs. There’s not a lot of fiddling going on month to month or anything. 

Crawford provides a procedure to handle everything once the colony is set up, including how to solve problems like lack of food, supplies, or angry locals. There’s also some provided ways the GM can push on an outpost, along with advice and guidelines about how hard to go on the PCs.

The rules provided are fun and simple enough grasping them is easy enough. It makes me want to run a space game where the outpost is everything, and I think that’s very possible with what’s provided.

Lastly, there’s also two pages of new colonial gear that players can purchase in defense of their outposts.

A spread containing text and a sheet that details the components of your outpost.
The outpost sheet, including the procedure of how to get it running.


The Weaknesses and Strengths

This is a great resource for a very specific niche. That said, there was one area that missed the mark.

Having a full page dedicated almost entirely to a population’s physical characteristics seems like a lost opportunity. Do we really need to roll for common natural hair colors? I think the entire “average outpost citizen” page could have been replaced with something that’s more gameable—maybe a way to generate a specific citizen with a problem, or even a group of citizens that the players might interact with. Right now, we get a solid picture of the leader of the outpost and the rival, a less clear picture of the local leader, and only broad strokes about the actual people living in the outpost.

In my example above, we know that the general populace is “bitter” and then we know five things about what they look like. A better use of tables could have generated “an ally the PCs can make”, “an enemy the PCs might draw the ire of”, and some kind of powderkeg situation that’s about to happen. 

The way the book is laid out (I bought the PDF) is phenomenal. As usual for a Sine Nomine book, all of the related tables are packed onto one page for easy use. The PDF has bookmarks set up, so navigation is a breeze. It’s only 31 pages, but it’s dense with information.

Here’s the other strong point that’s easy to miss: you can use this book for small fantasy towns. Most of the tables provided don’t actually have hard sci-fi hooks built in, instead relying on generalization to provide structure. You apply the sci-fi skin after you’ve rolled, but you could just as easily apply a fantasy skin or a modern day skin to these things. The mechanical player-facing stuff is very sci-fi oriented, but the basic structure is layed out clear enough that an aspiring GM could hack together a fantasy “build our keep on the borderlands” version of it without too much work. 

Conclusion

If you’re familiar with other Sine Nomine books, you probably know what you’re getting. If you’re not, the simplest way to describe it is a toolset for GMs to prep upcoming games. 

This deeper dive into preparing for a game does go against a lot of the current crop of books, filled with spark tables and things designed to be rolled at the table or a few minutes before the game. Those sorts of things can easily provide a fun night of gaming, but sometimes the fun of prep comes from taking a deeper dive into something and avoiding the low hanging fruit that’s always tempting us.

Distant Lights gives us a good foundation for creating border outposts. It won’t generate something immediately gameable without work on your part, but it will spark your creativity.

Distant Lights can be purchased from DriveThruRPG as either a pdf or a softcover book. 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Spectral Interogatories IV - Xanadu and the Negadungeon


Xanadu is a 35 page, 33 key, location based adventure published in 2020, for Old School Essentials and Dungeon Crawl Classics by Singing Flame, the self publishing imprint of Vasili Kaliman. I haven't played Xanadu, so this review is based only on reading the text. I believe it’s Mr. Kaliman’s first published adventure, and it has generally been well received, as has his subsequent work, Night Land. Xanadu also strike me as a contemporary version of one of the signature adventure designs innovations of the Mid-OSR period, “The Negadungeon”.

By the “Mid-OSR” I mean roughly the period between 2011 and 2017, where the hotspot for play, theorizing, and design relating to pre-1990 RPGs was the G+ social platform. As always with scene definitions there’s outliers and blurring around the edges, the past isn't especially tidy, and in places like the ODD 74 and Dragonsfoot forums, the “Early-OSR” has never really stopped. My experience with the Mid-OSR period was that it was characterized by innovation in setting design and an embrace of online play, primarily using Moldvay Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of lingua franca (though it’s worth remembering that the same community played many other older games online as well: Traveller, RIFTS/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, Pendragon, and Metamorphosis Alpha come immediately to my mind). Still largely a community of hobbyists rather than small publishers, the focus was mostly on creating novel settings (including classes, equipment, and monsters, with occasional rules hacks) while generally remaining faithful to the mechanics of the rule set.

While Negadungeon as a phenomenon likely predates the Mid-OSR -- I consider Tomb of Horrors (1975 - Gary Gygax and Alan Lucien) a strong precursor to the Negadungeon, the term was created in early 2013 by the OSR gaming blog “Rotten Pulp” to discuss the design sensibilities of predominant OSR publisher Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). LotFP’s signature adventure Death Frost Doom (2009/2014) by James Raggi* is often offered as a prime example of the Negadungeon.  Rotten Pulp provides this tidy defintion of the Negadungeon as an "inverse dungeon" where:

Everything within will:

A. Curse you

B. Trigger traps

C. Unleash unspeakable evils

D. All of the above.

It is not made to entertain you; it is made to destroy you. It holds nothing but negatreasure and negaexperience.


This definition is a bit flippant, and the Negadungeon isn’t universally or even generally viewed as a bad thing, but it captures the gist of the design. This isn't to say that some Negadungeons aren't simply relentless death traps, but the better of them, such as Slaughtergrid by Neoplastic Press have built in checks or work-arounds especially to mitigate random death. Death Frost Doom is still the flagship Negadungeon though and still a well regarded adventure, one that I’ve played and run several times with various types of reskinning and revision. Its central conceit is that in an ancient and cursed graveyard some sort of horrific magical creature keeps a world conquering army of the undead quiescent. Adventurers finding the location ignore warnings, stumble about dealing with its few (but deadly) traps and plunder the graveyard's treasures, until they encounter the only “monster” within -- a guardian -- and destroy it. The undead wake, likely trapping the characters within the tomb; an unstoppable army of death between the adventurers and escape. An ancient dead general offers succor in exchange for a service that will unleash him and his dead army on the world - destroying the setting (or turning it into a zombie apocalypse). It’s notable that much of the plot and even the guardian creature (a strange plant-like entity whose endless moans trap the dead) are borrowed/plundered wholesale from The Lichway (1978 - Albie Fiore, White Dwarf Issue 9). The Lichway again suggests that the Negadungeon is not a new phenomenon, but one adapted, expanded, particularized, and popularized by the Mid-OSR. It also goes some way to indicating the different aesthetic and design sensibilities of early British fantasy RPGs and US Dungeons & Dragon publication.

The Negadungeon is not just an “impossible” or difficult adventure (I know plenty of people who have successfully played through Tomb of Horrors and have done so myself with Death Frost Doom, or one that “screws over” the players. At its root is the design decision to shift the genre of the fantasy RPG from adventure to horror. No longer are the characters heroes, or even protagonists, but instead they are the victims of something greater, tricked, perhaps forced into unwittingly destroying themselves and sometimes their world through their flaws (usually avarice and an ease with violence). This is the defining moment of the Negadungon, it has a point of horrific force majeure when the player doesn't simply loss control of the character (it's not a railroad or a sadistic referee) but is forced to make a choice between to horrific acts or outcomes.  The climax or perhaps end of a Negadungeon is horror because the PC protagonists are forced to do and/or endure something horrific or cease playing, usually by perishing.  In Death Frost Doom one must either try to escape at impossible (or seemingly impossible) odds through an army of the dead, throw oneself into a bottomless pit, or cut a deal with an ancient evil to save yourself but destroy the setting.

Difficulty begins, and a sense of unfairness or trickery sets in, when the referee and adventure don’t provide warning or even hints that the Negadungeon is a fundamental subversion of their expectations about the nature of play ending in horror. Of course the Negadungeon only really functions in the context of concealing that subversion, because it gets its impressive emotional punch when it reveals that the players’ expectations are the source of their doom. In one sense the Negadungeon is a form of structured narrative, focused on genre emulation, where the referee is asked to pull play in the direction of the climatic failure of the party. It's this element that makes it harder to see a trap-maze style tournament adventure like Tomb of Horrors as a true Negadungeon, because a Negadungeon has at least a loose internal narrative (though its own, not that of the characters) and its central conceit depends on genre emulation, at least to the degree that genre deception qualifies.  The genre element is so strong in the Negadungeon that several story games are even built around the idea, notably Trophy Dark and its inspiration Cthulhu Dark. Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross conducted a $210,000 Kickstarter in January 2022, and has a thriving community based around the Gauntlet forum and Codex magazine. Billed as a “tabletop roleplaying game of dark forests, doomed treasure-hunters” it’s notable that Trophy Dark is a genre emulation game (meaning its players succeed by telling a satisfying story in the pre-selected genre, rather than by having characters survive or overcome challenges as in classic style RPGs) specifically emulating the Negadungeon.

While games like Trophy exist, a Negadungeon on its own is not a story game, or even an “Adventure Path” such as those commonly published by TSRs starting in the mid-80’s. A Negadungeon, while it has a potential, even likely, climactic fail state is still a location based, procedurally explored dungeon adventure … but its central puzzle isn’t to maximize the amount of treasure taken from the place, defeat its most dangerous inhabitant, or “clear” the dungeon, it’s to figure out the dangers of the place and to know when to stop exploring, take one’s wealth, and leave.

Negadungeons that work do two things:

  • First, they telegraph and provide hints that the dungeon is different, that it is a single large trap, or at least operating in a different genre from the normal exploration based dungeon crawl.
  • Second, they allow retreat for players who figure out the secret, are designed for one-shot use, or provide some kind of escape option from the climactic defeat and horrific choice/fate.

Looking at Xanadu, while it lacks a setting destroying climax, it still contains the basic structure of the Negadungeon, primarily the Rotten Pulp definition of a high lethality adventuring space where the everything is highly dangerous with little reward, but also the definition I've suggested here.  Xanadu traps the party within its arena of high lethality traps -- most aren't obstacles, and few provide significant treasure, but the characters must either interact with them or die because there is no other escape. Even if they choose the right obstacle to interact with Xanadu is highly punitive in a random way, and this, setting the players up from the start of the adventure for randomized near unavoidable death is a strong point against it, especially as a sound Negadungeon. 

XANADU THE DUNGEON

Xanadu's difficulties as a Negadungeon don't mean that it's without charm, or that it doesn't display other elements of good design. Many of the individual keys are well done and highly legible in the "minimalism plus" style currently associated most strongly with Gavin Norman and his OSE line of adventures. The content of the keys is often interesting, almost universally interactive, and challenge or puzzle based. There is relatively little descriptive detail because of the keying style, an issue worth examining in context of both Xanadu's aesthetic and Negadungeon aspirations, but what exists is useful and should provide sufficient inspiration to a referee running the adventure.

The set up for Xanadu is worth describing, precisely because there's a lack of aesthetic coherency so it won’t come through very well without a full description. The adventure’s overall structure is secondary to its individual obstacles, and seems somewhat an afterthought or at least its subsumed quickly by the bizarre encounters and obstacles within. Kaliman does provide an excellent page of referee note/introduction for Xanadu that details the major creatures within, but while this may help the referee understand it does less for the players who will have a hard time discovering the relationships between the inhabitants of the cursed temple. The titular location, Xanadu is a temple or cult compound, sealed from the world after its inhabitants foolishly summoned the “tooth fairy” from the sugar dimension and this horrific extra-dimensional being has been luring humans to the now warped temple to kill them and steal their teeth.

Xanadu offers both hooks and rumors. The rumors, while somewhat helpful, would benefit from greater detail as a way to provide information about some of the less intuitive and very deadly obstacles within the temple. The hooks are better, and I appreciate any adventure that offers a variety of hooks. Xanadu's are fairly simple or standard, but decent and well presented: a patron’s sister is missing after joining the cult, a depopulated village, and a variety of rumors about magic and treasure. The setting, hooks and rumors all suffer a bit from another decision Kaliman makes, to provide a sentence long randomly generated background for the cult via table rather then a more standard set of descriptions.

This strikes me as an odd use of random tables, because despite gestures towards the idea in its layout and art, Xanadu is not a late-1980's rogue-like computer game. It’s unlikely that the same referee and players will run it multiple times. This means that the identity of the cult is something you will use once. The half page table, with sixteen entries will get rolled on once, likely before play and the players never have a chance to see the other 15 results. Random tables in adventures work best to procedurally generate content that sketches in large areas which are likely to have significant interaction but either too big (and too homogeneous) to key in totality or which the players will breeze through without fully exploring due to other pressures. The contents of a library, the treasure found in each of 500 tombs, encounters for every forest on a hexmap and such. In situation where the players will interact with table content only a few times (i.e. treasures in a specific keyed location/smaller dungeon or background information on a single faction) the space used by the table is usually better used to provide more detail or something else directly useful for running and playing the adventure.

Here, because the cult’s background could offer the best justification for the bizarre curse on the temple, the presence of otherworldly monsters and a tooth stealing sugar fairy it would be far better to make it specific and singular. As written the situation within temple Xanadu is unclear and lacks significant clues or connection, while the descriptions of ritual spaces have to be vague enough to cover a variety of cult concepts. Had Xanadu instead chosen one cult -- say #4 “Voices of a New Reality [... who] are explorers of states of consciousness” -- the adventure could placed their symbols everywhere (say a mouth open to receive cult produced candy, laced with hallucinogenic drugs), and include spaces, treasure, and content more directly related to their interests: mediation halls, luxurious drug dens, a candy/drug factory etc. This lack of references and internal coherence becomes a more serious issue precisely because Xanadu strives to be a Negadungoen where internal consistency and theme are a major way to provide clues to the puzzle of the dungeon’s genre.

Xanadu’s individual keys however are sound and imaginative, They contain many fairly typical, interactive, dungeon elements - statutes, mosaics, traps and puzzles all of which are loosely tied either to the temple or the theme of its new overlord - the Tooth Fairy. Most have interesting twists and effects, usually curses or penalties, that feel slightly unfamiliar in the best sort of way. Some of these interactive obstacles are intuitive, such as a spell-eating statue of a pregnant woman whose belly bursts if punctured, casting the stolen spells on everyone in the room. However, almost all of them offer only risk, and give little or no benefit to the party for interaction, so absent the interaction compelled by the need to escape it seems unlikely that savvy adventurers would interact with more then the first few. Interactivity and individual key design are the best aspects of Xanadu. Xanadu offers a densely interactive space, though without random encounters, another common aspect of the Negadungeon dating back to Tomb of Horrors that removes time pressure, allowing extreme caution).

In addition to traps and puzzles there are few monstrous inhabitants in Xanadu. Some resemble traps: floating explosive lantern creatures and acid sac slime/octopus things. Others are more standard, tooth extracting miniature doubles of the party, the ominous tooth fairy, and the cursed remnants of a family that once lived in the temple transformed into body horror style monstrosities. Like the obstacles these creatures, while often individually interesting and mechanically compelling, don’t form a coherent whole and one is left feeling that the dungeon is weird for the sake of being weird. Compounding this misfortune the majority of monsters are of the post 1980’s TSR “the monsters will attack until destroyed” school of design: floating lanterns, acid bladders, tooth hungry doppelgänger gnomes, and the entire cursed family: father, mother and daughter. The only monster that seems to suggest a possibility of non-combat interaction is the Tooth Fairy herself, and then only if the party has gathered a large number of teeth to offer her and made a successful random check. There’s still no possibility of faction intrigue, or even of interrogating the inhabitants for clues, only of combat or a brief interaction and gift of treasure from the Tooth Fairy. This is an oversight in any dungeon adventure designed for classic style play. Furthermore, as a referee one can read a few bits of information on these various creatures - the formerly human ones at least - and know how they tie into some of the hooks, but there’s no opportunity to use this information or resolve these hooks meaningfully because the only interaction is combat.

The art of Xanadu, along with the layout, is quite strong. Illustrated with a small number of bold pixel art images in a simple and bright palette, and supplemented with borrowed Dyson Logos cartography, itself overlaid with bright pop style numbers, is arresting. It’s unfortunate that neither the imagery or the related “early computer RPG” fonts seem to match the dungeon itself. The design is excellent, potently new when it was published and evocative, but it simply doesn’t match with the grimd aesthetic of a monster like “The Filth” an emaciated, curse warped former clock maker who reeks of feces, trails stinking pus, wails in endless pain and attacks with a lashing tongue and claws.

Xanadu's Pixel Art

This is the entire aesthetic of Xanadu, an odd juxtaposition of body horror filled, gruesome, grimdark and bright, C-64 retro, referentially humorous, absurdity. Some might describe it as “gonzo”, but the juxtaposition is too scattered. A gonzo world like Anomalous Subsurface Environment has to make sense, at least from the perspective of the characters, or it becomes goofy instead, a monster zoo filled with “humorous” references that become unconnected absurdity like WG7 Castle Greyhawk (not what Gygax intended for Castle Greyhawk to be sure). Xanadu’s undefined cult temple, sealed by magical time clocks, filled with a variety of fragmented individual traps and monsters, some with a dental theme, simply doesn’t have the necessary coherence. It’s not just referential and odd to players, but even when one imagines the characters’ understanding of the location it feels scattered and random. Instead of feeling like coherent world, humorous because as players we see pop cultural references, Xanadu too often feels like a clash of disparate elements, a sort of grab bag of dungeon ideas (some quite good), many inspired by LotFP or other works using the grim and gory aesthetic of the Mid-OSR, that has been hastily blended with unrelated pixel art (also good) and a vague appreciation for procedural generation without the necessary underpinning in classic dungeon design.

So as a dungeon Xanadu’s strengths are its individual keys, the often novel nature of its traps or puzzles, clear useful layout, and sound referee notes/sheets that actually help run the adventure. Its weaknesses are incoherent, a funhouse approach to setting and a lack of charity towards the characters that I suspect will quickly teach most players to avoid its otherwise compelling obstacles and puzzles. Its strengths might overcome these weaknesses, and certainly could be more easily overlooked if it was simply a dungeon adventure, but it’s not, it’s a Negadungeon, a design form that demands greater attention to avoid the risk of becoming a playground for the worst kind of antagonistic refereeing.

XANADU THE NEGADUNGEON

Xanadu is a dungeon filled with deadly dangers, most of the traps within include save vs. death effects or even instant death as one of the options. A statute whose gemstone eyes can only be removed if a tooth is placed in its bowl disintegrates anyone who tries to take them without solving the puzzle (this is one clear reference to a similar puzzle in Death Frost Doom, though in Xanadu there’s fewer clue as to how it works). This isn’t what makes it a Negadungoen however, the Negadungeon manifests primarily for two reasons: first, the party is sealed within the temple upon entry (and attempts to escape through the portal are potentially lethal - though they most often result in an extra eye on the back of the head). Second, while trapped in the temple the means of escape is to find and manipulate a set of temporal and dimensional clocks that while easy enough to find are the only means of escape (at least back to the outside world - defeating or placating the Tooth Fairy may provide a way to somewhere else) require a random and extremely dangerous, deadly even, set of arbitrary rolls to use. The clocks borrow their mechanics from the Gamma World artifact tables which usually result in an explosion. The same goes for Xanadu's clocks. Trapped within the adventure the PCs will struggle through a set of dangerous obstacles, many with no advantages to interaction, and find themselves eventually playing with another, even more dangerous obstacle to escape.  Escape can only be accomplished by an arbitrary set of multiple die rolls with a narrow chance of success and deadly consequences for failure.

Xanadu - Interior Spread

This doesn’t strike me as the basis of an enjoyable adventure, but it’s clearly Rotten Pulp’s Negadungeon: “not made to entertain you; [...] made to destroy you. It holds nothing but negatreasure and negaexperience.” Once again, to make a functional Negadungeon the designer needs to either allow and hint at the desirability of retreat, design specifically for a one shot/tournament, or offer the characters a way to survive once defeated -- usually through a devil’s bargain or moral quandary. Xanadu does none of these explicitly (though the second is offered as an option), it simply provides an arena of deadly traps, body horror, and a mechanically frustrating means of escape that will likely prove deadly and futile.

This could be easily alleviated by offering a bargain with the Tooth Fairy (perhaps teeth for freedom, or a promise to serve her) that includes escape rather than just diamonds, a way to interact with the clockmaker/Filth beyond combat, or multiple alternate means of escape. A Negadungeon that forces player interaction with its most deadly elements should also offer players hope and alternatives or it becomes little more than an excuse for sadistic referees and discouraging play. There is a reason many people disdain the style of early Dungeons & Dragons, and while it is usually ascribed to antagonistic refereeing, antagonistic design will give the same miserable experience. Other possibilities to make Xanadu less incoherently punitive are more complex, but equally available, and require only an understanding of what the Negadungeon seeks to accomplish beyond being highly lethal and difficult.

Of the ways a Negadungeon can alleviate the sense of unfairness that they tend to create, the most complex and interesting is to offer the players ways to discover that their expectations about genre or play are incorrect. This allows for alternate solutions or for players to decide when to leave the dungeon after collecting whatever treasure they can. The designer must make it clear to the referee and offer clues to the players that the adventure itself is a large puzzle, and that the way to solve it is to recognize that its ending is near inevitable failure, that retreat and escape are the ultimate player goal. Generally it’s also good design to offer the characters a significant reward for figuring this puzzle out. This isn’t an easy design trick to pull off but to do it more easily a designer can use a couple of tools that Xanadu doesn’t.

The first of these is an aesthetic break, using description and a clear rupture between the “normal” world of the setting and the NegaDungeon. This may be one reason why the Mid and Late OSR periods often focused on produced “grimdark” settings. When the setting (or dungeon) is full of imagery of gruesome death, mutilation and body horror it helps to show that it has broken from the expectations of vernacular fantasy and that the setting is instead dark fantasy or horror. Even outside of the context of Negadungeon design the aesthetic rupture both warns players that the game they are playing is a high lethality one, distinct from more recent editions of D&D.  Xanadu may attempt this to a degree, with its monsters, traps and descriptions, but its grim descriptions, but gore and body horror are at odds with its layout and the art as well as well as with the goofy or gonzo elements of the adventure ... the extraplanar being cursing the temple is The Tooth Fairy, served by Molar Minions, and she’s from the mysterious Sugar Realm. While I enjoy a horrific Candyland (a staple of one G+ era campaign I played in) This doesn't really fit with the rest of Xanadu and didn’t have to be the case, but it would have required some decisions by the designer both about layout/keying and content on what aesthetic (candyland and pop or gore and grimdark) the adventure should follow.

One of the profound advantages of writing adventures with a Gygaxian Vernacular setting is that they immediately make sense to players and referees. Orc warrens in the ruins of a Dwarven Fortress may be bland and dull, but anyone who has been exposed to recent popular fantasy has a good idea of what they look like and contain. Descriptions can be terse as both referee and players will easily fill in the appearance and details of the cliched space from 50 plus years of popular representation. The more one departs from such an expected setting the greater the need to provide detail and description -- meaning the harder it is to use minimal or even "minimal plus" keying. As a rule keys always need to balance between evocative/useful detail and concise usable information, but the less players and referees can be expected to have a cultural or referential familiarity with the space, the longer keys need to be and more detail they require to function at all.

Xanadu’s title suggests it could have been fairly referential while still breaking with the norms of Gygaxian Vernacular aesthetic.

Kubla Khan (1922) -Dugald Stewart Walker
First, there’s the Coleridge poem Kubla Khan that starts with “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree:” It may be an opium fueled romantic era poem exotifying the capital of the Shangdu (likely ultimately based on Marco Polo’s fanciful descriptions), but it’s a good source of RPG adventure material and imagery. Xanadu the adventure however does not contain any pleasure gardens, caverns measureless to man, sunless seas, or even a woman wailing for her demon lover. As with the poem it could even end with either the flooding and sinking of the pleasure dome to “caves of ice” or take place in an already sunken, frozen dome, haunted by a nearly divine foe with flashing eyes and floating hair juiced up on the honeydew and the milk of paradise. It'd be a rich source of imagery and inspiration.  The opium dream, late 19th/early 20th century fantasy aesthetic has been adapted numerous times to RPG projects, including by Kaliman, whose Night Land is based on William Hope Hogdson's 1912 dying earth fantasy The Night Land. Also of course by Bone's own Ben L. and his Through Ultan's Door.

From Xanadu (1980) - Universal

Second, and perhaps more of a stretch, but clearly useful for inspiration and aesthetic, there’s the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film named Xanadu about the mythic Muses inspiring some boring 1970's LA dudes to create a nightclub named Xanadu. It’s sort of a last hurrah of the disco era, via rollerdisco, and roller skating Newton-John plays Terpsichore, the muse of dance - which she does well, mostly on roller skates. None of this makes it into Xanadu the adventure either ... not even this groovy mural (from which the muses first emerge).

From "Xanadu" (1985) - Nihon Falcom
This image is clearly Newton - John in Xanadu ...
a reference to the movie. Wheels within wheels.

The only clear influences I can find for Xanadu are the 1985 action RPG computer game Xanadu (Dragon Slayer II), which has at least one pixel art asset that's mirrored in the RPG, and Death Frost Doom. Xanadu also shares LotFP's general interest in body horror and high lethality adventure design, while the focus on sacrificing teeth central to Xanadu is very a direct gesture towards the "tooth door" of Death Frost Doom

Obviously Xanadu the adventure need not reference any inspirations, but I’d suggest that some throughgoing theme representing the space as having its own non-standard and consistent aesthetic would encourage players exploring it to realize that they are adventuring somewhere different. Perhaps the bizarre shifts between tone achieve this, but greater coherence would also suggest that the location is comprehensible, that it’s challenges follow a logic and theme. If one designs a dungeon, Nega or not, around a theme and its own discoverable character/history/secrets this consistency helps mitigate any sense of unfairness in high lethality obstacles, because these obstacles will make sense in the context of the adventure as a whole. The specifics of the aesthetic aren’t very important, just a consistency that encourages players to see the adventure as possessing clear internal logic and vision, with repeated motifs and themes that themselves provide clues to how to overcome its obstacles.

The second, more immediate way to make the Negadungeon into a puzzle rather than a punishment is to offer clues and a clear exit -- up to a point of no return. In a Negadungeon, usually because the party has made a foolish decision based on the player expectations that they are in the standard "explore and loot" style of adventure, the doom at the heart of the Negadungeon may prevent escape, but up until then there needs to be a way to back off, reevaluate, and even depart. If the designer and referee allow this the players may collectively groan about their fate, but they will also retroactively recognize that there were clues to it and that their own misunderstanding of those clues is what led to their characters' destruction. This can be fun, it doesn’t feel arbitrary or frustratingly obtuse, but instead its a loss as the logical result of the players own actions and assumptions. Fair players (and like referees, not all players can or want to be fair) will accept these sorts of defeats in the spirit of the game, especially if the adventure offers some alternative to a TPK on failure.

Xanadu doesn’t do any of these things, the party is trapped in a baffling location, lacking internal logic, and without meaningful clues or an aesthetic that hints at either its Negadungeon nature or ways to escape. Indeed there is no escape from Xanadu other then rolling the dice and facing the bad odds of Gamma World’s eclectic table, which even with eventual success will likely result in multiple combats with cavity creeps and a few PC mutations or deaths. It’s always seemed to me that a PC death that’s purely the result of a forced random roll feels especially unfair, and trying to figure out Xanadu’s magic clock is forced in every way. The clocks represent the only means of escape and there are no schemes, spells, or discoveries that the party can use to tilt the rolls in their favor or automatically succeed -- the players simply roll dice a few times and either succeed or more likely suffer destruction with the occasional TPK or mere loss of multiple limbs. Even a fist fight with Acererak at least offers the illusion of survivability that is part of any D&D combat -- and Tomb of Horrors was designed as a tournament module with pregen characters, where no party was expected to reach Acererak’s real tomb in the allotted time and would clearly have "won" the game if they did.

The Negadungeon is a difficult form to design, because despite its mythology and stated purpose, to succeed its design must be ultimately less focused on the ways players can fail then on providing and encouraging clear means for their characters to either recognize its trickery or to survive in the face of failure - perhaps battered or changed, perhaps the secret cause of their setting’s desolation, but alive and ready for another adventure. It’s tricky to referee a Negadungeon and tricker to write one, especially if one isn’t steeped in Classic and OSR practice, design, and theory. A referee or designer with a more narrative design background who understands the referee's role as either a contributor to and facilitator of the players own stories or as the director rather then as a neutral arbitrator and set designer may be easily tempted by the Negadungeon to push it to its grim conclusion.

While it may be a difficult form to design, I sincerely want to to see more Negadungeons, because there’s something incredibly fulfilling about playing through one - they offer compelling challenges with a powerful sense of consequences and hit on a core conceit of aheroic dungeon crawling play ... that victory for a desperate treasure hunter may merely be avoiding dying in a dark hole. They also offer a fascinating way to transform setting or give the party a lasting sense of doomed responsibility for greater tragedy. Finally any design that transforms the basic structure of the dungeon crawl is worth practicing because variety and novelty will excite even the most jaded grognard. The Negadungeon has faded in popularity since LotFP's heyday, but it'd be nice to see it revived by newer designers, given a new look and reinvigorated.  Xanadu tries this and while I judge it to have failed, I'm overjoyed to see it all the same.

I also don’t want to suggest that Xanadu’s failures are an indictment of Kaliman’s skill as a designer - it’s an ambitious first published work, and while it’s not an adventure that works for me, it has strong keying, excellent interactivity and good design. I hope we see more adventures from Singing Flame, even another Negadungeon, because despite my criticisms, there's a core of interesting design in Xanadu and no hesitency about experimenting with adventure design.

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* Sadly, I have to note that since it’s Mid-OSR heyday, LotFP has engaged in and courted many controversies that deservingly earned it large amount of negative attention for its dedication to shock horror and the personal politics of its owner. However, it is next to impossible to talk about the G+ period of OSR design without including LotFP’s contributions to the scene. Rather than go into any detail on LotFP and its legacy here, this post by Humza at Legacy of Bieth covers the current state of things for the brand as of early 2022.

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...