Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Dungeon Dioramas - Secrets Under Stone & Azag

I'm going to try something new this time and compare two similar game books. Both are descendants of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy game rules, or what, these days, we might call troikalike games.

Secrets Under Stone, written by N Weaver with a print edition by Soul Muppet, is listed as the first issue of a recurring zine called Deep Under Stone, although no second issue has been released yet, and the proposed structure of the zine series suggests that Weaver intends Secrets to stand alone as a complete game book. As proposed, future issues will apply the same mechanics to different settings. The art is from the public domain, including the cover collage.

Secrets Under Stone is set in a general British Gothic milieu, sometime in the Long Nineteenth Century. The setting is a departure from the other troika-likes, but it should seem familiar to anyone who has encountered Gothic tropes before. The primary innovations that separate Secrets from its sister games are mechanical, so those will get the majority of my attention.

One of the most common complaints I've heard about Troika is the random starting Skill score. In Troika, you roll 2d6+12 to determine Stamina, 1d6+6 to determine Luck, and 1d3+3 to determine Skill. These roughly correspond to Hit Points, Saving Throws, and Skills, respectively, in D&D. This looks really elegant when written out, but it means that about a third of characters have Skill 4, and thus only a 16.67% chance - the same as 1-in-6 - to accomplish any task that they don't specifically have an Advanced Skill in. You may recall me mentioning before that Old School designers love giving 1-in-6 and 2-in-6 chances for starting characters to accomplish things they are ostensibly good at, and that Old School players love to complain about how miserly and miserable they find these chances. Elegance on paper is not the same thing as a mechanic that players will enjoy using at the table.  

So it was a pleasant surprise for me to see that Secret Under Stone's primary mechanical innovation is to change the Skill mechanic by splitting it in three. Players roll to determine six Advanced Skills from across three categories - Brawn, Knack, and Knowledge. Each of those acts as a base Skill score for those areas of character ability, and each is 4 plus half the number of Advanced Skills. So scores as low as 4 and as high as 7 are possible but unlikely - most scores will be 5 or 6 - but low scores in one area will be automatically offset by higher scores in the others. Instead of the colorful Backgrounds from Troika, the nature of your character is determined by the mix of these skills.

To transplant the basic skill mechanic introduced here to another rules system besides those derived from Advanced Fighting Fantasy would take a bit tinkering, but it would be far from impossible. The basic mechanic is randomly selecting special skills and then using the total number of each type of those skills as the basis to generate ability scores. The first thing I was reminded of was Empire of the Petal Throne, where player rolled to generate ability scores and then received skills in order from a list based on how high their score is. That mechanic is essentially the inverse of Secret Under Stone's, and it's easy to imagine a contemporary take on Tekumel that used the mechanic introduced here. Another possibility is Numenera, which has pre-set ability scores by character class, and player-selected special skills that draw on those abilities. Once again, reversing and randomizing to use Secret's mechanic is easy to envision.

The other aspect of the Skill mechanic here that I really like is that each skill comes with a piece of starting equipment that uses it. I've mentioned on my own blog that skills in D&D and most other tabletop roleplaying games require a kind of two-factor authentication - you need both the skill and the equipment to actually do something. Thieves need lockpicks, bards need music instruments, clerics need holy symbols, etc. (There are some counter-examples, where you need just one or the other but not both, but for this review the trend is more important than the exceptions.) Depending on the version of the game you're playing, characters might be gifted these tools automatically upon picking their class, or the rules might rely on player skill to buy the right starting equipment. Here there are no character classes, only skills, but if you're good at climbing, you get a rope; if you know how to swordfight, you start with a sword. Combine this with something similar to the weapon-specific abilities I praised in my review of Root, and I think you could really have something interesting, something I'd like to see more of in other games.

An example character in Secrets Under Stone might start with Axe Fighting, Sword Fighting, Crossbow Shooting, Navigation, Astrology, and Spiritualism, Brawn 5, Knack 5, Knowledge 5, and own an axe, a sword, a crossbow with 20 bolts, a compass, an astrolabe, and a spirit board. Despite the lack of a named Background, it's relatively easy to imagine this character within a broadly Victorian milieu - an explorer perhaps, equally attuned to the practical and supernatural properties of the night sky, and ready to hack through underbrush and opposing forces alike.

The magic system and bestiary of Secrets both feel incomplete, and there is essentially no worldbuilding beyond what is implied by character creation, and no real advice about how to run an adventure using these rules, either in general or with an eye toward distinguishing it from its sister games. Astrology and Spiritualism, for example, are both skills that grant your character the ability to use magic, and there are about a half-dozen others that do the same. Weaver suggests that instead of Troika's spells, Secrets characters with the correct skills should be able to learn Rituals. The key differences appear to be that rituals are intended to seem more low fantasy than spells; they each have success, critical success, failure, and critical failure results; and there is no indication in the text how, or even if, the number of rituals a character might learn from each skill should be limited. Weaver has written two rituals for each spellcasting skill, and left the rest of the hard work of developing setting-appropriate magical effects with four levels of efficacy each to the referees who volunteer to use this new system. 

Magic can also be acquired by bonding with a Patron. These work quite similarly to patrons in Dungeon Crawl Classics. There is a well described ritual for forming a bond, with the Secret-standard four levels of effect. Each patron grants a Boon, a situational bonus that depends on the character's skill level, and knowledge of three Powers, which function exactly like normal spells in Troika, including the variable Stamina costs, and which mirror the three Patron Spells in DCC, Each patron also has a 1d6 table of Curses, which also mirror the Patron Taint effects in DCC. The levels of effectiveness are another similarity, now that I think of it. For the nine spellcasting skills, Weaver has provided two example patrons, leaving the other seven for interested referees to invent for themselves. I would be more forgiving if the anticipated second issue of the zine were intended to complete these rules rather than provide a palette swap into another new setting. I am interested in seeing the new setting, but this one still feels incomplete in certain key respects.

The bestiary is primarily made up of creatures referenced in other parts of the book. The mundane animals you might receive as "equipment" if you have the animal handling skill are here, as are the various servitors and familiars you can create with one of the listed magic rituals, and the mercenaries of varying quality you can hire to accompany you. I am gratified that there are no creatures referenced earlier that don't get an entry, but the lack of other entries feels like a missed opportunity to me. First because of the lost chance to expand the Secrets world, and second because Weaver has chosen to alter the math of Troika's combat by reducing weapon damage, dropping Stamina by half - from 2d6+12 to 2d3+6 - and replacing the "playing card initiative" with the standard D&D style alternating combat. Taken all together, I'm not certain what effect all those changes have on the pace of combat, but I am sure that you can't simply drop a monster from Troika into a Secrets Under Stone game without it tearing through the weaker characters like a wrecking ball. So some additional sample opponents would be helpful for preparing an appropriate adventure. The one saving grace is the addition of a kind of Luck check - another transplant from DCC! - that possibly allows surviving a fall to 0 Stamina.

Weaver concludes with a page and a half of advice about how to run adventures that incorporate investigation and the learning of new magical Rituals, and a couple pages of advice and encouragement for altering the rules to fit another setting. The most cryptic advice is from a page on the possible rewards characters might receive from adventuring - Luxury, Prestige, and Conscience. Weaver provides a list of milestone achievements, and the reward, in points, for meeting each milestone. These points do not interact with any system of experience or advancement. As Weaver explains: "This page allows you to quantify your achievements, which provides no reward beyond the pleasure of doing so. Think of it like a High Score table or ignore it entirely."

Azag is described as a complete game book, although as I understand it, a print edition with more art might eventually be forthcoming. It's published by Dank Dungeons with a print edition by LF OSR, and written primarily be Lex Mandrake, with additional text by Chris Boudreau, Diogo Nogueira, Safia Aldulaijan, and Mahar Mangahas. The cover art is by Luis Melo, with interior art by Logan Stahl, and maps by Daniel Walthall. The additional authors supplied short fiction about the setting; I'm not certain if they wrote any of the game material.

Azag makes some minor mechanical departures from the other troik-alikes, but here the majority of the authors' effort has been poured into creating an original setting, so again, I'm going to put most of my attention where the action is.

The opening sections of Azag start with a short story; an overview of the rules for skills, combat, and traveling; a second short story; the rules for character creation and advancement; a third short story; a section on Talents - which are Azag's version of Troika's Advanced Skills - and spells; a fourth short story; lists of equipment and tables for generating magic items; a fifth short story; and then we enter the much longer second half of the books, which is all about the unique setting of the game.

I will leave it to someone more qualified to comment on the style and content of the short stories, but I will note that each is only a page long and is accompanied by a full-page piece of art. They effectively act as section breaks between the steps of character creation. My one critique of this organization is that the sections are placed in the reverse of the order that they're listed as steps of character construction. Azag also declines to list character Backgrounds, and instead asks players to generate characters by combining the results from several lists. Following the instructions, you're supposed to start with a magic item, then receive mundane equipment, then pick Talents and spells, and finally write three unique Traits. In keeping with the reverse order of the other sections, the advice for that last step are right below the instructions for the character creation process.

Like Secrets Under Stone, the Talents in Azag are closer to D&D's skill list than to the more outre options found in Troika. You Talents might include Reflexes or Willpower; Ranged Weapons or Armor Specialist; or something like Awareness, Stealth, Lockpicking, or Wayfinding. Weapon damage is also based on different sizes of dice, like D&D and unlike Troika's bespoke damage tables that transform the effects of rolling a d6. 

Magic items are the one element of character creation that's random instead of chosen by the player. To create one you roll 2d12 three times to determine the Item Type, Prefix, and Suffix. So you might end up with the Bronze Gemstone of Might, which increases your Skill and makes Tests of Strength easier, or the Silver Sword of Luck, which increases your Stamina and causes you to gain and lose Luck points when you pass and fail Luck Tests, amplifying their swingy-ness. It's clear that Mandrake has considered the distribution of possible results, and has pushed both the rarer sounding names and the more impressive looking powers away from the center and toward the edges of the probability curve.

The second half of Azag is devoted to describing its game world. The organization of this section is very nice. First, a page listing the four regions of the world, with a one-sentence description of each, and a list of a half-dozen or so important locations in that region. There are the Coin Roads, a desert crossed by trade routes, the Crescent Sea, a Mediterranean coastline, the Shadow of the Great Glacier, a wintry northern region, and the Verdant Basin, a tropical jungle. 

Next, two to a page, each evocatively named location gets a paragraph description and a d6 table of possible encounters. These act more like storytelling prompts than like traditional D&D encounters. This section, if used as written, probably plays out much more like a storygame than like any other version of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, they contain both a setup and a conclusion and ask the reader to decide how the characters got from one to the other. The prompts could also be used differently than suggested, by a referee preparing ahead of time, as the starting point for more traditional roleplaying. One prompt in the Alabaster Maze in the Coin Roads region suggests "You became hopelessly lost in the labyrinth with no chance of escape. A being in the form of an albino bat offered to guide you out of the maze for a price. What did the bat ask of you?" Another, from the Invisible Library of Malazar along the Crescent Sea tells "Warlocks from distant lands offered you riches for escort through the library. When they found the text they sought you were betrayed and had to fight your way out. What knowledge had driven them to kill and how did you best them?" 

Used as written, these encounters presume a conclusion that might otherwise take an entire game session to achieve, if it could be won at all, and invite the players and referee together to retroactively decide how this was accomplished. I can imagine relying on the character's Talents and Spells and magic items to tell the story of how they escaped the maze or defeated the warlocks, but it doesn't seem like any of the previous mechanics of rolling dice should be involved. The dice help us decide the success or failure of something we attempt. Here the success is already decided, only the method used to achieve it has yet to be played out. Ryuutama uses similar mechanics, though on a much smaller scale, rolling the dice first, then asking, for example, how you got injured along the trail, or what happened in the night to disturb you sleep so.

After another short story, the next section is devoted to the NPCs you might meet while adventuring. There is a table for each region to generate NPCs. Roll a d6 three times to discover their Background, Motivation, and Unique Trait, though with only six traits per region, they aren't really so unique, and then consult the table of Plot Hooks. There are 36 possible plot hooks in each region, each determined by the NPC's background and motivation. For example, in the Great Glaciers, you might meet a mammoth herder who is obsessed with getting their deity to the best shrine in Barbasdu, you might discover that "Haunted by dreams of a mammoth-headed deity taller than the Great Glacier, they now believe the shrines of Barbasdu to be the rightful grazing ground of the magnificent beasts. These woolly giants will be mounted and ridden to the gates of the city to take their rightful home." Or in the Verdant Basin, you might find a basking cultist who wants to prove their innocence before their people, about whom you learn that "This cultist's jilted ex-lover has accused them of worshiping the Moon King. To prove their loyalty, they must climb to the top of smouldering Mt. Kirmak in the Frostfire Peaks and retrieve a perfect sunbleached opal."

The plot hooks are really what make these characters unique, and I think that Mandrake has given each an agenda that goes beyond, in both richness and specificity, what most referees might be able invent for themselves just from looking at the backgrounds and motivations. Each NPC holds the seed to an adventure, complete with locations, items, other NPCs. These seeds are the primary source of inspiration for running adventures in the world of Azag. Most adventures then, are likely to start with the players meeting someone with their own agenda, and deciding whether to assist them, thwart them, or otherwise take advantage of the conditions that agenda will create.

The final section, separated by a last short story, offers roughly 20 new monsters, each with a pair of abilities or interesting details. The creatures Mandrake has chosen seem consistent with his stated goal of building a game world similar to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, and they seem appropriate to a world of harsh desert and dense jungle. There are several varieties of undead, giant insects, dinosaurs, and mechanical servitors. Ironically, what's missing here is a few examples of mundane or human opponents to provide a baseline chassis for the sorts of cultists, nomads, and magicians that show up in the encounter tables and NPC plot hooks.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

State of the Sepulcher

To ring in the new year, our skeleton crew has decided to take stock of the state of our nighted sepulcher. Our conversation ranges over what Bones of Contention has accomplished so far, and where we hope it might be going in the new year. 

Ben: Let me kick the conversation off with some history and dry facts. Bones of Contention grew out of our discussions about the current state of review culture in the classical/OSR/Post-OSR space. We were all dissatisfied with the limited review culture, which consisted mainly of boosting products, and a couple of long running single authored critical review blogs and youtube channels. Ava suggested that any real alternative would need to be a multi-authored collaborative review site perhaps modeled on video game review sites. We debated the practical complications of reviewing in a small scene where everybody knew everybody else, how to handle conflicts of interest, how to select products to review, whether to require playtesting for all products to be reviewed, and the tone we wanted to maintain (critical where merited but respectful). We had some ideas we set aside like making all reviews anonymous and doing video reviews. We hit eventually on our principles, outlined here

So Bones of Contention rose from the dead on June 14th of 2021. In our 29 weeks of ghastly toil before year’s end, we managed to publish 28 posts. 1 was our inaugural post. The remaining 27 were review posts. 20 of the reviews were by single authors in one of our established review series by regular contributors. 2 of the reviews were by guest authors in the Grave Trespass series. The remaining 6 reviews were multi-authored: 1 in the Rashomon series of multi-perspective reviews, 1 in the Folie a Deux series of dialogues, and 3 of them a series of shorter capsule reviews by multiple authors in the Cryptic Signals series. In our reviews, we covered 27 adventures, 6 games, and 4 supplements. There was a mix of old (10) and new (27) products. 

Our most viewed post, after our inaugural post, was Zedeck’s review of Kriegmesser in his (P)late Mail series, followed by Gus’s review of the Caverns of Thracia in his Spectral Interrogatories series, followed by our very first review, the Isle of the Plangent Mage in third place. This confirms, by the way, that there’s an appetite for reviews of both old and new products. It feels to me like we had a good ratio (nearly 3:1) of new to old, with an appropriate tilt towards newer products that may not have received as much attention yet. 

Our pace of publishing reviews was decent if not ideal. We began posting once a week. In a moment of early hubris we briefly increased to twice a week, only to discover that we needed to dial it back. We closed out the year posting every other week, which is our plan for the moment, until we build up a backlog sufficient to increase the pace once again to weekly reviews. To maintain our momentum, we have increased the number of contributors. Our skeleton crew started out with 7 regular contributors, each with their own review series, and grew to 10, including the most recent addition, Ty, who slipped into the graveyard with a review of Death in Space right before the year’s end. We are continuing our recruitment of guest reviewers, with first review of 2022 by Warren D and others in the works at the moment. 

This diversity of perspectives was part of the rationale for Bones of Contention. Given the fact that our skeleton crew is all volunteer, and many of us are already stretched to capacity as ttrpg authors, we have tried to make a virtue of necessity. Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, I guess I’ll start by asking the rest of the skeleton crew what they think is working well on the blog, and what they’d like to see us do more of or differently in the future. Let’s start with you Gus. 

Gus: Bones had a good ½ year, the reviews offer variety, and variation without paying a cost in quality. While each writer has brought their own style and concern to their Bones reviews, they all strike me as far more nuanced and thoughtful then many older blog based reviews by fans or foes of particular products and designers. While I suspect the economy and size of the RPG industry will mean that a healthy culture of critique is unlikely, it’s great to see efforts in that direction succeed. 

Personally I intend to continue looking at the history and development of dungeons and the dungeon crawl, though given the length and limited number of reviews, I suspect Spectral Interrogatories will focus on more well known projects, especially those that are emblematic of certain key ideas in classic adventure design. My goal though isn't to burnish or tarnish the reputations of already well known designers, but instead to offer perspective of and criticism on well known works so that other, lesser designers, including myself, can learn from them. Planned reviews include a look at the revised Deep Carbon Observatory, discussing both its status as an exemplar and model for mid-OSR design as well as the many experimental aspects of the adventure. After DCO I suspect I’ll need to look at the outer edges of dungeon design, works from the indie and/or story game communities that seek to provide dungeon adventures and see what lessons can be learned from play styles that entirely reject procedural exploration. 

For Bones I look forward to it’s continued expansion, with the addition of more reviewers from varied design backgrounds, both out of an interest in seeing how this cross-pollination of design ideas helps provide insight and inspiration for the contributors and readers own projects and because the tabletop RPG community is too small for contentious disputes over play style. 

Nick: Discoverability is always an issue for artists. It hurts to pour your heart into something, even as you know nobody will ever see it because you lack the flair for marketing yourself. It was edifying to pull books right off the freshly printed line and give them a fair shake. I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the coming year. 

WFS: I was an early latecomer to this project, but I was pretty happy with my first review in my Pedantic Wasteland series, which evaluated A Rasp of Sand in light of its stated roguelite goals. Not only was it an opportunity to shine a light on this neat adventure, but I got to address concepts like metagaming in a way that’s a bit more practical than a theory-post on my own blog. Due to constant juggling of other projects (for what am I if not a jester), my pace of solo reviews will probably be about two a year. One review I’ve had bouncing in my noggin has been the Red Hand of Doom adventure, which I think illustrates several interesting trends in big budget adventure design. However, where this blog really shines are the more collective reviews. It plays to our strength as a group of game thinkers and tinkers that solo blogs aren’t able to do. So I really look forward to more reviews in the Rashomon, Folie a Deux and Cryptic Signals series in 2022 and beyond. For the Cryptic Signals in particular, I hope these become more tightly focused around either genres of games, particular authors or adventure anthologies. 

Anne: There are a few things that really excite me about the multi-author format Bones has going right now. First, several of us have clear agendas in terms of our planned reviews. Gus is mostly looking at famous older adventures. Nick is mostly looking at new works that he picks because he knows nothing about the authors. I also like the distinctive visual style of the different posts. Each review looks like a page torn from the author’s home blog and pasted into our scrapbook - especially for those of us with a really distinctive formatting style, like Gus and WFS. And finally, of course, having multiple authors means that we can work together, and write more and better than we could individually. 

My agenda isn’t quite so straightforward, but I hope that pursuing it for another year will turn up more insights about how to write certain kinds of adventures well. My goals for my writing are to look closely at the important moving parts of the thing I’m reviewing, and to understand both what they’re trying to achieve and how well they actually accomplish it. I hope that whether you agree with me or think I’m wrong every time, that what I say is detailed enough and clear enough that you’ll know enough about the thing to form an opinion of your own. 

For next year, I’m going to try to write more Cryptic Signals entries. There are some interesting small projects out there that could be well-served by short reviews. I might also be able to do something Ben did early on, and pair a couple of related items in a single solo review. I’ve agreed to something like three Folie a Deux team-ups with some other skeleton crew members, and I want to get at least one or two of those out this year. It’s also my personal goal to recruit at least one guest blogger to write a Grave Trespass. I’ve asked a couple of people I know well who I think would do a good job, but so far I’ve yet to successfully bring someone in. Ava is the real champion on that front, since the people she invites end up becoming regular columnists. A final goal is to have at least one “book club” article where some of us read a book that might interest gamers, but that isn’t a game book specifically - something like The Elusive Shift or Finite and Infinite Games. This is probably my least likely goal since, as others have already noted, we’re all busy with other projects, so trying to put together an actual book club is kind of a big ask. 

* * *

Dan: The collaborative aspect of this whole endeavor has been my favorite part - both in the variety of voices and keeping things rolling without folks getting burned out. For the future I definitely want to run more (much easier to write a better review that way), and I hope we’re able to do more Rashomon reviews - it’s a fantastic way of using our format to our advantage. 

Ben: You know, I think I agree with you all that the real strength of Bones has been the collaborative energy that is most on display in the more conversational reviews in the Folie a Deux, Rashomon, and Cryptic Signals series. It’s important to learn about the perspective of individual reviewers in their own series, since this gives us a sense of their pre-occupations and critical orientation. But it’s even better to see those individual perspectives come together in dialogue. For me, the high-point of the blog came in the recent Folie a Deux review of Luka Rejec’s Holy Mountain Shaker. It was especially interesting because Luka was trying to do something new and interesting in adventure design. Gus’ perspective on the centrality of space to procedural dungeon crawls gave him a critical perspective on the attempt, which contrasted with WFS’ interest in procedural and improvisational play that led to entirely different evaluation. In a sense the disagreement was really about what a dungeon is in the relevant sense. I found it absolutely fascinating. In the future I’d guess I’d like to build on that strength by experimenting with more of these dialogue style reviews. I think a book club would be a great idea as one new format we could experiment with. I also hope that as our critical perspectives become more developed, there will be a lot of cross-pollination between individual reviews, in the spirit of Ava’s Wheel of Evil review that brought together so many different threads of OSR relevant theory, including by Bones authors. 

Ty: As the new kid on the block, I'm just happy I’m allowed to hang out with the cool kids and that I managed to sneak in under the wire at the end of 2021. In 10 years from now I can say "I've been with Bones since year 1, baby." 

I'm eager to write more for the site, trying to alternate between larger read-throughs of entire books and smaller, more condensed reviews that pack a punch. The next review I'm working on is the Distant Lights supplement for Stars Without Number. Anne and Ben, I really love the idea that the two of you started, which was actually using the procedural creation tools in books to create something instead of just talking theoretically about them. I can't wait to give that a spin. 

I'm also ready to bribe and beg all of you into doing a joint review, because I agree with what’s already been said: the collaborative reviews are a highlight of Bones and wonderful to read. 

/ /

mv: another new contributor here. I personally had lot’s of fun reviewing the short and sweet Mouth Brood, and now aiming to go after bigger books. My sights are set on Suldokar’s Wake, a monumental review that will be exploring both the setting and system of the core set. My goal now is to get a couple of sessions going because I’m much better at getting a feel for a game from play. 

Speaking of collaborations, I’d love to do a joint sci-fi module review with Ty, since our interests align in that area. Overall in 2022 I want to cover modern sci-fi and science fantasy game materials. Seeing how they explore the genre and push it into the (actual) future with new concepts and ideas. Stay tuned for some awesome Mundane Vacations. 

Glad to be part of such a wonderful team and looking forward to the reviews of all types. My favorite thing was discovering perspectives from different cultures of play that I would otherwise have ignored. 11/10 would bones of contention again.

Ava: I’m immensely proud of what Bones of Contention has become over the past half year and even more excited to see where it goes. When I floated the initial concept I really didn’t expect anything to come of it, but major credit goes to Ben for organizing and making it a reality, as well as serving as basically our de facto Editor in Chief and handling all the day to day work of running the blog. 

The inaugural review on this site emerged out of a four session playthrough of Isle of the Plangent Mage and by far my favourite aspect of Bones so far has been the opportunity to play and critically discuss different modules and systems with an absolutely dynamite crew of folks. I also love the evolution of the blog towards producing more critical analysis from its original conception of producing more product-oriented reviews; highlights of this style for me have been Gus’ Castle of Mirror’s review, Zedeck’s review of Kriegsmesser, and Marcia’s guest review of Pokemon Dungeon Crawler. I hope that this isn’t too lofty a comparison, but the energy on this blog reminds me of the early days of Kill Screen, which I remember reading at a time when no other places were consistently talking about videogames in a serious way. I think this evolution can even be seen in the two reviews I posted this year, with the first being much more concerned with the standard evaluation of usability and such while the second was a sort of analysis of the historical trends and styles contained within a particular module.

My hopes for the coming year ahead is, hopefully, to publish more than two reviews. I have a long backlog of adventures which I’ve actually played that I’d like to review, but more than that I had hoped for the focus of my series to be an investigation specifically into different systems and I’ve yet to review a single one. Of course, like everyone else has said I’m also really excited to do more collaborative reviews, as well as wrangling up as many guest writers I possibly can.


So concludes our review of the state of the sepulcher. We hope to see you around these unholy precincts as our skeleton crew marches with the tireless resolve of the undying into a new year. If you have a favorite review from 2021 or something you'd like to see us do in 2022, join the conversation in the comments below! 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Grave Tresspass - Hole in the Oak


By Necrotic Gnome
A Review by Warren D.

The end of the year and beginning of the next in RPG-land prompts thinking about how to get our non-RPG friends and family into the hobby. It is also a time when soon-to-be DM’s receive their first rulebooks and seek recommendations on what to run. The options are numerous and rapidly climbing to the top of many recommendation lists is The Hole in the Oak. In this review, I hope to outline why I think The Hole in the Oak deserves such a position by describing its opening, evaluating the content, and touching on how the adventure facilitates world building.

This review arises from 4 three-hour sessions of The Hole in the Oak which started after a TPK playing its sibling module Incandescent Grottoes. I used Old School Essentials/BX D&D as it is my preferred D&D flavor and the players randomly generated 2 clerics, 2 dwarves, 1 elf, 1 fighter, 1 magic-user, and 1 thief. I have no relationship with Necrotic Gnome or its products beyond being a fan.


The Hole in the Oak is billed as a low-level dungeon situated in any “magic forest” possibly constructed by wizards, definitely inhabited by creatures of a fay bent, and currently being used as a base of operations for an evil gnome cult. More specifically, it is a 60-room dungeon well “jaquaysed” by 5 large loops from west-to-east and boarded by a large cavern to the south and a fast river to the north. Monetary treasure guarded, buried, forgotten, or secreted away totals about 17,000 GP which will take a party of 8 from 1st level to about 2nd by the end (using the Fighter XP progression as an average). Total magic item count is 11 which includes magic scrolls, a spell book, potions, rings, a couple of pieces of armor, and weapons of note. The opposition to the PCs’ clandestine infiltration includes three cannibalistic and duplicitous fauns, a slumbering ogre, three troglodyte fishers, seven (!) hungry ghouls, twenty (!!) heretic gnomes that worship a demonic tree trunk and finally four giant lizards.

The map for Hole in the Oak

Interestingly, while the module as a whole has a “French vanilla D&D” feel- meaning it’s a well-done dungeon featuring many classics of fantasy adventure- it is a heterogeneous environment that doesn’t feel like patch-work. This is a skillful trick and it’s worth a moment to list the adventure’s thematic clusters. If you imagine the dungeon as a compass:

  • East “places of worship” cluster: alters involving a giant statue, defunct lizard-cult, & demon tree stump
  • Northeast cluster: “Hot house” gardens, giant lizards, and a lizard cult
  • Southeast cluster: Weird gnomes & weird caverns
  • West “areas of experimentation” cluster: trap rug, magic mirrors, & mysterious levers
  • Southwest cluster: Tricky fauns & a mutant ogre
  • Northwest cluster: Drowned ghouls and fishing troglodytes

Often in D&D modules of lesser quality the presentation of an equivalent amount of heterogeneity requires far more levels. With each of those levels being a very expected presentation of those environments. Or conversely, the same number of environments are presented in a more patchwork fashion making it feel as if it was assembled merely from die rolling on random tables. The Hole in the Oak employs its environments to unify seemingly disparate D&D classics. For instance, I would expect troglodytes in a cave environment and ghouls in a crypt environment. Here, the presence of the river allows both of them to be tied to the theme of water-ghouls posing as drowned corpses and trogs that have fishing spots (and even a “feed the fish” sign). This “classic but clever” presentation is exactly what I wanted for my two players who grew up with B/X D&D and is also exactly what I want as a DM at the table when giving new players their first taste of old-school play and D&D in general.

Let’s delve into the specifics of why I think Hole in the Oak is a present day classic…

Folie à Trois: Trophy Gold

Below is a shared review of Trophy Gold (2022) , a fantasy adventure game designed by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet. Although it...