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.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Bones of Contention: Policies and Practices



We thought now would be a good time to explain how Bones of Contention works. This includes what our policies are for selecting products to review, how we make decisions, and why we do things the way we do. Let's open the sepulcher and shine our flickering candlelight on what secrets lie within. 

Our skeleton crew is a small collective of reviewers who are also RPG designers. Many of us have blogs, some have podcasts. Most of us publish gaming material in one form or another. All of us are engaged in some way with the classical, retro, or OSR gaming scene. Since we are creators and participants in the scene whose products we are reviewing, we have interests--both theoretical and practical--in game design that go beyond a consumer's interests. 

But we are an otherwise diverse group. We do not aspire to be a movement or to a unified point of view. Bones of Contention is a conversation, not a manifesto. The goal of this conversation is to contribute to the critical review culture of the retro-gaming scene. Other people are engaged in boosting products and shining spotlights on material that they like. We are interested in productive criticism. 

We currently have four kinds of review series through which we pursue this criticism. 

  1. Individual Review Series: each member of our skeleton crew has their own, individually titled review series, for example, Anne's review series is title "Dungeon Dioramas".
  2. Cryptic Signals: our capsule review series, usually multi-authored posts giving smaller reviews of a number of different products.
  3. Folie a Deux: our two author dialogue reviews, usually of a single product.
  4. Rashomon: our longer multi-authored (3+) reviews of a single product.
  5. Grave Trespass: our invited reviewer series.


General Policies


We have some general policies to reduce conflicts of interest. These rules are important for us. Given that we ourselves are creators, Bones cannot be driven by our relationships to other creators. It is about contributing to critique and design, not about promoting those we hope succeed. These policies are followed in all our review series. 

  • We do not accept review copies. 
  • If an author or publisher asks a reviewer to review a work, that reviewer is disqualified from reviewing it. We never review something because its author wants us to review it. (We don't usually contact the author at all in advance of a review.) 
  • We begin every review by explicitly stating any connections anyone involved in the review has with the author or publisher under review. 

Here is how the decisions about what products to review, and who will participate, are made for the different series. 

Individual Review Series



Our individual review series are very important to us, since our diverse critical viewpoints are a real strength of Bones of Contention. We want our skeleton crew to be able to follow those interests and develop their individual critical perspective. For this reason, individual reviewers select what products they will review in their own series, following their own interests. This individual authorial control is crucial to the kind of criticism we're developing here.

Folie a Deux


For Folie a Deux reviews, the pair of reviewers decide to collaborate. They hatch a plan together, select the product together, and co-author the post. 

Cryptic Signals


Cryptic Signals posts usually are instigated by a single individual who suggests a possible theme for a cryptic signals post, or otherwise solicits capsule reviews from other members of the Skeleton Crew to fill out a post containing a few of their own capsule reviews. Often people simply pitch in short reviews as they are able under deadline pressure. All members of the skeleton crew are welcome to pitch in to any Cryptic Signals post. 

Rashomon 


Rashomon reviews have thus far involved many members of the skeleton crew participating in a large review project. Our first Rashomon review was a collective play test of Isle of the Plangent Mage, where Ben L solicited players from both within the Skeleton Crew and beyond it. He then solicited feedback on the module from each player in the group. Ben L largely directed this first Rashomon post. Given that this was our inaugural post, we were still experimenting with the form. Our second Rashomon past was a look back at our first year (6 months) of the blogs existence. This was staged more as an explicit conversation in which all members of the skeleton crew were invited to participate. What form Rashomon reviews take in the future is an open question.

Grave Trespass


Grave Trespass are reviews by invited guest reviewers. To select these reviewers, one member of our skeleton crew putting someone forward as possibility to the rest of the group. The rest of the skeleton crew approves the recommendation, and the individual solicits interest from the guest reviewer, and finds out what they want to review. We approve their choice. The guest reviewer then submits a draft of the review to us, which we collective read and edit, making any changes beyond minimal copy editing in consultation with the author.

OK, but How Do Decisions Get Made Generally?


We are a small group in regular communication with one another. Generally we operate on a consensus model. What this effectively means is that a member of our skeleton crew with strong feelings about something will usually be able to exercise a veto, although usually by the time our conversation is done, we've all signed on to the collective outcome which is apparent. For more procedure or arbitrary decisions, we sometimes do majority voting, e.g. on what days of the week to publish our posts. But our deliberations are usually less formal, which has worked for us to date. 

Are there any questions about our methods and policies you'd like to see answered? Just ask away in the comments!



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Grave Trespass - Where the Wheat Grows Tall

Where the Wheat Grows Tall

A review by Yochai Gal

The Introduction

Where the Wheat Grows Tall is an old-school adventure for low-level characters inspired by Slavic myth. Written by Camilla Greer and Evlyn Moreau, featuring illustrations by Evlyn Moreau. Black & white, 44 pages digest-size zine. My copy was purchased during the zine's successful kickstarter.

The writing in Where the Wheat Grows Tall is dream-like, flavorful, and concisely written. The module is infused with creatures from Slavic fairy tales, heavily bolstered by concise writing and beautiful illustrations. The adventure suggests a (mostly) overland adventure, peppered with talking spirits & beasts, each with their own agenda and affiliations.




The Overview


Presenting itself as an "Agrarian Adventure," Where the Wheat Grows Tall is set exclusively in the area around a struggling farmstead, the last farm in the area. The module's central conflict revolves around two opposed spirits, the Fairy denizens of the field (each with their own murky alliances) and the Polotnikovs, a human family that works the adjacent farm. A wall divides the farm from an adjacent field, which flourishes despite the dead surroundings.

The field is governed by two ancient fey, their spirits bound to earthly totems. Now, something has upset the balance and the wilds of Fairy are spilling over into the mortal realm. The PCs are meant to explore the farm and the field beyond the wall, and find out what really happened to the Polotnikovs.

Crossing the wall and into the field transports the PCs from our world and into Fairy, a place with its own rules, history and personalities. Between the farm and field there are roughly 20 points of interest for the PCs to explore, each tightly distributed across a gorgeously-illustrated map. There are story hooks and rumor tables to help get the PCs started, mostly involving the disappearance of Piotr, a local farmer and father of four.

In practice, Where The Wheat Grows Tall is an above-ground dungeon, trading corridors of stone and squalid rooms for narrow clearings and row upon row of wheat stalks. I'm not convinced that the authors conceived of the adventure this way but it certainly plays as much. The module also refers to "conflicting worlds and roles within the characters" and challenges the reader (as well as the players) to answer broad questions about the NPCs, their motivations, and what's really going on.

Text


The text is sparse throughout and carefully concise, leaving just enough room for the players to fill in some of the descriptive gaps themselves. For the most part I found the writing clear and easy on the eyes, eschewing a denser presentation in favor of spreading information across multiple pages and ignoring grammatical necessities. Overall I liked it a lot.

Art


The book is packed to the brim with Moreau's unique art style, and her illustrations of the people, places & creatures really does a great job at creating a distinct "mood" for the setting. Included with the game is a PDF consisting solely of her illustrations (including some that didn't make the cut); unfortunately I only discovered this after we'd already finished the adventure. The map is well-designed and despite some minor flaws (see Layout Quibbles below) I found it quite useful during play.


Sections


A helpful index divides the book into multiple sections including background information, tools for running the game, a bestiary, and finally the adventure proper which takes up the last third. The adventure itself is divided by two uneven halves: The Farm and The Field Into Fairy.

The module opens with a family history coupled with a recounting of what has transpired "in recent days." The first few pages are dense with setting information about the two Fae sisters (the Midnight Maiden and the Noon Lady). The information herein is absolutely essential for running the adventure, yet somehow lacking at the same time. I recall referring to these sections during the game and wondering why specific answers (or even hints) were not given, particularly around NPC motivations—more on that later.

The following page entitled "Running this Adventure" provides an excellent overview on the module but similarly feels shorter than it should be; like the previous section I found it lacking in specific details and elaborations. The authors pose specific questions for the reader to consider while preparing and running the adventure, followed by hooks and one-shot suggestions. All of this is really great to see upfront in an adventure! Finally there is a useful rumors table and an oddly-placed description for a monster that appears whenever fires are started in The Field.

The book presents three different encounter tables divided into day, night, and "under the roots." I used these a lot while running this adventure, particularly the results that determined what a family member is presently doing or where they can be found. I would personally prefer a clock of some sort for those specific results as the family is pretty important; a run-in with most of them is fairly inevitable.

There is a wonderful page dedicated to "Farm tools as weapons." I found this very helpful and referred to it a bunch during the game, though interestingly the one farm tool the PCs will almost certainly come across (a mattock) is not described or drawn on this page or anywhere else.

In the Bestiary there are 6 pages of illustrations and descriptions of the many strange and unearthly creatures the PCs are certain to encounter. The monster stats are joyfully sparse, leaning heavily on bulleted flavor text to describe their unusual behavior, desires and fears of each creature. Creatures are given their traditional Slavic names as well as a more generic (yet still flavorful) alternative, e.g. Barstukai or "Children of the Crops." In general the creatures were less dangerous than what my players were used to, relying on defensive abilities over offensive.

In the final section before the adventure text there is a two-page "Polotnikov Family History" that recounts some more essential exposition regarding the NPC character motivations. There is a helpful illustration of the family tree, which comes up a few times.

Quibbles


Overall I found some of the layout decisions puzzling; some of which resulted in significant flipping around the book and having to look for something in multiple places.

• Why was Old Svarg (the fire spirit) placed beneath the rumors tables instead of in the bestiary?

• Why wasn't the "Polotnikov Family History" section merged with the introduction? It only served to confuse me when I was searching for a specific NPC detail.

• Why does the map (p.21) interrupt the first "section" of the adventure (The Farm, p.19), rather than precede it, or appear at the back of the book?

• In the PDF, the index sections were linked to specific pages. This was useful, and I wish it was also applied to the numbered POI on the map.

• Encounters 19 and 20 do not appear on the map. Both were underground (which perhaps explains it) but I would have loved for the designers to have made it more clear where the entrances to these places actually exist on the map.

• The path towards the bridge (13) does not connect with anything else on the map. How do the PCs arrive there? Do they head through the wheat itself? How does that work with the mechanics described on page 27?

• The path towards the 7 is described differently when accessed via the crack in the wall than entering via the old tree growing over the wall. I had PCs enter on both and it was hard to keep things consistent.

• The family history bits: I consider these some of the most relevant details in the book and finding ways to disseminate it organically through play was rather difficult.
The Actual Play

Let's get this bit out of the way first: the PCs in my game did not roll a single damage die during this adventure. Although my players tend to avoid danger (lethality is a big deal in my games) the outright lack of combat was highly unusual for them. There were plenty of saves thrown of course, and not all were successes, either. I'm not sure if this speaks more to my specific playgroup or the module itself, but I thought it important to note.

A Note About Time


Fairy is weird. Straying from the paths within the wheat field can be confusing or fraught with peril, and leaving isn't as easy as getting in. The module provides some guidance on how to handle these things, including optional mechanics for time. I elected to use these mechanics, and I regret it. I don't believe this is a fault of the module as proper time management is tricky in RPGs in general at best, and playing by post likely compounded my issues.

At multiple points during the adventure we found the PCs in different areas, governed by different time mechanics. For example, time became especially difficult to track after the Sun had set in Fairy but not on the Farm. Further complicating matters was the fact that "splitting the party" is especially easy to do in play by post games; there were even points during the adventure where players were in three different time periods of play!

Play


I ran Where The Wheat Grows Tall over Play By Post using the Cairn system (see my conversion notes here). My home group is comprised of three seasoned players who each bring a distinct play style and focus to old school play (problem solving, narrative/roleplay and discovery). Cairn is classless, but loosely the party was comprised of a Herbalist, a Miner and a Merchant.


Setup


"Upon which is agreed, An old stone wall separates the family farm from a field they say is cursed. Deep within the wheat, two forgotten idols once balanced the spirits of the crops. One has been destroyed and balance is gone, The Noon Lady rises and the crop spirits grow cruel. The Polotnikovs have disappeared into the field and their farm is soon to follow."

The PCs arrive at a seemingly-abandoned farmstead, though there are a few immediate sites calling their attention: ramshackle buildings, spilled paint, a broken wall, etc. As the party explored, I enjoyed meting out the evidence of what had happened here from the clues they'd gathered. Fortunately this is easy to do, as there are already a few NPCs to engage with: an obviously evil girl trapped in the well, a hungry creature locked in the granary, and a spirit residing within the farmhouse. There is a magical windvane that points in the general direction of any person that the PCs name aloud. It was one of my favorite bits of this adventure because it provided a useful & immediate mystery to my players.

The "meat" of this adventure happens largely on the other side of the wall, and my players knew as much but needed to explore and find out more. There are two major expository NPCs in this portion of the adventure: a young girl, Masha, and the house spirit, Oleg. From these the PCs can learn a bit about what happened before their arrival, and provide a central hook for exploration. Oleg was unhelpful, as the module explicitly states that he knows no family secrets, nor can he leave the house.

One of my players expressed a frustration with the opening points of interest. Specifically he felt that the initial encounters did very little to provide any actionable worldbuilding. For example, the Noon Wraith in the well and Spiteful Wierga in the Granary both tell a fascinating story of what had happened before, but don't actively spur any specific action or encourage specific problem solving. Why would the party care about dragging a plainly deceitful creature out of a well, or collecting fingers and toes for another they can't readily see? It's all very creepy, but there isn't much the party can do about that, or even care to.

Additionally, the PC's duplicitous first encounter with the Noon Wraith in the well led my players to distrust nearly every NPC they encountered afterwards! I'm not sure if this was intentional but it certainly set the stage for future interactions with characters like the Likho.

The Field Into Fairy


There are only two entry-points into the field: The Old Tree Growing Over The Wall and "The Crack In The Wall" (details for both are helpfully found on the same page). My players split up and explored the field both independently from one another and as pairs (or a trio, on occasion). They ventured through the narrow corridors of wheat and chaff, interacting with the strange denizens to gain information about the whereabouts of each Polotnikov family member. As stated before we never entered a combat state, though there was certainly a hint of danger laced throughout the adventure, particularly with respect to the Likho.

The central theme of two semi-warring factions and a loss of balance is well delivered through the various encounters in the field. The PCs formed partial alliances with all manner of folk on both sides in their search. With each new creature, the players debated amongst themselves: who could help them, who could be trusted, what they might want, etc. Although the writing does provide a modicum of interactive story elements for each point of interest, the players did complain that some of the NPCs held their cards a bit too close to the chest. I tend to provide maximal possible information to my players so that they can make educated decisions about what they should do next, and I struggled to deliver important information to the PCs organically and through the NPCs.

For example one of the first NPCs a PC encountered was Trull, hiding under the Bridge at 13. The book makes it quite clear that he is afraid of the Likho and unwilling to divulge secrets. As an expository device this character was difficult to handle; in the end the PC simply set the field aflame (leading to some fun interactions with Old Svarg, the fire spirit). The player remarked, "more exposition would actually have been nice in this one, with so many characters and backstories to track."

As the PCs explored the wheat field (as well as the bits underground) player actions seemed to devolve into a sort of "fetch quest," moving to and fro throughout the area and rescuing the various Polotnikov family members. And goodness, there were a lot of them! Although the module provides plenty of opportunities for the PCs to go off and do other things, rarely did the players see a reason to follow-through on them. There was little hint of treasure beyond the Likho's reward, and not enough expository details from the various factions. As a result, the players felt that any potential "results" of their PC's actions were limited in scope.

Towards the end of the adventure one of the players expressed an interest in learning more about the world in general, particularly regarding the Likho and her former lover (the Midnight Maiden). And while their desires were fulfilled to some degree through a vision at the water wheel earlier on, there weren't a lot of opportunities to actually transmit this history, which was so well told in the book text itself. There is a lot to be gleaned from the underlying text describing each encounter in the field, but at times their terseness leaves open gaps I struggled to fill. Or perhaps it wasn't the terseness, but the words they chose?

At the core of this module is a story, waiting to be plucked and told by the players. A family secret whose consequences echo throughout the generations. Former lovers, desperate to become reacquainted. Ghostly soldiers that sing of long-buried wars, hiding from the crows who only wish to carry their souls to the beyond. The authors weave together these tales of conflict, love, sadness, and hope into something truly special. It is unfortunate that I struggled so much to reveal all this to my players in a way that felt natural, organic and player-driven. I think if I were to run this module again (and I plan to) I would assign an NPC as a guide to the PCs, or assume that at least one of the PCs had foreknowledge of the setting.

A Pinch of Salt: The Drain

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