Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Grave Trespass - Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Adventure Game

 A Scathingly Positive Review

Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is a self-contained system and adventure adapted from the 1986 film Labyrinth, published in 2019 by River Horse Games. The main creators behind it are the brothers Jack and Chris Caesar, but the adventure is mostly written by Ben Milton (AKA Questing Beast). The book is 294 pages and uses the original concept artwork for the movie by Brian Froud, with additional artwork by Ralph Horsley and Johnny Fraser-Allen.

I own the PDF of the game and am currently running it for the second time, both campaigns using Discord voice+text and Roll20 as a VTT. As probably indicated by the fact that I'm running it again, I am a big fan. Short review: 10/10, quite likely the finest experience I've ever had using published RPG material at my table. But this book already has a lot of positive reviews, and I felt like it might be worth it to spotlight some of the qualities that I haven't seen discussed in those. The things which I didn't really discover until I played it myself.

[By the way, the artwork in this post was done by my friend Norn, a groovy firey whose face was stolen by the Goblin King. You can find their stuff and contact them about commissions at]

My critical lens

I'm not super into RPG reviews. I don't read or watch them very often, and I've never set out to write one myself. Mostly I just don't think there's anything uniquely valuable about my perspective for your purchasing decisions (as a potential consumer) or design decisions (as a designer). But Labyrinth helped me recognize at least one thing that's a bit special about my perspective: I play games.

An uncomfortable truth that is rarely acknowledged in RPG discourse is that there are a lot more people who want to play D&D than there are people who actually play D&D. It's really hard! Most adults can't form a successful RPG group. They either don't know enough interested people, or the people they know can't commit to it. Or they, themselves, can't fit it into their life. And even if it does work out for a while, it rarely lasts more than a few months or maybe years. It's extremely difficult to maintain an active participation in this hobby. Some of your favorite game designers, bloggers, and YouTubers secretly haven't played an RPGs in literally years. It's true. Meanwhile, I have a group of 8 that meets every single week to play, for just over six years now. On top of that, I have at least three other groups of people in my life who I can reliably summon for a one-shot or even mini-campaign on an ad-hoc basis.

I am extraordinarily lucky, and I try never to take this for granted.

But the more time I've spent playing games, the more it sticks out to me when I'm reading RPG discussions, reviews, and other discourse that this division is present. That the strongly opinionated and verbose RPG connoisseur who's making all these assertions about how this-or-that should have been done or what sorts of things should be prioritized or what's deserving of an award... clearly does not actually play games very often, if at all. 

Don't get me wrong. Some of those folks often still have a lot of extremely valuable insights. They are your favorite designers, bloggers, and YouTubers, after all. In many ways, they are the ones who drive the medium forward. But it can be easy to become overly concerned with some made up ethos of design purity and a cohesive fidelity to high-minded ideals when you spend more time thinking about games than playing them. 

I say all this as somebody who is extremely prone to making judgments about RPG products based on an ethos like that one. Labyrinth is a perfect example of the kind of game that I needed to actually play in order to make a fair assessment. So in a greater sense, think of this review as really being about "games made for game design nerds vs games made for people playing a game together."

Labyrinth's appeal is obvious

This book is basically engineered to make you say, "oh that's cute" every 5 minutes. Visually, it's made to look just like Sarah's book in the movie, almost as though it's an in-universe artifact. It's got the famous gimmick of the inserted dice that come with the game. The GM is called "the Goblin King" and is encouraged to come up with their own Goblin King character. The end of the adventure has a "Guest Book" page that the players are invited to sign their names on once they've beaten it. And of course, the adventure itself is full of playful, Muppet-y whimsy.

It's also just plainly luxurious. The book quality, I'm told, is very impressive. Plus it's got a ribbon bookmark. Everyone knows all the best RPG books have those. And the Brian Froud artwork is truly sublime. But you likely knew all of this already. What's not to love?

But if Labyrinth didn't have those surface-level charms, I feel like it might be subject to a lot more criticism!

1. The players have no agency.

You are told what your goal is: get to the center of the Labyrinth. You are free to come up with a reason why, but that's largely insubstantial. You can't really adapt the adventure for a different goal, either. Every single aspect of it is constructed around that goal and wouldn't make sense or work otherwise.

The players don't have any input on their path to victory, either. Navigation of the maze has been abstracted away into a mechanic that is GM-facing and involves no choices. There's no way to tackle the goal strategically. The Goblin King marks the party's progress and then rolls a die to determine the next scene, throwing it at the players and saying "here, play with this." And even though there's a neat depthcrawl-like procedure going on behind the scenes to simulate maze exploration... from the players' perspective, this is functionally indistinguishable from if the GM just made one sequence of encounters and railroaded the players through them.

2. The encounters are extremely contrived.

There's a lot of advice out there on "how to make a good encounter." Let's take a look at Prismatic Wasteland's checklist. With few exceptions, the scenes in Labyrinth fail on several or all of these points. They often have nothing to do with the player characters, and are instead just some situation that an NPC is currently going through. They are occasionally toyetic, but are just as often pretty one-dimensional. They are usually open-ended in the strategies you can employ, but many of them have a specific, singular listed solution. The players often have nothing to gain from them, except sometimes the arbitrary "doing this thing will somehow update your progress marker in the depthcrawl." Many of the encounters have no motive at all, occasionally even just being passive bystanders or objects. And there's frequently no consequence to ignoring an encounter, except maybe that the Goblin King will have to roll for a different one that the players find more interesting.

The most justifiable ones boil down to, "you are traveling down a linear hallway, but there's this big thing in the way. You must get passed it to keep going down this hallway." But also, like, that's most people's mental idea of a classic railroad-y feeling encounter. A literal choke point in the adventure. More commonly, the encounters will be something like, "you're meandering through all sorts of crisscrossing paths aimlessly, and you see a guy minding his own business staring down at a chess board." And like, why wouldn't the players just ignore that, right? I mean come on, how is that even an "encounter" in any real sense?

3. There's basically no stakes.

Because it's a Muppet-y sort of thing, the nastiest content you'll see is cartoon violence. Meaning that death is pretty firmly off the table! In place of that, there's a really clever alternative consequence for failure: losing time. Time passes at the speed of failure. The players have 13 hours to complete the adventure, and will lose 1 hour every time they muck up a scene or waste time. In theory, this is an amazing idea. It's such a perfect, clear and usable consequence to inflict so that challenges carry meaningful weight in the overall adventure.

In reality, this just isn't actually going to be used. The first Labyrinth campaign I ran, the players literally did not lose a single hour. Not one. At least, not fair and square. There was one moment where I pulled the bullshit move from the movie where Jareth decided to just steal a few hours to be a dick. I felt comfortable doing such an unfair thing because I knew that even stealing 6 hours from the players would be negligible. Same thing with my second campaign: the players got about 4/5 of the way through and had only lost 1 hour by that point. They just aren't actually going to fail at the challenges, y'know? It's not like I'm pulling my punches. The instructions and the scene descriptions are quite explicit in what triggers the passage of time. And my only explanation is that it just comes down to how easy the challenges are!

Even if the party were to fail somehow, the book isn't really prepared for that possibility. The only thing the text says about losing is this: "If the group loses all 13 hours, they run out of the time and become lost, forgetting why they ever entered." Personally, I wouldn't feel super comfortable with just that alone to handle the party failing at their quest. The players are only ever told "you have 13 hours to do this." If they had any idea what happens if they fail, I think they'd immediately combat it as rather flimsy.

…But none of that matters

Because it's fun. Like, it's really fun.

Labyrinth is the most instant fun right-out-of-the-box game I've ever seen. It's like hitting a button that generates a good time and an evening well spent.

Every scene is contained within a two-page spread. They have very succinct descriptions, always at least one table to randomize some elements, and always an image of the general area in which the scene takes place (if you need a reference for making a battle map). It is incredibly easy to parse. I will confess: during my first campaign, there were two sessions where I didn't read ahead and preview all the scenes in the next layer of the Labyrinth. So I was flying by the seat of my pants trying to read these encounters for the first time as I was running them. And... it still worked. I needed to ask the players to pause for about 20 seconds once or twice, but that's literally all it took to absorb the whole thing and say, "Cool. Got it. Let's jump in." One of my players told me that she had no idea I wasn't prepared.

I'm not recommending you do that... but you could get away with it more easily in this adventure than in basically any other. Every scene is a scenario that you can just quickly set up and then watch the players go. They always take 20-40 minutes, very consistently.

But what about all that lack of player agency? The railroading? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. Nobody's complaining. Nobody's disappointed. The scenes are enough! Sure, we can imagine a hypothetical version of this game where the Labyrinth is like a sandbox and the players get to pick and choose where they want to go and what their ultimate aim is. And that could be cool. But it's not really necessary for having a good time. The scenes are already fun enough that every player is super eager for the next session. Eager for the next time the adventure tells them what they're going to be doing.

But didn't I say the encounters are all contrived? That they don't conform to commonly agreed upon standards of good encounter design? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. They work anyway. The players want to engage. They want to say yes to whatever you offer them. Partly I think it comes down to the material and its tone. Everything is silly and charming and fun. Players like goblins. Players like worms. They like puzzles and games. And it doesn't matter how contrived things are. Without fail, somebody will say, "eh... I'll bite." And they give it a shot and then you've just bought the easiest 20-40 minutes of laughter of your life.

I can understand why, if you just read the book, you'd think, "why the hell would my players interact with this guy playing chess by himself?" It sounds like a bad encounter. But somebody is going to be interested anyway, and they'll interact with the guy and then they solve a chess puzzle and they feel great. There are so many scenes that show no outward indication that they'd help the players progress (and, occasionally, they might really not!), but which they'll want to do anyway. "This cricket is challenging you to a race. Want in?" "These goblins are all playing a game of Lunchball. Want in?" "These dwarves are landscaping. Want in?"

Even a scene like “get from one end of the room to the other” has all the right ingredients to generate fun, from the adventure’s side to the GM’s side to the players’ side. Is it silly and game-y for there to be literal cube-shaped obstacles to climb which correspond with d6s? Yes. Is it fun for players to strategically rotate them to the best sides possible for them to traverse, as each one has an equally-gamey obstacle on it? Also yes. Will the players ever get tired of using their weird tricks and equipment and talents to solve obstacles? Of course not. Singing and dancing your way past goblins or tossing magic fruit at objects and adversaries to shrink them never gets old.

Of course, it's not like they're all amazing. In my first campaign, there were 3 or 4 scenes that my players decided to ignore. I had to roll for a new one instead. And... what's wrong with that? It's not exactly a meaningful expression of agency in-game. But having the real-world agency to choose how you spend your evening together, and agreeing to do what everyone will have the most fun doing, is the single most important part of playing games with your friends. Why don't we acknowledge that more when discussing game theory? We're so keen to discuss the abstract, nebulous, theoretical game space that we construct and how to perfect it, but we forget that games are an activity conducted by humans.

Yeah, it's true. If you don't like the scene in front of you in Labyrinth, you can just reject it and ask for a different one. But who cares how that "weakens" the imagined scenario? I don't really mind if that undermines the challenge, because we're not just seeking a challenge. We're seeking stimulation and creativity and laughter. You can claim that consequences are the root of true challenge, that a task cannot be meaningfully difficult to achieve in a game of make-believe without stakes to contextualize it. But the truth is that players set their own challenge merely by the very act of choosing to try things. The text's offer of the 13-hour time limit as stakes is nice as a backup, but it never ended up being necessary. Because the players are already motivated to tackle each scene by their own desire to have a good time and do cool shit they can tell stories about later.

Moreover, the priorities of the game clearly show an intention that it be played. As soon as possible, as much as possible. The prose is not terribly evocative or engrossing. That's a priority for writers who intend their RPGs to be read. The rules and character creation are not very deep or interesting. That's a priority for designers who intend their RPG to be dissected. The world it shares is neither coherent nor consistent, a flimsy setting that often sits atop the fourth wall and doesn't have answers to your questions about it. But that's a priority for worldbuilders who intend their RPG to be dreamt about. But Labyrinth knows exactly what it's here for.

Everything about the product is beginner friendly. Most RPGs open with a tiresome description of "what exactly is an RPG?" and this one sincerely is among the best I've ever come across. It actually seems as though the author understood what needed to be explained for the layman. Because the single biggest barrier to games being played is accessibility, this product makes it extremely easy to jump right in.

The details necessary to grasp the setting, how things behave in this world, and how to populate it are all established quickly, cleanly, and exactly when you need them. There is no setting gazetteer to guide you. No write-ups on goblin culture and society. If you're expecting to go into the campaign prepared with answers, this book might disappoint you at first. Instead, the book is a toolkit. It teaches you how to key into the setting's tone, and then offers tables and details as necessary to aid in improvisation which consistently aligns with that tone. Because another major barrier to games being played is fact-checking, detail-memorization, lore-researching, and scavenging for answers in an adventure module, this product makes it extremely easy to spontaneously worldbuild without ever contradicting established truths.

And of course, there's endless variety and potential. As mentioned, every single scene has at least one element that can be randomized. Not just some cosmetic detail, either. Sometimes, the entire point of the whole scene is selected from a random table. Moreover, the selection of scenes themselves is randomized by the maze-navigation procedure. There are exactly 100 scenes in the book, but the players won't experience all 100. As they make progress, the GM is always rolling dice to determine the next scene, so the players will probably only experience 20-30 in total. And of course, the Goblin King themself is a villain that you have to design yourself, which you could potentially use to drastically change the adventure. Because finding or creating high-quality, usable content is a very taxing part of GMing and adventures can be rather expensive, this product emphasized replayability as a core selling point. Replayability is a value nearly ubiquitous in the world of video games but is almost never even considered in RPGs, even though it rules.

A few genuine quibbles

Some of this is a warning to anyone out there who's thinking of running the adventure, but some of it might end up being read by the creators and could be addressed (if not in this product, then at least future ones).

  1. Many of the hyperlinks in the PDF are broken. For example, the link to the Toolkit chapter in the Table of Contents instead takes you to a scene in the Land of Yore chapter, a full 100 pages off.

  2. The website has some downloadables! This is very nice, but form-fillable versions of the character sheets would be appreciated. I made my own and the result is clumsy and sloppy but functional.

  3. Another offering found in the downloads seemed to be a VTT asset pack of a sort. I was super stoked for this because I was running the game online. But I was let down. It's a PDF containing an image of every single "battle map" including in every scene of the adventure, with all the numbers and annotations removed. Seems perfect for using on a VTT, right? Just take each one and upload it as the background layer. Except... the resolution is absolutely terribly. Like, unusably bad. They're also all recolored yellow and are shrunk down to the center of a page with a huge margin of dead space, for some reason.

  4. The first page of the Castle chapter shows a map of the castle's layout with all the rooms numbered and keyed appropriately, but the castle is oriented the wrong way. In all the subsequent pages showing maps and room layouts, everything is 90 degrees counterclockwise. This confused me for an embarrassingly long time.

Some bonus advice

I am a big believer in one-shots and mini-campaigns. As somebody who frequently actually plays RPGs, it is my belief that one of the other biggest barriers to play is the insistent norm of only ever attempting long-running campaigns. Don't get me wrong, I've played quite a few of them myself. They can be immensely satisfying. But the expectation of them, at the exclusion of nearly all other forms of play, is detrimental to the hobby as a whole. It is a completely unreasonable expectation for the vast majority of people who are just getting into the hobby and it creates problems that shouldn't exist. The world of RPGs would be a lot healthier if long-term campaigns were treated as the exception rather than the rule, because then more people would get to play more often.

Labyrinth works remarkably well as a mid-length campaign, good for about 7-10 sessions. But if you can't manage that kind of commitment, I don't think it's the worst idea to run it as a one-shot. A lot of the book's potential and brilliance would be sacrificed, but you'll still have fun. In order to complete the adventure in a single evening, my advice would be to take 1 juicy scene from each layer of the Labyrinth and just run those. Forget the depthcrawl procedure and forget the 13 hours thing. Just pick out 5 or 6 awesome scenes and you've bought yourself 2.5 hours of fun. My recommendations would be:

  1. Stone Walls 5: Brick Keepers

  2. Hedge Maze 11: Orchard or 19: The Hunt

  3. Land of Yore 2: The Land of Stench or 4: Quicksand

  4. Goblin City 12: The Checkpoint

  5. The Castle is tricky because it's a dungeoncrawl. If you need to reduce it to 1 room of substance or maybe a sequence of 2-3 rooms, then I recommend 7: The Stairway as most important, and optionally 6: The Throne Room, and if you're playing in person, 8: The Simulacroom.

Give yourself at least 30-40 minutes of buffer space. The adventure's opening, wrap-up, and scene transitions will eat up that time. I have not attempted this myself, but I'd love to hear if anyone does.


Like many GMs, I almost exclusively ran my own content when I was new to the job. I love designing adventures. But something I love a lot more than designing adventures is playing adventures. And I have discovered that these two loves, which seem like they should complement one another, are instead in fierce and unforgiving competition.

Finally giving in and running published adventures was the best decision I've ever made. There are so many amazing offerings out there which people have poured passion and creativity into. I cannot recommend it enough. I still write adventures now and then, but I have to credit games like this one for allowing me to play as much as I do and as richly as I do.

I have a blog. I write about game design and theory. I write about adventure design. I write about homebrewing. I write about themes and narrative. I write about politics and discourse. And I write a lot about semantic bullshit. But trust me, I get tired of it all. That stuff is not why I'm into RPGs. It stimulates my brain and gives me a side hobby. But I wouldn't be interested in any of that if I didn't also get to play. And through play, I discover far more than I do just from reading and writing and discussing and thinking.

Really, the worst thing I have to say about Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is that it has an unwieldy title.


Monday, May 1, 2023

Pedantic Wasteland - Vampire Cruise

Come Sail Away

Vampire Cruise by Amanda lee Franck is a 40-page zine containing a site-based location (the Sea Star cruise ship) for a horror-comedy adventure that unfolds over the course of two days at sea. It acts as a referee’s creative partner in bringing to life an adventure with a unique premise that is simply summed up by the title. It is system-neutral but contains roughly B/X stats for its monsters, which makes it relatively easy to adapt to any vaguely “old-school” system. 

This review is based on two sessions I ran online in February, which is described in more detail in a play report by one of the players on his blog, Benign Brown Beast. I ran the adventure using Into the Odd, which system I recommend pairing with this adventure for two reasons. First, the more modern equipment packages fit better in an adventure set on a vaguely modern cruise than the more medieval European fare you tend to find in other “OSR” rulesets. Second, Vampire Cruise is open to the players being passengers, crew members, or vampires, and Into the Odd provides a neat way to determine who is a vampire if you want a mixed party. In Into the Odd, some starting backgrounds come with an Arcanum, which is a magic item with a random power. Vampire Cruise states that “Vampire PCs have one extra ability (choose from the skills other vampires have or make up your own)”. I had the idea to reskin Arcanum as a vampiric ability. In my playtest, only one character was a vampire (a fact he kept hidden from the other players until he felt appropriate), and when he used his power, it was a nice, dramatic reveal. 

Some Assembly Required

Vampire Cruise has everything to drive a couple fun sessions but leaves the work of putting those pieces together to you. If you, like me, thrive on improv when you are referee-ing, the adventure is more than enough to prompt seaboard shenanigans. If, however, you need everything to be more clearly and fulsomely laid out before you begin your session, this won’t be a pick-up-and-play adventure for you. Instead, you’ll need to do some level of prep to put the pieces together enough for your comfort level. 

The map and itinerary are the two pillars of the adventure. As I said in a post on my own blog, an itinerary or other guidance for what happens over time during the course of an adventure is just as helpful as a map, although it is more often overlooked. There is some helpful scaffolding in the itinerary (which lists 11 things that likely happen over the course of the two day cruise) and the familiar keyed map, but the referee is mostly responsible for choosing when and where the 12 pages of NPCs fit in with respect to time and place. Some NPCs are tied to the lightly keyed locations on the ship (for instance, the 15-year-old unpublished diarist, Kate Kosciusko, is usually found in a far corner of the library or in the banquet hall, while the serial-romantic vampire, Svetlana, resides in a recreation of her ancestral tower. Most NPCs, however, are sort of floating ideas, for the referee to insert as they see fit. And this is, in fact, the best way to use them. It’s even the best way to use the NPCs who presumably have a place they frequently haunt. I had a heavily sunscreened Svetlana beneath a heavy parasol hit on one of the PCs who sat by the pool by themselves, which turned into an ongoing thread in our game, while Kate was seated with a couple of PCs during the talent show at the concert hall as a way to give the PCs the info that passengers (in this case, Kate’s aunt) were starting to go missing.

The map is an engaging and, more importantly, gameable piece of art. There is so much detail in the cutaway map that you get a good idea what the adventure entails just by looking at it. The additional top-down maps of the major decks are just an added bonus, helping you conceptualize exactly where everything is. If you are familiar with Amanda lee Franck’s previous adventure, You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge, then you have a good idea of what this map looks like. Vampire Cruise’s map key is terse and funny, perhaps a bit more terse than the map key descriptions in Garbage Barge. However, the descriptions are typically enough to give the referee a springboard to describe what the PCs encounter. Exceptions are things like the balloon launch, cannon, pools, and engine deck, while are labeled on the map but don’t have any accompanying key. Some stand-outs in the map keys are the The Broadway Experience Concert Hall, which comes with a d6 table of what stage show is happening, the rock-climbing wall that is a to-scale duplicate of the vampire’s castle elsewhere on deck, and the underwater viewing window: “Crew members lower a bag of entrails into the water every few hours to attract a dazzling shark show. More sharks every time! There are getting to be a worrying number of sharks.” Franck strikes a similarly comedic tone throughout, which makes Vampire Cruise a pleasant read (and occasionally tempts the referee to read a choice line or two aloud at the table). However, to earn the “pedantic” moniker in the title of my review series, I will note the slight nitpick that The Ruined Tower and The Box House appear to be switched in the map versus the map key. (These are the types of nits that are probably present in most, if not all, published adventures, and it is probably my anxiety about these type of errors appearing in own adventure, which as I write this post is out of my hands and into my printer’s, that make me more sensitive to it. This small error isn’t actually something that would slow or disorient any reader or referee.)

Because the itinerary and the map are the engines driving the adventure forward, I advise giving players a redacted itinerary and an unredacted map at the start of the cruise. The map encourages the players choose what to do next based on what parts of the map look most interesting, while the itinerary tends to anchor them. My players kept saying things like “okay, what should we do for the next couple of hours before the dinner at the banquet hall begins?” As an example of ways an enterprising referee can assemble the pieces in Vampire Cruise to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, I would recommend expanding the itinerary to three days and inserting the 20 “cruise activities” included as a random table toward the back of the book as new events on board the Sea Star. This would all be much more than the PCs would reasonably be able to do during the cruise, but making some events take place at the same time forces the players to make more decisions about the type of cruise they are on.

But of course, the Sea Star is no ordinary cruise. How does the central conceit of the adventure, that it is a cruise, but with vampires, manifest? Mostly on Deck 13, which houses luxurious cabins for vampiric passengers and fancy recreations of some of the most powerful vampires’ on-shore abodes. The list of vampires on the cruise are an engaging bunch–the aforementioned Svetlana, who I ran like Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus, is my favorite, but there is also a pair of rich hipsters and a Dracula-esque count with his spouses (like Dracula, this Count Ratherius is a bisexual icon. Count Strahd, take notes). The best vampire, however, never appeared in my game. It is the vampire shark that can turn into a mist to get onboard ships. 

The vampires are a bit of a red herring. Players who presume an adventure entitled “Vampire Cruise” would feature vampires as its primary antagonist are in for a shock. The real villains of the module turn out to be a cult run by sleazy motivational speakers and dedicated to a horrifying, twenty-foot-tall, 3000-year-old Egyptian deity. This cult will attempt to hypnotize the PCs, unleash multiple monsters on the cruise, and are responsible for the climactic presumed-ending of the cruise, where the deity breaks into the vampire ball and begins killing vampires first, then everything else on board. The vampires tend to be a bit comedic, even campy, so this bait-and-switch injects more horror into the adventure than had the cruise been populated entirely by vampires. 

Some Notes on Genre

“I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising toward you at the rate of a feather falls.”

- Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise [1]

Vampire Cruise is neither fully comedy nor much of a horror. It may lean towards the comedic by subverting typical horror tropes associated with vampires, gothic and brooding monsters, on board a tropical cruise ship, it also heightens the real horrors present on even mundane cruises. The crew are an ever-present underclass on board cruise ships, and Vampire Cruise doesn’t elide this fact. For instance, when the PCs are passengers, they have the ability to call on crew members for “absolutely anything the players ask for.” There is a little sub-mechanic for these requests, which may result in crewmates “tearfully beg[ging] you not to complain” or “painstaking[ly] recounting” the efforts the crew has taken to satisfy the request, along with “details on how Room Service plans to move forward from the present impasse.” Class is built into the map too: there are 3rd, 2nd and First Class Cabins for the 3rd, 2nd and First Class Passengers. Vampires have luxury suites, if they don’t have their own castles on board. But the cultists sleep in a long hallway filled with bunk beds. Vampires have always been used as class commentary, and the choice to pair them with a location so suffused with class was an inspired one. The Sea Star is a tinderbox and it eventually explodes as the cult unleashes a monster that rises up through the floor to devour the upper class, literal aristocrats during their black-tie party. This was the moment for my group where the adventure finally morphed from slapstick comedy to horror as the PCs fled for their lives, sacrificed one of their own, and rescued the young Kate Kosciusko from meeting the same violent end that befell all the lost souls aboard the Sea Star.

Where to Find Vampire Cruise

Vampire Cruise was written and illustrated by Amanda lee Franck. You can purchase a PDF of the adventure on for $10.00 and in print and PDF at Exalted Funeral for $15.00. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Fantastic Detours - The Country

You know when sometimes there’s something you feel like you should’ve seen on Twitter, but instead you don’t hear about it for days or weeks or months so you feel like you missed out on it? On 2021-04-19, Luke Gearing published a blog post called “The Country”, a lifepath character generator and descriptive list of factions for a World War II-inspired war game setting [1]. One month later, on 2021-05-19, Roz of Two Rats Press released a zine adaptation The Country which includes Gearing’s combat ruleset Violence [2]. Graciously, like the blog post, the zine is available for free online, so that was my first contact with the text.

The Country is an excellent basis for a modern period campaign. It’s giving something like Braunstein or Blackmoor or Boot Hill, except instead of being about Napoleonic Germany or “medieval fantasy” or the American West, it’s about a twentieth-century “Uryupean” town full of liberals, monarchists, fascists, and communists—a familiar situation that could have taken place anywhere across Europe from Spain to Germany. It’s extremely fruitful for a war gaming plus political intrigue campaign, especially with its fleshed-out character generation procedure.

The Lifepath

I thought it was weird, at first, that you roll percentile dice to determine your character’s age. It wasn’t until reading over the different age-category background tables that I felt something click. Maybe I’m misreading or taking away something different than was intended, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it turns out productive. The lifepath works, as I understand it, by rolling for your character’s age and then rolling on each background table representing major years of their life. If you rolled a 100, for example, you’d have an especially full life, with memories from when you were 16-24, and 25-45, and 46-70, and 71+.

The fun part is that, like in Traveller, your character’s survival is not guaranteed during character creation. At each step, there is at least a 1-in-6 chance of dying. This creates a really interesting, morbid perception, something like “This character could have lived to be 100, if they had not died in the War.” That’s compelling when incorporating themes like trauma from violence, which is not just relevant when discussing the World Wars but also pertinent to considering the long-term effects of violence on people in general. Like, gee, did you know that violence is complicated and traumatic even if you’re fighting for the right thing? This is a level of depth which is missing from most treatments of the time period, or from period war gaming in general. In some sense, that consideration may even be the tipping point from war game to role-playing game, where the participants are not just concerned with winning or losing, but also with the personal (subjective) consequences of either outcome.

AHEM! This is future Marcia speaking, oh man, six months from when the above was written! Having reread the text, I think I misread it and the player is meant to roll on just one table corresponding to their character’s age band. This is evident from the instructions as well as the backgrounds themselves, since only young characters have a chance of dying during The War, whereas older characters could have died during The War or The Revolution that preceded it. Mea culpa, but this is not a fruitless mistake. I even think a little bit of Cassandra popped out up there when I said, “…there’s nothing wrong with [misreading] if it turns out productive.” Regardless of the author’s intent or the ‘true’ meaning of the text, my misinterpretation provoked strong feelings in myself and proffered a new way to use and relate to the text. How’s that for an example of the relationship between intent and meaning, especially as it pertains to ‘technical’ texts that are not just read but applied? Characters can still die during background determination, though, so my commentary is not completely null and void.

Something I would have liked to have seen is correlation between a character’s life story and their faction. There is something to be said for leaving the connection up to the player since it gives them the ability to weave things together sensically, or greater freedom to create a more unique character. However, it leaves some (not all) backgrounds feeling disconnected from each other as well as from the setting’s history. The most interesting backgrounds immerse the player in a critical situation (“Your mother told you to never mention the foreign men with coats and money who took envelopes from the garden”); the least interesting serve as character trivia without obvious or interesting motivation (“The War was not your first guerilla campaign”). I think a life path would have been an opportunity to observe a character’s social mobility during their life, whether they survive social crises or come out on top of them, and what that means for their current standing and motivation. Here we rub up against the other pillar of the text, which is how it portrays its setting’s factions.

The Factions

This club has everything: fascists, liberals, Christians, communists, monarchists, lumpenproles, and spies of any aforementioned faction or belonging to a corporation. I’m not a war gamer but I am a drama lover (and someone with an interest in how social movements are motivated and interact with each other), so imagine my delight. Each faction has a description of their ideological underpinnings, their demographic makeup, their members’ typical holdings, and their most common allies. I’ve made a graph of ally relationships below; notice that fascists ally themselves with republicans, but not vice versa. Meanwhile, the communists’ only allies are from the northern countries whose revolutions have succeeded for the time being. And there is no honor among thieves.

This is really neat! You can visualize the sorts of treaties and concessions that might take place. This is a superficial complaint, but I wish that there was a little bit more going on. As it were, the fascists, monarchists, and clergy constitute a single political bloc except that fascists are willing to engage with the republicans. This is not historically inaccurate, at least on a high level, but some entanglement would produce greater intrigue. For example, in both Italy and Spain, the republican movement (which is on some level distinct from the broader liberal movement) enjoyed some cooperation with the communist movements with respect to the Civil War. Maybe it would be worth distinguishing the radical republicans from the liberal government, even if they are ultimately radical liberals. Maybe it should be a distinction between communists, socialists, and liberals. Who knows. The important part is less the lines themselves than the conflicts they generate. Why do people take sides? Put a pin in it.

A deeper issue I have is best exemplified by the following injunction: “You might be a member of any of the following [factions] - except a Fascist. If you want to play a fascist, I suggest you play in traffic instead.” The so-called Olivia Hill Rule usually says that fascists shall not play a certain game; this is almost an inverse, that you shall not play a fascist. Superficially, it makes sense. You don’t want someone to internalize the ostensible values of nationalism and the insurmountable might of the human will while playing your war game. Yet this sentence made me evaluate the stated natures of each faction more closely. The communists are utopians. The republicans are liberals. The fascists are losers with lineage. On one hand, these descriptions seem very much like they belong to an observer from our time period rather than from someone who might be participating in that faction during that past time. Would a twentieth-century communist say they are fighting for a utopia, rather than some shit about historical materialism and class consciousness? Would a fascist call themselves a sore loser?

Related to this and more importantly, however, is that these factions seem to be motivated by abstract ideas more than by the material conditions of its members. It’s very funny and accurate to call fascists losers with respect to their cuck ideology. But perhaps it is more insightful to regard fascism in its social function. Historically, fascists are members of the petite or national bourgeoisie who resist downward social mobility (a handy term: “proletarianization”) as a result of competing with the big or international bourgeoisie. We could maybe speak more generally than their position relative to capital—for example, we can think of racists or sexists who are scared of losing their social privilege. In any case, though, we find a solid motivation: they are scared of losing what they have. The communists, on the other hand, have famously described themselves as having nothing to lose. Distinguishing themselves from the utopians, they characterized themselves as being driven by their own living conditions (notably, a lack of property) and by a scientific comprehension of history—being a Marxist myself, I’ll spare you my opinion. The liberals get away with the best representation of their ideology, and yet don’t have much reason for it. Why not talk about their relationship to international capital [3]? Or why else do they want things to stay more of the same? Anyway, this is all just to say that I think role-playing someone with particular class interests and living conditions might be a productive angle of critique, to understand what choices they make and anticipate what they will do next.

Besides, in the social and historical context of early twentieth-century Europe, what makes a fascist worse than a monarchist or even a liberal, not even insofar as these factions often collaborated in their own countries? I can think of three atrocities at the top of my head—the Bengal famine under Churchill, the Congo genocide under Leopold II, and the Holodomor under Stalin—that were orchestrated by non-fascist governments. Reducing fascism to an ideology elides its social function which yet operated in nominally non-fascist governments, and ignores that such governments very well enacted similar policies [4].

Also, I don’t know, I think there’s some potentially juicy stuff in there if you put fascists on the table. Maybe you know about this or maybe you don’t, but Benito Mussolini up until 1914 was the director of the Italian socialist newspaper Avanti!, whose headquarters the fascists would later attack in 1919. Mussolini left the socialist party and founded the fascist party because he thought that Italy should participate in the First World War against the advanced (i.e. imperialist) countries [5]. His ex-fellow party members, Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci, would also end up leaving and forming a communist party because the socialist party went reformist. At some point, Gramsci gave a speech at parliament against the political acts of violence committed by the fascists—Mussolini would then, condescendingly, quote Bordiga back at Gramsci about the justification of violence for political aims [6]. That’s like a whole angst fanfic right there. Anyway, there’s something engaging about interpersonal relationships mixing with political struggle, or using one to explore the other.

Future Marcia again! I do feel like there might be a difference between "You shall not play a fascist" versus "You shall not want to play a fascist", the latter of which is fair as far as you wouldn't want someone who themselves identifies with fascism to participate. However, I still felt like the former was important to draw out—especially in a historical war game where, if no one else, the referee is likely to play a fascist (or, if you read it as a Braunstein, someone in your group is going to play the baddie). In such a case, how should the participant handle playing as a fascist? Should participants only play as non-fascists but yet still collaborate with fascists, as per the faction graph? That's more the angle I wanted to poke at.

The Braunstein

What do you get when you combine motivated characters, entangling factions, and a war game? You might get something like a Braunstein. Braunstein was the name of a Napoleonic campaign run by Dave Wesley in 1969; specifically, Braunstein was the name of the German city in which the game took place. The players expected to be participating in a standard war game, where you control troops on a battlefield and fight to the death et cetera et cetera. Wesley instead assigned each player a role of a certain individual in the town, with their own motivations and connections and so on. Before long, the players stopped coming to Wesley with ‘commands’ for their characters [7], and ended up interacting directly with each other’s characters on the map. Wesley thought he fucked up, but everyone else had fun. It especially influenced college student Dave Arneson, whose medieval fantasy campaign Blackmoor would lay the groundwork for his later campaign guide Dungeons & Dragons (coauthored by, of course, Gary Gygax). To summarize, a Braunstein is a campaign that tricks war gamers into LARPing or playing with dolls.

Reading The Country as a Braunstein helps contextualize the way in which it elevates its subject matter and formal rules. Despite the ‘system’ only really explaining how to shoot guns at people, the gun-shooting is incidental to the interests of the characters and their factions. Even if your goal is strictly to eliminate a target, that goal is contextualized by individual desire and factional disputes. The outcome is comparable to how Adam Decamp of Chocolate Hammer describes his campaign of Boot Hill [8]:

There was another benefit to not having any social mechanics at all in the game, counter-intuitive thought it might seem for a game about managing adversarial relationships without combat. While combat in Boot Hill is decided immediately and obviously, and is thus very well suited to open dice rolls, the game’s social conflicts created tension by being uncertain. One never knew whether to trust an NPC, whether an NPC trusted them, whether a bluff had succeeded, or whether a threat had landed. They had no reason to expect success because a number was high or failure because a number was low.

It’s for this reason that Decamp calls Boot Hill “the best political intrigue system” he has ever used, and it’s this same tendency that elevates The Country. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gearing’s firearm ruleset Violence takes inspiration from Boot Hill. Admittedly, I think (like Boot Hill) it’s a little bit clunky, but since it’s sort of arbitrary with respect to the campaign itself, it feels easy to substitute with something quicker if one wanted.

I have just one more comment, tangential to the above discussions: the text is somewhat male-centric. We see this in both the backgrounds and the factions’ demographics. Politics is considered by many to be the discourse of men, and it’s not inaccurate to say that women were not employed by many of these factions as foot soldiers anyway. Even if women typically occupied different roles in social movements, though, it is still worthwhile to explore those roles. This is not even to mention that women did, indeed, take on positions in leadership and armed struggle during this time period. Why does it matter? I play nothing straight because I’m gay lol, and because even for things I like a lot there’s always something that I end up adjusting to taste for myself or my friends. Still, although there is nothing stopping myself from playing a character similar to the likes of Rosa Luxemburg or what have you, it’s disappointing that the text lacks this dimension.


The thing about a fire is it burns after being extinguished. Embers glow beneath the ash. The powers beat out the fire, but don't worry about the glow they can't see.

The Country offers a great campaign framework for characters and factions to explore the political dynamics of twentieth century Europe. It feels like a modern take on the Braunstein game and its immediate descendants in Blackmoor and Boot Hill, with its emphasis on character drive, factional strife, and rules-avoidant play. However, for its efforts to model social conflict, it falters by ascribing such conflict to ideologies rather than to the material conditions which give rise to them. It is still one of my favorite playable things I’ve read in the past year. Gearing is an evocative writer without pretension, so that combined with his approach and subject matter is compelling.


[1] Luke Gearing. 2021-04-19. “The Country”, Luke Gearing.

[2] Luke Gearing & Roz. 2021-05-19. The Country.

[3] Yeah, I know this is specific to the government liberals and not the aforementioned radical republicans. Keep scrolling.

[4] Referring to Churchill, Leopold II, or Stalin’s governments as fascist misses the point. Fascism is not a particularly special state of capitalist society, but (w.r.t. its violent repressive function) it is an utterly normal and essential aspect of it.

This is not to say that liberal governments in general are not qualitatively distinct from fascist governments. Liberal governments (at least, in theory) tend to work towards dismantling non-capitalist social relations, such as racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera. Fascism meanwhile relies upon these things to privilege a certain subset of the population and violently repress the rest (notably using often the same techniques as liberal states, only towards its own population instead of or in addition to those of other nations). This is related to the conflict between international and national capital, but has implications for the wellbeing of victimized groups beyond the scope of capital as such. It also impacts the extent to which these domestic groups can seek better treatment within the scope of the government: it is easier for trans people (e.g.) to advocate for reform within liberal structures than for them to take up arms against a state violently repressing them. So to speak, I much prefer Biden over Trump; however, especially in the context of the twentieth century, it is difficult to suppose that the big players are not all reprehensible in practice if not in theory.

Besides, liberal states love a little fascism as a treat. American police have killed approximately 30,800 people from 1980 to 2019, and 1,182,170 people are incarcerated across the country as of 2020 (peaking in 2009, with 1,553,570 incarcerated). Black people are overrepresented in both of these metrics, being 3-5 times as likely to be killed or incarcerated than white people. See "Fatal police violence by race and state in the USA, 1980–2019: a network meta-regression" (The Lancet 398.10307, pp. 1239-1255), and "Growth in Mass Incarceration" (The Sentencing Project, 2020). It’s not inaccurate to say that most capitalist countries enjoy a mix of liberal and fascist policy, often along racial, religious, or geographical lines—and this is to the “benefit” of the country.

Let’s also not forget colonialism and imperialist war, in case you walk out of this long-ass footnote thinking that domestic (i.e. internal) policy is all that matters. If a capitalist state is eating its own babies, you might guess that it’s because other babies are hard to come by. Have I sufficiently qualified all this? Goddamn. This is what I get for running things by our very own Union of Soviet Writers, not that I’m complaining.

[5] Mussolini was, I think, employing the notion of the imperialist stage of capitalism where countries with excess capital flood other (developing) countries and thus take over their economic development. Lenin’s original stance was that such imperialized countries should revolt in order to establish their own democratic (capitalist) states—meanwhile the communist party should also equip the burgeoning proletariat there with the practical and theoretical means to join the international movement, being careful not to treat the democratic state as the end-all-be-all. Mussolini, on the other hand, considered Italy a “proletarian nation”, such that its struggle against other nations superseded the class struggle within itself. Notice that these stances represent the interests of different classes.

[6] My partner said something really funny: "I think I know why Bordiga is in jail, and why Gramsci is speaking at parliament."

[7] In this style of war game, players usually communicated troop orders to the referee who would resolve them on the map.

[8] Adam Decamp. 2019-01-09. “Boot Hill and the Fear of Dice”, Chocolate Hammer.

Grave Trespass - Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Adventure Game

 A Scathingly Positive Review Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is a self-contained system and adventure adapted from the 1986...