Monday, 28 November 2016

Review: Underport: Abyssal Descent

Reading Crimhthan The Great's OD&D Blog reminded me I've bought a module called Underport: Abyssal Descent many months ago. Released by Direbane Publishing this adventure promises to be a vintage mega dungeon from the halcyon days of the hobby. It focuses on action, and does not give a shit about encounter balance. Sounds good! The dungeon was written for the Knights of the All Mind ruleset, which seems like an unholy mix of 3e and OD&D. It's unlikely anyone ever used this system other than its author. Thankfully it's easy to convert the stats to any editions of D&D.

Opening the book will immediately invoke the inimitable old-school feel thanks to a layout so bad, it makes even the LBBs look good. Single paragraph, shitty fonts, ugly stat blocks... I'm not sure if it's intentional, but well done! The foreword confirms that the adventure will be a huge mess, with changing styles and a wide variety of influences including Judges Guild, Arduin, and puberty (unless you've forgot about those years, the latter means violence, sex, drugs). We also learn important information like the average heights of tunnels, chambers, caverns, and why didn't the author include wandering monster charts: if the PCs make noise just pull the monsters from the nearest room, or throw them a gelatinous cube. That's a simple and elegant solution I was thinking about using too.

The adventure is 88 pages long, with a seperate 18 pages long file for the maps. The dungeon has more than a dozen levels, big and small ones alike. They are scans of old drawings that were never cleaned, full of stains and smudges. Until you get familiar with them it can take some effort to find out what's going on, and where the different labels are. Once you can see through the Chaos you will find a real gold mine! The maps are full of exciting names, like Tita Luigi Bomba's Castle Hold, Battle Caves, Prime Material Gate To Abyss. Names like these are a perfect way to pique my curiosity in no time. They sound interesting! I want to check them out! I want to know what's going on there! To make things even more olde school, there is a cross section of the levels too.

Not only there are many levels, but they are varied too. The module starts in an underground pirate hideout, then continues to the depths through a mining complex, a crossdresser overlord's castle, the battle caves, a monk's hold in a mushroom forest, a "multi-dimensional demiplane Hellscape prison", and other weird places until the aforementioned gate is reached at the bottom of the Eternal Pit.

The encounters are just as colorful as the environment. The adventurers can meet both classic and unique monsters during their delve. What I really love about them is that these creatures aren't just put in a room to be slaughtered: the book is full of scenes where something is actually happening! A bar with drinking skeletons! Drunken pirates causing fire! Hobgoblins planning a rebellion against their king! Fire giants having sex! An insectoid creature disguised as a crying little girl trying to lure victims to their doom! I could go on all day about all the amazing happenings of this dungeon.

The writing is short, rough, and goddamn evocative in the beggining. The descriptions could've been even more effective with more powerful choice of words, but they are still miles better than your average dungeon room read aloud text that gets bogged down by unnecessary details. It's a pity the style changes dramatically midway. The encounters become more static, the descriptions longer, the levels less interesting. Sometimes I felt the author being tired, maybe even a bit burnt out. This doesn't mean of course that the lower levels are rubbish, but they aren't as good as the upper ones.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this product to anyone interested in megadungeons and early homebrew adventures. It's my favorite historical artifact besides the Rythlondar chronicles. I wonder if the Necropolis of Chaos, a sequel promised at the end of the book will be released too one day.

Tl;dr: Underport is an authentic old-school megadungeon with exemplary upper levels, and a bit weaker lower levels. You can buy it HERE.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures Toolkit Add-Ons

The end of the road is here! Since I have already finished the adventures only the add-ons are left to review. These include mini adventures, magic items, monsters, even a religion! They were meant to compensate for all the delay and the adventures Brave Halfling Publishing never delivered.  There are seven add-ons and three extras, so let's start the reviews instead of wasting characters on more empty blather.

Since some people were confused, I think I should nention that I haven't received these in print either, with the sole exception of The Shigish, which is on the back of a paper I've got when the Ruins of Ramat were sent to me the second time.

Pages are digest size, except Add-On #7 and Extra #3, which are Letter size.

Add-On #1: The Green Orb

A six pages long adventure (with one empty, one for the OGL, and one for an illustration). Rule of
thumb: whenever they say adventure in the extras they really mean "one-shot" or "encounter". The background tells the story of an old wizard, who travelled through the planes to learn how to control the Green Orb, an artifact which can animate plants as malign creatures. Then he got murdered in a small cave by thieves. That's an epic failure for a planeswalking wizard if you ask me. The rest of the booklet tells in lengthy details how the plants, roots, fungi of the cavern will animate and harass the players who take shelter there. There are some ideas about expanding the adventure, and making it harder. The latter includes such marvelous ideas like throwing in more monsters, but my favorite is making the whole place only 5' tall so the PCs can't use their weapons. A good challenge is exciting, it tests the player's abilities, who will feel satisfied once they have earned victory. Taking away the (often hard earned) abilities of the PCs isn't a challenge, it's just a cheap punishment. Also, who the hell takes shelter in a cave where it's impossible to stand up?

Add-On #2: Gifts of the Only

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). This is an encounter with a pool that during the night changes how magic works. On moonless nights the pool becomes a gate to the an alien plane, thus making it possible for the Only to enter our world. Combat against him is futile, but he will grant a wish for a sacrifice. There is a neat chart with bizarre ideas how those wishes may manifest, and a small detail that makes this weird faceless creature even more interesting: the sacrificed creature recovers on the other side of the pool, because the Only (nomen est omen) only wants some company, since he is the sole creature on his plane. Thus a sacrificed player might return later. Confrontation with a former comrade you sacrificed sounds fun! I was pleasantly surprised by how unusually imaginative this little encounter was compared to most of the line.

Add-On #3: The Perplexing Disappearances in Brambury

A six pages long adventure (with one empty, one for the OGL, and one for an illustration). The title is much cooler than the adventure itself. Cultists of Cthulhu lost an intelligent cave octopus. He grew up in the nearby lake and started hunting villagers during the night. The players will have to face him to stop the disappearances. The first half feels more like an outline for an adventure. The second part is about handling knee-deep-in-rwater combat, and increasing the difficulty by adding smaller octopi, hungry gars, or introducing cultists who returned for their property. If all of these were collected and worked out this could become a decent adventure, but as it is it's worth as much as scrap papers with hastily written ideas at the bottom of an average Judge's drawer. The cave octopus stats and description were fully copy-pasted from the DCC RPG rulebook, which is the epitome of laziness.

Add-On #4: The Untimely End of Scaviolus Hitherhill

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). Another pompous title. Did I mention I like pompous titles? This is a decent encounter in dense reeds with the ghost of a former soldier. I like his background, but unfortunately it's unlikely the players will learn the details of his demise. I also like that he can't be beaten: unless his wedding band is returned to his widow he will return evey day to haunt the area. There is some advice at the end again about making the adventure tougher. You won't believe it, but it tells you to add more monsters to the battle. Creative.

Add-On #5: Vance's Merry Men

A four pages long adventure (with less then one for the OGL). There is nothing vancian here, the title is just a trick to grab your attention. This module describes an inn and a band of robbers. The longwinded explanation of their scam was needless, especially the part about how they behave if the adventurers let themselves get robbed. Have you ever seen a D&D party that surrendered to mundane robbers? Me neither.

Add-On #6: Room and Boarded

A four pages long adventure (with one for the OGL). It describes an encounter with dimensional pirates who travel on flying ships. Imagine the following situation: you are sleeping deep in your inn room after a tiring day of adventure, then suddenly the roof explodes and goddamn blueskinned pirates slide down from above and attack. They even have a wizard who can silence spellcasters or enlarge the leader. I like this one! It's an idea with a lot of potential, and also some really good non-monetary loot: the possibility of capturing a spelljammer drakker, and a cool magic amulet.

Add-On #7: Grimic

A four pages long description of a religion (with one for the OGL). Grimic is the most overused gimmick of old-school D&D's history: the red flat sob from the cover of the AD&D1e PHB. This time he is a god of humanoids and savages. There are battle rites described, a simple encounter with worshippers, and of course some rules about tampering with the idol. There are no new spells or even abilities that could replace the turn unholy his clerics lack, there isn't even a spell list. Strangely there are no lizard-men mentioned in the document. This left me cold, mostly because I'm bored of all the reuses of the idol. I think the community should give Trampier finally some rest instead of making him roll in his grave with more weak homages to his iconic image. The only good one I can recall was Kenzer & Co's monster entry in one of the Hacklopedias.

Add-On Extra #1: A Lesson From Turtles

A one and a half pages long description of a weird lake. The player characters can learn arcane knowledge from intelligent turtles, find the leaking facility of the Old Ones, and get murdered by giant clawed mushrooms. It reminds me of Carcosa and some of the better Wilderlands hexes. Short but cool idea for sandboxes.

Add-On Extra #2: The Sigish

A one page long description of tubular otherworldly monsters that grow from 1/2 HD to 3 HD by eating everything they can. Once there is nothing left to devour they break down into small larvae. Their description ends with ideas about using them as random encounter, spell mishap, or trap. An interesting monster I might use in the future with some changes - eg. not limiting their growth to 3 HD. My only gripe with this is the lack of illustrations.

Add-On Extra #3: Laro Chelle the Ring Bearer

Two pages long, with one for OGL. Another third page is wasted on title and header. The rest is about an immortal and ancient halfling who bears a magical ring: the Gift of Death. If the ring is removed from his finger the dead will reanimate in it's one mile radius, and they will be drawn toward it. Furthermore, day by day the radius doubles. This is the kind of NPC-item combo that will be either ignored, or will mess up the setting.

That's all folks! A bunch of unambitious notes, with some rough gems among them. Like the adventures of the Appendix N Adventures Toolkit line most of these are unaware too of what Appendix N or being written for DCC RPG means. These add-ons should've been released as articles in a fanzine, or as a series of blogposts.

Tl;dr: The Add-Ons are a mix of some good, and a lot of mediocre ideas, barly worked out more than the notes you take during a dump. You can buy some of them HERE.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Back in Black

I have moved into a new flat, found a new job, which means I'll have enough free time again for my beloved hobbies. The final chapter of the Appendix N Adventures Toolkit reviews is coming this week, then I will move on to hopefully more delightful subjects. My backlog is full of promising items, and I was lucky enough to play a few weeks ago in Melan's Castle Xyntillan, so there is a lot I can write about.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Interview with the Referee

I'm in the middle of moving to Budapest and looking for a new job. I've lost count of the job interviews I've had in the last two weeks, and probably as many are still to be done. Once this gauntlet is over (around the beginning of November) I will return and continue with my reviews. Stay tuned!

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #4: The Witch of Wydfield

The Witch of Wydfield is the fourth, and so far final part of Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventures Toolkit line. It was meant to be a Kickstarter exclusive bonus never to be released anywhere else. It's $1.95 on DriveThruRPG at the moment. Just as The Crumbling Tower, and Danger in the Sulyndri Forest were replaced by The Vile Worm, and The Treacherous Cobtraps, so did The Witch of Wydfield take the place of The Revenge of Abudakar in the line. No idea if we'll ever seee any of these lost adventures, or what's going on with remaining rewards, like the Appendix N Adventvetures Game Box, Perplexing Disappearances in Brambury, the Old Isle campaign setting, the pantheon, or the character classes.

The Witch of Wydfield is a short character funnel. No idea for how many PCs it was written, as it's never mentioned anywhere. The module has the usual Mark Allen map, an ugly cover unrelated to the actual contents within, and a few nice illustrations inside. According the highlights after investigating a local tragedy the PCs will go to the forest to face a witch and her minions. This is followed by a detailed description of how the hag was murdered by the village cleric, how she possessed a local girl's body, and took revenge.

The investigation is bullshit. There is a lame clue written by the cleric on the wall with her own blood, but the villagers have already figured its meaning out during the introduction. Thank god for well educated peasants! They will even tell where the witch is hiding, so the players won't have to waste their time on learning trivia they wouldn't know about. This leads us to the other issue with the complex background.  The module assumes the party knows what's going on in the village, and who is who. Guess what: this is the first session with an in medias res opening. Unless the Judge spent some time introducing the place, the players won't have a clue about the local history, who the murdered cleric was, and why should they care more about the possessed girl than any other faceless NPC. With a proper prelude the events could have served as a strong and motivating hook, but as written it just falls flat.

There are three areas to explore. Outside the ivy-clad house the PCs will be harassed by a hexed hunter. The text says he will fire at spell casters first, which is a pointless piece of information, since level zero characters don't cast spells yet. Is this a conversion, or is the author unfamiliar with DCC RPG? Closer to the house the animated ivy will attack too. Once inside the characters will face the primeval slime bubbling in the cauldron, and can loot some money, a demon statuette, and a few potions. They can advance further through a trapdoor which can be noticed by a DC 5 Int check. Seriously, why did anyone even bother to come up with a DC to this? In the cellar there is an alarm spell and a floor that will hinder the characters for 7-10 rounds. It's a meaningless trap, because the hindrance won't have any consequences: the stage is already set for the finale, there is no timer to battle against. At the end our brave villagers will meet the possessed girl and a soul draining demon. There are three possible outcomes, all of which lack any kind of impact for reasons already mentioned above. For surviving this mess the players will be rewarded with a magic broom, and an either unconscious, or dead girl.

My usual complaints about bland writing and easy battles for ANAT modules stands true for The Witch of Wydfield too. The lack of atmosphere becomes even more apparent after reading They All Burn Down Here, which is also a funnel about witch hunting, but manages to pack a solid punch with less page count. Is there anything worth salvaging here at all? Yes, there are some cool ideas that need better presentation - like the animated ivy, the cauldron-dwelling slime, or the final battle with the soul draining demon. Make these encounters more challenging, add a grim horroristic tone the adventure, and start messing with the PCs. If you don't have any ideas, then watch some horror movies, like The Blair Witch Project. Still, adventure modules are supposed to inspire and make preparation easier. This one fails in both regards, so you're better off creating a new one from scratch than buying this.

Tl;dr: The Witch of Wydfield proves that you can write a bland adventure about witch hunting in a deep dark forest. You can buy it HERE.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: They All Burn Down Here

After the last two Appendix N Adventures Toolkit reviews it might seem that I don't like short adventures. Quite the contrary! I have written plenty of them too for my campaigns - they are ideal for short sessions and filling the empty spots in a sandbox. What I'm against are lengthy descriptions without meaningful content. An adventure's text should be straightforward, evocative, useful. A mini-adventure with three rooms ideally shouldn't take more than one to three pages - map included. They All Burn Down Here by Kevin Anderson is an exemplar of doing it right.

This module is a short funnel for 8-12 level 0 characters, that shouldn't take more than two hours to finish. It is only two pages long. The first page is a groovy illustrated map, following the current DCC trend. The second page is the adventure itself, with background, descriptions, monster stats, and even a table for totem effects. There is a small handout linked in the adventure, but I won't count that toward the page count. Kevin didn't waste the space, but he didn't cheat either: the text is of readable size and the whitespaces aren't too small either.

The hook is simple: children are having nightmares about a strange lady, and the villagers suffer some property damage by fire, so they organize a party to track down the smoldering trails leading to the bogs. At the end of their journey they find to a mound where a troll witch was burned and sealed a year ago. Naturally, the entrance is wide open now.

The background already sets a grim folkloric vibe for the adventure. Kevin does a great job with invoking a strong imagery of the scorched mound too, thanks to his effective use of adjectives. I'm not sure why, but reading the module reminded me of The 13th Warrior.

There are four areas in the adventure, although the root tunnels are broken up into three sections. Immediately after the entrance the PCs will find themselves in a creepy chamber, where the fenghor is lurking in a dark pool. It's an undead crocodile who will release giant mosquitoes from its ribcage once taken enough damage. In the tunnels the players can find exploding gas pockets that can wipe out a careless party, and shelves full of totems with various baleful or beneficent effects. If the characters survived all these atrocities they will finally meet the lair of the hag. It's one hell of an encounter in the middle of an oil pool, against a witch who can ignite anything with her touch, and throw players into the burning oil without effort. Stop, drop, and roll won't help here! After surviving all the horrors of the mound pursuing the man responsible for this mess will feel relaxing.

Before the adventure was published I was asked by the author to review the playtest. My feedback wasn't much different than the current review: while I did point out a few small issues, the adventure was already a well written and polished piece. I hope we'll see more from Kevin soon, he has a good chance to earn a seat in the Valhalla of the best DCC writers. He is a good writer and illustrator. Oh, and before I forget: this module is free.

Tl;dr: Strong atmosphere and deadly challenges make this short adventure worthy of your attention. You can download it HERE.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #3: The Treacherous Cobtraps

The Treacherous Cobtraps is the third part of Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventure Toolkit series. While the Ruins of Ramat and The Vile Worm were conversions of earlier OD&D and Pathfinder modules, this doesn't seem to have a precursor. I didn't acquire this in print so far, thus I can only talk about the pdf, which comes with letter sized, tablet, and system neutral versions, and a map.

The digest size module is 12 pages long, but only 7 pages contain actual content, the rest is for license, covers, handout. The illustrations are decent as usual, the cover is a bit meh, the handout would be alright if it wasn't drawn for the most uninteresting dead end in the whole adventure. While the map is charming, it confirms at first glimpse that similar to The Vile Worm this is a short sidetrek too, with little to explore. But hey, who knows, maybe those locations are interesting this time!

The Treacherous Cobtraps is a 2nd level adventure for a party of 8-12 adventurers. According to the background a bunch of weird spiders moved in to the nearby woods, and since the small game is becoming scarce they carried off some sheep and a shepherd from the nearby village. The locals appear to be unusually rich: contrary to what's written in the DCC RPG rulebook about medieval economy their leaders can cough up 100 gold pieces for cleansing the forest. Can reward get any more uninspiring than 100gp? Even some cattle and a cart of cabbages would've been more exciting.

The aforementioned arachnids get a one and quarter pages long description. These stygian orb weavers are big ass black widows with green glowing marks and magical abilities. The queen has 4HD, some dirty spells, and a blinding poison. The males are your usual dull giant spiders with 2HD. At least they have a cool name.

The lair has three areas. The first is a web with a stygian orb weaver runt, who will call in a another within 1d3 rounds. The second is a harmless pit trap with a dead spider, a dead elf, and some loot at the bottom. The third is a bog with two spiders, a forest path with extremely flammable web, and the lair of the spider queen. At the end the players will find four capturive dwarves (although only three of them are named), the halfling shepherd, and some treausre. The areas are described in a lengthy technical style which bores the reader with dimensions and distances. Guess what: nobody cares! If we need that info we'll take a look at the map! Oh wait, the map lacks scale...

Let's talk a bit about the pros! The place is more atmospheric than the previous two adventures, and the treasure is quite nice. There is a Dwarven Shoemaker's Tools which can construct a set of quality footwear in 3d6 turns. It's a seemingly useless magic items my players would love! Morclaiv is a +1 goblin slayer longsword, which can shed golden light and urges its wielder to return to the dead prince's realm and restore balance. While its abilities are generic, they are useful, and its task can be a good hook later.

Now it's time to light the torches and burn down the webs... Let's check what I've written above about the the stygian orb weavers, and then count how many of them are encountered. Yep, that's four 2 HD spiders and one 4 HD spider queen. For 8-12 adventurers of 2nd level. Are you kidding me?! Even if the spiders attacked in a single group the PCs would murder them within a few rounds. And no, their special powers won't compensate for their low hit dice, because guess what, those murderhobos will throw devastating spells, kick ass with mighty deeds, burn luck to cause ridiculous damage, and heal themselves. Unless something goes unlikely wrong there is zero challenge in the adventure. Even the traps are just hindrances without meaningful threat.

The real problem again is the author not understanding what makes DCC RPG tick. The game's main goal was emulating the imaginative and often weird classic fantasy literature. This requires rules and modules that evoke the genre's feel. Let's take a look at a random level 2 DCC adventure from Goodman Games! In The Emerald Enchanter the party can face a mosaic golem, emerald eidolons, flying skulls, rescue a drained moon-fiend, get killed by a giant skull statue shooting lasers from its eyes, try to communicate with an amoeba, and battle a mad wizard who turns people into emerald for shits and giggles. Wicked! And that's far from beig their craziest product. Meanwhile, Brave Halfling Publishing wants you to go to the forest and kill some spiders, and they even ask money for it... This should be a one page adventure.

Tl;dr: The Treacherous Cobtraps is about killing five spiders for some mildly interesting loot. You can buy it HERE.