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.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Kickstarter: ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG

Two of my all-time favorite rpgs are the first two editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - the first edition for the setting, the second for the rules. I remember how excited I was when Fantasy Flight Games announced the third edition. Unfortunately my enthusiasm didn't last long... Instead of a percentile based low fantasy game FFG released a boardless boardgame with needless chits, unique dice, shitton of cards, vivid illustrations, and an even more watered down version of the Old World than the one seen in WFRP2e. I wouldn't have any issues with the game if it was called Warhammer Collectible Adventures, or Warhammer Quest on Steroids, but calling it Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was a heresy punishable by burning. Strangely FFG haven't felt any need to fuck up the WH40K RPG branch which still used the good old percentile system.

While the WH40KRPGs thrived and saw a shitton of releases, WFRP3e was slowly killed, and WFRP1e/2e endured thanks to the community, whose strongest bastion were probably the Strike-to-Stun forums. Here, Daniel Fox (aka Moniker) started to gather his house rules under the Corehammer title, but his game slowly started to evolve, and transformed into something different. Thus Zweihänder was born. Despite all the differences it still had something FFG's fantasy rpg lacked: the heart and core of WFRP. I've found the playtest docs interesting, and admired the effort, but as time passed I considered it a vaporware and forgot about it.

This spring I had to realise I was wrong. After five years and 240 sessions Zweihänder, the true heir to WFRP is virtually finished. The authors started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing, which was funded in five hours. If you live in US, CA, or EU, the gloriously gorgeous black & white hardcover book will cost you $50 with shipping and nice little extras. That's a steal! If you were looking for a dark fantasy rpg then go and pledge! It's even system neutral, so you can use it for your Witcher, Game of Thrones, Dark Souls, or edgy homebrew campaign.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Christmas in July

I just realized there is a Christmas in July sale on OneBookShelf until the 29th of July. This seemed like a good opportunity to grab some adventures from my wishlist. Beyond the Silver Scream promises to be a fun and unusual funnel, one I might use for my next DCC campaign if I find it worthy. The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad is a sandbox for DCC RPG, which reminds me of an old Swords & Wizardry campaign I've had years ago. I have also bought Crimson Dragon Slayer for no reason. Hopefully I won't regret any of them. $9.88 might not be too much, but I could've bought a few beers with that money, or some crappy used pulp fantasy novel - these can be just as inspiring as a well-written adventure.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: The Wizardarium of Calabraxis

A DCC RPG adventure by Claytonian JP! I recognise his name from various DCC-related corners of the internet, but I haven't seen anything from him before. I'm not even sure if The Wizardarium of Calabraxis is his first publication or not. It did get enough praise on the forums to pique my interest and make me buy it, but life intervened, and it took me a few months util I could finally sit down, and read it cover to cover. After a few pages I've felt an immediate regret for not doing this earlier, because the Wizardarium is one hell of an adventure!

Wizardarium is 18 pages long with front and back covers. The illustrations are light hearted and well done, often with funny captions that tell memorable events from the playtests. Flipping through its pages without reading anything the adventure already screams fun! The maps follow the DCC tradition, although they are less crowded. They lack scale, so the sizes are up to the Judge. I don't understand why the Judge's map had to be repeated a page later. It's unnecessary, its space could have been used for another illustration instead.

You will find no read-aloud textboxes and lengthy dull walls of text here. This is what you get when the author is not paid per word: zero bullshit, all useful information. Every room is described in a brief and straightforward manner, so it's up to the Judge how he presents them. The adventure is for all levels, which usually means the writer was either lazy to balance encounters, or the module isn't really about combat. In case of Wizardarium I dare to say it's both. Not giving a shit about balance shows that Calytonian knows DCC RPG very well. No need to sweat with maths, because the chaotic nature of the system will fuck it up anyhow.

The backstory appears lengthy at first glance, but in this case it's a venial sin, because the wizardarium is big and has a lot going on! The hook uses kidnapped children to lure the PCs to the ancient cave complex which belonged to the insane mage Calabraxis. The place already has a bad reputation, and the local peasants haven't even got a clue about what's really going on there!

The environment is non-linear and refreshingly interactive. The cave entrance is populated by apemen, who were psychically enhanced by a vibrating monolith. The monolith is the mining device of the ancient vorbian race who are awakening from their long slumber. It's also a nice tool to fuck up player characters or grant them psionic powers. And this is only the entry! Delving deeper the players will find all the crazy stuff left behind by the mad mage. Similar to the monolith most items can be tinkered with for various beneficent or harmful effects. There is a room with a projector that can turn people into hybrids if you make animal figures from plastic triangles and cast their shadow upon them. There are animatronic sage statues that can drop some hints, unless they go berserk when activated. There is a vault guardian who would love to get bound to another place because he's bored of his current task. I could go on about all the funky stuff the wizardarium has to offer, but if you require further examples about why this is a fascinating dungeon there's something wrong with you. There are some mundane traps too, like slides, narrow ledges, falling ceilings. The dungeon has 24 rooms, exits, tunnels described in one and a half pages. Remember what I've said about zero bullshit?

But what's a dungeon worth without memorable inhabitants? There are few predetermined encounters, most of them will be random. The PCs can meet their own time traveling shadows, visions of the time-shifted wizard, head-swapper bats, mongrelocks with random body parts and psychic powers, defrosted vorbians with hi-tech equipment that turns the user slowly into a vorbian, their mutant descendants, and of course the aforementioned advanced apes. Like the surroundings, they aren't all there to kill the players - some of them are downright friendly or indifferent! My favorites are the head-swapper bats, who decapitate people to get heads they can use to think and talk. They really like chit-chat and if they find someone clever they will try to get his head to replace the old one. Isn't that adorable?

Such extraordinary place must have extraordinary loot too! The players can get their dirty hands on a fob-watch which allows timetravel as observers. It's a cool way to explore the history of the wizardarium (which has its own section at the end of the addendum), but it's far from safe. Traveling to the future is dangerous: a fumble may revive defeated villains, age the travelers, or attract time hounds (of Tindalos), and eight-legged time lizards. It's also possible to obtain Baxter the Jolly Book-ax. He is a chatty book-axe hybrid who can use scrolls and spellbook pages to cast spells. He hates vermin and loves reading. He is also pretty senile. That's one magic item I would love to roleplay the hell out of!

The rest of the addendum has experimental psionics rules, some ideas about the vorbian monolith, the vault guardian, the vorbian agenda, delightful playtest memories, the writer's own appendix N for the adventure, and a list of 1d12 random mongrelocks that made me chuckle.

I love this adventure. It's full of juicy ideas I can't wait to use. It's also dirt cheap. Heck, even if you won't run Wizardarium you should still buy it for the wicked creatures and magic items within! I hope Claytonian releases a print version in the future, because I need this framed on my wall with a caption that says THE BEST THIRD PARTY DCC RPG ADVENTURE.

Tl;dr: The Wizardarium of Calabraxis offers a good amount of colorful and imaginative content for a ridiculously low price. You can buy it HERE.