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.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Prelude to an Exhausting Vacation

I'll be on a vacation next week. Once I have returned I'll continue my stream of reviews, but not with the The Treacherous Cobwebs. After the last two reviews I feel like a sour old fart, so I'll write about something more delightful before I continue my series of ANAT critiques. Stay tuned!

Monday, 4 July 2016

Review: Appendix N Adventures #2: The Vile Worm

The Vile Worm is the second adventure in Brave Halfling Publishing's Appendix N Adventures line. The first module was pretty disappointing and required some serious overhaul to make it interesting. Is this any better?

I'm one of those few souls who own a print version of this module too. It's a neat little saddle-stitched booklet. The illustrations are a bit weaker this time, and the cover is downright ugly. The map looks great, but it will ruin your hopes if you thought this will be a good one shot for Saturday night, because this dungeon has a very small number of rooms. The Vile Worm is not a fully fledged adventure. It is more of a sidetrek, a filler to put in an empty sandbox hex.

The highlights claim this is a dungeon crawl for 8 to 12 1st level characters. That's quite a lot for such a small place. The highlights also note this is a linear rescue mission. That's a very poor start, for two reasons. First, I hate linear adventures. Second, rescue missions need NPCs the PCs find worth rescuing - either because of the NPC itself, or the reward. The worst you can have is assuming the party is made of Goody Two-shoeses who can't wait to rescue random villagers never met before. You will later see this is exactly what we get.

The background is only half page long, and far cooler than The Ruins of Ramat's. It's a good setup for a gritty medieval lovecraftian tale: after finding the sacrifical tree for a worm god a crazed berserker becomes its priest and starts kidnapping people to sacrifice. Wicked! The next page introduces said hermit and his lynx and wolf companions. He's an adorable dark twist on druids, I like it a lot. With some build up he could turn into a memorable villain!

The next section is about how to begin the adventure. I thought The Ruins of Ramat was bad with the hook, but The Vile Worm surpasses even that! The writer basically tells you to invent your own hook, like that party getting lost in the forest, or maybe looking for a chaotic outpost. That's all. That's lazy. Come on, I paid for your creativity, to do the dirty work instead of me, to inspire me. Is this really the best you can do?

Okay, the party is in the forest, deal with it. They meet the hermit who will manipulate them to follow him to his oak. If they follow he will lead them to an ambush. What if the adventurers don't follow? The Judge shouldn't force the party, says the writer, he should just let them wander a bit until they run into the oak and the ambush. The irony is strong with this one. Also, good job at throwing away an interesting villain right at the start of the adventure!

The oak is the ancient hollow tree where the hermit lives and sacrifices folks. There is some boring treasure hidden around it, plus an obvious secret door to the prisons. Despite their two-three sentence long descriptions most of the cells are empty, except for the one where two peasants are kept, and the secret room with the bell that calls the worm. No mention of the 65 feet deep hole that leads down to the caverns. One of the prisoners will ask the party to recover their fater who was dragged away by a many tentacled monster. Down below careless adventurers can fall int a shaft with paralyzing mucus, find bodies impregnated with worm eggs, face worm hatchlings, loot a treasure hoard, and of course battle the worm itself. The encounters are passable: there are new hatchlings continuously bursting out from corpses, paralyzing goo all over the place, and while the Vile Worm is just a glorified carrion crawler, it is presented as a sneaky bastard who likes hanging out on the ceiling.

The adventure doesn't end after saving the shephard. The oak will try to murder the party, which isn't as scary as it seems, especially with 8-12 level 1 characters. While he can deal a decent amount of damage and can charm party members, his hp is ridiculously low for a 20x25 feets large tree. Within a round the party will make firewood from poor monster. Once its chopped down the peasants will give shelter, food to the adventurers. Hopefully they didn't forget to heal the shepherd, otherwise they will witness the chestburster sceen from Alien, which sounds an amusingly anticlimactic way to ruin the dinner. There are two more paragraphs with further ideas about what's under the worm caves, but they are weak and uninspiring.

The loot is boring as hell. Coins, jewelry, gems... There is no meaningful reward, there aren't even consumable magic items. Since magic item shops don't fit into DCC RPG's mentality, you likely can't even buy potions on your money. The whole adventure is just a waste of resources.

The Vile Worm a lot like those hastily threwn together on the day before the session because you forgot to prepare during the rest of the week. There's no shame in that, I do that quite often, but at least I make it sure they aren't railroady, have at least one exciting encounter, reward the players with some juicy loot, last longer than two hours, and I don't publish them either. This module reminds me of a Dire Straits song.

Tl;dr: The Vile Worm is a waste of a cool idea on a short and linear sidetrek that lacks challenge and originality. You can buy it HERE.