Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 26 April 2019

For Cultured Friends IX: The Excellent Travelling Voume Issue No. 9

Following in the footsteps of took the author and publisher’s House of Worms campaign, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8, ‘A fanzine of M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel’, went in a very different direction to previous issues, far across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula. Written for use with TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, it detailed the city itself, its inhabitants and clans, as well as the native peoples, the local flora and fauna, and more. It explored—unofficially—a region not visited within Tékumel canon, as well as showcasing the possibilities of opening up regions well away from the familiarity of the Five Empires on the northern continent. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 returns home to the northern continent, but geographically at least, not to the Five Empires.

The issue opens with an editorial as usual. Here James Maliszewski recounts his experiences attending conventions and essentially how the smaller the convention, the more enjoyable they are. There is certainly a truth to this, as the smaller events tend to be less commercial, less frenetic, and friendlier. What is also true is that such event are about as much socialising as they are about play and smaller events tend to be focused on play. They are also a chance for players to try games they might not at home and as James highlights, the chance to meet others you might only know online or through the pages of a fanzine. Anyway, it is nice to that he is enjoying this aspect of the hobby.

The first of the two ‘Additions and Changes’ in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is ‘Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk Characters’, which provides rules for playing either race in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. Notably drawn from Swords & Glory, Vol. 1: Tékumel Source Book, this details the Alignment, Choice of Sex—the Pygmy Folk have three as opposed to the two of Swamp Folk, Profession—the Swamp Folk can only Warriors as they cannot cast spells of any kind, Hit Dice, their unique racial abilities, and what gods and their cohorts they worship. There are also notes on possible names, their homelands, and what legions they might serve in. Together this draws a great deal of playable information about both races that can be used to help create player characters or NPCs. Of course, the Five Empires being humanocentric in their outlook to one degree or another does mean that Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk player characters will some social stigma.

The second is ‘Expanded Original Skills’. This revises the three lists of skills—Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced—to fill in some of the omissions in terms of skills for as society as baroque and as complex as the Tsolyánu Empire and those of the Five Empires. Primarily, it adds Ancient Language and Modern Language, Entertainer, Etiquette and Courtly Manners, Lawyer, and Moneylender.  Of the two new additions, Ancient Language and Modern Language and Entertainer require further definition when selected. So acrobat, juggler, puppeteer, and so on for Entertainer, but languages like Engsvanyáli and Llyáni, Mu’ugalavyáni and Yan Koryáni for Ancient Language and Modern Language. To that end, the article includes a long list of languages. Now none of this has been playtested, but overall this looks like a reasonable revision.

The issue’s main focus is the Ni’ikmá Valley. As detailed in ‘The Ni’ikmá Valley’, this is a small area within the Plain of Towers, lying to the west of Mu’ugalavyá. By the standards of the Five Empires, it is a sparsely settled region, its peoples primitive, and notably, sits on the edge of a ‘barren zone’ as far as the use of magic and technological devices are concerned. It introduces the local inhabitants, the Nixkámi, details their faith and culture, and describes some of the places of note within the valley. One of these is ‘The Sunken Sanctum’, a subterranean ruin in the Qelqái Range of mountains on the southern edge of the valley. Rumoured to be haunted, this complex is actually a very minor facility from the Latter Times. Consisting of just seventeen locations, it is nicely detailed and has a slightly weird feel which echoes that of playing Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. The Game Master though, will need to develop a reason or hook for her player characters to visit the site—and to be fair, the Ni’ikmá Valley.

Two other articles further develop the Ni’ikmá Valley. One is a full hex map of the valley, whilst the other is a ‘Bestiary’, the first of two Additions in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9. The size of Tékumel and the isolated nature of places like the Ni’ikmá Valley mean that all manner of strange and different creatures can be found. So it is with the Ni’ikmá Valley, the article adding just four creatures native to the area, like the Jálu or ‘Prowler’, a large, four-limbed predator which stalks its prey through the Qelqái Range and is capable of bursts of unexpected speed. The other Addition to the issue is ‘New Eyes’. The article adds a further thirteen to the many listed in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, including ‘The Eye of Ineluctable Verity’, which prevents the subject from telling falsehoods and inflicts agonising pain if they do, and ‘The Eye of Immediate Encapsulation’, which imprisons the target in stasis, in a pocket dimension. Unfortunately, there are only six such pocket dimensions, so when one target is popped into one, another one pops out… That lends itself to some interesting adventure possibilities and showcases the invention displayed in the creation of these Eyes.

Perhaps the oddest article in the issue is ‘The Undying Wizards’. In Professor M.A.R. Barker’s fiction we see characters like Prince Dhích’une visiting other planes to converse and consort with his allies, but in this article we have characters coming from these planes—and elsewhere—to the ‘current’ time period. Primarily based in the far future of Tékumel, these characters make up a cabal of wizards of great knowledge and power who essentially police its timeline. Their methods, ideologies, and personal histories may vary, but they do care. None of the quintet described are given any stats, but they are of such power that in all likelihood they do not need any, although there is nothing to stop the Game Master from providing them.

Most campaigns set on Tékumel take place in its here and now, roughly conversant with the civil war following the usurpation of the Petal Throne by Prince Dhích’une and its aftermath, but with ‘The Undying Wizards’, we step outside of that to look at the planet’s long history and long future, whatever that may be… The article provides a set of NPCs to use as potential patrons, threats, a conspiracy from outside of time, and more. Ultimately, it hints at a bigger picture to the setting and adds yet another layer of mystery to it, whilst also providing a solid set of NPCs for the Game Master to roleplay.

Lastly, ‘The Temple of Lord Aridzó’ adds a location, a ruined structure in the Dry Bay of Ssu’úm previously detailed in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 6. It is a short location one-page piece which really just adds a little more detail to the content in the previous issue.

It almost goes without saying that The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is physically up to production standards set by previous issues. The writing is engaging, the illustrations all excellent, the cartography clear and easy to read, and it feels professional despite being put together by fans. Much of the issue’s content is taking the reader and thus the Game Master away from the Five Empires, so it may not be of use for everyone’s campaign, but the content in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is an interesting read and some of it even has the potential to change a campaign.

Friday, 19 April 2019

[Fanzine Focus XIV] MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is a little different. First, it is systemless, and second, it is the first setting detailed under the A Thousand Thousand Islands imprint. Based in Malaysia and penned by Zedeck Siew and drawn by Munkao, this is a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project, one which aims to draw from regional folklore and history to create a fantasy world truly rooted in the region’s myths, rather than a set of rules simply reskinned with a fantasy culture. The result of the project to date is four fanzines, each slightly different, the first of which is marked with a ‘1’ and is MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom.

Up a lush river lies a lake accessible via a gateway consisting of the grand, gaping maws of two crocodiles. This is the entrance to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, or the Dismembered Land, which sits on the lake and was once the site of a great city said to have been drowned by a thousand monsters. Beyond lies the wooden port of Singga, its banks crowded with boats and its skyline crowded with vine and silence-wrapped temples. Here merchants come to trade in coin, grain, honey, and forest goods, such as ‘Spirit Mango’ fruit from trees pollinated in the spirit realm; ‘Corpse Honey’, health-giving honey harvested from hive-zombies; and ‘Snake Stone’, ruined stonework containing trace magics which can be reworked into minor amulets. Downlanders may trade in the Singga, but they require a permit to stay. Otherwise, they must retreat at night to Trader’s Island where tea shops and lodging houses are built across the cheeks, nose, and forehead of a giant, fallen statue.

Crocodiles rule MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom in a lazy, benign fashion. They police the river, their decrees outlaw the exploration of the ruins of MR-KR-GR, they are patrons, and more. AR-YM-SR the famed crocodile and archaeologist who has lost too many to the demon idols MR-KR-GR’s interior will hire adventurers to locate books and artefacts, but not to study them, but ensure that rot in the river; GR-RM-DR, a crocodile so obese she has to be carried on a litter owns many businesses and is owed much monies; and only the crocodiles can grant Downlanders citizenship, but this requires their being drowned—twice.

Another difference with MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is that its setting, its peoples and personalities, its places, and its strangeness are described with a very simple economy in terms of its words. Its absolute minimum of description is paired with utterly delightful artwork, which ranges from strange vistas and ports teeming with activity to demon idols that were fashioned as walking prisons for the old kingdom’s gods and a duellist whose father was actually a sword. Drawn by a single artist, Munkao, the profuse number of illustrations in this forty page fanzine would put many a gaming supplement to shame and do a superb job of bringing the author’s text to life. One issue perhaps is that some of the artwork is a little light and perhaps not quite as well produced on the pages here as it is in Drawings, Part One, another fanzine-style booklet published by the A Thousand Thousand Islands project.

Although MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is systemless, it does require a number of dice as there several tables to be found within its pages. These include encounter tables, demon idol tables, crocodile tables, and more, but using these tables and just by taking a cue from the simple descriptions given, a Game Master could easily create encounters and scenario ideas, even straight from the page during play. Besides being easily adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice, the setting described in MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is also easily adapted to the campaign of the Game Master’s choice. Of course it would fit into any campaign based on south-east Asia, but doing so might mean that distinctiveness of MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom might be lost amongst all of the other ‘exotic’ surrounds. One possible setting is that of Tékumel, perhaps on a far distant coast from the Five Empires and with the crocodiles having six legs instead four, but it would also work in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands; as a strange port of call in a planetary romance campaign; and even as somewhere in the far distant future or past for the Doctor to visit in a Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space campaign.

As has already been mentioned, there is a lovely simplicity to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, both in terms of the words and the art. It would be amazing to see this developed into a game of its own, but perhaps that would spoil what the writer and artist have already done—evoke visions of a very different world and of a very different fantasy to which a Western audience is used. 

[Fanzine Focus XIV] Midderzine Issue 1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Midderzine, which promises ‘More green for your game’, is a fanzine devoted to The Midderlands, the horror infused, green tinged interpretation of the medieval British Isles flavoured with Pythonesque humour and an Old School White Dwarf sensibility, published by Monkey Blood Design and first detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary. Also published by Monkey Blood Design and like The Midderlands, this fanzine is written for use with Swords & Wizardry and adds new flora and fauna, locations, oddities, and more. This is much more of a house publication and so is cleaner, tidier, and more consistent in style than the average fanzine. This includes the artwork and cartography of designer Glynn Seal as well as the artwork of Jim Magnusson.

Midderzine Issue 1 opens with ‘Meet the Midderlander’, an interview with one of the contributors to The Midderlands, in this case, Swedish artist, Jim Magnusson. This is nice and short, but to the point, doing something that a house organ should do, that is, highlight those involved in the creative process. Actual content for The Midderlands begins with ‘The Haven Gazette’, three pages of expanded rumours and news sheets entries which the Referee can expand upon for her campaign. For example, ‘The Leper Knights of Saint Corrobin in Helm’s Ford’ were recently granted the right to establish a monastery in Helm’s Ford despite local objections; Edmund Fester won the deeds to an old keep near Darlow as told in ‘Gambler Priest ‘Wins’ Keep’; and Mulch Fertwiddle gives his best tips on growing turnips slug free in ‘Garden Goblin’s Corner’. There lots of these and if perhaps the gardening tips are really filler, they do add colour and flavour, whereas the rest work as good hooks for the Referee to develop and help draw her players further into the setting.

‘Hexes & Unique Locations’ detailed several new places. They include the ‘Plinth of Dullen Fields’, a strange set of grave markers at the site of a battle six hundred years ago; ‘The Ruins of The Cock & Pocket Inn’, now a sinkhole and the last known sighting of a missing tax inspector as mentioned in ‘The Haven Gazette’; and ‘Ratdog Tor’, a monster-infested rock outcropping previously mentioned in The Midderlands. More detailed is a new village, ‘Stonecastle’, which is surprisingly quiet, but of course hides a secret or two. Interestingly, neither the local lord—Sir Uriah Fellchurch—nor the villagers are aware of them, so it will be down to the player characters to become aware of them. ‘The Eyeless Harrowers’ details a New Cult of monastic brewers, all blind and eyeless, whose beers and ales are brewed in secret, but sold across the Midderlands. Again, this is something for the Referee to develop from the description given here.

Fully written up are the two entries in ‘New Non-Player Characters’. The first of these ties back to the rumours and news given in ‘The Haven Gazette’, being a write-up of the gambling priest, Edmund Fester, whilst the second links to the setting of Stonechurch and the issue’s ‘New Class’, the Crowmaster. ‘Corlin Lackcraw’ is a Crowmaster who quietly serves Sir Uriah Fellchurch by collecting the news brought by the crows across the Midderlands and beyond. The Crowmaster is even quieter about the fact that he serves more than the one master… ‘New Monsters’ describes three new creatures, the Gloomrat, a dog-sized, three-eyed creature with a poisonous bite and possibly a nasty sting/mace/claw in the tale; the Catvile, a hairless, black cat whose skin can be cured to make light absorbing cloaks; and Devil’s Goat, a vile goat’s head thing with tentacles that spreads nasty rumours!

The Crowmaster is a new Class which is based on Druid, but which specialises in communications and dealings with corvidae of all types out on the moors and in the forests. They can understand and speak with crows and will come to build a network of corvidae spies, fly like a crow, and even take one as a steed. This is a nicely avian-themed variation of the Druid Class which lends itself to fun roleplaying. The two entries in ‘New Spells’ are self explanatory, Cover in Shit doing that to a Magic-User’s target, whilst Bag of Crap summons a bag containing ‘Crap You Find on Folk’ as detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary, which the caster can pull things from. Hopefully the caster might something useful, but this does feel like a slightly silly, slightly useless spell. Rounding out Midderzine Issue 1 are ‘New Oddities’ and ‘New Flora & Fauna’. So the former includes a ‘Catvile Cloak’, which as the description of the creature details earlier, improves the wearer’s ability to Hide in Shadows, whilst the latter gives a range of minor creatures and plants.

Physically, Midderzine Issue 1 is very nicely produced with excellent artwork and cartography. In terms of its production values, it feels a bit tight in its binding and so is not quite as easy to reference.

Initially, it feels as if Midderzine Issue 1 spreads its focus far and wide, but delving into the fanzine and there is a pleasing number of connections between the articles and the content so that the Referee does not need to refer to other supplements to make use of its contents. This gives the issue a sense of cohesiveness that enforces the sense of Midderlands as a place even if the Referee was to take that content out of the setting and use it in her own. In fact, extracting this content would be quite easy. Overall, Midderzine Issue 1 is a solid first issue with gaming content that any Referee running a campaign set in The Midderlands will want to add and develop for her game.

[Fanzine Focus XIV] Megadungeon #2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Megadungeon is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published by Hack & Slash Publishing, it is designed for use with Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons as well as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This marks it out as being unlike many other fanzines, but further, Megadungeon is different because it is devoted to the design and philosophy of the huge, expansive dungeons integral to some Dungeons & Dragons settings and Dungeons & Dragons-like settings. In particular, it is devoted to the author’s own megadungeon, Numenhalla. Fundamental to the design is the expansive nature of the megadungeon—it is not finite like dungeons such as Dwimmermount, Rappan Athuk, or Stonehell—and so Numenhalla is found everywhere beneath the Soma of the Gis, the author’s campaign world. Megadungeon #1 introduced the setting, its races, and its gods—essentially a combination of the Greek and Norse pantheons—as well as giving several playable nodes within Numenhalla. Megadungeon #2 continues in the same vein, developing further the philosophy behind the megadungeon’s design, adding nodes for the player characters to explore, new monsters, things to do away from the dungeon, and more.

The issue opens with ‘How Do You Use A Megadungeon?’, which explains the publisher’s approach to running and playing a megadungeon. Fundamentally, they are not adventure paths or sandboxs, but expeditions in the truest sense wherein the limits of encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision, all matter. They are expeditions into the unknown to gain knowledge, to probe the megadungeon’s empty spaces in search of areas occupied by threats, rivals, and other dangers. As interlopers the player characters should be in danger from the inhabitants of the megadungeon as much as the inhabitants are from the player characters—if not more so. In other words, the megadungeon should be a place of fear and it should able to bite back.

This is followed with ‘Tethys’, an addition to Numenhalla’s pantheon of gods. Mother-daughter to Hera, she is the goddess of the sea, mother of rivers and clouds, who angered her father for her betrayal with her mother and who consequently hid her sword deep in the oceans. This sets up the first node in Megadungeon #2, ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’, a maze-like complex built to trap the player characters and confound most attempts at logical exploration. The connection between the two articles is not immediately obvious, but at the heart of the complex lies a shrine to Tethys and it is rumoured that she walks the halls herself, seeking her lost sword. The complex is quite compact, but with almost fifty locations, there is a great deal of gaming to be got out of exploring its tight and twisting halls and rooms. Its write-up includes a handful of rumours and quests to use as hooks to get the player characters to enter its confines and once the player characters have figured how to get out and back in again, for them to return once again to fulfil other quests.

Like all of the nodes detailed in the Megadungeon fanzine, the actual descriptions of individual locations are written in a very terse style, which may well be off putting for some readers. Of course, this allows for easy adaptation to other retroclones and easy elaboration by the Dungeon Master. The compact and concise design of ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ also makes it easy to pull from the pages of the fanzine and add it to a megadungeon of the Dungeon Master’s own design.

Where ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ is a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy location, the second node in Megadungeon #2 has a Science Fiction flavour a la Metamorphosis Alpha or S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, full of strange machinery and technology. Despite its anachronistic trappings, ‘Fatal Dark Iron Horror’ is a much more straightforward node to play through, one whose atmosphere echoes that of Alien, but the shift in genre and technology makes the location not as straightforward to adapt or run elsewhere.

‘Town Activities’ explores what characters might do away from the dungeon. This takes place in Arclight above and presents a number of downtime actions that can take months at a time. This includes weapons training, proficiency training (for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition), training and re-rolling Hit Points, and even their core attributes. They can purchase spell scrolls, retainers,hirelings, and Gorth—the semi-slave race native to this world. Player characters can also groom a protégé, essentially setting up a replacement character in the event of their death, and they can spend out on carousing. This will grant them Experience Points, but such events can go wrong and land them in serious trouble. They can study and conduct research too, but perhaps the most interesting activating is undertaking any one of the quests available at the Guild Hall. These are strictly controlled, so only one can be undertaken at a time and it can only be conducted in the dungeon. When a party returns to the surface, it is deemed to be no longer on the quest, but is free to choose the quest again or another at the Guild Hall. Another party might even select that quest in the meantime. This adds some interesting storytelling and adventuring possibilities, structuring quests episodically, having rivals go on quests that the party has not completed, and so on.

The four ‘Treasure Maps’ enable the Dungeon Master to add links to the nodes given in the issue, whilst the ‘Non-Player Characters’, Professor Snorly, a Third Level Frogling, and Roxby the Lancer, field researcher and Fifth Level Lancer, can be encountered or hired in or outside of Numenhalla. Roxby the Lancer is certainly a spellcaster, one specialising in ray-type spells, but what Professor Snorly is, is unclear. Unfortunately what either is, is not explained and quite what are they is left for the Dungeon Master to develop. ‘Non-Player Character Parties’ details a complete party of NPCs, one of high Level and written somewhat tongue in cheek, so not possibly of immediate use to a Dungeon Master. ‘Dragons’ details two of these creatures. Quexgor Salmagar the Infamous is as much NPC as he is a monster, shapeshifting into a potentially a useful hireling, but not necessarily to be trusted.  Madamagor is more of a traditional creature.

The dragons are not the only creatures described in Megadungeon #2. These include ‘Grey Ranadin’, toad-like abominations considered by some to be gods; ‘Androphagi’, barbaric and nomadic cannibalistic savages whose heads are where their chests should be; the ‘Brutal Beast of Mogyosth’, part-lion, part-bull, part-man, all hunter; and all more. ‘Hengormoth’ are sort of amorphous creatures wanting to change their forms, cruel and militant slavers who welcome mutations to their bodies. Numerous variations are given, but they despite this, their description feels underwritten and lacking in context.

Two authors other than the publisher contribute to Megadungeon #2. John Bell suggests a new design of the venerable wandering monster table in the eponymous ‘Wandering Monster Tables and their (Re)Uses’. Starting from the limitation of the single axis monster table, he suggests adding a second, horizontal axis to turn the table into a grid. This second axis would allow column headings for ‘Lair’, ‘Monster’, ‘Noises’, ‘Tracks’, ‘Spoor’, and ‘Traces’ to be added and the resulting entries enabling the player characters to encounter evidence—indirect and direct—of the monsters in the dungeon or region long before they might run into the creatures themselves. This adds depth to the dungeon or region, but the author also suggests other ways to use it, including building quests, creating a dungeon with minimal effort, or restocking a cleared out area. Overall, a clever idea that warrants further development.

The other contributor to Megadungeon #2 is the player, Chris H. His ‘Tales from the Underground’ rounds out the issue, recounting one of his experiences playing online in what is an odd ending for the fanzine since it means that it steps away from its focus and its remit, that is, the megadungeon and Numenhalla in particular. Here he describes a raid into the castle of the Heart Queen as detailed in A Red & Pleasant Land, the beyond-the-mirror setting which is part Dracula’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Alice’s holiday letters from Transylvania. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable read and interesting to see other groups play and run a setting.

Physically, Megadungeon #2 is cleanly and neatly presented. It needs an edit in places and the issue is illustrated with a lot of publically available artwork. The issue’s writing is problematic though, the publisher's terse style working for the megadungeon node write-ups, but not for the monster or NPC descriptions, many of which leave the reader wanting just a little more context and background.

As much as Megadungeon is dedicated to Numenhalla, the publisher’s megadungeon, not all of Megadungeon #2 is devoted to it. Yet those articles which are devoted to it are undeniably the best of the entries in Megadungeon #2—‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ and ‘Town Activities’ in particular—and equally the easiest to pull from the issue and use elsewhere. The other articles in Megadungeon #2 are not as interesting or as useful, several being underwritten and lacking easy application. Overall, Megadungeon #2 is something to dip into and take from rather than use as a whole.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Other OSR: Raven's Purge

One of the greatest artefacts of the Forbidden Lands is Stanengist, the royal crown known as ‘The Hanging Stones’. In this crown were mounted six rubies, each the elf stone of the first six elves of the Forbidden Lands who planted its trees, cut the beds through which the rivers flowed, and gave homes to its animals. From their position upon the crown, these elves could maintain a watch over what they had wrought and give advice to their descendants who wore the crown and so keep the lands intact. When several of the rubies were stolen, the land was weakened and with the coming of mankind to Ravenland, the land would ultimately be sundered with the rise of the Orcs and the unleashing of demons by the arch-sorcerer, Zygofer the Spellbinder. Walled off for centuries, the Blood Mist that has long settled upon these Forbidden Lands has recently lifted and men and women of all races have flooded into a realm untouched by their hands for centuries. They are not valiant souls, but scoundrels, treasure hunters, vagabonds, adventurers, fortune seekers, setting out to make their mark on the new land—there are dungeons to be plundered, great treasures to be found, and strongholds to be claimed!

The starting point for such expeditions are the legends, the lore, and the rumours that weft their way across the land, from ear to ear, and so it is with new word of Stanengist. It is said that visions have been seen of the lost rubies and where they lie. Locate these rubies and Stanengist itself and then remount them in the crown and it is said that whomever places it on her head shall according to legend gain the power to rally all kin and rule over the Forbidden Lands. There is truth in every legend, so is there a band of adventurers and fortune hunters brave enough, resourceful enough, foolhardy enough to locate all of the lost elf stones and so claim the crown of the Forbidden Lands?

This is the set-up for Raven’s Purge, the first campaign for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, the ‘Retro Open-World Survival Fantasy RPG’ published by Free League. Published as part of the roleplaying game’s Kickstarter campaignRaven’s Purge is an epic eight-part campaign with an open structure built around eight locations and a finale at a last, ninth location. The player characters are free to visit any of the first eight locations in any order—and need not even visit them all—in order to gain sufficient information to go to that last location. This reflects the open play style of Forbidden Lands, in which the players and their characters are explorers, travelling across territories which have been cut off for centuries and of which they know little except legends. Such legends serve as hooks, pushing the characters to visit the setting’s adventure sites—villages, castles, and dungeons—and pulling them into the region’s history and secrets, often revealing the dark truths of lands that have been under a blood mist and demon-infested for centuries.

Raven’s Purge is presented as a toolkit to run its campaign as much it is a campaign itself. This is because the campaign is freeform in structure rather than linear, so the player characters are free to roam where they will, visiting which of the eight locations they want, and in what order they want. Now this means that the campaign is more of a challenge for the Game Master to prepare to run because it is primarily player directed. To offset this, the Game Master can nudge the player characters in certain directions, using the legends given for each of the artefacts which appear in the campaign and the various NPCs who have an interest in Stanengist.

As a toolkit, Raven’s Purge gives a complete history of Stanengist, including its missing rubies and details the nine key players from the Forbidden Lands with an interest of obtaining  in gaining the missing Elf Stones and Stanengist, before detailing the eight (plus one) locations which make up the campaign. Now the Game Master should be aware that the nine key players are not just the key players particular to this campaign, but the setting for the roleplaying game itself. Once the player characters get involved, their actions, the alliances they forge, and the enemies they make will have a profound effect upon the Forbidden Lands. Some of those effects, the consequences of the player characters’ actions across the campaign, are discussed in the book’s last chapter, ‘Aftermath’. This capacity to fundamentally change the political landscape ties back into the ethos of the designers of Forbidden Lands—that each Game Master’s campaign is going to be different and that the outcome of the player characters’ actions will be different in each campaign, essentially stamping their combined ‘legacy’ upon the Forbidden Lands.

The campaign’s adventure locations include the centre of the region’s slave trade, a party venue for ogres, an orc city, an abandoned mine, and more. Each location is accorded a chapter of its own and organised into the same format. This begins with a description of what the player characters see before detailing the location’s background, how to get there, the legends associated with it, its locations, monsters and NPCs, and possible events that might play out there once the player characters arrive. The ‘Getting There’ section typically gives two or three ideas, many of them NPC encounters before reaching the location itself that are tied into possible storylines given in the ‘Events’ section. If there is a weakness to the ‘Getting There’ section, it is that across the eight locations, the ‘encountering an NPC just outside a location who wants you do something in said location’ does become something of a cliché and the Game Master may want to adjust as necessary. That said, all of the given NPCs should be fun for the Game Master to roleplay and the events themselves are varied.

The Game Master can also expand upon Raven’s Purge by adding two of the adventure locations from the roleplaying game’s ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’—Weatherstone and Vale of the Dead. These can either simply be added to the eight given in Raven’s Purge, or if the Game Master has already run them, use them as a springboard into this campaign. Either way, they could be used as the starting point for playing Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World. The structure of the Raven’s Purge campaign—a series of nodes linked by legends at the centre of which is the finale—is also open enough such that a Game Master could design locations and adventures of her own to run in addition to the campaign itself.

Physically, Raven’s Purge matches the style and quality of both the ‘Player’s Manual’ and the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ for Forbidden Lands. Although it does not have the faux leather covers of the two core rulebooks, this is another sturdy hardback done in black and white on buff pages. Again illustrated in pen and ink throughout, it has the look and feel of a roleplaying game supplement from decades ago. The artwork, primarily drawn by one artist, is excellent, as is the cartography, again more illustrations than maps, is also good. It should be noted that the fantasy of Forbidden Lands is definitely grim and gritty with a mature tone.

In a great many ways, Raven’s Purge is the companion to the boxed set of Forbidden Lands. Together, the ‘Player’s Manual’ and the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World set up the Forbidden Lands as they are now, with Raven’s Purge expanding up that. Raven’s Purge though then provides the means for the player characters to not only interact with the great and the good—actually, mostly not good as there are shades of grey in every NPC—of the Forbidden Lands, but also truly change its political landscape. Raven’s Purge is a grim, gritty open campaign in which the future of the Forbidden Lands is placed in the player characters’ hands and what they do and what they decide will be their legacy in the Forbidden Lands.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

The Rokugani Register

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is the second supplement to be published for the fifth edition of the Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings, now published by Fantasy Flight Games. Its release offsets an issue with the core rulebook, the lack detail in terms of the roleplaying game’s setting of Rokugan. This supplement greatly expands upon what was given in the core rulebook, not only examining particular elements of Rokugan—geographical, political, cultural, and philosophical—but also supporting these aspects with examples, rumours, NPCs, and scenario hooks. Over the course of six chapters—‘Strongholds of Power’, ‘Centers of Trade’, ‘Heart of the Empire’, ‘Sacred Spaces’, ‘Paths to Enlightenment’, and ‘Wilds of Rokugan’—it looks at the Emerald Empire’s customs and social structure, its politics and arts, how it maintains law and order, its religion, how it educates its people, its attitudes towards money and how it conducts commerce, how it goes to war, and its attitude towards and what little it knows about the various Gaijin peoples beyond its borders. Plus a seventh chapter gives new player character options.

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan opens with an extended timeline covering the time before history and then the first thousand years of Rokugan’s history. A more detailed history than that found in the core rulebook, this is not a year-by-year guide with a list of all of the emperors, but more of a story told. This is followed by the seven chapters, each a lengthy essay which covers various facets of its subject. For example, the first chapter, ‘Strongholds of Power’ explores castles in Rokugan, what daily life is like in a castle for inhabitants, guests, staff, and servants; their construction, typical buildings, and where they might be found; and what role they play in Rokugan. The latter covers lordship and governance, a lord’s duties, as well as courts, their inhabitants, and more. This also includes marking the difference between shiro and kyūden—castles and palaces—the primary difference being that kyūden are capable of hosting the hugely expensive, annual winter courts traditionally attended by the emperor, but of course, the line between the two has blurred over the centuries. Castles are typically the place where a samurai’s gempuku—his coming of age ceremony—is typically held, so this is also detailed, as is the role of jesters at court, the duties of the all but invisible servants, and private speech. Besides examining strongholds as places of power, the chapter looks at how power itself is projected through war and diplomacy, the latter tying back to the discussion of how courts are organised and run, the former also looking at specific conflicts and how each clan handles war.

The detail and background in ‘Strongholds of Power’ is supported with game specific content. This includes descriptions of particular shiro and kyūden, such as Toshi Ranbo, a site of major Lion-Crane conflict; Kyūden Bayushi, the home of the Scorpion clan’s ruling family with its infamous Traitor’s Grove; Kyūden Doji, the seat of the Crane clan’s ruling family, famous for its plateau-by-sea location and gardens; the Imperial Palace itself; and more. In each case, the locations are accompanied by sample rumours, NPCs, and detailed adventure seeds, which the Game Master can bring to her campaign. This is in addition to the ideas in the background content which could easily be developed into scenarios and campaigns. For example, the description of the Imperial Palace includes the detail that whilst the emperor is away at a Winter Court, a group of samurai is accorded the honour of serving as caretakers whilst the Imperial Court is elsewhere. This lends itself to a duty to be assigned to the player characters and indeed, the adventure seed supports this campaign set-up.

This format is followed through the rest of the supplement. Thus ‘Centers of Trade’ covers Rokugan’s economy and commerce, towns and cities and the lives of those who reside there, harbours and lighthouses, crime and punishment, and so on. As well as some interesting examples, such as the City of the Rich Frog, contested by the Dragon, Lion, and Unicorn clans whilst the Dragonfly minor clan looks on, it also looks at the lives of those outside of the Samurai class. Not just the peasantry, but for the first time, the reviled gaijin or foreigners. It includes notes on playing both Emerald magistrates and Clan magistrates, and to that end, how Rokugani investigate crime and view evidence versus testimony.

Having visited Rokugan’s towns and cities, ‘Heart of the Empire’ takes the reader beyond them along the roads and rivers of the empire to wider settled areas, mostly held in higher esteem by the samurai class because this is where the peasantry carries out the honourable task of growing the rice that the empire lives on. Notably this highlights the relationship between the peasants and their samurai masters, subservient but rarely having to interact with them and rarely wanting to. 

 ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ are really paired chapters, as both explore the sacred, religious, and cosmographical aspects of Rokugan. The first chapter takes the reader from ‘Ningen-dō’, the physical Rokugan, to the spiritual realms that sit above, below, and contiguous with the land, visiting each one in term, as well as examining the Kami and the Fortunes, shrines, religious practices and festivals, and sacred sites. The section on forbidden religious will probably receive particular attention by the Game Master, covering as it does corrupted shrines, curses, the practice of Mahō, and more. This is only an introduction of course and likely receive a fuller description in another supplement. The second chapter pays particular attention to the Emerald Empire’s two Imperially mandated combined faiths—Shinseism and Fortunism—and the lives of the monks who worship each. This will be of particular interest to players who wish to roleplay monks.

Penultimately, ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ goes beyond the civilised regions of Rokugan and the empire and into untamed nature. It gives reasons for going there—the coasts, forests,and mountains—and who might be found there, including gaijin as well as samurai. Notable locations include the great Kitsune and Shinomen forests, the former home to the Fox minor clan and famous for its fox spirits, the latter for its violent spirits. Lastly, the ruins section introduce the reader to some of the remnants of the civilisations which existed before the descent of the Kami to ‘Ningen-dō’. Again, this waits to be expanded upon.

Rounding out Emerald Empire is ‘New Player Options’. This introduces the Imperial Families, those which serve the Emperor directly, as player characters. They include the Miya, Otomo, and Seppun families along with the Miya Cartographer, Miya Herald, Otomo Schemer, Seppun Astrologer, and Seppun Palace Guard schools. For the most part their roles are obvious, but the Otomo Schemer actually works to maintain the power and authority of the Emperor, even at the cost of the great clans. These options tie back into the ‘Strongholds of Power’ chapter, as does the inclusion of new Titles—essentially new positions of power and influence—like Advisor, , Daimyō, and Gunsō (commander of a unit of soldiers); whereas Clan Magistrate and Yoriki (deputies to magistrates) link back to the ‘Centers of Trade’ chapter and the Monastic Acolyte and Priest (who unlike Shugenja cannot cast spells) are nods to the ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ chapters. Other titles, like Spy and Yōjimbō work across all of the chapters, as do two news schools which also break the rules in their own way. In Legend of the Five Rings and Rokugan, schools are well-practiced training paths and philosophies, but the two given at the end of Emerald Empire present outsiders trying to fit in for their own purposes. These are the Kitsune Impersonator Tradition and the Kolat Saboteur Conspiracy. Both require careful play if they are to be added to a campaign with any player taking either ‘school’ needing to work closely with the Game Master to make sure their roles are kept hidden. Rounding out ‘New Player Options’ is a wide range new advantages and disadvantages.

Packaged as a handsome hardback, physically, Emerald Empire is another stunning looking book, in keeping with the rest of the line. Although the book needs a much closer edit in places, the layout is clean, tidy, and attractive, and the artwork, which is excellent throughout, never feels less than appropriate. In places, there is some very clever use of the background artwork, much like the Ninjutsu Techniques being presented in the core rulebook across a two-page spread depicting city rooftops at night. So the section on mountains in the ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ is set against high, dark peaks, and the section on the coast in the same chapter is set against the rich blue of the sea sky over the sky. These are lovely touches that contrast with the standard buff-coloured pages.

As useful as the information is in Emerald Empire, some Game Masters may find it lacking in places. The timeline given at the start of the book is rather broad and any Game Master wanting specific dates will have to wait for another supplement. Similarly, elements such as lists of what major castles, cities, ports, shrines, and towns are to be found in what Clan lands will again have to wait for another supplement. Another issue is with the placement of the map in the book, just a few pages into the supplement rather than inside the front and back cover, makes referring to the map a little awkward.

Emerald Empire contains a wealth of information and background about Rokugan that the Game Master will find useful in bringing her Legend of the Five Rings campaign to life. Not just setting details, but scenario seeds and rumours, cultural mores and outlook, all of which will add flavour and feel to a campaign. Yet there is so much more to Rokugan that in places Emerald Empire can only hint at what is known about a particular location or a particular subject, so the Game Master will need to consult other supplements and sourcebooks that at time of publication are yet to see print. Nevertheless, Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is solid introduction to the setting of Legend of the Five Rings and an integral companion to the roleplaying game.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Friday Fantasy: Behind the Walls

Behind The Walls is a short scenario set within The Midderlands, the horror infused, green tinged interpretation of the medieval British Isles flavoured with Pythonesque humour and an Old School White Dwarf sensibility, published by Monkey Blood Design. Designed for play by four characters of low Level using Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry, it can easily be run using other Old School Renaissance retroclones and even other fantasy roleplaying games. It offers a short, investigative scenario strong on atmosphere and mood with an emphasis on mud, blight, and greed.

In The Midderlands, this scenario takes in the north of Havenland, near to the Scrottish border and the Great Wall of Hadreen by the Kelderwater Lake in and around the village of Otterdale, an isolated settlement located in a damp, mist-filled valley through which the Little Kelder stream runs and finally dribbles into the lake. Local farmer, Ebeneezer Garbett, has recently come into some gold and been quite generous in spreading his wealth around, much to the delight of the Otterdale’s inhabitants. The player characters may have been hired by an archaeologist who wants to investigate local Goman ruins—the Goman Empire having conquered Havenland in centuries long past, are looking for a particular fungus which grows in the region which will cure an illness that one of their number is suffering from, or are simply attracted by the sound of new found wealth to be found in the valley and nearby. Certainly this has been motive enough for another adventuring party—the Eagle’s Talon Adventuring Company—to come to Otterdale in search of treasure.

Making their way to Otterdale through the shifting mists of the fungi-infested soggy valley, the player characters discover the villagers caught up in the preparations to celebrate the new wealth that has come to Otterdale. They are cautious, unused to seeing strangers, but friendly and welcoming, though both they and the adventurers are in danger of being subsumed into a force which could grow and grow until it threatens the whole of Havenland.

Physically, Behind the Walls is very nicely presented. The cartography is unsurprisingly excellent given the publisher, the illustrations all following the fungoid theme of the scenario. The scenario is also well written and easy to grasp, as well as being easy to adapt. This is not only to other retroclones, but also whole other roleplaying games. Both plot and setting are readily suited to be relocated in the settings for both Symbaroum and Forbidden Lands, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and even the post-apocalypse of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, among many others. Which serves to highlight the simplicity and versatility of both set-up and plot in Behind the Walls.

With relatively few locations and a handful of NPCs, what holds Behind the Walls together is its strong atmosphere, a sense of melancholy blight, and a number of flavoursome random encounters out in the fog which swirls around Otterdale. At its heart, Behind the Walls is essentially a fog-shrouded zombie-style outbreak, but one mired in muck and mucus as well as Havenland’s ancient history.