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

Saturday 30 January 2016

Coming Together

Reunion is the first scenario for River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century, the near Transhuman Space Opera RPG published by D101 Games. Designed for four to six players, it is an introductory adventure that can be used as a one-off scenario, a convention scenario, or as the starting point for a campaign. They take the roles of crewmembers serving aboard the interstellar stepship, the Cape Verde, a vessel owned by House Harper-Yung, one of the ruling families on Jericho. Of course like any stepship, all interstellar piloting and navigation functions are carried out by a Pilot’s Guild provided Stepdaughter, who is literally plugged into the ship.

As Reunion opens, the crewmembers are waking up from Vitrification, the means of cryopreserving both passengers and crew for the long, typically years’ long, voyages between star systems. This is typically an unpleasant experience, those put under usually suffering from nausea, disorientation, and even temporary sleep sickness. Fortunately, the crew are trained to overcome these symptoms and quickly realise that something is amiss… First, the medical team that would usually be on hand to help revive them is not present. Second, they are in zero-g—which means that the ship is not accelerating. So where is the medical team and what has happened to the rest of the crew? Further, what is going on with the Cape Verde?

The truth of the matter is that the Cape Verde has been attacked and boarded. To say more would be to spoil the scenario, but the player character crew members need to find out by whom and why as well as what has happened to the rest of the crew. In doing so, they not only get to explore their stepship from nose to tail, they may also discover a deep, dark secret at the heart of River of Heaven. The player characters are free to pursue the plot in Reunion however they like, though much of the plot will proceed unless they intervene. There will certainly be locations aboard the Cape Verde that the player characters will want to visit—the bridge being an obvious example—and the scenario does include certain encounters to that end. For the most part, the scenario and its plot are location based, but this will diminish as the actions of the player character crew members impinge upon the plot. 

To support this set-up and plot, Reunion includes descriptions of, and deckplans for, the Cape Verde, plus the vessels used by the scenario’s adversaries. Also given are the stats and write-ups for the NPCs, both the crew members of the Cape Verde and of the adversary vessels. Last of all are the character sheets for the six pre-generated player characters.

Physically, Reunion is slightly underwhelming as the deckplans for the various spaceships and starships feel just a little too basic. The deckplans do break the book’s text as otherwise there are no illustrations. In places, Reunion could also do with another edit.

Reunion is a scenario in which the player characters really do need to be proactive in pursuing the mystery at its heart. If they prevaricate, there is every chance that they will find themselves adrift and potentially be unable to get back to civilisation. This is not so much of an issue in a one-shot or convention scenario, but in one intended as the start of a campaign…? Other than this, Reunion is a solidly done scenario with potential for some good action and revelations at the heart of the setting for River of Heaven.

Friday 29 January 2016

An Outpost of the Blind

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the sixth adventure is A Measure of Faith.

A Measure of Faith is the second adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by Steve Townshend, best known as the co-author and contributor to supplements such as the 13th Age Bestiary for Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age and Madness at Gardmore Abbey for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and comes as a seven page, 9.89 MB PDF. Physically, A Measure of Faith is decently presented, though the cartography is not as the  good as the three dimensional map of The God Below. The writing is clear and simple, but the GM will need to give the scenario a careful read through as he will have to track the adventurers’ mental state as this will drive elements of A Measure of Faith. Both the GM and the players should be warned though, for this is a horrifying scenario in places... 

The adventure takes place in, around, and under Martyr’s Point, the first Crusader citadel, built to overlook the region known as Desolation and thus protect the lands of the Empire to the south. Whilst these the men have held the citadel and protected the Empire for centuries, there are those that have protected both the other men of the citadel and the Empire from a dark secret. For as holy a mission as the Crusaders have conducted in those years, the site of Martyr’s Point is far from holy. Beneath its profane ground is a fathomless subterranean abyss with the godlike power to warp reality to the shape of what people believe and fear. There are legends of an ancient bogeyman said to plague Martyr’s Point and the lands beyond and it is these legends that the abyss exacerbates to the point of making them real.

Fortunately, the Crusaders at Martyr’s Point are no fools and a secret order—the Circle of Six—has worked tirelessly down the centuries to bury both the abyss and all knowledge of it. Yet sinister rumours of this secret order have been powerful enough to attract the attention of the Inquisition of the Cult of the New God. As the Inquisitors carry out their holy investigation at Martyr’s Point, it is not a matter of what truths their interrogations reveal, but rather what horrors will be unleashed by their zeal and the efforts of the Circle of Six to hide a far darker truth than the Cult of the New God suspects. 

The scenario consists of three locations: the citadel of Martyr’s Point, the dungeons underneath it, and the village that clusters against the citadel’s walls. The village is slipping into chaos as the Inquisition seeks out cultists and a plague borne of belief drives the sufferers into cannibalism. The primary locations of the dungeons and the village are visceral, bloody places, redolent in insanity inducing sites and sights, and populated by men and women driven to desperate, sometimes craven acts by their beliefs. This is a nasty scenario which should culminate in the dungeons below the citadel, although how the player characters get there is largely up to them. They might be employed by the Inquisition to track down and recapture on the run members of the Circle of Six, be hired by the Circle of Six to stop the real threat underneath Martyr’s Point, or perhaps be persuaded to help the villagers of Martyr’s Point. There are rewards for giving help to each should the player characters survive.

Although A Measure of Faith is a bloody horror scenario, there is certain hamminess to it, much in the melodramatic style of the Hammer horror movies. Certainly the GM should play up the gothic melodrama underlying the piece as much the grand guignol, but without forgetting what really drives the scenario—the power of (misplaced) belief.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Too Forced

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the fifth adventure is Wretched.

Wretched is the first adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by Shane Hensley, best known as the designer of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and Savage Worlds, and comes as a seven page, 9.44 MB PDF. As it opens, the player characters are on the road, skirting their way between a forest and a marsh when they spy a notice of a bounty—the village of Fimmoran is offering money (and lots of it), for the head of Grülag the Witch. When they reach the village the player characters are informed that its children have fallen sick and that the efforts upon the part of the village priest have come to naught. Therefore the illness must be due to another cause; in other words, Grülag the Witch. If the player characters take up the bounty, they are directed north out of the village and first into the surrounding marsh, then into swampland. The journey is not without incident and it is does end with a big fight.

Wretched looks to be another straightforward affair, but there is a big twist to the adventure—and it is not a good one. The problem is that the scenario pushes the player characters along path in pursuit of an answer and pushes them there without giving them any other option. If they had the opportunity to pursue those options—and there are options, but only after the primary one has been pursued—then the events of the scenario might not come about. The problem is, the plot of Wretched does not just feel forced, it is forced—it is designed to force the player characters down a path and then make them feel ‘wretched’.

In addition to the scenario, Wretched includes write-ups of two monsters new to Shadow of the Demon Lord—the Newtling and the Swamp Troll, plus Grülag the Witch herself and a magical artifact that any spellcaster will want. The two monsters are a useful addition to the game whilst Grülag the Witch can be used as the basis for another NPC. Physically, Wretched is decently presented.

Unfortunately, Wretched is the first scenario released for Shadow of the Demon Lord to be a disappointment. Its plot is too simplistic and forced; there might be a great scenario to be had in Wretched, but it should come about by player agency rather than author fiat.

The Milk of Inhuman Kindness

The danger in coming to review Something Stinks in Stilton is to belabour a series of cheesy puns (see what I did there?). Given that this scenario for use with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is set in Stilton, the Cambridgeshire village where the famous cheese was first sold and that it actually does involve said cheese, famous for its sharp taste and smell, it would be all too easy to give into temptation and serve up a cheese board of puns. So it is something that I will Caerphilly avoid…

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council, Something Stinks in Stilton can be used with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and similar retroclones and is designed for characters of First to Third Level. Much like recent releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, such as Forgive Us, Scenic Dunnsmouth, and Death Love Doom, this adventure is set in the early modern period, roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Specifically, it is set in the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton, in 1730, where the infamous cheese was first sold at the Bell Inn, a coaching inn on the Great North Road.

As the scenario opens, Cooper Thornhill, the owner of the Bell Inn has been selling the cheese for a few months and it is beginning to garner the coaching inn something of a reputation. This is much to the annoyance of his sister-in-law, Jane, who feels that she and Cooper’s brother should share in his success. So she hires the player characters to find out what it is that makes her brother-in-law’s cheese taste so good. Or perhaps they are hired to locate someone who went missing whilst travelling on the Great North Road or just need somewhere to stay overnight on a long journey, but whatever the reason, one evening the player characters find themselves as patrons at the Bell Inn.

The owner and the patrons are full of good cheer, Cooper Thornhill pressing food and drink upon the player characters—including the famed cheese, and the player characters are made to feel welcome. So far so good, but all of this so far is essentially set up, the means to get the player characters to the start of the scenario and its events. From here on in, it is up to the player characters to act and to be actively investigating. The problem with the scenario is that if the players and their characters are not proactive, they may miss the clues and cues for them to act and investigate. Now there are ways around this, but they are perhaps a little heavy handed upon the part of the Referee.

When the player characters do investigate, what they find is a stinker of a dungeon, relatively short, but with a weird thread of body horror that is decidedly bovine in nature. There is also a hint of the Lovecraftian fecundity to the scenario akin to that of Shub-Niggurath. Like all good scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, there is ultimately little monetary reward to completing the scenario—the reward is in the experience of playing the scenario as odd and as nasty as that experience may well be...

Something Stinks in Stilton provides a solid session’s worth—perhaps two at most—of play. Yet it actually fits comfortably alongside a number of other scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying that are set near London and the eastern half of England. Forgive Us is set in Norwich and Death Love Doom is set on a road outside of London for example, but The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man is also set in Cambridgeshire—as well as London—and the forthcoming England Upturned is set in Lincolnshire. Although the exact years of when they are each set may differ, they and their geographies are close enough to form the basis of a campaign. 

Physically, Something Stinks in Stilton feels somewhat overproduced. Its thirty-two pages are done on glossy paper and the scenario uses a lot of red to highlight text and mark maps, but only the one page is done in full colour—and that is an advert! The scenario does need another edit, but the writing is clear and makes the scenario easy to run.

What the author has done with Something Stinks in Stilton is take the real history of Stilton—both the cheese and the village—and given it a twist or two that turn the cheese’s origins into a Hammer Horror movie. Something Stinks in Stilton is a solidly written, straightforward scenario that should make the players come to dread dairy and abhor the bucolic. 

Saturday 23 January 2016

One Night's Slice

A Single, Small Cut is written by Michael Curtis, the author of The Dungeon Alphabet and Realms of Crawling Chaos: Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy for Labyrinth Lord as well numerous adventures for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. It is a short, bloody adventure written for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and is published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Designed to be played by six Third Level characters, it can be easily adjusted for use with larger or smaller groups, or indeed characters of a higher or lower Level. Equally, it can adapted to another gaming system of the Game Master’s choice with relative ease. Both Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Shadow of the Demon Lord would be suitable fits here. The scenario is relatively easy to set up and the Game Master really does not have to do much in the way of preparation in order to bring it to the table.

A Single, Small Cut takes place in the early modern era, much like more recent scenarios from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It is set somewhere with mountains and dark forests to the southeast that are known to be home to pagans—pagans who practised the Old Ways and used magics and artefacts of great power and evil to protect their lands against the forces of the Church. In ages past a martial order called the Order of Kites took up the mantle of protecting the region and driving the heathen witches, sorcerers, shaman, and priests back over the mountains. It is a duty that the Order continues to uphold, but it is not what once was, its members being recruited from those desperate or mad enough to join, thus finding sanctuary and anonymity whatever their past deeds in return for butchering pagans. This attitude extends to the loot taken from the pagans. If it can be used against the ungodly, then the Order of Kite has no qualms in deploying its ‘Satanic’ trophies against the enemies of the Church. It is one of these trophies that drives the story in A Single, Small Cut.

The trophy, a bell cut from a single red garnet. When rung, the bell summoned a bloody creature known as ‘The Corrector of Sins’ and just as the heathens had used it against the forces of the Church, the Order of Kite used it on the heathens. Yet only the then leader of the Order could use it and when he died, the bell was buried with him underneath St. Gothard’s. It is the location of the bell that brings a wizard—ambitious to increase his power and willing to do whatever it takes to obtain it—to the church, whilst the need to rest and obtain healing is what brings the player characters to St. Gothards. Of course this is just about the same time as the wizard and his mercenary thugs have been busy searching for the red bell. If the player characters are hurt or are suffering from some strange condition—diseased, paralysed, poisoned, and so on—then they are likely to find respite in this nasty sidetrek encounter.

A Single, Small Cut is well presented. At just eight pages long with separate card cover, it is very nicely done. Unfortunately, it does need another edit. That said, its horror and tone are not as strong or as blatantly ‘in your face’ as with other releases from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This is no bad thing though, as it makes the scenario a little more accessible and a little easier to adapt to other settings or games. Then again, there is nothing to stop the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay Game Master from adjusting the horror and tone to his liking.

A Single, Small Cut is a good one-session encounter that showcases the consequences of the attitude that  ‘the end justifies the means’. In single encounter like this, the reason and background to those consequences may not become readily apparent, but the background is there should the Game Master want to develop the events of A Single, Small Cut and feed them into his campaign. As a single scenario, A Single, Small Cut does feel over produced, but it does highlight that Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay can handle this short style of adventure or encounter as much as it can the long one. Perhaps then, an anthology of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay short scenarios and encounters might be a good idea?

Friday 22 January 2016

A Slight Dungeon

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support for the game—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the fourth adventure is The God Below.

The God Below marks a shift in the scenarios for Shadow of the Demon Lord in two ways. First, it is written for Novice characters, that is, characters of First and Second Level who have selected their first or Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior. Second, it switches location from an ‘on the road’ or rural location to an urban one. In particular, a large city or town with at least ten thousand inhabitants, such as might be found in the Empire or the Confederacy of Nine Cities. Wherever the city, times are desperate following the death of the Emperor and some of its inhabitants have turned to a new god for succour. This is Duvia the Divider, the Soul Guide, who promises to lead souls to the Underworld, without the risk that they will be diverted into Hell by trickster devils. A small cult has established the Temple of Duvia in an abandoned bathhouse and it is here that the local bereaved have begun to bring the bodies of deceased loved ones. The cultists take the body below to be interred whilst Duvia guides the soul safely to the Underworld.

The growing popularity of the Temple of Duvia has attracted the attention of various religious notables in the city, notably Marash XII. An elder in the Cult of the New God, Marash XII suspects that the Temple of Duvia is not all that it seems. Yet he does not want to get involved himself, so hires someone else to investigate for him—in other words, the player characters. The adventure itself is fairly straightforward, the party being able to learn a few clues by asking around and thus prepared, proceed to investigate the temple directly. And that is The God Below.

The God Below is essentially a detailed mini-dungeon or extended encounter, but an all too slight one. There really is not very much to The God Below and a gaming group should be able to play it through in a single session. In the long term, it does add a plot hook that the Game Master can develop further, but he also needs to devise a reason why Marash XII knows the player characters and would hire them.

Physically, The God Below is a seven-page, full colour 10.65 MB PDF. The writing is clear and simple, but the three dimensional cartography is excellent. Unfortunately, The God Below is not without its issues. The first is its switch in location, from rural to urban, which makes it awkward to use following the earlier The Slaver’s Lash and Survival of the Fittest scenarios. Second, although Marash XII will pay the player characters, it does feel as if they will go unrewarded for their efforts. Third, the Game Master is left to develop the scenario’s other plot hook and that may not be easy for an inexperienced Game Master. Of these issues, the first might be addressed by the Game Master running The God Below as a party’s second Novice Level adventure—that is, for Second Level characters—and running a scenario designed to transition the party from countryside to town. Overall, The God Below is a reasonable, though not outstanding adventure.

Monday 11 January 2016

Gangbusting back!

For a great many, Dungeons & Dragons was their first RPG, but as popular as the game proved to be, this did not stop publisher, TSR, Inc., from diversifying and looking for potential success with other genres. This resulted in games such as Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, and GANGBUSTERS, which in the case of the latter three, were designed as much to be introductions to the hobby as much as they were to new genres. The Old School Renaissance has plundered many of these titles, sometimes over and over, so that there are innumerable interpretations of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as versions of Marvel Super Heroes in the form of FASERIP and continued support for Star Frontiers. With continued support for these three RPGs, it would seem that GANGBUSTERS continues to be TSR’s unloved title, but in 2015, after twenty-five years since the last release for it, GANGBUSTERS is getting some love and support again.

Originally published in 1982, GANGBUSTERS: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure Game is an RPG set during Prohibition Era America in Lakefront City, a setting roughly based on the Chicago of the period. It has the players take the roles of crooks, gangsters, reporters, cops, private eyes, and FBI agents and depending upon the scenario and campaign, fighting crime, taking a piece of the action, getting the big scoop--and earning Experience Points for it. Beyond the core boxed set, the RPG was supported by six releases, five of them scenarios and then the misnamed third edition in 1990. Then in 2015, Mark Hunt revisited the setting and the system with a brand new release, GBM-1 Joe’s Diner.

Designed to be used with First Level characters, GBM-1 Joe’s Diner is a seventeen-page 3.52 MB PDF that describes a location in Lakefront City and the NPCs to be found there before providing the Judge with some situations that the player characters can get involved in. The location is the eponymous diner, a place where the player characters can drop by, get to know the locals and the regulars, and then perhaps get pulled into an adventure or two. The diner’s location is given as a busy one across the street from a railway station and some warehouses, and given the number of dockworkers that appear in the area, not far from the docks, giving it plenty of footfall and thus customers of a diverse ethnicity. The establishment itself is not described, the presumption being that both Judgeas the Game Master in GANGBUSTERS is describedand his players will be familiar with such establishments, the supplement instead focusing upon its owner and its staff, each of them receiving a thumbnail portrait and description.

A number of the diner’s customers are accorded a similar treatment whilst others form the basis for certain scenarios and situations. There are opportunities to make some money, whether through honest investment or through simple theft; a murder to prevent (or perhaps carry out!); and rumours aplenty to follow up on. Two scenarios are given in some detail, but there are plenty of one line hooks scattered throughout the supplement. Getting the player characters involved in any one of these scenarios or hooks is relatively easy, but several suggestions are given. A cop might be introduced to Joe’s Diner whilst a veteran cop shows him his new beat; a gang might move into the district looking to stake out its territory in a Ward relatively free of gang activity; law enforcement could be looking to crack down on criminal activities; and perhaps a reporter might just be looking for a good story. These suggest possible campaign types, but of course, there is nothing to stop an ambitious Judge letting the players create the characters they want and rather than run a party of characters, run a game in which they have their own aims with their paths crossing occasionallyperhaps at Joe’s Dinerand sometimes even be at odds with each other.

GBM-1 Joe’s Diner is a first product and it shows. The editing and formatting is inconsistent and rough around the edges. Nevertheless, the supplement is an easy enough read and really benefits from a well-used selection of period photographs to illustrate the various NPCs and possible locations. 

GBM-1 Joe’s Diner does not have to be used with GANGBUSTERS, something of problem given that the game has long been out of print. The fact that it just lists the game stats for its various NPCs and that these are essentially percentages means that the game is easy to use with any RPG that uses percentiles as its mechanics, for example, Call of Cthulhu. Then again, the setting is simple enough and the Prohibition Era familiar enough that almost any set of rules could be used to create cops and robbers, gangsters and G-Men, private eyes and reporters would work in this milieu and in this setting. Similarly, it would be just as easy to move the location of Joe’s Diner to wherever the Judge is running his campaign.

GBM-1 Joe’s Diner is published under the banner of ‘From the Case Files of the Blue Book Detective Agency’, though that location is itself not detailed in the supplement. Perhaps it might be at a later date, should the author collect other ‘Case Files’ into the one supplement? As rough and ready as GBM-1 Joe’s Diner is, there is no denying the charm of the piece and the able support it gives to the Judge. GBM-1 Joe’s Diner marks the addition of GANGBUSTERS to the fold of the Old School Renaissance and a very welcome addition it is too. 

Saturday 9 January 2016

Perilously Large

The MegaDungeon in Dungeons & Dragons is not just a dungeon, but a dungeon that is large enough, deep enough, ecologically viable enough, and has plots enough to support an entire campaign. The classic example is 1991’s The Ruins of Undermountain for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, and it has been revisited in subsequent editions of the RPG again and again. For the Old School Renaissance, perhaps the best known example is Dwimmermount, James Maliszewski’s love letter to the concept designed for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord. The most recent addition to the large dungeon concept is Castle Gargantua. Now Castle Gargantua is as big as its title suggests, but not only is it as different as those megadungeons that have come before it, it is also different all but each and every time.

Published by Kabuki Kaiser for use with Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying—but compatible with other retroclones, Castle Gargantua is subtitled “A grotesque gothic horror megadungeon that’s never the same twice”. Yet it is not strictly speaking, a megadungeon. For Castle Gargantua is not actually a dungeon, but rather a tower, though a tower of immense proportions, being the same height as the Empire State Building and having the same floor space as as Ceausescu's Palatul Poporului in Bucharest or the entire old city of Venice. Yet it is also ‘gargantuan’ because its original inhabitants were not normal humanoids, but rather giants and thus the internal dimensions are scaled to a far larger size such that each map square is not ten foot square, but sixty feet square!

Castle Gargantua is also different because it has long since ceased to be home to either the original occupants or the original designer, and indeed the dungeon never quite specifically identifies either. Further, its halls and corridors have long since been emptied and plundered several times over of the monsters and riches once found there. Instead, the castle is home to adventurers, explorers, treasure hunters, bandits, and more who have come to the complex for reasons of their own and found themselves trapped and forced to adapt, in turn becoming new threats and factions indigenous to certain parts of the castle. Other dangers lie in the magics and chaos that lingers from the day of the castle’s founding, warping the ordinary and the trivial into the grotesque and the gruesome, both elements that run rampant in Castle Gargantua.

Just eight locations, each consisting of between six and eight rooms, are described in Castle Gargantua. Each is beautifully mapped by Dyson Logos and is comprised of a little pre-generated mini-adventure where the player characters might encounter the grotesque, the mysterious, the weird, the fantastic, themselves—and worse!  The rest of the megadungeon is something that the Dungeon Master will create as the game proceeds, from the moment that the player characters open Castle Gargantua’s enormous front doors until they reach until they reach the ‘end’, the final encounter. Instead of working from a map, the Dungeon Master works from a five-by-seven grid of squares known as The Big Picture. In fact, the players themselves will be creating the map because it is all based upon the Dungeon Master’s rolls and description  rather than his paraphrasing of pre-written material.

The squares are divided into five different colours—Blood, Gold, Lust, Stone, and Wine. Each square consists of between four and six rooms and connecting corridors and stairs, the number and type of exits between them, the size and type of room or chamber, and the contents of the room or chamber, including treasures, monsters, weirdness, traps, and atmospheric details being generated on the fly by the Dungeon Master as the player characters move from one room to the next, using the tables provided. There several sets of these tables, one each for Blood, Lust, Stone, and Wine squares, the Gold squares being the reserve of the special, pre-generated encounters. Each of the other four colours and their associated squares have their particular theme or environment. Blood squares are violent locations filled with the dead and the undead; Lust squares are wild places, horny with rampant desire; Stone squares are the most dungeon like, filled with a deep dungeon halls, weird architecture, and grim corridors; and Wine squares are places of alcohol sodden revels distorted by madness. The contents of these tables match their themes, so Bacchus, Murderous Revelers, and Wine Puddings will be encountered in Wine squares, whereas Cursed Chastity Belts, Houris, and a Monstrous Angora Cat will be found in Lust squares. There is also a long list of room types, such as Barracks, Charnel Ground, Fissure, Jail Cell, Ossuary, Taxidermy Laboratory, and more, for each environment  that the Dungeon Master can cross off as he uses them so that no room type can be used more than is necessary—so there might be more than one Battlefield, but only the one Zoo for example.

Upon entering through the giant front doors of Castle Gargantua—they are not the only entrance to the castle, but the other will only apparent upon exploring inside—the player characters will find themselves on square one of The Big Picture. Once they have explored the four or more rooms of the square, then the Dungeon Master rolls a six-sided die and moves the party that number of spaces along The Big Picture. Some of the squares are marked with the Clubs symbol and an arrow that leads back down The Big Picture. If the player characters land on one of these squares, then after they have explored the square, the next exit they take leads down the arrow. The supplement even goes so far as to describe this as like a game of ‘Snakes & Ladders’, though there no ‘ladders’ as such. Each time that the player characters lands on a Clubs square, they are always going to go down the ‘snake’ or ‘arrow’ to a Gold square and a pre-generated encounter. 

Whilst it is possible to play each square one after another in sequential order, the default method of rolling the die and moving the player characters gives Castle Gargantua a more organic, interwoven structure, with seemingly unlinked parts of the castle in reality connected by secret doors and tunnels. It also means that because the types of squares that are played through is determined randomly, a play through of Castle Gargantua is going to be different from the previous one and the next one. Of course there are only twelve options for the types of monsters, weirdness, and traps for each environment, and only seven Gold locations, so there is not an infinite number of possibilities for each environment. Yet there are enough given that the Dungeon Master could run Castle Gargantua more than once for his players if he wanted to.

Although Castle Gargantua is designed to run using Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, it definitely feels more suited to the latter than the former. Not only because it makes reference to the real world, but because of its weirdness and the often uncaringly arbitrary nature of that weirdness. The sense of unreality to Castle Gargantua is enforced by several factors. First, there is its sense of inhuman scale. Second, there is its seemingly ability to wrap back upon itself via the use of The Big Picture. Third, there is the fact that Castle Gargantua refrains from using the standard types of monsters and treasures found in Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs. The author instead uses individually designed creatures, NPCs, and treasures that strengthen the off kilter atmosphere of Castle Gargantua and divorce the megadungeon from the superficiality of those traditional elements. Fourth, and finally, Castle Gargantua is infused with the gothic, the gruesome, and the grotesque inspired by the works of the French Renaissance writer, François Rabelais, whose work was noted for wild and absurd, sometimes satirical fantasy.

Physically, Castle Gargantua is well presented. The cartography is excellent, the writing clear, and larger font size will make it easier to use during play. The illustrations are slightly odd, but this is in keeping with the tone and feel of the dungeon as a whole. Given the tone of both the content and the artwork, it does mean that Castle Gargantua is better suited for a mature audience, especially with the inclusion of the Lust theme. Admittedly, it does clearly state this in that section and anyway, it is written with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying in mind. That also does mean that content of Castle Gargantua may be too odd and too over the top for an audience that is more used to Labyrinth Lord rather than Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.

The truth of the matter is that Castle Gargantua is not going to be to everyone's taste, the likelihood it being too weird for a broad audience. Nevertheless it maintains its off kilter tone throughout, despite being more of a toolkit than the linear dungeon more commonly seen. The tools in this kit keep the running of this dungeon simple and straightforward, easing the otherwise challenging task of running a dungeon with the minimum of preparation. With Castle Gargantua, the Dungeon Master has the well-presented means to create an eerie, creepy experience on the go.

Friday 8 January 2016

A Dry Adventure

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the third adventure is A Year Without Rain.

A Year Without Rain is, like Survival of the Fittest and The Slaver’s Lash, another written for beginning characters before they enter the Novice Path at First Level. It is written by Bruce Cordell, best known as the author of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, which won the 1998 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure. It comes as a six-page, 8.56 MB PDF. It takes place in the village of Asylum which stands north of the town of Sixton on the Emperor’s Road and assumes that the player characters are inhabitants of Asylum or grew up there. For the last year the village has been beset by a severe drought, but fortunately the village has a well that the inhabitants can draw upon. Yet this very morning one of the villagers has been found dead, a dessicated papery husk. The player characters will either be curious enough to investigate or will be asked by the villagers quickly enough—especially when a second body turns up on the second morning.

After a little light investigation, the player characters will quickly learn that the clues point towards the village’s well. Although there is no monetary or other reward for going down the well, the villagers will at least help the player characters with certain pieces of equipment. What they discover down the well is a shrine constructed by an ancient cult dedicated to a demon that continues to linger and is the cause of the deaths above. The shrine consists of some ten or so locations and is essentially a mini-dungeon—and a tough one at that. In fact, given that player characters are essentially Zero Level, A Year Without Rain will probably be too much of a challenge for them as they have to face a spider, a ghoul, and demons both big and small. 

A Year Without Rain is physically well presented. The writing does need another edit here and there and the map is reasonable if plain. The scenario does feel as if it should be really for characters on their Novice Path—that is, for First and Second Level. Another issue is that as a scenario for Level Zero characters, A Year Without Rain does not quite serve the need to expose the characters to elements that will influence their decision in choosing their Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior.

Overall, A Year Without Rain is a serviceable affair. The Game Master will need to decide whether his player characters can cope with what is a tough adventure. Whatever the level the Game Master runs it for, A Year Without Rain offers a session or two’s worth of play.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Designers & Dragons I

As the gaming hobby reaches middle age, its sense of nostalgia and reflection have not only driven it to look to the past to bring back old games in new editions, but also to take an interest in its own history. Although there have been books about the hobby, they have tended to be minor affairs such as The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible; focused on particular aspects such as 40 Years of Gen Con and Hunters of Dragons; or academic works like First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. A complete history of the gaming hobby, that is, of the roleplaying gaming hobby, did not exist until 2011, when Mongoose Publishing released Designers & Dragons, a buff hardback that would win a Special Award at UK Games Expo and a Judges’ Spotlight Award ENnie in 2012. This single volume collected the ‘A Brief History of Game’ columns written by Shannon Appelcline that ran between 2006 and 2011 on RPG.net. Unfortunately, the book got a limited print run and it was published by Mongoose Publishing, so received neither the push nor the quality that such a book deserved.

Fortunately, a successful Kickstarter campaign and another publisher, Evil Hat Productions, LLC, best known for publishing Fate Core, has enabled the author to not only revisit those columns, but also to expand, revise, and update them. The result is Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry series—not one single volume, but as of 2015, five volumes. The first four volumes each address a single decade of the history of the industry, in turn the seventies, the eighties, nineties, and the noughties, whilst the fifth, The Platinum Appendix is a collection of miscellaneous articles. It should be noted that this series covers only the English speaking market of the hobby, and although that this is where it stemmed from and the one that remains the largest, it ignores the various other language markets. This is not to say they are not important or that they do not have influence upon the industry—as will be seen in later volumes, but the history of the gaming industry in the French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, and other language markets will have to wait for a further volume or at least another history.

The first volume is Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s. Now that suggests that it deals with just the foundation of the hobby and the period between 1974 and 1979 when this is not really the case. It does indeed detail the industry’s beginnings and early development, but it really begins by laying the foundations of the industry in the hobbies of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson beginning with their exposure to Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg wargame in 1958 and thus their interest games and the fantasy genre. Further, what it really does is tell the histories of the publishers that were founded in the 1970s right up to their closure, their bankruptcy, or indeed, their current status, rather than abruptly cutting off in 1979. Thus it gives us the histories of thirteen publishers, seven of which are no longer in business, two are a shadow of their former selves, and four are still in business. These histories are of TSR, Flying Buffalo, Games Workshop, GDW, Judges Guild, Metagaming Concepts, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Chaosium, Gamescience, Heritage Models, Grimoire Games, DayStar West Media, and Midkemia Press. Of these, the histories of Judges Guild, Metagaming, and TSR have been expanded since their appearance in the previous version of Dungeons & Designers, whilst those of DayStar West Media, Gamescience, Grimoire Games, Heritage Models, and Midkemia Press are new additions.

Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is divided into four parts—‘Part One: Founding Days (1953—1974)’, ‘Part Two: The Floodgates Open (1975—1976)’, ‘Part Three: The First Wargaming Phase (1976—1977)’, and ‘Part Four: Universal Publishers (1978—1979)’. The first part is solely devoted to the history of TSR, comprising in total, a quarter of the book. This is understandable, since TSR both founded and dominated the hobby for three decades and more. Now, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World explores this history in more detail, but since the remit of Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is much wider, it is not quite as scholarly or as detailed. Now this is not to detract from the detailed historical overview that is Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s, as this is an immensely readable history. Rounding each of the company histories is set of pointers as to what to read next, further connections to the company's history, and what to read next in order to find out more about its luminaries. For example, the history of TSR suggests that the reader can simply read on to find out about the second RPG publisher, Flying Buffalo; or to find out about its first licensee, read the chapter on Judges Guild; read the chapter on Wizards of Coast to learn more about the later history of Dungeons & Dragons; and to see what E. Gary Gygax did next, read the chapters on New Infinities Productions, GDW, Hekaforge Productions, and Troll Lord Games in this and future volumes in the series. Of course these are hangover from the original presentation of this material as regular online columns accompanied by hyperlinks. As hyperlinks, these only work in the PDF versions of these volumes, but as pointers they are nevertheless useful.

Throughout each chapter, sidebars and lengthy boxed subsections—sometimes lasting several pages, explore particular aspects of a company’s history in detail. So for TSR, sidebars and subsections look at how much early RPGs cost, the history of the Greyhawk setting, the D&D Cartoon, Dungeons & Dragons computer games, and Dungeons & Dragons comics. Other sidebars explain both Steve Jacksons, Judges Guild’s The Wilderlands setting, details Different Worlds magazine, and more. In addition, mini-histories are given of minor publishers such as Wee Warriors and Little Soldier Games.  These are short pieces, but their inclusion is an indication of their influence upon the industry. For example, in the form of The Character Archaic and Palace of the Vampire Queen, Wee Warriors published the first commercially available character sheet and the first standalone adventure respectively.

Rounding out the first volume in the series are the appendices that give ‘10 Things You Might Not Know About Roleplaying in the ‘70s’, a bibliography, and a good index. Physically, the oxblood-covered Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is well written, decently illustrated—though sadly in black and white—and decently organised. It does need an edit here and there, but these are minor issues. The index looks to be decent enough and supports the pointers are end of each write-up.

As a history, Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is informative and knowledgeable, helped by the fact that the author can draw from a great many primary sources, that is, the many of those who were involved in the early days of the hobby. Unfortunately, the deaths of other significant figures mean that he has instead had to consult secondary sources. Nor is the history an exact one, but the author is open and honest where this is the case, whether due to conflicting stories or sources. This only points to the fragility of our hobby, the industry, and our collective memories—and thus the aim of Designers & Dragons, that is, to have a definitive record. Or at least as definitive a record as is possible.

Having been writing about games for over fifteen years and been collecting for much longer, my knowledge of the hobby is decent enough, but this does not mean that references—old or new—are not useful or unwelcome. For many years, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds has been a useful guide to RPGs and supplements published before the early nineties, whilst more recently, Hunters of Dragons proved a useful reference for Dungeons & Dragons. Now both of those books have been joined by the Designers & Dragons series. On a broad scale, my knowledge of the industry and its history is reasonable enough, but nevertheless, Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s builds on that knowledge, adding greatly to it, especially in its coverage of the new additions to this volume. So even the most informed of gamer—like myself—is likely to find something of interest in Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s, whilst anyone relatively new to the hobby will find it as definite a history of the industry during this period as there is, but whatever their level of knowledge, both will find Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s an informative and thoroughly engaging read.

Saturday 2 January 2016

A Shadow of the Demon Lord Starter

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support for the game—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the second adventure is The Slaver’s Lash. The Slaver’s Lash is written by Chris Pramas, the owner of Green Ronin Publisher and designer best known for Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Death in Freeport, the first scenario released for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Second Edition. Designed for Zero Level characters and players new to Shadow of the Demon, the adventure comes as a four-page, 7.94 MB PDF. It takes place after the Orc uprising and the death of the Emperor that loosed bands of rampaging Orcs upon the Empire, each bent on vengeance, wealth, and power in response to centuries of slavery. One of these bands has entered the Northern reach where it has begun raiding the outer villages and smaller settlements for slaves. When the adventure opens, the player characters find themselves captured by this Orc band and together pulling one of the band’s wagons towards some unknown destination. There is no preamble to The Slaver’s Lash. The players are expected to describe what their characters were doing and where they were when they were captured and this is encouraged by one of the NPCs. This goes some way towards building a degree of trust between the player characters and also between the player characters and NPCs. Of course, they are also expected to find out more about their situation from one day to the next and from one night to the next. Discovering more about their situation is crucial to engineering their eventual escape and The Slaver’s Lash provides lots of information to that end. It also provides situations that the player characters can take advantage of, as well as a wrinkle or two, all presented for easy use by the Game Master. As written, finding out more about their situation is not easy, but is not too challenging. Actually escaping is more difficult, but so it should be. Although it is short at just four pages long, The Slaver’s Lash is a comprehensive toolkit for setting up and running a slave revolt on the road. It ends when the player characters escape and make their way to the nearest outpost of civilisation, but it could be expanded to make the trek to safety a bit longer and a bit more involved. Perhaps the Game Master could adapt Survival of the Fittest, the sandbox that is the first scenario released for Shadow of the Demon Lord, to be run after The Slaver’s Lash. One way to do this is to use the main threat in Survival of the Fittest as a replacement for the secondary threat in The Slaver’s Lash. Although this scenario is generally a straightforward affair, there is potentially one complex scene that involves multiple combatants. One option with this scene might be to get the players involved in running another side as well as their player characters, but otherwise, the scenario is good for throwing a disparate set of characters and forging a party out of them. If there is an issue with The Slaver’s Lash, it is that the ‘trek to safety’ element of the story feels somewhat weak. This may be a problem for an inexperienced Game Master, hence the suggestion that Survival of the Fittest be run as a sequel as that trek. Unlike Survival of the Fittest, this scenario does fully work for Level Zero characters because it does fulfill the need to expose them to elements that will influence their decision in choosing their Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior. It is simply done, but this important aspect of the Level Zero to Level One character funnel is pleasingly included. Physically, The Slaver’s Lash is nicely presented and clearly written. It is succinct and to the point and really does pack everything that the Game Master needs to run it. Like Survival of the Fittest, it has a grim, dark atmosphere that the rules of Shadow of the Demon Lord readily support. Simply a good scenario, The Slaver’s Lash gives a great set-up for your first Shadow of the Demon Lord game.