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

Friday 31 May 2019

Friday Filler: Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger

In the 1980s, in the United Kingdom, if you wanted to do solo fantasy adventures, then you played the Fighting Fantasy™ series, which began with 1982’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain—as detailed in You Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks. In the USA though, readers could have adventures via the Choose Your Own Adventure series which began in 1979 with The Cave of Time. Unlike the Fighting Fantasy™ series, the Choose Your Own Adventure series was text based, there were no attributes, no dice to roll to overcome a challenge or defeat an enemy. One of the more popular titles was House of Danger in which a young psychic detective is driven by his nightmares to explore the house in his dreams in order to determine what they mean. Now Z-Man Games, best known as the publisher of Pandemic, has taken Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger, and turned it into a game.

Designed for one or more players, aged ten and up, Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger is a simple solo adventure game that can be played cooperatively. It joins a growing trend of board games that combine storytelling, roleplaying, and cooperative play, such as Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure and Legacy of Dragonholt. Of course, where they draw on fantasy—after all, fantasy is the default genre for roleplaying—Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger does weird horror, so expect to encounter aliens, ghosts, chimpanzees, and infamously, banana-shark hybrids!

The game is played in five chapters, each represented by a deck of thirty Story Cards and thirty or so Clue Cards. As play progresses, these are revealed, their events and challenges overcome or failed, the aim being to progress from one chapter to the next until the secrets of the house are revealed. Essentially each chapter works as a solo adventure in its own right, so there is a framework of sorts which structures the play of the over the whole of the game. Play of each chapter takes between twenty minutes and an hour, which means that a full playthrough of Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger can take as long as five hours. Thankfully the game is not hampered by heavy mechanics and the eight-page rulebook starts with two-page quick-start rules designed to help you play within a few minutes of opening the box.

The focus of the game is the double-sided game board. On the one side is the nightmare image that beset the dreams of the game’s protagonist. At the start of the game, the players get the opportunity to study it for two minutes in search of clues as to what the protagonist might be facing in the ‘House of Danger’. It is then turned over to reveal two tracks—the ‘Danger Meter’ and the ‘Psychic Scale’. Ranging in value between three and six, the ‘Danger Meter’ indicates the degree of difficulty the protagonist will face in attempting to overcome the Challenges that the Story Cards often present. The value will rise and fall according to the instructions given on the Story Cards and if it gets two high, it will reset back to three and reduce the current value on ‘Psychic Scale’. Ranging from one up to twenty-five through five levels, ‘Psychic Scale’ measures the protagonist’s extrasensory powers and if it rises high enough, the protagonist will have premonitions, essentially visions much like the nightmare side of the game board. The game includes tokens for both tracks.

Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger has two sets of cards. The aforementioned Story Cards contain a mix of options and challenges, essentially much like a solo adventure book. The outcome of the options or challenge on a Story Card will point to other Story Cards as well as Clue Cards. There are five types of challenges—Climbing, Fighting, Dexterity, Perception, and Strength—each matched by Challenge Boosters which can be found in the second set of cards, the Clue Cards. These provide either a +1 or +2 bonus to the rolls made against the Challenges, so so the Pocketknife provides a +1 bonus against Strength Challenges and High-Powered Binoculars give a +2 bonus against Perception Challenges. Besides the Challenge Boosters—some of which can be kept from round to round, others have to be discarded after use, the Clue Cards will also continue the story.

Played solo and the player sets the Chapter up and begins by drawing a Story Card, taking any decisions as needed and resolving them, before going onto the next indicated Story Card. Play proceeds until the protagonist achieves the goal for the Chapter, completes it, and can move on to the next. With two or more players, they take it in turns to draw the Story Cards and discuss what the protagonist should do before resolving the current Story Card. Later Chapters in the game allow the players what is called a ‘Story Return’, which enable them to go back in the current Chapter to pursue other lines of investigation. It is a nice touch, one that models the reader of a solo adventure book sticking his finger in a page so that he can return to earlier paragraph should something unfortunate happen to his character.

Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger is simple enough in play, the storyline is engaging, and works as well for two players as it does one. More than that and really there is not enough substance for the players to be engaging with. There is a constant tension between keeping the ‘Danger Meter’ low in order to make Challenges easier and stop it driving the ‘Psychic Scale’ down and so denying the players further Clues in the form of the Premonitions.

The primary problem with Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger is the quality of the components. The rulebook and the game board are both good quality, but the quality of the cards is shockingly poor, done on thin card which makes them feel cheap and nasty. The content on the cards is fine, but the card stock is just poor. Further, the components are jammed tightly into the game’s box which makes getting them back out more fiddly than it should. That said, the design and layout on all of the components is well done, nicely matching the graphic style of the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Another downside to Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger is that it does not offer a huge amount of replay value. Once it has been played through—and that will take a good session or two, or perhaps several if each Chapter is played as a filler at the start of a session—there is little reason to go back and play them again. Perhaps the players may want to explore the storyline more fully or want to play towards different ending, but either way, most of it will have been explored on a full playthrough anyway. 

Best played by one or two players, there is a lovely sense of nostalgia to Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger, both in its graphic design and its storyline, but it is let down by the disappointing quality of its components. Now of course like its inspiration and source, it does not offer much in the way of replay value, but the storyline is enjoyable and the game play simple. What matters then is the gameplay on that first playthrough, and with Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger that is solid and engaging.


Z-Man Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Monday 27 May 2019

For Cultured Friends X: The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10

With the release of The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10, the fanzine reaches a milestone that showcases the dedication of both publisher and readers in their desire to keep it an ongoing publication—it reaches double figures. Subtitled ‘A fanzine of M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel’ and written for use with TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, the issue heralds two changes. The first is that the fanzine is available internationally, being now on sale via Melsonian Arts Council , the publisher best known for its own fanzine, The Undercroft. The second is that the back issues are now available as PDF titles, which ensures that those devotees of Tékumel who on their immediate release did not purchase them upon can do so now. Hopefully, this will ensure the wider availability of future issues as well as the past issues.

Over those past nine issues, the author has expanded the hobby’s first great roleplaying setting, both in and around the familiarity of the Five Empires on the northern continent as well as regions far away. Much of it based around the campaigns that he has run, most notably his House of Worms campaign, based in, around, and under Sokátis, the City of Roofs. In The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8, he took both campaign and fanzine in a very different direction,  far across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula. This 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 returned to the northern continent, but not necessarily the Five Empires, but some elements of the author’s Dust of Gold campaign. The latest issue, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10, combines elements of both—the very far away and the relatively near on the northern continent.

Following an editorial reflecting the author’s time spent on The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue, the issue opens with ‘Finding Tékumel’, really an extension of the issue’s editorial and a reflection upon this and the previous two issues and their content. Here the author examines an aspect of his interaction with Professor M.A.R. Barker, which encouraged him to visit places on Tékumel that the professor had not yet been to. What he meant was that the author—and indeed any Game Master running a Tékumel campaign—should be developing these unvisited areas themselves for their own game and that they need not wait for the professor to present something that was canon. Of course, this runs counter to the gamer’s tendency when playing in a setting—especially a setting that is the creation of one man—to want to not break canon, in this instance to play on Tékumel as Professor M.A.R. Barker envisioned it. The Excellent Travelling Volume is very much a rebuttal to that tendency, especially in recent issues, and this first article in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 is both something of a manifesto and memoir of the author’s interactions with Professor Barker.

The first actual gaming content in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 is another ‘Additions and Changes’ examining the various non-human races on Tékumel. This time it is ‘Tinalíya & Urunén’. The former are the short, four-legged humanoids with three sexes, who are notoriously curious and literal-minded, who make good Warriors and Magicians, but consider being a Priest a poor vocation. They are also adept with the devices of the ancients. Found primarily in and around Livyánu, they are allowed their own legions to fight against the Mu’ugalavyáni, whom they consider to be woefully officious. The latter are not as well known, being from the subpolar regions around the South Pole and contact having only been made with the Five Empires. They are tall humanoids covered in light fur with both a tail and a combination of bovine and serpentine features and much like the Tinalíya, disdain being a Priest instead of a Warrior or Magician. 

The article details the Alignment, Choice of Sex—the have three as opposed to the two of the Urunén, Profession—both prefer to be Warriors or Magicians, 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 humanocentric outlook of the Five Empire means that there is some social stigma to playing either, but the Urunén would be very much an oddity, if not an object of curiosity.

The Urunén are further detailed in ‘The Urunén – The Cold Dwellers’. This goes into further depth about their culture and society as well as presenting stats for them as monsters or NPCs rather than as player characters. This nicely expands upon the information presented in the previous article and enables this relatively unknown species to be better portrayed by Game Master and player alike.

‘Ureshyésha, the Tiered City’ continues the fanzine’s recent exploration of the Plain of Towers to the west of Mu’ugalavyá, previously seen in ‘The Ni’ikmá Valley’ and its companion articles in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9. This details the city which occupies a mountain pass through the Qelqái Range. The city is currently ruled by the Shúr Ésh, a tall humanoid species with pale complexions, flat noses, and grey or blue eyes(!), who are said to be the artificial creations of the city’s founders, the Old Ones. The Shúr Ésh are psychically gifted and adept in the operation of the devices of the ancients, and although they allow foreigners to reside in the outer city beyond the city’s wall, they restrict access to many parts of the city and so getting through Ureshyésha requires some negotiation. The description of Ureshyésha is quite detailed, including locations and several NPCs, but it is not quite obvious how to use it and this is not fully explored in the article. There is political tension in the city, the growing size of the general population versus the limited number of Shúr Ésh in Ureshyésha and the demand for devices of the ancients to be found in the ruins of the City of the Old Ones and the extensive Tsuru’úm below the city despite the custom of Ditlána not being practised, and these present potential hooks as well as the negotiations needed to get through the city. Perhaps, a future issue will return with an adventure or two set here?

Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel treats magical armour and shield in a limited fashion, restricting them to simple +1, +2, or +3 bonuses. ‘Magical Shields’ provides the means to create shields with magical powers and abilities beyond those bonuses and gives four unique examples. For example, Dhimitlár’s Bulwark protects against all non-magical ranged weapons when held. All four are nice detailed and come complete with histories as well as their abilities. These are nice additions to Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel and should serve as fine examples for the Game Master’s own game.

Lastly, ‘The Treasure Vaults’ expands upon a volume given in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. This is Chánisayal hiHayá—‘Powerful Maps of Glory’—a book of between one and six treasure maps. Here just the single location is detailed, a treasure vault of a disgraced sorcerer. Consisting of just sixteen locations, this is actually a nicely detailed mini-dungeon which should provide a session or two’s worth of play. The article shows how much the author is still taking inspiration from the pages of Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. Hopefully there will be more of these in future issues, or perhaps, a whole mini-supplement could be published detailing all six locations to be found in the pages of Chánisayal hiHayá? That would be amazing.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 adheres to the same standards as the previous issues. It does lack the card cover of the previous issues and so has a slightly less substantial feel to it, so does not quite feel as good or professional in the hand. Otherwise, as expected, the writing is engaging, the illustrations excellent, the cartography is good, and it feels professional. 

One obvious issue with The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 is that not all of its content supports campaigns set around the Five Empires where most campaigns are set. What it is means is that some of the content, whilst interesting, will not be of immediate interest or use to a Game Master. This is not a complaint and nor should it be, since the author is writing based on his campaigns and is still writing about Tékumel. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 further expands what we know of Tékumel, and not only is that to be welcomed, it adheres to the author’s remit right from the very first article.


Melsonian Arts Council will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Sunday 26 May 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVI] Black Pudding #4

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 showcased how another DM 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.

Black Pudding is a fanzine that is nominally written for use with Labyrinth Lord and so is compatible with other Retroclones, but it is not a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style  fanzine. For starters, it is all but drawn rather than written, with artwork that reflects a look that is cartoonish, a tone that is slightly tongue in cheek, and a gonzo feel. Its genre is avowedly Swords & Sorcery, as much Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as Conan the Barbarian. Drawn from the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules and published by Random Order via Square Hex, Black Pudding’s fantasy roleplaying content that is anything other than the straight-laced fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, but something a bit lighter, but still full of adventure and heroism. Issues one, two, and three have showcased the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules with a mix of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. Now Black Pudding #4 includes a similar mix of new Classes, NPCs, and an adventure, but is something different for the fanzine.

It opens with the author’s ‘OSR Play book’, his reference for running an Old School Renaissance game which elements of Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry White Box, and The Black Hack, so a mix of the modern and the old. The most obvious of the former is the use of the Advantage and Disadvantage dice and being able to improve attributes at each Level, but simple Attribute checks of having to roll under the appropriate attribute, a variable amount of luck available to spend per adventure, rules for subdual damage and stunning an opponent, exploding damage dice, and so on point towards a more modern sensibility. Character creation is the standard roll three six-sided dice six times and assign the results as desired, but an attribute can be lowered to improve another on a two-for-one basis. Class options primarily consist of the Wizard, Thief, and Fighter, but no Cleric, and references are made to the new Classes in this this issue of Black Pudding as well as the preceding three issues, plus those from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition or Advanced Labyrinth Lord. Only those Classes new to the issue are given in Black Pudding #4, so the Dungeon Master will need to refer to the other sources. Characters also get Specialities, such as the Wizard’s Legendary Lore or the Thief’s Thug, whilst the Thief gets two. Other tables enables a player to add relationships, parentage, a skill or talent, roleplaying traits, backgrounds, and so on to the character. 

Zax Grith
Fighter Level 1
STR 18 (+3) DEX 14 (+1) CON 12
INT 09 WIS 07 (-1) CHR 14 (+1)

Armour Class: 12 Saving Throw: 14 (+2 versus Poison and Death)
Hit Points: 8 Luck: 1
Speciality: Fists & Feet
Weapons Mastery: Fists & Feet (+4 to hit, damage 1d3+4)
Skill/Talent: Cooking
Vice: Beer
Trait: Mellow

Hair Colour: Yellow
Eye Colour: Green

Relationship: Good friend of Nimashte Hrog, the leader of the Doom Cult of Dread
Raised by… politicians
Background: Cheesemaker
What’s in his Pocket: Brass fork
Equipment: Mail undies

The new Classes include the Fighter, Thief, and Wizard as well as Dwarf, Elf, and Halfing, the latter three treated as Race as a Class. The Fighter has Weapon Mastery with a single weapon type, rolls to attack again after rolling a critical attack, and can use Battle Moves like Blinding or Display of Prowess that are awesome stunts which do no damage. The player is free to describe and name the stunt as he wishes. The Thief gets a lot of skills like Acrobatics, Scrolls, or Thug which require a Saving Throw against the Class’ Save value. Not only does the Class have access to all of these skills, at each Level, a Thief can specialise in one or two of adding a +1 or +2 bonus to the roll as appropriate. The Wizard can of course cast spells, but also make scrolls and potions, specialise in wizardly stuff like Languages & Scripts, Battle Magic, or Summoning, can augment his magic with wands, rods, and staves which are used to store spells.  Doing so has the possibility of imbuing the item with a personality and a a desire, so quite possibly making a rod for the Wizard’s back… 

Dwarves are Fighters, but with a higher Constitution, understanding of stonework, a skill in working a particular metal or building underground, and a higher chance of having missing teeth. Elves are more intelligent or charismatic, but not as strong, They are more perceptive and can step into the Faery Realm, the home of the Elves each day. Common Elves are treated as Thieves, but with only one Speciality bonus per Level and the ability to cast one spell. Faery Elves are Wizards who heal better in the Faery Realm and have affinity (or Advantage) when dealing with a particular thing, like Earth or Reptiles. Halflings are small and quick, treated as Fighters who are better at both hiding and healing outside rather than in the city. 

The equipment section in the middle of the issue is fairly standard, although the rules for silvered weapons make them capable of killing lycanthropes with a single blow if a critical hit is rolled. The ‘mail undies; which provide +1 to Armour Class are both silly and support the Swords & Sorcery genre. 

The Class heavy focus of Black Pudding #4 continues with the Goblin, which is treated like a Thief and does have some burglary skills. It specialises as either a Sneak, a Sniper, or a Goon. The Elementarian is treated like a Magic-User, but cannot cast spells, although he can read magical scrolls, and when his ‘Fae’ Stuff roll is made, easily spot secret doors and invisible things. The Class has the advantage when deciphering puzzles and the like. Lastly, the Jungle Lord is a Fighter who climb trees and swing through the canopy better than any Thief. With a jungle scream or yell, he can even call on the animals of the jungle as his friends to aid him. Given the focus of the fanzine’s first half on the author’s ‘OSR Play Book’, these Classes feel slightly silly and a bit removed from the previous six. 

One of the best features in Black Pudding is ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’, a collection of NPCs ready for hire by the player characters. There is a decent range of NPCs given here, such as Tweets McTussle, a Third Level Fighter who can longer speak to her flying friends and the one-eyed, head-swivelling Dirty Durk of Spleevington who never trusts no-one. That said, there are seventeen listed here and at that number, they do begin to like place fillers rather than actually gaming content.

Rounding out Black Pudding #4 is a short, one-page dungeon, ‘Blackbird’s Cave’. It is straightforward and linear and reasonable enough, though the Referee may want to flesh it out a little.

Physically, Black Pudding # 4 adheres to the same standards set by the previous issues. Now that means a lot of decent if cartoonish artwork to give it a singular, consistent look and lots of quite short articles, that are perhaps underwritten in places. The obvious issue with Black Pudding #4—and indeed, any of its issues, is that its tone may not be compatible with the style of Dungeons & Dragons that a Game Master is running. The tone of Black Pudding is lighter, weirder, and in places just sillier than the baseline Dungeons & Dragons game, so the Game Master should take this into account when using the content of the fanzine, but Black Pudding #4 does something that the previous never really did and that is put the author’s approach to the Old School Renaissance into a coherent form. There have been hints of the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ in all of the issues of the fanzine to date, but with Black Pudding #4 the author showcases the rules and ideas he uses, an interesting mix of the old and the new. 

On the downside the issue just has too many NPCs and ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’ feels like it is played out as a format now. Further, as much as the new rules are interesting and playable it would be really nice to see worldbuilding in the issue, to showcase the type of game that the author’ runs as well as the mix ‘n’ match rules variant he uses given here. The ‘OSR Play Book’ in Black Pudding #4 also serves to highlight how its content really deserves to be more than just a fanzine. In terms of mechanics—as shown here, and perhaps setting—as soon as the author presents some, Black Pudding #4 showcases content which deserves to be a roleplaying game of its very own.


The Black Pudding fanzine will be available from Squarehex at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Saturday 25 May 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVI] Midderzine Issue 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 showcased how another DM 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 set the format with a pleasingly cohesive first issue. Midderzine Issue 2 follows that format opening with ‘Meet the Midderlander’, an interview with one of the creators of the Midderlands as a setting. This time it is Edwin Nagy, a New England author who has is currently adapting the City of Brass scenario for Dungeons & Dragons to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition for Frog God Games. Again, short, but nicely highlighting members of the team who work on The Midderlands. 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 Lucky Bazaar’s Golden Lionman’ details a great gold statue with a lion’s body and a man’s head which looks around on the hour. Located at an indoor bazaar, this entry ties in with the third book for The Midderlands, which details the city of Great Lunden, Havenland’s capital. Other entries detail the blood being drawn from the well in the hamlet of Fetterstone or the fact that Lord Beron Mung has lost a valued, supposedly magical tankard and is willing to reward the person who returns it with turnips! These are of course hooks which the Game Master can develop for her game, but look closely at the front of the article and there is a joyously grim list of all the ways in which people have died over the last month and how many. 

‘The Vile Sign’, a new cult which is growing in influence in Staffleford as it tries to return a long-banished demi-god, Froggathoth, to the mortal realms once again. Again, this is really more of a hook which the Game Master will need to develop, but unlike the entries in ‘The Haven Gazette’, there is more detail here from which she can work from. There is some potential here for crossover between the existence of the cult and Lord Beron Mung’s missing tankard, since they take place in the same county, but again that is something for the Game Master will need to connect. Next there are three similarly themed tables. One is ‘Slightly Less Shit +1 weapons’, the second is ‘Slightly Less Shit +1 Armours’, and the third is ‘Slightly Less Shit Containers of Liquid’. With entries like the spear which summons a block of cheese at the wielder’s feet with every successful hit and the suit of leather armour decorated with skull iconography and with a skull shaped helmet, but when worn, makes the user like a skeleton, all of these are really fun and bring a degree of weirdness to any Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy game. The Game Master though, does need a thirty-sided die for these three tables.

The issue’s ‘Hexes & Unique Locations’ presents Port Mulhollow, a refuge for thieves, smugglers, brigands, and more, located beneath the ground. It is also an illicit trading post known also for its surprisingly good tavern and as a jumping off point for expeditions which want to delve further into the Middergloom below. It is accompanied by a good street plan, but nothing in the way of hooks or reasons to engage the player characters here. Now of course, there is nothing to stop the Game Master from creating her own and ideally any party of player characters will help generate that.

Three entries are given in ‘New Monsters’ and one in the ‘New Flora & Fauna’. The later is the Gloak Tree, which is native to the Upper Middergloom and sways in a fashion which is known to beguile those who watch them. Then unfortunately for the beguiled, the Gloak Tree eats them! The first of the monsters is the Pigseer, a debased pig-man form which of late has been seen in Norfolkshire slaughtering sheep. They are armed and they do seem to have some kind of magic. The Pigseer nicely ties back to a new story in ‘The Haven Gazette’. The Biledog is a large malevolent black dog which often vomits luminous, acidic vomit on its victim and the Dungling an impish creature that operates in packs and which has long fingers which it uses to steal things out of the bags of its victim. It is more of a nuisance than the threat that the other monsters are.

Pride of place in Midderzine Issue 2 goes to Richard Marpole’s ‘Woad Rager’. This new Class is a Scrottish warrior who takes the Woad Path and thus becomes increasingly immune to fear, charges into battle for extra damage and scariness, and paints himself with Woad patterns that are extra scary, make him extra vigilant, protects him against all magic. It takes time for a Woad Rager to learn his first pattern and he learns more as he gains more Levels. The ‘New Oddities’ are also of a Scrottish nature, like Laird MacCrae’s Prime Haggis, a delicacy which not everyone can stomach, but which does seem to grant miraculous protective powers, and Iron-Beer, which might give the imbiber a cast iron stomach or it might do something else. All of these items are fun too and will be desired by just about anyone playing a Scrottish character in The Midderlands.

Physically, Midderzine Issue 2 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.

Again, there are some nice connections throughout the pages of Midderzine Issue 2, though not quite as many as in the first issue. Also, this is issue is a little lacking in hooks to help the Game Master get her players and their characters involved in a situation or place, so it does leave her with a little more than it really should. That said, there is a much that is actually quite good within this issue, much of if which would work as well outside of The Midderlands as much as in it. Overall, not quite as good an issue as Midderzine Issue 1, but Midderzine Issue 2 still adds to The Midderlands.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Retrospective: U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Published in 1981, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh stood out from any adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which had come before it for many reasons. The most obvious one being that it was written and published by TSR (UK), the British arm of TSR, which would have a profound effect upon both the type of adventure its pages contained and the type of fantasy. Famously British roleplaying fantasy, grounded in a ‘real’ medieval history such as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the idealised one of American roleplaying fantasy, is full of mud and shit and death, most famously idealised in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Yet, in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh this mud and shit and death is not really present, but rather there is a feel of grime and grubbiness, of working lives, and of course, a degree of danger. What is absolutely not present is the grim sense of death and of course Chaos which would come to influence British roleplaying fantasy so heavily with the publication of the aforementioned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Like so many adventure modules, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh presented a village in peril, an ancient legend, and a mystery. A set of clichés by today’s standards, this set-up goes all the way back to classic adventures like T1 The Village of Hommlet and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The difference is that where most adventures with this set-up, including T1 The Village of Hommlet, detailed the imperilled village or town in full, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh famously does not. Instead the Dungeon Master is given half a page of advice on how to create the town herself, including detailing the members of the town council, drawing a map of the town, and deciding its taverns and inns what gods the townsfolk worship. Now given that the town of Saltmarsh is meant to be in Keoland in the World of Greyhawk, and thus an official location, it seems odd that the Dungeon Master would be expected to put in all of this effort rather than it be included in the module. Yet really, this reflects the fact that nearly forty years ago gamers had more time to do this and what the authors were quietly encouraging was the Dungeon Master making both the module and the World of Greyhawk his own.

That said, the notes do point towards a society which the player characters will be interacting with. This is enforced later on with the player characters being expected to capture rather than the kill various NPCs and their capturing of loot like barrels of brandy and bolts of silk that the antagonists are trying to avoid paying tax on. The player characters even get to work with some excise men!

The set-up in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is a haunted house, with the front cover reinforcing that with it depicting the adventurers approaching the house along the cliff tops as bats wing their way out of the ruined building. Saltmarsh’s townsfolk will hire the player characters to investigate an abandoned house on the hill, once home to a sinister magician and alchemist, but who has not been seen in nigh on twenty years. Recently strange lights have been seen in the house at night and the townsfolk fear that whatever is cause might be a threat to the town. So, what then, is the sinister secret of Saltmarsh?

Famously, in fact, the thing the module is most famous for is the fact that authors do a bait and switch on the player characters. In fact, they do it twice, but the second comes at the end of the adventure. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is set up as a mystery and a haunted house, but where it is a mystery, it is not a haunted house. Instead, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh does something which is so utterly American it is a surprise that nobody had published anything like it before, because its set-up is actually so straight faced it is brilliant. In what has become known as the ‘Scooby Doo’ set-up, instead of being haunted, the sinister secret of Saltmarsh is that the house is being used as the base of operations for a smuggling ring which accepts regular cargoes from the ship that is the scene of the second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and which has links to one or more merchants and persons in the town itself. One issue is that the Dungeon Master will need to decide who that is, but will not find about the existence of this merchant until deeper into the pages of the module itself. The smuggling ring has employed an Illusionist who has deployed his magic in ways to suggest that the house is haunted in order to keep the townsfolk away, but bold adventurers of course will not be so deterred.

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is divided into two parts. ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ goes into some detail in describing the twenty or so rooms of the house’s ground and first floor. This is a house which has definitely been lived in, but which has since fallen into a dilapidated state of repair, covered in layers of dust, cobwebs, and damp. The descriptions have a mundane feel to them, coupled with a sense of eerie abandonment, and there are barely any monsters or combat to be had in these rooms, and with one exception, they consist mostly of spiders and insects. With elements such as footprints in the dust, creaking staircases and floorboards, and mysterious notes, the house is also creepy, an aspect that the Dungeon Master is expected to play up. The exception to the mundane monsters is Ned Shakeshaft, who has been left stripped of all his possessions and bound in one of the upper rooms. Now Ned Shakeshaft is an Assassin—in fact, a Third Level Assassin compared the First Level characters the players are expected to be playing—employed in desperation by the merchant in the town with connections to the smuggling ring to prevent the party from learning of its operations in the cellars of the house. Now he poses as a Thief, but the problem is that there is relatively little reason for the players and their characters to trust Ned and given the paranoia of most playing groups, it is unlikely that either will.

Below the house in the cellars and the connecting caves, the truth of what is going on in the ‘haunted’ house will quickly be discovered, as might be the fate of the house’s previous owner. There are smugglers moving about and signs that the rooms and passages are occupied. This compounds clues to be found in the house above and the player characters should soon find out what is going on. There is a quite nasty creature to be encountered down here, a body infested with Rot Grubs, which perhaps could have been better handled, perhaps by giving a chance for the searching players to spot signs of their infestation.

The second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’. At the end of the first part, the adventurers should not only have learned of the smuggling ring’s operations in the house, but the fact that the ring is in regular contact with a ship, the Sea Ghost. The player characters are again hired by Saltmarsh’s Town Council, this time to row out to the Sea Ghost and board and capture it. The whole of this second part is set aboard this ship and is essentially a cutting out expedition against a pirate ship. Where the first part provided plans of an ordinary house, this second part includes the deck plans of the Sea Ghost as well as a diagram of its rigging. In comparison to ‘Part One – The Haunted House’, ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ is much faster paced, a climatic action-based encounter that will see the player characters facing the crew, who are as much pirates as they are smugglers. 

As in the haunted house, there are some tough opponents aboard the Sea Ghost, a Fifth Level, two Third Level, and several First Level NPCs, perhaps too tough given the fact that the player characters are First Level. That said, the notes in the modules do make clear that the adventure is designed to be played and run intelligently and that the NPCs will not necessarily fight to the death. Another oddity is that there is a Pseudo-Dragon aboard who might attach itself to one of the player characters should the NPC it is with be killed… It seems so mercenary of it! Once the player characters have captured the Sea Ghost, they will learn that the pirates are not only smuggling goods into Saltmarsh and beyond, but weapons to a nearby tribe of Lizardmen. The question is, are the Lizardmen preparing for war against the townsfolk of Saltmarsh? That is a question which is answered in U2 Danger at Dunwater, the sequel to U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.

Although the town of Saltmarsh is not fleshed out, the two locations in both ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ and ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ are well designed with excellent floor and deck plans. The illustrations are pretty much all nicely done, many depicting the abandonment of the house, though there is a split in style and feel of the artwork. Some of it feels at odds with the mundane nature of the fantasy in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a little too fantastic compared to the grime and grubbiness of both house and boat. Jim Holloway’s illustrations though capture that grime and grubbiness of the setting and a certain shiftiness in the NPCs he depicts.

Oddly, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is designed to played by between five and ten(!) characters of between First and Third Level. This is a lot of characters and for that many Third Level characters this module becomes a whole lot less of a challenge. Worse, the included twenty pre-generated player characters are expected to start play with a magical item apiece. This feels a little too much given how ordinary much of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is in its play.

There can be no doubt that U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is highly regarded. In November 2004, in 116 of Dungeon MagazineU1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was listed at number four in 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time. At the time of its publication in 1981, Jim Bambra in White Dwarf No. 35 (November, 1982) awarded it nine out of ten, saying, “…TSR (UK) are to be congratulated on their first module, the series should prove to be interesting and entertaining.” In Different Worlds Issue 20 (march, 1982), Anders Swenson commented, “While the characters in this adventure are not placed in a position where they must decide whether or not to break the laws of God and man, they are immersed in a social context where any random infractions would have to be accounted for. Furthermore, the characters are placed in a situation where they must work with the locals in order to further their tastes for adventure - this is a good source for a lot of role-playing.” before concluding that “Overall, I like The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It is nice to explore a house for a change. If modules U2 and U3 are as good as this one they should turn out to form a solid campaign.” In the Capsule Reviews of Fantasy Gamer Number 2 (Oct/Nov 1983), David S. Turk called the mystery behind U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh “cleverly conceived”, but said, “A weak point in the module is the lack of strength in the pacing of the plot. It is too easy for a familiar "chop and slaughter" dungeon to replace the clever plot. There are too many major villains and sidekicks to keep track of, so careful dungeon mastering is needed. In conclusion, the module is a strong one. With proper dungeon mastering and an everwatchful group of player characters, this module is superior and quite enjoyable. It will surprise even the dungeon master with its creative story and twisting plot. I recommend it.”

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh nicely combines a strong sense of naturalism with underplayed fantasy—one which actually makes the adventure really easy to adapt to other settings and genres. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay would be easy, Legend of the Five Rings can work too as would Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game. That naturalism and underplayed fantasy, situated in what feels like a real world, also serve to make U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh a truly great adventure, strong on atmosphere and mystery. 

Sunday 19 May 2019

Gloranthan Friends and Foes

As good as the core rulebook for the new edition of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is, it can be argued that there are three fundamental issues with it. One is that it is too humanocentric. What this means is that the core rulebook for the new edition of the classic roleplaying game published by Chaosium, Inc. only provides the means to create human player characters and it does not provide anything in the way of NPCs, foes, or monsters that the player characters might face or be challenged by. The second is that it lacks advice for the Game Master for running the game, necessary because its setting of Glorantha and in particular, Dragon Pass, because that is the focus of the new edition, is very different to other fantasy roleplaying games. Third, it lacks a starting scenario which can showcase both the mechanics and the setting of Glorantha for the Game Master and her players.

Now whilst it can be argued that these are problems, such arguments can be countered by the fact that like Dungeons & Dragons, the new edition of RuneQuest at its core, consists not of one book, but three. So where Dungeons & Dragons famously has the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the new edition of RuneQuest has RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary, and Gamemaster Screen Pack. The fact that all three are designed to fit into a rather pleasing and sturdy slipcase that looks good on the shelf not only supports this counter argument, but together they directly address the issues that some may have with the core rulebook for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

As with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary is another sturdy hardback, though not as large as the core rulebook. Its contents detail some two hundred or so of the races, creatures, and monsters as well as flora native to Glorantha (and its adjacent spirit worlds), the myth-infused setting created by the late Greg Stafford. These contents are divided into eight chapters which in turn examine Glorantha’s Elder Races, Chaos Monsters, Monsters, Giant Arthropods, Animals, Spirits, Terrors, and Flora. Before it gets to the particulars, it gives some pointers as what makes the entries in this volume and this setting different from any other bestiary, setting, or fantasy roleplaying game. These highlight how deadly they can be and the player characters—if not the players—are more than likely to be aware of this. They also make clear that many of the creatures and races described in the book are intelligent and should be played that way, the Game Master being given some solid advice to that end. What is also made clear is that the contents of book covers the races, creatures, monsters, and flora of just Genertela, Glorantha’s northern continent. That does mean that anyone wanting a bestiary covering both Genertela and the southern continent, Pamaltela, will be disappointed. That said, such a book would be at least double the size of the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary and arguably outside RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha’s primary setting of Dragon Pass and its surrounds. This focus on Genertela is further supported by a series of distribution maps for the various Elder Races.

All of the entries follow the same format. They all begin with an oddity though. As well as its common name, every entry is given its scientific name in Latin, so Homo sapiens, var telmori for the Wolfbrothers, Joannursus paralysis for Jack o’Bears, and Lynx umbrosus for Shadowcats or Alynxes. Of course the Roman Empire was never part of Glorantha and there is no obvious equivalent of Latin—though Trade Talk might qualify as the nearest—so of course, it feels a little odd. Except there are creatures in the Glorantha Bestiary which do have Latin names and those are the dinosaurs, here given as emotionally debased and reincarnated Dragonnewts, but actually based on real world dinosaurs such as Allosaurs and Triceratopses. Extending the use of Latin for the dinosaurs to the other entries in the supplement does make sense then, but nevertheless, it still feels a little odd.

The format for each entry covers, as appropriate, mythos and history, subtypes, description, culture, government, relationships with other races, religion, and region of origin before getting to anything mechanical. The latter includes characteristics and skills of course, but as befitting the new mechanics to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha they also list any Passions, Runes, and Rune Spells that a typical member of that entry would have. They also go further in providing the means for creating several of the Elder Races as adventurers to be roleplayed by the players or more detailed NPCs. So to create a Trolkin adventurer, in addition to the characteristics and skills, the Glorantha Bestiary lists the Runes a Trolkin starts with—in this case, the Darkness Rune at 40% and another Rune at 20%, the starting skills in addition to those of Dark Trolls, and then the occupations. There are one, two, or four given depending upon the class a Trolkin belongs to. Thus a Trolkin classed as Food can only be a Hunter/Gatherer, as a Worker can be either a Chanter, Crafter, Hunter/Gatherer, or Insect Herder, as a Warrior can only be a Warrior, and as Value can be a Warrior or an Overseer. Besides this, the entries also detail one or more of the cults that members of the race can also belong. For the Aldryami (Elves) just the one cult is given, that of Aldrya, but this is broken down into several subcults. The special Rune spells for the cult are also listed.

Now what is not included in the character creation process for all of the races that can be created as adventurers from Glorantha Bestiary is the Family History as per step two in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. This should not be counted as a fault for three reasons. First, some of the races could use the Family History tables in the core rulebook, such as the Ducks, and second, the Glorantha Bestiary is not a dedicated sourcebook for any of these races where such Family Tree tables are likely to be found, and third, it would greatly increase the length of the book.

The first chapter is dedicated to the Elder Races. Five stand out here, expanding greatly upon the background given in The Gloranthan Sourcebook. The Aldryami or Elves, Dragonnewts, Agimori or Men-and-a-Half, Mostali or Dwarves, Trolls or Uz, and Wolfbrothers or Telmori. All are given quite lengthy write-ups, for example, the Aldryami covering Dryads as well as Brown Elves, Green Elves, Yellow Elves, Black Elves, Blue Elves, Pixies, and Runners. The entry on Dragonnewts is particularly impressive, covering all five stages of their lifecycle—Crested, Beaked, Tailed Priest, Full Priest, and Inhuman King, their magic, their motivations, and their roads. Similarly the description of the Wolfbrothers goes into some detail, including the Telmori cult and its special Rune spells which explain how they transform into wolves when it is not Wildday. Of course, not all of these are available as player characters, only the Aldryami, Men-and-a-Half, Mostali, and Trolls are, along with the Morokanth and the Baboons, then the Centaurs, Ducks, and Minotaurs from the Beastmen section. Other entries include Giants, Gorillas, the weird Maidstone Archers with three arms but no head, Newtlings, Triolini or merfolk, the brutal and bestial Tusk Raiders with their cult of the Bloody Tusk, and Wind Children. 

As much as some of the Elder Races hate each other—and in the case of the Trolls, ate the others—the real enemy is presented in the Chaos Monsters. Relatively short in comparison to the other chapters, the entries for creatures such as Dancers in Darkness—vampiric women who serve Delecti the Necromancer, Dragonsnails, Ghouls, Gorps, Scorpion Men, and Walktapi, are likewise shorter than those in the Elder Races chapter. That said the Game Master has the means to modify many of these creatures by using the Chaotic Features table. The first entry in this chapter is surprisingly impressive, a lengthy description of Broos and their rife fecundity infused with Chaos which lifts them from being simple Chaos fodder complete with details of their associated Mallia and Thed cults and Rune spells.

The Monsters chapter most notably includes Dragons, noting where the True Dragons of Dragon Pass and the Kralorean True Dragons are as well as providing stats for Dream Dragons. Also included are Dinosaurs, Giant Eels, Griffins, Rock Lizards, Skeletons, Sky Bulls, Wyrms, and more. Giant Arthropods covers Antlions, Beetles, Crabs—both water and arboreal varieties, Centipedes, Praying Mantises, Spiders, Ice Worms, and more all of the the giant variety. The Animals chapters covers creatures of a more mundane nature, from Bears, Bloodbirds, and Cattle to Wild Boar, Wolves, and Yaks. Not all of the entries are necessarily mundane though, for example, Dire Wolves are raised from birth to be the companions of the Wolfbrothers detailed in the Elder Races chapter.

The incorporeal entities known as Spirits get their own chapter, which cover the various types—Animal, Disease, Healing, and Plant as well as demons, the Nyctalope darkness demon, and Genius Loci like Nymphs and Ghosts which are tied to a particular location, and the means to create them using the list of powers given. Notably, the Genius Loci includes Wyters, the spirits of communities, like villages, military regiments, clans, tribes, and more. It covers their powers and what they can do and is very useful information for the Game Master given the strength of community in Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Various types of Elementals are also detailed in the chapter, but in the main this is very useful chapter if a player has decided to create an Assistant Shaman as per RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Game Master wants spirits and more for the character to interact with.

The Glorantha Bestiary has already looked at large creatures such as Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Giants, but it steps up a SIZE or fifty—for the penultimate chapter. With just four unique entries, Terrors is not actually the shortest chapter in the book. These include Cwim, the three-bodied Spawn of Thed and the Devil, Chaos Gaggle, and Fiends of Cacodemon, but pride of place goes to the infamous Crimson Bat, the Chaos demon bound into the service of the Red Goddess and thus the Lunar Empire. The description covers feeding the bat, its effect upon the populations it visits, how it is piloted, and its effect as an extension of the Glowline, the magical border of the Lunar Empire. (This is actually supported by a map of Tarsh and the Lunar Empire to the northwest of Dragon Pass inside the back cover, a nice addition.) Basically, as the setting’s current ‘big bad’, this is a great addition, but for the most part, one you would run and hide from rather than readily confront. Lastly, the Plants chapter details twenty or so species of various types and uses like Darkfoil’s ability to glow in the presence of Chaos and the ability of Princess Plants to protect against fire and heat.

Physically, the Glorantha Bestiary is a sturdy, full colour hardback. The cover, dominated by a Troll surrounded by a strange cast including a Duck, a Baboon, a Morokanth, a Broo, a Scorpion Man, and more is perhaps a little dark and so not quite as effective as the cover for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Inside though, the book is more impressive, being laid out in the same style as the core rulebook and illustrated in a range of styles, both colour and greyscale. What this means is that the book is clear and readable and attractive to look at.

On the downside, the likelihood is that there are going to be some creatures that diehard fans of Glorantha are going to miss from the pages of the Glorantha Bestiary, but this is still a comprehensive treatment and it does only cover Genertala. That said, not every creature is given an illustration, which is more of an issue. It also would have been nice if there had been colour fiction to accompany each of the entries, to help get an in-world view of the various races, creatures, and monsters and so add a little flavour. To be fair these are only minor niggles and should not be held against the Glorantha Bestiary.

Unfortunately, for all of the good content to found within the pages of the Glorantha Bestiary, it has one issue that is not a mere niggle—and that is ease of reference. This is due to two problems, one which follows on from the other. The first is the organisation of the book into chapters rather than a straight alphabetical listing, which whilst it makes sense thematically, does make finding anything not as easy as it should be. There is of course an index and therein lies the second problem. The index lists all of the entries for the races, creatures, and monsters in the Glorantha Bestiary alphabetically and that is fine. Except that what it does not list is all of the supplementary information, the details of the cults, their rune spells, and so on. Of course, it is a simple matter of remembering that the entry for Kygor Litor and the rune spell Blinding will be in the Troll section in the Elder Races chapter, but secondary indices for this supplementary information would have been useful for quick reference.

One function of any bestiary for a roleplaying game is to provide it and any gaming group with an array of foes to be challenged by or kill and the Glorantha Bestiary is no exception. So there are races and creatures and monsters which in general no one likes and then there are races and creatures and monsters which are disliked by certain races and creatures and monsters. So obviously there is a long standing enmity between Trolls, Dwarves, and Elves, but almost no-one has any love for the Broos, Gorps, Rubble Runners, or Tusk Riders, for example. Even then, such creatures and races are not treated as mere fodder for the sword and the spear, the Glorantha Bestiary affording races like the Broos and Tusk Riders lengthy essays and descriptions and cults of their own that add detail and depth to both them and the setting which the Game Master can bring to her campaign. 

Yet as much as the Glorantha Bestiary fulfils that function, it does a whole lot more. The Elder Races chapter provides the means to create and roleplay members of the Aldramyi, Mostali, and Uz as well as Ducks, Baboons, Centaurs, and more, whether that is as player characters or as NPCs. Then there are stats for the animals that will be of use to various player characters, whether that is the horse for any Noble character or Cavalry Soldier—five breeds are described, Cattle for the Herder, the Shadowcat for the Yinkin worshipper, the Giant Arthropods for the Uz Insect Herder, or the various beasts of burden ridden by the nomadic tribes of Prax, such as Bison, Bolo Lizards, and Herd-Men used by the Morokanth. The Spirits chapter will be of interest to any player with a Shaman character and for campaigns which focus on the community with the rules for Wyters. Players with Lunar characters will simply be worshipping the Terrors chapter—or at least the only entry in that chapter that matters.

The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary opens up the world of Glorantha and Dragon Pass in particular, fleshing it out physically and spiritually with both friends and foes, some playable, some not, and does so in many ways. Its combination of background and stats, friends and foes, supports Game Master and player alike and together serve to make the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary an essential companion to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Saturday 18 May 2019

The Symbaroum Campaign III

Yndaros – The Darkest Star is ‘The Third Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, the campaign for Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Free League, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment. Having been successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign, it follows on from first part, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and the second part, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. The first part took place in and around Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost of Ambria, from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back, whilst the second was set in and around Karvosti, the great cliff settlement which rises from the forest and is home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios. Where Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden saw the player characters involved in a mystery concerning the fate of new patron, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer involved the characters in clan politics as well as sending them out into the Davokar Forest ultimately in race with several rival groups all interested in locating a great artefact. All this was against a background of a growing schism in the Church of the Sun, Ambria’s official faith and an increasing number of Barbarian clans who have united under the Blood Princess in order to destroy both Ambria and her Barbarian allies.

Yndaros – The Darkest Star does something that no supplement for Symbaroum has done before—it takes the player characters south deep into Ambria, the Promised Land, and to its very capital, Yndaros! Barring a short chapter in the core rulebook, all of the supplements to date have focused on the Davokar Forest and its surrounds, but the third part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns changes all that. It presents a guide the new country and its capital, including a gorgeous map of the city that highlights the roleplaying game’s northern European roots, and to its counties and noble houses, before going on to reintroduce ceremonial magic, present multiple conspiracies and factions, and of course, the next part of the campaign itself. This is far more straightforward and direct than the previous two parts and involving a conspiracy of an apocalyptic nature, is much more investigative in nature. In carrying out the investigation, the player characters will be faced by the blight again and again, will encounter the great and the good—and the oh so bad—of both Ambria and lost Alberetor, and in doing so, discover and confront the biggest secret in both the setting and the kingdom.

As with the first two parts of the campaign, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is divided into three sections, the first is background, the second expanded background and rules for the Game Master, and the third, the campaign itself. The first part is ‘City of Contrasts’, which presents what is generally known about Yndaros, a city that some two decades on after the founding of the new kingdom of Ambria and the defeat of the Dark Lords in the last days of the kingdom of Alberetor, is still revelling in, and giving thanks for, that triumph. It gives some history to the city, in particular how Clan Kadizar surrendered to what were the invading Alberetor forces and how much of the city was built into and over the ruins of Lindaros, a city that may be as old as the lost kingdom of Symbaroum itself. This fact plays a major role in this chapter of the campaign and is actually the key reason why the player characters will have come to Yndaros if they have played through the Karvosti – The Witch Hammer.

Although mostly taking place in Yndaros, Yndaros – The Darkest Star does not include an extensive guide to the city—after all, that would take up the whole of the supplement, but it does include a reasonable overview and a guide to some of the city’s best known places to eat and drink, such as the Town Hall’s Loft with the somewhat egalitarian views of its owner and the shabby The Scratch & Rodent run by goblins; to stay, like Zoltar’s Inn, run by barbarians and so favoured by them; to go for entertainment, such as the Dome, where gladiatorial combats and other events are held; to trade, like The Chance, which specialises in objects brought across the Titans mountain range from abandoned Alberetor; and to learn, such as the Legacy Gallery, which which not only displays items from Alberetor, but famously, has exhibits of things and events from Great War against the Dark Lords. The section on the authorities not only covers the city’s administration, city watch, and the Cathedral of Martyrs, but it also examines the city’s underworld and its undisputed king, Nobleman Dastan. The section also goes beyond the capital to present information about Ambria’s counties and baronies and leading noble families. It includes a second map, this of Ambria, which is as good and as useful as the earlier one of Yndaros.

The Game Master’s Section builds on the preceding material, focusing in particular on the faction riven politics of Ambria which will fuel much of ‘The Third Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ which appears later in the book. Karvosti – The Witch Hammer highlighted how both the barbarians to the north and the Sun Church are split, but where the threat of the barbarians of the Sovereign's Oath remains very much off screen in Yndaros – The Darkest Star, the schism within the Sun Church and the conspiracies within the nobility come to the fore. As well as detailing more of country’s noble houses—including guide to Ambria’s new heraldry—the section provides several good adventure seeds to be run in and around the city. These are useful should the Game Master want her players and their characters to learn some of the ins and outs of the city before moving onto the campaign proper. Lastly there are rules for ceremonial or ritual magic and one or artefacts, all of which play a role in one form or another in the campaign.

‘The Darkest Star’, the campaign itself, takes up half of the book. It is designed to be played with characters who have approximately one-hundred-and-eighty Experience Points each and again, have the reputation as bold and capable problem solvers. It can be played as a scenario in its own right, but is really designed to be played after having finished Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. Now where that had a disappointing hook to get the players and their characters involved, ‘The Darkest Star’ is the exact opposite. As with previous entries in the series, getting to that starting point is an issue, given that the player characters need to know something about the city rather than coming to it cold. This is where the adventure seeds come into play and ideally, the Game Master should run two or three of these so that the characters get the lay of the land before the campaign proper begins.

The campaign proper though, begins with a bang—literally. The player characters have at last found a contact who can tell them more about they found in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. Then the sky falls on them and the Cathedral of Martyrs. The question is, what, who, and why? Answering all three is what drive the player characters throughout this part of the Throne of Thorns campaign. The campaign here is primarily investigative in nature and fairly linear in structure. Ideally, they should be driven to look into the matter themselves, but there are NPCs aplenty who will hire the player characters them to do so, and as the campaign progresses through its three acts, they will find themselves not only rubbing shoulders with many of the capital’s nobility, but running into some very strange, very weird characters too. There are a number of interesting places to investigate too, starting with the opening location where the sky fell in, but going on to take in the network tunnels which run underneath the city and are mostly used as smuggling routes—mostly, a noble’s estate which has been smited by blight, a crime lord’s den, and more. There are a few red herrings, but not many, and for the most part, ‘The Darkest Star’ is quite straightforward in terms of its investigative structure and so is both easier to run and play.

The campaign proper is, like the previous chapters in the series, followed by the ‘Aftermath’. This covers both the possible outcomes of the player characters’ actions as well as events which are happening offstage, but its primary focus is the former rather than the latter. Whilst the latter are a looming threat, the events close to home, those that form the campaign, are profoundly shocking in terms of the setting, and how the player characters handle them will affect the campaign. That said, should the player characters live up to their reputations as capable problem solvers—and if they can prove they can keep a secret or three—then they will gain some powerful patrons.

Although there is plenty of combat to be found in Yndaros – The Darkest Star, this third part of the campaign consists mostly of investigation and roleplaying—the later in particular being supported with scenes which really will astound long time players and fans of Symbaroum. The Game Master also has nicely done range of NPCs to roleplay. One issue the campaign does suffer from is the amount of information both Game Master and players need to know about Yndaros before play begins. It was an issue with both Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer before it, but not to same extent. Further, the adventure seeds provided means that the Game Master can move her campaign to the capital and run a few sessions for everyone to learn more about it before the campaign proper begins. One advantage Yndaros – The Darkest Star of course, has over Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, is the strength of its hook to get the player characters involved.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that Yndaros – The Darkest Star is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout is clean and tidy, and the artwork is fantastic. Putting aside the repeated use of artwork—less of a problem here than in other books—the artwork could have been better used, for example as a set of portraits to show the players of the campaign’s very many NPCs. Especially given the number of factions involved in the campaign that both the players and the Game Master has to keep track of. One big issue is that the book does lack an index, potentially something that will slow play down if the Game Master needs to look something up. The writing is better too, with fewer instances of the reader trying to confirm what they author intended. Lastly, Yndaros – The Darkest Star comes with some great maps, the one of the city of Yndaros itself, is really quite lovely.

Having focused on locations in the north of the kingdom, Yndaros – The Darkest Star brings ‘The Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ and Symbaroum to Ambria and its capital, Yndaros. It expands greatly upon the details given in the core rulebook, enough to run both the campaign there and the various adventure seeds included in the book. That still does not mean that a supplement devoted to Yndaros or Ambria would not be appreciated as both would most useful for the Symbaroum Game Master. Nevertheless, it it good to see that the publisher expanding the setting as as providing adventuring material built around the new locations.

More straightforward and linear, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is perhaps the most focused chapter of ‘The Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ campaign to date—and feels all the better for it. From its big bang get go, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is also a more driven and clearer chapter of the campaign for Symbaroum, with stronger motivations for the player characters and more astounding revelations for them to roleplay against too.


Both Free League and Modiphius Entertainment will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.