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Friday, 31 December 2021

Jonstown Jottings #50: The Company of the Dragon

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.

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What is it?
The Company of the Dragon is a campaign for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in GloranthaIt is based on a campaign developed on the author’s blog.

It is a sequel to the author’s earlier Six Seasons in Sartar: A Campaign for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, which can also be run as a standalone campaign.

Notes are included so that The Company of the Dragon can be run using Questworlds (formerly known as HeroQuest: Glorantha) or 13th Age Glorantha.

It is a two-hundred-and-seventy page, full colour, 222.29 MB PDF or alternatively a 
two-hundred-and-seventy page, full colour hardback book.

The layout is clean and tidy. It uses classic RuneQuest cartorgraphy,  the artwork is good, and although it requires an edit in places, is well written and easy to read.

Where is it set?
The Company of the Dragon is set across Sartar in Dragon Pass. Specifically, it is set between Earth Season, 1620 ST and Darkness Season, 1625 ST.

Who do you play?
If The Company of the Dragon is played as the direct sequel to Six Seasons in Sartar, the Player Characters will be dispossessed and on the run members of the Haraborn Clan, broken following a confrontation with the occupying forces of the Lunar Empire.

Alternatively, if The Company of the Dragon is played as a standalone campaign, the Player Characters should be Sartarites who have been rendered clanless due to the actions or influence of the Lunar Empire and therefore have a dislike of either Chaos or the Lunar Empire.

What do you need?
The Company of the Dragon requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the Glorantha Bestiary, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack, and The Book of Red Magic. The Startar Campaign may also be useful.

What do you get?
The truth of the matter is that like Six Seasons in Sartar before it, The Company of the Dragon is not one thing. Both are campaigns and both are more than the sum of their parts, for each and every one of those parts stands out on its own. Not necessarily because they are gameable, but together they contribute to the campaign as a very satisfactory whole.

First—and most obviously, The Company of the Dragon is a campaign and a sequel to Six Seasons in Sartar. In Six Seasons in Sartar, the players and their characters, newly initiated members of the Haraborn, the Clan of the Black Stag, the 13th Colymar clan play out the last year of existence before its sundering at the hands of the Lunar Empire. Brought to the attention of Kallyr Starbrow, the last few members of the clan—including the Player Characters—are on the run, hunted by both occupying Lunar forces and the empire’s indigent servants. They have taken to hills, one more dispossessed band of the clanless, relying at best on the generosity of those Sartarite hill clans prepared to support the victims of the Lunar Empire. Some—mostly the ‘gentrified’ Sartarites of the towns and cities—instead view them as bandits and rebels in the face of the peace and prosperity that comes with being a Lunar client state, and the divide between the Sartarites of the towns and the hills is an important aspect of the campaign.

As a campaign, the focus and setting for Six Seasons in Sartar was narrow—the Vale that is home to the Haraborn and the six seasons which run from 1619 ST and into 1620 ST. It did not so much take the Player Characters out of those confines, as force them out at the end of the campaign. The Company of the Dragon takes place between Earth Season, 1620 ST and Darkness Season, 1625 ST, during which time the Player Characters and their band, will crisscross Sartar, often with the enemy dogging their heels, potentially participating in the great events of the period, such as the Battle of Auroch Hills. Ultimately, as the campaign comes to a climax, the Player Characters will participate in the Dragonrise (which takes place just weeks before the beginning of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha) and the ascension of Kallyr Starbrow. Chronologically, this equates to the same period that players are rolling the family backgrounds for the active five years of their characters’ own adventuring in character generation in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. What this means is that The Company of the Dragon could be used as a means not to simply generate the backgrounds for the Player Characters, but rather play them out. This would work playing the campaign as members of the Haraborn clan or simply the dispossessed if run as a standalone campaign.

As a campaign, The Company of the Dragon consists of some twenty-seven seasons, covering some five years, into each of which can be slotted the campaign’s episodes. Some of these come pre-filled, such as The Forging, the campaign’s starting point, and then The Battle of Auroch Hills, Famine, Dragonrise, and Kallyr Starbrow. The rest are left empty for the Game Master to populate as best suits her campaign and her players. Over half of the book is dedicated to these, each broken down into its what, when, where, who, why, and how, before presenting potential exits. Some are connected, but many are standalone and many can be repeated, such as encountering ‘rival’ bandits, escaping from capture, facing the famine which besets Sartar due to the Great Winter, being hunted by the authorities, and so on. In many cases, these episodes can be varied slightly so that they do not feel repetitive. The episodes range in tone, some are merely exciting, others epic, and some truly horrific and creepy. Depending upon the players, there are some episodes which are of a mature nature and so may not be suitable for all groups, even though their roleplaying potential is still very high. 

Second, The Company of the Dragon is a means to quantify and run an organisation—in this a band of rebels which will rise above mere banditry and become a warband associated with and allied to Kallyr Starbrow. As a band on the run, the organisation becomes the Player Characters’ community, a mobile one, but a community, nevertheless. This is the ‘Company of the Dragon’ itself and the Player Characters form its Ring, its heart and ruling body, along with any other surviving NPCs from the Haraborn Clan, if the campaign is being run as a sequel to Six Seasons in Sartar. The community/warband is done as a Player Character in its own right, complete with Community characteristics, Runes, Reputation, and even skills. The Community characteristics interact with the world around in two ways. One is directly against another organisation, for example, against a Lunar force sent to track them down, and this is handled with opposed rolls, whilst the other is as resources, for example, donating food to a starving Clan and in doing so, depleting the warband’s Community Constitution. Throughout the campaign, the Player Characters must constantly keep track of and maintain the Community characteristics to ensure the warband’s survival.

Third, The Company of the Dragon is also a guide to Illumination, for the warband is also its own cult and has its own Wyter. This stems from the final scenarios in the earlier Six Seasons in Sartar, and ultimately the loss and replacement of Clan Haraborn’s Wyter. The Illumination involved is neither that of Nysalor or the Red Goddess, but that of Draconic Consciousness. Here The Company of the Dragon resolutely veers into ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’ territory and the author’s interpretation may not match that of the Game Master running the campaign. However, it does push the members of the company to become something more than a mere warband and perhaps achieve the mythic, if in a very different fashion.

Fourth, The Company of the Dragon is an initiation into the mysteries of Glorantha. These are primarily explored through the alternative form of Illumination, but The Company of the Dragon continues the writings in Six Seasons in Sartar which examined initiation rituals. Six Seasons in Sartar included detailed initiations for both Orlanth lay worshippers and Ernalda lay worshippers, but here expands on that to detail the rituals involved for Orlanth Adventurous, Vinga, Humakt, Babeester Gor, and Storm Bull. The last one detailed is that for The Company of the Dragon itself.

Fifth, The Company of the Dragon, much like Six Seasons in Sartar, is a toolkit. Take the various bits of the campaign and what you have is a set of tools and elements which the Game Master can obviously use as part of running The Company of the Dragon, but can also take them and use them in her own campaign. So this is not just the advice and discussion as to the nature of initiations and how to run them, but also the rules for creating and running streamlined NPCs—supported by a wide range of NPCs which the Game Master can modify, a guide to running character and story arcs, running and handling communities, and of course, advice on running both the campaign and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha in general.

Sixth, The Company of the Dragon, much like Six Seasons in Sartar, is a conceit. Throughout the campaign, commentary is provided by a number of notable Gloranthan scholars and experts in Third Age literature, not necessarily upon the campaign itself, but upon the events detailed The Warbands of Sartar Under the Pax Imperii by Temerin the Younger, a Lunarised Sartarite who was intrigued enough by the ‘rebels’ of The Company of the Dragon to want understand what motivated its members. Again there are excepts from later authors, such as ‘Bands of Brothers, Circles of Sisters’ – The Warbands of Ancient Sartar by Deborah Abadi, or Miguel Moreno’s ‘Between Two Nations: Temerin the Younger’s Identity Struggle’ from The Journal of Heortling Studies, October 1998. As before, this device enables the author himself to step out of the campaign itself and add further commentary, not just from his own point of view, but from opposing views. Beyond that, the conceit pushes The Company of the Dragon as a campaign from being a mere campaign into being an epic, because essentially, it is what a heroic poem does.

Of course, The Company of the Dragon comes to an end. The climax manages to be epic and monstrous, gloriously involving the Company of the Dragon and the Player Characters. It enables them to be involved in the most pivotal events of the recent Gloranthan history and likely prove themselves to heroes worthy of myth and legend. 

Is it worth your time?
YesThe Company of the Dragon is a superb treatment of community, myth, and destiny in Glorantha, which pushes the players and their characters to build and maintain their own community, to create their own myth, and ultimately, have them forge their own destiny. Packed with tools, advice, and discussion, this is exactly the sequel that Six Seasons in Sartar needed and whether as a sequel or a standalone campaign, is a superb prequel to the events of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Sartar Campaign.
NoThe Company of the Dragon presents an alternative campaign set-up, one which takes place prior to the default starting date for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and requires you to play out season by season—and you may already have begun your campaign.
MaybeThe Company of the Dragon includes content which is useful beyond the limits of its campaign—the initiation rites, the notes on heroquests, rules for streamlined NPCs, quick resolution rules for battles, and more. That more consists of almost thirty fully detailed adventures and adventure seeds which can be drawn out and developed by the Game Master. All useful in an ongoing campaign. 

1981: X2 Castle Amber

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

Published in 1981, the second entry in the ‘X’ series of modules for Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed for use in conjunction Expert Dungeons & Dragons could not have been more different than the first. Both are pulpy in their tone and inspirations, but where X1 The Isle of Dread is a lush mashup of King Kong and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft, X2 Castle Amber combines its Pulp sensibilities with a mixture of horror—the Gothic and the Lovecraftian in particular, sybaritic ennui, dreamlike dread, and woozy whimsey. The locations are different too, the Player Characters expected to sail to and explore a large island in search of treasure in X1 The Isle of Dread, whilst in X2 Castle Amber, they are unceremoniously pulled into an alternate dimension—not once, but twice—and forced to go looking for answers (and solutions) to their predicament, again not once, but twice. The bulk of X2 Castle Amber take place in a castle—or technically, it takes place in Château d’Amberville and is therefore not actually very castle-like—followed by a potentially lengthy wilderness section. In fact, having the scenario’s location before the wilderness section, when it is normally set after it in a traditional wilderness module, is very strange indeed, and that is in a very strange, often weird module indeed.

X2 Castle Amber is designed for a party of six to ten Player Characters, between Third and Sixth Level. The total of the party’s Experience Levels should be between twenty-six and thirty-four, ideally averaging thirty in total. Both X1 The Isle of Dread and X2 Castle Amber begin with the Player Characters on the Continent of the ‘Known World’. In X1 The Isle of Dread, they discover the journal describing a trip to the Thanegioth Archipelago, and lured by the mention of great treasure, sail off on the thousand-mile journey as soon as possible. In X2 Castle Amber, they are traveling to the Glantri City where they are hoping to find employment with one of the princes, but along the way, they get lost and are forced to make camp. After a sleep filled with nightmares, they awake to find themselves in the foyer of a mansion—a French mansion no less! With the mansion surrounded by a strange and very deadly mist, the Player Characters have no choice but to go forward and explore. In room after room, they will be confronted by one strange encounter after another—a nobleman who wants to set-up a bare-knuckle boxing match between his magen (or magical men) and whomever the party nominates as their champion, with bets on the outcome encouraged; a great banquet attended by ghosts which the Player Characters can attend and eat their fill, and in doing so gain great benefits or dire consequences; a room with its floor covered in a Green Slime, ceiling in a Black Pudding, and its only furniture, a very full treasure chest, is covered in a Grey Ooze; an Ogre servant who killed his mistress and now dresses like her and attempts to emulate her; a river in an Indoor Forest crossed by a bridge under which lives a troll; a noblewoman buried accidentally alive in the chapel by her brother—in a very obvious nod to Edgar Allan Poe; a throne room populated by skeletons frozen in their last moments; and a mad, misshapen court jester with the power to charm others and turn them into white apes! And this is only the start.

X2 Castle Amber is home to the aristocratic Amber or D’Amberville family, and they are either incredibly bored or insane, often both. Their aim, when encountering the Player Characters is not necessarily to kill them, but toy with them and extract some entertainment value. This is not to say that Castle Amber is not deadly or that its inhabitants are all friendly—it is deadly in a great many places and many of the inhabitants are decidedly hostile. It is deadly—and weird—in another way too. There are multiple means of a Player Character dying simply by eating the wrong thing or making the wrong choice, notably at the banquet and later when picking cards from a tarot deck, and then failing a Saving Throw. However, death is not the only effect that a Player Character might suffer, such as having the spell Feeblemind cast on him or being turned into a ghost, and there are also many beneficial effects that a Player Character might gain. For example, he might gain a permanent increase in Hit Points or actual attributes or an increase by one Level upon the completion of his next adventure beyond that of Château d’Amberville. There is also quite a lot of treasure, both monetary and magical, to be found if the Player Characters are thorough and are prepared to brave the castle’s many dangers.

For the most part, X2 Castle Amber is fairly linear. The Player Characters start at the foyer of the castle and work their through the West Wing into the Indoor Forest and from there either into the East Wing or the Chapel. Although this is a mansion, it does not have a lived-in quality. It is all quite self-contained and all but frozen in time. This applies to many of the individual rooms and locations too, which often feel more like tableaus awaiting the arrival of the Player Characters and their involvement, the mix involving opportunities for roleplaying in interacting with the inhabitants and deduction in working out the tricks and traps to be found in the castle—as well as combat. This sense of the scenario being frozen in time applies to the Player Characters too, for at the end of each gaming session, they are encircled by a cloud of amber light, a space in which they are protected from the denizens of the castle, including wandering monsters, can recover Hit Points and spells, and even train to go up a Level if they have acquired enough Experience Points. This not only enhances the oddness of the Château d’Amberville, but it suggests a degree of agency upon the part of someone else… This though is only the first part of X2 Castle Amber.

Much of the first part of the scenario is presented as a mystery. Not so much a murder mystery—although that is sort of present in the scenario’s overall plot—but a mystery as what is going on and why the Player Characters have been pulled into the weird and whimsical world of Castle Amber. Plus of course, how they escape the castle and ultimately the grey mist. The scenario makes this relatively easy in placing a scroll in several places around the castle which gives explicit instructions as to the means of escape. This requires that the Player Characters locate several Silver Keys and then the Gate of the Silver Keys, which is located in the dungeons below Castle Amber, and from there travel to the original homeland of the D’Amberville family, Averoigne, and this is where the scenario opens up and again marks it out as something different to previous scenarios.

Averoigne is a mythical province of France and the setting of a series of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith which originally appeared in Weird Tales magazine. Used with permission, this marks X2 Castle Amber out as one of the first scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons to use licensed content and the module includes a list of all of the stories in its bibliography. Unlike in the castle, the Player Characters have far more freedom of movement in Averoigne—to an extent. No longer are they in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy land, but an ahistorical fantasy land, one based on mediaeval France in which magic is outlawed by the church and the likelihood is that any demi-human Player Character is likely to be regarded as an abomination. So as much as they freedom of movement, they are constricted by the society of the land they are in. Like any good wilderness scenario, the Averoigne section of X2 Castle Amber is a sandbox which the Player Characters must explore driven by the need to locate the four items they need to unravel the final scenes of the scenario. So there is a need for subterfuge here unless the Player Characters want to become outlaws and fugitives.

However, advice and background for the Dungeon Master for this section of the scenario is perhaps a little underwritten. X2 Castle Amber is definitely not a sourcebook for Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne—though it could certainly form the basis of one—and so states that, “The encounters in this part of the module are left sketchy since most take place in cities and would require more detail and space than is available in this module. The DM should flesh out each adventure as he or she desires, designing NPCs, town streets and other details as necessary.” Potentially, this does leave the Dungeon Master with a lot of work to develop encounters and NPCs should her Player Characters deviate too much from the four quests to find the items necessary for them to progress onwards. At the very least, the Dungeon Master will need to improvise some of the encounters and NPCs outside of the scenario’s plot, and as a consequence, X2 Castle Amber is best run by an experienced Dungeon Master rather than one new to Dungeons & Dragons.

Lastly, the Player Characters can enter the scenario’s final dungeon, The Tomb of Stephen Amber. This is X2 Castle Amber at its mostly deadly, a complex of nine rooms, containing in turn, a Blue Dragon, a Flame Salamander, a Wyvern, a Stone Giant, a Manticore, a Mud Golem, a Great White Shark, and a five-headed Hydra, and that is in addition to dangerous environments in these denizens reside. Now the Player Characters will not face all of these creatures, but they will face most of them, making for a tough physically challenging end to the module. If the Player Characters persevere and survive, they will encounter the NPC who has been sort of helping them along the way, be thanked, and richly rewarded for their efforts, including the resurrection four of their dead comrades—if they want. Surely, there can be no clearer indication of how tough a module if the Player Characters are being offered the chance of resurrection at the end?

Rounding out X2 Castle Amber is a bestiary of seventeen new—or mostly new—monsters. These include Amber Lotus Flowers, Giant Amoeba, Aranea, Brain Collector, Death Demon, Mud Golem, Grab Grass, Gremlin, Killer Trees, Lupin, Magen (of various types), Pagans, Phantoms, Rakasta, Slime Worm, Sun Brother, and Vampire Roses. Of these, the Aranea and the Rakasta originally appeared in X1 The Isle of Dread, and of the rest, the Pagans are worshippers of nature some of whom actually practice human sacrifice…! They can be found in the castle and in Averoigne, whilst some of the larger monsters are confined to the castle’s dungeon, including the Neh-Thalggu, or brain collector, and the Slime Worm.

Physically, X2 Castle Amber is done in the traditional format for TSR, Inc.’s modules—a wraparound cover with maps on the inside, containing a plain black and white booklet inside. The Errol Otus cover depicting a giant wielding a tree trunk and grabbing a castle tower is excellent, but not necessarily appropriate to the events of the scenario. The internal illustrations, many of them done by Jim Holloway are superb, imparting both the horror and the humour of the module.  

One interesting aspect of X2 Castle Amber is how in 1981 it prefigures I6 Ravenloft and Ravenloft itself as a campaign setting. Surrounded by a strange grey mist, Castle Amber is essentially a pocket dimension all of its very own—as is Averoigne in the later part of the module—and both would sit very easily on the Demiplane of Dread as Domains in their own right. Of course, the module is completely unconnected to Ravenloft for obvious reasons, but the similarities are there such that importing X2 Castle Amber into the Realm of Terror campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, without any difficulty at all. Further, given that both have the influence of Edgar Allan Poe in common, with some adjustment, X2 Castle Amber could also be adapted to be run as part of a Masque of the Red Death campaign as well.

As a complete scenario, X2 Castle Amber is principally a ‘funhouse’ dungeon, essentially a series of self-contained tests and challenges consisting of mostly puzzles and traps with little to any overarching plot or nod to consistency. Hence you have a weird room layered with puddings and oozes, and a ceiling with shafts in that hide a myriad of traps. The effect initially then, is to confuse both Dungeon Master and then her players. First the Dungeon Master, because the module provides a sort of over view and of course, advises her to read the module through carefully, yet until she has actually done so, she will not really grasp what is going on and what the full plot is. This is because it is not effectively explained in the introduction to an infuriating degree, leaving it to the Dungeon Master to thoroughly read through the module to find out what is going on. Second for the players and their characters. They will have no idea what is going with the characters’ abduction and limited choice but to go forward and explore. Only once the Player Characters find the scroll they will at least have an objective and even then, there is the possibility that they will find the scroll, collect everything they need in Averoigne, do everything necessary to solve the mystery of how to leave Castle Amber, but never work out or learn what the overall plot is. However, by this point, the Dungeon Master will of course know what is going on.

The funhouse aspect of X2 Castle Amber also comes out in the humour, often dark humour, of the scenario. This includes squirrels with the Midas touch, the Jester with his White Ape companions, and Gremlins whose Chaotic area of effect will reflect spells, prevent mechanical effects from working, trousers to fall down, helmets to slip down over the eyes, and the like, all at their whim and amusement. 

One issue with X2 Castle Amber which will require an experienced Game Master is the underwritten motivations of the NPCs, specifically the members of the D’Amberville family. Although the background to the Amber family is given and it is made clear that none of them is actually sane, ranging from slightly eccentric to completely insane, that they are Chaotic, uncooperative, bored, and looking for some diversion to relieve that boredom, individual motivations—apart from one or two—are sorely lacking. Which leaves the Dungeon Master with a lot of effort to put into the portrayal of these NPCs, many of them of high-Level Magic-users and Clerics beyond that possible in Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons at the time of the module’s publication.

—oOo—

X2 Castle Amber was reviewed by Jim in White Dwarf No 35 (November, 1982), who said, “Castle Amber is the second module for use with the Expert Set and is an attempt to bring randomness back into D&D. The 3rd and 6th level party become trapped in Castle Amber where they are beset by the members of the Amber family. Escape lies into a wilderness on another world where magic is frowned upon and spell casters may well come to the attention of the Inquisition. Non-humans are going to have a hard time here as they will be very conspicuous. Amber Castle depends a lot on chance leaving little room for skill and at times can be deadly.” His conclusion was that “I don’t recommend X2 unless you like chaotic adventures and designing urban areas.” and gave it a score of six out of ten.

More recently, X2 Castle Amber was included in ‘The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ in the ‘Dungeon Design Panel’ in Dungeon #116 (November 2004). Author of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, John Rateliff said, “A rare example of a licensed product that shines both for its treatment of the original setting and for its excellence as a D&D adventure. Inspired by the ‘Averoigne’ stories of Clarke Ashton Smith, the best of the Weird Tales writers, it has a distinctive quirkiness, dangerous and sensuous and slightly amused all at the same time. There’s a reason it inspired not one but two sequels.”

—oOo—

By being set on an alternate plane of existence, X2 Castle Amber is very self-contained, which means that it is incredibly easy to adapt to other settings, whether that is as a Demiplane of Ravenloft or elsewhere. Yet initially, X2 Castle Amber feels incomprehensibly weird, leaving the Dungeon Master with little or no idea as to what exactly is going on, but give it the careful read through that every module demands—and is warranted here more than most—and the module’s weirdness and whimsy begins to come together. In places, underwritten and underdeveloped by modern standards though it is, X2 Castle Amber does have a coherency, eventually, that the archetypal ‘funhouse’ dungeon often lacks and the challenge perhaps lies in imparting that sense of coherency to the players. In addition to that, X2 Castle Amber does leave the Dungeon Master with a lot to develop to get the very most out of the adventure, whether that is fleshing out the motivations of individual D’Amberville family members or expanding upon the Averoigne wilderness section. The latter is arguably a not much more than a fascinating snapshot of the county which deserved further exploration which it never got in Dungeons & Dragons. It certainly would have made a fine addition to Ravenloft. 

X2 Castle Amber is not perfect and it requires a lot of input upon the part of the Dungeon Master, but it is a fantastic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, made all the more enjoyable by its whimsy and weirdness, its humour and its horror. This with the combination of the Gothic and the Pulp Horror push it away from the classic medievalism of earlier modules into a much darker fantasy than that typically found in Dungeons & Dragons, and that is why X2 Castle Amber is regarded as a classic.

Monday, 27 December 2021

1991: Amber Diceless Role-Playing

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

The year 1991 gave the hobby two radical roleplaying games. Both focused on plots, intrigue, and story. One was Vampire: The Masquerade, which introduced us to the World of Darkness and playing monsters almost as a kind of unnatural superhero roleplaying game, and did so in a stunning looking book. It would go on to win the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules of 1991. The other was Amber Diceless Role-Playing, which as the title suggests, was radical in a wholly different way.

Amber Diceless Role-Playing is a licensed roleplaying game based on the Chronicles of Amber, the ten-book series by Roger Zelazny. The books are set in the one true reality that is the kingdom of  Amber with every other world or realm being a reflection or ‘Shadow’ of the kingdom—including Earth—all the way out to the Courts of Chaos. Amber is ruled by one family with many members who plot and scheme for the throne and who have mental and physical powers that are almost godlike. Not only that, but they also have the ability to walk through and manipulate the Shadows after having walked the Pattern, a symbol of the order of the universe, as well as use Trumps. These are playing card-sized decks illustrated with members of the family which can be used to contact each other, transport between their respective locations if they are willing, and even scry on each other—if they are careful. Given their long life and their ability to step out into a Shadow where time might run faster, an Amberite can also have almost any skill he wants, but ultimately that skill may not matter against the true mental and physical abilities of an Amberite.  There are seventeen or so brothers and sisters in the Amber royal family, all the children of Oberon, the first King of Amber who has disappeared at the time of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber. However, the players do not take the roles of these princes of Amber, but their children, and they can be as fractious as their parents and their aunts and uncles—and even towards their parents and their aunts and uncles. The fourth novel in the series, Hand of Oberon, asked, “What would have another generation have been like?” Amber Diceless Role-Playing sets out to answer that question.

A character or Amberite in Amber Diceless Role-Playing is defined by four attributes—Psyche, Strength, Endurance, and Warfare. Warfare covers fighting and strategy of any kind; Endurance is health, fortitude, and tenacity; Strength is raw physical power; and Psyche is mental strength and ability with a host of different magical powers. A Player Character begins play with all four attributes at Amberite level, which means that he is capable of defeating almost every person or creature that he might meet out in Shadow. At that level though, any Amberite with a higher value—even a slightly higher value—in an attribute will nearly always beat him. They can also be lower—Chaos or Human level. However, most Amberites will have attributes higher, much higher. Plus, there is no limit to how high an attribute can go. A Player Character can also have Powers. Pattern Imprint and Trump Artistry are common to most Amberites, whilst Logrus Mastery and Shapeshifting are found amongst the members of the Courts of Chaos. All are incredibly powerful and can be used with relative ease, often reflexively once known, whereas Magic takes time, effort, and study. Magic comes in three forms: Power Words are instantaneous effects primarily used defensively, Conjuration covers the creation and empowering of artefacts and creatures, and Sorcery details more complex, but inordinately more time-consuming spells. In addition, a Player Character can have allies, his own Shadow, and signature artefacts—arms and armour are common since swords are the most often wielded weapons in the setting.

Character creation in Amber Diceless Role-Playing is not only diceless, but co-operative and adversarial. Diceless because no dice are rolled, co-operative because it done together, and adversarial because the Player Characters will be better in one or more of the attributes than their cousins. This is because character creation is handled as an auction, the player bidding in each of the four attributes, if not to be the best, then at least be better than their potential rivals. This automatically sets up rivalries between the characters with the players outbidding each to see whose character is the best. Points bid are lost—or rather expended—to determine where each of the Player Characters ranked in terms of the four attributes, with a higher ranked character nearly always able to beat a lower ranked character. However, a player can decide to pass and buy up to just under another character’s in an attribute and do so in secret, adding a degree of uncertainty in deciding or knowing who is better. Then beyond the four attributes, a player is free to purchase the Powers, Shadows, allies, artefacts, and so that he wants his character to have. The problem here is that no player has enough points for all of this.

At the start of the attribute auction, each player has one hundred points on which to bid on his character’s attributes and purchase his powers. Each of the Powers is really good—and that is before a player considers the advanced versions, and the auction can get fiercely competitive, especially in the key Psyche and Warfare attributes. Options then might be for the player to decide to buy down at attribute, either to Chaos or even Human level. Then a player might opt to help the Game Master by contributing a diary or keeping a campaign log, or even writing poetry or stories, or he might opt for his character to have Bad Stuff. Essentially, Bad Stuff is bad luck and means that things invariably do not go the character’s way and that he suffers from a poor reputation. Should a player have points left over from character creation, they are converted to Good Stuff. Having Good Stuff means that the things invariably do go the character’s way and he benefits from a positive reputation.
 
Edmund
Edmund grew up an orphan out on a Shadow and only began to discover his heritage when he found Witherbrand, renowned for its cutting remarks, which began to teach him about the true nature of the universe. He has yet to discover which of the sons and daughters of Amber is his true parent and that is his primary goal.

PSYCHE: 5th [16 points]
STRENGTH: 5th [5 points]
ENDURANCE: 3rd [10 points]
WARFARE: 3rd [24 points]

55 Total Points in Attributes
Pattern Imprint [50 points]
WITHERBRAND – Sword [14 points]
Deadly Damage [4 points]
Able to Speak in Tongues and Voices [4 points]
Sensitivity to Danger [2 points]
Shadow Path [2 points]
Alternate Forms, named and numbered [2 points]
Bad Stuff [1 point]
Personal Diary [+10 points]

Mechanically, in Amber Diceless Role-Playing—because it is diceless, a character can do almost anything as long he has the capability and can narrate it, and long as it is not challenging or he is not opposed. Further, Powers such as Pattern Imprint and Logrus enable a Player Character to literally manipulate the worlds around him. If a character is opposed, combat can ensue and whilst the character with the highest rank will likely win, there are circumstances when another attribute will influence the outcome. For example, in a contest of Warfare, the character with the higher Endurance might be able to outlast his opponent or laying his hands on his opponent with his higher Strength defeat him in a grapple. Like the rest of the game, combat is handled narratively, whether that is simple matter of affirming that a Player Character defeats an opponent out on a Shadow or when faced by one of his rival Amberite cousins or an agent from the Courts of Chaos, played out blow-by-blow, right down to the stances assumed and the manoeuvres made. If this sounds all too simple, then on one level it is. Yet, at the level of the blow-by-blow account of a duel—whether using swords, armies, magic, or even wits, it is far from simple. It takes narrative skill and judgement upon the part of the Game Master to unfold the outcome of such an encounter effectively and reasonably—though not necessarily fairly because stories are not always like that and a Player Character may just have some Bad Stuff which will probably influence the outcome too.

Fortunately, the handling of combat is liberally illustrated with not one, but eight examples of play, depending on the skill of the combatants. It is these examples where Amber Diceless Role-Playing begins to shine. There are not just examples of combat and of play, but a complete example of auctions for all four attributes, followed by examples of the Game Master working through the resulting characters with her players to get better more playable results that match their concepts. In addition, all of the Powers and the types of magic are explored in depth and detail, not just to understand how they work, but also how they can be brought into a campaign in interesting ways to challenge the Player Characters. To be fair, the advanced versions are not explored in as great depth as the standard versions, but the likelihood is that few of the Player Characters are going access to those at the start of a campaign. This is followed by an examination of twenty of the Elder Amberites, including different versions built with differing number of points, suggesting their roles in a campaign, and what each would be like as a parent. Plus allies and artefacts. Any fan of the Chronicles of Amber will enjoy both the examinations of the various powers and the Amberites in particular, especially the latter where the designer begins to diverge away from the baseline narrative and point of view that is Corwin’s in the first five books of the series. 

For the Game Master there is advice on running the game, which though may look obvious today, at the time of roleplaying game’s release would have been perhaps not quite as widely accepted. Much of this caps the advice throughout Amber Diceless Role-Playing, covering character backgrounds, outline hints for the rules of engagement for character information, choices, and other narrative elements. It even goes one step further into the radical by suggesting that “The best kind of roleplaying is pure role-playing. No rules, no points, and no mechanics.” and the playing group best ditch everything from character creation, points, magic, rules, and even the Game Master! This though may be step too far though given how much of a step change even the diceless, narrative style of play in Amber Diceless Role-Playing would have been at the time of its publication.

Rounding out Amber Diceless Role-Playing is a set of three scenarios, each of a differing nature. ‘The Throne War’ is an experimental way to play, intentionally designed as the opposite of an atypical game of Amber Diceless Role-Playing. In this, everything from attributes to Powers is up for bid in the auction and the Player Characters are actively campaigning—and thus the players playing—against each other in a bid to become King of Amber. As the first scenario in the book it is literally a swerve away from the way the game is typically played and is not really suitable as a first scenario. It is followed by ‘Battleground on Shadow Earth’ which is framework for a battle between Law and Chaos which the Player Characters need to cleave through to get to the source of the problem. The third scenario, ‘Opening the Abyess’ which does open with a deus ex machina, but is otherwise a better plotted and more interesting set-up at the very least, which the Game Master can extend into a campaign.

Physically, Amber Diceless Role-Playing is clearly written and laid out with some excellent black and white artwork. In terms of tone and style, it is clear that the author loves the Chronicles of Amber and is thoroughly engaged with the series and wants the reader to love it just as much. This infectious pervades the pages of Amber Diceless Role-Playing from start to finish and the book is an immensely enjoyable read.

If perhaps there is a downside to Amber Diceless Role-Playing, the most obvious is that the roleplaying game is a step too far into the radical and away from the accepted notions of what a roleplaying is and how a roleplaying game is actually played and run. They should have dice and a resolution mechanic, and the players should not have to compete for aspects of their characters like their attributes. Yet make that a hurdle to overcome and is it really a downside rather than an adjustment to be made, even if one that is not for everyone? Perhaps then the downside is the evangelising tone which the author of Amber Diceless Role-Playing takes in places, such as when it pushes the aforementioned radical step of ditching the rules or describes Amber as the grandest of settings or when it states that it is the Game Master’s job to encourage and teach good roleplaying and is accompanied by advice on how to deal with players who prefer bashing monsters, are indifferent, or rules lawyers. Perhaps it does go too far, but is it any worse than any other roleplaying game designer espousing ‘the one true way’? Certainly there have been plenty of tomes of advice on being a good Game Master and a good player, and the differences between them and Amber Diceless Role-Playing look negligible in hindsight. Lastly, there may be an issue with just how much detail there is in Amber Diceless Role-Playing and that it does not cover everything in the Chronicles of Amber in sufficient detail. Fair enough, but it is just the one book. There is Shadow Knight, a second supplement which explores the Courts of Chaos in more detail, as well issues of the fanzine, Amberzine.

—oOo—

Dirk DeJong reviewed Amber Diceless Role-Playing in Challenge Issue 65 (October 1992) as a fan of the novels. He identified that, “The biggest problem with this endeavor, and its downfall, is the nature of the conflict systems. First, they are diceless, and don’t involve any sort of random factors at all, aside from those that you can introduce by roleplaying them out.” …although he countered with “Admitted, this does force more cautious play, as most fights are simply to test your opponent’s prowess, rather than for your blood.” He also said, “In Amber’s favor, I have to say the gamemaster help sections, the sections for players on how to be better roleplayer, and the amount of time spent on how to really create a flesh-out character were excellent. If more RPGs had this quality of work and obvious love of roleplaying put into them, the entire industry would benefit.” In his Evaluation, he said, “As to whether or not you should buy “Amber,” I have to profess that it is really up to you. If you love Zelazny and the Amber series, jump on it, as this is the premier sourcebook for the running an Amber campaign. Just don’t expect miracles from the game system itself. Personally, I just can’t get tuned on by a system that expects me to either be content with a simple subtraction of numbers to find out who won, or to describe an entire combat blow by blow, just so that I can attempt some trick to win. In my final estimation, the good and the bad pretty much balance out, leaving me with “Zero Stuff.””

Amber Diceless Role-Playing was given a feature review in White Wolf Magazine #31 (May/June 1992) which included opinions from multiple contributors. The lead reviewer, Steve Crow readily identified flaws in its auction attribute system, the combat rules and firearms, and the fact that “Amber is not a game for beginning gamemasters or players. Understandably, it is impossible to deal with every permutation of Zelazny's concepts in 256 pages. The gamemaster must have a good grasp of the material. If nothing else, he’ll need to know the material so he can explain it to theplayers and interpret their actions.” He concluded though with “Amber is, overall, an appealing game. It encourages the use of imagination, character development, and problem solving. Its main flaw is that it is, more often than not inaccessible to novice gamers and individuals unfamiliar with Zelazny’s work. It is undoubtedly a game for experienced gamers. While I would not recommend Amber to novices, it is a must buy for experienced gamemasters and players looking for new challenges.” He gave it a rating of four.

Sam Chupp also gave Amber Diceless Role-Playing a rating of four and said that, “This is a game for expert roleplayers, people who have outgrown Monty Haul and killer-dungeon style games and who are looking for something challenging.” Mark Rein-Hagen increased the rating to five and said, “Amber is an extraordinary game. Not so much because it is well put together and fun to play  (though it is), but because it is something entirely new.” describing Amber as “…[A] revolutionary work in roleplaying, deserving the highest accolades, but it is pioneering work and is not all it should be. I can hardly wait to see what is coming next. Whatever it is, it will owe a great deal to Amber.” before concluding that, “If you want to see what roleplaying might someday become, read Amber.”

However Robert Hatch only gave Amber Diceless Role-Playing a rating of three, saying that “As a sourcebook for Zelazny’s world, this product is unparalleled. As an actual game - well, it's not one, really, any more than a Choose Your Own Adventure book is. While Amber could work in  the hands of a very talented GM, I think all too many other campaigns will fail.” Lastly, Stewart Wieck was more positive and also gave it a rating of four. He said, “The game is certainly most valuable and understandable to those who read and enjoyed Zelazny’s exciting books, but the roleplaying conventions employed and introduced make this a game that really needs to be investigated by anyone interested in seeing this hobby develop. Additionally, the game would be less with dice.” He finished by saying, “In the end, Amber can be approached one of two ways. Either read it merely as an experience in “mature” roleplaying, or prepare to dig in and enjoy a long and complicated campaign.”

Amber Diceless Role-Playing was reviewed not once, but twice in Dragon Magazine #182 (June 1992). First by Lester Smith, who wrote, “As impressed as I am with the game, do I think it is the “end-all” of role-playing games, or that diceless systems are the wave of the future? I’ll give a firm “No” on both counts. First, the AMBER game is pretty much Amber-specific.” and “Second, as fun as the AMBER game can be, there are certainly times when I’m not up to such intense role-playing and would rather take part in a dungeon crawl.” He concluded that, “…[T]he AMBER DICELESS ROLE-PLAYING game is destined for great popularity and a niche among the most respected of role-playing game designs.” 

This was followed by a second opinion from Allen Varney. He was clear that, “The “attribute auction” in character generation is brilliant and elegant.”, but criticised it because, “Advancement comes slowly, perhaps too slowly. Players have little idea how their own characters improve, let alone other players’ characters.” He also advised that, “…AMBER game clearly targets the most experienced GMs (and players!). But it’s tough work. Proceed with caution.” Overall, he commented that Amber’s “…[B]old approach unsettles me. Politically, I must applaud the dominance of story values over rules. The text offers copious advice, including scripts that advise GMs how to stage a fight at varying levels of detail. But I betray my upbringing. I keep looking for a way to sequence combat, hit points, and all those training wheels I grew up with.”, before concluding that, “Yet the intensity of the AMBER game indicates Wujcik is on to something. When success in every action depends on the role and not the roll, players develop a sense of both control and urgency, along with creativity that borders on mania.”

Loyd Blankenship reviewed Amber Diceless Role-Playing in Pyramid #2 (July/Aug., 1993). He stated that “Amber is a valuable resource to a GM - even if he isn't running an Amber game. For gamers who have an aspiring actor or actress lurking within their breast, or for someone running a campaign via electronic mail or message base, Amber should be given serious consideration.”

—oOo—

Amber Diceless Role-Playing is a fantastic sourcebook for any devotee of the Amber Chronicles, presenting the setting and its very many characters in an accessible fashion and exploring every facet of both them and their powers. However, when it came to the gaming, Amber Diceless Role-Playing broke every conceived notion of designing a roleplaying game, for although it had rules, it had no mechanics in terms of a resolution system, no means of randomly generating the outcome of an action. Instead, its resolution system consisted of the roleplaying skill and storytelling ability of both the player and the Game Master, as well as the capacity of the Game Master to interpret and narrate the rules and narrative as fairly as possible. In doing so, it not only emphasised storytelling capacity and skills, but demanded a high level of trust between player and Game Master that they both be the best roleplayers that they could. This is perhaps as demanding and as pure a roleplaying game as ever there was in making such demands. 

As a roleplaying game based upon the Chronicles of Amber, there can be no doubt that AAmber Diceless Role-Playing is a superb adaptation, and a satisfying examination of the setting and characters of Amber. As a roleplaying game or book just to read, it is an engaging, even enthralling joy to read from start to finish, whether in the rules examples and ideas or its exploration of the setting. Few roleplaying games are quite as much fun. 

In 1991, Amber Diceless Role-Playing was a ground-breaking design and it looks as radical now as was upon its release. Many of conventions ideas have been disseminated into designs since, but Amber Diceless Role-Playing was the pioneer. 

Sunday, 26 December 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXVII] Desert Moon of Karth

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 be 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.

One of the trends in ZineQuest—the annual drive on Kickstarter to create fanzines, fan-created magazines supporting their favourite game—has been away from the more traditional format to the more focused. Traditionally, the fanzine consists of a collection of articles, covering a wide array of subjects. For example, in a fanzine devoted to Dungeons & Dragons or one of its many retroclones, such articles might provide new character Classes, spells, monsters, magical items, a scenario or dungeon, and so on. Although ZineQuest in 2021–ZineQuest #3–certainly included fanzines of that type, there were fanzines that were not so much fanzines as complete roleplaying games in themselves or complete supplements for existing roleplaying games. Desert Moon of Karth is a perfect example of the latter.

Desert Moon of Karth is a complete scenario for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. Designed and published by Joel Hines following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is also quite a different scenario in tone and flavour and set-up for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. The genre for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game is Blue Collar Sci-Fi horror, most obviously inspired by the films Alien and Outland, and the majority of the scenarios for the roleplaying game are horror one-shots. Not so, Desert Moon of Karth. Instead, Desert Moon of Karth is a sandbox scenario whose genre is that of the Space Western and whose inspirations include Dune, Firefly, Alien, John Carter of Mars, Cowboy Bebop, and The Dark Tower as well as A Pound of Flesh, Ultraviolet Grasslands, and Slumbering Ursine Dunes.

The setting for Desert Moon of Karth is a desert moon on the far edge of the galaxy. It is perhaps best known as being a source of Coral Dust, the addictive blue-grey powder harvested and ground from the bones of the ancient, almost mythic species known as the Wigoy, which have ossified into coral and when ingested stills the aging process and sharpens the mind. There has been a ‘gold rush’ to Karth, a ready flow of would be prospectors willing to brave the harsh environment and the attacks by the infamous Sandsquids attracted by their searches deep into the sand. Access to Karth is limited though via a rickety orbital elevator fiercely controlled by the colonial marines of the Manian Expeditionary Force, as a network of relic orbital satellites shoot down all ships or flying objects—incoming or outgoing. This combination of distance from the centre of the galaxy and inaccessibility means that Karth has gained another reputation—that of a haven for criminals and the galaxy’s most wanted. So the lawless desert moon attracts not just prospectors, but bounty hunters too.

Like any good sandbox—and Desert Moon of Karth really is set on a sandbox—Desert Moon of Karth is a toolkit of different elements. These start with ten highly detailed locations, beginning with the frontier boomtown, Larstown, and then continuing with the Shattered Visage of an angelic man, the Seahorse Mine, the played out location of the first Wigoy prospecting operation on Karth, the Silver Spire, home to a trio of immortal Old People known as the Dawnseekers who research and harvest organs to ensure their longevity, a Ship Graveyard of vessels brought down by the orbital defences, and the Krieg Ranch where the best though-flea-bitten camels for travel across the deserts of Karth can be hired, run by a cranky old woman who keeps her husband on ice in case he can be taken off world for treatment to a grievous injury. Around these locations, four factions dominate Karth. One consists of the Dawnseekers, another the Manian Expeditionary Force, but these are joined by the Valley Rangers, a cargo cult formed around the Lunar Park Service’s bureaucracy and conservationists who abhor technology and seek to maintain the world’s ecology, and the Wigoy themselves, aliens hiding from the other factions with long term aims for the whole of Karth and beyond…

All four factions and the majority of the locations include NPCs with often opposing aims and jobs—both known and secret—that the Player Characters might be employed to fulfil. These, though, are just the start in Desert Moon of Karth, because they are richly supported with table after table of random encounters, motivations, NPCs, rumours, and more! That ‘more’ includes tables of reasons why the Player Characters might have come to Karth, gifts that the Wigoy might grant, worn space hulks, bounty hunters and their possible quarries, oldtech artefacts, what happens when the Player Characters go Wigoy prospecting, and things to be found on bodies, and more.

Although there is potential future mapped out in Desert Moon of Karth, it really only plays out if the Player Characters do nothing. Ultimately then, the Player Characters have a huge opportunity to involve themselves in and influence events on the moon, but this is very much player driven. Once their characters have their motivations—either selected ahead of time or generated using the table in the book, it is very much up to the players to involve themselves in both life and the events going on across Karth.

Mechanically, Desert Moon of Karth is very light, and thus much in keeping with the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. There are various stats for the NPCs of course, but they are percentile and easily adaptable, whilst the specific rules cover things such as travel across Karth and prospecting for Wigoy coral—and that is it. What this means is that Desert Moon of Karth is not only very light, but easily adapted to the mechanics of the roleplaying game of the Warden’s choice. Any version of the Star Wars roleplaying games, Cepheus Deluxe, Stars Without Number, Firefly, HOSTILE, and others would work with this supplement with a minimum of preparation, as would many a generic system too.

However, the tone of Desert Moon of Karth may not necessarily match the campaign being run by the Warden if for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game, and that likelihood increases if adapted to another Science Fiction roleplaying game. There is horror as you would expect for something written for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game, but there is also a weirdness too in the presence of the Wigoy and their secrets, and they might have a profound effect upon a Game Master’s campaign if certain events happen. Nevertheless, the self-contained nature of Karth itself and of Desert Moon of Karth makes it very easy to use. Nor need that be as an addition to an existing campaign. It could be a one-shot adventure, a mini-campaign of its own, or as a source of ideas and tables from which the Game Master can pick and choose elements to add to her own game.

Physically, Desert Moon of Karth is a compact fifty-two page supplement—perhaps a little too big to be really called a supplement. It is well written, it is easy to read, the illustrations are excellent, and the maps, whether of the moon itself, or Larstown or the interior of a Sandsquid are all great.

As a sandbox, and a sandbox space western at that, Desert Moon of Karth pushes MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game in a new direction and opens up the scope of gaming possible for those rules—especially with the new edition available. Whatever the system used, Desert Moon of Karth is crammed full of gaming content adding a weird world to the Science fiction roleplaying game of your choice, but really offering a fantastic mini-campaign. Not just a good fanzine, Desert Moon of Karth is really good good Science Fiction supplement.

Saturday, 25 December 2021

1981: The Spawn of Fashan

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

In the beginning there was Dungeons & Dragons. This made a lot of people happy, but it also made some people unhappy, and it even made some people both happy and unhappy. The happy people played it, the unhappy people refused to play it and campaigned to stop the people playing it because their sense of fun was entirely devoted to doing something else which they felt the people playing it should be doing, and the people it made both happy and unhappy, thought they could do better, including the very people who were happy with Dungeons & Dragons because they had made it. And the people who thought they could do better than Dungeons & Dragons either tried to make new, better versions of Dungeons & Dragons, or they tried to create versions of their own which were better, faster, more fun, more realistic, and well, just not Dungeons & Dragons. Some would be very close to Dungeons & Dragons, others far away, and others…? Well however close these fantasy heartbreakers were, most would remain the province of the Game Master and his gaming group, but others would come to market and some would succeed, some fail… and some would achieve legendary, even cult status. None more so than The Spawn of Fashan.

Self-published by Kirby Lee Davis in 1981, The Spawn of Fashan would sell only a handful of copies, but gave rise to an infamous review in Dragon #60 by Lawrence Schick who could not believe that anyone would create a roleplaying game as dreadful as The Spawn of Fashan and very quickly concluded that, “The Spawn of Fashan is a great parody of role-playing rules!” That issue of Dragon was published in April, 1982, and a combination of an incredulous review and the possibility that the whole review was not about an actual roleplaying, but one entirely made up, and was thus an April Fool’s joke upon the part of Schick and Dragon magazine, meant that The Spawn of Fashan passed into legend. That legend would be kept alive by its inclusion on the ‘REAL MEN, REAL RÔLE-PLAYERS, LOONIES AND MUNCHKINS’ lists which parodied early gamer archetypes and stereotypes, as in Loonies “play a variant Spawn of Fashan” as their favourite SFRPG and as their Favourite King Arthurian RPG, “play a variant of Spawn of Fashan so variant it shouldn't be called Spawn of Fashan anymore”. However, The Spawn of Fashan is real, and due to actual demand, a number of reprints were published in 1998, followed by a fortieth anniversary edition in 2021. It is the latter version, which is being reviewed here, notably because, getting hold of any other version, is hideously expensive.

So what is The Spawn of Fashan and what is The Spawn of Fashan about? It is a Class and Level roleplaying game written in response to the lack of individuality in any one character in Dungeons & Dragons. As to what it is about, The Spawn of Fashan is not really a setting as such, more—definitely much more—a set of rules for character creation and combat. What background there is suggests that Fashan is a world reduced to the level of a mediaeval economy by a nuclear war and in addition to leaving high tech artefacts to be found, the nuclear war also resulted in areas of radiation and a background radiation high enough that minor psionic abilities are common amongst the all-Human descendants of the survivors. So technically, The Spawn of Fashan is not so much a fantasy roleplaying game as a post-apocalyptic one. Either way, it is actually based on The Annals of Fashan, a series of fantasy novels by the designer, the setting and background for which did not make it into the final draft of The Spawn of Fashan. Had it done so, the roleplaying game would have been longer, but it might actually have been more interesting in terms of setting, storytelling, and roleplaying potential. The designer though wanted to avoid giving away the plots of the novels. Nevertheless, any Referee and group of players roleplaying The Spawn of Fashan would still be roleplaying a version of Fahsan—though not the designer’s Fashan—hence every other campaign being a ‘spawn’ of Fashan. Which begs the question, ‘When are you playing The Spawn of Fashan, but not playing The Spawn of Fashan?’, since it is almost impossible to play in Fashan because there is so little of the setting in The Spawn of Fashan such that any campaign of The Spawn of Fashan cannot actually be set on Fashan…

That said, what do you play in The Spawn of Fashan? Well, all Player Characters The Spawn of Fashan are human. A character has eight statistics—Strength, Dexterity, Reflexes, Constitution, Intelligence, Charisma, Courage, and Senses. Actually, there ten statistics, as a Player Character can also have Courage and Courage as well as Courage, but only if he has extra special fighting abilities. Anyway, all but Senses are rolled on five six-sided dice (or as The Spawn of Fashan puts it, “five 1-6 dice”) and the lowest one dropped, except if a character is female, in which case, “The number of dice rolled at any time for strength, constitution, and hit points is halved.” This is despite the fact that in the book’s introduction the designer states that neither he nor his team are sexist in terms of the pronouns used in the book. Which is fine except he is sexist in terms of game design. Anyway, female characters are fine, because they gained increased Charisma and Intuition. Unfortunately, the designer ultimately never actually defines what Intuition is… and actually getting find that out involves following the instruction, “[see the ‘Destiny’ listing on the Mental Illness table].” which leaves to wonder why it is defined on a Mental Illness table and if that means that all female characters—because they have Intuition—on Fashan are mentally ill? Once you have found the Mental Illness table in the fifty-one pages of Section VII which both contains all of the charts for The Spawn of Fashan and take up more than half of The Spawn of Fashan, a section supposedly for the Referee’s eye’s only, the actual entry on that table reads, “Destinied. Character is destinied. Referee should roll on the Destiny Table for the character.” However this immediately followed by a note which states, “Due to the necessity of having the Destiny Table interlock with the Referee's cultures and history, it is not given here.” So essentially, not only are female characters impaired in The Spawn of Fashan, as written in The Spawn of Fashan, they cannot be created using its rules unless the Referee has already defined a world or campaign setting where intrinsically, they are not equal to men. The good news is that for The Spawn of Fashan, this is only the start.

First though, a character needs not one, but two character-types. These are occupations and include Bandits, Barbers, Beggars, Carpenters, Construction Workers, Creepers, Farmers, Healers, Mercenaries, Merchants, Metal Forgers, Miners, Misfits, Occultists, Priests, Sailors, Specialists, Stone Cutters, Swayers, Teachers, Thieves, Traders, Trappers, and Wood Cutters. Once the relevant table is found—and this is a phrase which could be repeated again and again with The Spawn of Fashan—the Referee rolls on the table according to area the Player Character is from to determine his Parents’ Choice of character-type and the player choses his character’s Childhood Choice character-type. This does not seem to have any effect except if the Parents’ Choice of character-type is Misfit, in which case, the Player Character’s character-type is also Misfit. The actual explanation of the character-types are listed in the dreaded section of Section VII and for the most part are fairly obvious and straightforward, sometimes giving statistic increases, equipment, and the like. The less obvious character-types include the Creeper, men of darkness known as Shadowers, the Occultist, renowned and hated for exerting control over the societies of Fashan with their mind control, and the Swayer, the dreaded masters of persuasion. In particular, Creepers can exude a black, inky cloud that most cannot see through; the Occultist can enter into a trance and cause anyone nearby to stutter and be indecisive or to suffer seizure, depending his Intelligence; and Swayers are so persuasive that their words can require a Saving Roll to withstand.

Some character-types, like, can have Senses, the ability to detect life and also food and provisions. There is, however, no magic in The Spawn of Fashan and no religion or gods in The Spawn of Fashan, the latter more because in The Spawn of Fashan there is no real setting. Which means that the Priest character-type has no role until the Referee has defined her own ‘spawn’ of Fashan. In addition to rolling for Statistics, a player rolls on fourteen tables for eyesight, sense of smell, hearing, taste, body (to give advantages and disadvantages rather than a body type), insight, intellect, mental illness, phobia, compulsion, hand usage, height and weight, learned abilities, and language. Some of these require Saving Rolls on a twenty-sided die, but for the most part they generate a completely random selection of abilities and facts. For example, the character has Independent Eye Movement, is allergic to particular type of animal which the Referee will determine, has Heavy Sound Good Hearing (bonus to initiative versus heavy plodders), can tell poison in the water and drink, is double-jointed and has superhuman strength, has Sense of Life, is a Gambler and gets bonuses the riskier the situation, is Destinied (see above for how that is left up to the Referee to determine), fortunately has no phobias, has the compulsions of being a Coward, suffers from Daydreams, and Practices every action, is 5’ 6” and 139 lbs, and because he has an Intelligence of twenty or more, is an ‘Expert on Subterrainian Passages’.

Without a doubt, character generation in The Spawn of Fashan is inaccessible, obtuse, overwritten and unnecessarily complex—and that is just the six or so steps of creating a character, including rolling for Luck Factor and starting Bank Notes, and does not take into account the numerous secondary and derived values the roleplaying game employs. Nor does it take into account the time needed. In fact, no matter how long that time is, it is simply too long. As much as the means and the rules do provide the degree of individuality that the designer wants, whether or not that degree of individuality is either wanted or warranted, they are simply not presented in a manner to help either the player or the Referee through the process.

Then there are the mechanics to The Spawn of Fashan. The core mechanic is the Saving Roll on a twenty-sided die and roll high, but for a roleplaying game of its vintage, it should be no surprise that the bulk of the mechanics in The Spawn of Fashan focus on combat. However, there is a sense of combat being a static affair with neither side involved actually moving, so just an exchange of blows, though movement is covered in surprise and initiative (including when neither party can detect the other because they are both dead—including the Player Characters). Combat involves yet another splurge of terms and terminology and factors that Referee and player has to take into account before either has to roll, including how hard the attacker wants to hit, where he wants to hit, then if the defender parries or dodges (rolled on a percentile dice rather than the standard twenty-sided die), consulting tables as necessary, and making a Saving Throw if the level of damage suffered is equal to or greater than the Serious Injury Tolerance Level. If the attack is successful, rolls are made to see if the armour itself is damaged, point by point, and… if the defender is not actually dead by this point, it is difficult not to believe that anyone—in the game or out—still has the will to live, let alone continue playing… Thankfully though, the people of Fashan are so insecure that they do not congregate in groups of more than thirty, so there are no armies on Fashan, and so need for rules handling army combat.

Surprisingly, the advice on ‘The Makings of a Campaign’ is a decent read and avoids much of the incoherency found throughout the rules. They are backed up by tables for random encounters and generating locations, including ruins and dungeons, and two examples. One is a setting, the other is of actual play. Whilst the monsters have absurd names such as Arl-Grats, Bactrolo, Bartaln, Bull Makl, Cronalk, Filcornect, Larnex, Lorsenfolo, Purtorfalm, Rolmtrokl, and Transgrusan, the setting is equally as silly, which describes the land of Boosboodle in the ‘Boosboodle Inner Human Habitation Zone’ (Bihhz) through which flows The River Mazoo, travel to the towns of Jugble and Crumbudz, and when all else fails, tells the Player Characters that they can go ‘North, where Melvin is Standing Now.’ It is both silly and intentionally humorous upon the part of the designer, but mostly comes across as just plain silly. The other is the example of play. It is without a doubt, the worst example of play in any roleplaying game before Hackmaster Basic. It recounts how a Player Character Thief, Sook, enters a general store in Biddles, the capital of Boosboodle and attempts to buy first some armour, then a religious artefact, followed by a hoe, and lastly, a metal chest. When that succeeds, the player has Sook throw it at the merchant and kill him. It is clear from the writing that boredom has set in on either side, with the Referee resorting to sarcasm and the player to random acts purely to get a response. It is a truly terrible, but funny piece of writing because it is at such odds with the po-faced tone to the rest of The Spawn of Fashan.

Where The Spawn of Fashan, 40th Anniversary Edition is actually interesting is in the essays which appear at the front of the reprint. Here the author talks how he brought the roleplaying game to fruition not once but three times! First at its conception and its subsequence appearance at Denvention II in 1981, followed by renewed interest from roleplayers in both the late eighties and the late nineties, the latter leading to a reprint and inclusion of the first essay. Third, and more recently, its publication upon its fortieth anniversary. Both retrospectives are interesting in highlighting how challenging it was to bring something like The Spawn of Fashan to print then, and how ambitious the author was in doing so. They also allow him time to reflect upon his creation and the hobby’s response to it, and it is clear that he readily accepts rather than resents the latter—especially with regard to the lack of a table of contents or index for example. There can be no doubt that a roleplaying game with as legendary a reputation as The Spawn of Fashan is deserving of both essays where other roleplaying games of such ilk may not be.

Physically, The Spawn of Fashan is as bad as you possibly imagine. It is laid out in the style of a newspaper rather than a book and its text is dense, and notoriously unedited, being riddled with spelling mistakes and inconsistencies and cross references which lead the reader down a blind alley. There are few illustrations and to be fair, they add very little to the overall tone or feel of the book. The Spawn of Fashan, 40th Anniversary Edition at least does come with an index and a table of contents—the original version and its reprint did not and one can only imagine how daunting it must have been to find anything—anything at all—in the book.

—oOo—

The Spawn of Fashan was reviewed three times following its initial publication, first by Charles Dale Martin in Different Worlds Issue 19 (February 1982). Amongst the many elements he criticised of the roleplaying game were the combat system, writing that, “The combat system is both complex and unwieldy. It imposes too great a strain on the players and the referee - using these rules is rather like playing Gladiator, Traveller and Arduin Grimoire simultaneously. Bunetluest, Bushido and Chivalry & Sorcery provide more realism for less effort.” He was equally critical of the game’s treatment of female characters and of the publisher wrote, “The Fashan co-op seems to be out of touch with the adventure gaming community. The game was released at a science fiction convention. The only other role-playing systems mentioned are D&D, AD&D, The Fantasy Trip and Magic Realm. I am familiar with fifteen fantasy role-playing systems and I must conclude that, despite honest effort, Spawn of Fashan is several years behind the state of the art.” However, concluded that, “…[I]t may still be worth buying. The referee’s notes are excellent guidelines for any fantasy campaign. Game masters of an eclectic bent may wish to use some of the new character classes and the many tables in their own game systems. And some adventurous souls might play the game and enjoy it.”

Then there was the infamous review in Dragon #60 (April 1982) by Lawrence Schick, titled ‘Don’t take Spawn of Fashan seriously’. His initial impression was of it being “…[O]ne more mediocre rewrite of the D&D® rules.” but then, “As I read the 96-page rulebook (list price $8.95), my initial boredom was gradually replaced by confusion, amazement, and finally delight. At first glance, the rules seem badly organized and poorly written. The opening sections are deluged with pages of ill-defined jargon and numerous confusing references to tables apparently placed elsewhere. By the time I reached the rules quagmire entitled “Combat,” I could only wonder in amazement that any set of rules could be this bad.” He continued, “Then the light started to dawn. Plowing through the monstrous Tables and Charts section, I began to grin, and by the end of the book, I was laughing loudly. The Spawn of Fashan is a great parody of role-playing rules!”.

Lastly, Ronald Pehr reviewed The Spawn of Fashan in The Space Gamer Number 49 (March 1982). He described The Spawn of Fashan as “…[A] fascinating set of fantasy combat rules which are trying to become a full role-playing game.” and that “…[I]ts current value seems limited to experienced FRPG players who want something novel. Beginners will be baffled, and gamers happy with their current rules will find little reason to journey to the far planet of Fashan.”

—oOo—

There have been some notoriously bad roleplaying games published over the course of the hobby’s history. Efforts like F.A.T.A.L., Myfarog, and Racial Holy War are justly reviled for their inherent offensiveness and the ignorance of the values espoused by the authors. Make no mistake, The Spawn of Fashan does not deserve to be placed alongside that excrescent trinity and it would be insulting to the author to think otherwise. However, that does not mean that 
The Spawn of Fashan is not a bad game—far from it. The Spawn of Fashan is terrible game. Dense, overwritten, and incomprehensible with a formidable learning curve  hampered by poor, oh so poor cross referencing and interminable page flipping, all accompanied by a hilariously awful example of play. Even trying to explain the rules in The Spawn of Fashan is akin to rewriting and not just simplifying them, but translating them. Yet there are flashes of potential here, for the notes for the Referee’s notes and philosophies on worldbuilding are not without merit, which leads the reader to wonder quite what a subsequent edition of The Spawn of Fashan could have been like in the hands of a more experienced production and development team. And wonder quite that because lurking within the game’s stodgy writing, there is a game which by the standards of the time could have been made better and more accessible and more playable. Of course, the appearance of any such subsequent edition might well have done much to negate the reputation of the first edition (at least partially). As the essays in the front of The Spawn of Fashan, 40th Anniversary Edition make clear, it was not to be. Despite its legendary reputation, The Spawn of Fashan is real, it is not a parody, and with the availability of The Spawn of Fashan, 40th Anniversary Edition, you too can find out just how bad it really is, what optimism and faith in your own vision can create, and how sometimes, even if you really do not like Dungeons & Dragons, you really cannot do better. As bad as it is, and because it is as bad as it is, Kirby Lee Davis is to be commended for reassessing it again and letting us reassess it with the release of The Spawn of Fashan, 40th Anniversary Edition.