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Monday 27 February 2023

‘B2’ Series: Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion

The reputation of
B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Yet since then, Wizards of the Coast has all but ignored B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the module that preceded it, B1 In Search of the Unknown, barring the publisher’s 2012 Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos: An Adventure for Character Levels 1-3. This was the playtest scenario for D&D Next, first seen in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which was essentially previewing what would go on to become Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Instead, it would be other publishers who would revisit both scenarios in the twenty-first century. So Kenzer & Company first published B1 Quest for the Unknown, a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown for use with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, and would follow it up with not one, but two versions of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. First with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4 in 2002, and then again in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure. Another publisher to revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands was Chris Gonnerman, with JN1 The Chaotic Caves, a scenario written for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. In addition, Faster Monkey Games published its own homage to B1 In Search for the Unknown with The Hidden Serpent, whilst Pacesetter Games & Simulations has published a number of extra encounters and sequels for both scenarios, most notably B1 Legacy of the Unknown and B2.5 Blizzard on the Borderland.

Yet Wizards of the Coast did not ignore its extensive back catalogue. It would release numerous titles in PDF, and even allow Print on Demand reprints, including both B1 In Search of the Unknown and ;B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Further, in 2017, it published Tales from the Yawning Portal, a collection of scenarios that had originally been published for previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and even D&D Next. These scenarios though, did not include either B1 In Search of the Unknown or B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Which upon first glance seemed a strange omission, but then came the announcement from Goodman Games about Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands.

Arguably, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands would prove to be the ultimate version of the classic module, but authors have continued to revisit the original even since such as with the fanzine version from Swordfish Islands LLC, which so far consists of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2. Yet there remain oft forgotten visits to the famous ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ and the equally infamous, ‘Caves of Chaos’, which are worth examining and shining light upon. For example, Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is a prequel to Return to the Keep of the Borderlands by Jeff Grub, but there have also been expansions to B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It is often forgotten that the infamous Caves of Chaos are not the only cavern system to be found in the region. Located in the large unforested area between the Caves of Chaos and the eponymous keep are the Caves of the Unknown, mislabelled on the wilderness map as the ‘Cave of the Unknown’. This is mentioned twice in the module. Once on page 12 where it says, “The Caves of the Unknown area is left for you to use as a place to devise your own cavern complex or dungeon maze.” and then again, in location #51, in the ‘Shrine of Evil Chaos’, where a “Boulder Filled Passage” can lead to the Cave of the Unknown. Left up to the Dungeon Master to design and detail, one option has been to simply insert the Caverns of Quasqueton from B1 In Search of the Unknown and this was the option chosen for Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. However, other designers have embraced Gygax’s advice in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and created their own dungeons to fill this spot. Perhaps the earliest was Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion, published by Usherwood Publishing in 2013, but it would be followed by others, including RC Pinnell, who has a history of writing sequels to classic Dungeons & Dragons modules, would release his own version at about the same time as Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands was published.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is written for use with both Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and OSRIC, or ‘Old School Reference and Index Compilation’, the retroclone based upon Advanced Dungeons & Dragons originally published in 2006. It is part of the publisher’s ‘High-Adventure from Middle-School’ line of adventures designed to ape the style and look of the adventures that we wrote for Dungeons & Dragons in our school days when we were first beginning to roleplay. Consequently, Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion has a certain look. It is presented in a font designed to look like handwriting and done on the type of paper which has holes along one edge for it to be clipped into a file and both of the scenario’s maps are drawn on squared paper, with the ‘Supplemental map 1 to: Keep on the Borderlands (The Environs of the Keep)’ coloured with pencils. It gives the whole look of the scenario a certain charm, perhaps best from a sense of nostalgia, but also a certain tackiness. It does not help that the choice of font makes the scenario awkward to read and use. However, get past that and surprisingly, Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion does exactly what the title says as well adding a new threat and a new storyline.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion focuses first on the Cave of the Unknown. Although there is a cave entrance, here it is more of a dungeon complex with some twelve rooms. Together with the addition of a tower above the complex, they are the forward base for a group of bandits. In fact, a large number of bandits. Altogether, there are some eighty-five bandits in the complex together with their stores and equipment. Most of the bandits are Level One, although sergeants are Level Two, a Lieutenant Level Three, and a Captain, Level Four. They are led by Malthus the Grey wizard and Gwethlos the Red Cleric, both evil NPCs and both Fifth Level. The complex of rooms feels too small for this number of men and the descriptions of the rooms themselves are simplistic and plain. To some extent this can be explained by the ethos of the scenario, the ‘High-Adventure from Middle-School’ look and feel, but it leaves the Dungeon Master to do all of the hard work in adding flavour and detail to the scenario.

If the description of the Cave of the Unknown fails to intrigue or entice, the plot, whilst still simple, more than makes up for that. Malthus the Grey wizard and Gwethlos the Red Cleric are gathering men to make an assault upon the keep, and not only that, but they are also negotiating with the goblins and hobgoblins in the Caves of Chaos to recruit them to their cause. In addition, Palthos, the son of the Castellan of the keep, disappeared near the caves. The Castellan, greatly worried at his son’s disappearance, has put out a huge reward for the return of his son. In addition, there is a second force of bandits just outside of the area detailed in B2 Keep in the Borderlands. They have begun raiding caravans travelling back and forth from the keep and are holding several prisoners. The prisoners include merchants who will pay the Player Characters a monetary reward if rescued and several mercenaries who will serve the Player Characters for a limited amount of time if also rescued. The camp itself is not described, but is clearly marked on the ‘Supplemental map 1 to: Keep on the Borderlands (The Environs of the Keep)’ map.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is basic, perhaps too basic. It has three major problems. The first is is the lack of description and flavour and detail. The second is the fact that Palthos, the son of the Castellan of the keep, is mentioned at the beginning of the scenario and never mentioned again, and arguably, his disappearance and the potential reward for his return are the major hook for the Player Characters. This is a major omission. However, neither problem is insurmountable and with some effort upon the part of the Dungeon Master, better descriptions can be added to the scenario’s dungeon and the location where Palthos is being held prisoner can be decided upon. The third is the lack of description of the region beyond that described in B2 Keep in the Borderlands bar the mention and location of the bandit camp. Again, it is left up to the Dungeon Master to not only describe, but actually develop.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is a really more of a framework to expand to B2 Keep on the Borderlands than a ready-to-play addition. It has a pair of decent story hooks and these are worth developing to expand and enhance the play of a classic module. Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is worth looking at for these very reasons and the fact that it is free is bonus.

Sunday 26 February 2023

The world is damned, and you do care

Cy is a hell. The city is ripped apart by poverty and pollution. The haves, the corporates and the celebrities get to escape to their gated communities on the hills, whilst the have-nots exist in slums between the industrial districts and the enterprise regions where consumerism and corporate greed runs rampant. The industrial districts pump out a poisonous pall that never parts to reveal the sky, toxic waste is dumped into the harbour to float along with the fatbergs in the acidic waters, and nanoswarms and new diseases run rampant. In between the unchecked ecological emergencies and capitalist supremacy, everyone seems at war. The corporations against each other, gangs against each other and the cults, the cults against the militias, the militias against the rioters, and SecCorps against anyone they are paid to war against. There are rumours of a space rock which fell and unleashed a space poison, nuclear bombs exploded without a care… At the centre of it is ‘G0’. Supposedly created by ‘The Incident’. This is where the rock fell or this is where the bombs fell. It is walled off; access is denied upon pain of death. If the auto-turrets do not blast you apart, the Nanophreaks will infect you and rip you apart, pockets of nerve gas poison you, radiation dust twist your DNA… Yet smugglers use it as a means to transport illicit goods; cultists look for proof of their unhallowed beliefs; scientists conduct research in the hope of making a discovery worth selling to a corporation; and scrapheads scavenge the ruins of the past, the medieval ruins of Cy’s origins. There are worse things, let alone THAT NOISE that constantly sounds… Across all of this is the NET, a shared, consensual hallucination combination of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality where you can buy what they want, worship the latest craze or faith or none at all, and even hack your opinion. Anyone can access the NET via their Retinal Communication Device and everyone is interfaced, injected, infected, and infested with something, and the cybertech is just another vector. This CYstainable Planet™ Certified dystopia is a future of Miserable Headlines amongst the untrammelled tumult of terrible news and corporate corruption. They say that one too many Miserable Headlines, one too many Actual Terrible Truths revealed, and the world ends. Maybe that will be a blessed relief, or maybe that it is what they want…

This is the set-up for CY_BORG, a cyberpunk purgatory that is modelled upon Mörk Borg, the Swedish pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance retroclone designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell and published by Free League Publishing. It is another doom driven roleplaying game, set in a nightmarish future in which the existence of the medieval ruins beg the question, is Cy the future of the city of Galgenbeck in the land of Tveland? Or is the city of Galgenbeck in the land of Tveland with its prophecies of the Two-Headed Basilisks just one more MMORPG in the NET. Or even CY_BORG itself a virtual reality simulation gaming out a future and waiting for a reset? Published following a Kickstarter campaign, CY_BORG is a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters kick out against the consumerist conspiracy and the supremacy of corporate capitalism run rampant and their government, police, and mercenary tools. They are Forsaken Gang-Goons, the Shunned Nanomancers, Burned Hackers, Discharged Corp Killers, Orphaned Gearheads, and Renegade Cyberslashers. Their loyalties are not to the system or the man. Even as they take jobs from one Mister Johansen or Ms. Johansen to keep afloat, to maintain the struggle, they want to burn it all down, destroy the system, and kill and die to do it. If they fail, there will always someone else to assume the cause. Unless that last Miserable Headline leads the breaking news and CY ends…

Yet much like, what grabs you from the start is the look of CY_BORG. It employs the same Artpunk style, but here the bold swathes of neon colour are constantly broken as if the artwork is under assault from the nanites, toxins, and chemicals affecting the city of CY itself. This is less heavy metal and more punk; its jagged uncertainty only contributing to the tone and feel of the book. Similarly, there no explanation as to what a roleplaying game is and what roleplaying is. Once you open the book, you are straight into the game. And that is fine. Neither Mörk Borg nor CY_BORG are roleplaying games for anyone new to the hobby. One other difference between CY_BORG and Mörk Borg is that it does not start with the end of the world. Whilst the last Miserable Headline will mark the end of the CY, the rate at which they can appear can be adjusted by the Game Master for a longer or shorter game.

A Player Character in CY_BORG is defined by five Abilities—Agility, Knowledge, Presence, Strength, and Toughness. These are rated between -3 and +3. He also has some cash and some cheap gear as well as Retinal Communication Device. A Player Character also has a Class, of which there are five—Forsaken Gang-Goon, Shunned Nanomancer, Burned Hacker, Discharged Corp Killer, Orphaned Gearhead, and Renegade Cyberslasher. Each provides a bonus to an Ability, a value for his Hit Points, plus one or more items of equipment, including armour. For example, the Shunned Nanomancer also gains a reason why he got infected, such as spending a night practising profane rites with neo-pagan cultists or kidnapped and subjected to horrible experiments and a strange leaf-looking blade which inflicts wounds that bleed or an elongated, pointed skull and semi-translucent skin which enables his brain to shine when the Shunned Nanomancer is thinking. The creation process is quick and easy and Player Characters are simple to replace. A player rolls three six-sided dice for his character’s Abilities, then rolls for cash and gear, then various aspects of the Class, weapon and armour, and lastly debt and to whom it is owed. Elements such as style, feature, wants, quirk, and current obsession can also be rolled for, but are optional.

Name: Kratar
Class: Discharged Corp Killer
Agility +0 Knowledge +0 Presence -1 Strength +1 Toughness +3
Toughness: 8
Glitches: 2
Armour: Combat Armor (Tier III) with A_HST auto-injector
Weapon: Monosword
Item Stolen From The Corp: Prototype Smart™ Assault Rifle
Deployment: PeriGlacial SecCorp (Plundering released gas and bioweapons)
Style: Kill Mode Feature: Unnatural Eyes Wants: Anarchy Quirk: Rapid Blinking
Current Obsession: Belts
Debts: 7000¤ (owed to fixer cops on the payroll)
Cash: 110¤
Gear: CWPC Metro Card, Small Bottle of Pulverised Acid, Tiny Surveillance Drone (300 m)

Mechanically, CY_BORG is simple. A player rolls a twenty-sided die, modifies the result by one of his character’s Abilities, and attempts to beat a Difficulty Rating. A normal Difficulty Rating is twelve, but it can go as low as six or a Simple Difficulty Rating or as high as eighteen or an Almost Impossible Difficulty Rating. The Difficulty Rating may go up or down depending on the situation, but whatever the situation, the player always rolls, even in combat. So, a player will roll for his character to hit in melee using his Strength and his Agility to avoid being hit, whereas Agility is used to both hit and avoid being hit in ranged combat. Autofire in gun combat is kept simple with the first successful hit allowing a second roll and so on up to three hits. So essentially, more three round bursts than full auto. Simple rules also allow for criticals, fumbles, and ammunition use. Optional rules take into account cover, aiming, range, hits always hurting, and suppressive fire. The rules are quick and dirty rather than necessarily realistic, but arguably CY_BORG is gritty enough. Armour is represented by a die value, from -d2 for light armour to -d6 for heavy armour, representing the amount of damage it stops. Medium and heavy armour each add a modifier to any Agility action by the character, including defending himself. This is pleasingly simple and offers a character some tactical choice—just when is it better to avoid taking the blows or avoid taking the damage? In addition, each Player Character has one or more Glitches. These are spent to inflict maximum damage in an attack, enable a reroll of any die, lower damage done to the Player Character, neutralise a critical or a fumble, or decrease the difficulty of a skill test.

The genre specific rules of CY_BORG cover cybertech, drugs, and hacking. Both drugs and cybertech are covered in a page each, and it should be noted that not every Player Character begins play with any cybertech. Only the Renegade Cyberslasher begins play with any cybertech, although a Player Character may have some as a result of a roll for his gear. The rules for hacking are given a bit more attention though. This is no surprise, but unlike many other Cyberpunk-themed roleplaying games where they grind play to a halt as the hacker Player Character is run through an entire little rules subsystem all of his very own, here they are covered in just four pages—and two of those are devoted to possible backlashes if a hacking roll is fumbled. In CY_BORG hacking is done on the spot by a hacker activating Apps, custom-made cartridges and cassettes, slotted into his cyberdeck, for example, the Nok_Nok App opens a nearby door whilst the CTechAttak App inflicts damage on targets connected to the network. To do this, the hacker has to be jacked not the cyberdeck and the more an App is used, the more likely it has of causing a fumble and inflicting a backlash, such as corrupting the hacker’s Retinal Communication Device or the hacker getting identified by a hacker collective and being extorted.

In addition, it is possible to have Nanopowers, such as Psychic Scalpels which inflict damage or a half metre cube of inorganic matter can be reduced to dust. These abilities are rumoured to be from an infection of alien bacteria riding nanobots that has swept the city of CY following The Incident. In addition to the power granted by the infection, the user suffers an infestation, like Gills or Barbed Skeleton. They have two effects. One is permanent, such as the being able to breath underwater for the Gills and for Barbed Skeleton, having sharp pieces of bone piercing the skin around the sufferer’s joints, hindering his movement, unless he grinds them down. The other is a triggered effect when excess damage is suffered, which prevents the sufferer from breathing air if he has Gills and a painful growth spurt of sharp bone for Barbed Skeleton.

For the Game Master, there is section of opponents, from Generic SecOp or Gang Goons and United Citadel Security Operatives, through raging menaces, enhanced beasts, drones, and cydroids to combat vehicles, mechs, and ghosts. Then there is the extensive mission generator, based on Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain, which when combined with the random tables for generating corporations and events, enables the Game Master to generate the basics of numerous scenarios. CY_BORG includes a sample mission, ‘Lucky Flight Takedown’, which has the Player Characters take a job from a shady salaryman to destroy the influence of a newly opened casino upon a neighbourhood. It is a strike mission, one which the Player Characters are tasked with attempting with some delicacy, rather than simply conducting a smash and grab. So, although in some ways it reads as a dungeon similar to that of Mörk Borg, this is more demanding and thoughtful and if gone at in the wrong way, will likely teach the Player Characters just how fragile they can be. Notes are included which could link to future scenarios.

Physically, CY_BORG does suffer to an extent to the same issues as Mörk Borg. Their Artpunk style does not always make the content the easiest to access, so the summary of the mechanics included inside the back cover is a good idea. The illustrations are often heavy and oppressive, veering between the doom metal genre and the doom punk genre, both highlighted by neon and blighted by poisons. Overall, CY_BORG is still a handy little rulebook.

CY_BORG brings the Grim Dark to the cyberpunk genre, stripping back the complexities of both the genre and its associated mechanics, but revving up the maelstrom of the media, the unbridled ambition and greed of the corporations, the suffering of the have-nots, and driving them towards another doom. Its combination of brutal, in-your-face dread, and despair never really lets up and even as the often already unpleasant Player Characters are damaged by this, they do care about the state of CY, if not the world. CY_BORG is a roleplaying game in which the world appears free of moral certainties—except one. Corporations are evil, capitalism will be death of us all, and they need to be smashed and their crimes revealed.

Saturday 25 February 2023

1983: The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure

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.


The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure
 set in Ancient Egypt has the distinction of being the first roleplaying game to explore the idea of roleplaying in Ancient Egypt, the first historical roleplaying game published by Palladium Games, the only boxed roleplaying game from Palladium Games, and the only roleplaying game from Palladium Games to not use its Megaverse rules. Published in 1983, the result is a game with a surprisingly simple and straightforward rules system, plenty of solidly researched background and historical material, and some superb illustrations and maps. However, even by the standards of the day, it suffers from cheap production values and a lack of development. Unlike other titles from Palladium Games, such as the Mechanoid Invasion Trilogy, it has not been reprinted. Consequently, The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt has remained a historical curio, little remembered by anyone.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt is a boxed set. Inside is a fifty-page, black and white rulebook, a full colour map of Ancient Egypt, and several sheets which depict the Nile Valley, routes across the deserts and ‘Nomes’ (a regional division of the country), city fortifications, house floorplans, the True Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and more. In the roleplaying game, players take on the roles of members of Egyptian society who go and well, not adventure exactly. Society in the setting is described as stable and as is made clear in the ‘G.M. Notes’, “…[T]he government will not allow a band of marauders to plunder the countryside (at least not within Egypt proper).” Instead, it is suggested that the adventurers undertake business trips or pilgrimages, perhaps be representatives of noble or merchant patrons. Alternatively, there are ruins to explore or military ventures to engage in beyond the borders of the country, even though none of Egypt’s enemies are detailed, but suggestions as to what the Player Characters might do in a scenario or campaign are really only covered in the barest of details. In some ways this parallels the feel of an earlier roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne, which has always had the repetition of being dense and impenetrable and not easy to run from the material contained in the rules. That said, an experienced Game Master will be able to develop an adventure from the material in the book.

A Player Character in is, of course, Human and Egyptian. He is defined by his Caste, Attributes, Hit Points, Occupation, and Skills. There are four Castes—Nobility, Clergy, Bureaucracy, and Commons—and each Caste suggests possible Occupations and gives an Attribute bonus. For example, the Occupations for the Clergy Caste are Priest and Scholar and its grants a bonus to the Power Attribute. The five attributes are Strength, Speed, Intellect, Power, and Persona, and these range between three and eighteen. Hit Points are equal to double the Player Character’s Strength. There are five Occupations—Soldier, Priest, Scholar, Merchant, and Thief. Skills are given as percentile values, and come from a Player Character’s Caste and Occupation. To create a Player Character, a player rolls for his Caste, Attributes, selects an occupation, rolls for the number of Caste skills and selects them, and then picks four skills from those available from the Occupation. Oddly, the rulebook does not include a list of names. The process is quick, but not necessarily clearly explained. For example, Priests and Scholars can learn spells, but it is not how many they know at game’s start.

Caste: Bureaucracy
Occupation: Scholar

Strength 06 Speed 09 Intellect 18 Power 16 Persona 14

Hit Points: 12

Agriculture 20%, Gaming 26%, Law 18%, Magick 32%, Philosophy 18%, Reading 18%, Swimming 09%, Writing 18%

Clairvoyance, Detect Truth, Illumination

Mechanically, The Valley Of The Pharaohs employs the percentile system. A player rolls under percentile dice against a particular skill to succeed. Beginning Player Characters are thus far from being very skilled and one of the stated aims of play, at least mechanically, is to improve skills. Skill improvement is done at the end of each session and is done with a roll over the skill as in other percentile systems. A Player Character can also gain training in a skill. Combat is different and uses a twenty-sided die. To attack an opponent, a player rolls the die and adds bonuses based on the character’s Speed Attribute and Combat Skill. The Valley Of The Pharaohs differentiates between the Combat, Military Combat, Shield, Archery, and Throw Skills, and the higher the skill, the more bonuses provided. If the player rolls higher than the Resistance Factor of the target’s armour, which can range from six for simple clothing and eight for padded to eleven for leather and fourteen for scale, then the character is successful in penetrating the armour. Damage is then rolled for and applied directly to the target’s Hit Points. However, if the roll is equal to the Resistance Factor and up to five less than the Resistance Factor of the armour, the attack hits and damage is applied to the armour’s damage capacity before the target. A defending character, though, does have the option of parrying or dodging, which requires a player to roll higher than the attack roll. Either way, a roll of a natural twenty is a critical hit and inflicts double damage.

In comparison to the combat rules, the base mechanic and the rulebook’s explanation of it are woefully underwritten. The combat rules are given much more detail and have a bit of cut and thrust to them with combatants able to parry and dodge as well as attack. Soldiers do feel more skilled though, because there is direct correlation between a Warrior’s skill and what he can do in mechanical terms. As he gains in skill, he has more attacks, bonuses to attack and parry, and more. So even the average warrior is going to have two attacks per round and a bonus to parry if he has the Military Combat skill, although it is not clear what the difference between the Combat and Miliary Combat skills are. 

Magic uses the Magick skill to determine both how well a Player Character casts spells and what spells he might possibly know. His Magick skill is rolled against whenever he wants to cast a spell as per the roleplaying game’s skill mechanic. Its value is also used as the level of a Player Character’s magical knowledge in that a Player Character might know or be able to learn and cast all of the spells of a level under the value of his Magick. Thus, a Priest or Scholar with a Magick skill of 25 might only know the Illumination, Detect Truth, Clairvoyance, and Move Water spells, which are levels ten, fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five, respectively. Spells have a Magic Point cost to cast, a duration, and a casting time, ranging from two to twelve combat rounds, such as with the spells Portal and Speak with Gods, depending on spell level. A caster can also extend a spell and attempt to ward or counter a spell if he knows the spell being cast at him. Characters of all types have access to passive magick through amulets, wax figures, Ushabti, magic pictures, and more. Amulets provide minor bonuses, such as the Serpent’s Head, a red stone amulet that protects the wearer from snakes and to a certain extent from magical snakes, whilst Ushabti resemble objects in the real world which come to life and magically perform tasks that their real-world equivalents would. For example, a bull Ushabti could come to life and plough a field or a soldier Ushabti protect its owner. In the case of amulets, the more someone wears, the less effective they are. Of the two, the passive magic of the amulets and similar objects is much more interesting and much more immersive than that of the active magic. This is not to say that active magic is not powerful, but it is not as flashy as in other fantasy roleplaying games, there are a limited number of spells, and there are few if direct combat spells. Another issue is that the spells feel generic, rather than being specifically tied to the setting of Ancient Egypt, its priesthoods, and its gods, and that is not the case with the passive magic. 

In terms of setting, The Valley Of The Pharaohs provides information on the history of Ancient Egypt, its society, government, law, slavery, army, and more. It pays particular attention to the clergy, which includes temples, medicine, beliefs, and of course, burial customs, plus the gods themselves. A bestiary gives stats for ordinary creatures such as crocodiles and baboons, and for monsters like great serpents and several unnamed man-eating beasts believed to inhabit the deserts. The range of monsters feels threadbare.

Rounding out The Valley Of The Pharaohs is a set of tables for random encounters and treasures, the latter slightly at odds with non-marauding style of play the author informs the Game Master is ill-suited to the setting. Even the limited number of spells with their even more limited number of direct combat spells enforce this style of play. Yet the advice for the Game Master is limited in terms of explaining what sort of games and campaigns can be run using The Valley Of The Pharaohs. In particular, military campaigns are severely curtailed because although the roleplaying game is set at a time when Egypt is conducting military campaigns beyond its borders, only neighbouring Nubia is mentioned, and then only in passing. So, no idea is given of who these possible rivals are and what their armies look like. Similarly, whilst priests are discussed in general, the only difference between them is that they worship different gods. So, it is not easy to develop scenarios involving inter-temple rivalries and factionalism because there is not enough information here. This is not to dismiss the amount of information in what is a forty-year-old roleplaying game just fifty pages in length, but rather it can at best be described as a decent introduction to the period—at least for 1983. An experienced Game Master would be able to overcome these issues with research, and there is a bibliography included in the back of the rulebook. Of course, there have been developments in Egyptology since, so even what is here may have become outdated by contemporary standards. Plus, research today is going to be much easier to conduct than it was in 1983. Ultimately in terms of a setting, The Valley Of The Pharaohs is almost too settled and too stable, so that there are no real tensions or rivalries or differences which might drive adventure, conflict, or obvious story.

Physically, The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt manages to both please and disappoint at the same time. The production values are disappointingly poor, the quality of the paper a significant factor in that—especially for the various separate maps and illustrations, which consequently feel flimsy. The rulebook’s text is also small and cramped and not easy to read. Yet the artwork, the maps, and so on are really particularly good, strong, bold, and really capture the feel of the setting.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt appears to have been reviewed just the once. This was by designer Jonathan Tweet, in the ‘Game Reviews’ department of Different Worlds Issue 45 (March/April 1987). He wrote, “The biggest obstacle to running a Valley of the Pharaohs campaign is the lack of motives for adventuring. The rules sanely remind gamemasters that armed adventurers freelancing as monster exterminators do not belong in 'the civilized, orderly land of Egypt but do not offer alternatives to the kinds of adventures players usually enjoy. If the game was designed so that the scholar, merchant, and soldier characters could have exciting adventures in civilized country like Egypt using all the noncombat skills described, Valley of the Pharaohs would have been given a better rating, but the game left me with no excitement as to the possibilities for scenarios.” before concluding that, “The Valley of the Pharaohs, then, would be a worthwhile game for those with deep interest in ancient Egypt and for those gamemasters with enough energy and imagination to synthesize historical background and basic game mechanics into an original and exciting campaign. Good luck to those of you who try.” He awarded The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt just one-and-a-half stars.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt has all of the right substance—solid, if basic rules, a decent amount of background and history, and plenty of excellent illustrations and maps, but where it comes up short is application. What exactly do you do with it and what sort of scenarios and campaigns do you play? The basic advice that The Valley Of The Pharaohs is a stable and settled society does not leave the Game Master with a great deal to work with in terms of setting up a campaign or even a scenario. There is no denying that there is the basics of a solid enough roleplaying game in The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt, but in terms what adventures can be run, it is underdeveloped and leaves a lot of work for the Game Master to do. One might say that it is all ‘Valley of the Pharaohs’ and not enough ‘adventure’.

Mapping Your Castles, Crypts, & Caverns

Given the origins of the roleplaying hobby—in wargaming and in the drawing of dungeons that the first player characters, and a great many since, explored and plundered—it should be no surprise just how important maps are to the hobby. They serve as a means to show a tactical situation when using miniatures or tokens and to track the progress of the player characters through the dungeon—by both the players and the Dungeon Master. And since the publication of Dungeon Geomorphs, Set One: Basic Dungeon by TSR, Inc. in 1976, the hobby has found different ways in which to provide us with maps. Games Workshop published several Dungeon Floor Sets in the 1980s, culminating in Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh; Dwarven Forge
has supplied dungeon enthusiasts with highly detailed, three-dimensional modular terrain since 1996; and any number of publishers have sold maps as PDFs via Drivethrurpg.com. Loke Battle Mats does something a little different with its maps. It publishes them as books.

A Loke BattleMats book comes as a spiral-bound book. Every page is a map and every page actually light card with a plastic covering. The fact that it is spiral-bound means that the book lies completely flat and because there is a map on every page, every map can be used on its own or combined with the map on the opposite page to work as one big, double-page spread map. The fact that the book is spiral bound means that it can be folded back on itself and thus just one map used with ease or the book unfolded to reveal the other half of the map as necessary. The fact that every page has a plastic covering means that every page can be drawn on using a write-on/wipe-off pen. It is a brilliantly simple concept which has already garnered the publisher the UK Games Expo 2019 People’s Choice Awards for Best Accessory for the Big Book of Battlemats and both the UK Games Expo 2019 Best Accessory and UK Games Expo 2019 People’s Choice Awards Best Accessory for the Giant Book of Battle Mats.

The Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats is a ‘Set of 2 Battle Map Books for RPG’. As a set, it comes as two volume set of map books in a slipcase—open ended at either side for easy access. Each of the two volumes is a twelve-inch squire square, spiral bound book, with each containing sixty maps, all marked with a square grid. These start with a pair of maps with just a plain, but quickly leap into depicting particular locations. There are castle walls with towers and stables, great spiraling stairs, a mess hall, temples and dormitories, libraries and ritual rooms, ornamental gardens, befouled sewer tunnels, and caverns set across a variety of terrain types, and much, much more. And this is more or less the same in each of the two books. This does not mean that the maps are exactly the same in each book. Rather they are thematically similar and this leads into what is perhaps the greatest feature of the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats.

Each two-page spread of the two volumes of the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats consists of two linked maps—physically and thematically. The Game Master can use either of the maps on the two-page spread on their own or together, as a twelve by twenty-four-inch rectangular map. That though is with the one volume. With two volumes together, the Game Master can combine any single map from one volume with any single map from the other, and if that is not flexible enough, any two-page spread from one volume can be placed next to a two-page spread from the other, in the process, creating a twenty-four by twenty-four-inch square map. What is means is that the Game Master can connect the two sections of castle walls to create a longer section, the sewers can be extended, and the mess hall, dormitories, and other sections placed together to form a barracks, for example. As with the other titles in the range, this gives the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books a fantastic versatility which the Game Master can take advantage of again and again in choosing a combination of map pages from the two volumes to create location after location, and then use them to build encounter after encounter.

The individual maps are excellent, being bright, vibrant, detailed, and clear. They are easy to use and easy to modify. A Game Master can easily adjust them with a write-on/wipe-off pen to add features of her own. This is especially important if the Game Master wants to use a map which has previously featured in one of her adventures. She can also add stickers if she wants new features or even actual physical terrain features.

There are four books in the seriesthe Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats, The Wilderness Books of Battle Mats, The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats, and The Towns & Taverns Books of Battle Mats. There is a difference between the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats and the other titles which is both an advantage and a disadvantage for this set of books. The difference is that instead of focusing of one or two themes, such as dungeons or towns and taverns, the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats obviously focuses on three. This gives its a flexibility which means it slots easily alongside a wider range of maps from the other three books in the series. For example, the castle maps from the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats can abut against the street maps from The Towns & Taverns Books of Battle Mats or the caverns added to those in The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats. However, it is not quite possible to create a complete castle or fortress or other buildings or similar buildings with this book set. Rather, it feels as if the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats is a book of abutments, sections that support and expand the maps in the other entries in the series, ratehr than being a standalone product. Consequently, they are not necessarily that easy to use on the fly, to ready up an encounter at a moment’s notice. Instead, they are easier to use as part of the Game Master’s preparation and then have everything necessary to play. Then obviously, the maps cannot be used over and over lest familiarity become an issue. Neither of these are issues which will prevent a Game Master from using the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats, but rather that she should be aware of them prior to bringing them to the table.

Physically, the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats is very nicely produced. The maps are clear, easy to use, fully painted, and vibrant with colour. One issue may well be with binding and the user might want to be a little careful folding the pages back and forth lest the pages crease or break around the spiral comb of the binding. Although there is some writing involved in the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats, it is not really what a Game Master is looking for with this two-volume set. Fortunately, the writing is a little sharper than in previous entries in the series.

There is no denying the usefulness of maps when it comes to the tabletop gaming hobby. They help players and Game Masters alike visualise an area, they help track movement and position, and so on. If a gaming group does not regularly use miniatures in their fantasy games, the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats might not be useful, but it will still help them visualise an area, and it may even encourage them to use them. If they already use miniatures, whether fantasy roleplaying or wargaming, then the maps in the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats will be useful—but only to an extent and then really only best used with the other volumes in the series. Still there are so many fantasy roleplaying games which Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats will work with, almost too many to list here…

The Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats is full of attractive, ready-to-use maps that the Game Master can bring to the table for the fantasy roleplaying game of her choice. As with other entries in the series, the Castles, Crypts, & Caverns Books of Battle Mats is both practical and pretty, but its broader focus that it is not quite as useful an accessory for fantasy gaming in general with the rest of the line.

Friday 24 February 2023

Friday Fantasy: Earth Incubation Crisis

The year is 1635. The village of Landskrona has nothing to recommend it except perhaps for a legend about a dragon having been killed in the past—nobody can remember exactly when—and that is all. Landskrona is utterly forgettable except… In the past few months two teenage girls have gone missing, as have several children. There are rumours of witches in the area, because, well, it is 1635 and there are witches in the area. Also, a unit of mercenaries recently passed through the area looking for bandits. However, the missing girls and children, let alone the rumours of witchcraft are not the only problems besetting the village of Landskrona, let alone the rest of Norway, Europe, and even the whole of the Earth—though they are just the most obvious ones! This is the set-up for Earth Incubation Crisis, a scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. Written by the designer of Wight Power, the good news is that whilst Earth Incubation Crisis is another ‘hidden, apocalyptic monster waiting to be unleashed, whilst surrounded by monsters’, it is more interesting, better developed, and less provocatively titled than Wight Power, and whilst it contains content that is prurient in places and is adult in tone throughout, it is not thoroughly as unpleasant or as tasteless as Curse of the Daughterbrides. In fact, inspired by Japanese Science Fiction, Earth Incubation Crisis has the potential to be a lot of fun.

Earth Incubation Crisis is essentially a hexcrawl set in the Norwegian countryside. Like other scenarios published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess it is set in the game’s default early Modern Period. Specifically, in 1635 Norway, so it could work with several of the other publisher’s titles or equally easily adapted to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. It could even be shifted to another similar location. The scenario begins when the Player Characters arrive in the village of Landskrona and quickly learn of its problems—the missing persons and the rumours of witchcraft, as well as the possibility of discovering a dragon’s hoard. This is motivation for them to set out and investigate the nearby forests, marsh, and mountains. Barring the village of Landskrona, there are only five set locations in the scenario, set across the region. As the Player Characters move about the area, they will run into encounter after encounter, and it is with these encounters that the scenario begins to come its own. The author has made an effort to make every encounter detailed and interesting. For example, brown bears are sighted in the area, but a pair of corpses are later found which turn out to be of a couple who tried to live in harmony with the bears and unfortunately, it did not go as they intended. An abandoned home will be found, but its former occupant might be found later. There is the mercenary band out looking for the bandits and the bandits themselves, hiding out after a robbery went wrong—which is why they are being hunted. The mercenaries are not just soldiers and the bandits not just bandits, there is a bit more to them in each case, which can work in the Player Characters’ favour as much as it could hinder them under different circumstances. Some of the NPCs are monstrous, but the major NPCs in particular are well drawn and often elicit the sympathies of the Referee, let alone the players and their characters. In other cases, what would ordinarily be seen as in monsters in other Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures are here treated as completely sympathetic. There are some genuinely entertaining NPCs in Earth Incubation Crisis and the Referee will have a lot of fun portraying them.

Ultimately, clues found across the area will point to something else going on in the region and following those clues will reveal a secret area where the real threat at the heart of the scenario can be found. Directly inspired by classic Japanese Science Fiction films, this is a truly gargantuan threat. Discovery of this sets up the second of two moral dilemmas in the scenario. This is a much bigger one, one which fits the scale of the threat. The scenario includes a solution, again on a similarly grand scale. If there is a downside to the solution and the final denouement in the scenario, it is that it can only really involve the one Player Character, who gets a very big role in the spotlight. 

Physically, Earth Incubation Crisis is a handsome hardback, done in orange shades throughout with slightly cartoonish illustrations. However, the artwork is unnecessarily prurient in places in way that adds nothing to the situation described in the book. Also, giving a robot the name ‘P3N1S’ is immature, if not puerile.

Like many scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RoleplayEarth Incubation Crisis is best run a as one-shot, because with the likelihood of the world being ended, a campaign is really difficult to carry on. Despite that, Earth Incubation Crisis is a lot of fun. It takes the standard format for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay scenario of there being a ‘hidden, apocalyptic monster waiting to be unleashed, whilst surrounded by monsters’, and themes it around two genres which normally do not meet, but clash suitably here, whilst also presenting the players and their characters with a moral dilemma (and a way out of it). Earth Incubation Crisis then sets this in a superbly detailed, hexcrawl populated with interesting encounters and a cast of grotesques, and then lets the Player Characters loose upon the Norwegian countryside to discover the horrors, both natural and unnatural for themselves.

Friday Filler: Village Rails

Osprey Games is primarily known for its wargames rules, such as Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, but it also publishes board and card games and roleplaying games too. The latter includes Gran Meccanismo: Clockpunk Roleplaying in da Vinci’s Florence, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, and Heirs to Heresy: The fall of the Knights Templar, whilst the former includes titles such as Undaunted Normandy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motives. The latter is rail-themed board game designed for two to four players aged up fourteen and over, and designed to be played in less than an hour. It has a delightfully cosy feel to it, being set in the English countryside during the Age of Steam during the thirties, forties, and fifties. Play is simple with each player only having to make a few choices and the game ends once everyone has taken twelve turns after which each player’s tableau or rail network is scored and the player with the highest score wins.

Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motives consists of eighty Railway Cards, thirty-eight Terminus Cards, four Reference Cards and four Scoring Dials, Border Pieces, and almost fifty coins. The Border Pieces and coins are done in thick cardboard, as are the Scoring Dials, which do require some assembly. The Border Pieces are marked with the start of seven railway lines and are used to create an ‘L-shape’ into which the Railway Cards are placed as a three-by-five twelve-card grid. The Railway Cards are double-sided. On one side is Track, which depicts two single tracks running across terrain such as fields, pasture, forest, lakes, and villages. The Track side are also marked various symbols, including Barns, Farms, Halts, and Sidings. When they appear on a completed line, these will all score a player points, except for Sidings which are scored at the end of the game. On the other side of the Railway Cards are Trips, which score a player if their conditions are met. For example, ‘2 per type of feature on the line.’, ‘No Bulls on the line: 4 points’, and ‘Only straight tracks on the line: 6 points’. Terminus Cards earn a player money when played, the amount depending on the indicated features on the cards, for example, the number of tractors on the line, number of different terrain features on the line, and so on. The greater the number of features on the line, the more money a Terminus Card will earn.

At the start of the game, each player receives an ‘L-shape’ border and £5 in coins. Once the Railway Cards are shuffled, cards are drawn to form two markets—the Track Market and the Trip Market. These are two lines of cards from which a player can select a single Track card and a single Trip card respectively on his turn. The first card in each market is always free to take, but the cards further along the line and closer to the deck must be purchased, with cards closer to the deck being more expensive. This money is placed on the cards further away from the deck and if a player subsequently selects one of the cards with money on it, he receives both card and money. Each player receives three Terminus Cards which he keeps secret until played. On a turn, a player can conduct two actions. The first is to build tracks, which the player must do, the second is to plan a trip, which is optional, but can be done before or after building tracks. Planning a trip always costs money and the Trip card selected is placed next to the player’s L-shape border at the start of a line. Each line can have two Trip cards like this. When selected a Track card is placed into a player’s tableau, either next to a border or another Track card. If as a result of a Track card being placed, a railway line runs from the player’s ‘L-shape’ border to the edge of his tableau, it is considered completed and can be scored. Points are scored for the features on the line, for the bonus provided by the adjacent Trip card, and money if a Terminus card has been played. The Reference Cards help scoring easy for each player.

In Village Rails, each player is working to complete his own tableau and the game does not involve any direct interaction with each other. The interaction comes indirectly through the game’s two markets—the Track Market and the Trip Market. Here each player will be watching them for the best cards to become available, hopefully free in the case of the Track Market and cheap in the case of the Trip Market, and before another player takes them. Another reason to take a card is that it has money on it. Money will enable a player to purchase a better Track or Trip card than before another player can, or simply just buy a Trip card, and the right Trip card will score more points. What this means is that the players have to spend their money with care and take the opportunity of their Terminus cards to earn more. A player will always have three Terminus cards, so fortunately, there is always the opportunity for him to earn money when completing a line.

Placement of the Track cards also takes care and players tend to place their first Track cards at the outer corners of their L-shape and work inwards to fill in all twelve spaces in their tableaus. This is because those placed at the corners can often be completed first, scoring a player some points and potentially earning him money. It also initially gives a wider choice as to what cards a player can draw and play, but as more and more Track cards are placed, the choices begin to tighten as a player tries to balance trying to find the right Track card to add to a tableau and purchase the Trip card which will score him the most points. Throughout, a player will always be considering how he can maximise the number of points he can score and how much money he can earn. Play continues until every player has placed his twelfth Track card and the final scoring is done for the Sidings.

Physically, Village Railways is delightfully and sturdily presented. The first thing that you notice upon lifting up the rules booklet from the box is one single piece of design to the components—and not to the components of the game, but the packaging of the components that the players pull out to assemble the Scoring Dials and the Border Tiles. There is a notch in the corner where a finger can be inserted and the thick sheets of card pulled out. This only has to be done the once, but it just makes things that little bit easier. Otherwise, all of the game’s components are sturdy, appropriately cosy in theme, and easy to use, although the symbols on the Track Cards are not always easy to spot, especially on the Track Cards with a darker theme, such as the forests. The rule book itself is clearly presented and includes a good example of a single turn, and the artwork has a lovely period feel, especially the locomotive illustrations on the Trip cards.

If there is an issue with Village Railways, it is that it pitches itself as a railway game set in the English countryside where the locals are happy to allow tracks to be built by the players or railway companies, but make specific demands of them. Which sounds like the players are laying tracks, but where they go will often be dictated by intervening or vociferous busybodies or persons of note, but it is not that. It is instead, more of a puzzle game in which each player attempts to fill a grid with tracks and maximise their points. Essentially, Village Rails combines drafting from a marketplace, tile placement, and route planning and building with the almost puzzle-like element of placing Track cards and connecting railway lines in a way which every player hopes will optimise his railway network and his score. Not as light a game as it first seems, Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motivess is simple to learn and quick to play, but it is more challenging and thoughtful than the average filler game.

Monday 20 February 2023

Miskatonic Monday #179: Camp Otter Lake

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Liddle

Setting: 1980s USA
Product: Scenario Outline
What You Get: Six page, 241.81 KB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Summer camp scares, again. Again.
Plot Hook: Summer camp promises freedom and pay, but serves up scares and haunting.
Plot Support: Staging and set-up advice, timeline, and two handouts.
Production Values: Undemanding.

# Straightforward plot outline
# Minimal investigation, mainly a physical investigation
# Phasmophobia
# Diokophobia

# Requires development by the Keeper
# Requires Player Characters to be created
# No Sanity losses or gains
# Requires a strong edit
# Non-Mythos slasher horror cliché

# Non-Mythos slasher horror cliché 
# Single-session scenario outline 
which requires development by the Keeper

‘B2’ Series: Warriors of the Gray Lady

The reputation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Yet since then, Wizards of the Coast has all but ignored B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the module that preceded it, B1 In Search of the Unknown, barring the publisher’s 2012 Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos: An Adventure for Character Levels 1-3. This was the playtest scenario for D&D Next, first seen in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which was essentially previewing what would go on to become Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Instead, it would be other publishers who would revisit both scenarios in the twenty-first century. So Kenzer & Company first published B1 Quest for the Unknown, a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown for use with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, and would follow it up with not one, but two versions of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. First with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4 in 2002, and then again in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure. Another publisher to revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands was Chris Gonnerman, with JN1 The Chaotic Caves, a scenario written for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. In addition, Faster Monkey Games published its own homage to B1 In Search for the Unknown with The Hidden Serpent, whilst Pacesetter Games & Simulations has published a number of extra encounters and sequels for both scenarios, most notably B1 Legacy of the Unknown and B2.5 Blizzard on the Borderland.

Yet Wizards of the Coast did not ignore its extensive back catalogue. It would release numerous titles in PDF, and even allow Print on Demand reprints, including both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Further, in 2017, it published Tales from the Yawning Portal, a collection of scenarios that had originally been published for previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First EditionDungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and even D&D Next. These scenarios though, did not include either B1 In Search of the Unknown or B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Which upon first glance seemed a strange omission, but then came the announcement from Goodman Games about Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands

Arguably, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands would prove to be the ultimate version of the classic module, but authors have continued to revisit the original even since such as with the fanzine version from Swordfish Islands LLC, which so far consists of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2. Yet there remain oft forgotten visits to the famous ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ and the equally infamous, ‘Caves of Chaos’, which are worth examining and shining light upon. So it is with ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’. Written by Jeff Grubb, ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ was published in 1999 as an insert in InQuest Gamer #50 (June, 1999), the monthly magazine for game reviews and news from Wizard Entertainment, which ran between 1995 and 2007 and had a particular focus on collectable card games. Nominally known as ‘IQ3’ and just sixteen pages in length, it was written for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and designed as a prequel to the soon to be released Return to the Keep of the Borderlands. It is for Player Characters of between First and Third Level and takes place before they arrive at the eponymous keep on the borderlands.

‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ opens with the Player Characters on the road to the frontier and the border castle there, aiming to use it as a base of operations as they explore and potentially clean out the Caves of Chaos that their parents told them about. Their path is blocked by a caravan where a cleric is vociferously complaining that the caravan’s guards failed to stop the theft of an important magical item, the Helm of Perception, he was taking to the keep. The cleric hires the Player Characters to go after the thief. When they accept, the thief’s tracks lead into the forest to the north and then to a clearing when his body, not far from a cave mouth in a low hill. Inside the cave is a classic kingdom of the mushroom men or Myconids, but it is a kingdom in disarray. Some time prior to the Player Characters’ arrival, another party of adventurers entered the cave in search of treasure. They were all killed in the attempt, but as both the last of the adventurers and the king of the Myconids lay dying, the king released the spores to create a new king, but the spores mingled with the dying human warrior and kept her alive—sort of. Now she is the ‘Gray Queen’, twisted by the fungus as much as her thoughts twist the shared thoughts of the Myconid collective mind and drive them all mad!

Although the final confrontation will involve combat, the Player Characters do not have to resort to combat in the earlier encounters in the caves. If they refrain, they will be able to learn what has happened in the caves since the invasion of the previous adventuring party. This is done in a pleasingly entertaining and alien fashion, which involves the Myconids still free of the Gray Queen’s disturbing influence blasting messages spores into the faces of the Player Characters! Although quite lengthy, the description of this is nicely done and the experience should be a weird one for player and characters alike—and actually one the Player Characters are likely to be wary off of if the Myconids have used spores on them earlier in the scenario. ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ should last no more than a single session.

Since the events of ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ do not take place at the Keep on the Borderlands, what does the scenario add to Return to the Keep on the Borderlands? Well, it sets things up for the Player Characters’ arrival. If they are able to recover the Helm of Perception, they will have made possible allies and contacts at the keep, ones who can supply ready healing. Very likely something they are going to need after a visit or two to the Caves of Chaos! One of the NPCs—the complaining cleric encountered at the caravan—is fully written and could become a recurring figure at the keep for the Player Characters, even though he is likely to be very annoying. The scenario includes some advice for the Dungeon Master which discusses most possible eventualities and outcomes of the scenario, including the Player Characters stealing the Helm of Perception or the annoying cleric getting killed.

Physically, ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is done in full rich colour—something that not even featured in the official releases for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition at the time. Notably, it is illustrated with a range of fully painted pieces, all of them drawn from the covers of previous books for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, including pieces from the Dragonlance line. One issue perhaps with this is that nearly all of the illustrations showcase Dungeons & Dragons in general rather than the scenario itself. This is confirmed by the pieces of descriptive text accompanying the artwork which are generic in nature and verging on the trite. At least for Dungeons & Dragons, that is!

‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is a serviceable scenario which could be run as a prequel to Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. However, it is not vital to that scenario, even though it does help set up the Player Characters and their reputation for when they do arrive at the keep. Similarly, the scenario would be a reasonable side quest or side trek adventure for most campaigns for low Level Player Characters. Overall, ‘Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is an interesting, if minor side note to the history of B2 Keep on the Borderlands.