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

Friday 8 September 2023

Pocket Sized Perils #3

For every Ptolus: City by the Spire or Zweihander: Grim & Perilous Roleplaying or World’s Largest Dungeon or Invisible Sun—the desire to make the biggest or most compressive roleplaying game, campaign, or adventure, there is the opposite desire—to make the smallest roleplaying game or adventure. Reindeer Games’ TWERPS (The World's Easiest Role-Playing System) is perhaps one of the earliest examples of this, but more recent examples might include the Micro Chapbook series or the Tiny D6 series. Yet even these are not small enough and there is the drive to make roleplaying games smaller, often in order to answer the question, “Can I fit a roleplaying game on a postcard?” or “Can I fit a roleplaying game on a business card?” And just as with roleplaying games, this ever-shrinking format has been used for scenarios as well, to see just how much adventure can be packed into as little space as possible. Recent examples of these include The Isle of Glaslyn, The God With No Name, and Bastard King of Thraxford Castle, all published by Leyline Press.

The Pocket Sized Perils series uses the same A4 sheet folded down to A6 as the titles from Leyline Press, or rather the titles from Leyline Press use the same A4 sheet folded down to A6 sheet as Pocket Sized Perils series. Funded via a Kickstarter campaign as part of the inaugural ZineQuest—although it debatable whether the one sheet of paper folded down counts as an actual fanzine—this is a series of six mini-scenarios designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but actually rules light enough to be used with any retroclone, whether that is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game or Old School Essentials. Just because it says ‘5e’ on the cover, do not let that dissuade you from taking a look at this series and see whether individual entries can be added to your game. The mechanics are kept to a minimum, the emphasis is on the Player Characters and their decisions, and the actual adventures are fully drawn and sketched out rather than being all text and maps.

Call of the Catacombs is the third entry in the Pocket Sized Perils series following on from An Ambush in Avenwood and The Beast of Bleakmarsh. Designed for Third Level Player Characters, the scenario is a classic dungeon crawl, or rather a classic sewer crawl in the style of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, though still very much in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. This because the scenario involves a particular monster—the humble kobold. The scenario is set in a city with extensive sewers, which the city authorities have contracted out the maintenance and operation of to a tribe of kobolds. Which is a little odd, if nevertheless, very forward and trusting of them. Unfortunately, the city’s wells of late have been unfit to drink from and when the inspectors sent to find out why have not returned, the city in desperation turns to freelancers—that is, the Player Characters—to investigate. Accompanying them is a guide to the sewers, a kobold called Scrip, who unfortunately has a certain chance of exploding and inflicting damage on everyone nearby. If there is a problem with Call of the Catacombs, it is this exploding kobold. Why? Why waste a perfectly good NPC that the Dungeon Master will have fun playing?

Call of the Catacombs is a linear adventure. It will take the Player Characters and their guide into the sewers, to the pumping station, and beyond. There are a few clues to be found along the way, such as kobolds emptying barrels of a strange liquid into the water flow and a set-up involving rats being milked! There is a diversion into some tunnels if the Player Characters want, these very nicely presented as a wheel that the Dungeon Master could almost spin to determine the random encounter were it not for the fact that the it is simply printed on heavy paper stock. The final two encounters of the scenario are on the back of all of the pages of the fold-out Pocket-Sized Peril. Here the Player Characters will discover what has been going on and who the culprit is, and face off against the creature in a big confrontation. For the Dungeon Master, there is an explanation, stats for all of the adventure’s monsters—including two new ones, and a random encounter table. The latter is not located in the place to run the scenario, the Dungeon Master needing to flip back and forth between the current location where the Player Characters and the last page. Ordinarily, this would not be an issue in a straightforward book, but the folded format of this scenario means that it is just that more awkward.

Physically, Call of the Catacombs is very nicely presented, being more drawn than actually written. It has a cartoonish sensibility to it which partially obscures the degree of peril to be found within the sewers and nearby tunnels. There is a sense of humour too in the details of the drawings, obviously more for the benefit of the Dungeon Master than her players. The combination of having been drawn and the cartoonish artwork with the high quality of the paper stock also gives Call of the Catacombs a physical feel which feels genuinely good in the hand. Its small size means that it is very easy to transport.

Call of the Catacombs presents a simple little mystery, that is ultimately, too simple. The adventure really only consists of six locations, so the exploration of it is never going to be a challenge. There is scope to expand it if the Dungeon Master wants, but it is not really necessary unless she wants to add more clues. Ultimately, the simplicity of the adventure design and the lack of exploratory, if not combat, challenge means that Call of the Catacombs is a filler dungeon, one that can easily be prepared with minimum time and effort, and then added to a town or city in the Dungeon Master’s campaign. Once done, it can also be played in a single session as well. Unsophisticated, if well presented, unlike the previous The Beast of Bleakmarsh , which was sophisticated given the size and format, but underdeveloped, Call of the Catacombs presents a very straightforward, but very easy to use, scenario. Call of the Catacombs has the same charming physicality of the other entries in the Pocket Sized Perils series, but will need more effort—though not too much effort—than those others to get the fullest out of the scenario.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Pookie,

    Thanks for the review! I really appreciate the thought and time you've given to the series.

    Your point on the depth of exploration on offer is fair. The Perils were/are a constant trade off for page space and rather than offer an elaborate map to navigate I went for the random table to imply a more complex environment than I could detail in the zine. But, as you mention, it's more a diversion than a vital adventure piece. It's also random so it doesn't reward accumulated knowledge from exploration like a great adventure location can.

    The balance between efficiency and depth was a real dance with the whole series.

    Your point on Skrip the NPC is well made too. I perhaps sacrificed a good GM's tool for a bit of a punchline there.

    Thanks again for the thoughts on the series - I hope to return to some adventure designing soon and it's valuable to have this kind of input.