A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

One Page Dungeon

One Page Dungeon Flyer

The One Page Dungeon contest has been running for several years now. This year it is being organized by Mundi King, aka Random Wizard. He’s done a really great job of securing some sponsors and getting all the old contest entries online in one place. You should participate in this years contest. It looks like it’ll be the best one yet.

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Review: Scenic Dunnsmouth

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski was released a couple weeks ago. It seems to have been in the works for ages now. It’s a location based adventure taking place entirely in the mysterious town of Dunnsmouth. What sets it apart from modules of yore like Village of Hommlet, The Veiled Society or Against the Cult of the Reptile God is how its town is described: it’s generated randomly. Scenic Dunnsmouth is a book about how to make an adventure in scenic Dunnsmouth.

The module is broken up into several sections that outline the town and its inhabitants. You determine the contents of the town by rolling some dice, which will indicate the homes of families and perhaps other places of note. The NPCs that inhabit the town are determined by drawing from a deck of playing cards. As such, 52 families from 4 larger extended families have been described. This section of the book was very reminiscent of Village of Hommlet. Each home is described with a little detail, always mentioning where the jewelry is hidden, where weapons might be stored, and what the various family dynamics are within the home. Unlike Hommlet, the people of Dunnsmouth are a lot more twisted and terrible on the whole. The town may have some additional special locations or people present, depending on how the dice fall. There is a lot of variety in what might turn up. It’s all creepy and weird and in line with what you would expect from a module from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. When I tried generating a random town myself it took a little over 15 minutes.

During the generation of the town each home can become corrupt in some way I will skip discussing because that might be a spoiler. (Can you spoil a randomly generated adventure?) I will say that while none of the writing in the book is particularly gory or gratuitous, I found these extra descriptions hard to read because they were grossing me out in a way I didn’t think descriptions of ████-people would. Outlines of what the resident serial killer is getting up to also move the module firmly into LotFP territory.

The book itself is quite nice, similar to the recent softcover adventures from LotFP in its presentation: perfect bound, rough matte paper, etc. The interior art is two tone: the extra colour is used really well. Jez Gordon has done a wonderful job with the art and layout of this book. I had originally thought the layout of the NPC section was a bit spartan, with one family described per page, but it actually makes looking up who is part of the town a breeze. If you have the PDF you can also just print up the pages that pertain to your town. It’d be straight forward to generate your own mini-Dunnsmouth booklet. It’s nice to see some extra thought going into how these things are laid out: they aren’t just books, they are meant to be used to game with.

Scenic Dunnsmouth is a very strong release for LotFP. Along with Forgive Us, I think it really showcases how to run an RPG game in the ‘real’ world. If you have been waiting for someone to write a really creepy Village of Hommlet look no further. (Now we just need a randomly generated creepy moat house.)

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Review: Forgive Us

I really like Kelvin Green’s Forgive Us.1 The module is well written and looks like it’d be fun to play. The thing is, there are lots of adventures I could say that about. Almost everything LotFP puts out is well written, at the very least. In my mind what makes Forgive Us really stand out is its smart use of page layout and illustration to effectively present the adventure.

The early modules from TSR are pretty terrible when it comes to something you could use to actually run a game at a table. It’s insane how dense they are. I find them hard to read leisurely. I can’t imaging flipping through them in the middle of a gaming session.2 Lots of DMs I know re-write them to make them easier for play and to help them memorize the key parts of the adventures. Most adventures I buy today continue to ape design choices made in the 70s and 80s, by people who probably were constrained by the printing technology of the time and their own knowledge of graphic design.

Green on the other hand has clearly thought about what this adventure would look like printed in a book. There are no wasted two-page spreads. Maps for relevant sections of the adventure are presented alongside their keys. Each map is illustrated with a level of detail that lets Green avoid overly verbose room descriptions. The heavy lifting is done by the maps. That’s not to say the module is bereft of any words. There is still a fair amount of writing, but it’s more useful and interesting than tedious description. Each section of the lair is discussed at a high level, with a mix of pertinent backstory, information, and jokes.

So, all of that said, you’re probably wondering what the hell this adventure is about? Green summarizes things thusly:

Forgive Us is the main and largest adventure, and is the closest to a classic dungeon crawl. The dungeon in this case is the lair of a gang of thieves, abandoned after an unlucky encounter with mutant shape-changing monsters. Said mutant shape-changing monsters are still there when your players arrive. Although the format was inspired by the Marienburg articles in White Dwarf – back when it was good, etcetera – in terms of plot it’s more or less John Carpenter’s The Thing mixed in with John Carpenter’s Escape From New York; I hope one of your players is Kurt Russell.

Who doesn’t like the Thing? That’s a rhetorical question. The adventure is an exploratory puzzle. How you explore the lair is pretty open ended. Because much of it is locked up, part of the adventure will involve tracking down keys or breaking down doors. There aren’t too many monsters to encounter, and I think many could be avoided by smart players. The adventure feels very much at home under the LotFP umbrella.

Forgive us is the 2nd module I’ve received for participating in the LotFP crazy summer adventure kickstarter bonanza thing. Thus far I’ve been quite happy with the results. If you’re going to ship late, it helps that what you ship is really good.

  1. I should go back and look at my old reviews, because I suspect I say this about most everything I read. Whatever. This book is good.

  2. Yes, of course you have. You are made of stronger stuff, no doubt.

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Men and Magic

It’s read an RPG in public week. That’s how I live every week of my life. Nevertheless I grabbed the first booklet from my fancy Original D&D boxed set to read on the train yesterday.

I’ve read Men and Magic before, but my bootlegged PDFs don’t do an actual copy of the book justice. It’s nice to be able to read a nicely printed copy of the booklet. As I mentioned when discussing Pits & Perils, the Original D&D books are pretty charming. Here is how they describe that infamous 6th attribute, Charisma:

In addition [to its other uses] the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover.

There are lots of gems like that scattered through out the book. It also has a great introduction.

These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.

People often complain—rightly so, I suppose—that OD&D is incomplete. For someone like myself, who is revisiting the game knowing how to play its modern incarnations, this isn’t really that big an issue. I can fill in most holes in the game because I know how they were eventually filled in.

What is notable is that the creators of D&D were well aware that what they had published wasn’t ready to play out of the box, so to speak. There is an expectation from them that rules would be fleshed out by gaming groups. OD&D exists to help you build your own fantasy RPG.

We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.

This is also great advice on how to approach developing a long-running D&D game. There is definitely a meta-game to D&D which is all about the things you do to prepare to play D&D: drawing dungeons, making up NPCs, house rules, etc. (Games like How to Host a Dungeon take that meta-game and make it explicit.) It’s easy to get sucked into doing far more than is needed when it comes to this sort of prep work. The authors tell you upfront that you need to watch out!

I read Monsters and Treasure today. Tomorrow I’ll probably read The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. If you haven’t read the original D&D books they are well worth checking out. I think they are by my favourite edition of the game.

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Review: Pits & Perils

James George, one of the authors of Pits & Perils, emailed me out of the blue to let me know I got a special thanks in his new book, Fear! Fire! Foes! He appreciated my enthusiasm for the game he had written along with his wife. I thought it strange that despite loving Pits & Perils like it’s no ones business, I’ve somehow managed to avoid talking about it here on my blog.

Pits & Perils is another Original Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, but one that is trying to copy the spirit of the game rather than its rules. When reading other retroclones I’m constantly trying to figure out what has been changed, often unfairly judging them on how close they can get to the game they are attempting to recreate. I find Pits & Perils quite refreshing in this regard.

Pits & Perils uses the roll of a 2d6 to resolve most situations in a game, from fighting monsters to making saving throws. The various character classes from D&D all make an appearance in this game, and are for the most part very similar to their D&D counterparts. One thing I really like in Pits & Perils is the magic system. All the magic spells in Pits and Perils have four letter names (cure, glow, pass, ruin, etc), are described with a handful of sentences, and are usable at any level. I was reminded of what Brendan at Necropraxis is doing with his spells without levels writing. The game as a whole is much simpler than Original Dungeons and Dragons, and the rules are presented in a much more straightforward fashion. I think it’d be a great game to introduce someone to RPGs with: there is just enough stuff going on, and no more.

There is something about the game I find thoroughly charming. Like Original Dungeons & Dragons there are lots of little throw away rules scattered throughout the booklet that add colour to the whole game and its implied game world. I love this entry about demons from Fear! Fire! Foes!:

“DEMONS above 10th level are individual (named) demon lords. Ambitious referees can assign names to each and have these written in books or musty old scrolls with a slight (1 in 1d6) chance of accidentally summoning them when their name is spoken aloud. A terrible fate.”

The introduction to Fear! Fire! Foes! does a great job of capturing the overall mood and goals of the game.

Many old-school games attempt to recreate a time when role-playing had already become a separate hobby (the early 1980s). Pits & Perils, on the other hand, goes back to when it was still just emerging from the historical simulations it came from. Everything we now call “old-school” owes much to the hobby’s war-gaming origins:

Historical war games emphasized movement and maneuver over special powers and abilities. In fact, most were tables of movement rates, ranges, and modifiers for achieving tactical superiority, like flanking enemies or seizing the high ground, etc. The underlying mechanics were otherwise extremely simple, often little more than “you hit on a 6.”

This was the early 1970s. Fantasy had not yet become mainstream, and inspiration was limited to the real Middle Ages, mythology, and the smattering of books, movies, and television available at the time. This lack of sophistication lent the rules an innocence missing in later, more advanced, role-playing games. It was homemade fun.

It’s interesting to compare the original three Dungeons and Dragons booklets to most everything that followed them. You can clearly see their war-game roots. So much of Original D&D isn’t even spelled out, the authors assumed you had played enough Chainmail or other war-games to know who goes first in combat or what to do about morale. With Greyhawk you see the game move in a much more modern direction: it starts to become its own things independent of the war-games that proceeded it.

Pits & Perils is such a solid piece of writing. In 74 pages you have all the rules, spells, monsters and treasure you’d need for a great campaign. It’s well worth checking out. I’m also a big fan of its first supplement, Fear! Fire! Foes!, and not just because my name is in the book! This is some good stuff, people.

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Review: City by the Silt Sea

City by the Silt Sea

I recall really looking forward to the release of City by the Silt Sea. The cover art by Brom was pretty spectacular. I was a big fan of the Dark Sun books that revealed more about the history of the world. City by the Silt Sea is one such book, all about the ruined city of Giustenal. The city is mentioned very briefly in the original Dark Sun boxed set. This boxed set expands those few paragraphs into a campaign book, an adventure book, a monster booklet, 4 cards with useful information for the DM, and a big poster map by Diesel of Giustenal and its environs.

The campaign booklet for City by the Silt Sea opens with a brief history of the ruined city of Giustenal. I suspect the expectation is that most Dark Sun DMs have read Troy Denning’s novels, as this overview is pretty high level. The booklet expands on the story of the world revealed thus far by introducing another Sorcerer-King Dregoth who was betrayed and murdered by his fellow Sorcerer-King. Unfortunately for them he now lives under his ruined city-state as a Dragon-Lich, and is looking to have his revenge on the world. In this opening chapter we quickly learn about his rise and fall, and what he’s been up to the last 2000 or so years.

The next few sections of the campaign book detail the various places adventure can take place in and around Giustenal. Starting with a zoomed out view of the region, the book looks at nearby cities and adventure hooks to get people to Giustenal. From there the book moves on to the dangers that surround the ancient city, and what’s involved in safely making it inside. Making it into Giustenal is tricky: much of the city is under the sea of silt, and the more obvious routes in are blocked by huge tar pits. There are also a few interesting NPCs that players can befriend or battle. The ruins and dangers of the ancient city itself are covered next, including a look at a couple passageways that lead to the catacombs and ancient cities that lay under Giustenal. There are actually four cities underneath Giustenal: the Sunken city, the Goaning City, Kragmorta, and New Giustenal. Each of these places is described in turn with a brief history, followed by adventuring locations and NPCS and monsters of note. The last section of the book is a look at Dregoth and the new race of creatures he has created since becoming a dragon, the Dray. Compared to a lot of the other Dark Sun settings books I’ve read this one feels really on point.

The adventure described in the adventure book is presented in an unusual fashion. Each chapter more or less maps to a corresponding chapter in the settings book, and simply lists a series of possible encounters that would make sense in that locale. Each encounter follows the following format: there is a setup, that explains when the encounter should take place, some read aloud text to start the encounter, the details of what happens during the encounter, what the possible outcomes could be and what they mean for the PCs, and finally what the next possible encounters could be. The encounters can be played in a mixed order, skipped, etc. The adventure book is designed to facilitate players simply exploring the region in and around Giustenal. There is also an overarching quest that is barely hinted at for players and dungeon masters who are into that sort of thing.

The poster map as well as the maps inside the two books are all done by Diesel. I am a big fan of his maps. He does a really good job of illustrating the various locations outlined in the book. The remaining interior artwork is by Tom Baxa, of course. There are lots of illustrations, of varying quality.

The monster booklet and DM cards round out the boxed set. The new monsters are really par for the course for Dark Sun. Notable at the time was that Dregoth was the first Sorcerer-King with actual statistics.

After re-reading the other Dark Sun settings books last year I was getting worried that the whole line may have actually been terrible and I was just too stupid to notice. Thankfully I genuinely liked City by the Silt Sea. I would go so far as to call it good. This review was prompted by the re-release of this product as a PDF by Wizards of the Coast.

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Random Dungeon

A term I hadn’t heard before discovering the RPG scene on Google+ was “Gygaxian Democracy”. People will crowd source material for D&D games from the masses, often with much success.1 Zak Smith seems to be the best at getting people out for these sorts of activities. Most recently, he crowd sourced dungeon room descriptions. His rules were simple: 8 words or less, don’t try too hard to be clever. That’s apparently all you need to end up with lots and lots of dungeon.

As I am known to do, I turned the whole exercise into a website. It keys random dungeons. Enjoy.

  1. Unless you’ve been living under a D&D rock, you’ve no doubt already seen The Hexenbracken, The Kraal, The Colossal Wastes of Zhaar.

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Play Report: Empire of the Petal Throne

Empire of the Petal Throne will feel familiar to anyone who has played Original Dungeons and Dragons. Some of the changes strike me as odd: the standard six stats have been renamed and are rolled up using percentile dice: that’s a lot of variability in your core stats. There are some basic skills and professions that characters begin the game knowing, and can learn as they level up. Thanks to a good die roll my character had a ton of skills: he was a sailor, a ship captain, a tailor, a sail maker, etc, etc. The standard three classes, fighter, clerics and magic-user, are all accounted for, though the later two are further tweaked to make sense within the setting of the game. I suppose that is what really makes Empire of the Petal Throne stand out: its setting, the fantasy world of Tékumel.

Tékumel was created over a life time by professor M.A.R. Barker. He began when he was 10 and it sounds like he never stopped developing his fantasy world until his death at the age of 82. Many people compare it to Tolkien’s Middle Earth in its depth and scope.

James, Brendan, Evan and myself met to play a game of Empire of the Petal Throne over the weekend. James DM’d, and as such had the unenviable task of trying to introduce the world of Tékumel to us. Our adventure began using what I am led to understand is a common conceit for gaming in Tékumel: we played a group of barbarians who had recently arrived in the great port city of Jakálla. We quickly found work evicting some some other foreigners from a tenement: not the most heroic of tasks, but we were new to the city and needed money and friends. I had rolled a 1 for my starting gold (kaitars), so my character was particularly eager to change his financial situation. With no equipment to speak of I pictured him like a character from Final Fight.

Brendan played a magic-user, and we used his characters spells to good effect. Magic in EPT works differently than OD&D. There is a chance of failure when you try and cast a spell. The starting compliment of spells is also higher. That seemed to offset the chance of failure and then some. We scouted out the home we were going to invade using some clairaudience and clairvoyance. I enjoy games with some variability in spell casting. Less reliable magic usually introduces some additional excitement into the game, and makes magic feel magical.

It was a session full of hijinks. EPT seems like it could lend itself to some ‘serious’ play, but at the end of the day you still have poor dice rolls and foolish choices to inevitably lighten the mood. We decided to bust into the tenement via roof, but we were both spotted while climbing it and nearly fell off while trying to hide. We had to punch out a kid who was acting as a look out. We threw a dead body we found on the roof onto the street to cause a distraction. (We found a dead body? Yeah, the house was clearly inhabited by a death cult.) We ended the session fighting zombies and finding a secret passage that looked to lead into the undercity—and future adventure!

I suspect Empire of the Petal Throne might be challenging to run if you aren’t familiar with the game world. Like the Forgotten Realms there is so much canonical material at the point it could be quite overwhelming. In contrast to the Forgotten Realms, Tékumel is very much its own breed of fantasy. It seems to be completely unlike the sorts of vague Tolkien inspired worlds you often find in D&D supplements and fantasy books. It’s a real shame EPT isn’t more popular. If you weren’t previously aware of Empire of the Petal Throne, you should definitely check it out.

Oh, also the book has some great art!

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Review: An Adventure

I picked up ██████ a few months ago from Noble Knight Games. The ███ asks that the module not be discussed online, but I bought it and that’s what I like to do: ███ isn’t the boss of me.

The idea behind ██████ is quite interesting. Each page in the book is titled with an event, and what happens when that event occurs during a game. Events are situations like, “a player lights a torch”, or “a players visit an inn.” To add some variability here, events are only activated in a particular sequence. If “a player lights a torch” is not the current trigger players can light as many as they want with no fear of reprisal. This module is all about the reprisal. Like most ███ modules ██████ is very much a ██ ██. I suspect this module was released in such a limited edition fashion to avoid █████ and █████ from the ███ ███. This book is filled with harsh unforgiving challenges. This module isn’t fair, in the least.

To call ██████ a module is a real stretch: it isn’t an adventure in any traditional sense of that word. There is no goal beyond surviving the encounters presented. There are no rewards for the characters to be found in this book. (I suppose survival is the reward.) The adventure would require some very creative play in order to come out the other end in one piece.

Looking past the specific events discussed in ██████, the general idea behind the book seems like a good way to (impartially) inject extra action into your game. Has anyone seen any other adventures or supplements similar in style?

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Kickstarter Report Card III

It’s been about a half year since my previous post about RPG crowd funding. In that time some projects I backed that were running late mailed me books; others continue to be mired in the minutia of producing their product. I’m still a fan of Kickstarter, but I try to be much more picky about what I back.

I finally received the LotFP hardcover Rules and Magic book. As noted in my review, it’s an incredibly well put together book. One of the modules from the LotFP summer adventures campaign also shipped: Vincent Baker’s Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions. This was originally supposed to be a 32-page softcover adventure that morphed into a 160-page hardcover book. I’m still waiting on three more modules from that summer adventure campaign, but it sounds like there is at least some forward progress on two of them. I’ve been so pleased with the books from LotFP so I don’t mind the delay. People will generally forgive long delays if the final product they receive superlative. That James Raggi has avoided a lot of the drama that surrounds late Kickstarter projects is a probably a combination of the quality of the books he puts out and the forgiving fan base he has cultivated.

I received a PDF copy of Champions of Zed and am still waiting for my copy of the book in print. I’m pretty unimpressed with the project. The author has been missing in action for most of the project. The PDF feels very amateur. (The last update on Kickstarter about sums it all up: it’s from a month ago and was about how there were some glaring errors in some tables in the PDF.) Considering how much time has passed since this project funded and how much money was raised I was expecting more from Champions of Zed. There is some nice art in between lots of so-so art. The layout of the book is terrible. Champions of Zed is the only RPG Kickstarter I regret backing.

The first print module from the Appendix N Adventure Toolkits Kickstarter arrived a couple weeks ago. There was some bonus material included in the package I received, a thank you to people who have been waiting patiently (and not so patiently) for their modules. The wait continues for many other backers. Although John did a good job getting PDF material out to backers quickly, his continued insistence that the print versions of the books would be arriving any day now for the last year and a half has really hurt his reputation as a publisher and probably soured many people on this project. The modules are nice, so it’s a shame the project is probably going to be better known for being tardy than what was actually produced.1

Dwimmermount is still late. There is not much else to say about all of that. The nerd-rage surrounding this project crossed the line to embarrassing stupidness a long time ago. Autarch have slowed down somewhat with updates on the state of things, but it’s clear this is a tough project for them to finish. To compound their problems they are also working on Domains at War, which missed its ship deadline by 4 months now. Most people have a natural tendency to underestimate the work required to complete a task. Domains at War does look very close to completion.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Brom Kickstarter mailed me a giant art book with little fanfare. I love it. I backed three new projects, one of which looks to be well on its way to completion. I’ll be curious to see where all these projects stand in the summer.

As an aside, for an example of how to run a Kickstarter correctly check out the Cadence and Slang project. The project began in July, with an estimated ship date of October. There were no stupid stretch goals. Nick Disabato printed and shipped his book in three months, just like he said he would. It’s also a very nice book hardbound book, not something from Lulu.

# Project Funded Expected Delivery Shipped?
1 Playsets The future of social storytelling. November 2013 Feb 2014 Partially
2 Reaper Miniatures Bones II October 2013 October 2014 No
3 LotFP Hardcover Referee Book October 2013 January 2019 Partially
4 Domains at War June 2013 August 2013 Partially
5 LotFP 2013 Free RPG Day Adventure February 2013 July 2013 Partially
6 The Art of Brom October 2012 June 2013 Yes!
7 Appendix N Adventure Toolkits July 2012 July 2012 Partially
8 LotFP Summer Adventure Campaign July 2012 December 2012 Partially
9 Champions of Zed June 2012 August 2012 Partially
10 LotFP Hardcover and Adventures Project May 2012 October 2012 Yes!
11 Dwimmermount April 2012 August 2012 Hells No!
  1. I have a huge blog post about this Kickstarter and the Delving Deeper box set. I have yet to post it because I haven’t figured out if it’s actually constructive or not to do so. The internet is full of people complaining.

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