I finished reading the rest of Demon Bone Sarcophagus this morning. This adventure is a big dungeon crawl, a tomb for the Empress of Fire, now resting in the titular Demon Bone Sarcophagus. The adventure was made by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess, produced as part of a Kickstarter that concluded during the pandemic. I waited for the hardcopy to arrive before giving it a proper read.
The dungeon is a giant triangle, composed of smaller triangles. You can see the player facing map above. This layout feels a bit repetetive, because it is, but the choice is likely thematic and meant to evoke the fire triangle (ignition, oxygen, fuel). The choice also produces a dungeon that is very interconnected. There are lots of paths through the dungeon. There are tunnels made by a giant sloth running through the complex as well, which is another layer of interconnection. Players may break their way into these tunnels, or rooms may collapse into them during play. There are “glass girls”, acid golem monsters, wandering above the tomb that players can attempt to use to blast new holes into the dungeon, creating yet another layer of interconnection. The dungeon itself feels quite dynamic in this regard. I’m not sure I’ve read an adventure that expects the layout to change so much through play: can you think of any?
It’s a bit of a fun house dungeon, each set of 4 triangles that compose the larger tomb thematically linked. I’m not sure there was actually that much utiltity in reading the whole thing up front, versus quickly skimming things and playing a little bit by the seat of your pants, like god intended. I think being familiar with the factions and people that are wondering the tomb is likely more important, and they are presented up front.
The rooms descriptions are verbose. It feels like everyone nowadays copies what has become the house style for Old School Esentials, which likely originated with Courtney Campbell’s posts on writing room descriptions: terse, bullet points, information revealed in the order players will encounter it, etc. Silent Titans is written this way, and I think is a great example of how you can marry great writing with this more utilitarian style. Demon Bone Sarcophagus feels a bit old school in its presentation by comparison. That the typography and copy editing are sloppy does it no favours here either. There is lots of evocative stuff throughout this dungeon, but some rooms are hard to quickly parse.
There are some great pieces of art from Scrap in this module. I love the version of the Reductor, one of the NPCs in the book, that is featured on the back cover of the module. It manages to look backlit. If you like Scrap’s art you’ll like what we have here, if you don’t you won’t. There is a good mix of work from Scrap: simple B&W illustrations to full colour pieces.
Scrap and Patrick have a good eye for what will make for a good adventure. You can feel all the stored kinetic energy just waiting to burst on these pages. I love all the random encounter tables, each entry a monster or NPC paired with the action they are performing. Many entries feel like they might be the centre of a fun night of gaming. The opening of the adventure, like Patrick’s other adventures, opens with a bang: the players stumble upon the aftermath of a huge fight, characters from various factions lay dead and dying everywhere, while key members have fled into the tomb. Like everything this team does, it all feels quite unique, even though it’s just a dungeon crawl through a tomb.
These are just some quick thoughts after having read the module. I am keen to run this soon. It looks like it’ll be fun to play through. I’ll report back on how that all goes.
Patrick could have given this monster a dumb fantasy name, but like a true professional tells you what it does on the box.
Demon Bone Sarcophagus seems a little intimidating to me. There is lots going on within this book. Lots of text to kick things off. Lots of text throughout. It all feels quite dense. Scrap mentioned that a lot of the text in the book is there to help orient the DM to what’s going on, to make it an easier adventure to run. Fair enough: let’s read this thing!
The book opens with a bunch of backstory that’s all tucked away in one place, so you can just skip past it like a true Patrick Stuart fan. The book doesn’t jump straight to the dungeon, but presents its bestiary first, like Veins of the Earth. The bestiary doubles as a nice dramatis personae for the module. Adventuring through the dungeon looks like it’ll involve a lot of mucking about with NPCs and so learning about them upfront is a good idea. Everything you need to know about the NPCs in monsters is consolidated in one place, but if there are interactions between the creatures and the dungeon, that information is repeated in the room descriptions as well. As was the case with the secend edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, this book is broken down into (mostly self contained) spreads. You should be able to run the adventure from the book without a lot of faffing about. In theory, anyway. I’ll report back once I’ve run this thing.
I’ve been reading the book on and off this weekend, making it through about half the book. Sometimes I have big plans to write about these books I like, but never get around to it because I have too much to say and the weight of figuring out what to write is too much. This time around I will share thoughts as they come to me.
Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. I like seeing them succeed. When I first reviewed Deep Carbon Observatory I had the following to say about Scrap’s work:
Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.
All these years later, I still don’t know anyone who draws like her. How does she even draw?
A few years later she would draw another favourite picture of mine, a picture of madness from Veins of the Earth. (Such an incredible book.) The picture feels like an evolution of the giant. I asked Scrap if that was her intention and she said, “Nope. (Other than its horrible and in a cave?)”
People will often denigrate Scrap’s art as scribbles. Which, on the one hand, sure, but there is clearly more going on. I don’t scribble this good. These eyes are piercing. The line work of her drawings feels frantic. It has an energy that feels charged. On Twitter, Warren D summed things up nicely: “I always emotionally respond to Scrap’s art before I finish consciously visually processing it; ‘feel’ it before I ‘see’ it. Most WotC art I see quickly and feel nothing.”
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is likely peak scribbling Scrap, but maybe also highlights what you can capture in such minimalist drawings. The history of that project is interesting. While Vein of the Earth was stuck in the miasma of layout and production, Scrap and Patrick worked on this monster book. Scrap mailed Patrick drawings and sketches, and he would turn them into monsters.
The thing about Velvet Horizon that gets overlooked, constantly, is that I chose a wide range of drawings to send to Patrick, and that variety included extremely loose sketches, more developed drawings, stuff I thought was bad, stuff I thought was good. Then whatever he responded to , he responded to, and that drawing would then go into the book. However there’s like a few entries where what he responded to was such a bizarrely small and brief drawing that I chose to draw a new drawing to go on that page, but I believe in every case the responded-to drawing is also on there too. There’s a few where the drawing responded to was something in the margins or on the back of another drawing, and I hadn’t even expected those scribbles to be up for consideration. That was all part of the experiment of that book.
I asked Scrap if she was like Picasso and could draw perfectly but decided that was boring. She laughed in my face. (Well, virtually.) She then went on to say:
Trying to get the hang of basics does inform my scribble style. It’s been an ongoing process of trying to draw conventionally or at least do the basics, turning out bad ugly drawings, but in the process of improving that skill, my gestural style improves as well.
Why does she draw the way she does? We can just ask her:
What has made my drawing looking like how it does is that I really struggle with the basics, especially anything informed by methodicalness and close observation. At some point in high school me and a friend were drawing our own illustrations on a print out of fairly broken fighting game rpg someone had downloaded from the early internet. I was trying to draw conventionally and it was turning out bad, and he was just going for it doing these crazy scribbles and they turned out amazing. Even when they didn’t look like what they were meant to , they still were hilarious. It was at that point that I realized if I just cut loose and scribbled and then tried to turn it into something , it would have much better results.
Veins on the Earth and her later books feature a bigger variety of types of art, but everything she does is always more abstract and impressionistic than your typical RPG drawing. The Blink Dogs and the Anitpheonix from that book are a couple of my favourite examples of her not-scribbling style.
Scrap isn’t active on social media, but that doesn’t mean we should Forget about D.R.E. This post mostly exists to share some of her art, and maybe introduce her to people who weren’t around on G+ when she was more active in “the scene”. To get back to where we started, enjoy this picture from their latest Kickstarter.
Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. This is easy to do, as I’m planning on running Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered) tomorrow, it made its way from the UK to me via my brother after a good long while. When I first reviewed DCO it was simply from having read it. I have more thoughts now as I prepare to run the module and talk to other people about their experiences doing so.
From a “usability” standpoint [the original DCO] is middling to poor. The maps are hard to read, the info design is unambitious. But Patrick knows that good storytelling is a way of organizing information by sheer virtue of being interesting enough to remember. Honestly I think it’s a shot across the bow of most conventional wisdom on module writing. — Alex Chalk
Patrick instructs you to read the whole god damn book before you run the adventure. Maybe this is actually a really obvious thing to do with a book, but I think a lot of thinking around information design in modules is rooted in the ideas coming out of the one-page dungeon contest: you should be able to look at a particular spread and have all the information you need to get the job done. The remastered edition brings this sort of thinking to DCO, but like Silent Titans, there are key facets of the module that won’t reveal themselves to you till you get to the end of the book. In DCO Patrick coyly describes the backstory for the module with the sub-heading, “in case of Speak with Dead, use this.” This timeline is exactly the sort of thing that you’d find in the introduction to a typical OSR module.
Patrick wants you to approach understanding a module the way he does: by reading the whole thing. You’ll need to read it all at some point anyway: why not at the start? And so I did, and then felt some panic about how I would even run all of this. There is so much going on in DCO: there are the Crows, the Witch, a cannibal cult1, so many NPCs, the dam and its golem guardians, the actual Deep Carbon Observatory, etc, etc. Jesse Abelman told me to chill out: he ran the module straight from the book!2
The layout of the [new] book was great, I could easily find anything I needed so I barely did any prep between sessions. That said, I’m not surprised it was easier to run from the first edition than expected. I had the same experience with Silent Titans. I think Patrick is so good at creating juicy gameable situations and encounters that everything else almost doesn’t matter. Whatever difficulty there may be in stitching those things together because of how the book is designed is balanced by the actual content. — Jesse Abelman
Jesse’s experience mirrors my own using Silent Titans. DCO feels like there is a bit more going on across the whole module, so I’m curious to see how it plays tonight. With Silent Titans I would lean on Patrick’s writing a lot to describe the scenes, sometimes reading his prose straight to the player. (Some real OSR blasphemy, I know.) Alex mentioned doing the same to me when he was running DCO: “Another thing I’ll say about DCO is I often struggle to improvise description, but I felt I was able to tune into its voice and channel that in describing situations.”
Patrick and Scrap’s books are sometimes maligned for being more art project than gaming artifact.3 I asked Patrick about this and he felt while Scrap and him can sometimes be quite out there and imaginative, they are both keenly aware that what they are making is for a game. If one of them forgets, the other will remind them. Reading their works you can see they are fixated on the game, in a way I sometimes feel other OSR writers forget: things are gonzo, but in the service of nothing.
Judging by my own bookshelf, a lot of adventures are written, read, and never played. As someone writing modules, it’s likely important to appreciate this fact, and try and make something that manages to be compelling even if it only ever sits on a shelf. But there is more going on here: solid adventures inject their ideas into your head as if they were your own. DCO is easier to run because its elements are so compelling. The writing is not simply fanciful or an attempt at post-modern storytelling: it’s all in service of the game.
Cannibalism features heavily in seemingly every book Patrick writes. What does it mean? Can you psychoanalyze a man via his adventures. A topic for another blog post, perhaps. ↩
The conversations around Fire on the Velvet Horizon sometimes felt like they missed the point. Each of those monsters is an adventure. They are all clearly designed with the game in mind, even if Scrap and Patrick aren’t smacking you over the head with hit dice and encounter powers. ↩