Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Dragon Warriors: You Can Never Go Back

I first came across the Dragon Warriors books as paperbacks, in 1991 or thereabouts. I think that I initially mistook them for Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks, which were released in the same format, and were very popular at the time. I swapped books 1 and 2 from a friend - in exchange for Deathtrap Dungeon and Trial of Champions, if I recall correctly - and later borrowed books 3, 4, and 6 from a local library. I never did get hold of book 5.

Dragon Warriors blew the doors off my tiny little mind.

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All images in this post are from the original Dragon Warriors books and its Blood Sword spin-off series.

I'd read Fighting Fantasy and Tolkien and Eddings and Brooks and far more Dragonlance novels than can possibly have been healthy for any one human being, and from them I'd absorbed the basic premises of generic high fantasy, but I'd never seen anything like Dragon Warriors before. Its dark, fearful, cobwebbed world of superstitious villagers, guttering torchlight, dripping forests, barrow mounds, and shadows on the mist immediately seized hold of my imagination, and has never really let go. That D&D5 module I wrote the other month? With all the fog and the curses and the creepy pagan idols? Pure Dragon Warriors. 

I was used to thinking of goblins as disposable sword-fodder and slapstick comic relief: Dragon Warriors gave me goblins as wicked fey who came creeping out under the cover of dusk, wielding swords made from icicles and nets of spider-silk. Boggarts who danced along the moon-beams. Two-headed trolls that gibbered to themselves as they loped across the moors at twilight. Amoral, soulless elves who cast no reflection in mirrors. Wights who came drifting from their barrow-mounds, cold and pale and sad, to slay their victims and sow their corpses in the earth. Kings slumbering in hidden chambers beneath the forest. Knights placing the fingerbones of saints in the pommels of their swords to grant them power over evil. Skeletons clawing their way out of their own graves, furious at being buried in unconsecrated soil. I'd never read anything like it, and its distinctive, atmospheric blend of modern fantasy and medieval folklore absolutely enchanted me. When I finally read TSR's Ravenloft stuff, some years later, it seemed like pretty small beer by comparison.

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A while back, the publishers of the new version of Dragon Warriors, Serpent King Games, put their core rulebook up on Drivethru as a Pay What You Want product, so I picked it up. The rules and the setting were the same, but the effect was completely different. The old black and white art had been replaced with more generic fantasy illustrations. The rules for the monsters were the same, but the monster descriptions had been cut to the bone, with no mentions of goblins making swords out of icicles, or pazuzus posing as 'forsaken lazars', or any of the other details which had so captured my imagination all those years before. The new sample adventure was... well, it was alright. But it didn't compare very well to the old ones.

(A brief aside on first encounters: in the original Dragon Warriors sample adventure, the first combat encounter is with a band of warriors who step out of a tapestry to defend the complex the PCs are trying to enter. When killed they merge back into the tapestry, on which they now appear as corpses. The tapestry is highly flammable, and burning or otherwise destroying it kills all the warriors instantly. It's weird, it's medieval, and it rewards PCs for thinking rather than just hacking. In the new one, the first encounter is with a bunch of feral dogs who attack for no reason and fight to the death. It's the sort of 'tutorial' fight scene I'd expect from a video game rather than an RPG.)

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I should make clear, here, that large chunks of the new Dragon Warriors book is copied verbatim from the old ones, including all the wonderful magic items. (I've never really cared whether one of my PCs found a wand of magic missiles or not, but woe betide the NPC who stands between them and ownership of a Ring of Red Ruin!) And there is a separately-published bestiary book, which may well contain all the original monster descriptions. Overall, though, reading the new version of Dragon Warriors made me realise just how much of the effect of an RPG is communicated not through facts - these are the rules for armour, this is how many hits it takes to kill a goblin, and so on - but style. The feel of the Dragon Warriors world, its distinctive claustrophobic folk-horror vibe, was never really reflected in its rules: instead, it was communicated through the language, the illustrations, the sample adventures. Whenever the new version keeps the facts but changes the style, most of the value gets lost along the way. Those throwaway lines of description in the original monsters section have influenced me more than any set of rules or mechanics ever could.

I strongly suspect that half the RPG edition wars one sees being fought on the internet only pretend to be about factual changes to rules and settings, and are actually mostly about changes to the style in which they are presented. I don't say that to be dismissive: I actually think that style is at least as important a part of RPG writing as game or setting design, and quite possibly more so. (Any setting can be made boring if it gets described in a boring enough way, after all!) One of the strengths of a lot of current OSR stuff is that it foregrounds art and prose style in a way that is now much rarer in the works produced by, say, Paizo or Wizards of the Coast. The distinctive styles cultivated by individual OSR creators won't necessarily appeal to everyone, and may indeed alienate more people than they attract. But when they win, they win big. They win people over the way Dragon Warriors won me over in 1991. 

Anyway. Despite everything I've said here, the new edition of Dragon Warriors is still well worth a look to anyone who's not already familiar with the game, and it's still PWYW. You can get it here. I just wish they'd been able to keep the original art...

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Friday, 22 September 2017

The Chapel on the Cliffs: Gratuitous Gloating

There are various advantages to modern academic life, but getting your name on beautiful books isn't usually one of them. I've published a lot of scholarly works over the course of my career, from journal articles to book-length monographs, and I've become resigned to the low, low standards of academic publishing: a meaningless geometric cover design that maybe consists of a purple triangle on a white background or something, followed by pages of eye-destroying print. So it was with some pleasure that I received my print copy of the adventure that I rather randomly ended up writing for D&D5The Chapel on the Cliffs.

It is a very pretty book.

It contains many pictures of skeletons.

It has interior illustrations.

It has a proper page layout, with sections and bullet points, and also a friendly zombie.

It has full-colour maps which are much, much prettier than the crude black-and-white scrawls I originally drew for it using MS Paint.

It has statistics which I do not understand, because I don't actually play D&D5 and just wrote it in B/X and entrusted the system conversion to the editor, but they all look very statistical.

And the special edition version even includes an artist's sketchbook!

So many thanks to Raluca Marinescu for some wonderful art, and to Ben at Goblinstone for doing the layout. It makes a very pleasant change from purple triangles on white backgrounds!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

What's happening at the wizard's conference?

If I have to keep going to these things, I might as well turn them into gaming materials, right?

Most of these are based on things that have happened at academic conferences I've been to, but with added wizards. Many are rather anachronistic for medieval settings, although in some cases probably less so than you might expect. Some aspects of academic life have changed surprisingly little in the last eight hundred years.

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In the main hall (roll 1d8):
  1. Keynote address on the state of modern magical theory. The guest speaker was allocated forty minutes: he's now been talking for two and a half hours and shows no sign of slowing down, but his seniority is such that no-one dares ask him to stop. Many of the more elderly listeners have fallen asleep.
  2. Immediate aftermath of a contentious lecture by a rising academic star, provocatively entitled 'Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong'. The post-lecture 'debate' has devolved into a screaming match, with supporters and opponents of the speaker on their feet and hurling abuse at each other while the chair desperately tries to restore order. The speaker herself watches serenely from her podium, unpeturbed by the chaos she has unleashed.
  3. Annual general meeting of the magical order, at which it elects its officials. Rival cliques within the order have been planning for this for months, and are determined to get their chosen candidates into the most influential positions. People keep yelling things like 'Point of order!' and 'I propose the Archmagister Esmerelda!' and 'I second the Necrolord Abraxus!' 
  4. Extremely abstruse dissertation on an obscure area of magical philosophy, delivered by a noted expert in her small and rarefied academic field. No-one in the audience can understand a word of it, but they don't want to risk looking stupid by admitting it, so they're all nodding sagely instead. The more cynical members of the audience are privately wondering if she's just senile, but how could you be sure?
  5. Award ceremony. Relays of indefatigable speakers are listing every quality of every work which was considered for the award, and every reason why the winner was chosen, and every detail of the career of the person to whom it has been awarded, and it just goes on and on and on. The winner is standing at the front in full academical dress, obviously desperate for all this to be over so that she can launch into her acceptance speech and start making not-so-subtle digs at her academic rivals.
  6. Memorial service. One of the senior wizards has died between this conference and the last one, and now the stage is full of lachrymose magicians delivering anecdotes about their long-gone student days together, and how the field will never see her like again. An official with a big bag moves threateningly through the audience, extorting money from the delegates to fund the new magical laboratory which is supposed to be built in her honour. 
  7. A junior wizard has been granted a chance to address the conference, and is making a misguided attempt to appear excitingly transgressive by delivering a presentation full of graphically weird sex stuff. No-one is shocked, and no-one is impressed.
  8. Technical problems. There was supposed to be a big, complex display of spectacularly advanced sorcery, but there's been a problem with the reagents and now the conference organiser is stalling frantically while his minions run desperately from lab to lab, trying to locate an alternative stash of purple lotus flowers. Seven very powerful wizards have travelled a very long way to make this demonstration, and now stand muttering in a semi-circle at the back of the stage. If no-one manages to appease them soon then they are going to start turning people into toads.

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In the seminar rooms (roll 1d10):
  1. A panel of low-status junior wizards dutifully delivering papers on their research to an audience of two, one of whom is the boyfriend of one of the speakers. Everyone else is either too hungover to have got up yet, or attending a talk being given by someone much more important in the next room. 
  2. An anxious junior wizard is delivering an academic paper as though his whole future depended on it, which it probably does. He's pulled out all the stops - mobile illusions as visual aids, daring arguments, incredible displays of scholarship - but he's getting more and more nervous, speaking faster and faster as he goes on. An audience of senior magicians watch coolly and critically from the back.
  3. The favoured apprentice of a leading archmage - charismatic, good-looking, well-dressed, horribly slick - is delivering a paper heavy on confidence and rhetorical fireworks but light on actual scholarship, while his tutor smiles and nods indulgently. All the other apprentices stare daggers at him and secretly long for him to humiliate himself as spectacularly as possible.
  4. A gladiatorial display. Audience members fire questions at a brilliant young speaker regarding the paper she's just delivered; she answers each one with grace and flair, but the queries just keep coming and she's obviously beginning to tire. The most senior wizards lurk at the back, sharpening the wording of their questions like an assassin's daggers, waiting to move in for the kill. 
  5. Three junior wizards are delivering a 'joint panel' - except as it goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that one of the three has actually reached completely different conclusions to the other two, who make increasingly desperate attempts to qualify his assertions while signalling ever-more unsubtly for him to just shut up already. The audience is loving it.
  6. Hilarious paper being delivered by a junior wizard, who has managed to make magical theory not just interesting but funny, at least if you get all the in-jokes. The audience are in stitches, howling with laughter and clapping wildly every time he delivers such showstopper punchlines as: '...because it was actually abjuration magic all along!' A couple of non-wizard attendants are watching in total bemusement. 
  7. Fashion competition death match. Three senior wizards with reputations as academic style icons, all dressed in their most extravagant hats and robes, are posing and preening at the front of the room. Supposedly they're delivering academic papers, but no-one is even pretending to listen as they stalk and strut, competing to display their profiles to best advantage and to ensure that they are standing in the most flattering light.
  8. Some buffoon is delivering an 'avant-garde art performance' in place of his paper, as a 'meta-commentary on the repressive nature of academic institutions' - presumably including the one which paid for him to attend this conference in the first place. He's currently capering around in a fake horse's head while the audience watches aghast.
  9. Roundtable discussion on 'how to build a career in the magical professions' has degenerated into all-in bitching sessions by apprentices about the many and varied failings of their tutors, none of whom could be bothered to attend.
  10. An execution by firing squad. A luckless apprentice has antagonised the wrong people, and the senior magicians have turned up to his paper en masse in order to make an example of him. Now a cabal of wizards are mercilessly shredding his argument right in front of him under the cover of 'offering constructive criticism', while he dutifully records his many and varied academic failings in note form and tries very, very hard not to cry.
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Outside (roll 1d8):
  1. 'Informal' social event with drinks. The conference attendees have swiftly sorted themselves into cliques based on academic status, and refuse to socialise with anyone except their peers. Occasionally a naive young wizard attempts to approach a senior clique to 'network' with his betters and gets ruthlessly slapped down.
  2. Guided tour snaking its way through the grounds of the host institution, its route carefully planned to take in all the most impressive parts and avoid all the embarrassing bits. The guide is a rather panicky apprentice who is having great difficulty keeping his charges from wandering off.
  3. Ceremonial unveiling of a sycophantic mural in honour of the single most important wizard attending the conference. She is depicted as a wise, regal, sternly beautiful figure, surrounded by quotations from her most famous works. The rather less impressive-looking original preens herself nearby, surrounded by fawning admirers.
  4. Servants setting up tables with tea, coffee, and pastries. A particularly overweight senior wizard has arrived early, and is eating the pastries almost as fast as the servants can put them out. 
  5. Junior wizard running sprinting from building to building, obviously totally lost, yelling 'FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!' at the top of his voice. He's ten minutes late for his extremely important twenty-minute paper and he just cannot find the right room. 
  6. Small group of junior wizards talking excitedly about what a great opportunity it is to be here. Nearby a small group of senior wizards stand grumbling about how boring the conference is, and how the food was better last year.
  7. Junior wizard having a panic attack in the shrubbery. She's due on stage in five minutes and she cannot do this. What if they laugh at her? What if they laugh?
  8. An excursion! A cavalcade of wizards are setting off, by carriage, to visit some famous location in the nearby region: a temple, palace, stone circle, or similar. Sitting next to a senior wizard means having almost uninterrupted access to them for the whole of the two-hour journey, and competition for the best seats is complex and murderous, with ambitious young magicians trying to work out the exact moment at which they need to make their move in order to end up sitting in the right coach.
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In the evening (roll 1d10):
  1. Lavish conference dinner. Tables groaning under the weight of food and drink. Senior wizards gorging themselves silly. Junior wizards nervously sipping wine and wondering how on earth they're going to afford their share of the bill.
  2. Interminable formal dance recital held in honour of one of the conference organisers. Everyone is bored stiff but too polite to leave. Mutinous band of apprentices at the back is seriously considering trying to sneak out under the cover of invisibility spells. 
  3. Band of apprentices and junior wizards sitting by a lake in the moonlight, settling in for a bout of serious drinking. Lots of rambling conversations about magic, sentimental declarations of friendship, and surreptitious vomiting in the bushes.
  4. Group of drunken senior wizards singing, dancing, and making fools of themselves, while their appalled apprentices watch from the sidelines. Both the songs and the dances were fashionable about fifty years ago. Neither they nor their performers have aged well.
  5. Roaming bands of junior wizards 'sampling the local nightlife', barging into bars, drinking stupid cocktails, and generally being obnoxious. Locals stare at them balefully wherever they go.
  6. A pair of senior wizards slip away together into the night, giggling like schoolchildren, their arms around each other's waists. They are both definitely married, and not to each other - but what happens at the conference stays at the conference, right?
  7. In the corner of an old pub, a gaggle of junior wizards surround a senior magician, vying for her attention. They compete frantically to impress her with the best jokes, the most colourful anecdotes, and the most dazzling displays of academic knowledge, while she sips sherry and listens to them with benign indifference.
  8. A cabal of apprentices sit muttering in a public square, pooling their meagre supplies of knowledge and gossip to try to work out what's really going on within their order and how best to advance themselves within it. All their conclusions produced by their increasingly conspiratorial logic are utterly incorrect, but they have no way of knowing this.
  9. Under the influence of one too many drinks, an extremely senior wizard has just revealed that he loves to sing the old traditional folk songs of his homeland. Who wants to join him in a few rousing old ballads? All around him, his colleagues are steeling themselves for what they know is likely to be a very long night...
  10. The real event: at a table in a private room at the best restaurant in town, the four or five most important (not necessarily the most senior) people at the conference are having a serious conversation about what their magical order is going to do over the next few years. This meeting is the real reason the conference takes place: everything else is just camouflage. No-one else has been informed that this meeting is taking place.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Confessions of a realist

I strongly suspect that one of the things which holds me back, both as a writer of rpg materials and as a GM, is that even when I'm running games about magical zombies fighting robots from space I really, truly want things to actually make sense.

When people talk about 'realism' in RPGs, it's usually in relation to physics and biology: whether it's 'realistic' for someone to survive that fall, or carry that much gold, or hold their breath for that long, or whatever. I don't actually care about any of that. What I care about is logic: how many soldiers could a settlement of that size really support? Where exactly are these cave-dwelling bandits getting their fresh water from? Is this trade route economically plausible? Could you actually run a secret society like that without anyone noticing it was there? How many people can be eaten by monsters every year before the village becomes demographically unviable? I don't obsess over these things, but it bothers me when the answers are obviously implausible. It bothers me a lot more than it probably should.

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The army you imagine your holdings supporting.
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The army your holdings will actually support.

In some ways this constrains me. It means I very seldom use traps, because I just can't get past the sheer impracticality of most of them. (Would you live in a house where accidentally treading on the wrong floor tile resulted in messy and instantaneous death?) It means that I barely ever use puzzles: 'try to guess the wizard's password' is OK, but 'solve this riddle / logic puzzle to progress' just leaves me wondering why anyone would bother building a security system which deactivated itself if the intruders were able to pass an arbitrary intelligence test. Catalogues of random weird stuff, in the style of McKinney's Isle of the Unknown, are almost useless to me. I crave explanations: who built all these random statues with random magical powers, and why? What possible purpose could they have served, given that most of them seem to exist purely to fuck with people who try to tamper with them? Intellectually, I know that asking these questions is missing the point: the traps and the puzzles and the magic statues exist because those sorts of things are fun to interact with during games of D&D. But they still nag at me, to the point where I tend to assign explanations for the things that appear in my games just for my own peace of mind, even if it's very unlikely to ever come up in play.

In other ways, though, this kind of realism can be beneficial, because the more deeply things are embedded in their fictional worlds, the more ways PCs have to interact with them in play. If there are logical reasons why things work the way they do, then it's much easier for players to find logical ways to manipulate them; and the more things happen 'just because', the more you lose that. I like my players to be able to say: 'They must be getting food from somewhere, so let's cut their supply lines', or 'This was obviously meant as a security system, so there must be some way to get through the room without setting it off', and actually have those deductions pay off. If the Generic Orc Warriors need to have food sources and fresh water and chains of command and somewhere to sleep and somewhere to shit and so on, then the possibilities for dealing with them multiply: the PCs can poison their food, or drug their water, or intercept and rewrite their orders, or rig their latrine to explode, or whatever. But if they get their warriors and supplies from nowhere in particular, then the PCs have far fewer options for dealing with them in ways other than kicking down the door and stabbing everyone in the face.

This isn't any kind of manifesto - I don't think that there's any optimal level of logical coherency that D&D games can have, or that anyone with too much or too little of it is Doing It Wrong. But I do think that they lend themselves to rather different modes of play: one more weird and anarchic and freewheeling, the other more logical and coherent and internally self-consistent. (Law vs. chaos, if you will.) I think players will swiftly pick up on the extent to which the game world around them can or can't be expected to make sense, and as a result, it's probably quite important to pick a level and stick to it, as suddenly shifting this around will just leave everyone feeling disorientated and confused.

Unless, of course, that's the objective. Having the game world itself shift progressively from internally self-consistent realism to high Gygaxian nonsense-logic the further the PCs went from civilisation might be a rather nice way of demonstrating that they have ventured into a place where the normal rules do not apply...

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Saturday, 2 September 2017

Almost a review: Veins of the Earth

I'm sure that most people who reads this blog is already aware of Veins of the Earth, Scrap and Patrick's long-awaited book on exploring the Underdark and dying horribly in a cave. It won two silver awards at the Ennies. Many of you have probably read it already. But I've been away a lot recently, and I've only just got around to it, OK?

The cover really tells you everything you need to know.

Reading Veins was a bit of an odd experience for me, because I'd read so much of it before on Patrick's blog. The Knotsmen are here, and the Cancer Bears, and Gilgamash, and the Meanderthals, and Patrick's unforgettable takes on the derro, duregar, and drow - although those three have all been renamed, becoming the dErO, Dvargir, and Aelf-Adal, respectively. If, like me, you've already read your way through most of the False Machine archive, then what you're getting here is essentially a cleaned-up and expanded version of the same material, plus lots of new art by Scrap Princess and some actual game mechanics - although this last part seems to be a bit of an afterthought, and doesn't always fit the descriptive text. (I'm pretty sure a bus-sized flying psychic sperm whale should have more than 50 hit points!)

Fire on the Velvet Horizon got by just fine without monster statistics, and I'm not sure how much value they really add here; even the book seems to waver back and forth on this, giving full stats for the Civilopede, which no-one is likely to fight, but no mechanical information on the nightmare magic of the Aelf-Adal or the technology of the Dvargir. It's also all properly laid out rather than just being in single-column blogpost format, which makes a real difference for the more complicated stuff like the detailed climbing rules. I still can't imagine using all those climbing rules, but if you want a detailed way to model climbing cave walls within an OSR rules framework, then Veins of the Earth has totally got you covered.

Scrap and Patrick's Underdark has always been very different to the standard D&D version. Many D&D Underdarks pay only lip service to the fact that they're actually, y'know, underground: in most of them the caverns are huge, the ground is flat and level, the food supplies are abundant, and the ecologies and societies are pretty similar to the ones on the surface, with kings and queens hanging out in their underground palaces while serfs and slaves labour in the fungus-fields. (Sometimes they're not even dark: isn't the Underdark in Baldur's Gate II illuminated by glowing purple crystals, or something?) The Veins of the Earth are much more like actual caves: spaces are claustrophobic, movement is three-dimensional, surfaces are uneven, and hunger and darkness are omnipresent. Veins accordingly spends quite a lot of time discussing encumbrance, starvation, illumination, hypothermia, and, yes, climbing, in order to emphasise just how hostile underground environments really are. It spends a lot less time talking about why anyone would ever want to go into them in the first place.

Somewhat paradoxically, the fact that the Veins draw so heavily on the ecology and geology of real-world cave systems makes them seem much more weird and alien than the more purely fantastical Underdarks of most D&D worlds. Despite this, however, I feel there's a tension in Veins of the Earth between Patrick-the-caving-enthusiast and Patrick-the-weird-fiction-writer. The former wants to insist on caves as desperately resource-poor environments in which movement is difficult and food and light are scarce and fantastically valuable, but the latter keeps filling them with giant monsters and elaborate underground civilisations. Sometimes that tension is highly productive: I really liked the mention of how, in emergencies, the elite and military castes of underground cities will simply eat the rest of the population (and then rewrite all the records to remove any mention of it having happened), and some of the monster ideas make good use of their environmental context. The Toraptoise, for example, is a creature with an ultra-slow metabolism which normally spends years patiently licking lichen off walls, but if presented with a chance to kill and eat something big it goes into a hyperactive killing frenzy, burning off decades worth of calories in minutes - the catch being that once they frenzy, they then have to kill and eat their prey, otherwise they'll starve. Fending off a frenzying Toraptoise pack while their hyperactive metabolisms devour them from the inside out would make a fantastic encounter.

At other times, though, the two sides feel harder to reconcile. If the Veins of the Earth are the kind of environment in which a single day's food is worth a fortune, then what do all these giant monsters eat? How do the subterranean cultures generate enough surplus food supply to support artists and warriors and whatnot? Joyless workaholics like the dvargir might survive through sheer grind and ruthless self-discipline, but why haven't lunatic oddballs like the dErO all starved to death by now? I like the images conjured by the end of Deep Carbon Observatory, of an underworld of unimaginable scope and strangeness that just goes on and on and on and on, but the environment described here would seem to lend itself more to tiny handfuls of stunted primitives eking out a miserable existence on pittances of mushrooms and cavefish, rather than baroque nightmare empires sprawling beneath the earth. Patrick emphasises that individual readers should pick and choose which bits to use in their own games, but trying to use it all feels like it could lead to some rather contradictory places.

Half the book is monsters. Like all of Patrick's monsters, they are extremely original, brilliantly imagined, and evocatively described - the emphasis on sound and smell is particularly appropriate, given that most of them are likely to be encountered in complete darkness - and Scrap Princess has outdone herself in illustrating them. They mostly seem intended to generate single, highly-memorable encounters, rather than being the kind of creatures who might gather together in groups of 2d6 to engage in a little light banditry for the sake of filling out a random encounter table. No-one's going to forget the time their characters met a flying psychic sperm whale which assaulted everyone with its ancient nightmares, or the horrible spider-monster fleeing through the caverns with stolen children webbed to its back, pursued by their desperate parents, or the living statue made of shattered, jumbled-up idols which rewrote its own memories every time you hit it hard enough.

As with Fire on the Velvet Horizon, I'm not sure how much fun some of these monsters would be in actual play - the Tachyon Troll, for example, could potentially be used in some very devious ways, but is usually just going to be a troll with extra mechanics that punish you for interacting with it in any way other than just beating it to death. Or consider The Rapture, a kind of living madness that attacks people underground - fighting it once could be wonderfully weird and creepy, but having to fight it over and over and over again, the way the rules for it imply, would turn something strange and scary into a tiresome chore. Others seem oddly weak, given their descriptions: the AntiPhoenix, which is supposedly a near-godlike entity, will on average be killed by a single volley of arrows fired by a formation of 40 regular 0-level archers. But the ideas are superb. No-one else does D&D monsters like Scrap and Patrick. I'm more interested in people than in rocks or fungi or bacteria, so my favourites are probably the Meanderthals, Pyroclastic Ghouls, Fossil Vampires, Gilgamash, and Cromagnogolem, but if your interests tend more towards the utterly inhuman than mine then you will certainly not be disappointed.

Fundamentally, I think that any GM making much use of this book is going to need to decide whether they want their game to be more like The Descent or Journey to the Centre of the Earth. You can run a game where every descent into the underworld is a nightmare of madness and starvation and hypothermia and awful monsters hunting you through the darkness and dying miserably in a cave someplace because you had to pick between bringing one more rope and bringing one more lamp and you made the wrong choice. Or you can run a game where the PCs are intrepid explorers in a subterranean world which is richer and older and stranger than anything they've ever dreamed of on the surface, allying with the Trilobite Knights, providing shelter for the fleeing children of the Knotsmen, visiting the art collections on the back of the Civilopede, and sailing the waters of the Nightmare Sea. Veins of the Earth will help you to do either of these, but I suspect that you'd struggle to do both in the same game, unless you were willing to simply rule that after a certain point the PCs had become so familiar with their underground environment that they no longer needed to worry about the cave-by-cave details of navigation and survival.

Bottom line: this is a good book. This is the weirdest, creepiest, most powerfully-imagined D&D Underdark yet, and Scrap Princess has done an outstanding job of illustrating it. Like all Patrick's stuff it's very grim and depressing and horrible, but the awfulness can easily be dialled up and down to fit individual campaigns; and if you've ever wanted your D&D underworlds to be ever weirder, then this is an excellent resource. I'd just suggest some caution about using the rules or statistics as written!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Almost a review: Sky Ov Crimson Flame

I'm back. So here's a review of another product I backed on kickstarter a while ago: the DCC adventure module Sky Ov Crimson Flame by Thorin Thompson, who writes the Owl Knight Publishing blog. I backed it because $5 for a 60-page adventure seemed a pretty good deal, and because I'd enjoyed Thorin Thompson's Shudder Mountain actual plays. I liked it, and I certainly feel I got my money's worth from it, but it prompted me to engage in yet more brooding over the role of horror in RPGs. So that's what this post is mostly going to be about.

Spoilers follow for Sky Ov Crimson Flame.

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Sky Ov Crimson Flame is a DCC 0-level character funnel, plus a wilderness mini-campaign suitable for those characters who survive the carnage and graduate to 1st level. The initial pitch is very simple: the PCs are villagers, loads of people from their village (especially children) have been vanishing in the night, and a mysterious red star has risen which local legends associate with a nearby ruined keep, so the party heads off into the forest to see if the stolen villagers are being held captive within it. What's really going on is that a local girl went to the keep, found a magic dagger, got possessed by the spirit of the necromancer who created it, and started kidnapping other villagers, using the dagger's power to magically brainwash them into a cult with whose aid she hoped to summon the necromancer's spirit back to the world. PCs turn up, fight the cult and its monstrous creations, and then have to try to disrupt the ritual before the necromancer can return. Pretty standard D&D stuff, right?

What sets this adventure apart from many others with similar-ish plots is the sheer level of violence and body horror involved. The dagger doesn't brainwash people through some kind of generic magic aura: it brainwashes them by being used to flay them alive. (The girl who found it started the ball rolling by using it to flay herself.) The cultists are all flayed men, kept impossibly alive in their horrific situation by the dagger's magic, and wearing masks made from severed human faces. Some villagers were able to resist the brainwashing, and refused to join the cult... but they'd still been fucking flayed, so now they wander around the woods, mad with pain and horror, attacking people at random and begging for death. The corpses of crucified villagers are nailed to the walls of the keep: as the party approach their faces tear vertically in half, forming wings of flesh which then flap upwards carrying their skulls and spinal columns with them, creating 'head bats' which try to impale people with their spines. Some of the kidnapped children have been beheaded, and wing-like flaps of skin have been sewn to their severed heads to turn them into 'cherub head-bats' which fly around biting people. The rest of the children have been merged together into a giant floating ball of faces, limbs, and flesh, the 'cherub fusion'. The keep is roamed by a heap of flayed-off flesh which sneaks up on people and then engulfs them, swallowing them up inside itself and secreting acidic fluids until they're melted away into slurry. There's a 'shambling flesh mass' which grabs people with its entrails. The big ritual involves a whole bunch of impaled corpses and lots and lots and lots of blood. And those are just some of the highlights.

It's not quite clear to me what one is supposed to do with horror and violence on this scale. Are the PCs - who, remember, are just normal 0-level characters, not hardened adventurers - supposed to react naturalistically to being attacked by their flayed neighbours wearing the severed faces of their closest friends as masks, or to being bitten by the flying, decapitated head of their own eight-year-old niece? Surely not: the adventure clearly expects the response to seeing all these splatter-monsters to be 'roll for initiative', rather than 'suffer a total nervous breakdown' or 'run screaming into the night'. The adventure uses horror, but it's not really about horror: the text doesn't dwell upon the horrific nature of the situations it describes, and presents being assaulted by your own friends and family, flayed alive and begging for death as they claw at your flesh with bloody talons of exposed bone, as though it was functionally equivalent to any other bout of D&D zombie-whacking. The art, likewise, plays down the awfulness of the scenes it depicts: the emphasis is on semi-comic grotesquerie, rather than Junji Ito style visual shocks. But if it's not about the horrificness of horror, then what's it there for?

Part of the answer is probably implicit in the module's nature as a character funnel. 0-level funnels, by their very nature, have something of a slasher-movie feel to them; you create this whole bunch of largely-interchangeable characters, with only the most minor of distinguishing characteristics, and then get to see them slaughtered wholesale as they stumble through situations for which they are desperately ill-prepared. Finding out how your PCs are going to die is half the fun; and, just like a slasher movie, watching them get killed in some particularly grotesque or improbable fashion can be just as entertaining as watching them succeed against the odds. In most funnels, the PCs are the squishy bits in a hard and threatening world; but Sky ov Crimson Flame projects this same air of gory farce out onto the entire adventure, presenting a whole setting in which the main thing that human bodies do is come messily apart. Run in a different spirit, this could be a truly nightmarish horror adventure - but it would be so nightmarish that most groups probably wouldn't enjoy it very much, so knockabout splatter-horror-comedy is probably much more likely to lead to people actually having fun. And because the adventure doesn't really make use of the horribleness of its horror content, you could dial down the awfulness substantially if you wanted to: replace the flayed men with regular zombies, the severed heads with flying skulls, and so on. Just go with what you think your group would actually enjoy.

Anyway - splatter aside, this is a pretty solid adventure. It's a bit too they-attack-on-sight-and-fight-to-the-death for me, but the keep is excellently suited to killing off large numbers of 0-level characters in memorably horrible ways, which is surely the main thing that a character funnel location needs to accomplish. My favourite part of the module is actually the bonus material, 'Blights ov the Eastern Forest', which presents the surrounding area in a format suitable for low-level sandbox play: an awful blighted woodland full of weird, twisted creatures, dotted with sad, haunted remnants of the chivalric kingdom which once ruled these lands. (In keeping with the module's overall themes, though, even they seem to have been kinda awful.) It's very imaginative, atmospheric stuff - accursed ghosts, creepy monsters, rivers of blood - and even though the module assumes that the main way that the PCs will interact with all this stuff is by hacking it to death, some very minor rewrites would turn it into something much more amenable to less combat-centred play than the keep in the main adventure. Plus, you get to meet the Gummi Bears! (Admittedly, they're reimagined as ancient alien slime monsters, but what did you expect?)

If the pdf still cost $5, I would recommend this without hesitation; but as it costs $10, I think you'd have to want both a splatter-filled horror-dungeon and a weird creepy wood full of ghosts and mutants in order to justify the cost. I'm currently hoarding my income to pay my son's crippling nursery fees, though, so I may have a rather warped perspective.

You can get it on drivethru here.

Thursday, 13 July 2017


The summer conference season is a kind of passive-aggressive ritual in which the academics within a specific discipline stalk around the world in rotation, keeping an eye on what the competition is up to. The next few weeks of my life will be a blur of interchangeable hotel rooms, interminable keynote addresses, and jetlagged exhaustion kept in check by endless cups of cheap black coffee. As a result, I probably won't be posting anything to this blog until early / mid August.

Here's some random inspirational images for ATWC to tide you over until then.

Landscapes | Steve McCurry (Kandahar, Afghanistan)

"Tang Dynasty" oil on canvas portrait - by Dongmin Lai.

Nubra Valley Ladakh India

Study of the moon and stars.  Ottoman miniature from 17th century.   Istanbul.


Manuscript-Metaliʿü'l-saadet ve yenabiʿü-l-siyadet Seyyid Mohammed ibn Emir Hasan el-Suʿudî, 1582, Gallica,BnF

Bedouins preparing a raiding party

Gennady Pavlishin, Tales of the Amur

Melchior Lorck.

Köl Gölü'nde Türk Mezar Taşı- Turkic tombstone on Song-Köl lake

This is the old City of Yazd. Old brick and mud houses and arches taking their natural light from the opening in the Arches. A desert city on the silk Route.

Photograph by Tim Walker for Vogue December 2011 In northern Mongolia, reindeer territory, 13-year-old Puje fearlessly explores the wild landscape.