Friday, July 6, 2012

Belated ASE 1 Review


It may be totally unnecessary to write that I have enjoyed reading and enjoyed using Pat Wetmore's "Autonomous Subsurface Environment #1".  It may be my favorite DYI OSR game product yet.  It's pretty great.  Why is it great though - this might be worth a post.

Ably illustrated is ASE
So ASE is an amalgamate of ideas, this basic setting appears to be Thudarr the Barbarian (A Swords and Sorcery cartoon form the early 80's with a post apocolyptic feel).  There was a lot of this in the early 80's - He-Man also comes to mind. ASE isn't just Thudarr the Barbarian though - the world is similar, and might be the most perfect light (dim nasty light) in the darkness set up I can think of without being cliched, but there are many other influences.  A campaign could easily end up with Zardoz as the main villain, or be about discovering the ancient alien ancestors of demi-humans and goblins.  This larger world is not the point of ASE, it's just a lot of fun.  The core is a megadungeon with an incredible "gonzo" 80's cartoon "Sword's and Superscience" feel.  I suppose it's a bit of Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun as well if one wanted to get a bit fancier, but that's not necessary.

It's actually a bit hard to talk about the ASE product itself because I've been playing it for several month and have adopted my own conventions and hacks about the world of the Land Thousand Towers, but the product itself made this possible because it's wildly inventive, but leaves plenty of space for the players and DM to fill in while providing consistent flavor elements.  It also has a "don't be afraid of technology approach" that is refreshing.  If the players want a handgun - they can buy one, but won't be especially impressed with it's power.  A laser pistol is about as good as a +1 sword, and about as hard to find.  At the same time some of the technological opponents, especially the Steel Leviathans that make in town hi-jinx risky, are terribly deadly with their technological weaponry and make good of a few simple special rules.

The dungeon itself is extremely well written - The product contains a 0-lvl starter adventure about radiation poisoning, a 1/2 lvl "gatehouse" that answers the question "what happens when you leave maintenance robots alone for 3 eons, and the 1st lvl of the Autonomous Subsurface Environment (in addition to the setting information - conveyed effectively through random tables).  The dungeons are very well paced, and the inventiveness as the traps, treasure placement, secret doors, monsters and puzzles is compelling.  The setting comes alive from these things, hinting at secrets to be revealed by deeper delving, and the dungeon is built on a scale that allows (even encourages) multiple parties at once or a replay.  Replays may be necessary, because the dungeon is not forgiving - traps abound (though they are never arbitrary poison needles) and monsters travel in groups.  The ASE is made for old school cautious play and can grind through parties that don't know when to run or when not to play with strange things. 

Again I can't recommend ASE enough, it's whimsical and gonzo, but is an absolutely solid adventure underneath with depth, wit and inventiveness. Because of this it can be played various ways.  If you read the author's regular play reports at Henchman Abuse you'll see ASE played full on gonzo.  My own campaign has taken a different direction - and seems strangely more serious, but you can compare the play reports yourself (though my players have fled ASE for political intrigue).

One of the nicer things about ASE I is the format - it mimic the TSR products of yore, right down to the fonts and art style (all very well done in that classic pro-am pen & ink way), and manages to get the feel just right.

The only complaint I might have about ASE is the lack of deeper levels (my players now being 2nd and 3rd level - Screechmen hold few terrors), but it looks like this will soon be remedied as ASE II (lvls 2-3) appears to be nearing publication.  Anyone who is contemplating a sword and planet/sword and superscience or other gonzo game should read through ASE I at least because it shows what can be done with the dross of 80's fantasy culture.

This bring my ability to review stuff to a close for now - these are the three DYI OSR gaming products I've purchased, and all have been excellent.  I think it's a testament to my good taste - but more likely its a testament to the quality that non-professionals can bring to these sort of products out of affection for the subject and willingness to take chances with a niche topic.  Vornhiem, ASE I and Weird Adventures are all worth your money - and by buying them (they ain't pricey) the authors will undoubtedly encouraged to produce more - which is a very good thing.


  1. Good review--and thanks for the mention. :)

    ASE is an old school product in the truest since as it has the sort of "kitchen sink" vibe of early gaming. The difference is, there seems to be some thought put into the inclusions rather than them being haphazard.

  2. Any of the individual components is worth it alone. Either the beginning of the dungeon, the setting, or the gonzo-tech rules. Like you, I think the only significant flaw is that it only contains 1.5 levels.

    1. Frankly I didn't mean to suggest the length was a flaw. ASE is a hefty module and wastes absolutely no space on non-content. As you suggest the individual components are worth the price independently. I am waiting eagerly for the next installment however.

  3. Thank you for the kind words, Gib!

    1. Nothing kind about them - your work is excellent and stands on its own, how could I say different!