Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Temple of the Frog - The First Module? A Review

The review previous to this one is an in depth review of the adventure module S1 - Tomb of HorrorsTomb of Horrors was written in 1975 as a tournament adventure for the first Origin's Conference of July 1975.  It was not published until 1978, when S1 - Tomb of Horrors appeared.  This means that Tomb of Horrors is not the first published piece of adventure content for tabletop roll playing.  The first is likely to be "Temple of the Frog", included in the Second Supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) box set - Blackmoor by Dave Arneson.  In the introduction to Blackmoor Gygax credits Arneson as the "innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept."

Yup that's Blackmoor
So 1975 - the first published adventure (it's unclear to me if the very different Tomb of Horrors was written first) and one that fundamentally sets the style for published adventure content - but "Temple of the Frog" is a strange thing, 19 pages long and filling the center of Blackmoor.  Most of the supplement is a scattering of house rules (stupidly complex combat rules based on hit location and height, the fragmentary Monk and Assassin classes, a monster manual very close to the Monster Manual largely focusing on aquatic foes, some rules for underwater adventure, diseases and hiring specialists), but there in the middle is "Temple of the Frog". 

I happen to have a copy of Blackmoor, so I can suggest picking up a PDF (even if it's one of the simpler Little Brown Books to find) because the type is tiny (9 point maybe) and written densely to the margins in large blocks of text.  The information design is not good...even by the standards of the OD&D box set.

Still this is apparently the first "Dungeon Adventure" which I take to mean a location based exploration adventure as opposed to a siege, battle or a campaign of sieges and battles.  This is very interesting from a historical prospective, even if I don't really find much use in game history, and in thinking about writing this review I was somewhat excited to see what is in "Temple of the Frog" that one might style recognize as the ancestor for standards, mechanics and ways for playing and producing location based adventures today.

I read the thing, all 19 pages of confusing, poorly mapped, weirdness and while "Temple of the Frog" is 'interesting' and it really does appear to have set the standard for the way adventures are designed and written, it's a mess.  "Temple of the Frog" is not the worst adventure ever written (it's not a linear combat based railroad for one), certainly it's not a good one - especially not today - but it's bad largely in the same way that a Model T Ford is bad compared to a Porsche 911 or a Prius.  Most of the right parts are included and one can see that a game could be run from "Temple of the Frog", but it might be clunky and fairly uncomfortable.  The pattern that Temple of the Frog creates invites comparison with Tomb of Horrors and a curiosity about what the original, pre-publication 1975 version of Tomb of Horrors looked like.It invites curiousity because while the adventures are practically compatriots they are so very different in mood, theme, scope and approach that they are entirely different species of adventure.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Gravesand Beach - One Page Dungeon

It's been a long time since I did one of these - a one page dungeon.  Here it is a terrible place infested with the spirits of murdered few reavers, now transformed into gull-like avian horrors and the wreck of their giant turtle fortress, now home to a Sea Wyrm with plans and a clock collection.

I should note that this is my entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest this year.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Review S1 - Tomb of Horrors - Gygax at his most Gygaxian


Tomb of Horrors is a high level (8th -14th) AD&D adventure written in 1975 (published in 1978) by Gary Gygax.  In the past several years gotten a bit of press, being the D&D dungeon cited in Ernest Cline's novel "Ready Player One" and a while back the subject of a highly critical blog post over at John Wick Presents. The Alexandrian strongly disagrees with the Wick assessment, pointing out inaccuracies in the initial review.  Even more recently Tomb Of Horrors is one of the old adventures adapted (apparently without much change) to Fifth Edition. For me the question remains...

That's the first Tomb of Horrors cover.
"Is Tomb of Horrors useful and how?"

I want to address the standard complaint about Tomb of Horrors - the mythology that it is the most terrible and unfair killer of characters ever written. I don't think this is true, I'm sure plenty an antagonistic GM has made worse, but complaints aren't in a vacuum, and in general they are likely based on experience with the adventure.  Complaints about what some GM's will do to their players and how well Tomb of Horrors allows them to do it. Imagine one played Tomb of Horrors in some retro-nostalgic 80's suburban rec room, eating pizza combos and drinking grape Shasta soda into the nights of a long summer weekend - and the game went wrong ... that beloved dwarf fighter you'd raised from level one to twelve dies to some stupid trap that the GM totally encouraged you to test, even withholding key description. Then the rest of the party dies as well, picked off by traps and ultimately the lich thing at the end that they can't seem to harm. Some punches might have been thrown and the latent sadism and martinet pettifoggery of that kid who always wanted GM was to blame.  Now imagine how your 80's rec room child GM likely ran things, it was likely antagonistic, and more then normal on those particular nights - because you were playing Tomb of Horrors, the baddest dungeon penned by Gary Gygax, the game's inventor, designed for tournament play.   Imagine this with the gullibilty of an early 80's youth, with a conviction that one's hobbies have heights of virtuosity and heroes - that tabletop games aren't quite a game but an entire world of imagination.  This sort of scenario seems to me less justification for a loathing of Tomb of Horrors then a cautionary tale with the moral that playing games in a mean manner tends to annoy one's friends and that 12 year-olds are cruel.  There still remains a more objective question about the module however, does Tomb of Horrors encourage antagonistic GMing, and even if it doesn't is it interesting?

Tomb of Horrors is of course an early D&D module, written by Gary Gygax for characters levels 9-14 (there are some lower leveled demi-human characters provided as well, but they are dual, or even triple classed).  With 33 keyed areas it's not a huge adventure by old school standards, and the areas are generally more carefully described then in many modules of its era, likely due to the number of traps within.  Originally designed as a tournament module in 1975 it seems clearly targeted as a 'one-shot' adventure.

The upshot of all this?  Tomb of Horrors can be run as a terrible adventure lacking in fun.  The  real question is can it be run in some other way or is there something inherently badly designed about the adventure?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mortzengerstrum the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak - Review


A few days ago Trey of Sorcerer’s Skull and Hydra Collective released their first site based adventure for Causey’s gonzo fantasy setting “The Lands of Azuth”. Mortzengerstrum the Mad Manticore of Prismatic Peak is a forty page PDF with an adventure and a few extras designed for Fifth Edition D&D and a jolly, bright presentation.  It’s packed with great, cartoony art that compliments the setting by Jeff Call who also seems to have enjoyed himself and added a few special treats (like a centerfold ‘board game’ version of the adventure). I should mention that a map I drew some time ago is included as extra setting material in the PDF version, but I promise I’m not self-promoting as all I got for the map (and all I wanted) was a copy of the adventure PDF to read and review.

Two things come to mind when looking at Prismatic Peak, and thinking about the current ‘OSR’ or ‘DIY D&D’ subculture.  First is the problem or question of ‘personalities’ and second the perennial issue of fidelity to the implied setting of D&D.  Trey and Sorcerer’s Skull are not a ‘personality’ in the DIY D&D scene, but they should be a presence - Sorcerer’s Skull has been one of the most consistently updated blogs about fun and strange imaginative table-top games since I started playing again in 2011, and Trey’s published works (most recently Strange Stars, but most notably for me Weird Adventures) are consistently high quality, and consistently approachable.  They aren’t complexly written, difficult and literary like some other authors, but they are written with verve, humor and a deep well of pop cultural appreciation.  None of these products or their author courts controversy, either to stir up sales or out of some personal need for drama, but the product is still well-crafted with a unique authorial voice.  I think Trey’s attitude is well paired with the Hydra CoOp, who have consistently produced high quality location based adventure books that remain playful and unique while not abandoning the traditional ‘mood’ or play-forms of classic D&D.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Veins of the Earth - A Review

The Underdark

I was reading and reviewing Wizard of the Coast’s
Out of the Abyss, which is fundamentally a decent campaign book about the Underdark.  It’s likely the best that Wizard’s has produced for 5E, but that means that compared to the recently, long rumored and carefully produced Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess (with help from Jez Gordon) published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess it’s 255 pages of flabby, dead writing, dull illustration and unimaginative drosk.  This isn’t to say Out of the Abyss is bad, it’s got some great bits, and tries hard to bring the weird and evocatively wonderful to 5th edition D&D, it’s just that it’s written by a committee of people with worse vocabularies, weaker minds, lesser imaginations and far far less love for their creation then the author and artist of Veins of the Earth.  Out of the Abyss isn’t a waste, but it won’t make you think, feel and want to run an Underdark game the way Veins of the Earth will.

This just seems appropriate

I am unsure about the quality of the physical book, though knowing the work that Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts into its physical products I suspect it’s very good.  The PDF is serviceable, though displaying as a double page spread and using a clear, but somewhat degraded typeface means one has to enlarge it a fair bit to read, scrolling about in a 350 plus page PDF.  I appreciate that unlike many DIY projects Veins of the Earth doesn’t use giant lettering and a few paragraph per page however, layout is clear and breaks the dense text up into nice manageable chunks.  The real hero here appears to be Jez Gordon, who has consistently provided both excellent art (he is not the artist for Veins) and stellar layout on everything he’s been involved in.  Scrap Princess’ art in Veins of the Earth is also excellent, and it’s consistency and volume is a fine compliment to the text, whose gestural, primal boldness conceals details of Veins’ dark underworld while inspiring the reader with shapes and an overall sense of frenzied, jagged, contrast.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A fun little map

I drew this little map the other day during a session of Hill Cantons where during the sack of a minor city state by an army of aggrieved war bears the party ran down the city's recently deposed Czernobog/demon worshiping ruler along with a cadre of his fanatical warriors (dressed in absurd bronze and black iron harness, horned helmets and fur topped boots) in the ritual caves beneath the city.  The party was blasted with a fireball, and had terrible luck with initiative, but eventually stabbed, choked and hacked the wizard king to death without losing a member (though there were some rolls on the unforgiving death and dismemberment table).

Here's the map...

or if one likes a more classic feel...

This is Ironspire Island - a mysterious outcropping less then two miles long (hexes seem useless to me here - but hey, tradition) in the balmy seas off the Feral Shore.  It has not been explored as despite its interesting features, including the mysterious iron spires on its Eastern hill, the island is infested with zombies in the swarming hundreds - maybe even thousands.  A mystery of the Hill Cantons that I hope this map will encourage its players and Gm to explore.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gongburg Solitudes

So there's this thing where people post hex maps up on Google Plus and then others come along and fill in various Hexes to create a complex hex map.  Of late Save vs. Total Party Kill has put together a nice little script that prepares these hex collections for display and use in a nice online format. The other night I ended up drawing this hex map below for kicks and posted it.  Apparently it didn't inspire, so I ended up filling in most of the hexes and creating the "Gongburg Solitudes" a Fallen Empire sort of small region.   

Gongburg and Environs

"The Gongburg Solitudes are are forsaken hinterland somewhere West of the Capital, South of the Pine Hells and East of the Black Shoals. Forgotten by men a place between others along the decaying Imperial Highway, the Solitudes are officially ungoverned and without significant military force or even patrols. Given their own forgotten and moribund condition, the Solitudes are a fine place to hide from revenge or justice, but like most abandoned baronies of the Empire they are haunted by their past, and secretly rich in once discarded wealth. Marble and wool could make the Solitudes a productive demesne, if they were governed by men and women of sense and vision - something utterly lacking in these fallen times."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Strange Stars - OSR - A REVIEW

So a while back Trey Causey of Sorcerer's Skull Released "Strange Stars" a " setting for any game where modern transhuman science fiction meets classic 70s space opera." It was a pretty good all purpose supplement about a very "Star Wars" (or perhaps more "Ice Pirates") meets Ian Banks' Culture Novels or Lecke's Ancillary universe and it was followed shortly by a FATE mechanics book for the setting written by John Till. I know nothing about FATE so I can't comment on that one, but recently Trey and Hydra Cooperative put out Strange Stars OSR.  I think I know OSR and I even know Stars Without Numbers, which is a slightly crunchy (Optional DM facing crunch - it's fine) version of space Dungeons & Dragons using the contentions of the 1980's Basic & Expert books ('B/X' or Red and Blue Box).

Interior Sample of Strange Stars OSR

I also know Trey, in an internet acquaintance way, and think he's one of the best people working in the OSR gaming scene (though I don't think he'd consider himself OSR exactly, even if I think he's running a Wizard of OZesque 5e campaign or maybe a B/X Planet of the Apes game these days), who doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves.  Not only is Mr. Causey's blog always updating with something interesting to say (though often about comics or sci-fi movies, and usually fairly short), but it has been for years.  Mr. Causey's earlier works regarding "The City" are a phenomenal setting that was one of the early departures in the tabletop revival blogging scene from vintage rules recreation.  "The City" is detailed in "Weird Adventures" and is a 1920's weird fantasy New York attached to a Weird fantasy America and world.  It is amazingly well done, pulling from a rich well of popular culture and geek culture to create a truly inspiring and darkly humorous setting.  The folks at Hydra Cooperative are also pretty excellent, and produce high quality works, so I have a great deal of fondness for both author and publisher - but still I bought this PDF ($5.55) with my own money and so I promise to be critical of it where it's deserved.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

In the City at Night - Trade your Dreams for Tawdry Fashion

Pennington -Year One
The Capital is eternal, possessing the hubris of something that is, and it's 2,800 year history of continuous metropolitan occupation gives it some claim to being the largest, longest continuously occupied human city in the world, unless some poor bastards still cling to something akin to life in the blasted cities of the Imperial Heart Provinces. Still discounting bone singers, the Capital was a bustling city of high industry when the Papacy of the Red Sun's was truly the scattering of nomadic cattle raiding tribes that Imperial propaganda still paints it as.  Only Far Vehisu claims a longer history, and far Vehisu also claims to have been founded a thousand years in the future.

With great age, comes a deep, wide detritus of knowledge and a deeper one of trash. Much of the Capital's trash is magic, and some is still useful.  Below is a 2D20 table of magic items that may be found in the Capital.  The items shown are varied, but tends towards the less martial and more esoteric functions as conflict in the Capital is just as often whispered intimations in a dusty salon as it is knives under a canal bridge.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The City at Night - They Stalk Darkened Streets - Blackhearts

Michael Whelan - Descent

This began as a random encounter list companion for the most recent post of random urban landmarks for the capital of the Fallen Empire, but became a long monster description relating to a form of ghoul designed for Fallen Empire.  Ghouls are one of my favorite D&D monsters and almost always make an appearance in my games, being a truly horrific source of imagery for me, and the 'Blackhearts' below are an especially horrible and pathetic variety.

One of the things I decided when running Fallen Empire Games was to use mythological monsters from less common mythos, and for various reasons the folktales of the Caribbean became the source of some of the monster design, Blackhearts being based on the legend of the Blackheart Man/Uncle Gunnysack (not Bunny Wailer's reinterpretation as a symbol of resolute anti-colonialism but a boogeyman that steals children and carries them off in his gunnysack).  Likewise Duppys and the Rolling Calf are likely to appear on Fallen Empire random encounter lists, though in equally twisted forms

There is no safety in the winding and convoluted streets of the Capital, paths overlaid, rewritten, and turning in on themselves and ruin crumbling next to commerce, while hideous things creep up from the underways, down from the abandoned stories above, and out of the canals.  Palisades of repurposed masonry and expensive imported timber protect the dockland redoubts of the Resurgent Merchants a Wreckers, magical wards still have some power around the manses of the craft and trade castes and the nobility and their servitors are more often than not themselves predatory beasts that hunt the night.

Most citizens and visitors to the Capital have no such protection and rely of stout doors, heavy locks, iron shutters, silence and low folk magic to protect their homes and family.  These protections are effective for most, but each night at least one family is reduced to red ribbons and one band of late night revelers dragged under the green scum of a nearby canal by something long dead.

While many potential dangers stalk the Capital’s crumbling streets from renegade Knights Perilous to duppies formed of an angry spirit and cyclones of trash, one of the most common and most awful is the Blackheart, skulking at the fringes of society with their sacks of human bones and preying on the weak.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

In the City at night

It takes two days of canal travel from the Eastern and Western canal to reach the Docklands after one has passed through the shadowy enormity of the Capital's great walls and the mercenary militia and trade towns that cluster about the gates.  Two days of distant spires, and endless vistas of ruin as the bargemen pole furiously up the green canals - past fishing rafts, and under the black snapping flags above the dens of feral thralls.  Through expanses of arcane lilies that project the ghostly images of ancient beauties from their blooms, and over the fish gnawed bones of thousands of years worth of suicides and murder victims.

Hubert Robert - 1789

The Capital sprawls at the confluence of two great rivers, bound and channeled within the great circuit of it's two hundred foot, bonewhite walls and emerging again as canals that lead outward, rays from a dying sun.  For even though the Capital is dying, the spires of the Imperial Presence still gleam in the sun with its ancient shadow stretched out to cover entire blocks and neighborhoods of insula.  Within however is only a wilderness of dust and great polities of vermin, the street a mazed jungle of imperfection and abandoned buildings.   Imperial tower blocks stand in indestructible bonewhite and magically extruded stone, but the less permanent materials of their interiors are rotted and burnt away to leave only regal shells for the pigeons to roost beneath.

Urban Life is limited to to the North Eastern Quadrant of the Capital, around the foreign quays and the outlanders market where the men of the Resurgent Kingdoms gather to trade the salvaged wealth and mysteries of empire for the earthly dross of grain, dried meat and clean wine. Only here are the canals clean of unnatural life, and the night streets safe from haints, ghouls, blackhearts, and ferals.  Magical sinks cover much of the Capital's Southern half, the once towering factor hives collapsed into themselves, teaming with feral thralls and worse - the roaming sports of curdled magic: parliaments of owlbears, cockatrice, hollow men and even the rumored demon.

Hubert Robert Again

Within the civilized Northern half of the capital the dockyards form a new and growing metropolis of Resurgent adventurers rebuilding from rubble as locust like they plunder the Capital's ancient glories or trade them for necessities and cheap intoxicants. Swaggering mercenary guards, white haired men and women of the Pine Hells, or wilder places that once were the Empire, provide rough security to those who can pay and it is not uncommon to find such oddities as a pair grey skinned, lamp eyed Ibian wrestlers, guarding a hook handed corsair captain from the Southern Isles or a merchant caste family protected entirely by amazons from across the mud sea clad in the corroded golden plates worked from the shells of ancient automatons.

Beyond the dockyards are the mansions of the trade and craft caste families, both afraid of the ways the Resurgent newcomers ignore the all consuming Imperial system of courtesy and caste, using violence as a negotiation tactic, and intrigued the Resurgent appetites for Imperial craft, salvage and trade. Even with the new trade most of the craft and merchant families ape the manners of the nobility and remain immured by custom within their mansions, or possibly extinct - a few bones in the high rooms of a darkened and moldering house.  Here and there though there are signs of growth and life, with gardens that are more then overgrown tangles of magically augmented plants, and windows that glow with light in the darkness.

Surrounding the Palace Spire itself are the Spires of the nobility, a world of their own, still inhabited by the degenerate and decadent remainders of the caste and their servitors.  Many towers are empty, but a salvager can never tell if somewhere within a hundred stories of crumbling opulence a great magus noble remains, surrounded by her pack of dedicated servitors and ready to protect her inherited mountains of rotting finery with fel sendings or life draining sorcery. 

Hubert Robert 1783
To wander the streets of the Captial is too witness broken wonders built on a scale larger then human ambition and abandoned because their care is beyond human ability.  It is to age and decline in every crack and worn stone block and to know that humanity's best days are behind it, to feel one's own insignificance, overshadowed by the past.

Sight in the moonlit Capital Streets, random Locations (A-Z or 5D6)

Friday, January 13, 2017


Reginald Cruft, my player character in Ben L’s Dreamlands game is a 19th century American veteran of Union side of the US Civil War, and by 1885 a 47 year old failed medical student and raving drug addict.  In his delirious and debauched state he has dreams, and these dreams have recently been very consistent - they have been of the Dreamlands. In the Dreamlands Cruft is a wizard, capable of some minor feats of charm and mesmerism (though at second level he has the spells “Charm Person, Sleep and Enlrage/Reduce - the last being hard for him to justify as mere mesmerism).

Below is a table for the effects of the various overdoses that push Cruft into the Dreamlands and how they change him during his travels there.  Presumably when Cruft dies in the Dreamlands, his body, wracked with overdose, will be found in his filthy New York garret or a dingy go down opium den.
Drug of Choice
Dreamlands Side Effects
Stronger and faster, harder in every way, a jarring transition from the waking world to the Dream. Within everything feels heavy and slow, a molasses of impossibility.  Dreamer will act last in party initiative order regardless of action for the rest of the session.
Taking the Cure
Painful body wrecking withdrawal symptoms. All Physical stats reduced by 3 for the session and spell slots reduced by 1 (highest level spell).
Raw Corn Spirits
Cheap searing alcohol in grand draughts leaves the dreamer with guts like water and a susceptibility to the slightest pain, body running with sweats.  For the rest of the session any blow to the dreamer will stun him or her for a round in addition to doing damage.
Cocaine Lozenges
Fractured and jangling, the good feeling of the waking world crumbles into totten bone and a searing pain behind the eyes, leaving the dreamer irritable and suggestible (-2 to all saves v. spells or paralysis) for the session.
Fly Agaric
It’s hard to know where the visions ended and the Dream began, but while the ‘real’ occasionally flashes back into the dream in the form of remembered faces, and glimpses of a dusty window, there’s no effect on the Dreamer’s functionality.
The sailor's’ consolation, a gut ripping glass of nutmeg tea causes pleasant enough dreams after the vomiting subsides.  Within the Dreamlands, the sense of smell seems stronger.
The pestilential pipe, a daily pleasure, provides for a swift transport and brightly colored experience in the land of Dreams.
Gassy Lager
Despite a certain thickness of the tongue and a tendency towards flatulence the side effects of this tipple are limited, though everything in the Dreamlands resembles a cartoon version of itself from the pages of a cheap pamphlet.
McMunn's Elixir of Opium
Patent medicine for the toothache and the cramp, but to those in the know it’s a fine tincture of opium, and smoother than the raw stuff. The shift from waking body to dream body is smoother to, making the dreamers body a closer approximation of the ideal then the actual and providing +1 HP per Hit Die for the session.
A dream within the dream, spaces retreating fractal and numberless, the mind of the Dreamer is open to possibility and may cast and memorize spells as if one level higher.
A good night drinking bonded rye whiskey lead to riotous dreams of superiority.  Dreamer’s melee attacks are at +1 hit.
Conditional Sobriety
Unable to soothe his fevered mind with more than a few scrapings of a pipe or the last finger of whiskey or two, the Dreamer has staved off withdrawal sickness, but is still sweating and paranoid.  Falling to sleep while cooing over a loaded 1851 Colt Naval revolver.  The revolver has slid into the Dreamlands, a weapon that may be used in two ear shattering fusillades before exhausting its ammo. It will fade after one session should the dreamer remain in the Dreamlands.

1851 Naval Colt: ATK as Explosive/AOE - Explosion Value 2 - Damage 1D8, may cause morale check, random encounter check.