Sunday, 20 September 2015

Review: "Primrose Path" by Owen K.C. Stephens

Dungeons and Dragons "Primrose Path", Original Adventure for 6th level characters
Welcome back to the Original Adventures series reviews.  This time I'm reviewing another Owen K.C. Stephens adventure, Primrose Path.  The module was distributed by Wizards of the Coast for the D&D 3.5 line, but it should be useful with Pathfinder and other D20 games with some conversion.  As the image says, Stephens is aiming to challenge four 6th-level characters.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Actual Play: The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry (part 1)

One of my regular players wanted to cut down to fortnightly games while the others were up for staying on weekly.  So rather than develop more material I turned to the stack of reviewed modules.  As we're playing AD&D First Edition, Jeremy Reaban's "The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry" was an easy choice - it's an engaging and rewarding beginning scenario.  If you just want a review, take that link out of here because I'm about to drop some heavy spoilers!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Review: "March of the Sane" by Owen K. C. Stephens

Welcome back to the Original Adventures review series.  The Original Adventures were free monthly adventures released by Wizards of the Coast to support their D&D 3.0 and 3.5 line (though they should be playable under Pathfinder with minimal conversion).  Owen K. C. Stephens' March of the Sane, released in August 2004, was the 14th of the series.  It's an event-based adventure for a party of four 5th-level adventurers. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Review: "The Cliff-Lair of Heeter" by Corey Ryan Walden

Corey Ryan Walden's The Cliff-Lair of Heeter is a small adventure site for 4-10 adventurers of levels 1-3, to be played under the Original D&D rules and clones of the same.  Due to the simplicity of those rules, it would be fairly easy to adapt the work for play with other TSR-era D&Ds or their OSR equivalents.  It's not free, unlike a lot of what I review, but it's modestly priced at $1.99.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Exporting the effect of AD&D ability scores: Strength

Last time, I talked about a rationale for ability scores as potential rather than realised ability.  I wanted to expand on that idea by discussing how one might export the functions of AD&D 1e's ability scores to character class and level.  (Briefly: the idea here is to keep the game more focused on these latter qualities because of verisimilitude and fairness.  It makes sense that skill is decisive and reducing the impact of random factors in character creation has long had an appeal.)  I've chosen Strength to start the discussion because it's the first in the book, but also because its AD&D functions are highly diverse.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A necessary simplification in pursuit of realism

This is something of a follow-up to my musings on Concreteness, Inquiry, and Rationalisation.  It's not necessary to go back and read the prior post, but it might help to understand the outlook here.

This post's wordy title alludes to a commonplace view that in order to get at "realism" in games, one must add more complicated rules.  Of course, to state this view is to dispel it, as everyone knows of games that are nowhere near realistic while still being overly complicated.  Rather than bore the reader to death with a purely abstract discussion, I'm going to address the ability scores.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: "The Howling Hills" by Charley Phipps

This is not the greatest module in the world.
This is a tribute.
Charley Phipps' The Howling Hills is a free adventure for AD&D First Edition and its clones.  The material could be used with other TSR or OSR rules without much conversion.  The scenario aims to challenge high level adventurers - no mean feat in any game - and also has to deal with the problem of very skilled players.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Review: "The Tavern of Daednu" by the Oliver Brothers

The Oliver Brothers' The Tavern of Daednu is a free adventure module for low-level characters.  The cover commits the work to AD&D 1st Edition, but as usual this means that referees using TSR-era D&Ds (and clones of the same) can run Daednu with a small amount of conversion.  It's one of many free OSR resources hosted by Dragonsfoot.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Concreteness, inquiry, and rationalisation

An internal view of 15th. century Brigandine.
The question "why is this stuff in RPGs?" has been thrown around a lot lately.  In the interests of making that discussion a little more safe, let's talk about continued existence of "studded leather" armour in D&D and its successors.  I would like to think that's going to be something that can be talked about without anyone reliving past harms - and if I'm wrong about that, I sincerely apologise for my ignorance.  (There's also a reference to Rust Monsters being tied up later on, but it's not particularly explicit.)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Campaign catch-up I: The temple in the sands

It has been a very long time since I first posted about my campaign.  Despite my absence from the blog, I'm happy to report that the game hasn't died - although one character did.  As I'm summarising a few months of play, these catch-up episodes will be a little sketchy.

Further investigations of the temple in the sands revealed a good many secrets and some fair share of treasure.  The riddle of the altar was finally revealed when the characters traced the path of the sun, opening up a hidden compartment filled with treasure. (1) Excavation showed that there was a great trap door before the altar, leading to a bizarre crypt.

Review: "The Forbidden Land" by RC Pinnell

The Forbidden Land by RC Pinnell is a free hex-crawl scenario hosted on Dragonsfoot.  The design is oriented towards Classic D&D (B/X, BECMI, or the Cyclopedia) but the work leans lightly enough on the statistical information that I think it would work well under any old school rules.  Indeed, it wouldn't be too hard to use The Forbidden Land with new school or non-D&D rules.  The scenario is recommended for somewhat seasoned characters, from about 4th level, but the actual difficulty will be determined in the process of preparing the work for play.

Review: "The Lair of Largash the Lurid" by Michael Mills

The Lair of Largash the Lurid is a free introductory module (released as Pay What You Want with a recommended price of nothing) by Michael Mills of Canister & Grape Wargames.  The scenario is intended for use with Classic D&D, specifically B/X, and would run very easily under Labyrinth Lord.  Other old school rules could be used with a little bit of conversion.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

OneBookShelf to stop stocking Indie RPGs?

OneBookShelf (who run DriveThruRPG, RPGNow, among others) recently announced a new policy on rejecting "Offensive Content".  Here's the core of the policy:

Monday, 31 August 2015

Review: "The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry" by Jeremy Reaban

The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry is a pay what you want module designed by Jeremy Reaban.  For the sake of full disclosure: I don't know Jeremy but I do follow his very useful OSR News and Reviews blog, and I believe that he's a reader of War beneath the Earth.  If he decides to never read my blog again on the strength of what I say here, then I'll just have to live with that.

Impressions: Geoffrey C. Grabowski's "The Dreams of Ruin"

Earlier this year, Geoffrey C. Grabowski, writer of the Exalted RPG, released The Dreams of Ruin.  This free module is nominally as a Labyrinth Lord product but compatible with a great many retroclones and the games that inspired them.  At the time it first came out, I took a look with an eye to review and got bogged down in the text.  The recent publication of The Dreams of Ruin in print format inspired a second look.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Review: Night of the Mad Kobold by "Mad Dave" Olson

Cut to the Chase Games are giving away "Mad Dave" Olson's WK0 Night of the Mad Kobold until the 16th of September.  The adventure is aimed at six 1st-level adventurers and is written under Swords and Wizardry.  Converting to Original or Classic D&D, or to Retroclones based on these systems won't be a problem, but I think Cut to the Chase are a little quick to say the module can be run under OSRIC.  It can, but it will need some conversion along the way.

Review: "Ice Maidens of the Frozen Horn" by RC Pinnell

Back in May, I reviewed RC Pinnell's Cold Drake Canyon, a module with an engaging ambition but lacklustre achievement.  Pinnell's latest on Dragonsfoot, Ice Maidens of the Frozen Horn, is another module outside of the usual design parameters.  Styled as "X14-T", Ice Maidens is described as a tournament module for the 1981 B/X rules, but it would work very well under the other Classic lines or their clones.  There's a sensible note that running the module under AD&D would require conversion and - perhaps for my benefit - permission to modify the scenario is granted but not repeated too many times.  The scenario is a little unclear but it seems to be aimed at six to nine characters of 8th to 12th level.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Winning Dungeons and Dragons

It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.
There's a long-standing view that role-playing games are not things that can be won or lost.  There's always more of the game to play, and in any case the players are mainly collaborating with one another so it doesn't make sense to talk about competition.  To make sense of this, let's consider a group of players - for simplicity's sake, we'll call them FCB.

FCB are a group with different ages and backgrounds, but they're united by their enjoyment of the game.  Every year, they'll be off to different locations, running the risk of defeat and injury in the hopes of winning fame and prizes.  Due to conflicting interests, schedules - not to mention the difficulty of wrangling a large group - many of the group won't be at a particular game.  In addition, some of their players are more skilled and more active, and these elite players tend to get the lion's share of the rewards.  On the other hand, the less skilled members of FCB often learn a great deal from the better players.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Examining Appendix B: Random Wilderness Terrain

I'm a big fan of the random tables in the DMG, because I feel that these charts make me less partisan to the development of the scenario.  If the difficulty is being generated more by dice throw than my hand, I don't feel that it's my fault if the PCs are too successful or not successful enough.  Rather, my job is to give the mechanical description some more life and excitement, and to act as a fairly impartial referee with regard to the rules.  Invariably I turn to Appendix A to provide a starting point for stocking my dungeons.  But recently I've been looking more closely at its less-fancied sibling, Appendix B: Random Wilderness Terrain.

The introduction to these tables includes the puzzling instruction that each space can be "1 mile, or larger".  Now, I'm not about to quibble on the shifts in terrain, because the DM is instructed to apply common sense.  My puzzlement stems from the population density generated by the Inhabitation Table - and what that will mean when the scale can be altered.  I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for just the settlements (setting aside Castle population as too variable for now) and came up with an average of about 411 people per space.  If each space is a square mile, that's a population density slightly greater than that of modern China - hardly the howling emptiness of the World of Greyhawk.  One could massage that figure by saying that large settlements should be prohibited in marshes and mountains, but it's still quite a few people even before considering the land required for the upkeep of the game's monsters.

Taking the space as a 6 mile hex gets a population density of about 17 inhabitants per square mile, somewhat less than modern Russia.  That feels a bit better!  In fact, for most campaigns it's going to be about right once the DM starts applying "common sense" measures like prohibiting towns and cities in overly hostile terrain.  Of course, if you want that full-on post-Apocalyptic D&D style, then maybe try starting with 12 mile hexes and strictly limit settlements off the plain?

Monday, 25 May 2015

Review: "The Barrow of the Moon Druid" by the Oliver Brothers

The Barrow of the Moon Druid is a free adventure hosted on Dragonsfoot for characters of levels 2-4.   The material is intended for use with AD&D 1st Edition or 2nd Edition (with some adjustments).  Realistically, any TSR-era D&D or a clone of the same would suffice. Writing and illustration is all credited to the Oliver Brothers (James, Will, and Paul), as is the play-testing.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Thoughts on modelling the activity of NPC adventuring parties

After the events of my most recent session as DM, I'm left with a problem and opportunity.  The party intends to take a few days out before continuing their exploration of the ruined temple.  That's fine - they certainly have the right to proceed at their own pace.  However, such breaks in tempo can't be free of consequences.  When a site potentially rich in treasure is discovered, other adventurers may seek it out - and in the absence of another group of players to sic on the place, I'm obliged to use non-player characters.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Campaign journal: "Archaeology in force"

The first regular session of my new campaign went off without too much trouble.  One player had to roll up a character, but he was good enough to arrive early and was more or less ready by the time the others showed up.  Due to an expected absence, I had one party member to "explain away".  Unfortunately I didn't write up notes immediately afterwards, so some of the order of things here is a little foggy.

The elven adventurers Aegis (a magic-user with some skill at arms) and Vhondrel (a cleric devoted to the savage elf god) had spent about a month in Tripoli, spending their new-found wealth, assimilating the lessons of their prior adventure, and considering fresh expeditions. (1)

One day an old woman from the desert accosted Vhondrel in the street, throwing sand on the elf-maid and chanting some sort of folk-magic rhyme to "bind" her to a pact.  Despite the strangeness of the encounter, the cleric decided to see what the nomad wanted.  Vhondrel was happy enough to use her healing touch to restore an infant to good health and even happier that the nomads offered to lead her to a ruin in the sands, possibly the site of ancient treasures.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Game preparation time!

I haven't had as much time for reviewing modules this week as last because I'm preparing to DM on Saturday.  (I'll be expanding a one-shot adventure into a campaign in my old milieu.)  This leads to a straight question: am I running anything from the last slate of reviews?

Not this time, but I thought about it.  Beer of the Gods just about squeezed in, but as we're kicking things off I don't think that the GagMen's tidy little palate-cleanser is really necessary.  Steve Gilman's Shrine of Sruukor was my other main option, especially as Steve was good enough to send me a free copy of the second part of the Sundered Chronicles!  However, I was determined to keep in a "Cross and Crescent" motif and Aranure doesn't quite fit.  I've actually decided to take out the graph paper and chart a new low-level area connected to the last campaign's main dungeon, with an eye towards developing a mega-dungeon for continuing play.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the giant class will be making an appearance - and I've had some new insights into the nature of elves...

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Stupid, Chaotic, Warlike: The giant class as combatants

Foreword: I mentioned in my review of Issue 11 of & Magazine that I had some disagreements with the views expressed in that issue's special feature articles.  Rather than clutter that post with my views and make it seem that I hadn't enjoyed &11, I'm taking up some of the controversies here.  Because & Magazine is primarily an AD&D 1e publication and that's the game I tend to play, all of my references to the game manuals are for that system.

The special features of &11 opened with Getting More Mileage from Goblinoids by Bryan Fazekas.  Unfortunately it's not a guide on improving the performance of one's savage litter-bearers, but instead an essay to DMs on why the giant class ought to be than just dumb brutes and sword fodder.  The article starts off by suggesting that the reason for the "brute" assumption is the portrayal in Tolkein's work and its many derivatives, which is plausible.  Fazekas then goes on to review the intelligence and alignment of the giant class in order to justify more nuanced tactics.  Much as I'm inclined to accept that more dangerous orcs, goblins, and so forth are a good idea, I don't really agree with the assumptions and I think they lead to making the giant class less interesting - and less dangerous!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Review: & Magazine, Issue 11

Issue 11 of & Magazine came out at the start of the month.  I'd put it on my reading list but hadn't intended on a review until &'s PR Director Ron Redmond somewhat hesitatingly asked me for one on Reddit.  He shouldn't have worried - I like the big quarterly and the ideas behind it.  Although community blogs and social media are a very "agile" means of discussion, periodicals like & provide a stable point of reference.  Bryan Fazekas' policy of announcing a theme for submissions keeps the magazine focused, while in theory allowing for diverse views on the topic to be expressed in the same document.

In Issue 11, the theme is humanoids (aka. the "giant-class", goblinoids) and the views in the special feature articles and the regular articles following theme are very much along the same line - that there is a problem with the assumed vanilla presentation that needs to be corrected, generally with new gaming content and complexity.  Most likely, this is a result of self-selection.  People who feel that the assumed vanilla presentation is largely fit for purpose and only needs a certain degree of expansion would be less likely to write in to &.  I'm not sure that there's anything that the staff could do to correct this trend, and in fact there's no pressing need to solicit contrary opinions.  Speaking just for myself, I disagreed with a great many of the views expressed in this issue - and may lay out my differences in later posts.  But don't mistake that for a condemnation of & Magazine.  Reading opposing views helped to clarify what I think about the topics addressed in Issue 11, providing entertainment on the day and (hopefully!) a better-developed milieu for my future RPG campaigns.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Review: "The Smoking Pillar of Lan Yu" by Kevin Crawford

The Smoking Pillar of Lan Yu is a free OSR module for low-level adventurers from Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine Publishing.  However, it is primarily intended as a design example for designers interested in the visual design of early 80s modules - hence the "EX" code - and includes a detailed commentary for that audience.  Crawford has made it pretty clear that he doesn't consider the scenario to be "particularly compelling", but he does say that the Smoking Pillar is "complete and playable".  As my target audience is the DM who feels short on time or experience, I just want to address the worth of the module as a play aid in this post.

Looking gift horses in the mouth (or, "What do you mean, 2/5?!")

I have received a few comments on the harsh/high standards I set for review.  It's a fair point to raise.  Why be so critical, especially when dealing with modules that have been given away?

People use modules for a variety of reasons.  The most common are time pressure and inexperience.  Less often, a module gets included in a campaign due to the outright superiority of its design.  In the first two cases, a DM looking to the vast array of available modules - especially Third-Party modules - has good reason to go elsewhere.  The time-starved DM knows that trying to find a good module can be extremely time-consuming, while the inexperienced DM might assume that only "the company" really knows what it's doing.  Similarly, someone looking for a real gem might not be prepared to wade through dozens of modules to find a "must-run".

These are the people I'm primarily addressing in a review.  My role as a reviewer is not to pat the designer on the back for getting the work out the door - even though it is hard, and anyone getting a module to print really has done well!  Nor is it to just express gratitude for making the product free or cheap - although such acts are admirably generous.  What I'm trying to do here is to save the time of those who are running short on time and lend advice to those who lack experience.  Less often, I'll happen to turn up something extraordinary and want to call attention to those diamonds in the rough.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Mini-review: "The Gar’Haden Family Crypt" by Steve Gilman

I noticed that Steve Gilman put out a one-page dungeon as an add-on to The Shrine of Sruukor.  As a follow-up to my review of the Shrine, here's a mini-review of The Gar'Haden Family Crypt, a free one-page adventure for OSR (Swords and Wizardry native).

Gilman's premise for the Crypt is that grave-robbers have busted into somewhere they shouldn't, releasing something horrible.  It's simple, but it works.  He has a suggested use for the Crypt in the context of The Shrine of Sruukor, but it would be very easy to use the module in most campaigns.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Review: "The Shrine of Sruukor" by Steve Gilman

The Shrine of Sruukor is the first episode of Steve Gilman's Sundered Chronicles, self-published under his Sundered Blade Games label.  The module has been designed for 1st to 3rd level adventurers and Gilman has taken the interesting step of producing an OSR version (native to Swords and Wizardry) and a D20 version (native to the Pathfinder RPG), both priced as Pay What You Want.  I've mainly followed the OSR version of the module in this review.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: "Beer of the Gods" by the GagMen

Beer of the Gods is a free module published by the comedic podcast collective GagMen.  The adventure is pitched at low-level characters and written for the Basic Fantasy Rules.  However, even without knowing anything about BFR, I found the statistical information pretty easy to translate into the OSR systems that I prefer.

I wasn't familiar with the GagMen when I picked up Beer of the Gods, so after my first readthrough of the module, I tuned into their jam session for it: Episode 33 (February 19, 2015) of their podcast series.  There's a lot to take away from the podcast, not least of which is the usefulness of airing one's ideas to a group for feedback.  A lot of self-publishing designers would do well to copy the GagMen's method, even if they choose to keep their ideas private.  I also think that anyone wanting to run Beer of the Gods could benefit from tuning in and perhaps picking up some of the ideas that didn't make the final cut.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Review: "Cold Drake Canyon" by RC Pinnell

RC Pinnell's Cold Drake Canyon is a free module on Dragonsfoot for 1st to 8th level characters.  The design is aimed at 1st Edition AD&D, but could fairly easily be used with other TSR editions or retro-clones.  Pinnell's stated ambition is to lay out a "mini-setting" with an appropriate base of operations and challenges for bringing characters from low levels up to between fifth and eighth level.

I was very interested in this module for two reasons.  Firstly, it seemed like a cry back to the Keep on the Borderlands both in scope and scenario.  There's room for more modules like Gygax's classic, and having a good free one to direct new DMs towards would have been wonderful.  Secondly, I have my own AD&D 1e game and although I am determined to make use of old notes, the dungeon I have on paper is really more suitable for PCs around 6th level.  Cold Drake Canyon looked like a possible time-saver.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Please stop telling me that I'm allowed to improvise

My current "pet gripe" when reading modules is being told that I'm allowed to make changes or fill in details.

Review: "The Black Ruins" by Corey Ryan Walden

The Black Ruins is a module by Corey Ryan Walden for low-level adventurers, released as a free e-book on Lulu with the option to buy a print copy.  Walden has aimed his system-agnostic scenario at the OSR, but claims that it "can be made compatible with newer editions with minimal effort".  After probing this sort of claim while writing my last review, I'm not inclined to believe that things are quite that simple.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Review: "An (un)Deathly storm" and "Infestation", two one-page adventures from Sacrosanct Games

An (un)Deathly storm and Infestation are both Pay What You Want modules published by Sacrosanct Games.  Sacrosanct, led by Rob Waibel, have been around for a good long time, established in 2002 and claiming that they've been kicking around game design for almost thirty years. The two modules are the first installations of a series of largely system-agnostic one-page fantasy adventures, and have been pitched at low-level characters.

That means I need to make a bit of a disclaimer before going on with the review.  I'm not here to determine the validity of the One Page Dungeon Contest.  (Though for what it's worth, I think the contest encourages scenario designers to test the limits of their creativity and brevity, qualities very useful in designing a scenario of any length.)  My purpose in reviewing is to consider how useful the product is to a DM for running a game.  To put that another way, I'm concerned that I'm doing the gaming equivalent of talking about how good wearable art is for hiking.

Review: "The Tomb of Gardag the Strange" by Shane Ward

The Tomb of Gardag the Strange is a recently published Pay What You Want module for four to six third level characters.  Shane Ward (3 Toadstools Publishing) wrote the module for Labyrinth Lord, although it could be used with other OSR games or the classic RPGs that inspired them.

Let me start out by saying that this is an endearing project.  It was clearly written by someone who has a lot of fun playing RPGs and wants others to derive enjoyment from his work.  To the extent that payment is requested, I think it's fair to assume that Ward is only seeking to cover the costs involved in taking his DM notes and converting them into a product that someone else could use.  But that's where the problem begins.  However much I want to like The Tomb of Gardag the Strange, it hasn't finished the transition from the notes someone took to help themselves to a product designed for another party to use.  Ward has alluded to this on his blog in response to other reviews, suggesting that he "may have had it in mind that the adventure could be used as a funnel" (though presumably with 1st-level characters, rather than 0th-level as in Dungeon Crawl Classics).

Blog status update

The last review was one that I'd started work on months ago, before boring real life stuff that has no business on my blog happened.  Unfortunately, since I started reviewing Bad Light, Wizards of the Coast changes their robots.txt.  For reasons I don't completely understand, this has annihilated archived .zip files for the Original Adventures series (and many other free resources besides) on the Internet Archive.

This is a rather sad development for frugal roleplayers and spells the end of my review series for the Original Adventures, at least until such time as Wizards decides to make the material available again.  (Perhaps through D&D Classics?)  As a temporary solution, I've put up links to a (probably) reliable mirror.

Thankfully, there are many other free adventures out there on the internet and I will be giving them a look over in due course.  I'm particularly interested in the lesser-known material being circulated for OSR games.

The revenge of Blood and Guts

Ray Chapel at Quasar Knight has been talking about hit points, one of my favourite topics for RPG argument.  He does a nice job of summarising the usual case for the "action movie" interpretation of hit points (in which hit points are luck, fitness, and the like) being the natural one for D&D and leaves off by saying that if hit points are going to be blood and guts it's going to take some conversion work.

Now, I don't necessarily disagree with the points Ray made, but I think he's left out the source of the controversy: death's door.  If characters simply die at 0hp, then clerical "healing" magic is in fact some sort of special pleading to the saints (or whoever) for renewed favour.  But we know from descriptions of characters at negative hit points that they are gravely wounded and need attention or they will die.  How is it that the same effects - including the warlord's "shouting" - can restore such characters?

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review: “Bad Light” by Owen K. C. Stephens

Welcome back to the Original Adventures series reviews. Wizards of the Coast produced these free modules to support their Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 line, but they mostly use the core books and are easily played under D&D 3.0 or Pathfinder RPG rules. Owen K. C. Stephens' Bad Light continues a run of very brief modules, this time 8 pages aimed at four 4th-level adventurers.  Although it's no longer available for free on Wizards' website, the new price is just $0.99 for a copy of Bad Light.