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[REVIEW] In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe

Wed, 11/24/2021 - 21:08

In the Shadow of
Tower SilveraxeIn the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe (2021)

by Jacob Fleming

Published by Gelatinous Cubism Press

Low- to mid-level

In a sense, the mini-sandbox is one of the holy grails of old-school gaming. The idea of a home base, a wilderness with minor points of interest, and a dungeon or three to top it off is the clearest expression of a home campaign. From Hommlet to Herth, and from Bone Hill to The Forsaken Wilderness, the pattern has been unbroken, even if relatively few published modules give you the whole sandbox, toys included. (The Vault of Larin Karr, for mid-level PCs, is the best example in print that I know of.) This is one genre which is easier to build piecemeal at home by the game table than prepare in a publication-ready format.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe, a 60-page, zine-format module for Old-School Essentials, is a fully realised mini-setting describing the locales of the Gemthrone Wilderness, a mountainous territory arranged around a central valley occupied by a particularly dense and dangerous old-growth forest named The Labyrinth of Shadows. Dwarven settlements and ruins ring the central valley, connected by well-mapped trails; the Labyrinth is trackless and inhabited by the most dangerous monsters. In addition to wilderness exploration procedures, the module provides a description of five settlements (including the town of Karn Buldahr) and nine dungeons of various sizes (from 5-6-room lairs to a main feature with five levels and 33 areas total). The power curve goes from beginning-level to some fairly deadly stuff – maybe 4th to 5th level or so. Rumours, mysterious glyphs, treasure maps, the remains of an advanced ancient civilisation, and local politics complicate the picture, and create a layer of connections to bring it all together.

Hiking Trip, But With HobgoblinsTower Silveraxe follows the trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene. It is heavily focused on tight editing and effective presentation. Every page spread is laid out in a precise way that eliminates the need for page flipping: all the maps and key you need are there before you. The dungeon maps are precise and clean affairs, with local random encounter charts tucked into a corner. I was particularly impressed with the wilderness cartography, which takes the form of an elegant hiking map with contour lines, trail distances, and points of interest. This format has lots of potential, and I hope people will do more with it in the future. (Minor nitpick: my inner textbook editor is screaming in rage at sight of the page numbering, which puts odd numbers on the left and even on the right. How dare you.)

Here we come to the Achilles heel of the module. Following trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene, Tower Silveraxe has sacrificed interest for accessibility. It is well-rounded, impeccably made, nicely interconnected, but the content is just sort of mediocre. One could call it vanilla, but the term is misleading. For instance, the original TSR modules were often quite vanilla, but even so, they always had interesting twists like the orc/carrion crawler caverns/weird shrine under Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, or the pool room and the whole “retired adventurers’ home base” aspect of In Search of the Unknown. Unfortunately, this is the “generic, flavourless” sort of vanilla that works with standard tropes and does not really improve on them, or use them innovatively.

A lot of the module text is remarkably facile. Consider Karn Buldahr, the dwarven town. There are 14 keyed locations, very few of which actually add anything beyond the baseline. The Traveller’s Inn is “a modest inn, just outside the western gate, (…) welcoming to all travellers, even in the early hours of the night.”The Stables are “Owned and run by Kreel Coalbraid. Only mules and carts are available to purchase.” The guards are stout. The General Store & Outfitters sells adventuring gear. The Crafters Quarter is “where nearly all skilled crafters conduct their trade.” There is very little here that could not be improvised on the basis of “Dwarftown. Population: dwarves”. Karn Buldahr occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between minimalism, which does not give you much, but occupies little place, and an actual in-depth treatment which elaborates on the basic concepts until they transcend a generic quality. Here lies the trap of the format: it is all on a spread of two facing pages, which either stifled the author’s creativity, or made him stretch a thin concept beyond its sensible limits. In fact, Karn Buldahr does have things of interest which deserve notice: a theatre putting on modernist plays everyone goes to but nobody confesses to not understanding (the Quirk differentiating the place from other dwarven towns), the local tradition of The Airing of Grievances (the Detail which drives home the dwarven connection), and a magic-user looking for crystals (the Adventure Hook). There are four decent rumours. This is good stuff, surrounded by several paragraphs of eh and meh.

Similar problems affect the nine mini-dungeons. The size is all right for something you find in a wilderness (although Bone Hill would beg to differ), and the concepts – looted tomb, abandoned mine, haunted tower, cave shrine, etc. – are good, with decent variety. It is, again, the encounters which suffer. They are very rote, very standard dungeon encounters of the monster/treasure/trap variety, missing a sense of wonder or deeper challenge that would make people start to pay attention. The treasure is usually coins contained in chests and such, and generic +1 items. The monsters are usually small groups of standard critters. You don’t get the “oh crap, 45 goblins! How do we solve this one?” kind of encounter here.

The encounters end up remarkably shallow. Many details in the key add nothing to the information already found on the map:

“Large room with six huge stone pillars. 2 doors – one south and another goes east on the north end of the room.”

“There is a tunnel to the north and a door to on the south wall. The room is empty.”

Seemingly interesting details do not, in fact, add to the interaction potential of the module, and are left as undeveloped cyphers:

“This room contains many shelves of books. A library for the elf stewards.

>> Books: All journals and logs written by the elves throughout the centuries.

>> Treasure: 3 spell scrolls (shield, knock, and hold portal)

“The stairs descend to a large room with four large statues of figures with heads bowed. At the end of the room is a sturdy iron door.”

Touch the Eye.
Touch the Eeeeye!If you read that last one, your spidey sense is probably telling you this is going to be a great “deeper level” setpiece with a portcullis trap, animated statues, poison gas, flooding, or monsters attacking from behind secret doors. But nothing really happens, and the imagery is left unexploited. Of course, not every such room needs to be a deathtrap. Red herrings play an important role in messing with the players and either deplete their resources or lull them into a false sense of security before the iron door mimic eats them for lunch. Too bad this is a pattern that repeats through Tower Silveraxe, and most similar opportunities are also missed. There are a few exceptions: good foreshadowing down in the main dungeon, which offers progressive hints of a large, dangerous monster’s presence; a cyclopean idol with an obviously telegraphed but still oh-so-fun poison gas trap; or mysteries which span multiple adventure sites. However, the majority of encounters in the adventure are very plain, and the payoff of finding something really unique and off the wall is not present. This is a shame, because the setup is virtually crying out for it.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe is, therefore, a module with excellent structure and relatively weak content. I would not want to savage it – there is obvious craft in how it is put together – but I cannot help but believe the “layout-correctness” has not helped this one, and that it does not live up to its own implicit promise. Your players would probably have a reasonably good time playing it; it does not make any egregious mistakes, and just letting the players loose in the sandbox often produces a spark that sets even middling material aflame. This is what it is: solid, functional, but falling way short of excellence. Potential for improvement? Yes. Room for improvement? Yes, and lots of it.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Hex-crawls: A Simple Guide

Tue, 11/02/2021 - 10:10

A slice of the WilderlandsIrony: no longer just a diet rich in ferrous metals. Old-school gaming is now officially old, having lasted way longer than the period of gaming it looks back on. The line loops back on itself again; we are not just old, we are double-old, and with age, accumulated wisdom is lost, formerly self-explanatory ideas become objects of mystery. This constant erosion is unsurprising. You can fight back, but never win. Still, at least we can go down swinging, and that’s better than nothing. Today, we shall endeavour to do so by restating the idea of a great, simple game structure that surprisingly many people fail to understand, or pretend to fail to understand: the hex-crawl.

If Bryce Lynch doesn’t get it, others might be utterly lost. Perhaps what many of us considered obvious, isn’t. Perhaps so much detail-oriented guidance has been published that the basic, simple idea is getting lost in the discussion. But the main issue I am seeing – something even people like Justin Alexander have fallen into – is that people present an idea of hex-crawls that’s much more convoluted and hard to follow than what most of us actually need for our table. There is scattered wisdom in those pieces, but the maximalist approach they are advocating is not practical for most, especially beginners. The basic hex-crawl, in comparison, is dirt simple to understand, design, and run. Hence, this post. A simple, concise guide can explain the essentials – and if you would like, you can later expand your own procedures in a modular fashion.

* * *

Why run a hex-crawl?

Hex-crawls are a great way to run games based on wilderness exploration. Their main strength lies in turning a wilderness map into something you can describe and play with ease. Hex-crawls offer a good value for the effort that goes into creating them. Even a relatively small wilderness area described as a hex-crawl can be used and re-used several times. You can easily expand them both outwards (describing more of the map using this method) and inwards (adding more features and deeper detail). Hex-crawls can be developed piecemeal, and they are easy to scale to the interests of your adventuring party.

* * *

The basic principle

You might remember a common way to describe RPGs to outsiders: “This game is all in your imagination, played without a game board.” Hex-crawling is a lot like that game, but with a game board added to it. This board shall consist of two map sheets with numbered hexes. One of the maps is for the Gamemaster, and like your usual dungeon map, it is marked with terrain features, and an encounter key. Unlike dungeons, the key is not numbered sequentially, but by hex coordinates: a certain number of hexes may have varied features in them, while some are “empty”, consisting only of terrain. The second map is the one the players actually see: while it conforms to the first in most respects, this one is much more sparse, usually showing coastal outlines, a few major geographic features, and maybe a section of the “known” lands. The rest is left blank for later discovery.

Over the course of play, moving around and exploring the wilderness map, filling in its blanks, and coming across the keyed encounters shall be the focus of the game. The exploration process may be complicated by random encounters, navigation hazards, the depletion of food and equipment, and other complications like bad weather, or events keyed to the passage of time. Like dungeon adventures, hex-crawls are a combination of keyed encounters, random events arising from game procedures, and emergent gameplay created by GM–player interaction. A good hex-crawl is a lot like a good dungeon – reasonably open-ended, challenging, accommodating of player decisions, yet not overwhelming at any single decision point, since every given hex allows only six directions of travel from it.

* * *

Constructing the GM map

The Central MarchesMany game world focus on the big picture, the world at large. In a hex-crawl setting, we will be doing the exact opposite, by describing the micro-world. Our main concern is not the extent and ancient history of empires or the cosmology of the gods, but the local lord acting as an agent of the distant imperial seat, or the secretive monastery hidden in the woodlands. It may be useful to have a very general framework for the sake of style and internal consistency, but what really MATTERS is local detail and variety. The scale of the maps itself should reflect this. We are not making continents, we are making provinces or baronies. Many hex-crawl games use the six-mile hex (which became the default for Judges Guild’s Wilderlands setting), which is really fine-grain, and lets characters move through a lot of hexes in a single game session. I usually go with twelve miles (or around 20 kilometres). Greyhawk’s30 miles per hex, as seen on the classic Darlene Pekul maps, is generally too large for the details we want – Greyhawk is definitely a big-picture place.

Accordingly, map a small corner of the larger world. A starting campaign can easily exist on a stretch of land measuring 12×12 six-mile hexes. Instead of large expanses of homogenous terrain, I would suggest making things varied in terms of both topography and land cover. Starting out with a random-generated map and adjusting it a bit to make the geography slightly more realistic works surprisingly well – there is a random terrain filling method in the AD&D DMG (Appendix B), and Hexographer comes with a default random generator, which I used for the example map here. You will notice a few features which tend to be desirable:

  • a single terrain type tends to cover 8-10 hexes, and rarely more: this makes the land mass varied and distinct;
  • there is a balance of easily navigable, challenging, and generally impassable terrain: choosing where and how to travel becomes an important player choice;
  • water is used prominently, forming seas, a lake, and river basins;
  • prominent features – castles, dungeons, settlements and temples – are distributed logically, but sparsely: travel is a necessity in the setting;
  • roads might link the most important centres of civilisation, but adventure lies off-road: we have a proverbial “points of light setting”, with relatively safe areas along the roads, and dangerous wilderness beyond them.

Not every map has to follow a similar structure, but this combination should make for a good mini-sandbox. If you would like to construct a larger region, Volume 4 of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen (on which more in a later post) describes a semi-random Hexographer-based method that shall create an entire campaign’s worth of terrain.

 * * *

Stocking the GM map

This is the meat of the hex-crawl. Interesting locations, lairs, and the more complex sort of encounters can be seeded across the hex map, waiting for the players to come across them during their explorations. After placing a few important locations by hand, it is most useful to turn to a random generation method. Establish hex locations via this method:

  • roll 2d6 for each 12-mile hex (or 2d12 for each 6-mile hex) with two different-coloured dice for each hex (this can take some time);
  • a “1” on the dice indicates either a ruin (usually marked with an “x”) or a lair (usually marked with an “L” or “·”) – mark these on the map;
  • for hexes with mixed terrain (e.g. forests meeting mountains), check both terrain types;
  • you may want to re-check hexes which have a feature to see if they may have a double one.

The Central Marches, with
locales of interestThe exact content of the hexes is written into the hex key, where entries are identified by the four-number coordinates. This is similar to a dungeon key in scope and detail, focusing on the essential and leaving the rest to improvisation. Like with dungeons, random idea generation tables can be useful for stocking a wilderness, at least beyond a range of initial entries which establish the mood and challenges of the place. Once you have a general idea for the region, the details shall fall into their place. For example, using our previous map, we may begin our hex key like this (stats and most treasure values not included):

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

(and so on, see the end of the post for the starting area)

The hex-crawl, of course, is not the complete campaign, but a component of it. Add a starter dungeon (and start thinking about one or two more – they don’t have to be large affairs), a few rival power centres and organisations, and you have a full landscape of adventure (see this post for a general idea). A hex-crawl is a great place to stick adventures written by other people, too, and it is one of the frameworks where mini-dungeons, even the better one-page dungeons can find a good home.

 * * *

Managing the crawl

Once we have the hex map, the key, and a few places with more detail, the campaign is ready to play. To start the crawl, set the players down on their version of the map, which can be as sparse or as detailed as you wish (the less detailed it is, the stronger the sense of discovery, but the more time will be spent with mapping). At this point, it is important to establish some basic context – where they are, what they have known or heard of the surrounding territory (a rumour each player may be a good way to accomplish this), and approximately where have they heard of capital A Adventure. We can begin!

Much of the hex-crawls occurs through simple procedures. Here are the essentials:

Descriptions: describe what the party sees in the surrounding hexes in a brief way. This should include terrain, visible landmarks, and maybe a little detail. For example, using our sample map, and starting from the castle home base at 0608, the GM could begin thus: “Day one breaks as you ride out through the gates of Krakhal. It is still misty, but you can see the roads meeting here: the Winding Way crossing the river to the NW and going through farmlands towards the mountains where stands the tower of Breezehall  to a day’s journey; the other direction heading SE and disappearing in wooded hills. A more narrow cart road crosses the river to the W, then heads SW through grassland. In this direction lies Fell, a village where you have heard of troubles with raiding humanoids and brigands. To the N and NE stretch thick forests, and to the S, you see tall peaks.”From here on, the descriptions can be even shorter: “You cross the grasslands into 0509, along the river running SW. NW lie woods, SW and S are flat grasslands, and SE are the mountains. The road continues SW.”

Here be giantsMovement: let the players declare the directions they are moving, and calculate how much terrain they can cross at their movement rate. As a rule of thumb, 4 6-mile hexes of terrain (plains, wastelands, coast), 2 hex of medium terrain (forest, hills), and 1 hex of hard terrain (mountains, swamp) can be covered on foot, or 6/4/1 while mounted. For 12-mile hexes, just halve this rate. For mixed terrain (likely), it is sensible to divide the day into a morning and afternoon stretch and see how much distance the characters cover. There are movement systems which use “movement point costs” to enter a hex of a specific terrain type, which are more abstract, but a bit easier to calculate with.

(Getting lost): This is a probability used in various A/D&D editions to see if the party veers off course or becomes lost while moving in the wilderness. It is not a rule we are actively using, but it adds a layer of uncertainty to exploration, and unless the party is moving along the roads, it may lead them to unexpected places of interest!

Encounters: the characters shall come across the fixed encounters on the hex key. There is also a good reason to use random encounter charts to vary things a bit. Generally, roll random encounters once per two six-mile hexes travelled with a 1:6 probability, or twice per day and thrice per night if camping (this can be reduced if the characters have discovered or created a safe shelter). Not all encounters will be fights to the death: hunting animals may avoid the party, while intelligent denizens may want to trade, negotiate, ask for directions, or provide the same… if the reaction checks are good enough.

Supplies: assume one ration per day of travel, and separate water rations where needed. Hunting and foraging may be a way to find food on the way. For a simple system, roll 1d6, with a +1 for skilled outdoorsmen and +2 for rangers and druids, and -1 for frood-sparse regions like high mountains. Food will be found on rolls of 4+, with an extra ration per point over the threshold.

Weather: this is simple and fun for situational variety. Just roll 1d6 per day to establish the dominant weather, from 1 (sunny, clear) to 6 (heavy rains, strong winds, heavy fog), add a situational modifier or two if needed (e.g. by terrain or season). If daily rolls make the weather too “swingy”, assume that stretches of weather will last 1d3 days or even more, or that changes will be in increments of one point at a time.

This is (more or less) the simple system we are using at our table. It is not completely realistic, but it is in keeping with the complexity of dungeon procedures, and makes for a rewarding procedural package which does not slow down play, works out fine, and can be messed with from time to time to shake things up a bit.

* * *

Details which are a matter of taste (but here is my opinion anyway)

Should a terrain type fill a whole hex, or not?

My hex maps are usually more organic, and the hex grid is simply overlaid on a map. This is also the way Judges Guild did things. Hexographer (which I used to illustrate this post) fills every hex with a discrete terrain type. This is okay, too, and slightly easier to adjudicate.

Some people suggest the hex map should be the GM’s tool only, and this “layer” should be hidden from the players. Which one should I pick?

This is the approach advocated by Justin Alexander for reasons of deeper immersion. For ease of use reasons, I would personally recommend the exact opposite, the use of identical player/GM maps with a different level of detail, like in the original Wilderlands products. This translates wilderness navigation into a game board you navigate and gradually fill in with terrain and points of interest. It is a game, and there is no harm in revealing most of its rules, including the hex numbers. In our campaigns, I rationalise the latter with the assumption that hex numbers represent astronomical navigation schemes, or (in science-fantasy campaigns) data from orbital GPS systems.

Do I have to create an entire map’s worth of content before beginning a campaign?

This actually matters! There is absolutely no need to create a whole setting in one go. Create a kay for a relatively small area, then expand outwards as it becomes necessary. Everything you need to know beyond the initial area can be handled as a simple rumour. “North of the Mountains of Fum lies a ruined city inhabited by ghouls. The Crown of Power lies underneath!” or “Monkeys are a delicacy in Katang, but sacred in Pand; and the two towns are almost at war over this matter.” – this much would be sufficient.

How detailed should hex entries be?

For personal consumption, as detailed as your average dungeon room. Some, like major towns and power centres may deserve a little bit more, maybe a bullet-point list. But keeping things brief and versatile is usually the for the best.

What if I have a map, but they don’t start exploring?

A handful of rumours with promises of adventure and treasure can be enough to get the characters going. It is also advisable to place adventure sites in out-of-the way corners of the world, so discovering their exact location requires travel through strange lands. Various quests and missions can also take characters to these fa-flung corners of the milieu.

What if they never go off the road system?

Many such cases! That’s why there should only be few roads, and many places the company has to visit should lie beyond them. This is best caught in the planning phase.

Since hexes cover a lot of territory, shouldn’t adventurers have a chance to miss keyed features?

This has always struck me as bad advice, since the point of hex-crawling is to find cool, interesting stuff, not walk by it. It is in both the player’s and GM’s interest to bring these encounters into play while travelling through the wilderness. You could rationalise it with the understanding that a given hex probably has multiple interesting features, and your party will find the one being described in the key. But generally, unless a feature is deliberately hidden, it is best to let the characters find it. You can always add secondary and tertiary sites later, if needed, although it is also vital to expand horizontally, and encourage players to seek out new lands and sights.

What about three-hex/seven-hex/hex-flower wildernesses?


* * *

The Central Marches: A sample starting area

This is the slice of the region you might describe before the first session. You will note that there are 19 locations being described, including a few hubs of civilisation (the "points of light", with simple adventure hooks), seven ruins, and 6 monster lairs. You can place a larger starting dungeon somewhere close to the centre (this could be beneath the strange garden at 0407, two hexes from KRAKHALL), and a smattering of smaller ones all around: perhaps beneath the well in FELL (0310),  the buried passage in the ancient shrine (0506), the secret treasure cave (0610), the eccentrics' tower basement (0707), the Pavilion of Engadrok (0710), and the emperor's undersea villa (0808). If this sounds too much, that's because it is: you do not need to do it all at once, and many of the possibilities may never enter play (they are well hidden, the entrance is buried or enchanted, etc.).

It is also likely that the campaign will move beyond the initial area in some direction. Perhaps the players will want to visit the city at 1108, follow up on the humanoid raids originating from the advance hobgoblin camp to the west (0109), or travel north beyond the mountains and see what lies in that direction. Do not waste too much work: it does not hurt to be a little lazy in a hex-crawl campaign. If something is particularly important for you, link it to the players with multiple rumours and adventure hooks, and they will likely find their way there.

Once you have the ideas for the hex-crawls, connect, leverage and reuse them: let the brigands at 0406 start harassing merchants along the road, or the hobgoblins send a shipment of captives to the orcs in Castle Gardak (0203). Perhaps the greedy merchants ruling the city want to depose the incompetent Lord Fumme in WOOLBERG (0810) by kidnapping his daughter. A trail of investigation leads to the lawless village of WYRHOLM (0611), and at that place, the characters hear of a treasure-hunting expedition across the mountains (0610). These links and leads make the setting alive and interconnected, and will soon serve as an organic substitute to the rumour table. The campaign will be, to an extent, self-sustaining within its geographic and thematic boundaries.

The Central Marches:
Initial Scope0305 A few walls and a collapsed tower remain from a wizard’s mountain stronghold, now inhabited by 4 griffons. In their nest, they have collected 3000 sp, an efreet bottle, and Helmbrand, a Neutral sword +1.

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

0407 35 gnolls are picking through the ruins of an extravagant garden. Brass idols of various animals on top of standing columns have magical effects: bull – save vs. spell or berserk rage, serpent – offers healing fruit bearing strange curse, wolf – save vs. polymorph or contract lycanthropy, swan – gives feather to most beautiful character, touch heals 1d6 Hp, bear – save vs. spell or sleep 1d6 days, pelican – gives key in exchange for a fish. Buried under a large pile of rubble is the villa of a magic-user, now a repository of mirages. [Ideal for a mini-dungeon]

0409 Crude rock monuments of a preshistoric people stand painted by the grassland road. 18 prize horses (2d6*100 gp each) are grazing nearby, belonging to Bobend the Bastard (Fighter 7), who lives nearby in a filthy tent with 5 wives and 9 mean, unruly children.

0505 BREEZEHALL, tower of the Lord Yverr the Silent (Ftr 9), served by 90 men-at-arms patrolling the mountain road, and Dalco the Orphaned (M-U 5), the descendant of a forgotten king. Lord Yverr is obsessed with five stone thrones on a nearby mountaintop, each struck through with a sword that shall not budge. He is welcoming to guests demonstrating nobility, but has been known to capture and fleece the soft and squeamish.

0506 6 brown bears live in a cave near the mountain road, and have 1:3 to venture out to prey on travellers who do not outnumber them 2:1. The cave is decorated with ancient cave paintings, and ends at a buried passage between two crude statues of snarling bears.

0507 There are giant trees near the road with 8 hippogriffs lairing in the branches. They are only 1:12 to venture out for men (1d4+4 coming), but horseflesh has 1:6 to draw all eight. The giant nests are strewn with bones, and a dagger +1, 3 vs. orcs and goblins is entangled in the branches.

0511 2 fire-breathing giant lizards, particularly colourful in their resplendent hide (worth 800 and 3000 gp intact), enjoy the sun on flat rocks. Their lair, a crack between the enormous boulders, is the source of a spring, overgrown with healing herbs (2d6 doses, +1 to nighttime Hp recovery if prepared as a tea).

0608 KRAKHALL, castle of the Lord Sinds the Righteous (Ftr 9), 90 men-at-arms, and 3 champions (Ftr 7) who serve him enthusiastically. Lord Sinds is the mortal enemy of Lord Fumme the Unlucky (0810), and even his foe’s name can send him into an uncontrollable rage. The moat has been populated with killer frogs as a form of defence, but this plan has not been thought through, and the beasts have become pests in the countryside.

0609 18 zombies wearing the garments of pilgrims shamble in an endless circular procession on a road that terminates shortly afterwards.

0610 Tajah the She-Wolf (Thf 8), noted robber, has come here with a retinue of 30 fighting men and 10 labourers to seek a cavern outlined on a treasure map, found somewhere near the lake coast. Their camp is overrun by small monkeys which prey on the supplies and gradually strip away their equipment.

0611 WYRHOLM, village of 300 men who resent taxation and outside interference, and have become a nest of outlaws and bandits, including armsmen from Woolberg (0810), and good but unscrupulous forest guides. Stolliviss the Eternal (Clr 2) is trying to convert the people to the worship of demonism. The Hack Rack Tavern caters to loggers and fighting men, featuring a bear pit; proprietor Klaint the Incomprehensible is a Thieves Guild man who buys and sells valuables “no questions asked”.

0707 A tower, once the retreat of rich eccentrics for their debauchery, now lies in a decrepit state, inhabited by Klaro the Tall (Fighter 6) and 70 bandits. The weird things the former occupants were into are safely locked down in the basement, while Klaro has converted the top room into a personal weapon and armour collection.

0710 The Pavilion of Engadrok lies in the middle of Lake Oopag, where a magic door leads to a fantastic maze created by a djinn, and the prison of an enchanted princess.

0808 The terraces of a fancy, submerged villa complex can be see beneath the waves here, the former coastal estate of Emperor Nobendses. 200 mermen inhabit the structure, and guard an undersea dungeon with the emperor’s treasures.

0810 WOOLBERG, castle of the Lord Fumme the Unlucky (Ftr 9), 150 men-at-arms, and Father Hsitisolodie (Clr 5). Lord Fumme’s incompetence and bad luck have brought him low in the eyes of the court and his neighbours, and placed him near ruin. The garrison is ill kept, and the men are often away on private ventures involving brigandage in Wyrholm (0611). Father Hsitisolodie is eager to have Lord Fumme’s daughter, Abigh the Mad married off to a worthy suitor to preserve an important prophecy.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #09 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

Mon, 10/11/2021 - 18:48

Beyond the Gates of SorrowI am pleased to announce the publication of the ninth issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 56-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Graphite Prime, and illustrations by Vincentas Saladis, Cameron Hawkey, Denis McCarthy, Stefan B. Poag, and the Dead Victorians.
This issue serves to introduce the Twelve Kingdoms, a divided northern region to the northwest of Erillion, cut off from the rest of human civilisation. Two hex map sheets describe the five larger, four medium-sized, and numerous smaller islands ruled by rival petty kingdoms, and ravaged by incessant warfare. Ruined castles, faerie-haunted forests, barren coasts and cold mountain ranges await those who adventure here; druids, reclusive eccentrics, jealous wizards’ orders and mysterious monasteries complicate the network of temporary alliances. This is a land fit for exploration, plunder... or will that be conquest? Let the players decide, and live with the consequences!
The titular adventure, Beyond the Gates of Sorrow, takes the company to a small archipelago on the borders of the Kingdoms. Uninhabited and barely sustainable to sustain life, there is nevertheless much danger here. Can a shipwrecked party find a means of escape from their predicament? Or can another find a person or item of special significance while racing against a rival group of explorers? 19 wilderness and 18 dungeon locations describe the archipelago’s dangers and occasional treasures in this scenario for levels 2-4.
Echoes #09 also includes a larger dungeon adventure, The Vaults of Volokarnos. Originally published as a stand-alone introductory module for the Casemates and Companies RPG, and now converted to the B/X lineage of old-school games, the Vaults are specifically designed for beginning characters, and potentially players who are new to old-school gaming in general. A fully stocked dungeon level awaits with 52 keyed reas, and more orcs than you can shake a stick at. Explore a dungeon complex that had once served as a catacomb system, thermal bath, touristic attraction... at the same time. Find out what the orcs are up to, what lies in burial vaults yet unconquered, and what the patricians of the nearby town do not want you to know... and where character sheets and followers are concerned, bring spares. It shall not hurt.
In addition to the Vaults, the issue also describes the isle republic of Arak Brannia. This two-page setting can serve as the background for the Vaults of Volokarnos, or a springboard for further adventures on the northern coastlands of the declining Kassadian Empire...
The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Double hex map

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[STUFF] Morthimion: The Crypt Level

Sun, 09/19/2021 - 08:49

[Spoiler-free, player-safe section]

MorthimionTwo years have passed since the last update on Morthimion, a dungeon we have been exploring as a side-show to other, larger campaigns. For those who are not blog regulars, or do not want to read up on this stuff, Morthimion came about as an experiment to play Original D&D (reasonably) by the book, three booklets only. Most OD&D games use the followup supplements, or at least Greyhawk, which gives you a slightly rougher, lower-powered proto-AD&D. LBB-only OD&D is not yet that game. It lacks many of the monsters, spells, and classes we would associate with D&D; hit dice and weapon damage are universally 1d6; monster XP is much more generous than it would be later; and ability scores barely do anything. Level advancement can be very quick at the start, but gets quite slow later. Beyond the sheer oddity and archaic charm of it, OD&D hangs together surprisingly well if taken seriously and played by the book. It is not a fantasy novel simulation, it is a verbal tunnel exploration and puzzle-solving game that has simple but effective mechanics for looting labyrinthine subterranean complexes.

Here is where Morthimion stood in August 2019:

“I have also completed Level 3, The Crypts, progressed with the wilderness section, and written brief encounter ideas for some of the sub-levels the characters have discovered in the last two games. These will be explored in the next post, after we have a few more sessions under our belt! Until then… Fight On!”

Well, the games progressed decently until late 2019, when two things happened: the bat plague put our face-to-face games on hold, and after completing another sublevel (The Court), I felt burned out on the dungeons. The campaign was on hiatus, with only one session in 2020. After a long break, I feel like the creative block may be lifting, and Morthimion can return to rotation. Level 4, The Mines, has been drafted and the first draft of the key written; we also held another game yesterday with some quite interesting results.

This post shall summarise what has been going on in Morthimior (Ryth Chronicles-style), and allow me to clear my head by releasing two more levels of the dungeon – which will be found at the end of the post. To protect the innocent (my players surely are), this later section will be spoilered.

* * *

Domains of the Faerie Princes

Older Expeditions

Here are the main events of the Morthimion campaign:

On October 27, 2019, a wilderness expedition was conducted to the northern highlands of the Domains of the Faerie Princes. Not even far from King Donald’s Wall, the company already had to leave behind two horses to distract 5 griffins going for their company. A ruined village in the swamps yielded good bounty – old wine barrels with valuable vintage. Fatalgorthe Footpad (the campaign’s only Thief – transferred from another game, and thus valid) was only saved from spider venom with an antidote. After selling off the barrels at Lodobar’s Tavern, a forest hangout of knaves and miscreants (where Szaniszlo, a light footman, snuck away to seek adventures elsewhere), the group headed for the highlands proper, and right into the nest of two green dragons. Surprised in the dense forest. Renato the horseman, Rudolf the light footman, Owl (Fighting Man 1), El Caballo the torchbearer, Zsazsa the bowman and Fero the heavy footman perished by dragon breath. Turning to flee in bind panic, the others rolled on the Table of Terror. Axbjard Bjardax (Dwarf 2), Hijo de Emirikul (Magic-User 2), Xingar (Fighting Man 2), and Fatalgor (Thief 2) all rolled hilariously badly, and were devoured by the dragons. Tumak the Shaman (Cleric 2) would be the sole survivor, but he would be missing for several weeks, out of the game.

A new company from experienced and newly recruited adventurers was established for a safer dungeon expedition. Premier brought Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 2 of Law) and Weirlord (Magic-User 1), as well as Chort the torchbearer, Ale the porter, and Montgomery the footman. Narmor took Önund the Mystical (Magic-User 2), joined by Ulf Jr., a footman. Bendoin took Derek (Fighting Man 1), followed by his domineering aunt Dahlia Derekovna (a porter), and his uncle, the bowman Derekov; as well as Alyssa (Elf 1). Gajzi took Bandar (Cleric 3 of Risus, God of Uncontrollable Growth).

Shortly after leaving Lodobar’s Tavern, Derekov was caught and eaten in the forest by a giant frog. Pressing on to Morthimion and descending to Level 1, the company was checking out a set of stairs leading upwards, but triggered a slide trap that dumped them down into Level 3! The way was sealed and the mission changed immediately: escape alive! This section of the level (The Juggernaut Tomb) consisted of looping passages, and rumbling noises soon turned out to be enormous rolling juggernauts, one of which caught Dahlia Derekovna under its wheels, squashing her flat. Passages to the west led to a corridor patrolled by a hydra (wisely avoided), while a northern passage revealed an exit from the juggernauts’ path. Passing by stairs down to Level 4 (not an attractive prospect), the explorers discovered the The Arena of Death, where a group of werewolves appeared out of thin air to fight the challenging PCs. Lacking effective magic, they had to flee back where they came – Montgomery was left dead in one of the rooms after he burned himself to death with his own flaming oil.

The horror, the horror...
Level 3 is discovered!

Back in the Juggernaut Tomb, secret doors in the middle lead to a strange talking enigma calling itself “the Sphere of Infinity”, which demanded a hefty sum for information about finding a way out of the level. Meanwhile, Ulf Jr., exploring a nearby room, was drained and killed by a spectre lurking in a stone statue. and eventually, the southern way opened into a less dangerous dungeon section. An old man demanding 200 gp per character “or suffer the Curse of the Third Depth” was paid by most PCs, except Alyssa and Bandar, who had neither the money nor the intention to pay. Following the words of the Sphere of Infinity, they passed through a network of ghoul-haunted catacombs, and finally found a staircase back to Level 1! To their horror, Alyssa and Bandar now learned the true meaning of the “Curse of the Third Depth”: they could not leave this dungeon level, no matter how they tried! These two adventurers disappeared down in the dungeon, and were never seen again – the others, earning meagre loot but at least keeping their lives, headed upstairs to return to the surface...

On November 30, 2019, a different company probed Morthimion’s depths. Returning to the party came Derek (Fighting Man 1) and his henchman Dolmio the bowman, with Dr. D. (Magic-User 1) and his henchman, Demon (heavy footman); Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 2 of Law) and Weirlord (now a Magic-User 2) with Ale (porter), Chort (torchbearer), and Rommel (heavy foot). They were joined by two Morthimion veterans, Brother Tivold, Cockroach of the Light (Cleric 3 of Chaos) with his henchman Mario the Peg-Leg, Xang (Fighting Man 2), and Xodak (Hobbit 1). Helmet Buddy (Dwarf 2) also joined the group.

This company opted for a wilderness expedition in the lower parts of the valley. They were soon attacked in the forest by giant frogs, and Mario the Peg-Leg was devoured. Meeting a Gypsy caravan shortly afterwards, they consulted with their leader, Offryn the Outlaw, for a crystal ball reading. This brought to their attention a mysterious stone arch they had already seen near a forest cemetery, somehow connected to “the Prince of Roses”. Unfortunately, seeking out the arch brought no enlightenment, and they instead plundered some of the crypts in the cemetery, recovering modest but not too difficult plunder to a total value of 5900 gp.

Level 2 explorations...

A second expedition led down to Level 2 of the dungeons. Exploring the eastern side of the level, Dr. D. fell into a wandering pit moving along a corridor, and died instantly. Crawlways inhabited by giant weasels were purged and a little treasure recovered. They avoided a mysterious fire temple, and found stairs up to Level 1. Finally, they came to a corridor with arrow slits and a metal door with a small peephole. A panel slid aside, and a pale, dishevelled creature (a morlock) asked about the party’s business. He finally acquiesced to letting them see their king after a bribe. However, instead of opening the door, a pit trap opened underfoot, dumping all in the corridor into a sub-level enclosure. Weirlord narrowly avoided getting killed, while Chort the torchbearer perished with a broken leg. Noises of angry, armed morlocks were approaching from behind a portcullis with long spears and flaming oil, and the only other way was a 20’ wide shaft down.’ Quickly rappelling down, they were again in the Level 3 catacombs. This was at least familiar territory. Backtracking to Level 1, resources were running low, and the company ended up bribing a group of randomly encountered bandits to serve as their escort to the surface. This expedition covered some ground on Level 2, but the pickings were very slim, a mere 305 gp.

On 29 November 2020 (almost exactly one year later!), we reconvened, this time virtually on Roll20. Önund the Mystical (Magic-User 2) and his heavy footmen Jörg and Tade were joined by Mime the Grumbler (Dwarf 1). Tycho the Ascetic (now a Cleric 3 of Law) came with Weirlord (Magic-User 2), who kept Rommel (heavy foot) and Ale the porter. Two new dungeoneers joined the gang: Seogarr (Fighting Man 1) and Astanir (Cleric 1 of Law), who brought the porter Willem and the bowman Marruk.

Travelling through a less trod path of the forest, the company came upon the statue of a bat holding a fist-sized crystal worth 4000 gp! Astanir instructed Willem to fetch the prize, but it soon turned out that the crystal, a cursed chunk of ice, would freeze its thief into an icy statue, and also melt into worthless water in turn.

A new section beyond the Torture Chamber...

Since the company was relatively weak, the expedition was conducted on Level 1. The company soon encountered a company of armoured adventurers, led by Ellominet the Benevolent. Parting on amicable terms, northern passages brought the party to a stone knight guarding an intersection, who demanded five rounds of single combat for passage. Mime the Grumbler rose to the challenge, and defeated the stone hero. To the north, a room complex with a teleporting chest puzzle yielded nice treasure, including a 5000 gp amulet! The company returned to the area close to the entrance. A crumbling wall in the Torture Chamber drew Mime’s attention, and this section proved to be of new construction! An entirely new part of the level was revealed, with meandering passages leading to dead end pits, and powerful quantum ogres that would appear if the party was backed into the corner. To his bad luck, the wounded Mime the Grumbler – this section’s discoverer – perished in one of the pit traps.

The ogres had decent gold, and the search also yielded an old bronze door leading to a mortuary with scattered treasure… but also 12 ghouls. Deciding to leave them be rather than risk a fight after a successful turn attempt, the door was instead spiked shut for a later expedition. The company now headed for the surface, where they soon made an unpleasant discovery: Jörg the heavy footman proved to be a thief looking for a good score, lifting a good deal of valuables from the resting company. Marruk the bowman also called it quits, retiring with his well-earned wages. And so the game stood for ten more months.

* * *

Jewels of the Gnoll King

On 17 September, 2021, we had a guest coming over from the States (Necromancer Games forums regular Kenmckinney, from way back in 2002!). After sightseeing and a lunch, we sat down for an impromptu game of OD&D with the gang.

The party descended into the dungeons of Morthimion, trying to lay siege to the ghoul mortuary. Ken got two second-level characters, Otto (Dwarf 2) and Wulfram (Cleric 2 of Fire, Lawful), with Sven the halberdier. Nubin (Dwarf 3) came all the way from a LBB-only Xyntillan game back in 2019, and he was accompanied by Brother Gaspard (Cleric 1 of Law), as well as a whole troop of four bowmen: Nock, Aim, Draw, and Shoot. Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 3 of Law) and Weirlord (now a Magic-User 3) returned with more recruits: the halberdiers Bill and Hook. Brother Tivold, Cockroach of the Light (Cleric 3 of Chaos) came alone, for he was so mighty.

The company quickly returned to the Torture Chamber, and set out to construct an elaborate ghoul trap using spikes, rope, and lots of oil. However, as they were hammering the spikes into the wall, the noise attracted a band of ten gnolls, who attacked the party from the rear (in OD&D, these are not yet the later hyena-men, but gnome/troll hybrids – the Morthimion document refers to them as “tromes”). A furious melee developed, and the gnolls (sturdy 2 HD critters) put up a darn good fight, making all their morale rolls and fighting to the last. Sven, the halberdier, went down fighting in the melee.

The canonical OD&D gnoll

Now the gnolls were just a random encounter far from their lair, but I gave a 30% probability of them carrying a level one treasure (that's 100% of 1d6×100 silver pieces, 50% of 1d6×10 gold pieces, 5% each of gemstones or jewellery, and 5% of one magic item – trash loot, basically, because in OD&D, 100 gp is chump change).

So the gnolls had 300 sp among them... 10 gold pieces... but then I rolled that 5% for the jewellery, and they were carrying four of them! Jewels are completely random, and they are the most valuable treasure type, much much muchmore valuable than anything else that’s not a magic item, and small enough to transport easily. I rolled everything in the open, and got a 5000 gp necklace, a 10,000 gp crown, a pair of 1300 gp boots, and a 8000 gp sceptre!The characters had found the guard escorting the crown jewels of the Gnoll King! They basically immediately turned around and left the dungeon, because they could just jump a level each after dividing their 24,300 gp haul, even though it was among seven characters. Two henchmen, Shoot and Bill decided to cash out their wages and retire.

The second expedition was with a more powerful band: Otto, Wulframand Brother Gaspard were now level 3, Nubin was a Level 4 Hero, and Brother Tivold became an Anti-Vicar. To round out the lineup, Trident the halberdier joined Weirlord, while two more halberdiers, Walther and Siegfried joined Otto. Draco (Fighting Man 2 with a Charisma of 3, a regular Quasimodo!) joined the company slightly later.

The trap was finished: three ropes fastened at ankle height over pools of oil, characters feigning escape to lure in the ghouls, and ready torchmen to set the oil puddles ablaze at the first opportunity. The followers were left to hang back, since this was solely a trick for the hardier PCs. The ghouls were ready to fight (they had heard all the hammering outside their lair), and rushed out more suddenly than expected. They were worn down and burned by the oil-and-rope traps, although characters were severely wounded, and Otto, Nubin, Brother Tivold, as well as Draco were paralysed (in OD&D, there is no time limit: I ruled it would last until the end of the expedition). The ghoul band was finally destroyed by turning them into a blazing pool of oil behind them, a dirty trick which was so clever I didn’t even grant a save vs. dragon breath. The mortuary was looted… 1200 gp and a shield +1… no! Examining one of the rotting tapestries on the wall, it was discovered that the back was also embroidered with a treasure map showing a lake in the wilderness, demarcated by forests, a road, and mountains. This would be Silver Lake, a body of water in the Domains which they had passed by numerous times!

With four characters suffering from paralysis, they again headed outside (this short session went without much in the way of exploring new territory)… to run into six very angry gnolls, apparently searching for the jewel thieves! This time, the gnolls were taken out with a sleep spell, except a sole survivor who turned and fled into the darkness, even carrying off a magic arrow Draw had shot at it.

The session ended with a brief wilderness trip to recover the treasure. Riding on horses, the company entered the forests… to immediately run into ten more gnolls, preparing an ambush! This time, Weirlord was ready, and used phantasmal forces to create the illusion of several more horsemen thundering behind them, and the gnolls failed their morale check, disappearing in the woods. The way to Silver Lake was clear, but where was the treasure? Tycho the Ascetic’s speak with animals spell used on 11 friendly giant toads just minding their business among the reeds (the result of a high reaction roll) pinpointed the exact location of one half of a submerged boat, carrying in its hold some 40,000 silver pieces. Thus ended the expedition for The Jewels of the Gnoll King and The Treasure of Silver Lake.

[Here ends the spoiler-free section]


[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: 


The Crypt Level / The Court Level

These two levels were both written back in 2019. Of the two, The Crypt Level is a dangerous place, the first one in this dungeon to use the second-level random encounter table from The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. This ups the threat level considerably, since it goes up to the second highest monster encounter chart, which begins with Trolls and Superheroes, and ends with Hydrae (6-8 heads) and Medusae. Crypts are easy to write, since you can make up any sort of weird puzzle/trap encounter trap and justify it as a “crypt”. So there is a lot of this, as well as a set of ghoul catacombs, the killer Juggernaut Tomb, The Arena of Death, and some encounters which are just dungeony staff to avoid over-theming. I am not entirely satisfied with this level. You be the judge, but I may want to alter the maps slightly to add more horizontal connections crossing the place, which may be as simple as a short secret corridor around 21/d. It is also slightly overkeyed, with not enough breathing room between encounters (I noticed this during the ill-fated escape expedition – the company was constantly running from the frying pan into the fire). This may be harder to fix without compromising the existing layout of the level. Things to ponder.

Then, you have The Court Level, the lair of the wizard Wörramos. You have your standard throne room/reception hall, and you have stairs up from Level 1 for brave souls who want to mess with a powerful and insane magic-user and his critters. This small thing is mapped and keyed as a “special” dungeon, following OD&D ideas about real spaces: it is not realistic, but vaguely reminiscent of someone’s ruined palace quarters. I like the random Wizard determination chart. You can notice there is a southern half to the Grounds. The secret Lycanthrope Level has a handwritten key but no typed version yet, so the next release will probably contain this one – hopefully not two years from now.

And level 4 is taking shape: here is a page of the super-rough notes, written on a long train ride (a good place to design adventures).

The Dwarven Mines: The Very Rough Cut

Download:Castle Morthimion - Levels 1-2-S-3-C (10 MB PDF)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Temple of 1000 Swords

Sun, 09/12/2021 - 19:33

Temple of 1000 SwordsTemple of 1000 Swords (2021)

by Brad Kerr


3rd level

Temple of 1000 Swords is a 24-page dungeon adventure with 19 keyed locations, and a heavy sword theme. How heavy? More swords than you can stake a stick at, and that’s a sword-shaped stick with another hidden sword in it. The temple of Gladio, God of Swords, is overflowing with a myriad swords; they have been collected into enormous piles and mounts, swept to the sides of the corridors, flung into watery caverns, and just scattered here and there. Furthermore, as seen on the cover, parts of it are based on the tarot; and if that would not be enough, the temple dungeon is split between two rival factions, a band of mermenfolk and the platypus-based humanoid drukks fighting their age-old battle through the temple corridors. There is a strong weirdo energy to the module; it is absurd, but it is a working absurdity, just on the dividing line between the plausible and the ludicrous. It is wickedly funny.

Most everything is smooth and polished. Brad Kerr understands adventure writing. The booklet is finely balanced between the utilitarian and the flavourful. Information is placed at your fingertips; cross-references are impeccable, and there are helpful notes to help you understand and run the scenario. “Accessibility” is sometimes overdone (this seems to be a problem with official Old School Essential modules), but here, it is just right.

And the content is strong. Random encounters introduce interesting variations on the “it attacks” theme: a gelatinous cube full of swords, a “tumble-weed” of amassed swords rolling towards the party, or the aftermath of a bloody battle. There is a special magic sword broken into nine parts (appropriately called “The Nine of Swords”) to track down and reassemble. Above all, a 1d100 table of weird swords you can find if the party starts searching random sword piles for something interesting. Since Gladio can turn anything into a sword, this could be anything, including (taking five random rolls) a tin sword, a scissors sword, a star-shaped triple sword, a fishing rod sword, or a ceramic sword. This strange table is the sort of thing in a module that takes up relatively little real estate, but like Tegel Manor’s portrait gallery, adds an entire new layer to the exploration process.

The temple rooms are populated by two interesting factions of utter idiots. The drukks are bloody, short-tempered platypus-man brutes. The mermaid queen is an unhinged, vainglorious fool who offers to marry anyone who can bets her in combat. This is a great way to encourage player initiative: make the enemies dangerous, but with wide open flaws to be exploited and turned to your advantage. Elsewhere, there are ample opportunities for strange discoveries and interacting with dungeon denizens, including the dead, the damned, and a living god who is surely played by Brian Blessed, and whose “sole concern is that people kill each other with swords.” Gladio is a dick, and he is great.

Not quite the Temple of
1000 Corridors, is it.The whole module is a riot, and a springboard for further adventures. All good. Except... Why does an otherwise excellent module I have only praised so far receive three stars instead of an upper four? There is a flaw running through the scenario, and this flaw is the map. Yes, it is a map with multiple branching routes, interesting secret passages, and water (an under-utilised feature). But it is too small for what it is trying to do; basically a central dungeon loop with minor appendages attached to it. There are consequences. The random encounters make little sense, because it is a small, compressed space which is all keyed and populated with encounters. There is insufficient room for the random critters to come from, to retreat to, or to ambush a surprised group. There are two factions who have supposedly been waging bloody war against each other for several years, but these are pipsqueak groups (4d6+3 mermen vs. some 3d4+6 drukks altogether), and they live right across each other with only a corridor to separate them. Some battleground! Imagine Red Nails playing out in a small college dorm, and you get the idea:

“’Aye, she went willingly enough. Tolkemec, to spite Xotalanc, aided Tecuhltli. Xotalanc demanded that she be given back to him, and the council of the tribe decided that the matter should be left to the woman. She chose to remain with Tecuhltli. In wrath Xotalanc sought to take her back by force, and the retainers of the brothers came to blows in the Great Hall. There was much bitterness. Blood was shed on both sides. The quarrel became a feud, the feud an open war. From the welter three factions emerged – Tecuhltli, Xotalanc, and Tolkemec. Already, in the days of peace, they had divided the city between them.’

‘And where might these men be found’, growled the Cimmerian with his mouth full.

‘See that door on the left, barbarian? That 30’ by 20’ chamber be Xotalanc territory. And that 10’ by 10’ storage closet yonder, there dwells Tolkemec, the Dark Shadow! Beware his coming!’”

It lacks a certain oomph, don’t you think?

What Temple of 1000 Swords needs is room to breathe, to have grandiose empty halls and convoluted corridors separating its 19 main encounter areas. It needs to be a real dungeon in the old-school sense. Consider the following: if you extended the map to about three or four times the size, made it much more maze-like, and inserted 30-40 empty rooms, meandering hallways, chokepoints, bypasses,  and secret passages, now you would have something. You could have drukk and merman factions with reserves of 50-70 warriors each, duking it out. You could have long stretches of space where random encounters can happen. You could have a general dungeon texture to be navigated and where discovering a “special” area is a meaningful find. Let the sword generation / random encounter table take care of the rest! And you could have room for a range of player decisions. Now that would be a kickass module (and if you redraw the map yourself, it will be).

Temple of 1000 Swords is an absurd idea taken to its logical conclusions, an inspired shitpost in module form. I find it genuinely funny, and mostly well done, but the map is a letdown. This problem is, of course, a malaise: 5e and other modern editions feature so small dungeons that vast underground spaces are a forgotten art even in old-school gaming. The use of empty spaces, especially, is under-utilised. (Yes, I am as guilty of overkeying my dungeons as other people.) Nevertheless, the point stands: the map matters, and here, Temple of 1000 Swords could use much, much improvement.

This module credits its playtesters, and has a nice special thanks section to boot. Classy!

Rating: *** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Year Five: Old School Refocus

Fri, 08/27/2021 - 22:18

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …It is not early August right now? No! That’s LIES, and how dare you?

The State of the Blog

Over five years, Beyond Fomalhaut has turned from a fledgling blog (lots of posts, 55 and 42 total in its first two years!) to an accomplished and mature one (much fewer posts: 37 in year three, 33 in year four, and 29 in year five). It did not drop off of the face of the Earth, but it has obviously turned from an essayistic blog into a review blog (17 posts were reviews, and some of the others were various news items, previews, and updates). However, it remains a blog with an active publishing arm, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I have always preferred the practical, meat-and-potatoes side of gaming, and even considering the limitations of the ongoing Covid-19 nonsense, this year has delivered on that promise.

The 17 reviews posted on the blog represents a slight increase from last year. The average score on the five-point scale ended up as 3.1 (the total average over five years is 3.06, which means at least my scoring is consistent). Last year, I moved towards a “swingier” scoring approach, and I have stuck to this principle ever since. Fewer average ratings, and a few more high- or low-scoring supplements.

Here is the year’s breakdown, with the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin maintain their lofty perch above the holloi-polloi.
  • 5 was awarded to three supplements, making it the “best” year for this rating since the blog has launched. One award went to Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City, a zine describing the last metropolis of a flooded world and its strange denizens: its flawless execution, wealth of adventure hooks, and creativity make it a natural winner. The Palace of Unquiet Repose, a merciless sword & sorcery adventure about a desert-swallowed tomb-city created by divine hubris, is noted for its mighty energies and a consistently approachable style. Last but not least, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness is an extension of Keep on the Borderlands’ wilderness section – into a devastated land of colourful and deadly imagination. This is Geoffrey’s best work since Carcosa, and has none of the latter’s ghastly elements.
  • 4 went to four products: Hideous Daylight, a creative wilderness adventure set in a magically warped, off-colour hunting preserve; Fire in the Hole, a well-realised humanoid lair; She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a grotesque marshland/dungeon adventure with a lot of individual flavour; and Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts, one of the few actually worthy Caves of Chaos homages. It is interesting to note that three of these ratings were awarded to rather modestly produced materials that did not attempt to bedazzle readers with glitzy artwork and acrobatic experiments in graphic design. They were plain, useful, and well made – the kind of honest, imaginative work we can always use more of.
  • 3 was awarded to four products as well. These were basically decent – from Hunters in Death (the kind of modular content you can just immediately add to a campaign – I did to mine) to the wild, unruly Crypt of the Lizard Wizard and its gonzo elements.
  • 2 went to three adventures, which were either flawed, or just did not offer much of interest. Of these, Bridgetown is the greatest waste: solid idea, but lacking execution.
  • 1 was awarded to three products. For your edification and amusement, these miscreants can be viewed at the pillory. I must single out our late contestant, The Pit, for its utter awfulness: if something can be done wrong, The Pit does it wrong; and this is all from a lavishly illustrated, slightly over-produced release!

There were multiple omissions and delays – including a few promises which have remained as such – and I will try to rectify some of them. It also happens that sometimes, you do not have much useful stuff to say. Sometimes, things are just good, and it is all in an obvious, straightforward way – to cite Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As for the junk… yes, there could have been more ones and twos. However, I do not set out to deliberately seek out these clunkers, and even when I meet them, some are bad in a way that is more depressing or boring than interesting enough to dissect. It also happens that you mistakenly buy something that’s a complete and obvious dud, but so insubstantial as to make a review a venture in uselessness. Yes, most Mörk Borg releases are written by people who have no idea about functional game writing. Yes, Troika supplements are mostly the same, but with an artsy veneer that draws oohs and aahs from the people whose life mission is to serve as a practical demonstration of the Veblen effect. No, it is not useful to review these products, and usually, there is nothing substantial to review anyway (see illustration).

Three Dollars Americain. You Motherfucker.The State of the Fanzine

This year, EMDT’s release list grew by nine titles, although the numbers are slightly misleading, since they are component parts of a single, larger title (the two boxed sets account for five booklets). The remaining four include two Hungarian modules – The Forest of Gornate, a forest-based wilderness adventure with mini-dungeons that was inspired by (US) Steve Jackson’s seminal gamebook, Scorpion Swamp; and The Vaults of Volokarnos, a first-level introductory dungeon for Basic rules that eats through characters and henchmen like a busy little wood chipper. These two will see English release this year (Volokarnos will be in Echoes #09).

That leaves two more. Baklin, Jewel of the Seas is a city guide that got delayed and delayed, and ended up much larger than ever imagined. I knew I was trouble when I noticed I was nearly at my expected page count… before delving into the Undercity, which would end up adding roughly the same amount of material. So Baklin may count as two, perhaps even three supplements. It ended up big, and I think it ended up chock full of fun adventure hooks and play-relevant background material. The way I see it, Baklin is best used as an adventure hub: a place you can start out from and return to over the span of a campaign, and one that also holds its own in intrigue and action. You really do not have to use all of it all the time (obviously, not even we did), but anywhere you actually end up going in town, there will be something interesting waiting for you.

As for the zine zines, there was one of them, which is not much (even if it was a larger than average issue). This is a situation I would like to rectify in the future, and now that the larger game projects I was working on are completed, it will be time to return to smaller publications. The next Echoes issue will come out in late September or so, and I hope a third one can appear near the end of the year, or barring that, early 2022. On the other hand… yes, that’s two whole damn boxed sets in a single year! Boxed sets are a particular source of happiness; perhaps even more than Xyntillan (my first hardcover), they represent the kind of aspirations small-press RPG publishers have. In 2016, even the idea of releasing a fanzine seemed like a pipe dream, and a hardcover, let alone a boxed set, was clearly a fantasy. This year, it so happened that I first published a boxed set; then a hardcover in a boxed set with maps and extras combo. Damn right that makes me happy.

One of the boxes, written by two friends, is Casemates & Companies (Kazamaták és Kompániák, abbr. “KéK”), a Hungarian B/X-inspired system with a players’ and GM’s book, an intro adventure, ref sheets, character sheets, and dice. Hungary never had a proper B/X variant, and now we have one. This is a game that collects a handful of sensible house rules, rulings, and best practice that have emerged in community  discussion, and all that makes it a strong contender for my favourite B/X take. The feature that sells it (to me) is its heavy focus on the titular “Companies”: recruiting and managing henchmen is something that has fallen by the wayside in gaming, but which is a lot of fun at the table. Moreover, KéK’s henchmen help to recreate the enormous parties OD&D had assumed, and calibrated its rules and procedures around. Bring a bunch of guys into the dungeon, and see who comes out rich and kicking – that’s the way. 

The Helvéczia RPG, of course, is the other one. It took two years to go from the 2013 Hungarian boxed set to the first English draft, and six years from that point to the eventual release. While a lot of that was spent in procrastination due to burnout and other interests, the English release is a proper second edition that cleans up the game’s original inconsistencies and minor issues. I believe Helvéczia does something that other RPGs have not managed to pull off right – marrying European folklore and an old pulp tradition to more modern swashbuckling stories and the D&D game framework – and that the boxed set (pardon me, the hardcover in the boxed set, booyah!) looks good doing it. Helvécziawas meant to be played, and it will be supported with future adventures – some are simply waiting to be translated, while a second regional supplement exists in an early draft (this one may be in the Hungarian first). And of course, my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernard (who co-authored KéK, and wrote In the Shadow of the City-God) has made a promise about the Catalonia supplement, and as Helvéczia proves, these diabolical pacts are to be honoured!

The hall of mirrors gets deeperThe State of My Other Projects

When I came back to the online old-school community in 2016 after a few wilderness years, my mind was set on publishing two large projects: Castle Xyntillan, and Helvéczia. I did not know when that would happen, and I sure did not think they would be published by my own enterprise (with a lot of help from my printer, illustrators, and for Xyntillan, Rob Conley as my cartographer). In the end, it happened, and it has been a great journey. Long, too! Now that it is over and done with, it is time to set sights on new vistas.

As recounted last year, we spent the first lockdown period of the Bat Plague with a campaign called The Four Dooms of Thisium; an accursed city damned by the very gods to fourfold destruction… unless… Well, the Thisium campaign is something that would work well as a low-level, very open-ended Basic/Expert adventure series (we capped things at level 6, but a first level party may advance to levels 7-9, and that includes a whole lot of character deaths), or it can be taken apart and used as a mini-sandbox for the popular “Fucking Around Around Thisium” kind of game. Normally, Thisium would be well on the way, but I unexpectedly got a second group to playtest the campaign, which is still ongoing (probably 2/3 or 3/4 finished; they are a very different bunch from my trigger-happy, hyperviolent first testing team). Delays will naturally result from this. Thisium will be a very different beast from Xyntillan – less interwoven, broad instead of deep, a bit more unruly – but I think it will be fun to play and run, as a whole or in pieces.

Two projects are a bit more distant. First, I am working on the second edition of Sword and Magic, my fantasy game (on which I wrote more in 2018). Sword and Magic helped kick off widespread interest in old-school gaming in Hungary in 2008, and a second edition has been long overdue. This is a huge undertaking that will be published as two hardcovers, and need some supplemental material for launch (many of them were published in various Echoes issues) – and will take away some focus from English endeavours. It is not getting a translation, since there are so many general old-school systems out there that another one would just be noise, even if I have a favourable opinion about the virtues of my own. It is, also, not an OSR game in the way the term is increasingly understood; that is, it is not rooted in the B/X tradition (its style and scope is firmly connected to first edition AD&D, and Judges Guild’s philosophy), and its rules are based on a radically rewritten, streamlined version of the d20 System. Sword and Magic is one of the strange chimeras of the early, pre-label old-school movement, not concerned with exact duplication, but connected to old game styles in the way of, say, Encounter Critical or AS&SH.

Cold Climate Encounter Charts, Take Two

What I would like to bring to the international audience, though, is Gamemaster’s Guidelines, a comprehensive guidebook to running old-school campaigns. This is not really a rulebook (although there will be a few guidelines for simple domain management, mining, mass combat, and similar concerns), but a kind of reference work that shall help the novice old-school GM get his bearings, and it may also make old hands think. There will also be a bunch of random charts, a comprehensive encounter system, treasure tables, and so on. It is my attempt at doing something similar to the AD&D DMG (although not the same thing, since the DMG already exists). Obviously, it is a ways away, and the Hungarian version comes first, but once it is done, it will not be too hard to translate it.

The third project is something that would have been impossible before Helvéczia. I have long struggled with the idea of publishing a Fomalhaut supplement – the whole idea of presenting the weirdo sword&sorcery / sword&planet setting in a practical format was a problem without a practical solution. (At one time, it could have been a Swords & Wizardry supplement, but when the opportunity arose, I had to choose between writing the supplement and getting my PhD. Perhaps foolishly, I opted for the PhD.) Fomalhaut, a Wilderlands homage, does not make sense without a bunch of hex maps; and that’s hex maps with player and GM versions – lots and lots and lots of map sheets. This is something the modern OSR simply does not do, but a good printer can handle. And I have a good printer. So Helvécziais a boxed set with nine map sheets… and I got the idea that Fomalhaut could be a boxed set with fifteen or nineteen (there are two map regions out of the nine total that are kinda-sorta blank slates), and a handful of zine type booklets, including a players’ primer, guidelines and stuff for the GM, then hex keys for maybe three regions (which is where all our adventuring was concentrated), and a starting module or two. Now, this is still vague, pie in the sky brainstorming, but it is something that could conceivably exist, and in the future, it just might. There are really no promises, and remember how long Xyntillan and Helvéczia took. But with small steps, one can cover a whole lot of distance.

Me and the OSR: A Love Story

The State of the Old School

In the last few years, the community calling itself the OSR has gone through a major upheaval. Something that was for a long time a nominally united thing has splintered into disparate groups with different aesthetics, design ethe, politics (hoo boy!), and communication platforms. It will not be put together again. People can pretend that the big tent is still there, but if you actually look, the canopy is gone, and the tentpole is missing too. Some of the zoo is still around (look ma! that lion is devouring a zebra!), but whatever show is on is more incidental than carefully planned.

But that is only one part of it. Some people have picked up their stuff and moved on, and may eventually come up with something good independent of old-school gaming. However, when we survey the remains of the great circus, we see more serious issues. During the big tent years, the OSR followed a “more the merrier” philosophy, and expanded into every conceivable niche. It became its own little gaming ecosystem where you could theoretically play “anything” and “any way” without leaving the tent. This did lead to a lot of really cool stuff, but it led to a loss of focus, too. A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge.

Nothing embodies this deplorable state of affairs more than the loss of common knowledge that originally defined the pre-OSR old-school community. Old-school gaming at its core is a movement about rediscovering historical playstyles and putting them to practical use. It does not always create 1:1 replicas (for instance, relatively few people attempt to reconstruct OD&D psionics), and its purposes are selective. The prehistory of gaming provides several approaches to play, not all useful for our interests. A great many people had played TRV OD&D in ways which prefigure 1990s principles, or had long-running campaigns which had drifted in that direction. Yet 1990s roleplaying, even 1990s AD&D (D&D being virtually extinct in that period), is not what we are after. (For more on these traps, see T. Foster’s thread from twelve years ago. We should have listened more carefully!)

By the late 2000s – when Trent posted his warning, and the “OSR” acronym was making its first rounds – old-school traditions had been fairly thoroughly discovered, analysed, and codified. (While versatile, the ideas behind old-school gaming are not particularly deep. It is a game, not a theory vehicle.) People who had shared this corner of the hobby had also shared a common wisdom about how things ought to work, and could also create house rules or far-flung game worlds while using this common wisdom as a point of reference. It was a period of enlightenment, of philosopher kings duking it out on meticulously mowed lawns, and mighty forces of creation writ large on the pages of Fight On! and Knockspell. (Also, pig-headed flame wars about trivial nonsense.)

Times Well Spent: Listening to a Future President...

With the rapid expansion of the scene, however, a lot of this knowledge and precision of thought was lost, while being taken for granted. To many people, the “OSR” had supplied rules, tools, and a sort of ideology about gaming (through the various primers), but not the complexity and scope of the original tradition. Without this background, the advantages of the old-school approach become muddled or lost. Function disappears and empty form remains. A lot of the late or post-OSR content I see retains features like procedural generation, random encounters, and maybe even meme-level “strict time records”  because they are “supposed to” be there, but they do not actually serve any useful purpose. These vestigial remnants are echoes of a structured playstyle that made sense in its original context. It is as if the "OSR" came and went, and the people left behind it picked up the pieces and tried putting them together, but it is now something else. In the worst cases, supposed old-school adventures recreate the worst practices of game design that the original old-school movement was reacting against: railroading and illusionism, lengthy exposition leading nowhere, or things which obviously make no sense at an actual game table.

Instead, a lot of time is wasted on trivial distractions. Much of the “OSR” became absolutely obsessed by form (how we ought to present information, what a “good layout” looks like, etc.), but uses these supposedly hyper-efficient presentation styles and layout magic for trivial stuff like dungeons with five rooms, lightweight content that restates the obvious, and “experimental” games which are not rooted in play, do not serve play, and would actually damage the quality of play if they were used at someone’s table (mercifully, they aren’t). A good thing they look fancy, eh. Slightly better, but still off course, we see attempts at creating orthodoxies through the strict worship of specific rulesets, or rather some of their central features (e.g. the “gameplay loop” of Basic D&D, or the “strict time records” of AD&D). These attempts come from good intentions, but paradoxically, they tend to simplify and thus, diminish the games they champion. As more of a "culture of play" guy, sometimes I can't help but smile when people start LARPing as the hardest of the hardcore.

Where then is excellence and incline? Surely not in this sour grapes bitching! That’s right. What I suggest as a practical solution is a return to the original mission of old-school gaming: a rediscovery of gaming’s roots and original traditions, and the application of thereof to contemporary games. A re-reading and newfound appreciation of Scripture, and a new exploration of the complex traditions of play that had developed at the dawn of the hobby. We can even call it “Old School Refocus” or “Old School Reaction” (sorry, that’s my own biases speaking). Do not just read and work from newly made “OSR” materials: go back to the source, become immersed and inspired, and see it in its complexity, even some of its contradictions. To cite a concrete example, none of the core OSR games I know give you a vision of the larger campaign the way Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide did, or the way Judges Guild’s materials show you through practical example. The TSR classics of the late 1970s and very early 1980s are still some of the finest adventures ever created (although they become a lot spottier down the line).

As I see it, the complex body of original texts still has the power to enlighten and inspire, and they are very easy to obtain these days. If you can’t afford the bonkers eBay prices, I can only recommend the various troves, which have done a lot for the benefit of gamers, and place even ultra-rare materials at your fingertips. Print them, use them, do not worry about “damaging an ultra-rare”. Read the Original Dungeons & Dragons booklets with open eyes to understand and appreciate how well the original game hangs together as a “game” game – and how much variety it can accommodate. Read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Gary’s TRV vision of campaign-based play. Read Bob Bledsaw’s idiosyncratic campaign materials and marvel at their off-the-wall creativity and giant ambitions. Use the Ready Ref Sheets in actual play, run a campaign in a corner of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, introduce your players to Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor or Portals of Torsh. Read Caverns of Thracia (of course), but read The Dungeoneer’s Compendium and Dark Tower, too. Take a good look at tuff like Arduin (which I admit I appreciate more than actually like) and the Gamelords Thieves Guild materials. The list goes on. There are classics… and there are forgotten gems off the beaten path too. Seek them out or die trying. There is no other way. Fight on!

Times Well Spent: Try the Veal!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts

Thu, 08/19/2021 - 15:17

Tetutuphor: The Elemental
Castle Environs:
Chapter Two B:
Norkers and Xvarts
Subtitle Goes HereTetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts (2021)

by Gene Weigel


Levels 1–3 

Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet: two of the most recognisable, and most played introductory D&D/AD&D modules. Both have served as the blueprint for a myriad successors, clones, and “inspired by” adventures. This freely available, 14-page module (of which half is taken up by the actual dungeons, and half by the new monsters featured therein) is a fanmade side-show to Hommlet, but following the design of Keep’s Caves of Chaos. While deceptively simple, the Caves have rarely been successfully imitated, let alone equalled in adventure design. Anyone can plonk down a succession of monster caverns, but replicating the gotchas and dirty tricks of Gary’s original requires design chops. Norkers and Xvarts – “Chapter Two B” in “The Elemental Castle Environs” series – is one adventure that does it right.

The module is set in a narrow, meandering valley allowing access to twelve small dungeon-complexes through eleven entrance points. Like the Caves of Chaos, the higher up the sides of the valley you go, the more dangerous the caves become; from a brigand lair to elemental-themed shrines and of course lairs with a multitude of low-level monsters. That’s no small feat in seven pages: a lot of “OSR” adventures use as much space to describe a single 12-area lair. Gene crams in a complex 92-area dungeon environment (B2 was 64 areas in 10 pages), and while the key is terse, it does not feel lacklustre; you do not feel like you do with most one-page dungeons. It is effective, play-friendly writing like:

“D27) ENTRANCE TO EARTH CULT – A man in full scale armor with helmet is actually a spider zombie (See NEW MONSTERS). He says to intruders, “Welcome to the chapel of Earth!” then immediately attacks.”


“D34) THE GIFTED ONE – This is the lair of a giant spider that is the guardian of the shrine to Lolth in the other cave. Livth the spider can look like a beautiful human woman as a gift from Lolth. She can also in spider form spray out a web like the web spell.”


“E46) OLD SHRINE OF AIR – Another altar similar to the other Iuz altars lined with air-vesicled basalt. The walls of this columned cave shrine has various wicked and winged creatures (Gargoyles and harpies) dropping children from tremendous heights as a pair of sinister orange and purple swirled inhuman eyes look on. It reads underneath “Pneumo, King of Elemental Evil Air”. A giant bin of crudely nailed together boards seems to be for offerings as it has a sign reading “PAY UP YOU RUBES OR GET SQUISHED”” (etc.)

Descriptions are relatively simple and action-focused. There is a very good variety to the encounters. Many Caves of Chaos clones focus solely on the combat – Norkers and Xvarts has that in spades (all of Sir Mulfric the Smurfinator’s smurf-killing wishes will be fulfilled in the xvart caves alone), but it livens up the action with simple dirty tricks worthy of Gygax. There are monster tactics and alarms, character-killing traps for the unwary, mysterious elemental shrines to experiment with, and some light potential for interaction. The gotchas are funny, deadly, and ultimately fair (“I69) FRIENDLY SKELETON – A skeleton waves from the far end of this room as if very friendly. It is a false skeleton illusion and is a pit trap.”) There are great moments of adversarial GMing: in the previous trap, there is a 5% probability anyone falling into the pit will also fall on the antlers of a rotting deer carcass for an extra 1d4 Hp.

Snake WolfAbove all, the caves offer good variety. Far from endless monster hotels, the individual mini-dungeons have interesting sub-themes. The A-C areas have abandoned areas with a strong horror component playing on fears of helplessness (a pool of stagnant water with zombies lurking underneath the surface; an illusionary floor plunging you into a bone pit with 5 ravenous larvae; a horrific mummy mermaid). D is a mysterious evil earth shrine with  weird, creepy aesthetic, where the action slows down and you have to watch your every move. G and J are a norker/xvart meat-grinders. K houses a mysterious frog-mage and his servants. There are constant hints throughout the complex of a wider world of evil intrigue; not in a didactic way, but as places where you may come across the machinations of evil elemental lords, Lolth, and old Iuz. It is all tied to what will presumably be Gene’s take on The Temple of Elemental Evil, although neither this future adventure nor Hommlet are necessary for the use of this module as a standalone. Variety is also seen in the monster roster, which uses the Fiend Folio, adding several new low-level creatures like the creepy spider zombies (corpses animated by arachnid parasites), the luphid (snake-wolf), or the shadrow (shadowy drider forms) – just to mention a few.

Some design choices are peculiar, at odds with accepted wisdom. Monetary treasure is absolutely minimal. In The Village of Hommlet, even random cobblers and leatherworkers may have a thousand gp or a priceless gemstone hidden in the rafters, and the Moathouse ruins have over 10,000 gp in key locations. Monster lairs in Norkers and Xvarts have pitiful copper pieces and handfuls of silver; the brigand leader (to cite an example) has about 54 gp in loose change; the norker treasury has 370 gp and 420 gp of gems, and their leader has a 50 gp gold chain plus a pewter tub filled with gold-washed lead coins (actual value 675 cp – mean!). These are some of the larger caches, too; magic items are not particularly generous either, although monster XP is relatively decent due to the abundance of combat. By AD&D’s levelling/training requirements, this is very little. The choice, according to Gene, is deliberate – I would nevertheless recommend adding some more loot at various locations, or even multiplying existing figures by 4-5, which should take care of this issue.

The module has a simple but generally effective presentation. Gone are Broken Castle’s generic-system stats (it is all nice, readable AD&D), and the layout is simple but functional. There is an excellent blue-tone map that might have come right out of B2. If you end up running this scenario, it may be useful to chart out the valley on a piece of paper with only the entrances and surface vegetation visible – the map, while great, overlays the two, and I had a slight difficulty reading the surface topography. One extra complaint is that locked doors are not marked – you will have to study the text beforehand and do the job yourself. A simple but useful trick in room numbering: it is all sequential, but in the text, entries are preceded by the caves’ letter codes (e.g. A6, E41, H68A), which makes things extra readable. The monster section is illustrated; this is not pro art, but it does have a lot of soul.

Norkers and Xvarts is a great example of a short-form module that nevertheless packs a mean punch. It is nothing fancy, but it knows what it is doing, and written with a lot of understated skill in building memorable encounters. It can serve as an add-on to The Village of Hommlet, or used as a dungeon in a different campaign, and in any case, it offers a lot of useful insight into building a good Gygaxian dungeon environment. It is, also, free. Highly recommended.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: **** / *****

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs