Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dark Albion: The Rose War — Review

Author: RPGPundit/Dominique Crouzet
Price: $9.95/$29.24 (RPGNOW/Lulu)

Format: PDF/Print
Page count: 285
System: DOM Publishing/Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (OSR compatible)
Year: 2015

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review

This review is long. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I suggest you scroll down to the "Final Thoughts" section. Adieu. 

When I was a young boy I loved pirates. On one occasion my mother took me to the public library. The library were getting rid of their old books, stacked on two trolleys in a concrete hallway. Most were falling apart. Some were horribly old, covered in sweat, stains, and the smells of antiquity. The grotesque primeordialism of them offended my youth. But my mum bought me a book about pirates: Pirates of the Spanish Maine, by Hamilton Cochran. The book was teeming with artwork: a mismatched medley of paintings, black & white sketches, illustrations, even some photos of recovered treasure. The book was falling apart, but I loved that thing: it recalled an era forever obfuscated to me, but accessible through a literary veneer. That realisation somehow stuck with me throughout my life, and is probably why I immediately fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons. The power of literature and art, is in its ability to transport a person to another reality. I believe Pirates of the Spanish Maine is still at my parents house, in a box somewhere. Dark Albion: The Rose War reminds me of this book. Dark Albion is a new book, but it feels convincingly old. I feel like I've stepped inside a history book; except a history that is not our own. Or rather, it is our history if we lived in a dark alternate reality. So what is Dark Albion?

Excerpted from the introduction of Dark Albion:

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review
RPGPundit describes the book as being initially inspired by Game of Thrones, with a bit of Lamentations of the Flame Princess thrown into the mix. Dark Albion is an obvious departure from these influences however, depicting its fantasy as "sinister", "dark", and "gritty". These are terms that everyone bandies around in the OSR, and ironically in the attempts to remove the Tolkienesque tropes from our games, I fear these words have become their own fantasy cliche. With that contention out of the way, I wanted to see how Dark Albion holds up; not only in regard to its tonal claim, but as a complete product. 

First Impressions:
Dark Albion is impressive. The digital download was PACKED with content. I actually laughed in amazement at the amount of content. It's ridiculous. Want an example? There are seventeen (17) digital maps, irrespective of the 285 pages in the Dark Albion book! Some I liked more than others (which I'll talk about later), but the amount of work that has gone into this project is nothing to sneer at. Quite the opposite. 

Generally speaking, I do not like public domain artwork in RPG products. I find it detractive, rather than helpful. Dark Albion is the one exception where public domain artwork is not only appropriate, but effective. It is meant to have this type of artwork. As I mentioned in my introduction, it recalls an old reference work, while being completely new. The layout reminds me somewhat of Rules Cyclopedia. If you like RC I imagine you'll find the interior layout to your liking. 

Dark Albion's unswerving commitment to detail truly staggered me. Some RPG supplements are evocative and original, yet are lacking in overall substance. Honestly — and I say this without any sense of hyperbole — Dark Albion may be the most thorough and detailed RPG product I have ever read. The alternate history it presents is so considered and integrated I had trouble working out the subtler differences between history and fiction at times. RPGPundit writes well. He writes in a way that does not talk down to, or coddle his audience, yet delivers the message with clarity and punch. I'm not sure what his academic career entails as an historian, but I found the work to be logical, succinct, and cumulative in its presentation; as a good history source should be. In short, I really enjoyed his style. 

With my initial reactions out of the way, let's look at some specifics.

The Specifics: 
Layout: The interior of Dark Albion is black & white. It's a common choice, making publishing a lot cheaper. Given the content and overall mood of Dark Albion I think this was a perfectly suitable choice. Dominique Crouzet works as a graphic artist, I believe, and has added his talents to Dark Albion's cartography, cover design, border art, and layout. The border art is attractive and fitting for this work.The table of contents and index are clear and relatively comprehensive, making navigating the book a breeze. Page [b] uses an unattractive font, appearing muddy on my computer. It appears to be the only place in the book where this font is present. A simple and legible font is used everywhere else.

Total: 4/5

Maps: I love maps. As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier. The good folks responsible for Dark Albion clearly align with this philosophy too, given the impressive amount of cartography. Naturally, some maps are better than others, though they are all very functional. I immediately gravitated towards the Player Maps. They have an attractive sepia/parchment appearance, providing a thematic complement to the entire work (see below).

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps
I found the Albion colour map to be lurid. I wasn't a fan of the colour choices, which are too bright. I felt it diminished the otherwise consistent black & white theme (see below).

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps

The hex maps are decent. They're tidy and gameable (see below). 

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps
Lastly, the adventure maps are very good — clean and pleasing to the eye. There were some noticeable visual inconsistencies between sets of maps, and a few of the maps looked a little cheap to me. But again, a huge applause for the efforts and attention to detail. I can't even imagine how long they would have taken to create. For any fellow pedants, simply use the maps you like, and ignore the rest. I'm not certain, but I would estimate there are more than 25 maps if you include those within the book! 

Total: 3.5/5

Artwork: The artwork is almost entirely public domain, and all of the curated pieces match the tone of the work. There are usually at least 2 pieces of artwork per page. The book looks good to read through, though if you are skimming through the book, or reading it for elongated periods of time, it becomes somewhat tedious to look at. Artistic highlights were the castle pictures, the absolutely terrifying demon illustrations, and some of the battle scenes. 

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Art
Again, like the maps, this is all highly subjective, so if you're big on public domain artwork I bet you'll really like the look.

Total 3.5/5

Content: Buy this book for the content. I don't care what anyone says about Dark Albion, the complete commitment to detail, and the immense volume of work is worthy of commendation. Seriously — and I cannot stress this enough — it is absolutely excellent. Whether or not I would use everything in Dark Albion is besides the point. If you've read any of my previous reviews, you'll know I'm a pick-and-choose kind of guy. I'll outline some of my personal highlights. Situated in modern-day France, Frogland  is the home of repugnant worshippers of "dark alien gods". The idea has a sense of primordial fear to it, in some senses reflective of the English/French relationship historically. Besides the obvious analogs between the French and the Frogs, I like the idea of a land in close proximity, where fear of attack from monstrous fiends is every looming. Sure, it's been done before, but it adds some political tension to the game, and is a great adventure hook for further development.  The Eire is another attractive adventure site, filled with "barbarians and dark fae". The land is described as pagan, and provides an interesting point of tension to develop. The Cymri are a race of men, who had ancient dealings with elves. They were possessors of powerful magic, and consequently a new class, the Cymric bard, has been developed as a playable option. 

Speaking of new options, there are plenty within Dark Albion. A range of new classes are presented including the Cymric bard, demonurgist, hedge witch, magister, noble knight, knight-errant, and more. Mechanically there are numerous suggestions for running a game in the Dark Albion universe, both for common retroclones like Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations, but also for Fantastic Heroes and Witchery. Additionally, RPGPundit has included his "Quick and dirty house rule notes", which include some excellent suggestions for beginning an Albion campaign. The treatment of demons is most terrifying. Demon summoning, dark magic, and fearful sorceries are described in detail, living up to claims of "dark and gritty". 

I counted eight adventure sites/mini adventures within Dark Albion. My favourite were the Barrowmound adventures, which had the best of the adventure maps (I thought). Rules for law, punishment, and justice are included within Dark Albion, adding to the punitive feeling of any good medieval/early renaissance work. Dark Albion is packed with detailed setting information, including heraldry, important political figures, quasi-historical timelines, battles, name generators, cosmologies, description of the low magic setting, and much more. I could go on, but you get the idea. This tome is oozing content. 

Not only is Dark Albion extensively detailed, but it is highly useable. Pains have been taken to give the DM/Ref plenty of suggestions for incorporating material into their campaigns. New mechanics are well-covered, and the setting information is purposely broad, allowing the DM to get his/her hands dirty, and make Dark Albion their own. 

Total: 5/5

Final Thoughts:
No one with a firm grasp on their sanity would dispute the staggering amount of work that has gone into this product. That the work is impressive and comprehensive is beyond an understatement. There is no half-assery here. Blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into Dark Albion, making it an 100% effort. It is easy to cut corners when quality, literary consistency, and excellence are concerned, but no such liberties have been taken in Dark Albion. With maps for days, 285 words of useful content, and all the artwork you could possibly want, Dark Albion delivers on its promises, and more.

That said, I have a few gripes here and there. The overall inconsistency of public domain artwork rears its ugly head at times. It was no mistake to use public domain artwork in Dark Albion. It certainly fits the mood. The inevitable and fundamental problem I have with public domain still stands however — it can look great, or it can look somewhat thrown together, as so many varying artists are required to fill out a project. This gives the work a patchy feel at times. I readily admit my biased behaviour to judge a book by its cover, but first impressions stick. The same can be said about the maps. Sometimes an overall theme seemed to be lacking: one was colourful, one set was parchment, one set was greyscale. I think this was to clearly distinguish between player maps, geographical map, and area maps, but the effect was a little jarring or inconsistent. 

My personal predilections aside, Dark Albion is a book rife with possibility. If one has been searching long and hard for a quasi-historical, low-magic setting, filled with all manner of the grim and horrible, look no further. Dark Albion delivers in that department beautifully. It combines standard fantasy tropes, history, and folklore so well, that one begins to question where one ends, and the other begins. It is a truly mythological work, endowed with a sense of otherworldly epic. I have not played a campaign using Dark Albion, so I cannot comment on its pragmatic application. I am left with a sense of possibility, however, as the cogs of inspiration begin to turn. 

Total: 16/20

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Hoard of Zĕmian Goodness - Hydra Cooperative

Not very long ago I wrote two reviews, appraising the work of +Chris Kutalik. The first was of the sprawling and chaotic Slumbering Ursine Dunes. The second review was of the excellent Fever-Dreaming Marlinko; a city supplement.

Since reviewing both works I have had the utmost pleasure of playing in one of Chris' "Misty Isles" playtests, as well as receiving an at-cost physical copy of both FDM and SUD.

Firstly, Chris' games are awesome. In the last year or so I have become quite bored of being a player. I get far more pleasure from creating and running games. The short game I had with Chris gave me faith in the simple pleasures of creating a character, and exploring crazy spheres. It was zany, it was imaginative, it was all the things I aspire to in my own games. Moreover, the experience gave me additional insights and contexts to Chris' works. On their own I initially found them to be disorientating at times — primarily due to a lack of geographic map within the work, and some in-jokes within the work itself. Since playing in one of this games, however, I understand the world and the references a lot more.

Likewise, I enjoyed the PDF copies of FDM and SUD, but having the physical products is another level. Both are around A5 size, with FDM being slightly bigger (as you can see in the photo above). They are attractively presented, and a joy to flick through. I have just started a city adventure with my current players, so I imagine FDM will be a constant at-the-table guide. In my opinion, the merits of this work are in its toolkit applicability rather than being a highly detailed and self-contained setting. It is the latter of course, but I find the work to be a great source of inspiration, rather a biblical dictum.

Do yourself a huge favour and pick up a copy of both. If I had to recommend only one, I would still go with Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. It is psychedelic and odd, but very versatile. And did I mention it was fun to flick through? 

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Unpredictabilities of Role-Playing

The last few weeks have seen the end of my Anthropophagi of Xamboola playtest. Overall I was pretty happy with how it ran, and of course, there are plenty of amendments to include. When designing the town/city of Xamboola I believed it would be somewhere the party would want to stay for an elongated period of time. I thought it had everything they needed. There were bits of "the old city" they had not explored, as well as some more localised adventuring possibilities. Surely that would keep them entertained. 

Anyway, in the true fashion of a pack of vagrants they did the exact opposite of what I expected — travelling for two weeks to the nearest city of Yithorium (it's in the ASSH universe for those who care). Hey, they wanted some magic ID'd! Luckily I had a couple of mini-encounters already up my sleeve, but the city itself was a completely untouched area. 

There has been one theme or idea that has been very resonant with me lately. It actually was a learning curve that eventuated from designed the Xamboola adventure. Basically, I read a kickass Conan story, and it was filled with so much vibe I needed to game it. The idea that I've been kicking around lately — and I've seen it discussed on a few blogs too — is simple: begin with a vibe. For me, Howard's action-packed prose was all it took to get the first ideas on paper, and the whole thing snowballed from there. How does this relate to my first anecdote? Glad you asked.

I was presented with a similar situation on Wednesday night. Basically I had a pretty distinct vibe of what Yithorium was like. There was a bit of gazetteer information on it, but the rest was a distinct mental image residing in my imagination. As a DM/Ref I have never been great at running games on-the-fly. I excel when I've thought about things, planned encounters, giggled to myself at the NPCs that emerge from my warped brain. But generally there is a level of preparedness that goes into my running of games.

In an attempt to be more comfortable with the unknown, and with a looser style of play, I have begun writing tools to assist with this process. Some of you may have seen/downloaded the first three of my NPC Toolkits. I had those at the table with me. I was surprised at how well some random dice rolling worked in creating two distinctive NPCs. The adventurers had been lured to Yithorium mainly to get rid of accumulated wealth and items, but they had also heard some strange rumours from Xamboola. With that barest framework a large portion of the session was essentially ad lib — or rather, unplanned. I had no idea what was to eventuate, but the narrative sort of naturally unfolded. One of the PCs wanted to enquire about the strange rumours. Others wanted to hunt for magic-users. I used a table to roll up an inn. Ideas emerged through role-playing: a strange concept for the town guards, and the city's mores and values. After the session my brain was alive with creativity and more ideas came to me to develop for next time. 

My point, I guess, twofold:

1. I need to make more tables!

2. It's really amazing what happens when your plans go out the window.

This is probably nothing new to most (or all) of you, but it was a nice reminder to plan a little more loosely. I had an entirely different adventure planned, but I'd rather give the players autonomy. Now, time to get back to the adventure writing.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Campaign Journal: The Anthropophagi of Xamboola (Session 10)

SPOILER ALERT: This journal is extracted from an unpublished and upcoming Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea adventure I am currently completing. This account eventuates from the playtest. You have been warned!

Visitors to the desert-city of Xamboola beware! Demoniacal cachinnations and dull totemic drumbeats sound nocturnal from the outskirts of the city. Too, vile shrieks echo in response to the nightmarish noises, making even those of heroic aspect shudder in repulsion. Residents do not tarry to lock themselves in their homes at night, for something sinister lingers in the fringes of the black of night. Whisperings and warnings intimate that foreign guests residing at the inn of one Aramis D’athak oft disappear at night, never to be seen or heard from again. Where they disappear is not known, nor do the people of Xamboola speak of the hellish noises that darken their oasis city in the gloom of night.

Session 10: Carousing and the Daemon

The Party

Sint the Pict Ranger (Level 4)
Xechies the Kimmerian Warlock (Level 3)
Grimnir Hothgar the Viking Berserker (Level 4)
Sarrhan the Mongrel Cataphract (Level 3)
T'hen of the Flame the Ixian Cleric (Level 3; Hireling)

Part I: They Woke Up With A Hangover

After the attrition and insanity of the dungeon numbers needed to be bolstered. Grimnir spent most of the day in Xamboola attempting to find some muscle and someone priestly to join the ranks. A stern and moustached priest of Helios was hired. He appeared as an armoured warrior, and frankly discussed himself as a "champion". Grimnir hired him after some banter regarding the temple slaughter the party had enacted previously. The price T'hen of the flame (as he introduced himself) demanded was a "fair" donation to the temple.

In Saturn's Luck Sint met Sarrhan, a dirty-looking mongrel human. He was thickly muscled and somewhat quiet but seemed physically capable. That night Sint, Sarrhan and Xechies spent their money carousing. [Ref rolls on carousing table]. Sint emptied his bladder on the floor of Saturn's Luck, and exposed his...assets...to a notable politician within the city. After his insulting behaviour he was thrown in prison for the night. Sarrhan gambled away his entire savings, while Xechies won an eating competition, thereafter vomiting on himself and another patron.

Morning broke, and despite Grimnir's plans to get the hell out of Xamboola, he discovered much to his irritation that T'hen was the only capable and non-inebriated party member. Grimnir hauled Sint's sorry ass out of jail, and made the others leave town immediately. Though as the others walked, the fetid odour of vomit and human waste followed them.

They reached the dungeon.

Part II: Daemon Swine

Exploring the recesses and unknowns of the dungeon the delvers exhausted all possibilities after killing two spore-men in a musty library. Only one path remained: a cavernous exit. Sint shot an alighted arrow through a dark expanse, illumining the area. It seems vaguely lighted by phosphorescent mosses. Descending the sheer rocky path they reached the bottom. A creature, of vaguely humanoid suggestion appeared. It had elongated limbs, curved claws and a vile maw. It admitted to being the buyer of the loathsome wormy grubs with human faces - victims of its arcane depravities. Transforming into a tusked boar it attacked. It managed to gore and charm a few, deflecting the majick of Xechies. But the delvers prevailed. It eventually died with a bloodcurdling shriek.

Unfortunately the noise roused the attention of 5 more spore-men, gatekeepers of a spanning under-bridge. They attacked immediately. The wounded party took some significant hits, but luck appeared to be on their side (or perhaps the blessings of Helios) for they overcame the fiends. Opting to explore further into the darkness, rather than crossing the huge bridge, they chanced upon a cut in a cliff. It was a tunnel. Passing through the tunnel they emerged on a snake-men farm: two stone houses, two large pits, sinkholes, and fungus pastures. A dozen snake-men emerged from the houses, warning them to leave - and the delvers did - but the snake-men taunted them, and followed them back through the tunnel to ensure their genuine departure. The rapacious saurians then attacked, charging into the party. At times things appeared dire for the delvers, but at last the morale of the snake-men depleted, and they were routed and destroyed.

The takings from the houses were rich: a rich emerald and a chest filled with electrum pieces! However, jubilations were dashed. Gazing into the pits next to the houses the delvers spotted the loathsome pits filled with human-faced grubs, moaning, whining and cursing for their release...

Adventure Rewards

1500xp for defeating Daemon Swine
1120xp for defeating 7x Spore-men
1284xp for defeating 12x Snake-men
2000xp for treasure
1800xp for attendance and role-playing

1540xp each

Previous Post - Session #9 Death By Spore

Tombstone: Wild West RPG Update

Corey Ryan Walden - Tombstone RPG Erik Wilson Art

Work continues to progress on Tombstone - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I have been editing and amending the alpha rules, and tidying up various inconsistencies. I hope to have a playtest version ready by the year's end (if not sooner). 

Today I received a gorgeous town map of Silverton from +Joe Salvador. Joe has been doing an outstanding job capturing the grittiness and mood I've been attempting to create within Tombstone. His work nicely complements Erik Wilson's commissioned artwork, and at least from a artistic perspective, I can confidently say this game is going to look great!

Here's a preview of Joe's Silverton map. If you have not already, I'd suggest you follow Joe for updates, and head over to his blog to check out his existing work. He is a great game designer in his own right, and has a published module in the new Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea Kickstarter adventures.

Corey Ryan Walden Tombstone RPG - Joe Salvador Cartographer

In a month or so I plan to run some G+ playtests of Tombstone, so if you're interested in that, stay tuned...

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Blueholme Prentice Rules: Review

Blueholme Prentice Rules - Michael Thomas // Corey Ryan Walden
Author: Michael Thomas 
Price: $0.00/$9.99 (DriveThruRPG/Dreamscape Design)
Format: PDF/Print
Page count: 57
System: Dreamscape Design

Year: 2014

I will be transparent: I do not own Dungens & Dragons Holmes (unless a PDF copy counts). Over the past two years the retro-allure has certainly tempted me. Ebay's nightmarish, and often extortive shipping prices to New Zealand have inevitably prevented this however. When +Michael Thomas released the Blueholme Prentice rules I was interested by the potential of this ruleset, particularly if it was rules-light and representative of Holmes. My personal dealings with Michael have been very positive - he is a nice guy, always willing to chat - and he was generous enough to mail me a physical copy for review (which doesn't often happen!). 

It should be apparent to anyone vaguely acquainted with my writing that I enjoy OD&D and B/X Basic. The freewheeling aspect of these editions is appealing; particularly the minimal preparation required, and the maximum potential for fun. Historically the Basic Set emerged with the purpose of introducing new players to the hobby, and going to some lengths to clarify the existing OD&D rules. Assuming Blueholme cleaves closely to the original Holmes rules (warranting a "retroclone" status), I expected a simple and transparent system, while being representative of the original texts.

The purpose of this review is not a study the minute similarities and differences between Holmes and Blueholme. Rather, the purpose is a subjective impression of the game as a standalone system. Of course, this review cannot help being informed by the primary inspiration of this system, so some comparison to Holmes will inevitably occur. 

The Good
I'm a sucker for a good cover. Undoubtedly one of the biggest appeals of Blueholme is the awesome cover art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu. It captures the essence of the Holmes set nicely with its iconic blue cover. The dragon is very reminiscent of the original, yet the whole piece is a satisfying homage without being a pedant to history. I've previously discussed my disdain for OSR products that are slavishly reminiscent of TSR's yesteryear. I like that the Blueholme cover deviates from tradition in a fun way. Its is not a kitsch or tacky try-hard attempt to invoke nostalgia, but the roots of inspiration are transparent. I will talk about the artwork later, but suffice to say, I adore the cover.

Blueholme's true strength is its vivid and crystalline presentation. The table of contents provide excellent oversight, fitting into a single page. The introduction is a brief synopsis of the booklet and welcomes the reader to dive right in. I cannot praise the simplicity and alacrity of writing enough. In my opinion it is very eloquent, forgoing many of the arduous textbook conventions of a role-playing game. Blueholme Prentice does not require mental exercise to grok the contents, to flick between pages with a confused frown, or to toil through pages of dry and uninspired text. 

These rules are designed to quickly consult amidst the flurry of an exciting game, rather than being an encyclopaedic reference work one is required to memorise with fastidious dedication. This is a workman's D&D. This is Blueholme's obvious appeal. Tables, charts, explanations and descriptions are executed with the mantra of concision and explication in mind. For this reason I eagerly anticipate the Blueholme Compleat rules. If Compleat is accessible as Prentice, I believe it will be an excellent edition. My proclivity and adoration for OD&D probably influences this belief somewhat!

Character creation is a simple process in Blueholme, representative of the ethos of early D&D. Thomas has designed Blueholme to be even more accessible than the original texts, which is an added bonus. This is surely the strong point of the game. 

The example character sheet (pictured left) is indicative of the simplicity of creating characters. 

This is a no frills approach to D&D. If you're looking for a system that enables quick play and practicality, Blueholme excels. Some gamers may be deterred by the brevity and interpretative nature of the system, but I perceive it to be a selling point.

Let me be clear that I do not have a go-to edition of D&D. I'm an edition whore. Sometimes I like playing a granular system like AD&D, AS&SH or 3e. Sometimes I want a quick rules-lite game of OD&D or B/X. Sometimes I want an in-between like 5e or Savage Worlds. Prentice firmly inhabits the rules-lite camp, and is a viable candidate for classic styled games.

The Bad

My largest complaint with the Blueholme Prentice rules is the almost exclusive usage of common domain images. For the indie designer on a budget, this is often a necessary design choice, and one I fully understand. 

However I cannot shake the feeling that the assortment of images chosen to "fit" the system only make-do rather than convince me of an over-arching flavour in a satisfying way. What do I mean by this? If the cover artist had illustrated this entire booklet I would be in love with Blueholme. The cover image invites excitement and imagination, reminiscent of early editions, while the interior art does not fit a cohesive theme (besides being public domain). In this way the presentation seems somewhat confused or disappointing at times.

Of course this necessarily raises a larger question of designer sustainability, and one's ability to afford up front the costs needed to generate new products. In short I would have liked the layout and interior artwork to be commissioned. Consequently I would be holding a truly inspiring product. I understand the upcoming Blueholme Compleat rules will be filled with commissioned artwork and this is an excellent decision, hopefully extending to commissioned layouts and graphic design too.

A secondary critique which is slightly unfair, is that Blueholme Prentice is only for levels 1-3. One is referred to the Compleat rules if one wishes for higher levels, much like Holmes referred the reader to AD&D. This is a minimal issue for a number of reasons:

1. Prentice professes to adhere to Holmes (which was only levels 1-3). Therefore why would it go beyond 3rd level? That is what Compleat is for.

2. The PDF of Prentice is a free download. Think of it as a taster, if you enjoy Prentice and/or want additional levels graduate to Compleat.

3. Short campaigns needn't exceed the first 3 levels of play (in fact I remember reading somewhere that Eric Holmes' campaigns rarely surpassed 3rd level).

Some readers/players may find this an annoyance (and was probably a factor that detracted from TSR's Holmes). If your campaigns are centred around the first 3 levels of play, or you are frequently gaming one-shots, I would recommend you seriously consider using Prentice rules as your go-to (but please, more artwork from Jean-Francois Beaulieu!).

Final Thoughts

Blueholme Prentice is an imaginative tool. It captures the spirit of early D&D, which is about adjudication rather than minute rules-lawyering. It offers a palette of options, rather than dictums. It is clear, concise, and utterly gameable. I can imagine porting my own house rules and class variants to Blueholme with no problems. I'm very much looking forward to Compleat, which promises to surpass Prentice's shortcomings (level limitations and the detracting public domain artwork). An entire book filled with commissioned artwork will be awesome. 

By all means pick up a free PDF copy of Blueholme Prentice. Pay for a physical copy if this review has ticked your requirements for a pick-up game. Besides clarifying the ambiguities of Holmes, this product makes no attempt to expand on the original. This is purposeful, and firmly situates it as a true retroclone.

I plan to run an adventure or two using Blueholme, and who knows, it may even replace my habit of using B/X for one-shots. It's a ruleset I won't mind thrashing because that's what it's designed to do: be gamed.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Campaign Journal: AS&SH The Anthropophagi of Xamboola (Session 9)

SPOILER ALERT: This journal is extracted from an unpublished and upcoming Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea adventure I am currently completing. This account eventuates from the playtest. You have been warned!

Visitors to the desert-city of Xamboola beware! Demoniacal cachinnations and dull totemic drumbeats sound nocturnal from the outskirts of the city. Too, vile shrieks echo in response to the nightmarish noises, making even those of heroic aspect shudder in repulsion. Residents do not tarry to lock themselves in their homes at night, for something sinister lingers in the fringes of the black of night. Whisperings and warnings intimate that foreign guests residing at the inn of one Aramis D’athak oft disappear at night, never to be seen or heard from again. Where they disappear is not known, nor do the people of Xamboola speak of the hellish noises that darken their oasis city in the gloom of night.

Session 9: Death By Spore

The Party

Sint the Pict Ranger (Level 3)
Heron the Kimmerian Druid (Level 3)
Xechies the Kimmerian Warlock (Level 2)
Grimnir Hothgar the Viking Berserker (Level 3)
Xjelko the Ixian Thief (Level 3; Hireling)

Part I: Beware of the Cloaks

Morning dawned and exploration resumed. Noticing Heron had adorned one of the black cloaks overnight Grimnir queried him:

"Why are you wearing that cloak?"
"Because I was cold."
"Hmph. Why don't you take it off?"
"I don't want to."
"Just take it off so I know it's not cursed."
"No. Why don't you take your armour off Viking?"

...and so the discussion continued. Sint grew bored of this banter. He noticed nothing unusual in Heron's disposition, and began exploring the chamber more thoroughly.

"Come over here Xjelko and help me see if we can find anything."

Within the chamber a concealed passageway was discovered. In the back of the auditorium (where the slithering slime had attacked Grimir) two additional passageways were located. The smaller doorway was opened first; Heron and Grimnir in the lead. As the small circular chamber was entered, two oozing slimes lunged at Grimnir and Heron. Both Grimnir and Heron were paralysed by the ghoulish creatures. Xjelko screamed in terror and ran from the room, despite curses and shouts of annoyance from his companions. Finally the loathsome creatures were destroyed, though not without injury - Heron appeared to be on death's door. 

Stooping to offer Heron restorative berries, Xechies and Sint noticed something strange: small, claw-like marks dug into Heron's neck from the cloak! Tearing the cloak from Heron's neck, Sint was suddenly engulfed by a hideous black creature, wrapping itself around him. Without the druid or the viking to help, and with the cowardly thief fleeing from the room it was up to Xechies and Sint to destroy this foul creature. Sint dropped his bow and attempted to wrest the underworld creature away from him. The creature let out a repulsive moan and tightened its grip on Sint, sinking a barbed tail into him, and smothering him with its wings. Sint began to suffocate.

Xechies hacked the creature from behind, injuring Sint in the process. Realising his blunder he sheathed his weapon and managed to pry the creature from Sint's body. Between the two they finally managed to destroy the stygian nightmare. 

Part II: Wormy Grubs of Human Essence

After recovering from their various wounds, the delvers decided to explore the recesses of the second doorway. Walking some 40 feet, noises could be discerned down the hallway.

"Shhhhhhthakkkk oooothhh yeeeeiiithhhaarrrrnnnaayyy!!"

The voices (if they could be called such) were a hybrid of snake and man. Xjelko (who had rejoined the party after being discovered whimpering and cowering in an adjacent room after the battle) was commanded to investigate. He refused.

"Who's there?" Grimnir angrily called.

The hissing voices stopped. Finally a lone silhouette emerged. Robed and tailed, this figure resembled a nightmarish amalgam of snake and man. It walked upright.

It spoke in a stilted common tongue:

"Interlopers, why have you come?" it asked.

Seeing no reason to enter a discourse, Sint let a nocked arrow fly. Its aim was true, and the creature hissed in pain. Grimnir plunged down the corridor towards what other creatures lay within. But the creatures were ready, rushing towards him: five other such "men" and two cobras. All hell broke loose, a cacophony of shrieks, hisses, steel and incantations. Again, the horror of warfare was too much for Xjelko who snuck to the back of the chamber, cowering in the corner. When the bloodletting was complete the room was searched. A few strange utensils were discovered whose purpose was completely foreign.

"You coward!" Grimnir bellowed at Xjelko. "How dare you run away? You're not even worthy to call yourself a man. Even the women and children in Erikssgard have more courage than you."
"What's wrong with you?!" Sint agreed, "This is what we hired you for. What did you expect -  a pleasant hole in the ground filled with treasure waiting to be plundered? We need someone who can pull their weight, not someone who runs when things get tough."
Preening his clothing and gazing sternly at the floor Xjelko retorted. 
"When I signed on, you told me you needed someone to find hidden doors and break into things. I've done that. You never mentioned I had to fight anything."
He also added "You only pay me 30 gold pieces a month, I've seen the hoards you capture. I think if my rewards were commensurate with the earnings..."
"Fool!" Grimnir thundered, "Leave us and begone!"
"Wait, you can't leave me down here! I'd never find my way back. You've seen what's down here."
Grimnir finally relented. 
"C'mon then you coward..."

Creeping further down the corridor, lest there be other snake-men, the delvers continued (though Xjelko filled with trepidation). The long corridor finally expired into a cavernous pit. The pit had an acerbic foetor, and an unwholesome miasmic quality. Inside the pit squirmed the most horrid things imaginable. Small worms secreting oozing white juices whined and moaned within the pit. Xjelko vomited violently as he comprehended what they were - human faces with maggot bodies! The faces were pinched and withered, as though animated in a semi-living space. Noticing the delvers standing above them the maggot-men began worming towards them, squabbling with each other and groaning. They were entirely incapable of scaling the sheer walls of the pit.

"Heeelllpppp us!"
"Please, release us!"
"That morsel is mine!"
"You up there, give me your liver"
"Urghhh! I'm in so much pain"
"What time is it?"

Their voices merged in a repulsive clamour. They were entirely repugnant to behold. Discussion was held. Do we destroy them, or to somehow help them? But all present were too repulsed to remain. Discussion continued further down the tunnel, out of eyesight and earshot of the pit. Finally the consensus was to return at a later time, once the entire complex had been mapped.

Part III: Death and Rebirth

An adjacent corridor was explored in the original room where the delvers had slept. This corridor revealed another hallway. Down the hallway were two snake-men and another larger pit of men-maggots. Xechies recalled some forbidden lore he had once stumbled upon in a darkened sorcerer's lodge. He suspected these creatures were once human, now transformed for daemonic majick purposes - possibly for trade or sale in unholy ritual. The snake-men appeared to be to blame, and it was gleaned they were probably responsible for the brainwashing of the human cannibal slaves.

A northern corridor was thereafter pursued. The corridor forked into three directions. Unlocking one of the three doors, five creatures assailed Xjelko as he pushed the unlocked portal open. The creatures were covered in mouldering skin and breathed suffocating spores. The battle was ferocious. Xechies became infected by one of the creatures and began to act against the party's interests, attacking them instead. Grimnir entered an untameable fury. He hacked at the creatures - shrieking and invoking prayers and battle cries. He destroyed two spore-men, but the berserker suffered hit after hit. As the creatures pummelled him to death, he lay bleeding on the ground, each attempt to fight becoming increasingly futile. Finally he was welcomed into the gates of Valhalla. Comprehending his certain demise, Xjelko tried fleeing. One of the spore-men caught up with him, and stood over him. Xjelko loosed a few crossbow bolts from his shaking hands, and managed to disable one spore-men. Unfortunately his pursuer tore open Xjelko's back with its claws, raking him. Xjelko's body stiffened. His eyes remained open and staring, as death claimed him. Heron was surrounded, and although he killed one, he was torn to pieces by an ochre horror. His blood pooled on the ground, covering the spore-man's feet.

Cognisant of inevitable doom, Sint began retreating. All but one of the spore-men had been destroyed, but Sint was injured. He loosed two arrows, one striking true. It seemed to injure the spore-man. The spore-man and Xechies surrounded him wickedly, and darkness closed upon Sint.

[Referee's note: At this point it was a total party kill! To maintain campaign momentum it was decided that Sint, Grimnir and Xechies could be "revived". The penalty for death was suffering one permanent effect from the madness table. The following outcomes were determined:

Sint - Schizophrenia
Xechies - Homocidal 
Grimnir - Kleptomania (Grimnir also suffers the permanent effect of Hallucinations from a previous misadventure).]

Waking in the chamber of the seemingly-dead magus, Sint, Xechies and Grimnir awoke. They remembered the battle and mourned the loss of their friend Heron. Xechies pondered the philosophy of death:

"It really is a beautiful thing isn't it? The fact that I can offer this gift to people is surely ordained from the gods. When I return to Xamboola I feel like I should help someone on their journey"

He smiled at the thought.

Stealthily, the delvers returned to the previous corridor. Ensuring no spore-man remained, they reclaimed Heron's body before returning to town. Back in Xamboola the remaining party spent the night at Saturn's luck. Grimnir had the unshakeable desire to steal from the coffers while everyone slept and did so, pleased with his surreptitious endeavours. He also pocketed a handful of Sint's arrows. 

Xechies climbed out a window, and entered an alleyway. Hiding, he waited until someone entered. An older women hobbled home. Feelings of compassion overtook Xechies - he must help this lady towards the next step in her destiny. As she passed his hiding spot he grabbed her, putting his hand over her mouth to stop any screams. Xechies smiled at the delight she must be feeling - chosen to ascend to the next plane of existence - all at his hand!

The knife sheared her throat easily. Blood streamed down her front, and over Xechies' hands. He peered into her eyes as the spark of life faded. He saw gratitude in her eyes and knew he had done a good thing.

"You're so very welcome" he crooned. Laying her gently to the ground. He licked the blade in ecstasy. Xechies wandered into the wilderness, spending the remainder of the night listening to the whispering approval of the gods...

Adventure Rewards

460xp for defeating cloaker 
600xp for defeating 2x Slithering Slimes
749xp for defeating 7x Snake-men
86xp for defeating 2x Cobras
660xp for defeating 4x Spore-men
1600xp for treasure
1800xp for attendance and role-playing

1191xp each

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