Saturday, May 19, 2018

Mail Room: Apes Victorious


My exploration of the Goblinoid-verse continues today with Apes Victorious, sort of an "inspired by" Planet of the Apes style game that meshes a bunch of 1970's pop-culture sci-fi elements together is a zany, crazy mix of genres and post-apocalyptic fun. This isn't just an Apes RPG style retro-clone, it brings in a cool race of under-dweller humans that seem like something pulled out of Sleeper, the Paranoia RPG, Logan's Run, or THX 1138. There are androids (I wish you could play one but it would not be hard to do that) like something out of the Six Million Dollar Man.

More 1970's Fun!

If I were to play this I would make some key expansions and pull in a couple more influences from the 1970's. I would definitely do an android race that either survived on their own or broke off from the under-dwellers, similar to the old Westworld movie's robots (one and two). Perhaps they were the survivors of an old robotic theme park and they are always seeking 'the creator' in some strange 'what it means to be alive' life mission nobody really understands.

I would add a human "utopia domed city space base" like something out of out of Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers for the astronauts. I would probably make this somewhere far away in an artificial environment that lives in a utopia and contact between old Earth and them is infrequent and forbidden. I would love to have an evil Mongol-inspired evil space empire out there (of limited size, like a rogue moon with several city domes) with an evil queen and her mute but muscle-bound body guards. Make them the mysterious source of expedition ships to Earth every few months and you can have all sorts of fun interplanetary action. Just not too frequent and not too large, the distance traveled is just too great for regular trips.

I would add a race of intelligent alien "plant spores" that create pod people, or perhaps have shambling plant people wander around worshiping the elder alien plant god known as 'Seed'. Their goal is to create more plant-controlled slaves with their alien seed pods, feed their evolved shambling mound forms, and bring their elder plant god from across the cosmos. Anything that creeps the players out and keeps them from wanting to sleep next to these alien pods (check your pillow and under the bed) is such fun I could not resist myself. Plant controlled apes and under-dwellers? Perfect, let them all fight it out, and the players won't really know who they are encountering until the other group all opens their mouths at once and lets out that blood-curdling scream.

Call it Apes Expanded. Anything that fit into a destroyed 1970's world would do. Starships and Spacemen I feel would be a tough fit because I wouldn't want them replacing the astronaut faction with "better astronauts." I would keep Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars out of it, just because those three cultural juggernauts would also take over the game. This I feel works better with small, campy, out-there 70's sci-fi small box-office only.

None of this would be terribly hard using sources pulled from various Labyrinth Lord books and I feel it would create this fun sort of D&D style 'many inspiration' sort of mini-universe where a lot of ideas could fit in and players could find a niche and a conflict they could hang a character idea onto. It is more a big-tent approach that I feel made D&D so attractive, you could do everything from Conan to Lord of the Rings and everyone would be cool with those character origins and influences.

More soon on this quirky and fun-looking game, and I definately see it as an includive and big-box of campy fun.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

B/X Essentials


B/X Essentials! These are fun little books I found over on DriveThruRPG, and they are essentially a core rules set for B/X games split up into modular books. There are three of them out, and a fourth one is in the works covering monsters. Right now, there is a book for the base rules, a book for classes, and a book for spells (covering cleric 1-5 and MU 1-6). These are kind of what I wanted from the old D&D Essentials guides but never got.


Why another set of B/X rules? Why not? At this point, B/X is the closest thing the pen-and-paper gaming world has to UNIX/LINUX, with many different distributions and flavors available and they will be in print and be around forever due to the OGL.

What is cool about B/X is that it all works really similar to each other, adventures mostly are compatible, classes play alike, and even the math is more or less similar no matter what you play. You factor in things like the special features of a game, support, class books, and other flavor related items and you pick a favorite version and play. You could play in another game with a different B/X system and still know most of what you need to know.


The goal (as I read it) here is to publish a setting-neutral base game where you could use the framework to create any B/X flavored game from (or use to play the original), and more importantly kind of be a version-neutral reference guide and clean up the original B/X rules. These are noble goals, and let's say I wanted to make a sci-fi B/X style game. My options? Recreate the wheel and craft a new variant B/X system, or extend an already-published B/X clone like Labyrinth Lord. This is a third option, start with this and have just the basics, and then extend as much as you want in any direction.

I could also play a simple dungeon game just using these rules and be fine. It is all cool.

There is a text-only version of these for free, and you can pick up some printed books and the full-art PDF for cheap, which I did because I want to support this effort (and they are cool books). The art is very flavorful and cool in these books, I love the varied styles and humor here, and it does feel true to the old-school feeling of B/X and OSR.

I like this, sort of a setting-neutral and modular approach to B/X. I still like my Labyrinth Lord collection and that game is one I love and have an investment in, but I share the feeling sometimes all I want is just something simple, something basic, and something which doesn't start with the fantasy assumption and sits there like a blank canvas for my creations.

Make a B/X style gangster Noir game? Why not? This gives me a great basic rules set without all the fantasy baggage and my plate is clear to create a classes, equipment, and setting book covering the parts that are different in my creation. The base rulebook doesn't need to be touched, and all you need to play is Core plus the setting-specific book. You don't need to worry about ignoring clerics, magic wands, and orcs when you are out clinging to the running board of your Packard sedan with a tommygun in hand - you have the base rules and your setting specific book and you are all set.

There is nothing to ignore here and you can focus your playing and designing just on the world you create, and I love that modular design goal here. This is a cool effort, I am happily awaiting the monster book (which is in proofreading now and should be out soon), and I will continue to support this effort because I love B/X and the more the OSR the merrier.

Wargaming Roots: Wargame Complexity

A fun little snip on the design of the Tunnels and Trolls Adventures mobile game's "about" page strikes an interesting point here about the development of pen-and-paper games and the hobby's wargaming roots:
In 1975, as role-playing games were beginning their rise to popularity among the gaming community, Ken St. Andre found himself dissatisfied by the complexity and inaccessibility which rules systems of other games presented newcomers to the genre. Seeking a game with which to introduce his friends to the world of interactive storytelling, Ken set out to create a lighter and more flexible rules system which would provide players with greater latitude for heroic feats. He did away with the often times dauntingly complex stat sheets and tables found in the wargames from which the first RPG was descended, and created a game more inspired by the deeds of comic book superheroes. Ultimately, Ken named his game Tunnels & Trolls.
We have come a long way from the Chainmail "wargame" style rules to a more player-focused and I feel accessible B/X style, and then from there I feel we went deep into the wargaming side of the hobby again with D&D 3rd and 3.5 Edition, Pathfinder, D&D 4, and then D&D 5. Our wargame roots are clearly on display and this has spawned an entire group of games these days that are more accessibility focused than complex wargame focused.

More Complex These Days?

In some ways, I feel we are way beyond the complexity of the 1970's wargame-roots games, especially with Pathfinder, D&D 4, and software like Hero Lab. D&D 5 I feel took a step back from the abyss, but I still feel the older B/X games and their clones do a better job at controlling complexity and focusing the action more on the adventure rather than the character.
Some products make me smile, like the Pathfinder Strategy Guide, a great book that tries to tamp down the complexity of the base game, explain things to beginners, and make a complex system easy to use. But really, when I think about it, I get this feeling if the effort were put into making the system easier and not needing a book like this would be a more laudable goal. Games that are simple and accessible to beginners do not need how-to books.

Part of me likes the complicated game though, and there are fans of this hyper-detailed genre of gaming, again, hearkening back to our wargaming roots and having detailed World War II wargmaes with rules for jammed turret rings, smoke capacity, the ammunition capacity and depression limits of of bow-mounted tank machineguns. I have played wargames like those, and while the one or two times that level of detail comes up in a 6-hour game you may be happy to have these rules, more often than not I find rules like this slow the game down more than they do add value.

I feel the same with detailed character generation systems. Our tendency as designers is to add more, to make options for every possible character type and background, and through universal inclusivity we weigh the system down so much we end up needing multiple pages for one character. Genesys requires three sides of paper for each character, and that has hurt our desire to play what should have been a simple storytelling game. Pathfinder, the king of complexity, requires Hero Lab these days, and it is not uncommon for us to be printing out six to twelve sides of paper for each character.

Less is More

And I look at the single-sided one-page character sheets of Labyrinth Lord and other B/X games and I see a lot of wasted space, and that is a good thing. I could do a B/X character on a quarter sheet of paper and put four to a side and still have plenty of room. Back in old-school Traveller we put one character on two lines of a sheet of notebook paper.

We still had fun with those games because we ran fun adventures and we didn't need detailed character essays for each player to pour over. I get this strange feeling at times that games use complexity to drive interest these days, that somehow a detailed character generation system makes up for a lack of compelling adventures and stories. That is really an unfair statement for many games, but I see so many games that are 90% character creation systems and then assume everything else, story, adventure, and how to have fun comes for free.

I would rather play a game that was 10% character creation and 90% story and background. Call of Cthulhu and Dragon Age are good examples of modern pen-and-paper games that minimize the game rules while maximizing story content and background information. I would put T&T in this category as well, especially with the incredible world-book in the Tunnels and Trolls Deluxe Edition in the latest version of the rules.

B/X and Labyrinth Lord? These are more giant toyboxes with 10% character design and the rest of the 90% are monster, spell, and magic item lists. That toybox content is the story and background. There are times when I like this, since I make my own stories and worlds anyways, and other times when I miss having that world and story to play through (and save me the work).

How far off are the more modern games from the toybox model? It is a bit tougher to judge I feel, since you have a good portion of these games tied up in character design and it grows in size the more books you add to the system. My generic rule is: if a computer program makes character creation easy and error free, the character design system is heavy. If it takes me more than 5 minutes and a sheet of paper to design a character that is too long.

If you need to pass a book around the table for players to design characters you have dependencies in there that should be streamlined onto the character sheet (or eliminated from the game). If I play Pathfinder with a group again I would love to have class-specific character sheets, one for paladins, one for rogues, and so on...

Everything to Everybody?

It brings to mind the question, "How much character design do you need to tell a story?" There is a point where there is too much, where you are making a feat to cover a bonus to every possible action and interaction, such as a feat that allows you to call a truce during combat. These sorts of feats rub me the wrong way in two ways: this is codifying roleplaying and creativity, and you are adding unneeded complexity to the character design system. Without this feat...you can't roleplay this? When I am refereeing the game it becomes another added "thing I have to remember" in order to play when the one character in a thousand's player actually bought this feat and expects it to come into play.

In T&T or B/X? Hell, make a CHR saving roll or roll under Charisma at a minus whatever and we are done. In most every other game it is an ability score roll, the current situation, and referee judgment. Done.

In the 1970's wargames there was this tendency to start simple, and then balloon complexity with each new expansion and revision. Track performance in taiga and mud for armored vehicles. Fuel performance and ambient temperature. Snowshoe size versus snow type. Curvature of the Earth and muzzle velocity of off-board artillery. Most of the rules had some historical event behind them and they probably affected the outcome of some real-world battle somewhere...but there is a point where enough is enough.

If I equip my desert soldiers with snowshoes does that give them a movement bonus? If my winter partisans carry large desert water packs at what point do those freeze? Do I need a table for that?

And the more complicated wargame goes in the closet and the new game that was designed for fast and fun play goes on the table. That is where I am with Pathfinder. Completely bought in with both books and Hero Lab and we never play it really all that much. Great customers and lousy players.

Simple Games are More Fun for Me

So I come back to the old versions of games, the retro-clones, and some of the classics made back in the day where they saw this problem and designed against it. Labyrinth Lord and B/X. Tunnels and Trolls Deluxe Edition. Other classics. There are some new games, such as Savage Worlds and FATE, that attack complexity of character design versus story and those are worth mentioning too.

I see a collection of huge books for a gaming system and my reaction is, "I don't have enough time for these anymore." Instead of feeling bad I switch games that I do have the time for. I am sensing another round of boxing games up coming here soon. It is a sad thing but also a good thing, since it lets me focus on games I want to play (and it frees up space for more games, like Traveller's new edition).

My thing is, play what you love - and some people love the complexity. I have moods when I love all the detail and choices. Be happy if you can find people who love what you do and play with them. As my players dwindle and I find myself more and more alone, my tastes and needs change. I want less record keeping and design. I want solo play. I want smaller rules and tighter designs. I want more story and world, and less rules. I want attribute systems that handle many things, and less flipping through books to find a rule that handles a special case.

My tastes are changing more towards the retro-clones and classic games that I started the hobby with because those are what I love and where I find the most comfort.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Solo Play with Tunnels and Trolls, part #1a

...very cool stuff, the old solo adventures coming back as mobile games. You can create and level up characters, and reply adventures? I need to check this out. Plus they are working on an adventure creator for user-created content? Way cool.

Minus points, a lot of the adventures are in-app purchases, but you know...converting these over probably takes a lot of work and they have to get paid for their time and effort. Plus they are enhanced with art, sound, and music and those cost money. I can support buying them as they come out because I believe hard work and good products should be rewarded. As long as it isn't too much money, but I get it.

I would love to have something like this for the old D&D modules, like the A-series, Keep of the Borderlands, or S1. They beat you to it, Wizards!

Solo Play with Tunnels and Trolls, part #1

A sad topic, but one nonetheless I think about. One of my steady and long-time players is struggling to attend playing sessions. Our main group has been MIA for a while and it has been just me and him for a little while as we regroup, and he often doesn't want to participate due to several issues in his life. What if he goes his own way and I am a game-master without players?

Box everything up? Find new players? Hope for the best?

I blog and that helps, I have been at this too long to just give up, but I am coming to the realization changes are needed to keep my tabletop gaming mojo going.

Going Solo

The thought occurs to me to go solo for a while until I find a group. This is possible, and I would probably change my game to something more solo friendly and also find a way to share what I did with others, like here on the SBRPG blog. Something like Labyrinth Lord or Tunnels and Trolls 8.0, where I could just keep a character sheet by my computer, knock off a few encounters, and write them up for the blog every so often. T&T is the more solo-friendly option, as with B/X games they typically need a party to have the most fun (and many adventures are party focused).
I un-boxed my T&T 8.0 book last night, why I boxed this up is beyond me, and managed to knock over half of everything in my closet. Everything is fine save for a fluorescent light now that doesn't work, but that was old and was on its last flicker of life anyways so it was overdue for a replacement. Such is life and the constant replacement and maintenance of the things around us, it never ends and one should take it as part of the normal flow of things. Plus, that may be a sign from above - go forth and adventure to find the (replacement) light! A quest hath been discovered!

T&T was always a game that worked well with a single person or a small party of up to three (and run by one person). While some don't appreciate the abstract nature of the combats, I like them a whole lot and feel they are closer to fictional writer-ly combat where there is this unseen "tide of battle" determines who gets that last, critical blow in. The system also does a good job at simulating the wearing down of the losing side well, both in gear durability and in damage ability of the participants. In a lot of games a fighter or monster on turn one still has the same damage ability as on the last turn of battle, and that doesn't happen here since during combat monsters wear down and characters can wear down in both armor, weapons, characteristics, and health.

T&T is also simple, and I can "sim" any sort of dime-store paperback pulp fantasy setting easily with the rules, from Conan-style pulp fantasy to two-fisted Indiana Jones style adventure (just pick up the T&T compatible and excellent Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes game for seven dollars over on RPGNow for all you would ever need in a modern weapon and talent list). I can even play Buck Rogers style science fantasy with this rules set if I wanted, it isn't too hard to adjust the talent list to include piloting and a few other sci-fi skills, pick some damages for ray guns, and blast off to adventure using the three base classes and MR ratings for all of the space-bound foes. I need to do a conversion guide from MS&PE to T&T 8.0 later on here on the blog, and that sounds like a fun project to do. More on that later.

How to Start

There are so many solo adventures (some free, some very inexpensive) over on RPGNow as well for Tunnels and Trolls, and it really isn't much effort to play them with any version of the game. I could probably buy one of these (and I love supporting the authors and creators in the community, it is cool), and go through it a couple times to enjoy the creativity and fun they put into these adventures. I am probably done, and there is no real reason to think any further beyond that.

But I like coming up with silly ideas, and I would love a random adventure generator to have fun with for solo adventures. I will add this as another TODO item on my list since it would be fun to have an adventure creator to just kick around with as my character goes on dangerous expeditions, levels up, and possibly fails in his or her grand epic quest of randomness.

So Random! So What?

With published solo adventures, there is very little "so what" factor. You are playing through like a golf course, and you are seeing all the cool choices and entries that the author came up with. With a purely random game you get this "so what" feeling after a while that I get when I play a purely mathematical game - sort of like a rouge-like where it is just more a spreadsheet of numbers fighting each other with no real purpose or goal.

It is like spinning up a character and then fighting a numeric list of monster ratings without a story, monsters, encounters, or rhyme or reason - I mean, why? You can fight numbers and roll dice, hooray! That is what I want to avoid in a random adventure system. Some dungeon games I get off Steam are like this, I go into some hole in the ground, fight a couple rooms, and then eventually give up because it is more about making numbers fight numbers and there isn't any real sense of progressing a story or making an accomplishment.

I like getting treasure, upgrading my character, getting better weapons and armor, leveling up, combat, and succeeding against all odds - you know, the mechanical stuff. T&T's treasure tables don't seem well suited for random adventures, there is a lack of magic items, potions, and other cool loot that I may want to make my own tables to raise the level of game in this area. I like finding traps, parlay, puzzles, and jumping pits, so there has to be some interaction more than just combat in a system like this.

A really good random solo play system is a very hard thing to design, so maybe my wants here are going to outstrip what I should do is focus in on finding a great single-player adventure and playing through it solo. Or just finding some silly way of generating random adventures and go with the flow. There is a point where you have so much structure to random generation that you lose all the fun.

Challenge Level

Remember this?


50-50 challenge MR = (average party damage - 3.5) x 1.174

That formula is going to work nicely with creating Monster Ratings for my random system. I want to figure out the "starting damage" before the run (and not adjust up during play so upgrades found during the adventure are not minimized). And then use some sort of chart like this to determine MR for the fight:
  1. -20% MR
  2. -10% MR
  3. Average MR
  4. +10% MR
  5. +20% MR
  6. +30% MR
I wanted to bias towards tougher fights because upgrades will be found, smart tactics will be used, and I like putting a little fear into encounters. Half the chart is average or below, so these fights should be winnable. The other half of the encounter table should be the home of nightmares and lucky rolls. Also, avoiding a fight, parlay, and using sneaky tactics to gain an advantage should always be an option.

It needs to be tested, I really don't know, and in a long dungeon an "even" fight may be too hard after a series of them, so there is that to consider. This is one of those things where you really have no idea until you get in and watch the pain happen after five or six of these, and then test again because your first test may have been a fluke. And then test again because you need more data, and the first two runs could have been flukes.

That said, figuring out the MR of a fight is really the easiest part of the random solo adventure problem, and it is really just the beginning. This problem is not 5% solved yet, and there needs to be something more to this - even a off-the-cuff system needs some risk, reward, and failure system worked out that says "pass the check, something good happens; fail the check and something bad happens." Also, how does one determine the end or goal of a random adventure?

In part two, I will continue my ideas on this...or I may just try something and see how that works. You never know since you want to keep iterating when you do game development like this.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mail Room: Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes


The other Top Secret and James Bond 007 role-playing game we played back in the day was the T&T compatible Mercenaries, Spies  & Private Eyes boxed set from back in the day. The rules are the same at (as I recall) the 5th Edition of T&T, and it worked well for what we used it for. This always felt like a game that did "movies other than James Bond" and we got a kick out of all of the realistic toned characters and adventures in this game, compared to T&T.

You can still pick a PDF of this up over at RPGNow for less than ten dollars, and for that it gives you a complete gear and item list mostly compatible with any version of T&T out there, including today's Deluxe T&T edition.

Realism Strikes!

But a part of me wishes this said "to heck with realism" and used the straight T&T ability score range. The game was limited to 20 levels, and you got two attribute points per level, and that all but made the higher level saving throws for most checks out of reach for most characters. We were lucky to have characters make level one or two SRs for anything, and as a result, the fun of high level saving rolls never really happened for us and the game, even at higher levels 6-12, felt like a low level game.

It was both a good thing and a bad thing for us. Yes, it was more realistic. The high-level weapons still were incredibly powerful and characters could never really 'toughen up' to face such firepower. Thinking back with hindsight, I like how T&T Deluxe handles missile weapons these days, even though I didn't see the wisdom in that adds-on-miss ruling when I first read it and wrote about it.

Today? Deluxe Plus Guns!

If I were to play this today I would just spin up T&T Deluxe Edition characters and give them guns. Warriors are soldiers and rogues are spies and leave it at that. I would use the normal T&T attribute raising rules and have characters with ability scores of 50, 100, or more. Ever see Sin City, Sucker Punch, or any of those Zack Snyder movies where normal humans turn into muscle-bound freaks or lithe angels of death who can wade through bursts of auto-fire untouched?

That. I want that.

So your brute enforcer literally has enough hits to take a shotgun to the face and it only leaves a couple scratches as he bends the barrel into a pretzel and proceeds to pummel the bar full of enemies through pulp, throwing some through solid walls, and flipping a car on its side as easy as a professional wrestler would with one hand (and a hidden cable winch). With "normal" T&T stat-flation and super-characters, I get that.

Yes, eventually guns cease to become as effective, but who cares? This is fun, and pretty soon it all breaks down into some testosterone-filled fist or sword fight with grunting brutes and endless vast broken fields of CGI rubble, just like the Zack Snyder movie feeling I want.

I would still use this book as a resource though. There are some skills easily usable as talents, and plenty of gear to ogle over and blast each other with. I know some would flip out over this, because a big part of the appeal was this game's more normal power curve and streamlined feel (and part of me agrees with that), but another part of me loves T&T's zany power level and I just need to try this "mod" and learn my lesson. Or have a lot of silly fun. Or both.

With how powerful the MS&PE weapons are rated, you are going to need every one of those points of super-powered ability scores just to survive. It makes me think the ability scores in the 50''s and 60's for a game like this aren't so overpowered as one would think. First level characters? Like extras in a movie. Eighth through tenth-level characters? The stars of that movie. So what they are high-powered and a bit super? Give them enemies that can roll just as many combat dice and T&T will balance that out, just as it does in fantasy.

I think I will coin the term 'modern fantasy' for these sorts of every-person super-hero type movies and games, where yeah, that looks like a normal person, but ones the slow motion hits and the rock music starts playing like something out of a John Wick movie, you are in the realm of fantasy power levels.

Compared to the Games of the Day

We mostly played TSR's Top Secret, but we did have the James Bond 007 game as well - but we didn't play that as much. We did play a lot of T&T and we liked the modern gear and guns, but we never really ran a dedicated MS&PE campaign - which I wish we would have. I would have loved these rules for a Gangbusters Noir-style PI and gangsters campaign, just because of the flavor here and focus more on mysteries and story than combat.

MS&PE using T&T Deluxe's rules? Yeah, Phillip Marlowe meets John Wu. Not so subtle, but it sure sounds fun. More on this later, but this is a fun find and a great resource for my upcoming T&T fueled mayhem. Or mistake. Or both.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mail Room: Barrowmaze Complete

Ever find a product that just rekindles your love of old school gaming? This is it, The book was a bit on the expensive side but for a high-quality 261-page book with great old-school art on almost every page? A cover by the immortal D&DG legend Erol Otus? A PDF you can keep on your phone or tablet and read through and feel the inspiration come back when you pick a page and flip through its deviously-crafted pages? And did I mention it has a promo cartoon?
It's campy. It's deadly. It's thoroughly old-school. It's crazy with flashes of black humor and the madness of its creator and I love it. I have only just began to dive into the pages of this one and I already feel the excitement. This one so masterfully captures what old-school gaming is all about in both flavor and style, and most importantly - the combination of rules and play. Let me lead you down into the darkness of this one and explain a little, if only you would gather around before you hastily dash off into the night...

What This Is

At its core, Barrowmaze Complete is a combination product covering Barrowmaze I and II, so you do not need the II book to have everything - it is all here. This is essentially an old-school mega-dungeon, but without all the mega-dungeon problems. The layout of the mega-dungeon are the tombs and catacombs under a huge area of ground, the burial mounds of an ancient civilization lying underneath a foggy moor. There are hundreds of mounds to break into and explore, all for the loot this civilization buried with its ancestors, so you can be sure the grave robbers and other ne'er-do-wells are lurking about busting into these forbidden places, getting themselves killed, or killing the others who loot the tombs and head back to town with sacks of loot over their shoulders.

And the marsh itself is deadly and dangerous, especially at night, and it is far enough away from town that you have to conserve daylight to be able to excavate the ruins of these tombs and get out before the night falls and the certain doom of twilight descends upon your party.

What I love about this is it marries lore and a real understanding of grave-robbing mechanics to an old-school experience. You need to physically dig up these places. Many are hidden. You need to bust through mortared-up walls with sledgehammers to get at the good stuff - and all that work makes a lot of noise. Any noise invites wandering monster checks. This sort of risk versus reward feeling extends through the overland plus the expansive underground, the more noise you make, the less chance you have of getting out of there alive.

And then there is the question of time. You may have a great run in the underground spaces only to find out you miscalculated and it's night outside. Torches matter. Light matters. Nightvision matters. Being able to find traps matters. Supplies matter. Resource management is critical to survival. All the low-level "manage or die" stuff that makes old-school gaming so fun matters and this adventure was built to support smart play through realizing you can't rest out here, you need to get in and get out, and there is no way to come out ahead without willfully walking into a place that will most likely get your character killed. This is the perfect tour-de-force of old school sensibilities and gaming and a hallmark example of an adventure written to bring out the best of why we love this genre of gaming.

Old School Death Metal Dungeoning

One thought I kept having was this adventure was like finding an old death-metal record by some band that no longer exists. And when you put the vinyl record on the turntable you are both terrified by the noises coming out of your stereo speakers but amazed by the genius of what this band was able to do with both what they had and the time this was made in.

One of the things I love is the unholy marriage between old-school mechanics and story. This place is infested by the undead, so you would think bringing a cleric or paladin along would activate easy mode, right? Well, it turns out an artifact, the holy grail of evil itself, is lying underneath the boggy fens and foggy moors of this place and it makes turning dead harder - sort of a home-field advantage for the undead team should you choose to venture forth in their domain. It is a small special rule, but this adds so much flavor to the place my heart sings along with the chorus of evil-dungeon master glee.

The excavation rules, the numerous bricked up walls and sealed off tombs, the ever-present "make a noise and we all die" sort of feeling where the noise of one encounter's combat could trigger the roll for another just gives this place an atmosphere leagues better than many of the "places of the dead" adventures I have ever read. The tombs force you to break through walls to explore and find the good stuff, and in doing so you could possibly seal your fate by the noise you make.

And there are optional insanity rules tool that turn this wonderfully crafted gem of player apprehension and terror into a Call of Cthulhu masterpiece where the halfling rogue you depend on for that backstab damage goes insane at just the wrong moment and runs away, only to fall into a bottomless pit to be gone forever, no save allowed. And in that moment you realize your party is doomed because you ventured too far in this time, the halfling was carrying all of your oil for the lanterns, and you won't have enough light to make it out of here without stumbling into more monsters or other traps.

It is like the beginning mission in the movie Aliens where the squad of space soldiers gets in way over their head and all hell breaks loose. Only here, this is old-school unforgiving rules like some insane rage-quit game and you laugh at the incredible stupidity of it the gory demise of the characters around the table and realize what you got into was all you and your group's fault.

Puritanical Sensibilities on the Tabletop

You know that feeling? Your greed put your characters here and they all paid for it.

There is that puritanical "you shall be judged for your sins" sort of feeling that runs through old-school games like the sermons of the 1980's equated tabletop-gaming with evil worship, and I love the morality play here. While gaming is not evil worship, this adventure paints a rather harsh and unforgiving lesson that greed knows no good end that actually meshes quite well with those fundamentalist teachings of yesteryear. To pursue greed is to pursue evil itself, as your character makes a selfish decision to save their own skin and run while leaving your friends behind as a terrifying horde of skeletons busts out of a sealed up wall and engulfs them all. Playing old-school games really gets you 'close to the metal' of morality and sacrifice, and it brings out that "what would you do" moral choices (good or bad) that I assume those preachers did not want young parishioners to make for themselves.

Moral choices. What would you do? Is gold and power worth a part of your soul?

It was funny because back in the day we bought our first copy of Dungeons and Dragons from a religious Christian bookstore. They likely sold it as a sort of a game that taught morals, good versus evil, and the hippie-like holy-rollers that ran the store were cool and probably used it as a teaching game to kids on how to make the right choices in life.

Do you kill a helpless goblin? Do you steal? Do you do what is right, or something that benefits only you? Do you abandon your friends in a time of need? I love that sort of feeling in B/X games, like the game allows you to make good and bad choices and you live with the results of your choices.

And the game doesn't tell you what choice to make.

You bring that to the table. Your faith and beliefs. Part of your character or not. And you live with the outcome. You can choose to live by your beliefs, or not, and see what happens in a safe environment of make believe.

I love those choices, because to see the faces of people that you thought you knew when push comes to shove and they shove the elf covered by green slime into the nearest pit of fire because they have no way of fighting the green slime once it devours the elf and then comes for them is priceless. And then the player who was playing the elf and the look on that person's face? Yes, priceless. Dude, I thought you were my friend! And you don't get those moments if the character design system creates characters too painful to lose, too enshrined as heroic icons, and a rules system that promises fairness and balanced play.

If I ran a Pathfinder game this way? I would get players who would never play with me again because some feel there is some unwritten contract of challenge level written into the rules they would point to and say I wasn't DM-ing the game right. I have seen this happen, and I see this "GM as DVD player" sort of design decision written into almost every modern pen-and-paper game that puts balanced story-based play ahead of a more harsh sandbox and brutal survival style of play that I love. To each their own, and if you have fun with a game please keep doing so - but hard player choices are what I love seeing in old-school games.

At what cost power? At what cost fame and fortune? How do you deal with limited resources, an ever-present dangerous world, and a ticking clock of death? I don't feel today's video-game inspired "story type games" get it, where layers of character protection, hours of iconic hero character-generation, and some assumed hidden contract of GM fairness can even tell a story like this. The new games really can't, and I feel old-school shines when you want this sort of experience. It is why some people love to read horror novels, and some people can't and won't.

To me, old-school gaming is the fantasy equivalent of Call of Cthulhu, but you don't need artificial insanity and horror rules for characters to give the game its sense of terror. If you run the game right, the players are the ones in terror and going insane with every door they open or wall they have to bust through. No game, besides Paranoia, comes close.

If at the end you can all laugh and say you had a good time, like walking out of a theater playing an intensely scary horror movie, the experience was all worth it and you all had fun. Maybe you stood with your friends. Maybe you stabbed them in the back. The game gave you that freedom, and since your characters were a bit more disposable and easy to create you could laugh about it and not feel three hours of character design time and backstory authoring were wasted.

That is why I play old-school games and B/X.

Devious Dungeon Design

I admit, I saw the words mega-dungeon and my stomach did a complete one-eighty. But this isn't your typical mega-dungeon, this is more a cross between B1 Keep on the Borderlands and the S1 Tomb of Horrors. It is a huge area with many small mounds and mini-dungeons that you can map and explore over an entire campaign. The secret is, without giving too much away, the mega-dungeon lies underneath this place and you could break into it at any time. There are entrances everywhere. You may not even know you are, in fact, since there are many smaller tombs (completely mapped) that can fool you into thinking "this is it."

There could be a mound you dig up that provides and unwitting entrance into a connected part of this evil place. You could find an entrance inside one of the mini-dungeons. A pit descending straight down into the earth could link to a part of this place. You could explore a part of the mega dungeon and think it was an unconnected mini-dungeon without even finding the secret door leading deeper in. You could stumble upon a collapsed entrance that with you magic and powers now never be able to dig through, but later at a higher level...

The ability to go in and out, map, explore, and get back to town without having to traverse through seventy previous conquered levels is the great strength to this dungeon. The farther you go overland towards the source of evil, the tougher the wandering monsters get, so the risk/reward and danger of taking the overland route is still very high - even for higher-level characters.

Also, there is a system in the appendices for creating random tombs of any size, large or small, deadly or empty, so the possibility of expansion is very high. A referee could drop his own version of the Tomb of Horrors right into this place as an add-on dungeon and players would never know better. A level underneath the Barrowmaze perhaps more deadly? A deep catacomb with insta-death traps right and left? A giant additional complex with its own story, yet connected to the overall theme? This is all possible, and the adventure as a framework for further sandbox-style fun is very high, which increases my love for this adventure even more.

Oh, and there are rules for restocking cleared rooms with new traps, monsters, and encounters over time. This is less a "burn through it" module than it is a complete campaign sandbox with a near-infinite level of re-use. Who knows, maybe the characters lost on a previous expedition show up as guest zombies and undead fiends on future runs. There is an organic level of re-use and a living dungeon feeling here that I love in a setting.

Campaign Support

We also get three towns and a campaign map with this adventure. Normally, this falls to the level of, "nice to have" but I feel there is something really important here. This is set in the fantasy campaign world of an area like Detroit is in our world. A run-down, hopeless, poor, broken down, forgotten place of end-of-the-Earth lost hopes and shattered dreams. The towns are infested by opportunists, grave-robbers, and thieves. The people that come to these fetid hovels are interested only in one thing - either stealing from graves of a lost civilization or getting rich off the fools who do so.

We have towns, maps, characters, portraits, and little backstories for all of them that tie them to this place. There are those you think you can trust, and those you shouldn't but have to. Watch your words, because that shop-keep you shared your plans with just may try to make a coin or two selling your plans out to the local bandits who prey on people like you and your merry band. You may stumble out into the fading light with that bag of 50 looted gold pieces and that bag full of potions into an ambush by eight good-old-boy local bandits with crossbows in their hands, greed in their eyes, and murder in their hearts.

There are factions lurking about, both connected to the town and also some of the denizens of the maze to worry about. There are secrets everybody holds. There are cults and cutthroats wandering the streets at night. There are hushed conversations happening when your merry band enters the tavern. Other parties of fools and grave-robbers wander about, doing the same exact thing you are doing. You may wander upon a camp excavating a tomb with workers led by happy-faced dwarfs and elves only to later go by this same camp and find them all dead or missing. Or worse, the entire lot of them turned into flesh-hungry ravenous zombies and they now wander the bog looking for living flesh upon which to feast.

If you subject the players to NPCs that seem perfectly normally busy, competent, and focused on one task and then end up as mincemeat for the unseen Blair Witch style evil that lurks out here you are doing a good job as a referee of this adventure. The farmer they buy cheap food from many times goes missing. The friendly group of nightwatchmen that guard the gate and always fight off the monsters chasing the party all end up dead one night. A shopkeeper who gives the party great prices and information suddenly refuses to deal with the party out of some fear. A mad traveling priest starts shouting at the players one night, saying they are going to get the town killed, and then he disappears without a trace.

Set up reliable NPCs and expectations early on, and then suddenly and slowly start taking them all away to instill a sense of terror and hopelessness in the players. This is not some static town you would find in a video-game to go restock supplies at and rest at the inn, the town and its people are an integral part of the horror and dread, and the actions players take have consequences. Raid the were-rat lair and get away? One night the were-rats show up and raid the town, NPCs are killed, and buildings are burned down (and stay down for the rest of the campaign).

What do you do?

Did you cause this with your actions?

There is enough room here for the referee to make their own factions, plots, and stories, and have them wander through the area. Some may interact with the players, some may not, or some may have what they did found later and the players wondering why or how did this happen?

Another group of "adventurers" may open up a tomb with something that shouldn't have been disturbed, getting themselves all killed and now a rot-mummy covered by deadly poisonous gas-spewing mushrooms wanders an area of the bog. You may not know what others did and wander into their stupidity. Others may trail you into the bog for nefarious reasons. They may get eaten alive, or survive long enough to turn on you when you wander out of a tomb battered and bruised. You may choose to be the bandits yourselves and enact some revenge upon them, only to incur the wraith of others.

Remember when I asked, "what would you do?" Yeah, that moral question comes up big time in the campaign aspect of this adventure when you deal with the town and the oft self-serving people that live here. Played right there is a whole lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on outside the dungeon, and that adds another layer of fun to this adventure and its surroundings.

Cons

This is expensive, even $30 for the PDF, but I chose for the book-plus PDF option and that is more than twice the price. There aren't many player maps, if those are important to you. This is really focused on the Labyrinth Lord system (and other B/X clones), so if you play other Pathfinder or D&D 5 type systems you will need to convert, and you may lose some of the danger and flavor.

You need to have players interested in old-school games, and because they can't read this adventure, they may not understand the excitement behind it (I admit the high cost here is a benefit because not many players would be willing to fork out this much to cheat). Again, you have to be good at communicating why they should play this over the more player-friendly and story-focused modern games, but you may be lucky and have a crowd of old-school fanatics ready and willing to be able to dive in and lose dozens of characters in an old-school romp.

To me, the creator of such a cool setting deserves to be rewarded, so I feel the cost is well worth it and contributes towards me supporting the hobby and those who create within it. I will get a lot more enjoyment out of this than a $70 AAA video-game, and I will have a physical book to read and enjoy for myself. If this inspires me I am happy to support it, and this does inspire me.

Other Stuff

There is an "illustration book" of S1-style pictures that can be printed and used as flavorful player handouts. There are also news spells and items in the book, plus an impressive collection of monsters - a 24-page mini-monster manual with pictures and statistics for each. You get pre-gen characters, plus a section covering rival adventuring parties. You also get a B/X and Labyrinth Lord 2-sided style character sheet that is absolutely to die for with beautiful art-filled borders and plenty of space to create your certainly doomed character with.

You get a complete random dungeon generator focused on creating these types of tombs, and a record and worksheet for each one you generate. The adventure encourages expansion with mini-dungeons of all sizes and levels, so the potential for supporting a wealth of unique user-generated content is very high. Make a low-level dungeon that stretches on for a dozen rooms. Make a mid-level deathtrap of secret rooms and deadly puzzles. Make a cultist headquarters. Make a bandit hideout overrun by were-rats. Make a high-level mini Tomb of Horrors style character killer dungeon with rewards and wealth worth chasing...but at what cost?

I Took a Chance on This...

...and I am happy I did. It rekindles my excitement for OSR games, and it gives me something that was written by fans for fans, and it shows an understanding of why we enjoy the games we do. No matter your flavor of OSR, be it B/X, Labyrinth Lord, or some other game, this one I feel is a keeper. This one is a keystone for me, something that makes me want to expand my OSR collection, buy books, and build a library of fun that I can enjoy and share with other players and fans.

More on this, hopefully soon, but I have a lot of reading and enjoyment myself diving into this book and discovering the contents inside. Don't ever discount that part of enjoyment, some of us just enjoy reading adventures for fun and imagining all of the possible dangers and stories within.

To get to play this some day? A dream for me, and I hope I can share my enthusiasm with the lucky group I get to run through this. That is what I feel drives our hobby, that love and enthusiasm for the games that we play, be it OSR or the more modern games. If you love it, play it and share it. I like the horror-movie feeling of OSR games, but I also appreciate the more movie-like experiences of the story-based modern ones as well. I have played a lot of modern games though, and to each their own, but discovering old-school games and adventures like this that appeal to that dark and dangerous horror-movie game side of our hobby?

That I get really excited about. This looks to be a lot of fun for months and months, and I can't wait to begin diving into it. Even if I can't I know I am going to enjoy reading this one and imagining all the possibilities.