Tuesday, December 2, 2008

[Article] Armour Class

Combat in traditional swords & sorcery adventure games is typically described as an abstraction, rather than a simulation. The significance of this is sometimes misunderstood and conflated with a perceived absence or presence of realism. For instance, a common complaint is that the one minute combat round is unrealistically long, to which the typical Gygaxian response is that the abstract approach "assumes much activity during the course of each round". However, this does almost nothing to address the real issue, which is that "one telling blow every sixty seconds" arguably lacks verisimilitude. That is to say, the one minute combat round is both abstract and unrealistic, the former having little to no bearing on the latter. The criticism must be contested on its own terms to be successfully rebutted.

For other elements of the traditional combat system, the degree of abstraction does have a direct bearing on the level of realism. Of these, hit points are perhaps the most widely identified as being unrealistic, which is a pity and possibly related to their widespread currency and representation in computer games where a "hit is a hit", but meaningless beyond being a step closer to death. In fact, the truly abstract nature of hit points allows the game master the freedom to determine the extent to which realism will be a concern. When a character loses twenty of thirty hit points to a single attack, it is up to the game master to describe the event, and also to decide if there are any effects beyond their loss. To put it simply, the value of the abstraction is in its ambiguity.

Which brings us to the subject at hand. The term "armour class" as it first appears in Dungeons & Dragons is derived from the nomenclature of Chainmail, which describes troops, weapons and armour as being divided into classes. The closest it comes to using the actual term "armour class" is with "armour classification" and "class of armour worn", on pages thirteen and forty one, respectively. There are eight classes of armour in both games, or more accurately there are four classes and four modified classes. These are: unarmoured (9), leather (7), mail (5), and plate (3); each is lowered by one if a shield is added [i.e. 9/7/5/3 becomes 8/6/4/2] and every class is five percent more likely than the last to entirely negate the chance of a hit. What this means is that each unmodified category of armour makes it ten percent more difficult to land a blow. Since fighting-men similarly advance ten percent in fighting ability every three levels until sixteenth level [i.e. a total of +40% in four equal steps between levels one and fifteen] there is an obvious dichotomy of fighting ability relative to armour class.

With the advent of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, this elegant symmetry was abandoned to accommodate a greater number of armour classifications and a more granular progression in fighting ability. The protective value of mail and plate was increased by reducing default fighting ability by ten percent, but only by five percent for fighters and clerics, the separating of normal men from first level fighters (which carried over into subsequent versions of Basic) and further stratification of monster fighting ability by hit dice (which was partially carried over). The weapon versus armour modifiers, which were derived from Chainmail for Supplement I: Greyhawk, were also included. These last can make weapon selection more interesting, but by the same token they seem to increase the degree of simulationism in the combat system. Quite what they simulate is open to question, as they are implicitly optional and appear to have little basis in any historically authentic relationship between weapons and armour. On the other hand, the modifiers do tend to make two handed weapons a more viable choice.

One significant thing that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons carried over from Supplement I was the idea that strength should not only increase hit probability, but also the amount of damage delivered. Along with variable damage dice for weapons, this was yet another step away from the initial abstraction, and requires some interpretation to be reconciled with the assumptions of the broader system. In general, armour is overcome in two basic ways; it is either bypassed or it is penetrated. Since strength is not only an indication of the raw power with which a combatant may deliver a blow, but also contributes to its speed and precision, there is a logic to a hit and damage bonus even when facing unarmoured opponents. However, that brings up another question; if strength and weapon class directly increase the amount of damage inflicted, should not armour class also reduce the amount of damage sustained? Is it reasonable for a successful blow against an unarmoured individual to have the same potential for damage as one delivered to a character fully encased in plate armour? Every addition a step away from the initial abstraction...

What to do about this simulation creep, then? Where to draw the line? For my home campaign, I decided that I would take armour class literally and partially divorce precise forms of armour from the traditional ten categories. Instead of looking at AC6 and seeing "studded or ring armour and shield" or "scale armour", the exact armour type is left vague. Perhaps it represents a mail haubergeon, a rusty mail hauberk, or a bronze hoplite panoply. There are limits to what is plausible, but I would argue that in assigning the conventional ten categories default numerical values in accordance with their relative position, rather than as a reflection of the armour they nominally represent, a greater degree of flexibility and robusticity is achieved. For pricing the armour, I took the rough "doubling" effect evident in the original version of Dungeons & Dragons, and extended it from the three basic armour types to the nine advanced armour classes, which gives roughly similar approximations. Since, in addition to unarmoured, there are nine armoured categories, I decided to divide them into three groups of three for the purposes of movement and damage reduction. The former was a fairly straightforward assignment of 12/9/6 to the three groups, respectively. The latter required a bit more thought; the temptation was to use a 1/2/3 progression, but in playtesting I found that a 0/1/2 progression was generally preferred on account of the difficulty of inflicting damage with a dagger. Anyway, for your entertainment, I put together my variant in a pdf: Armour.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

[Article] Dragon Men

For me, one of the more surprising features of the D20/4e derivation of Dungeons & Dragons was the introduction of a race of dragon men as a default player character choice. Although I was reasonably familiar with D20/3e, I was indifferent to the debut of the "dragon born" in Races of the Dragon, and unaware that they had achieved any degree of popularity. Having read a good deal of Dragonlance as a teenager, I was familiar with the concept of dragon men in the form of draconians (evil foot soldiers of the Dragon High Lords, and surrogate orcs). Still, I was somewhat surprised to find heroic versions of them in the Player's Handbook.

I should say that I do not think that dragon men are a bad idea, quite the opposite in fact; I think that they are in good company. Traditional adventure games abound with human-animal hybrids: lizard men, snake men, hyena men, frog men, and so on. Such monsters have ancient mythological and literary precedents, which are often directly borrowed. The hybridisation of man and beast as a signifier of the fantastic has a long pedigree. Strictly speaking, dragon men stand slightly apart from this as a combination of man and imaginary beast, but this does not detract from the shared root. However, "beast men" are typically presented as an "other", outside of society and conventional experience, sometimes under a curse, and almost always dangerous for ordinary men to interact with.

Nonetheless, the appropriation and normalisation of the other is not an entirely new or modern phenomonen. A strange heritage is almost axiomatic of the heroic archetype, helping to explain their mighty deeds and emphasise their special nature, whether descended from deities, demons, or conceived through enchantment. Indeed, the traditional "demi human" races are arguably attractive because of their combination of familiar and alien qualities; elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. Presenting them as more than humans in exotic garb has been the stated aim of many a would be innovator, but the very elusiveness of that goal should be a clue that their primary function is as a foil for human experience.

I do not imagine myself alone in concluding that characters like Tanis Half-Elven and Drizzt Do'Urden are the true forerunners of the dragon born as a player character choice, rather than the more obvious draconian analogue. As a "fragmented and declining warrior race of honourable mercenaries" they have a stoic "last of their kind" quality, and are effectively constructed as an entire society of powerful and exotic loners. Whilst the more Elricesque themes have been reserved for the tieflings, it does seem to me that the D20/4e dragon born are a familiar trope in a new skin.

Of course, I wrote as much of the draconians by comparing them to orcs, and in doing so am saying little more than "there is nothing new under the sun", but that is only tangential to my purpose. One of the things I find most attractive about traditional adventure games is the simplicity of the basic rule structure and consequent ease with which additional content can be introduced. Whilst some might understandably balk at the idea of using a concept so closely associated with D20/4e as dragon men, I view them as no less appropriate for swords & sorcery adventure than more conventional human monster hybrids. Indeed, I found the prospect of adventurers encountering dragon men so appealing that I decided to write them up and make them available here.

Whilst I was not particularly interested in the "noble warrior race" angle, I did rather like the idea of dragon men as born for war. I wanted them to be similar in power level to hobgoblins and gnolls, so decided to give dragon men two hit dice and make any wings vestigial. A minor breath weapon seemed the simplest way of conveying a "draconic" aspect in combat without making them overpowering, and an immunity to magical fear a good way to make them more reliable. I like monster background to be relatively open, ideally conveying a few different alternatives for the reader to develop. As presented above, I think there are two or three directions suggested, but I would expect more imaginative souls to think of many more that would be equally or more appropriate.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

[Review] DCC The Saga of the Rat King

The Saga of the Rat King

Authors: Jeffery Quinn, Harley Stroh, and Jon Hershberger.
Contents: 64 soft bound black and white pages, 1 title page, 56 pages of adventure, 4 pages of handouts, 2 pages of advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08.
Retail Price: £8.99 or $15.99.


A compilation of three thematically linked adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-6, each instalment being intended for a shorter and progressively higher power range. The first and last of these are conversions of Dungeon Crawl Classics #1 Idylls of the Rat King and #27 Revenge of the Rat King, designed and written for third edition by Jeffery Quinn and Harley Stroh, respectively. The module that now bridges these two, Scourge of Silverton, was authored specially for this compilation by Jon Hershberger, who also did the first edition conversion work.

As is the case with all of the adventures in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, the Saga of the Rat King is nominally set in the world of Áereth, but is intended to be easily adapted to any conventional swords & sorcery campaign milieu. Parts one and two take place near to the small mining settlement of Silverton, which receives around a page of exposition in the first appendix; part three takes place in, or rather beneath, the free city of Soulgrave, which is left undescribed beyond a few brief details. The adventures are tied together by the intrigues of the vengeful scions of the Gannu family; disinherited and cursed to live as wererats, their purpose is both revenge and redress.

The physical presentation of the compilation is very familiar and intentionally recalls the classic first edition aesthetic. The artwork is mostly reproduced from the original modules, the exceptions being three new pieces for Scourge of Silverton and the cover illustration, which is by Jeff Dee. The original cover art by Jim Holloway for Idylls of the Rat King and the original and alternative cover for Revenge of the Rat King also feature as interior illustrations. I particularly like the drawing of the great rat idol being despoiled by adventurers, a laudable homage.

Each part of the saga is provided with an introduction, summary, and background, as well as advice for the game master regarding scaling the difficulty, involving the player characters and dealing with their possible defeat and death. These individually take up two to three pages of text and clearly relate all the intended material. They are followed by the various encounter area descriptions, each of which contains information to be immediately conveyed to the players and a separate section for the game master. All handouts and maps are found at the end of the module, except the map for Revenge of the Rat King, which is attractively printed in black and white on the inside covers. The text is easy to read and I was pleased to see that the wide margins evident in previous first edition conversions have been reduced from three quarters of an inch to three eighths.

I was also gratified to note that the tendency to fully repeat monster statistics whenever and wherever they appear has almost entirely vanished. In some cases they could have been shorter still, as with the triple identical listings for the wererats in Idylls of the Rat King, and in others the necessity of listing variant possessions is sometimes overlooked, as with the crossbow armed goblins in area 1-5 of the same adventure. However, these are fairly minor editorial quibbles and do not detract very much from the intended brevity and functionality of the compilation.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of converting third edition adventures to first edition is how to approach task resolution. In the case of Saga of the Rat King, this has for the most part been left open; secret doors and hidden items are noted, but the method of their discovery is not specified. This is an excellent approach for experienced game masters, who may assign a reasonable probability to the finding of such things as a result of a general and abstracted search, or allow the player characters to discover them by interacting directly with their imagined surroundings. It might be more daunting for less seasoned game masters, but the same answers are available in the rulebooks. However, towards the end of the compilation, some of the encounter areas begin to suggest or call for attribute checks on 1d20, generally in order to maintain balance, jump or swim. Whilst these are reasonable task resolution methods, I think their inclusion was unnecessary.

Idylls of the Rat King

The first adventure in the compilation is a four level dungeon crawl through what was once an abandoned mine, but now serves as a bandit lair. There are two pages of handouts, two pages of maps, and twenty-three pages of text that detail sixty encounter areas. In the original version, the bandits were a goblin clan that Lawrence Gannu had subverted to his purposes by means of his curse. The conversion takes the time to briefly explain that, since only humans are susceptible to becoming wererats under first edition rules, it was necessary to diversify the bandits to include half-orcs and humans. At the behest of the eldest son of the Gannu family, these have been attacking caravans and seizing silver shipments, which is what draws the interest of the player characters.

As might be expected of the first adventure in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, this is a very traditional and straightforward affair. The dungeon rooms are uniformly rectangular or square, and the passageways are all ten feet wide and turn at ninety degree angles. There are numerous traps and secret doors, plenty of directional choices and the constant threat of wandering monsters. The first two levels of the mine are principally defended by goblins, half-orcs and men, though a few wererats are present on the second level; giant rats may be encountered, as might some stray zombies or a small group of skeletons. In the original version there were also several groups of goblin women and children, which have been replaced in the conversion with slaves and half-orc taskmasters. I was glad of this, as my feeling is that the inclusion of such dependents only serves to pointlessly humanise and undermine the monstrous perception of goblins.

I think some of the encounters rung a little false, such as the secret vault that contains an empty locked and trapped chest, whilst the true treasure, a silver long sword +1, is hidden beneath a loose flagstone. According to the area description, the blade was left behind by a mortally wounded fighter for others to find, which is reasonable enough, but the chest seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble for a dying man to go to. Some other encounter areas feel a little disconnected, such as the secret chamber that conceals an amulet of protection from evil; the area description tells us that Narzy Hilspek suspects the existence of such a chamber and would pay handsomely to know of it, but there is no hint of a reason as to why he would. An imaginative game master can come up with solutions to these oddities, and they can be construed positively as challenges to his creativity, but I think they could have been presented in a more inspirational manner.

The presence of undead on the wandering monster tables for the upper levels and the amusingly labelled “zombie closet” are explained by an undead mining operation on the third level of the dungeon. A human necromancer temporarily in league with the rat king is using zombies to extract silver ore. In the original version he was an evil gnome, and two of his minions were zombie badgers; the conversion has replaced these last with more conventional dwarf zombies, which makes better sense to me. The area is quite maze like, which means there is plenty of potential for wandering undead, such as skeletal ogres, to harass a slow moving party, but there are relatively few encounter areas. The necromancer is the most significant keyed hazard; the text indicates that he will attempt to bargain with the adventurers, but only with a view towards immediately betraying them. I suspect that an earlier draft presented him in a less uncompromising manner, since this is the very Narzy Hilspek who would pay to know the location of the secret chamber on the second level of the dungeon. Depending on how the player characters approached him, I would probably be inclined to have him bide his time before betraying them.

The final level of the dungeon is the abode of the rat king and his wererat minions, but unknown to them it is also the secret prison of a powerful vampire. It is quite possible that the player characters will defeat the rat king without ever discovering this additional terror, which makes for an interesting potential future plot hook. Indeed, even if released by over covetous adventurers, the vampire may become anything from a temporary ally against the wererats to a recurring villain, neither of which are mutually exclusive. Lawrence Gannu himself is a reasonably challenging foe, and since he is not inclined to flee or surrender, the adventure will either end with his death or those of the player characters.

This is a good conversion of an entertaining dungeon crawl; most of my criticisms are relatively minor and rarely detract from the functionality of the module. The dungeon maps are a bit artificial and some of the encounters a little forced, but the content is very playable and interesting. Almost all of the design choices made for the conversion have made for a better adventure and, combined with the inclusion of details such as the spies amongst the slaves, makes me wonder whether a heavier hand might have further improved upon the original. My one real complaint is that the body of the father of the rat king, Aaron Gannu, is entombed at area 4-13, as it is in the original. In the context of this compilation such a consistency question makes little sense, since Aaron Gannu is the primary villain for the remainder of the saga.

Scourge of Silverton

The adventure that links Idylls of the Rat King to Revenge of the Rat King is a fairly short affair, taking up only eight pages of text. Whilst it is intended as to form a bridge between them, it can be used independently of either with only a few minor changes. The premise of the default plot is that Marcus Gannu, half brother of Lawrence Gannu, has come to Silverton seeking revenge on the slayers of his sibling. To this end, he has taken prisoner a number of the local villagers and is purportedly holding them for ransom in the abandoned Deveraux silver mine. However, this is merely a pretext to lure the player characters into his trap; the unfortunate prisoners have already been taken to Soulgrave to be sold into slavery.

Assuming that the adventurers take the bait, they are told to deliver the ransom money to the nearby mine, where Marcus and his men await them. Whether they pay the ransom or not, it quickly becomes apparent that the hostages will not be relinquished easily. Arrayed against them are some thirty or so adversaries, mainly low level assassins and bandits, though there are also some dire wolves, a third level fighter and a dual classed cleric/magician, in addition to Marcus himself. All are lightly armoured, which allows them to effectively employ hit and fade tactics, the aim being to draw the party deep into the mine, through prepared defences and into a final killing ground.

This sort of dynamic scenario can prove quite deadly to an incautious or overconfident group of player characters, especially if a party of assassins manages to achieve surprise. Unless they manage to take out their opponents quickly at each stage, the party may find the last encounter too difficult to overcome, and their fast moving enemies will likely catch any fleeing adventurers in short order. The text indicates that any player characters captured are conveyed to the dungeons of the elder rat king, and any who are slain are resurrected and treated to the same fate, which leads directly to the third instalment of the saga.

The dungeon itself is laid out so that players have a number of directional choices, and good tactical use can be made of the environment. Particularly cunning adventurers may even manage to cut off the escape route that Marcus has planned. There is also plenty of room left explicitly for expansion, should the game master be inclined. The suggestions for wandering monsters serve as good inspiration for what might dwell in an expanded mine; a giant frog spawning ground was my first thought.

Whilst relatively brief, this is a well put together adventure that provides an interesting and extendable dungeon environment, sets up a compelling villain, and demonstrates a confident familiarity with the flexibility and potential of the first edition rules and design philosophy. A good example of this understanding in practice is the mix of class levels and hit die advancement used to effectively represent the capabilities of the villains. Producing a bridging adventure of this sort cannot have been altogether easy, but this module both serves that purpose and stands well on its own merits.

Revenge of the Rat King

The final part of the rat king saga takes up twenty-two pages all told, including two pages of handouts. There are thirty encounter areas divided into three stages, most of which are quite unavoidable and must be completed to reach the next. The central premise of this adventure is that the player characters are captured by the rat king in area 1-14, the remainder of the module being concerned with their escape from his prison. This event is considered to be so critical to the progression of the plot that the game master is advised to increase the number of wererats in the planned ambush from more than a score to as many as needed, should it look as though there are not enough to prevail.

Having read through the original, I had hoped that the conversion would dispense with the importance attached to the capture of the adventurers, and so I was disappointed to find it was still so strongly urged. A predetermined event of this sort constrains both players and game master in a way that undermines the fundamental “choices and consequences” nature of traditional adventure gaming. It would have been more aesthetically appealing to have provided the rat king with alternative courses of action, each depending on the outcome of his primary plan; if the wand of stone and earth were placed in the possession of Azrod the Dying and the capture of the player characters turned into a possible outcome, rather than a mandatory event, this adventure would have been much improved.

Whilst in terms of overall design concept I thought this was definitely the weakest instalment in the compilation, by contrast it also boasts some of the strongest set pieces. From the zombie infested collapsible cages of the slave pits to the failed clones in the workshop of the Dying One, the dungeons of the rat king are full of evocative and deadly encounters. I particularly like the rat filled swarming hole; the numerous additional rats that rain down on adventurers as they try to cross over, by means of a narrow and slippery beam, creates quite the visceral mental image. I thought it a bit of a pity that the curse of the spinner encounter area was not included in the conversion, as that was also rather good. I would quite like to see it converted as a web supplement at some point.

Although most of the dungeon runs fairly linearly, areas 2-6 to 2-8 form an adjunct, and are deliberately left open ended for the game master to expand upon. They can be reached from the main sewer by means of a large drain, and comprise a small part of an ancient and ruined necropolis; the accessible part leads to the tomb of a fallen paladin who bargained away his soul to a demon prince in return for worldly power. The strange writing and whispering demonic voices that begin if anybody reads the words aloud are well used here, creating a sense of otherworldly danger and apprehension. There is just enough information about this area to get the reader thinking about how to develop it, a solid element of first edition adventure design.

Apart from the plotted event structure, which a skilled game master should be more than capable of overcoming, this is actually rather an interesting dungeon. It is diverse and has plenty to offer by way of challenges, only really lacking a dynamic and adaptable outlook to get the best out of. A significant shortcoming by any stretch of the imagination, but hardly an insurmountable one. Whether the rat king escapes or is defeated, there are many potential plot strands left intentionally unresolved for future development, and which can be used to tie the series into the larger campaign milieu, such as Áereth or some other suitable swords & sorcery setting.

Technicalities and Errors

Conversion work is a double edged sword; editing errors in the original are usually spotted and removed, but substantial changes always run the risk of introducing new mistakes into the text. I did not spot a great many of these, but there are some, such as the notation “Ftr5/Th6/Brd3” appearing at location 2-3 on the Encounter Table on page three, or the assertion on pages twelve and forty-two that some of the wererats have a “giant fat form”, which gave me a chuckle. A less obvious error is the accidental conflating of Silverton with Soulgrave on page twenty seven, the former of which is unlikely to have much of a slave market for its own citizens. In keeping with a great many other modules, terms such as “long sword” are treated inconsistently, occasionally being rendered as “longsword”. There is also a noticeable tendency for repeat words to crop up in the writing here and there, which is a little disconcerting, and could have probably used another editorial pass.

Some of the background material was rewritten to improve cohesiveness, which is by and large an improvement on the original. However, some strangeness has resulted from some of the changes, such as the mention of a goblin shaman on page five, who no longer features in the adventure, all the goblin clerics having been converted to humans. Similarly, the half-orcs in area 2-2 fight with “suicidal devotion” because their slaves are at stake, which made more sense in the original when it was their dependents at stake. There is also the illustration on page sixteen, which depicts the original bespectacled goblin wizard in area 2-21, rather than the human magician of the conversion. More annoyingly, the title page illustration shows a crowned wererat sat upon a wooden throne, flanked by two vicious looking goblin types bearing spears; this can only be the bandit chief from area 2-18, whose goblin bodyguards have been replaced with humans. It would have been no trouble at all to have made these half-orcs, not even their hit dice would needed to have been changed.

With regards to the technical rendering of statistics, I found the notation for hit dice less than one to be unnecessarily baroque. For instance, goblin and giant rat hit die are presented in the form “HD 1-7 Hit Points” and “HD 1-4 Hit Points” respectively, which contrasts with the more concise “HD ¼, HP 1-2” used for normal rats. These would have been better rendered as “HD 1-1, HP 1-7” and “HD ½, HP 1-4” for the sake of consistency. In a similar vein, when class level is indicated, providing hit die type and number is redundant, as class type and level supersede this notation for the purposes of determining saving throws, to hit numbers, and life energy levels.

I also thought that the wererat and rat king statistics could have been briefer, more along the lines of those used for Marcus Gannu in fact, and that the ogre zombie and skeleton statistics could have done with another edit, but it is hard to say for sure as they are listed as new monsters. For the most part, excellent use is made of hit die advancement as an alternative to advancement by level and class for non player characters and monsters, but there are also occasional lapses. Most of these appear to be simple editing errors, such as the hobgoblin slavers on pages forty-three and fifty, who are listed as “Ftr1” and having “HD 1+1”, or the notable villagers of Silverton, who are variously listed as “Expert5” or “Commoner2”. The half-orc slavers in Revenge of the Rat King are a different matter, as their hit die notation shows that they were intended to be first level fighters; my complaint with regard to this is that it actually makes them weaker in terms of offensive strength than the half-orc bandits in Idylls of the Rat King, which I do not think was intended.

In terms of further minutia, the notations used for damage are often inconsistent. For instance, on pages thirty-one and thirty-two, Cedric the cleric/magician has the damage notation “2-5+1”, which should more reasonably read as “3-6” or if complete clarity is desired “1d4+2”, whilst Marcus Gannu and the bandit leader have their damage ranges listed as though using normal weapons, though both bear magical blades that should show the notations “2-9 and 2-7” or “1d8+1 and 1d6+1” respectively. It is also worth noting that whilst the rat king is listed with a rapier +2 and his minions with mundane equivalents, the weapon does not appear in the first edition rulebooks and so lacks any extant weapon versus armour modifiers; they could have been replaced with scimitars, as was done with the Tower of the Black Pearl, but this would have contradicted the cover art.


There is a lot to like about Saga of the Rat King; the production values are high, the aesthetic appealing, and the writing is good. The content is a bit variable in places, but generally strong, especially with regard to the individual set pieces; I particularly liked the encounter with the demon summoning cleric at the start of the sewers of the slavers, for instance. The conversion work has been handled skilfully and with obvious practical and theoretical knowledge of how to get the best out of first edition. I very much appreciated the open approach taken toward task resolution and willingness to present variations on the default statistics for characters and monsters.

Where I felt the compilation was at its weakest was in some of the things it carried over from the original adventures. I would have liked to have seen a greater degree of the text reworked in a way that facilitated more dynamic and less static activity on the parts of the monsters and characters arrayed against the adventurers. However, I also recognise that there is only so much that can be done with this sort of project before the adventure ceases to be recognisable as a conversion.

This is a solid first edition conversion that will make for several entertaining sessions of play, either as part of a longer campaign or within their own context. The additional material that has been included is all to the good of the whole, and the presentation is both functional and pleasing. I think I would have preferred as the cover illustration the despoiled rat idol to the rapier wielding rat king, but that is no doubt a subjective preference. The conversion work is a significant improvement over the offerings of previous years, and the content is comparable in terms of quality. Overall, I was very satisfied with this product.

Alternative Reviews: None

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

[Review] DCC The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

Authors: Harley Stroh and Andrew Hind.
Contents: 24 saddle stitched black and white pages, 2 title pages, 20 pages of adventure, 1 page of handouts, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08-2.
Retail Price: £5.99 or $10.99.


Two distinct adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-2, each designed to potentially serve as the starting point for a longer campaign or be played as they are. The Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl were originally written and designed for third edition by Andrew Hind and Harley Stroh, respectively; both titles first appeared in Dungeon Crawl Classics #29 The Adventure Begins. They have been adapted for first edition by Jon Hershberger, who also did the conversion work for Iron Crypt of the Heretics and Saga of the Witch Queen.

Whilst both of these adventures are intended for use with any traditional swords & sorcery campaign setting, they each have a suggested location in the default Dungeon Crawl Classics world of Áereth. The Golden Auroch takes place on the eastern edge of the Achsfel Wastes, in the shadow of the Kitezhan mountains; the Tower of the Black Pearl lies some thousand miles and more distant, in the Straits of Ymtal. However, if it were desired to play both these adventures one after the other with the same party, it would be no great stretch to move the tower to the coastline north of the wastes.

The module is presented as a “flip book”, which is to say that it is printed in such a way that there are two front covers, each reading forward, and no back cover. The maps are not printed on the inside of the covers, which I understand to be mainly on account of the expense involved. Instead these can be found in the middle of the booklet, where the two adventures meet. The internal art is mainly taken from the original versions, but the cover pieces are entirely new; both are by Brad McDevitt, and rendered in a neo traditional monochrome style that recalls the earliest first edition offerings.

Both the Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl have their own introduction, summary, background, suggested methods of getting the player characters involved, and advice for scaling the difficulty to accommodate larger and higher level parties; these take up a page and a half of each module. In each case, a short description of the adventure location is followed by the various keyed encounter areas, which make up the bulk of the text. Every encounter is divided into information to be immediately related to the players and details reserved for the game master. The text is clearly printed, and the margins set at three eighths of an inch, which is half the width of earlier Goodman Games conversions, and results in more words to the page.

The monster and non player character statistics are suitably brief, and no space is wasted with needless repetitions, which is very much appreciated. Task resolution has mainly been well handled, all evidence of the third edition skill system has been erased, and the game master left free to determine whether to leave things up to the dice, player interaction with the environment, or a combination thereof. Some tasks are described as “extremely difficult” or “easy” and that is about all the guidance that is needed.

The flip book format is undeniably a gimmick, hearkening back to venerable predecessors, but it is also perfectly practical. The two halves feel entirely distinct and there is no need to page through the booklet to reach the second module, as there would be if they were simply bound one after the other. Whilst in general I prefer the aesthetics of a module with a front and back cover, there is no denying the functionality of the design; it is a durable product with very good production values.

The Golden Auroch

This adventure takes place amidst the desert swallowed ruins of Ur, a cursed city destroyed at the behest of a vengeful deity. Beneath the shifting sands some structures remain partially intact, not least of which is the palace turned tomb of the sorceress queen Nicrotis, wherein the golden auroch lies, long undisturbed. The premise is straightforward enough; the city state of Akkad is in the grip of a drought, and the aforementioned relic is said to have the power to end it. The player characters have undertaken to find the auroch and their guide, a man named Nebu, has brought them to the ruined city. Of course, unbeknownst to anyone, Nicrotis still dwells in her palace and, what is more, she has need of brave mortals. So, when the adventurers find themselves hopelessly outmatched against the Scourge of Ninurta, a powerful guardian set to watch over the ruins, a nearby pair of doors inexplicably open and provide a convenient means of escape.

Unlike the introductions to many other Dungeon Crawl Classics, no space in the Golden Auroch is given over to an explicit list of plot hooks for getting the player characters involved. Rather, it is simply assumed that they are seeking the relic on behalf of the prince of Akkad. There are alternative explanations offered, but they are very brief. The adventure begins at the buried city, and any game master who wishes to deal with prior events is essentially left to his own devices. Starting the game in media res has the advantage of bringing the players straight into the action and is also good for tournament play, but it also robs them of the opportunity to gather information, plan their expedition, and equip themselves accordingly. Consequently, whatever knowledge the player characters have is entirely at the discretion of the game master. For my part, I tend to run modules independently of campaigns and do not want to spend a lot of time setting up the story, so I favour this approach; nonetheless, anyone used to having more elaborate plot hooks provided may feel the lack.

The opening encounter with the Scourge of Ninurta is problematic; it is scripted so that the adventurers quickly recognise they are outmatched and flee into the palace. If they choose to make a fight of it, or run in a different direction, they will almost certainly be slain, because the guardian is an eight hit dice monster with more than fifty hit points and a movement rate of twelve. Even if the game master uses Nebu to show the players the “right” course of action, there will almost certainly be casualties, and a party lacking hirelings is likely to suffer. However, the real problem with this encounter is that even once the adventurers acquire the golden auroch, which weighs five hundred pounds, the guardian has no reason to allow them to leave with it, short of a deus ex machina. Unfortunately, the prescribing does not end with the party being funnelled into the palace; poor Nebu is destined to dramatically die at the hands of a new monster, a dust para-elemental. Happily, this event is unimportant, easily ignored, and the only other scripted portion of the module.

Despite the rather heavy handed introduction, the dungeon itself is designed to be explored in a much more open and traditional manner. The player characters are presented with a number of directional choices, and could potentially locate the auroch with relatively little in the way of combat. The dust para-elemental will shadow the adventurers, moving between encounter areas to ambush them at opportune moments. However, once it is defeated they are relatively free to rest and recoup as their rations allow, as there are no other wandering monsters in the palace. Therefore, the way in which the game master handles the dust para-elemental has the potential to significantly affect the difficulty of the other encounters with regard to the renewable resources available, particularly spells. That said, with the Scourge of Ninurta awaiting them outside, other opportunities for rest are decidedly limited, making the eventual destruction of the dust para-elemental a virtual necessity for a successful outcome, its role as the guardian of the golden auroch not withstanding.

In addition to the Scourge of Ninurta and the dust para-elemental, adventurers may encounter a number of diverse monsters, including an animated iron maiden, a horde of carnivorous beetles, and an enraged magmin. The golden auroch itself is protected by a seething nest of vipers, whose venomous bite could easily confer an unpleasant death. However, the most dangerous foe in the dungeon is the sorceress Nicrotis, former queen of Ur. What remains of her mortal shell is almost entirely confined to her throne and slowly crumbling away, but as a sorceress she is still a potent threat. Nicrotis’ aim is to persuade the player characters, by means fair or foul, to complete the ritual that she failed to finish and fully open a portal to the para-elemental plane of dust. Of course, complying with her wishes is inadvisable, resulting in the restoration of her corporeal form amongst other misfortunes, but an unsuspecting party may well be fooled. In the original version of the Golden Auroch, players could defer to a character skill to determine Nicrotis’ true intentions, but under the first edition paradigm they must rely on their own intuition, a by far preferable situation.

Conceptually, this adventure is great. A divinely cursed and desert buried city serving as both the prison and the tomb of a desiccated sorceress queen is a premise almost guaranteed to fire the imagination. The ruins of Ur could easily be expanded and developed into a major adventure location by an enterprising game master. The conversion work is excellent, each encounter being a suitable challenge to a well organised party without being impossible for a group of new players. However, an unseasoned game master might find running the adventure difficult. Using the dust para-elemental as intended requires experience and skill, and the same could be said of the Scourge of Ninurta. Of course, dealing with challenges is the principal means by which such skills are acquired, and the text provides some pointers here and there, so there is little reason to dwell on that overlong. As written, the Golden Auroch is a good module, and my principle complaint is that it is not longer, as it seems to me that this is only the kernel of what it potentially could be.

Tower of the Black Pearl

The focus of this adventure is the exploration of an underwater tower that emerges from the ocean once a decade. Should the inherent mystery of such a place prove insufficient, rumours of a black pearl of unusual size and value may entice reluctant player characters. There are three potential plot hooks presented in the introductory material, each revealing the existence of the tower and a reason to seek it. These may prove useful starting points for a game master who desires to integrate the module into an ongoing campaign, whilst for those wishing to move directly to the dungeon proper they do good service as instant background. Although the introductory suggestions are principally methods of involving the adventurers, they also provide differing degrees of information about what they can expect to face. There are three salient details that the game master may reveal; that the black pearl is said to be cursed; that the tower will be accessible for only eight hours before the tides return; and that a notoriously vicious pirate named Savage Quenn is seeking the pearl for his own nefarious ends. Control of this information is significant, as each rumour has the potential to alter how the player characters initially perceive their expedition and its purpose.

There are twelve encounter areas described in the module; the first four correspond to the immediate upper levels of the tower, and are accessed one after the other. The whereabouts of the other eight is more ambiguous because they are accessed from area 1-4 by means of two magical portals. Judging from their size and the fact that they begin to flood if the black pearl is removed from its pedestal, they are most logically situated beneath the tower, but the text leaves this open to interpretation. As with the first four, the remaining eight areas follow one after the other in a linear fashion. A particularly quick thinking or daring party might manage to move directly from 1-6 to 1-10 or 1-11, but there are otherwise virtually no directional decisions for the players to make, which is a bit of a shame. On the other hand, it means that the adventure is very straightforward; the only real problem a prospective game master might face is if the players take a long time to solve some of the puzzles, as my group did. Deciding how to measure the passage of time and whether or when to give hints is crucial.

Savage Quenn and his pirate crew provide the main combat opposition, and are encountered in three groups. The first three stalwarts lie in a stupor atop the tower, having succumbed to the temptation of a cask of rum whilst supposedly guarding the long boat; a second party waits at area 1-5, ready to ambush anybody who steps through the portal; the last group have accompanied their captain as far as area 1-7, where they have been stopped by a great iron door. Additional pirates may also be encountered as a wandering monster result, though the confined quarters of the dungeon will sometimes mandate the use of discretion for the sake of internal consistency. The adventure is designed so that Savage Quenn and his companions have not managed to open the gate by the time the player characters arrive, a fact that prompts him to propose a short term alliance. The text indicates that the pirate captain will betray the party as soon as the door is breached, which I regard as a missed opportunity; far better to have Savage Quenn stretch out his treachery until the black pearl is within his reach, the tower flooding, and everybody scrambling to escape. I ran this encounter as the module suggested, and instantly knew I had made a mistake.

The conversion work for the pirates is good, and corrects an error in the original text whereby they lacked the bows mentioned in the first area description. As veteran fighters armed with short swords and short bows, they are dangerous, but their poor armour class means that they are also vulnerable. Savage Quenn is a somewhat better fighter, but similarly first level, making intimidation and deception his best weapons against the adventurers. In addition to the former crew of the Black Mariah, there are giant rats and animated statues to contend with, as well as a skeletal boatman who takes exception to being short changed. Of these, the statues are new monsters with first edition appropriate statistics.

At various points in the dungeon are puzzles that have to be solved in order to reach the next encounter area, and which have the potential to significantly slow the progress of the player characters. With only forty-eight turns to explore the tower before the tide returns, the speedy resolution of these obstacles is paramount to success. The first challenge is the entrance hatch, as it requires a specific action to unlock, and there are no prompts. It took my group a couple of turns to figure it out by trial and error, but they could have gotten the information from one of the pirates they captured, had they questioned them more insistently. The same party found activating the first portal in area 1-5 more difficult; ignoring the evidence of a recent blood sacrifice, they spent rather a lot of time rearranging the jewels in the hope of activating the portal, and a hint was eventually necessary to get things moving. The traps and tricks in areas 1-7 to 1-10 are fairly straightforward, and some lateral thinking allows the worst of their effects to be mitigated, though it seemed odd that the spear trap in area 1-10 had a reset mechanism that so readily revealed its presence. The final puzzle of the tower is how to reach the black pearl itself, which is separated from potential thieves by thirty feet of water broiling with poisonous sea snakes; if the players have not yet given any thought to the wisdom of stealing the black pearl, this should give them cause.

This adventure falls short in two principal regards; it is too linear, and the main opposition too static. If there was an event timeline, so that reaching the black pearl was a race against time, then linearity would not matter so much. Catching up with, or beating, Savage Quenn to his goal would be the main objective of the adventure, and the players would probably have to make some interesting choices along the way. As written, the pirate captain and his companions will be encountered at area 1-7 regardless of whether the adventurers arrive on turn ten or turn forty. The way that certain elements of the adventure interact with one another also seem a little inconsistent; for instance, how is the tower flooded by the removal of the black pearl, and why do the solars watching over the candles in the hall of mysteries allow them to be extinguished by the flood, but punish characters who maliciously extinguish them? Questions to be answered by the game master, no doubt, but the lack of ready solutions makes things feel a little haphazard. That said, this is not a bad module; the encounters are diverse and well balanced, the concept is interesting, the writing is engaging, and it makes for an entertaining evening of adventure gaming. A bit of work is needed to get the best out of it, but that can be said of a good many traditional modules, and the Tower of the Black Pearl is no different in that respect.

Technicalities and Errors

It is surprising how many editing errors can creep into even a short work, and conversions are prone to introducing new ones, even as they correct mistakes in the original. An example of an inconsistency that was not caught here is the illustration of the dust para-elemental armed with scimitar and round shield on page four of the Golden Auroch, which is faced by a short description indicating that it is “armed with tower shield and spear”. A newly introduced disparity can be found on the cover illustration of Savage Quenn; his scimitar has a guard in the shape of the head of a cat, but is described on page seven as having “a black steel blade” and a “pommel cast in the shape of a cat’s head”. I might also complain that the handout on page ten is somewhat misleading as to the distance separating the adventurers from the black pearl, at least as seems to be implied on the map. Moreover, the map for the Golden Auroch has a wall separating areas 1-12 to 1-15 from the rest of the complex, which is not mentioned in the key and can only be an oversight.

There are occasional inconsistencies in the monster statistic blocks. The animated figurines are listed as having “HD 1d4, HP 2”, whilst the giant rats are listed as “HD 1-4 HP” on the same page, which reads confusingly and should preferably be rendered “HD ½, HP 2 (or 1-4)”, and the same for the poisonous sea snakes and vipers. Similarly, it is superfluous to indicate that the pirates are “HD 1” when they are listed as first level fighters, a convention that is variably repeated with Savage Quenn as “HD 1d10” and Nicrotis as “HD 7”. The pirate captain is also listed as doing “1-8+1” damage with his scimitar and “1-3” damage with his dagger, which ought really to be “2-9” and “1-4” respectively. I suspect that the absence of a damage listing for the skeletons on page seven is a mistake, and in the same vein it is not clear why movement is listed for some monsters and not others.

Although on the whole vestiges of third edition have been excised from this product, they do occasionally crop up here and there. The two references to “chain mail shirts” on page seven of the Tower of the Black Pearl appear to be of that sort, as does the “tower shield” on page five of the Golden Auroch. On the other hand, the vast majority of new monsters read as first edition entries, though I thought the complete removal of damage reduction might have been a little overzealous. The one exception to this is Nicrotis herself, who seems to be partially presented as a seventh level magic-user and partially as a monster entry, which is reminiscent of the way third edition handles such things. A typical monster entry with the notation “casts spells as a seventh level magic user” would perhaps have been clearer, even bearing in mind that no statistics are provided for her “restored” form.


Although I am certainly not without complaints, both of these are good conversions for first edition, and either will provide for an entertaining session with minimal preparation; however they do feel too short, and when I compare the twenty four pages of the Golden Auroch / Tower of the Black Pearl to the sixteen pages of the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom I am struck by how much more is packed into the latter compared to the former. I do not usually think it appropriate to criticise the use of boxed text, as it is as much a stylistic preference as a functional one, but I think in this case these adventures could have been much improved by the reduction of each entry and the inclusion of more areas. Of course, that is not really a reasonable criticism of a conversion, but it is of the complete product. There is a lot of potential here, and I would have liked to see it more fully realised.

Alternative Reviews: None

Thursday, June 12, 2008

[Review] AA4 The Prison of Meneptah

The Prison of Meneptah

Author: Alphonso Warden
Contents: 32 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 28 pages of adventure, 2 pages of OSRIC advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6104
Retail Price: £7.00 or $13.00


A stand alone adventure for 4-7 characters of levels 8-10, this is an interesting offering and, compared to earlier modules in the series, very reasonably priced. The background and concept are extremely appealing and captured my interest right away, being a heady mix of extra planar travel, devastated locales, unwise ambitions and fallen deities. The introduction takes up only the first page of text and the adventure hook is a straight forward offer of a large sum of gold in exchange for the services of the player characters.

The task involves travelling through a portal to a barren world in order to ascertain the fate of a party of explorers previously sent to investigate. After the introduction, the first fourteen pages or so of the module deal with travelling through the wilderness, the various random encounters possible, a planned encounter, and three or four relatively short, but potentially deadly, adventure sites. This is followed by twelve pages dealing with the prison proper and one page detailing new monsters and items. The external and internal artwork meets the familiar old school aesthetic.

On the whole, I found the first part of the module to be more satisfying than the second part, which I thought was a bit of a disappointment. The variety of approaches and possibilities that surrounded the adventure sites, and even the random encounters, made the main dungeon seem somewhat stifling by comparison. The diverse challenges in the prison are ill served by being grouped together and tailored to specific classes, not to mention being exceedingly deadly and too often combat orientated. Furthermore, there seemed little reason for the builders of the prison to create class based challenges, rather than layered defences, which made the context of the dungeon seem an excuse for the ordeals.

I was expecting the dungeon to be more of a prison, and I was left wanting on account of that, but that was admittedly a result of my expectations. Conceptually, I found this module to be inspirational, but as a result I would want to rework much of the second half to better meet the potential that I thought it had.

Technicalities and Errors

My copy of this module had an odd ‘raindrop effect’ on the front and back covers only visible on close inspection. I do not know if this was damage sustained in transit or a printing error. However, pages twenty four and twenty six have certainly been misprinted at an angle, which was somewhat annoying, though all of the information is legible.

There are a number of errors in the text, relating both to internal consistency and technical accuracy. On page two, for instance, the Ashai are said to have been a northern people and the Muhati a southern people; however, from that point on, the opposite appears to be the case whenever it is mentioned. On page twenty one, the commander and lieutenant are described as being armed with boulders and spears respectively and then the reverse is asserted to be the case.

The notation ‘SA +X to hit’ is inconsistently used. Whilst in most instances it takes into account both strength modifiers and magic bonuses, such is not always the case. The primary examples are the dervishes on page four, entries which also take the time to note ‘SA Spells’, but not ‘SA Turn Undead’, leaving the reader in some doubt as to whether they can. Moreover, the armour class of the third dervish is in error, forgetting to take into account his dexterity. It is also noticeable that these four, and others elsewhere, are said to be armed with ‘footman’s maces’, which are designations not present in the OSRIC document. It would, perhaps, have been wiser to simply list these as ’mace’, as is done with the first assistant on page six and a practice universally applied to ‘shield’ [i.e. there are no ‘large’ or ‘small’ shields]. The DMG and MM are also occasionaly referenced, which I thought a bit risky.

Similarly, the nomads on page five are listed with an armour class that does not take into account their unusually high dexterity. Additionally, the nomad leader on page six seems as though he ought to have rolled for exceptional strength, but that could be purposeful. Another odd instance is the monster zombies on page eight, who are listed with ‘longswords’, but with damage 4-16. The terms ‘long sword’ and ‘long bow’ are also inconsistently applied, sometimes appearing as ‘longsword’ and ‘longbow’.

As with the previous modules, there are a number of textual errors here and there, but no more than one might typically expect.


On the whole, I thought this was a good module. There is plenty of adventure fodder here and, whilst stronger on concepts than content, I was pleased with it. It could probably have done with one more editorial pass with an eye for the above consistency errors before going to the printers and I think there was greater potential than was realised in the prison itself, but it is a worthy addition to the Advanced Adventures line.

Alternative Reviews: Stuart Marshall,

[Review] AA3 The Curse of the Witch Head

The Curse of the Witch Head

Author: James C. Boney
Contents: 12 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 10 pages of adventure, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6103
Retail Price: £6.00 or $11.00


A stand alone adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 6-10, this is a tightly plotted module with an interesting premise. The background and introduction take up just over a page of text, relating a tale of family woe, dark magic, unworthy successors, bribery and patrimonial greed. The motivation for player character involvement is a ducal promise of an unspecified boon, if only they will wrest the witch head from his enemies, a task that has already proven too much for his own soldiers and two groups of adventurers.

The objective is a place known as the Witcheed Hill, beneath which is a single level dungeon complex. Although the journey from the ducal residence to the hill twenty five miles there are no prescribed or suggested wilderness encounters, so the game master is left free to choose whether to introduce any or move directly to the adventure location. The dungeon itself takes up only five pages of text, but it is action packed, filled with traps, oddities and dynamic denizens who have a plan of defence. The last four pages constitute the appendices, which describe the primary antagonists, special traps, as well as three new monsters, two new magic items and a relic.

This is a good module and my only real compliant is that it is a little on the short side, being four pages shorter than the previous two offerings for the same price. There is room for expansion here and I would have been happier with a standard sixteen pages, and very happy if they were as well presented as the rest of the adventure.

Technicalities and Errors

Apart from the occasional editing error, I didn’t notice any inconsistencies or mistakes in the main body of the text or printing errors. I did spend some moments wondering of what use the leather baldric +1 carried by Sendric was, eventually concluding from his armour class that it was being treated as leather armour +1. Lasker is similarly listed as having an armour class of 2, which does not take into account either his shield or the magical benefit of his plate mail +1, I could not decide which; nor is his +1 to hit from strength listed in his stat block, which might easily be overlooked. Auron has rather a lot of spell slots for a level seven cleric, but I assume that is purposeful. The only other problem I had was that the Labyrinthine Golem is not assigned a hit die total, which I would have preferred to have had.


All in all, a very good module with plenty of adventure potential, a non linear dungeon layout and dangerous adversaries. It is hard to design challenging and interesting adventures for unfamiliar mid to high level player characters, but Curse of the Witch Head succeeds with regard to both. I was very pleased with my purchase.

Alternative Reviews: Grodog, Gnarley Bones,

[Review] AA2 The Red Mausoleum

The Red Mausoleum

Author: James C. Boney
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 14 pages of adventure, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6101
Retail Price: £6.00 or $11.00


A stand alone adventure for 6-8 characters of levels 12-15, this is a brutal three level dungeon crawl designed to challenge powerful characters and experienced players alike. The background and introductory material take up about a page or so, outlining the events leading up to the involvement of the player characters and providing a brief description of a small hamlet, Rausen Point, which lies on the edge of the Sistermoors and serves as the starting point for the adventure. The plot is straightforward enough, the gnomish settlement of Grent has been sacked by black armoured raiders and their undead minions, encounters with which have been steadily increasing in recent months. The source of the threat is thought to be an ancient mausoleum, and so the local baron and gnomish laird have offered sizeable rewards to any brave enough to venture into the Sistermoors, descend into the catacombs, and put an end to the undead menace.

Following the introduction, there is a page or so devoted to traversing the dangers of the Sistermoors, the monsters that might be found there, and the frequency with which they might be encountered. Of particular note is a Druid called Sywlgan, who may frustrate or aid the adventurers, depending on what they tell him and his own variable inclination. These wilderness hazards appear designed to wear down the resources of the player characters prior to reaching the mausoleum, and the game master is encouraged not to be sparing with them, but skilful play can greatly reduce the time spent wandering the moors.

The dungeon itself takes up around ten pages of the module, the last two pages of adventure being given over to describing two new magical items and three new monsters. On arriving at the mausoleum, the first difficulty that the adventurers must overcome is gaining entrance, a task that focuses on challenging the players and sets the tone for the rest of the module. To be sure, there are plenty of powerful monsters to be overcome, and the lord of the mausoleum is a formidable adversary, but how the players handle the traps and puzzles will almost certainly be the deciding factor as to their success or failure.

I do not really have much in the way of complaints. I thought more could have been made of the wilderness encounters, and found the veritable menagerie of monsters in the Hall of Honoured Dead to be a little too wacky for my tastes. Also, and as others have pointed out, there are a lot of undead in the lower levels that pose almost no threat to a high level party, but some of that depends on the presence (and survival) of a cleric, how exactly the turn undead rules are implemented, and how the game master runs the dungeon.

About the only thing I think this module is missing is access to pregenerated player characters, which failing inclusion in the product itself could have been included online. I have never known any characters who reached as high as levels 12-15, and would expect those that did to potentially vary considerably in terms of power. Whilst I could always use pregenerated characters from other modules, their absence renders this module somewhat inaccessible to those without examples.

Technicalities and Errors

As might be expected, this module has a few editing errors here and there, such as inconsistent use of ‘Sistermoors’ and ‘Sister-moors’, but I did not notice anything much more significant than that. I thought it was a little strange to devote nearly a quarter of a page to the potential encounter with Sywlgan the druid, and then assign him only a one in a hundred chance of turning up on the wilderness encounter table. Similarly, I thought the half page devoted to Rausen Point was either too little to get a feel for the place or too much to serve as a springboard.


Overall, I thought this was a great adventure, aesthetically reminiscent of the modules it does homage to, and very much in their tradition. The art on the title page is particularly evocative of the perils of traditional adventure games, and the same feeling that one misstep could spell disaster is maintained throughout. Well worth picking up, both for those who would like to play using high level characters and those who are interested in ways to challenge them in the dungeon environment.

Alternative Reviews: Anthony Roberson, Gnarley Bones,

[Review] AA1 The Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom

The Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom

Author: Matthew Finch
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 14 pages of adventure, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6100
Retail Price: £5.00 or $10.00


A stand alone adventure for 6-8 characters of levels 2-4, this is an open ended three level dungeon with an unusual theme. The introduction and background material take up less than half a page and describe a relatively straightforward scenario. It seems that a number of animals and people have gone missing from a local village and strange creatures have been sighted in the woods; some of the braver folk have followed the tracks into the hills, but none would enter the fissure into which they eventually led. The villagers have three potions of healing to offer as a reward, but otherwise the game master is largely left to his own devices to attract the interest of the player characters. This relative lack of fiscal enticement places almost all the treasure in the dungeon itself, which allows it to be run in reverse without unduly affecting the available rewards.

After a few brief additional notes that address starting the adventure on the third level, the text moves directly to the dungeon key. There are about twelve pages of keyed locations interspersed with three half page maps and two illustrations, whilst the remaining two pages of the module describe four new monsters. These last include the shrooms, evil and sorcerous creatures that resemble giant toadstools with arms and eyes, and the pod men, vaguely human shaped semi intelligent plants that are often the servants of the former. Of course, it is a shroom that is behind all the trouble, growing pod men in hidden caverns and raiding the surrounding countryside for the means to increase their number, as well as the resources to further his own magical research.

There is a mixture of humour and weirdness in this adventure that is very appealing, and a number of quite strange encounters that are enticingly left otherwise unexplained, no doubt in order to encourage the game master to exercise his own imagination. Some things are perhaps left too vague, such as the mechanism by which the waterfall is diverted in area three, and I thought that the monsters on the third level seemed a little over eclectic, but there is much more that is interesting and inventive. The layout of the caverns is non linear, meaning that player characters are generally not limited to one path between areas, and often have to choose which direction to take.

By way of complaints, I do think that the module is a little bit easy for the recommended number of characters and levels, and would be tempted to reduce the level spread to 1-3, though that is not to say it could not prove a challenge to higher level characters. In particular, I found the inner sanctum of the shroom to be too lightly defended with only two pod men as guards. That said, there are some potentially very deadly encounters, such as the troll in area sixteen.

If there was one thing that I felt was lacking from this adventure, then it was some guidance for wilderness encounters. A particularly cautious party might be willing to wait for some monsters to emerge from the fissure or for a raiding party to return. The frequency of such events and the likely numbers could certainly be inferred or invented, and other wilderness encounters added as the game master desires, but I would have liked to have seen such an addition nonetheless. On the other hand, the module is already so full of material, it is hard to see where such information might be included.

Technicalities and Errors

I noticed some minor editing errors here and there, but nothing of any great significance in that regard. One noticeable error is that flame arrow is listed as a second level spell on page ten of the module, but it is in fact a third level spell. Another interesting oddity is that the shroom’s pod men guards are listed as having 4 hit dice, which is an exception from normal pod men who have 3+1 and large pod men who have 4+1. I do not think this is necessarily a mistake, but it does make a difference with regard to their to hit rolls. It has also been noted that there is no scale provided for the maps, but I suspect this lack is intentional, encouraging the game master to decide what is appropriate for himself.


This is an excellent module, innovative and familiar all at once. It presents traditional adventure design elements in a modern context, and makes sophisticated use of a well developed methodology. This is not a simple retread of the past, nor a mere aping of long out of print predecessors, though aesthetically it clearly recalls them, rather it is an example of the virtue of brevity and the complexity of action that can be achieved with relatively open game design. A very good beginning.

Alternative Reviews: The Red Priest, Gnarley Bones,

[Article] Orcs' Nest

The idea for this was originally suggested by Robert Fisher. Essentially it was to produce a Fast Play document for OSRIC that could be freely disseminated as a pdf, downloaded, printed, and distributed locally to promote the game and build awareness. It struck me as an excellent idea and worth taking as far as possible. It was also noted that there was increasing interest from all quarters in traditional adventure role-play games, a revaluation of the past which was thought to be a combined result of the respective deaths of Gary Gygax and Robert Bledsaw in March and April of this year. With the impending (and now actual) release of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the rapid approach of Free RPG Day, I decided it would be opportune to suggest the idea at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, which received a favourable response. Robert and others put forward some ideas, and I started writing...

So, here we are a few brief weeks later with a finished and disseminated product. A few hours before writing this, I dropped twenty four copies of the beta version off at my local game shops in Newcastle (yes we have two of them), twelve at the Forbidden Planet and twelve at the Travelling Man. They are being given away at those stores for free, probably to those customers making purchases of other products, but essentially at the discretion of the staff. I finished writing the alpha version of the module almost a week ago, and started threads about it at a number of RPG internet forums with a link to a free download of the pdf. I received mainly positive feedback, and was glad of some constructive criticism that I incorporated into the beta version.

What I want to discuss here is where, why and how the fast play rules for OSRIC differ from the ordinary rules. There are not many differences, but there are some. For the most part they were conscious changes or simplifications, but there are one or two that started as accidental errors on my part. What follows is basically exposition on the design of the fast play rules for Orcs' Nest.

Time: In OSRIC, a turn is defined as ten minutes, a round as one minute, and a segment as six seconds. I purposefully left these strict definitions of time out of the fast play document because the units are abstracted, and new players can find one minute long rounds a bit offputting and difficult to imagine. It doesn't really matter whether you consider a round to be one minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds or, indeed, six seconds, so long as you are aware how it interacts with segments and turns. Personally, I prefer six second rounds on the whole.

Surprise: The way surprise segments are handled is more detailed in the OSRIC core rules. For the sake of simplicity, the fast play rules went with one segment as being always the result of surprise, but in the full game it is possible to surprise or be surprised for more segments, depending on the roll of the die and the initial probability of surprise.

Inititative: The rules in the source material for OSRIC have been the cause of much confusion and disputation. In OSRIC, each party determines which segment the other will strike blows on, usually hoping to roll high so their enemies will act late. In the fast play rules, each side rolls its own initiative, hoping to roll low so they will act early. It makes little difference which way it is resolved, so long as everyone is clear on what they are rolling for beforehand.

Charging: In the full rules for OSRIC characters may only charge once per turn. Furthermore, their armour class either worsens by one point during a charge or they lose all dexterity bonus to armour class, whichever has the worst effect. For the purposes of the fast play rules, this last did not matter, because no character's dexterity improved their armour class by more than one point.

Closing: An option left out of the fast play rules is to approach the enemy more cautiously, which is to say at a normal rate of movement. In this case neither the advancing character nor his opponent may strike blows during the advance.

Attack Roll: Thieves and Magic Users normally use a slightly worse chart than Fighters and Clerics at first level. The chart the Human Slaves are listed with in the Monster section is the one they use in OSRIC. This was originally an oversight in the fast play rules, but it was later decided to leave it as it was for the sake of simplicity (and space!).

Ranged Weapons: In the normal rules for OSRIC, bows may be employed twice per round; it was decided to ignore the complications of staggered multiple attacks for the purposes of the fast play document.

Hit Points: When reduced to 0 hit points in OSRIC, a character loses one hit point per round until they die at -10 or the bleeding is stopped. The recovery rules are also slightly more complicated.

Spell Casting: Some groups prefer to have all spell casting begin on segment 0 and the segment they occur being governed by their casting time. Personally, I like to use whichever is worse, the casting time or the initiative roll.

Withdrawing and Fleeing: The current OSRIC rules do not define at what rate of movement characters may withdraw or flee. A close reading of the source text would allow fleeing to occur at twice the rate of a withdrawal.

Other Combat Rules: There are a number of other options in OSRIC not discussed in the fast play rules.

Thief Abilities

General Note: In order to successfully use a Thief Ability, the game master rolls a die to model the probability of success based on the number next to the ability in the character description, with the number expressing the percentage of success. So Sunara, for instance, has a 25% chance (1 in 4) of successfully picking a lock. Some game masters allow the character a chance to succeed once per turn, some allow only one chance, and others consider grades of failure to sometimes represent a delayed success.

Thieves and Bows: Going strictly by the core OSRIC rules, Thieves are not allowed to employ bows as weapons. However, the source material does allow for it as an optional rule, and that was assumed to be in play for the Orcs' Nest module.

Editing Error 1: During editing area 16 acquired two 'b' labels; the first 'b' was intended to read as 'a'.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Silver Blade Adventures?

Silver Blade (well, actually, Silver Sword) is the name I decided my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting needed about fifteen or so years ago. I couldn't have been any older than fourteen at the time, and was strongly under the influence of the branded and official TSR campaign settings, particularly Dragonlance. I had not actually played any of the modules, but I was well acquainted with the accompanying literature (though I was initially better acquainted with Middle Earth and Conan), and by then had adventured my way through Hero Quest, Advanced Hero Quest, Warhammer Fantasy Role-play and the Red Box version of Dungeons & Dragons. A fairly typical pattern, or so I am told.

For a few years I voraciously read Dragon Magazine and played a lot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (second edition, mind you), and in many different campaign settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape, etc...), but eventually my friends and I grew tired of classes, levels, and were unexcited by the latest TSR releases. We started trying other systems (GURPS, Rifts, Star Wars D6, RoleMaster, Cyberpunk and a whole bunch of other RPGs I can barely remember). Somewhere in all that our group got collectively burned by Magic the Gathering, but I don't recall the details. By the time I was in sixth form, I played only very irregularly and mainly used a homebrewed skill based system, low magic and gritty, of course. We still wandered the Forgotten Realms from time to time, but I had long since cancelled my subscription to Dragon and ceased purchasing TSR products (or any RPG material, really).

I was bitten by the RPG bug again in about 2000, and not by the release of D20 (which I was only barely aware of, the extent of my exposure having been seeing an advert for Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons 3e whilst I was visiting America), but by the Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine. I was familiar with some of the early strips from Dragon, but after my girlfriend bought me a couple of issues of KoDT, I found myself very much enjoying vicariously revisiting AD&D. I stepped outside my student digs in Surrey, my girlfriend's credit card and mobile phone in hand, rang up Kenzer & Company, and promptly ordered a box full of Bundles of Trouble (I think I might have been drunk).

In any case, I was inspired to get a group together and restart my old campaign world in the summer of 2001, and that's what I did. Best campaign I ever ran, involving about a dozen players all told (both new and old) and lasting until summer 2005, when I left Surrey to move back up to Newcastle. I realised at that time I was going to be too busy to run a full on campaign, and so decided to try a few pick up and play D20 adventures (mainly the ones freely downloadable, but also the Fighting Fantasy conversions that Myriador put out. It was about this time that I started frequenting RPG internet message boards (I know, I thought I could handle it), rather than just browsing the WotC D&D website.

I think it was on the Kenzer & Company forums that I first heard about the OSRIC project; I had been to the Knights & Knaves Alehouse and Dragonsfoot prior to that, and I had even read adverts for Castles & Crusades in KoDT, but I had no idea of the significance of what was going on until I downloaded OSRIC and started reading. Within about ten minutes I was entirely convinced that OSRIC was one of the best things to ever happen to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and traditional adventure role-playing games. Since then, I have spent a considerable chunk of my 'internet time' investigating and testing the veracity of my original conclusion and am still satisfied with the answer. I have gotten involved with the project to the best of my ability, purchased some of its fruits, and thoroughly enjoyed devoring them.

So, bit of a long preamble, but let us get back to the original question. Silver Blade Adventures? This blog has a number of purposes, but it is probably primarily a centralised space for me to make my thoughts on traditional swords & sorcery adventure games accessible. One of the things I intend to do with OSRIC is use it to publish some free modules, most of which will have been originally created for Silver Blade Adventures. So, one of the things this blog is going to do is provide support material, links and errata for anything that I create using OSRIC (or, indeed, Labyrinth Lord or Castles & Crusades). I also intend to post reviews of already existing material here, as well as adventure journal entries and anything else that seems like it ought to have a place here.