Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Strigoi - Vampire Alternative for LOTFP

Zombies?  Nope - vampires!  The Strain.

To quote my teenage daughter, I've become "low-key obsessed" with Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain.  I binge watched the four season TV series on Hulu, and am working my way through the source novels (I'm on Book 2).  The novels were written with the help of Chuck Hogan, a spy novel author, and so they read like page turner thrillers with a horror twist.  The TV series presents a squirmy, gruesome re-envisioning of the vampire myth with plenty of visceral body horror.  It's a perfect take on vampires for your LOTFP game, and in time for Halloween if you're looking for some horror reading or viewing.

The books have been out since 2009 and the series came to TV in 2014, so I'm not spoiling any ground-breaking new show as I discus the general plot.  Be warned, some discussion of the plot will follow.  The series starts with the arrival of a dead airplane landing in JFK Airport, a 21st century re-imagination of The Demeter crashing into Whitby along the English coast.  In The Strain, the 200+ dead passengers on the airplane are infected with vampirism, going through a biological transformation while their bodies are sent to various morgues around the city.  They awaken at night and wander off to infect their loved ones and passersby, and suddenly a vampire plague begins to quickly spread across the Five Boroughs.

New York is honeycombed with subways and transit tunnels that give the vampires places to hide during the day, and the plot features wealthy opportunistic "human familiars" teaming up with the vampire lord, The Master, by spreading misinformation and slowing down the response of government agencies.  Instead of an apocalyptic zombie plague, New York faces a vampire plague, which spreads beyond the city, and the series eventually goes full-on apocalyptic, with nuclear winter providing safety from UV radiation for a dystopian future ruled by the vampires.  It's bonkers.

The Strain upends the glamor that has claimed hold of the vampire myth - there are no sparkling, handsome or beautiful sexy vampires here.  They are victims of a fast-acting, incurable, mutagenic virus, spread by worms, that rewrites their biology to turn them into giant leeches or ticks - they eventually lose their hair, sex organs, and even their nose and ears will wither away.  Instead of fangs, The Strain vampires (called the Strigoi in the series) have a six foot mouth stinger that lashes out and attaches itself to a victim, followed by a slow glug glug glug as it siphons out all of the victim's blood.  Anyone bit by the stinger is infected with the vampire worms, and anyone engaging in combat with the Strigoi risks getting infected if splashed by the vampire's white blood.  There are many moments of body horror in the series as wriggling worms burrow into open wounds or eyeballs to infect a new host.

From the cover of Book 1 The Strain.  It's gruesome.

Classic D&D vampires had that weird problem where they've got the blood-drinking fang equipment, but really what they want to do is touch you in melee and drain life energy levels.  The Strigoi represent a terrifying way to put blood draining vampires back into your game in an action-oriented style that plays well with classic fantasy and D&D style combat.

Strigoi (Munchers - the newly formed)

Unarmored, Move 120'. Hit Dice 1-4. Attack range 6' doing 1-4 damage + specials, Morale 8.  Chaotic.

Newly formed Strigoi start with 1 HD and gain a HD each week they're able to feed.  There are powerful free-willed strigoi (Lieutenants and Ancients) that are significantly more capable than "munchers" - we'll tackle them another time.  Munchers have animal instincts, with an innate desire to return home and feed on their loved ones.  However, they are connected through a hive-mind back to the Master, who can force groups of Munchers to apply tactics or carry out more complicated actions as the situation dictates.  Strigoi have 60' infravision and heightened senses, including hearing - sensitive enough to hear nearby heart-beats.

In melee, the Muncher uses it's 6' stinger attack.  A hit target must save vs paralysis or be helpless while the muncher drains constitution at the rate of 1d6 per round until the target dies.    The stinger is unarmored and can be severed in combat by an ally with an edged weapon attack doing 2 or more points of damage.  Anyone hit by a stinger in combat is infected with capillary worms (see below).

Glug-glug-glug.  This should terrify any D&D character.

Strigoi are vulnerable to silver weapons, and must make a morale check at -2 when confronted with silver weapons and each time they are hit by silver.  They will likewise shun silver mirrors, as such mirrors reveal their true nature (undead and riddled with parasitic worms).  They are destroyed in sunlight.  

Strigoi take half damage from normal weapons due to their mutated biology.  (Alternatively, I suppose you could say any damage roll in the lower half of the damage range is ignored, while a roll in the upper half represents a hit to a vulnerable area like the neck or head - whatever is less fiddly and more fun for your table.  I like the latter.)

Capillary Worms

Each time a Strigoi is killed in melee combat, roll a d6 - on a 1 result, the victor is splashed by Strigoi blood (including the parasitic capillary worms) which seek to burrow into the victim's flesh and cause infection.  Like rot grubs, the victim must immediately apply flame to the worms (1-6 hit points of damage) or a worm burrows into their flesh.  At that point, only a cure disease spell can end the transformation into a Strigoi.  (In the series, modern UV lights can also destroy capillary worms).  Anyone hit by a Strigoi stinger is automatically infected by worms.

The disease weakens the host over a 24 hour period as the capillary worms multiply and overwhelm the victim's system, colonizing the victim's organs and growing the vampiric hinged mouth and throat stringer.  Strigoi have heightened metabolisms and "burn hot" for purposes of infravision, a possible way of detecting them at a distance if your game uses infravision.  The newly formed Strigoi will arise the following evening and return home, seeking to infect their loved ones.


Although the TV series focuses on a biological, viral explanation for the Strigoi, there are mystical and alchemical elements in both the show and  novels that involve a Judeo-Christian mythological view of the vampires and their origin.  Their history is recounted in a book of esoteric lore called the Occido Lumen.  While the Strigoi disease appears to be a purely biological phenomenon, they are actually a supernatural plague and count as true undead, meaning they can be turned by clerics with a Turn Undead spell or ability.  Munchers are turned as Wights.

Potion of Longevity Ingredient

In the series, 3rd century alchemists created a formula to leverage the capillary worms as a component in a potion of longevity - more to come as I get deeper in the books.

I don't think I'm done with The Strain or the Strigoi yet, as I read further I'll likely provide some stats for the powerful free-willed "Lieutenants" and the terrifying "Master".  It's the Halloween season, after all.

Note:  All the images are from The Strain TV series, subject to copyright, and used here only under fair use as part of a review and discussion of the work.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

LOTFP Review: A Gift for All Norway

Is it?  Is it really a gift for all Norway?

Disclaimer:  Reviews are for referees.  I'm a spoiler.  Stay out, players.

I'll come right out with the judgment… I have some issues with this adventure for campaign play because of how much work is left to the referee, but it'd work fine as a one-shot at a convention.

A Gift for All Norway is a short book - 16 page pamphlet with a soft cover.  The dungeon involves the adventurers entering a cave seeking a stolen artifact, the Heart of Hrungnir, named after a figure from Norse legend, a Jotun.  Within a few rooms of the cave structure, it should be apparent the characters are traversing a gigantic digestive tract like the miniature scientists and doctors from the movie Fantastic Voyage.  Challenges include environmental factors (like lakes of acid) and oozes and slimes (crawling and slithering anti-bodies).  There aren't really NPC roleplaying opportunities in the dungeon, and little or no treasure (unless the players keep the artifact).

All gut-tract dungeons need more Raquel Welch.

If the player's find the artifact, there's a location where it fits in the dungeon, and funny things can happen.  I won't spoil all the fun!  It's definitely a gift for somebody.  I can imagine a party making it to the ultimate location, and deciding what to do next should be an interesting dilemma.

My knock on this one for campaign play is it requires a bit of hand-waving or a lot of referee work.  The players supposedly start in England, travel to Norway, and have to deal with an evil Nordic cult waiting for them at the village of Vihavn not far from where the adventure begins.  All that stuff is left for you (the referee) to figure out.  The evil cult is actually just called "the Nordic cult".  I asked ChatGPT to help me name it and the AI cranked out a handful of evocative names:

  • Frostfang Covenant
  • Rimeborn Disciples
  • Hrungnir's Cursebound
  • Jotun's Whisper
  • Jotunheim's Doomcallers
  • Frostforged Creed
  • Nidhogg's Vanguard
  • … you get the idea.

So you’re buying (and playing ) this one for an 8 room romp through a digestive track dungeon (no Raquel Welch in sight) and a LOTFP worthy decision.  For a one-shot, you could start the players already in Norway - right at the cave mouth - and probably get through the dungeon in a 2 hour convention slot.  I can see it being a satisfying short dungeon in those circumstances.

It's kind of weird this batch of LOTFP adventures had two "crawl around the inside of a giant ancient being" adventures - don't forget we had Meanderings of the Mine Mind earlier, and now A Gift For All Norway.  They are very different - we're talking about Night at the Museum vs Fantastic Voyage.  The Mine Mind is all about interacting with anachronistic people, while this one is Man vs Nature (and by Nature, I mean gigantic digestive and respiratory tracts).

You can get this one at the usual places, the LOTFP store and DriveThruRPG:  A Gift for All Norway.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Game Reports - York 1630 and ACKS Greyhawk

I'm a few weeks behind on game reports - so today is a two-for-one.

York 1630 (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

At the end of last game session, the players were seriously depleted after battling about a dozen "mosquito bats" (stirges in your BX parlance).  They were exploring an abandoned inn, The Grinding Gear, and the mosquito bats were nesting in the attic.

The players secured themselves in an upstairs room away from the bats and bandaged themselves, healed as best they could, and rested.  Their fighter, a 30 years war vet, is also a medic.  In the morning, they hatched a plan to remove the bats from the attic - they smoked them out!  They created a smoky fire with oil-soaked rags in a cook pot and opened the trap door into the attic just enough to slide the smoke pot onto the attic floor.  Their stealthy halfling crept out of the front of the inn where he could spy the smoke billowing out of the attic hole, and he watched as the flocks of mosquito bats fled into the nearby forest to escape the smoke.

When the coast was clear, the players put a lid on the smoking pot, retrieved the treasure from the attic, and found a place to hide it in the inn before considering their next move - finding the underground tomb complex they believed was in the area.  The one thing they hadn't fully inspected yet was the statue in the courtyard, the one surrounded by a field of drained bodies, and they suspected the tomb entrance was tied to the statue.

Since the players experienced the mosquito bats in the attic, they surmised that's how the bodies around the statue became drained; they just didn't understand the mechanism.  So there was some trial and error, with one person going forward to mess with the statue (the halfling) while the rest of the party stayed far away and watched.  In this way they were able to observe the statue's sleep gas trap, and how the smell of the gas coaxed mosquito bats out of the woods to slake their thirst on the sleeping victim(s).  They were able to save the halfling and use the trap door in the statue's base to get into the dungeon.

The most interesting thing that's happened in the dungeon so far was when they discovered a barred door - an NPC party was hiding in the room.  "Don't come through the door or we'll sleep you - we have a wizard!" they warned through the door.  None of the players had considered this was a thing that could happen… that there could be NPC magic users, and opposing magic users could have sleep spells too, and the entire party of first level heroes could be put to sleep and knifed in a dungeon.  Yikes!

The elf player whispered to his companions, "Don't worry - elves can't be put to sleep.  They don't know about me.  Start chopping it down!"  Our party's artist captured the moment when "The Pillories", as they're called, chopped through the door and the elf put the 3 humans in the room to sleep anyway.

ACKS Greyhawk - Temple of Elemental Evil

The best news about our Greyhawk game is that we held it.  We missed a bunch of weeks due to scheduling issues and attendance.  The core group is now on board with a bi-weekly cadence, which works perfectly with a bi-weekly LOTFP game.  This way the regulars should be able to make all the games going forward.

Otherwise there hasn't been a lot to report lately! The players are obsessed with grinding their way through all of level 1, exploring everything, and indulging their completionism urges.  This can be the bane of running a megadungeon (or in this case, large dungeon).  However, I'm hopeful they've learned enough about level 2 to head down there soon.

Last game they also discovered one of the final roleplaying oriented encounters on level 1 - the torturer and his bugbear sidekick.  The thief heard an active 'torture session' in progress through the door, and the players were able to get the jump on the torturer.  A mercenary on the rack cried out for help, the hapless farmers in the prison cells cried out for help, and the torturer was willing to parley after a sleep spell put the bugbear down (the torturer was level 5, unaffected by sleep, but outnumbered like 8 to 1, and he failed a morale check).

The paladin honored his promise to the torturer of safe passage in return for answers, keys, and freeing all the prisoners.  The players learned a back way down to level 2, as well as the location of more prisoners.  The torturer scooted off, the players freed the mercenary and the prisoners, and their militant "bladedancer" - a cleric trying to build an army for the goddess of war - made a recruitment pitch to the mercenary to join her budding force.  (The player rolled terribly on the reaction roll and the mercenary declined - "I ain't in this for your revolution, princess".)  This is why they usually let the paladin recruit the survivors.  But then the mooks are more loyal to the broader group than Shakti's weird crusade for the war goddess (Shakti is the bladedancer).

The torturer had given them some bad advice (mean people suck) and some of the "prisoners" he directed them towards were actually zombies in cells - but were easily handled with clerics and old school Turn Undead.  One of the cells had an actual living prisoner, a gnome named Wonnilon, who desperately wanted to find his gear, but the night was getting late and the players had to leave the dungeon for the night.  Wonnilon left with them, with the promise they'd finish looking for his gear the following week.

Final thought - it's interesting running two different OSR-derived games at the same time (bi-weekly) and seeing the nuances in them (and how their rules sets compliment the subtle differences in the expected game play).  Both ACKS and LOTFP are not true clone games but rather include strong authorial voices and design philosophies.  Grist for a future post.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

LOTFP Review: Faecal Lands

I group Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures in two broad categories, Type A and Type B.  I sift through the catalog looking for the Type A adventures - they are grounded and gritty, focused on themes of exploration, discovery, and building horror, with real consequences and that LOTFP weird twist - like running a Call of Cthulhu adventure but using the familiar BX rules set.

Type B adventures push the limit of what you can do with a table top adventure - all the "shock for shock's sake" art pieces - the classic James Raggi 'damn the torpedoes' mindset that gets things banned on DriveThruRPG.  As an observer of the Type B phenomenon, I used to think James enjoyed triggering people, but nowadays I see him more like an eclectic publisher that puts a lot of mixed stuff out there and hopes it finds the audience that appreciates it.  I'll shrug my shoulders and say, "well clearly this thing wasn't made for me", and move on with my life.  When you throw a lot of stuff against the wall as a publisher, not everything has to stick.  But I'm always on the lookout for more of that Type A stuff, because when they're good, they're really good.

Faecal Lands is not a Type A adventure.  But it might find an audience, so let's get into it.

I imagine a hypothetical idea pitch would have gone like this - "You know, James, Lamentations needs its own planar adventure.  Lots of modules in the history of fantasy gaming feature jaunts into the elemental planes, where the players are grappling with a hostile environment and battling planar entities until they can escape back home."  Oh yeah, that sounds interesting, but what's the weird twist?  "Oh that's the best part.  Since the elemental planes of air, earth, fire, and water are so banal and overdone, I was thinking it could be the plane of poop.  It'll have poop demons, and lakes of pee, and poop dragons, and a final poop boss guarding the poop fortress".

If that sounds like the kind of thing you've been waiting for your whole life, I have great news for you my friend - this is your day, and this is your book.

The cover is so gross I almost didn't want to review it (so I'm not putting the cover here, there's a link below if you like).  But the setting is done earnestly and with an eye towards challenging game play.  I've read plenty of more serious adventures that wish they had the amount of gameplay, usability, and design this crappy book holds, even if it's built around a bad joke.  It includes a hex crawl, points of interest and mini-dungeons to explore, large wandering encounter tables, environmental hazards and diseases, a rudimentary ecology and bestiary, and interesting items and fetch quests.  For a gag book it is shockingly well done.  That makes it perplexing - it'd be much easier to write off if the game content was bad - it's not.

Edit:  I thought it'd be helpful to show a snippet of a page - most of the encounter areas are like this, with functional maps that combine room key descriptions and maps in one neat layout (referencing a bestiary in the back).

At this point, I don't no plan to use this one.  But I won't say never, because there could be that game situation where things go pear-shaped and the party is landing in a metaphorical world of sh*t, and the referee just wants to say, "F*ck it, you twits are landing in a literal world of sh*t too.  Good luck escaping the Faecal Lands, dolts(1)."  This is what Type B LOTFP brings me to - profanity.

The book is 32 pages and written by Glynn Seal, author of The Midderlands.  (There are even several references to Great Lunden).  Glynn also did the art, layout and cartography, and it's all good.  However, much like some criticism I leveled at Meandering of the Mine Mind the editor here missed a few things.  It's as if this batch of LOTFP releases was rushed, or the editors were only looking at spell check and not the big picture.  Small things, like a missed table reference here, or the wrong type of skill check in the text (LOTFP uses d6 skill checks, not % skills).

While the idea of a poop dimension full of poop demons has a distinctly adolescent quality to it, this is executed seriously and would be a challenging adventure locale.  My sense is it would work best for a competent group of players with characters in the level 4-6 range.  (I think the LOTFP crowd has given up suggesting level ranges).

You too can be grossed out by visiting the LOTFP webstore or DriveThruRPG:  Faecal Lands

(1)  Here's an example of how one could tie this easily into a recent adventure: In Magic Eater, there is a gross cult that also involves a poop theme.  The Magic Eater is an unstable monster that should explode when he dies, blasting everyone in the room (cultists and player characters alike) over to the Faecal Lands to be grossed out even further.  You're welcome.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Spotlight on ACKS: Where Orcs are Evil

I'm overdue to say something about Alexander Macris's video channel.  Alex is the writer of Adventurer Conqueror King and he's been doing a YouTube channel for several months now where he tackles game theory and being a better referee.  He's got a collegial style and well-articulated positions.  Last week he tackled the question of whether your RPG should have "inherently evil races" (video is posted below).

This question has been around.  It's been a lightning rod in D&D style games since the Keep on the Borderlands introduced tribes of humanoids just up the road from the Keep (and it's usually accompanied by a debate on colonization in gaming).  Over 40 years, designers and authors have granted more sympathetic attributes to the humanoids in their game worlds, prompting Wizards of the Coast to declare there were no longer evil humanoids in modern incarnations of D&D, but rather they would have all alignments like humans - a sort of "Fantasy Star Trek", where through cooperation, inclusivity, diplomacy, and cultural exchange, everyone can find common ground and have a place in the Federatio… er, Forgotten Realms.

At that point, might as well admit James Raggi was right 15 years ago when he dumped fantasy settings for the early modern and said, let's just place adventures in the real world and have complex conflicts with human antagonists without the furry costumes… but that's another game, another post.  Alex is clinging to heroic fantasy with its panoply of sentient races.

Alex offers a workable solution to the question of innately evil races.  An "innately evil race" would be one where coexistence is not possible at all - the evil race represents an existential threat to human civilization.  The example he uses in the video is the xenomorph from the Alien series.  You're either on the side of civilization or you’re siding with the enemy and betraying it.  The scientific term for this unresolvable clash of species is "competitive exclusion theory".

The problem is that humanoid depictions became relatable and too human.  Orcs are a misunderstood culture, like a fantasy version of  Star Trek's violent yet honorable Klingons.  They're no longer Tolkien's implacable forces of destruction and death.  In the movie Return of the King, there's a visceral experience of orc hatred of humanity when the orc commander proclaims, "The age of men is over, the time of the orc has come."  The battle of Minas Tirith is an extinction event - the stakes are victory or the fall of civilization.  In Middle Earth, Fantasy Star Trek is reserved for the humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits to become kissy-kissy allies and cohabitants.  The spawn of Morgoth (and the orcs) have no place in Eriador.  (And yes, I'm side-stepping any broader discussion of the orcs based on Tolkien's letters or life experiences - here I'm just reacting to the representation in the fiction).

Tapping back into the Trek universe, maybe the Borg are the best example of that existential threat.  Or the Gorn.  In fantasy, something like GRR Martin's White Walkers are a foe with whom there can be no compromise.  But for mainstream fantasy games, 40 years of treating orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins as variant people, has gone too far to reclaim them as an irredeemable enemy.  Were the seeds sown as early as the 1E Monster Manual, with it's complex and naturalistic depiction of humanoid tribal life?

But we will do as we will, in our home games.  Here is the video:

One parting thought - I'm intrigued by the idea that depictions of orc-like monsters and boogeymen in fairy tales and literature may hearken back to some "species-memory" of conflict between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals during the Ice Age.  Instinctual memory sounds like goofy pseudoscience, but it's fun to think about.  It brings to my mind the horrible "Wendol" from the movie The 13th Warrior (Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead novel), where the Wendol are a nigh-supernatural force of Neanderthal-like primitives that emerge from remote caves to terrorize Viking villages.  There are no universal translators, parleys, or requests to negotiate anywhere in sight - just battle axes, swords, and a doughty crew of Northmen to hold the line and stand for the survival of mankind.  Along with Antionio Banderas.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

LOTFP Review: Do Not Accept This Quest

This one is called Do Not Accept This Quest.  "They should have never entered that house…"  I didn't love the adventure... but how about that creepy cover?

Per the usual disclaimer - this is an adventure review, beyond here lie spoilers.

This is about a ruined house with a small dungeon beneath it.  From the backstory, we learn the previous owner was a diabolist who murdered children.  We should be in for something chilling!  However, the execution didn't live up to the premise.  In a published adventure, I want ideas that I couldn't have sketched out for myself with a few hours of prep before game night.  

The rooms of the house are atmospheric, but the dungeon beneath is linear - a straight path with rooms attached.  There are locked rooms in the cellar of the abandoned house with wolves living in them.  I could probably stop the review right there...  Later we learn there are imps breeding in the dungeon.  Maybe the imps are carrying keys, and keep the wolves as pets, and take them out for walks?  The imps don't have supernatural abilities, immunities, or tactics, so they come across as goblins with wings.  In several of the rooms the imps are hanging out with the dead zombie children like it's a monster mixer - a party.

Physically, this book is a soft-cover pamphlet, 12 pages, with nice production values in terms of art, layout, and cartography.  The author is JE Evans.  I'm used to books in the LOTFP line embracing "The Weird" - either a novel premise, a strange twist, or something that subverts expectations - the weird is the LOTFP trademark.  This one has some evocative descriptions, but there wasn't a twist (unless you'd call imps with babies and their zombie play-dates is the twist).  How would you give this one a "weird twist" and make it less conventional?  Drop your ideas in the comments.

This one is $4.99 over at DriveThruRPG:  Do Not Accept This Quest.

That's all for this one.  Next up is something called (groan) Faecal Lands.  I don't have high hopes for a book themed around a poop dimension and poop demons, despite the author's impressive resume.  Wish me luck, I'll be holding my nose.  The good news is, once we get past the poop kingdom, the remaining new LOTFP books look like absolute fire.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Game Report: Grinding Gear Part 1

At the end of the Tower of the Stargazer, we didn't discuss a next game; I assumed it was a one-shot until we connected offline, and the player's said, "This OSR vintage is fine stuff indeed, let's have another!".  I needed to get a campaign world skeleton (Building York 1630) together for the following weekend, and quickly prep an adventure.  We chatted offline about what they wanted to do - something sinister that appeals to the horror enthusiasts, or a more traditional dungeon challenge that could arm them with coin and gear for the challenges ahead?  It was a close discussion, because the group is here for the horror, but ultimately they decided they'd prefer to work off their gaming rust in something more recognizable.  I put aside The God that Crawls (for now) and dusted off The Grinding Gear.

The players had over 6,000sp after their first caper, and spent the week thinking about what to do with their money.  They decided they wanted to rent a house in York as a headquarters, build out a library, and use downtime in between adventures to research spells and make some scrolls.  (These are all activities contemplated and encouraged in the LOTFP rules).  By the time we started play the following week, the elf had researched Sleep, the magic user had researched Charm Person, and the cleric had crafted a scroll with Turn Undead and two copies of Cure Light Wounds.  They were more prepared for the next adventure.  They also chose a name for their character group, The Pillories.

The one-legged veteran Mason, a survivor of the wars in Europe, knocked on the door of the Pillories' HQ early one morning.  Mason was a henchman of William Brewer, the local mob boss.  "The big guy wants to see you - says he received some correspondence meant for you.  He's arranged a lunch for today".

Over the course of a lunch meeting with their patron, the players did in fact receive several pieces of correspondence - a letter to meet with The Doctor(1) later in October (it was currently early September).  The doctor was the collector who wanted the king and medusa statue recovered from the tower last game session, and Brewer earned a fine commission as a broker.  The doctor now suggested there was another salvage opportunity, but he wanted to discuss it in person on his way back through the area from Cambridge.  He had a home in nearby Harrogate and a mansion in the Pennines; he invited the players to make arrangements with his staff in Harrogate for a visit next month.  He claimed to be an apothecary and alchemist, and to induce further goodwill he included a gift he called an "Elixir of Wound Recovery", implying there was even more beneficial solutions available for their ongoing partnership.

The second correspondence was more immediate, and I'll relay the text of it here:

The 15th Day of September, 1631

To Those Worthies Who Found the Star Jewel,

On behalf of my Principal, I'd like to extend my deepest congratulations on this lofty accomplishment.  There are channels where news of such deeds have circulated, and patrons like my Trustor have taken note.  Be thou hale in the tribulations to come.

My benefactor is extending a formal invitation for you to stay and visit his establishment, a relatively obscure tavern and inn called "The Grinding Gear" that caters to daring men of fortune like yourselves.  You'll find his establishment in the North Riding.  Follow the road out of Harrogate to the small minster of Ripon, and travel west into Nidderdale.  You'll find us west of Aldfield.

We look forward to meeting you and offering the opportunity for your next grand adventure.

Safe travels,

Signed, the estate of Garvin Richrom (deceased)

While the player's contemplated this peculiar note from Garvin Richrom's estate, Mister Brewer raised the topic of the excellent "Ambersham Mead"(2) they were sampling over lunch.  "This is truly the finest mead on the market in England, isn't it?" quipped Brewer.  "Maybe when the dust settles from this 'Grinding Gear' jaunt, I'll ask you to head off to Devon and see if you can make some kind of special business arrangement with the brewers."

The players wanted some leads on some "muscle" they could hire as retainers and Brewer knew just the right people.  "There are these two guys who came here looking for work, but they're no good for my organization… I won't employ mere highwaymen or crude bandits who prowl the crossroads robbing travelers…"  In this way the players met Toby Martin (specialist) and Wood (fighter), two former brigands who claimed to have fled a group of outlaws called "the Locksmiths" who were holed up in an old ruin near Selby.  "Life with the Locksmiths started to go bad.  Half the gang moved into the dungeon and started organizing themselves into some kind of gross cult and we wanted no part of it…"(3)  One of the players, Blackburn, quipped, "Cults are our specialty - maybe we'll have to check it out some time, too."

The players bought horses and stuff they'd need for the overland trip to the Grinding Gear; they rode west from York to Harrogate, stayed at a nice inn overnight in Harrogate (the Granby), and went north to the minster of Ripon the next day.  In the Auldfield west of Ripon, they spoke to a farmer named Ambrose and learned "Yes, there used to be a place called the Grinding Gear in the nearby forest, but the man lost his daughter several years back and closed up shop…"

"Come to think of it", the farmer called out as they made to continue, "You're not the only folks to come through here looking for it… there were a few fellers like you come through here just a few days back…"

The Grinding Gear was published back in 2009, if you're a referee reading the blog you're probably familiar with it.  The players found the scene, the abandoned outbuildings, the lonely and empty inn, and the courtyard statue of Garvin Richrom on a monument block surrounded by all those dead bodies - stripped of clothes, and riddled with puncture marks.  We played up the "Hills Have Eyes" angle with the eerie silences and the unshakeable feeling of being watched.  The halfling scouted the area and noticed the uncanny lack of critters with his Bushcraft skill - no rabbits, squirrels, or songbirds anywhere nearby.

The players ignored the statue after taking a cursory look at the bodies, instead choosing to enter the inn and methodically search floor by floor until they reached the ladder into the attic.  At the urging of Allister, Mr. Wood hefted a lit lantern up the attic steps, flipped the trap door open, and saw a breadcrumb of coins leading to a larger pile of treasure in the middle of the attic. He called back down, and Blackburn started up the ladder behind him.  Once Wood made it out of the trapdoor, he stretched to full height and started looking around with the lantern beam.  As the light flashed across the ceiling it began to ripple and undulate… it was covered in pale roosting bats.  One of them unfurled its wings and looked back at Wood, and where its mouth was supposed to be hung a floppy, mosquito-like proboscis.  "Get down, get down, get down" yelled Wood.

Our group's artist depicted the fight against the mosquito bats.

By the time Blackburn got off the ladder, and Wood was able to close the trap door behind himself, 10 of the monsters had followed them through the hatch and into the hallway below; several were clinging to Mr Wood and already slurping his blood.  Our night ended with a desperate fight between the Pillories and the mosquito bats on the 3rd floor of the inn.  The players eventually prevailed, although everyone was down in the 2-3 hit point range by the end of the combat and Yuri the Elf would have died without a well-timed Cure Light Wounds.  An uncomfortable thought passed through the group - only a fraction of the mosquito bats made it down the trap door behind them.  There was a huge gaping hole in the side of the attic providing egress into the courtyard.  Did anyone remember to close the front door behind them?

Our cast of Characters
Minister Blackburn:  Cleric
Yuri: Romanian Elf
Remy Knotwise:  Halfling
Followers:  Mister Wood (Fighter), Toby (Specialist)
Allister:  Magic-User

Deceased:  Edmund, Zach - lost in Tower of the Stargazer


As I work through the LOTFP back-catalog, I'm going to put a lot of rumors and pointers out there for future adventures - here are seeds planted this game:

(1) The Doctor's plot hooks will lead to The God That Crawls, Death Frost Doom, and eventually Strict Time Records Must Be Kept - this feels like a good "spine" to the campaign.

(2) The Ambersham Mead of Devon is of course a nod to Bee-Ware!

(3) The Loquesmyths are the gang of thieves in Magic Eater.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Review: Temple of the Wurm

When I saw the cover of this book, with player characters drooping and flopping like melting Salvador Dali clocks. I groaned.  There's no way I'm going to like this adventure.  Then I read it, and I was surprised. It's odd and cool and felt like a Cthulhu Mythos excursion without a deep one or squid face in sight.

Remember people, adventure reviews are for referees.  Don't spoil yourself, players.

You could say this adventure is "high concept".  The players explore an alien temple where many spells, traps, and alien attacks can make them two dimensional, collapsing to the floor like silhouettes and able to slither up walls and ceilings.  There are also effects that can reverse the dimensionality in the other direction, making the players 3-dimensional, or adding additional dimensions, moving the player character through time or into the higher dimensions.  It has the potential to be very weird.  Note:  there are no Dali clocks in the adventure, although time can become twisted; if anything, some of the locales in the alien dungeon have a circuit-board quality with flashing lights that brought to mind a 2-D character entering the movie Tron.

The situation is fairly simple - people are disappearing near a lake.  A likely hook is the missing son of a fisherman and a request to poke around under water - he was taken.  There is a cave in the lake, leading to an air filled dome and the entrance to the temple proper with the warring two-dimensional aliens.  If the players are resourceful and can learn how to communicate with the aliens, there are opportunities for roleplaying and alliances - there are even factions, and a terrifying predator ("the wurm").

It's hard to rate how this adventure would handle during gameplay without a playtest because of the strangeness, and there could be a wide range of outcomes depending on whether players learn how to communicate with the alien factions.  My guess is it would be a hoot (a technical term).  It should make for an interesting challenge having combats where some characters are 2-dimensional, others are 3-dimensional, and monsters are similarly shifting in and out of different phases.  There are also areas that can only be reached having a 2-dimensional scout opening up exploration avenues leveraging dimensionality and letting players exploit their new states.

As an avid reader of Lovecraft and all things Cthulhu Mythos, I couldn't help but notice how this adventure taps into vibes similar to From Beyond, or The Mountains of Madness, and the idea there are older, stranger races just beneath our feet or just beyond our ordinary senses.  I think it's quite likely players returning from Temple of the Wurm will forever mistake moving shadows or flickers just outside of their peripheral vision as the 2-dimensional explorers invading the realm of the 3-dimensionals.  I would certainly take advantage of that ambiguity to create fear and uncertainty.  "Have they found us again?"

The author of this one is Alucard Finch.  It’s digest sized, 48 pages, with great layout and art.  It's not tied to any specific LOTFP time period or setting, so could be placed in any type of campaign.  That's been a theme with these new releases so far, they've featured dungeons that could work both in a LOTFP setting and in a heroic fantasy setting where the referee is willing to play into 'the Weird'.  It's available at the LOTFP EU webstore or here at DriveThruRPG:  Temple of the Wurm

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Building the York 1630 Campaign

Events moved quickly after the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess game last week.  The players had their successful one-shot delve into the Tower of the Stargazer, declared, "By Jove, this OSR style of gaming is quite a rare flavor", and continued "Bartender, I'll have another.  No, bring the whole bottle, let's make it a full campaign!"

Spoilers may follow.  I don't believe any of my players follow my blog, but in case any do - you might want to stop reading if you don't want to know how the sausage gets made… or how the whiskey is distilled?  I should get my metaphors straight.

In daily life I'm a busy corporate minion, so I knew I'd be stitching together a handful of adventure modules into a loose setting rather than relying on home brew.  For a Lamentations campaign that hits on the classic notes, the centerpiece would be Death Frost Doom and its aftermath.  There are many potential outcomes from it that can send your campaign into a different direction, like a zombie apocalypse or a plague of vampires, and I recently re-watched The Strain and Fear the Walking Dead, so I am here for any and all of it.  

Earlier in the summer I read a book called The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England (Jonathon Healey) so I had a sense of the politics, tensions, and domestic concerns in England between 1620 and 1630 and the transition from King James to Charles.  I picked York because it seems like an interesting northern city with old medieval walls and streets, perched on the edge of several large wilderness areas - including the Yorkshire moors, which seem like they could serve well for hosting haunted places and the odd lair.

In no particular order then, here are the kinds of things I did to get ready for campaigning.  I found a handful of maps online of early modern York that would work as a city map, at least until I convert one in a mapping tool.  I created a random name generator so I could quickly name NPCs and characters on the fly, and also a campaign events generator to populate the calendar with upcoming events that happen in the wider world - wars, and rumors of war.  I made a calendar, too - strict time records and all that.

I created a list of some 40-50 random names of interesting sounding businesses, so I could improvise as required when the players went shopping - I use the name list to pluck a name, pluck a shop name off the shop list, and use another random generator with personality quirks for a suggestion of an NPC's personality.  I built these tools in Excel years ago with random numbers and vlookups, and just update them from campaign to campaign to simplify prep.

I don't have a map of England yet - I've used Google maps to familiarize with the area, but eventually I want to make something with hexes that can be shown to the players for overland travel.  Someone pointed me at a Cambridge collection of period-appropriate John Speed maps; they are amazing, but possibly too detailed and busy for game purposes - we'll see where I land.

In the first game, the players' patron was a local gangster named William Brewer.  He's going to stick around  as an important supporting character as we shift to a campaign mode.  His tavern, the Brabbage, will be a hub for rumors and future plot hooks, and I came up with a handful of things to introduce in the game session so the players have options.  Thinking back to the game session, I introduced plot hooks related to The God That Crawls, The Grinding Gear, Bee-Ware!, Magic Eater, and Strict Time Records Must Be Kept.  Not bad for a single session.  A game based in England will feature many of the Kelvin Green LOTFP titles, as they involve unusual locales and villages that work well in a sandbox.

Here's something obvious to me, though - LOTFP needs an adventure database!  After the current slew of books, the publisher is approaching 100 titles (the last printed title is numbered LOTFP00105, but there are a few skips and reprints in those numbers).  Some are targeted at a fantasy setting, while others are more tightly bound to Earth history and real world locations.  There are adventures set in England, in Scandinavia, in Europe - such as France, Italy, and Germany-based adventures.  Don't get me started on the time periods - many assume a 1630's era, but I've seen one-offs that are set in earlier or later time periods.  Most of them target low levels, although there are a few outliers.  Then there's the taste factor, which ones are "all ages" vs "extreme content".  It's fine to have such an eclectic catalog but a searchable database with attributes would make a referee's life much easier to find useful adventures.  Since I doubt someone will see this humble plea and produce a searchable LOTFP database, maybe it's something I'll put together as I continue the "quixotic quest to review every LOTFP adventure out there…"  I digress.

Besides needing a map of England, I also want to identify several secret societies to round out the campaign prep.  Characters with extraordinary powers, like clerics and magic users, in an otherwise mundane world, would exist on the fringes or keep their status hidden.  There might be cabals of magic users vying for power in the shadows, or a small collection of monster hunters that still fight the good fight in the name of the divine.  Call of Cthulhu is full of these kinds of groups, like the Theron Marks Society, the Brotherhood of the Beast, or the Silver Twilight.  Lastly, I'm also thinking about making some period-appropriate encounter tables for the countryside - who doesn't love a giant random encounter table?  If some kind soul already knows of a Thirty Years' War random table, I would be grateful for a pointer.

Hope you enjoyed reading about the process, and maybe even got some ideas you can use in your own games.  I'll get last game session written up next.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Current Mood

I joined meme culture.  The opportunity to run a game for my high school buddies has put me behind the screen again with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LOTFP) rules in hand, and it's been a blast.  I love the LOTFP rules and aesthetic.  The rules compliment the scenarios very well - LOTFP is lower-powered and focused on exploration, and the scenarios are equally light on combat and concerned with engendering a growing sense of mystery and dread.

Meanwhile, Adventurer Conqueror King powers up the combat side of classic D&D, which is a natural fit for Gygaxian adventures (heroic fantasy) that feature a lot of tactical combats as in The Temple of Elemental Evil.  My vision for the Greyhawk campaign is to make it a tour de Gygax, including Tsojcanth, the Giants, and Descent into the Depths of the Earth.  We've missed a few weeks of scheduling, but I'm hoping to get it back on track soon.  We're going to relax the scheduling to bi-monthly to make it easier on a couple of the regulars to accommodate, and this is going to create a natural opening for me to keep the LOFTP running as a bi-weekly game too (win-win).

I spent a chunk of time last week laying out the foundations for the LOTFP campaign, York 1630.  I'll post the process this week, a play report on the LOTFP game, and another adventure review.  Happy Monday.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Review: Meanderings of the Mine Mind

Spoiler warning - this is a review of an adventure, players stay out!

The set up of this one is fairly simple - some miners are on strike, some heavies from the local guild are trying to get them back to work, and the adventurers show up.  There's a random table that provides several ideas on why the players have come to the mine - the Church hired them to destroy some cave art!  A child went missing in town and is supposed to be hiding out in the mine!  That kind of stuff.

Meanderings of the Mine Mind is an introductory adventure written by Mark Sable; it comes in at 32 pages, and it presents a short mind-bending dungeon.  The overwhelming vibes it kept giving me was somewhere between 1960's Star Trek and the movie "Night at the Museum" - imagine a Star Trek away team ending up at the OK Corral, or Nazi World, or Teddy Roosevelt running into Sir Lancelot and the pharaoh.

This is basically a fun-house style dungeon with some quirky historical encounters, like Roman centurions or World War 2 German Wehrmacht soldiers with grenades and rifles.  The idea behind it is this:  beneath the mountainside is the ancient corpse of a gargantuan alien creature - I picture a Marvel "Celestial" - and the miners have dug tunnels through the thing's fossilized brain.  The silver they're mining once functioned as the creature's neurons and synapses.  The tone of this is more weird and gonzo than horror - it's lighter fare than your typical LOTFP excursion.  While it could work fine in LOTFP's default early modern setting, it could also be used in a traditional fantasy setting.  If it had a detachable cover and those pale blue maps from 1980's TSR , this could have fit right in with the charming "B Series" modules that took place somewhere on Mystara.

However - I have some nitpicks!  Let's start with the maps.  Every room in the dungeon has 3-4 subsections, lettered such as area A, area B, area C… and directions like "A:  A makeshift bunker here houses German soldiers from World War II".  The text is written to make you expect to see where area A, B, C, and so on are placed on the map… I spent too much time looking for them.  Maybe there was a mix up between the maps, the text, and the directions given to the cartographer.  If you're going to run this one, it'd make sense to put annotations on the map so your descriptions don't get crossed up during game play.

The other peculiar thing in the dungeon involved a "diamond encrusted mining pick".  Every room has a silver vein, and it's implied the players can bust out their Skyrim or Minecraft moves and do a little ore mining along the way.  However, I couldn't find anywhere in the text where it describes how much silver can be gleaned from a silver vein.  This seems like a question the players will ask.

When players do some mining, there's a large random table of weird effects that can happen.  The effects are flavorful - they could experience alien memories, have their brains zapped or altered, gain superpowers, all the way up to waking up the big fella who goes and destroys the countryside.  But I was mentioning the "diamond encrusted pickaxe".  Yes, a diamond pickaxe is a treasure in one of the areas.  Besides being a fine treasure on its own, it lets the players mine silver without triggering the random effects.  It made me wonder, if a miner had enough money to bling out their mining pick with diamonds, why are they in a mine?  My "Stan Lee No-Prize" explanation is that the diamond crusted pickaxe was manifested by the alien's mind - it can be used later in the adventure for something special.  But that's the kind of detail you'd expect the author to share or an editor to catch.  Maybe I'm overthinking things - we're talking about a dungeon with cavemen and a Renaissance painter in the same room - but these are the important questions that keep me up.  Watching the fan spin on the ceiling in the middle of the night, and turning the question over and over again in my brain… why, why is there that diamond encrusted pickaxe lying on the floor?  I have to know.

Like most Lamentations of the Flame Princess physical books, the production quality is very high - hard cover, heavy weight paper, fantastic art, layout, a beautiful map.  If this were a PDF on DriveThruRPG, perhaps an author's first adventure, and it had a few loose ends in the text or some misses on the map, you'd say "this is a really great first effort, and there's the bones of a fun adventure in here".  After all, it's easy enough to update a PDF and send it back out into the world.  But LOTFP is an experienced publisher putting a lot of effort into their physical books.  It's fair to expect the maps and text to be a little tighter.

This was LFP0096 out of the new releases.  Going in order, the next one up is LFP0097 - Temple of the Wurm.  It looks quite strange - looking forward to discussing that one!

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Tower of the Stargazer Game Report - York 1630

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes

I had a core group of friends in high school who all played games together - we played D&D, Chill, MERP and Rolemaster, Traveler, all sorts of stuff that was around back in the late 1980's.  I haven't seen a few of them in a long time - 20 years!  We reconnected earlier this summer and were musing "Wouldn't it be fun to fire up a game again?"  I knew one of the guys, Dave, shares my love of horror and the weird - they agreed to do a LOTFP one-shot.  It took a month or so to get the schedules to line up, but we finally ran our reunion game last weekend.  I was having trouble getting our Greyhawk ACKS game fired up anyway due to summer vacations and travel, so this was a great weekend for a pick-up game.

The group made characters during the week after a "session zero" discussion - they brought Blackburn, a Solomon Kane-like cleric; Allister a magic-user from London; Edmund, the burglar; Remy Knotwise, the halfling of Essex.  I'm putting the game in 1630 York in England.  Yorkshire and the northern coast has been on my travel bucket list forever, and it seems like the desolate north of England would be fine for placing a LOTFP adventure.

Billy Brewer, aka Willy the Fox, or Billy B, the local crime boss, who is always referred to as "Mr. William Brewer" in his presence, often arranges things for wealthy patrons, and one of his benefactors, The Doctor, had seen an art piece a long time ago in his youth in the parlor of a tower out on the moors.  It was the former home of an acquaintance who had disappeared many years ago, and the Doctor wanted to know if the art piece could be salvaged and brought to him - he was a collector of rare things.  The tower was out on the moors, away from well-traveled routes.  Mr Brewer would send a few of his thugs along as muscle and furniture movers, along with a horse and cart, but there were enough rumors about the "old wizard" that used to own the place, he wanted to hire several specialists in the occult to accompany his superstitious goons.  Thus, the players came to meet each other and have a job.

By this time, the published adventure Tower of the Stargazer has been out in the wilds for 13 years and is well-known as a fine introductory adventure.  I'm sure you know all about it, so I'll elide many of the details and just focus on the interesting bits that happened.  (And if you're a referee and don't own it already, why don't you have it?  It's great).

Our first casualty was right on the doorstep.  The players performed a search around the door, verified there didn't appear to be any traps, and the thief/specialist (Edmund) boldly grabbed the door handle to shove it open.  The magically trapped handle became a serpent, reared around to bite him, and he died when he failed his saving throw.  Remy, the halfling, said "Perhaps we should knock…" grabbed a spear, lifted one of the door knockers with the spear tip, and watched with a sense of accomplishment as a loud gong reverberated through the valley and the doors magically swung open.

I had everyone make several characters as a contingency, so Edmund's player used the gong sound echoing across the highlands as a contrivance for his replacement character to come investigate the area, and thus Yuri the Elf would soon join the adventure.

The statue the players sought was in the second room, so Brewer's thugs got to work with ropes, block, and tackle, to maneuver it out of the tower and safely stow it on the wagon.  The players began exploring the abandoned tower.  The terms of their employment specified they could salvage anything out of the tower to keep for themselves after securing the statue.  However, if any of Brewer's goons went with them and died, they'd owe a death-benefit to the crime lord out of their share.  They found several trap doors in the floor not far from where the statue was found, and began exploring the basement.

One of the rooms down there is a workshop with operating tables, dissected critters, and a human corpse with a bulbous abdomen, stitched back together with golden threads.  One of the players even said, "This is all wrong - it's going to be John Carpenter's The Thing and turn into a giant maw and start chomping us".  But then the player noticed the corpse was stitched with gold, real golden thread, and caution was thrown to the wind in the interest of loot.

Everyone freaked out with horror mixed with laughter when the animated guts of the corpse started choking Allister, their magic user.  Dave is an artist and posted this sketch shortly after the session, capturing the corpse mayhem:

No one died by asphyxiation, although Allister did almost get choked out.  In the meantime, a couple of Brewer's goons were poking around the lab, too.  The goons were named Barty White, Lucky J, and Zach.  Barty had stayed topside with the horse and cart, but Zach and Lucky J came in to explore with the players.  Zach went to investigate a hallway of mirrors, got promptly sucked into some kind of mirror of life trapping (he looked like General Zod in the phantom zone) and Lucky J tried smashing the mirror to get his buddy out.  Unfortunately that didn't bring Zach back.  That led Dave to make the quote of the night, "Lamentations of the Flame Princess - play stupid games and win stupid prizes."

The players figured out how to work the tower's elevator and made it to the lowest level, where the actual treasure chests were protected by various force fields across a large room.  After a lot of trial and error and frustration dealing with the levers and the different on/off modes, they still hadn't figured out an effective way to negotiate these barriers, and gave up in disgust.  By this point Allister, their magic user, had shocked himself into unconsciousness, and the others decided discretion was the better part of valor, and they would just have to give up on the treasure room and head back to town.

On the way up the elevator, the halfling became curious if the elevator went to a secret spot on the first floor.  He found himself on the third floor instead, face to face with the wizard of the tower, trapped in a thaumaturgic circle of some kind and frozen in time.  There was a hilarious conversation between the halfling and the wizard, as the halfling figured out the wizard was trapped and kept saying, "keep talking, keep talking, I'm listening…" while he rooted around in the wizard's stuff, shoving anything that looked remotely valuable into a large sack (including a 5,000sp "star gem").  That particular scene ended with the wizard howling in helpless rage at the thievery, while the halfling scooted off into the elevator yelling "YOLO, sucker !!!" and escaping with a large bag of loot.

So they missed out on the treasure vault, but salvaged their night with their halfling's daring exploits.  Back in town they'd have to forfeit some of their pay to offset losing Brewer's man Zach, but overall it was a successful first adventure. 

The game rules were very well received (and why not, LOTFP rules are great), the players liked the different vibe of early modern, and the focus on exploration and puzzles interspersed with moments of dread that characterize good LOTFP adventures.  Great fun was had all around.

We had had a "session zero" during the prior week where we talked about character generation.  The question of keeping demi-humans in the game came up.  We ultimately decided to keep them in the setting and play up the idea that they were rare but possible; halflings were a well-known English phenomenon in the south of England, near Kent.  Dwarves were uncommon, but rumored to live in the mountains of Scandinavia.  Elves had left the British Isles centuries ago for some unknown faerie land, but the dark forests of Eastern Europe still had rumored settlements of Earth-bound elves with slavic names and heavy accents.  Thus the player's elf character became "Yuri", a wanderer from a distant land.  (He still has some work to do to explain Yuri's presence in the Yorkshire Moors…)

Sufficient fun was had that they implored me to make this a semi-frequent game, so I'll be running a York-based LOTFP campaign 1-2 times a month, in or around when we don't get together for Greyhawk.  So this won't be the last time you hear about these particular characters or their exploits.  Incidentally, anyone know of a good hex map of Ye Olde Merry Englande?

Friday, August 11, 2023

Review: The Yellow Book of Brechewold

And now for something completely different…

The Yellow Book of Brechewold answers the question, "What if Jack Vance wrote Harry Potter as a sequel to T.H. White's The Once and Future King?"  It's quite different from anything else in the LOTFP catalog.  It might also be one of the best LOTFP books in recent memory.

The Yellow Book of Brechewold (TYBOB) is both a setting and a framework for running a campaign therein.  In the years after Merlyn and Arthur have left the stage of mythic England, an eccentric castle sits atop a large dungeon.  It acts as a school of magic for promising students, replete with a headmaster and tutors, providing a place for magic users, clerics, and elves to pursue strange subjects and go on fantastic quests.

A Brechewold campaign is organized around the academic year.  There are 13 different tutors with varying courses of study for the players to select each term.  You're not actually roleplaying out the school year unless that floats your boat - the tutors are patrons who can provide rumors and quest goals, and the players will have a good set of ideas to plan interesting adventures for themselves in the sandbox.  There are 70-80 rumors available, running the gamut from recovering lost magic items and treasures, discovering hidden chambers in the dungeons, and even some skullduggery and mischief.  A Brechewold campaign anticipates the players will embark on one main adventure per term; two grand adventures per academic year, and 8 adventures over the course of their 4 years at the school.  The adventures could take the players through a 6 level dungeon beneath the castle (some 100 rooms) or into the hexes of the surround wilds where there are another 25 locations.

Stylistically the setting blends wonder and whimsy with a splash of the weird and picaresque.   The tutors are eccentric schemers and manipulators like characters from the Dying Earth series; the wilderness is straight out of British folklore and T.H. White, with knight-errants, geas-bestowing Faerie knights, and legendary figures of Arthurian myth.   Examples of the style:  there's a portal to Mars where two skeletal dwarves have been forced to forge a legendary Merlyn-killing sword for 100 years, enslaved by a sentient star.  There are humorous encounter locales, like the Shrine of St Pancras the patron saint of inferiority complexes, or tongue-in-cheek magic items like the Debate Club - if you knock someone out with it, you win the argument.

As with many OSR works, there are random tables to generate plenty of variable content - generators for demons, knight-errants, faerie knights, other students, and dungeon and wilderness encounters.  The descriptions are OSR-sparse and on the minimalist side.  Here is a sample encounter, the tomb of a ghost professor in the dungeons who now takes the form of a six-legged elf-bug hybrid, The Entomologist:

TYBOB comes across as a labor of love where the creator (Matt Strom) wrote it, did the artwork, and even made the maps by hand. That's perhaps my only complaint - those dang maps!  There's no grid nor map scale to any of them, an affront to my war-gaming nature.  There's a definite taste palate in the OSR that treasures artistic hand-drawn maps with clever annotations right on the maps themselves, but it's not my preferred style.  (The rest of this setting is good enough I will get over myself).  To give you an idea, here's a snippet of a map:

I'm a big fan of this book, and I will absolutely look for an opportunity to bust it out for an upcoming game - that may not be long with the way my Greyhawk campaign is going!  Full disclosure about my gushing enthusiasm for this one - I am predisposed to loving this kind of setting.  Back during the Mystara period of classic D&D, The Principalities of Glantri were always my favorite gazetteer.  T.H. White's The Once and Future King was one of those formative books I read during high school, and I've read it several times with fondness.  With 3 children, I can't count how many times my wife or myself read the Harry Potter series to the kids out loud when they were younger, or were forced to endure the movies (again and again).  Then there's Jack Vance and the picaresque characters of The Dying Earth.  I come by a fondness for Brechenwold's material naturally, and if you like these influences as I do, you probably will like Brechewold as well.

If you're a long time LOTFP fan, this one doesn't court controversy with edgy themes or norm-busting artwork.  No demon cocks or butt-faces, you maniacs!  It captures a tone of whimsy and chivalry with splashes of the weird, and perhaps that why it's norm-busting for LOTFP - it's the LOTFP book that deserves to have a broader appeal in the wider OSR-o-Sphere.

I was able to get my hands on a preview copy, and like all the hardbacks made from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess imprint, the physical book is high quality with a cloth bookmark (looks smyth-sewn to me with stitched pages, but I'm sure a bibliophile can confirm).  This book comes in at 160 pages and is one of the heftier LOTFP books outside of Carcosa or the adventure anthologies.  I'm expecting it to be available today (August 11th) on the EU webstore, shortly followed by a PDF release on DrivethruRPG.  I'll update this post with links to both places (and prices) as they become available.  

Edit:  Here is the link to the LOTFP EU webstore (€ 38.50 for print and pdf):  The Yellow Book of Brechewold.  Hopefully gets added to DriveThru and US store soon...

There you go - reading Brechewold ends my week on a high point.  I highly recommend checking it out.  Like King Pellinore himself, I'm continuing my quixotic quest to review every LOTFP book on the planet, with another new one in the queue for next week - the Meanderings of the Mine Mind.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Licorice Eaters

August 9th marks the end of "the days between", an 8-day period where Deadheads (fans of the Grateful Dead) reminisce or celebrate the impact of the band.  Jerry Garcia was born on August 1st (1942) and died on August 9th (1995) and the period is named for a melancholic and nostalgic piece called Days Between.  There's a groovy boho town nearby called New Hope, where a gallery featured a free exhibit with a bunch of Jerry artwork, visiting that was my nod this year to marking the "days between".

I don't expect people outside of America to know the Grateful Dead - shoot, most Americans have forgotten about this particular subculture.  But the Dead did something back in the 70's that energized a following that shows no signs of diminishing.  They gave their sound away.

With a few exceptions, the Dead studio albums are not particularly good.  Their magic comes from live performances.  Every show has a unique set list.  Songs are played differently from night to night - solos are different, arrangements are different, they experimented on stage.  The Dead's formula fused psychedelic improvisation and jazz to traditional roots music like blues, folk, country, and bluegrass to create a distinct and new thing.  People started sneaking recording equipment into the shows to catch that lightning in a bottle and relive or share what was otherwise a transient experience.  As befitting a band built on libertarian ideals of freedom and expression, they weren't interested in policing this taping activity.  "The shows are never the same, ever. . . . and when we’re done with it, they can have it."  In fact, by the 1980's, there was a formal section behind the sound booth on the floor that was reserved at Dead shows for the tapers to set up their audio recording equipment.

An entire non-commercial sub-community sprung up within the Dead sub-culture around copying and sharing tapes, fan to fan.  The Internet Archive and Relisten both have some 17,000 recordings* of the Dead shows from the 1960's until 1995 that have been digitized by tapers and posted online for anyone to listen.  All free.

To be fair, there is also commercial activity that's keeping the scene alive - the Dead's record label still releases re-mastered and cleaned up versions of concerts a couple of times a year, from higher quality recordings patched directly from the sound boards, and that's what you can hear on streaming platforms like Apple, Spotify, or as Grateful Dead Road Trips, Download Series, or Dick's Picks, named after one of their archivists (Dick Latvala).  You're paying for quality.  (As an aside, I recommend Nugs for anyone that loves modern live music and jam bands, but if that's your kicks you probably already know about it).

Something else has happened because the music is about performances and not studio work.  The songs evolve.  It's an open invitation to do your own thing.  Everyone who played with the band or a side project has put their touch on the music - you can hear Dead songs played by touring acts like Dark Star Orchestra and Joe Russo's Almost Dead; in my area there are like 15 Dead cover bands that do the bar circuit in and around Philadelphia.  Dead & Company, with John Mayer and several Dead members, just finished a sold-out ballpark tour in the states that was extremely good.  Several days a week you can go have a beer and a burger or ribs and catch a Dead tribute band in your area - like I said, there are over a dozen around Philadelphia, and every state has them.  Some of the Philly ones are quite good.

Jerry had a quote: "If I work as hard as I can in my life, I may be able to end up building this thing that nobody can tear down after I'm dead."  This train is still chugging along.

Maybe it's unnatural or a forced comparison to compare the Dead scene to roleplaying games and early D&D?  They were both fronted by 70's icons with beards?  The OGL, and through it the OSR, opened the door to allow community sharing that captured similar egalitarian and communal spirits as the tapers and the cover bands.  There was a heady sense of freedom and creativity in the early OSR, and a great sharing of ideas.  Think of the interesting projects this scene has produced, whether it's one page dungeons, Hydra co-op, D23, or Prince's funny "no artpunk" collections.  There is commercial activity, too - many retro clones offer free rules, but you'll pay for quality if you want nice printed editions with art.

I don't keep up with all the permutations of new retro clone rules, but people are still cranking them out.  Does anyone follow all the new adventures that are published?  It feels like an ocean.  I try to keep tabs on what Bryce is looking at, and I get the sense it's a fraction of what's actually out there - just waves lapping on the shore.  I'm generally a positive, glass half full kind of person to start with, but this feels like a healthy scene with a lot going on, even if it is a bit decentralized and chaotic, with different centers of gravity.  Tenkar still has his crowd, there's the Dragonsfoot people, Pundit's place, the old school conventioners, some Discorders and Substackers sprouting up here and there.  Not a booming scene, but a scene that has weathered controversies and kerfuffles and has settled into a mostly even keel.

I have tasted of newer iterations of the game, and they've left me wanting - they're not licorice.  I'm glad an OSR scene was still here to come back and experience.

Later tonight when I'm pouring a bourbon or scotch to reflect on another "days between", I'll also tip one for the OSR and the folks out there still doing good, creative work and keeping this scene alive.  Cheers all.

*Footnote:  the Dead performed some 2300 concerts over their 30 year run, but since any given concert could have been recorded by several tapers, that's why there can be 17,000 recordings in the internet archive.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

LOTFP Review: Curse of the Daughterbrides

I could stop the review right there.

Take an unhealthy dollop of Craster (the incest guy with all the daughter-wives from Game of Thrones), add in the involuntary suicide theme from M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, and a couple of birds flipped from the FU Guy, and you get the gist of Curse of the Daughterbrides.  If that's not your jam, you can pass on this one.

However, I subjected myself to reading it, so I'll soldier on and share an actual review.

I've read and played a fair number of Call of Cthulhu scenarios, as well as derivatives like Trail of Cthulhu and Delta Green, and there exists a slice of horror scenarios that force the players to make terrible moral choices to forestall a greater horror.  There are yet other scenarios that strip the players of agency at points - maybe they become unreliable narrators or monsters themselves.  Curse of the Daughterbrides establishes such a situation, in media res, that combines both motifs - terrible choices and a looming loss of agency.  It is a genre removed from the tropes of agency-based D&D and the expectations of fantasy gaming and sits firmly in the horror genre.

The situation is a fiasco… a bothersome wizard (Neythan Liddicoat) discovered the creepy incest guy (Daveth Nancarrow) and his entourage of off-putting "daughterbrides" in a village.  Nancarrow carries a curse and prophecy that drives him to breed with his offspring, and the curse has made his weird daughter-wives resistant to magic.  When the meddlesome wizard manufactures a spell to kill all the Nancarrows, it backfires on the villagers instead , who go on a horrific spree of killing themselves in gruesome detail.  Enter the players, visiting the pastoral and remote village of Dammell Green on festival day, and discovering the collateral damage that recently unfolded.  The player characters will get infected by the curse if they explore the village, and then become aware that coming into proximity with another sentient being will trigger the player character's own deaths by suicide.  Revelers and festival goers from the surrounding countryside continue to meander towards the village, creating existential threats for the players.  The only way to survive is to kill or drive off anyone that tries to approach, before they get too close.  It is a grim situation.

By default, there is no way to break the curse.  The scenario is meant to be a one-shot that kills all the characters (a TPK) after the players witness scene after scene of vivid self-inflicted death, until they eventually succumb to their own bleak fate.  The author (James Raggi IV, publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess) describes it like this - "Just a shit situation to get stuck in the middle of, and not much hope of getting out of.  Suffer."  In case some callous referee wanted to add this to an ongoing campaign (??), he does provide some optional ideas on how to break the suicide curse.

If you're in the market for a no-win scenario with a gruesome subject matter and themes of incest, well then this might be an adventure for you.  I'm sure there are fans of the horror genre that would find this one a rollicking good time.  There are bleak movies that embrace moral horror and hopelessness, and there's a precedent in other game systems of bringing that experience to the tabletop medium.  There's a certain liberation during Call of Cthulhu scenarios when the players know everyone is doomed, and they try to do the best job possible anyway, in the face of certain death.  Ultimately I'd characterize this scenario as a genre-bending art piece unlikely to have utility in most traditional agency-based campaigns, but might find an audience amongst such horror devotees.  Any Delta Green/LOTFP cross-over players out there?  That would be a strange Venn diagram.

This is not a hefty book - it's 24 pages, describes a small village where all the citizens have killed themselves, and provides background information on the Wizard Liddicoat and the Nancarrow Clan.  Despite the short length I found it a tough read - the death scenes of the villagers are numbing, and the incestuous daughter-wives are off-putting.  The author, James Raggi, writes an introduction where he shares how traumatic elements of his personal life found expression in the scenario.  I hope he's in a better place in his life now.  To the extent a written piece can convey the artist's emotional message and act as self-therapy, this book seems successful in that regard.

Would I ever run this one?  It seems unlikely.  I'm not planning any bleak horror games, nor have cleared the subject matter (trigger warnings) with any players.  If I were to run it, I'd make the suicide curse run out by sunrise the next day - I like the idea of the "dawn of a new day" wiping out lingering malign enchantments.  Could the players survive the long night?  Both Liddicoat and the Nancarrows would be targets for the surviving players to clean up the mess.

Hopefully this review gives you some advance warning on the type of game where this could work.  It's available for $4.99 here at DriveThruRPG: Curse of the Daughterbrides.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Lamentations Hype Machine - New Dungeons Incoming

JR 4 put a video together discussing new releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  I like the format - the two Jims manifesting the internal dialogue between good business sense versus creative freedom.  That seems to be the whole ballgame for LOTFP:

There should be a lot of new books to review as this material hits DriveThruRPG or I get my hands on some physical copies.  Somewhere along the way I heard this wave includes lots of dungeons that hearken back to the early days of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and that is welcome news.  It's a really good rules set, but LOTFP is strongest when it builds on standard tropes and gives them a two-handed shove through the doorway into The Weird.

I saw some social media posts from James where he said the last convention - Ropecon - had the highest sales ever since he's been attending it.  That's really interesting,  Gencon is this weekend - I have a buddy going who may try to pick up a few books for me.  I could be delusional about the underlying cause, but it seems like WOTC's OGL kerfuffle energized people to check out alternate games (including OSR publishers).  Alexander Macris, the ACKS creator, has been plugging away at an updated version of ACKS.  We should see that this summer.

Stay tuned - I'm looking forward to seeing a return by LOTFP to weird dungeons.  I'm working on a review of Curse of the Daughterbrides but should be able to see some new stuff next week and gauge for myself.  Anyone out there in the EU had a chance to see any of the new books in person?

Post Script:  

I was visiting some in-laws near Kentucky and saw that my entire blog was blocked by their ISP.  I could see it when I connect to cellular.  I don't even think there's anything controversial here, maybe an instance of foul language?  This is exactly why we need to fight censorship and battle against the suppression of ideas - and support our small publishers.  I'm with the banned.