Monday, 27 September 2010

Ruined Hamlet / Terror in the Gloaming

Launching the first wave of new reviews is 'Adventure Module BL1-2: The Ruined Hamlet/Terror in the Gloaming', an adventure for 'Basic-level' by Barrataria Games. This module is completely compatible with the '81 or '83 Red Box rules, or with Labyrinth Lord; one should be able to use it with Swords & Wizardry with no significant work at all. (But not White Box, for reasons that will become apparent...) The book is sixty pages long, including some handouts and maps.

(Going to make one key point here. When reviewing adventures, it is very difficult not to avoid spoilers. I will try, but no guarantees. Hell – if you are going to buy the adventure, you're probably not going to be playing in it but running it instead.)

This is going to be a pretty darn good review, to warn you in advance. When I ordered the book, I was expecting two separate adventures, but I did not get that. There are about five or six in here instead. The book essentially fleshes out a wilderness map, surrounding a small underground village, with fifteen locations in total described in detail.

The area is recovering from a recent period of total lawlessness, hence the large number of ruins in the area. In a bid to recover it, the local noble ruler selected one of the bandit gangs and put them in charge, giving them responsibility for the area. This means – interestingly – that all the guards and their leaders are Thieves rather than Fighters. (I would probably swap a few of the lower-level Thieves for Fighters, representing 'muscle', but I like the design decision. This means that White Box will not work as written, of course...)

The wilderness area is first. It starts with the 'Ruined Hamlet' of the title, which is a pretty effective overground dungeon area, and a nice variation from the usual 'starter dungeon' complex type. A party just starting out would struggle with this – if they did not have the ability to quickly exit the area after damaging encounters. This is followed by an extensive random encounter table, and again each possible encounter is well detailed, though again, some of them will be difficult.

I make no bones about it, and might as well say it here – this is a potentially pretty deadly adventure for the unwary. Players will need to be tactically astute, careful, and frankly lucky. This does not detract in the slightest, and appeals to my style of running games in any case.

We then have a series of keyed encounters on the map, including a series of farmstead scattered about (excellent places to rest up), fur traders, a graveyard (another excellently described 'overground dungeon' area, this time somewhat more deadly), ruined church (and another), ruined tower (another), a potential trigger to a module to be published in the future, and a small tomb.

This is one of the stellar points of the module, and one that a DM is going to need to be careful to save until the party have explored most of the rest of the area. Unwary adventurers can trigger a series of circumstances here that will potentially lay waste to most of the map, complete with a timeline of consequences triggered to other locations. This is an excellent way to conclude a short campaign. (In fact, if the PCs don't trigger it, an NPC should – an option not noted in the module. There are plenty of candidates among the bandits and brigands.)

Then we get to the 'Gold Hill Trading Post', which is unusually an underground series of chambers, with four different entrances to different parts of the complex. One takes you to the barracks, occupied by the new guards of the area, then next takes you to an inn, complete with rumour table. (And I like the fact that the higher your Charisma, the more likely you are to hear a 'true rumour'.) Then a smithy, which will be of great importance to most adventurers, and the trading post itself – which conceals a great secret. (Spoiler: Hidden thieves' guild!) There is a fifth chamber designed for important visitors (potentially the PCs), and a sixth that is walled off – a traditional dungeon complex.

The best thing about this section is that it is all described as if the players are exploring a dungeon. Which in a sense, of course, they are. Not only does this make it extremely straightforward for a DM to run a new party through this module, but it also opens up the intriguing possibility of the party playing a group of monsters, on the rampage through this settlement!

The adventure continues with a small selection of new monsters, spells and magical items, which are frankly nothing to write home about – except that they are from other sources, and have been included because they are mentioned in the article. Only one page – good call. (One note here – this module does not use the new material from the Companion Expansion. Again, I like this, as it means that you do not need two products to play. It would be easy enough to add this material in.)

What do I like about this adventure? It is logically laid out for someone running it, the descriptions are concise and clear, and all the NPCs, creatures, etc, are statted out correctly. You get a real feeling for the setting that the adventure is set in, without it being obtrusive, and this is applied consistently throughout the book. It is bursting with adventures; you could quite easily run a four-six session campaign with just the material in this book, taking a party from starting to the brink of third level. More to the point: this feels real. The setting has a distinctive but not distracting flavour.

What don't I like? Not much. My one niggle is the old 'Keep on the Borderlands' problem – none of the NPCs have any darn names! A key piece of preparation would be to list out all the NPCs, and there are quite a few of them, and give them names in advance. The title is a little confusing and complicated – I would have probably stuck with 'Module BL1: Terror in the Gloaming'. OK, you know I'm reaching when I am niggling about the title.

If you want an excellent adventure to start a new campaign that your players will remember, buy this book. If you want a grab-bag of wilderness locations to populate a campaign map, buy this book. They've beat Keep on the Borderlands at their own games. I can't wait to see what Barrataria Games does next.

Buy at Lulu

Friday, 24 September 2010

Advanced Edition Characters

I went into this one expecting to like what I saw, and I came away initially with a slightly unsatisfied feeling – it took me a while to understand why. I'll explain later...

Physically (I picked up the paperback version from Lulu), the book is well-presented, well-laid out, and a good match for the revised edition Labyrinth Lord in terms of style. Everything seems to be in good shape; my one niggle is that there is no index, though there is a substantial table of contents.

The book opens with character creation, and here we have the usual races you would expect from 1st Ed, as well as the additional classes – new races Half-Orc, Half-Elf, and Gnome, new classes Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist, Assassin, Druid. As promised, this book allows characters to be created that match 1st Edition standards, without a lot of the clutter. I was pleased that proficiencies were left out, but that the 'Secondary Skill' table, providing characters with some background skill from their past, was included.

Frankly, it was at the part of the review that I hit a stumbling block. Suffice to say that this book contains most of the 'missing content' that 1st Edition had that B/X did not, but written as if it was a later book in the B/X product line – I'd almost say that this is the 'Companion' book we've been waiting for all these years.

This is my point – there is nothing here that we haven't seen before. That's what initially left me somewhat unsatisfied, but I rapidly came to see that this was the greatest strength of the book. In one 156-page book, all the elements of 1st Edition that I like have been provided here in a distilled format, and pretty much everything I dislike has been left out. I'm going to put it another way – this isn't the 'Companion' – this is what 2nd Edition should have been like.

Is this book a new, amazing read? No. But then it doesn't promise to be. Is this book good inspiration for games – yes. Is this book actually useful at the table? Definitely yes. I have a running debate with a friend of mine over sourcebooks that are 'cool and revolutionary' over ones that are 'actually useful at the table'. The former I will read an enjoy, and they will sit on my shelf unused. The latter I will read through, and then carry to every session and eventfully wear out through use – though on first read it didn't hit me as hard. This definitely falls into the latter category, folks. If you're looking to run a 1st-Edition style game, you could do a lot worse than pick this up. If you want a good 'sourcebook of stuff' for your B/X game, this is pretty much essential.

Will I use all of this? Probably not; I'd rather run a more B/X style game, racial class and all. Will I grab monsters, spells, magic items from this? Absolutely. Recommended buy.

Buy at Lulu

Original Edition Characters

As I have recently reviewed that Advanced Edition Companion, it seems sensible to follow it up with a review of another Labyrinth Lord sourcebook, Original Edition Characters. Like the AEC, the OEC is designed to help imitate a slightly different style of play, that of the original '74 D&D edition, but with some minor variations. It also has a second purpose, serving as a player's handbook to the game itself.

Physically, another good book. (Still no index, though!) You get a 64-page digest sized book, with some nice illustrations and generally well laid-out; everything is in a logical place. Everything needed for the generation of a Labyrinth Lord character is present - classes, races, equipment lists, and spell lists. As a player's handbook, it works well.

As a way of moving Labyrinth Lord closer to the 'original three', it works as well. Looking under the hood, for the GM it is essentially the same basic system in any case, so there is no need to make any changes there. The changes is for the players, who have slightly different options to choose from (no thief, elves effectively as dual-class characters), and a somewhat different ethos to the game.

Do I recommend this? Let me put it this way - I'll be picking a copy up for each of my players for my next Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Buy at Lulu

Companion Expansion

I initially stumbled across this one on Lulu while I was buying my copy of the Advanced Edition Companion, and was intrigued by what I saw - intrigued enough to plonk down my money for a copy at the same time, though until yesterday it had remained on my shelf. Now, I think it highly likely that it's going to be a key part of my campaign.

Production wise, you get a 116-page book, pretty well illustrated, that is designed for 'Basic' and 'Expert' rules systems. (That has a familiar ring to it, somehow...) Although it is not associated with Labyrinth Lord or any other retro-clone, there should be no problems using it with any of the B/X-style rules-sets. I stress that point - the nature of this book will make it less useful with something like OSRIC.

I don't really consider this a 'Companion' in the B/X sense of the world. It isn't really a high-level supplement, though it does extend the level limits all the way up to 36. This to me is a good thing. I didn't actually think the original Companion book was that good, and I very rarely take campaigns above Expert level in any case; I find lower-level material a lot more use.

The best thing about this book comes right at the start. Seven new classes, presented in the OD&D style, that add more classes and races to the game - and each is distinctive. Although the new classes are drawn from AD&D, having them add something new to the game is taken as more important than apeing the class.

So you start with the Bard, almost all of whom's powers relate towards using his musical instrument. He has some of the Thief skills, some illusionist spells, starting at 2nd level, and abilities to inspire courage, alter reactions, and charm his enemies. The Druid is as you'd expect taking his spells from the Druidic spell list, but essentially a 'nature cleric'. (Yes - there are two new spell lists here. Another take on the Druid and Illusionist spells.)

Then it gets better - a varient Elf, the 'Wildwood' Elf. This again draws Druidic spells, but has a range of abilities designed for use in the outdoors. (The book recommends not using both types of Elf in the same campaign - I disagree. Great scope for conflict.) Then the Gnome, and this is a good one. Basically on the same power level as the Dwarf, but less good at fighitng and with illusionist spells. A much better fit to OD&D. Then Half-Orcs/Half-Elves. Interestingly, both of these classes have been treated in the same way in the game, with the same abilities; the take is that both are 'outsiders', and that the external differences are largely cosmetic. They are treated as outdoorsmen, again with some Thief abilities, some tracking abilities, and some to cure wounds. I like this idea in general, but I think in practice I might include some variation between the two.

My favourite race next - the Half-Ogre! We see far too little of this gem, and here he is for B/X. D10 hit points and damage bonuses form the bulk of his abilities, and make him a ferocious fighter, which is as it should be. Slow level advancement, though. The Illusionist - again - comes next. A fairly standard take on it. The final new class is the Scout, which is essentially a Ranger, but without clerical spells bolted on; I like this class, as it actually does add something new.

I've spent a lot of time on the classes, as for me they were what made the book distinctive. There is a nice comprehensive equipment list, but nothing particularly special. Then the spells, which take up about half the book - a few additional magic-user and cleric spells, and complete druidic and illusionist spells lists. Whilst these have been seen in other products before, I still like having lots of different spell lists to make the magical characters distinctive.

Most of the second half of the book consists of new monsters, and again we see a lot of familiar faces. A few that stand out are the Bookworm, which is death for a spellbook, the Rust Dragon (like a Red Dragon, but with a breath weapon that mimics the effect of a Rust Monster!) , and some nice varieties of skeletons to make those undead encounters interesting. This is one of those sections of the book that are more useful in the game than a great read; if you've been playing for a while you will have seen most of them before.

The book concludes with a selection of magical items, again drawn from AD&D, nicely sorted into tables. Again - we've seen these before, but they are all converted and are all here in one place. You can't really have too many magical items, I think. Plenty of reference tables finish the book.

Why did I like this? It is useful. I can use the whole book in my LL or B/X campaign without any modifications, or any changes to the basic nature of the game. It is still B/X, but now with a range of additional classes, spells, monsters and options. I can recommend this for that reason. It is available through Lulu, and there is also a free (non-art) PDF download available.

Buy at Lulu

The Master Plan...

Hello, and welcome to the 'Tales of the Dusty Vault', intended as a depository of reviews for products released as part of the old-school revolution. It recently hit me that a majority of my RPG spending over the last year or so has been on such products, and there have been many true gems among them (I have become quite the Lulu junkie over the last few months...).

However, I have had to buy most of them sight unseen. There are so few reviews available of these products, particularly some of the more minor books and adventures – so I have decided to take it upon myself to correct that gap in the market with this blog. I will cover adventures, supplements, rules systems, magazines, and all manner of similar material. While focusing on fantasy, there will be some coverage of old-school games from other genres, such as Mutant Future and Villains & Vigilantes.

I admit I love holding a book in my hands rather than flicking through a PDF, so there will be something of a bias towards 'dead tree' material. In addition, I am setting a ground rule that any product I review must still be available in this format. This still leaves a wide array of material to cover.

I'm going to start by reposting the reviews I did on the OD&DITIES blog to get the ball rolling, but the first 'new' reviews should be up within the next few days.

Happy Gaming!