Because the rules, the system and the people all expected that playing D&D was like following a progression curve that would eventually lead you to design D&D. You started a player, then took a big step forward and became a Dungeon Master, then had, yes had, to write your own adventures. Only then were you considered a complete player and accepted as such. Now, writing adventures when you're 8 to 10 years old can prove tricky but yes, I did.
We didn't have the internet back then so people with a little more craft would handwrite or type their adventures, put some picture on the cover and go xerox all the way to "sell" them around for a handful of peanuts. Every club, every city, every place was a bustling underground network of DIY publishers and THAT WAS PART OF THE GAME.
Now that we have the internet, our virtual city has different venues. It has Indie Press Revolution, Drivethrurpg, Lulu. I bet you know those names. But deep down, it's the same story, it's where we share this part of the game where we become designers, this part where we reach the full extent of what D&D is, turning us all into writers and game creators.
To a player, the release of D&D5, with or without OGL, or the decisions of the other system owners (think Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Dungeon Crawl Classics) is probably good news and won't change much of the way he games anyway. But to the designer intending to release his tidbits on the internet, to the complete D&D player, the way the industry goes and especially the level of creative freedom - either legally or in the nuts and bolts of its system - it allows him is far more important. We're all stars now and we might need to struggle to keep intact the design & release side of the OSR for I don't know where the 5th might lead us, nor do I know what decisions the big boys are going to take but I know for sure that we need that space or else, it isn't D&D anymore.
Following the OSR Megamix line of thoughts, I have accumulated a lot of stuff that could intertwine and play together wonderfully over the last few years. In addition, I'm writing new stuff that will hopefully blow a few minds at the moment and somewhat, all this is falling into place like a puzzle (I know, that's what paranoid people say as well).
WARNING, MAJOR DOOM-CAVE SPOILERS AHEADParis was so remote from any shop that participated to the Free RPG Day that I had missed all the fun this year. That's why the PWYW release of The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children was an event for me. Last year was basically the same and Better Than Any Man was quite a blast. I loved almost every bit of it - especially its long introduction about playing in a Faux Renaissance-Europe setting. I'm a Solomon Kane/The Enemy Within/Dark Ages Call of Cthulhu sort of player and always thought that Old Europe makes a perfect fit for grotesque and horror fantasy, So Dark All Over Europe as the Sisters of Mercy say.
James is the best publisher around the OSR. Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, Vornheim and Better Than Any Man have all pushed up the limits, wrapped our RPG subculture into Art and vice-versa, crashed the few fences that needed to be crashed and promoted real production value where the standard was still rooted in the 1980s. We, small DIY players/enthusiasts/designers now strive to keep up with the level of expectation he's set (except for the ENnies crowd who seem to ignore just about anything about what's been published this year). He may not be the best writer this time, though - to each his own.
For when I read The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children, I can't help thinking that it's been a rush job. Not so much on the production side, not really on the writing side, no. Worse. On the imagination side. The plot is so contorted that it could have been part of a season of Lost, it relies heavily upon a "it's science-gonzo-fuckmagic" instead of even trying to show a seeming of logic. It's so circonvoluted that it makes me think of a BBS Forum Fanfiction plot. You know what I mean: "he loved her but she wasn't her then because then she was me but my evil twin is so powerful because he's made love with Alucard and now his baby is singing and your ears bleed so yes, I can type with my CAPS LOCKS on". Were there some fun in this that I would have been sold, to hell with logic! Alas, the only reason I see for such a plot is that it makes us think of the Bodysnatchers and that it's cool. It is indeed, except about all of James adventures make us think about the Bodysnatchers. You can even do that to yourself if you fuck with a summon spell by the book. So yeah, Bodysnatchers once, right, Bodysnatchers twice, we get the hint but every effing adventure? No, thank you. You get the weird and the grotesque when you have an ordinary, it's a balance that keeps the surprise element hitting as hard as it must and keeps the players on their toes. When you get turned into a turnip, transformed into a rotting fish, mind-warped and grow an extra leg off your ass every adventure (I think you got everything you need here for next Free RPG Day, James), it's not weird anymore, not grotesque anymore, it's just a theme, a color, a background ; and it's boring because nothing else happens, because if everything's always special, then nothing is.
Don't get me wrong, I love when my characters warp. I've played a half-demon who randomly became a monk and whose skin was green and could synthezise light as plants do, and he was my favorite character for a long time - before becoming an undead cat. It wasn't boring, never was, because every other character struggled to remain normal and because that happened over time, because that wasn't a routine. You'll find a lot of random tables in the Doom-Caves as well. Those of you who have bought my stuff know how much I love random tables, I've designed a whole city just with random tables (not like Vornheim, a complete city - neighborhood by neighborhood). I'm the sort of guy who draws 4 cards from the Deck of Many Things when one pops up. But here, most tables could be subsumed in 2, maybe 3 effects - to such an extent that the tables aren't really useful. 1 - you gain 1 point in a stat 2 - You gain 1 point and your friend Bob loses 2, 3 - You both lose 1 point and dance a Polka, etc. What's the point? I mean, what is there to tinker with since most results come to similar conclusions? It's just random for the sake of being random as it's weird for the sake of being weird and that's bad design. And deep down, when you strip the thing to its bones, there's a room with a wizard and a set of machines and traps. I'd say "yawn" if it wasn't for the adventure's upside.There's a mechanism for collective intelligence, the Ladder, which is brilliant because it builds an incredible tension just by itself, a mechanical tension, perfectly suited to the theme. There's this incredible environment to explore as well. It's well-detailed and thought-provoking and reminds me very much of Paul Keigh's adventures, as published by Geoffrey McKinney in his Psychedelic Adventures line. These adventures, the Dreams of the Lurid Sac, The Streams of the Lurid Crack and the Gleams of the Livid Plaque are location-based adventures set in weird gonzo places where factions compete. Unlike the Doom-Caves, they're not very detailed and leave a lot to the Referee's imagination, like the Doom-Caves they distantly feel like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, complete with the mandatory alien abduction, the robots and the awful monsters from Outer Space. If you put them together with the Doom-Caves, you've got a whole crossover campaign to play and it sounds like your players will remember it.
I'm not giving stars, who the hell I am to give marks? but as written, I think I'd pass on this one and get back to my campaign notes, I'm running Better Than Any Man very soon and it's a tough nut to crack.
This booklet is officially compatible with Labyrinth Lord and the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion. since these systems emulate the Basic and Advanced editions of the original Old School rules, you can play with them or with any Old School Renaissance gaming system instead.
Deep beneath the streets of the City-State of Cryptopolis, sanctuary of the lich-thieves and abode of the Red Goddess, sewers and ancient ruins mingle together into a labyrinth of horrors and wonders.
Bring your own character and play solo without a DM with this huge random-generated adventure spanning a full campaign and backdrop setting.
Maybe there are not other players around you, or maybe your schedule doesn't really allow you to engage in a long beer & pretzel session of hack'n'slash. When this is the case, you can play the Ruins of the Undercity solo, bringing your good old characters in or rolling for new ones. You can also use the adventure to play with a few friends and no DM.
In a nutshell, Ruins of the Undercity features an alternate set of tables for random dungeon and monster generation, traps and magic effects tables, treasures and simple house rules to run all of this smoothly. In addition, you'll find a simple setting and basic rules for solo campaign play.
- Exploding pistols,
- Cool holsters to win initiative ties,
- State your intent first, roll initiative later — can't tell you enough how much I love this,
- Skills that match with every stats, and that you can twist the way you want to haggle-roleplay your way out of all the straits, so that it's not only character's skills but player's wits that matters at the end of the day,
- All your Hit Points back after an extended rest,
- Blue finish on your gun for $5 extra,
- And so much more...
The whole UK adventures series were, as an Amazon reviewer said, well ahead of their time. Most of them involve a strong railroading, but not much more than the one you get in your usual Pathfinder Adventure Path. You're railroaded okay, but you don't quite feel like it and there's a bit of space for different options if you want to somewhat derail: that's railroading with a leeway, which I will coin as rollercoasting for future debates and blog posts. Now that rollercoasting has become the standard for many players, these adventures shine as brilliant precursors.
1. A Story With Options
In this widespread vision of solo RPG play, you play the hero of a story. The story is more or less defined in advance, and paragraphs are nudging you forward towards its completion. There might be challenges, and many opportunities to die or to fail, but eventually, you'll choose the right path, or maybe become strong enough, and finish the adventure in a blaze of glory. It's like picking choices (more or less blindly I daresay) and trying to guess whatever preplanned route was set by the designers.
The Warlock of Fire Mountain was damn tough. Yet, there was barely a couple of options to get to its end, and one only to finish him victoriously.
2. A Creativity Puzzle
What hit me with Strange Destinies is that you can't really win if you're not playing creatively with the booklet and its rules. Some paragraphs hint you at doing something the text doesn't talk about (make a torch with a wolf's skins? Cook your food? Trap a monster?), some other sound so absurdly tough that you can't really overcome them. Yet, the text tells you what happens when you do. It's like throwing a 12th level monster at your 1st level character in Labyrinth Lord and the text saying "when the monster dies, go to paragraph 127". First reaction is "what the hell?", second is "okay, let's think about it, is there a way to defeat it? What can I think about that's NOT in the text?"
I don't see why solo play couldn't derail from the written text as much as party adventures do. The interesting bit is that you can't do so if you don't really immerse in your character and think creatively.
In Strange Destinies, I've stumbled through mushrooms before, and died because of their spores. Now, as I carry on with another character, a Black Dwarf named Hoderl the Nift, I turn cautiously around their stalks and a bit later, face an incredibly powerful giant ant. The ant was much, much more powerful than Hoderl. What would Hoderl do? Fight dumbly to a certain death? No. He would run, and try to lure the ant into the mushrooms. I rolled a Speed saving roll, rolled high and went back to the paragraph in which the mushrooms were described. I rolled another, rolled high, and went to the spore paragraph with the ant. I kept running, tracing 3 or 4 paragraphs back when the spores produced their effect. Hoderl, who had over 30 in Constitution, survived, and left the caves. The ant followed, heavily damaged by the spores. Once out of the caves, an ogre tried to catch him, but he managed to escape as the ogre was bashing the ant. Hoderl then entered the caves again from the start and I considered the ant as defeated when I got back to the paragraph it was described in.
Some people, probably basing themselves upon A Story With Options, would consider that as cheating. By the time I played Hoderl, I had become an expert of these caves, with over 13 characters having met death inside. This is player's knowledge versus character's knowledge. In my example, player's knowledge is backing immersion, my 13 previous deaths had shaped Hoderl as a survivor. That made him partly him, and partly me: MY player character. As far as I'm concerned, I consider that solo adventures should find a way to produce this immersion feeling, and to offer a decent challenge level as well.
Strange Destinies do, because if you play it by the book, your character will die. Some paragraphs tell you that if you've lit a torch, monsters will flee. Yet, no paragraph ever tells you that you can light a torch. Why? Because you shall know whether your character carries a lit torch or not, you're impersonating him or her, not just rolling dice and picking options.
A few mechanisms help to induce this Creativity Puzzle instead of rollercoasting you into a story: a table of wandering monsters like in Strange Destinies, random loots, random paragraphs, monster evolution and/or diplomacy, etc. Playing solo implies that you, the player, should take a bit of the GM's responsibilities as well. For hard-core fans of option 1, this is pretty much breaking the rules. Yet, no story-based play experience was ever rewarding as Strange Destinies was, a solo adventure in which I was both the player and the GM.
It begins really easy with the few numbers you find in your standard old school Monster Manual. Do you see this Number Appearing line on the picture above? It's about this. I wonder if many Dungeon Masters have actually used this number ever, and the long sections detailing humanoid monsters lairs, allies and structure of power. Surprisingly, most humanoid entries of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons include such details, appropriate to the most absurd figures dungeon-wise. Who can throw 300 orcs in a dungeon? Wouldn't the dungeon become a Bara-Dur fortress of sorts if we did?
I can think of 1 or 2 officially published adventures at least that did : the U3 module, The Final Enemy, the A2 maybe, Secrets of the Slaver's Stockade in a more devious way.
Most adventures make an extensive use of this Number Appearing logic, but they do it in a nutshell: a few gnolls here and there, some goblins — are they many enough to pour a shaman and a chieftain in? Cool. I can think of none who purposely used it in order to create and shape the adventure.
Well, I did. I rolled an orcish tribe and rolled about 250 orcs, discovering two « effects » as I did. Here they are:
1. The Domino Effect
The Monster Manual says orcs must have a strong leader, telling me there's maybe a wizard or an evil priest. Let's put that question aside for the moment, but keep it in mind. For about 250 orcs, I have 8 leaders and 24 assistants. I add flavor here and, inspiring myself upon the Lord of the Rings and my old Sword & Sorcery SPI wargame, I decide that these stockier, more powerful orcs all belong to a special sub-race : white orcs. In Swords & Sorcery, white orcs are followers of the Czar. Hey, why not?! I also get 21 bodyguards, fiercer orcs, cadets of the crown maybe — do they have an uniform? —, and I'm hinted at adding a few ogres. I do, of course. Now, going to the ogre section, I find that ogres often ally with gnoll raiders, trolls and stone giants. Okay, there's gnoll raiders too, then, and maybe a troll or two. Looking at the gnoll entry, I'm told that gnolls follow evil priests. That solves my first question, the tribe leader is an evil priest. The gnolls are also allied with trolls (I have them already) and a few hyenas. Great, I now have a kennel.
This is the domino effect: my dungeon is now stocked with standard orcs, white Czarist orcs, ogres, gnoll raiders, trolls and hyenas, all under the power and command of an evil priest. Since half-orcs are described under the orc entry as well, I add some, giving them character class levels, as lieutenants of the evil priest.
2. The « Stocking First » Effect
The monster section actually says a lot more: it says that orcish lairs might be above ground or underground. I roll, and get underground, which is nice because the same section tells me how good they are at mining and underground constructions. Orcish tribes also sport a name. Mine being led by an evil priest and Czarist orcs, I choose the Vile Rune, a name that tells of northern wastes, ancient primitive religion and evil. Under the gnoll section, I find that gnolls often live in abandoned villages. So here I am, in an underground mining lair with many slaves close to an abandoned village. Since there's a priest, there's a temple too, hidden inside, all bowing to the power of the orcish Czar.
Take a closer look: I have an adventure, fully-fleshed here. It's about freeing slaves, beginning in slavery maybe? It rings an Indiana Jone's Temple of Doom sort of bell in a Russian-like setting. I now need a god about which the evil priest's cult revolves, and so on... Are the player characters hired by the orcish revolution? Knights fighting the evil cult? Mercenaries of a border kingdom threatened by the Vile Rune?
1. You have a character "class" and a few stats but they aren't used much in game. What's used a lot is the previous experience of your character. He's faced this kind of trap before? Seen this herb? He knows how to cope with then. In order to do so, you keep track of all the minute details you usually skip. It's almost like writing a trait down in an indie RPG "I know how to prepare and use Wildroot" "I know that Wolverines don't enter warrens", etc.
2. You know what Ben Robbins' West Marches are don't you? Well, here they are: hexcrawl, wandering creatures tables, hex search rules, sandbox style, and so on.
3. It's gritty as hell. It renders such a feeling of overwhelming danger that playing Call of Cthulhu is like playing Marvel Superheroes compared to this. Most blows will kill you, as will most natural hazards. If you don't use your wits, you're a dead duck... err rabbit.
4. You're not playing an ordinary rabbit, you're playing an intelligent, talking, fantasy rabbit with psychic powers and herbal magic. Does it ring a bell? Yeah, it's Mouse Guard but aimed at character simulation instead of motives and beliefs.
5. You don't "level up", you just play. When you face hardships, you know better the next time and your capacities improve on the basis of what you've done and how you've done it.
Looking at this small 36-pages game provides a feel akin to Matthiew Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. It's like a gold mine for us retro-gamers, and it deserves a lot. It deserves writing, for instance. Once again, stay tuned.
Bunnies & Burrows is copyright Fantasy Games Unlimited.
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Labyrinth LordTM is copyright 2007-2009, Daniel Proctor. Labyrinth LordTM and Advanced Labyrinth LordTM are trademarks of Daniel Proctor. These trademarks are used under the Labyrinth LordTM Trademark License available at www.goblinoidgames.com.
The OSRIC™ system text may be found at http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/osric. The OSRIC TM text is copyright of Stuart Marshall. "OSRIC™" and "Oldschool System Reference and Index Compilation™" are trademarks of Stuart Marshall and Matthew Finch and may be used only in accordance with the OSRIC™ license.