Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Initial Thoughts: Barrens of Carcosa

As with Carcosa Module 5, The Yuthlugathap Swamps, Barrens of Carcosa is a 32-page saddle stitched AD&D module by Geoffrey McKinney. You can buy the module on Lulu.

Barrens has no art aside from the cover piece by Luigi Castellani. It suffers more acutely than Yuthlugathap Swamps from the print quality with the color hexmap on the back; since most of the hexes are a tan color, the numbers are almost completely illegible. You more or less need to reference nearby hexes to have any chance of figuring out what the number on a tan or yellow hex is.

The last page of each module notes that four more Carcosa modules will be forthcoming as well as sixteen "Wilderness" modules. This is a rather ambitious plan, to be certain!

In terms of its content, Barrens of Carcosa is a step above the Yuthlugathap Swamps, and I'd suggest reading it first. Not having to go through quite so many lizardman strongholds means that there is more room for the weird content that Geoffrey specializes in. There are many more villages and generally more humans in the Barrens, including a few small jungles and a modest desert.

The Cthulhu Mythos looms much more present in Barrens of Carcosa. There are several Great Race appearances, multiple cults, and the excellent City of Pillars ruled by Alhazred himself (and, of course, a copy of the Necronomicon). This last area is implied to be an area worthy of its own module detailing both the city and the dungeons of Alhazred below.

High technology themes also come back into the setting here, with a few powerful technological areas. One small village goes into orbit periodically, and there is a powerful Overmind in a corner of the map. It was a relief to see that this theme is still present, although not very thoroughly so. I found the suggestion that the orbital village's technology doesn't work outside of its hex really disappointing, the kind of "only in this area" effect that cheapens modules.

Fewer of the hexes are concerned with learning magic-user spells, although there are still a few of these. There are a decent number of Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, and many are connected in some way to an adjoining hex. One strength of these modules is that a solid minority of the entries have clear ties to another location. A couple even reference the hexmap in the original Carcosa book.

There are some deliciously double-edged encounters in this book, particularly the Logician (hex 2811) and the village of Ullcha (hex 3001). These go much beyond the simple theme of threats and have both wonderful and horrible things in them. I won't go into detail, because you should read about them yourself.

The hex description format feels more claustrophobic in Barrens than it did in the Swamps. There are more entries where a full monster write-up would be useful; for instance, the giant scorpions in hex 3209 would have been welcome as a Monster Manual type of entry. And there just isn't enough given in the write-ups for either the Orbital Unit or the City of Pillars; either would require a great deal of prep by the referee before players stumbled into them.

It becomes increasingly clear that Geoffrey's art-free interiors are a weakness of the offering. One of the main reasons is that a good idea is hard to find again when flipping through the module. Illustrations, even fairly crude ones, provide solid mental references to remember where a stand-out piece of content was. The organization, which relies solely on hex number (there are no page numbers), tends to compound this in the modules. It also would help in the case of Geoffrey's unique creatures, which are always freakish and benefit from the pen of an illustrator, as seen in Isle of the Unknown.

Not having any art or any text outside of the hex descriptions (plus the brief overview of Carcosa at the start) also severely limits the modules' ability to offer unique details. There are almost no unique "magical" items, although there is an Elder Sign or two. No spells are present except ones already found in the AD&D Players Handbook, which is deeply disappointing for a setting that had previously taken a totally iconoclastic approach to magic. This makes them really difficult to slot into an existing Carcosa campaign with sorcerers instead of magic-users.

(I do know from the original Carcosa and the Psychedelic Fantasies modules that Geoffrey tends to put things out in this format; but information design has come a long way in the OSR and it is a step backward to have a plain layout with no art. And it's particularly painful after the LotFP releases.)

I also have a small quibble about the treasure present. Despite the general lack of hard currency or sources thereof in Carcosa, treasure listings tend to feature standard AD&D coinage (copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum), and sometimes uses four or five coin types. This is a minor annoyance but it does not feel right for a weird setting. Defining one coin type and sticking to it would have been more in keeping with the tone of Carcosa.

I also find the division of the books into four modules distracting. Each covers a hexmap in some detail, but it doesn't feel appropriate to have them broken down in the way they are. There is no progression through the four modules, and vanishingly few references to other modules in the text. A unified index for the four books would really have helped. One has the sense that the division is to follow a pattern rather than out of necessity.

To be clear, these are my reservations with a book whose content I find very strong. I offer them primarily because I think it could have been really an incredible product if Geoffrey had chosen to do these as a follow-up to the LotFP Carcosa tome, using the same system, with a crowdfunding campaign allowing lavish illustration throughout a single hardcover book. There are some great ideas in these modules and they are worth picking up, but they're a step backward in a lot of ways from the releases that have been done through LotFP.

If you like Carcosa-style hexcrawls, this is definitely worth the $12.99. There are a lot of encounters in this book that are worth the cost of admission, and as with many products like it this can be mined for details in a campaign that doesn't strictly follow Carcosa.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Initial Thoughts: The Yuthlugathap Swamps (Carcosa)

While I don't really do a lot of reviews, particularly because for RPGs I think playtest reviews are more useful than "I read this" reviews (excluding Bryce Lynch at, who has objective criteria and does a heroic number of reviews). But I think Initial Thoughts are a good way to put forward my first impressions of a product, and it's a good way to indicate that my thoughts might change over time.

The Yuthlugathap Swamps is one of four first edition AD&D modules released by Geoffrey McKinney (all four are on Lulu here) for his Carcosa setting. Originally released as a very controversial OD&D supplement in 2008, Carcosa got an extremely deluxe release from Lamentations of the Flame Princess in 2011. These don't require either.

It's rather confusing that Geoffrey called this "Carcosa Module 5." He's said that his goal is to re-release the hex map for Carcosa in four more modules following the same format. Eventually modules 1-4 will detail the original map, and 5-8 detail the four map quadrants due south of it.

The new modules are first edition AD&D modules and assume that you have the first four AD&D books. It works better if your copy of Deities & Demigods has the Cthulhu mythos; if it doesn't, you might want to look here. If you are used to Carcosa following an OD&D or LotFP type of system, this will require a bit of adjustment. The adventures repeatedly reference AD&D monsters (in Yuthlugathap, primarily Lizardmen and various slimes and oozes) and spells in a way that previous Carcosa material did not.

In terms of presentation, it is bare bones. Each module has a color cover image in a style generally reminiscent of old TSR modules. There is a hexmap on the back, printed in color. Unfortunately the map is not reproduced in black & white on the interior; this would have made the numbers easier to read. As it stands, some of them are almost totally illegible. The interior is two-column text laid out pretty much like Geoffrey's line of Psychedelic Fantasies modules. There are no interior illustrations, and there is a lack of page numbers.

After a brief overview, the module consists of a series of hex descriptions. A lot of the entries for the Yuthlugathap Swamps are descriptions of Lizardman strongholds. There is a clear rivalry between the various tribes that is set up in a huge, deadly web of conflict. Characters can get involved in this, and the module could probably be used as the basis for a Diplomacy-like scenario with players taking the parts of various lizardman tribe leaders.

Human tribes are scattered mostly to the east, some pretty good and one quite horrible. There are a number of dinosaurs and Spawn of Shub-Niggurath scattered around the swamps as well. The Spawn are always given some kind of unique twist. A few aren't at all malevolent or even very harmful to human life.

Then there are the really weird areas, which are solid gold. These are the kind of things Geoffrey excels at, and they're evocative and flavorful. Some give wondrous boons, including a number that teach magic-user spells. Others give horrible banes. My favorite reference is that there is a Pillar of Tsathoggua that involves the geas spell (a nod to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases"). The Ghost-Lights are a great twist on the traditional Will o' the Wisp, with various odd effects from contact such as having to eat more or becoming amphibious and needing to be submerged in water daily.

All of the entries are solid. There's not much here by way of space aliens and technology, which I think is a function of most of this module being swamps; peeking ahead, Barrens of Carcosa seems to have more technological wonders. Sorcery seems to have been either left in the northern part of Carcosa or simply not mentioned in favor of AD&D magic use. This is jarring for those who are accustomed to either OD&D or LotFP Carcosa.

At the going rate, there are definitely $12.99 worth of ideas in this module. A bunch are really wonderful. You could do an interesting hexcrawl in the godforsaken swamps of Carcosa or adapt a number of the locations to a different setting. I'll be doing a similar Initial Thoughts entry at least on Barrens of Carcosa.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Megadungeons and Artifacts

I've started working on a megadungeon again, and as such I've been thinking about them lately. (It was initially called the Red Keep dungeon, but since I realized I'd cribbed that unintentionally from A Song of Ice and Fire, I'm just going to call it the Castellan Keep dungeon. Yes, it's set beneath a ruined version of the Keep on the Borderlands.)

This thread on the OD&D forums had me look back through Monsters & Treasure. Toward the end of that booklet is a short list of artifacts: a Teleportation Machine, separate Crown, Orb & Scepter for each class, and the Stone Crystallization Projector. The latter is obviously the fun one, although whether it's a crystallization projector that turns things to stone, or a projector that crystallizes stone, is up to an individual referee's imagination. Eldritch Wizardry, of course, added the whole array of now-familiar artifacts to the game. They are the best treasures that D&D has ever come up with, but are rarely presented in games because they're so powerful.

It strikes me that the deep levels of a megadungeon are possibly the most natural resting spots for artifacts. After all, if the Invulnerable Coat of Arn or the Sword of Kas is just sitting within 600' of the entrance point of a dungeon, why hasn't someone already come along and taken it? If there are a dozen layers of dungeon and monsters between it and the surface, well, that makes a bit more sense. Especially if the artifact is Lawful and the monsters are Chaotic and can't use it. Or the artifact is Chaotic and the monsters do use it.

Deciding that an artifact is in a megadungeon adds a powerful thematic element, and a fascinating high-level motive for characters to keep questing. When you get to the level full of wild boars, the idea that there are secrets beyond simply lots and lots of monetary treasure in the dungeon becomes a relevant question. "We have to keep pressing on or we won't find the Spear of Longinus!" Well, it's worth a thought, anyway.

The PC party doesn't need to be the only group trying to get to the artifact, either. If there's a rival party trying to make their way toward a given artifact, it can create a time tension that can otherwise be missing in the megadungeon environment. One of the truths of D&D is that it's a more challenging game when there are time constraints and a PC group can't simply go rest after every major fight. Another way to bring time-pressure is to tie an artifact's effect to a particular temporal or astrological event. Perhaps the door to the room containing it only opens on a certain day, or when the stars are right, etc. There are a lot of options here.

A megadungeon environent also adds a potential solution to the power dilemma. For one reason or another, the artifact may not be removable from its present location. One very good reason for this is to simply make it too large to physically move, or tied into the physical environment. If the artifact is a statue that grants Wishes or a Fountain of Life, but you can no more take it out of its current room than you can remove the room from the dungeon. That is to say, sufficiently clever players will find a way.

Magical limitations can also stop the artifact from being removed. There are parts of the Holy Grail myth, my favorite being the climax to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that make it so the Grail simply cannot be taken out of the cave where Jones finds it. That's a shame, too - imagine the good it could do to the medical community. But such are magical artifacts, at least until you find that Wish granting statue and use it to change the rule about no removing the Grail.

Artifacts being part of the megadungeon are a strong support of the theme of the dungeon as a mythic underworld. By their nature, artifacts shape and change the setting around them in ways that are not entirely logical. Following this logic, the referee might even think of the artifacts as part of what "powers" the megadungeon and keeps it weird. Of course, this requires the kind of artifacts that you can't remove, or otherwise the dungeon would go away, or change fundamentally.

Once PCs reach the artifacts in a dungeon, in some sense they should be changed forever. Galahad ascends to Heaven once he finds the Grail. It's not entirely out of the question for PCs who've found a dungeon's deepest and greatest secrets to go to another plane (or another planet). Even the chute on level 13 of Castle Greyhawk, tongue in cheek as it may be, takes the character who's traversed its depths to a new world. Other changes might include some innate ability or physical sign of change.

As a general rule, it's worth taking a lesson from Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, both of which have lots of effects that permanently alter characters, and building such changes into a megadungeon's "big" features. It fits within the mythic underworld theme as well.

The choice of artifacts might seem like an odd place to start fresh musings about megadungeons, but it's not. I think that, to the contrary, deciding what lies deep beneath is a great way to build the dungeon in ways that lead organically to it. If you know that level 12 is going to have the Holy Grail, you can begin to put allusions to Arthurian myth in your dungeon, and so on with other themed artifacts. Players will get more out of the dungeon if it seems to be leading somewhere rather than just being a massive underground zoo. That's not to say that the megadungeon is plotted entirely in advance - it shouldn't be - but its big ideas should be informing it from the word "go."

Photograph by Locutus Borg (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez). CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Actual Play: "Leave No Stone Door Unturned"

Yesterday, I began what I'm hoping will be a long-term monthly first edition AD&D campaign set in the borders of a medieval-ish kingdom on the edge of a set of weird mountains, with a few twists and very little of your classic AD&D monsters or treasure. It went reasonably well, though I'll have to get used to navigating the AD&D books.

As a note on system choice, it comes from a feeling that the long-term campaign interests are best served by AD&D, but letting a lot of the cruft associated with that system fall off. It can be useful but a lot of it can be simplified, particularly things like training or initiative. Developing good DMing reflexes and then letting players follow through, in my opinion, is a bigger deal than the specific system that is up front.

One rule twist that I thought was fun is that I've adapted the general sensibility of Dungeon Crawl Classics's "Mighty Deed of Arms" to a natural 20 in combat. It just gives things a bit more of an edge, having that possibility of imposing a disadvantage on your foe, either giving a penalty or costing them an action - that sort of thing. It also gets the player into the description of the event. I also think it's a great way to respond when players want to do something cool but very difficult, they can just roll for it and at least have a shot.

The party started off with two clerics, and considering the adventure seed was to investigate a formerly-abandoned temple that a cleric had gone to re-found, the PCs wound up well motivated. I asked the players to explain how the PCs know each other, which I like as a setup for a campaign a lot better than "hey, you meet in a tavern."

The adventurers were quite cautious approaching the temple, which was on the side of a mountain, and getting up and into it with care. They followed a path that took them to a set of stairs that actually went back into the open mountain air (this was riffing on a very interesting Dyson Logos map that I'll share at some point when it wouldn't be a spoiler) and back in.

A side chamber on the way, though, provided a diversion that changed the venture completely. The dwarven fighter who was taking point had the bad taste to look at a water nymph bathing in a pool - and proceeded to fail his saving throw, rendering him instantly blind. I had been curious how the encounter would turn out, and it turned out to be very interesting indeed. Since he'd had to go up stairs to see the nymph, the positioning stopped anyone else from having to look, and they got him back down the stairs and figured out about the whole blindness.

The dwarf's player was quite game about this and remarked a few times that he should be playing with his eyes shut. It was an interesting experience DMing for a character with blindness, because of course as a referee you are primarily describing the visuals of the world, what the characters see – and suddenly you're having to think of the imagined world in a different way. The dwarf took up torchbearing duties in place of the ill-fated hired torchbearer, and the party soldiered on.

Up in a room at the top of the stairs they found a pool with some very large lobsters in it. I based the stats on a monster I've always meant to use, Matt Finch's tunnel prawns, and that AC 4 proved a really tough thing for the PCs. After a couple of successes, the party began to lose the fight. Out of an initial party of five (two clerics, a halfling thief, a dwarf fighter, and an elven magic-user) plus the torchbearer, they lost the halfling, a cleric, and the torchbearer. The elf, the blind dwarf, and a cleric who had been on death's door managed to retreat. The others died in the lobster room and became lobster chow.

The PCs decided to go a long venture back to a larger city where they found a temple of Dagda, the god of both clerics. The cleric in service at the temple had a 9 on his reaction roll and decided to help the PCs out, and got the high priest, who heard their story and I rolled a 12 on the reaction roll. This was too good to pass up - I decided he was the uncle of the cleric who'd been lost, he was deeply grieved, and so moved that he wanted to help the PCs. He cast Cure Blindness on the dwarf and proceeded to give the PCs healing potions and get replacement characters for the other players, who returned to the temple.

With the new group the party moved back to the temple, only to find that the initial doors had been shut - which had been wide open when they came there before. They found their way up via a Spider Climb spell and some rope, and got their revenge on the lobsters. The last two of the initial six broke morale and went into another room. Soon after they heard a commotion.

The new room led to men with scimitars hacking at lobsters, who the PCs helped by killing the lobsters. Their boss claimed to be a merchant, but was haughty and ill-treated the surviving cleric; when the dwarf wanted to get them out he used Magic Missile and the fight was on, but the PCs won this one readily.

That was about wrap-up time for the night; the PCs made off with some treasure that the lobsters were guarding, and the merchant/wizard's money. There were two fatalities but a good share of money went to the newly composed party (adding a half-elf cleric/ranger and an elven magic-user/thief). There's still exploration to be done but the PCs got a chunk of the way through first level, the hard way.

AD&D worked well for the game, and it ran mostly like I expect things to run, except that a few things were percentile where I'd typically call for a d6 roll. There's nothing wrong with that, and the feel and flow are not hard to fix to what D&D has taught me. The lobsters were tougher than I expected, and the combat with them had a lot of swings and misses on both sides. But it was a fun, interesting game and I like the transition over to AD&D. I'll try to do a few posts on specific differences that I find interesting between the systems.