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Forbidden Caverns of Archaia Review

September 11, 2017 2 comments

The latest megadungeon from Dr. Greg Gillespie has been released in PDF: The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. Greg is known for previous indiegogo campaigns for the megadungeon Barrowmaze, which eventually resulted in a 260-page tome called Barrowmaze Complete. This latest kickstarter featured a lot of similar elements from Barrowmaze and for that matter, classic adventures like Keep on the Borderlands and Temple of Elemental Evil.

This review is not going to be entirely spoiler-free, but I’ll try and keep them to a minimum. This latest megadungeon certainly has enough material for years of play and weighs in at 293 pages. Similar to the aforementioned adventures, your PCs start in a well-detailed fair sized village, and are in a sandbox hex-map region called the Prelacy of Middenmark. Like the Duchy of Aerik from Barrowmaze or Verbobonc in Temple of Elemental Evil, there are several features and settlements to explore in the nearby area other than the megadungeon focus of the adventure itself.

While Barrowmaze was focused on a series of underground crypts linked in one massive dungeon, the Forbidden Caverns of the Archaia is mostly a series of caves and tombs in canyon walls that get increasingly difficult the deeper you go in to the canyon. “Oh, so like and the Caves of Chaos?” Yes, but way more than could fit on a two-page map. Also, malevolent forces are uniting disparate tribes of humanoids in a bid to summon a terrible evil and conquer the world. “So, pretty much Temple of Elemental Evil?” Well, yes, but this outlines the hierarchy and provides heraldry for all the groups as well as attitudes between different sects allowing crafty players to turn evil on itself. Furthermore there are keystaffs that need to be assembled from several parts to utilize hengegates to allow the party to quickly get to different areas. “Now you’re just talking about the Rod of Seven Parts.” Keystaffs are actually way cooler, and have different powers based on the different parts used to assemble them, and parts can be interchanged. There are runes, rings, headpieces and a worksheet for players to keep track of their experimentation. It is an awesome part of navigating the adventure. Finally, at the end of the canyon there is a hellmouth that leads into the base of a volcano! This leads to another huge section of delving that can provide a ton of information on the fate of the Archaians. This leads to the actual end game of the adventure, which I won’t go into the details of here, but it is appropriately epic. With a very prepared and motivated GM, this would be a fantastically satisfying ride.

You can see the fingerprints of some of the greatest adventures of all time in this work, but Greg expands and expounds on them in way that keeps them fresh, yet familiar. Recently there was a discussion on the DCC RPG Rocks! facebook group about the opening language for Dungeon Crawl Classics modules that may need an update. DCC modules have evolved beyond what many would consider “classic” and have started delving into the more weird and less traveled paths of Appendix N inspiration. The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia stays more within what many consider classic tropes of dungeons and dragons. Yet compared side by side, this work really represents an excellent evolution of the old school for those looking to remember and honor the classics, without just replaying them.

The art features several of the same artists from DCC book like Stefan Poag, Russ Nicholson and Jim Holloway, as well as several that have a similar style like Cory Hamel, Peter Pagano, Carl McIntyre and more. Some of these same artists have work in Barrowmaze which is what originally drew me to the book at the Goodman Games booth at North Texas RPG Con in 2016.

Overall, I would highly recommend this megadungeon if you are looking for a big campaign with a lot of old school feel, but something that will keep even the hardiest grognard guessing.

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DCC 94 – Neon Knights Review

August 27, 2017 Comments off

Neon Knights, Dungeon Crawl Classics #94 was released at Gen Con 50. This adventure is pretty difficult to discuss without some major spoilers, so if you don’t plan on judging this one, I would suggest not reading any further.

For those judges who remain: Brendan LaSalle has created an excellent 3rd level adventure that works well as a one-shot con game, or as a bridge from a typical core DCC fantasy world to the Purple Planet for an existing campaign. It could fairly easily be adapted to be a bridge from Lankhmar or any other world to the Purple Planet as well. The Purple Planet boxed-set is not required in any way to run this adventure, but for those who own it, there is a sidebar that provides suggestions on how to incorporate those materials if the PCs remain on the planet.

Brendan outlines a clear four part plot that experienced judges could time well for a convention slot. It isn’t exactly a sandbox, but isn’t a typical dungeon crawl either. This allows the judge to allow PCs to explore, or move on to the next plot point as time allows. The PCs are charged with figuring out a strategy to break a siege surrounding the city they are in (specifics for a city are suggested at the back, but details in the beginning are left intentionally vague so judges can adapt to the city in an existing campaign) when they are whisked away to a mysterious tower and commanded to defend an old wizard from creatures attacking his tower. PCs notice pink trails as they move and their eyes glow with a pink neon light that remains visible only to each other once they return to their home plane.

It is up to the PCs to discover how these events are related and discover a way to end the siege. The ending of this adventure can go a lot of different ways depending on how the party handles the wizard, the artifact used to summon them, and what they do with knowledge discovered in the wizard’s tower in the sea of dust. This is a great adventure for experienced judges that are used to rolling with what the players come up with, and improvising based on those choices. Vazhalo’s tower is an interesting locale that would make the most traditional type of dungeon exploration portion of the adventure. Once the PCs are back in their home city, a few NPCs are detailed that will help the party research both the artifact and experience of being summoned by this far off wizard, allowing characters to role-play with these NPCs and perhaps form a plan should they be whisked away again. This provides a great balance between different play styles, and attempts to account for most possible solutions for the end. I imagine when I get a chance to run this, the PCs will come up with something entirely unexpected. That is all part of the fun!

There are extensive details provided about the artifact itself, and its use in summoning heroes. Appropriately, one of the features in this adventure is a massive gong, which played a prominent role in the Gen Con 50 DCC tournament.

Overall, if you are new to judging DCC, or aren’t comfortable with something that diverges from a more traditional dungeon crawl like Sailors on the Starless Sea, Portal under the Stars or Doom of the Savage Kings this may not be the one for you. However, if you’ve embraced the chaos and amazing potential this system brings, this adventure may serve as a very memorable convention game, or the gateway to the incredible adventures that await the party on the Purple Planet!

Free RPG Day Preview – TimeWatch Resources

June 12, 2017 Comments off

Free RPG Day is this Saturday, and it looks to be one of the best in a long time! The Sanctum Secorum podcast has a list of DCC/MCC games happening around the world, and for a more general listing of stores participating check the Free RPG Day locator. Locally in Asheville at The Wyvern’s Tale, Mike will be running Gnole House, a DCC adventure from Goodman Games and Kevin (me) will be running a TimeWatch adventure called Font of Knowledge from Pelgrane Press. It is also the Tale’s 5th anniversary celebration! There will be swag bags to the first 25 people to show up and a ton of games listed on the warhorn. It is going to be an amazing day!

I also wanted to provide some resources for the TimeWatch offering, should you be running it this weekend. They don’t contain any spoilers you wouldn’t know already by just reading the adventure blurb, but I scanned in the pre-gen characters (not great, but better than nothing) which include a brief description of the character and how they relate to the other pre-gens. Without these printed out beforehand it would be extraordinarily difficult to run on the day itself, and they were not present on the TimeWatch resources page. I also did a bit of google prep, as suggested in the module, to find an actual 13th century illuminated manuscript, and created a comic sans version of the latin version of the bible. Having this visual to illustrate the hilarious concept of what a jarring historical change this would make should be an awesome moment at the table.

I’ve never played or run the GUMSHOE investigative system used in TimeWatch, but it seems to be a nice balance of player resource management, stitches (stitch in time saves nine, works like bennies in Savage Worlds or FATE points), and a healthy amount of GM fiat. Check out this article from Pelgrane Press about the system and download the cheat sheets if you want to know more!

Hope you are looking forward to Free RPG Day, and if you’re at the Wyvern’s Tale we’ll see you there!

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Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom review

May 15, 2017 Comments off

The latest Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure from Goodman Games packs an incredible amount of memorable adventure in its 24 pages. It is pretty much impossible to provide a substantive review without providing some serious spoilers, so if you plan on playing in this adventure do not read on.

Just us Judges? Good. #93 Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom is similar in scope and structure to Harley Stroh’s #78 Fate’s Fell Hand. Rather than a battle between three wizards on a demi-plane of phlogiston, the PCs will discover three sisters on the Tolomak islands, each with their own motivations, minions, and powerful allies. This works very much like a jungle-island sandbox/hex-crawl that allows the PCs to discover various locations and factions and react to them however they would like. The beginning of the adventure suggests you could run this in a 4-hour convention slot, but I don’t see how you would do more than scratch the surface of the materials provided in that time frame. This could easily be a mini-campaign in its own right, stretching several gaming sessions. If you’re looking for bang for your adventuring buck, look no further.

However, I would not recommend this for novice Judges, or those with only a bit of time to prepare. This is one for experienced Judges who can manage a lot of variables at the same time, and roll with whatever the players are going to throw at them. For instance, there are three moons that shine down on the islands – blue, green and red. Depending on what day it is, key NPCs will be in different locations, the moon-bird will have different powers, the contents of the fountain of liquid moonlight will have different effects and a portal will appear in one of 7 locations. Each sister has motivation, quirks, initial and later attitudes, minions and allies. One of those allies is the 20′ tall ape on the cover of the adventure (one of my favorite single-panel Kovacs covers in awhile!) who has his own motivations. Luckily these details are organized at the beginning of the adventure in brief rundowns of the key NPCs and a chart for the cycles of the moon. By the way, the ship that brought the PCs here is about to mutiny, so they may be stranded on these volcanic jungle islands if they don’t get back soon. Also, if the PCs manage to destroy the apparatus keeping the entire volcano in check, it could be a very dramatic TPK. All of this is awesome, but a lot to keep in mind.

I generally buy DCC adventures for the maps (its one of the things that drew me to the beta in 2011) and this one is no exception. Their are four pages of Kovacs maps in the back, including a players map of the islands inside the front cover. There is also a section between the two main islands in which the author encourages Judges to adapt adventures from both Goodman Games or third party publishers and makes suggestions as to what may work and how to adapt them to the environment. This may be made easier for those folks who were in on the 4th printing kickstarter and got a pile of adventures along with the core rule book.

Overall, it is great to see the DCC line still coming out with excellent adventures while expanding offerings into upcoming Mutant Crawl Classics and Lankhmar lines. If you are up to the challenge, set sail for the Tolomak islands! Watch out for cannibals.

Tales from the Loop Review

May 7, 2017 Comments off

Tales from the Loop is a fantastic combination of nostalgia, now, and near-future inspired by the evocative art of Simon Stålenhag. The kickstarter benefited from serendipitous timing of the first season of Stranger Things becoming a sensation that taps into these same themes. The RPG book itself provides two full settings (one in the islands outside Stockholm, Sweden, the other a small desert town called Boulder City outside Las Vegas) and adaptations to allow the four included adventures or mysteries to be set in either location. Much like The End of the World series from Fantasy Flight games, the book encourages you to adapt the adventures to your home town.

Players create characters from ages 10-15 that fit classic 80s movie archetypes: Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Weirdo, Popular Kid, Rocker, and Troublemaker. Each have a few skills that they specialize in, and character creation looks pretty quick. The system uses attributes in combination with skills and items that provide a number of d6s. Success on a check is determined by rolling a 6 on a d6. Additional successes can be used to help out other party members or other beneficial effects.

The system seems to strike a nice balance that caters to the themes of the book, while not being too abstract or too gritty. For instance, when you choose the age of your PC, that is the amount of points you can assign to your attribute scores. for every year younger than 15, add one luck point. This luck point can be spent to re-roll a skill check. While older kids are more experienced and skilled at things, younger kids tend to find a way to weasel out of a tough spot. Elegant.

The included scenarios (or mysteries) deal with a variety of subjects: animal-cybernetics, dream manipulation, time-travel and accidentally letting dinosaurs back through a portal. All of them are structured as investigations with suggestions for how different events and NPCs can connect to each other, ultimately leading up to a showdown with the central conflict, and a brief denouement. In the examples of play, the game master is encouraged to let PCs set the scenes and describe a bit about their daily life. The character creation process helps inform these scenes as players choose their character’s problem, drive, iconic item, and relationships to other kids. These kind of adventures work really well for convention slots, but there are several suggestions on how to weave them together into a “mystery landscape” that could form a satisfying campaign.

The layout and aesthetics of the book are some of the most attractive I’ve seen for an RPG, and the included map of both settings is outstanding. Character sheets and maps are available in the support section of the Free League site. Avoid the bottom section if you are not running the game, as it includes spoiler-laden maps and illustrations that will be great for the GM. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for some weird and fantastic 80s adventures, in the theme of some of the most fun movies and TV shows of all time!

Review: Tales from the Yawning Portal

April 2, 2017 Comments off

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Alright, let’s jump right in….

What’s in it?

Tales from the Yawning Portal is Wizard’s latest release for 5th Edition, and is the same high production quality as their other releases.  Unlike previous releases, it is a series of unconnected older adventures that have been converted up to 5th edition from previous editions of the game (ranging from several OD&D mods to some early 3rd edition modules, and some playtest content).

The adventures featured are:

  • The Sunless Citadel
  • The Forge of Fury
  • Against the Giants Trilogy
  • The Tomb of Horrors
  • The Hidden Shrine of Tamaochan
  • White Plume Mountain
  • Dead in Thay

There is also a brief chapter for magic items (15 of these) and a chapter for monsters (39 of them).  Also, starting of the book is a brief flavor detail for, you guessed it, the Yawning Portal Tavern.

Those are the facts.  Now, the real question…

Should I Buy it?

This book is for grognards wanting to spare themselves the minimal trouble of converting a few old classic scenarios for their group, many of whom may not have played the mods.  Alternately, it’s for newer players that have heard about classic mods and want to take a crack at them in 5E and see what all the fuss is about.

Tales from the Yawning Portal takes the heavy lifting out of conversion, cleans up some weird oddities from older mods, and generally makes the older content much more approachable for a newer player, primarily because old originals are perhaps hard to find and the trouble of converting some of these classics may be a little daunting.

So, do you need to buy it?  No.  You definitely do not.

Should you?  Only if you want to revisit these classics.  I personally do, but that’s not going to describe everyone.

This is a collection of classic mods first and a general game supplement second, or perhaps even third.  In some ways I appreciate the fact that Wizards isn’t spamming their release schedule with Fiend Folios and Magic Item Compendiums in droves, forcing us to shell out for semi-mandatory releases.  On the other hand, I feel like getting 39 monsters at a time is a somewhat slower financial torture.  That, and now if I want to find a monster, I have to flip through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or now Yawning Portal to find what I’m looking for in addition to the Monster Manual.  It’s not really convenient or logical.

In a lot of ways, 5th Edition is a response (perhaps a kneejerk response) to the vitriol that arose as a result of the new ideas of 4th Edition.  4th Edition is commonly summarized as “a great game, just not dungeons and dragons”.  As a result, 5th edition has a much more old school feel, without all that horrible THAC0.  This is a slapshot right down the throats of all those geezers like myself that just want to play ancient modules until we die, and make other people play them too.

The great thing about this book is that you get a lot of content, and a lot of short usable play hours with it.  You can play pieces of it without having to feel married to it for a year (a complaint that some of us are feeling in our current Out of the Abyss campaign).  Being able to play a few sessions, then stop, can be very welcome when seeking published content.  Also, they snuck the ENTIRE GIANTS TRILOGY in here!  That is Fricking Awesome!  So there is good to be had.

The monsters, however, as well as the magic items, are there to support the rest of the published works and don’t really stand on their own as a supplement (nor do I believe they were held out to do so).  Overall, it’s great to have on the shelf, but the home campaigner or the long haul campaigner is going to scratch their heads at this release. This is nostalgic potpourri and historical esoterica.

So, proceed with the knowledge of what this book is, and see if it is worthy of your shelf.  It’s on mine, and I’m glad for it and look forward to sharing some old classic content with my group for a couple 3-shots.

A parting note:

One last thing I wanted to mention, and can’t seem to find a place to fit into this review, is the curious disappointment I have that the Yawning Portal, famous for it’s connection to Undermountain, is not at the head of a book for UNDERMOUNTAIN!  It’s a fun way to connect these modules as tales from tavern-goers but something I hope Wizards will attempt in the months and years to come.  That’s a classic that definitely belongs on the shelf.

 

 

Categories: 5e, Adventure, Books, DnD, Reviews, RPGs, WOTC

Star Wars Rogue Two – Less is More

March 31, 2017 Comments off

Recently I put together a FFG Star Wars adventure for Mace West called Rogue 2. The synopsis was brief, and apparently intriguing enough to fill the table months before the con:

“You are part of an elite commando team for the Rebel Alliance. The Empire has demonstrated the fearsome and devastating power of the Death Star. It is up to you to stand up for freedom in the galaxy. Your comlink indicates a summons to the briefing room with High Command. This next mission is going to be something big. Hopefully you’ll live long enough to tell about it!”

I studied episodes of Rebels, as well as Episode IV and what I could remember from Rogue One (this was shortly after the theatrical release) and did some research about what could happen in the short time frame between Rogue One and A New Hope. In one of the behind the scenes clips for Rogue One the writers revealed they wanted to include  Wedge Antilles in the planetary shield battle on Scarif, but realized he would have never seen it since at the beginning of the battle of Yavin he says, “Look at the size of that thing…” So where is Wedge during Rogue One?

Enter Rogue Two: The Antilles Extraction. Those of you familiar with how I have run several Bounty Hunter missions will know I like to plan for a three-act structure, maybe with an optional fourth, if there is time. I play-tested this once before the con, then ran it at the con, and both times we ran out of time in our 4-hour block before getting to Act III. That being said, the sessions were great fun, but one day I plan on getting to the third act. Here is the basic outline:

Act I – Planning/Infiltration

Act II – Rescue/Escape

Act III – The Emperor’s Snare – Interdictor Showdown

With just a few other notes, a very basic map, and a small deck of probable baddies/NPCs from the adversary decks, we were off! I’ve found the more I run this system, the better it is to provide a small sandbox like a map of a ship or facility, then literally let the dice fall where they may. Relying not only on my creativity, but leaning on the players to help interpret FFG dice results has been some of the most fun I’ve had running or playing an RPG… ever.

While my actual adventure notes were pretty slim, I did a bit of research before the session to help flesh it out on the fly during the session. Researching prison facilities in Star Wars led me to discover an old Dark Horse comic called Han Solo at Stars’ End which was based on a novel by Brian Daley. I didn’t go so far as to read the novel, but I used some of the visuals to inspire the map of the exterior of the facility. The shape of the prison is a tall silo that reminded me of the cells from an episode of the Clone Wars that required floating repulsor sleds to reach them (S3E7). Beyond that, I wanted a reason Wedge and his squad were captured alive, and what better than an Interdictor cruiser to capture both ships and pilots.

 

ACT I

The first part of the session is planning the infiltration and requesting additional gear from Rebel High Command. The briefing is short on details, just the rudimentary reconnaissance scan gathered from an A-wing at long range. Mytus VII is a moon-like rock with no atmosphere and little natural gravity. I provided the squad with a choice of two available ships for infiltration: a U-Wing (with some home-brewed stats borrowed from forums) or a captured Imperial Lambda shuttle. Beyond that, they could make reasonable requests for other equipment that may be around the Yavin IV base. The playtest group requested a few speeder bikes (non-military versions, granted) and the con group requested ascension cables (which came in *very* handy). Now to plan the approach: land outside the facility and approach on foot or speeder? Land at the end of one of the tubes? Brazenly fly into one of the hangars? Any of these are options using this approach. The pre-gens I provided did not include any humans, which limited their options for posing as imperials in stolen uniforms, so both groups opted to land their U-wing (both chose the U-wing) well outside the facility and made a stealthy approach. The con team had the foresight to request an astromech droid to keep the engine running and stand by to fly in and pick them up. How they get in from here is entirely up to the table. The playtest group took out a pair of bored guards at the end of a landing tube, and stealthily made their way in to the main facility. The con group set some remote explosives on the outside of one of the tubes to the hangar, and took out a gunnery crew in one of the turbolasers.

ACT II

Now the team is in the facility, they need to find which cells have their rebel pilots and successfully extract them from the vertical tower of cells in the center of the complex. Optionally (if they are somehow captured) they could be facing off against gladiator droids in the arena on the very top level of the central tower (this is in reference to a scene in the comic) but this did not come up either time I ran it. Leaving the interior of the facility vague gives the game master great flexibility to improvise. Elevators or turbolifts can be anywhere you need them to be, as well as interior doors, tunnels to the turbolaser batteries, utilities like power and gravity generation may be in the basement. If your team seems stumped, provide them with options in a rudimentary directory (“Hmm, this says central generator on B1, arena on level 42, Warden’s Office on 41…” etc.) they can pull up from any terminal or datajack. Regardless of how they eventually get there, this will lead to an encounter with Imperial Dungeoneers in repulsor sleds. Judging from the visuals in the Clone Wars, I set up a central control tower, and at least three sleds with two dungeoneers on them a piece. Since this is an Imperial facility, I replaced the floating little cam bots in Clone Wars with interrogation droids, which make for pretty nice rival-level adversaries. This is generally where the stealth part of the mission breaks down. Alarms start going off, you can send in squads of storm troopers and their red-pauldroned sergeants as back up. Both times I ran it, this involved a few PCs in the central tower identifying the cells of the rebel pilots, and a few PCs going from cell to cell, freeing them. The con team set the gravity generators into a diagnostic mode that turned the gravity both off and on every two minutes, adding to the chaos. Once you retrieve Wedge and his squad (4-6 pilots) they reveal they were captured by the Emperor’s Snare, an Interdictor Cruiser that ripped their squad out of hyperspace. Their ships are still intact, and recoverable, if the team can capture the impound hangar. This can lead to a battle with TIEs on the base. I would encourage GMs to use group checks to narrate how the squad is doing rather than rolling a bunch of checks for NPCs, and let the PC squad take ship actions as normal. The rebels will likely outgun the Imperials until…

Act III

The Emperor’s Snare drops out of hyperspace on the horizon. Now both the commandos and the pilots are trapped unless the commandos can board that Interdictor and shutdown the gravity wells! I wrote this before watching the amazing Rebels Season 3 finale in which Interdictor cruisers play a big role, but if you are looking for inspiration for this chapter, check out the end of Rebels season 3! Having run out of time both times I ran this scenario we never actually made it this far, but I would suggest more group checks for the rebel pilots while having the PCs make some daring checks to board the bridge of the Interdictor and either shut it down or (more likely) sabotage the gravity wells before escaping. If the U-wing is still intact they may be able to take that, or if its destroyed in the ensuing battle, have them find some other shuttle or escape craft in a battle to the hangar bay. In a truly Rogue 2 like twist, the commandos may be captured or even killed in the attempt to disable the Snare and ensure the pilots get back to Yavin for the battle against the Death Star!

I hope you enjoy this adventure outline. I’m providing the map I used as well as six pre-gens for potential commandos below. Happy gaming, and may the Force be with you!

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