Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Sheep: Gates of Firestorm Peak

Welcome back to another installment of Black Sheep, where I (we?) recognize and celebrate the precious few shining lights to come out of the Dark Ages of D&D: The 1990s.

Today's subject: Gates of Firestorm Peak (GoFP), a 1996 AD&D module by Bruce Cordell. Since it's an adventure, anybody out there with an inkling that your referee might want to run you through this one should probably stop reading now before any spoilers show up. I'll try not to get too detailed, though.

GoFP would seem to have two huge strikes against it right from the start. Debuting in the latter half of the 90s, it runs smack into the common belief that TSR releases only got worse and worse as the decade rolled on, culminating in downright putrid dreck like the Diablo computer game tie-in products.

Second, it was advertised as being a showcase for options taken from the then-new Skills & Powers expansion rulebooks. Ack.

Still, GoFP weighed-in at a remarkable 11th place in the late Dungeon Magazine's "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time" countdown, which otherwise featured "Golden Age" D&D adventures from the early 80s almost exclusively.

How? Here's the lowdown: GoFP is a 96-page "Underdark crawl" adventure with some interesting Lovecraftian twists for parties of 5th-8th level characters. The back cover has this to say:

"Once a generation, they say, a strange comet appears in the sky overhead and the gates of Firestorm Peak swing open. Twenty-seven years ago, your father led his band of adventurers into the mysterious mountain, never to return. Now the Dragon's Tear once more flickers in the sky, and the glass gates on the mountainside beckon. Will you pass through to discover the secrets that await beyond the portal none has ever dared and returned?"

This summary is pretty accurate, although you should feel free to ignore the fact that this sounds hella railroady thanks to the "missing father" angle. In fact, that's only one of many suggested ways of involving PCs in the adventure. Blame that one on whichever poor sap churned-out TSR's ad copy around that time.

The module opens with a brief description of Longbridge, a small town close to Firestorm Peak that allows PCs the opportunity to do some shopping and maybe fish for some tavern rumors before taking-on the dungeon itself.

Once through the Gates, the dungeon complex is divided into three main sectors:

The Outer Complex: This area is heavily populated by Duergar (evil dwarves; mounted on giant tarantulas, no less) and a handful of other intelligent underground races. Quick wits, stealth, trickery, and diplomacy are key here, since the prospect of attempting to plow straight through the heart of a well-manned Duergar outpost is daunting to say the least. Less hack-and-slash PCs might even have the opportunity to replenish their supplies at a cavern bazaar frequented by numerous underworld denizens.

The Twisted Caverns: Are just what they sound like. This is more of an underground wilderness area, so expect inhabitants to generally fit the ravenous beast archetype. Parties worn down by too much unnecessary combat in the Outer Complex will have the odds stacked heavily against them here.

The Inner Sanctum/Vast Gate: It's here that surviving PCs can unravel the mystery at the heart of Firestorm Peak: An ancient gateway to a malignant alien reality that's presently seeping-through to contaminate the PC's own in various disturbing ways. If they're smart and lucky, they may be able to seal it off. If not, they may very well never see the light of day again.

GoFP is a lengthy adventure and a difficult one. It will take several playing sessions, some smart players, and even a bit of luck to successfully complete. It's strongly non-linear, with more than one way to tackle the dungeon's challenges. Most of all, it positively oozes freaky flavor. The alien life forms infesting the depths of the dungeon are truly unsettling in their aspect and the gradual transition from a classic Underdark romp to the heart of an otherworldly Foulness is handled quite deftly.

As for the Skills & Powers dross, do what I and probably almost everybody else did and ignore it. It's remarkably easy.

As one of the few TSR adventures from its period with a reputation that's actually improved significantly over time, you can expect a used copy of GoFP to run you more than average, but it can still be found for sale around the $20.00 or less range if you spend some time shopping around.

Word to the wise: Try to make sure all the very neat color maps are included with the booklet itself before you buy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Wolfman Bugbear's got nards!

This post is just an excuse to post a link to this lovely image from the Otherworld Miniatures site.

Don't click if pewter peener may offend you.

P.S. The gratuitous Monster Squad reference is just a happy coincidence.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

RPG Review: Wayfarers

Wayfarers (“WF, hereafter) is a recently-released fantasy RPG from Ye Olde Gaming Companye. In addition to a complete set of game rules, the final 100 pages or so is a lengthy rules-light description of the campaign world of Twylos, making WF, after a fashion, “two books in one.”

Accordingly, I’ll be breaking this review down into three major aspects: Physical presentation, rules, and setting.

Full disclosure: In a happy first for me, co-author Jimmy Swill was kind enough to volunteer out of the blue via email to send me a free paperback copy of WF just because he liked my other online reviews. That’s pretty excellent when you consider that this very well-produced 400+ page tome normally retails for $35.00. So keep on writing those reviews, everyone: A treasure trove of glorious free gaming products awaits you! Maybe.


Physical Presentation

My copy of WF is an inch-thick standard dimension softcover with some attractive color cover art depicting a bloody battle between a motley crew of fantasy types (most prominently a woman in a cloak and humanoid bear swordfighting in the center foreground).

Inside art is B&W/grayscale and seems to be a combination of contributions from several dozen artists. They’re good, on average, although I have seen a couple of the pieces before (the “fighter versus orc” on page 199 was actually available as cover art for the last edition of Labyrinth Lord, for example).

Pages are non-glossy. Text is clearly presented in two columns, is well-written and seems well-edited.


WF is pretty much D&D-but-not.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. Some of the oldest, most revered fantasy RPGs, such as Tunnels & Trolls and Runequest, seem to have started out with one or more designers who really liked D&D except for… The “except for” could be character classes, experience levels, magic based on the work of Jack Vance, or any number of other things.

So-called generic game systems soon got into the act, and countless systems, to include GURPS, Hero System, d6, Fudge and many others have published fantasy supplements available.

On the most basic level, the equation might look like this:

WF = classic (A)D&D - character classes – levels – alignment + point-buy character creation + robust skill system.

Utilizing a point-buy mechanic, you determine your attributes (Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Presence, Strength) and modify them by race (+1 Presence for elves, and so forth).

After that, you determine your HP (Health Points), your Physical and Mental Resistances (saving throws), Dodge score (take a guess), and movement rate (based on encumbrance of gear carried).

Next, you use your remaining points to purchase Disciplines like Hermetic Magic Potential, Precise Shot, and Feint. These are directly analogous to the Feats in certain other popular fantasy games.

Next you buy Proficiencies, which are classic skills like Climbing and Animal Handling.

Finally, you select your starting equipment and starting spells for spellcasters.

So no surprises at all during character creation, but it all seems to work well enough.

In play, WF uses all of the “typical” gaming dice, d4 through d20.

For skills, you roll a 1d20 for each skill “rank” you have and keep the best result, trying to beat a GM-set target number.

Each 10-second combat round is basically:

1. 1d10 per character initiative roll, modified by Agility bonuses.

2. To hit with physical attacks: Modified 1d20 roll attempting to equal or exceed the target’s modified Dodge score.

3. Spells can be interrupted and disrupted, especially since they generally take an initiative penalty proportionate to their overall power level. Once successfully cast, their effects are usually opposed by Physical or Mental Resistance, when applicable.

4. Along the way, damage is deducted from HP, with characters dropping below zero HP falling unconscious and possibly dying.

Anybody surprised yet? I know, I know. Just stay with me here.

There are four types of magic in WF. Hermetic Magic is your classic wizardly teleporting and blasting suckers with fire, lightning, and occasionally fiery lightning (just for a change of pace). Faith Magic is that sissy heal/cure/protect stuff scary religious fanatics do. Hedge Magic is phantasmal/mind-affecting magic similar to what illusionists employed in AD&D. Finally, Ritual Magic is a sort of hybrid between Hermetic and Faith Magics in terms of its effects.

Spells are divided into Circles (levels) and magic is mostly “Vancian” memorization where each caster can prepare and use a certain number of spells of each given Circle per day depending on their magic skill levels. Faith types can ask their divine patrons for any spell, but other types are limited to choosing spells from the formulae recorded in their magic tomes.

The one exception is Ritual Magic, which works on a classic spell point system. Spells of a given Circle cost a certain number of points from a master pool to cast and need not be chosen in advance.

There’s also some experience rules, two big chapters packed with magic items and monsters, a chapter of optional rules, sample characters, and even a pseudo-screenplay format “example of play.”

Apologies if I sound like I’ve been being unduly flippant in the preceding paragraphs, but it’s a real struggle for me to find anything to say, good or bad, about WF’s rules.

They’re exactly what you would expect. Exactly. Nothing less and nothing more. Perfectly serviceable.


Now we’re talking! The “World of Twylos” section is where WF truly comes alive in grand Framptonian style.

You might call it a “typical” fantasy world, but a careful reading reveals it to be a truly excellent example of such; perhaps one of the all-time best I’ve ever seen.

Twylos is, in the authors’ own words, “a synthesis of seven different campaigns” that “ran almost continuously between 1988 and 2006.”

Frankly, it shows. Twylos has “handcrafted labor of love” written all over it and is positively dripping with vivid atmosphere. This is clearly not the product of some marketing department’s X-month “development cycle.” Would you like to hear the fables of Paedra and the Ogre King or Timmorn and the Apple Tree? How about some poetry? Or you could read a scene-by-scene summary of “Gardens of Zil”, described as “a short play in three acts that was written by Rogan DuLaine, the Mad Priest of Ixus, when he was wandering Saethos, searching for Rhauxen.”?

This material is both ample and utterly charming, and it’s layered on top of a detailed world with many adventure seeds, convincing fantasy religions and societies, and scary-cool NPC antagonists like Lord Ixondr of the Hall of Faces.

Most importantly, for me, the authors seem to have resisted the temptation to use their own favorite PCs and NPCs as “movers and shakers” in Twylos. Players concerned about being upstaged by the antics of pet NPCs (a criticism that’s been leveled, rightly or wrongly, about certain other campaigns) need not worry; the world is the star here. Nor is there any impression that all the truly epic, important quests have already been completed.

There is a well-drafted map of Twylos included in the book along with a character sheet, but grayscale does not do it justice. I’d recommend one of the larger color versions on the YOGC website.


So what can I say about WF?

If you want a complete classic fantasy game that’s mostly in the D&D mold, but excludes some of its more perennially controversial mechanics like firm character classes and alignments, WF’s rules will fit your needs. I, for one, am not, but ‘different strokes’, I guess.

If you want one of the coolest, most richly and lovingly-detailed fantasy worlds ever presented for an RPG, WF has this in spades. And it’s mostly system-free to boot.

If you want both, just stop reading and go get WF now. There’s no possible way you’re going to be anything less than overjoyed.

On a scale of 1-5, I’d give WF a 4 for style and presentation, a 3 for its rules, and a 5 for its setting material (average those last two to a 4 if you like).

It’s a quality product, and I recommend it highly. I’m looking forward to more from YOGC in the months and years to come.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Black Sheep: Thunder Rift

I've been brainstorming ideas lately for an irregular, open-ended post series and today one finally came to me.

I'm calling it "Black Sheep." This series will be dedicated to praising the oft-overlooked gems published during what many consider to be the darkest days of D&D: The 1990s.

There's a strong tendency in the classic D&D community to write-off the hundreds of products released by TSR during this period. And that's too bad. Because even incompetent management and an utter lack of quality control didn't manage to prevent some very sincere D&D enthusiasts from producing some very useful and inspiring products.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many old-timers report that they just up and stopped playing (A)D&D around this time, while I myself was a kid just beginning. But I digress...

To start things off, here's Thunder Rift, a 1992 "basic D&D" release by Colin McComb.

TR superfan Håvard Faanes describes the setup like so:

"Thunder Rift is a small isolated valley, named after the characteristic thunderous roar that can sometimes be heard throughout the valley. Despite its small size, Thunder Rift is home to a wide range of peoples and creatures and has a rich history, full of wonders, glory, conflicts, violence and tragedy."

Thunder Rift is what we today might call a "mini-sandbox." It's intended as a truly modular, transportable microsetting that a new DM can use as a base for his or her adventures. It is, in its own way, analogous to Village of Hommlet or Keep on the Borderlands.

Why is this so important? Well, at the time it seemed to many that TSR was forsaking exactly this sort of useful, modular "bread-and-butter" D&D product in favor of ever more esoteric and complicated high-concept ones. This was the era, you'll remember, of Spelljammer, Planescape, Maztica, etc. But what good did these sprawling, baroque works do for the average kid just looking for a small village to set his first dungeon near, maybe one with a forest of reclusive elves and a hillside colony of gruff dwarves not too far away?

Thunder Rift deliberately kept its scope small, but it packed so many colorful NPCs, rustic villages, savage wildernesses, and adventure hooks into a mere 32 pages (and a neat poster map), that it helped my games much more than the other, more massive (and expensive) products I bought around the same time.

In fact, the Rift, later transposed into Known World/Mystara just north of Darokin, became a centerpiece of my longest-running and most memorable campaign. During my high school years, as the PCs gradually grew in power and status, they even chose to build their strongholds in the Rift, in honor of all those great low-level adventures we played and more than one of McComb's villager NPCs became beloved campaign fixtures.

A whole series of introductory modules were released for Thunder Rift, including Assault on Raven's Ruin and Quest for the Silver Sword, and it even has its very own active forum frequented by fans and original creators alike. With most TSR products from that era trading for pennies on the dollar on eBay and other online markets, I can't recommend tracking these down enough.

So come on down to the Rift, stranger, and sidle up to bar at the Sarcastic Goat Inn. Drinks are on me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


"The OSR is a tiny niche. The main bulk of its followers largely middle-aged and not getting any younger."

So says one of my valued commenters, and this brings me back to something I've been pondering (and meaning to post on) for some time.

Who is the OSR precisely? The quote heading up this entry very well sums up the common understanding: We are "largely middle-aged and not getting any younger."

I myself am 31 years old. I consider myself to be in the prime of my life; Not a young man, but significantly short of middle age.

Has there been any comprehensive systematic effort to really quantify the demographics of the OSR? If not, how could this be accomplished?