Sunday, August 2, 2020

OSR: The Calaveras Campaign 7

This is an ongoing Knave campaign, a smallish sandbox of sorts with new players to the hobby. Read what happened before here.

Let's look at the characters:
Zemalayou (iagson) - carrying a bow and a spellbook. Face heavily scarred and mutated. Speaks through a mouse.
Nerisse (Mo) - redhead bow-woman, who wakes up in the first visited dungeon without any memory of how she ended up there.
Angan Enge (Copernico) - beastman of the Biber Hills, assigned by Rhys to accompany the adventurers. Wants to find his family.
Hirelings/Animals - Ber (a goat that can carry their stuff)

Session 7

  • The adventurers arrive at the southern garrison's tower, a protection point in the Biber Hills. The Grim Kingdom keeps tabs with their neighbors of Diremouth to the West.
  • Short wooden walls surround the camp, as well as the tower. Broken entrance doors give way to the muddy yard. Several buildings in sight, one and two stories short. Two dead bodies in front of the central building, face down, with wooden stakes popping out of their backs.
  • They investigate the bodies (first "parking" the cargo-goat Ber). Then decide to enter that building (Grim Kingdom shield above door). Heavy smoke comes out. Feasting hall, music, and lots of people feasting in here. Big turkey with shiny knife at the center. (variation if Michael Kennedy's room, see Referee Commentary below).
    • They aren't let out of the room! The guards and soldiers get infuriated at mentions of what happened here. Food and drink are actually rotten or gone bad, Nerisse finds out.
    • Knife is found to be magical, and disperses the illusion when being held.
    • They go to the cellar from the kitchen area, all holding the knife. There, they find 3 guards (not illusions!) guarding a barrel. Dizzy and red-eyed. Heavy drug scent in here. What are they guarding? A variation of Delobia, they claim, and in spades.
  • Confrontation is avoided, and the PCs leave the scene. Then, a group of guards/soldiers charge into the courtyard, back from patrolling. Three on horse, with 5 dogs sniffing and snapping around (a lucky entry on the random encounter roll!). Angan and company take to dialogue and parlay, explain what happened, and convince the guards to join efforts to go to the basement and retrieve those drugs. Unfortunately, having authoritative figures present, Angan has to refrain from further investigating the drug.
  • Whilst this is being solved, Zem stays outside keeping watch. He spots the shadow of a big creature at the top of the watch tower. Horse-sized and with wings? The carcass of an animal (deer, pony, or similar?) gets dropped to the feet of the tower.
  • Next they investigate forge; find a dead dwarf within, again with small stakes protruding from the corpse. Small but vicious chained dog barking. Nerisse tames it with a fantastic performance of her harmonica.
  • Move north to a door with several locks outside. Unfortunately, takes them a while, and a flock of crows goes to attack them! (Hitchcock style). Nerisse takes the worst of it, but Zem throws his purse full of silver coins to distract them, and it works! (Of course it does).
    • Using the confusion, the groups hides inside another building, empty inside, which looks like soldiers' barracks. After a few moments it is decided; they will spend the night here.

Referee Commentary

  • The players liked this scenario, the interactions, and the mini-pointcrawl exploration.
  • What I did was to: 1/ grab this map by dysonlogos, 2/ come up with keyed locations (points), including a modified version of this one, 3/ make up a random encounter table. That's it, we are ready to go.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

OSR: The Calaveras Campaign 4, 5, 6

Read what happened on the previous sessions of this Knave campaign. Things are progressing well as we close up the first dungeon crawl, and the group moves to other adventures in the region of Rietikon.

Let's look at the characters:
Pancho (Copernico) - guy with a lance, and a tendency to grab shiny stuff in front of him.
Zemalayou (iagson) - carrying a bow and a spellbook. Face heavily scarred and mutated.
Nerisse* (Mo) - redhead bow-woman, who wakes up in the first visited dungeon without any memory of how she ended up there.
Angan Enge (Copernico) - beastman of the Biber Hills, assigned by Rhys to accompany the adventurers. Wants to find his family.
Hirelings - Daniele (woman-at-arms, sword & board)
*Nerisse joined the group at Session 3.

Session 4

  • They spend a considerate amount of time debating what the next course of action is, still puzzled at the riddle from the thick prayer book: "Place something cold, my Agent, the color of our essence."
    • Zem decides to cut part of his newly lizard-like cheek to let some blood drip, to no effect (other than the damage willingly taken by the attempt).
    • They try other objects, and finally with a bit of the separating curtain get the effect of a nearby human-sized cobra to spill a red liquid. PCs are too afraid to come near it, so they move on.
  • Extremely cautious with the door to the East, Pancho starts working with his trusted lockpicks on the door. After some time (burning torches and resources), he unlocks it.
  • There, they are back at a human-sized statue of a cobra (another one) in the corridor, two gems (green emerald and red ruby) on the eye sockets. Of course Nerisse plops them out. Of course the green one turns to dust and blasts chocking poison damage to the group (albeit not fatal). Red ruby hauled though...!
  • Stairs go down, turning to the right. Stone door needs further exploration. Inside, a temple-like area, with stone statues flanking the space, columns supporting the structure, treasure scattered on the floor (coffers, bracelets, amphora). And this guy, but in a statue made of stone (cool looking obsidian sword on his hand):
This guy, but as a statue instead
  • Pancho convinces Daniele to remove the obsidian sword (treasure!), whilst Zem starts pocketing riches, and Nerisse protects the entrance with her bow.
    • Of course, the statue animates, mauls Daniele the hireling to a pulp (FIRST DEATH), and recovers the sword. PCs are fast enough to flee, and the creature doesn't seem too bothered to pursue them past this room, which they wisely close behind them.
    • ... many torches and plenty of equipment are left behind on Daniele's corpse...
  • Next room explored has another column with manacles (no skellies there this time), and a cryptic graffiti message on the western wall "Kill the False Heir!".
  • Reluctant to waste more time, after investigating the space, they move North to the only available exit. Large corridor, with rubble slowing their steps.
  • They find a new room, with 4 stone lamps, and the skeleton of a medusa on the ground with a dagger on the hand. After some investigations, playing with lighting 2 of the stone lamps, and finding some treasure below the skeleton,....
  • ... a naked kid shows up, lizard-like eyes. Shouts and commands the adventurers to leave this sacred place. Intruders!

Referee Commentary

  • Players learnt the hard way that there are fights not worth fighting.
    Running is a viable (and sometimes very advisable) strategy.
  • Timing a session is extremely hard, no matter how experienced you are running games, or how much you prepared your session in advance. Glad it worked this time!

Session 5

  • Pancho is able to convince the lizard-kid to leave them alone, arguing that they are here to help. This buys the group some precious exploration time, as he disappears leaving the adventurers to their task.
  • After several turns exploring every corner of this area and room, the group is in the brink of giving up. Including the nearby locked door spitting paralyzing darts to both Nerisse and Pancho, when trying to force it open with the lockpicks.
  • Finally, a random encounter is rolled. The dragon-lizard strikes again, this time bigger and meaner. It opens with a tongue of flames, that catch Zem unaware, so the adventurer gets his lower face burned (losing the ability to speak). We all rejoice in how scarred his face is!
    • There's a cruel and short-lived combat encounter, where let's remember, Nerisse is still paralyzed. Pancho is able to convince the creature of their good intentions, by showing it the red ruby they found previously.
  • Too hurt and frustrated at the lack of a way forward, the treasure hunters decide to call it a day, and make their way out of the dungeon. When exiting, they take a secondary tunnel, and detect a foul ogre as the owner of the barking dog, and the Dragon Skull entrance. Party (wisely) walks away from the brute undetected.
  • To cash in their acquired treasure, group wants to go to Rietikon. But it's clear, they will have to spend the night in the Biber hills. Unfortunately, they get two encounters, both with Beastmen.
    • First, just a pair of scouts in the distance. Nerisse scares them off by using her magical spell Disguise.
    • Second, during the camp at night, they get ambushed by a bigger patrol of 7. Weapons are surrendered. But they get positive reactions, and hence get an audience with the leader of the Beastmen, "Rhys".
  • Next day, some rest was taken. With the Beastmen as newly found "guides", the numerous group moves West towards the locals' lair, by a lake. Mid-way they have the unfortunate event of a random encounter with a giant eagle (!) that grabs Pancho and takes to the skies.
    • Beastmen pepper the bird with spears, and Zem gives the final blow with this crossbow.
    • Pancho however... barely makes the fall, and is carried from now on in a comatose state. (SECOND DEATH)
  • With a snail pace, dangers are avoided on the second part of the trek. Beastmen lead the treasure hunters to their lair in the cave system near a natural lake. Carcass of the giant eagle is taken as trophy. And an audience with the leader of the Beastmen is arranged.

Referee Commentary

  • I agree that players should be able to recoup from a dungeon at any point of their choosing. They were just so close... perhaps this is feedback to the dungeon I designed, and some tweaks are necessary.
  • The random encounter proved very fatal. Chance and luck are a pickle. Take precautions, be vigilant. You will die anyway.

Session 6

  • Zem & Nerisse get an audience with Rhys, shaman leader of the Beastmen of the Biber Hills. They find truce and peace, as there could be mutual benefit. She inscribes a tattoo into Zem's chest, helping him speak through a living mouse. An avatar of sorts.
  • Rhys takes Pancho's possessions as payment for their "hospitality". A sour price, but there's not much of a choice here. Promises to try and recover him. However, Nerisse takes a hard negotiation angle, sells off some recovered goods from their first dungeon delve to the Beastmen, and both her and Zem get their first 250XP!
  • Angan Enge gets introduced to reinforce the party. A Beastman hunter in search of his lost family. The floods have taken everything from him.
  • Rhys has a few quests for the group, to aid the Beastmen in reclaiming the Biber Hills:
    • Go kill the fungal midgets that reproduce like vermin! Or at least find out how they come to be. Rhys has a location for the PCs to investigate as a starting point.
    • Recover a bone hookah adorned with runes. Had a seer dream recently, and saw it on a grove of stone trees. It's undeniably important and related to the floods.
  • Marching out to explore the Hills (with re-stocked rations, rope, and a porting goat), after a couple hours they find a grey knight sitting with a greatsword at their lap. "Grey Knight of Bratum"... "failed at my quest; poisoned to death; kill me in a duel to get my title".
    • Nerisse accepts, but then starts skirmishing the knight and raining arrows on him. The knight retreats back to his post, claiming this is not the noble duel tradition mandates.
    • PCs leave him there to die... "we'll pick up his sword when he's dead!"

  • Moving on, they decide to take a de-tour to the South instead of running to the fungal midgets' point. There is an abandoned watchtower, and Angan rightfully points out "It could be a good way to scout the area for possible threats".
  • Midway there, they run into another group of scoundrels, Auriola and the Crows. Reaction roll is positive, and the groups are for talking. Auriola looks for a sparring partner, but nobody is in the mood, nor do they mention the knight. Their wizard, with a big scarf around his neck, has a speaking method similar to Zem's, but through a crow.
    • Groups exchange information; Auriola & co claim to have cleared the ruins of the watchtower already.

Referee Commentary

  • XP awarded for their first plunder was too low? They missed a big treasure haul by a hair. But hopefully this serves as a lesson to bring more hirelings/torchbearers/mules with them next time, and go better prepared.
  • They bypassed several fights. That's good. But maybe Auriola and the Crows should have imposed a more confrontational goal (what do the NPCs want?). I felt they just went past each other, and I didn't give a hard choice. But at least the players know they are not the only treasure plunders in these hills anymore.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Gourmet Street, Zine Review

This is my attempt at taking a look and reviewing the Zinequest 2 projects I backed.
See some disclaimers at the end of this post.

Overall feel

Gourmet street is a 20 page-long zine (including front- and back cover, forewords, etc.), by John Gregory and Charles Ferguson-Avery. 17 pages of actual content, showcasing Gourmet Street, a pocket-dimension bizarre food location with adventuring potential. It taps into the underutilized potential of rations, food, beverages (and potions?) that every adventurer needs, and many OSR games track (often blandly and without flavor). As for other previous works by the authors, I own Into the Wyrd and Wild, which I consider a helpful toolkit for running forest-wilderness adventures. And I read John's blog posts when they pop up in my feed (linked above).

Ideas within the text of Gourmet Street are bizarre, and numerous. The kind I couldn't or wouldn't come up with myself easily: factions, monsters, items, MANY MANY dish names.

A stewing pot with so many ideas, the layout and art seem just like an extra ingredient in this one, as convoluted as I imagine the food stalls of Gourmet Street to be. There are a variety of font types and sizes, where some are too small for my aged eyes (tables on pages 4, 5, 18, 19). For instance take the Schnapshund on page 14. This monster gets a reduced font compared to the other monsters in that small section. It breaks flow and consistency. The bullet points of the Classicists faction are indented, whereas the other factions' aren't. There are mocks of coffee stains and grease marks sprinkled throughout, resembling a used cookbook. Similar to what Macchiato Monsters did; I like that touch.

Art throughout is consistent and abundant (all except the full-table pages get some), but perhaps too sketchy for my taste? It's definitely less finalized and feels more rushed than Avery's other work, including Into the Wyrd and Wyld or the Sphinxes zine. There are some typos or odd language choices here and there, but nothing too off-putting, definitely not for a zine publication.

When I backed this, I was hoping for a bizarre setting like Ynn or the Stygian Library, that can be dropped into any campaign or setting (since food and carousing are quintessential to the adventuring life). Random tables, optional rules, monsters, and all the goodness.

The first page of arguable content is a Using this Zine background section. References and influences are cited (movies, shows, comics like K6BD, etc). Bizarre people are meant to make these food stalls, the vendors. Claims to be rules system agnostic (citing some recommendations like Knave, B/X, DCC, Troika!, 5e, etc), and frankly in my limited experience that's harder to get right than choosing a system and even loosely sticking to it.

What's on the Menu? and other tables

Opening with the question What's on the Menu?, the first two-page spread provides one of the ingredients the OSR does best: random tables. Precisely two of them, with d100 and d20 entries.

The first table has 100 dishes (Today's Special), 100 Beverages, and 100 Condiments. Dish names are filled with D&D references, bringing in that this is no mundane serving. Beverages and condiments seem more mundane in nature, but there are a lot of them I haven't heard of. Great stuff! Exactly the crap I won't come up with on the fly, I can roll a few before the game, or just read each entry. Some rolled examples so you get the idea:
  • Baku Snout Tartar, with Wasabi. To drink, there's Dancha Tea
  • Demonic Bee Honey on Toast, with Umeboshi. To drink, there's Black Coffee
  • Soft-Shelled Crabman Sandwich, with Pimento Cheese. To drink, there's Seagul Wine
The second table, a d20, has tille + vendor + stall + quality + frequent customer entries. Might seem quite dense to parse, but skimming ahead the rest of the zine, it contains a lot of the Gourmet Street setting, excluding the factions ahead. Other than flavor, there is nothing here in terms of gameable material, food effects, or rules.

An improvement idea for the layout: split the d100 tables in 50 entries per page, and move the d20 table into a new page spread, perhaps with an illustration? And add some extra content for Interactivity & Exploration in that new spread!.

Gourmet Street

A two-page spread introducing the feel of Gourmet Street, with a crude sketch of the food stalls. Perhaps too crude? Factions struggling for power within the setting, that's the main dish! Four factions are presented in the next two pages.

They are: The Newo Gastro Alchemists, The Classicists, The Vinegar Knights, and The Brewer's Bloc. Each comes with bullet points with their credo, peculiarities, and the head face running that group. In addition, each faction gets a Boon and a Bane (not to confuse with SotDL mechanics!). For when (if?) the PCs enlist the ranks of one of them, they can get a badge of customer loyalty. Of note is also a logo for each of the four factions (upper corners in the image below).

Next, a bestiary with a total of 5 creatures. Things that can go wrong and give some action in and around Gourmet street. Some like the Wolf Yeast and the Schnapshund are part of John's blog, although they received some very minor editing in the zine.
Gloop!s should be treated as treasure, since their main gimmick is to be fed for a period of time, to then develop a random effect from the d20 table (a Tasty Power!). The effects of that d20 table are great for minor magical trinkets too. Lastly, saving the effects of a poison in the Gloop! seems pretty pointless to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.
Froth Goblins are exactly what you'd expect: sugar junkies. HD 0 seems like a typo, and the Yeast Infection is only explained in the Wolf Yeast entry, and is a nasty condition. I really like monsters that on paper are not a threat to the HP, but instead have diseases, tackle equipment, etc.
The Prince of Cucumber Sandwiches is too cheeky for me to use in a game, but an enjoyable read.

Next we have a short d10 table of Cookbook Names. It feels like an opportunity was missed, by not having them expanded into spell books or tacking a minor power or effect to each one that can be used in an actual game. I suppose this is left to the reader to figure out.
The six Magic Items provided are memorable, and frankly some of the best content in the supplement. A pan fitted for a giant that you can wield, yeast capable of spanning Wolf Yeasts, a portable food stand (reminds me of Dragon Ball), and so on.

After consuming the bulk of the zine and what Gourmet Street is meant to be, I can't help to find myself mildly puzzled. Great content that amounts to a goofy setting's sprinkling, but we are missing the meat of it. And the 2 pages of factions lack enough weight to carry the whole setting. What is Gourmet Street? I still don't really know. This is a missed opportunity in presenting food & beverages effects, intoxication rules, or what have you that can be used during actual play. As it stands, most of it is left to the reader to figure out. Perhaps my thesis of this being an adventuring location was wrong. But even as a "hub" or area to convert that hard earned gold into XP, it lacks rumors, quest ideas, carousing tables, etc. I feel it would take very significant effort to bring this to the table in a satisfying way.

One-page adventure

To close, Escape from Gourmet Street is a one-page adventure presented in the last spread of the zine.

PCs are to help escape a couple of lovers, that have upset the Factions by an unapproved union, and here we are. We get a random table to generate the lovers, which has just enough description to portray them in a refreshing way; nice!

Chase mechanics are dead simple, but I imagine quite effective and amusing at the table. In my experience taking cards, boards, or other mini-games into your game is received well. Additional movement can be handed to the chased PCs, but is left to GM/Ref-fiat, something I'm not too fond of. The pursuers are also left for the Referee to find flesh out, from some of the factions provided.
Depending on the outcome, a random Event can happen (d20 table). The entries are short, one-sentence effects again open to interpretation. 1-11/12 are clearly bad to the PCs, the rest are either an asset or an obstacle. For the most part, entries are not particularly inspiring.

This feels like part of an adventure, more like a chase mechanic idea, that needs considerable fleshing out to be brought to the table.

This concludes the review. The gonzo food setting of Gourmet Street has some interesting notes and bits (the factions and the magic items were my favorite). I can't help but feel that keeping it rules light/generic hurt the actual material, missing more effects for foods and drinks. It felt like the setting is neither an adventuring location nor a hub to rest and carouse, and the actual Gourmet Street core structure was missing.


- In the interest of full disclosure I bought this with my own funds.
    - I was a backer on their Kickstarter campaign and paid 10 US$ for the print+PDF version of the product in February 2020. Plus another additional 5 US$ for shipping.
- Nobody is paying for this review. All of the opinions you see are my own.
- Nobody is approving or reading this post before it goes up.
- I have no relationship with any of the authors of this product.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Putting that printer to work! And other updates

"Can we get a printer? I think we might need it, working from home and all... To print tax documents, coupons, etc"

And here we are, with a new machine/appliance in the house. The flip side is that I'm starting to print out more material, that I would otherwise consume in PDF-only form. For instance Lorn Song of the Bachelor, shown below. I even did a mild attempt at sew binding, and can say it's a pleasant result for a first try. Given how royally f*cked shipping expenses can get, especially when shipping things across continents or with drivethru, I have to get creative. Zines too.

Some things to improve in the future:
  • Heavier paper, to reduce bleeding.
  • Nicer tape for the spine.
  • Colored cardboard for the cover.

Have a few play reports in draft state, that will start coming in the next days.
I will play a session of Microscope with my regular group very shortly. The game has eluded me so far, and I'm very excited to give it a go.

On another note, I started churning a new system in a fresh Google Docs, parting ways with the comfortable Knave chassis we all have known to love. 4 stats instead of the canon 6, revamped Clerics as Godbinders, and very GLOG-y Wizards. Several pages into my notes, I reach to my copy of Macchiato Monsters, and realize it plays similar notes as to what I was trying to achieve.
I deleted my draft, because the last thing the TTRPG world needs is another (raw, quickly thrown together) game. Now I aim to play through Lorn Song with Macchiato Monsters as a test.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Tales of Mordhearse Reloaded

This is a build up from the excellent work by vilecultofshapes, expanding on the player rules.
You can find his game on itch: Tales of Mordhearse Hyperlite.

It is extremely light. But in its simplicity lies the beauty. There are no to-hit rolls, like in Into the Odd. Roll d8 to get your HP and character class, so creating a character is done in a minute after a couple of rolls. Use current HP as a resolution system, with roll under (want an easy game? use a d10 or d12. hardcore mode? d20).

In just a couple pages we can taste the feel of the world of Mordhearse (a dying earth and Humanity of sorts). The version by vilecutofshapes has a sample dungeon and some spark tables to boot! But frankly, any ItO material should work just fine.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Electric Bastionland - The Stygian Library Job AP

We decided to take a break of the Knave games, since Mo was not available to play. So I had to organize a game quite ad-hoc, and fast. I proposed to give Electric Bastionland a try, with the following options on the menu:
  • Stygian Library - "Go into an infinite library to get a particular tome, or book of information (think Borges, with creatures etc.)"
  • Prison of the Worm Queen - "Investigate the disappearance of the Worm Queen in the Dwarmsgarden part of Bastion"
  • The Price of Evil - "Go fetch whatever valuables you can from a haunted house in the upper part of the city. The owners want to sell or destroy the property, but are afraid of the bad juju"
They picked the first one, so that's what we ran. They rolled some characters to begin with, and got

Smiff (Copernico) - a Deconstructor with a smelly dog and a murder lizard. A walking zoo.
Ural (iagson) - a Repressed Psychic who worked in a distant mine in Deep Country, and can appear invisible to one person.

They have a 10'000£ debt to repay to the Under-kin, a faction of androids in the Underground taking all discarded, mutated, and abused humans from the surface of Bastion. How that debt came to be is kept undisclosed. Their contact within the Under-kin is an embedded mouth entity in the sewers that goes by Matka-3QΩ.

2'000£ will be lifted from the group's debt, if they find any information incriminating a charity conglomerate known as the Redway Relief Fund. Your poster of supplying the food banks, going to the shelters and orphanages to help those in need. Oh, and they are all women wearing red&white garments.

To start, they are given the tip to visit the Burn Art Curio Bookshop, and ask for an entrance for the Stygian Library. All knowledge can be found there, but in its vastness lies the complexity. There, Drench, a fox mockery with a disdain for the manager (and any kind of productive work in general). He takes them to his Nth coffee break of the day, explains how the famed library has an entrance here, at the bookshop. When prompted for the entrance, he points the way, and wishes the group good luck.

Once inside, they starto to navigate the infinite Stygian Library. I decide on a target score of 25 for the Information they need. My line of thought is that it's not rough to find some sketchy bits or dirty secrets on the Redway Relief Fund, given its recent popularity within Bastion. The group's run ends up as follows after about 1h50 of exploration, and 2 hours of real play time.

A respectable 12 Information was gathered, and very quickly. Sweet! Perhaps I was too generous with some of those points? I reckon one more session will wrap this one up. Some session notes of this run (in very rough order):
  • Ringing the bell at the entrance brought a quartet of eccentric (but helpful) academics (Researchers), in search of books about (factual) recollections of dragons, and politics. They believe both are interconnected! Warnings of the Librarians are given.
  • The Mausoleum's sarcophagus is left intact (for sure a trapping!). A lost family of japanese tourists (Visitors) brings in a very wholesome interaction. They continue taking photographs, astonished by the sarcophagus.
  • The chained Lectern Book gives Kung-Fu powers to both, as they read the pages of this extraordinary tome. Only at the cost of 1 point of Strength, as their knuckles twist and bend in the process.
  • A pair of fighting Bookworms spill into the room, right when the pair is debating "where next?". There's some hesitation ("should we try our Kung Fu?!"), but they decide to retreat.
  • Ural fills in 7 bottles with colorful inks from the room with the Ink Vats. Smiff takes his sledgehammer to break some bolted chains and investigate musical books. Clues are obtained, but a gust of wind kicks in (all lights extinguished), and another Bookworm creeps in, this time wanting to dance. Smelly dog gets the worst of it, but decides to keep biting with a rush of canine adrenaline, and they defeat the maggot.
  • They finally arrive to a reading lounge, with sofas, tables, cigar smell, and a spiral staircase. After investigating the shelves in this area for a bit and getting some helpful information, the shelves at the entrance move and shift, closing the way they came from. Where to next?

Referee Commentary

  • The players seemed to like EB. Avoiding the to-hit roll was very well received. One of the players showed interest in more tactical combat. No surprise, they come from a wargame/models background.
  • I had little time to prep the game, and converted monster stats on the fly (based on gut instinct), and used 2d6 morale. This was sloppy, and at some point I might get some better conversion notes in place. Have to check the Bastionland blog again.
  • Forgot that mobs don't add their damage in EB, but you only take the biggest results. I'm just too used to Into the Odd!
  • For the smelly dog I used 2d6 for stats, assuming it was a Lackey. Not sure if that's the standard, but it worked well.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sphinxes, the first of Sages, Zine Review

This is my attempt at taking a look and reviewing the Zinequest 2 projects I backed.
See some disclaimers at the end of this post.

Overall feel

Sphinxes: the First of Sages is a 16 page-long zine (including front- and back cover), focusing on... sphinxes! The PDF formatting is strange, since it uses two-page spreads for the body. The biggest appeal and draw for me to get this zine was the artwork and aesthetic. Given that, I recommend you check their Kickstarter campaign, which frankly is a bit scarce, to see the art by Alex Coggon and Charles Ferguson-Avery. As for other previous works, I own Into the Wyrd and Wild, which I consider a helpful toolkit for running forest-wilderness adventures.

Sphinxes has great layout. Each individual spread has thematic margins that emphasize the sphinx being presented. The art features really great sphinx pieces, where I think all but one are done by Alex Coggon. This means that a bit of cohesiveness is lost with the one by Charles Ferguson-Avery. The PDF has no bookmarking or layers.

Also, the title page has a typo: "Shinxes".

The zine suffers from rules inconsistency and lack thereof. The KS project page claimed loose 5e compatibility. Maybe? Since two authors worked on the zine, 4 of the sphinxes have very light rules (and some spells that follow DCC-like effects?), and the last sphinx has more robust statblock to be used during play (AC, HD, etc.).

Introduction and attributes

A first two-page spread covers an overview and introduction about sphinxes. The first page has rumored origins, their similarities and differences compared to dragons (the former are curious, the latter plain greedy), sphinx lairs and followers, and how to use them in combat. These overviews are a bit verbose and not descriptive enough. They could've been summarized in a few bullet points.

Sphinxes in Combat is particularly confusing. It sits mid-way between a system-less description of abilities and a mix of 5e and generic terms. Spells like Silence and Mage Hand are contrasted with "saving throws", "disadvantage", "save versus poison", and two spell descriptions, Eye of the Storm and Sundering Laughter that are lacking mechanical and thematic focus. Of note is also that these guidelines seem only relevant to sphinxes 1-4, not 5.

The second page is Physical Attributes of the Sphinx, with some lovely smaller drawings, showcasing the anatomy. Show don't tell! Writing could be trimmed here, in lieu of more sketches (feathers are described as treasures, why not show some?). For me the most interesting bit is the last paragraph, where time-halting pockets are described; reason why sphinxes can negate the passage of time. This can give some game-able material: can you bring your ally or PC in time, before they succumb to their incurable disease?

Actually, the final spread (pages 14-15) could have been pulled in to the beginning of the zine, to soften the introduction and provide a less dry point of entry to the zine.

The 5 Sphinxes

The meat and potatoes. We get 5 two-page spreads, each with their own sphinx, including individual (and gorgeous) pieces of artwork. Great layout, with margins matching each individual sphinx and their theme in the spread.

Some general notes on the first 4 sphinxes, and then I'll jump to the tone of each one. The 5th I will look at and discuss separately, since it follows different format and content.

The left page gets the name of the sphinx, together with art, and some keywords based on Virtues, Vices, Wants, and Speech. I really like these, concise and punchy, gives a good idea on how to run them.

Following are a few paragraphs riddled with more details, like lairs, mannerisms, history, and organizations they are each involved with. There are too many proper nouns (to locations, organizations, etc), and not that much game-able material. The structure is also a bit off. Perhaps adding a few categories "Description", "Lair", "Organizations", "Fierce Secrets" would have helped?
There is also the odd omission. For instance Naccalat reads "Naccalat is a scrupulous leader and hordes their followers like they do their treasure; feverishly. To join with the sphinx is to join a family that borders on fantastical cult.". Yet this camaraderie is not within the mentioned Virtues, Vices, Wants, and Speech, so it makes it harder to parse or understand. If the idea was to have an unreliable narrator, a clearer tone for the reader/referee would've been great.

The second page contains a spell, thematic to the sphinx presented. The format is not reminiscent of 5e, and it compared a result from d20+(one of Int/Wis/Cha modifier)+Level against a codified table with results and effects. Seems reminiscent of DCC, perhaps? Each is just too much for actual use for a single spell, and devoid of much in terms of mechanics. The higher results of the table would make a fitting boon, magic item, or scroll, for the sphinx to have in their lair (and to bestow on helpful PCs), so the effects can be repurposed that way.

In order, we get:
  • Zalar Vos Noxium - this one shouts LAW through all pores. Space and time as theme, tied with clockworks and their care-taking. And a tower as their lair.
  • Naccalat es Crisclet - a cunning thieves' guild master. Doors, keys, and passages. Could be the face behind a curio and relics extraction company. The most dangerous, perhaps.
  • Leu’li vac Oren - a trickster, an illusion (?), dealing in rumors and curios. Probably the most likeable of the bunch.
  • Meticus En Laosim - meticulous, a librarian, the brainy one? A library is implied, so potentially this one could be plucked into the Stygian Library? I might do that...
Lastly, we get the Shadowbound Sphinx, which is a generic monster (instead of one unique sphinx) with 14HD and some nasty abilities. Darker and likely more antagonistic, it follows a more appealing stat-block with HD, AC, etc. Numbers are fairly system-agnostic (e.g. AC as leather). But for some reason the attacks are still given in damage size, instead of "as sword", or "as dagger". I also suffer from this rotten habit. The monster description text is somewhat evocative, but has certain words repeated too often, in succession. There is also a "save versus madness", which... is not bad? But I'd rather have vs Intelligence, or similar.

The second page is a sample Warlock subclass, the Path of Shadowbound, assuming you get one of the critters as your patron. Flavor being madness and randomness. The level 1 features gives d6 extra spells per day to the Warlock, and the 14th one a twisted Wish spell. Probably too much for a class, I'd not let this roll on my 5e table as-is. However, as separate boons granted by such a sphinx after a quest they make more sense (which by the way, is suggested in the text!).

End sprinkling

Two final pages at the end add some seasoning to the topic. First, a one page short story about an implied origin for sphinxes, that ties to books, knowledge, and understanding. Solid for inspiration, but no gaming material, it should have been on the first page of the zine to open up less coldly.

We also get d20 Random features in a sphinx lair. They vary in originality and length up to 30is words. For instance 19: "Flickering candles that never seem to burn down or emit any heat." could be improved. Or 11: "Warm deep, thermal fueled pools of a variety of colors, looked over by a water spirit that sings softly from the alcoves."

What I see missing is an extra line or two to add interactivity and something exciting the players can do with the locations when encountered. Take 11. Specifying the colors in the pool. A line or two about the song, or how interacting with the spirit could pan out. Do they like other art forms? Will they trade a song (with clues) for gems?

This concludes the review. The zine is a visual treat, but in general lacks defined game-able ideas to apply to the table. Organization and editing could be improved. If you really like sphinxes, I'm not aware of any other dedicated zines. Maybe we see future treatment of other monsters by the authors?


- In the interest of full disclosure I bought this with my own funds.
    - I was a backer on their Kickstarter campaign and paid 5 US$ for the PDF version of the product in February 2020.
- Nobody is paying for this review. All of the opinions you see are my own.
- Nobody is approving or reading this post before it goes up.
- I have no relationship with any of the authors of this product.