Tuesday, September 22, 2020

They Cried Monster, 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

They Cried Monster is a 24 page-long zine, laid out in front and back cover as singles, and 11 spreads. Two PDF variants are provided: single pages and spreads. It is black and white, with enough black ink so that printing from home could be tough. The PDF has no bookmarking or layers.
One of the biggest appeals for me to get this zine was the artwork and aesthetic, and I knew there would be monsters to mine for my campaigns. For me it sits in the category to "pick a small number of neat elements for my own game", and not something I want to apply from start to finish in a game.
Have a look at the Kickstarter campaign to get a feel of what this is. This is the 3rd zine I review where Charles Ferguson-Avery was involved. I own Into the Wyrd and Wild, which I consider a helpful toolkit for running forest-wilderness adventures. This zine touches a lot of the same notes as that supplement did. If you liked Wyrd and Wild, chances are you'll like this. The Tyrant Centipede (one of the monsters) has concept and writing credit from Jesse Martin.

The cover perfectly summarizes the contents of They Cried Monster. There are some house rules for Hunters, which is a more heroic adventurer than we are used to see in a standard OSR game. This sits between some rules and tables for generating Settlements (a place to gather rumors and meet key NPCs), and a Bestiary with six creatures in the mid-level of play (given their HD range). I think this is a great cover, conveying the contents.

The first page of arguable content is a Using this Zine background section. References and influences are cited (The Witcher, Hellboy, Mushishi). 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.

Hunter Rules

There are essentially two proposed house rules, to make play more heroic. It will still require a proper ruleset to play with, since here we only get some dressing and optional rules to tack onto the game of choice. I think they would work better on some systems than others (Black Hack, B/X and Knave vs DCC Troika! or 5e).

It proposes slots (like Knave), and quantum equipment for mundane items (which ones count as unique? it's not clarified). Monster hunting takes some distance from the bean-counting and planning involved by equipment purchases. This is a bit conflicting for me, but I know it can produce great results at the table, depending on the group's preferences.

Then, it encourages games where the Hunter is adventuring alone. Or as the only PC, this could work well on a one player one referee situation. Collateral damage helps for that. The table of 10 Disciplines, essentially small powers/knacks, reinforces that. Descriptions evoke Witcher vibes, a big influence throughout the publication.

On Settlements

There are three pages on building settlement settings. A locale currently accosted by the monster, where the Hunters can help solve the pesky problem. The best part is the two random tables for prominent NPC generation, as well as community details (wealth, quirk, etc.). These provide enough to frame the skeleton of such a community. A list of names (both for people and places) would have been appreciated. We get a sample community with three such personalities, ready to be used.

A few further criticisms though. First, the population type numbers make no sense, at all. A city can at most have 150 inhabitants? Second, you're meant to track the attitude of these prominent NPCs towards the Hunter/adventuring party. But the way to do so is only mentioned in extremely broad strokes. It would require a lot of work to make this idea actionable at the table, into an actual, interesting system. Similarly, the mob mentality, while making a lot of sense and providing some guidelines, seems a bit coarse and generalist. Lastly, there is a 2d6 table for Nightly Events, but there are entries for results above 12, and I have no clue what modifiers apply to arrive to that number.

The Monsters

The meat and potatoes of the publication. We get six monsters, each described in a spread, fully illustrated. Fairly system neutral, with things like armor as chain, I wish we had damage also statted that way (armor as longsword, as polearm, etc.), but that's a minor nitpick. The gold values as reward seem very low for a gold for XP system like B/X, and it would be nice to know what system they're intended for. I would just adjust it with some amount per HD of the monster.
Tyrant Centipede, one of the monsters
Tyrant Centipede, one of the monsters

On top of the stats, we get a written description to accompany the visuals, and habits and weaknesses. These are good tools to feed to the players in rumor tables, or as prized information to defeat the foe. I like this. Escalating the conflict with the monster, which should be something spanning one or multiple session, is done in an elegant manner, providing a flowchart with 6 entries per monster, per stage. This provides context when the Hunter arrives to a new settlement of what has transpired already with the monster, before they arrived, and why the community is bothered by the creature.

The six creatures are: Bronzebeak Gryphon, Cindermander, Rivengeist, The Blaakhart, Tyrant Centipede (credited to Jesse Martin), and The Mothman. There is nothing utterly innovating here, or that couldn't be obtained with a spark of ideas. But I could see myself using these as-written in my games, or with only the slightest modifications. And again it's probably the strongest content in the zine.

Some Final Touches

Towards the end the zine gets a few paragraphs on the intent of the work, their goal creating this product, and what kind of playstyle should be expected. There's also a decent list of music to set the mood, and a list of credits (no playtesters credited here).

Of note are also the two character sheets provided. One for the Hunter characters, with ample space for the quantum inventory. The second is to detail a settlement, write the number of inhabitants, prominent NPCs, etc. Not something I think I will ever use myself, but a nice touch nonetheless.

This concludes the review. They Cried Monster is a framework to play heroic monster-hunting adventures. It is impregnated with the influence of material like the Witcher franchise. Episodic adventures where you hunt down a monster in a session would work well. I also suspect it would play well in a one-on-one game, given the nature of the "lone-wolf" these monster-hunter narratives fall back to. It's hard to picture a traditional adventuring party.
With that said, it will require a lot of work from a skilled referee as well as an accompanying ruleset to come to live. It is bare bones, and provides some interesting rule and mechanic ideas, but they are not fleshed out at all. The best content is without doubt the monsters presented. I would think 5e (of all things) would work well with this.


- 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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

OSR: Magical Murder Mansion 3

This session took place a long while ago, and since then the game disbanded and has been cancelled. I still wanted to put these notes here for completeness sake.

We picked things up where we left them running through Magical Murder Mansion (report to sessions 1 and 2 here). The party has explored a good portion of the mansion already, mainly on the North-West tower area. They get an interesting breakthrough during Session 3, and seem motivated to carry on exploring.

Let's revise the characters again:
Wendell - a Human Fighter type, former butcher. Carries a Battleaxe, Bow and arrows. Likes to boss his underlings around.
Gelda Cleanwater - curious Halfling Wizard dabbling in the arcane arts. Also carries a staff. 
Grem - a Spiderling Fighter with two spears and a shield. Likes to poke at things, no matter how big.
Starting Hirelings - Hammerhead (a dwarf with a short-lived career)

Session 3

  • Rooms covered: 16: Coal Storage, 15: Boiler Room, 75: Workshop Door, 14: Storeroom, 13: Kitchen
  • Exploration Time: 1h40 (excluding their visit back in town)
  • Session Length: 3h
  • Fatalities: Hammerhead (dwarf man-at-arms)
  • Battered from the Art Gallery room, Grem decides to grab a painting (the one shedding light), and the group decides to return to town to lick their wounds.
  • There, Grem puts the painting for search of a potential buyer (will take 1-2 weeks, 1000gp potential reward, the Halfling Jeweler will take 15% of the sell).
  • Wendell takes his chances to hire yet another man-at-arms
    • The mercenary guild grows weary, and he only finds a dwarf fool enough to be willing to follow them to the estate, but demands double price, and 2 days pay up front. 23 gp settles it.
  • Back at the mansion, they decide to take in the perimeter, and about 20 minutes walking around the mansion clock-wise they find 1/ stone fence 2/ iron door with coal
  • Gilda opens the door, revealing a room filled calf-deep into coal
  • Wendell makes an interesting argument to Hammerhead to go and 
  • Coal golem fight!
    • Hammerhead perishes on the spot
    • Grem courageously (stupidly?) charges ahead.
    • Gilda casts the Upwell spell. The spring of seawater corrodes the coal and causes significant damage.
    • Wendell fires arrows and they in general damage the golem greatly.
    • They're able to "kite" and lure the dump construct out of the room, to then dart inside and shut the door.
    • The party made it in!
  • Inside, they quickly move to the Boiler room, filled with pipes, knobs, and other handles.
  • Wendell spins a wheel, the mansion shakes a bit, but there's no other effect.
  • Gilda seems keen on a 10 foot pole, and pulls a pipe out.
  • A ghost comes out of the steaming water, and puts its hand on her brain! She ages 29 years, now instead of a young adventurer she's a mid-aged lady.
  • They move north along the corridor, Gilda and her pole at the front.
  • Find door to workshop with 4 key-holes and riddle/clues.
  • Before moving to Storeroom, Gilda uses skirt to avoid slimy handle. Acid exposure saved!
  • Group moves to Storeroom, and decides to take some sledgehammers, crickets, and teeth. 
  • Random encounter: bunch veggie-mites, 17 of them, coming from the eastern corridor! 
    • Like minions, they are chaotic and unruly, but willing to "talk" this time around.
    • They make it clear that they're after fertilizer and soil.
    • Party tosses them the dead crickets, to where they retire happily! Two of them fight for the prize, and one of the Veggie-Mites remains unconscious on the floor.
  • Next party goes to kitchen
    • Wendell gets smashed by flying knives.
    • They explore the kitchen and decide to play "anatomy" with the dead Veggie-Mite, thinking of carving it into a key.
    • The tap of water is open in the sink, with a flowing of magical water. (Note: is the water colored differently, octarine? does it have odor? does it give an electrostatic charge?).

Referee Commentary / Things I Learned

  • Session 3 went smooth as butter. There were a few interesting interactions and encounters, and the players used negotiation and clever tactics.
    • The Veggie-Mites could have been a boring hack&slash, but instead the party tossed the dead crickets to calm them down.
    • Ditto with the Ghost coming out of the pipes.
  • The 4-keys workshop door riddle is nice. Might feel "video-gamey", but it's very fitting for a fun-house dungeon like this. The players greatly appreciated the hints and clues, and see a more focused purpose and approach to the whole thing. Putting that big room in the center was a deliberate good choice. Brilliant.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

OSR: Knave Inventories

Knave is all about equipment. Those sweet Item Slots define so much... and present a limit on what and how much can be carried out of the dungeon. But why stop there? Why, indeed, should a single attribute, Constitution, dictate gear interaction? Why not all six of them?

Let's have a look at the following table.

Score Name What For?
Charisma bonus Patron Slots Hirelings. Mounts, animal companions, beasts of burden, pets, familiars.
Constitution defense Item Slots Equipment, gear, weapons and armor.
Dexterity bonus Handy Slots How many of the top item slots can be interacted with quickly during combat.
Intelligence bonus Mind Slots Languages. Magic dice. Areas of knowledge
Strength bonus Encumbrance Slots Act as extra item slots, but then encumbered. Negative HP fills them with grievous wounds. When all filled with wounds, PC dies.
Wisdom bonus Spirit Slots Attuned magical items. Faith dice. Areas of knowledge.

Patron Slots

PCs may employ a number of hirelings equal to their Charisma bonus. Alternatively, a patron slot can be used for a mount, animal companion, beast of burden, pet, or familiar.

Item Slots

PCs have a number of item slots equal to their Constitution defense. Most items, including spellbooks, potions, a day’s rations, light weapons, tools and so on take up 1 slot, but particularly heavy or bulky items like armor or medium to heavy weapons may take up more slots. Groups of small, identical items may be bundled into the same slot, at the referee’s discretion. 100 coins can fit in a slot. As a general guideline, a slot holds around 5 pounds of weight.

Handy Slots

PCs have a number of handy slots equal to their Dexterity bonus. These are pouches and items that can be accessed with a swift movement, even in the heat of conflict. Mark the top item slots in the character sheet as handy slots. Swapping those during combat does not require a round of search as usual. Items can be rearranged at any time when out of danger.

Mind Slots

PCs have a number of mind slots equal to their Intelligence bonus. A character can learn a foreign language, filling one of their mind slots. The character can verbally communicate with fluency (granting a 3d6 keep 2 roll to reactions if used), read tomes and inscriptions, etc. In addition, wizards, sorcerers, witches, and other magic-user characters that receive magical training can fill a mind slot with a magic die. This allows them to fuel their spells and enchantments.

Lastly, a character can specialize in an area of knowledge that can aid them in their adventures. See below*.

Encumbrance Slots

PCs may carry items in addition to their item slots equal to their Strength bonus (essentially acting like additional item slots), but they are encumbered when doing so. This will slow them down, make it harder to flee from combat, and so on.

When a character reaches 0 HP, they apply any additional damage into their encumbrance slots. Doing so immediately drops any item in that encumbrance slot, filling it with a grievous wound. Having wounds makes the character encumbered, and gives them disadvantage on all saves. When all slots are wounds, the character dies. With a night of rest and sleep one grievous wound slot can be recovered.

Spirit Slots

PCs have a number of spirit slots equal to their Wisdom bonus. Magic items and artifacts are a burden to the soul. They can be placed in a spirit slot instead of an item slot, freeing the latter. Also, priest and cleric characters can fill a spirit slot with a faith die. This allows them to say prayers and call spiritual favors.

Lastly, a character can specialize in an area of knowledge that can aid them in their adventures. See below*.


*A character can specialize in an area of knowledge that can aid them in their adventures. They can use either a mind or spirit slot, in this case they are interchangeable. Doing so adds +2 to a relevant save when applying said expertise (if the referee agrees in the particular application). A maximum of 3 mind slots can be filled with the same area of knowledge. Note that an area of knowledge could apply to a loosely related task, in which case the save is done at disadvantage. For instance, knowing draconic history might be beneficial when dissecting a slain dragon's heart, but only partially so.

Example areas of knowledge could be alchemy, architecture, draconic history, heraldry, foraging, traps&devices, medicine, appraise valuables, etc. Feel free to come up with your own, together with your referee.

This article will see some revision, when I add my thoughts on training costs for areas of knowledge, languages, and magic dice. Faith dice will probably require donations, services, costly pilgrimages, etc.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Published Dungeon (pesky) wish list

There are a lot of modules out there. The OSR and indie publishing communities are booming with content. Over the years I've amassed a considerable amount of them. Some in dead-tree format. Many many many in electronic format. And I'm accepting of the fact that the majority will be just for my reading pleasure. Or to steal that one room out of the 50 page/100+ room dungeon module.

Let's assume evocative and concise writing. Interactivity. Good organization and layout. And some inspiring art to boot. A gem of an adventure. The needle in the haystack! Bryce would be happy! 

But as the pesky consumer I am, there's more. Here is an opinionated list of extras I like to see in published adventures, and are often missed. The cherry on the top.

1. Show me how much treasure there is in your Dungeon

... and what standard your adventure assumes. As easy as mentioning at the beginning: "There are 5000gp in the dungeon. 3000 of it easy to find and safe, and 2000gp hidden, hard to transport, or in dangerous places. We assume the B/X standard." Boom. Done. Unfortunately... this is very rarely the case.

A lot of old school games assume the gp for XP gaming loop, especially in earlier to mid-levels. Making me (the reader) to have to fish out this information is an invitation for frustration. Ditto for magic items. You put interesting, wacky, or overly powerful items in your dungeon? Great! Just let me know in the overview before keying the dungeon areas.

2. Cite interesting monster trinkets, or even better have "I loot the body" tables

This ties with point 1. Look, it happens. Even if combat is a failure state, my players have encountered some action. And with some bloody luck they might come up top. Aside from the boring coin pouches and rusted weapons, having interesting bits and bobs, clues, and curios on the recently slain monsters is a great touch. And something that I usually can't come up with on the fly.

3. Involved factions overview

I don't need a full on matrix of all factions involved, like Arden Vul. But I like to know what's in there, and how it can be interacted with. Faction play is a pillar of roleplaying. More so in old school play, with reaction roles, morale, etc. When PCs are not walking heroes, they need all the help they can get.
So please, for the sake of Great A'Tuin: present the factions, which rooms they hang out in the dungeon, and what their goals are. These as a bare minimum for me to understand the moving pieces in the dungeon. In the overview section of your adventure, preferably.
By the excellent varguyart