Thursday, January 28, 2021

Sinister Red, Zine Review

This is my attempt at taking a look and reviewing the Zinequest 2 projects I backed.


- 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.

Overall feel

Sinister Red is a 32 page-long zine (including title page and table of contents) written by Rudy Mangual and beautifully illustrated by Yvette Lopez. It details twelve locations in a pointcrawl, plus The Island, a more fleshed out locale spanning numerous pages. Playtesters are credited, which gives the hope that it was actually put to the table before release.
The watercolor feel of the art is evocative and abundant (see below). Every single page has a piece on it! The abundant red color emphasizes the underlying themes and landscape of the adventure. It has an eclectic and collage structure to it, that fits the module's mood.

Formatting and presentation are of my liking. Each of the (pointcrawl) locations has a one to two-sentence read aloud, followed with summarized bullet points. Then, more complex features, relevant items, creatures stat-blocks etc get detailed in the rest of the page. Bold and italic fonts are used to remark important or flavorful keywords, respectively.

The PDF is decently cross-referenced with hyperlinks and page numbers to help navigation. Missing bookmarks, even with the project's brevity, seems like a missed opportunity. Omitting PDF layers will make it hard (and costly!) to print at home.

The (pointcrawl) Adventure

There are 12 points of interest, taking a single page each, and The Island, a final location with considerable detail (and eight island locations of its own).

How do the PCs get to this literal sea of blood? There are a few hooks, but probably they are pooped from a portal. A demi-plane of fever dreaming, oozing crimson flavor, could do well for an adventure more elaborate than "goblins in a cave". There are vampires, but of the mutated and alien kind (high on blood!), rather than the gothic decadent nobility we are used to seeing.

First points in the crawl are heavy on combat, as I feel all the foes presented are the kind not to be negotiated with. There is also little for the players to interact or experiment with. But at least they get a sense as to where they got, and can start drawing their own conclusions as to what is going on here. It is only when we get to the middle portion (locations 4 & 5) where more interesting NPCs start to flourish, presenting pointers, rumors, and quests.

One piece of mild criticism I have is... What system is this written for? B/X? OD&D? It's nowhere to be found, but some assumptions are to be made by the referee reader to peruse this adventure. In the OSR space, everything is fairly compatible, but the devil is in the detail, e.g. treasure quantities assumed.

Continuing, locations 6-9 seems also heavy on the encounter side, and even if the monsters could be negotiated with, and are unique, there is no tactical depth or again, interactivity, for the players to engage with.

The Island, albeit again suffering from the overabundance of foes, presents more interesting spatial design, with players having to find ways to climb to the upper half of it, the Ruined City, and ultimately the palace. I wish some NPCs (for instance Hernan Corteso) would have more fleshed out wants and goals, as they could make good allies to the PCs if a deal is struck towards a common goal. This is implied, but not clearly spelled out. At least the Vampire Queen is given more details (but no stats, or at least a HD range to assess her prowess, so we assume her a goddess).

Now the tower, even though extremely linear by design (bad!) has more interesting and fleshed out encounters, that I think do work well on paper, and could translate to some puzzled players. I like them better. The final encounter, The Stand Off, is imaginative enough and has interesting outcomes laid out, which could wreck the campaign or bring it back to a more traditional plane.

End sprinkling

The last three pages of the zine have a few helpful tools (in the form of tables) for the referee. NPCs, Random Encounters, and a d66 table of "I Search the Body/Room/Rubble" type. Short and punchy, I like these. Note that most monsters are cross-referenced for gaming statistics to other pages of the pointcrawl proper, but it will result in more flipping back and forth. And some of the items are powerful and dependent on the group (gun, etc), but imaginative and meaningful, as should be in an OSR adventure.

This concludes the review.
Interactivity is hurting here, as I believe the pointcrawl nature does. Laying the adventure elements differently, removing many of the spelled out encounters, or at least making them more interesting for the players and meaningful would go a long way. The Island, and more particularly The Tower are much more to my liking.
Sinister Red is good for a zine coming out of nowhere (at least for me, I knew nothing about the authors involved going in). If not to use wholesale in a planescape or high gonzo campaign (with some work to fix the interactivity), then as a visual treat and to pilfer for ideas and visual flavor. A nice surprise from my Zinequest 2 purchases.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

OSR: The Calaveras Campaign 11, 12, 13

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

The cast of characters:
Solbion (iagson) - dwarven smith apprentice of the city of Falkcrest. On a sabbatical year, seeking to see and experience the world.
Nerisse (Mo) - redhead bow-woman, who wakes up in the first visited dungeon without any memory of how she ended up there. Has some newly discovered Fae-powers.
Angan Enge (Copernico) - beastman of the Biber Hills, assigned by Rhys to accompany the adventurers.
Hirelings/Animals - Sprig, the freelancer astrologer-wizard

Session 11

After seeing the phantom, illusion, ghost or hologram of the robed elder in the last session, we get an immediate random encounter with reptilians (troglodytes) carrying a sack to "Old Gregg", wanting to pass by the PCs. Their reactions is weary and rude, but not necessarily hostile. They move north, past the ghost/illusion of the wizard's warning, without giving much information to the party.
The next room, circular and with a the rug in the center. The players avoid stepping on it, seeing the troglodytes did that too when carrying the sack. It has passages in all cardinal directions, and they go for the studio room to the left. Exploring it reveals tiny people in jars, and a scroll of diminution as treasure retrieved.
Returning to the rug room, and going further to the north. They have the suspicion the troglodytes moved to the doors to the east. Unfortunately, they are locked. To the west, however, they see some bodies at the end of the corridor. Wisdom makes the PCs avoid them and trace back their steps. Next, they decide to check the second corridor to the west, opposite one of the locked doors.
There's a pit, and behind it a pile of treasure. Solbion jumps to retrieve that, only to find out that it's an illusion. Instead, there is a peacock's feather, and instructions on how to enter the realm of Ynn...! Returning, they notice (by dropping a torch) that at the bottom of the pit there is a pool of water and a skeleton floating on it. Again, caution prevails and they decide to ignore the valuables...
Back in the room with the rug, last cardinal direction to check out is east. They find the statue of a hunter flanked by two hounds. The statue itself flanked by some (mildly glowing mirrors).

Solbion has the clever sense to pass the open room by ignoring the statue and mirrors, looking into the floor to avoid unwanted reflections. Dwarven cunning! Unfortunately some steps ahead, past an arch with serpent motifs reveals a fearsome foe, yet another giant spider. Spells fling, spear jabs, but its a lone one this time, so they hurt it and it manages to escape through a crack in the ceiling, after a poor morale roll.

Proceeding to two rooms that get explored, but not interacted with!
First, a big room with several chipped statues of old nobles, and corridors and locked doors going in all directions. The body of a chocked dead dwarf near an archway. Then, a "control room" with a stone boulder on a corner, and 6 numbered levers. Again, the party ignores that, and prepare to rest for the night.

Session 12

Group wakes up cold from the metallic floor in the control room. Angan's condition due to the spider's poison is debilitating, the hill-man starts the day coughing blood. Lesson: don't get bit by any spider!
Almost immediately his acorn necklace starts flaring with heat for an instant. A signal? A cry for help? An enchantment? All of these are unclear for now...
They continue exploring North, following the underwater noise in search of the reptiloids. There's a skirmish with three troglodytes near the sandy river bank (they are aggressive from the get to). Decent use of glue by Nerisse to blind one, the corridor as a choke point, and some spells make this a short affair. The adventurers have the upper hand this time around. Tumcool, one of the troglodytes, agrees to present Old Gregg to the group. Angan hopes the troglodytes might have an antidote or cure for his poisoned condition.
They meet with Nancy, an albino troglodyte, takes the offering the adventurers bring: the body of the dead dwarf they found a while back. Sadly, the troglodytes are not able to provide help regarding the poison, only freak the PCs out with their primitive "fresh meat" diet and hanging fish... Old Gregg is even less helpful!
Moving back to a known location, they are able to capture the spider with a well-placed Roots spell by Angan, and Nerisse's ability to put it to sleep. Then the coup de grace, the carcass might help to concoct an antitoxin with the right tools, perhaps? Sprig suggests that...!
Finally, they decide to move towards the corridor where they found the dead dwarf. A stone archway with tree and root motifs carved serving as ominous entrance...

Session 13

Last we left off.... out heroes scoundrels were exploring the archway. Solbion advances as much as possible, torch in hand. With the flickering light he's able to see black roots all around, their density increasing as the corridor advances.

Angan thinking himself a naturalist druid from the nearby Biber Hills, decides to step forward, all care to the wind. The roots animate, and grab his legs, twisting and squeezing painfully! He suffers some damage, Solbion and Nerisse quick to the rescue.

Another strategy then: Nerisse uses her fae-ability to hover above the ground (and the roots!), tied by the waist by a rope. On the other end both Angan and Solbion hold tight.

Safe enough! Passing by the roots is harmless for her. Moving forward, the roots thicken, and she's able to see an ascending staircase. Going up, she sees a big space, thick with vegetation, almost a jungle. In the center, a big bronze buddha-like statue? And... movement on some branches? Monkeys? Babys!
Nerisse wants none of this, and quickly traces back.

Now on the corridor with the roots, she's able to retrieve... some big black tomatoes! The graffiti at the entrance of this place was right! And we all know what players do when presented with rare food/drugs/substances...

Their pupils and eyes turn pitch black, they recover some stamina (HP), and.... Solbion develops an addiction. How fitting for a dwarf! He convinces the group to advance and get more tomatoes: "QUICKLY!". Fortunately the roots seem non-aggressive to black-eyed individuals.

Finally, they find a space of black trees. A garden. In there, a bucket and more tomatoes! In searching and harvesting them, a shadowy figure appears. No-nonsense, it wants the intruders dead!

A lengthy combat ensues. The creature seems immune to parley, reason, or willing to flee. Angan uses his Roots spell to start rearranging the vegetation in the room, creating for himself and his companions a "safe" patch in the center of the room. Solbion ignites one of the trees, to be able to track the shadow even better. Unfortunately Nerisse suffers the most getting her Str drained (gulp!). But the party has the upper hand, once again, since they are resourceful and are in a 4 to 1.

With the shadow gone, they take a minute to recover, check the room, and find several goodies (including a secret door and a chest) that we will reveal next session.

Referee Commentary

For session 11: on about fifteen turns of exploration I was only able to roll a random encounter once, right at the beginning of the session, these pesky troglodytes. As a consequence exploration felt static at times, void of urgency or tension. But such are the trappings of randomness.

The dungeon has some very interesting locales and encounters, like for instance the hunter's statue with the mirrors. It genuinely annoyed my players and made them be paranoid about that and future statues in the underground complex. Oh, and the layout of this adventure (the PDF) is brilliant, like every Necrotic Gnome product. I was running this pretty much as we go, only having done a cursory skim of the material beforehand.

One point that surprises me is that two PCs have spellcasting at their disposal, yet they get rarely use it during the game. Not sure why that is? Perhaps free-form casting is too intimidating for them? Have to try and remind them that this is a possible option in their arsenal.

All in all, we are having a tough time to cram OSR dungeon exploration. Our sessions are quite short, and the players have a hard time to decide a course of action. For instance Mo is losing interesting in these kind of procedures and game. Seems to favor (light) puzzle solving, and more role-playing and politic interactions. So I will have to think what to do about this.


  • Daniele - woman-at-arms, sword & board.
    Mauled to a pulp by an animated serpentine statue in session 4.
  • Pancho - guy with a lance, and a tendency to grab shiny stuff in front of him.
    Dropped from great height by a giant eagle in session 5.
  • Ber - a goat granted by Rhys the beastwoman shaman.
    Eaten and scratched to death by fungal goblins in session 7. Instrumental even after death.
  • Zemalayu - carrying a crossbow and knows some spells. Ranger-like. Face heavily scarred and mutated. Speaks through some tattoos.
    Bitten dead by giant spiders from the Glenry Wood and their poison in session 10.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

2020 ends, 2021 begins

Well into the year by now, but the nice disconnect of the holidays has kept me away from screens and RPG games. A good number of light boardgames (King of Tokyo, Azul, Splendor, etc) were enjoyed these days with the few close family members I was able to see.

What a bizarre year this has been. I'm extremely fortunate on how good it was for me personally, but also professionally stable. And for that I'm thankful.


This year I enjoyed some games, but the circumstances in the world have also kept others from happening:

  • I continue to play a whispers bard Oswald Lach in a 5e campaign, Tomb of Annihilation. We should finish the campaign within the next months, I reckon.
  • It saw my Knave Stonehell play-by-post tables fizzle after some slow exploration of the first levels.
  • Played a couple session in IdleDoodler's Barrowmaze open table. Good fun, and still going strong. The time just doesn't fit my schedule too well.
  • The Calaveras campaign picked up with some old friends new to gaming. Knave at first, we've moved to Macchiato Monsters.
  • We had a stint at the Stygian Library with Electric Bastionland characters and rules.
  • Tried Microscope for one sitting, and I definitely want to toy more with it, and Kingdom.
  • Played a bit (more) of Magical Murder Mansion with Macchiato Monsters, and the guys really want to continue playing that.
  • Played a solo session of Ironsworn and enjoyed the experience. Might blog about it in the future.

The Blog

31 articles published. Some with useful ideas. But more importantly a repository of them for my future reference and use. And I like the "dead" nature of blogging. Seems archaic and ancient, even in the OSR circles, where Twitter and Discord seem more predominant. Here are my four posts of 2020 I myself liked best:

The Future, 2021

First, about TTRPG purchases. Seeing how much I play and use, I will stop buying products and backing Kickstarters. Doing so at a much lower pace. This has been in my head much before Grognardia's piece, which echoes my thoughts like a megaphone. In my future, less is more. Might even consider giving some physical stuff away, or trying to sell it.

Second, about my gaming. The 5e game will wrap up in a few months. The Calaveras campaign will continue, but most likely at a tortoise pace even if I try to revitalize it. I will try to join or launch an open table to have a weekly game in the OSR space, beer & pretzels style. Perhaps OSE and Stonehell, but who knows. I'm also eagerly eyeing Mothership, but need the right group for me to take a stab at it. Solo Ironsworn will continue as well.

Third, the blog. The stream of thought dumping in this space will continue. At what pace, no idea, 31 posts a year seems like a lot. I will keep my focus on TTRPGs, might do a stint into other media I enjoy. Blogger will be nuked by Google, but hopefully not in 2021.

Anyhow, as we say around here, good slip to 21!