Simon "Milo" Miles is the creator of the Dunromin University Press, a massive campaign setting for his homegrown fantasy RPG using OSRIC. Now, OSRIC is a retro-clone of 1st ed AD&D, so what Simon is offering is the guiltiest of pleasures: a campaign world for AD&D as things used to be before Dragonlance, before Forgotten Realms, before Ascending Armour Class, back when Gygax was king and the TSR Wizard graced the modules and rule books. Good times.
Ah, the Game Wizard! Check out OSRIC's page by clicking the image: download the rules for free
In fact, The City of Karan contains hardly any statistics, so the sourcebook works perfectly well for any Old School iteration of D&D or its clones and pastiches.
Simon has been developing Barnaynia, the world of his youthful AD&D campaign, and has published a wealth of settings and homebrew kits through drivethrurpg, mostly centred around his "ultimate fantasy city" of Dunromin. Back in January, he released another sourcebook for Dunromin's sister-city of Karan - and this seems like a good time to jump on board his creation and take a look around.
Simon just COMMITS, doesn't he? Look at that AD&D module pastiche! Click the image to view the product - it's pay-what-you-want
The City of Karan is a 70-page PDF sourcebook for a walled city in the far west of the 'Land of the Young', guarding a vital pass through the mountains. It's a border city, abutting a wilderness of roaming barbarians and abandoned ruins, but linked to the kingdom's hinterland by busy roads. In other words, it's exactly the sort of place that Fantasy RPG campaigns start off in.
The dramatic West Gate with its dizzying bridge greets invaders (or returning adventurers) from the wilderness.
Simon offers an exemplary discussion of Karan's history, geography and politics, first in the Players Guide section (no secrets, just rumours) and then in the GM's Section (NPCs, factions and plot ideas). His style is clear and the tone is light: a few jokes, a bit of vernacular language, it stays away from the ponderous Gygax-isms that made a generation of hobby writers think that they needed to imitate the Encyclopaedia Britannica if they wanted to sound like a 'proper' author. Seriously, I flew through this stuff.
The art is ... idiosyncratic. Simon produces a lot himself, in a cartoon style, and Gareth Sleightholme provides the rest, in more conventional fantasy portraits. I'm not sure whether this larky, zany aesthetic really fits the tone of Karan or not. The Karanites have a reputation for being humourless, but look at this:
If the art doesn't really work for you, don't worry, because Simon also has some excellent - and completely serious - street plans and cut-aways to orientate you in the city:
What makes Karan interesting?
In many ways, Karan is the oldest of old school fantasy city settings. Clerics of Norse and Olympian deities rub shoulders with Druids. There are half-orcs in the City Guarde (not sure why it has the -e suffix). People have names like Olandy Crystal or Seth Tolweezel. It's not too whacky though. Yes, there are minor air elementals protecting the battlements and a cadre of sentries mounted on griffons, but that's about as high as the fantasy goes. There's no magical market, no golems directing traffic, no mind flayer innkeepers or rent-a-zombie street corner necromancers. It's low-to-medium fantasy.
The city has a medieval German vibe: cobbled streets, multistorey stone town houses, gabled rooftops, lots of turrets. It's supposed to be a big centre for craftwork and production, somewhere like Worms, Aachen or Nuremberg.
Nuremberg: lovely, isn't it?
The most striking aspect to the city is its cave system - a whole series of underground streets (known as 'the Creeps') with houses and shops and, beneath that, mines. This gives the city a sort of subway system, so you can pop below ground and head off down the Old Creep or the Dry Creep to emerge in a friend's cellar, the basement of a shop, or perhaps outside the city altogether. Simon invests his best efforts in giving the different parts of this undercity vivid names and distinctive appearances. It's an aspect of life in Karan that players will remember and GMs will hang many plots on.
Simon also gives the fortifications and rulers of the city much coverage, including the different regiments of the Garde, the major Temples and their senior Clerics and the top government officials and their role in the lives of citizens. He also includes invaluable (because simple) tables for randomly generating businesses in order to populate any given street.
It's good to see some consideration of local culture: the luxury status of wine, shops being closed for innumerable religious holidays, the autumn Beerfest, street sewers and sedan-chairs.
There's a good treatment of the criminal subculture of Karan in the GM's section, including some lively personalities of varying nastiness. However, in such a well-policed society (and see below for more on this), the criminal classes are rather subdued.
The book concludes with a complete NPC roster (no stats, just profiles and relationships) and an actual honest-to-goodness index.
What makes Karan dull?
I should qualify this, because it isn't necessarily a criticism.
People use city sourcebooks like this for different reasons. Some people just want to cannibalize street plans, encounter tables and useful NPCs for their own campaign cities. In these cases, the more universal these details are the better. Karan could be a big walled border town in almost any fantasy RPG campaign and Olandy Crystal would fit well as a NPC in any scenario.
Some people want a pre-designed city to act as a backdrop to their dungeon-based adventures. They want somewhere the adventurers can call 'home', where they can sell their loot and buy hirelings or magical healing or training, they want high-level NPCs to act as patrons and maybe they want to know a bit about rich merchants and the city watch so that Thief/Rogue PCs can have the occasional heist-themed 'town adventure'.
If you fall into these categories, then my criticisms here won't apply to you. Karan is great for you. Skip to 'final thoughts' as Rahdo would say.
But maybe you're a different sort of consumer. Maybe you already have towns/cities in your own campaign and you have no problem creating your own street plans and NPC rosters; in fact, let's say you quite enjoy that side of things.
In that case, you're looking for a city that's not just detailed, but distinctive: something that you couldn't have come up with yourself.
For example, maybe you want something that's culturally very specific. Maybe something exotic, like pre-Conquistador Tenochtitlan with its floating fields, canals, aquaducts and population of 400,000! Maybe just something very flavourful, like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's Altdorf, with its rigorous pseudo-Teutonic culture and language. By comparison, Karan is a bit vanilla. It's another Northern European walled city. Although it's supposed to have a Franco-German culture, no particular attempt has been made to convey this linguistically, through locations, titles or personal names: Samson, Molly and Dudley are more typical than Gunther or Willem in the NPC roster. You're in Gygax-land; and not fantasy-Germany.
Or maybe you want a set of complex political conflicts because you're not good at plotting such things yourself. But here again, everything in Karan is quite static. The senior NPCs all get lively profiles, but they're not doing anything: they're just waiting for PCs to walk into their lives with trinkets to sell, curses to lift, training needs to be met or other services to demand. The nearest thing to NPC interaction in the city is the love-triangle around flirtatious druidess Olandy Crystal (Fighters Guild leader Alun Dethelt fancies her rotten, to husband Farnir Crystal's displeasure) but even this isn't going anywhere: Alun isn't doing anything about his amour and Farnir is too timid to make a fuss.
Or finally, maybe you want a frictive setting, something that will cause the PCs problems and force players to adapt to the unfamiliar. Maybe you want to explore slavery, women-as-chattel, the divine right of kings, witch-hunting or peasant revolts. You want a city where, as soon as the PCs arrive, there's stuff they have to take a side on. However, Karan is just too darned nice.
Women have a pretty decent deal in Karan, by medieval standards, if not by liberated Dunromin standards:
Women ... are allowed more freedom and independence than was traditional in Europe in medieval times, but the fairer sex remain much less ‘liberated’ than in Dunromin.
Slavery is not really a thing:
Slaves are rare with good servants being recognised and rewarded for their skills as much as artisans
The City Guarde are professional law-enforcers and don't need to be bribed:
the Guarde, the force of law and order in Karan, is quite serious and energetic in the pursuance of its role ... [and will] turn up promptly when called and execute justice rapidly and fairly. Some visitors have been quite affronted when their name, contacts and gold seem to have no relevance with the Karan Guarde when it comes to determining guilt and innocence.
In other words, except for the street sewers, Karan is the sort of place you would love to go to for your holidays. Remember holidays?
Let me be clear, I don't want to criticise Karan for failing to be something it doesn't set out to be. If you want a detailed backdrop for a fantasy campaign whose focus lies elsewhere (such as down a dungeon), then all this cultural and political stuff would only get in your way. You want a fairly universalised setting. If everybody had culturally-specific Teutonic names like they do in Warhammer's Reikland, then it would just make them hard to pronounce and difficult to invent on-the-fly, right? If there were intense conflicts rocking the city to its foundations, it would just make it more difficult for PCs to rent rooms in an inn, hire some men-at-arms and find a Cleric to heal Derek's mummy-rot, right?
With that in mind, let's go to Final Thoughts...
Look, when I was a teenager DMing my own (Greyhawk-set) D&D campaign, I would have LOVED a resource like this: I would have DIED for something like this. I would have used it to represent Marner, the capital of the Barony of Ratik where my campaign was set. I would have located the infamous tower one PC built within it. My plotline with the Assassin's Guilt and the Vampire Infestation would have taken place here. It would have done wonders for my world building, my sense of immersion, my use of NPCs. It would have been brilliant. If only I could send it back in time to my 15-year-old self!
Then, later, in my 20s, when I was creating my own campaign settings with home-grown cultures and mythologies, I would have leapt upon this product for its maps, for its random location tables, for its details about the military composition of the regiments and the various guilds - but I would have renamed things and put my own plots and conflicts into the city. It would have been great value for me.
Now, though, I'm less open to this sort of thing. I'm more of a theatre-of-the-mind sort of person, so maps matter less. I'm better at improvising NPCs with their own conflicts and drives. I like a bit of cultural darkness in my settings: prejudices, grievances, superstitions and injustices. I'm interested in political machinations, religious vocations and family ambitions. In a nutshell, what Karan offers, I don't need, and what I want, it tends to lack.
But wait, stop, it doesn't end there. The current crisis has altered my gaming habits of course. I'm getting together with friends online to do RPGs and because the group is diverse and the medium unfamiliar, we're going back to classic D&D and exploring mega-dungeons, rather than all the clever-clever NPC-driven stuff I usually focus on. And a mega-dungeon campaign needs a city in the background: somewhere the PCs can go to recruit hirelings and get a Cleric to cure Derek's mummy-rot. So I'm going to use Karan for exactly the reasons I laid out above: it's an invaluable resource for a Gygaxian OSR campaign.
I hope I've made clear my feelings about this product: how good it is for what it is, but how what it is might not be what everybody wants. Perhaps Simon's next setting will get down and dirty with somewhere a bit more gritty, a bit less romanticised, a bit more dynamic. But of course, a conflicted setting like that might not be so darned useful for your average roleplayer!
You've noticed people aren't popping round to visit as often as they did? I've noticed that too! So, to keep RPGs happening, I have to brave the Internet and get my feet wet in the world of online gaming. I decide to set up Google Hangouts, I invest in a webcam, I've got 4 players and they've got webcams too. They don't know each other terribly well. I need a straightforward, atmospheric dungeon. Someone recommends The Dread Crypt of Skogenby and I download it because (1) it's free and (2) I love the name 'Skogenby'.
Click the image to go to the downloadable PDF of this scenario
The scenario is written for a RPG called Torchbearer which, I must say, looks fascinating. Torchbearer claims to be an homage to early D&D, but it's a pole away from OSR. You see, Torchbearer is concerned with capturing the psychological grind of dungeon delving: the failing of light, the loss of equipment, growing hunger, exhaustion, fear... It looks compelling and complex and abstract and intense.
But I'm not using the Torchbearer rules. No. I'm using White Box RPG which is about as far away from Torchbearer as you can get despite being, in essence, the original 1974 D&D rules, prettified and rationalised and put in one tidy book. It's a stripped down, minimalist affair, with hardly any dice rolls and a licence to make it up as you go along. Ideal for online gaming without miniatures, maps or complicated character sheets.
Click the image to look at the White Box website and blog
Why not FORGE?
Fans of this blog (if such there be) might wonder, "Why not use FORGE OUT OF CHAOS since you're always banging on about it?" and, yes, ordinarily I would. But on this occasion I wanted to lighten the cognitive load for everyone involved so we could manage the technical and social impediments of roleplaying across this new medium. So I went for a system that is the simplest to create characters for, teach, referee and improvise with - and that's White Box.
Whatever distinctive complexities Torchbearer has, the shared tropes in Fantasy RPGs make conversion effortless. My players arrive at the windswept, vaguely-Yorkshire village of Skogenby, where some local teens have stumbled upon an ancient crypt. One of them, a girl called Jora, foolishly went in, found silver jewellery, passed it out to her friends and told "a tale of moldering crypts rich in grave goods" down there, but, as she crawled out, something seized her and dragged her screaming back into the stifling darkness of the crypt.
The plays out like a trailer for a fantastic direct-to-streaming horror film, doesn't it?
Then it gets worse. Something starts emerging from the crypt at night. It stalks the village. People are found dead in the morning, a rictus of terror on their cold faces. The victims are all connected to the crypt-robbing youths and the cursed treasure they unearthed. Now the PCs have to go down there, into that evil hole, to lay something ghastly to rest and bring back poor Jora, if she's still alive.
The art is of an exceptional standard throughout
The scenario itself is a small but intense dungeon. There are exactly the sort of undead critters you would expect down here, doing guard duty, and one unpleasant monster you wouldn't expect, drawn here by the necromantic energies of the place.
The main task for the players is to figure out the function of this place. It's more than just a tomb: it's a god-machine. An ancient barbarian queen had herself, her slaves and her priests buried alive down here so that she could go through a series of rituals to ascend to godhood. The PCs encounter these chambers, tools and instructions and might re-enact some of the rites themselves, should they dare. Along the way there are traps and plenty of opportunities for knowledge and skills as well as brawn and bowstrings and plenty of creative speculation.
Torchbearer offers interesting mechanics to keep track of time in precious torches and chart the emotional and physiological fraying of the characters. It also offers contingencies called 'twists' that make events play out in a more ... entertaining ... way. They include ominous weather, mystic phenomenon, bad luck with equipment, shattered nerves and other mishaps. If you're not using Torchbearer rules, then these twists offer a deeply atmospheric alternative to Wandering Monsters.
The showdown pits the PCs against the possessed Jora. Hopefully, they've carried out some of the rituals to gain mystical protection. Hopefully, the realise that the dead queen, Haathor-Vash, is still lingering here in spirit-form and is furious about the theft of her grave goods. Hopefully, they try to negotiate rather than lay into an innocent girl with swords. Hopefully.
Well I hoped in vain. I think the crypt is so successful at being spooky and weird and ominous that it leaves the players, never mind their characters, rather on edge by the time they reach Haathor-Vash. In Torchbearer, your character might be so physically and psychologically drained that you're eager to parlay. In D&D and similar games, you're probably itching to hit something. The problem is that if Haathor-Vash leaves Jora (say, because you chopped her head off), she can always possess someone else. And so it goes, like that Denzel Washington film Fallen (1998), with the spirit bouncing from body to body, except in a cramped crypt while you're beset with skeletons.
All of which is to say, this is a surprisingly thematic dungeon puzzle with a very tense and difficult final encounter. Strong roleplayers with a taste for the spiritual will make a feast of it, especially if the GM indulges them by characterising Haathor-Vash in a vivid way. More conventional PCs will die in the inner crypt.
Yes, you figured it out: for my party, it was a Total Party Kill (TPK), with one PC, the lone survivor, becoming Haathor-Vash's new vessel, to remain in the crypt, in the darkness, alone. Brr-rr. But that feels right for the doomed horror-stylings of this scenario.
What Can You Make Of It?
Firstly, the scenario functions as a fantastic advertisement for Torchbearer RPG and I'd defy anyone to read it and not want to know more about Torchbearer. The scenario might be set in a dungeon but it plays out rather more like Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons: there is a distinctive and evocative ancient mythology to untangle, skills in scholarship and the occult matter just as much as combat, when you reach the showdown you have hopefully engaged ancient arcane forces on your side.
Most interesting is the psychological attrition as characters move to being weary, hungry, exhausted and afraid. The combat seems to be pure theatre of the mind, with an emphasis on dread and caution rather than swashbuckling heroics. This dungeon is CLAUSTROPHOBIC and Torchbearer seems to be a system that's all about conveying the emotional pressure of entering such places, like a more complex and nuanced version of Call of Cthulhu's ever-diminishing Sanity score.
Or you can do what I did and convert it to an Old School RPG system. This is easy enough: skeletons are skeletons and oozes are oozes. The stat block for Jora/Haathor-Vash needs some thought, but I treated Haathor-Vash's possessed victims as half-strength Wights and the effect of the Ritual of Purification being to acquire Protection from Evil on your person, keeping the Wight's level-draining claws from touching you. Despite the text and cover art that has Jora wielding it, I decided to make Haathor-Vash's sword available for a PC to seize and upgraded it to being magical+1, just to even the odds.
The problem with any OSR conversion is that you risk missing out on what this scenario is all about: claustrophobia, dread, ancient rites, the sense of a haunted and malevolent place rather than just a 'dungeon'. Of course, sensitive GMing can make up for that through atmospheric description and the 'twists' offered in the text go a long way to help with this. Nevertheless, as I found, the genetic code of D&D is hack'n'slash and that can overturn the conclusion, which in Torchbearer will probably result in negotiation or a PC rout (and frantic flight through the halls and out through the narrow tunnel with undead fingers clutching at your ankles) but in D&D invites straightforward TPK.
Simply adapted as a 'dungeon', the scenario has its merits. It's small and focused, suitable for a single 3-hour session, offering puzzles, traps and a bit of combat before the climax. But I feel that D&D-style games fail to capitalise on the experience that The Dread Crypt of Skogenby has to offer. I could see it working really well in The One Ring RPG, as a thoughtful variation on standard Barrow Wight activities: that game also charts spiritual/psychological deterioration as much as physical harm and emphasizes mood and character rather than muscle and combat. It would even work in Pendragon as an unusual horror-themed digression for minor knights, again because that game focuses on character traits and the conflict between Christian and Heathen values. And of course, it would be fun to use Call of Cthulhu - nothing about the setting demands a medieval time frame and it would play out just as well in 1920s Scotland or Yorkshire.
We are entering the post-modernity of roleplaying games. The author is dead. How quaint it is to look back on the modern era (the 1970s and ‘80s) with its assumptions about authorship and ownership, of texts with single discourses, of official ‘canons’. It’s not like that now, what with retro-clones and open gaming licences and Old School Revivals. An old Boomer like me can only shake his head in wonder at what the young folks are getting up to with their fancy notions.
Take classic dungeons. They're all being revisited: Saltmarsh, the Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil. Sometimes they've been changed beyond recognition. Break the old structure up and burn it for fuel. But one dungeon has stayed pristine and free from the revisionists: the hoary old Zenopus dungeon.
Context first. Back in ’77 when Eric Holmes published the first Basic D&D Rules, the set included a sample dungeon to introduce utter noobs to roleplaying. It was so ahead-of-the-curve it didn’t even have a grandiose name, but it’s variously named ‘the Zenopus Dungeon’ or ‘Zenopus’ Tower’ after the mad, bad wizard who built it. I review the dungeon on an earlier blog and try to analyse its charm, the captivating mixture of fairytales and Lovecraftian horror that animates Holmes’ vision of D&D.
Enter stage left, Zach Howard, AKA Zenopus Archives. Zach has made it a work of scholarship and personal piety to excavate and celebrate Holmes’ vision of D&D, promoting the Holmesian Basic rules, offering deep dive analyses of Holmes’ writing and generally promoting an ethos of adventuring that has a romance to it that was (arguably) squeezed out by the corporate contours of TSR and later Wizards of the Coast. You should check out his website and blog: it’s great.
Like Jack and Rose in Titanic, Zach and the Zenopus Dungeon have been on this collision course from the start, so it’s amazing it took this long for Zach’s 5th edition adaptation of Holmes’ dungeon to appear, courtesy of DM’s Guild. You can pick up the PDF for $1.99 and why wouldn’t you? It’s a classic dungeon, dusted off and drenched in love.
Available from DM's Guild, $1.99
What Do You Get for Two Bucks?
Two bucks buys you 18 pages, faultlessly formatted and a beautiful cover painting (Thomas Cole’s 1838 Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower) that seems to symbolise the whole project: the crumbling tower is the monument of Holmes’ Basic D&D; the idyllic shepherd tending his flock in the shadow of the tower, that is Zach; the little boat out among the islets, that’s us, wondering if we should put ashore: in a moment the shepherd will stand up and wave to us to drop anchor. There’s treasure here, you see, that Zach knows about, in a place long neglected.
Zach introduces the scenario in its original context, quoting from Holmes’ text.
Whispered tales are told of fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters in the underground passages below the hilltop, and the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, prehuman city, to the graveyard, and to the sea
Brr-rr. It still gives me goosebumps, that final triad: the prehuman city… the graveyard … the sea… the imagination is drawn into the occult past, into the mystery of death, into the hope of transcendence. Holmes could turn a phrase.
Zach respects Holmes and his copyright by only quoting fragments of the original and artfully synopsizing the backstory (hubristic Wizard digs too deep … BOOM … only ruins left … dungeons ignored for a century). There’s a new map of Portown itself, orientating the dungeon entrance with the town, graveyard, sea cliffs and other sites. One of the features of the scenario that was so surprising in '77 was the way Holmes’ dungeon interacted with the above-ground setting, something which other products in the early days of D&D failed to follow up on.
In Appendix C, Zach offers a d20 rumour table which incorporates many of Holmes’ contextual touches, adding a few more useful ones to inform players (such as the disappearance of Lemunda the Lovely) or misdirect them. Zach offers a ‘short form’ rumour table and a longer discussion of each rumour, with dialogue to read aloud and reflections on how each rumour relates to the dungeon itself. This introduces the delightful possibility of PCs entering the dungeon by entirely different routes.
Zach also offers something that Holmes neglected: a bespoke Wandering Monster table for the site. Most of these wanderers are inhabitants of the dungeon on the move – or else their allies and cousins, that’s up to the DM. There are some sweet new additions, such as a dungeon cleanup monster (scaled to alarm but not overwhelm new players) and cultists, of which more anon.
After all this, we get the dungeon itself. There’s no map – copyright issues, once again. However, Wizards of the Coast make a PDF of the original dungeon available on their site and the Internet also has fan-made maps, some of them rather lovely.
A caption box introduces each of the 18 dungeon locations, quoting from Holmes where necessary. The explanatory text contains sections like “Treasure” or “How It Works” to help inexperienced DMs navigate the dungeon. Some of the treasures (especially the magic weapons) have been tweaked in a colourful way. Experienced DMs will turn to the “Options” paragraph which offer suggestions about what to do with the original empty rooms, how monsters might be beefed up or how they might interact with adventurers in novel ways and how room contents might link to some of the new rumours in Appendix C. Everything is adapted clearly to 5th edition rules and the new additions are also adapted back to the Basic Rules if you prefer your dungeons to be thoroughly Old School.
Zach gives the rooms names, which Holmes neglected to do, and some of these are charming or goofy or else hint at dread and mystery. In other words, the exact same cocktail that Holmes employed. One notable optional addition is the presence of evil cultists, ransacking the graveyard to raise the undead with horrid rituals. These villains are extrapolated from Holmes’ background and add an element of menace to the dungeon that I think it needs. If further justification were needed (and it isn’t), Zach directs us to The Charnel God written by Clark Ashton Smith: “one of Holmes' favorite authors of weird fiction.”
A beautiful touch is the addition of a roof to the Thaumaturgist’s Tower. Yes, this is implied by the description of the room below, but Zach seizes the opportunity to present players with an uplifting panorama:
The view here is spectacular. To the west are the sea cliffs over the Northern Sea. To northeast is a hill with the ruins of the tower of Zenopus, and beyond a cemetery. The streets and buildings of Portown extend to the east.
Psychologically, this is an important moment: by plumbing the depths of the dungeon, the players reacquaint themselves with the surface world and now understand it in a new light. The Hero’s Journey resolves itself here. Zach, I think Holmes would be proud of this. Bravo.
The text concludes with a section on adapting the adventure to Ghost of Saltmarsh, a 5th ed campaign set that I don’t own and cannot comment on, but the fit here looks pretty seamless. A selection of pre-gen 5th ed characters rounds off, with appropriate Holmesian names.
Evaluation: What's It Good For?
I’m not sure whether to assess this product as a work of D&D scholarship (sort of paleo-literary-ludology) or as a practical gaming resource.
As a gaming resource, it’s not terribly vital. The original dungeon is freely available and the upgrade (if that’s what we call it) from Basic D&D to 5th ed shouldn’t challenge most DMs. If you are an absolute beginner, then I think Ruined Tower of Zenopus is probably just as instructive Lost Mine of Phandelver, the official introductory scenario in the Starter Set, while also being a bit less overwhelming.
More likely, Ruined Tower of Zenopus will be played by experienced D&D players, chasing nostalgia and the scent of extinct possibilities, rather like listening to Beatles B-sides and demos, trying to recapture a sense of strangeness from something you love but which has become over familiar.
As scholarship, Ruined Tower of Zenopus belongs in your collection as a measurement of distance travelled: like a sextant, it tells you how far away is the horizon (the inception of D&D), how much has changed compared to the ‘fixed stars’ of goblins, giant spiders, magic swords and animated skeletons.
Going back to that cover painting, owning this module puts you on that little boat, sextant in hand, looking up at the tower on the cliff, getting a sense of the history of your hobby: the prehuman city of Holmes’ literary idols and psychoanalytic passions; the graveyard of Basic D&D, supplanted by Gygax’s more prosaic imagination; the sea, where we all sail when we roleplay, into boundless possibilities.
Zenopus’ tower is a landmark to chart your course by. It never steered me wrong. Nor will it you.
Over the past few months I've reviewed the 1990s "fantasy heartbreaker" Forge Out of Chaos and analysed its main rules, themes, monsters and the two published scenarios (The Vemora and Tales That Dead Men Tell). It's a game with an identity crisis, setting itself up as a meat-and-two-veg dungeon crawler set in a ruined world where the gods have been banished, but then being recast as a sort of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay imitator, set in a Renaissance or Baroque world with a lot of politics, economics and a Gothic palette.
More on that shortly. This is the last product to be published for Forge Out of Chaos, back in 2000. The previous module promised an ambitious campaign pack (called Hate Springs Eternal - great title) in November 1999, but that never appeared. Instead, the sourcebook arrived, rather optimistically bearing the "Volume 1" subtitle. After that, the presses at Basement Games fell silent.
I wonder what was planned for Volume 2?
The World of Juravia is a 170 page book that retailed for $19.95 - expensive for back then: this is the same price tag as the original Forge rulebook itself. The old team of Mike Connelly & Don Garvey is gone; there's a range of art in here, notably Jim Pavalec, who does the cover art, and Shella Haswell, who produced the back cover and has a rather different, highly stylised approach. The interior art varies a lot in quality but is mostly solid fantasy fare.
Pavalec's cover suggests a return to the game's conceptual roots: a sinewy, barbaric figure (a Higmoni, judging by that be-tusked jaw) is ambushed by a many-headed snake (perhaps a Tursk, but they are supposed to have two cobra-like heads). The stylised nudity, the languid athleticism and the rearing monster, all seem to reference Boris Vallejo's art for Conan (minus the naked chicks: to its credit, Forge never went in for that aspect of old-school fantasy art). Gone are the breeches and lacy collars worn by the villagers in The Vemora: this looks less like 17th century Europe, more like pre Ice Age Hyborea. This statement of muscular intent is backed up by the back cover blurb:
Welcome to the World of Juravia ... a paradise lost! Once a land graced with beauty, it is now a scarred wasteland of desolate swamps, jagged mountains, and hideous creatures beyond imagining.
This echoes the contextual fluff on the back of the original rulebook:
It was once a paradise but is no longer! Once beautiful landscapes are now swamps, desolate wastes and jagged mountains. The calm and gentle rain has turned to fierce storms of fire and ice.
It's tempting to read this as a return to the game's roots in a gritty post-holocaust environment, rather than the genteel and civilised setting described in Tales That Dead Men Tell.
What's inside? - A Calendar!
Yes, we start with the Juravian Calendar and it appears to be the year 679: that's 679 years since the gods were Banished. The first 300 years seem to have passed in murky confusion but in the last two centuries there has been some sort of Renaissance and an international calendar has been developed. Four pages set out the days and months of the Juravian year and its major festivals, which honour the gods, especially Omara, goddess of harvests. There is reference to the "church of Enigwa" (the creator-god) and its year-end tradition of burning alive all wizards!
Let's dispense with the oddity of kicking of your world-building sourcebook with arcane stuff about calendars. Gary Gygax did it with the 1st edition AD&D World of Greyhawk Gazetteer and if it's good enough for Gary... Yes, I assume that author Mark Kibbe followed (rather uncritically) Gygax's AD&D template for what a world sourcebook ought to look like. Critic Ron Edwards rages against this sort of thing, complaining, in his famous essay on Fantasy Heartbreakers (2002), that games like Forge "represent but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D." But I'm rather touched by the humility of it: Mark Kibbe is homaging the World of Greyhawk, right down to Gygax's highly idiosyncratic ersatz-scholarship.
But never mind that! The eye-rubbing is in the details. What was implied in the previous modules is explicit here: in Juravia, the gods are still being worshiped and that worship is led by a professional priestly class. To grasp the weirdness of this you have to steep yourself in Mark Kibbe's iconoclastic mythology - but since his mythopesis takes up the first 11 pages of the Forge rulebook, you'd be forgiven for supposing the author wanted you to do exactly that.
These are the gods (let's recall) who joined together to create humanity, then set about warping and mutating humans into the demi-human races and into monsters to function as soldiers and artillery pieces in their planet-shattering war, a war which led to their banishment from Juravia, the utter annihilation of one of them and the eternal perdition of two more. Why would anyone who believed this mythology want to worship these beings? And since they cannot answer prayers or grant spiritual comfort, what would be the point?
It makes sense that creator-god Enigwa would stll be worshiped and it makes sense that his 'church' would condemn Mages: in Juravian myth, Enigwa forbade the gods to teach magic to mortals. You would think the Enigwa-ists would be just as hostile to the worship of other gods, especially Gron and Berethenu, since Enigwa sentenced these two deities to Mulkra (Hell) for their role in the God-Wars.
If the "Church of Enigwa" promotes Deism (the belief in a virtuous but non-interventionary God) and indulges in Wizard Burning, then we are very clearly in the equivalent of Europe's 17th century here. I don't mind that: a world inspired by the Witch Trials of Bamburg and Salem has appeal. But I'm surprised. The main rulebook gives no intimation that Mages are hated outcasts or that anyone choosing a Mage profession is putting a target on their back, courtesy of those fanatical Enigwa-ists. Moreover (and this is oddest of all), the rest of the gazetteer barely refers to it again.
The Five Kingdoms - sort-of France, or maybe Massachusetts
There's a map of the campaign setting of 'the Five Kingdoms' and it is (for its time) nicely done and in the same format as Tales That Dead Men Tell. There's a massive central mountain range (the Jagged Peaks) and the Dukumbada Mountains up to the north-west, creating a passage between them linking the northern and western regions. The northern kingdom is Daryna, which is suggestive of Poland, bordered by dense swamps and a sea coast. The Merikii bird-people live here and it's pretty isolated.
The region is not an island - rivers, mountains and forest form natural boundaries
Over to the West is a large 'empire' called Pereysha, bordered by rivers and more marshes. It seems to have a sort of Franco-German feel. There's a massive forest south of the Jagged Peaks called Jagen's Wood and that separates Pereysha from coastal Hamsburg, which was the setting for Tales Dead Men Tell and is perhaps Mediterranean in tone. East of Jagen's Wood and the Jagged Mountains (but connected to Pereysha by a strategic mountain pass) is Hampton, the setting for The Vemora; however, this version of Hampton makes no reference to a 'High King' called Higmar and the village of Dunnerton does not appear on the map. Finally, north of Hampton but cut off from Daryna by the enormous Hyshen Fens, is weird Ry-Gel, which I'll discuss in a bit of detail, since it's the most clearly fantastical of the realms.
The map is only a sliver of a wider continent. No scale is given (an odd oversight) but based on the textual references, the region seems to be about 500 miles east-west and twice that north-south. In other words, these 'empires' and 'kingdoms' are squeezed into a territory the size of France. Off in the wings, beyond the map, are the larger polities of Jucumra and Brattlemere and an Elvish realm of Elladay; however, natural barriers (especially the 'Great Wilderness' to the east) lock this territory off from the wider world.
The Merikii are the indigenous peoples of Daryna, but the other kingdoms are former colonies of those off-stage empires. This starts 491, with Hampton being founded by pioneers from Jucumra making their way through the Great Wilderness, like Daniel Boone crossing the Cumberland Gap. The Jagged Mountains are seething with Higmoni War Camps and in 533 these erupt out, causing the Blood Wars. Various offstage empires contribute troops and the victors carve out Pereysha over on the other side of the mountains and then Hamsburg, a Pereyshian colony, wins its independence in a brief revolt in 587.
Ry-Gel seems to stand apart from these events. It is discovered by pilgrims crossing the Great Wilderness in 301, a bit like the Mormons arriving in Utah, and it fights its own battles with the Higmoni a couple of centuries before the Blood Wars, then it falls under the rule of a wizard named Nanghetti who becomes a usurper and has to be destroyed by an order of paladins. Ry-Gel stays out of the Blood Wars but is rocked by famine and plague. it bans all religion and is ruled by a corrupt and decadent Triumvirate. It is far and away the most interesting of the Five Kingdoms. Nanghetti's return from the dead was supposed to be the plot for Forge's module-that-never was, Hate Springs Eternal.
The Ry-Gel 'empire' seems to be about the size of Wales
The names are, I think, misleading. Pereysha is called an 'empire' and so, on occasions, are the other realms. Secundum literam, they are not: they haven't expanded beyond their national borders to conquer or colonise other peoples; they're not multi-ethnic supra-states. Calling them 'kingdoms' also seems to be hyperbolic. They're more like the duchies of Medieval France or the protectorates of Renaissance Germany.
No, what they are really like are the early American colonies. Hampton, with its robust citizen militias, gender equality and big university would be Connecticut; Hamsburg with its archaic gender roles would be somewhere like Catholic Maryland; Pereysha is big, rich Virginia with its trade ties to the Old World. Daryna is isolated and full of 'natives': the Great Plains, maybe Oklahoma. Weird Ry-Gel with its pilgrims and paladins and reactionary secularism could be Quaker Pennsylvania or Puritan Rhode Island.
This piece of interior art seems to me to capture the tone of Mark Kibbe's setting better than strapping barbarians or robed wizards
The US Colonies analogy gives me a clearer sense of what author Mark Kibbe was reaching for. These aren't barbaric territories, despite the front cover art, but they border onto unexplored and dangerous wilderness regions. The 'kingdoms' are small in population, experimental in political structure and have a relatively short history. They're all related to each other. They're all friendly.
Moreover, they're economically productive and intensely liberal. Yes, there are few quirks, like Hamsburg's treatment of women and Ry-Gel's treatment of religion, but these are very modern cultures. All of them win their independence more-or-less bloodlessly because their parent empires prefer to trade with their former colonies than hold them by force. It's like an American 'civics' class with monsters. Bad rulers are deposed, usually peacefully, by dissatisfied commoners. Ordinary people go to university. Official documentation entitles people to travel and trade (it's not clear if the printing press exists, but the political sophistication surely suggests it does). It's all quite idyllic.
Which, of course, makes it a bit dull. The troubling idea of a 'Church of Enigwa' persecuting Mages is never touched upon again. Sure, bureaucratic Pereysha can be a bit burdensome for free-wheeling PCs, but despite the exemplary detail in the regional descriptions, there's very little conflict for players to get caught up in. There's not much ethnic hate, or unresolved grievance, or seething discontent. The worst people in the Five Kingdoms are the 'Rats Nest', a Thieves Guild that destabilises the Hamsburgian Province of Newton. The Rat's Nest gets a thorough description, but you still don't feel motivated either to join it or destroy it.
Ry-Gel is a bit of an exception, with its mystical past, it's unusual (and corrupt) government and its intolerant laws. You can feel adventures brewing in Ry-Gel, if a covert missionary wants to preach some crazy new faith and recruits the PCs as guards - or if the PCs get recruited as inquisitors to root out cells of cultists.
But the main problem is lack of cultural focus. Every village and town gets a small entry, each leading NPC gets named, but the world of the Five Kingdoms remains shadowy. There's a solid idea for a setting here, but Kibbe focuses on the peripheral details and lacks the insight into human darkness needed to imbue his world with conflict and drama. Kibbe seems to struggle to imagine that rational people wouldn't sit down and solve every problem peaceably, so that's what his NPCs tend to do. It's a world that feels SAFE and not in a good way.
The Dungeon Architect
The next section of the book is the Dungeon Architect which appears to be made of material originally posted on the Basement Games website. There are 24 locations, each with a clear map and key, background and suggestions for inclusion in a campaign or using as the basis for a scenario.
One of the larger locations, an abandoned manor house in Hamsburg that is being auctioned off by the state and could be bought by PCs for 157gp (you see how orderly and cosy this setting is? no need to bribe clerks or flatter aristocrats in sensible Hamsburg!)
The selection includes inns, abbeys, the University of Nyanna, abandoned hermitages, crypts, cave systems and temples of Grom. The value of this sort of thing is immense, offering day-to-day locations where the PCs live, relax, work or research along with more mysterious locales that an be the basis for adventures. Mark Kibbe's rather prosaic imagination is ideally suited to this sort of architecture: lots of maps, sensible room descriptions, attention to details like estate income and access to fresh water and a few rumours and legends. An entire book of these would be invaluable for anybody's campaign, using any system.
The last six pages of the book are taken up with a 'Rumours' section, which also seems to have come from Basement Games' website, presumably reflecting the designer's house campaign with contributions from some of the game's fans. These are fine: any and all could serve as plot-hooks. But none of them is particularly striking: there's nothing eerie, baffling, horrifying, intriguing or epic going on in Juravia: just expeditions, bandits, criminals on the run, missing children, kidnappings, tax collection and (this is good) the burning of a magic-wielding infidel by the Church of Enigwa. You want to know more about this Mage-hunting Church and less about tax collection, but as usual the setting seems to focus on all the wrong things.
Amnesia - the last scenario
We never got to see Hate Springs Eternal, but the Juravia sourcebook includes the third and final Forge module, a scenario called Amnesia which holds its head up well alongside The Vemora and Tales That Dead Men Tell, i.e. it's the sort of thoughtful, low-key adventure that would have been a classic if White Dwarf had published it in the '80s but which lacks the ambition or originality to rescue the Forge franchise from obscurity.
The premise here reminds me of the old AD&D Module A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. The PCs awake in an underground cavern without their equipment and must find their way out, relying more on wits and roleplaying than conventional combat.
Erol Otus' art is so witty: the PCs beat down on some small mushroom people but look what's approaching in the distance...
In Amnesia the situation differs slightly: the PCs have armour and weapons but do not have any memory of where they are or how they came to be there. The scenario functions as both a trap and a puzzle, since the players must figure out what has been going on from clues they come across underground - including an angry Dwarf who knows them well and has good reason to hate them, although the PCs have no recollection of meeting him before.
It's only 10 pages long, but the detail, layout and plotting is faultless. Mark Kibbe excels at this sort of thing: the classic dungeon-based scenario, done well. The players start off with limited light source and no map-making equipment and will soon find themselves in darkness, going in circles, unless they are clear-headed. Soon, they will acquire much-needed equipment and start to piece together that they are in a slave camp, with formerly-brainwashed prisoners who have been working the copper seam. The mine contains dangers of its own as well as shocks when the PCs discover that, in that period of their lives they have forgotten, they were not the slave workers in the mine but the cruel guards and overseers! There are several possible exits, one of which involves a very nasty fight with armed and armoured guards (always a tricky proposition given the way Forge's combat system works) and the other two involving an element of roleplaying with distrustful or hostile NPCs.
The scenario concludes with some intrigue and politicking. The mystery is explained by the activities of one of the monsters from the Forge rulebook - a Limris, which I've previously singled out as the most original and entertaining contribution in the entire bestiary. The creature has been in cahoots with a leading Merikii Duke of Daryna, so in the aftermath the PCs are either going to accept a mighty bribe to stay silent about the Duke's involvement in kidnapping, slave labour and monster-wrangling or else set out to bring the villain to justice.
Don't mess with the Merikii
All of which is to say, this is A Very Fine Scenario Indeed. It could comfortably fit into two sessions but it might expand to more if the Referee expands on the aftermath. It's nice to see Merikii rather than Higmoni as antagonists (although the poor old pug-faces turn up here as well as thankless monster mooks). It's a bit more challenging than The Vemora or Tales That Dead Men Tell, offering situations and dilemmas that will put more experienced players through their paces.
And yet, it falls short of what it needs to be. Kibbe takes a pride in modest threats: all three scenarios for Forge are self-consciously low-key affairs: no demons, no powerful mages, no dragons or vampires, no ancient curses or powerful relics. In this scenario, the main monster, the Limris, dies offstage - like the non-appearance of the Cavasha in The Vemora and the absence of scheming Maria Yates in Tales That Dead Men Tell. Kibbe seems to delight in creating big melodramatic plotlines and then locating his scenarios in their shadow: the players hear about but never get to meet the fantastical fiends. Yes, there's a pleasure in this sort of approach - like the 1994 "Lower Decks" episode of Star Trek Next Generation.
The problem is that this sort of subdued, tangential narrative is all Kibbe ever produces. It's a bit like watching Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead without having seen Hamlet - you haven't seen the real thing of which this story is the artful deconstruction. After three modules, we still don't know what a proper Forge scenario is supposed to look like, what the game has to offer when taken at face value. I would happily referee Amnesia as an introduction to Forge for experienced players - and it would convert very easily to D&D or other classic Fantasy RPGs - but it just isn't the sort of scenario that this product needed to sell the rather opaque 'Five Kingdoms' to an increasingly sceptical fanbase.
Overall - how should we look back on this?
Of course, Forge Out of Chaos passed away and this was its last gasp. Probably, the writing was on the wall for Basement Games back in 2000, but perhaps Mark Kibbe was sincere in his hope for further support for the game. But, no: Ron Edwards (2002) analysed 'fantasy heartbreakers' like Forge as doomed from the start by economic realities as much as by their shortcomings as products in a crowded marketplace.
I'm glad, though, that Forge got this far and that Mark Kibbe was able to deliver his RPG vision. There is much to commend it, but it illustrates an important lesson in creativity: focus.
Kibbe never seemed to grasp what was distinctive about his game or his setting. Forge clearly began life as a post-D&D homebrew that reached an unusual level of sophistication and completion. Kibbe himself moved away from conventional dungeons and monster-baiting, in favour of more thoughtful scenarios. His setting moved away from a barbaric post-holocaust world to a civilised but precarious frontier, with hardy colonists carving out their prosperity in the midst of a vast wilderness.
Yet he failed to capitalise on these features. The Church of Enigwa, which goes around burning wizards as infidels ... a world where the gods have been judged and condemned .... a society built around trade routes and trade wars ... a system of travel documents, official permits and bureaucratic paperwork ... guilds and thieves rather than monsters and demons ... This is not like a standard Fantasy RPG setting, yet all this stuff is hidden away in the margins or must be inferred by a diligent reader. There's a good campaign to be had in Juravia, something distinctive and distinctively American, but you feel that, even at the end of the product line, designer Mark Kibbe hasn't quite figured out what it is yet.
Tales That Dead Men Tell (hereafter, Tales) is the second and final scenario published for Forge Out Of Chaos by Mark Kibbe back in 1999. It retailed back then for $9.95 and consists of a 46-page staple-bound book with colour cover art (by Jim Feld) and some B&W interior art (also by Feld, a departure from the team who worked on the original rulebook), including regional and local maps by Steve Genzano and lots of illustrations of NPCs and enemies discovered during the scenario.
Tales isn't available as a PDF through DrivethruRPG but there are a lot of copies for sale online, from as cheap as $3 from some book sites to a typical $6 on eBay.
First glance shows Tales to be a more ambitious project than The Vemora (1998). Gone is the cartoony artwork of Mike Connelly and Don Garvey: Feld's moody and murky illustrations set a more crepuscular tone that fits the spooky theme. It's a more mature and professional style and it definitely gives reptilian Kithsara and bestial Higmoni a much more distinctive look.
Jim Feld (left two) compared to Higmoni and Kithsara by Connelly/Garvey
Connelly and Garvey homaged 1980s D&D with their style, but Feld is a step onwards and upwards, offering Forge its own visual identity - yet I can't help feeling that something charming has been left behind. In fact, much has been left behind, as we shall see.
And there's a lot of this. Whereas The Vemora was set in a rather hazy fantasy kingdom with a distant High King and a local Village Elder, Tales is rooted in the detailed history of the Kingdom of Hamsburg, which seems to be pitched to us as Forge's default setting. I'll have more to say about Hamsburg and the Province of Lyvanna later on. Suffice to say, this is a territory that has won its independence from being an imperial colony and is the sort of trade-hungry border region that fantasy RPGs seem to gravitate towards.
More relevant is the recent history of thief-made-good Kamon and his ambitious wife Maria, a woman combining the more extreme traits of Cersei Lannister and Scarface. While Kamon works like a dog building up a mercantile business, Maria constructs a criminal empire under the cover of his honest dealings, offering Kamon Manor out as a safe house to the Rat's Nest, a nasty band of villains. When the Law comes calling, poor old Kamon is executed, one of Maria's sons is killed and Maria goes to gaol, leaving her youngest son to expire all alone, locked in the cellar. The Manor is subsequently haunted by the ghost of Maria's betrayed husband and her abandoned son.
That was all a generation ago, but now a team of Necromancers has arrived at the Manor with some mercenary Higmoni (it's always the Higmoni...) in tow. They've suppressed the hauntings by ringing a mystic bell and ambushed the local militia sent to investigate the strange goings-on. They're looking for Kamon's fabled treasure, hidden somewhere in the house.
The PCs are the usual swords-for-hire and are recruited by an elderly merchant who rejoices in the astonishing name of Aberdeen Jenkins. Jenkins has bought the Kamon Manor estate as a fixer-upper but needs the adventurers to sort out the mystery of missing militiamen, ghostly bell-ringing and sundry hauntings. Simple as that, really. Do some research in Lyvanna into the Manor's history then get down there and clean the place out of troublemakers. Jenkins is paying 500gp for this bailiff-work and - weirdly - is prepared to let the adventurers keep any treasure they find on his estate while they do it. That's a bit mad, but I'll suggest a more rational offer for Jenkins to make later on.
Research in Lyvanna
As well as a simple 'rumours' table, Tales invites you to explore the town of Lyvanna and interview a selection of NPCs about Kamon Manor and its unlucky history. This research phase gives the scenario a bit of a Call of Cthulhu vibe, although it sits somewhat oddly with Forge's system, which doesn't offer players any social or research skills. Ron Edwards (2002) summed up Forge as a game that was "gleefully honest about looting and murdering as a way of life, or rather, role-playing." I think he exaggerated, but Tales' shift away from dungeon-bashing towards investigation and negotiation is a clear departure from the ideas that were noticeable in the rulebook. Whether Forge's mechanics really support this style of gaming is another matter...
Roaming around Lyvanna, the players can interview the helpful Dunnar sage Xavier Pratt, the helpful local lord Bromo Lionheart, the helpful militia leader Captain Honis, yes, everyone in Lyvanna is very helpful. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like grimdark settings where everyone is backstabbing everyone else, but these NPCs are intensely static: the designers give each one a distinctive behavioural quirk, but none of them has an agenda or a subplot to offer. They're just waiting for the PCs to turn up so they can deliver their exposition.
Perhaps sensing that their setting lacks dramatic conflict, the designers present a pickpocket and a conman for players to interact with and some agents of the Rats Nest who will start dogging the PCs' footsteps. More about them later.
Off to the Kamon Estate
Once on the grounds of Kamon Manor, the PCs can wander freely by day or be harassed by Giant Bats at night. If they take cover in the Bell Tower and kill or chase away the Higmoni guard, there will be consequences: with no one ringing the bell, the ghosts of Kamon and his son resume haunting the site.
Superior maps and tone-setting art, compared to The Vemora from the previous year
The Manor House is an old fortress and entering it will tax the players' ingenuity. The front gate is guarded by more Higmoni but the walls can be scaled and the side tower accessed through a bridge. There's a prisoner to rescue in there (an unlucky Rats Nest spy) and a dangerous monster, a Vohl (which is a sort of taloned ghoul, as opposed to a vole, which is a cute water rat).
Exploring the house is a tense affair, especially if Kamon's ghost is active, whispering creepy things, pushing people down stairs and dropping statuary on passers-by. There's a chipper Sprite adventurer also moving through the house: Theo Bratwater will join the party and be either useful or annoying, depending on how the Referee plays him. There's a militia man to rescue, two Necromancers to tangle with, plenty of Undead and the Higmoni captain who might leave without a fight if approached correctly. There's also the ghost of Davis, Kamon's tragic son, who appears to be a normal kid and a helpful guide until you stumble across his corpse in the cellar.
The main bosses are the Necromancers: Chiassi the reptilian Kithsara and Berria the Elf. These two are presented with spell lists in full and demonstrate the crunchiness of the Forge system, offering the Referee plenty of choice, both in roleplaying their reactions and selecting their most effective tactical responses.
Chiassi: check out his feet!
Hopefully, the players discover the documents exonerating Kamon and lay his ghost to rest. On the way home, those three Rats Nest spies (remember them?) ambush the exhausted party, prompting a final act battle.
As I've discussed elsewhere, Forge converts painlessly to older iterations of D&D and even 5th ed conversions shouldn't pain anyone too much. The Higmoni are Orcs or Half-Orcs, the Necromancers are Chaotic/Evil Clerics, Zombies and Skeletons are Zombies and Skeletons, the Ghosts don't require stat blocks and the other dangerous animals or carnivorous plants have easy-to-source analogues in various Monster Manuals. The Vohl would be 7HD, AC 4, 3 attacks for 1d6/1d6/1d2 (Save vs Death Ray or lose those 1d2 HP permanently), MV 15" or 150' (50') - a nasty opponent for low-level characters.
It's a tougher scenario than The Vemora in terms of the number of monsters and the spell-casters: probably better if most or all of the PCs are 2nd level rather than 1st, maybe with a 3rd level Thief on board. But that, I suppose, makes it a good follow-up to the earlier dungeon.
Do you need it, though? The Vemora was a fantastic tutorial dungeon with enough dangling plot threads to prompt me to write an expanded version of it. Tales feels less essential. On the positive side, it's an intelligent explore/destroy mission and Mark Kibbe has a talent for dungeon layouts that generate drama. The presence of the tragic ghosts lends an element of spine-tingling mystery to things. The maps, NPC portraits and caption boxes are all attractive: if the whacky or primitive art of the earlier books repelled you, you will feel you're in the hands of professionals now.
On the other hand, the stakes are quite low. You're bailiffs for Aberdeen Jenkins (that name!!! I'm in love!), turfing out trespassers on his land. It's not glamorous. It reminds me of the sort of thoughtful scenario White Dwarf used to publish in the UK in the 1980s - or the AD&D module U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981); the one that sent the PCs to a haunted house that was really a cover for smugglers.
The "Scooby Doo episode of D&D modules" according to Ken Denmead (2007) vs the 1986 WFRPG
Or, perhaps, a better fit is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with its dark fantasy-Europe setting: any story in which a wealthy merchant sends you up against evil cultists and a vicious guild of thieves has a clear WFRP vibe going on. WFRP delights in its low-fantasy theme, its dark low-key dramas and tragic backstories.
But of course U1 shifts its action from searching the old Alchemist's House to raiding the ship Sea Ghost, whereas Tales doesn't really go anywhere: you don't get to track down the Rats Nest and punish them for their perfidy. The space in the booklet is taken up instead with fluff about Hamsburg and Lyvanna, which I don't think most DMs will be making use of. So let's talk about the setting.
Sensible Settings, Yawn...
The cover of The Vemora surprised me with its Tudor buildings, lacy collars and breeches. Tales shows that the 17th century tone was quite intentional. This is not a Dark Ages or even Medieval world. It's Renaissance or perhaps Baroque. The various kingdoms and empires are stable, with parliaments and universities. Government exists "to uphold the welfare of the commoners" (p10), which is as clear a statement of Humanism as you could wish for. The focus is on tariffs and taxes, laws against "unfair trade practices and economic collusion" and revolts that remove oppressors from power.
In other words, far from being dystopian, Hamsburg seems like a lovely place. You cannot imagine giant flightless birds, enormous man-eating beetles or two-headed super-snakes marauding across this landscape. Maybe a dandy highwayman inconveniences travelers, but never a dragon. It's the sort of setting that makes Tolkien's Shire look gritty and morally ambivalent; the politics are more cut-throat in Narnia!
Mark Kibbe offers one concession to cultural darkness, which is the Hamsburg seems to treat women poorly. Kamon's wife Maria barters herself into marriage and criminal dealings in pursuit of power and autonomy in a world the treats her sex as chattel. The problem is that Kibbe's imagination is so genial that he forgets his world is supposed to be like this: we are told Maria's teenage daughter survives the fall of her family because she was off at University at the time. How very progressive!
Look, I don't mind idealised fantasy settings, but there seems little point in describing their political settlements if there are no important conflicts going on. Conflicts don't have to explore the dark side of human nature: some people are greedy, fanatical, jealous, cowardly or filled with hate; others are generous, idealistic or desperately in love. Nobody in Lyvanna seems to be doing anything, good or bad, except the Necromancers, and they're just cartoonishly evil.
The positive is that Tales is a step forward for Forge in many ways: in production values, story complexity, world-building and so on. The downside is that not all of these steps develop what was noteworthy and interesting about Forge in the first place.
The original Forge rulebook boasted a hell-on-earth setting, ruined by the gods with mortal races left behind to survive in a dystopian world. The monster Bestiary resembled Gamma World's collection of mutants and horrors more than a conventional fantasy monster manual. The PC races were exotic and rather primitive. The rules embraced dungeon delving and tactical combat, with few skills or spells for politicking, negotiating or carrying out deceptions.
Tales takes place in a harmonious and rather advanced world that resembles (to my mind) the New World colonies in the 17th century and the cosier parts of Reformation Europe, far away from the 30 Years War or the Witch Trials. Everybody seems to be human, with a few Elves, Dunnar and Kithsara as 'exotics'. One cannot imagine giant one-eyed gorillas or telepathic weasel-people moving through this society.
The naming conventions reveal much. In The Vemora, NPCs have names like Kharl Atwater, Brundle Jove, and Jacca Brone. The High King's name was Higmar. Solid fantasy names with a touch of otherworldliness to them. In Tales, we meet Maria Yates, Xavier Pratt and the incomparable Aberdeen Jenkins. These aren't bad names either, but they're very different names. They belong in our world, albeit to colourful people.
The God-Wars have faded from the imagination and religion is back. Maria marries the hapless Kamon in "a small roadside church," the Province of Lyvanna is governed by "wealthy landowners and influential clergymen" and the local temple of Omara is "very small compared to the elaborate churches of larger towns" - in other words, this is Christian Europe, thinly disguised.
Clearly, Mark Kibbe has matured and his imagination has moved away from the barbarian world of Forge towards a more sophisticated setting. That's fine. The problem is that Forge doesn't really support roleplaying in such a low-fantasy world. There are no illusion spells or skills for things like pickpocketing, faking signatures or seduction. Plus, your character is a giant one-eyed gorilla!
There's a solid scenario here. It would be great adapted for WFRP but D&D players would enjoy it as part of the Saltmarsh campaign.
The scenario creates a problem for itself that the passions and betrayals of Maria and Kamon's marriage and their gruesome ends are far more interesting than the events going on in the present. How much better the story would have been if the PCs were contemporaries of Maria: they could be employed by her to get her treasure back (only to be betrayed by her in turn when she strikes a deal with the Rats Nest), rather than acting as bailiffs for the soft-hearted Aberdeen Jenkins, decades later.
In other ways, the scenario inspires fresh directions. In an earlier blog post I introduced the idea of Dungeon Constables or 'Dinglemen'. In this adventure, the PCs are themselves the Dinglemen, sent by the owner to evict trespassers from his 'dungeon'. The idea that the PCs keep the treasure they find there is absurd: it all belongs to Jenkins by right and the PCs are paid a wage to retrieve it. This introduces nefarious possibilities if the Rats Nest approach the PCs to fake an 'ambush' whereby the treasure is all 'stolen'; the PCs and the Thieves can later meet up secretly to divide it between them. Do the players take the deal and betray their employer Jenkins? What happens when the Thieves betray them and keep all the loot for themselves?
The module's back page advertises an intriguing third module: Hate Springs Eternal, "coming in November 1999." This scenario sounds thoroughly epic, with an arch-mage returning from the dead and the PCs battling through an army to save the continent. A new type of Magic is promised! Alas, it was not to be. Tales turned out to be the second and last Forge module, leaving the game with a distinct identity crisis that is only deepened by the directions taken in the World of Juravia Sourcebook (2000), which I'll look at next.
The Vemora is the first scenario published for Forge Out Of Chaos by Mark Kibbe back in 1998. It retailed back then for $7.98 and consists of a 28-page staple-bound book with colour cover art (by Paul Butler) and some B&W interior art (by Mike Connelly & Don Garvey who worked on the original rulebook), including two maps and lots of drawings of rooms and enemies discovered during the scenario.
There's a detailed NPC and two new monsters (mutant animals, nothing special) and a small amount of information about the setting. For me, the product is interesting for what it reveals about the sort of game Mark Kibbe thought he had created; now, two decades later, there are copies for sale that cost less than the original RRP and DrivethruRPG sells a PDF for $6 (without the slipshod reproduction that ruined the PDF rulebook).
The scenario is set in the realm of Hampton, which is one of those place names that sounds very Olde Worlde if you're American, but not if you're British. Nearly a century ago, High King Higmar ordered the construction of Thornburg Keep and its underground sanctuary to house a precious healing artifact, the Vemora. Then a plague arrived that proved resistant to all medicine and magic and Higmar ordered the evacuation of his stronghold. Since then, monsters have moved in to inhabit the underground levels (as they do!) as well as a couple of groups of marauding humanoids (Higmoni and Ghantu) looking for loot. The Vemora itself remains hidden and inviolate, deep underground.
Rumours of adventure bring the PCs (rootless mercenaries, as per standard) to the village of Dunnerton. Recently, the monster known as a Cavasha attacked the village and blinded its defenders, including the Elder's son. The Elder wants the PCs to hike out to Thornburg Keep and retrieve the Vemora, to use its magic to heal his son. If good deeds aren't a motivation in and of themselves, he'll pay 300gp. A scout will take the PCs to the dungeon entrance and a local Elven healer will accompany the party out of sheer goodwill.
The cover of the book (by artist Paul Butler) depicts the very Lovecraftian Cavasha attacking the village. It's an exciting scene, with villagers falling blinded after it uses its gaze power. Unfortunately, the Cavasha itself never features in the scenario, so this picture is a tease, really, since the Cavasha definitely lives up to what the rulebook calls its "gruesome appearance" (p165).
The buildings in the village and the style of dress (breeches, lace collars, jerkins) suggest a 17th century setting, rather like Europe during the Witch Trials and the Wars of Religion (or perhaps Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay). I wonder, is this really how Mark Kibbe envisaged Juravia? It's certainly very different from the Post-Holocaust/Dark Ages vibe I detected in the rulebook.
Dunnerton is sketched out in essential detail only. There's a Dwarven smith, Brundle Jove, who will offer free armour and weapon repairs to PCs working for the Elder; however he has a finite number of repair kits so there is a limit on the number of APs he can restore. A Sprite trader named Dya Brae runs the store and a list of the resources she has for sale is provided along with the exact amount of each (e.g. she has 5 Healing Roots in total). Alongside her wares, she dispenses some in-character dialogue that mixes inane wittering with nuggets of good sense. The Drunken Dragon Inn offers lodgings and a brief rumour table: the untrue rumours are far more interesting than the actual dungeon itself, which begs the question why the author didn't make use of these ideas! There's a temple of Shalmar, Goddess of Healing and the priest, an Elf named Jacca Brone will accompany the party if they need a healer. His character sheet is provided in full along with some pointers for the GM to roleplay him.
There are no subplots going on in Dunnerton, which is always a shame, but the scenario is explicitly pitched at first-time-roleplayers so perhaps that extra layer of complexity is unnecessary. I like the recognition that local smiths and traders don't have unlimited supplies to service adventurers. Providing Jacca Brone is a nice touch, especially if newbie players neglected to take the Binding Skill or avail themselves of a Berethenu Knight.
The presence of a Temple of Shalmar left me scratching my head. The gentle Shalmar was murdered by her brother Necros during the God-Wars. Indeed, this blasphemous crime seems to have triggered the wrathful return of Enigwa and the Banishing of the gods from Juravia. What can go on in a Temple to Shalmar? How (and why) do you worship a defunct goddess who can neither respond to prayers nor acknowledge worship? Maybe Shalmar-worshippers are a bit like certain Church of England Vicars: they don't really think their deity exists, but they respect the sort of things she stands for. That's nice, but why a tiny community beset by monsters would support a temple to the beautiful concept of healing, rather than building a temple for and funding the services of, say, a real live Grom Warrior who can kick monster butt, is a pressing question in my mind.
The Dungeon, Level 1
The back cover art shows the scout directing a band of adventurers towards the dungeon entrance, which is a broken door set in the hillside, surrounded by carved pillars and steps and all overgrown with ivy and moss. The party includes a big barbarian warrior with a hilarious bald-patch, what look like a dwarf and an archer and a Merikii with his signature two-sword pose.
Dungeon level 1 has 32 rooms, very much in the densely-packed Gygax-style rather than the sprawling Holmsian aesthetic. If the PCs press on in a straight line they will pass through the two entrance halls, the Dining Hall and the Great Hall, ending up in the Library where they have to tangle with a Tenant, which is a Mimic-like creature that inhabits wooden objects with a very nasty attack.
Along the way, they will come across lots of mosses to test their Plant ID skills on, magical fireplaces which add a much-needed spine-tingling moment to proceedings, possibly find a magic dagger and end up securing some valuable tomes and clues about the nature and location of the Vemora. They will also have a modest skirmish with crab monsters and possibly fall through one of those pit traps that deposits them in the abandoned cell block in Dungeon Level Two, with all the fun that this implies. The trap only triggers if the party numbers 3+, which is an elegant touch: small parties (or cautious ones) are spared this complication.
Rooms 1, 2, 4, 5 and (mind the pit trap) 30 take you to the Great Library (#32) and a nasty monster
If the PCs venture away from this central spine, things get a bit more varied. Up to the north there are acid-spitting crabs, a teleportation gateway that takes explorers directly to the Royal Chambers on Level Two (but allows them to return, unlike the pit trap), giant rats, giant centipedes, minor trinkets and a guard room explicitly intended to be a safe base for adventurers to make camp.
Those who have played D&D Module S1 (Tomb of Horrors) will be wary of this
North definitely equals 'safe' and the teleporter offers the intriguing possibility that hapless PCs could blunder straight into the Vemora's hiding place - but of course they won't have the special keys needed to get at it yet. This offers a cute glimpse of where the PCs need to end up and a way of getting there quickly once they've assembled all their keys and clues.
The southern rooms are a bit livelier. There are armouries to ransack, more rats, crabs and blood-draining bats to fight as well as a Creeper, which is an acidic slime. There are mysterious tracks to decipher (cue: Tracking and Track ID skills) that reveal you are not alone: Shirek, a tough Ghantu, and his Higmoni henchmen are camped down here. Shirek is the main 'Boss' on this dungeon level and there will be a communication barrier unless someone speaks Ghantu or Higmoni, in which case a fight can be avoided.
The set-up here is exemplary: first the signs of ransacked rooms, then the tracks, then the Higmoni, then the appearance of their one-eyed boss. The designer makes some questionable assumptions. The main rulebook introduces a Languages skill but doesn't encourage anyone to learn it, saying "all character races ... speak a common language known as Juravian" (p23) but at the same time each character "is fluent in its own language ... as well as the Juravian language" (p5). The chances that a group of PCs will not include at least one bestial Higmoni or giant one-eyed gorilla Ghantu are (knowing the aesthetic choices of dungeon-bashing players) slim. This means players are highly likely to defuse this encounter non-violently unless they are immensely dunder-headed. But this is supposed to be a teaching dungeon, so that's probably how it should be.
The Dungeon, Level 2
The lower dungeon level has 27 rooms, arranged in a sort of loop, with a spur off to the north (the old cell block where the pit trap deposits you) and the south-east (the Royal Chambers where the teleporter takes you).
There are several ways down here. The pit trap is the worst: you're in the old cell block, with giant spiders nearby, and you don't know the way out. The teleporter is better: you discover the Royal Chambers and all their loot (including magic items and a magical sword) but you probably cannot open the difficult locks. You can stumble into the eerie throne room but you probably won't have the keys to get into the Vemora's vault. Try exploring further and you encounter the ravenous undead in room #36 (see below).
Conventionally, you'll descend the stairs in the southern part of the first level. This brings you into a central columned hall with a fountain, magical roots to identify and the corpse of another Higmoni, tipping you off there are more raiders down here.
Have fun exploring the temple rooms, dealing with killer mold and a Berethenu Shrine, which is a great asset for Berethenu Knights and offers a cute benefit for Grom-ites who choose to desecrate it.
You soon discover the bedrooms, workrooms, smithies and studies of the castles old occupants and some of their correspondences. This is clearly inspired by the chambers of Zelligar and Rogahn in Mike Carr's seminal D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown (1979). There's a pleasant frisson to exploring the intimate chambers of these long-dead people and it's a valuable reminder that this labyrinth was not always a malevolent dungeon.
There are a lot more Higmoni down here, split into two groups and leaving evidence of their looting all over the place. They're having a spot of bother with a pack of undead Magouls (why MAgouls? why not just ghouls? why???), so, once again, players who prefer to talk than fight might be able to negotiate something.
The Magouls (that name, grr-rrr) are in room #36, which isn't keyed on the map, but it's the room outside the Throne Room #56 (perhaps another reason for smart players to double back and use the teleporter upstairs).
Unkeyed room is #36, just off the main corridor (#33) and the only way through to the Throne Room (#56)
Once the PCs have their three keys, they can head to the Throne Room (which may or may not involve confronting the undead) and retrieve the Vemora - naturally, its a big golden chalice. Then it's back to Dunnerton for the reward.
As noted, this is an exemplary tutorial dungeon for a novice group of D&D players. It has all the best features of Basic D&D Module B1, while being tighter and more focused. It's an underground fortress with a lot of empty rooms containing interesting objects and a few mystical moments when the magical fires light up; there are dungeon raiders who pose a challenge but can be negotiated with if the players aren't too trigger-happy; there's a pit trap to the lower level; there's a historical mystery in working out what the rooms once were and who inhabited them.
In some ways, it does its job better than Module B1: the quest for the Vemora, and the collection of keys to unlock it, gives structure and purpose to the adventure, rather than aimless wandering. The nearby village of Dunnerton offers support and healing as well as a grand reward.
D&D conversions are easy: giant centipedes, rats and spiders (albeit large spiders in D&D terminology) are standard; use stirges for Ebryns and fire beetles for Nemrises; 1HD piercers work for Bloodrils; the Creeper is an ochre jelly; the Tenant is hard to translate but a half-strength mimic would work (3 HD, 2d4 damage). The Higmoni can become goblins, their Leader a hobgoblin, Shirek the Ghantu translates as a bugbear or a gnoll. The Magouls are, of course, proper ghouls with proper names.
The limitation of the scenario is that this is all it is. Exemplary tutorial dungeons are all very well, but D&D 5e includes The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Starter Set, which is a far more ambitious introductory adventure than this. Even back in 1998, the sort of dungeon adventure The Vemora provides was pretty dated: it might perfect the formula of In Search of the Unknown, but that means perfecting something already 20 years old at the time.
Nonetheless, if you play any sort of OSR RPG or any iteration of D&D and come across a cheap copy of The Vemora, don't disdain it. It's a little gem of an introductory dungeon that provides the right balance of mystery solving, exploration, combat and a sense of wonder. There's a bunch of noob adventurers out there who will remember it fondly if they get a chance to cut their teeth on it.
Evaluation: Forge & adapting the scenario
Although it's a great tutorial dungeon, The Vemora is a frustrating product for Forge Out of Chaos. Even in 1998, it was unlikely players were coming to a RPG like Forge as complete noobs. The rulebook makes few concessions to novices, since it commences with a treatise on the Kibbe Brothers' distinctive mythology rather than explaining what roleplaying is. It's very worthy that the scenario carefully points out every opportunity PCs have to use and check skills like Plant ID, Tracking and Jeweler but these sort of training wheels are certainly redundant.
Instead, Forge players will be hoping the scenario sheds light on what's distinctive about Forge as a RPG: its themes, setting and conflicts. Yet here we are disappointed. The Temple of Shalmar and its priest Jacca Brone only goes to show that the authors have not grasped (or simply forgotten) the implications of their god-free setting.
Forge promises a post-apocalyptic world, but the scenario presents a rather orderly one, with its well-run kingdom and 'High King'. The dungeon is not the mansion of a fallen god but something much more prosaic: an underground fortress that's only 80 years old.
The ancient plague hints at darker designs, but is never explained and finds no expression in the dungeon itself: where did it come from? where did it go? why was it immune even to the Vemora's healing power?
Then there's the hideous Cavasha from the front cover. With 25+1d6 HP and Armour Rating 4, it's a tough opponent but not beyond the means of a party of adventurers who have availed themselves of magical weapons. With Attack Value 3 and two claw attacks for 2d4, it's a Boss-level combatant for starting PCs and of course there's the permanent blindness from its gaze - though the Vemora's on hand to cure that. Surely the Cavasha, rather than those preposterously-monickered Magouls, should have its lair in room #33.
Developing the Dungeon
The Rumour Table at the Drunken Dragon Inn suggests some other, far more interesting, plots within the dungeon. For example, there's the obligatory previous-party-of-adventurers who entered the Keep and never came back. Wouldn't it be better if some of them were still down there, wounded, starving and desperate? There's a rumour about the water being infected with the Plague: that's a good idea! The High King's ghost is supposed to haunt the Throne Room: Forge doesn't do spirits and incorporeal undead, but what if the Plague raised its victims as zombies? What if those previous adventurers are infected by the Plague now? What if there's a cure for it somewhere in the dungeon? What if the cure requires the ichor from a Cavasha's eyeballs?
A dungeon like this needs a Dungeon Constable or Dingleman and it makes sense to cast Jacca Brone in this role (which makes more sense than a priest of Shalmar). The Referee has a choice: are the PCs chartered to enter the Keep by the current King, in which case Jacca is an ally who will show them in and offer directions to the Great Hall and warn about Higmoni incursions. Or (more likely) Jacca enforces the quarantine on the site and the villagers of Dunnerton are going behind their lord's back by recruiting adventurers to trespass on the site and retrieve the Vemora. In this case, Jacca is an adversary and wandering monster (on the 1st level) who must be avoided at all cost.
If you add the Cavasha to the dungeon, then the Dingleman will know that it lairs somewhere on the 2nd level; he probably warned Dunnerton of its approach when it went marauding out last month. If the PCs have a (self-appointed) mission to destroy it, the Dingleman might allow even unchartered adventurers entry and guide them to the stairs - but will expect them to hand over treasure and magic items when they leave (including the Vemora - it's a royal heirloom). That creates a dilemma since the PCs swore to bring the Vemora to Dunnerton...
See how much fun Dinglemen add to a dungeon?
Mark Kibbe's decision to frame the scenario as a tutorial dungeon was a mistake, creatively and (I suspect) commercially. But if the dungeon architecture is robust - and this is - then it's easy to adapt it to a more complex story. Removing a few of those acid-spitting crabs, mutant rats and blood-draining bats is step one; replacing them with tragic plague victims and plague zombies is step two. Then there needs to be a cure among the papers in the Great Library (#32) with ingredients to be gathered from various mosses, roots and monster body parts around the site, the whole thing to be brewed up in the Vemora chalice to save the NPCs (and, by that point, PCs too) who are infected. That would be a scenario even experienced players would get behind and, even if it doesn't do justice to Forge's setting, it would pass a merry couple of evenings.
In a previous post, I analysed Forge Out Of Chaos' rules for Divine Magic, used by the worshipers of Grom and Berethenu. This led to details about Forge's odd mythology (these are the only active deities and both are imprisoned in the subterranean fiery hell of Mulkra) and Ron Edwards' observation that it is typical of 'fantasy heartbreakers' to belabour mythological backdrops but ignore the role of religion.
To be fair, of all the heartbreakers that he reviews, Edwards concedes that "the best of the bunch is Forge: out of Chaos, probably (as I read it) because this material was taken the least seriously and written for fun imaginative-background rather than as a personal fantasy opus."
Edwards sketches out a brief checklist of the way these games travesty religion while obsessing over mythological settings:
Let's see how Forge measures up to the first two; the third will have to wait until the next blog.
The Forge rules open with a mythological treatise, explaining how the Supreme Being (named 'Enigwa') created the world and ordered it to be beautiful and harmonious. Enigwa then snoozes (having become Enigweary?) and his children, the gods, are left in possession of the paradise he has bequeathed them. The gods start off perfect too, but they become more differentiated as the ages pass, with some developing selfish or aggressive traits.
The Supreme Being is disturbed by this discord and, I suppose, Enigwakes. He draws the gods together in fellowship to create Humanity and then commands the gods to be mankind's instructors and guardians, for Man shares the best and worst traits of the gods. Then Enigwa disappears, off to create new worlds (his Enigwork?), strangely blind to the trouble he has set in motion.
The gods immediately fall out and a triumvirate forms: Necros the god of Death teams up with his brothers Grom the god of War and Galignen the god of Disease.
Grom starts creating his own servitor races by mutating humans: the orc-like Higmoni, the Klingon-inspired Berserkers and the one-eyed gorilla Ghantu.
After a polite pause to register their shock at this impiety, other gods follow suit: Dembria, goddess of Creation, creates the albino Dunnar; Katharu, god of nature, creates the lizardy Kithsara; Marda, goddess of Animals, creates the avian Merikii; Omara, goddess of harvests, creates the half-pint Sprites; even virtuous Berethenu, god of Justice, creates his loyal Dwarves.
I'm not sure who creates the wheezing weasely Jher-em; Marda, I suppose. The Elves aren't attributed either, but Terestar the god of Time appeals to me as their creator.
The gods go to war, tearing up the landscape. Marda is particularly wrathful, creating monsters and Dragons to defend her pristine wilderness. Necros figures out how to create the Undead to be his creatures. He tricks Dembria into creating the moon to blot out the sun, so that his undead army can dominate the lightless world. Then, when his sister Shalmar the goddess of Life pleads with him for peace, he murders her
Enigwa returns to judge his creations and he isn't happy: his Humans have been mutated into other races, the landscape churned up and rearranged, Shalmar dead, the moon blocking out the sun: it's not pretty and the Supreme Being is Enigwrathful. He pronounces judgement on Necros, flinging the death-god into "the endless void." Grom gets dropped into the fiery depths of Mulkra for his crimes. Berethenu has the chance to repent but is too noble to accept forgiveness: he leaps into Mulkra to be imprisoned with Grom. Enigwa gathers together the remaining errant gods and takes them away with him, leaving the world of Juravia to recover from this divine ruckus.
The various races are left to pick up the pieces in a god-free world. They reconstruct the principles of magic but, since these powers no longer come directly from gods, Pagan Magic is uncertain and has nasty side-effects. Down in Mulkra, Grom and Berethenu seize moments between burning in eternal agony to invest their worshipers - Berethenu Knights and Grom Warriors - with Divine Magic. There are rumours that the gods occasionally sneak back to Juravia when Enigwa isn't Enigwatching and the monsters and undead horrors unleashed during the Great Wars are still out there, causing trouble. All this rationalises a fantasy world with monsters, races and magic,
Guilty as charged, but it's not all bad. If Enigwa is a dumb name for the Supreme Being then chain me to the wall. It's got 'enigma' in it but the W has been flipped, see? The overall effect hints at something African, which is great.
There are a lot of GFNs (Generic Fantasy Names), just syllables with -a or -ia or -ar added on the end. 'Necros' is lame, being filched from the Ancient Greek nekrós meaning 'corpse.' I'm sympathetic to the Tolkien Conceit, that fantasy names are just translations into familiar English of words that are really in other languages, so Peregrin Took was really "Razanur Tûk" in Westron. But if you're going to do that, be consistent. Shalamar should be named after the Greek for 'life' which is Zoe, Grom should be Polemos, Galignen should be Nosos and Marda should be Therion. Fine names all.
Some of the names have a whiff of poetry to them. Galignen has connotations of 'malignant' which is clever. I like the -u names Berethenu and Kitharu, which suggest (to me) something Babylonian or perhaps Romanian or East Asian.
Grom is a near-steal from Robert E Howard's Crom, the war-god Conan respects (I was going to say 'worships' but that's going a bit too far), and in turn adapted from Celtic myth.
But it's all a mad jumble really and not in a good way. Over on Zenopus Archives, there's a 'Holmes Random Name Generator' that creates fantasy names extrapolated from the quirky imagination of Basic D&D author Eric Holmes. These names may be random but they're not GFNs: Chor Paldon, Zoque Kar, Losho the Blue, I could do this all day. Try it yourself:
These names are random collections of syllables, but they're still evocative. Crucially, they're not European in flavour. They sound like they're from a slightly alien fantasy land: not Marda but Mardreb, not Dembria but Drebael.
Thomas Wilburn slams Forge for (among other things) starting off with 10 pages of myth-making before we get a content page, never mind rules: "mythology belongs in a background section in the main text, not at the very front where the reader has to wade through it just to get to the game." But the trend for '90s RPGs to kick off with thematic fiction or campaign setting before introducing the rules was well-established long before Forge came along. No, I don't object to the positioning of mythology at the start of the book and it's well-written: in fact, it's the best-written part of the whole book. I just wish the Kibbe Brothers had knuckled their foreheads and come up with names that were genuinely evocative or thematically consistent .
What cultural setting do these deities connote?
Five minutes of Google-fu (or half an hour with a decent encyclopaedia) prompts suggestions like this:
This harmonises the gods' names (I like that -u ending and -ara as the feminine suffix is more interesting than plain -a or prettified -ia) and Nergu re-names Necros along Babylonian lines. Just sticking an O- prefix in front of Grom works wonders (and connotes 'ogre').
Why would all the races use the same names? The creatures of Kitharu and Mardu get a synthesis of Babylonian and Yoruba names and the 'Grom-folk' (Higmoni, Berserkers, Ghantu) get Japanese-inspired adaptations. I think the Dunnar would have Celtic-style names (reverencing Dembara and Dobuna, Berethenu as Berethos and Grom as Crom) and let's go with Norse-style for the Dwarves (re-titling Berethenu as Borothor and Grom as Grotun) and Greek-style for the Elves (Berektor and Grotos). Names do amazing things: they imply a world.
No surprises here. Grom Warriors and Berethenu Knights both have to follow an honour code. For Grom-ites it's a simple barbaric code of never running away, fighting face-to-face and taking part in a demented yearly rally. Berethenudians have a chivalrous equivalent that gets more restrictive as they advance: eschewing armour and fighting fairly.
From a roleplaying perspective, these strictures are intensely external to your character's identity. It's frustrating for Berethenu Knights that they cannot wear plate mail and have to give away a tithe. Not being able to attack from behind makes a few combat encounters slightly more awkward than they have to be. But you can 'tick the boxes' with these requirements and play your cleric just like all the other characters. What we don't learn is what foods are forbidden, what clothing must be worn, what sex acts are condemned, what daily rituals must be enacted. In other words, what is like to live in the service of this god?
The oddity is not that clerics suffer such strictures, it's that no one else does. There's a tendency for lay people to adopt the strictures associated with holy folk in order to make their own lives more holy. Over time, these strictures become the sort of codes of dress, diet and sexuality that make up a religious lifestyle. If Berethenu Knights tithe and behave chivalrously, then this sort of chivalrous, charitable code will spread to other people who don't have magic powers to lose. If Grom Warriors fight one-on-one and boast of their kills, then a culture of dueling and boasting will also become normative in society.
One way of handlig this is through Benefits & Detriments (pp17-18), which currently involve trading of advantages (being tall or stocky or having a resistance to poison) against drawbacks (arachnophobia, deafness or being one-eyed). Religious strictures make good Detriments and violation can be punished by removing experience checks or imposing bad luck (-4 on next Saving Throw).
It's interesting to reflect on what else Grom or Berethenu expect from followers. Are Berethenudians vegetarians or virgins? Or are they expected to marry and have families? Are Grom-ites forbidden to marry or acknowledge their children? In the real world, sexual abstinence is the distinctive feature of religious observance yet it gets no mention in RPGs like Forge.
Distinctive dress codes and grooming are features of real world religions: Jewish peiyot (side-curls) and kippah (circular head coverings), beards in Islam, turbans in Sikhism, bindi (forehead dots) in Hinduism and Jainism. Often, these create a more abiding stereotype of a religion than anything the members actually believe or do. How does one recognise a Berethenu Knight? Do they wear sashes, turbans, shawls or phylacteries? Do Grom Warriors shave or wear hair down to their knees?
Of course, to answer these questions, you need to have a cultural conception of the fantasy world these people inhabit. Is it Northern European, Middle Eastern, Asian or African in tone? In order to decide whether Berethenu Knights wear turbans or kilts, you need first to consider what sort of ethnicity they represent. Unsurprisingly, the Forge art represents 'Humans' as white Europeans (e.g. p12, p86, cloak, trousers, cean-shaven, mullet). That's disappointing (and not just because of the mullet) and it will take another blog to explain why.
This leads into the most important topic, which is how a fantasy world is shaped by its religions - a point widely ignored in games like Forge - and I'll get stuck into that in the next blog.
It makes sense for the first blog to be a retrospective review of Forge Out Of Chaos. You can read about my involvement and the rules elsewhere on this site.
The Kibbe brothers (Mike, Paul and Mark) published Forge Out Of Chaos in 1998 through their own independent company, Basement Games LLC (they really do seem to have worked in their parents' basement!). The credits page thanks "games guru" Marc W Miller (of Traveller fame) for his guidance in the production phase and a professional eye does seem to have been cast over the book's presentation. It's well laid out and clear, without repetition or contradiction.
Of course, such presentation was still pretty basic compared to what the big companies were putting out in the '90s. Dark Sun and Planescape both wowed with their art. Many RPGs moved towards a mature, coffee-table sort of appearance. The sophisticated reticence of Vampire: the Masquerade, the endearing aesthetic of Everway and the plush pop art of In Nomine, all set Forge to shame, but we mustn't let the best become the enemy of the merely good.
The other selling point of Forge was that the system was robust. It worked and it was easy to figure out. This must seem like faint praise, but the big budget In Nomine for Steve Jackson Games looked adorable and just popped with ideas but was maddening to figure out and the system barely worked at all. Vampire swept all before it with its Storytelling ethos and angst-ridden sensibility, but the rules system was GHOD (Great Handfuls of Dice) and the combat system creaked, with super-speed Celerity dominating all encounters. AD&D 2nd edition was still wedded to a disunified system of dice rolls, an absurd Armour Class mechanic and a maddening intersection of character classes and proficiencies. Compared to all of these murky cocktails, Forge is a tall, cold, clear glass of water.
Not everyone saw it this way. Thomas Wilburn (1998) dismissed the game as a "waste of money" in a playtest review on RPG.net. Wilburn's analysis is over-hasty. For example, he complains about the pointlessness of determining characteristics with decimals when these decimal values are never used. But of course, they are used quite a lot. Several effects raise or lower characteristics by a few decimal points; Necromancers lose 0.1 from Stamina every time they create a new undead servant and 0.3 when they create powerful ones. The decimal points allow for fine effects, small benefits, gradual deterioration.
Wilburn is particularly damning of the artwork, which "ranges from comical to ludicrous" and which he complains is "similar to those found in very early TSR products ... amazingly bad." I suppose he means the Original D&D books which used tracings of Marvel Comics art with swords added in!
The art in Forge is nowhere near that shoddy.
The 'macho Sprite' on p16 is a cringe moment, but the drawbridge battle splash on p 41 is full of drama and the arrow-riddled warrior on p25 causes me no pain.
What the art does deserve credit for - and it was well ahead of its time here - is the absence of female nudity or 'chainmail hotties'. The elderly enchantress on p116 is very evocative and Dembria, the goddess of Enchantment, is curvaceous but very much a clothes-on sort of deity.
Compare and contrast Morgan Ironwolf from the 1981 Basic D&D rules. Arms like pipecleaners but nipples so mighty you can see them through her chainmail. Is this what Forge is being held up against?
Wilburn laments that "the writers took all the worst elements of AD&D (random character generation, restrictive character classes, component based magic system, unrealistic combat, and the list goes on) and didn't make any improvements." This is inaccurate: there are certainly improvements and Forge does NOT have character classes, but he spots one stand-out oddity: "it should never be easier to hit someone in a hectic combat situation with a bow and arrow ... than with a sword, whether or not they're paying attention or not." He's right, of course. Having created the distinction between DV1 (your shield and Awareness modifiers apply) and DV2 (no benefit from shield or Awareness), it's wrongheaded for the designers to declare that missile attacks target DV2. Surely shields are effective against arrows? That needs fixing.
Some of Wilburn's punches land. He complains that there's no index. This is a presentational flaw. However, I must say I find the rules so clearly laid out I rarely wish to use an index: the only exception being tracking down Spell Points (they're described under the Magic Skill, not the Power characteristic that calculates them or in the Magic chapter itself).
Curiously, Wilburn finds particular fault with the introductory text setting out Forge's mythology, wherein an absentee landlord demiurge named Enigwa (I like that name) leaves his divine children to fight over the world, creating monstrous races in the God-Wars, then returns to banish them, creating a sort of post-religious fantasy world. Wilburn thinks "mythology belongs in a background section in the main text, not at the very front where the reader has to wade through it just to get to the game" but he obviously wasn't reading many '90s RPGs: this sort of foregrounding of setting and mythology is one of the few ways - perhaps the only way - that Forge can be seen as an up-to-date '90s game.
Thomas Wilburn's review doesn't read like it was based on a particularly rigorous read-through of the rules or a generous attempt to play the game, but he singles the magic system out for praise. A more positive review followed from Willard Bowzer (1999). If Wilburn went through Forge looking for problems, Bowzer sees only the good. Bowzer calls the layout "impressive" and commends the art as "a throwback to art of earlier rpgs," which is perhaps attributing too much to design choices but certainly admits of its charm. Bowzer sees Forge as "inspired" by D&D rather than shamelessly derivative, but the truth is somewhere in between.
Among all the gushing, Bowzer recognises a couple of flaws. The character races are not well-balanced or even equally interesting. Cyclopean Ghantu will be popular with hack'n'slashers while Elves and Dwarves are very under--cooked. The monster bestiary is uninspired. Bowzer shares Wilburn's assessment that magic is the strongest component of the game, but points out that this rather contradicts the introductory flavour text, which states magic is rare. A consideration of Forge's setting will wait for another blog post; it can certainly be ignored for now.
By far the most insightful critic to consider this game is Ron Edwards' (2002) blog on 'Fantasy Heartbreakers.' Edwards defines a 'fantasy heartbreaker' as an amateur/independent RPG that is "truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that's evident" but also "teeth-grindingly frustrating, in that, like their counterparts from the late 70s, they represent but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D." He adds that, largely due to economic realities their authors fail to appreciate, these games are "doomed from the start."
No one can criticise Forge's inclusion in this list. It is very much an attempt to "fix" D&D - or particularly, 1st edition AD&D - that shows very little awareness of other developments in roleplaying that took place in the late '80s and '90s, such as storytelling, the de-emphasising of combat, the focus on cultural and political context in place of aimless 'adventuring' and a new interest in 'dark' characters and stories.
But why exactly should a game like Forge get on the '90s bandwagon in that way? Edwards deplores the absence of 'meta' elements. He means that Forge proposes characters who are rootless adventurers without family or lineage, with no involvement in politics or morality; that the rules do not accommodate play over years and no one is developing dynasties or exploring factions or building communities. It's not Pendragon or Ars Magica or even Rifts.
Ron Edwards is quite right in his analysis, but it's only salient if you agree that such features are desirable in a decent RPG. Don't get me wrong: I like those features. I love the way The One Ring positions you in 'The Tale of Years' with a wider narrative taking place around you. I love stories that follow an epic arc and position the PCs as rulers, plotters, lovers, parents and rebels: people who are locked into their world and intimately involved with the rise and fall of its institutions.
And yet, and yet... what about good ol' dungeon-bashing?
I'll say more about this in a later blog post. Edwards concedes that, if you just want a fantasy dungeon raid, many of his 'heartbreakers' are exemplary products. He singles Forge out for particular praise for being "gleefully honest about looting and murdering as a way of life," saying that it's a game where "the very notion of doing anything that isn't treasure-seeking in a dungeon is completely foreign."
This is a bit of an overstatement, but only a bit. The Kibbes produced a World of Juravia Sourcebook (2000) to place Forge in a developed fantasy setting, but the main rulebook makes few concessions to any of that. As it stands, Forge Out Of Chaos is a dungeon-bashing RPG, for creating characters who go down dungeons, grow stronger and then go down dungeons again. This was a pretty regressive ethos back in 1998, but things were shifting even by 2002. Wizards of the Coast promoted their Open Games License in 2000 and within a few years the Old School Revival was underway: Castles & Crusades came out in 2004, Lamentations of the Flame Princess in 2009, Monsters & Magic in 2013. A whole generation re-embraced Basic D&D with shonky art. Out went the meta and in came player agency within a structured dungeon setting. Whoosh.
Could it be... that Forge was not 20 years too late, but rather 10 years too early? That would be ironic.
I've been bitten by the Old School bug myself and I want to revisit some of the classic scenarios of my youth. I think Forge is the game to to it with. Yes, I could bring out tired old AD&D again, but I find its clunky systems aggravating. I could invest in one of the lean, shiny OSR RPGs but the time investment in mastering a new game irritates me. Forge is one of the original OSR games, so it seems appropriate to give it some legs again. Let the roars of the Ghantus be heard once more in the land!
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: