Before I talk about the Warpstar! RPG by Greg Saunders, I want to take a long route around.
I'm a Star Wars kid. I was 10 when Star Wars premiered in the UK and went to see it on my 11th birthday. I was blown away. Obviously, I had to own the action miniatures, a cardboard Death Star, the board game, the comics and a collection of those strange cards you bought with bubblegum (which I detested).
I'd been groomed for Star Wars by the UK comic 2000AD which had appeared earlier in 1977 and thrilled me with dinosaur hunting time-travellers, Dan Dare and, of course, Judge Dredd. The 2000AD Summer Special had heralded the arrival of Star Wars with a centre splash page that conveyed no idea of who the hero was or who the baddies were (Jawas, perhaps?) but the mysterious images pierced my soul with their distinctive blend of space romance.
The 1977 2000AD Summer Special: the caption for Han Solo and Chewbacca reads 'Luke Skywalker takes a break with one of his friends.'
After that, I loved Sci Fi.
I'd loved Science Fiction before, of course. I adored Doctor Who and the Tomorrow People on TV and was an avid fan of Space 1999: the distinctive Eagle spaceships from that show were a treasure childhood toy along with an Interceptor from the earlier Gerry Anderson show, U.F.O..
Doctor Who acquired a, err, charming new companion in 1977, but Tomorrow People had the haunting and enigmatic opening sequence and a stranger and more provocative concept.
Best. Toys. Ever.
My first ever memory of watching TV is the episode of Star Trek where Kirk fights Spock with weird weapons in an arena: I was, I think, 3 or 4.
Are you hearing the music in your head?
But Star Wars involved a sort of commitment to glorious starscapes, roiling planetary surfaces, lasers in the darkness and gleaming battle armour.
The odd thing is that, within a year of watching Star Wars for the first time, I was playing D&D. Roleplaying quickly dovetailed back into science fiction, with the Gamma World RPG and Traveller in its iconic black box.
Age cannot wither her: there will probably never be a RPG set this ... beautiful
Yet science fiction roleplaying just never captured my imagination. Gamma World was a lark with its gun-wielding mutant bunnies, but it just wasn't serious the way D&D could be. What about Traveller? Well, I certainly tried it. Who couldn't love the sleek modernism of the three-book box set, the cool black-and-red iconography, the tantalising mayday from Free Trader Beowulf ... Traveller: Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future was clearly a serious game set in a serious universe. I spent merry hours rolling up planets and populating my own sector maps.
Yes, and not just sector maps, but rolling up animals and random encounter tables for those planets, then rolling up all sorts of retired Marines and cashiered Naval Officers ...
Notoriously, the process of rolling up a Traveller character could result in dying during background history.
Traveller invites you to create a 40- or 50-something PC who has already had a proper career in the military or in politics but then decides, in a ludicrous mid-life crisis, to go gallivanting round the universe getting into hare-brained scrapes with a bunch of strangers. As a roleplaying proposition, I found it a bit of a stretch back in my teens. Now that I'm the same age as those characters, it's no clearer to me what Traveller PCs think they're up to.
So, I rarely played Traveller and when I did, the results were underwhelming. Traveller just never seemed to catch fire. There wasn't, for me, a story that was dying to be told and needing Traveller as its idiom. There was just a lot of aimless wandering in space ... heists ... bounties ... patrons in space bars ... the cost of repairing ships ... Twilight's Peak (1980) was a striking scenario but I just couldn't sell it to my players because, well, I wasn't sold on it myself despite Andy Slack's glowing review in White Dwarf #24 ('This is how Traveller should be. Buy it.').
Back to the dungeon I went and never really looked back at SF RPGs.
(My) Problems with SF Roleplaying
Part of it was just maturity. Traveller isn't as easy for teenagers to switch on to as D&D. In a fantasy RPG there are standard tropes: you arrive in a village, you go to the inn, some ageing peasant tells you of strange goings on at the ruined keep and the disappearance of the miller's daughter, off you go to clean the site out of kobolds and rescue the maiden.
OK, you could substitute 'planet' for village and 'spaceport bar' for tavern and, I suppose, a 'disused orbital space station' and a 'missing corporate CEO' (female, if you insist). But immediately , questions intrude. What sort of planet? What sort of spaceport? What exactly is this orbital facility? Which corporation? Why isn't anyone else dealing with this?
You might say that answering those questions is precisely what makes for designing a good adventure - and you'd be right. But my problems were closer to home. D&D offered easy access because everyone knows what a medieval village, tavern and ruined keep would be like - but everything needs thinking about in a SF RPG and nothing can be assumed. Or so it seemed to me at the time.
In any event, Traveller seemed to set a high entry bar in terms of conceptualising and preparing the scenario, while not offering particularly clear hooks.
You see, Traveller was basically the Nineteen Seventies In Space - and a rather banal, suburban take on the Seventies at that. Traveller didn't have laser swords, space wizards, godlike AIs or matter transport beams, let alone smart drugs, cyber-enhancement or netrunning. There was a sort of austerity to Traveller: computers were big box-y things, laser pistols were inferior to conventional slug-throwers in most contexts, the PCs were middle aged, psionics were rare, aliens scarce. When Traveller's official setting introduced the Aslan lion-people and Vargr dog-people, they were hardly compelling.
Gentle reader, you might be tearing your hair out. Why didn't I just add those things in if I wanted them so badly? Of course, I could have. But I think I was as enthralled to Traveller's severe aesthetic as I was repelled by it. The game seemed to demand to be taken on its own high-minded terms. It would seem ... somehow, I know not how ... clumsy to foist lightsabres, transmat beams and cybermen onto Traveller. It would have been indelicate. Jejeune. I was too much a roleplaying snob to let myself have fun.
Hey, Idiot: why not play Star Wars?
A friend has reminded me that West End Games did a fantastic Star Wars RPG back in the '80s. I remember playing it, now that my memory is jogged. I owned the d20 Star Wars and Star Trek RPGs way back when as well. But ... I don't know. I've never really cared for tie-in games. I'm not bothered about the Dune, Blade Runner or Firefly RPGs either. Maybe it's my snobbery again, but I wanted a RPG that enabled me to create something like Star Wars or Firefly - without roleplaying in the official universe of those franchises. For whatever weird reason, I've been looking for a SF RPG that would make me want to create my own science fiction, not inhabit someone else's.
OSR To The Rescue !
My rehabilitation in SF RPG was a long time coming. I contrived to miss out on the genuinely up-to-date SF RPGs of the 1980s (Cyberpunk, SLA Industries) or the loony SF mash-ups of the '90s (Rifts, TORG). I somehow managed to avoid Star Frontiers, which offered actual D&D in space and would surely have disabused me of the hurtful notion that SF roleplaying had to be particularly clever or sophisticated.
'The Playable One' seemed like a direct dig at maths-heavy Traveller. There's a lovely retrospective of Star Frontiers but by 1980 I'd been scared off by Traveller and stuck to my fantasy furrow.
I never really looked at SF RPGs again until quite recently, when the OSR trend for adapting original D&D led me first to White Box, then White Box spin-offs like Eldritch Tales (last post) then to James M Spahn's White Star.
White Star comes as a perfectly-serviceable basic rules and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Galaxy Edition (which you might as well go for if you're getting the PDF since the digital versions cost the same).
White Star is a beautifully-presented adaptation of White Box style D&D into a SF idiom. It is also completely shameless about porting in Star Knights with their laser swords, alien brutes, computer-hacking cyphers, cyborg, superheroes, mechas and a host of other stereotypes to create a broad palette you can pick and choose from. I really wish I'd found something like this in my '80s teens.
If White Star has a problem, it's perhaps that it's too broad. With every science fiction and science fantasy trope on offer, it risks losing the idiosyncracy that intrigued me in Traveller: the offer to roleplay in a highly distinctive universe. With White Star, the problem isn't all the stuff you have to add in; it's the stuff you have to take out.
Interlude: Lady Blackbird and Scum & Villainy
During the first Lockdown there was an opportunity to roleplay with friends via Zoom and we tried out Lady Blackbird by Jon Harper: it's a free mini-RPG and you can find it here. We also played another of Harper's games, the excellent Blades In The Dark. Blades has a sister product called Scum & Villainy and I sourced a copy of that in my newfound enthusiasm for space romance.
Lady Blackbird is a 15-page RPG with a set of pre-generated characters who start off as prisoners on board the imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow. The rag-tag group have to escape and get back to their ship, the Owl. The group includes a space princess fleeing an arranged marriage, her bodyguard, a romantic space captain and his quirky crew. The universe is the 'Wild Blue' (shattered worlds around a dimming star), with breathable space, space squids, space goblins, space magic. It plays out like a Saturday morning matinee. It's steampunk Star Wars. It's great.
Blades in the Dark is a bigger project, but Scum & Villainy grounds its wide-open RPG system in a manageable small corner of space called the Procyon Sector: four out-of-the-way solar systems linked by interstellar gates but somewhat cut off from the vast galactic empire. Here's a setting with space mystics, alien AIs, sci-fi religions, glamorous guilds of space-thieves, very much space fantasy. So, Star Wars again (as the title alludes).
John Harper has certainly won me back to SF RPGs, but of a distinctive genre: space romance. His trick is to set the action in a very localised part of a very particular sort of SF universe: one with a lot of the accoutrements of fantasy roleplaying. The catch is, you really need 5 players to run Lady Blackbird (and it's a one-shot); Scum & Villainy is designed for campaign play, but it's quite demanding.
Warpstar To The Rescue (and about time too!)
Recently I came across Greg Saunders' fantasy RPG Warlock! (reviewed here) and was impressed by its artfully minimalist rules and striking tone. I quickly discovered that Warlock! has a sister product: SF RPG Warpstar! (see what they did there? both games begin with war-! and end with -!). Could this be the game that properly lures me back to SF?
Warpstar! is very much Warlock! re-skinned for SF. You have just two stats (Stamina and Luck) and a set of 32 skills you add to a d20 roll, trying to hit 20+ or just beat your opponent. These skills start at 4, 5 or 6 but five of them are career-specific and you have 10 extra points to split between them, to a maximum of 10 or 12. Some are generic skills (spot, Stealth), some familiar from the fantasy game (Short Blade, sleight of Hand) and some are new to the SF setting (Astronav, Ship's Gunner, Zero-G, etc). One, Warp Focus, lets you do 'magic.'
The 24 careers cover the spectrum of SF tropes. Some are professions (Bounty Hunter, Diplomat and I suppose Pirate and Gambler) but others are more like archetypes (Street Kid, Rebel) and one, Warp-Touched, is a space wizard. As well as boosted skills, each career comes with a couple of tables to roll (or choose) your background and quirky details of your motivations, past escapades, enemies made and reputation earned. As with Warlock!, there is a ton of imagination in these tables, which accomplish more world-building than an entire chapter of setting, and a slightly seedy tone that Greg Saunders delights in.
Characters can use experience to switch careers, broadening their repertoires, and gain access to Advanced Careers if they want to push their skills into the teens.
In a variation on the Warlock! template, everybody starts with a randomly-rolled Talent, to give PCs a little more heroic oompf than the down-at-heel misfits of Warlock! ever enjoyed.
Combat is a standard skill test, but hand-to-hand combat involves an opposed roll, trying to roll higher than your opponent. The risk of launching an attack but coming away as the one who takes the damage should make players cautious about resorting to violence. Once Stamina hits zero, you roll for lasting Criticals, the worst of which kill you outright. With PCs boasting Stamina scores in the teens or low 20s and weapons doing damage ranging from a d6 (knives, etc) to 2d6+4 (pulse guns), you can afford to get hit once. but after that you consider retreating, which carries no penalty. The intention is that combat usually goes to first blood, then NPCs (and wise PCs) back off and try a different approach. Stamina is regained rapidly - you get half of it back after a brief rest, all of it after a long rest.
Magic enters the game because of the Warp Space that ships use to cross interstellar distances. This isn't the clean and clinical hyperspace of Star Wars; no, it's the chaos-realm of Warhammer 40K and anyone exposed to it risks being mutated, but one such mutation is the acquisition of spell-like powers called Glyphs. As with Warlock!, spells/glyphs are physical things that an aspiring magus has to hunt down, bargain for or steal from other practitioners.
The main addition to the game is the addition of space ships and ship combat. It's assumed each PC group gets their own space ship and you can roll or choose from a set of 6, each with a distinctive design and aesthetic: from the elegant D'Aubigny Envoy Cruiser to the tough, fast but unfashionable Kilos Star Hauler.
Spaceship combat is handled just like personal combat. Ships have Stamina (called Structure), armour, built-in weapons that deal damage in a similar range to (but great scale than) personal weapons. It's a clean, intuitive system that once again encourages brief skirmishes then running away once someone takes damage.
The setting is a vast Galactic Empire known as the Chorus. This is ruled by fractious noble houses who, in a clear nod to Dune, achieve an almost-immortality through using the space-drug Cadence, the source of which is known only to the supreme Autarch. Other factions include the military Hegemony, the unscrupulous Merchant Combine and the arcane Warp Consortium whose possession of weird technology makes them, in effect, a guild of sorcerers. A bestiary includes some oddball aliens, some of which (the Fruiting Dead and Borg-alike Nodes) imply cosmic horror, but many of which seem to delight in upsetting expectations, such as the troll-like Jondo who are actually placid and philosophical or the hideous dog-monster Borrs who are actually deeply cultured. Warp Entities allow for the inclusion of space dragons, space vampires and space demon-gods, according to taste.
So, is it any good?
Yes. Warpstar! is quick, clean and intuitive - as you'd expect from an adaptation of an already-solid game like Warlock!. The setting is highly serviceable while being vague enough to customise. The character careers offer lots of hints for your first few scenarios. Nobody dies in character generation.
Some features are 'baked in' to the rules. There's space-magic, for example. You could prise it out, I suppose, or recast it as psionics if you are allergic to fantasy in your SF (although references to Warp mutations run all through the rules and setting). The combat system, as noted, does tend to impose a cautious, scaredy-bully style of play, where antagonists shoot or stab each other once, then down their weapons and negotiate. The skill system means that PCs tend to succeed between a third to half the time, which is a bit low for a truly swashbuckling game, a bit high for gritty techno-realism.
But I like these baked-in features. They give the game some character that seemed to be missing in White Star, for example.
I could see myself using Warpstar! to scratch the itch for SF one-shots - or to adapt Traveller scenarios (such as used to feature in White Dwarf of old) into a slightly more space operatic idiom. I've also acquired the Omoron sourcebook, which is a Warpstar! detailed setting: a peculiar star cluster that's a bit like the Procyon Sector in Scum & Villainy. It features a couple of scenarios, but I'll not mention them until I've run them on my gaming group.
Omoron (and several other sourcebooks for Warpstar!) is available from drivethrurpg
The only criticism I can make of Warpstar! is the price. The rules are available as PDF and hardback. The PDF is £9 which isn't exactly cheap, but you're getting a solid game and a lot of setting ideas for your money. The hardback is a stonking £33. Why so expensive? Well, it's because this is the premium colour price point. Is there a lot of colour in the rules? No, barely any - but Greg Saunders explains "the premium colour option has been chosen for the print version as it represents a much better quality of paper with an improved look and feel."
I bit the bullet and invested in a physical edition because I find it hard to use PDF rules sets in play; I can attest that the paper is very good quality, the book looks clean and clear and, well, very SF, so that's a big tick for Artistic Standards. But it has to be said the book really doesn't need this treatment, especially as the art style throughout aims for the same scuzzy 1980s-fanzine vibe that informed Warlock! I mean, it looks great, but it would marry very nicely with coarser paper and lower resolution. You can't help wishing there was a nice cheap non-premium edition, or even better a non-premium softback. If you could buy a physical copy of Warpstar! for, say, £10-15, I'd cheerfully treat my group to 'players copies' to build commitment and speed up character creation.
Warpstar! hits my sweet spot. It delivers space romance (which I think is my preferred genre, rather than Hard SF) with a simple but distinctive rules set. It's got theme and imagination running through it. It posits player characters who are quirky and distinctive, but of less-than-heroic stature. It will hit the gaming table a few times over the next few months. I'll review the Omoron campaign book when it does.
Back in the early-1980s, White Dwarf became the premier magazine for the roleplaying hobby. In America, Dragon reigned supreme in its support for D&D, but White Dwarf covered the whole hobby (more or less) and was unequalled for the quality of its journalism and contributions. There really were some fantastic scenarios for D&D and Runequest in particular, a brilliant column by Andy Slack supporting Traveller, a bestiary feature that inspired most of the AD&D Fiend Folio and great articles on campaign design generally.
My favourite issue of White Dwarf (24) and the Fiend Folio, a sequel to the AD&D Monster Manual containing a mixture of monsters from TSR modules and the pages of White Dwarf.
All things must come to an end and as White Dwarf moved into its 50s (in 1984) there was a perceptible dip in the imaginative temperature. Don't get me wrong: there were still some cracking scenarios to be published and most issues had a solid article or two, but it stopped being groundbreaking. The RPG companies were getting into gear supporting their own products with increasingly thoughtful modules and campaign settings. There was just less for a magazine like White Dwarf to do. Perhaps also, less consensus in the hobby over who it was primarily for. Ultimately, White Dwarf would turn into a showcase for Games Workshop's own products, but that was still a few years down the line. There was life in the old dog yet.
One promising sign of continuing relevancy was a trend for scenarios for a new RPG: Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, now a mighty industry behemoth but then a quirky outlier in the gaming constellation, pitching a roleplaying experience of dread, futility and, ultimately, madness and death in the world of H P Lovecraft's distinctive American Gothic.
Call Of Cthulhu had been reviewed back in White Dwarf 32 (1982), with reviewer Ian Bailey clearly as impressed by the game as he was perplexed by how to make use of it (a common response at the time). He also observed that the game was "U.S. orientated and consequently any Keeper ... who wants to set his game in the UK will have a lot of research to do."
The original Call Of Cthulhu RPG (the best cover too) and the White Dwarf issue that reviewed it - along with an excerpt from Ian Bailey's review
Of course, since this was the Golden Age Of White Dwarf, it only took 10 issues for hobby maestro Marcus L Rowland to appear in the magazine, offering 'Cthulhu Now! - Call of Cthulhu in the 1980s.' The article grounds itself in an early '80s setting with an illustration of a punk studying a Job Centre noticeboard while a tentacled gribbly writhes up behind him!
A follow-on article offered three contemporary scenarios: Dial 'H' for Horror, Trail of the Loathsome Slime, and Cthulhu Now!
This opened the floodgates for White Dwarf contributors to submit a range of Call of Cthulhu material, including Cthulhu in space (The Last Log, by Jon Sutherland, Steve Williams and Tim Hall, from issue 56 in 1984) as well as Cthulhu in rural 1930s England (The Watchers of Walberswick by Jon Sutherland, from issue 50 in 1984) and Cthulhu in British Mandate Palestine (The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah by Steve Williams and Jon Sutherland, from issue 60 in 1984) . You'll notice Sutherland's name recurring? He was quite prolific in 1984!
These early scenarios are typical for White Dwarf: they are concise but erudite, with a close attention to period and setting; they are thoughtful affairs, far removed from the pulpy excesses of Chaosium's own globetrotting campaign packs (like the epic Masks of Nyarlathotep, also from 1984 and closer in tone to a Bond movie than a Lovecraft story - a really good Bond movie spliced with Indiana Jones but pretty far from Lovecraft's cerebral interests). I suppose Jon Sutherland's efforts were attempts to take Call Of Cthulhu by the horns and deliver a narrative experience that feels like it really could be a horror short story by Lovecraft himself: very low-key but also, whatever their ostensible setting, very British.
All this preamble is the context for me blowing the dust off White Dwarf #60 to run Sutherland's The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah on a group of three players over two evening sessions. Why pick this scenario? Well, it was used as the final scenario in the 1984 Games Day official Call of Cthulhu Competition and the introduction boasts that it provides "an interesting one-off session or addition to an existing campaign" - which sounds ideal for my needs.
Next, the question of which rules set to use? That might sound odd, but post-CoC rules have proliferated recently and my respect for Sandy Peterson's imaginative achievement with Call of Cthulhu is only matched by my distaste for CoC's rules themselves, which are Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system, with the addition of a diminishing Sanity (SAN) stat that spirals down to nothing as the Elder Nasties emerge. Lots of skills expressed as percentages, professions defined by skills and a lumbering combat system that manages to simultaneously make player characters too flimsy (any Mythos monster will squish them) and too tough (you have to shoot or stab someone several times before they fall down).
The two contenders to replace CoC are Paul Baldowski's The Cthulhu Hack and Joseph D Salvador's Eldritch Tales.
You can find both on drivethrurpg, but Cthulhu Hack is also available from the nice people at Zatu
I've written about Baldowski's Cthulhu Hack before and, like most Hack games, it's great for pick-up-and-play. There are only two problems. One is that it tends more towards the pulpy action-adventure side of the CoC congregation and the other thing is that its Hack-derived mechanics don't greatly resemble classic CoC at all; both are problems for adapting the reserved tone and low-key assumptions of Sutherland's CoC scenarios.
No, Salvador's game is the one I choose for this. For those who don't know it, it bills itself as Lovecraftian White Box Roleplaying. This means it takes the bare rules and conventions of Original D&D, especially the iteration known as White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game by Charlie Mason. Now, I fell in love with White Box when I attempted a long D&D-style campaign during 2020's Lockdown, so I'm excited by this.
Mason's White Box is free (FREE!) on drivethruprg but a physical copy is stupidly cheap on Amazon too
Eldritch Tales is a beautifully presented indie RPG product with evocative (and pleasingly amateur-style) art, fantastic layout, a delightful overview of the Lovecraftian milieu and careful explication of the (essentially simple) rules. Only the presence of a much-needed index would complete my bliss! The game invites you to create characters by rolling 3d6 for the classic six characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, etc.). Non-combat 'Feats' are attempted by rolling a d6 and you succeed on a 6 if your relevant characteristic is low (6 or less), on a 5-6 with ordinary characteristics and on a 4-6 of your relevant characteristic is 15+. Having a particular skill either adds +1 or +2 to the roll or lets you roll twice, choosing the best score - or sometimes both. So much better than faffing around with percentage dice.
There are four character classes: Antiquarians, Combatants, Opportunists and Socialites. Within your broad class, you also roll or choose an Occupation that might give you particular skills, funds or possessions. Your Character Class gives you a d6 Hit points at first level (d6+1 for those hardy Combatants). Most weapons do a d6 damage (d6-1 for a thrown knife, d6+2 for a shotgun). Yes, every exchange of violence is potentially life-ending, especially as going up a level usually adds just +1 to your Hit Points. The levels only go up to 6th by the way. I think if your investigator gets to 6th level (with usually 3d6+1 HP), you should interpret that as the universe telling you not to push your luck any further.
Insanity is a score that goes up during nerve-wracking encounters. If it ever gets to the level of half your Wisdom you gain a permanent insanity and if it ever matches your Wisdom you become a gibbering NPC. There are short-term shocks for people who fumble their Insanity saving throws (roughly 10% of the time) or gain 3 Insanity in one go (not that uncommon either once gibbous entities come calling).
Two nice features of Eldritch Tales are the tables to roll up your Contacts (you have quite a few of these) and the table to roll up your Character Relationships. There are 20 of these suggestions, ranging from 'You are in love with another character (or their spouse or sibling)' through to 'You and another character witnessed something astounding.' These are so helpful for turning a bunch of numbers on paper into a team of investigators ready to risk life and sanity to investigate eldritch mysteries together.
Past that point, Eldritch Tales is old-skool D&D: you roll saving throws and roll to hit Armour Class, there are familiar spells and monsters from the Mythos, you gain experience points from defeating the monsters or solving mysteries, you go up levels.
The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah by Jon Sutherland
The scenario kicks off in Jerusalem in the 1920s, a time when the Palestine Mandate was overseen by the British Empire. It's a fantastic setting to launch any story - so good in fact that Kenneth Branagh (clearly also a fan of '80s White Dwarf) stole the idea to begin his recent film of Murder On The Orient Express.
The PCs are Percy Goodfeather, a Gentleman Socialite who is searching for his vanished sister Darcy. He brings with him his university friend Howard Harris, an Australian Occultist Antiquarian: the two bonded when another friend disappeared, never to be seen again, during one of Howie's rituals in the college rooms. Percy's largesse helps fund Howie's growing drug addiction. They have been brought to Palestine by Joe Birdwell, an Opportunist Outdoorsman who knows the region and its peoples. Birdwell is secretly in love with Darcy Goodfeather, but he knew her as Dahlila de Gul, a torch singer and medium; he was an enthusiastic participant in her demimonde orgies until her strange disappearance. He has tracked her to Jerusalem, but not told Percy of his sister's double life.
What's Going On?
Actually, none of this is in Sutherland's scenario; these are incidents derived from Eldritch Tales' table of relationships and a few Tarot card draws to help brainstorm a plot. But I can tie it together
Start With Action
The scenario starts with the PCs browsing a museum in Jerusalem when they are approached by a shifty Turkish gentleman named Lakey who wants them to take on a job for his boss, a businessman named Lotto who owns the Domino Club and is obsessed with antiquities. This is a run-of-the-mill CoC plot hook and the two NPCs are a delightful hommage to Peter Lorre's Ugarte and Sydney Greenstreet's Ferrari from Casablanca (1942).
The sweaty grifter and the intimidating black marketeer
Except that being led by the hand by a bunch of NPCs to a patron who explains why they have to go to a dig site in the Judean Mountains and chivvy along an archaeologist called Foster who has promised to bring back treasures for Lotto but has so far turned up nothing ... well, that's a slow start my friends.
So instead we have Joe Birdwell see Darcy pass by in the street - and he jumps out of the window to give chase. Darcy is being stalked by dangerous looking Bedouins but when Joe reaches her she reacts without recognition. One of the Bedouins fires a gun at Darcy, but Joe is hit and Darcy takes off in a car while the street erupts in confusion. Percy and Howie arrive to find an Arab doctor treating Joe and warning them that the Bedouins were tribesmen or a cult called Pachalim (made up name but it'll fly) and very dangerous customers.
A Side Plot Develops
The PCs are supposed to take the job from Lotto and journey to the dig site at Iphtah, but my ad libbed side plot has taken over the story. Joe goes to find out more about the Pachalim from a contact - an Arab businesswoman nicknamed 'the Ibis' (for her pronounced nose). This vociferous widow with her melodramatic flights of insulting rhetoric quickly becomes one of my most beloved NPCs! Joe parries and feints and handles her beautifully and ends up shadowing a pair of Pachalim goons as they invade the seedy guest house where Darcy is staying. Joe gets knocked out when he tries to intervene but, waking as a prisoner of the Pachalim, learns that they are trying to stop 'the Forgotten' (almansiayn) from carrying out a ritual. Yup, they're the good guys. Joe is released, doped up with hashish, and stumbles home to the Domino Club.
Percy and Howie have been pulling their own contacts, find out a lot about Foster and discover that the local gangs that Lakey buys drugs from have acquired new weapons in the form of Rot spells that do horrific things to their victims.
When the three PCs visit Darcy's guesthouse the next morning, they find Darcy has moved on, but one of the Pachalim is there, dead from a Rot spell, and clues point to Iphtah where Prof. Foster is digging. Yes, this is me trying to re-direct things because this side plot has taken up the evening and we haven't even arrived at the location of the actual scenario.
Journey To Iphtah
The main scenario takes place at the dig site at Iphtah, where Prof. Foster is going mad. The Professor is using opium to keep the Yithians out of his head, but he's run out of drugs and thinks that Lakey (his supplier) is holding out on him. The PCs get to snoop around the site, spy on the erratic Foster and realise strange things are afoot, but this is a programmed scenario where the PCs have to be onlookers to certain events and no amount of roleplaying or researching will speed them up.
In the middle of the night, Foster murders Lakey to get at the drugs, then overdoses himself. The PCs manage to stop the truck escaping with Lakey's corpse by shooting out a tyre. They are left at the dig site with no Lakey, no Professor but a mysterious red stone - the Bleeding Stone of Iphtah.
This is where it gets creepy, because a bunch of Dimensional Shamblers show up if anyone tries to remove the Stone from the site without performing the ritual.
I hide the Shambles in an eerie dust cloud (for extra creeps) and use them as silent sentinels who murder the Arab labourers to establish their monster bona fides but otherwise leave the PCs to explore.
There's a buried shrine to be found and opened and the Stone has to be 'bled' inside a pit to power up the ritual and then ... err .. and then ... ah, well, that's about it really. The PCs are free to leave.
Perhaps suspecting that things could turn out rather anticlimactic, Jon Sutherland suggests a raid by snooping Bedouins and I've already set up the Pachalim for exactly this sort of work. The PCs end up stuck in the shrine with the Pachalim outside with rifles in a tense standoff. Then Howie the Antipodean Antiquarian leads the charge, shoots the Pachalim sheikh dead, but is riddled with bullets himself. Percy and Joe shoot their way to safety and the Shamblers disembowel the fleeing Pachalim.
Percy and Joe get to leave the site, supervised by the silent Shamblers.
And that's, kind of, where it ends. The scenario doesn't make it clear just how the ending is supposed to go down. My players decide to return the Stone to Lotto and continue their pursuit of Darcy. They are unaware of the role they have played in facilitating the arrival of the Yithians by performing the ritual.
Evaluating the Scenario and Eldritch Tales
The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah is a rather slight affair. In fact, all of Jon Sutherland's 1984 scenarios are oddly muted. I think they were written in deliberate contrast to the gangbusters style of American CoC material, to be atmospheric, unsettling and cryptic, rather than kinetic, deadly and cosmic in scope. In all of them, the Mythos is a marginal force, largely operating off stage. The PCs spend most of their time exploring a realistic but evocative location, then at the very end there's a Mythos intrusion.
The central problem is that there's no way for the PCs to understand the significance of what's been going on or their role in it. Now, in an ongoing campaign this is acceptable - further down the line, the PCs might uncover information which casts a revelatory light on the goings-on at Iphtah and realise that, by performing the ritual, they brought the Yithian-apocalypse a dread step closer. They might then understand why Foster was taking drugs and why the Shamblers appeared to stop them leaving with an un-bled Stone.
But as things stand, there's no way to learn any of this - and this was a scenario, you will recall, billed as "an interesting one-off session or addition to an existing campaign." One wonders what the contestants at Games Day '84 made of it.
I know some people will retort that Lovecraftian roleplaying is supposed to be mysterious and it's a good thing, not a bad thing, if a scenario leaves players puzzled and disquieted. Yes, that's true, I suppose, but my taste is more for a scenario that places the players in positions of at least partial knowledge. Too much of Iphtah was meaningful only for the GM, even with my improvisations.
But these are minor gripes and I should perhaps essay another Sutherland scenario - perhaps the well-received Watchers At Walberswick - before forming a judgement on his output.
Eldritch Tales served us very well and is now my go-to RPG rules set for Coc material. I was pretty generous in handing out experience points for roleplaying (and why not? the roleplaying was stellar!) and of the two characters who survived, Percy reached second level (losing some Insanity and gaining that precious extra Hit Point) with Joe just missing his level-up.
I'd love to dust off a larger campaign pack - perhaps Shadows of Yog-Sothoth - to run using Eldritch Tales. However, I became very aware of how flimsy Eldritch Tales PCs are compared to CoC: every gunshot or knife wound is potentially lethal. Perhaps swashbuckling Cthulhu Hack would be a better fit for those pulp-y Chaosium campaigns?
But for the studious and low-key Call Of Cthulhu scenarios that White Dwarf and Jon Sutherland were publishing in the mid-1980s, Eldritch Tales is ideal.
Do we really need another OSR fantasy roleplaying game? I mean, how many stripped-back, quirky, nostalgic homages to the golden age of tabletop RPGs (i.e. the early 1980s) can the market bear?
Oh, all right then. Maybe just one more...
Greg Saunders is the author of Warlock! and his game just oozes with love for a distinctively odd, low-key and punk-rock approach to fantasy storytelling. This isn't a high fantasy game of noble heroes on epic quests; no, it's a low-fantasy game of hoodlums with bad breath taking on missions of dubious morality for payment in pennies and stale crusts. Greg has nicely matched his minimalist rules set with striking B&W art (notably by Mustafa Bekir) that takes its inspiration from the fanzines and comic styles of the '80s, especially the Fighting Fantasy book series.
This would make Warlock! worth purchasing just as a collector's piece - the new 'Traitor's Edition' is on drivethrurpg and the cover art is wonderful.
Beyond the aesthetics, Warlock! is worth picking up for another reason: it's a really good system with a distinctive design, rather than a now-typical retroclone of OD&D. Don't get me wrong: I love OD&D retroclones. I've posted before about my delight in Charlie Mason's White Box and Michael Thomas' BlueHolme games. But it's nice to see a game that doesn't start with 6 characteristics rolled on 3d6 and then offer a bunch of leveled character classes. Best Left Buried is a game that offers a novel (and rather subversive) take on old-skool dungeon-crawling by walking away from D&D and taking inspiration instead from Call Of Cthulhu's deteriorating Sanity mechanic. Warlock! does something similar, but its template seems to be Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's early-Renaissance world with its focus on skills and progression through professions, rather than monolithic character classes but a slightly less gonzo and more mystical theme, perhaps inspired by Dragon Warriors.
Enough context. Let's jump in.
The Alternative to Hit Points
You create your Warlock! character by rolling just two abilities: your Luck (d6+7) and Stamina (2d6+12). Stamina ticks down as you are injured - so it's Hit Points, right? Ah, but you get all your Stamina back after a sleep and half of it back after a short rest. This isn't like D&D, where your HP dwindles inexorably. If you survive a fight in Warlock!, you'll be right as rain half an hour later.
The complication is Critical Hits. If you get knocked below zero Stamina, you pick up lasting injuries called Critical Effects and these don't go away so quickly. So even though you keep recovering your Stamina, the accumulation of Criticals can make your character non-functional quite quickly - and the worst Criticals will kill you outright.
There's a set of entertaining Critical Hit Tables based around three weapon types (slicing, stabbing, bashing) and a fourth one for fire or magic ('blasting'). You make a simple d6 roll and add your negative Stamina to it, producing results that range from the icky ('That was my foot! Can only hobble for 1d6 days! Toes loose in boot!') to the gruesome ('Right in the kidney! Peeing blood! All tests at -5 penalty for 1d6 days') and a result of 10+ means you die (horribly).
Another implication of this is that your Stamina increases over time, but only slightly. No one is cutting about with 100 Stamina. You'll be lucky if you ever get above 30. This is ideal for low-fantasy or grimdark gaming where everyone feels vulnerable all the time and every fight is a proposition you have to think twice about.
Welcome to your Glamorous Career
No 3d6 characterstics in Warlock! No Strength or Intelligence or Charisma. Instead, you have a list of 32 skills. Ten start at 6, ten at 5 and the other twelve all start at 4. The core mechanic in the game is a d20 roll, adding your skill or your Luck: if you get a result of 20+ you succeed; with an opposed test, the opponents both roll and the highest result wins.
You adjust these skills based on your career. There are 24 basic careers and you roll four of them randomly and pick the one that appeals. Yes, I suppose you could dispense with the rolling and just pick, but this sort of larky roll-to-see-who-you-are fits the theme of Warlock!, which seems to be that you are a rabble of losers, chancers and grifters rather than epic heroes. Careers like grave robber, political agitator, beggar and rat catcher also lock players into the underbelly of a late-medieval world.
Your career gives you five particular skills you can immediately increase by 10 levels. These skills have some maximums (10 or 12) - once again, nobody gets to be too competent in Warlock!
You also have a Career Skill which matches your career and you use it to do stuff that people with your career ought to be good at. It starts at the level of the lowest of the five skills your career mandates. Experience points (usually 1-3 for an adventure) buy increases to skills in a straightforward way, but you can only improve your career skills. Improving your lowest skill will also improve your overall Career Skill and every time that goes up you add +1 to your Stamina.
It gets a bit confusing talking about your five career skills and you overall Career Skill (with Capitals). Some more distinctive terminology is needed. However, in play it won't matter. If your career is Rat Catcher, you won't talk about your Career Skill, you'll refer to your Rat Catcher skill.
You can change careers easily enough (it costs 5 experience points) and start advancing a new set of skills - but you keep your old Career Skill at whatever level you got it to. Once you've been in two careers and promoted three skills to 10+ you are eligible for an Advanced Career where skills can be promoted to 14 or 16.
The Advanced Careers are almost heroic in stature compared to the scum and villainy going on in the basic careers. For example, a Basic Footpad starts with 'a nasty club, stained with blood, a cloak with hood, and a sack for your gains and a few pretty trinkets which make you feel special and aren't worth pawning.' What a champion, right? But an Advanced Class like the Bravo gets 'a fine arming sword, flashy clothes and a jaunty hat.' Walking tall!
As well as your starting equipment, each career has a little table for generating background details. The tone is often funny, sometimes romantic but always downbeat. For example, our poor Grave Robber might have dug up his own mother ('A sad day!') and is haunted by the ghost of his lover ('who you buried and robbed').
Reasons Not to get into a Fight
Warlock! combat is simple, with combatants moving between abstract ranges (close, near, faraway, distant) and melee attacks being opposed skill tests, with the attacker gaining a +5 bonus to their skill.
Because it's an opposed test, this means that if your opponent rolls higher, you take damage during your own attack. Then they get their attack (with that +5 bonus) so there's a good chance you'll take damage then too. If someone rolls a score that's three times their opponent, that's a Mighty Strike for double damage.
One implication is that fighting a tough opponent is a mug's game. Any time you attack, there is a strong chance your opponent will hurt you instead; then they get to do their attack (and nasty monsters attack several times).
Ranged attacks are a safer option: they're not opposed tests, so if you fail your roll you just miss and that's that!
I notice the rules allow combatants to retreat from fights without penalty - none of that 'attack of opportunity' nonsense to punish you for running away - so this is a game that rewards players for valorous discretion and explicitly instructs NPCs to pull out of a fight before their Stamina approaches zero.
Armour reduces incoming damage, either by d3 (light), d6 (medium, e.g. mail) or 2d6 (heavy, e.g. plate). Shields increase the effectiveness of armour by one step (so adding a shield to light armour would give you d6 damage reduction instead of d3) and confer penalties on ranged attacks against you.
A nice distinction is between 'casual' and 'martial' arms and armour. The casual stuff you can wander round town wearing: light armour, a club, perhaps a short sword. Martial stuff like mail armour and two-handed swords will send peasants fleeing, cause shopkeepers to bar their doors and bring the constables running.
Magic and other Stuff you can Steal
Anyone can cast spells (a nod to Runequest, I think) but only two classes let you increase the Incantation skill you need to do this: the Priest and the Wizard's Apprentice. You pay the casting cost in Stamina whether you succeed in the test or not, so non-specialists won't enjoy mucking about with spells, especially as miscast spells can backfire, with results that can be disquieting (two small horns grow out of your head) or deadly (blasted across the room for 2d6 damage).
Another nice touch is that spells are physical things: they're written on scrolls or amulets. This means they can be copied, vandalised or stolen. Searching out new spells and finding ways to earn or swindle them from other casters is the preoccupation of magic-users. Once again, a downbeat world emerges from the rules.
Money is slightly abstracted. You have pennies, silver coins and gold coins. All characters start with 2d6 silver. Commoner items cost d6 pennies, middle-class items cost d6 silver and noble/luxury items cost d6 gold. Adding to the quality or workmanship increases the cost by 1d6 or 2d6 and metal weapons/armour always add 1d6 (for poor quality) or 2d6 (good quality) to the base cost.
This means you don't need a price list, just a notion of the class bracket an item or service belongs to. The price isn't fixed, representing the vagaries of supply and demand. Buying a cudgel costs 1d6 pennies, a beautifully carved cudgel costs 2d6 pennies; a sword is 2d6 or 3d6 silver; mail armour is 2d6 or 3d6 gold.
The World and Stuff You Can Run Away From
The bestiary includes standard fantasy critters, though the presence of Ratmen makes me suspect Warhammer's influence again. The Stat Block is pretty simple: how many actions does it get, what weapon skill, how much damage, armour type and Stamina. Ratmen with a single action, 10 Stamina, light armour and a weapon skill of 4 won't detain you for long; a dragon with 5 actions per round, heavy armour, Stamina 62 and an attack skill of 11, dealing 3d6+2 damage will be rather overwhelming but still on a human scale. There are no monsters with Stamina into triple figures, attack skills in the mid-teens or damage output more than twice what a player character could muster.
Final Thoughts on Warlock!
Warlock! is note perfect as a stripped-down low-fantasy RPG that you can pick up and play. The setting of 'the Kingdom' is reminiscent of Warhammer's Empire, without the distracting presence of Chaos: Greg Saunders clearly prefers BBEGs with more interesting (i.e. human) motives.
If you don't want Warlock!'s setting, then it's a supremely adaptable system. For example, I used to run a campaign using The One Ring RPG where the PCs were hobbits living in Bree, having low-key adventures: everyday tales of country folk. However, TOR is a heroic RPG, so characters quickly progress into being rather overpowered warriors, despite the scenario themes of source fresh eels or judging a village choral competition. Warlock! might actually be a much better system for a rustic campaign in Middle Earth, with just a few tweaks to skills and careers and a Corruption mechanic bolted on.
The Traitor Edition of Warlock! is a handsome-looking book, but a few typos and syntactical infelicities have made it through the proof-reading. If you buy on DTRPG, note that the PDF version is fully updated but the physical version has some uncorrected errors. In particular, it still has the rules for the Career Skill from the old edition - the updated rule is that Career is always matched to your lowest career-based skill.
I was a bit surprised that there are no Critical Hit tables specifically for monsters. I spoke to Greg Saunders who defended keeping tables to the minimum necessary, saying "Warlock is in the OSR style - minimal rules relying on lots of interpretation by the GM."
I'm all for freewheeling, but tables can be part of the gonzo charm of OSR, so (with respect to Mr Saunders, who would do this sort of thing much better) here are a couple more Crit Tables for the two most common monster attack types:
To help me get into Greg Saunders' headspace with Warlock!, I picked up Three's Company, a book of three ready-to-play adventures available on drivethrurpg.
The first scenario is Ghosts of Hollyford. The PCs arrive at a community in the wilderness, best with political difficulties; they are invited to track down and kill a monster that wiped out a gang of outlaws, in return for looting the outlaws' treasure. The monster puts up a challenging battle, but the pleasure here is in the conflicting agendas of the NPCs (and possibly conflicts among the PCs who could end up serving opposed causes) and the elegiac atmosphere as the adventurers explore a ruined city whose inhabitants have become the mysterious 'ghosts' of the forest.
Vice and Villainy in Verminham is a bar room brawl, raised to a level of feverish confusion. Once again there are several well-motivated factions converging on a notorious gambling hell to make off with a valued ledger. The scenario offers maps and NPC profiles and a rough timeline, but could play out in many different ways, depending on who the PCs decide to work for and how they go about their mission.
Red Night in Fair Marenesse is the most 'high fantasy' of the set. The PCs are recruited by a merchant to steal back some goods from local smugglers and get the contraband into the city. Naturally, things are not as they seem. This is another scenario that could go off in wildly different direction, perhaps as a detective-style murder investigation, perhaps as an espionage-style theft or a big gangster battle. The BBEG that shows up at the end introduces themes of overt supernatural horror.
All three scenarios have excellent NPC profiles, imaginative tables to assign motivations for PCs to take part and 'wandering monster' tables that make overland journeys into very thoughtful affairs. These tables rarely involve monsters, but deliver theme in spades. In fact, all three settings are vividly realised - especially the limestone market at Fair Marenesse, but the Bloated Boar tavern in Verminham and the ruined city of Golethas Arzul are memorable locations too.
In fact, the scenarios work as a fantastic calling-card for Greg Saunder's 'Kingdom' setting, touching upon distinctive cults and criminal gangs as well as the fallout of the civil war against the Traitor mentioned in the main rulebook. It isn't necessary to use that setting to run these scenarios, but they certainly make you more curious about this fantasy world.
If I were to criticise, it would only be for the lack of maps. Warlock! tends towards the theatre-of-the-mind end of the gaming spectrum, but lots of OSR fans love using miniatures and floorplans. The Bloated Boar gets a set of floorplans, but the smugglers' base at Seastead doesn't. The forests around Hollyford would benefit from a map to help orientate the various journeys involved in that scenario.
But never mind that. These are three very thoughtful scenarios, each with a sharply realised setting and covering a range of themes. Hollyford evokes the mysterious concept of Waldeinsamkeit (a German word with no direct translation into English which means 'the feeling of being alone in the woods') and an insight into the fragility of a pioneer settlement in lands usurped from a declining, but not yet vanished, elder race. Verminham is a high-spirited and cheerfully amoral romp, but Red Night offers a memorable conclusion that hints at a deeper supernatural menace behind the petty gangsterism and greed that characterises the world of Warlock!
A Book of Ghosts by Jon Wright is a collection of eight modern ghost stories with an unusual framing device. The stories are presented as the unpublished manuscript of a once-successful writer who has composed these tales, claiming they are based on real life events. Between each story an email exchange unfolds between the writer and his agent, Joan Mailer, who isn’t impressed with this new direction in her client’s writing. At first, these emails seem like interruptions, but as the collection unfolds they take on an increasingly sinister significance
A Book of Ghosts is available on Amazon as paperback and Kindle e-book
The stories themselves are an imaginative set. All are rooted in British locales, especially small rural villages in Yorkshire, Scotland, Devon and elsewhere, although one is set in an unnamed Midlands city. The protagonists are the sceptical and diffident middle class types of the ghost story genre, unsure of how to process the supernatural within their rather staid but comfortable frame of reference. If a single theme runs through it is ‘Ambiguity’ because the stories often conclude abruptly, leaving events unexplained and contradictions unresolved.
There is one exception in the fifth story, ‘The Four Horseman,’ which features four working class friends and the failing football club they support. This is the one story with an entirely urban setting and in which the ghost is unambiguously present. This is the least satisfying of the set, perhaps because its rather light-hearted and sentimental treatment of ghosts is so at odd with the rest of the stories.
The first tale ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’ is set on the wintry Yorkshire Moors where an American hiker finds herself led astray by the mysterious flickering lights. There’s a surprising time-jump in the narrative that sets the main storyline in a tragic but deeply mysterious perspective. The final situation can be interpreted in many ways: are the lights malevolent spirits or warnings? is the menace from supernatural forces or an all-too-human killer? The narrative drops this conundrum in the reader’s lap: I was reminded of John Fowles’ A Maggot’ (1985) which offers several possible ways of explaining the disappearance of a part crossing Exmoor in the 1730s, subverting each wild hypothesis in turn and proposing nothing certain.
‘The Drummer in the Band’ is the most conventional ghost story in the set and the one that comes closest to horror. The narrator looks back on the punk band he was in during his youth and reflects on the disappearance of their friend and drummer Noel. The band splits and the narrator moves into a conventional career but reconnects with Noel years later, apparently by chance, and listens to his old friend’s account of the night of terror he endured in the old Rectory where he was staying.
The story of this night is simply spellbinding and the strongest piece of writing in the set. I’m reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Red Room (1894) in which the protagonist must spend the night in a haunted room and the encroaching darkness because a source of existential terror. This story captures that menace while leaving all other interpretations open: Noel was on drugs, was having a breakdown, was menaced by a spectre, was deranged by repressed grief. The denouement is no less ambiguous but chillingly effective. By far the scariest story in the collection.
‘The View Across The Sea Loch’ is a very different proposition. A young father buys a painting on a Hebridean holiday but in old age becomes fascinated with the increasingly eerie details that emerge from it. The description of the painting, its curious secrets and the sense of doomed narrative that develops inside its frame is really well-constructed. The narrator’s position – studying the painting in the toilet, during nocturnal visits to ease his prostate – grounds the story in a delightfully humdrum setting. What is finally revealed is spectrally imprecise yet starkly troubling. This story is a masterful exercise in slow-burning anxiety.
‘Back To School’ strives for a similar effect, though I think less successfully. A middle-aged widow holidays in a North Devon village where she is mistaken for a former pupil at the now-closed school. The batty old ex-teacher regales her with a sinister story, implying she murdered a young colleague. Subtle supernatural details intrude, but later the whole event seems to be imaginary, more like a vision or perhaps a strange case of possession. The narrative ends abruptly, but the lack of explanation here is not pregnant with possibilities, as it was with ‘Will-O-The-Wisp,’ but feels instead like the abandonment of a story that still had another twist or two left.
‘The Four Horseman’ comes next. Even though it is tonally at odds with everything else in the collection, it works well placed next to ‘Back To School’ because it delivers a clear and unambiguous ending. This is quite important because the next story, ‘The Old Path,’ repeats the formula of ‘Back To School’ and the effect is no more successful. Here, an arrogant social scientist turns his evening walk home into an experiment on fellow-walkers by creating a new path through a dense copse, to see if other people use it in response to behavioural cues. As the seasons turn to winter and the evenings darken, the narrator remains unaware of the growing menace in his journey. Finally, he finds himself pursued by a sinister force and trapped in a sea of mud. Again, the story ends abruptly: normal life is restored, without explanation or reflection, and the narrative feels aborted rather than resolved.
No such criticisms apply to ‘Walking The Dog’ which vies with ‘The Drummer In The Band’ for star position in this collection, albeit for very different reasons. An elderly dog-walker encounters a stranger on his route. The narrator is a type made familiar by this collection: staid in habits, rather smug, inclined to read too much into things. Nothing of moment occurs on each meeting – the two men exchange banal pleasantries – yet on each occasion the sense of strain grows, eventually becoming outright menace. At the outset the narrator reveals that he believes the other man to be a ghost; only at the very end does anything justify this. The closing coda contains a startling detail that sends you back to the two men’s parting, trying to work out which was the ghost all along.
‘Walking The Dog’ would probably nudge ‘Drummer’ out of top position, except for its positioning right after ‘Old Path’ which it resembles too closely: both recount journeys along a rustic path as the season changes, both with a similarly supercilious narrator. ‘Walking The Dog’ is the better story by a mile, but its strengths are obscured by being placed alongside its weaker, but structurally similar, predecessor.
After ‘Walking The Dog’ the final story, ‘Lansdowne Road,’ would have its work cut out for it. It’s a fine tale of premonition and the unfolding of fate over an imagined lifetime. It lacks the thematic punch of the earlier tales; although many scenes are sharply realised, it exists in the shadow of the preceding story. Most readers will come away misremembering ‘Walking The Dog’ as the climax of the set.
Discussion of sequencing needs to consider the framing device of the author’s correspondence with literary agent Joan Mailer. At first, Mailer is the star of this exchange with an outrageously flamboyant turn of phrase, all easy bonhomie and complacent privilege. As the author’s mental state deteriorates, Mailer becomes concerned, then frightened. The final story, ‘The Brocken Spectre’ which was mentioned back in ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’ has been redacted from the collection and we are left instead with a vanished author and, perhaps, vanished Mailer too. It’s an artful device that moves the sense of dread out of the literary world and into the real world of author and publisher. I’m not sure whether the closing lines – a menacing expression from the Spectre itself, directed at the reader? – are really warranted. The author’s email account revealed as unavailable and unresponsive is as final a message from the grave as you could wish for.
There’s a lot to enjoy in A Book Of Ghosts and Jon Wright’s steadfast commitment to ambiguity would warm M.R. James’ dusty heart. I’m not convinced that ‘The Four Horsemen’ really belongs in this set and there are a couple of stories that perhaps need a bit longer ‘in the oven’ so that satisfying resolutions can be found for them. I wonder at the decision to position ‘Lansdowne Road’ as the final tale. Yes, it features death, but the collection’s theme is more evident in ‘Walking The Dog’ and it is that story which makes explicit the device of narrator and ghost swapping places. I like using iTunes to re-sequence my music albums and I wish Kindle would let me move ‘Walking The Dog’ to the end, to round off the collection in a truly unsettling way.
The only other improvement to A Book Of Ghosts would be a bit more effort on presentation: a contents page is a really important tool for finding your way around e-books and the story titles could do with standing out a bit more (larger typeface, emboldened, etc); it would be nice to get an author bio. The stark text simply drops you into the first email then rattles on to the end without a break, after which blank pages and silence. Yes, it fits thematically with what the text is aiming for, but it's a barrier to enjoying the book in other ways.
There: I set out to write a few hundred words reviewing A Book Of Ghosts and I’ve done more than twice that: a clear testimony to the power of this collection of deeply thought-provoking ghost stories.
I'm not sure why I backed Best Left Buried on Kickstarter in 2020. I mean, I really like OSR roleplaying games, but I thought I'd found my sweet spot with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (for that old skool D&D itch) and The Black Hack (for everything else). What was I thinking, investing in some oddball dungeoncrawl game? After all, my own players had tired of dungeoncrawling, so who would I even use it with?
Maybe it was the ominous title or maybe it was the faux-amateurish chiaroscuro art. Maybe it's the irresistible blend of sanity-shredding horror and underground skirmishing. Whatever: I pledged. Then I forgot about it until the rulebooks arrived this summer. Then I forgot about them for a good few months. But they teased me from the Shelf Of Shame where I'd consigned them. Yes, I think it was the art that made me start dipping into them. And I was hooked. So I GMed a game with a couple of players. And they loved it!
Yeah. It's the art.
Best Left Buried is produced by SoulMuppet Publishing, a friendly duo of Zach Cox (words) and Ben Brown (art), who describe it as "a fantasy horror game where the monsters are scary and the players are scared."
In the format established by AD&D, there are three (slim) books in the rules set: The Cryptdigger's Guide to Survival (a Player's Handbook), The Doomsayer's Guide to Horror (a DM's Guide) and The Hunter's Guide to Monsters (a Monster Manual). Interior art is all black and white, but there's loads of it; the print is large and friendly to the eye, the paper is heavy and each book is about 100 pages.
Physical copies seem to be sold out but the PDFs are from SoulMuppet or drivethrurpg (and the bundle is £10 at the time of writing)
What you get is a very stripped back RPG. There are just three stats - Brawn, Will and Wits - and you assign +2, +1 and +0 to them. Tests involving rolling 9+ on 2d6, adding your stat bonus. In combat you roll 3d6 and choose two dice to pass the test and the third die is your damage. Damage is deducted from your Vigour (starting at 6 + Brawn) but a roll of 6 on a damage die usually imposes an Injury - roll on the Injury table; it could kill you outright.
If your Vigour hits zero, down you go. Flip a coin. Heads you wake up later with an Injury, tails you die. Yeah: it's that sort of game. The rules advise you to create three characters so that replacements are at hand as they die off. Don't get too attached.
Spawning a new character just became instantaneous with this cute character generator by David Schirduan
The other important stat is Grip, which starts at 4 + Will. You spend Grip to get re-rolls or use magical powers. Awful events will force Will tests which, if failed, cause you to lose Grip. When Grip hits zero you go irrevocably mad, have a heat attack, turn to evil or leave play in some other disturbing way. Unlike Vigour, which is healed by rest, it's very difficult to regain Grip.
Difficult, but not impossible. A player can choose to acquire an Injury or Affliction at some dramatic moment in play. Injuries reset your Grip to 5, Afflictions reset it to 10. Injuries might be temporary or minor (but could kill you outright); Afflictions are mental illnesses, mystical curses or spiritual corruptions that slowly turn your character into a basket-case or a monster: Debilitating Dread forces you to spend more Grip in triggering situations, Man-Eater means you can't heal through resting unless you've eaten human flesh. You get the idea?
This simple little system leads to interesting choices. Do you keep resetting your Grip while your character disintegrates physically and mentally? Or do you stay pristine and avoid using or spending Grip at any cost? As your character gains experience, they get more powerful Advancements (of which, more in a moment) but go madder and badder and more decrepit. When a character dies, a fresh-faced recruit won't have all the crazy skills the old one accumulated, but won't have the burdensome problems either.
Love the art.
Characters can be built from 13 Archetypes. These are your familiar character classes but given a grimdark twist: Believers have a holy mission and Cabalists have numbed themselves with horror already; Freeblades are mercenary warriors but the Everyman is an ordinary fish-out-of-water; Dastards are city-slicker scoundrels and Scholars have forbidden knowledge. You also get a Journeyman Advancement with a cool name like My Shining Armour Gleams or Spirits of the Beyond (or, y'know, just take +1 Brawn or +3 Grip).
Levelling up means earning 8 experience points and converting them into +1 to your Grip and Vigour plus a new Advancement. Four Advancement qualifies you for the Heroic Advancements (available in one of the PDF 'zinis' that detail all the stuff that was wisely left out of the core rules).
How do you earn xp? Well, not from killing monsters. Monsters are to be avoided, fled or outwitted and only fought as a last resort. You get 1 xp from passing a Grip test. You also get xp from the treasure you drag out of the dungeon (sorry, from the crypt). There's a neat system for this too. Each adjective adds or subtracts 1 xp for a treasure: a golden goblet is worth 1 xp, a gleaming golden goblet is worth 2 xp and a set of gleaming golden goblets is worth 3 xp, but a dented golden goblet is worth nothing ('dented' subtracting 1 xp) while a cracked gleaming golden goblet is only worth 1 xp.
That's it. There are rules tweaks for different weapon types. The Doomsayer's Guide has a 'toolbox' of house rules to choose from covering different approaches to healing, initiative, dying etc and those 'zinis' add even more. The rest is taken up with campaign settings, a complete dungeon (sorry, crypt) called Lord Edmund's Barrow and much sound advice for creating crypts (i.e. dungeons) and making the game scary.
Then there are the monsters.
OK, that's ... different
The Hunter's Guide offers templates for the generic monsters of fantasy RPGs, but offers some evocative names (like Cinderbeasts for demons) but then goes on to provide a selection of detailed beasts that are quirky and memorable - like the Lion Hydra above. Monsters have a pretty simple stat block (Armour and Vigour and the three stats are all that usually matter) plus a bunch of Adaptations which are the monster equivalent of the players' Advancements.
There are some very wise features here too. Monsters have Omens, which are the ways their appearance is foreshadowed (like bloodstains, claw marks on the walls, distant howls) - remember the point is not to fight these things? They have Moods that describe their behaviour. They might have a Wind-Up which occurs before they use their powers, tipping observant players off to what's coming. There are tables to generate everything randomly, if that's what you want.
In fact, designing tables seems to be Zach Cox's delight. There are (optional but fun) tables to roll up your starting equipment, your weapons, your old profession, even your name. The emphasis is on hitting the ground running with a new character or monster and then bringing creativity to bear to explain what you've concocted.
The final ingredient in Best Left Buried is your Company.
Best not go there ...
PCs are Cryptdiggers who belong to a Company that loots dungeons (I'm not going to call them crypts so stop trying to make me) as a business enterprise. Outside of the dungeon, the PCs have bosses, camp followers, quartermasters, healers, a complete military camp. You hand over your treasure in exchange for equipment and board. The GM and players are encouraged to develop this Company almost as a character in its own right and, naturally, there are quirky tables to help you do this.
There seem to be two inspirations at work here. One is RPGs like Blades In The Dark that position all the PCs as part of a 'crew' of thieves and ruffians: the crew will outlast individual characters and the players might take responsibility for several different characters within the outfit, choosing which one to roleplay on any particular occasion.
The other is Tyler Sigman's video game Darkest Dungeons which proposes that you manage a team of adventurers to explore the dungeons under a Gothic mansion, managing their unravelling sanity while you recruit new explorers to replace the ones who die, burn out, run away or murder each other.
Best Left Buried encourages you to create vivid and flawed characters who will lead short, but horrifically memorable lives and continuity is ensured by the ongoing drama of the Company for which they all work.
I'm going to be clear up front: I really like this game. I like its simple but flexible rules engine, I like its dark and scrappy aesthetic, I like its RPG philosophy of frail and flawed heroes spending a lot of time running away, I like the corporate roleplaying involved in developing a Company and Camp, I like the left-field imagination at play in the monsters and naming conventions, I like all the silly tables.
This means I can see why you might not like it. Maybe you like tactical combat. Maybe you don't like running away. Maybe you like characters to survive and prosper. Maybe you don't want your PC to die on a coin flip. Maybe you hate silly tables. Those are all fair and reasonable positions to take. They're just not my position.
Actually, I do wonder about dying on a coin flip. To be fair, the Doomsayer's Guide offers alternatives to this. As part of my old White Box campaign I developed some pretty rigorous mechanics for keeping PCs alive while imposing wounds and frailties on them for surviving. I'm not sure players really appreciated it, in the long run. Best Left Buried takes a very different approach: view your PC as a transient figure, a "poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" and reconcile yourself to sudden and unjust death. Continue the story of the Company with a new character. Take a wider view of your role in the evolving story.
There are some flaws in the game and they are presentational, which is odd considering the role art and aesthetic plays in this game's appeal.
There is no index. This is a big problem. If a monster has an Adaptation like Gelatinous Grip, is that in the Hunter's Guide or is it in the Cryptdigger's Survival Guide, because different monster powers are described in both? Where are Wind-Ups explained? Even though there aren't many rules, there are occasions where you want to look one up (or find one of those tables) and there's little help doing this.
Adding to this problem is the way the rules are set out in the first place. There's a conversational approach that introduces concepts in the order that you need them while creating a character or designing a dungeon. That's great for the first read-through but it's terrible for using the rulebook as a reference tool, because weapon stats are in an early chapter (because you need to know about them while equipping your new PC) but combat rules are in a much later chapter.
To make matters worse, when page references are given, some of them are wrong. For example, on p77 we learn that rolling a 6 for damage imposes an Injury and are referred to p39 for more on Injuries. Injuries are actually detailed on p87. When Chapters are referenced, they are referred to by number - but the chapters aren't numbered. It's all very well assuring me that a rule can be found in Chapter 6, but which chapter is chapter six?
Giving powers quirky names is fine, but if you want to look up the power that lets a monster animate the dead and you've forgotten that it's called Corpse-mover you have to read through all the monster Adaptations until you find it. It's an unnecessary problem for what ought to be a pick-up-and-play game that looking something up 'in the moment' adds significant stress to the task of GMing.
Of course, adhesive tags come to the rescue but not everyone wants their RPG books to become adorned with fluttering coloured pennants.
A couple of rules don't seem to work as intended. Dealing an Injury to a monster is fiddly (off to p87 we go to roll on that table) and might kill an important enemy outright. Is that what we want? There's an Adaptation called Unstoppable that means a monster takes an extra d6 damage instead of an Injury - but that's actually worse than most Injuries. Would it be better to declare monsters immune to Injuries, even though that shortchanges players wielding heavy weapons? Or create a separate Injury table for monsters?
Gaining 1xp for passing a Grip test strikes me as the wrong way round. Surely passing the test is its own reward and you should gain 1 xp for failing a Grip test. That would be more in line with the game's destroy-yourself-to-advance ethos.
That art ...
A lot of love has been put into this game and it's a dark, demented and cruel love. There's a broad selection of scenarios for it and Zach kindly recommends a bunch of scenarios you can find online for free. I downloaded Skerples' Tomb of the Serpent King for my first game and that's a brilliant intro dungeon - so good, in fact, that it deserves a review of its own.
OSR fans ought to take a look at Best Left Buried, especially if you can track down a print version. It's a shot in the arm for a dungeoncrawl genre that's rather moribund at the moment. And the art is great.
Try it out. But don't go flipping tails!
Zenopus is so hot right now.
On the back of Zach Howard's well-received 5th edition reimagining of J. Eric Holmes' classic sample dungeon, The Ruined Tower of Zenopus, here's Clovis Kell with Return of Zenopus: The Lower Dungeons, available as PDF from DMs Guild.
You can read my review of Ruined Tower of Zenopus or my retrospective of Holmes' 1977 classic dungeon on this site.
First of all: full disclosure. I've got my own Zenopus sequel (Beneath the Ruined Wizard's Tower) over on drivethrurpg, but mine is for Blueholme/WhiteBox. I'll review Return of Zenopus as a D&D 5e scenario in comparison with Zach's 5e version of the original, not as a contrast with my own retro effort.
What's it all about?
Although Return of Zenopus is pitched as a sort of sequel, with the appearance of strange monsters around Portown suggesting to the worried authorities that the old wizard has returned, it doesn't need to play that way. Kell's dungeon works fine as a simple extension of the Zenopus dungeon and adventurers who cut their teeth on the celebrated first level can move seamlessly into these new levels without any particular hook needed.
Return of Zenopus offers a brief discussion of how these new areas relate to Holmes' original map. First of all, there's a Dungeon Annex which is located off to the east of the site. This is an area that Holmes' formerly described as a tunnel ending in the cemetery. Zach Howard developed this footnote into a tunnel connecting to a chamber where cultists were creating undead. Kell turns this into a two-level 'mini-dungeon' that fleshes out his Zenopus backstory and should contrive to promote PCs to level 2 or even 3 once they complete it.
Then there are two lower dungeon levels underneath the original site. Kell creates a secret door in Room N to allow access to these. The threats down here will put second level PCs to the test and the rewards should promote them to 3rd or 4th level.
What's Zenopus up to?
Kell makes the brave choice of outlining the real history of Zenopus and the reason for his disappearance. Of course, D&D players have been speculating about this for decades. Most gamers, on their first introduction to the Zenopus dungeon, will imagine that old Zenopus found some demonic idol, started worshiping it, opened a gateway to Hell and obliterated himself and his staff. And indeed, this is the explanation Kell goes for. So, no bonus points for surprise but at least newbie players get exactly what they expect from this dungeon.
One nice touch is that the massive idol of Moloch discovered by Zenopus has "huge red quartz gemstones set in the eye sockets." I love this sly nod to David A. Trampier's iconic cover to the 1e Players Handbook.
Tee-hee. Kell writes: "The vast majority of other statues of the era, are missing the gemstones, long ago taken by thieves and temple looters."
The Moloch idol drives Zenopus mad in the prescribed fashion (memory loss, growing obsession with invoking Moloch) and, when he finally completes his rite, the hellfire from the portal blows everybody up. Half a century later, the lizardfolk and some human cultists are back to worshiping the Moloch idol, but down in the lower dungeons Zenopus lingers on as a demented wraith.
Enter, the player characters...
The Dungeon Annex
This is a two level mini-dungeon, linked to the main site by a 300ft tunnel that links to Room P, the room in Holmes' dungeon that featured a couple of ghouls and "a short dirt tunnel which ends blindly under the cemetery."
The first level of the Annex has stairs up to the Portown Cemetery (albeit to a crypt with a padlock on the gate) and various rooms housing anonymous Cultists and the Undead (mostly Ghouls) they have raised. What's well done here is the task of finding the key to the gate down to the second level and the advantage in sparing the Cultist leader who can reveal it.
The second level contains more crypts that give way to caverns and a 7 mile tunnel that exits in the marshes off to the west. The Cultists here are bolstered by Lizardfolk but the iconic Moloch Idol is easy to find and PCs can enjoy themselves prizing out those massive gems from the eye sockets, just like Trampier drew it.
There's a NPC prisoner to rescue from the sacrificial slab (the obligatory Elven maid) but the nasty trolls teased in the backstory don't make an appearance.
This is a perfectly decent mini-dungeon annex for the Zenopus site, expanding the role of the cultists and their undead goons. The Trampier idol is a nice touch. The layout is thoughtful and PCs who scout ahead or interrogate prisoners will be rewarded with tactical advantage. The factions at work here are linked to the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign - a link proposed by Zach Howard that works well here.
On the other hand, there's a lack of dynamic purpose. The Cultists are just Bad Guys and their agenda is Undefined Villainy. It's not clear what they're doing down here, what their plans for Portown are, or what they want from Moloch. Even Selzelia the Elf Maid has hardly any hooks: she gets a detailed personal history but Holmes' female prisoner, Lemunda the Lovely, offered more story potential, as the daughter of a powerful lord in Portown. Selzelia might be a useful ally against the Sahuagin if you plan on following up with Saltmarsh but, as with the hints that the Lizardfolk and Cultist factions could fall out, no clear details are offered about this.
The Lower Levels
Directly beneath the dungeon mapped out by Holmes, Kell proposes two more levels that are "laboratories" created by Zenopus and now haunted by his Wraith. The entrance is a secret door added to Holmes' Crypt (Room N).
The first level takes the party on a linear route, culminating at the lab where Zenopus blew himself up. Hopefully the PCs can fend off the Undead and realise that an innocuous gold coin has future significance. A hidden room beyond reintroduces one of Holmes' most memorable motifs, the talking Brazen Head. This one is rather more prosaic than the mystical oracle in the original: it just has a magic mouth spell on it and can be manipulated to reveal the stairs down.
Downstairs are just two rooms. One has a pair of elegant (but rather easy) riddles that direct players to open a secret door. Beyond is Zenopus, now an angry Wraith, and a big fight for his treasure hoard.
These two levels only account for nine rooms, so anyone hoping the lower levels of the dungeon would be significantly expanded will be disappointed. They are also rather linear, unlike the much more interesting layout of the Annex which rewarded players who used scouting to understand their whereabouts.
As with the Annex, it's a fairly routine slog through mechanical traps and unintelligent monsters (oozes, slimes, grumpy animals, undead). The design leans too heavily on things that damage or kill, which tends to discourage investigation. Players will not feel their curiosity is being rewarded but have no choice but to tamper with things if they want to make progress.
Zenopus is a tough Big Bad, but he's also a disappointment. Partly because, this is Zenopus, yet all he does is rush up to players and start battering them. He has no spells. He's no longer a dreaded enchanter. He's just an undead bozo. Even by the standard of undead bozos, he falls short. In 5th edition, Wraiths are supposed to be undead warlords who command Spectres and have Wights as their shock troops. OK, there are 3 Spectres on the upper level, but there's no sense here that Zenopus is marshaling an undead army in pursuit of a diabolical master plan. He's just standing around, being a Final Boss.
To be fair, Clovis Kell does urge DMs to make more of Zenopus: "This dungeon is not meant to be static, the wraith, Zenopus can be encountered in any area the DM deems appropriate. It would be interesting for Zenopus to encounter the PCs in several short scenarios before the final big battle." The thing is, we really need these interventions written into the structure of the dungeon, rather than left to creative DMs to ad lib. But more of this below.
In conclusion: any good?
Yeah, it's decent. It's not amazing, but it's solid. The question is, is that good enough?
You're paying $2.99 for about 20 pages of material. The maps are hand drawn, but perfectly clear and in line aesthetically with Holmes' famous map from the D&D Basic Set (1977). Layout is consistent. There's some scrappy formatting, a few passages that need correcting, it's not up to the standard of Zach Howard's Ruined Tower but it's clear enough to digest and use.
Some of Holmes' familiar tropes are acknowledged: the Brazen Head, the Catacombs and Cemetery, Zenopus' laboratory, the mandatory female NPC to be rescued. However, others are missing. Holmes follows Gygax's early advice that a third of rooms be empty, to allow players space to explore. He offers players things to investigate that are intriguing or wondrous or simply odd. He uses traps that confuse or inconvenience rather than damage or kill. He strikes a dreamlike tone that's part Dunsany-faerie, part-Lovecraft, part Errol Flynn swashbuckling and he's willing to invent monsters and unusual situations in pursuit of this (being swept away by a river, a giant octopus, a conjuror who runs away, an ape in a cage). In place of this, Clovis Kell offers a densely packed dungeon that threatens life and limb but rarely excites curiosity or wonderment.
If you are a starting group of D&Ders, or perhaps an experienced DM with a party of rookie players, then the classic Zenopus dungeon is a great place to begin, Zach Howard's 5e iteration of it the obvious jumping off point, and Return of Zenopus positions itself to be a direct continuation of that story. Players might notice the shift from exploration to hackn'slash or might not; a good DM will pick up on the hints about NPC factions and deploy Zenopus to better, eerie effect; an inexperienced DM will struggle to offer more than a succession of monsters to kill.
So my advice is, if you're running Ruined Tower for 5e D&D, you could happily follow on with Return of Zenopus, but the DM will need to do some unassisted work on fleshing out the Cultists and giving Zenopus a wider purpose and loftier presence.
If you're an experienced D&Der, you'll be looking for something different from this module: a contribution to Holmes' lore, a development of the Tragedy of Zenopus, some ideas about the ultimate fate of the infamous wizard and an imaginative context to place Holmes' original dungeon in. From this perspective, Return of Zenopus falls flat, offering only the most conventional backstory of arrogant-wizard-gone-bad and diminishing the numinous figure of Zenopus into another anonymous dungeon-dweller, to fall beneath the PCs' enchanted blades.
Artistically, there's a missed opportunity here to do something memorable with the fate of Zenopus. The Annex and Lower Levels fail to capture the atmosphere and playstyle of the original - although that might be due to the centrality of combat in what constitutes a typical 'dungeon adventure' in 5th edition compared to old school Basic D&D.
Without Hope (great title!) is a new addition to the zombie/survivalist genre that takes its cues from TV shows like The Walking Dead (of course) and Netflix's recent Black Summer: the zombies come in sizes and shades of decrepitude, their bites infect but ordinary death leads to reanimation too. That’s a recipe for a bleak situation.
Without Hope is for sale on drivethrurpg (click the image); don't expect to survive till the season finale
Chris Medders and Eric Porcellni (Spanish Inquisition Studios) state their design philosophy at the outset:
Don’t make any mistakes as this game is set up to be as realistic and as deadly as possible. It doesn’t matter how great a character is made or how tough or skilled they are.
Character death is going to be frequent here – as often as not, at the hands of your fellow-PCs – and the game is designed to run hot and fast to a desperate and bloody conclusion…
Zombie stories are compelling. Partly it’s the zombies themselves, which resonate because of our fears about death, disease and the loss of faculty with ageing. They’re shambling metaphors for AIDS, coronavirus, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Then there’s the social psychology. Zombie stories are all riffing on Lord Of The Flies, exploring what happens to people when social structures break down and savagery becomes as valid an option as civilisation.
Did you read William Golding's 1954 novel at school? Watch Peter Brook's 1963 film version, not the 1990 one which misses the point whenever it can
Like John Wyndham’s novels, from Triffids to Midwich Cuckoos, they examine what happens when humanity is knocked off its perch at the top of the food chain. The unthinkable becomes thinkable, whether its mandatory breeding programmes or the massacre of a room full of children.
For some reason, triffids are never scary on the screen. The Village of the Damned (1960) on the other hand...? Oooer...
The best zombie stories are about the revelation of character: the mild-mannered housewife is revealed to possess the ferocity to survive, the inner-city gangster has the internalised moral code to reject barbaric solutions, the respectable vicar turns to theft, torture and murder. They’re also about social contracts: do we want to live in a liberal democracy where freedom threatens our security or will we trade liberty for safety in an autocratic community? Does religion offer potent unifying bonds or does it divide us and limit our ability to adapt to threats with its rigid codes?
This is the thoughtful stuff. But there’s a recurring trope in zombie stories that’s less thoughtful, and that’s the nihilistic badass. In the absence of civilisation, you can simply exult in barbarism and power: engage in transgressive acts (murder, abduction, torture, betrayal!), arm yourself to the teeth and let ultraviolence solve your problems: live by the sword and – of course! – die by the sword, but it’s a wild ride till your luck runs out.
Transgressive nihilism doesn’t feature heavily in the films/TV versions – such characters are usually the villains – but it’s a big feature in games. In Zombicide, all the characters are transgressive nihilists, arming themselves will chainsaws then cutting a bloody swathe through the dead. In video games, as far back as Doom and Resident Evil, zombies are punchbags for the gamer’s unfettered id.
Surely no coincidence that Doom was developed by id Software
Without Hope falls into the Transgressive Nihilist camp. It’s a set of combat/skirmish rules with a trauma system added to reflect your unravelling psyche. There are lists of guns and a wide selection of antagonists (zombies of course, also freaks and cannibals and cultists, armed gangsters, soldiers and wild animals) and the rules set out how to kill them.
And the rules do this really well!
You roll four stats (MANIPULATION, MIGHT, MIND and MOVE) on 5d10 – a 5-50 range with the mode in the high twenties. Secondary stats are HIT POINTS (same as your MIGHT), SANITY (twice your MIND) and HUMANITY (twice your MANIPULATION).
There’s a big focus on random rolls (common in RPGs where characters die suddenly and get replaced in 5 minutes) so you roll these stats in order – no tweaking them to create your Optimal Badass. With 30, 18, 28 and 29 I am a bit charismatic but rather out of shape and otherwise unremarkable. With 18 HP, I will need protection, but 56 SANITY and 60 HUMANITY isn’t too bad.
You roll 3 professions from a list of one hundred and combine them creatively to tell a story.
This bit is fun. If I roll 51, 23 and 80 I get to be (flicks pages…): Labourer, Cult Leader, Punk Rocker. So, I’m Nozebliid, part time welder and lead singer of a punk band called Gentle Wartz who was performing a gig when the apocalypse went down. I turned my moshing fans into a loyal cult with the force of my personality. I roll my popularity on d100 and get 53, so as many people hate me as love me; I roll again and if I get 53 or less then I’m a public figure: 63, nope, I never broke into the mainstream before society collapsed.
Do you know three chords? Now go kill a zombie!
Every 5 points of MIND gets you a Skill or a Perk (I’m a bit unclear about the distinction – they seem to be the same thing). Nozebliid has 5 of these. I take Brawling and Drug Tolerance (how punk rock is that?) along with Command (my cultists), Conspiracy Theory and Repair (I’m a welder, remember?).
The skills/perks add +10 to your percentage chance of doing something, which otherwise works off a related stat. So ordering people about involves MANIPULATION, which is 30% for Nozebliid, but the Command perk means that goes up to 40%. With that rubbish MIGHT, Nozebliid is only 18% for things like throwing a punch, but his Brawling perk takes it up to 28%.
If Nozebliid survives an adventure, I get to add +1D10 to spread between my stats. Just adding +2 to MIND would take it up to 30 and Nozebliid would acquire a new skill, probably something to help him get by in this zombie-infested world: Survival, Submachinegun or Heavy Melee are all contenders.
Combat has a fluid do-what-feels-right initiative system and rules for dividing or multiplying your chance to hit based on range and rate of fire. On a successful hit you invert the roll and apply it to the Hit Location table. So if Nozebliid punches a cannibal and hits with a 21, that turns into 12 on the table: a lovely throat punch that quadruples the damage! Damage is rolled on d10s, with plusses or minuses, and 10s ‘explode’ allowing you to roll an extra dice. A punch deals a D10 plus MIGHT, divided by 10. So if I roll 8 and add my Brawl-adjusted MIGHT, that turns into 36, rounding to 4 points of damage, quadrupled to 16 because of the throat location. That’s not bad. It would flatten a teenage girl (15 HP) or a child (10 HP), but it’s enough to make other adversaries reconsider messing with me. Weapons deal much more damage, of course, and armour deducts damage if it covers the area that was targeted.
It gets slightly more fiddly with automatic weapons, but there’s a quick’n’dirty system for rounding percentages to the nearest 10, converting them to a D10 roll instead of D100, then rolling a handful of D10s. Everybody loves handfuls of D10s.
SANITY deteriorates in a way familiar to anyone who has played Call Of Cthulhu. Roll d% against your SANITY, if you roll over, it diminishes by a D10. HUMANITY is tested when you have to do unconscionable deeds and drops in the same way. When SANITY hits zero, you’re a fruitcake; when HUMANITY hits zero, you’re a cold-blooded sonofabitch.
There’s a fun rule for games set in the early days of the zombie apocalypse, where your very first zombie encounter costs you 3D10 SANITY and the first loss of a loved one costs 5D10. If you create characters once the apocalypse is up and running, you suffer a 3D10 SANITY deduction to represent past traumas. Having loved ones around you adds a bonus D10 to your Humanity – until they inevitably get taken from you and then it’s bloody bloody revenge.
Nozebliid takes a 3D10 SANITY hit because the apocalypse has been happening for a while now, so his SANITY drops to 44. Since his punk girlfriend Klamija is still alive, he can boost his Humanity to a fairly-sensitive 64.
That is more or less it, as the rules go. The rest is detail. Different types of zombies (regular, rotting, skeletal, massive fatties) and lots of human opponents all get detailed,. The system is simple and the stat blocks won’t frighten anyone. The idea that female NPCs automatically have less MIGHT but more MANIPULATION than males will strike you as a quaint call-back to Old School roleplaying, a candid concession to human biology or a chauvinist dogwhistle, depending on where you sit on some graph of social attitudes. I’ll merely comment that the zombie horror/survivalist genre is full of tough-as-nails female characters and I’m pleased to see that character generation doesn’t impose any such skewing on player stats.
The charm of the game is that little preparation is needed with a set-up like this. Create your characters and decide where you’re holed up. The GM tells you that you need fuel but a bunch of cannibals have taken over the nearest petrol station. Yeah, they’re roasting their hapless dinners on big petrol barbecues. Throw in a cannibal girl who wants to reform and escape and a prisoner who looks like he wants to escape but who has really developed a taste for ‘long pig’ and intends to betray his rescuers – and we have a plot. Tip a herd of shambling zombies into the forecourt, drawn by the racket, and we have a climax. Damn. I really want to play that scenario!
What could go wrong?
The only problem is that Without Hope doesn't aspire to any more than this. It invites you to run through a string of these deadly, chaotic episodes, churning through characters and making grim, transgressive decisions. To what end?
OK, right, nihilism, to be sure, but even nihilism has more to it than that.
What about the other aspects of the zombie drama? What about the politics, the strained relationships, the moral debate? Without Hope disavows all this stuff. Examples of play from the rules include Jack, gunning down the creep who killed his newborn son. and Ted, assassinating the former-politician who is trying to abduct his 9-year-old girl to sell into slavery. Relationships are there to justify more mayhem. Just let your Id do the thinking.
Of course, you can build these complexities on top of the basic system, adding whipped cream and fruit layers to the simple spongecake that Without Hope offers.
However, Without Hope doesn’t really invite this. The chatty, enthusiastic text urges you to plunge into the viscera and brutality and advocates a GMing approach that is best termed ‘punitive’: if players show weakness, the GM should be merciless in response.
The system provides simple yet flexible combat rules, but no similar rules for interpersonal dealings. Skills that have combat applications are expanded upon, but what do you do with Art or Seduction exactly? A rock-paper-scissors mechanic is implied with a trio of traits called Attractive-Cute-Sexiness but there’s no explanation of how this is works in play. There are no rules for Morale, Loyalty or Love. There are no mechanics for defeating security systems or infiltrating communities, beyond the barebones MANIPULATION test with a Perk. There is no system for extended tasks or cooperative activities. The implication is that players might occasionally make a roll to befuddle a guard or locate a fusebox, but they are going to shoot their way into and out of every problem.
What I’m saying is, there’s room for more development in Without Hope. The publisher promises “a Zombie Survival Horror RPG that has a different take on it all” but that’s not apparent yet. It would be nice to see the core mechanics applied to situations other than combat and the Sanity/Humanity system applied to problems other than people being killed. The setting invites something like Alignment or Personality Archetypes to determine who benefits from finding safe communities and who thrives on solitude, who stands to gain from forming relationships and who thrives on sabotaging them. Of course, you could just improvise all that stuff, but the game’s direction of travel is towards Transgressive Nihilism in which everyone acts in the same, reductive way. It needs a counterpoint to that.
The perception that Without Hope is a work in progress is strengthened by its presentation. On the plus side, the text is clear and written in a sharp, friendly style. It’s got an engaging authorial voice. There’s a lot of art, mostly photographs (of cos-players?) treated with a sort of bleached-out format that adds a satisfying patina of dread. Some of these (like the Watch-Out-Behind-You! scene on p89) are really effective. There’s a great piece of original art on p70 and Victoria Bellard’s cover art (of severed hands and eyeballs!) is striking and professional.
But the layout is cluttered: long paragraphs, a lack of subheadings, processes buried in the text rather than illustrated in charts or tables. There’s a lengthy discussion of Sanity/Humanity before we get round to Skills; combat mechanics get elucidated in detail before we find the Hit Location table. There are no interior page references. The table of contents runs to 4 pages, so it’s functioning more like an index.
Like many RPGs, it makes a fine introductory explanation, but it’s frustrating as a reference tool once you want to find how to do something. How I long to tidy it all up, create box-outs for examples, flow charts for processes and side-bars for the authorialising. I want the lists of gear at the back, on reference pages, along with a summary of character creation and simple stat-lines for each opponent.
Without Hope, ironically, offers a lot of hope for a satisfying survival-horror RPG built on its simple, bloody combat mechanics and loosey-goosey “just go with it” approach to character creation. As it currently stands, it offers an evening of improvised mayhem, in which everyone feels a bit queasy afterwards about the things their characters did and the gruesome ends they came to. Personally, I don’t feel the need to indulge in that more than once. If you want to build a campaign from this rules set, you run into problems. Not least, the questions of: “Why not use Apocalypse World RPG” (if you like things loose and creative) or The Zombie Hack or even good ol’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten?
All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE) is on the crunchier end, system-wise, but it offers a terrific range of settings and truly inspirational short fiction establishing each variation on the zombie apocalypse. Eric Bloat’s The Zombie Hack is a fast-and-fun 34-page manual for pick-up-and-play zombie-bashing.
Without Hope’s main asset is that it falls between these extremes: it’s more brutal and unforgiving than the cheerful Zombie Hack, with a darker, more disutbing aesthetic and characters who are flimsier and more vulnerable; it’s more spontaneous and improvisational than AFMBE, which can make combat and character creation a bit too arduous.
So there’s a place in the firmament for Without Hope if it cleaves to its grim Nitzchean philosophy but dares to go beyond gunplay in search of survivalist horror. The authors have plans to support the game, including material for campaign play, social conflict and personal development. In the meantime, maybe it's fine as it is, if you want to dive into nihilistic despair and just get soaking wet.
DM's Guild is a fantastic resource if you're looking for D&D scenarios with a high quality bar. Babbling Wizard has a set of scenarios and mini-campaigns and I looked at Secrets of Leaf Grove because it is a module that can progress a small group of D&D characters from 1st-4th level over 4-6 sessions.
Leaf Grove is the sole work of David A. Hughes and an attractive piece of work it is too: beautifully laid out, some on-point colour art, attractive maps, clear stat boxes and information captions and a lucid and (almost) typo-free style. At 40 pages, there's plenty here for a DM to be getting along with, but it could also be used as pick-up-and-play if you want to jump straight into the first scenario.
SPOILERS AHEAD I'm afraid: I want to talk about the plot (although, to be fair, the front cover gives away the nature of the main antagonists).
Welcome to Leaf Grove
Leaf Grove is an idyllic rural community surrounded by corn fields. If this were a Stephen King story, the children here would have murdered the adults long ago. There's a nice village hall and the 'Corn & Cob' Tavern that can seat seventy people (so it's half the size of my local Wetherspoons). There's a vigorous local democracy that entrusts power in three Councillors named Thorpe, Berry and Linwood. Everyone is sturdy and prosperous. It's like Maycomb, without the racism, or Bedford Falls, if Henry F. Potter didn't own the town.
Small town America: To Kill A Mockingbird's Maycomb and It's A Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls
David A. Hughes may be British, but this is a very AMERICAN setting, with its democratic traditions and vast cornfields and homely goodness. The villagers are holding a local festival when the scenario starts and you can't help but imagine the Fourth of July, with fireworks and corndogs. But, like most narratives set in such small towns, there's a darkness behind the facade. No, not racism or robber-capitalism, but a conspiracy nonetheless, a conspiracy aimed at benefiting the town that has unwittingly drawn monsters into the community.
People have been disappearing under odd circumstances and the PCs have been invited here by Clr William Berry to investigate. The players enjoy the fun of the fair and meet the locals, some of whom are unaccountably hostile or secretive, before hiking out to Miles Hogan's farm to investigate his missing wife Alice and the odd disappearance of Clr Linwood.
Investigating the conspiracy in a small village is a plot hook that goes right back to the good old days of D&D. The Village of Hommlet (Gary Gygax, 1979) hid evil agents in its midst and Against the Cult of the Reptile God (Douglas Niles, 1982) pitched the players into a village that was in the process of being subverted by a monster cult, with more NPCs going over the reptile god each night, evoking chilling Invasion of the Bodysnatchers paranoia.
Innocent-looking fantasy villages harbouring dark conspiracies go back to the roots of D&D
Writing a scenario in this genre puts you up against the stiffest competition there is. David A. Hughes' solution is to double down on the homeliness. There's no cultic conspiracy, more a sort of misunderstanding. One of the Councillors is a Wererat trying to ingratiate himself into a Lycanthropic gang by preying upon the community, along with his band of Kenku outlaws who have been abducting anyone who gets suspicious. The Kenku have been over-enthusiastic in their remit, the PCs have arrived to poke about, and the Wererat is spooked and does a runner. The plot rolls out from there.
A lot of scenarios stand or fall by their setting. Michael Thomas' Necropolic of Nuromen creates a low-level setting with Camlann set in a fairy forest that is steeped in otherworldly resonance. David A. Hughes' setting goes to the other extreme: Leaf Grove is so cosy it could be nestled at the foot of Walton Mountain.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. The decency and simplicity of Leaf Grove and its innocent citizens stands as a contrast to the bestial Kenku and corrupt Lycanthropes in their midst. Moreover, if you're American, the setting perhaps won't strike you as so un-medieval. I'm reminded of the Apple Lane (Greg Stafford, 1978) supplement for Runequest, which located Glorantha's wild barbarians a township that could easily have had Tom Sawyer for a resident.
There's a place for the low-key and the folksy in fantasy RPGs. I balk a little at medieval villagers with names like 'Darwin' or taverns named 'Corn & Cob' but the author leans into this. Later in the scenario, the village will come under attack and its fundamental homeliness will be important for giving the players a motive to fight (against stiff odds) to defend it.
Dastardly Bird People
The first scenario sends the PCs off to find Alice Hogan, who disappeared while fixing her scarecrow.
I wonder if the allusions here are intentional, and not just to Children of the Corn. Has Alice been swept away to Oz? Slaughtered by the Jeepers-Creepers monster? I suspect that the players will be far more alarmed than they need to be. The truth - that the Kenku have bundled her into a nearby abandoned shrine - will probably come as a let-down. But the clawed footprints of something that seems to have dropped down from the scarecrow's post and made off with Alice will have players scanning the sky for the indestructible Creeper's reappearance, not looking underground for malevolent canary-people.
Underground we must go. There's a nice scene where PCs descend on ropes into a long-abandoned tunnel. There are monsters to scrap with and good advice for making the setting as eerie as possible as the Kenku call to one another and imitate voices. There are some surprise undead locked away in a side room. There is Linwood the Wererat, pretending to be a prisoner, till he gets the drop of the PCs and can fully rat-out. At this stage in their careers, PCs will struggle to overpower a Wererat unless they were prescient enough to bring silver daggers (to be fair, in any group of players, there's always one..).
As with Leaf Grove, the problem here isn't what the author delivers, so much as the expectations he allows to rise first. The missing woman, the endless cornfields, the sinister scarecrow... that seems like a set-up for a brilliant Call of Cthulhu mystery. The Kenku in the tunnels are a disappointment after that. It's like finding a coffin with a mouldering corpse impaled by a stake through the heart, then learning you have to do battle with Kobolds. For all that the Kenku lair has artful layout and good atmospheric tips as well as an investigation, it's like a film that can't live up to the promise of the trailer.
I'm not a 5th edition gamer, so I can't comment on the threat/reward balance. I know if this were 1st edition AD&D, a bunch of Kenku would be deadly opposition for first level characters. By old-school standards, the treasure is stingy. But the stat boxes detail the monsters as easy/medium threat and I presume the encounter is such that, when they leave it with the prisoners freed, the PCs will be ready for second level.
They'd better be. Werewolves are coming.
Wolves in the Sheepfold
The Werewolves arrive in Leaf Grove to reclaim their buddy, Linwood the Wererat. They swagger into town like Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven, with a bunch of demands, then bust into buildings, terrorising people. The PCs have to barricade themselves inside and deal with the monsters that get in.
This is a great scene and, once again, pure Americana. Small town detail that seemed twee or un-fantastical at the outset pays out now, because this is a Western, with the PCs defending the range, like Shane or John goddam Wayne, against the furry banditos that roam up and down the main street and jump through windows into the cantina.
Calvera (Eli Wallach) menaces the innocent villagers in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960). Don't watch the recent re-make.
True to the playbook, Marina (check the Latina name) who runs the cantina shows her mettle against these gangsters. She's a Lycanthrope too, a Weretigress with a heart of gold, and she flings the mutts about and chases them out of town.
Look, I love this scene. Werewolves super-outclass PCs at this level, but the author provides a bunch of options to scale the difficulty, based on the PCs' toughness and access to silver weapons. They might end up just scrapping with ordinary Wolves while the proper lycanthropes menace the NPCs. The arrival of a super-powered NPC deus ex machina will be very welcome by the end of this.
This is going to be the most memorable scene in the scenario (with one possible rival later on) and a gleeful DM will want to stretch it out for maximum drama. We want children in peril. We want the townsfolk to rally armed with household utensils. We want a werewolf on fire to fall out of an upstairs window and roll about howling in the dusty street. Pure film!
Since this is the beating heart of the scenario, which brings the true threat into focus and establishes what the PCs are fighting for, I think it's a shame the Western motif wasn't grasped more firmly. The tavern makes more sense as a Cantina. There ought to be a drunken sheriff and a feisty schoolma'am. Everyone should have Latin-inflected names. We should feel like we're in a Spaghetti Western, not The Shire.
But that's just my imagination getting fired up.
Marina knows the truth about the Lycanthropes - their leader Vrell passed his Weretiger curse onto her - but not where the monsters are based. To find that out, a trip into the woods is needed, to consult a Halfling Druid.
This part of the scenario offers a less linear plot. There are random encounters in the forest, an optional encounter with orcs and half-ogres and a final showdown with the boss Ogre, before the Druid turns up with a side quest: rescue a relic called The Leaf Scripture from a spider-infested cave. There's a double-cross, because the Druid isn't who he appears to be, but the PCs will end up with directions to the Lycanthrope Lair, by either a safe or a dangerous route.
These side-quests bedevil RPG video games and are a fixture in TTRPG modules too, so I shouldn't complain to find one here. They pad out a storyline, allowing PCs to level up or pick up magical weapons or allies, before reaching the final showdown. They add an air of verisimilitude, because life is a winding road with cul-de-sacs and double-backs, so they dilute the sense of being railroaded to a predetermined outcome. They create a sense of a wider world with things going on in it that don't pertain solely to the PCs' concerns.
The problem is, they break up theme and atmosphere, and that's what this digression does. The Leaf Scriptures haven't been foreshadowed in previous investigations and the fate of Eldon the Druid lacks punch because he's not been prepared for. Indeed, the players probably never learn what befell him.
Coming after the gripping Werewolf Attack on Leaf Grove, a skirmish with big bugs in a cave system feels like workaday dungeon-bashing. Don't get me wrong: this side-quest isn't bad. It's just a bit unmemorable. But fear not, because better things are ahead.
The Weirdness of Wolf Tower
If the PCs get the safe route, they arrive at a magical tower where the were-beasts are holed up. Getting past the Wererat guards without alerting everyone inside requires some ingenuity.
Alternatively, the PCs might arrive by the more dangerous route, descending into a rocky gorge that's the territory of a Gorgon.
There's a great build-up to this. The gorge is an eerie place. You notice the odd rocks. They're like fragments of larger stones. You see human features: fingers, eyes, mouths, in the shattered statues. Then the massive Gorgon comes snorting out of its lair.
It's a great D&D moment, worth the price of admission all by itself, and the players get rewarded for the risk by finding a secret entrance to the tower down here.
The Tower itself is an entertaining skirmish with were-critters, lent an extra twist of weirdness by the architect's magical legacy: the stairs between floors don't connect spatially, so characters move to unexpected levels. This could prove hilarious if the party get split up, or terrifying if the occupants are alerted and use the bizarre geography to ambush the PCs. The final showdown with Vrell the Weretiger is wisely curtailed: he will surrender if wounded, so that he can enjoy vainglorious threats and mind-games before being hauled off to face justice in Leaf Grove.
Showdown, baby: roll initiative.
This is a solid climax. The Gorgon Gorge is a great cinematic moment. The layout of the Tower throws an Escherian curveball at attempts to map the place. Vrell is an entertainingly despicable villain.
And yet, it's just a big fight, really. In dealing with the Kenku, there was a rescue mission; this is search-and-destroy. That's valid. Lots of players love it. But there's no option for players who prefer trickery or diplomacy or were hoping for spine-tingling mysticism. The Lycanthropes aren't opening a gate to the Feral Realms or wrestling with their humanity. They're just a bunch of chaots waiting for the PCs to bring the cleansing (silver) sword.
Secrets of Leaf Grove is a solid D&D adventure. Really solid. It offers new PCs a setting they can easily relate to (especially if you're American), a mystery and a quest, then it ups the stakes, sends you on a wilderness journey and then lets you assault the monsters in their magical fortress. The threats scale, there are opportunities along the way for negotiation and problem-solving and, though the story is essentially linear, there are a few scenes where the players' creativity can determine the outcome instead of the script.
What holds me back from giving it more enthusiastic endorsement is that there are moments here that are better than solid, and one scene that is A++ Great, which shows you how much more awesome this scenario could have been.
The roof-raising scene is the Werewolf Attack. The inspiring moments are the scarecrow in the cornfield, the chamber of the Leaf Scriptures, the appearance of the Gorgon and the spatial anomalies in the tower. The monster encounters that link these moments together are a little pedestrian. I wish the Dryads had mysteries to tell and lost lovers to pine for, I wish there were Wererats battling with their curse and seeking redemption, I wish Eldon the Druid had died a more meaningful death to a more satisfactory opponent, I wish there were precipices to hang from and slaughtered pioneers to avenge. I wish the forest had more intriguing threats in it than Orcs and Ogres.
The setting itself serves its turn by making the players want to defend it. But it has no value as an ongoing base. There are no loose ends in Leaf Grove, no ongoing conflicts or campaign hooks. Once the Lycanthropes are defeated, there's no reason for the PCs to stay here.
But that's just me. I'm a romantic who likes messy outcomes. New players to D&D 5ed. will ease right into this adventure. The fright they get when the Werewolves show up at their windows will lend extra tang to the payback they deliver in the tower at the end. Hommlet and the Against the Cult of the Reptile God won't be losing any sleep, but Leaf Grove will be the memorable start to somebody's lifelong love of D&D.
Michael Thomas' Blueholme Prentice RPG introduced Eric Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D rules to a new audience. His Blueholme Journeymanne positions the game as a serious retroclone contender, muscling up against White Box and Delving Deeper for the title of 'Heir to Seventies D&D.'.
The last blog reviewed these two: Blueholme Prentice for 1st-3rd level PCs; Blueholme Journeymanne for up to 20th level. Click the images for drivethrurpg links.
Blueholme has an advantage over its competitors. They have to draw something coherent out of the jumble of Original D&D materials, picking and choosing their rules and supplementary material and trying to give it a character of its own (I feel White Box succeeds at this; Delving Deeper less so). Blueholme is channeling one man's singular vision of D&D. It has distinctiveness built-in.
The trick is to reveal it. The solution is an introductory scenario. So welcome to THE NECROPOLIS OF NUROMEN, Blueholme's first module for starting characters.
The contender: Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen (click image for link to download).
The reigning champ: Eric Holmes' Ruined Tower of Zenopus from the 1977 Basic D&D Rules Set.
The brief for this is a tough one. Of course, it has to be an excellent dungeon-crawl that will challenge and intrigue experienced players paddling at the shallow end with first level characters but also work well for newcomers. More than that, it has to showcase what's special about Blueholme: how does this version of OSR roleplaying help tell stories that the others don't?
The scenario has a collaborative history, emerging from Justin Becker's 'Forbidden Mazes of the Jennerak' campaign, which is being adapted by Michael Thomas into a 3-part scenario series, of which this is the first. This gives context to some criticisms I make later.
Leaf through Blueholme Prentice and you'll see that Michael Thomas has a gift for sourcing public domain art with a fantasy vibe. The cover here looks like an Ayleid Ruin from Elder Scrolls IV, but it's a piece of stunning Romantic art by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German landscape painter with a taste for the spinetingling. He's best known for that one where the chap stands with his back to you on a mountain top, looking down on the clouds.
Monastery Ruins in the Snow (1819) - which is going on ALL my Christmas cards from now on - and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) which seems to be a painting about both nature AND humanity.
Friedrich's landscapes defy improvement (that sky!!!) but Michael Thomas gives the whole thing an eerie blue tint, because branding, right? It's a great cover that sets the tone for his game.
The scenario is only 20 pages long, but Thomas devotes the first 4 pages to the setting. This is a bit of a gamble. Some people just want to wrench dungeons out, bleeding, from their settings, like Molam Ram plucking out hearts for Kali. You can do that. Just skip this stuff and go straight to the dungeon. But you're missing out!
Don't be this guy.
The setting is a distinctive High Fantasy realm. The town of Camlann gets its own map, its mystic porcelain tower, Lady Leika of the Lily and her griffon-riding guards. There are local celebrities, rivalries and gossip. This takes the lightly-sketched idea of Portown and the Green Dragon Inn from Holmes' sample dungeon and improves on it. The Camlann setting has its own magical quality, while rooted in the earthy down-homeliness that's needed to make a journey away, out into the darkness and danger, so compelling.
Outside Camlann is the Delvingwood where the local Elves are declining and the Goblins are advancing, turning the fairy forest to evil. This is an evocative setting, with more of Narnia to it than Middle-Earth. A broad grassy road, the Elfway, cuts through the woods but if you leave this highway and enter the trees, why, you're stepping into the Otherworld, crossing Joseph Campbell's Threshold for the Hero's Journey. This is all very nicely structured.
Holmes' 'Zenopus' dungeon had a menace to it and Thomas parallels this. Instead of the morally-murky Zenopus, we have Nuromen who's an outright rotter. This necromancer sets up a Chaotic enclave in the woods called Law's End but his gang of villains are blasted by an unspecified catastrophe, doubtless of his own making. His underground Necropolis stands unguarded beneath a 'ghost town' in ruins with the forest advancing over it.
As is standard, the PCs are greedy and ambitious dungeon raiders looking for a fortune and a name for themselves. However, Thomas adds a feature that Holmes misses. The PCs encounter the Elves on their way to the dungeon and are tasked with the recovery of a magical heirloom. This gives the players a focus and a sense of dignity to their mission: they're not just looters.
I really like this set-up. The tone is very effective: an elegaic sense of decline and lengthening shadows, an evil from the past, a noble mission and a wilderness journey, all set in a fairy tale kingdom with just enough darkness to it to head off sentimentality. It reminds me of the setting sketched out for Jean Wells' Module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981). If Holmes drew inspiration from Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, then the world of Justin Becker/Michael Thomas feels like it owes more to Lord Dunsany and Lloyd Alexander's Prydein Chronicles.
The downside is that this material is not well laid-out. The text starts with the description of Nuromen's downfall, then outlines the geography of the forest, then the set-up in Camlann. There are NPCs and Rumours in Camlann, then back into the Forest we go, with Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables for on and off the Elfway landing us back in the Ruins of Law's End and the abandoned Necropolis. It's an odd structure, involving repetition and redundancy while also allowing you to forget or muddle important material. A bit of editing would help here: Camlann > Elfway > Delvingwood Forest > Law's End/Necropolis is the structure that GMs need.
It's a shame that this background material is (slightly) impenetrable, since it encourages careless readers to skip it. A lot of thought has gone into offering low level characters a wilderness journey with real dangers but balanced encounters and a metric ton of theme.
Jeff Jones' Dunsany-inspired art also captures the world Thomas is exploring
The dungeon is a two-level affair, but it's built to an epic scale. The party have to drop down into a vast shaft - 50ft across and 100ft deep - using ropes that a squad of Goblins have left behind. Deep underground, the PCs move through corridors and chambers carved out of the limestone crag. Holmes' dungeon evoked suffocating darkness, opening out into immense, echoing chambers; Thomas' Necropolis is different, it has an eerie but sinister beauty in its carved murals and looming doorways.
There are 20 rooms on the First Level, 6 of them empty and the rest more often interesting than dangerous. A gigantic subterranean courtyard offers a safe hub that the party can branch out from in their explorations. Most of the traps can be avoided with forethought. There are ghosts and illusions and remnants of Nuromen's old spells. Aside from the Goblin raiders, the monsters are largely dungeon pests and mindless undead, but the Big Bad on this level is a nest of Harpies who could easily overwhelm an incautious party. There's treasure to collect but not much: a couple of thousand GP total, so no one is levelling up by clearing this out. There are magical items to pick up, especially for Magic-Users.
The highlight of the First Level is the study and workshops of Nuromen himself. There are lots of things for players to tinker with and surmise, plus a few windows into the dead wizard's psyche and rewards for players who can figure out what motivated the old villain. Unlike the opaque figure of Zenopus, Nuromen is present here in spirit if not in body. There are signs of his handiwork everywhere.
If the First Level is a slow-paced investigation into long-dead mysteries, down on Level Two things take a turn for the weird and the wonderful. There are 15 rooms, but only 3 are empty, so it's more densely packed and more unforgiving. There are nastier traps (an over-reliance on poison, which I hate!), riddles, some quirky magic items and chilling scenes of evil occultism. Troglodytes will give first level characters a run for their money. The climax comes when the party access Nuromen's Tomb and go up against Nuromen himself, now a very dangerous undead antagonist. The treasure here is stupendous, so survivors are definitely leveling up.
The dungeon is beautifully structured, offering players radiating spokes to explore on the First Level while the Second Level funnels them towards an inevitable showdown with Undead Evil. The maps look lovely. They are all tucked at the back, after the OGL pages, which confused me at first. It would be nice if the maps appeared alongside the room keys, making it easy to read off the screen/page and hold a picture of the layout in your mind as you do.
Similarly, there's a lot of high quality description, but it's usually mixed in with exposition and mechanics. The Dungeon Key would benefit from introductory descriptive paragraphs for each location: something the GM can read aloud, providing all the visual detail for players, with the GM-only material underneath.
It's a pity that the Rumours back at Camlann don't help the players make more sense of what they encounter in the Necropolis. For example, there's Robin the Thief, now turned into a riddling Ghoul and guarding some of Nuromen's treasure. How much better for the PCs to hear the tale of Robin's hideous fate back in Camlann, then recall it here, rather than the GM having to info-dump for Thieves in the party. Other snippets about the Cult of Gamosh and Nuromen's wife and child would make helpful Rumours too.
The stinginess of treasures is a problem. Blueholme sets its XP rewards for killing monsters quite low and, in any event, there's not that much combat to be had. It's desirable that at least some of the party be second level by the time they go up against Nuromen. If (say) the Thieves and Clerics are going to get to second level, then a party of 4 needs to earn over 5,000 XP. There just aren't enough combat encounters or valuable treasures to do this. I think doubling the treasure rewards in the dungeon and halving the size of the big hoard in room 25 could result in a party of mixed 1st/2nd level characters going up against Nuromen at the climax. Some of those second level characters will probably lose a level in the fight. 'Nuff said.
Alternatively, instead of placing the key to the treasure chamber (25) around the undead necromancer's neck, it could be found instead upstairs in his chambers (12 or 13), perhaps with a map indicating the presence of a secret vault, reached through the caves on the lower level (18). This would allow canny players to access the treasure before they run into Nuromen himself: flight is then the prudent choice.
Certainly, when the PCs emerge blinking from the Necropolis at the end, they will feel that they have earned their spurs.
More Caspar David Friedrich: Evening (1820-1) makes a great image for the faerie Delvingwoods
Epilogue: Bandits, grr-rrr
The scenario doesn't end there. Back in Camlann, bandits are up to no good. A breakaway faction of the outlawed White Company is kidnapping merchants. Tracking them back to their cave lair is in order, then bloody retribution.
This is a welcome epilogue. The Dungeon itself was mostly investigation, mystery and puzzles, with just a handful of combats, the latter ones very stressful. Some players might be in the mood for uncomplicated monster-bashing as a way to unwind, especially if everyone is second level now. Bandits make great punchbags.
Well, guess again. The Bandits all have 6hp, so they're surprisingly resilient. Their boss, Lothar, is a 6th level fighter, also with above-average HP, and he's got half a dozen Gnolls backing him up. There's an Owl Bear in there!
The good news is that Lothar is sitting on a hoard that should get all the survivors up to third level. However, his treasure is the only loot in this place, so if the Bandits send the adventurers away with their tails between their legs, they'll have nothing to show for the adventure but bruises.
This section of the adventure feels undercooked. The Bandits are well-organised in defense of their lair, but there's no option but to slog through them.
Lothar is supposed to be defying the Bandit Prince who leads the White Company. It would be helpful if some of the Bandits were loyalists who would turn against Lothar. There's a prison pit, crying out for a prisoner to occupy it, a useful NPC who knows the caverns and could guide the PCs.
As it stands, this side-quest is a brutal skirmish that will probably overwhelm second level characters and doesn't offer much to reward experienced players who want to try more devious or diplomatic strategies. Of course, the party don't have to take on Lothar. They could just rescue the merchants and claim a modest reward. But c'mon now, is that what HEROES do?
Michael Thomas confirms his intention that PCs do NOT fight Lothar to the death, but instead try to capture Bandits for the reward (50gp a head!). Blueholme doesn't provide any mechanism for subduing enemies nor does the scenario suggest one, but here's a thought. The GM could rule that, with any group of Bandits, once half are dead, the other half surrender. This makes skirmishing in the caves easier and more lucrative. Alternatively (or additionally) a force of 2d6 1st level Fighters from the Camlann Constabulary could bolster the PCs in the final showdown with Lothar - and Lothar could surrender once he has lost half his Hit Points.
Can't get enough Caspar: Cairn in the Snow (1807) is great for the entrance to Lothar's Lair
This is a deeply atmospheric dungeon in a great High Fantasy setting. It's got a distinctive mystical vibe to it that takes its cues from Eric Holmes. It's clearly a Blueholme Dungeon and it promotes its brand.
The Dungeon is structured around exploring and investigating rather than fighting. There are treasure troves to pick up but not enough to level up. The massive hoard at the end (should it be found) will level everyone up, perhaps placing Thieves at third level. That feels 'off' - especially considering the climactic battle the players have to endure to get the key. It's tempting to dial back the danger (Nuromen would be quite deadly enough as a Ghoul or a Wight) or shift some of the loot out of the hoard or put the key elsewhere in the dungeon; that way, PCs could retreat to their camp, level up, then descend to vanquish Nuromen or run away from the encounter with him.
The problem is even more pronounced in the Lothar epilogue. Lothar's hoard exceeds 10,000gp, so half a dozen PCs could level up from that, but he's 6th level and protected by Gnolls! Part of the charm of Blueholme Prentice is its third level 'ceiling'. Why can't Lothar be a really nasty 3rd level Fighter? Couldn't his loot be scattered throughout the lair so that PCs can pick some of it up during other skirmishes? Alternatively, rules are needed for capturing and subduing the Bandits rather than battling them to the death.
These aren't damning criticisms. It's easy to adjust treasure and threat, based on how quickly you envisage the PCs progressing through the levels and how many need to die doing so. GMs will need to make their own minds up about what they expect players to accomplish and whether The Necropolis of Nuromen is supposed to end in hard-won victory, tactical retreat with riches or an ignominious death.
However, set all that aside. The scenario has much greater strengths. The journey down the Elfway, into the Delvingwood and then deep down below ground, into the vaults of the Necropolis: this is a deeply memorable start to anyone's campaign and a calling card for Blueholme as an RPG with a distinctive style.
Michael Thomas is working on a new scenario that will function as "a real introductory adventure" to Blueholme (rather than just being a low-level adventure): The Shrine of Sobek should be out next year but I hope The Necropolis of Nuromen gets its sequels too.
No, not the sensational 1959 Miles Davis album, but the equally seminal 1977 'Blue Book' D&D rules by Dr J. Eric Holmes. I want to review Holmes' treatment by a pair recent retroclone RPGs: Blueholme and The Blue Hack, both by Michael Thomas.
If one of these things interests you more than the other, you MIGHT be in for a disappointment with this blog...
Holmes' 'Blue Book' rules set has a legendary status among D&D fans, and deservedly. Before Holmes volunteered his services, D&D was a rag tag collection of cheap booklets and magazine articles supplemented by fan products of varying credibility. Since few gamers owned them all, no one who played D&D was really playing the same game and the game itself was pretty impenetrable if someone hadn't shown you how to play it first.
Eric Holmes changed all that. His 50-page softback manual set about building the Original D&D game from the ground up, starting with character creation, rules for combat, spells, monsters, treasures and concluding with his wonderful sample dungeon, the 'Tower of Zenopus'.
By modern standards of rules design, Holmes' book is cluttered in places, sparse in others and confusing all over the place, but compared to what had gone before this was a lean, modernist take on the baroque grotesquerie that D&D had quickly become. Oh, and it only went to third level for PCs. To go further with the game, the reader was directed to the then-forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules set that Gary Gygax had been working on and was to emerge, with the Players Handbook, the following year.
AD&D pulled down the tower that Holmes had built. In Holmes' game, rolled attributes counted for very little. Your prime requisite (e.g. Intelligence for Magic-Users) boosted your earned XP. Dexterity awarded you +1 or -1 to hit with missiles. Constitution earned you +1, 2 or 3 Hit Points. That's it. No Strength Bonuses. No extra spells for Clerics. No Armour Class modifiers. Oh, and all the weapons dealt 1d6 damage, whether they were a dagger or a two-handed sword.
The effect of this was to de-emphasise combat as the central pillar of What D&D Is All About, in favour of exploration, traps, riddles, puzzles and NPC encounters. PCs are individuated, not by their attributes, but by the player's imagination. Since a Strength 17 Fighting Man functioned no differently from a Strength 7 Fighting Man, the colour had to come from characterisation. Holmes offers the standard D&D classes (including Thieves and Dwarves, Elves and Halflings functioning as classes too) but offers encouragement to go beyond this, citing his famous example of a diverse party of adventurers:
Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
In a 1981 article in Dragon Magazine, Holmes is quite explicit about his free-wheeling approach to character generation:
Most game systems rather rigidly specify what kinds of characters players may assume, but the majority of referees are lenient. If a player particularly wants to be an unusual or inhuman character, many referees will let him. It's not unusual to encounter player characters that are werewolves, Vulcans, samurai, centaurs or whatever. Fantasy role playing is, after all, an exercise in imagination
In another Dragon article, Holmes confesses his own preferences for non-canon characters:
For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Uh-oh. Dreenoi. Roll for initiative.
Gary Gygax dismantled this approach with AD&D. Character attributes were exalted and character classes nailed down to very specific collections of powers and advancements. Whereas Holmes might identify his character as a 'Lawful Werebear', AD&D invited you to become a a 4th/5th level Half-Elven Cleric/Thief with a 17 Dex and a 16 Wisdom.
Perhaps that's the fascination with Holmes' work: it offers a brief window into a year (1977) when D&D could have gone another way. If AD&D was prog rock, with complexity and grand pretensions, then Holmes was that other flower of 1977: punk rock, with its three-chord simplicity and vigorous DIY ethos.
Eric Holmes. Johnny Rotten. Rarely mistaken for one another.
Two figures bestride the Internet, bearing the Holmsian lamp aloft. Zach Howard runs a fantastic Holmes blog and website, the Zenopus Archives, making the case in fair weather and foul for continuing to play D&D the way Holmes envisaged. He has done fantastic advocacy for the 'Tower of Zenopus' dungeon and delved into Holmes' manuscripts to explore how much Gygax diluted and redirected Holmes' intentions.
Click the image to explore the underworld of Holmes Basic.
The other is Michael Thomas, over at Dreamscape Design, who has published two loving Holmesian D&D retroclones: Blueholme (in two versions) and Blue Hack.
Blueholme Prentice is pay-nothing on drivethrurpg; Blueholme Journeymanne is quite cheap on drivethrurpg or there's a nice hardback from Lulu; Blue Hack costs next-to-nothing on drivethrurpg
The 2013 Blueholme Prentice rules (62pp) is a fairly standard OSR retroclone. Thomas takes Holmes' rules set and presents it in his own words, with the orderliness we now expect in good games design. There's a bit of advice on how to play the game and how to referee it. There's nice (public domain) B&W art. The ambiguities (e.g. elven fighter/magic-users) are cleared up. The attributes still offer almost no distinctions. Weapons all deal 1d6 damage. This is vintage Holmes, straight from the cellars. Carrion Crawlers get a copyright-dodging name change but I think Johnny Rotten and other veterans of 1977 will feel right at home here.
Is there a use for this sort of game, besides nostalgia? After all, Charlie Mason's White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game one-ups Blueholme by going back to the original D&D rules set, but compressing character progression into 10 levels and adding variable weapon damage (well.... 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1 but it's variable!). It only slightly expands the modifiers for high/low attributes, it's got a low price point and it's rather more lovely in its typeface and old school William McAusland art.
The appeal of Blueholme Prentice is precisely its strict boundaries. It offers a D&D experience with just three levels of experience. The King of the Realm, he's a third level Fighter. His Court Magician? He's a third level Magic-User. The Guildmaster Thief? Third level too! This is a world with a ceiling on it and, rather like crafting a haiku, composing scenarios within such limits draws forth surprising creativity.
If you're not psyched by a 3rd-level-campaign, fear not! In 2017, along came Blueholme Journeymanne (118pp) on the back of a successful Kickstarter, with hardback rules and lots of original art by old school veterans like Russ 'Firetop Mountain' Nicholson that has a great late-Seventies vibe.
Russ Nicholson's homage to David C Sutherland III's art panel that introduced the original Holmes Basic Set makes me feel happy in ways only the Germans have words for.
All of this and twenty (count them, TWENTY) character levels, spells up to 7th level, hirelings and strongholds and VARIABLE WEAPON DAMAGE. Yes, at last. But not just different dice for different weapons. Oh no. All weapons still roll d6s (take THAT, Gygax) but puny daggers roll two dice and pick the worst while heavy weapons roll 2 or 3 dice and pick the best. Delightful!
In just over a hundred pages, Blueholme Journeymanne muscles up alongside White Box and thoroughly intimidates it. Actually, they're both great games. It really boils down to whether you want your D&D campaign concertina-ed into ten levels or twenty. White Box has a cool fey-themed thing going on with its monsters but Blueholme Journeymanne is more Sci-Fi, with Lovecraftian Mi-Go and Deep Ones in the mix alongside Dreenoi. Yes, Dreenoi.
Human, Dwarf and Dreenoi, together at last. Watch out for that Green Slime!
This is where Journeymanne plays its Holmsian trump card. Character races are gone: poof! Instead, this:
It's been a long journey, but we finally got there. You can play that Lawful Werebear at last. I like to think John Eric Holmes (who sadly died in 2010 and missed this renaissance in RPGs) is smiling upon this, up there, in the Outer Planes of Chaotic Neutral. Journeymanne gets the next-best endorsement from his son, Chris Holmes:
These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when we explored the dungeons of John Eric Holmes.
If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you ought to be reading reviews of Miles Davis jazz albums.
The Hacks I like, all on drivethrurpg (click on images for links)
Blue Hack is a different beast. It's a variation on David Black's The Black Hack (2016), which offered an alternative streamlined take on D&D, with attribute tests replacing skills and abilities, ten character levels, super simplified classes, monsters and spells and groovy Usage Dice replacing tallying arrows, torches and rations. It spawned a host of imitators with various degrees of professionalism. Karl Stjernberg's Rad Hack is a fantastic pop art take on Gamma World, while Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is a cheerfully amateur (but very imaginative) interpretation of Vampire: The Masquade.
All well and good, but how do you Holmesify The Black Hack, which is about as stripped-back as an old school fantasy RPG can get? How is Blue Hack any different from The Black Hack?
The answer, oddly, is to make it more like the sort of D&D that Black Hack is trying to escape from.
The Black Hack enjoyed a recent Kickstarter and there's a fancy Second Edition out there but the original rules are a trim 20 pages that are a master class in clarity and elegant graphic design. The 'Big Six' stats here here (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) and four classes (Warrior, Cleric, Conjuror and Thief). Going up a level boosts your Hit Dice and lets you improve your Stats. Spells are summed up in no more than a dozen words each.
This is the spell description for Power Word Kill:
A Nearby target with 50HP or fewer dies and cannot be resurrected.
Blue Hack takes all this and stirs back in some recognisable D&D. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings re-appear as character races, adding familiar flavour abilities, and Fighter-Mages are added to the class roster to accommodate those mystical elves. The presentation is a bit more expansive (it runs to 26 pages) and illustrated by the ubiquitous William McAusland's adorable B&W art, but the descriptions retain that charming "figure-it-out-yourself" brevity. Here's the explanation for the spell Limited Wish:
Change reality in a limited way or time.
When I think of the ink that's been spilled in D&D rulebooks and magazines trying to codify, limit, clarify and define what a 'wish' spell can do, this makes me want to break down and cry.
Like a lot of Hack RPGs, Blue Hack feels like a slap in the face. Why did you just spend all that time and effort mastering Blueholme Journeymanne (never mind freakin' Dungeon Crawl Classics or D&D 5th ed.) if you could play fantasy RPGs as simply as this? Like a stage magician's prestige, it makes you blink your eyes and look for the trick. Can it really work like that?
Well it can and it probably should, but something is lost. Perhaps what's lost is Holmes himself, whose genial ghost presides over every page of Blueholme in both its iterations but seems absent from Blue Hack, which is really just a pretty version of any already pretty game, given a more recognizably D&Dish spin. No rules for Dreenoi PCs. No Lawful Werebears. Maybe that's my beef with it.
Skip to the end. My feeling is that, while the Hack RPGs are a fantastic development in roleplaying rules, they're not necessarily the way I want to go with old-school dungeonbashing. Sometimes, the flavour is in the rules themselves and, with minimal rules, you often get minimal flavour. With, say, the Rad Hack, the flavour is in the whacky radioactive post-holocaust setting. But with D&D-hacks, the flavour is in the D&D, which is exactly what you're taking out.
Blueholme does a stunning job at honouring Holmes' legacy and provides a set of OSR rules that should be right up there for anyone wanting to explore the wild frontier of '70s-style D&D. Blue Hack is a solid Hack version of D&D, but I guess I don't really have a need for such a thing when the more conventional OSR D&D retroclones are already so sweet, simple and inspirational.
There's a module for Blueholme - The Necropolis of Nuromen - which I'll review later this week.
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 started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
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: