Oooh-weee! Didn't THE MAGUS HACK meet with a lot of love! So, hot on its heels follows the big book of everything that didn't make it into the rules book, plus afterthoughts: THE SORCERERS COMPANION.
Both books are on driverthrurpg but there are physical copies on Amazon of the rules and the expansion.
But what, I hear you enquire, is it all about?
The Magus Hack makes no secret of its status as a love letter to Mage: The Ascension (see blogs passim) and my deep affection for David Black's The Black Hack as a thoroughly-modern way of channelling OSR sensibilities into roleplaying. The Magus Hack lets you roll up modern wizards on the classic 6 Stats wit Hit Dice and Hit Points, choose your Philosophy (an oh-so-familiar Nine are provided) and customise yourself with Virtues. The Sorcerers Companion doubles the number of Virtues and adds templates based around functional Archetypes rather than the Mage-baiting Philosophies. All well and good, but where's the beef?
Magic: Does Sir prefer Simple or Crunchy?
Magic gets a lot of thought. My original magic rules were tough and granular, starting 1st level Magi off as rather ineffective and forcing you all the time to trade range and duration against effectiveness. I'm a fan of that sort of thing, but I think I took it too far: people play OSR Hack-inspired games for high-jinks and adventure, not agonising decisions. So I loosened up the requirements, making charges more easily available for starting characters and reducing the likelihood of magic failing outright.
I went a bit further! I added a Simplified Magic System if you don't want any crunch at all. Basically, if you want a story-driven game where you're happy for the GM to make all the calls about how magic actually works out, this Simplified System offers a single dice roll and does away with the trade-offs. Now you can hack The Mage Hack itself and decide how YOU want your Modern Wizardry RPG to play out.
For the purists like myself who want crunchy, granular magic, I offer 30 magical effects broken down into the Schools they draw on and what you can accomplish with different amounts of mystical charges. All the classics are here: Dispel Magic, Scrying, Astral Projection, Warding and good old Fireball.
Familiars, Daemons and Dragons, oh my!
Then the fun starts. Familiars get a chapter. Now, The Magus Hack already lets you choose a Hallows that boosts your magic and this could be a pet creature or a person. Then there's the Companion Virtue, which lets you have an assistant who's an animal or a daemon or a faerie or whatnot. You can combine the two, into a Hallows-Companion. All of these options could reasonably be called Familiars.
But the new Familiar rules let you summon a creature that actually has its own Schools of Magic that it can combine with yours without any penalty. Well, without penalty, but not without cost. Before you can start using your Familiar in a game, you have to wake it up by feeding it raw magic ("Thaum") and the more powerful it gets, the hungrier it is.
Pocket-Dimensions get some consideration. These are personal paradises: spiritual hideaways where you can customise the laws of nature to your taste. You can do this with magic, but it's helluva expensive. The easier option is to draw on your Hubris Die. Now this is great and it generates lots of charges you can spend customising your realm as a space station, gothic fortress, undiscovered continent or alien citadel. The only catch is that your Hubris Die gets bigger every time you roll a 1-2: that way madness definitely lies.
The Magus Hack tries to be setting-neutral, but I felt I needed to offer some rules for Daemons (angels, actual demons and elementals) and Dragons. There are tables to help you customise these awesome entities.
And I add rules for magical duelling - the Magonas, based on ancient Greek traditions. I'll add more ideas for 'Wizard Sports' on this website.
The Story Generator
In a way, this bit is my pride and joy. Modern Wizardry games sound cool. You think of arcane duels in alleyways and confrontations with dragons in gleaming skyscrapers, but coming up with stories for such a setting can be tricky. Here is a set of tables that offer you an Opponents, their Dark Deeds, their Nefarious Ends, your Involvement and Motivation, what you're trying to achieve as your Awesome Goal and the Plot Twist and final Showdown, with some extra rolls for Cool Locations.
Here's the very first plot I rolled up:
I mean, jeez, wouldn't you pay to see that movie? And that's not even the best plot I rolled up - and I rolled up six. My favourite is The Dragon Child's Last Gift to Mankind. I think I'll use the system to roll up 30 or 40 plot hooks and put them in a future product as micro-scenarios.
I feel Sorcerers Companion takes the rather flippant The Magus Hack and turns it into a weighty and flexible RPG in its own right. A combined Expanded Edition will be along in due course. Then, original art and a Second Edition, let's hope.
I wanted to create something that would let me play the sort of games that White Wolf's '90s RPGs opened my eyes to, but with familiar mechanics of levels, hit points, saving throws and Stat tests. I feel really proud of this one. Yes, The Hedgerow Hack is my true sweetheart, because's it's properly original, but I like what I've done with The Magus Hack as a achievement in rules-wrangling. I hope you enjoy it too.
The other week, a chance conversation reminded me of how much I love RPGs and stories of modern wizardry: arcane duels in back alleys, fusing technology with witchcraft, dragons in the subway, old gods drinking in dive bars, demonic pacts in glass-and-steel boardrooms. Yeah, bring it to me.
So, a week of scribbling later, with many important duties neglected, and we have a new RPG. Say hello to The Magus Hack.
Beautiful cover art by the generous Christopher Smith-Wong (I was going to use it for a Ghost Hack scenario but that would be to waste it). You can buy The Mage Hack on drivethrurpg as PDF and if you want a physical copy it's over on Amazon.
Of course, the inspiration for all this is (whisper it!) Mage: The Ascension, which is far and away the best of White Wolf's lauded World of Darkness games from the 1990s. Just looking at the image from the 1993 GM's screen brings back the lysergic thrill that this game offered with its heady mixture of postmodern philosophy, serious esoteria and swashbuckling lunacy.
I mean, what the HELL !!?!?? What the actual Hell ??!!?
I eagerly GMed a Mage chronicle, back in the days of 1st ed, when there were no boundaries, and the players roamed the Hells and Faerie and the Digital Web and had a blast. A decade later, I GMed a chronicle using the Renaissance-set Sorcerers Crusade variation and the players tangled with Torquemada, witnessed the fall of Muslim Grenada, discovered the Americas with Columbus and survived the Aztec Invasion of Europe. Good times!
I still adore the beautiful Mage: The Ascension tarot deck and I still use it in my roleplaying games as a prompt for discussion or a colourful alternative to a dice roll
So you'd think, another decade on, I'd be super-keen to dive into Mage again. And I am. I really am. But ...
Partly what's holding me back is that Mage doesn't quite excite me as it used to. How could it? It's a quarter of a century old !!! Its wide open frontiers have been pretty carefully mapped out. The lore is canonical now. There's a whopping great 20th Anniversary rules set that you can spend a fortune on. It covers everything in fascinating detail. That's cool, I guess, but I miss the go-anywhere-do-anything Mage of the old days. The canon becomes constrictive. Am I getting bored of the Ahl-i-Batin?
Mage20: it's enormous.
There's other things about the Mage rules that only irked me slightly in the past, but bother me more now. It's a Great Handfuls Of Dice (GHOD) game, but an oddly reductive one. You roll a ton of dice, count your successes, deduct your failures; then the other guy does the same and takes his successes away from yours and ... the clear correlation between Being Really Good At A Thing and then Getting A Great Result is lost. As a rules mechanic, it's lumbering and it makes combat in particular into a drama-free grind.
Then there's the magic. What everybody loves about Mage - what you come away remembering and talking about - is the metaphysics: the idea of reality conforming to belief, the language of pattern and consensus and paradox, the coolness of making your spells look like coincidences. What we forget is how bland the rules for this are. You check your Spheres to see if you're allowed to do a thing, you roll a Small Handful Of Dice (maybe 3 or 4) and count your successes. That's all you do. Yes, OK, there's some stuff about tweaking the difficulty level in your favour, but mechanically, there's not a lot of decision-making.
This sounds like a big Hate on Mage, but it's not meant to be. I'm just reflecting on why, 25 years on, I'm not as excited by Arete rolls to pull off that Forces-3/Prime-2 effect as I ought to be.
Anyway, that's why I thought: There ought to be a simple OSR-themed version of Mage, with the familiar six attributes from D&D, with Hit Points and Levels and a freeform system that lets you enjoy constructing spells as well as roleplaying the casting of them.
Which is where The Magus Hack comes from.
The go-to source material is going to be David Black's The Black Hack, which identifies the roleplaying genome elegantly and succinctly and adds the innovation of usage dice rather than tracking points: whenever you call on a resource, you roll that resource's die and on a 1-2 it exhausts, getting smaller, with d8s turning into d6s and d6s turning into d4s and when d4s exhaust, well, you're not going to be using that resource any more.
The antidote to massive rule books.
I've already penned a couple of Hack-inspired RPGs: The Ghost Hack scratched the itch that Wraith: The Oblivion couldn't reach (at least, not for me) and The Hedgerow Hack channelled my love for '70s children's TV and fantasy novels into a game about travelling the byways of English history in the company of talking birds and living scarecrows to stop the Dark from swamping the pristine countryside.
Hey, I can praise my own stuff!
This provides the core engine. I borrowed the idea of characters created from Ability packages from Paul Baldowski's The Cthulhu Hack and the concept of a nasty usage die that gets bigger rather than smaller from Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack.
These games are both awesome OSR Hacks. Cthulhu Hack is slick and professional, Blood Hack a bit more indie, but both remind you why you don't need slick and weighty rules sets
Instead of Mage's abstract 'spheres' I went with the schools of magic that Gary Gygax came up with for AD&D back in 1977: Abjuration, Alteration, Charm, Divination, Evocation and Summoning. I ditched Illusion/Phantasm - I figure you can make illusions directly inside people's heads with Charm or out of light and sound itself with Alteration, so why break up the harmony of 6 Schools mapping onto 6 Stats for the sake of an unnecessary seventh magic type?
The magic system involves building up enough 'charges' to pay for the effects you want - say, damage or range or duration or a couple of other factors. You build up these charges by rolling one of your casting dice. Since these are usage dice, they exhaust on a 1-2, so the more you roll them, the smaller they get, eventually winking out of the game. Plus, you are limited to rolling your Level+2 casting dice for any effect. But there are loads of ways round that particular restriction. Like picking up free charges when using your thematic instruments (your 'Hallows') or breaking the limit of Level+2 when working magic inside your occult Philosophy or plenty of other things.
I reckon a core rules system is OK if you can express it as a flowchart taking up no more than one A5 page
There are the rules you'd expect for passing your magic of as ordinary coincidences (cryptic magic) as opposed to amazing violations of the laws of nature (outrageous magic). There are rules for permanent Dweomers, sympathetic links using True Names and longwinded Spells versus quick'n'dirty Hexes.
The other novel mechanic is Hubris - your Magus' out-of-control egoism - represented by a little d4 usage die that gets bigger and bigger when you roll it and it comes up 1-2. Highly hubristic Magi find it difficult interacting with mortals, lose the ability to do cryptic magic and eventually get expelled from Earth to a dimension of their own.
Hubris can be called upon to boost your own ,magic, but at the risk of growing even more out-of-control.
I've linked Hubris to the Nemesis Die, which is rolled to see if the bad guys notice you working magic. Highly hubristic Magi stand out more; they attract the attention of powerful enemies. Hubris also defines the consequences of Backlash from fumbled magic, making the retribution less likely but more deadly, escalating from birthing malevolent imps from your unconscious mind to dramatic explosions and dimension warping.
For fans of Mage, I include nine Philosophies of magic that bear a startling resemblance to (but are legally distinct from) some famous mystic traditions.
There are nine Nemeses suggested, with stat blocks for their minions and bosses, so Magi can confront the Machine Messiah's Terminator-style robots, the Nameless Cult's Lovecraftian abominations, the Fae Crusade's elven invasion or other Big Bads that sit up and notice when PCs are careless with their magic. I've developed the mechanic I introduced in The Hedgerow Hack of using a descending Nemesis Die that gets rolled when the players get into trouble and summons the Big Bad with lethal force if it fully exhausts itself.
With previous games, I tried to stick to royalty-free illustrations or stock art packages, but I splashed out a bit on this product. I approached a few talented creatives online and I'll return to them if The Magus Hack funds its own high-quality second edition for original art, but in the meantime I'm grateful for Christopher Smith-Wong offering his powerful cover art and I followed good advice by buying in some stock art by prolific artists on drivethrurpg. It's all B&W line drawings, but it's professional standard and it sets the tone.
There's a whole argument I don't want to have with myself, but it goes a bit like this: Hack RPGs are supposed to be seat-of-your-pants RPG experiences with minimal rules and a "just wing it" mentality - but you've written a Hack game here that's 84 pages long. Don't you see what you've done?
Well, if I were to have that argument with myself, I might retort that 84 pages of a slim little A5 booklet isn't really a burdensome exercise in rules-lawyering, that there are lots of pictures, that a lot of it is advice and suggestions for adversaries and settings and ... oh, look, a RPG about Modern Wizardry is just going to take up more words than dungeon bashing, alright? Jeez. Don't get so hostile.
Be that as it may: I've got my OSR-themed alternative RPG to delving into the dense lore of the source material. I'm going to play a few scenarios and see if my imagination takes flight - if so, I'll work on a scenario pack to support the game.
In the meantime, I'm setting up a Mage Hack support page on this site with a bunch of rules that didn't squeeze into the published book and a heap of sample spells, along with discussions of how the system builds them.
Next up: the Fae Hack. Now that might take a while ...
I'm working on a Player Pack that sums up character generation and adds a bunch of extra tables and rules to flesh out your characters and motivate them. Now your animated scarecrow can be all that's left of a Fae knight who loved a maiden who died and her grave is underneath platform 3 at Liefbury Station and once in every Age she returns and waits for the train (or carriage or palfrey, depending on the century) to carry her away and you have to be there before she leaves to tell her you love her and... oh you get it. Lovely complex roleplaying stuff to distract you from shooting crows and battling Lord Isengrim Von Ulf with flintlock pistols over the midnight rooftops of 17th century Thornyford.
Here's a taster of what's going to be in that booklet:
An Age Called Home
PCs in The Hedgerow Hack are mysterious strangers who arrive in an Age to solve a mystery or resolve a crisis. But where do they come from?
Each PC choose an Age that is the one in which they were born. For Ouzel, this must be the Age of Fable. For Wurzels it is the age in which their scarecrow body was built.
In their Home Age, Human PCs can test INT to know about any (non-supernatural) place or object and test CHA to know about any (mortal) person. If the test is successful, this knowledge can be related to the PC’s background.
For example, in the Age of Swords, Guyon is curious about a group of knights. He tests CHA and the GM says he recognises one of the knights as Cuthbert of Combe, because Cuthbert fought alongside his uncle to fend off a Danish raid some years ago.
Fae PCs can test INT or CHA to know about supernatural places, objects or persons.
Ouzel and Wurzels do not know where Legendary Locations are: these must be discovered in play.
NB. The GM has the right to declare any location or object to be ‘mysterious’ or person to be ‘strange’ or ‘unknown’ in which case no Stat test will reveal anything about them.
Although Briar Knights always speak and understand the language of the Age they visit, they don’t always grasp its norms and manners.
At the start of a story, PCs in an Age they are not native to roll 1d4, 1d6 or 1d8 depending on how far removed they are. That is the number of CHA tests with mortals they must make at Disadvantage until they settle in.
For example, Guyon is native to the Age of Swords so if he adventures in the Age of Steel he will be at Disadvantage for 1d6 CHA tests because that is ‘two Ages away’ from his Home Age.
Player Characters as Children
The Hedgerow Hack takes inspiration from some classic children’s literature of the 1960s and ‘70s – like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (and latterly, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials) – or TV shows like Catweazel and Children of the Stones. If you want to capture this atmosphere, then Heathen Clerks and Tinkers can be children.
If you feature children as PCs, then consider these rules changes:
The advantage of child-PCs in your campaign is that their family life becomes part of the drama. It is important to know what Age the family live in, because children need to slip away from their family to go on adventures with their weird friends.
Families can be placed in danger, especially if a Doom Die exhausts while a child-PC is with her family. The Feral Squires are not above threatening to harm a PC’s family, if only to coerce Briar Knights into not interfering with their schemes.
Families will have their duplicates in other ages, albeit without the PC in them and perhaps living in different circumstances. This can make for interesting roleplaying, if a child-PC wants to save or redeem their similar-family in a different Age.
For example, Guyon’s family in the Age of Swords are contented farmers, but in the Age of Steel the family is being forced into the workhouse after being evicted from their land by Isengrim Von Ulf.
Childhood’s end: All children (but one) grow up. Childhood could end when a PC reaches 10th level or 6th. GMs should decide in advance how long childhood lasts and whether the PC continues to adventure as a now-adult hero or if they forget about their childhood and settle down to a mortal life of love, labour and a family of their own, watched over by the comrades they no longer recognise.
You know how it is. Work is piling up. You've got a million things to do. But you've been struck by this idea that just tickles you so much that you have to sit down and write a RPG about it.
Yes, I know. First World Problems.
But here's the Hedgerow Hack RPG.
Eerie 'crucified scarecrow' cover art by Fraser Sandercombe (2014, by permission)
You see, it all started last week with an innocent game of D&D - or, actually, BlueHack RPG, as discussed in last weekend's blog. It was enjoyable high fantasy fare, but one player - Karl McMichael - went a bit moodier and darker with his character concept. He decided his generic 1st level Cleric would be a mute child worshipper of the god of scarecrows who wore a sack over his head and communicated through a ragged sock puppet. Then he draw this flavour art.
Bilge by Karl Michael (2021)
Now, if that doesn't make you want to design a brand new RPG, just so that this character can live and breathe and take part in macabre folk-horror stories - well, I don't know what will.
OK, yes, right - that will do it too, I suppose.
Umm. OK. That's another.
That one, maybe not so much.
I started off just creating Black Hack style character classes for druidic tramps, living scarecrows and talking animals. But the world of the Hedgerow really took me by the throat. The first shift was the idea that the characters be time travelling mystical hobos, sort of Sapphire & Steel meets Wurzel Gummidge.
Once you've had that idea, you need your own setting and mythology. So welcome to the Old Shires, a pristine patch of the English countryside caught somewhere between The Railway Children and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, with a dollop of Catweazel and Aqualung and Fairport Convention and, oh yes, some of Prince Valiant and The Vikings too please. And John Boorman's Excalibur and the 1980s Robin of Sherwood too while I'm at it.
And throw in some classic children's fantasy literature, why not !
We need a map of the Old Shires, or my favourite part of it, the part that looks like Herefordshire:
Then we need our cast of PCs - the Briar Company of Sky & Furrow. You can choose from Heathen Clerks who are your basic Clerics, but who follow the Heathen Saints, with names like King Wren, Elder Mandrake, Lady Hagthorne and Lord Brock. They can switch to a different saint each story or be exclusive to one. Ouzel are bird-headed Fae who are illusionists and spell-casters. Wurzels are animated scarecrows and mighty warriors. Tinkers are ragged beggars with hidden powers; depending on the season they follow they might be thieves, assassins, prophets or rangers. Gypceans are, well, gypsies really: they know about the Briar Company, they're loremasters and, if another Companion gifts them some magical power, they can craft wondrous items.
The Briar Knights can pass through the mystical Hedge between worlds, moving from the Age of Swords (9th century, Danes invading), the Age of Plagues (17th century, witch trials), Age of Steel (19th century, railways are here) and Age of Ashes (our time) as well as the Age of Fables (your classic high fantasy).
So, it's like Time Bandits isn't it? Why didn't I think to tell you it's like Time Bandits?
Should have won Best Film for 1982. Oscar went to Chariots of Fire and who re-watches THAT any more?
Heroes need villains. The Briar Company are up against the usual monsters - undead, daemons, goblyns (with a Y) - but also the Feral Squires who have invaded the Old Shires. There's Isengrim Von Ulf and his sister Hirsent Dame Wolf; there's the ridiculous Martin le Ape and Tibault Prince of Cats. Then there's Reynard the Fox who sometimes thwarts the PCs and sometimes assists them. They're served by the Wer-kynde who are changelings that grow into were-creatures.
You can play the Feral Squires for laughs but there's nothing funny about the Raven Margrave, who is a force of Darkness, with crows for spies, undead for servants and the Murdering Ministers as his lieutenants.
Finally there's the Witch-Harrow, a mortal organisation that hunts down supernatural creatures. Most of the agents are just Gossips and Snoops, but the Hexen Hammers are ferocious warriors and Inquisitors know spells to strip the Briar Knights of their powers.
The novel mechanic here is the Doom Die that ticks down when you attract the attention of one of these factions, finally forcing a confrontation with their agents while you're just, you know, trying to persuade a Fae Lord to return Jenny o'the Fell's baby to her or help Gareth Gamble-Green escape the constables.
I've added in a mechanic to replace gold pieces as the main reward. PCs must track down fragments of Lore and the Legendary Locations that match them, so it's also a game of exploring a mythic landscape.
I'm uncommonly pleased with this. I still delight in Susan Cooper's marvellous Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, in which an order of time-traveling Old Ones move between the modern world, the Dark Ages and the faerie-themed Otherworld, assembling legendary treasures and finding eerie significance in folk celebrations. There was a 2007 movie, but it was rubbish, despite Ian McShane being in it. I think those books will haunt my life and they're a big influence on this game.
The editions I grew up with. Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) is a bit 'Famous Five Go To Cornwall and find the Holy Grail' but the fantasy really kicks in with 1973's The Dark is Rising. The sequel Greenwitch taught childhood-me the meaning of awe when Will and Merry confront the sea goddess and The Grey King is just haunting and beautiful and strange - so good, in fact, that it rather overshadows the series' 1977 climax, Silver On The Tree.
After a bit of playtesting, The Hedgerow Hack is be available as pay-what-you-want on drivethrurpg - but if anyone wants to offer criticism, beta testing or just to chat about it, send me an email.
Yes, it's Bob Dylan's best song ("Discuss...."), but it also describes my new fascination with Michael Thomas' Blue Hack RPG, after my lovely experience using it last weekend.
Click the image to see the page on drivethrurpg
What I now itch to do is expand the roster of character classes for Blue Hack, like I did for White Box in blogs passim. I want to take some of the so-called 'sub-classes' D&D players have loved over the decades and interpret them through the lens of Eric J. Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D Set, then refract it through the Blue Hack's own quirky sensibility.
For example, what about the Barbarian and the Bard?
The reason I focus on these two is that they specialise in Stats that Blue Hack neglects: CON and CHA. Currently, these Stats are prerequisites for demi-humans (Dwarves and Halflings need CON 9+) but none of the classes get the opportunity to increase CON and CHA when they gain HD.
Personally, I would house rule that all Blue Hack PCs can choose to roll to increase CHA when they gain a HD, instead of rolling to increase one of their class-specific Stats. Rising fame (or notoriety) ought to result in growing charisma.
Blue vs Black
Before creating new Blue Hack classes, we need to look at the distinctively Holmesian direction Michael Thomas has taken the game from its 'parent' publication, the Black Hack.
The Black Hack calls them Warriors. They have d10 Hit Dice, but Blue Hack increases their damage output from d8/d6 to d10/d8. This is perhaps because Blue Hack is a more dangerous game: 1-2 HD monsters deal 1d8 damage in Blue Hack compared to a d4 or d6 in Black Hack. (The two games become more similar as monsters get tougher)
Another difference is Armour. In Black Hack you might have up to 12 points of Armour (from Plate and a Large Shield) but once it's been used to protect you, it's gone until you rest. In Blue Hack you have less Armour (5 points from Plate and Shield) but it applies every turn. The same goes for monster armour: a 4 HD Ogre in Blue Hack is absorbing 3 points of damage every time you hit it, so it makes sense to boost PC damage output.
I presume Michael made this change to make his Blue Hack less fiddly - you don't have to keep track of Armour Points, you just apply them every turn - and perhaps to stretch fights out a little longer, in the style of Holmesian slug-fests of yore.
Black Hack Warriors heal when not in combat. This sort of regeneration fits Black's chugging momentum, but doesn't fit with Holmes' gritty take on D&D. Black Hack Warriors also get attacks equal to their HD, but Blue Hack changes this to one attack per 2 HD; the effect is to make Blue Hack less super-heroic, since Fighters don't get 2 attacks per round until they have 3HD or 3 attacks until they have 5HD, by which time Black Hack Warriors are attacking 5 times a round.
Blue Hack adds in Parrying for Fighters and Shrug Off Damage is a boost to their Armour points - again, equal to half their HD, so it doesn't start to benefit them until they have 2 HD.
Shield Sundering becomes something anyone can do in the Blue Hack - although, thinking about it, Clerics are the only other characters who carry shields.
Clerics are similar in both games, although Blue Hack Clerics have superior damage output (1d8/1d6).
Blue Hack never mentions that Clerics must add the monster's HD to their roll to turn undead - but I take this to be subsumed under general rules for Powerful/Weaker Opponents. Interestingly, Blue Hack does allow you to gain a bonus when testing your Stats against monsters with fewer HD than you. Black Hack seems to assume that, since you improve your Stats as you gain HD, that's enough of a reward in itself, but Blue Hack is more keen to make experienced PCs dominate lesser NPCs and monsters.
Blue Hack removes the Clerical bonus for resisting poison/paralyzation, but it does offer access to all the Clerical spells, rather than just 1d4 of them.
Michael adds some Clerical spells like Resist Cold/Fire and Control Snakes but removes Speak With Animals. This is maintaining continuity with Holmes' 1977 spell lists.
Black Hack calls them Conjurors. Blue Hack raises their HD to beefy d6s and their damage output to d6/d4 instead of d4/1.
Blue Hack retains Black's magic resistance (roll with Advantage when testing INT against magical damage or effects). It makes the unusual choice of offering Magicians access to all the spells of the appropriate level and lets the Magician 'carry' 3 x HD spells in their heads. This makes Blue Hack Magicians rather more competent than old Homesian magic-users. They can create scrolls too - and quite cheaply. There are definitely implications for treasure placement here, since Hack characters don't need gold pieces for XP, but Magicians will spend everything they can find on creating an arsenal of spell scrolls. A Blue Hack campaign would need to be very stingy with money.
Blue Hack spell lists port across everything from Holmes, with a few odd exceptions, like Dancing Lights. Read Magic is gone, because now of course Magicians have access to all the spells.
I'm in two minds about the removal of Read Magic. Forcing magic-users to go adventuring in order to find spells and increase their repertoire was an interesting aspect of D&D. It was perhaps only implied in Holmes and made explicit in AD&D. Holmes' Read Magic spell was for using scrolls - and I support making magic scrolls usable by any Magician without having to cast a spell first. But on the other hand, Blue Hack's more flexible spell-slot system encourages PCs to carry along utility spells just in case, in a way that the rigid Holmes/AD&D approach did not.
Thieves are almost identical in both systems. Blue Hack boosts their damage output to 1d8/1d6 and carries this across to their backstabbing. The Black Hack's rather broad ability to roll with Advantage on delicate tasks is now restricted to Hearing Noises. However, Blue Hack specifically empowers Thieves to test DEX to open locks, hide, sneak, etc. Black Hack seemed to allow anyone to do these things (just, Thieves were better at it), whereas Blue Hack makes this sort of work the specific proficiency of Thieves, which fits with Holmes' more exclusive view of character classes.
Principles for New Classes
A fine principle in D&D is that no new class or sub-class should be better at something than the primary class was. Actually, AD&D violated this principle quite often, making Rangers and Cavaliers better than Fighters. But Michael Thomas clearly adheres to it, because his elf-only Fighter-Magicians have lower HD than Fighters, don't gain the extra attacks of Fighters or the damage resistance or magic-resistance of the parent classes and gain spell-slots more slowly than Magicians.
A Blue Hack principle seems to be a slower ramping up of power, compared to Black Hack PCs. Blue Hack also treats certain abilities as the exclusive province of a character class (like Thieves opening locks) rather than something anyone can attempt by testing a Stat.
CON and CHA are under-used Stats in Blue Hack. Although the Blue Hack spell lists are generous, they're lacking some of the effects D&D players expect, like talking to animals, monster summoning, etc.
Blue Hack Barbarians
Brian Asbury introduced what was (to my mind) the finest iteration of the Barbarian sub-class back in White Dwarf #4 in 1977. I analysed the Asbury Barbarian in a previous blog and offered a reconstruction of it for White Box RPG.
If we accept the idea of the Barbarian as a specialist in ferocity - accomplishing by instinctual energy what other, more civilised characters do through study, technique or reflection - then we can build a Blue Hack Barbarian along these lines:
Personally, I think Barbarians should always be Humans, but if your campaign features savage Frost Elves, Desert Dwarves or Jungle Halflings, go ahead and mix it up.
Starting HP: 1d8 + 6
HP per HD/Resting: 1d8
Weapons & Armour: No armour or shield, may use any weapons
Attack Damage: 1d8 either armed or unarmed/improvising
Gaining HD: Roll twice to increase STR or CON.
Danger Sense: A Barbarian enjoys Armour Points based on an instinct for danger; unlike normal Armour, these points are removed when used and only regained by resting for a turn (like Armour Points in Black Hack); the Barbarian gains 1d4 points per HD and re-rolls them all after each rest.
First Attack Ferocity: A Barbarian tests with Advantage on her first attack against an opponent who is Close
Self Preservation: A Barbarian may test CON to avoid any penalty from being Out of Action but must add the result of the OoA roll (up to +6 for 'Death')
This is the loincloth-clad semi-nude barbarian of fantastic literary fiction, not a medieval Viking or Celt. The d8 HD makes this Barbarian equivalent to a Cleric, but note the superior starting Hit Points. The damage output is the same for any weapon or even bare fists: good for a savage meelee fighter.
No armour is a drawback, but offset by Danger Sense. A 1HD Barbarian enjoys 1d4 Armour Points, which might be equivalent to chainmail, but a 3HD Barbarian will have 3d4 Armour Points, possibly double figures, which few Fighters can match. However, these points are removed as they are used, so in a long fight, the Barbarian becomes helpless. The Armour Points aren't predictable: you might roll poorly. Referees might disallow using Armour Points in no-peril situations, such as getting your companions to attack you just to be allowed to re-roll your Armour Points.
Self Preservation encourages a Barbarian to take foolhardy risks and avoid being crippled or disfigured - or even dying.
First Attack Ferocity is a nod to the Asbury Barbarian's signature move. Attacking with Advantage is particularly sweet as it doubles the chance of getting a critical hit.
This Barbarian shouldn't compete for space with Fighters. He's a sprinter, whereas a Fighter is a marathon runner. The mechanics reward jumping headlong into the fray, taking crazy risks, maybe hoping your comrades will bail you out if it all goes wrong.
The Class Hack by Mark Craddock introduces an alternative build for Barbarians. The Craddock Barbarian has d12 HD, outshining Warriors and d10/d8 damage output, also outshining Warriors but to adapt that for Blue Hack it should be d12/d10. They get the same extra attacks as Warriors/Fighters and roll STR and CON when leveling up. This version of the Barbarian is a superb bruiser. Since they can use any weapons or armour, they end up outshining Fighters in almost every way - Blue Hack Fighters' only advantage is their Shrug Off Damage ability to boost their Armour Points slightly and a chance to increase DEX when leveling up: unless a Barbarian rolls a good DEX at character creation, they are likely to fall behind as ranged combatants.
Click on the image to view it on drivethrurpg. There's also a Class Hack 2nd Ed. with a more nuanced Barbarian build that's rather more distinct from an overpowered Warrior
I don't think Blue Hack really needs a super bruiser to outshine Fighters, but it's certainly another option.
Later in the week, I'll think about Bards and Druids.
Like a lot of people, I like to celebrate my birthday by getting friends together for a game: either one of those big brainy wargames like Dune where everyone ends up in the kitchen, plotting, or else a jolly, feel-good RPG session, a sort of festive one-shot.
Covid Lockdown imposes constraints on both activities, but the wargame more than most. So we gathered this afternoon to play old school D&D: five players and myself, talking through Zoom, rolling dice on Hangouts and me showing maps and floorplans by sharing a PowerPoint display.
But what adventure to run? I'm time-pressed, right ahead of returning to work tomorrow, so it has to be a pre-made module. Time to dust off one of those old classics from the glory days of White Dwarf magazine. My eye falls on Barney Sloane's The Search for the Temple of the Golden Spire from White Dwarf 22 (1980).
You can also find this mini-module in Best of White Dwarf Scenarios II
Barney's adventure had always been a favourite of mine, although I'd never run it. How would it stand up, after all these years?
I think, back when I was 13, Golden Spire impressed me immensely. This was no underground maze or skirmish in a fortress. Barney set out an attractive wilderness map extending around the village of Greywood, complete with ruined towers, Cloud Giant lairs, talking trees and a forest full of gnomes and sprites. There are two mini-dungeons to encounter. There's a riddle that serves as a coded map to guide players from one end of the wilderness to the other, culminating in the eponymous Temple where some very hardy monsters reside.
The whole thing has a folkloric, faerie atmosphere that appealed to me greatly (and still does), brewing up elements of Spenser's Faerie Queen with its forest in which big evil temples pop out of the landscape and queer woodland folk offer cryptic clues.
Remember, this was only 1980. This sort of above-ground adventure in an atmospheric wilderness setting was quite novel. B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands) only appeared the previous year and the wilderness segment of that was only a prelude to the real business of clearing out the Caves of Chaos, one goblin at a time. Usually, wilderness was just something to cross in order to get to the adventure: here it was part of the adventure itself, along with a small town-based segment as well. Although Jean Well's B3 (Palace of the Silver Princess) contained a wilderness element and a similar faerie vibe, it was (in)famously recalled and rewritten; the next product I would find with this sort of integration of setting and adventure, Judges Guild's The Illhiedrin Book, was still a year away.
If you're my age, your adolescence is defined by either these covers or The Clash's record sleeves.
Rereading Barney's adventure, 40 years on, I can see some flaws. It occupies that strange twilight zone between Original D&D and AD&D: creatures from the AD&D Monster Manual are referenced, but this is a OD&D adventure through-and-through, with little or no reference to the Dungeon Master's Guide's rules for wilderness travel, for example.
There are confusions and omissions. What's the scale of the map? How far can PCs travel? How often do you check for Wandering Monsters? More importantly: just why, exactly, are the PCs seeking the Temple of the Golden Spire? Nowhere does the scenario explain what it is or why anyone would want to go there. It's sort of assumed that, once a Celtic Cross expounds a riddling quest, adventurers will just rush off and risk their lives to fulfil it on general principle.
Certain aspects of the riddle are unexplained and there seem to be crucial details missing from the description of Greywood: what is the star that is stone? what's the deal with the abandoned house? what exactly do the clerics know about the Temple? what's the deal with Greycrag Citadel, visible on the horizon?
You get the impression that Barney didn't bother setting down on paper everything that was going on in his campaign setting. Nevertheless, this scenario inspired a host of imitators in the pages of White Dwarf who corrected his mistakes, even if they never quite capture the faerie charm of Golden Spire: Phil Masters' The Curse of the Wildland (#32 and exemplary, like most of Phil's stuff) and Paul Vernon's Troubles At Embertrees (#34) were both from 1982; Stuart Hunter's The Fear of Leefield (WD#60) from 1984 and Richard Andrew's prize-winning Plague from the Past (WD#69) from 1985; all did a fantastic job of sending the PCs from a village in peril, through a cleverly constructed wilderness setting to a micro-dungeon showdown, but with a tighter plot and closer attention to AD&D rules.
The thrill I used to get as a schoolkid when these things came thumping through the letter box....
It's not a problem filling in the gaps in Barney's scenario. He seems to intend some clue in the stone cross to send the PCs journeying down the road to the east. I introduced an evil presence in dreams that was recruiting villagers to the cult of the Golden Spire and the disappearing peasants act as impetus to investigate and the PCs' own nightmares make the stakes personal: if they cannot locate the evil temple and destroy its power, they too will convert to Chaos.
AD&D, OD&D or ... gasp .... Holmes ???
1980 was an odd time for D&D. The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide had just been published - I acquired mine for Christmas in 1979 so it's quite possible Barney Sloane didn't even own it when he composed Golden Spire, perhaps using only the AD&D Monster Manual and the Original D&D rules set for his campaign. That would explain the odd, eldritch tone of his adventure.
Back in 2020 I ran a campaign using the wonderful White Box rules, which do a great job of capturing OD&D. In fact, there's a huge section of this website documenting my attempts to reverse-engineer lots of character classes into White Box's delightful 10-level world. I promised myself I'd next turn to Blueholme next to capture the flavour of the Holmes Basic Set. But for this scenario, I wanted to try something different: the Blue Hack RPG.
Three brilliant OSR rules sets - click on the images for links to purchase: PDFs of White Box and Blueholme are pay-what-you-want and Blue Hack is under £2
Blueholme and Blue Hack are both by Michael Thomas of Dreamscape Design. Blueholme is a straight-up retroclone of the Holmes Basic D&D Set, but the recent Journeymanne Rules expand the game to 20th level, introducing all sorts of PC race options beyond the basic Elves, Dwarves and Halflings along with lovely OSR art.
Blue Hack is a different proposition. In just 22 pages, it condenses the D&D experience in the same style as the groundbreaking Black Hack RPG. You roll your classic 6 abilities on 3d6: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. No modifiers or saving throws; if you want to hit something, you roll under your Strength on a d20; dodge an arrow, roll under your Dexterity; spot a secret door, roll under your Wisdom.
Your class offers you Hit Points and damage is based on your class, not your weapon. Going up a level grants you opportunities to increase your abilities (try to roll equal to or over them on a d20). Monsters with more Hit Dice than you impose a penalty to hit or dodge them. Armour soaks damage. Every spell gets a single line of description; same with every monster. That's it. The rest is up to you.
Blue Hack offers a few Holmesian tweaks to the Black Hack formula, like racial bonuses for the obligatory Dwarves, Elves and Halflings; some Holmesian spells and monsters; some refocusing of character classes. Enough to make it feel like 'Blue Book' era 1970s D&D.
The beauty of this is the sheer speed with which you get a character up and running. You might think it's fast creating a character for Basic D&D, but there are hardly any tables to consult in Blue Hack. If you're creating characters online, over Zoom, this sort of pick-up-and-play ethos is invaluable.
Blue Hack also suggests that PCs gain a level after every session/adventure/encounter - whenever the DM likes, really. With Golden Spire I wanted the PCs to start at 1HD (1st level) and rise to 3HD (3rd level) by the time they entered the Spire itself. This proved very straightforward - at various points, players got to roll and add those extra Hit Points, check to see if any abilities increased and expand their spell slots. Beautifully simple.
So, what happened? [SPOILERS]
Character generation throws up the usual adventuring misfits. David is a cretinous dwarven halberdier named Dimples; Emily an elven thief named Gnashe; Alex an elven fighter-mage named Azure-Wall; Oliver a good-looking human fighter named Gomez; and Karl turns to the macabre with a child cleric named Bilge who worships the god of scarecrows and communicates through a sock puppet..
This bunch don't ask for motivation: they study the riddle and get on with the quest.
The tone is larky and riddled with Monty Python-isms: the villagers export walnuts and take everything literally, arm-wrestling resolves most interactions, cultists complain about itchy robes, no one believes gnomes exist.
Not wanting to waste Barney Sloane's excellent scenario map, I moved it into PowerPoint for screen-sharing and covered the hexes with terrain-themed shapes, then deleted each shape as the party moved through the wilderness, revealing the map below.
This was such an effective way of revealing a map and dramatising exploration, I'd love to do it for a round-the-table game, if such a format ever resumes. Yeah, you can probably do something similar on RollD20 ...
The party discover Greycrag Citadel, infested with kobolds. It's a lovely castle map that I'll definitely re-purpose for future games. In this case, Gnashe sneaked in alone, found the viewpoint from the tower from which the Golden Spire could be located and the party covered her embattled retreat, chopping down kobolds and ghouls.
Greycrag and the Temple of the Golden Spire: aren't those lovely? White Dwarf always excelled at scenario maps
Heading to the Spire, the party have fun with wandering monsters: Yorkshire Centaurs and an Ogre teaching his son how to devour humans (feet first, of course). By the time they reach the evil temple, everyone is 3HD/3rd level and pimped enough to take on hard monsters, like a Harpy and the climactic Wraith (who of course drains several people of their levels before being pelted to death with the harpy's trove of silver coins).
I decided that the introductory riddle was in fact sent by the Wraith, to lure the party to the Golden Spire and trick them into freeing him from his prison. It's a feature of Barney Sloane's old school scenario construction that, in his version, there's no explanation given for the presence of various monsters in the Temple of the Golden Spire: they're not doing anything, they're just waiting for adventurers to turn up and attack them. However, to his credit, Barney's kobolds in Greycrag Citadel are a fairly dynamic bunch, busy getting on with all sorts of interesting things when the PCs turn up: roistering in the big hall, torturing prisoners, sleeping on guard duty. That's another example of this scenario from 1980 being a sort of half-way house between the aesthetics of Original and Advanced D&D. Later, more sophisticated scenarios in White Dwarf in the '80s, by people like Phil Masters, would give careful thought to the presence of every monster and use them all in the service of an overall plot or theme.
Overall, can Blue Hack really hack it?
Blue Hack was a big success for this sort of level-up-as-you-go scenario. I'd love to use it for some of the old TSR Modules: Tomb of Horrors, maybe? or White Plume Mountain? Or dust off some later, more complex White Dwarf adventures, like Daniel Collerton's fabled Irilian city/campaign (WD#42-47).
I'm not sure Blue Hack would serve for a conventional campaign. The roll-against-your-abilities system means that characters with high Strength or Dexterity will rarely miss - or get hit - in combat, even against tougher monsters. For example, with Strength 17, Dimples the Dwarf was hitting monsters with the same HD as him 80% of the time. How many 1st level characters in ordinary D&D have those odds? Without Armour Class, monsters enjoy some protection from damage, but a party of PCs can pile on the damage quickly, ending fights in just a round or two.
Now, I quite like that - nothing is more boring than one of those OSR D&D fights that just goes on and on - but a sense of peril is lacking, especially as being reduced to 0 HP only has a 1-in-6 chance of killing you assuming the rest of the party survive to rescue you.
The other feature is that, without experience points being needed to level up, PCs have no motives to seek out treasure. You might feel that's a good thing too: let adventurers be motivated by more realistic concerns, like duty or honour or saving the realm or rescuing loved ones. But it's surprising the amount of D&D material that's predicated on treasure as a motivator and if the PCs don't need to acquire it, all sorts of scenarios, traps, dilemmas and rewards need to be re-thought. Of course, you could easily paste a basic XP system onto Blue Hack to restore that mercenary motive.
I think Blue Hack will be my system-of-choice for D&D one-shots, especially re-vamping old scenarios. It fast set-up and rather abstracted combat system makes it ideal for online RPGing. I like the fast fights and the option to assign level-ups at dramatic moments, rather than tracking XP. Its lack of 'grit' or peril might be a drawback, but it offers a fresh perspective on those old-school modules and scenarios. Did somebody say C2: Ghost Tower of Inverness? Let's go get that Soul Gem!
I took a long break from running RPGs. I started working on my second edition of The Ghost Hack and then my imagination was entirely hijacked by ghost stories. I started writing a ghost story a day for the Daily Ghost (and you can see a selection in the Archives on this website).
But ... I'm back, running a Cthulhu-esque scenario for some old friends over a combination of Zoom and Google Hangouts. The story is set in Ancient Egypt around 1500 BCE - more of that anon - and I was determined not to use the classic Call Of Cthulhu rules system. I went with The Cthulhu Hack and more of that anon too!
You Got A Problem With The Classics?
Well, yes and no. Look, I was there, back in '81, when Sandy Petersen's Call of Cthulhu landed and rewrote everything we thought we knew about RPGs: non-combatant characters, mysteries not conflict, madness not death (or maybe, as well as death), non-heroic protagonists who were hopelessly outmatched by the monsters.
Seven editions in and the first ed. still has the best cover
Ian Bailey's review in White Dwarf 32 (1982) gives you a flavour of how novel CoC was back then:
Like everyone else, I adored CoC and its world-spanning campaign pack Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) remains the high water mark for this sort of RPG adventure.
Masks ... you just messed with the best!
But CoC isn't perfect and its flaws have - for me at least - intensified over the years, perhaps due to a growing gulf between the way I like to roleplay and GM and some of the assumptions 'baked in' to early-'80s roleplaying that the game just can't shed.
Partly it's the old Basic Roleplaying system that Petersen inherited from Runequest. I didn't mind Runequest with its stylised Bronze Age setting but some of the quirks in BRP became downright weird in a modern investigative setting. Like the flat percentage skill checks which meant that a Professor of Babylonian Antiquities might outright fail to read a passage in cuneiform by fluffing a Read (Ancient Babylonian) test. Not get the gist but miss the details or misinterpret a crucial passage, but outright fail to make any sense of it at all.
Then there's the incentive to let the least-skilful PC attempt any task first - because the XP system rewards low-skill characters for succeeding more than high skill ones. When a lock needs to be picked, the fumble-fingered psychologists and dilettantes all have a go and only if they fail does the private detective sigh, step forward and spring the lock.
And of course the Sanity system with its infamous SAN checks, that results in characters either being utterly unfazed by whatever they see, or turning into gibbering wrecks, with nothing in between.
My biggest problem was the nature of investigations themselves. In CoC it's usually vital that the PCs at some point find a secret compartment, trail a suspect or decipher a text. But if everyone fails the Spot Hidden or Read Languages roll, that simply doesn't occur.
Ken Hite gets round a few of these issues in Trail of Cthulhu, which uses Robin Laws' Gumshoe system to enable a sharper focus on clue-gathering and investigation. My own Cthulhu Abides tries to tackle investigation and sanity: it's a glorious mess (in hindsight) but reviewers were very kind about my sanity rules.
One of these games is a slick product by a pair of RPG luminaries; the other is by me!
Keep It Simple, Shoggoth!
Cthulhu Abides needs an overhaul and I'm not getting into that just now. CoC and ToC are both too clunky for my taste. I'm wanting to run a fast paced Lovecraftian adventure in an exotic setting and I want the players to focus on their characters and environment, not their skills or numbers.
This gives me two choices.
The two choices
Eldritch Tales is a lovely product. It's a White Box adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, which means it takes the Original D&D rules architecture - six classic characteristics rolled on 3d6 each, four character classes, levels, Hit Dice, saving throws - and attaches an Insanity score and a Feat system for doing skills as well as the usual spells (very much in the D&D format), monsters, experience points and the like.
The physical book is lovely, with heavy sepia-tinted pages, nice maps of New England and Arkham as well as essays on Lovecraftian sensibilities and plot construction. The D&D tropes, easy to deride for being artificial, are here presented so simply that you barely notice them and they fit in strangely well with the short mayfly existence of Cthulhoid investigators. The Feat system (roll a d6, try to get a 5 or 6, get bonuses or penalties, roll twice if it chimes with your occupation) is very elegant.
You can buy Eldritch Tales (physical or PDF) from drivethrurpg. It's published by Raven God Games and is written (and largely illustrated) by Joseph D Salvador.
The Cthulhu Hack is a different sort of beast: slimmer (52 pages compared to 220 pages) and altogether frothier. It takes the bare bones of David Black's versatile The Black Hack and runs with that game's innovations.
TCH also takes Original D&D as its departure point, but it travels further from its parent. There are the familiar six characteristics rolled on 3d6. There are Hit Dice. But in place of fixed classes there are Archetypes and an invitation to abandon even them and construct freeform characters around a triad of potent abilities. For example, build in 'Better Alone,' 'Jack in the Hole' and 'Surprise Attack' and you've got some lone assassin or scrappy kid.
TCH takes the Hack idea of resource dice. You roll these dice when you use items or powers and on a 1-2 they exhaust and shrink down to the next-lowest die; so d8s shrink to d6s and d6s shrink to d4s but when a d4 exhausts that resource is entirely gone.
This beautifully abstracts things like wealth. You go around buying things until your Wealth Die completely exhausts, at which point your cheques start bouncing.
But the real innovation is when this applies to investigation. You have two investigative resource dice: Flashlights (physically looking for things or researching them) and Smokes (talking to people, either nicely or through intimidation). These abilities automatically work until the die fully exhausts.
Let me spell this out. Your professor has a d10 die for Flashlights. You search for a secret door. You automatically find it, but roll your die and on 1-2 it shrinks to a d8. In the secret room, you look for a hidden compartment. Again, you automatically find it, but on a 1-2 your d8 shrinks to a d6. Inside is a scroll in Babylonian cuneiform. You automatically translate it, but on a 1-2 your d6 shrinks to a d4. Once your d4 is gone, you won't be finding or translating anything else.
Of course, these is deeply artificial. Just why would a character 'run out' of investigative ability? But it achieves something important in narrative terms. If the PCs look in the right place or talk to the right person, they automatically get the clue. The issue is not "will I succeed in a roll to get the clue?" but "is it worth making the roll to get a clue?" Players need to weigh up whether they are better conserving investigative resources and figuring things out by themselves, or make the rolls and risk exhausting their precious dice.
The Cthulhu Hack is available as physical copy or PDF from drivethrurpg or (physical only) from Lulu. It's published by Just Crunch Games and written by Paul Baldowski.
Shadows Over Karnak
The Cthulhu Hack wins the face-off, although I'd probably go with Eldritch Tales if I intended to run a proper Cthulhuesque campaign rather than this extended one-shot.
Since the setting is Thebes during Egypt's 18th Dynasty, an evocative character sheet is needed:
You can see I've got the six classic characteristics, with Wealth and Hit Dice abstracted as resource dice rather than scores. In place of the pulp detective themes 'Flashlights' and 'Smokes' I've got the Eyes of Ra and Horus. Sanity is replaced by Maat (the Ancient Egyptian concept of harmony and balance).
The scenario is set towards the end of the reign of Hatshepsut, Egypt's famous female pharaoh. The queen has just returned from the far-off land of Punt, bringing back a Puntite delegation who worship strange and nameless gods. Thebes becomes a party town to welcome the guests. Among all the revelry, the ageing Royal Architect is murdered and one of the PCs is implicated in the crime. Cue, investigation to unearth the true murderer and expose a plot that threatens the entire realm ... perhaps even the planet.
I'll keep readers posted on how things unfold and afterwards I'll publish the scenario. The setting has already thrown up some quirky details, like the Handmaids of Isis (Thebes' frighteningly competent all-female civil service) and the danger of knowing even the slightest detail about a pharaoh's tomb.
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.
In the middle, not a drop of blood on her, a child’s doll. Faye took it for the evidence bag.
We slung the long arms in the back of the BMW. I took the wheel. We were both quiet, me thinking about that bloodbath, Faye playing with the doll.
“Are you putting that thing in the bag or not?”
“Dorothy,” Faye replied, “her name is Dearest Dorothy.”
We stopped at lights so I turned to her. She hadn’t secured her Glock. I reached for it.
“Don’t you touch her!” she yelled, no, screamed. She’s a pretty girl, Faye, but she wasn’t pretty then, eyes wide, froth on her lips.
“It’s just a damned doll, Faye!”
Then I was looking into the barrel of her Glock-17.
“Stop the car,” she shouted: “Stop the bloody car, Dev!”
I did, nice and slow. She unbuckled, gripping that doll with white knuckles.
“I’m taking Dearest Dorothy and we’re going!” Then she was out on the pavement, doll in one hand and pistol in the other, with mid-morning shoppers skipping out of her way. “Don’t touch her!” she screamed at a pointing child. The white-faced mother found herself facing a 9mm semi-automatic.
“Faye, drop the weapon!” Now I was armed, my pistol on her, hers wandering between me, the child and the mother. “Put it down, Faye!”
Faye’s face crumpled with baffled fury, tearful, gulping air. She pressed the doll to her cheek and squeezed her eyes closed. The barrel moved towards her chin.
I took the shot.
The discharge sent pigeons whirring into the air, the boom of the Glock rolling down the shopfronts and surging back to me. Faye lay on the kerb. Dearest Dorothy sat next to a widening puddle of blood. I ran to her.
“Too right, it’s been a strange day,” said the Commander, blinking at the paperwork. He regarded me over the desk with a strange expression. “Are you OK, Dev?” When I nodded he added, “Drop that thing in the evidence bag, will you?”
“Her name is Dorothy,” I told him before I left.
It has arrived, a landscape in oils on canvass, 29 by 47 inches. It must go on the mezzanine. What a spectacle, fusing the hypernaturalism of the Café Volpine School with Signac’s use of geometric abstraction. The road recedes to a point of perspective the eye approaches but never attains. There’s a smudge in the distance that could be a tree, a tower or a human figure. How teasing.
I think it is a human figure. The flyers are at the printers. The photographer arrives at the weekend.
“That smudge?” he said. How can a photographer be so blind? I’m looking at it as I write and it’s distinctly a human figure, on the road, approaching the viewer.
Tonight was a private viewing – a vernissage, as Dietrich would say –to selected critics. Ling’s landscape drew a mixed response. Dietrich insisted on telling gruesome stories of Xavier Ling’s unsettling death. Melinda thought it ‘spooky’ – but Melinda has no insight at all. No one mentioned the figure on the road. It really is very distinct. I can make its eyes (so bright). It’s larger than I recall. Or closer.
Closed the gallery. Can’t cope with the chatter, the inane questions. How can they not see the figure on the road? Is it Ling himself, hidden in his own picture? His eyes – I can make them out from here.
Rain. Too dark. Slept on couch in gallery. He is so much closer. Ling has teeth, so white and sharp. Those eyes…
Banging on windows must be Dietrich with news reviews didn’t answer go away Dietrich so many messages on phone. No leaving now Ling has arrived he fills the frame but I will not look into those eyes, if I turn around and look, the teeth, so close, I will not I will not I will
Hit & Run
Coppers of course, when it’s too late to do any good. Hit and run, they said. Who saw what? Of course, no one saw a bloody thing. Make, model, plates? Sorry, officer… Useless, the lot of them.
No sense from Grace either. Nice girl, not the brightest.
“He stepped out right into it!” she kept telling the woman police officer. “Like he didn’t see it coming,” she said and the lady copper had this look on her face like she gave up being on telly to do this job.
Gracey went into the back of the cop car and I – the body, me – it went into the ambulance.
I didn’t want to go with them.
That mangled meat, it only felt like it was me when the tattooist’s needle was stinging, or the booze was coming back up after a session, or during a ruck, when your nose breaks and there’s blood in your mouth.
What was Grace anyway, when I wasn’t putting babies into her, the twins and the new one, whenever that’s due? Her face, all blotched with tears and snot: wouldn't miss it.
There were two ways to go and one of them was to stand around while the doctors brought out the bad news and Grace howled and then the funeral, all my mates in suits trying to crack onto my sister. What was the point in that?
The other way was marked out with two lines of fire, the treadmarks of a car, a silver Jag, blazing through town. Someone was at the end of that trail, someone with a Jag outside on the drive, someone enjoying a smoke and some banging tunes, trying not to think about what had happened on their way home.
Someone I was going to visit.
I turned my back on the flashing lights and walked into the night. Then I started to run.
These four stories round out the pieces of fiction that are going to appear in the core rules section of The Ghost Hack 2nd ed. It's been a blast writing these. You can read the others here and here.
Stain on the Floor
Or Jack and Ruth, they pop round with the twins, showing me their new phones and all their fancy apps. Where are they these days?
I need Jack to take a look at the door. The lock’s no good. People walk right in.
The young man from the letting agency is here. He walked in, bold as anything, so I hid in the kitchen, waiting for him to leave. There’s a young couple with him. She’s pregnant. He has those horrible tattoos.
“I don’t know about this place,” the woman says, shivering. “I heard what happened to the previous occupant.”
I wonder, who can she mean? The occupant before me was an old lady named Lucas who went to live with her family in Perthshire.
“The police caught the man responsible,” the young man from the letting agency tells them as they leave. “It really is a low-crime neighbourhood.”
I creep out once they’ve gone. She never mentioned the stain on the floor. It’s sticky. It must have ruined the carpets. Where are the carpets?
I look around in alarm. Where is the sofa? The bookshelf? Where’s the TV?
I run across the bare floorboards to the window. I shout out, Help! I’ve been burgled! But the passers by pay no attention. You’re invisible, when you’re old.
Except to the lady across the road. She’s always in her garden, with those shears. She straightens up and waves to me. I don’t wave back. The tenants in that house are noisy students and have been ever since the woman who owned it died, years ago it must be: the twins were just babies when she had that fall.
No curtains to close. No chair to sit on. Just the stain on the floorboards, glistening red. Like a bloodstain on my floor.
It’s like somebody died in here.
Voice of My Complaint
The vicar droned on: “Remember not the sins and offences of my youth…”
There had been sins, I suppose. My jealousy. Your work. That bitch Susan at your office. Something had been going on there. But what did it matter now? Your mother stood opposite me, childless as well as widowed. My mother comforted her. Perhaps they would be close, at last. If only there had been children: something they could share.
The vicar was saying something about “everlasting arms” and I thought of your arms, around me, strong. You carried me like I weighed nothing, from the wreck to flashing blue light. Then, later, they became so thin, your skin like glass. I watched the blue veins, mutinously doing the bidding of your unreliable heart.
Singing, but it was a hymn I didn’t know, something about “the voice of my complaint,” so I moved my lips out of idiot-respect.
The vicar started his reading and my excitement mounted.
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
I wanted to laugh, but it felt wrong, with Margaret bawling beside me.
“It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption.”
I stepped forward to look into the grave. Corruption stole your youth, your strong arms, your wise laughter. How I longed to see them again, now, uncorrupted.
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
The service ended. Flowers, ashes, dust to dust. The families drifted away through the bird-infested trees, Margaret to the bar, our mothers arm in arm, grieving for a daughter and now a son too.
I remained. “Where are you?” I shouted, then, “I waited, after the accident. I watched you, over the years.” And softly, “Why aren’t you here too?”
But the grave and the senseless wren made no answer.
Under the Bed
The child clutched Mister Wally, stroking his fluffy head and tracing his button eyes. Under the bed, the monster’s nails scratched and scraped. The child pressed Mister Wally to his cheek, inhaling his comforting scent of soiled fabric.
The monster tugged at the quilt, yanking it towards the floor. The child gripped the quilt, ready for the nightly tussle. The monster released its pull. The child wrapped the quilt around him like a snailshell, no corner over the mattress. This was how sleep was earned.
Mister Wally had gone.
Not under the pillow. Not inside the quilt. Sleep was impossible without Mister Wally.
The child peered over the edge of the bed. Mister Wally lay half under the bed frame in sliver of street light from where the curtains didn’t quite meet.
The child reached down, fingertips towards the upturned button eyes.
The monster caught his wrist.
The scream brought the child’s father, blinking furious sleep from his eyes. Light pounced on the room like a cat on a rat.
“Was it a nightmare?” the father asked.
The child sat in bed, his quilt neat, shielding his eyes from the light with a pale hand.
“Not any more,” the child replied.
The father smiled at the child’s mannered tone. He picked up the fluffy doll on the floor.
“Here’s Mister Wally.”
“I don’t want it.”
“You are getting a bit old for Mister Wally.” He shoved the doll into a drawer. What a helpless expression was in those button eyes. Almost pleading. He slammed the drawer shut. “Shall I leave the light on for a few minutes?”
“No,” said the child. “I like the dark now.”
The father reached for the light switch but hesitated. Why did he suddenly fear the darkness that would follow, with that still figure sitting in his child’s bed, watching him with unkind eyes?
He died in the London Infirmary, making all the little nurses laugh. He gave my Dad this telephone number before he passed and said, proper serious: “Just make one call and say his name, the one who wronged you, and I’ll know.”
Not that my Dad needed that. In the Eighties, he stayed away from them Yardies selling coke and shooting coppers. He opened a nice little business on the Portobello Road and made big money when it went upmarket.
I wasn’t that smart. I was fourteen when I phoned Uncle Douglass’ number. No one answered, but I knew someone was there. Someone who’d been expecting the call. I just said the name: Dale Perry. Dale, he threatened me and I was scared. That night, Dale went out of a seventh floor window. Splashed across the car park. Nice one, Uncle Duppy.
I don’t feel good about it now. Or the other names. Dwayne Mitchell, hit by a truck. Job done. Kelvin Franks who narked on me, proper carved up he was, just bits left. Even Caryne, God help me, who cheated on me. Or I thought she did.
All in the past now. Monica sorted me out. No more drugs. I’m respectable, like my old Dad. Two pretty girls. Pictures on my phone: see, that’s them. Love them up big. Would kill for them.
“I’m respectable now,” is what I told Eddie. But he said, “Do some with me, for old times!” But it’s stronger stuff than I remember. Next thing I know, I’m all lit up, thinking I can do anything, proper belted. I tell Monica, “Let me drive!” I’m driving too fast. Monica’s screaming at me. The girls are sobbing in the backseat. I turn to shout at them…
The funeral is tomorrow.
So I made that phonecall. Just one name.
But you knew that, didn’t you? I didn’t expect you so soon.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: