Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: Chronicles of Amherth

Chronicles of Amherth is an original campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord written by Peter C. Spahn* and published by Small Niche Games. I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical when I first laid eyes on it. The book is pretty unassuming. The cover is black and white. The layout is simple. The interior art is black and white and there's not a whole lot of it. Still, there weren't many original campaign settings for Labyrinth Lord, so I grabbed the PDF on a whim and let it sit on the digital back shelf.

When I finally got around to Chronicles of Amherth I damn near sent Pete Spahn an apology e-mail. Unassuming does not mean this product lacks quality or content. In 70 pages Chronicles of Amherth remembers things that other campaign settings often forget: the player characters. This setting paints its world in broad strokes, with a rich history that isn't filled with an infinite number of details. There's enough here to get a sense of the gritty fantasy that sets the world's tone - but the information presented is given in a general fashion so that game masters can customize the ideas presented to fit their own group. In many campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, I'm looking at you), there's often so much detail and so many NPCs running around that the players aren't really heroes. Instead hey're reduced to simple participants. Chronicles specifically states that the player characters are the heroes, and that very, very few heroes rise to 9th or higher level. This means that there's a whole lot of world to explore, a whole lot of danger to face, and the future will be forged by the player characters. In short, Spahn may have written it, but its really your world to play with.

The book begins with a brief overview of the tones and themes of the setting. As previously mentioned, Amherth is a gritty, dangerous world. Folks don't become adventurers because it gets them killed. The pre-history of the world is one that has seen the rise and fall of several advanced civilizations. Ruins, ancient magic (and technology, if the game master is so inclined) dot the landscape and few places are safe.  The world itself is dotted with signs of what are collectively known as "the Ancients," though in truth this is more a collected remnant of several civilizations that have risen and fallen over the history of this world. Again, Spahn offers hints and ideas instead of stating specifics about these lost societies. The glories of the ancient civilizations could be used to drop in elements of steampunk or sci-fi - as it is stated that these societies had highly, highly advanced technology. Personally, while the text didn't say it, I think it would be cool to give this a kind of Lovecraftian twist. The great thing is that while the text itself allows for this kind of referee creativity to be easily slotted into the setting. The big theme is that the power and technology of "the ancients" is dangerous with a captial Do Not Touch It.

Amherth handles magic in the same way it handles the rest of gaming within the world: it's all about giving the referee tools, not rules. The ability to use magic in the world of Amhreth is inherent. You're either born that way, or you're not. Those who have this gift are called Latents. In this section you find no details on exactly determining if a character is a latent or not, which seems to be to be a storytelling choice. It doesn't necessarily matter what any dice would say - what fits your campaign and gaming style?

The second aspect of magic unique to Amherth is Arcane Bleed, which is just too freakin' cool. I'm going to be using this in every D&D game in the future, regardless of edition. Basically, latents who have not tapped into their magical energy but go out and adventure will sometimes have some of that latent magical energy bleed into objects associated with their deeds. A heroic warrior might find his sword has become magical over time, or a sneaky thief might find his cloak granting him a small bonus to Hide in Shadows. This, to me, evokes Tolkien and Middle-earth. Not because Tolkien has any kind of Arcane Bleed, but because the deeds of an object have an impact on how its perceived by both those who wield it and those who encounter it. I love, love love this idea. It's a great way to create something that's more than just a Sword+1, or even have an item grow in power as the character levels - which helps keep with the low-magic feel of Amherth, but not neglect players of the necessary magic items that allow for high-level survival.

Continuing to facilitate broad ideas that facilitating classic gaming, we move into the section on "The Adventurer's Guild." Now let me begin by saying when I saw this, I thought it was hokey. But in the context of the setting it works. The world is dotted with ancient ruins and different groups of adventurers would certainly benefit from sharing information and having an organization that help them maintain the resources necessary to explore these places. The guild charges a nominal fee and in return they have access to resources of the guild. These are less often magical, but usually academic. This can give characters hints of what a dungeon may hold, so they're not going in blind. In addition, the guild has postings where patrons are looking to hire adventurers. Instant adventure seeds. Finally, and arguably the best part, is the fact that when groups register with the guild they are expected to keep record of their deeds and give their group a name. This kind of touch is perfect fodder for character investment and great role-playing.

Next we get to the world of Amhreth itself. It's got your classic (cliche?) lost history of the great and ancient civilization followed by the rise of a power hungry and genocidal Emperor Xanne. Its implied that he's got exceptional necromatic power and his campaigns of bloody murder are a large reason that demihumans are much less common than humans in the present world. Xanne is murdered on at least three specific occassions, but always rises to new life and vengence the next day. His conquest is pretty much what forges the world into what you have in the present day after almost 500 years of Xanne storming across the world and leaving blood and terror in his wake.

When the author moves on to address the specific cultures of the world he again paints in broad strokes, giving a few pages to define each nation. But in these few pages a real flavor is created, along with a paragraph each defining the general history of the culture, its people, military, geography, along with a few adventure seeds. What I love about the seeds is that they're not your typical "here's how to insert a dungeon in this part of the world." They're each based on the specifics of that culture and as driven by role-playing as by game mechanics, if not more so. Finally, each culture is given a historic comparison to give the reader context. I feel like this was a very smart move on the author's part because in a single paragraph you can turn a reader to real world history and give each nation a tangible tone. However, not all the cultures are purely drawn from history. The Sky Realms of Pax, for example, is a nation of dragon-riding knights who live in floating castles - though when one discovers exactly how they draw dragons into their service, the nobility of these cavaliers might be questionable.

In addition to the nations, you get several unique locations. From the hidden paradise of the Gray Lands to the lightning ravaged Seven Spires Beacon, there are all kinds of fun places to explore.

Amherth is a distinctly human-centric world and the location information reflects that. Each of the demihuman races is given a few paragraphs to describe their place in the world, but that place is marginal at best. Dwarves are caught up in an underground war, the elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world and halflings are a broken and scattered race. Yes, Amherth is a world ruled by the race of men - but there's an internal logic why.

Once the overview of the world is given, more of the unique aspects of Amherth are given in chapters that define some of the unique flora, monsters and magic items of the world. The flora given here are a surprise, and add a nice touch to the world. Most of the herbs, flowers and trees presented give a kind of minor game effect that can assist (or unexpectedly cause trouble for) traveling adventurers. It just helps create an atmosphere of how wild the world of Amherth really is.

The monster listing is surprisingly extensive. Of special note are the Dark Fiends, or Karthax. These creatures are evil and twisted horrors who may have once been humans or at least humanoids. Its implied that they were once rulers or creators of one of the societies of the Ancients before their own power got out of control. Now they live in darkness and are consumed with evil. They're painted in broad strokes and a clear framework for the enterprising game master to insert any kind of evil monster he might like under their heading, yet they're also a reminder that Amherth is a fallen world with a history of tragedy. Another monster of note is the Ruk, which are clearly meant to be orcish in nature. However, to help foster how pervasive and diverse these tropes of fantasy can be, Spahn decided to define goblins, kobolds and orcs all under the heading of urks - at least statistically speaking. This creates a unique diversity among what would otherwise be a cliche monster and allows the game master to surprise his players when they encounter "just another orc," if they find out that even though it looks like a black-skinned orc, it might in fact have the abilities of a bugbear.

The last major section of the book details magic items. Spahn goes out of his way to make sure all these items of evocative of the setting of Amherth. No simple "+1 weapons." Everything here has a history and was created for a purpose. I absolutely love these items because they never feel like "throw away" items. As a player, I would want to hold on to them because they have depth and a place in the world. Not to mention, some of them are just too cool for school because of what they do - like the Godmap. To be frank, I wish I'd thought of these items in my own campaigns, but Spahn beat me to it.

Chronicles of Amherth closes with a 1-page Appendix that details how monks fit in the world if the referee is allowing them in their campaign. This is a nice touch, but feels a lot like an after thought and less like an endorsement of the class. Frankly, if that's the case, then I agree with the author. I've never felt that monks quite fit in most euro-centric fantasy role-playing, but at least the author makes an effort to give them a place in the world.

So, in closing, I say again that Chronicles of Amherth is an easy book to overlook. It's almost unassuming. It's 77 pages. It's black and white. It doesn't have a whole lot of art. But that's because Chronicles of Amherth isn't truly a campaign setting - it's a campaign framework. Author Peter Spahn gives you a history, a tone and a broad overview for this world and then he encourages you to fill in the rest as you need for your campaign. This is the setting's greatest strength. By encouraging the referee to customize the world, it makes it easier to find a home for that referee and encourages players to carve out a piece of it for themselves. Not to mention, by painting in these broad strokes, it makes it very easy to drop in almost any outside sourcebook seemlessly into an existing campaign. I guess the best way I can describe Chronicles of Amherth is a toolbox as much as a setting. Here's a map, some info, a few new monsters and magic items - now make it your own.

I highly, highly recommend Chronicles of Amherth. It's available at RPGNow. The PDF is 4.95, while the softcover is 9.95. Or, you cut to the chase and get the PDF+Softcover Bundle for 9.95, which I would highly recommend. Even if you never use the setting itself, the book is well worth it just for the monsters, magic items, and flora. Chronicles of Amherth is written by Peter C. Spahn and published by Small Niche Games.

*Reviewer's Note: Peter and I share a last name, and it's not a common one. However, he and I have talked and at best if we are related it's five or six generations back. Just an odd coincidence that two guys with an uncommon last name would end up in such a small industry. We've never actually met, and if we had I'd have hired a Mind Flayer to steal the ideas out of his brain and use them for my own products.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Darkfast Classic Fantasy - Advanced Classes: Ducks

One of the great things about the OSR movement is the fact that sometimes someone releases a supplement so unique, so out of the blue and so... well... bizzare that you can't help but be curious. That was my reaction when I first heard about Darkfast Classic Fantasy - Advanced Classes: Ducks, a supplement for Labyrinth Lord written and illustrated by David Okum and published by Okumarts Games.

Ducks doesn't pull any punches. It puts is all out there. Yes, this 9-page supplement is written for the express purpose of introducing and playing humanoid duck creatures in Labyrinth Lord. Imagine Donald, Huey, Dewey, or Louie (of Disney fame) in a fantasy RPG and you get the right idea regarding physical apperance. I have to admit that when I first heard about this product before its release over on a Labyrith Lord community my reaction was "Wait, what?" I just didn't get it. Why Ducks? Why in Labyrinth Lord? I was confused.

Well, Mr. Okum was kind enough to provide a complimentary copy to a budding young review blogger and I gave it a once over. Then I gave it a twice over. Then I gave it a third look. I have to say, while the product does have a certain tongue-in-cheek element to it, Ducks can also be played straight.

Okum provides a believable, yet broadly painted background, for this new character option that can easily be inserted without too much difficulty into an existing campaign. Granted, gamers might be a bit thrown to see a three-and-a-half foot humanoid duck wielding a broadsword or casting spells - but let me ask you a question: Have you ever played Castle Amber? Or Dungeonland? All kinds of gonzo stuff in there, and Ducks seems to be following in that tradition.

Okum breaks from the Labyrinth Lord tradition of Race-as-Class, and instead provides a kind of hybrid. Ducks have their own saving throws, their own weapon limits and their own armor limits. Like all other demihumans, they are restricted in level and are only able to each 10th level. But, each duck selects a kind of profession based around the four human classes.This means that, yes, you could have a party of ducks. All ducks. I have to admit, a bunch of duck PCs on a pirate ship might be kinda cool.

In addition to rules and a basic background, Okum presents a description of general personality traits common to ducks, how their villages function, and even a brief description of their religious beliefs. He closes out the supplement by providing some random charts to generate a name (with some clever nods and cute puns), a character motivation and a personality trait or two. There's even several duck-themed adventure seeds.

Is Darkfast Classic Fantasy - Advanced Classes: Ducks worth the picking up? I think that depends on your campaign. While I personally tend to go for a more serious tone than even the most sincerely-played duck PC could probably achieve, I think they certainly could have a place in whimsical Labyrinth Lord games. The production value is absolutely professional and Okum's writing is very direct. You get everything in a very linear and straightforward presentation - with a touch of humor. Okum's race expects themselves to be taken seriously, but the reader is clearly meant to be in on the good-natured fun. So, I'd say yes, if you enjoy a touch of whimsy in your fantasy campaigns, go for it. Ducks is available on DriveThru RPG and RPGNow in PDF for $2.50.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review: Fortress of the Mountain King

Now that I've discussed the awesomeness that is The Village of Larm, it's time to move on to another product in what I call the Labyrinth Lord "Known World," CLA 1: Fortress of the Mountain King, written by Moritz Mehlem and published by Brave Halfling Games - who are also the author and publisher of The Village of Larm. This is a brief adventure designed, like Larm, to serve as an introduction to old school fantasy gaming. In my mind it makes a great companion piece to Village and they appear to be designed to fit together seamlessly.

Fortress of the Mountain King is a module designed for 3 to 5 characters between 1st and 3rd level. It checks in at only 14 pages, including front and back cover - so some would argue this means you really only have a dozen pages of "usable content." Fortress bills itself as a tournament module, and I think this is an accurate claim. It's designed to be played in a few hours time - I'd say about four hours. Basically, it cuts right to the chase.

Set in and around the village of Larm, the village has been plagued by a series of attacks on the outlying farms outside the village walls. Rumors say this attack is being orchestrated by the mysterious "Mountain King," a kind of local warlord. The local milita have discovered a nearby abandoned dwarf cave they believe to be the Mountain King's lair, but are too afraid and/or short staffed to explore it themselves. The mayor is offering 100 gold pieces to each of the player characters if they can explore the cave and return with the head of the Mountain King. All in all, this is pretty much standard fare for old school fantasy role-playing with no surprises in the set up of the adventure. It even opens with one of the milita scouts leading the characters to the entrance of the abandoned dwarf cave. Not a lot of exposition, just straight to the point.

That being said, it does give a paragraph or two on the village of Larm and even a rumor table if the players decide they want to inquire around the village for news. This is a nice touch. After all, who doesn't love a good rumor table?

I won't go into too many specifics of the adventure so as not to spoil it the surprises for players. I will say that the adventure has more than a few of those surprises. It aims to capture the essence of old school gaming in a very tight package and does so very, very well. There are an even mix of combat encounters and encounters where brains are more important than brawn. Not every monster in the dungeon is necessarily meant to be fought and in my personal experience, when I ran it my players had a few choice words for me at one particular encounter. Also, the thief died from a poison trap, natrually. Also, the true nature of the Mountain King is quite a nice surprise - powerful, but a fitting and deadly antagonist for a group of low-level adventurers. One of the more subtle aspects of the fight with the Mountain King is how it showcases the importance of equipment and its benefits.

Still, players who are able to defeat the him and discover the secrets of the caves wiill walk away with a few magic trinkets and generous amount of treasure. But the adventure is by no means easy. It's very high risk/high reward - and that's a good thing. A cautious party who takes their time and doesn't rush should do fine and there are several points where the author is more generous than I expected. The fact that the dungeon is actually described as being lit comes to mind.

Fortress of the Mountain King makes a perfect companion to the Village of Larm. When I ran them together I was able to expand the material given into an entire campaign. My players helped dwarves return to the caves and when the dwarves discovered ore still in the caves a dispute arose between the people of Larm and the dwarves over who had the rights to the riches - it was really good stuff.

This adventure is another great opener to an old school campaign. At 14 pages with a price point of $4.95 for the PDF it can seem a bit pricey for a 1-shot adventure that'll last just one night - but when taken as a piece of a greater whole I feel it's definitely worth the price of admission. Fortress of the Mountain King is very no-frills and very in touch with its old school ancestors. The art is evocative of that feel and the adventure plays like something we saw on the shelves of book stores back in '81. This is definitely a good thing in my book. It's available for sale in PDF on RPGNow and DriveThru RPG.

Review: Dogs in the Dungeon

One of the first things most old school gamers learn in the value of retainers and hirelings. It's a rather cold and pragmatic view, but many players look at 0th level hirelings as someone who can not only carry their loot or hold the torch - but also as someone who can "take a hit" that (though it will probably kill them), thus serving as kind of an extra pile of hit points by proxy. The next logical step for many of these players is to purchase a trained war dog. Not only are they more proficient in battle than most hirelings, but they also don't demand a cut of the treasure. Whether or not you agree with this philosophy, it seems to be a given when it comes to OSR gaming.

Recognizing that, Labyrinth Lord author Daniel Proctor released a short supplement entitled Dogs in the Dungeon. This very short four-page supplement focuses solely on trained war dogs and how they can serve as allies and hirelings to adventurers. This product references rules in the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord - but the referee is under no obligation to use the entire rules set presented in the AEC. It's simply a point of reference for the base war dog and a few of the rules.

Proctor begins by giving a brief overview of why adventurers would purchase trained war dogs and what the advantages of doing so are. Then, he launches right into the meat of the product. He provides several breeds of dog that existed in the middle ages or medieval period of history. While all of them use the War Dog, Wild Dog or Wolf statistics in the Labyrinth Lord core rules or AEC, Proctor provides a paragraph of descriptive text describing their physical features and the purpose for which they were bred. They are broken up into Fighing or Guard Hounds, Sighthounds, Scenthounds, and Waterhounds. Proctor introduces rules for using dogs as watchmen while resting at camp, tracking via scent, and even retrieving objects (or fallen allies) from watery places. The rules are concise, simple and easily integrated into any Labyrinth Lord game. Each individual breed is given a cost as well as a random chart to help the referee determine the height and weight of the dog. There is also an overview on training scenthounds to track specific scents or learn to recognize the scent of a specific type of creature. It takes time and effort, but its a great touch that can (if you'll forgive the pun) breed role-playing and establish value and depth to what would otherwise be piece of gear bought off a list.

Also, Proctor presents two fantasy breeds (Hel Docga and Faden Docga) that are lesser versions of the Hell Hound and Blink Dog respectively. While these animals use the base statistics of a War Dog, each has a set of minor special abilities that can be highly useful to adventurers - if they've got the coin and know where to purchase these exotic beasts.I have to say these are pretty flavorful and I absolutely love the cocnept of a slightly magical dog being used in fantasy table top.

Next we get a bit of a surprise. Proctor discusses dogs within the party and how multipule dogs in a company of adventurers may fight for dominance among themselves. This was an inspired bit of flavor that can be used to not only make dogs more than a meat shield who doesn't ask for a cut of the treasure. Now having a dog retainer can have compications all its own. The author also addresses the inevitable situation where a player is going to get the wild idea to train a wolf cub - it's not quite as easy or valuable as you'd think, but can have its benefits in the right situation.

:Lastly, we get a paragraph discussing war dogs and party balance. The author provides optional rules for reducing the experience point rewards given to a party who relies heavily on war dogs - which is a nice touch and can prevent the characters from running around with a pack of trained canines when the descend into every dungeon.

At only four pages, Proctor has put a lot of valuable material in this book and really given depth and worth to what would otherwise be a "hireling we don't have to pay." It's available at DriveThru RPG and RPGNow for $1.50 and I'd say its defintely worth it - especially if your party likes to use these creatures in their campaigns. An important note for authors and publishers is that while Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion are licensed under the OGL, Dogs in the Dungeon is not OGL and remains the intellectual property of Goblinoid Games.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: The Village of Larm

I did a brief review after purchasing this supplement a few years ago on RPGNow, but wanted to take this time to go over it with more depth here on Traveling Spellbook. So, without further delay, I give you The Village of Larm, a supplement for Labyrinth Lord published by Brave Halfling Publishing and written by Moritz Mehlem.

Larm is a short supplement, clocking in at only 27 pages. But there's a lot packed into those pages. While it's smaller than some modules, the amount of content the buyer gets is well worth the price of admission. The simple title is accurate, as Larm is a simple product. It's written around a village of the same name with a few adventure seeds scattered through out. On the surface Larm doesn't seem like anything new or special, and to be perfectly honest it's not. It's a typical basic era fantasy village with several small town problems suitable for low-level adventurers. But that's not a weakness - that's this product's greatest strength.

The village is well stocked with a diverse but believable collection of NPCs and detailed locations. The village itself is actually introduced in the Labyrinth Lord core rules on the "Known World" map in the back of the book - but that's all it is: a name on a map. Mehlem takes that name and fleshs it out. He's created the perfect jumping off point for any basic era fantasy role-playing game. The tone, the feel and the style just ooze old school gaming. I've used Larm as a springboard for many Labyrinth Lord games, and it has always been a resounding success whether it was with veteran gamers or those new to OSR gaming. My players fell in love with the simple charm of the village and became invested in the NPCs. Within a session or two they cared about Larm, and that's a testament to the quality of the product.

As far as adventure seeds, Larm has four major ones. There is a ruined temple located within city walls that the local cleric would like the characters to restore and it makes a great "My First Dungeon." It's got a scattering of undead, a few minor magic items and some of the encounters will require brains and brawn if 1st level characters hope to survive.

Next we've got a nod to the trope of the "rats in the cellar." The local miller has got a bug problem and is willing to pay a few coins to get the infestation dealt with. This isn't really an adventure unto itself, but its a great way to introduce new gamers to the mechanics of combat while still being a challenge.

Lastly, there's a tribe of goblins nearby who are causing trouble. This one is designed to showcase wilderness encounters and using the terrian to a tactical advantage. Even characters as high as 3rd level who go charging into the camp are likely to get slaughtered. The players will have to be clever if they hope to take care of business.

In addition, there is a an adventure that requires a healthy dose of role-playing from the characters. A holy tree of importance to a nature worshipping cleric is dying and he is willing to pay anyone who can investigate and find the cause. This is the kind of seed that can be woven in with the others and gives the players the opportunity to explore the village and engage with the NPCs without drawing their swords.

All of these hooks are presented through the classic "sign post in the middle of town," which gives the players the freedom to explore them at their leisure and the potential to bite off more than they can chew if they're not too careful - but again, that's kind of a tradition in old school gaming.

The village of Larm and its denizens are given 10 pages of text, but its a well stocked ten pages. You have a fully detailed village with over 30 locations and all the prominant NPCs such as the mayor, the local tavern keeper, the local priest and the captain of the guard - along with several others. After that we're given appendicies detailing the various encounter locations for the adventure seeds.

The maps are simple, and have a very old school feel. They're clean, concise, but evocative and they do their job well.

Now a referee can take Larm as it is, or they can expand on it. When I used it to great success in my game I added details to keep my players engaged. A local NPC was secretly trying to start a thief's guild, one of the players was being constantly rebuffing the advances of the mayor's daughter, and the crazy old man who lives on the hill was whispering about a prophecy that eventually became a vehicle for the entire campaign.

And I think that's the true strength of Larm: It's a springboard. It leads to greater things. The fact that the author sets it in the "Known World" of Labyrinth Lord and uses land marks of that location implies its context as part of a larger whole. Its set on the Dolm River and the city of Dolmvay is referenced a few times. Larm is simple enough to stand on its own in any campaign world, but we're offered a hint at a greater world beyond its palisades - if the heroes are brave enough!

In short... Buy this product. Once you have your hands on a Labyrinth Lord core rules set, this will immediately get you started with a new set of characters. It's available for $4.95 on RPGNow, and while I believe the print copy once existed I believe it is now out of print, though you can find it on occassion on Noble Knight Games or ebay. I can't recommend this product enough. I've used it again and again, sometimes with the same players in different campaigns and its always a success.