Thursday, January 25, 2024

Let's Talk Adventures: Highfell

 I am going to experiment with a slightly more conversational tone to discuss some of the big modules out there in the OSR and beyond, rather than giving them the lengthy, structured approach I give to TTRPGs here. Partially in the name of doing more with this blog, and partially because I feel the value you get from a module depends very much on what you intend to do with it, and partially because I am, as always, here to share the things I find awesome. And you all don't always want to read 20 paragraphs.

So I am going to start this experiment with Highfell: The Drifting Dungeon.

Highfell: The Drifting Dungeon

Author: Greg Gillespie
Publisher: OSR Publishing
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG,
System: OSR Compatible

Greg Gillespie is probab;ly one of those designers who doesn't need much by way of introduction. He has a pretty good reputation in the OSR community for his massive and complex modules.

Every couple of years Greg Gillespie releases aa new module that he has been hammering away at, often daily for years. His first one, Barrowmaze, is legendary: a sprawling labyrinth of barrows in a haunted valley that is peopled by undead, strange magical monstrosities, and terrible curses. As the PCs explore this on-floor labyrinth they will find that trditional "levels" are replaced by zones that are inreasingly deadly as you push further away from the nearby town. Sattered runestones introduce a new kind of magic, and there is a history of the place that can be learned by clues.

Highfell: the Drifting Dungeon, along with Dwarrowdeep are two follow-up megadungeons. They are offered in both OSR and D&D5e versions. with the OSR versions being mostly structured along the conventions of AD&D / OSRIC, meaning you will see relatively middling stats for NPCs, high stats for the pre-gen PCs, and two-part alignments, but as always, OSR is OSR, you can convert anything for a B/X system like Old-School Essentials in a few seconds in your head as a veteran GM.

All three modules are set in a consistent world, and Dwarrowdeep and Highfell cross over with one another and have cross-over material from Barrowmaze seeded into them. As a clever manoevre, most of the towns and villages of the settin make menton of cities with familiar names like "Threshold" allowing a comfortable drop into existing D&D worlds like Mystara.

This module is pretty much a full canned campaign: you have a hometown with enough factions and intrigue to make time in  "Town" compelling play, and a pretty big cast of NPCs. A couple of smaller villages that have enough details to make them interesting, A few adventure sites, and then one immense megadungeon. Like Keep on the Borderlands or Temple of Elemental Evil there is enough material beyond the dungeon to run a whole campaign, probably for years if you want to.

Friday, January 19, 2024

All Hail the Kingslayer!!

Let me play the proud father for a moment and tell you the tale of Nargle the Kingslayer!

My oldest son has earned a ban on all screens except to practice coding in Scratch this week, so to keep him entertained in the mornings before school I decided to run a game of Dungeon Crawl Classics for him every morning, powered by a mix of Donjon and the Mythic Game Master Emulator. I am playing three PCs and he opted for only one. We agreed once the campaign was rolling that we would switch from me doing all the interpretation and game planning to sharing it.

We rolled them up using the Tatterdemalion's Heroes method at 1st level, and he got a character with a pretty solid 15 in Intelligence and Stamina, and a whopping 18 in Luck, but a low Agility. While I encouraged him to consider a Dwarf or a Halfling, My son, however, has only one class he ever plays: Wizard. And so was born Nargle, the Neutral rope-maker-turned-Wizard. Of course, it helped that that insane Luck bonus got added to all spell damage rolls based on his character's lucky sign.

Nargle has become one of the most destructive, world-wrecking lunatics I have ever had the pleasure to GM.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

CSV Natani: The Big Rock Manouvre


This is yet another update of the last few sessions of my White Star campaign, where the players are members of the crew of the tramp star freighter, the Natani.

Session 6; Dec. 18th, 2023: Keep on Rockin' in Free Space

With the Dusk of Hope, a mysterious private star freighter on their heels, the Natani hyper-jumps to the Solara Vortex system - a backwater space station in orbit around an unstable blue giant. Aside from collecting solar energy, skimming the star for hydrogen, and collecting radioisotopes - all jobs for robots - there is virtually nothing to do in this station but refuel passing ships. In fact, Solara has three permanent residents: Myra the bartender, Mack the Mechanic, and Tendi an administrator who also runs the local banking, commodities exchange, and and law enforcement services (in theory.)*

Entering the system they are hit almost immediately by one of the system's incredibly violent ion storms, and are forced to do both some blind flying and emergency repairs on their comms array in order to safely make it to Solara Vortex Station.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Clock-Driven Dungeon

 A couple of weeks back, I created a dungeon, a set of dwarven ruins in a volcanic chasm that I wanted to feel vast and terrifying.

In this dungeon, slow mutants (à la Stephen King's The Gunslinger) are hidden, but forever listening. Make too much noise, cast too many spells, and you will suddenly find yourself surrounded on all sides by swarms of hungry, mad, whispering things.

It is a crumbling maze full of ancient machines that will break, causing clouds of steam torrents of water or crushing debris to come down on you... With the mutants likely behind.

And it truly is a labyrinth of bridges, tunnels balconies, and ancient smelters, It could take days to navigate.

Where cenotaphs with the last riddle of the final bitter survivor of a ln extinct clan sealed their magical secrets away from the unworthy. Only one who can read his tongue, solve his riddle, and sacrifice an object of power can uncover it.

Sound good?

Well, the hitch was that it was made for Fabula Ultima, for my wife, who loves TTRPGs, but hates old-school dungeon crawling.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Why I Don't Often Review Modules (Trying Something New)

 You know, I've built up a pretty big stock of adventure modules over the last few years. Thanks to Humble Bundle, Bundle of Holding, jams, and that absolutely bodacious sale Jim Raggi put on last year, I probably have enough to keep me in review content for years without breaking a sweat or spending another dime.

The fact is though, I only discuss modules for the most part when they also do something interesting mechanically or culturally:

The Hill Cantons Quartet had the incredible Chaos Index tool, weird monsters and a sense of humor that made it a joy to play. It was the quartet of creations that put The Hydra Cooperative on everyone's map.

Sailors on the Starless Sea helped redefine a genre and set the unique tone of the most popular OSR game ever made.

Cha'alt and its companions have an innovative game woven into its pages, and tons of mechanics for things like mutations, capricious gods, and a totally different way of approaching magic. Not to mention being a prime example of gonzo style play.

Islands of the Purple Haunted Putrescence for its sheer scope as a hexcrawl, and willingness to toss genre an pop culture into a  lender and set it to frappé. 

Into the Demon Idol is a favorite example of a one-page dungeon.

Frostbitten & Mutilated with its dice scatter tables, clever handling of time travel, dark and twisted character classes, and serving as a prime example of the unique design principles of Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Hot Springs Island a massive, stylish  system-neutral hexcrawl that exemplifies setting design, and has a truly amazing way of presenting NPCs.

The Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, is a book that is beautiful and supremely imaginitive. It takes the concept of the pilgrimage and makes it into a rich and surreal experience.

Arête is a great example of mythic D&D at its best. And I used it to experiment in solo play.

DNGN Issue #1 was an interesting experiment in presentation. 

The Winds of Madness was sent to me by a reader and was an absolutely stunning romp through the Far Plane with Githyanki and Spelljammer ships that did a better job of the Spelljammer setting than WotC did. It is also a great case study in the differences between the way adventures are designed in OSR and 5e cultures.

The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall I reviewed mostly because I wanted to encourage a first-time writer who was being dogpiked by asshokes on Twitter who didn't  care for his cover. I  thought a little honest feedback might help him out and keep him from being driven out by cancel-culture asses.

Each review was there because the module was an exemplar, a talking point, or a tool for developing my ideas, as much as it was a review of the product itself. I wanted to explore something that the specific setting had to offer.

I also have played most of them. Some of them twice.

My collection, which includes around forty DCC RPG adventures, a dozen Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules, a modest collection of classic D&D adventures, a shocking number of Blue Rose books, the Alpha Blue THOT trilogy, most of the early Necrotic Gnome OSE modules, Rappan Athuk, Highfell, The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, Nevin Pendlebrook's Perilous Pantry, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 1e's Enemy Within series pretty much the entire 1st and early 2nd edition PARANOIA libraries is brimming with adventures good, bad, and extremely weird. I have a lot of thoughts I could share on almost all of them.

But I really hesitate to do so. For a simple reason:

There's just too many ways to use them.

I have run quite a few modules over the years exactly as written. Others, I have stolen the map and a few treasure hoards, or maybe I grab some useful mechanical ideas, monsters, or traps. How you use your module will make some modules more valuable than others. If you are looking for a traditional campaign to run, Hot Springs Island, The Temple of Elemental Evil (especially combined with the Giants and Underdark series) are probably the best bets. If you want to run a long game that doesn't fit that traditional mold, you might be better off considering The Ultaviolet Grasslands and Black City or Cha'alt. If you are just looking for a few good ideas to pillage, the Hill Cantons quartet is a fertile ground for plunder. If you want a very finite game that will liast seven sessions or so, A Red and Pleasant Land or The Islands of Purple Haunted Putrescence are great. Need some ideas for your PCs after they took a sip from a hag's cauldron? Grab Narcosa or Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom. Need something you can run right now? The One Page Dungeon Compendium or almost any level-appropriate DCC module will do the job. Looking for good fodder for a solo crawl? Rappan Athuk, all the way!

I can definitely give a good factual rundown of a module's properties and major strengths and weaknesses. But I am not sure it would make for interesting reading.

Honestly, the best way to review modules is probbaly something like the best way of reviewing movies: you need to cultivate a persona that grabs one audience, and then  recommend books to that audience. Bryce Lynch over at 10ft. Pole, for example has perfected the angry, disaffected GenX DM who just wants to run the game, not spend all day planning shit. His audience are GMs who want to run something without tweaks, as written, and not spend their time or energy on something unless it has a twist.

Which isn't me. I love prep. A module has to be really special for me to want to run it "as is" out of the box. I'd do it again for Hot Springs Island or Highfell, and one day I would love to run Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. But, on a whole, I want to plunder a  module for good ideas. 

Often I want something I can put somewhere on my sandbox after modifying it to suit my needs, like I did for Into the Demon Idol in my article on how to use one-page dungeons. This may well be my favorite way to use modules. And because of it, I suspect that adventures that would be poorly reviewed on 10ft, Pole as humdrum or underdeveloped might receieve a kinder review here. And some of the modules he finds interesting hold little appeal to me, as they are not really compatible with my style of play.

There is another issue as well:

While Modules are fun to read, collect, and plunder, I prefer to home-brew.

Modules are a frippery. You don't need them. Most of the ones I have collected, I have done so purely because I am a fan of the module, or I am curious about the module after seeing it teased out on a YouTube channel like Questing Beast. Or it is in a bundle along with a game that I really want to review.

At the end of the day, if you want to be the best GM possible, learning to plan efficiently is one of the most important skills you can hone.


As I have thought long and hard on this topic lately, I find myself wondering: would my sandbox-play and rules-hacking approach be valuable if I started adding more modules to my rotation?

Or could I develop a more casual structure to share my thoughts on some of the cool modules in my collection that doesn't take me ages to write as I do when reviewing a game? It bears some experiementation...

Over the month, I am going to compose a few different styles of short article to discuss some of my favourite modules. I hope one of them might land with my readers. Please let me know when one does.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

My family holiday was full to brimming with gaming, and gaming-adjacent activities, and I hope yours was, too.

I took my children to Medieval Times to watch some falconry, jousting, and games of horsemanship. We had an amazing time The show this year was a lot more theatrical than the one I saw 15 years ago - it felt just a little too put on to me. But certainly good entertainment that inspired my son to run back to his Basic Fantasy RPG books.

We run a hybrid game quite often where we handle actual action dicelessly using Square Dungeon, but keep track of stats, XP, etc. using Basic Fantasy in order to help him learn the ropes of planning and running a good game. His last two sessions have done me proud, as they involved a lot more back-story, and let me solve my problems using wit, tactics, and negotiation rather than just being slug-fests.