Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Disclaimer: I solicited Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a free copy of the Thulian Echoes PDF with the intent of writing up a review.

From RPGNow’s description:

Thulian Echoes is two adventures in one! In the first phase, players take the role of pregen characters exploring the dungeon long ago… their actions recorded, so that the players’ actual characters can then follow in the footsteps of the previous characters and gain all the riches and magical secrets to be found!

Of my previous three reviews…

…two were for adventures by Zzarchov Kowolski. This review makes the count three out of four.

I will now do my best to avoid spoilers. Instead focusing on what I find fascinating about this adventure.

Zzarchov is crafting adventures that are more than backstory, set encounters, and random encounters. In Scennic Dunnsmouth, Zzarchov wrote procedures to transfer the knowledge components of the adventure framework to the GM.

In Thulian Echoes, Zzarchov focuses on the knowledge transfer of in-game information to the characters by way of the players playing different characters. From the introduction

…the journal of another band of adventures from over a thousand years ago who went to explore a location based adventure. The players are then handed a batch of pre-generated characters and get to play through the events in the journal.

Brilliant! Instead of spending time crafting numerous journal entries with hints and fluff, Zzarchov embraces the “show don’t tell” adage.

The trigger is when the characters study the journal. Not when they commit to the adventure. Yes, it is a bait and switch.

Rehearsal

The first pass through the adventure is brutal. Disposable characters will die. And that is the purpose. However Thulian Echoes is not without sympathy.

Zzarchov recommends, for the first pass through, to provide a luck pool for the players. When a pre-generated character dies, the player can spend from the luck pool to avoid death. When the luck pool runs out…the journal ends.

This mechanism facilitates players paying attention and participating during practice. The mechanism is not used for the “real” run of the adventure. Players have hirelings and henchman to replace a deceased character.

While the players are exploring the adventure site, the GM is taking notes. Both action and inaction will impact the future state of the adventure site. And there is interplay with the alterations.

Once More with Feeling

Once the rehearsal draws to a close, the GM has a bit of work to do. There is a bit of dice rolling and review of the various impacts. It is best to do in between sessions, but could be wrapped up in 20 minutes.

The stage is then rebuilt.

For the second time around with the players’ actual characters, things have changed. A millennium has passed. The players can now witness any potential butterfly effect.

Other Curiosities

Competitiveness

The first pass of the adventure is challenging. But nothing about the adventure forces the players to send their real characters through it. Through social engineering – attempting to succeed after previous failure – most players that I know would attempt to do it again.

The Journey

There is an adventure segment that provides a procedure for dealing with extensive wilderness travel. In doing so Thulian Echoes avoids detailing an extensive set of wilderness encounters.

It is instead there is a distance tracking mechanism and a table for random encounters. The random table has the same structure as The Gnomes of Levnec random table:

  • Roll a d8, d6, d4
  • Consult each entry
  • On doubles, triples, or max value there is a kicker

These tables encode enough information to make the wilderness travel interesting without chewing up too much time.

The Map

Jason Thompson created a gorgeous walkthrough isomorphic map for Thulian Echoes. Jason also drew the walkthrough maps of “Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth”, “Slave Pits of the Undercity”, and the “Isle of Dread”.

Summary

I found the adventure inspiring and interesting. I both want to run the adventure and take the procedures and work on my own. So for my purposes, Thulian Echoes is a resounding “must have”.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Want an example of unique adventure construction
  • Want a dangerous dungeon delve
  • Are looking for your characters to explore a remote island
  • Want an adventure you can run more than once – twice in fact!
  • Think your players would like a second crack at something

Do not buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Are looking for an urban adventure
  • Are not willing to yank your player’s chains
  • Know your players won’t be on board for playing different characters
  • Don’t want to deal with timey wimey things

Why I am a Tabletop RPG Cheerleader

This evening and yesterday evening, I spent quite a bit of time preparing an informational website to help GenCon attendees engage with Games on Demand.

At this point, there is more work to do. Most of work is in other peoples hands.

I still have to write some procedures. And complete a few technical chores (eg Cross-referencing games and times). So of course I’m writing this blog post.

I do all of this because I am passionate about gaming.

Gaming has strengthened and enriched many of my friendships and created an opening for many more.

Tabletop gaming is a powerful social activity with a dose of mental calisthenics. Powerful in that I am sitting around a table interacting with other people in a shared imagined space. Returning to the land of make-believe, where as I child I would delve. It is a place of learning, exploration, and creativity.

I can both game and metagame because I am fortunate. My resources are abundant:

  • Spare time
  • Education
  • Adequate Income

I dwell in the upper echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy and relative to the world, the upper echelons of income and wealth.

So I do what I can to help ease the barriers of other people participating in this grand hobby of mine. Which has meant that I have had the privilege of interacting with a lot of people.

And I do my best to interact with each person as a unique individual. For the most part the people have been more similar than different – See: Not all that diverse.

So I am wondering how I can step beyond being a cheerleader to being an evangelist – To help show lots of different people why tabletop RPGs are awesome. To bring them into the larger community and help them find their group.

I want to increase diversity in tabletop gaming. People with baggage, privileges, and challenges so different from mine. I want creations in the larger gaming community that make me smile, think, empathize, and squirm.

I don’t need the larger gaming community to be comfortable nor echoing through a like-minded room. Because in this diversity, I can grow and see what this grand hobby of mine can do for me.

Dangerous Space Jail by Phil Vecchione

On Google+, Phil Vecchione was asking for people to review his Dungeon World adventure Dangerous Space Jail. I jumped.

I love Phil’s Never Unprepared from Engine Publishing. It’s a guide for getting things done, with a focus on bringing awesome adventures to your gaming table.

Encoded Design’s tagline is “Weaponizing Games for Busy GMs.” It is important to keep in mind that this adventure is for Busy GMs.

Preamble

Dangerous Space Jail devotes five pages to the preamble.

One page for an introduction to Encoded Design‘s first publication as well as how the adventure came about.

Two pages of adventure background. Astral prison for ancient foes.

Two pages explaining how to use this adventure. There is good advice, especially those new to running role-playing games.

Adventure

There are several prescribed scenes in this adventure with the following visually scannable structure:

  • Scene Name – for reference and flavor
  • Purpose – a quick explanation of the scene
  • Location – where are things happening
  • Opposition – who/what is opposing the PCs
  • Opening – Setting up the scene
  • Body – Interacting with the scene
  • Closing – Wrapping things up

This structure is fantastic. The Scene Name, Purpose, Location, and Opposition are a quick list. Easy to reference and get your bearings.

The Opening, Body, and Closing contain the bulk of the scene information.

The Opening conveys to the GM what once may have been the read aloud text. There is plenty of information, and a GM would do well to paraphrase this information.

The Body is how the scene should be run. What happens as the characters interact with the environment. Throughout the body:

  • Tactics of the support and opposition.
  • Additional hard moves for the GM to use against the player characters.
  • Callout text of the NPCs (with an Actor/Actress Shortcut).
  • Callout text for additional information – a cue for a paladin to take a vow, a bit of lore, guidance for if they go off the rails.
  • Custom Moves for features of the scene

The Closing provides additional information that can be found in the scene after the conflict has died down.

On Custom Moves and Their Ilk

Dungeon World and its kin, are all about moves. I find the custom moves and defy danger advice of Dangerous Space Jail is weak or not as precise as it could be.

Below is one example.

When a character enters the Dimensional Anchor room or when someone disturbs the fabric of reality, Roll + Int. On a 10+, Enter the room with no issue; 7-9 choose one [from the list]; 6- choose two [from the list]

  • Fall out of sync with the room: -1 ongoing to all actions until leaving the room.
  • Placed in harm’s way: transport near one of the monsters.
  • Separated from your gear: pick one item you are carrying (weapon, shield, backpack, etc.) and it appears across the room from you.
  • Release another Astral Tendril.

The move is unclear, who is choosing? That could be tidied up by saying “when you enter” instead of “when a character enters.”

I am not enamored with a -1 ongoing to all actions. That is a lot of failure stacking up. Maybe give the GM one hold to pick something else from the list while in the room.

I also don’t like that 6- gives choices to the player. Let the list tell the GM of possible responses and give an “Additional Hard Move” advice for the room.

There is also a section in which Dangerous Space Jail gives advice for adjudicating a Defy Danger roll.

  • Unbalanced: the rocks are unstable. (-2 going forward for their next action)
  • Just short: catch the ledge. (d6 damage from a nearby Ver’sha as they hang)
  • Forced back: make a second Defy Danger roll
  • Rain of gravel: get pelted by thrown rocks. (b[2d6])

A -2 penalty is huge…and boring. The damage is reasonable, especially since an adversary is now nearby.

But I take umbrage with the “Forced back” option. I find this uninspiring as it does nothing to advance the state of the game.

How about: “You catch the ledge with one hand while your other hand holds your pack. You are hanging there…what do you do?”

The Ending

Dangerous Space Jail provides an optional director’s cut ending to resolve – because there is just a bit more going on. Its a nice touch.

The epilogue provides guidance for what happens if the characters succeed or fail at their task. Again helpful advice for the GM.

Adventure Mechanics

There are four adventure mechanics in play:

  • The Countdown Timer – rules for the race against the clock
  • Moving Through the Fortress – a custom move to reflect the nature of the jail
  • Variable Resistance – Based on the time, opposition will be greater
  • New Creatures – All adventures have some adversary

The Countdown Timer is the in-game incarnation of “Show signs of an approaching threat.” And the Variable Resistance is how the timer impacts the characters throughout the adventure.

The custom move for Moving Through the Fortress doesn’t do much for me. It’s a bit too scattered for my tastes. Is its focus to chew up resources? Time? And again, if it is a PC facing move, writing it up as “When you…” helps clarify who decides things.

The new creatures are good. They encapsulate a few “race against time” concepts. Some moves could be more precise; As written the monster move could eliminate a character. But that is one of the challenges of Dungeon World; There is precision of some things and then a lot of room for interpretation in the moves.

Hacking the Adventure

This section addresses several concerns, namely the railroad. Phil clearly states that this is designed and written for busy GMs.

Phil does a great job of calling attention to the various dials he has put in this race against the clock adventure. He gives some advice on how to adjust those dials.

Handouts and Cartography

There is a countdown timer handout for the PCs. Also a nice external picture to give shape to the adventure.

The cartography is minimal but helps give mental form to the adventure location.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Dangerous Space Jail if you:

  • Are looking to kick off a planar adventure
  • Are looking for an adventure that is easy to use as a one-shot
  • Are interested in a fully baked adventure
  • Would like in-depth guidance on running an adventure
  • Want a race against the clock adventure

Do not buy Dangerous Space Jail if you:

  • Are a Dungeon World purist that requires crisp player moves
  • Aren’t interested in planar antics
  • Can’t handle working with a railroad adventure
  • Want lots of blank spaces in your adventure
  • Prefer adventures with ample social interactions

Editorializing

Having just read and reviewed The Gnomes of Levnec, I’ll draw this comparison:

Dangerous Space Jail appears to have its procedural ancestry from late era D&D 3.5 and D&D 4E adventures: Exploration through combat.

Whereas The Gnomes of Levnec feels much more Old School meets Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You explore a region where action unfolds as the players interact and the GM adjudicates responses.

Seeking a 2015 Ennies Nomination

Ennies 2015 Logo

Ennies 2015 Logo

This year, I am seeking your vote! To be an Ennies’ Judge.

I would appreciate it if you would take a bit of your time to go vote for the 2105 Ennie JudgesRead up on the 2015 nominees.

The Ennies are “an annual fan-based celebration of excellence in tabletop roleplaying gaming.”

One challenge that I believe faces the Ennies is the issue of 800 pound gorillas. The games and companies that are the gateway into our hobby.

I acknowledge that many gamers stay in the entry way, playing only their gateway game. That is awesome and works for them.

But I would like to also celebrate the games that are less well-known. That may scratch a very niche itch.

This may require a few adjustments to the game categories; And I believe my answer to one of the nominee questions helps illuminate where I would like to help shape the Ennies:

I would love to recognize first time entrants for their own award. This could be a general grab bag, or a narrow set of categories.

 

I would love to see awards for best third party material.

A vibrant third-party community is something to celebrate.

Best open content, either licensed under the OGL or Creative Commons (or other licenses), would be a great addition.

So, if you would also like to celebrate excellence in tabletop roleplaying gaming, please take some time and read up on the 2015 nominees then go vote.

The Gnomes of Levnec by Zzarchov Kowolski

Admiring Zzarchov Kowolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth, I reached out to him for a review copy of The Gnomes of Levnec. He was gracious to oblige.

I was curious for two reasons:

  1. Scenic Dunnsmouth is a masterful adventure toolkit.
  2. My wife is The Soapy Gnome, a soap maker

What Do We Have Here

Gnomes of Levnec provides a handful of locations. The village of Levnec is the “obvious” starting place.

The village is small and not bustling…something is amiss…there are a few clues. There are a handful of NPC descriptions along with possible responses to enquiry. And a few descriptions of buildings. Player interaction will be key.

Along with the village, Gnomes of Levnec describes a few other locations and creatures. Places to explore. Opposition to overcome. Creatures whose time is passing.

Random Tables

And a fantastic “so you are lost in the woods” table. Based on the map, and the awesomeness of the table, I would make sure that I roll on that table the first time they head into the woods. And at least one more time.

At its core, you roll a d8, d6, and a d4 consulting the corresponding table. If you roll triples, doubles, or max then you will apply a kicker to the results. There is a lot of information encoded in the tables.

As with many well written random tables, I appreciate the potentiality of the random table. Things that could happen, but won’t. Early on, I would skim random tables. Now, I read them as they help to convey and reinforce the author’s intent. They are like a baton hand-off from the writer to the GM…with the author saying “I’ve done my part, now you make sense of this.”

What about the Gnomes

Yes, there are gnomes, and their role is important to this adventure. It is unique and unexpected.

Picking Some Nits

Gnomes of Levnec has nice headers but its paragraphs are dense affairs; Scanning the text is difficult.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy The Gnomes of Levnec if you are:

  • Wanting an interesting take on gnomes
  • Willing to fill in some blanks
  • Fleshing out the edges of civilization, where the old and bizarre still live and breath
  • Interested in things off kilter
  • Looking to have your characters’s crawling through the woods

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)
  • Are not up for a mix of morbidity and whimsy
  • Not wanting to come up with a hook for adventure
  • If you are wanting explicit instructions on how to run this
  • Certain your players won’t talk with NPCs
  • A strict believer in traditional gnomes
  • Interested in adventures using “formal” language

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

I believe the complete list of adventures I have run closely from a book are:

  • The Red Hand of Doom (D&D 3E)
  • The Night Below (AD&D 2E)
  • The Dramune Run (Star Frontiers)
  • Under the House of the Three Squires (Torchbearer)
  • Breakout (Marvel Heroic)
  • Bloodstone (D&D 3E, Burning Wheel)
  • The Trouble in Hochen (Burning Wheel)

Yet I own lots of adventures. And keep buying more. Because I like smashing the ideas of the adventures into my brain for later reference.

Screencapture of the PDF cover of Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

Zzarchov Kowolski‘s “Scenic Dunnsmouth” piqued my curiosity after I read the following back cover text:

Scenic Dunnsmouth features an innovative village generation system using dice and playing cards to ensure that every expedition to Dunnsmouth is unique.

It delivers on that promise.

What Do We Have Here

Most adventures I’ve read provide a “fully formed” adventure. A living creature with skin, guts, skeleton, and sinew.

A fully formed adventure may work for an adventure with a simple relationship graph (i.e. Dungeon Crawl) but for a mystery, attempting to hold the concepts and pieces of the adventure in my mind is challenging.

Scenic Dunnsmouth takes an interesting and divergent approach from a standard adventure. It provides you with:

  • the guts – the core mystery
  • some disassembled mixbag of bones – d4, d6, d8, and d12 kind of bones
  • a bolt of mottled skin – the look, feel, and tone of the writing
  • some connective tissues – Families, relationships, and even possible feuds
  • a toolkit for assembling the adventure

And there lies its genius.

Some Assembly Required

Yes there is a core mystery and evil. But Zzarchov provides a procedure for assembling your Frankenstein’s monster of an adventure.

With a fistful of dice you determine:

  • The locations of the town
  • The weirdness level
  • Where to position a few of the stock characters

Then, you shuffle up some cards and determine the town’s inhabitants. And that is it.

If someone or somewhere doesn’t show up in your town construction, it does not exist in this incarnation of Dunnsmouth.

Taking Notes to Help Remember

When I am reading, I’m a terrible note taker. I don’t mark in my books. The exercise of finalizing Dunnsmouth was the best note taking session for any of my adventure preparation.

The final result of the procedure was a map with numerous locations keyed by:

  • dice size
  • rolled value
  • card suit
  • card value

With those four bits of information, I can get a general sense for the tone of Dunnsmouth. I can also lookup in the character index more information about the inhabitants and locations.

Not bad for 30 minutes of adventure preparation!

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Scenic Dunnsmouth if you are:

  • Interested in unique procedures for adventure creation
  • Looking for weird fantasy
  • Looking for an interrogation/observation-based mystery

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)

Other Reviews

A Handful of other reviews of Scenic Dunnsmouth.

Fond Memories of the Kenku

For a few years in high school and college, I had a tradition of running a New Year’s Eve one shot. We would order up a six foot sub, plenty of caffeine, and start gaming around 5pm. Our sessions would last until 8am or so.

One session, I believe it was December 31st, 1993, I had a very rudimentary adventure planned out. The characters were going to escort a diplomat to another dignitary’s seat of power. I had a few set pieces in mind:

I also provided the characters. If memory serves they were 8th level or so in AD&D 2E. The characters were:

  • A human priestess of Sune
  • A dwarf fighter/thief
  • A human thief/diviner
  • A human fighter
  • And a few others now lost to my memory

As I was handing out characters, I gave my friend Matt the Diviner/Thief. It was a finesse character with no apparent ability to directly influence things (poor Strength and Charisma).

Matt looked at the character sheet and ask: “Why do I speak Gnomish?”

And that is when the wheels went in motion. He was working for the gnomes but something went sour. An early scene established that Kenku were slighted by the gnomes and were going to take it out on him.

This was one of the first times that I had truly improvised my game based on a question from the player. And as it turned out, this left a lasting impression on me.

First, I have always been particular to diviners. Even when I play Apocalypse World I gravitate towards high Sharp characters, attempting to observe and build an advantage.

Second, the power of asking questions at the table cannot be understated. While the details of the encounter with the Kenku are lost, I believe everyone at the table enjoyed the dynamism of an encounter where it wasn’t simply “Kill someone.”

Third, Kenku. I fell in love with the avian masters of subterfuge. While I haven’t brought them back into play, I’ve always had them waiting in the wings.

So this past week, I began exploring how I might use Kenku. Thinking more about their motivations and social structure.

Write-up for Fate Core

Kenku
Aspects: That Shiny will be Mine!, Blackmailing Information Broker
Skills: Good (+3) Deceive, Fair (+2) Stealth, Average (+1) Contacts, Burglary
Stunts: Mimicry. Can mimic familiar sounds, voices, and accents.
Stress: 2 boxes

Write-up for Dungeon World

Kenku Group, Stealthy, Devious, Organized, Intelligent, Cautious, Hoarder
Short sword (d4 damage 1 piercing) 6 HP 2 armor
Close

“I’m telling you, he had a beak and clawed hands!” said the prisoner.

“Right. I’ve heard that one before. And there were a dozen of them,” said the jailer.

“Yeah! How’d you know?”

“Because you ain’t the first. I’ve heard lots of things. But the idea that there are a bunch bird men running things in this city is absurd. Think about it? Wouldn’t someone have caught on by now? The council? The guards? The guilders? Shut up and face up to it…you did something stupid, and 10 years hard labor is your reward.”

Instinct: To collect that which shines

  • Pass through society without drawing attention
  • Mimic the sound of anything ever heard
  • Blackmail: Let other people do your dirty work!
  • Where there is one, many are sure to be found