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

Translating Old School Items to Dungeon World

From the Dungeon World core rulebook:

When making your own magic items keep in mind that these items are magical. Simple modifiers, like +1 damage, are the realm of the mundane—magic items should provide more interesting bonuses.

And in principle I believe this is very worthwhile advice. However, there are lots of magic items out there, especially those created for Old School Games under the Open Game License.

This post builds from my previous post concerning Saving Throws or Defying Danger. I actually began this post and had it mostly finished before I started writing the previous post.

Translating from the Old School Items

Dungeon World begins and ends with the fiction. When looking at old school items you should explore how the item interacts with the fiction.

Consider the following old school item:

Begin OPEN GAME CONTENT

Ring of Poison Resistance: The wearer receives a +5 to saving throws vs. poison.

END OPEN GAME CONTENT

In an old school game, a +5 to your save is rather significant but does not guarantee success.

A direct translation could be interpreted as:

Begin OPEN GAME CONTENT

Ring of Poison Resistance: You gain +1 ongoing to defying the dangers of poison.

End OPEN GAME CONTENT

But the above definition assumes a move triggers, which may not be the case.

In Dungeon World poison has the dangerous tag (see below).

It’s easy to get in trouble with it. If you interact with it without proper precautions the GM may freely invoke the consequences of your foolish actions.

The dangerous tag description hints that using this could trigger a move; But the tag doesn’t guarantee that a move triggers. And therein lies a difference between Dungeon World and an old school game.

The old school item builds on the saving throw – a reactive defense mechanism developed to give your character one final attempt to avoid a terrible fate.

Dungeon World’s Redbook (its alpha version) had the following move for Saving Throws, explicitly calling out poison.

Make a Saving Throw (Con)

When you take damage from an enemy of higher level than you or when something inflicts an effect (magic, poison, calamity) upon you, roll+Con. On a 10+, nothing else bad happens. On a 7-9 the GM chooses one. On a 6- the GM chooses two.

  • You drop something valuable
  • You break something mundane
  • You miss something important
  • You lose your footing
  • You lose track of someone or something
  • It’s worse than it seemed—take +monster level damage

Gone is the Saving Throw concept, replaced instead with the more generalized Defy Danger move – its fictional trigger is below:

When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity, say how you deal with it and roll. If you do it…

  • …by powering through, +Str
  • …by getting out of the way or acting fast, +Dex
  • …by enduring, +Con
  • …with quick thinking, +Int
  • …through mental fortitude, +Wis
  • …using charm and social grace, +Cha

✴On a 10+, you do what you set out to, the threat doesn’t come to bear. ✴On a 7–9, you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

From that fictional trigger a player could rightly narrate that they are attempting to defy the danger of poison by sucking out the poison or toughing it out; They could also reach into their pack to get some antitoxin.

But a Ring of Poison Resistance should provide a reactionary defense.

Begin OPEN GAME CONTENT

Ring of Poison Resistance: When you are exposed to the dangers of poison you can deal with it by relying on the ring. Roll+3 to defy the danger of the poison. Instead of rolling you may permanently drain the ring’s magic to negate the dangers of the poison.

End OPEN GAME CONTENT

If you are interested, you can checkout my Take on Magic Items.

Saving Throws or Defying Danger

This post began as I was working on my Translating Old School Items to Dungeon World post. And while it was published first it was inspired by that post. I would also recommend taking a look at nerdwerd’s Saving Throw = Defy Danger post. It was written prior to my post, but I didn’t know about the post until it was pointed out in the comments.

Thinking about old school character sheets. In particular the mental cue that the Saving Throws give.

  1. Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic
  2. Rod, Staff, or Wand
  3. Petrification or Polymorph
  4. Breath Weapon
  5. Spell

These are a litany of the dangers a character might face. And those dangers are very specifically called out on the character sheet sitting in front of a player.

Contrast with Dungeon World. The character sheet doesn’t give any indication of the dangers you will face. It is a collection of things that you can very specifically do.

And throughout the materials facing the players – the moves sheet in particular – there is the Defy Danger move. It describes that characters can defy dangerous things, but doesn’t give much of an inkling of what those dangers might be.

A Few Examples for Contrast

In old school games on both sides of the GM screen there is a clarity regarding when poison and magic take effect; This is how I might describe a spider attack in an old school game.

The spider bites you as it begins spinning a web around you. Take 1d4 damage and make a saving throw versus poison.

The attack describes that in order for the poison to take effect, the character must fail their saving throw. And before the narrative proceeds we need to know the results of the saving throw.

In Dungeon World things are more murky. Below are two sequences that are equally valid.

The spider bites you; take 1d4 damage. You immediately feel the burning sting of the venom as the spider begins to spin a web around you. What do you do?

The spider bites you; take 1d4 damage. Its venom weakens you as the spider begins to spin a web around you. What do you do?

In the former sequence the player is given an opening to respond to the venomous bite. In the latter sequence the character is already suffering from the venom. In both cases the character will likely need to defy danger in an attempt to break free of the webbing.

But does the player know that they could defy the danger of the poison?

Conclusion

I much prefer the Dungeon World sequences – though I would entertain other examples for the old school sequence instead of my straw men. The Dungeon World sequences very obviously begin and end with the fiction. They are inviting the player to respond.
But this comes with a cost as well – the GM must remember the danger of the poison.

In the old school example, the poison is quickly resolved. And perhaps that is its brilliance.
Old school games were originally run for half a dozen or more players. That is a lot of fiction for a GM to juggle.

I shudder at the thought of running a Dungeon World game for half a dozen or more players. It would be too much fiction to hold in my mind; I would need procedures to handle that.

Dungeon World games focus on the fiction. Old school games focus on exploration. And for exploration you really want to know the dangers that are ahead of you.

Nostalgically Wishing I Would’ve Been Part of the Old School

There is a bumper crop of Old School games available.  Some are rebuilding the 1E / 0E rules based on the OGL.  Others are re-imaginings.  And others sit somewhere in between.  This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Champions of Zed, Barbarians of Lemuria, World of Dungeons and certainly many more.  Even the D&D Next, by other people’s accounts, is harkening back to the days of yore.

I never played D&D 1E, having started on Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, and D&D 2E. I never had a character who had a cadre of henchman and followers. And none of my characters have made use of the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.

And from the outside looking in, this runs counter to what I believe to have been the Old School game.  Characters were disposable “back in the olden days.” They were fragile. You needed meat shields to protect your characters. Yet, even then, a character was a fragile thing. The hyper capable heroes came along later.

The Old School games are about exploration…cautiously advancing through a dungeon. In fact, as I was reading my 0E copy, I found that turns (10 minute increments) were marked off based on the distance moved within a dungeon. And if memory serves 10 minutes passed after the party moved 120 feet. And strangely, that rule blew my mind. I don’t know if that rule is in the 2E DMG or not, but I never discovered it when I first started out.

It seems so obvious to track time by distance moved, but it isn’t quite as obvious saying that you would move so slowly in 10 minutes. Unless of course you were exploring your surroundings.

These days, I’m looking for a good story to emerge from play. Exploration is clearly one of the means to emergent narratives. To explore requires questions and answers, a constant back and forth for clarity. Each side of the screen engaging each other.

I remember scoffing at the idea that XP was derived from gold pieces earned. In our 2E days, I used to award XP for being on time, killing monsters, and role-playing. It only occurred to me much more recently how elegant a reward system the XP for GP really was.

There is an intrinsic reward in role-playing, defeating monsters, and arriving on time. But by tying advancement to gold, players are rewarded by exploring…by thinking up ways to avoid fighting monsters, which in the Old School are outright lethal, especially if you attempt to fight each room full of monsters.

So I’ve never played in an Old School game, though several of them sit on my shelf. I’m fascinated by the style of play and the reward mechanism.

Post Script

Old School games don’t have the implicit tyranny of the Tolkien inspired campaign – You know where you start out small and follow this plot arc that culminates in sneaking across the continent and casting the artifact of power into the volcano. That campaign where the GM plans everything in advance and ensures that you play with blinders on.

Because, let’s face it, how many of those campaigns have you started? And how many of those have you finished?

The Old School is about getting together for an evening of adventure. One that is self-contained and doesn’t require every one to be there. And if your cleric is missing? Find a hireling or two to fill the void for that evenings foray into adventure.

Carcosa by Geoffrey McKinney – PDF Edition

Published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess and available at RPG Now or the publisher’s site.

Carcosa is a [weird] science-fantasy role-playing game setting with a sandbox approach: whether heroic or opportune, adventurers of all stripes will find freedom and consequence worth their mettle in a horrifying milieu mixing adventure fantasy, the Mythos, and comic book sci-fi with no punches pulled.

Fair Warning: Carcaso contains explicit descriptions and illustrations. For more information on the warnings read the publishers blog post about his decision to publish Carcosa.  This review contains some quotes from the book, but I’ve avoided quoting the more explicit descriptions.

This book oozes with oozes and ideas. Carcosa is a land of waking nightmares in which humanity is the victim of both vile sorcerers’ ritualistic sacrifice and the incomprehensible machinations of alien and/or ancient beings.

The defacto rules system of Carcosa is Weird Fantasy – Lamentations of the Flame Princess, though other Old School Renaissance systems would work as well.  Special attention is given to how Carcosa varies from Weird Fantasy (i.e. there are no clerics, magic-users, elfs, dwarfs, and halflings).

The majority of Carcosa is devoted to the Sorcerous Rituals (p41 to p73), Monster Descriptions (p74 to p11), and Hex Descriptions (p112 to p213).

Sorcerous Rituals

The chapters leading up to Sorcerous Rituals allude to the strangeness of Carcosa both as a world and as a game setting.  It is in the Sorcerous Rituals section where the truly horrific nature of life on Carcosa reveals it’s true form.  Let’s look at the ritual “Weird Ascent of the Diseased Slime” (p73):

For eighteen hours the Sorcerer must stand by the diseased pit in hex 2511 while uttering the eldritch chants. At the beginning of the ritual a bound Dolm woman (not a virgin) must be cast into the pit, where the mutating viruses twist her body into inhuman contortions. After the eighteen hours, the woman must be retrieved and thrown upon the ground. The Slime God will ooze up through the earth and envelop the sacrifice’s body.

Each of the 96 rituals are equally evocative, and for the most part could rather effortlessly used in other rules systems; Did I hear someone say Burning Wheel?

Many of the rituals require victims of a specific racial color, age, gender, and/or virginal status.  It is these details that humanize the victim of these inhuman rituals.  Sorcery is not  an easy nor safe path — performing a ritual can age the ritualist. You certainly won’t make many friends as a Sorcerer.

Monster Descriptions

Immediately after the Sorcerous Rituals is a section on humanity’s other enemy, the monsters of Carcosa. Ranging from elder gods, the great race, dinosaurs, and suckered abominations, this section is details all that goes bump in the night.

One important entry, “Ordinary Beasts” highlights that there are no horses nor ordinary beasts of burden in Carcosa.  This bit of information further drives home that on the soil of Carcosa, the toils of man are puny and insignificant.

Slime God, described below, is conjured by “Weird Ascent of the Diseased Slime”, banished by “Descent of the Six Thousand Steps”, bound by “The Ineluctable Name”, imprisoned by “The Sunless Watery Blight”, and tormented by “Transmutation of the Slime God.”

This putrid glob of slime combines all the horrid qualities of dolm pudding, dolm ooze, jale slime, and ulfire jelly. About the only types of weapons effective against it are various hi-tech ones such as lasers, bombs, missiles, etc. Further, 24 hours after physical contact with the Slime God, a saving throw vs. poison must be made. Failure indicates that the victim has been afflicted with a rotting disease that will rot him away at the rate of 1 HD per day until he dies.

Not all monsters have associated rituals, there is no known way to control nor conjure Azathoth and Cthulhu.

Hex Descriptions

Hex 2511 is described below — the location where “Weird Ascent of the Diseased Slime” can be performed.

In damp natural caverns is a shrine to the Slime God. The caverns are filled with puddings, oozes, slimes, and jellies, none of which will attack any of the eight Green cultists of the Slime God, nor their leader, a chaotic 2nd-level Sorcerer who has mastered only the Weird Ascent of the Diseased Slime ritual. Any Sorcerer who will join the cult of the Slime God will be taught the ritual after three months.


Six Deep Ones are entombed deep within the glacier. The bodies may be recovered after a thousand man/hours of digging. One of the Deep Ones wears a weird gold necklace worth 360 g.p. If the bodies are allowed to thaw, they will return to life.

My personal favorite is hex 2510

A horror-stricken man has already been half-trans formed into a fruit tree. He is rooted to the spot, and in two weeks the transformation will be complete. At that time the chaotic Blue 9th-level Sorcerer who conjured the arboreal thing that caused the man’s transformation will arrive with his sensual Purple lover. They plan to feast on the exotic dolm fruit that the tree will bear.

Not all locations are as colorfully detailed, but there is ample descriptions to spur the imagination.

Interconnectivity

There is an interconnectedness between the rituals, monsters, and locations.  The author includes relevant cross-references.  This serves not only to provide quick access to the related information, but is useful as an adventure generation engine.

Need a monster? Find one that connects to a specific hex or ritual and read up on it.  Think about who would summon the monster? Or why someone would go to that hex.

Need a villain? Find a ritual associated with one or more locations.  How are they going to get there? Who is following them there? Or find a ritual that requires multiple sacrifices.  How is the villain capturing his victims.

Need a location? Find one related to a ritual and explore what it means for a sorcerer to show up ready to perform the ritual.

Other Stuff

While the majority of the book details the Sorcerous Rituals, Monsters, and Locations, Carcosa also provides rules for a simple and straight-forward Psionics system, random mutations, wandering monster tables, random robot generator, random space alien armament, descriptions of space alien & ancient technology.

Impressions

If Carcosa doesn’t smack you in the head with at least a full two-dozen adventure ideas and a half-dozen campaign ideas then you aren’t opening your mind to its blasphemous insights.

Carcosa is opinionated and not for everyone.  Humanity is not the master’s of their domain, but are more akin to infighting animals awaiting the slaughter.  It is a complete campaign world with discrete subsystems that can easily be extracted and brought into other games.

Pick it up if you are interested in a very non-traditional campaign setting document that pulses with inspiration.

Don’t pick it up if you are squeamish or prefer a traditional D&D campaign.

Other Reviews

Life During a Wartime – Random Village Generator

I’ve been preparing for the second session of Bloodstone, and have been thinking about the trip from Valls to Bloodstone. The region has fallen into anarchy as the Kingdom of Vaasa continues to exert control over the shattered remains of the Kingdom of Damara.

During the second session, the players are almost certainly going to be encountering numerous villages along the way. In fact, since they left without supplies, I’m assuming they’ll be scrounging and begging at each of the villages.  

Applying a bit of Zak S’ advice, I figured I’d up a platform to generate villages during wartime.  So at lunch, I started thinking about various attributes of a fantasy gaming village during wartime.

To determine the village size, roll 1d6 x 1d6 x 30.  Of those villagers, (1d6 + 4) x 10% are capable of defending the village (50% to 100%); In the case of 100%, assume that the village has sent the children, elderly, and infirm away.

In addition to the village size, I wanted some other random attributes: physical condition, mental condition, current supplies, most recent raid, who’s in charge, and an associated random event/hook.

Table 1: Physical Condition – What is the current physical state of the village
1d6 Physical Condition
1 Ruins
2 Partial Ruins
3 No Defenses
4 Manor House
5 Light Village-wide Fortification
6 Heavy Village-wide Fortification
Table 2: Mental Condition – what is the current mental state of the villagers
1d6 Mental Condition
1 Sympathetic to the enemy
2 Preparing to evacuate
3 Paranoid
4 Indifferent
5 Inviting
6 Defiant
Table 3: Current Supplies
1d6 Current Supplies
1 Almost depleted
2 Starvation rations
3 Carefully rationed
4 Enough…for now
5 Enough for the season
6 Enough for the year
Table 4: Most Recent Raid
1d6 Most Recent Raid
1 1 hour ago
2 1 day ago
3 1 week ago
4 1 month ago
5 1 year ago
6 never
Table 5: Who’s in Charge
1d6 Who’s in Charge
1 Village Council
2 Lord of the Manor
3 Lady of the Manor
4 Elected Mayor
5 Charismatic Villager
6 An Outsider
Table 6: Interesting events, roll twice.
3d6 Random Event
3 Some nefarious abomination has seized control of the village.
4 Garrisoned with oppositional force (Soldiers of Vaasa)
5 A contagious disease is beginning to take hold
6 Mercenary troop now controls the village
7 Lord has been killed
8 Village has taken to raiding other neighboring villages
9 Holding a neighboring lord ransom
10 Sleeper agents (1d6-2, minimum of 1) is amongst the public
11 Overwhelming number of injured militia
12 Lord is being held for ransom
13 Roll 2 more times on this table
14 Currently sheltering an entire neighboring village
15 Garrisoned with sympathetic force (Soldiers of Damara)
16 A sorcerer has moved into town and is offering protection
17 A small group of heroes have been enlisted to defend the village.
18 A local god has manifested to “protect” the village

Weird Fantasy – Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I had read Grognardia‘s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but passed on buying it at GenCon. However, after reading more of James Edward Raggi IV, and posts on the LotFP forum, and most importantly, the FREE no-art PDF rules of the game, I decided to order the Grindhouse Edition.

Why Did I Order the Game When the Rules are Already Free?

Ultimately, it was Grognardia’s review of the Referee book and other, sadly now forgotten, mentions of the Referee book that tipped the scale.  Not to mention a ridiculously good deal at Troll and Toad. In many ways, it sounded like the Referee book is to Old School Gaming what the Adventure Burner is to Burning Wheel.  And I’m all kinds of I’m ga-ga for the Adventure Burner.

Then It Arrived…And It IS Beautiful

Since I’d already read most of the Rules and Magic book, I began reading the Referee book.  And I love it.  James Raggi, in a very conversational tone, convincingly explains his understanding of Fantasy Role-Playing.

It is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding old school gaming and distilled into the very simple advice of keep things magical and mysterious and keep asking the players what they do.  Orcs and +1 swords don’t exist in weird fantasy.  They are the anathema to weird fantasy, as once something is named, it looses its mystery.

Another key piece of advice is that the Referee should set most combats to be easy.  This serves two purposes. First to make sure that players aren’t blowing all of their resources in each combat, and thus requiring lots of 5-minute work days. Second, make sure those “boss fights” are terrifyingly difficult, in fact perhaps so difficult that retreat may very well be the best option.

I would say that the underlying design philosophy of Lamentations is that success and failure should both be possible and probable.  Spun another way, without failure as an option, success is hollow.

Cheap Shot at the Once 800 Pound Gorilla

This design ethos of success and failure is found not only in Lamentations but also other old school simulacra and runs in stark contrast to the feel of 4th Edition.  In 4th Edition, characters are mighty and nigh indestructible, success is only a matter of enough intestinal fortitude to grind out another round of combat against a statistically neutered enemy.