Blades in the Dark by John Harper

Last Thursday I ran a session of John Harper‘s Blades in the Dark for seven other players. Beforehand, I read the rules, printed the handouts, and assembled my GM screen.

John Harper crafts an evocative setting into the rules – ghosts, soot, capitalist feudalism surround the aspiring crew of miscreants.

Hooded man in shadows with blades drawn

Blades in the Dark by John Harper

What I Love

Structure

At present, I’m running a drop-in style game at my FLGS. From week to week the cast of characters varies. I’m well aware of the challenges of campaign cohesion as the characters move through different regions of the campaign world; and no two sessions have the same group playing.

Blades in the Dark offers several elements to ease the challenges of a rotating cast – the crew, turf, and game phases.

The players create a shared “character”, the crew, and develop it through their exploits. Blades in the Dark provides 6 base crews: assassins, bravos, cult, hawkers, shadows, and smugglers. These crew types suggest how the player characters will approach solutions. The crew also modifies aspects of the characters.

Crews control turf. The more they expand that turf, the greater power and options they get. This encourages play to remain close to a home-base.

The game phases provide a strong structure of play. We have free-play – a time for reconnaissance, information gathering, and general role-playing. And we have the score – a time for an illicit endeavor that will bolster the wealth and reputation of the crew. Downtime immediately follows the score.

During downtime the GM gives the payout in coin and reputation, determines the heat and entanglement. Then the characters perform their activities: acquire an asset, work on a long-term project, recover, reduce heat, train, or indulge a vice.

Downtime runs different than the other parts of the game. Downtime focuses on feeding the campaign at a higher level than the moment by moment of information gathering, conflict, or social engagement. I see analogues to Blades in the Dark’s downtime in:

I appreciate that the Downtime phase of Blades in the Dark helps me close out sessions so that I can easily account for character changes in the next session. The structure of the crew creates a continuity to a changing cast of players. And the entanglements and turf ensure the dynamism of the city of Duskwall.

Procedures

I love the procedures of a system. They explain in clear steps the transition from one moment of play to another.

Blades in the Dark has two important in-session procedures:

  • Planning & Engagement
  • Downtime

These procedures transition the game from free-form into and out of an action. The Downtime procedure moves the game from the Score back to free-form play. And as I said above, it feeds the campaign.

Planning & Engagement

The Planning & Engagement procedure moves the game from free-play to a Score. Crews gain vital wealth and reputation from each Score.

Once the characters determine a potential score, Blades advocates that they identify a missing detail for the type of score. For an assault, the crew details the point of attack.

At this point, the GM moves into the Planning & Engagement procedure. Each character determines their load; How much gear they have (not the specific gear just how many slots of gear).

The GM runs through a litany to build a dice pool for the engagement roll:

  • Start with 1d (for sheer luck)
  • Is this operation particularly bold or daring? If yes, +1d.
  • Is this operation overly complex or contingent on many factors? If yes, -1d.
  • Does the plan’s detail expose a vulnerability or strike at a weakness? If yes, +1d.
  • Does the plan strike at a strength or special preparation? If yes, -1d.
  • Can any of your friends or contacts help? If yes, +1d.
  • Are any enemies or rivals interfering in the operation? If yes, -1d.
  • Is the target of a lower tier? If yes, +1d.
  • Is the target of a higher tier? If yes, -1d.

With the dice pool assembled, someone rolls and determines to determine the initial position – what the opening scene of the score looks like.

The engagement roll sets aside the potentially game paralyzing planning and pushes the game into the action. Players do have access to Flashbacks for planning and resources.

As a caveat, if your group enjoys planning, preparation, and pre-determined equipment; the Load Out, Engagement, and Flashbacks may not be for you. You may want to require players choose their individual items for the score, create any assets (eg. bribed guards), and layout the details of their plan. I still believe the engagement roll provides a valuable tool for transitioning from planning to action.

Lead a Group Action

If you have ever had a group of 6 PCs each attempt to sneak around a location, you know that in most systems it will inevitably fail…and likely devolve into combat (e.g. can’t sneak around it, better bash in the door and kill everything).

Blades adds a fantastic mechanism in which someone can lead a group action. The leader need not have the best action rating. Everyone rolls for that action and the highest result determines the success of the group action. However, each individual failure for the group action inflicts one point of stress on the leader of the group action.

In other words, you’ll have a competent group but at a potential cost. From a meta-standpoint, this mechanic also helps keep the characters together (and thus keeps the fictional state more manageable for the GM).

Countdown Clocks

I first saw countdown clocks in Apocalypse World, but prefer the direction Blades takes in leveraging clocks. The countdown encodes events that might happen or obstacles to overcome. A quick note-taking tool that a GM can share with players to provide visual clues for the state of the game.

Clocks also behave a bit like hit points. Characters succeeding on actions can chip away at a countdown clock’s pie pieces, nudging them to actualization.

Other Things

I love success with complications. Blades offers guidance on different complications based on fictional positioning (e.g. controlled, risky, or desperate). However, as with all success with complications, beware of not turning the complication into something far worse than would have happened for outright failure.

Blades encourages (perhaps mandates) the GM to broadcast the position and effect of a given action. “You are skirmishing with a street thug, that’s certainly a risky position with standard effect.” This helps players understand the rubric through which the GM runs the game. It clarifies what players can expect. It also creates a point where players can shift the GMs rubric (for better or worse).

Teamwork extends beyond Leading a Group Action. One character can help another character, protect them, or set them up through an action of their own. These are echoes of Burning Wheel’s Linked Test and Helping Dice. Plenty of tech to reinforce the idea that characters belong to a crew and have each others back.

Blades has a handful of random tables to assist the GM in fleshing out Duskwall; Enough to help craft people, buildings, streets, demons, and forgotten gods. Echoes of a Sine Nomine product.

Blades’s resistance mechanic gives players tools for tempering the consequences that a GM inflicts. Resistance comes at a cost: increased stress. Stress is analogue to character hit points, but is more akin to Fate‘s stress tracks. Characters can manage stress by indulging in a vice (which also has a neat little procedure).

Calibration

Not exactly something I love, but something that everyone should know. Blades in the Dark requires calibration:

  • What constitutes a controlled, risky, or desperate position?
  • What constitutes a great, standard, or limited effect?
  • How many pie pieces go into that count down clock?
  • What does success with consequence mean?
  • How hard do you hit with failure?

How the GM and table answers these questions determines the tone of the game.

Channeling years of experience GM-ing several different systems, I found the calibration liberating. I started out more forgiving. However, when the Leech failed wrecking a door using their explosives kit (their self-described wrecking kit) in a burning building, I hit hard with 4 Harm (eg. lethal Harm). Through resistance and armor they mitigated the worst of it. If we continue, that 2 Harm will linger and complicate situations.

The campaign should strive to ensure a consistent calibration level based on precedence; Ease into any deviation from that precedence.

Other games require calibration, Blades puts it forward as a first class consideration.

What I Struggled With

We had one combat. I opted for a teamwork Skirmish. While the conflict felt fast and cinematic, in hindsight I would’ve opted for individuals actions. And there-in lies a tension in the game. Teamwork for combat? Helping? Individual rolls? Each can work.

But which makes the most sense for the group? Do I ask the players what they prefer (in that moment)? The varied approaches to conflict and action resolution may feel off-putting – They did introduce a bit of doubt and personal dissonance during the game.

Conclusion

I enjoyed running Blades in the Dark. The game structure works well for open-table gaming – make sure to end your session with downtime activities.

The entanglements applies pressure and ensures a dynamic world that moves through and against the characters. I look forward to both the stretch goal hacks and the inevitable community hacks. I know that Victorian Ghost-Punk may not appeal to everyone, but the underlying system resonates with my GM-ing style.

Blades provides ample advice and guidance, but if you need exacting precision, you won’t find it. Blades gives GMs guidance and a framework to run their game for theirtable. As with any RPG, Blades lives and dies on the trust between GM and players.

I love the interlocking systems of Blades in the Dark. It is a solid framework for running many of the games I like to run. When running the game I never had the “Well, lets just Math this thing” feeling that I get when I ran or played Fate. I felt as though the table mentally remained in the fiction instead of scrounging around the table looking for aspects to invoke.

If you’d prefer a different setting take a look at Scum & Villainy; A space hack of Blades in the Dark with Star Wars and Firefly touchstones.

White Box Gothic by Barrel Rider Games

I asked James Spahn, of Barrel Rider Games, for a review copy of “White Box Gothic: Adventures in Horror & Shadow” (link to affiliate program). He was gracious and sent me a PDF.

wizards hand hovering over arcane books

Classes

There are 6 classes: Monster Hunter, Metaphysician, Spiritualist, Wanderer, Dhampir, Reanimated.

The Monster Hunter reminds me of a more focused ranger. They are all around useful, but will shine when the campaign focuses on their chosen prey.

The Metaphysician feels like a multi-classed cleric/magic-user with a bit of odd lore mixed in. They learn all of their spells (divine and arcane) through transcribing scrolls, so you know they are going to be hungry for adventure. Their Foresaken Lore gives them access to all semblances of campaign back story. This is my favorite class of the bunch; They need to adventure to unlock their most potent class feature (spell casting). They also provide a conduit for the GM to narrate exposition.

The Spiritualist is creepy. The can see and affect incorporeal creatures, turn some of the types of undead, and through spiritual guidance channel the power of spirits all around them; Albeit with tremendous risk. I’m uncertain if the risk is worth the benefits; failing a saving throw with a penalty results in level drain.

The Wanderer is the other side of the ranger coin; with a bit of rogue mixed in. They have keen senses, will always find enough to sustain them, minor spell casting, some rogue’s luck, and an ability to scrounge through their pack for odds and ends. A clever class, with several “skill” like options.

The Dhampir is half-vampire, half-human. They are capable fighters with a keen senses and stealth abilities. A solid class.

The Reanimated is the Frankenstein’s monster class; They are beefy bruisers with a very limited advancement. An interesting take; I’d prefer to see one of these as a hireling.

Staring into the Abyss

The section on Corruption provides rules for a spiral into the corruption that afflicts the world. It’s a straight forward system with more overhead in adjudicating player actions.

Dread provides a light weight mechanic for areas of chaos and evil. There are spells that build on or mitigate the effects of dread. A useful system that a Referee can quickly add to their repertoire.

The Curses rule provides a procedure for uttering curses (eg. may your hair fall out and never grow back). It builds on the Corruption sub-system. It is a nice sub-system in that a GM can bring this out when a character wants to get “even”  with another character (PC or NPC) and wants to make sure they suffer.

Sorcery Most Foul

Some of the spells and magic items build on the Corruption, Dread, and Curses; The others build on the Gothic Horror theme.

Of the cleric spells, I find “Mask of Death” the most interesting; donning the visage of death and dread. The “Bind Beyond Death” spell of the wizard is great. It doesn’t take effect until the affected die – thus building on the sense of impending dread and doom.

I’m not a fan of “Conjure Holy Symbol”, using a spell slot to bypass the need for a holy symbol. It feels weak.

Children of the Night

My favorite creatures are the bloodraven and breath stealer. They play to different aspects of the macabre. I also appreciate the stats for a Dementor-like creature; Everyone needs a bit of judgement in their life.

OGL

I’m a huge fan of the OGL, as it requires attribution in the license. For those keeping score at home:

Section 15: Open Game License v 1.0a Copyright 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Inc. System Reference Document Copyright 2000-2003, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.; Authors Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Rich Baker, Andy Collins, David Noonan, Rich Redman, Bruce R. Cordell, John D. Rateliff, Thomas Reid, James Wyatt, based on original material by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, Copyright 2008, Matthew J. Finch Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules by Marv Breig, copyright 2008-2011 Matthew J. Finch.

To comply with Section 6 of the OGL, I believe Barrel Rider Games should add the following to Section 15 of the OGL:

White Box Gothic: Adventures in Shadow & Horror by James Spahn, copyright 2016.

Conclusion

Barrel Rider Games is prolific in its OSR contributions; I believe when an idea strikes they are often quick to write it down and get it out the door. White Box Gothic would benefit from additional editing. None of which detracts from its usefulness at the game table, but instead from the readability.

The PDF is missing a bookmarked and clickable table of contents (though the 3rd page of the PDF has a table of contents). I encourage Barrel Rider Games to adopt gender neutral pronouns when describing characters. I hope to see them adopt the acceptable “they” or “their” in future writings.

I also hope that once Barrel Rider Games releases the Print on Demand version that the POD includes (at no additional cost) the PDF. I have a few hard copy Barrel Rider Games books, but did not opt to pay extra for the PDF.

In the spirit of the Save or Die Podcast, I give it 3.5 Dragons. There is some great stuff to add to any campaign that features the undead.

Early Experience running Out of the Abyss

House Rules for Out of the Abyss

I’ve decided to take the framework for Out of the Abyss and mold it to my liking. First, if you intend to run “Out of the Abyss” straight out of the “box”, good luck.
It is a toolkit, some set pieces, and a lot of narrative prose.

There are plenty of random tables to help move things along, but the book had disorganized core information. My guess is that not a single play tester ran this game from the published book; The information is too spread out for easy access.

What follows are the pieces that I’ve adopted to help me adjudicate the game.

From the Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve opted for a more brutal game. Characters are a bit more fragile. I had mulled over a long rest being 7 days and a short rest being 8 hours, but opted not to use that given the nature of the adventure. These are my personal preferences.

  • Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267): Character’s do not recover hit points after a long rest. They must use hit dice.
  • Massive Damage (DMG p273): Too much damage and you might be out of the fight.
  • Injuries (DMG p272-273): If you get knocked out of the fight, bad things can happen.
  • Morale (DMG p273): Because combat is more lethal, I want morale to help adjudicate monster’s. I’m not satisfied with 5E’s morale ratings, but they are an acceptable approximation.

Building on “Out of the Abyss”

The following rules build from my observations of the missing specificity in “Out of the Abyss”.

Illumination

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

Roll a d6 to determine how an encounter area is illuminated. On a roll of 1-3, the area is dimly lit by the phosphorescent moss and lichen common in the Underdark, or by faerzress (see “Faerzress”). On a roll of 4-6, the area is dark except for whatever light sources the characters might have.

And that is all you get for using Faerzress in encounters. Here is a table to help determine light. This table assumes that on a roll of 1 for illumination, using the original mechanics, there is a 50% chance that the illumination is from faerzress.

d12 Illumination
1 faezress (Out of the Abyss p21)
2-6 Dim
7-12 Dark

Foraging

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

A foraging character makes a Wisdom (Survival) check.
The DC is typically 15, but might be as high as 20 in some parts of the Underdark.

Again, that is all of the guidance you get. So I made a table to help determine the base DC for each day of travel.

d6 Food Scarcity
1-4 Limited: DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging
5-6 Scarce: DC 20 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging

I made the following resource to help keep track of the day-to-day movements of the party. I also made sure to make a small character sheet for the “friendly NPCs”; There are four NPCs per side.

I spent a few hours this afternoon, rolling the random encounters for the next 30 travel days. Some of the random encounters are straight forward and require one page in the monster manual, but others require referencing numerous pages.

Here are the first 7 days (in which my players have already engaged) and how I wrote the information in Google Sheets. As we’ve proceeded, I need to refine when the encounter happens. I take rest to mean after the characters have stopped moving.

So, when the characters force march for a total of 12 hours, its easy. Encounters happen on the 1d12 hours into that timeframe. If the characters choose to not force march then travel encounters happen 1d8 hours into traveling and rest encounters happen 1d18 hours into the rest (roll a D20 and re-roll 19 or 20).

Day Time Location Creature Space Light XP
2 Travel Webs Escaped Slave (1 shield dwarf) 5′ dark 25
3 Rest Lave Swell 10′ dark 100
5 Rest Sinkhole Blurg the Orog open dark 450
7 Rest Green Slime Giant Rocktopus 5′ dark 200

Bitching and Moaning

The campaign kicks off with 10 likely NPC allies. Yippie! They aren’t retainers or henchmen, but independent characters with their own agendas and foibles. Then the random encounters have a few cases where more NPCs can join the party.

At this point, 3 of the initial enslaved NPCs have died (Prince Derendil, Stool, and Eldeth Feldrun). And two have parted ways (Topsy and Turvey). But they have picked up two new NPCs; Blurg the Orog and Tarrant a shield dwarf. They also started with 2 extra enslaved NPCs; The drow captured the party and extra NPCs at the same time.

This has meant an extreme number of NPCs to manage; It also means that the large group moving through the underdark can rely on the law of large numbers to make sure that everyone has enough food and water. After all, anyone can forage, with each foraging opportunity means 1d6 pounds of food. From a mechanical standpoint, the extra NPCs have been a blessing. From the narrative stand point, the extra NPCs have been needless complications.

And then there is the map. Each hex is 24 miles; Huge by hex crawl standards. The map is unclear about terrain and features. It’s an abstraction that shows distance, but does not convey important information; I’m looking at you Darklake and your ambiguous boundaries. Upon my examination of the map, I assumed one idea about the boundaries of Darklake. But when I read more of the adventure, the boundaries were very different from my assumption.

All told, if you are going to write a mega-adventure, have at least one person run the thing without any guidance from the author. There is a lot of ambiguity and misplacement of information in Out of the Abyss. I understand that proper organization is a tremendous challenge, but I believe if the authors focused on codifying the procedures, then it would be a much stronger presentation.

Advice

If you are going to run this, grab your highlighter and notebook. Scattered throughout the book is vital information; Make notes with page numbers. Make worksheets to help you consolidate information as you see fit. Scan monster entries so you can consolidate an encounter’s information.

Make more random tables. The size of the Underdark means that I’ve seen a heavy repetition of random encounters. The current random encounters imply a population and risk density of the Underdark. Consider other options.

“Out of the Abyss” is the first by the book adventure I’ve run since “The Red Hand of Doom”. I think Out of the Abyss has more interesting set pieces and ideas but its organization is rather confounding compared to The Red Hand of Doom.

It is very difficult to scan “Out of the Abyss” for pertinent information. Granted, “Out of the Abyss” leverages some of the more gritty components of D&D (i.e. starvation, exhaustion, wilderness travel), but I believe the book fails to account for the adventure being a direct reference for game play.

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

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.

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.