Saturday, April 10, 2021

Review of The Vast in the Dark – a Zine About Exploring Dark and Alien Megastructures of an Infinite Realm (Guest Post)

I'd like to thank Doug for submitting this review. As I've stated many times, but I can never state often enough, The Tavern is yours and it is significantly better when members of the community participate in its content - Tenkar

Review of The Vast in the Dark – a Zine About Exploring Dark and Alien Megastructures of an Infinite Realm by Doug Kilmer

I’ll start this review with a thank you to Tenkar’s Tavern for showcasing the Kickstarter ZineQuest (note - The Tavern's YouTube series of Fireside Chats for ZineQuest 2021 can be viewed here) I would never have been aware of this movement, or the great products that were offered this year, without the heads up. I purchased way too many products for my wallet and so far don’t regret one.  

Charlie Ferguson-Avery’s The Vast in the Dark is one of the best.  Published by Feral Indie Studio, it is not only an incredibly useful toolbox, it drips with an original atmosphere and dark character, which is hard to achieve in this now mature industry literally full of thousands of settings.  

From the back cover:

The sky is black as night. A tectonic rumbling can be heard overhead: the ruins sprawl out with a fractal madness. And a vast sea of colorless sand stretches out into the darkness.

That writing alone gets my attention.

The electronic version of The Vast in the Dark is available here for a minimum contribution of $5USD. As identified above, the product is the result of a successful Kickstarter project in early 2021 that has already delivered in full. The electronic product is 28 pages long, including front and back cover, insides of covers, table of contents, and two pages that are predominantly art. The remainder is a toolbox for the creation of this alien environment. The writing is fairly tight and concise, and it is simple and clear to read.  The booklet makes great use of evocative art that reinforces the brooding atmosphere, and the layout is functional and minimizes wasted space.

While technically system neutral, the author recommended systems include DCC, OSE, Pathfinder, Knave, White Hack, and Black Hack.  So obviously, this is going to have an old-school vibe. As a backer of the Kickstarter, I also have a saddle-stitch print version, which is a handy 5” x 8” and fits well with my Old School Essentials books.

What it has…

As I mentioned, this is a toolbox to adventure in a “crumbling alien wasteland.” At its heart, it is a sandbox for hex crawling.  Definitely OSR-ish, hence the system recommendations. Within the limited page count is everything you need to randomly generate an ancient wasteland of some past empire. The ruins of megalithic structures littering a sandy waste, dotted by conclaves of other travelers caught in the dark clinging to existence.

The Vast in the Dark is not meant to be a full setting, but rather what I will call a “side setting.” This product can pretty much be bolted on with any setting. I think it is best used as a diversion from your main campaign, possibly a jaunt on the other side of the veil or being caught up in the planes. Three to four games sessions ought to do it; enough to frustrate your players, make them appreciate escaping this place, and definitely memorable fodder for your players to talk about in years to come. 
Yes, the Vast has that level of potential to turn ugly and hopeless for the party. Walking out of here without some form of permanent mark probably won’t happen. And it shouldn’t in my opinion.

There is no wasted space in this zine. A brief explanation of the setting, rules on exploration in the Vast (e.g., navigation, becoming lost, and quirks that your character can take on due to being too long in the wastes), and an inventory system. The zine also provides a modicum of the mundane necessities of life (e.g., food), a lodestone-based (one of the few setting resources) currency system, and some discussion of the Vast’s society. There are even three representative factions that can be found while wandering the wastes.

The zine also provides a quick and simple exhaustion system.  This is key to playing in this environment, as it reflects the slow wear and tear of struggling to survive in an alien environment.  Characters gain levels of exhaustion when they miss a night’s sleep, are severely wounded, push themselves beyond the norm, and go without food. These build up and can result in an illness or injury, which puts tasks using the associated ability at a disadvantage until rested or healed. Truly reflective of the dark and gritty of the Vast, and definitely will be a challenge to even veteran players of old school systems.

Cool, but not the real treasure.  

The Good…

The random Vast generation tools are the true value. The method starts on the macroscopic level developing regional terrain maps, and then works inward to local scale hexes, and lastly ruins.  The regional and local mapping uses a die drop method to generate the locations of ruins, pillars, and empty wastes. Pillars are enormous constructs made of lodestone that seem to be holding up whatever is above beyond the sight of the ground. Like the ruins, they can also be inhabited.

For ruins, a simple room-by-room grid-based mapping method is provided that can be used on the fly. Example types of rooms, features, treasures, and encounters are all in the booklet. It comes with an associated time tracking guide for room exploration. All very old school.

The Not so good…

I only have two minor criticisms, both of which are admittedly not valid given the limited page goals of zines: not enough original monsters; and, just not enough content.  That’s it. This product definitely leaves you wanting more. I look forward to a companion in the future. Maybe something that fills in what is on top of the pillars.
The lack of unique creatures to encounter is really the only gap in this booklet.  The uniqueness of how the Vast is presented justifies the need for original creatures. There are certainly a plethora of monster manuals that can be pilfered for non-standard creatures, but I want the author’s vision on this as well.


On the old five-star system, have to give this a near-perfect 4.5 out of 5.  At $5 for the pdf, this is one of the best values I have come across in years.  Personally, I can’t wait until my players cross the veil and realize they are not in Kansas anymore.

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Friday, April 9, 2021

Deal of the Day - Aryxymaraki's Almanac of Unusual Magic (ACKS / OSR)

I really enjoy the Adventurer Conqueror King System as more than just a ruleset but as a resource. The way ACKS defines classes makes for a great template that can be ported over to almost every other OSR system. Today's Deal of the Day is Aryxymaraki's Almanac of Unusual Magic for the ACKS system. Normally 10 bucks in PDF, until tomorrow morning, Aryxymaraki's Almanac of Unusual Magic is on sale for a mere 5 bucks in PDF.

Within the pages of Aryxymaraki’s Almanac of Unusual Magic, you will find four new kinds of magic-user, each of which uses magic in new and exciting ways:

  • Dwarven earthforgers inherit an ancient tradition allowing them to draw on the spark of the divine found in all creation to power their magic.
  • Gnomish alchemists are experimenters whose concoctions range from ‘helpful and safe’ to ‘incredibly poisonous’.
  • Terran engineers are scientists and builders from another time, whose inventions and tinkering certainly appear magical to most non-technological societies.
  • Warlords draw on the chaotic energy of battle, taming it with their practiced tactics and leadership to ensure that their side wins.

These new classes are built for use with Autarch’s Heroic Fantasy Handbook, which provides rules for ceremonial and eldritch magic. Because they use eldritch magic, the new spells (and tactics) described for the gnomish alchemist, the Terran engineer, and the warlord constitute more than one hundred new eldritch spells usable in any campaign that includes eldritch magic, even one that doesn’t include any of these new classes. Of course, it wouldn’t be an ACKS supplement without full builds for all of the classes and spells, and the source factors for gnostic magic, allowing you to build your own content to expand what’s in the Almanac.  

Magic is all around you. Are you a forger of creation, an engineer of wonder, an alchemist of the unknown, or a lord of war? Discover what kind of unusual magic speaks to you, with the help of this Almanac!

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Tome of Adventure Design 50% off Thru April 13th (PDF)

Frog God Games is offering Matt Finch's awesome Tome of Adventure Design at a 50% discount in PDF through April 13th, 2021. Use the above link to receive your discount.

Tome of Adventure Design is currently on the top 100 list on DriveThruRPG. 

We’re proud of our books and we want people to see them, so we’d like to make you a special offer: 50% off Tome of Adventure Design. This is a limited-time offer, good until April 13th. 

Tome of Adventure Design contains a huge number of random generation tables for fantasy RPGs, but that’s not why it has been a consistent best-seller in the gaming community. What’s unusual about it is that it’s a guide for creativity more than a set of quick-roll tables. Many of the tables fold into or branch out from other tables in the book, building adventures intuitively from the combination of many related elements. We hope you’ll take us up on this offer and see why the Tome of Adventure Design is our most popular adventure-writing resource!

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Free RPG - The Lost Outpost, The OpenQuest Quick-Start Rules and Adventure

I'm a huge fan of OpenQuest. Were I to run my classic boxed sets of Pavis & Big Rubble again, I'd use OpenQuest for the ruleset. It's, IMHO, the best presentation of the RQ/BRPG d100 system that I've encountered.

The Lost Outpost, The OpenQuest Quick-Start Rules, and Adventure is a free taste of the new edition of the OpenQuest rules. 75 pages, hyperlinked and ready to roll ;)

This pdf is designed to get players and Referees up and playing OpenQuest, with the minimum of preparation.

It contains the following sections.

  • Characters. A rundown of what an OpenQuest character is made up of, both in terms of numbers and concepts.
  • Quick Rules. A concise version of the OpenQuest rules, enough to play the adventure.
  • Combat. The rules for physical combat.
  • Magic. The basic approach to magic, known as Personal Magic.
  • The Lost Outpost. An introductory adventure set in OpenQuest’s example setting, the Empire of Gatan.
  • A set of six pre-made characters. Players should pick one and get ready to play.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Deal of the Day - Against the Darkmaster Core Rules

What is Against the Darkmaster? According to the Against the Darkmster Quickstart Rules (available at PWYW pricing, so please, grab the Quickstart before plunking down your cash for the full rules):

Against the Darkmaster (abbreviated in VsD throughout) is a tabletop pen & paper role-playing game of high fantasy, epic adventures, eldritch magic, and heavy-metal combat.

What is Against the Darkmaster inspired from? As we mentioned above, VsD is an epic fantasy game first of all. As such, it draws its main inspiration from the classic works of the masters of the genre, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ursula K. Le Guin, passing through the two Terrys (Brooks and Goodkind) and their followers, Weis & Hickman, Jordan, and Williams. Anyhow, these are only the original sources of inspiration.

Against the Darkmaster is also inspired by the great fantasy movies of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and from the sword & sorcery genre. Think of The Lord of The Rings cartoon from Ralph Bakshi. Think of the cheap ‘80s barbarian movies. Think of the heartbreaker movies a whole generation was raised to: Dragonslayer, Krull, Labyrinth, Clash of the Titans, Legend.

Finally, think of VsD as a mix of all the above as seen through the eyes of a heavy metal music fan. And when we say “heavy metal”, we mean the original genre. The music of Malmsteen, Dio, Black Sabbath, Blind Guardian, Manowar, Iron Maiden. Lyrics and music bringing to life the very clash of steel versus steel, the power of elemental fire and thunder. These are all ingredients you will find in generous doses in the VsD recipe.

Why is it abbreviated VsD?  I'm guessing the original is in Italian, and that is the abbreviation from Italian. I could be wrong, so I'll be happy to correct it.

But really, WHAT IS Against the Darkmaster? For all intents and purposes, it is a clone of the Rolemaster rules. It never comes out and says to, but just looking at the cover, you can see the similarities.

I no longer desire to play rules as fiddly as Rolemaster, but for those that do, Against the Darkmaster Core Rules may be an excellent option. Normally 20 bucks in PDF, until tomorrow morning at 11 am Eastern, the rules are on sale for 10 bucks. Remember, the Quickstart Rules linked above are free.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Kickstarter - Mythic Table (Open Source, Non-Profit VTT)

I'm a huge fan of Virtual Table Tops, which for brevity's sake I'll refer to as VTTs for the rest of this post. kLoOge.Werks (last updated in June of 2020) was one of the earlier ones I played around with. Screenmonkey (last updated in 2012) was yet another. Battlegrounds was another early VTT I tried, which is still in development. Maptools, iTabletop (I was a forum mod there briefly), Fantasy Grounds (1, 2, and Unity), Roll20, the list goes on. I've probably forgotten more VTTs than many readers have actually used.

All this is to give you my bonafides, not as a VTT expert, as I certainly am not, but as a consumer that enjoys following the development of VTTs and is still looking for that certain VTT that will hit upon all of my wants and dreams, even the dreams that I don't even realize I have.

This brings us to, in a less than direct manner, Mythic Table. An open-source VTT is NOT something I'm used to seeing, and although I am definitely NOT a programer (thus my love/hate relationship with Fantasy Grounds) I can see where a strong community could drive this software, and I think I want to be along for that trip, even if only in the passenger seat ;)

So, what does Mythic Table offer right now?

  • Basic assets for out-of-the-box (ootb) playability - maps and characters.
  • Campaigns - Viewing, joining, adding, editing, and removing campaigns
  • Dice - Rolling, chat, security, rendering, persistence, etc
  • User - Registration, login, authentication, guest users, and profiles
  • Maps - Viewing, adding, editing, deleting, and more
  • Smooth interface - User experience process, UI iterations, and user interviews
  • Character - Viewing, adding, editing, deleting, frame, moving persistence, and more.

Stretch goals add more features, like Fog of War (a necessity for me) and World Anvil integration, and backers get discounts at the Open Gaming Network / Open Gaming Store, and at higher backer levels, World Anvil.

I'm a backer and I'm anxious to see how Mythic Table progresses. 

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Sunday, April 4, 2021

My Thoughts on a Point About the Recent Candlekeep Mysteries Brouhaha


Something you Tavern readers might not realize is that I don't always drink the Tavern's Kool-Aid.....as in I don't read every post here and listen to every podcast or watch every YouTube video. I like Erik personally and enjoy the OSR, and I suspect that most people here are closer to my POV and less overactive Tavern fanboy.

I mention this because recently there has been some drama over WotC editors......editing a writer's submission to meet the needs of the desired publication. Erik posted about it at the Tavern, and I'll state my opinion....he didn't really hit on the important points of the problem very well. (Note: I pre-wrote this post days ago......)

BUT, to be fair, I thought he did a much better job on the YouTube video, and for you non-Kool-Aid drinkers, that would rather listen than read....go check it out.

Now I'm not going to insult you by going over everything I just suggested you watch, but I have a couple of main take-aways from everything I've seen and some of it is from personal experience, which I'll get into in a bit:

  1. When you get hired to write something, there are established parameters that you need to conform to. Some are kind of understood, like "submit in English please" and others need to be (and usually are) spelled out, like "submit 5,000 words in this format". If you've been hired to submit a short adventure, regardless of word count, submit a short adventure! Regardless of word count, an adventure that is "a showcase to the deeper lore and history of the FR." kind of stretches the boundary for a short-story. Bringing back and or fundamentally changing a couple races......again stretches the boundary for a short story/adventure.
  2. Most every writer has some big idea or a series of ideas.....I assume it's part of the creative process, but a successful writer, in addition to conforming to their client's desires (as expressed in written and unwritten standards mentioned above) does a good job of differentiating between what is and isn't important for the submission. Not the story, the submission. The piece of work that has to be edited and published to meet the needs of the publication itself.

Point #1 is a bit common sense and easy to argue/debate. If a writer is contracted for 5,000 words on an adventure to be written in English for D&D 5th edition and they submit 7,000 words for a French version of 1st Edition AD&D, the publication will just reject it outright and refuse to pay. No brainer there.

Point #2, and this is what I'm seeing in all this drama, is when a writer doesn't do a good job of meeting the needs of the project or audience. Usually this is when they meet the technical aspects of the contract and either ignore the unwritten aspects or disregard the needs of the publication or end-user.

Back when I was in charge of organizing the GenCon and Origins Tournament Adventures for the HackMaster Association/KenzerCo, I ran into Point/Issue #2 more times than I'd have preferred. I'm 110% certain that my early drafts my own writing attempts were guilty of this as well, but I'm sure I've gotten at least somewhat better due to dealing with other writers.......have I gotten good enough, not my place to say.

I will say that as an adventure editor, the whole idea of a writer trying to explain their big "backstory" and/or NPC "motivation", pretty much pisses me off*. I don't want to have to sift through pages of details of shit that is pretty much never going to come into play, or matter, at the game table.....and that is as an editor. As a GM I don't have the time or inclination to read three paragraphs of details, buried in four pages of text, on why one NPC feels a certain way about another NPC.

Show, don't tell.

If you need one NPC to be a dick in an adventure, simply give the GM that direction instead of having to make a reader....or end user, glean that information from a large body of text. If it is something the PCs won't see, it can probably be excluded altogether. Motivations and backstories are internal adventure points, not external, or party-facing. If you don't consolidate and/or dumb-down this unnecessary information, your editor will do it for you....

.....and he/she will hate your for it, and you'll probably hate them for it as well. Current case in point.

HackMaster Tournament adventures, back in the day, had a pretty standard format in that there were a specific number of encounters and there was a general rule as to the numbers and types of encounters. You wrote to a specific level range and while you could tweak things a little bit.....you want to swap out a trap encounter for another combat encounter, go for it.....but expect there to be more editing issues. Unless you inserted combat stat blocks in the body of the text, something I did (in addition to them in the end as a battle-sheet) a tournament adventure ran six pages or so (it's been a decade so my numbers are fuzzy).

I had an author submit twelve pages of content. It took me so long to edit that it would have been easier to just re-write it myself and use the basic idea for each encounter, but no I did the editing back-and-forth with the author. Now I was also the Head GM and as such I have to make sure that all my table GMs have what they need, when they need it, to run a table smoothly as all the tables play concurrently. Depending on the complexity of the adventure this might mean I give the GMs the adventure the week before. Usually a day's advance notice is sufficient because I'd take the time to prep maps and other game-aids when I could. I'd been known to provide battle-matt overlays and even monster tokens, broken out by encounter, so GMs could focus on running the game and not looking for minis or drawing maps.

Anyway this author was going so far as to try and provide me updates to the adventure the morning of the tournament, making sure he was clear enough on some NPCs motivation. It was all too much, and when asked for an evaluation of his adventure I gave some bluntly honest feedback.

If you are able to do so, I encourage you to look at the adventure T1 The Village of Hommlet. I'd argue that there's a lot of game play to be had, multiple game sessions' worth for certain. My PDF copy is 25 pages, counting the covers. The "Backstory" for the entire adventure is roughly a page and half, spread between the intro and some more on the ruins of the moathouse. Even that is a bit of  stretch because there is a generous three pretty much "read to the players" paragraphs and extra notes to the GM that are a mix of "backstory/motivation" and actual notes (like how some buildings aren't numbered). Everything else is condensed to a simple statement where needed.  

For example, entry 25 states that the herdsman "and the Druid of the Grove are friends". As a GM, that's all I need. I don't need to know that the herdsman's prized ewe that won a blue ribbon at the last Spring-Fair came down with hoof and mouth and the Druid spent two days on round-the-clock care, bringing her back to a state of excellent health such that the herdsman was able to sell her twin lambs later that spring for a record price, allowing him to afford his middle- daughter's dowry so she could marry up in social standing. The herdsman now considers the Druid of the Grove a friend and ally and makes a small offering every week.

Yes, I have been given this level of ridiculousness before.....I wish I had saved the files, but at pennies per MB of storage, it wasn't worth the hard-drive space.

Lastly, nobody values your story more than you do. This is a given and just suck it up! If someone values it enough to pay you five cents a word, then make sure they feel they got five cents a word value! Just because you think you are worth ten cents a word, or than your extra 1,000 words are worthwhile....well they just aren't. Deal with it...preferably in some self-evaluation and not on Twitter/Social Media.

*This is why I'm not a fan of overly detailed drivel, er backstory and motivation. My frustration at having to deal with pages of ultimately useless information and distillation of days worth of my wasted time spilled out into a truthful, but clearly negative review of this author's work. Now I definitely know better now how to appropriate review or critique a body of work.....I'd argue I knew then and refused reason, I created an enemy that day. I'd argue long-term wise this guy got his revenge and then some.

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