Wednesday, April 21, 2021

She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

 I made a thing! In the past I've shared adventures to this blog, but they tended to be more like GM's notes than actual adventures. This was challenge to myself to create something closer to an actual adventure. This adventure has:

  • A boy with a key for a spine
  • A magic thread
  • A giant crocodile named "Cynthia."
  • Small creatures born from intestinal distress
  • and so much more!

All for the low, low cost of free. Click the picture below to download.

Edit: Bryce Lynch at tenfootpole rated this adventure a "no regerts!" Check out his review here:

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Big Puppet Review

 Let's not bury the lede. "Big Puppet" by Aeron Alfrey and Alucard Finch is amazing. The best OSR product of 2020 that I've read. It's everything that attracted me to the OSR in the first place—completely unique, obssesively useable, unflinchingly adult, hilariously gross, Cronenbergian (or, maybe more accurately, William S. Burroughs-ian), and uncomprimising in its artistic vision. So there's my review; the rest is fluff. 

On flipping through the book, Aeron Alfrey's art immediately stands out. Aeron has a playful collage style that transforms the horrible things that happen in the module into something wickedly funny. This playfulness in the face of horror perfectly encapsulates the feel of the module—there really couldn't have been a better artist to pair with this book. The art doesn't just sit on the page, though; it actively supports and enhances the text. A good module has to straddle the line between technical writing and artistic writing. The prose of the Alucard Finch's text (credited on the cover as A. Finch—the nom de Plume is a possible reference to Atticus Finch?) is very clear and workmanlike like a good piece of technical writing. Aeron's art takes that clear text, amplifying and complimenting the dark humor of the subtext. The illustrations of each of the NPC has so much life that it is instantly obvious how the character moves and reacts without even having to read the descriptions—an immense aid to the GM running the module.

The book itself is, as per LotFP standards, a very well made A5 hardcover with stitch binding. The paper used is a glossy paper that very well compliments the art. Clearly a lot of care was taken with the layout by Alex Mayo, with all the information sitting very neatly on the page—even with small details like the endpapers. Lamentations is famous for including vital information (such as maps or summaries) for the GM on the endpapers. Quite notably, this module instead has a fleshy pink muscle pattern on the endpapers. I'm not sure whose idea this was, but the decision is brilliant given a recurring theme of the module—information stored on something biological. When you open the book and look at that fleshy endpaper, it gives you the impression that the whole module is writ on a slab of meat, It's subtle, but totally inspired.

From here on in, there's spoilers ahoy. If there's any chance you're going to be a player in this, please turn away. In fact, even if you are thinking of purchasing this module to run it, you may choose to avoid spoilers to give yourself the full pleasure of reading it.

The module starts with a description of its primary foils: a group of interdimensional beings who are able to remotely inhabit our world via biocontrol units made of the rare element Duonium. With these biocontrol units, they can shape organic matter however they please—most choose more or less human bodies, but some of the aliens have shaped for themselves bizarre and terrifying forms. They are a cool, utterly alien species with a five-fold mind that can control five bodies at once via these biocontrol units. Since they come from a different dimension, they don't view our world as real and treat it like a video game. Their only goal is to obtain more duonium so that they can bring in more "players." The easiest (and, for them, the most amusing) way to obtain the rare duonium is by harvesting the trace amounts of the element from human bodies (more on that later).

The module describes four of these five-fold entities, color coded for ease of reference. Each alien has five bodies, called "Avatars" or "puppets" in the module. The appearance and mannerisms of the puppets are well described, with each given a paragraph or so and an illustration. Many of them also have some interesting combat tactic. My personal favorite is Marienne. Often found knitting some amorphous baby clothes, if provoked she gives birth to baby bat-shaped drones that fly around and wreak havok. Some of them are really quite gross in a body-horror/Cronenburg/over-the-top sort of way that you will either find amusing, juevenile, or just plain disgusting depending on the kind of person that you are. As a thoroughly twisted individual, I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading this section.

The other important faction described in the module is the brilliant, but insane Pierre DuPont. He has taken over an old bookstore and turned it into a base of operation. He knows about the aliens and their plot, but of course no one believes him. He uses his chemical knowledge to produce drugs both to fund his operation and to addict a small army of "agents" to his cause. His goal is to stop these aliens at any cost.

The second part of the module is a detailed seven-day calendar of events. Modules with event sequences have to be handled carefully—if it is too detailed, the module runs the risk of railroading the whole adventure. Luckily, the event sequence in this module actually encourages sandbox play by providing several ways to interact with factions and a definite, "ticking clock" end point—when Pierre flies his balloon over the theatre where the aliens have based themselves and burns the whole place down with explosives.

This section also describes the aliens' plan in more details. They need to harvest bodies for duonium, but how to access the bodies without raising suspicion? The aliens have started a theatre company called "The Grand Guignol" (which, despite four years of French class, I literally just learned means "Big Puppet" while researching for this very review) that has been modeled after the real-life Parisian Grand Guignol theatre from the early 20th century. The aliens bring volunteers up on the stage and murder them in elaborately gore-tastic ways. The theatre-goers assume it's all just part of the show, since the volunteers are returned back to society quite unharmed. What the theatre-goers don't know, is that the volunteers really are brutally murdered and replaced by genetically engineered simulacra. These simulacra are dependent on a certain nutrient that the aliens use to control these simulacra and convert to their will. The English major in me can't help but point out that mistaking something very real as a harmless illusion is another recurring theme of the module—the aliens perceive our world as a game just like the theatre-goers perceive the dismemberment of their fellow villagers as a mere play.

By far the most striking piece of art in the module is the series of 2-page spreads in the center of the book illustrating this scene. The art piece is a bit interactive. It starts with full page of just an empty stage. A greasy bloodstain peers out from behind the curtain, parted very slightly—the show is about to start. Turn the page, and it's spread after spread of completely violent and gruesome dismemberment with a charming little rhyming couplet to accompany it. At the show's end, there is another full-page illustration of the back of the theatre to close out the piece. The elaborate deaths are just wonderfully over-the-top. You know that moment in a horror film  where a character dies in a wonderfully horrible way and you just turn to your friend and laugh (this mostly happens in older horror films as gorey fantastic deaths sadly seem to be a lost art in horror cinema)? This piece embodies that emotion hard. The art here transforms this whole section into something very special.

The module then provides a few dungeons that players might run into. Overall these are quite serviceable dungeons, especially the theatre itself, which has a few body-horror tricks up its sleeve. If I had one criticism of the module, it would be that I could have used one more dungeon. If I run this myself, I had an idea of turning my favorite scene from the Cronenburg film eXistenZ into a dungeon of sorts—a restaurant run by the aliens with genetically modified chickens whose bones can be assembled into firearms...

The module closes with some very nice items. Each item gets its own illustration. This is probably the most universally useful section of the module if you are running anything with body horror and need some inspiration for great items to use. Some of these are only barely mentioned in the module itself, but could really change how the game runs if a player gets their hot little hands on them.

This module fulfills LotFP's "weird fantasy roleplaying" tagline. If you are at all a Cronenburg, Clive Barker, Junji Ito, or William S Burroughs fan, this module is an insta-buy. That said, it may not be for everyone—it fits a weird niche of being both artsy and low-brow. I would highly encourage you to give this module a try.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The weird prison

The chamber

This chamber contains 6 alcoves, with three on each side of the room. Each alcove is large enough to fit a person. Each alcove has a disgusted-looking gargoyle face with a look of disgust carved above it. A mirror covers each alcove, preventing anyone on the outside from seeing the inside of the alcove. The mirror is only about six inches above the ground. There is also a small fountain of a rococo design in the center of the room.

In the mouth of each gargoyle there is a small hole, this is where food can enter the alcove. The hole also allows the occupant of each alcove to talk to the party.

The mirrors are designed so that they can be easily broken from the outside, but not from the inside. In my game, the prisoners were put here by a sleeping god--imprisoned for daring to enter her moving castle. In your game, the prisoners could have fallen victim to a dungeon trap, political prisoners of a mad king, or whatever you desire.

The fountain in the center of the room spawns cockroaches that climb out of the fountain and through the mouths of the gargoyles. The cockroaches are specifically engineered to be highly nutritious food for the prisoners. Perhaps a tribe of goblins might wander through from time to time for a free treat from the fountain.

The Prisoners

— Mandoline — 2nd level fighter 

    Mandoline not a terrible sort... for a grave robber. She is straight-forward in her dealings and a bit curt in conversations. She knows that one of her fellow prisoners is a demon based on the screams she hears at night, and suspects either Timothy or Khard.

Mandoline wants the party to break her out of the alcove and promises to offer her services to any who do so.

— The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained-teeth (A.K.A Little Timothy Van der Kamp) — 5 HD demon

     He says that he is the son of the Van der Kamp family, cruelly kidnapped and imprisoned here (in actuality, The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained teeth ate Timothy Van der Kamp about a decade ago). Says that there is no demon and calls Mandoline a liar. He is bound in the alcove by a silver chain worth 700 sp. His teeth are intricately carved and have magic effects if extracted (each tooth takes a turn and a successful bushcraft check to extract):

•Chess pawn--this tooth looks like an ordinary white chess pawn, but whoever plays the white pieces with this pawn on the board can never lose a game of chess.

•Tusk—the carvings on this tusk depict a drunken man staring at a scowling sun. Whoever gets drunk off mead served in the tusk can not tell lies

• Elephant—this tooth has been carved into the shape of a miniature elephant. If crushed into dust and mixed with mud, the mixture will shape itself into a huge and powerful elephant. The elephant can carry huge loads and travel far distances, but each day it requires an increasing amount of human blood. If the quota cannot be met, the elephant will attack the party.

• A key—In a city a few hexes away, a middle-class woman noticed a horrible door in her cell that wasn't there before. There is a humming noise coming from behind the door that gives the residents of the home terrible headaches and nightmares. This key opens that door.

The-one-who-screams-through-bloodstained-teeth desperately wants to a) escape and b) eat the party and all the other prisoners alive. It can cast illusion  

— Khard—3rd level fighter

    As the party approaches, Khard tells them NOT to look at the mirror that covers his cell. If any do, they must save or lose their ability to speak their primary language. Khard is known as the great envoy of the Kharzan. In my game, Khard had the entire history of the Kharzan empire tattooed on his skin (or at least one version of it), and was therefore very valuable to certain people looking for information on the forgotten kingdom half-lost in the fog of dreams and time. Being that Khard was so inherently valuable, his wardens felt that he warranted the extra security of the trapped mirror. In your game, Khard could have the map to a valuable treasure tattooed on his skin, his tattoo could function as a spell scroll (when the spell is consumed, his skin dissipates as per a normal spell scroll), or it could be a kind of sentient virus that spreads from person to person.

   Khard just wants to be left alone after a lifetime of persecution for the value of his tattoo and will say whatever is necessary to get the party to go away. He doesn't want anyone to 

— Dr. Emeritus—0 level fighter

   Claims to be an expert medical professional and historian. His credentials are dubious at best and almost all information he provides is dead wrong. Agrees that there is a demon, but thinks it's probably Mandoline.

 Dr. Emeritus wants to be freed, but also wants to be acknowledged as a genius. Says that, if freed, he can brew for them a great and potent potion that extends life (the potion's primary ingrediant is mercury and has no other effects).

— Dijon the Great—3rd level magic-user

    Dijon is a habitual liar. He lies just to sow chaos. He wants nothing more than to get the party killed or confused for the simple reason that it amuses him. He knows that "little Timothy" is the monster, but just wants to cause as much trouble as possible. Will say that either there is no demon, or that Timothy is actually an angel and not a demon at all, that the party should free Trevina (who will then instantly try to free the demon) because there is a great treasure stowed her alcove. Dijon will change his story and mood to whatever suits the moment.

—Trevina—1st level fighter 

   Each night, The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained-teeth spits forth a blue butterfly that worms its way into Trevina's ear while she sleeps, sending her horrible dreams. Trevina is now quite insane. She knows that "little Timothy" is the demon and wants him to be freed. If questioned, she will say that she is the demon. 1d10 of the blue butterflies still flutter about in her alcove. If you whisper a name of a sleeping person to the butterfly, it will flutter to the desired person (less than one mile away) and send them a dream of your choice.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Robert Aikman-style Encounters

I only have one book of Robert Aikman's stories, but this is a shortcoming I'm going to have to correct. The back of my book has a great blurb from Neil Gaiman that I think captures Aikman's style beautifully: "Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was."

Aikman stories are decidedly on the supernatural scale, but they emerge out of the characters neuroses. One of my favorites is The School Friend—the main character meets up with a friend of hers from school whom she remembers as being quite brilliant, but is surprised to find how much she has changed. The more the character investigates, the greater the wrongness grows, with the supernatural only emerging at the end of the story. 

If neuroses is one side of the Aikman equation, mystery is the other. A secret can be put into words. A secret can be shared. A mystery is metaphore of the truth—it is the truth, but one step removed. It can only be experience or felt intuitively and can't be put into words. The trick as a GM is not to make things so surreal that players have no agency. Even though the supernatural doesn't follow natural law, players should (hopefully) be able to feel the supernatural intuitively and be able to make decisions around their feelings.

Here are two ideas for encounters inspired by that Aikman-esque mix of neuroses and mystery (at least I hope so):

1. The door

The party is hired to guard a particular door and told they must never open it. The owner of the building is a fat man who surrounds himself with books. Each night, soft noises can be heard from within. The noises grow louder and more troubling with each night. If the door is opened before the third night, the room is empty. The owner of the building will be able to tell immediately, demanding double the wages he paid the previous nights. 

If the door is not opened by the third night, the noises become a loud pounding and the door bursts open, a skeletal parade storming out and filling the whole building with eerie, discordant music. They march up to the owners room as he screams "you came! you came!" He is bound by the skeletons and dragged down through the door.

2. The cane

The GM casually mentions an old man with a ornate cane sitting in the corner of each inn the party stops at. When the party finally speaks to him he says nothing, only smiles and nods his head. If the party asks anyone else about him, they won't be able to even see him.

At the next inn, the man won't be there, but his cane will be. The cane is monogramed, so the party might be able to track down a possible owner to a crumbling estate. The last owner, a confirmed bachelor on the brink of bankruptcy will instantly recognize the cane as belonging to his uncle, now passed. The last owner hated the old man and refuses to talk about him. The uncle's grave is out back. It appears to have been recently dug up. Inside the uncle's coffin are a colony of teeming worms and a medalion worth 700 sp. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Jack-O'-Dungeons: The Black Mold Castle

 Day 5 of the Jack-O'-Pumpkins blog a day challenge. I had the idea of this one from the "Sprout Stachybotris" spell from yesterday, but it ended up being its own thing. Some of the ideas came together nicely for this one, although I would have liked more time to expand on somethings and improve others.

Unfortunately, more terrible art by me

The Black Mold Castle


1. Lord Saer

Around his neck, Lord Saer wears a beautiful glass medalion (300 sp), unspotted and gleaming with white light. The rest of his tattered purple clothes are spotted with dark spots of mold. The flesh of his face and hands have been completely overtaken by the mold, his bones poking through at sharp angles. Lord Saer is overtaken by lethargy and can barely walk on his thin, frail legs. Although he lives in squallor he is massively wealthy and only desires more wealth. AC 9 HD 4 Attacks: Sword made of Sharpened Ivory d8 Special: Can cast Sprout Stachybotris, Stinking Cloud, and Suggestion

2. Clouds of Spores. Make a Save vs. Breath or become infected with mold. -1 Constitution per day.

3. Servants.

Their powdered wigs have turned gray with black spots. Their faces are pale and they cough constantly. While they will fit intruders, they aren't immune to even small bribes. The head servant, Wilver, is a fat man with wooden teeth willing to do anything for money except work for it. Currently in the employ of the woman in the walls (room 2), he has a small bottle of rose-water scented poison he is planning to use on Lord Saer tonight. AC 12 HD 1 Attacks Pistol d8

4. 2d3 Accountants

They are wrapped in accounts like mummies. Receipts and bills, promisary notes and useless bonds. They lunge at the party like they want to engulf them. When they die, the notes blow away, revealing there was nothing underneath. AC 14 HD 2 Attacks: Engulf d6


1. Entrance hall

Peeling frescoes line the walls. There are chairs for lounging, but the seats have fallen through and the legs are coming off. There is a large statue in the center of the room, with its eyes missing (see room 6). If the red eye is put in the left socket and the blue eye in the right socket, the statue's mouth opens and all those in a ten foot range make a save versus breath or become incinerated. If the red eye is put in the right socket and the blue eye put in the left socket, the statue pivots away leading down to a chamber thick and slimy. In a small reliquary covered with gold and azure rests the finger of the anti-saint Bernholm (the church wants it, but cannot pay any money for it, as doing so would be heretical. They may be willing to grant a boon in exchange for the finger).

2. Empty Room

The room itself is quite empty, but skittering and scratching can be heard in the walls. Lord Saer boarded up his mother in the walls, where she lives to this day, peering through the small cracks in the walls of this room. She has a weird sense of humor and laughs at inappropriate times. She wants to kill Lord Saer. She knows the correct order of the eyes in room 1. No one in the castle, not even the woman herself, can remember her name.

3. Art Gallery

The art in the room is a preceless collection. Too bad its been utterly ruined by the damp conditions and squalid atmosphere. Some of the frames are quite valuable— d6 can be recovered for 100 sp each. Only one painting is salvageable, a striking painting of a young woman gazing out the window. The woman is still alive—she lives a few kingdoms away. She is old now, but rich. She will greatly appreciate the painting if brought to her (2000 sp).

4. The dining room

A long, square table dominates the room. The table has a build in trench to catch the enormous slabs of meat, reeking and covered with black mold, that are occasionally brought in by servants. There are 5 silver candlesticks on the table worth about 20 sp each. There are five minor lords in the room gulping the raw meat with gusto. They will refer to the party as servants.

5. The throne room

The throne stands in a pool of filthy, stagnant water. 3-in-6 chance Lord Saer can be found here. The "court jester" splashes about in the water, a cruel abomination that wraps its tentacles around intruders and drags them under the water to drown. AC 15 HD 5 Attacks: Grapple one round and then drown the next, dealing d8 damage

Behind the throne there is an ornate ceremonial sword. When it is floating in water, it will point to the location of the last place it killed someone. If brought in to the local town for appraisal, the anitques dealer, Selena, has an old book hinting that the last person the sword killed was a guard in Prester John's hidden empire.

6. The eyes of the judge

A tangled mound of rats that have fused together into a not. Its eyes glimmer in the darkness, one red, one blue (see room 1). The rat demands that you call it "your honor" and will hold the party accountable for an endless series of crimes. It will give its eyes to a party that can outwit it. AC 14 HD 4 Attacks: 5 x bites d4

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Three Spells

This is part of the Jack-O'-Dungeons bog a day challenge where I'm trying to write a blogpost every day of October. 

Gingersnap Fingers:
Magic-user Level 3
Duration: Permanent
Range: 0
The caster speaks a command into one of their fingers, which becomes brittle and dry. The finger can be snapped off. Once separated, the finger becomes a delicious, sweet yet spicy gingersnap cookie. The cookie never goes stale or rots. Whoever eats the cookie must obey the command, but will never feel hunger again.

Sprout Stachybotrys:
Magic-user Level 1
Duration: Permanent, or until the mold is removed
Range: 20 feet

The magic user points to any surface made of wood, clay, or densely packed soil. A toxic black mold grows from it. After spending a week in it's presence make a save vs. poison or die. On a success, the victim suffers from horrible visions:

1. The victim is visited by a  being made of shadow, it can show them the way to the black mold castle.
2. The victim will see their death, but the memory of the vision becomes hazy on waking up. The GM gives the victim a single word (such as cold, revenge, water, etc.). The victim will never be able to go below 0 HP unless that word is involved in some way.
3. The victim can ask any question. They will receive a truthful answer, but its presented in a cryptic vision.
4. The victim is confronted with the worst aspects of themselves. Roll a d20. If the victim rolls higher, they have confronted their shadow-selves and gain a permanent +1 to wisdom.

Liquify Flesh
Magic-user Level 1
Duration: 1 day
Range: 0

The Magic-user can melt all the flesh off their bones. The magic user then becomes as an animated skeleton with the ability to see through the skeleton and through their flesh at the same time.

The skeleton retails all but three of the HP of the original magic-user. The skeleton's AC  is decreased to 10 for LotFP or increased to 12 for other old-school systems.

The flesh can flow like ooze and move independently of the skeleton. Very handy for squeezing into tight places such as bottles or through door cracks. The flesh has 3 HP, retains AC, and cannot be damaged by non-magical piercing or slashing weapons.

The magic user cannot cast spells if their flesh is liquified in this way. At the end of the day, the flesh and the skeleton must be together or the magic-user dies.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

JOD: The Pump-kin Class for LotFP and Other Old-School Systems

 Day number three of the Jack-O’-Dungeons challenge! My goal is to try to write a horror, fall season, or Halloween themed blogpost every day of October.

Ever year at All Hallow's Eve, Josephiah stood in his pumpkin patch, waiting for the pump-kin to rise. Kids from around the town would openly jeer at his foolishness, but Josephiah did not care; he knew they would come. And one year, they did. They danced a strange dance, leaping high in the air, giggling and flailing their arms like mad, the whole pumpkin patch illuminated with a weird, orange glow. Unfortunately, Josephiah, tired of waiting, slept through the whole thing.

The pump-kin love nothing more than adventure. They are filled with optimism, excitement, and naivete—a bit like a baby, only with the power to run, talk, and swing a sword. Their vegetal muscles don't quite work right, so they move in a jerky dance like a marionette.

As they age, they grow in power very quickly, but they're really only meant to last a season. It's a part of the pump-kin’s reproductive cycle—the seeds in their heads have a better chance of taking hold the better the adventurer they are.

Hit Points: As magic-user

Saves: As specialist/thief

Experience: As specialist/thief

Prime Attribute (if used): Charisma

Short lives. The pump-kin rise out of the patch sometime in early fall. Two months later, they will lay down their head in a soft patch of earth to sleep. With luck, they can start a new patch next year.

Skill points: At the start of the game or whenever the pump-kin gain a level, they can allocate two skill points to any of the following skills (all skills mentioned below start at zero with the exception of bushcraft. For other old school systems, instead of allocating skill points, they can increase their chance of success on any of these skills by 15% two times):

Jump The pump-kin can jump up to ten feet straight in the air, floating down gently in a rustle of leaves and vines

Plant Handling Like the animal handling skill, but with plants.  Successful use of this skill could get a tree to grow in a specific shape, try to trip up anyone who passes, neutralize a poison, etc.

Glow The pump-kind head glows with a friendly orange light for d3 hours. On a fail, the skill can’t be used for the rest of the day.

Bushcraft As per core rule book

Harvest Blessing Success or failure, the pump-kin loses 3 hp for calling on the spirits of the harvest. On success, can cast Bless as a cleric

Seeding When the pump-kin finally starts to rot and selects its patch, roll on this skill. On success, the seeds will take root in the spring! Come fall, the pump-kin will rise again. They will retain their experience and skill points, but the memories of last year's pump-kin will seem foggy and strange.