Thursday 14 December 2023

Masters of Carcosa Part 2

 This post originally appeared on my substack. You can view it and subscribe here:


Where I last left off, I had a general pitch for my Masters of Carcosa campaign as well as a pieced together setting and hexcrawl using Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa hardcover book and module.

However, I also had one issue. I found the original hex map in the module not really to my liking:

It had that classic hexcrawl look and feel but I had a number of issues with it:

I found the colours to be too high contrast.

I found the white hexes and numbers hard to read.

I found it lacked info that I wanted to include. I needed two versions of the map. One which would be GM facing and include an overlay that would show all the hexes that had an encounter in them (not all hexes had an encounter) and another map which would be player facing and not have this information. I also wanted to include some things like roads and water trade routes as villages would be more important in my version of Carcosa. They’d kind of be the basic building block of civilized interaction and each one would have it’s own weird style of government and theme.

It used the traditional hex numbering of one axis being one pair of numbers and the other axis being another pair. So like 38XX in a column and XX11 being the row so you get 3811, 3812, etc. While this may be sacrosanct to some, I find such methods of labeling axis make it very hard to read what hex follows what hex and whether to flip forward or back when looking them up in text.

I wanted to add a number of my own hexes and things to the hexcrawl. To put my own twist on the setting.

So all together I came up with the following. I don’t claim to be an artist but I think my lessons learned may help others:

Carcosa Maps

Carcosa Maps

The colours have less contrast and I find overall more pleasing and easier to read.

The hexcrawl uses letters along one axis and numbers along the other. I find this is much easier to parse and much easier to immediately know at a glance that column H is after column G and row 3 after row 2. Additionally, the label for each hex is in the middle of it.

The GM map has the hexes with fixed encounters labelled with a white overlay. Overall I don’t think you need a fixed encounter in every hex. I find you need to give players room to breathe, to feel like they’re traveling across a landscape where there may be just random road encounters or wandering encounters or nothing at all, rather than another fixed location.

If you look on my maps you’ll see villages (with names) and white column things that are supposed to be towers. The villages are villages and the white towers fortresses. I decided to do things this way because I found a number of the hexcrawl entries featured fortress like locations, basically lairs or bases of operations by factions with a single leader who could project force out from his base.

The players starting village, Refuge, is the village with the red outline around it’s hex.

Overall I was fairly proud of the results and it worked pretty well in play. Still, after playing for several months if I were to juice up another hexmap or create one of my own I’d do the following:

Center the Hexmap: if you’re going to start the players off in one location, and that location is probably, or supposed to be, a base of operations. Then center the hexmap on that hex. I made the mistake of putting Refuge, the players starting village they were responsible for, in the south. It took several days of travel to get to the northern city. The further the players travel from a place the less likely they are to return to it as exploring new hexes is more fun. If you put their base of operations in the center where all the ‘new’ hexes are equidistant, they’re more likely to venture out then venture back in loops. This has them interacting with the NPCs in the their base of operations more regularly.

Common map Symbols: as explained above I had a symbol on my map for villages and a symbol for fortresses. If I were to create another hexmap I’d go even further and create symbols for like 5-6 common adventuring sites, things like lairs, ruined buildings, magical standing stones, inns, etc. I would do this because while, as the GM, you’ve read the text of the hexmap and know what kind of things are to be found and roughly where they are, the players haven’t. The entire point of a hexcrawl is it’s supposed to be self-directed by the players. But if the players don’t know what kind of things lie out there in the hexworld, they’ll have a hard time setting their own goals. You can do this by dropping a lot of adventure hooks but you can also do it by simply making that information discernable on the map. In my opinion the hexmap should be something the players want to study. Not just a empty chessboard they move their pawn around. Additionally, if they do learn things in a hook, like the knights you met come from the Fortress of the North Wind to the North, they can look on the map and be able to figure out and see which Fortress is the actual fortress.

Common Resources: while the hexmap should contain a good number of truly unique and strange locations. I do think there should be 5-6 common adventuring sites. While this may make it seem like a bunch of hexes are kind of copy-pasted, I also think these adventuring sites should be thought of as resources. They aren’t just weird locations the players poke around in and leave. They are things which the players, or other factions can control and fully exploring and controlling them gives them increased power in the setting. Like a fortress can house troops and project physical force into the surrounding land. A ruined building hosts lost magical artifacts. A lair hosts a monster which disrupts the land around it and probably a hoard. Magical standing stones increase certain types of magic in their hex, etc. Once the players figure out what map symbol represents what, and what the resource is they’ll very often come up with all kinds of plans and schemes of how they want to use it and which other ones they want to explore next. They’ll begin to gain power in the world that comes from more than just GP or XP and which they begin to feel an attachment too.

Gameboard not just mapboard: I find hexcrawls are unique in the sense that they are not just a bunch of static adventure locations on a larger map. What I attempted to do, and I think succeeded to some degree, is made my hexmap feel like a living breathing world. I did so through the aforementioned things, but I think most of all is thinking of and treating my hexmap like a gameboard of a fancy boardgame, rather than just a RPG map. Where I would physically move the players token about. I thought of the common types of static sites as resources and the other villages as separate factions. The leaders of some of them would even leave their village and move about to the main city of pillars for a fall time festival, etc.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

 This post originally appeared on my substack. You can view it and subscribe here:


Because it’s the season for spooky stories I decided to finally get around to reading the copy of Dark Entries by Robert Aickman that I bought a while back.

Robert Aickman was a British short horror story writer who wrote almost exclusively strange tales. They’re not quite horror stories, more weird and spooky then horrific. He’s not super well known but they republished his stuff recently in a couple of volumes, one of which is pictured above.

His style is hard to describe but overall he’s pretty good. He really has a unique way of telling a story. He’s a bit different from most writers of weird tales. Most writers of the weird tend to really create an atmosphere through description of setting. Lovecrafts overwrought prose and Poe’s purple prose are kind of good examples of this.

Aickman is a bit different where the sense of strangeness and tension tends to almost come more from the characters, their relations, and the built environment. Something kind of feels ‘off’ in his stories in a twilight zone kind of way where it’s like the main character has woken up and everything is the same but something is different and only the main character notices it. It also makes his stories feel very British, especially mid-century 1950’s British, where you can tell the characters have a strong sense of what’s ‘proper’ and different class divisions and societal relations. So when something does seem ‘off’ it becomes very magnified because of British culture.

When I say ‘off’ I don’t mean anything obvious like the character looks like a scoundrel and is probably the guy you’d pick out in a police lineup as the murderer.

Additionally, his stories aren’t completely moralistic where you have a bunch of normal characters and then one quirky character not following the rules who’s existence is supposed to give a lesson on society. I also don’t mean ‘off’ in this manner either.

I mean ‘off’ in the the sense that the occurrence of the strangeness makes us realize how much we rely on social norms to grant context to what’s happening before us. Where it brings to light the artificiality or arbitrariness of a lot of ingrained social things.

For example, imagine you had to visit the doctor, a doctor you’ve never seen before, and you go to his office and find that it’s in the basement of a building where you have to go down a set of stairs into the unit. And then once in the unit instead of white walls, they were carpeted with shag green carpets.

Now these two things, location in a basement, green shag carpet walls, there’s nothing really wrong with them, nor is there really any reason why a doctors waiting room couldn’t be these two things. But all the same, if you were sitting in that doctors office you’d probably thing, hey, this doctors office is kind of weird.

I think it would feel this way because based on everything you’ve learned about doctors offices in the past; your experiences, seeing them on tv, you have a certain unconscious idea of what one is and isn’t, of how the receptionist should and should not treat you. Additionally, our entire middle class corporate modern society has been built up, more and more, around an idea of sameness where we expect all doctors waiting rooms to look the same, all restaurants to feel the same, all receptionists to follow the same script.

When it’s not like that, it feels weird and you begin to wonder why and flounder about a bit. You sense an artificiality of things, begin to become aware of your own biases.

Aickman’s stories are kind of like this. A lot of them tend to have fairly conventional plots. One story is basically a zombies attack a town story, another a ghost story, etc. However, what makes them weird very often isn’t the actual most blatant supernatural thing that’s occurring. Very often the supernatural thing that happens kind of happens offscreen. What makes them weird is feeling of a break in reality, the creation of a liminal space, due to the small details in things seemingly being ‘off’.

Additionally, a lot of his stories tend to end ambiguously. Where we know something happened in the end, probably have a good idea of what happened, but still aren’t quite sure why or what exactly happened. A lot of them kind of left me scratching my head being like huh? WTF just went down? Now with most writers I find the ambiguous ending more often than not feels unsatisfying. The stories feel unfinished or things in them symbolic in an unmotivated fashion.

However, with Aickman’s stories this didn’t really happen. The ambiguous endings weren’t that frustrating. Partially because of the simple plots, where at the end of the zombie story they escape, etc. at the end of the ghost story he continues out of his train station on his way, etc. Where overall you know what happened. But all the same, there’s an ambiguity to cause and effect in his stories, to the strange characters, to the odd little details.

It’s an ambiguity that made me want to re-read some of his stories and I’m normally not a person who likes to reread stories. I find what makes them so compelling in this manner is the strangeness of the little details makes you wonder if there is some kind of hidden motivation or reason to things. Is something sinister afoot? Is the shag green carpet walls of the doctors office the way they are because it hasn’t been changed since the 70s? Is it the way it is because the doctors office recently took over the building and hasn’t had time to renovate? Is it because of the personal taste of the doctor? Are such walls hygienic? Should I be concerned?

I find it no wonder that Robert Aickman (based on a description of his life in the forward) was probably what is best termed a lifelong small ‘c’ conservative. You know the type of person. The guy who enjoys being part of a historical society in his country, who likes routine, who probably has a boring office job but is kind of the cornerstone of the office, who likes to order the same meal every time he goes out at the same restaurant. In fact, in many ways I don’t think the stories he wrote could have been written by another type of person because he is keenly, keenly aware of the unconscious societal expectations we have around relationships and our built environment and how disconcerting they feel if they’re off.

As the truth of the matter is, I think we all have a different tolerance for unexpected weirdness in this way, no matter how accepting we may claim to be. Like at what point would you leave that doctors waiting room? Would it be the green shag carpet walls? Would it be a lack of any other patients waiting? Would it be a fish tank bubbling away with nothing inside? Would it be a much too friendly receptionist? I think that as you begin to add on more and more compounding things that are ‘off’ (without any context or explanation) there reaches a point where all of us would just be like, this doesn’t really feel like a doctors office, I’m leaving.

In our own way we are all just simple animals living in a built environment of brick and concrete, of glass and upholstery. And like any animal removed from it’s natural habitat, we react with confusion and startlement, feel the depths of the weird.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Masters of Carcosa - Part 1: The Pitch

This post originally appeared on my substack. You can view it and subscribe here:


For my last campaign I decided to run a Masters of Carcosa game. It ran for several months and overall I think was a success. I’m going to cover various aspects of it in a few posts.

I’ve been wanting to run a Carcosa game for years. I own the Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa hardcover book. While I do think it’s an awesome book, I couldn’t really figure out how to best make use of the material.

That was until I saw a series of posts by the blogger Ramanan Sivaranjan who detailed his Masers of Carcosa campaign. It was an idea so good I decided to steal it! Additionally, I also had Geoffre McKinney’s carcosa hexcrawl modules that very few people seem to be aware of, probably because they’re only available in print off of lulu.

So I decided to mash all of these things together, plus Masters of the Universe, the gonzo science fantasy TV show, into a single campaign.

I decided on this mashup mainly because I like the idea of Carcosa. A horrible far future world at the end of time with different races of different coloured people (red, green, black, white orange, etc.) living in stone age villages among the remnants of ancient super science and magical civilizations.

However, I find the actual Carcosa book leaves a lot to be desired. It does have a hexcrawl. But I find a lot of the hexes are fairly abstracted and overall not all that fun. The whole culture and peoples of the world really aren’t detailed that much or in interesting enough ways to lead to meaningful adventure.

In contrast, the carcosa hexcrawl modules are much, much better. Overall, I’d say while the Carcosa book has the spell rituals and science fantasy weapons and gives a clear vision of the world in some ways, the hexcrawl modules have more concrete gameable content. I’d highly recommend them in this regard, especially if you have the Carcosa hardcover book and want to make use of it.

Anyways, I also decided to mash it up with masters of the universe to, well, make the whole setting feel less bleak and be more fun. I wanted the players to feel somewhat empowered, to not just have them slogging through a world full of misery where everyone is cruel and/or suffering all the time. I didn’t draw any elements directly from Masters of the Universe, used a lot of the art from that show as inspiration and explanation for things and to convey the general tone and vibe of the world. 

I created the following pitch:

Masters of Carcosa

Beyond the farthest galaxies viewed by the greatest telescopes. Beyond the limits of our universe lies another place — a place of magic, myth, sorcery and science. At the end of time after all the other stars have gone out blinks one star, one last red dwarf slowly dying, casting a red glow upon one last spinning planet.

Dread Carcosa. 

The terrible world of Carcosa is peopled by the 13 races of men and the Great Old Ones they fight, fear, or worship. Primitive tribes fight amongst one another and amongst themselves. Strange technology, magnificent architecture, and horrific sorcery tell the tale of ancient civilizations now long extinct. The men and women of Carcosa try and eke out a quiet existence against this backdrop.

To the North of the Thaggasoth peaks lies the village of Refuge. Those who have escaped the Jale slavers to the East have found sanctuary here, forming a small refugee community. This unlikely situation—men and women of all the races living and working together—is made possible due to the town’s wise and powerful leaders. Refuge has been spared from the common xenophobia of Carcosa.

Those who feel adventurous hunt the vile spawn, The Star Children, avoid the Jale Slavers, and venture out in search of strange space alien technology, avoid mutant dinosaurs, and explore the wilds of this world.


You are all random adventures summoned, in a great ritual, from the past by Leela, the leader of Refuge, a small society of escaped slaves. They view you all as mythic heroes from the past (despite being random unskilled adventurers who might have been summoned by mistake) who can help protect and champion their small starving village in the wastes of Carcosa. 

The universe is dying, the last planet, Carcosa, is filled with all the broken remnants of the past. The dangers are many, slavers, races of strange reptilian men, strange ancient technology, cthuloid cults, horrific monsters. You’d be exploring a hex map, encountering all these things, dealing with whatever strange forces may threaten the survival of the small village that is your newfound home and trying to improve it and perhaps lead it to glory.

I stole the idea of them being in a village of escaped slaves from Ramanan Sivaranjan. Additionally with the premise being that they’ve all been summoned from the past in a great ritual I opened things wide where they could pretty much be any race/class they wanted and come up with whatever gonzo character they desired. They’d be totally fish-out-of-water characters.

I tend to strongly prefer to have the players be fish-out-of-water characters, even if it’s something as simple as being from the next village over. This way they don’t know much about the setting and the players and their characters are effectively experiencing and learning about the world in the same manner.

The champions of the village angle also helped frame the campaign and gave the players strong agency over something in the world. While it may be full of horrible cthulhu like things and dread sorcery and cruel and evil people, they’re village was at least nice and they would have at least their small patch of the world that they could shape and grow how they wished.

I think that the more strange and hostile your world is, the more you need to give the players stronger agency over some part of it, otherwise the world is too strange and hostile for them to exercise much agency. If they can’t exercise much agency and are continually reacting to things much more powerful then them, they’ll have trouble setting goals of their own and will probably grow bored or disengaged with the campaign.

Anyways, enough for now. For my next post I will blog further about the hexcrawl map I compiled for the campaign.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Review of Demon Bone Sarcophagus

This review came from my substack which is located here:


Demon Bone Sarcophagus (DBS) is a 129 page system neutral (although decidedly OSR) adventure by Patrick Stuart with art by Scrap Princess. Patrick Stuart is one of the more well known authors in the OSR scene, having completed several books in the past that I own and enjoy and which are highly regarded critically.

It’s with some reluctance I can’t say the same for DBS. I will get the easy things out of the way first. The highs in it are very high but the lows are very low and overall it’s a bit frustrating where the book feels about 80% complete.

There seems to be at least one editing mistake on every page. If polished a bit more it could have been very good, perhaps even a masterpiece, but as it stands it feels kind of incomplete. Beyond the simple editing mistakes, if I were to run this it would require a lot of prep to help smooth over the frustrating parts.

After reading it I have done a lot of thinking about it. To this end I’d thought I’d write a more in-depth critique rather than a simple review. Mainly, to see how I would have done things differently in my own adventure writing. So lets begin.


To begin, DBS is the first adventure in a 3 part series (of which I do hope the other 2 do get published despite my frustrations with this first volume). DBS starts off with a 3 page history about the Nobility of Fire and the Empress of Fire. The Empress of Fire is the character within the Demon Bone Sarcophagus and is entombed in a trap and trick filled dungeon that is the main meat of this adventure.

While 3 pages may not seem like a lot for a backstory, it’s broken up into multiple sections, spans a fair amount of time with various characters, factions, and summarized historical plot points.

It’s a lot to digest and remember. So much so, that beyond the basics I really don’t remember much even after reading it twice.

Most of it seems not super pertinent to the adventure at hand. It may be referenced in the later adventures in the trilogy, but it is a fairly large information dump up front. Overall I think it would have been better to really try and modularize this information. To maybe give us the most recent events in this adventure and then as we get to the second or third adventures give us more of the backstory once we have encountered and understood the events and characters referenced in this one.

I also think the adventure could have done a little better at showing and not simply telling. That information presented at the beginning could have been broken up and presented better during the adventure. The adventure does attempt to do this to some degree. There are cultural artifacts within the dungeon that come from the Fire Nobility, but they don’t exactly exposit the presented backstory. There are NPCs you can meet within the dungeon which were involved in the history in the backstory but the text kind of just says they can answer questions regarding the history etc. The actual book doesn’t really do a lot to break up this text for you (like in bullet points or something) and I imagine involve a lot of flipping to at the table, scanning, and trying to figure out how much or how little to tell the players.

Additionally, the backstory at the beginning feels a bit self-indulgent where it feels a bit overcomplex and overwritten. Overall, I am of the opinion, that narrative in RPGs should be short, and fairly dramatic. Think Shakespearian plays. They very often only have a handful of main characters and maybe 3 intertwined plots at most. In Shakespearian plays It’s also fairly easy to determine who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, who’s the clown, the character relations, what everyone’s goal is, etc.

There is a fairly tight five act structure and they usually take place in one overall locale. While events may have happened in the past, there is an emphasis on the present and how things are coming to a head. While the plot and characters may seem simple when you summarize them, there’s a surprising amount of depth to them.

I think RPG narrative is best this way simply because it’s very hard to communicate complex plot to the players. Tabletop RPGs are primarily an oral tradition. So is theater in this manner where you’re watching, but mostly listening to characters dialogue and understanding a story in real time through the spoken word.

The Opening

DBS probably starts with one of the best openings I’ve read in any RPG. The adventuring party comes across the remains of a couple of factions which have mascaraed each other in the desert. It’s very obvious that there was some kind of misunderstanding, that something has gone wrong, that all hell broke loose and you’re left trying to figure out what happened.

In reality, it involves “four groups of conspirators, plus two different groups of security operatives, plus a giant sloth“. This feels like waaaay to much to me. The Alexandrian has a three clue rule. I’d like to propose some kind of inverse law. Like, the only three factions at a time rule. I find if there are any more, especially if they’re kind of entwined in some previous plot like the above listed groups, it quickly becomes very hard for the players to piece together who’s on who’s side and what the fuck is actually going on. There is such thing as too many clues, too many things going on.

Three factions is all you need. Three. If you have two they quickly become a duality of good guys vs bad guys. But three, that helps kind of keep some ambiguity. Six? Six, is way to much and just feels overcomplicated. Why have two different conspircies’. Just have one. If you have to much the players will have a hard time figuring out and understanding things and if they have a hard time figuring out and understanding things they’ll stop caring about things. I think less is more in this regard.

The Implied Setting

The implied setting of DBS was kind of confusing to me at first. Every adventure, whether it likes it or not has an implied setting. While I came to kind of understand it better after reading through it all, there were a couple of things that felt kind of strange and random to me about the various groups in the opening. One of them wore only wooden armor and seemed tribal themed. Another of them were agents of a powerful corporation. Another was a guy with a bunch of trained baboons.

This kind of felt incongruent to me at first. Like what’s the general level of technology? Stone age? Medieval? High renaissance? Where are we and how connected is the setting? We seem to be in the desert but the women warriors are tribal themed? Is there a jungle nearby? For the corporation, are we talking East India themed? Or like more modern as the agents kind of seem like the Pinkertons or something? What’s the general culture of the area? European? American West? Colonial?

While it may seem like I’m being nitpicky, and this is probably a critique that’s more my personal preference than anything. I always like my adventures to have a fairly understandable implied setting. Like, medieval Europe, or 17th century, or East Asia, Lord of the Rings, Dreamlands, etc. I don’t care what it is in particular, or even if it fits with my current campaign world. But something known. This is even more important for adventures that are weird, which DBS is and which I enjoy.

The reason I like this is because it provides a common language of tropes, ideas, images, and terms for me and my players to grasp onto. Everyone knows what an elf is. Everyone knows what a spaceship is. Or what a wild west town is.

Roleplaying is about creating an emerging narrative together. It’s very hard to do so if your implied setting feels very random. If it’s too random, like oh, you’re all popcorn people in a land with twin suns that was ruled over by ancient squid people, then the players don’t really have much of an opportunity to come up and set their own goals and has to kind of just go along with whatever the GM has planned. And the GM doesn’t really have much of a choice but to go on what the adventure says as there’s little for them to expand and extrapolate on with their own imagination based on what they already know.

Now to be clear, DBS isn’t that bad in this regard. Some of what I read, like the wooden armour made sense as I read further on (or well I think it does. I think some characters are wearing wooden armour because it seems like metal doesn’t work or is bad in the Zone? Which appears in a future adventure?). But overall the implied setting that I got from DBS was that of something like Dr. Who. Where it is interesting, but kind of a mishmash of a lot of different genres and things, all treated like normal.

Which to be completely honest, isn’t my favourite kind of implied setting but some people seem to like it so your mileage may vary.

The Disjointed Nature of the Adventure and Lack of Motivation

As mentioned previously the adventure starts off in the aftermath of 6 different factions facing off because of two different conspiracies. The ground breaks open during the fighting and a bunch of characters from these factions fall into the Tomb of the Empress of Fire.

These characters are all chasing each other in the Tomb of the Empress of Fire. The conspiracies they are all involved in seem to involve the Frictionless Blue Glass Merchant company and it’s very valuable frictionless blue glass. Frictionless blue glass seems to come from the plane of fire or was invented by the Fire nobility or some such thing. I

So these two discrete elements, the characters and conspiracies (active element) and the tomb (passive element) seem to be connected in a very roundabout way but as far as I can tell (I may be wholly wrong, I’ve only read through it once) I don’t think there is a direct connection.

That is to say, the conspirators just happened by random chance to fall into the tomb. They don’t know what the tomb is about or really care to be in it. What they desire is to get each other.

And while the tomb is very interesting, and probably contains a lot of information about further things in the 2nd or 3rd adventure, it’s kind of, in the present of the 1st adventure, unrelated to the conspiracies and conspirators.

This I kind of find disjointed and a bit of a problem as it provides very little motivation for the players to really explore either of these two elements. I think either they’re going to learn about and decide to get involved in the conspiracies and fuck off from the tomb which seems to be a deathtrap anyways, or they’re going to think the tomb is cool and not really care much about the characters within it who are involved in some kind of conspiracy and trying to get each other.

In putting these elements in competition with each other I think it does a disservice to both, especially because two other adventures are supposed to follow this one. If the players become interested in the tomb, and either disregard or kill all the conspiracy characters stumbling around the tomb, where is the motivation for them to become involved in the conspiracies involving blue glass and the Zone that seem to be present in the 2nd adventure? And likewise, if they abandon the tomb and simply head out to the Zone after siding with a character within the tomb, they probably won’t learn much about the Empress of Fire, her history, and the Fire nobility, things that seem heavily involved in the third adventure.

To some degree I think in play this might not be a huge issue. Most players probably explore the tomb a bit and explore the different characters and conspiracies enough running around in it. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to lead to both elements half explored and the importance of stuff lost on the players, which may lead to the importance of further things lost on the players. Not so much through their own actions, but because two different elements were vying for their attention and interest and while they had no way of knowing at the time, both turned out to be of importance.

The Random Dynamicism within the Tomb

Now we’re kind of getting to the nitty-gritty. The tomb is comprised of a bunch of rooms. Every room has some kind of fixed element that (most of the time) is something the players can interact with. There is also an encounter in every room with a monster or a character involved in a conspiracy or an NPC monster. However, all these encounters are random. Where you roll on a little table and it’s like character X is doing Yin this room. Like just entering it, or fighting this other character, or investigating thing Z.

I think I kind of get what Patrick Stuart was trying to do. A bunch of characters have fallen into the tomb haphazardly. They stumbling about it and are trying to find and/or kill each other. Instead of having them in fixed locations where they ‘come alive’ when the players enter their specific room, they can be found throughout the tomb and seem to move about.

This is all fine, but when I think about what would happen in play it feels a bit frustrating. The first reason is every time the players enter a room I have to stop play, roll a dice, check on the table, see what monster/character is in the room and what they are doing. And these aren’t simple monster/characters like an angry Orc boss who is eating some mutton. They’re interesting and complex characters who all have a full page spread in a different section of the book about what they’re about and who they are allied with etc.

So most likely after rolling on the table I’m going to have to flip to their character page and be like who the fuck is this guy again? Is he allied/enemies with someone the players have met already?

Additionally, I feel like I’d kind of be on thin ice after a few rooms and repeated characters. Like oh, the players met this character two rooms ago. What if they killed them? Do I roll again? How did they just enter from the far door when the room they met that character in is behind the characters? Oh, they’re going to attack the characters again? But they had to run away last time? Or they’re supposed to attack but previously became allied with the characters.

I know the easy answer to this is just simply make stuff up based on what seems sensible. But I really kind of feel like it might get hard after a few rooms. As I’m essentially not making stuff up about what they’re doing. That would be easy. The table provides that. Instead I’m left to make stuff up about why they’re doing what the table says they’re doing. Especially when it contradicts what happened in previous interactions with the characters. Now that is much harder. Especially when these aren’t simple one or two line characters. They’re complex characters with their own backstories and motivations.

So while the dungeon may seem more dynamic because the conspiracy characters that have fallen into it are dynamically stumbling about it, the mechanism which they do so has added a lot of cognitive load to me as the GM. And I’m not sure if the effort is worth the payoff.

Fact Based Rooms

About 90% of rooms within the tomb are highly imaginative, interesting, and well designed. About 10% are not. They seem highly imaginative and interesting at first glance, but lack interaction and are basically just ‘fact’ or ‘history’ rooms.

An example that really stuck out to me is R36-Histories and Historians. The first paragraph and general read out-loud is:

“The room is lined with thick clay jars, the floor coated with a fine layer of ash.“

The text goes on further to explain that some jars are small, some large. They are all sealed. The large ones contain the ash of historians who studied the primordial Demon wars, powerful but corrupting knowledge that draws the attention of powerful beings. The small ones contain the ash of the histories of these wars. The souls of the historians are bound within these jars so they cannot be summoned etc.

Now overall this is a fantastic and interesting idea. But it feels more like the kernel of an idea than a fully fleshed out room. As so far we’ve simply provided some background facts or history for what in reality, and more importantly, what the players will immediately experience, is just a room full of clay jars.

There’s really not much to telegraph the history of these jars or suggest possible avenues of interaction. Yes, I can probably improvise if the players decide to do stuff like cast speak with dead on the ash. But as far as I can tell there’s really nothing about the lay jars that even suggest there’s the ash of important people in them.

Very little of the interesting things about this room is telegraphed to the players. And very little support is given for further implications. It’s all very abstract. Like if a player does cast speak with dead on the ash of the historian, what does the historian look like? What languages do they speak? Will they willingly divulge what they know? Does speaking what they know cause a demon to appear?

Yeah I can make all this up, and yeah the initial idea is very interesting, but in general the details of the room are written more in a fact based way than a perspective of someone who is seeing the room for the firs time and interacting with shit.

Should I buy this?

Overall I don’t regret buying DBS. I love Patrick Stuart’s work and as frustrating as DBS is, it’s still very imaginative. I also know DBS had a very troubled production history. Multiple things went wrong outside of Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess’ control and I get the feeling it left them burnt out and probably not making a ton of money off this project. However, I also kind of feel like it unfortunately kind of comes across in the end result.

The book isn’t necessarily bad, poorly written, or poorly designed, as much as it just simply feels unfinished. If more attention had been paid to the various editing errors, more rooms been polished a bit more, more feedback given to some of the design, I think it could have been a masterpiece. But as it stands now, it’s simply not.

I do truly hope that Patrick Stuart does the other two books in this trilogy. I don’t know if I’d ever run the first as it stands now. It would require a fair amount of prep and I’m not sure if it would be worth the payoff. However, if this adventure did lead into other more polished adventures I could see it being worth it. I also feel like if I had the full arc of the three adventures it would be easier to see what I could tweak and re-arrange and scrap without the whole house coming down.

Still it’s worth the read. It’s one of the more imaginative things I’ve read all year and does kind of stick in your head.