Sunday, May 1, 2016

A look into the old school module The Dreams of Ruin (sort of a review)

This is not a review, since I didn't read the whole thing yet and play-testing it would take years. But I've seen a lot. More than enough to justify a review, actually. So here are my impressions and thoughts about the opulent PWYW Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future (horror) end-game module The Dreams of Ruin (pdf-variant) by Geoffrey C. Grabowski.

What do we have here?

Here's what's on the tin:
The Dreams of Ruin 
They come from the abyss between the worlds;from the foul darkness of the planes of evil. 
A twisted enchanted forest that consumes whole worlds;an ancient, endless curse that yearns unceasingly for expression. 
The Dreams of Ruin are a unique element of dimensional terror for Labyrinth LordMutant Future and other Old School-style games. 
Designed to remedy the lack of "end game" content for Old School-style gaming, The Dreams of Ruin is a setting-neutral adventure supplement aimed at characters of level 12 to 16. The material can be used with groups from level 8 to max level (and beyond, if the system supports ascent to divinity for high-level character).  
Capable of challenging even the most experienced players and most powerful characters, The Dreams of Ruin are an unforgettable addition to any high-level campaign.  
But beware! The dreams are mighty and can overwhelm even fearsome warlords and powerful wizard-kings. One touch of them, and your campaign world will never be the same. 
INTENDED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES 
Mazes and Mutants Supplement! The Dreams of Ruin works best with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, but can be used with any Old School gaming system with minimal modification.

That's already a lot to digest, I'd say. And something you don't see often nowadays, even (strangely enough) in our little corner of the internet: an end game module. The main pdf clocks in at 261 pages, but it comes with 10 additional pdfs (with an average of 10 pages) for player handouts and other materials.

First Impressions

Let's start with the buzz for this thing: there is none. There'd been some words about it for the kickstarter early in 2015, but no one seemed to care that much anymore after it's release in July 2015. It's a bit strange, I think, because from a first glance it seems to have all the right ingredients to make lots of OSR folks very happy. 

Sure, some things are missed or just not successful, but to get entirely ignored (and seeing the effort that went into this thing, you'd have to ignore it, really) seems to be a third option. Hulks & Horrors comes to mind, so does For Gold & Glory. I'm sure there are more just like it. Anyway, I stumbled across this by accident (don't know how anymore, maybe someone mentioned it in passing or I just saw it on drivethru ...), was interested enough to download it and kept reading after the first page, because ...

... the pdf layout is well done. Pages fit easily on the screen without loosing readability, which is really necessary with two columns text spread per page (it annoys me if I have to scroll down and back up again to read a pdf ... why are people still doing this, btw?!). It's easy to look at, too, and transports a certain atmosphere without leaning to heavy on it. The text is free on the page (no watermarks in the background), which is always a plus. And ... 

... the writing is really good (as you could expect, given that this isn't Grabowski's first rodeo by a long shot). It starts with some prose at the first pages and I always found that kind of annoying. Didn't read it in Vampire: tM or any other game that did something like that and I wouldn't start here. Or at least that's what I thought. But it's only done once in the whole book and the first thing you'll learn after that, is that it really is part of the whole thing and one of the more important texts to give to the players. So I had to read it after all and lived to write about it :) But it's not only the style ...

... it's well structured, too. And reflective. Grabowski takes the reader by the hand and leads him into the topics, the problems that could (and will) arise, points out difficulties and does a great job in showing how you could just use parts of the thing and what an end game in Labyrinth Lord can (or should) look like. Which leads to the last point ...

... because if you want to write about the end game of a role playing game, you need to know the game you are using really, really well. My first impression is, that The Dreams of Ruin is not only very well researched, but also very conscious about how LL works on a high level scale. It's impressive that way.

Is this "old school"?

So we get a White Wolf guy writing an old school module. Some might wonder how much "storytelling" is in it and if it's still "OSR" ... There is so much wrong with that last sentence that I honestly hesitated to write it at all. But as much as it is wrong, it is almost necessary nowadays to address those issues.

I'll give an indirect answer, though. I just read an excellent post over at the Pits & Perilous blog about how minimalist games don't really exist. The basic idea of it was (as I understood it) that the complexity when using light-rules-systems shifts from the rules to the DM-player interaction, making the point that we are more flexible when using light rules, but the decision making process within the narrative comes with a higher complexity and responsibility.

Now, I would put Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future into the "light rules"camp. It comes with the territory that such games will have developed very individually as they reach higher levels. A campaign world is established, some house rules and (usually) a huge DM binder full of the stuff that needed specifying along the way.

With the complexity derived from the narrative instead of the rules, we get a natural bridge between the storyteller and the old school approaches in role playing games, in my opinion. Furthermore (and for those very reasons) it's almost impossible to write a module aiming for the end game, like Dreams does, from anything else but the storyteller side of things.

Because when all is said and done, that's exactly what a DM will do when the domain level game starts getting stale: he'll think of a story that will challenge some very rich and powerful characters. At this level, you're not dealing with monsters as written in the books, but with organisations. You are not dealing with NPCs as much as with kingdoms or even other worlds and dimensions.

In other words, the light rules you use will have to form clusters to become challenges and it needs a solid understanding of the fabrics that make a game's reality (as every high level wizard will tell you). Stories are the glue for those clusters. They need to be consistent if a DM is about to threaten them and the characters start to research behind the curtain, so to say.

This is where The Dreams of Ruin sets in. It is a setting agnostic story that starts when things settle down in a campaign. It is very well grounded and consistent working within the systems it supports. And it needs to be, as characters will have to do a lot of research about an infestation that spreads on the astral plane, feeds on negative energy like a tumor and affects reality as an apocalypse. They'll have to develop new spells and artifacts and get an understanding of how magic works. They'll have to muster millions and millions of gold pieces, mobilize armies, move populations, make new and very powerful allies and face some gods ... 

It's exactly the end game you'd want to have in early D&D and very "old school" in that regard alone. If you add Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future compatibility, a good dose of weird and the fact that it was published last year (and why wouldn't you add all that?), it's exactly what the OSR does, digs and spreads.

What else is left to say?

There's no denying that the whole thing is very challenging for DM and players alike, because that's what a campaign will be like in the end. But the logistics are all done here. Everything you might need to make this work is there and has a price. There'll be lots of additional work to make it click with an individual (and old) campaign, but even here you'll find some advice what you might need and what not (base of operations, allies, items and so on).

There's also lots of good advice how to use only parts of it or how to structure the end game part of a D&D/LL/MF campaign in general, like how to establish side quests with lower level characters, how to reserve play for the interesting bits and how to organize the research parts of it between games. So even if you'll never use this as it is, you'll get a very good idea how to do it yourself.

You'll also find some additional house rules in the module. Nothing fancy and all of it optional. Still, nice to have in cases where you don't have already established a solution.

Now about the "mature audiences" part. There is a mention or two that this is a horror themed module and there are some pretty nasty things happening. But all I've seen was pretty vague and only showing some possibilities. It's more like a platform for all kinds of horrors and not very explicit at that.

Among the inspirations for this module are the anime Nausicaä and the 2010 film Monsters and if you like those, you won't be disappointed here, I think. But you might as well add the Marvel's Avengers series, because the impression I got from reading the Dreams, was that the D&D end game is just like those over the top superhero blockbusters in terms of scope and story structure (realizing this, I want to DM a complete D&D campaign so much more right now!).

How many attack rolls do you see ... [source]
I have some minor quibbles with it, too. The Dreams being PWYW makes it almost irrelevant to talk about this and I'll just mention them here at the end to give my complete opinion. Here we go:

  • There is a script font used in the product and it doesn't fit. I've read somewhere that you don't use script for full text and especially not for presenting text that is read on a monitor. Here's a good example why this is true. Doesn't happen often and it is a nice script, underlining the atmosphere and all that. But it's kind of style over substance and it bugged me a bit.
  • I don't like the illustrations that much. They are functional and you get an impression what things look like. But all in all I didn't care that much for them. Just a matter of taste, of course. They are rare and unobtrusive, so not really a problem.
  • Totally the last point: there are black pages with white lettering in this thing, usually to concentrate some information in. Random tables and some charts, short monster descriptions, the complete Random Encounters section. Totally black pages. That's so counter-intuitive, it's almost cruel, because those are the pages you'd most likely want to print. Not sure what they were thinking there ...

And that's it. As I said above, minor quibbles.

Conclusion

What is left to say? You don't get that much quality as PWYW. You just don't. There is a lot to like, a lot to take and a lot to learn in this thing. It's really amazing. There are reasonable print options for the module, too, and I'm really considering to get one of them for the collection (it's on my list now ...).

If you ever considered running a D&D end game or are about to plan your campaign or asked yourself how it could be done or just need some inspiration for high level challenges, then this is for you*. So go and check it out!

Some Nausicaä eye candy  in the end. I love that movie ... [source]

* There is a mature content warning, so if that's something that bothers you, you should leave it alone. I didn't see anything justifying the label, but I don't care that much.


8 comments:

  1. Thanks for pointing this one out. Definitely will check it out.

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  2. Huh. That sounds really cool. Never heard of it before so thanks for pointing it out. I got a bit of a Red Tide vibe from your description. I bet it would work well with that setting.

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  3. Thanks guys. I'm glad I could help getting this into some more hands. It's well worth taking a closer look, I think.

    Red Tide is a good example, with it's obvious leaning towards anime. And Grabowski being the main man behind Edxalted and Kevin Crawford actually being in the credits as adviser (at least he was consulted?), it's a good fit for some reason, I'd say. But I saw this after a Dwimmermount or Stonehell campaign. When all is settling down and getting quite and peaceful, this stuff creeps in and starts some trouble. The shift should really help bringing some new impulses into the game ...

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  5. Thanks! It was such a blast to write. I'm very happy to write in the Labyrinth Lord system -- the license is free and open and I can't say how much I appreciate that. That stuff that I got to play with was *SO* forbidden for so long. I feel like that helped establish a lot of assumptions and shared understandings, but the material is also ripe for re-examination and re-invention.

    Kevin offered lots of fantastic, earnest advice, most of which I ignored. I was doing my own thing according to my own agenda -- I was mostly interested in executing the book as a form of kinetic information sculpture -- but I would suggest anyone planning a serious OSR project talk it over with him.

    I feel like Dreams of Ruin really occupies a pretty singular place. There's not a lot of stuff like it, so I think it's natural people will discover it, which was intentional to its design. I'm glad you like it! There's a lot of material in the special encounters section that I urge people to examine closely.

    As for the adult material thing -- that's all the special encounters. IMO the night hag and the devil swine are both off-the-chain childhood trauma reading. But in general, there's a lot going on there, and I think it's definitely for mature readers overall. Writing about the dreams are in a lot of ways a complex reaction on my part to studying the antipattern of violence and civil instability that wracks weak states after a period of prolonged conflict and illegitimacy. I'm writing for a global audience across decades or centuries. For a lot of people in this world, the servants of ruin really did kill your dad.

    Anyway! Thanks for reading my stuff and apparently liking it!

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    1. You are very welcome! Yes, I like the Dreams a lot. Not only for what they are (not kidding about loving Nausicaä) but also a lot for what they do (as in giving a great example for what an end game should be). I think it's a rare thing to have and PWYW is not to beat as a concept, as people can check it out for free and come back to leave something ... So yeah, this needs to be spread and get into as many hands as possible, in my opinion.

      I see what you mean about the adult material and I agree, this could be hard to process and use in a game. Well, I mentioned it because it might concern some people, so all is good. I don't know if you are aware of Lamentations of the Flame Princess (take a look into Better Than Any Man if you don't, it's very good stuff). They raise a pretty high bar in that regard, often with the art to underline it. That's why I said I didn't see it. Words are always way more difficult to judge like that ...

      Well, best of luck with The Dreams! And I hope this wasn't your last entry into the world of retro-clones! Can't get over that "forbidden" comment ... Sounds like a story I'd be very interested in.

      And thanks for taking the time to comment here! Made my day :)

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    2. ***So yeah, this needs to be spread and get into as many hands as possible, in my opinion.***

      Please. My intention was to be of service to the community, feel free to talk it up / spread it around.

      As for Nausicaä, yeah, I just saw it a couple months ago and was struck by how clearly it had deeply affected me when I saw it subbed on HBO as a kid. The part with Lord Yupa discovering the now-ruined house at the beginning was something I had forgotten, but clearly not all the way.

      ***That's why I said I didn't see it.***

      It's all good.

      ***Well, best of luck with The Dreams! And I hope this wasn't your last entry into the world of retro-clones!***

      No, I have several projects I am working on now -- one for Kevin's space game, and a couple free-standing ones. But! I am also studying for some advanced certifications and so I do not want to mess around too with writing. It's not incredibly lucrative to write for OSR, so it pays for my to put my attention elsewhere. It will have to wait a few years until the value proposition makes more sense. There will probably be some stuff that circulates in public before then, but I am not going to do a full book with art and tables and so forth for at least another 24-36 months, I don't *think*.

      ***Can't get over that "forbidden" comment ... Sounds like a story I'd be very interested in.***

      Well, back in the day, they really strictly controlled the material. I read that stuff like bibles as a kid but a) I hated Gary's rules and b) I hated I couldn't do anything with it.

      That all got fixed and it's awesome to play with the material now, and take it in directions that are truly my own -- and then give it to the community. My primary desire is that I execute a bunch of designs that add significantly to the conceptual edifice, because I think that's a really lasting contribution I can make.

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    3. And here I was, thinking White Wolf had banned it from the tables or something :D Sorry. I know what you mean, of course. Uncomplete and barely understandable rules will do that for you ...

      You are doing something for Stars Without Numbers? But that is great news! And very much OSR, I'd say. I'm looking forward to your next publication, then. You are right, with an open and active DIY community like we have here for the old editions, it is great to create and very much possible to have an impact with your own ideas. Good stuff. Thanks a lot!

      Well, the only other thing I could imagine doing (would be happy to do, actually), would be interviewing you for the blog, talk a bit about your thoughts and decisions. If you are interested, that is. From what I read in your comments, it'd make for lots of interesting insights ...

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