Wednesday, May 17, 2023

About Ruins of the Undercity

 Ruins of the Undercity is a small book written by Kabuki Kaiser. It was released in 2013, when the OSR was still relatively young: Labyrinth Lord was 5 years old and basically the go-to OSR system. It is a very faithful restatement of BX D&D, and almost 100% compatible with its most popular today's equivalent: Old-School Essentials.

Ruins of the Undercity is, in many ways, similar to more recent hits like The Stygian Library: in a nutshell, a procedurally generated dungeon adventure.

Why am I reviewing this ten years after release? Basically because it fell into my hands while sorting out my bookcase. I must have bought the POD book somewhere around 2013-14 and remember using it both solo and with my group, and I believe it to be one of the lost gems of the early(ish) OSR scene.

So what is it? RotU is, in the author's words, "a huge randomly-generated adventure spanning a full campaign and backdrop setting", that you can play solo and DM-less.

The book. My POD RotU is a digest-sized (A5), softcover, 70 page, black and white book. About six or so art pieces can be found inside, and the text is very clearly formatted and easily readable. I have no idea if my POD book was from dtrpg (the option isn't there anymore) or from Lulu.

What is it about? The adventure inside the book is a virtually endless, randomly generated megadungeon structure, designed to support characters from level 1 to somewhere between 10-14. The dungeon itself is an endless complex of ancient ruins that can be found under Cryptopolis, a thriving desert city ruled by merchants and priests.

It is the type of dungeon everyone in the city knows about, with lots of possible entrance points, and with a constant flux of aspiring adventurers going in, and a few lucky ones coming out alive. A great setup to get to the dungeoning and adventuring in no time.

Breakdown of the Book. After a brief introduction, the books gets you going with a one page background of the city and the dungeon. This is really good. In six paragraphs, it succeeds in painting the big picture and setting the tone and the players' expectations: a trade city the desert; a city of beggars, rascals, and corrupted merchants and priests; the city's main cult, based on an ancient goddess whose colossal statue was found in the underground ruins; the first explorers of the ruins who turned to liches long ago, and now dwell somewhere down deep. Very few elements, but all of them have some sort of connection with the dungeon. Very good!

Next is two pages of instructions to play solo/dmless. Basically a series of customizable exploration routines you set for your specific party, followed a double set of procedures to play in the city and into the ruins. These create a main game cycle of city/ruins/city or, in other words: down-time/dungeon/down-time.

Some reviewers have praised the exploration routines and dual game cycle as a great example of how to actually play OSR games. One such comment can be found on the reviews section on dtrpg.

The In the City section (12 pages) is pure gold. It gives instructions to mark the passing of time as the party tries to find equipment, hire henchmen, and possibly step into random city events and encounters. This three sections are brilliant because they make an excellent job of painting the picture of this desert city. Instead of a generic equipment list, you have 20 different shops, temples, and guilds offering different types of wares and services. So you don't just buy a scimitar: you visit "the curved shop" (which only sells curved blades), and while you're there you may also check if they have a magic weapon for sale. Next, you can visit "Sifforn's Bows", "The House of the Pole" (selling wooden poles, iron poles, pole weapons, and also pole dancer services!), "The Caravan Market", "Zavbira & Lobellia" (who only sell elegant clothes), "The Cloak and Dagger", "House of the Roper". There are also a temple and a magicians' society, and both offer exclusive services to special members. After that, the magic items that might be available for sale are described: four different pairs of magic babuschs, three different magic turbans, four magic weapons (daggers and scimitars). Finally, the henchmen paragraph describes the available types: men-at-arms, veterans, nomads, elves, dervishes, and scoundrels. Again, the desert-city-theme is coherently reinforced.

In short: the shops, services, and henchmen descriptions already help set personal goals for your character before you even start your first delve. And they do that while just being little more than a series of lists.

The Into the Ruins section (23 pages) is the core of the book. It gives instructions to finally get you to into the megadungeon. You get a set of six starting areas, and then a plethora of tables: area types, door types, illumination, corridor types & features, random items found, special corridors, room structure, special areas, room features, room contents, treasure types, containers, and traps, stair landing types, magic effects, gems, jewelry, and a matrix for monster encounters which sends you to 10 different monster tables based on encounter level. That's a lot of tables!

This section has several merits but also flaws. What's good: again, everything is thematic! Nothing in these tables feels out of place. The monsters are a well-considered selection of classic monsters, plus the FORTY monsters described in RotU in the following section. The environmental details, traps, treasure: everything is coherent. Rolling on the tables gets you exactly the dungeon contents that you would expect from the premises of the book. What I dislike: basically two things. First, too much rolling! You'll proceed in 10-minutes turns in real time, because of so much rolling. Second: if you play this as intended (i.e.: rolling the dungeon live as you play) results will often be underwhelming, leaving you with a sense of having wasted your time rolling dice for nothing really, when the results give you details that offer nothing to play with. Knowing about the shape of the columns, is just not worth another roll, as it will probably be a useless detail.

And this leads to the broader issue of how randomly generated content often suffers from a lack of interconnectedness and meaningfulness. RotU has a lot of broad interconnections, but unfortunately fails at its main goal: consistently creating an engaging dungeon delve, if evaluated by today's standards of  theOSR adventure critique. When you roll a new room or corridor, you'll find details that feel like clues, but are not. They are general clues of the global environment, but there will never be any kind of foreshadowing (or telegraphing) of nearby hazards or opportunities. I did play a few sessions of RotU years ago, and this flaw was evident.

Fixing this would have required a completely different design approach of the generation procedures. Again, The Stygian Library comes to mind as an example of "less rolls, more useful results". I tried my hand at this too, with the Gold & Glory dungeon generators.

Another issue I have with this section is that the encounter generation matrix computes the party level into the types of encounters. This means that a level 1 party enters a manhole on the city plaza and finds skeletons, while a level 10 party entering that same manhole will meet terrifying 10+ HD monsters. In other words: dangers and treasure are dictated by the party's average level, not the dungeon level, so the traditional megadungeon structure and philosophy ("go deeper to find bigger treasure") is not here. The generators will produce "a dungeon adventure suitable for your current party level".

The Fiends of the Ruins section (16 pages) introduces 40 "new" monsters. I'm not an expert here, but I feel some of them are new with reference to the Labyrinth Lord bestiary, but are not completely original. Anyway, they are nice, thematic (again...), and those with a variety of powers of spells include a "tactics" paragraph. Nice.

The book ends with some extra tools, tables and an appendix: a table to thematize the treasure maps that can be found as treasure, and make them functional with the Undercity dungeon; there's also four powerful artifacts; and a final appendix with post-delve events and a series of nine possible longterm personal goals for the player characters, including becoming a high priest of the Goddess, a member of the city's council, a city hero, or even a lich. This section, like others before, is great: lots of ideas, interconnectedness, and thematic coherence. And for each goal there are clear instructions on how to achieve it. Perfect for both traditional and solo/gmless play.

Final considerations...  All in all I cherish my PoD RotU book. It's a piece of my personal hobby history, and it was one of the inspirations for my Gold & Glory series. I cannot say I would recommend using it as intended (i.e. to generate the dungeon as you play), with or without a gm. But, if you think you like the general premise of vast ruins under a desert trade city, I definitely recommend giving it a shot as a "thematized dungeon preparation toolkit": i.e. as a set of tools and tables to generate your Undercity dungeon before playing. Used like this, you may decide which tables to skip, which to roll on, and which to choose results from instead of rolling; you may decide to completely skip the map generation tables and simply use Dave's Mapper to instantly generate endless maps, or grab some of those amazing Paratime Design maps; you may decide to use the encounter matrix as is, and thus create dungeon adventures balanced for a given party level, or you may "cheat" and use the encounter matrix to create a 10+ levels megadungeon by simply considering party level 1 for dungeon level 1, party level 2 for dungeon level 2, and so on.

...and hopes? Despite its flaws, I must say I'm fond of RotU. I hope Mr Crespy will someday consider creating an updated, upgraded edition (possibly an Old-School Essentials version?), to bring the mysteries of Cryptopolis and the Undercity back on a thousand gaming tables. 


Into OSR? Check my other OSR posts!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

GM's Day Sale 2023: My OSR Picks!

 The 2023 GM's Day Sale is on at DriveThruRPG, and will be on through March the 14th. It is one of the largest sales on the site, with more than 72000 titles, and the OSR titles are almost 4000!

So what to look for? Whether you've never played OSR games, or you're a veteran looking for the hottest new games and adventures, here we go!

[This post contains affiliate links]


Worlds Without Number - Kevin Crawford's masterpiece, and one of the most successful games on the whole DrivethruRPG platform. A great game in itself, and a book with tons of tools to generate everything, from world building to adventures, whatever game system you prefer.

Old-School Essentials - The Whole Line - The best retroclone around, a faithful reproduction of the B/X D&D rules, with an exceptional work done on the text to make it clear and user-friendly, with an egregious layout. Recommended if you're new to the OSR and want the distilled, simple experience of the original B/X rules. Everything you need to play in one book. Also, my favorite OSR game. If you are new to OSE or B/X, go with the Classic Rules Tome. The Advanced Player Tome and Referee Tome are also on sale, if you want to expand your B/X with lots of options without power creep.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Core Book - A glorious OSR game that is not a retroclone but captures the feel of old school games, with unique mechanics that build on a solid d20 system, generally compatible with other OSR stuff. Recommended if you want a more modern cut, while true to the spirit of OSR... and you like crits and fumble tables.


Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells - Both of Diogo Nogueira's original games are a blend of OSR and modern sensitivity, with streamlined rules and inspired tables.

GROK?! - by Lester Burton, an impressive little system for quick games.

ZWEIHANDER RPG - If you need to scratch that WHRPG itch with a retroclone.

Against the Darkmaster - The clone of the old Middle Earth RPG, minus Tolkien, plus metal!


A lot of supplements and adventures are included in the GM's Day Sale, including a bunch of super hot new adventures:

Brad Kerr's latest adventure anthology book, Wyvern Songs. Probably THE OSR BOOK OF THE YEAR 2022. It's so good. I've reviewed it here.

Chance Dudinack's Secret of the Black Crag - From the author of the excellent The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford (which is on sale too), a big island-crawl adventure with a big dungeon!

Pauli Kidd's big huge Wolf's Head Tor, a 233-page setting, with a megadungeon included, developed from the author's original '70s campaign! Can you imagine going more old school than that?

Peril in Olden Wood - An acclaimed, big huge regional adventure for OSE, level 3-5.

The Frozen Temple of Glacier Peak - A nice adventure for Knave. My review here.

Hideous Daylight and Temple of 1000 Swords - Two third-party Old-School Essentials adventures by Swordlords Publishing with awesome reviews. I've reviewed 1000 Swords here.

Bottomless Pit of Zorth - Another acclaimed adventure, with a slime theme and insane art, for characters level 3-5.

Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier - the acclaimed adventure by Gus L,  set in a fantasy wasteland with western vibes.

The Frost Spire - Another great adventure by Jacob Hurst. My review.

The Gardens on Ynn - A point-crawl adventure set in an ever-shifting extradimensional garden, with a system to generate content while you play.

The Stygian Library - Gardens of Ynn's twin, this time a dungeon set in an infinite, extradimensional library.

The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford - An EXCELLENT sandbox-y point-crawl adventure for characters level 1-3, very easy to run, with lots of interaction between locations. I reviewed it!

Ominous Crypt of the Blood Moss - A very good 10 room dungeon. I've reviewed it here.

Puzzle Dungeon: The Seers Sanctum - Another very good 10 room dungeon with, well, a lot of well conceived puzzles! Here's my review.

And finally, my OSR stuff you may want to check:

Lands of Legends - A zine series with 500 areas and 500 unique encounters for your sandbox. Learn more about Lands of Legends here!

Axian Library - A collection of five zines with options and rules and LOTS of tables for Old-School Essentials and other B/X clones.

Falkrest Abbey - by Andrea Mollica and me. Well if you haven't picked up this adventure yet, you can grab it now for 0.85. People say it's a decent one :)


Into OSR? Check my other OSR posts!

Saturday, February 4, 2023

ZineQuest 5 + ZineMonth 2023: Here We Are!

 It's February and ZineQuest is back on Kickstarter, with a load of small but awesome ttrpg zines.

It's ZQ number 5, and the event returns to the regular February edition after last year's shift to August, which brought us the ZineMonth event, so now we have TWO platforms to check! But don't worry: I've done that for you.

Let's see what's going on, beginning with my OSR game of choice: OSE.

The Old-School Essentials Projects

Advanced Ancient Academy - An expanded version of the classic one page dungeon adventure by Stuart Robertson.

Old School & Cool Vol. 4: The Undead Issue - The fourth issue of Wind Lothamer's OSE zine focuses on undeath, with options to use undead creatures as player races, plus an undead-themed city, tables to create new unique undead monsters, new spells and magic items, and a mini adventure. Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of Old School are already available at dtrpg, and you can check my review of vol. 3 here.

Gary's Appendix - Issue 2 - A Thoughtful Zine for Old School Essentials - The second issue of Jeffry Jones' unique zine, offering essay-like articles on DMing, world-building, and other OSR topics. This issue focuses on languages, currency, and religion, among other topics.

Delver 7: Resources for the Random-Rolling Referee - Delver hits issue 7, continuing the series of collected random tables of all kinds. The first 6 issues are up at dtrpg.

The Doom of Blackwinter - An OSE (and Zweihander) adventure set in frozen mountains, against fey creatures, by Mark Meredith. 

CANDLE III: Fantasy Audio Magazine - The third issue of this unusual zine + cassette (and digital audio) combo. Check out issue II, which also features Kaptain Carbon, Danger Bear Art, Luka Rejec, and even me!

Ziggurat of the Blood God  - A zine adventure for OSE,  DCC, and Mork Borg, written by Christopher Willett, with strong horror vibes.

Odyssey - Black Tales RPG - A grim take on Ulysses' journey, for OSE, Mork Borg, and even 5E.

Other OSR Zines

Plenty of interesting OSR projects!

Dungeon Malarky - Levi Comb's new zine: a guide to hazards, magical items, strange plants & bizarre spell components for GMs.

The Electrum Archive - Issue 02 - Expands issue 1's science-fantasy tabletop RPG written by Emiel Boven and inspired by games like Morrowind, Ultraviolet Grasslands, Mothership, Dark Sun and Cairn. 

Cloud Empress: Ecological Science Fantasy Roleplaying - a Nausicaa-inspired fantasy campaign setting for the Mothership RPG.

Loot Hunters - Pouch of Gold - A system-neutral maps, adventures, and random tables, just perfect for OSR games. Also check out last year's Loot Hunters - First Coin.

Bio-Drones & Cryo-Clones - A biopunk facility-crawl zine for Mothership RPG by Chris Airiau, with insane art.

MisAdventure Games: Horror Compendium (upcoming) - apparently a collection of spooky adventures.

A Home Reforged (upcoming) - A dwarven-themed OSR zine, based on The Black Hack.

Carapace & In the Heart of Oz - a Hex Flower RPG Bonanza - A double-features zine project by Goblin's Henchman.

Beneath the Sea of Dust 1 - A a revised, re-organized, and even play-tested compilation of Ray Otus' Dungeon23 journal.

AMMU: A Whimdark Adventure (upcoming) - A system neutral RPG adventure through the corpse of an eldritch god.

GRANDMOTHERSHIP - A sci-fi TTRPG about senior ladies in space - With a title like that, this deserves a look.

Other Zine Projects

TLD RPG - An indie RPG with OSR influences, designed by Billy Blue.

La Masseria (upcoming) - An investigative RPG Zine set in the folklore of a farm in Southern Italy, designed by Alessio Spalluto. I'll have to check this because it's set where I was born and grew up!

Electrocube War Adventures - A transformers zine for Erik Bloat's Valor Knights RPG.

MEKKAKONKRETE - A chiptuned fantasy RPG - A zine project on the new Crowdfundr platform, with Mechas in a medieval world, with insane art!

Dungeon Delver: A Card+Zine Crawl (upcoming) - Dungeon tiles + a generation system? Sign me in! Looks like something I might use with HeroQuest!

Candied Blood - An adventure set in a hungry candy factory, playable with both To Change and Trophy Dark. 

And More!?

Well, while you're checking crowdfunding, here's a bunch of projects which are not zines but you should definitely take a look at.

Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, 2nd Edition - The new edition of the 2004 acclaimed, seminal OSR setting toolbox by Noisms Games.

Cities Without Number - the cyberpunk RPG from Kevin Crawford, the creator of the acclaimed Stars Without Number and Worlds Without Number games.

Wrapping Up

Lots of interesting projects here, and lots more I've probably missed. Use the comments below to add to the list!

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