Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Transylvanian Adventures


Transylvanian Adventures is a supplement aimed at introducing the flavor and atmosphere of Gothic Horror to the Dungeon Crawl Classics game. Its objective is similar to my own efforts with the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque series: blending classic fantasy role-playing games with influences drawn from Hammer Horror and Gothic literature in place of the usual Appendix N inspirations.

The physical presentation is passable for an amateur production. The layout is serviceable. The art ranges from good to less than good. However, the book did need another few editing passes before heading to press; for example, here's a sentence from the first page that needs some work: "Transylvanian Adventures has muskets, steampower and flintlock pistols, even pistols and rifles." This sentence is telling us that the game has muskets, pistols, and pistols and rifles--oh dear. Here's another example: "Devoid of the elements that had defined and ultimately denigrated its films thirty years earlier." That's not even a complete sentence, let alone an intelligible thought. Similarly, there are odd uses of capitalization throughout the text and areas that simply needed to be rewritten for clarity. The tone of the writing in the book is very informal, so much so that I can imagine it might annoy people who prefer a less casual tone. For example, if a heading that reads "OMFG! WTF With All These Haus Rulz?!" would bother you, well, you've been forewarned. 

Worse yet, Edgar Allan Poe's name is inconsistently spelled throughout the book. It's Edgar ALLAN Poe always; Edgar ALLEN Poe never. If you're going to claim him as a major inspiration, at least get his name right.

The introductory section does a nice job of laying out the themes of the book. I appreciate that it defines its scope as "Gothic ass-kicking horror," and that it advises us to abandon historical verisimilitude in favor of whatever makes the game more fun for the players. The brief detailing of Gothic conventions such as myth vs. science, the transhumanism of mad science, corrupt figures of nobility, the role of religion, etc. all seem grounded in a fairly solid understanding of the Gothic's literary and cinematic modes.

I can't comment thoroughly on the rules modifications to the DCC system, as I'm simply not that familiar (or interested) in it, but I will note a few things that caught my eye as I was reading. Instead of making armor an important piece of gear, all character classes instead have a Base Armor Class (after all, you seldom see the protagonists of a Hammer Horror flick donning plate armor before their confrontation with Dracula). There's a nice table of "0-Level Occupations" that could be put to use as a handy background table for other RPGs, even if it does include some surprising entries such as "Bacteriologist." Indeed, taken as a whole, the tables for Random Character Traits could be used to quickly generate a character's looks and personality on the fly; tables for Height, Build, Fashion Sense, Appearance, Hobbies, Absolutes, Principles, and their Catalyst for fighting the forces of the supernatural are included.

The default set-up for the game is that the characters are largely Western Europeans who have traveled to Transylvania to fight evil. As such, Transylvanian Adventures substitutes its own classes for the usual ones found in DCC to reinforce this "strangers in a strange land" theme. Most of the classes are fitted well to this style of adventure; we have the Valiant (a everyman defined by their virtuousness and bravery), the Halfbreed (a character with a darkly inhuman heritage), the Hunter (a monster slayer), the Polymath (a scholar), the Reaver (a combat bad-ass--I wish a bit more work had been put into contextualizing this one), the Scoundrel (the typical rogue), and the Survivor (this one also could do with a bit of thematic sharpening). We also have the Exotic, a class that covers all non-white character options. While thematically-appropriate, the Exotic could raise some eyebrows. Also, I'm not particularly sold on the Exotic's mechanical implementation; no matter where the Exotic hails from, they're basically going to be an AD&D-style monk. Frankly, I'm surprised there wasn't a Clergyman option. A further class, the magic-wielding Theorist, promises to be detailed in a forthcoming volume.

If the first half of the book is about making characters to fit the ass-kicking Gothic vibe, the second half is all about what to do with them. There is a helpful section of suggestions for campaign arcs, and a 0-level adventure that has the characters exploring one of Dr. Frankenstein's abandoned labs. (There's a lot of death-traps in the lab, so this adventure could definitely be a bit of a meat-grinder.)

The rest of the book is largely given over to random tables to help a GM set-up things like Mysteries, Investigations, Carousing, Mishaps, Hammer-inspired names, etc. If you've a mind to, there's likely a lot of material here that could be adapted to your system of choice if you aren't keen on DCC.

Transylvanian Adventures is rounded-out by a list of inspirations. On the cinematic side, included are discussions of Hammer Horror films to watch (but why on earth would you recommend the re-make of Let the Right One In over the stunning original?), and a recommendation of Brotherhood of the Wolf (though I disagree with the author's assessment of the movie's ending). On the literary side, we're recommended Poe, M. R. James, the usual Gothic suspects (Stoker, Shelley, etc.), and a few Weird Tales authors. Also recommended is the Castlevania series of games and a few RPGs (oddly, the author shies away from mentioning Castle Ravenloft by name...even though this is fair use and WotC can't nail you for saying that it is something you enjoy).

In short, I like where this book is coming from, but I think it definitely needed more polish before it was released into the wilds.

* * *
Bonus content time!


Notes on Using the Character Trait Tables
from Transylvanian Adventures with Savage Worlds

Here's my conversion of the Character Trait Tables from Transylvanian Adventures for NPC generation in Savage Worlds.

For rolls that require a bonus/penalty (Height, Build, Fashion Sense) use the following chart to convert Savage Worlds attribute dice to a bonus/penalty for use on the Transylvanian Adventures tables:

Attribute DieBonus/Penalty
d4-1
d6+0
d8+1
d10+2
d12+3

The Rolls:
Height – d6 + bonus/penalty from Strength and Spirit

Build – d6 + bonus/penalty from Vigor and Spirit

Fashion Sense – d6 + bonus/penalty from Smarts and Spirit

Roll once on the Positive Appearance Trait, Negative Appearance Trait, Hobbies, Principle, Catalyst, and Absolute tables.

If the table gives you options for Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral characters, just pick the one that makes the most sense for that character's personality or role in the game.

Example:
Sven Rolfsson (Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigor d6)
– Sven is a potential ally for the players, so let's say he's “Lawful”
Height – 5, Average Height
Build – 6+1, Well-Muscled
Fashion Sense – 4+1, Dapper
Positive Appearance Trait – 12, Five O'Clock Shadow
Negative Appearance Trait – 5, Close-Set Eyes
Hobbies – 89, Reading Tales of the Wild West
Principle – 17, Resilient
Catalyst – 68, Targeted by crime syndicate
Absolute – 19, Never attacks a defenseless opponent

23 comments:

  1. Good review. While I can see defense of the "exotic" cass (genre appropriate, not everyone of the non-colonial culture need be of the exotic class, etc.) making them all sort of monks just seems weird.

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    1. Thanks! The Exotic is definitely thematically appropriate (though it has the potential for "concerned outcry"), but the implementation still seems a bit off to me.

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    2. Good review. While I can understand problems with editing, polish, and such I do give them points for not continuing the DCC trope of each player making several 0 level characters and sending them in human wave style. It appears they much rather prefer you to make a small team of monster hunters to get the job done, which is nice.

      Also thanks for the Savage Worlds conversion material, its much appreciated.

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    3. Thanks! The 0-level thing is still in there, but it might be a bit less pronounced. Like you, I can't really get into the "funnel" thing.

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    4. I think I actually kind of like the fact that all "exotics" are the Exotic class -- that's actually kind of an ironic nod toward Orientalism, whether or not the author intended it as such. Not sure they should be monk-like, but it could be worse, I guess.

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    5. Yeah, it's more the monk thing that doesn't sit right with me than the thematics.

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  2. I was interested in this but after several reviews I'm going to pass. For my own OSR monster hunting I'll stick to my own stuff and for Savage I have Rippers and Savage Victorian Gaslight.
    How does this hold up to Rippers for background material?

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    1. Yeah, I've already passed my copy on as there wasn't enough I wanted to steal from it to justify the shelf space. As for background material--it doesn't really have much at all. All of the setting stuff is supposed to be in a forthcoming book. So, when it comes to background material, Rippers is definitely more robust.

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    2. Of course there is also your Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque and Gothic Earth.

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    3. I still think Rippers is the best bet, haha.

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  3. I am certain that your dislike of the funnel stems from a basic misunderstanding of DCC in particular and fun in general.

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    1. (Weeps openly) It's true, I have not yet accepted Other D&D as my lord and savior!

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    2. I don't get it either, and that chapter title you quoted would put me right out, too. Besides which, i have made a pretty good dent into the inspirational material, or at least the start of one, and so far, I'd have to say that folks would better off tapping into some of that before looking at analyses of the same. It will all make much more sense.

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    3. Well, you know how I feel about these things: it's better to have a pile of novels, history books, and movies to steal from than it is to have a similar pile of rule books. The depth of inspiration (for me, at least) just tends to be greater with the former than the later.

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  4. No kidding; Hell,all by itself Our Mutual Friend has several settings and a couple of campaings worth of npcs in it.

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    1. Right? I need to find a way to make Bradley Headstone a villain in something. And Jenny Wren would make an awesome NPC. And dust hills are megadungeons in waiting. And...

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  5. Thanks for the review. Couple of points I'd like to clarify...

    1) All foreigners do NOT have to be Exotics. There's a sidebar that states so in the book. A Polymath could be Taoist Priest. There are no ethnic restrictions really.

    2) Clergyman is an occupation. If you wanted to play a leveled priest, you could start out with one of a number of occupations and take Polymath as the class.

    3) I didn't pitch Let The Right One In because it wasn't a Hammer film. Let Me In was. And that was a section where Hammer Horror was being explicitly discussed. I also prefer Let Me In because I feel it is more narratively coherent. That's a matter of taste, however. I like Let The Right One In a great deal as well.

    Glad you found something you liked in the book and I appreciate the feedback.

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    1. 1) I think the question is less about whether "foreigners" have to be Exotics, but rather: "Why are they all like AD&D monks?"

      2) It just seems odd that the religious aspect of fighting unholy monsters is relegated to an occupation, when there's a lot you could do with it as a class that would fit the themes you're going for.

      3) Maybe this is just me, but I'd rather pitch the better movie rather than the one that says "Hammer" on the box, heh.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Also, this was kind of a silly thing to post on the Goodman forums: "I will say I've read his take on Gothic RPGing. It wasn't to my tastes either. But I didn't feel the need to bury it in a blog. File that under 'if you can't say anything nice...'"

      I tried to cover both the things I liked in your book and the things I didn't; I'm not sure how that amounts to burying your book. It's a review, this is what reviews do. Your last line makes it sound like you only expect positive reviews, which...is not how reviews work at all. Then again, slobbery-positive reviews have become something of a hallmark of old-school-style gaming, so I'm not actually surprised.

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    3. 1) The Exotic is more accurately a hybrid of the Monk and what most would characterize as a Ranger. The inspiration for that class is Mani from Brotherhood of the Wolf. Those who would rather play a character from an exotic land who isn't based off of Mani can either choose another class or customize the Exotic to replace its Unarmed Fighting ability with another class ability.

      2) The Polymath captures the religious aspect of fighting unholy monsters. The only reason it wasn't called "The Priest" is because literary sources (think Bram Stoker's Dr. Van Helsing) weren't always clergymen, although they had no lack of religious and ritual knowledge. A Polymath can be a clergyman. But doesn't have to be. This seemed more genre-appropriate.

      3) I respectfully disagree, regarding "better movie". Arguing matters of taste is generally pointless, however. So we can each have our favorites and be none the worse for it.

      Thanks for the quick response.

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    4. Fair enough on the Goodman forums post. I don't expect positive reviews. But there were some elements of the review that slanted negative which were just not true.

      As far as editing and tone, your points are valid. This is, as you note, an amateur production. I couldn't afford an editor so I attempted my best to do editing (always a bad idea) and crowdsource as well. Considering that my print copy of 13th Age (a very well done book) is missing an entire line in a power description which describes what the power does, I can forgive my misspellings while acknowledging that, yes, I would've paid for an editor if I could.

      As far as art, it's a matter of taste.

      Again, I appreciate the feedback and have hopped on here to clarify those items that were not accurately covered in the review. That is all. Re-reading the review there are a couple of positives sprinkled in there. Thanks for that.

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  6. Hmm, are there any well-edited alternate rulesets for DCC? Or is this going to be a common thread? I thought they all had to get signoff from Goodman himself, who you'd think would be more protective of quality.

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    1. Not sure, this is the only one I've read besides the core book.

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