Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Halthrag Keep Hits the Solo OSR Spot

Frequent readers know I enjoy solitaire adventures and solo gamebooks; I’m also indulging in a recent enthusiasm for Old School Renaissance (OSR) materials. So Noah Stevens’ PDF of The Hounds of Halthrag Keep naturally tempted me. I downloaded it and started feeding odd characters through its meat-grinder programmed entries; I liked it so much I went ahead and ordered a a print-on-demand copy to add to my growing OSR shelf and solo gamebook collection.

Before I started reading and playing Halthrag Keep I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Sure, I’m always game for a solitaire adventure; that seemed about the only interesting quality about it for me. It was billed as a “funnel” adventure typical of the game whose system it uses, Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC), in which zero-level characters bumble through hideously lethal dungeons (in comparison to their low-level and inadequately equipped selves), with only a few surviving to become somewhat worthier first-level characters. I prefer games where players can craft meaningful characters who, by their very heroic nature, somehow survive adversity. So I’m not usually a fan of “funnels” or generally killing off scores of low level characters. I’d also developed an impression that Halthrag Keep and the Dungeon Crawl Classics game in general blended “gonzo” fantasy with over-the-top sci-fi elements, something I tend to avoid in my fantasy game adventuring.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Halthrag Keep so much that before I’d completed it with my third character I ordered the print-on-demand version.

Halthrag Keep sends kidnapped zero-level villagers into the gauntlet of Halthrag Keep, a sort of sadistic initiation a ruthless band of brigands uses to torment its victims, see which ones emerge alive (theoretically to join their group), and glean whatever treasure they can from the haunted ruins. Like any good solitaire gamebook, Halthrag Keep presents all the rules needed to create a character and fight opponents right up front; this enables folks who don’t already own the DCC rules to sit down, create a humorously sad little character, and send it through the perils within the keep. The first part of the book summarizes a streamlined DCC character creation process, including all the necessary random tables to generate often goofy mundane-level characters, such as Chip the tombstone carver, Gerolo the bank clerk, and Golly the puppeteer (my silly names, the game’s odd villager professions). While rolling up a character, readers learn how the basic mechanics work (primarily combat-oriented), though much of this seems second nature to any gamer even vaguely familiar with the lingua franca of class-and-level roleplaying games.

The adventure begins by setting the opening situation – a kidnapped villager thrust into the keep for the amusement of the bandits – then sends readers off to explore the 133 entries in the programmed scenario. Before this, however, one passes over the random encounters section. Throughout the programmed entries one occasionally finds parenthetical notations for “WAND” indicating the reader should note the current entry and turn to the random encounters section to roll on the appropriate table for daytime or nighttime encounters (the latter being somewhat more challenging). This exhaustive wandering monster section doesn’t simply offer lists of monsters to encounter but provides some context and unique circumstances for encountering them (and in some cases defeating, parleying with, or running away from them). Each result on the table directs readers to one of 52 numbered entries in the random encounters section; here they find a paragraph or two describing the circumstances under which they meet the creature, notes about combat strategy, and, of course, stats. This makes for more interesting encounters than simple meet-and-fight skirmishes. For instance, Gerolo the bank clerk ran into a possum-man during the day, so the creature was naturally sluggish and tried running away after Gerolo scored his first hit using his knife; if the bank clerk had been luckier, he would have been able to block the possum-man’s expeditious retreat and gain some treasure in return for letting it live. The programmed random encounter entries enhance the overall experience by avoiding simple monster combat and giving each encounter some depth. Some entries send readers back to the adventure entry they left, but a few deposit characters in a new location within the keep.

The main adventure entries enable readers and their hapless characters to explore the keep’s various locations, interact with monsters, search for treasures, and try escaping alive. The random encounters mechanic isn’t the only exceptional element in the scenario entries; Halthrag Keep blends some other layered mechanics to give depth to various locations. Some entries start with a parenthetical “TIME” notation, requiring players to mark down an additional turn on their sheet; night falls after 24 turns, important to remember when rolling on the increasingly deadly random encounters tables. The “LIGHT” notation tells readers whether they require a light source to enter a particular area (characters get light sources as part of their randomly determined starting gear or must find them inside the keep); those without light must return to the previous entry and cannot explore unlighted areas. A few other all-caps parenthetical notations help highlight certain special circumstances dependent on situation or equipment, including “ITEM,” “COND” (condition), “DICE,” “XP,” and “GRUE.” Several locations allow characters to search for equipment and treasure (rolled on the appropriate tables in the rules section up front), though this often adds to the total turns and sometimes forces a random encounter.

The scenario includes mechanics for a sidebar journal (protected by a devilish imp) where players can note where they’ve dropped equipment or, more likely, left their characters’ bodies and gear after a gruesome death. The mechanic is reminiscent of the sidebar notes in the classic TSR solitaire adventures, BSOLO The Ghost of Lion Castle and XSOLO Lathan’s Gold (which the author acknowledges as part of his inspiration for Halthrag Keep). While it’s a little difficult to use in the PDF unless you print it out, it’s something I’m looking forward to in the print version I ordered.

Several appendices offer additional useful materials like a bestiary of monsters from the adventure, new spells, a DCC patron, notes on story and setting elements from the keep, several blank character sheets, and designer’s notes. The PDF version also comes with a a file containing a separate bestiary of monster found within the keep and a map of the keep (though I’ve not used it to orient myself, preferring to stumble about without such guidance).

Halthrag Keep offers a complete and entertaining package for an OSR solo adventure. The use of the streamlined Dungeon Crawl Classics rules enables anyone familiar with old-school gaming concepts – class, level, to-hit rolls, hit points, and armor class – to play by simply reading the character creation overview. I just received the print-on-demand copy I ordered; it’s digest-sized and hence formatted somewhat differently from its letter-sized PDF, plus it uses a host of different symbols instead of the parenthetical, all-caps notations for “WAND” and “TIME” and such. It’s going on my OSR shelf as a good example of a solitaire adventure gamebook and an inspiration for my own game-design endeavors. I can only hope we see more solitaire gamebooks like this, OSR or otherwise, to provide entertainment as well as inspiration.

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